by Julie K Rose
It began modestly enough, so they say. She was a weary woman with more than her share of loss and pain, the world crawling under her skin, her heart bare and dry. The wise ones, and those who scribe their ancient lore, say it was so. Perhaps they simply wrote her into being. This is how her story began.
She pulled into the state park's deserted dirt parking lot, pebbles caroming off her tires, dust coating the cracked windshield. Shutting off the engine, Audrey paused and watched the dirt swirl in the slanting light of the autumn sun. With a slight nod to herself, she stepped out and shut the door.
She followed a well-worn, well-loved track up over a small rise, winding steeply down to a small gurgling creek. Even in the fading sunlight under the canopy of old scrub oak and tall, stately redwoods she knew her way, sure-footed and unafraid.
As the forest surrounded her, Audrey's step became lighter, her breathing quieter, until she could hear the comforting sounds of nocturnal life waking about her: birds calling in the distance, possums scrabbling under the twisting smooth limbs of a Manzanita tree.
She paused and ran her hand along the arms and twisting elbows of the ancient tree, breathing in the sweet bay laurel that always grew nearby. Fitting her hand in the crook of the arm, she sighed. Without thinking, she crawled into the welcoming lap of the small tree, a familiar friend.
This is it. It's almost time.
Closing her eyes, she sighed, letting fall her backpack and flashlight, letting the horrors and sadness of her life drop away into the darkness. She drifted away and dreamed in bright green, of the rushing, pounding blood of the leaves, and in darkest black, of the twisting roots deep underground, and in ashen brown, of dust returning to dust.
After long minutes swaying in the tree's embrace, the twisting limbs encircled her, poking her arms and piercing her fingers, creaking and groaning as they squeezed. Audrey gasped, struggling to drop out of the tree, but was gripped more closely. Suddenly, she heard whispers sweeping around her; she broke out in a cold sweat. Gripping the greedy branches, holding them back, she strained her ears, but caught only a few words: decay. Rot. Darkness.
Shaking, she whispered, "Has it started? Has it started already?"
A man's voice answered, swirling in the branches above and around. "Yes."
The snaking limbs tightened around her, binding her hands and squeezing the breath from her chest, her throat.
"No," she choked, struggling against the bonds. "I—I don't think I'm ready."
"It is time."
"No, not—I'm not ready."
"It is time."
"But you're—you're not the one who offered me—"
"It is time."
"No!" she cried.
With a start, Audrey tumbled out of the tree and scrambled away from the writhing trunk of the Manzanita. She stood shakily, backing away, rubbing sensation back into her arms. Looking around, she found that the forest had grown black around her; the sounds of the night creatures and the wind in the trees had silenced. Peering through the canopy of leaves and branches, she found no sign of the slivered moon or its meager light.
Audrey shivered: she knew her path in the twilight, but what of the dark? "What am I doing?" she whispered, the immensity of her decision, weeks—a lifetime—ago stealing her breath and her courage. "This can't be right. This isn't how it is supposed to be, darkness and rot."
The ground about her was unfamiliar. She had known this trail, this forest, for many months: it had been her companion, her solace. It had offered her a new life. Why could she not now recognize it? "No, no, no. I have made a mistake," she said, searching the ground frantically for her backpack and flashlight. "This is not right. Not like this. I will take my chances at home."
Then a sound came to her, stilling her frantic movements: not the soughing of the night wind in the trees, nor the whisper of a bird's wings in the arching blackness above. It was the sea. The sea! It pounded in her blood, rushing and crashing in her veins. She turned and followed the sound, the inexorable crash and silence against the crumbling cliffs below.
There was no path and yet the trees seemed to part and the branches pointed the way, chanting and swaying as she passed. The slivered crescent moon appeared, attended by a sweep of stars, ladies in waiting, and Audrey knew exactly where she had to go, walking open eyed toward her destiny. With each step she grew stronger, her mind more clear, her arms and legs tingling with energy, and in what felt like moments she reached the edge of the forest.
Careful not to stray beyond the domain of the trees, she stood on the slope of the hill and breathed in the cool, salty air beyond the forest. And there, in the distance, under the setting scythe moon, was the sea: stretching away, alive and restless, dark and welcoming. Not under cover of the deep forest, she thought, shuddering with fear of the twisting Manzanita. No. Here, where I can stretch and grow and feel the wind and see the stars. The trees swayed and branches creaked around her in approval and welcome.
She gave a fleeting moment's thought to her old life, the world beyond the forest. Resting her hand on the rough bole of the redwood for support, she wondered aloud, "How long will I be here?"
And the song of the forest replied: always.
She dreamed in crashing blue, of the pounding ocean waves, and in darkest black, of the spreading sky above, and in deepest brown, of strong limbs and deep roots and peace for ages upon ages of man.
In future years and ancient lore, her story would be told: She was not to be bound like slender Daphne, hunted and hounded to her laurel-wreathed end. She was not hamadryad, her soul woven with the black heart of the ancient oak. No, she quietly slipped into the tall redwood one night, when the sky was black and the stars were glittering, and became mistress of the ancient forest: singing to the night-cloaked creatures, commanding the moon to set over the ocean waves.
Story Copyright © 2007 by Julie K Rose. All rights reserved.
About the author
Julie K Rose is a magical realist and historical fiction writer from the US. SHe has a busy and very interesting blog.
The artwork for this story is by Catrina Horsfield.