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Thursday 15 September 2022


Estimated reading time: 15 minutes

     A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart, and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words. - Unknown

    The forest was haunted. Ghostly wisps of smoke rose from the husks of trees, themselves reaching out like the fingers of the dead, while the stinging miasma of charred wood and sap soured the air. Smouldering cracks still burned in the trees like doorways into Hell itself. The woods were dead, the forest was lost, and the sun above had forgotten it.
    But the spirit that haunted that clouded wasteland had not been born of it. Small, pale, smudged with soot, the bedraggled girl was displaced, just as lost and abandoned as her surroundings.
    She remained there alone for some time, wishing, crying and muttering, until, hours, weeks or years later, a twig finally broke beneath another's foot.


     The bear ambled along between the trees, snuffling and pawing through the ash in hunt of new growth. He found nothing, but wasn't discouraged; the hunt was as good as the victory. So on he trundled, on he sniffed, nudging the ash aside at any worthwhile scent to help the eventual regrowth along - until a small, wheezing sound caught his attention ahead.
    His huge, shaggy body stopped mid-stride, and sharp, sunburst eyes scanned the distance. His nose needn't have twitched; he found her quickly enough: the young woman kneeling among the roots of a charred ancient, so covered in soot and ash herself that her scent was almost completely lost in the surroundings.
    But she had spotted him just as quickly, and stared back now in anger. In pain. But she made no move at all to run.
    The bear grunted and watched her a little longer, searching for her injury. Perhaps it was her leg, and that was why she didn't flee. But her legs appeared to be fine. Perhaps her head, then. But she didn't seem dizzy. Maybe her chest. But her sobbing was regular.
    The bear grunted and stood on its hind legs, sniffing the air and looking closer, working out the pieces of this puzzle, unsure to some degree if she was even truly there. But she was. She had to be. Her injuries were too bold. Not on the outside, perhaps, but they were certainly there.
    With a grunt, the bear dropped back to his paws and began to approach. And now, the girl panicked. Shuffling backwards deeper into the roots, she grasped at the earth and threw everything she could find towards him.
    The bear yelped and flinched back, but the charred sticks disintegrated before they could reach him. And even had they, neither they nor the rocks could have truly harmed his hide. And so, warily, he pressed on through the short-lived assault until he reached her. And still, she fled nowhere.
    Curiously, he sniffed the hand that clutched her knee to her chest as she curled up tighter into a ball, then along her arm, her shoulder, to her head. She smelled just like the woods. All the way through.
    The bear snorted. That was strange. Animals that spent their whole lives in the woods always smelled like more than just 'forest'. They had identity of their own. But somehow, this one didn't.
    But she really was there.
    Puzzled, he sniffed further, but she didn't react. She stayed as still as stone despite his warm breath gusting over her, even when his nose touched her skin. It was only when he licked her cheek that he was sure he wasn't dreaming.
    Slowly, her head turned until one amazed eye peered over her arm towards him. Then, as he sniffed that eye, her clutch on herself loosened, her arm rose, and her shaking hand rested both daring and gentle upon his head.
    For a long moment, the forest's silence intensified as the pair looked deep into one another's faces, each sure they were reading the other's soul.
    The bear was the first to turn away.
    The smallest noise of desperation peeped from the girl's throat despite her fear, but while the bear had turned, he hadn't left. His great weight flopped down onto the ground beside her, and his breathing began immediately to deepen.
    And the girl, after a moment of surprise, crawled around and lay down against him.

    The world had darkened when she woke to a tugging on her blackened dress, and despite her fright, one quiet look from the bear as he dropped the hem from his mouth calmed her spirit.
    She watched him turn and walk a few leisurely steps away, then throw an expectant look back toward her. She understood quickly enough.
    The girl followed him on through the endless forest, navigating one tree at a time. She watched his footing over the tangled roots, repeated his steps around the widest trunks, and waited while he stopped to dig with his immense paws. She was sure he wouldn't find anything in the ash, but he repeatedly proved her wrong. Berries, roots and even mushrooms were uncovered and shared, and when night fell and a chill invaded the skeletal forest, the bear curled up around her to keep her warm.


     After a week, they were inseparable. The girl had grown calm in Bear's comfort, and felt safest when he was around. Whenever she felt lost, or the world felt like it was closing in on her, Bear would grunt and nuzzle her, and whenever he seemed to be the same, she would grunt and nuzzle him.
    The forest, too, had changed with their wandering; the ash lay behind them, and ahead only the darkness of leafy crowns. The trees here lived and thrived, fruit was plenty, and other creatures could be heard going about their lives all around them. Breeze moved warm, water trickled cool, the sun shone golden and the moon, when it took over, glittered the purest silver.
    Bear had shown her so much beauty and comfort, and she could feel her soul shining. And side by side, they continued to take the forest one tree at a time.

    One morning she sat at the lake's edge, playing with the stones in the glittering water while Bear fished in the river beside her, when a soft splash sounded up ahead.
    She looked up from the tumblestones, and dropped one with a plop as she watched the pure-white swan settle on the surface. But Bear had reacted faster. She realised she'd felt his caution even before she'd heard the noise.
    Her guard rose in response, a wary discomfort threading through her bones that felt familiar in ways she chose not to look at. But even as he reached her side and rose up onto his hind legs to get a better look, the swan was undeterred. Instead, her speckled face turned the girl's way, and her black eyes pierced her own. As graceful as she seemed, floating serene upon the water, there was a blatant power within her. Speed, strength, challenge.
    But, as the pair stared at one another, the girl began to recognise something else within that already familiar presence. Something safe.
    And so, it seemed, did Bear. With a grunt of approval, he dropped back to his paws and sat at her side, making no form of threat to the swan. His closeness seemed to be more to reassure her than to defend her.
    Even so, the girl inched away as the swan drew near, and further again when she straightened her slender, snow-white body and flapped her great wings. But she came no nearer as she settled. There remained a distance, and where Bear had sniffed and licked and nuzzled her, the swan merely bowed her head.
    A smile stretched across the girl's face, and she reached out to touch its brilliant feathers. But the swan pulled away sharply, raising its wings in warning, and while the girl saddened, the swan collected herself and bowed her head again.
    A thought then flickered through the girl's mind. Returning her hand to her knee, she sat taller and bowed her head herself.
    Bear grunted with satisfaction, then rose and returned to his fishing.
    The girl sat at the edge of the water with the swan just out of arm's reach for some time, watching one another and bowing their heads, until the swan finally turned on the water and took off. It was some time before the girl realised the swan hadn't fed or preened or anything else while she'd been there on that lake.


     Weeks became months, and Bear didn't lead anymore, though he was always near at hand. The pair of them merely walked, following one another willingly, wandering together, navigating the forest one tree at a time.
    The swan returned occasionally, honking to her from the water and flapping her wings, while she honked and flapped her arms in response. Sometimes Swan would even lead the girl through mires while Bear navigated his own trees, and when she left, Bear moved them on back through the forest, grunting and sniffing, and she would grunt and sniff along with him.
    And the forest, she discovered, had changed again. It was a place of both light and dark, shadow and sun, knot and hole, and could be a treacherous place if navigated too fast. There were so many trees, some so much bigger than the last, with roots so tangled and wild that she could get no help in moving over them, so she and Bear had no choice but to go their separate ways for a while. But they always rejoined later on, once they'd navigated their own paths through.
    But one day, the world went much darker than usual, and she found a tree she could not pass alone.

    In the middle of the night, a restless dream carried her off, dragging her from Bear's side and luring her out into the black, knotted wilds. Her feet stumbled through stream and root, hands cut on rock and branch, eyes blind to the world. And when they finally opened and her senses trickled back to her, terror sank its claws in.
    All around her shadows shrieked, noises flickered, wind grasped and branches whistled. Spinning where she stood, her heart shuddering in her throat, she searched desperately through the dark, but found herself staring at the same black surface with every turn. The same, impassable wall.
    The same, impassable tree.
    Everywhere she turned, the colossal trunk faced her; no matter how fast she moved, it beat her. It cornered her, trapped her, stood always in front of her.
    So she resolved in a fit to run backwards. As long as the tree was in front of her, it couldn't also be behind her. Then she could escape it.
    But everything was overgrown here. She tripped immediately, then again, and again; everything grasped at her. And what if she'd chosen the wrong backwards? She might escape it, but end up somewhere worse. Every glance looked right, every glance looked wrong - and every glance, always, was filled again by that tree.
    And, she realised with crashing despair, now she was entirely alone.
    Paralytic fear tremored its way through her bones, even as a tiny voice rose up inside her and cried out promise. But she heard it, as small as it was. She could do this. Bear and Swan had done and taught enough. She wouldn't lean on them again. She didn't need to. She was too strong for that.
    Determination swelled, and she seized it before that wretched fear could crash in on another wave. She chose a direction, and ran.
    Then chose another.
    Then another.
    Then the fear caught up with her, leaping upon her like an excited beast, stealing upon her hasty indecision.
    'What if I'd been close already, and just ran further away?'
    Its words rang like bells.
    'What if I'm on the right path now, but doubt has turned me around?'
    'What if I am already miles away, with no hope at all?'
    'What if I've travelled three days in one night?!'
    She shook her head and steadied herself, ignoring the fact that her hand rested even now against that inescapable tree.
    "No," she told herself, "of course not." She knew that was absurd. And she knew she could find her way back, without help. She could do this. "Just stop. Breathe, and it will come more easily. Move slowly, like Bear. Be focused, like Swan. Slow. Focus. Slow. Focus. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe."
    But even while she chanted this, her mind was already paralysed.
    A flap of wings nearby threw her heart into her throat. She spun, but it was not Swan. The caw was too malicious a chuckle.
    Then leaves rustled behind her and she spun again, but it wasn't Bear's footsteps. Just another crow, wrenching things from the undergrowth.
    Tears filled her eyes, resentment filled her heart, and her self-disgust tasted sour on her tongue.
    "I don't need them!" She bellowed into the dark. "I can do this on my own! It's one tree! One tree! I won't be a burden again!"
    And so she ran on, backwards, sideways, forwards, hit the tree and ran backwards again. She tripped, she fell, she climbed back to her feet. On and on she ran; over and over she fell.
    Then the tree itself came after her.
    Roots rose and seized her ankle, dragging her to the ground at the foot of the tree. She thrashed and cried and tore at the wood, sure she was being pulled under, but she couldn't rip herself free. Panic had twisted her foot in the knot.
    Then, the tree went up in flames.
    "No, no, no, no!" Her fingernails tore at the root, at her skin, she pulled at her leg and moved her foot in the knot. But she couldn't do it. She should have been able to, just turn her foot and crawl free. But her body wouldn't let her. The simple process couldn't break through her panic.
    More flapping came from behind her, and the malicious caws grew louder, as if the crows had shape-shifted into giant, vicious beasts.
    She screamed as they drew nearer, and felt her body tightening into a helpless little ball. She closed her eyes and dragged her hands through the dirt, throwing everything she could find. But small twigs and leaves didn't deter them for a moment. She could hear them advance. The flaps, the rustles, the--
    She shrieked again as one of the crow-beasts tugged at her dress, and managed with her free leg to kick out. Her foot struck something, hard and strong. It barely gave beneath her effort.
    The terror she felt consuming her in that moment was familiar, and dragged with it pains and injuries she'd tried hard these past months to forget. Now, they swelled tenfold, and all grasp on her senses collapsed.
    The crow-beast grunted, growled and tugged again, this time at her collar, and through the noise of her mind, she found a shape lacing through. A comforting shape, freckled with the colour of the sun...
    Her eyes tore open to find Bear standing over her, tugging her collar and pulling her out of the roots, and Swan staring off beyond the tree, gaze pinned to something in the distance, honking intermittently.
    "The way back..."
    Adrenaline flooded her. She relaxed her ankle and turned her foot just as Bear gave one final tug, and scrambled back to her feet as he pushed her towards Swan. Together, they stormed past the tree, Swan at the lead and Bear pushing her forwards, until the ancient was left blazing behind them. It didn't take long before other trees caught the flame. There was nothing that could stop it.
    The girl couldn't help looking back. Even once the glow had faded, she stared towards that bleak, dark spot until Bear made a firm swipe at her ankle. She barely missed the root.
    The forest ahead soon began to brighten, and as the breath left her exhausted lungs, the ground beneath her felt stable and familiar once again. The sun broke through the trees ahead, the trunks around them were manageable, and fruit hung from the boughs. Here, Swan brought them to a stop at last, and Bear panted in exhaustion as the girl dropped to her knees. But as they both looked down at her, searching her for injury, she met their eyes with tears and apologised from the very bottom of her heart.
    But for all her bleeding words, Bear merely grunted, and Swan merely honked. And she knew, from the steadiness of their eyes and the warmth of their souls, the extent of the disappointment in their hearts.
    She smiled despite the tears streaming down her cheeks, and rose back to her feet. "I'm sorry. I know. If there's anything you've taught me, it's that strength isn't struggling alone."
    With a grunt, Bear bowed his head, and Swan touched her beak to her skin. And she embraced the both of them with a tearful smile. "One tree at a time..."

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2022 Kim Wedlock


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