Looking back, there were many reasons I ventured into the forest that morning.
For years I thought it was because my father had struck me. One clean, hard swoop of his powerful hand across my cheek and I had fallen to the floor like an anchor slicing cleanly through still water on a calm day.
His hands were calloused from working the land, leaving a swollen abrasion just below my right eye. Those who didn’t know him considered those hands an indication of the kind of man he was. But they knew nothing. He was a mute. And though anyone in our small town could have answered on his behalf, traveling tradesmen seemed more content to take his silence as hostility than to ask why he chose never to speak.
Ignorant strangers. Coming and going as they pleased, disrupting the calmness and serenity of our community with their unhinged jaws and over zealous commitment to the tap.
In my mind I blamed them for my father’s rage, but in my heart, I knew I had brought it upon myself. My agony is that I didn’t admit it until time had swallowed up the allotted moments of his life and could offer him no more.
When I blamed them, she knew I was lying, I think, though it was hard to tell from where she stood, hidden in the shadow of an ancient, etched-stone monument. She was not used to sharing her wood, she explained, and asked me to forgive her inability to provide refined hospitality.
“I was not expecting to enter your wood,” I murmured cautiously.
And it was true. In my haste I had fled from my father’s house, and in his broken mouth, his tongue could not form the words to call me back.
And so I stumbled over jagged rocks, covered in slippery moss. And did combat with drooping vines, oozing milk and sap. My feet rebelled against the clawing dampness of thedirt, and my clothing surrendered pieces of itself to the jutting, thistled branches of the wood.
By the time I successfully reached the entrance to the clearing, I expected my father’s house to still be visible in the distance, but it was not. In every direction, save the path that lay before me, the wood was gray, hushed, and ominous. An eerie mist seemed neither to rise from the earth nor fall from the sky. Rather, it seemed to perch lazily upon every leaf, upon every bloom, upon every surface it could find.
And it seemed to me to be humming a lullaby. A morbid one, I decided, from the sorrow in it. Whereas one might expect, while in a wood, to hear the sounds of woodland fauna, in this wood there was only one sound: the slow melody of a mist in mourning.
There was only one sound, that is, until there were two.
“It’s not a very happy tune, is it?” she asked in a delicate, soprano voice. I jumped at the unexpectedness of her presence, and dared not answer quickly. If the tune was hers, I would do myself no favors by disliking it.
“It’s alright. The tune is not mine,” she chimed. “But I do thank you for your concern.”
“Where are you,” I asked in a cracked voice, my heart still throbbing dully in the notch at the base of my neck.
“In the clearing,” she answered. “You may enter, if you wish.”
Had I known the cost of entering that clearing would be so high, I’d like to think I would have chosen instead to hasten in the direction of my father’s house. But in that moment, with the darkness of the wood increasing, and the steady melody of the mourning mist thinning the air until I could scarce draw breath, I took my first step into her forgotten world.
With each new step, the leaves began to change, first in color – from soot gray, to deep pine, to sea foam green, to sky blue, to glittering silver – then in posture. At the entrance to the clearing, the leaves were shriveled and downcast. As I ventured deeper, life began to fill their veins, revive them, and draw them skyward. The crest of the clearing was lush with beaming foliage as direct sunlight flooded the soft, tall blades of grass that smelled of honey-dew and swayed to the rhythm of an imperceptible wind.
A towering monument stood solemnly at the far end of the clearing, casting its shadow upon the glimmering vines that grew outwardly from it. With etchings that spoke of ancient rites and a society of powerful beings long forgotten, the monument seemed not only the center-piece of this clearing, but its guardian as well.
“Do you like it,” she coaxed. “My home?”
“It’s beautiful,” I murmured, still lost in the grandeur of it all.
“Yes, it is,” she sighed, “though few have seen it. And fewer still are they who live to speak of it.” Her voice had deepened and though I could not see her, I could feel her eyes narrowing as she cast them upon me.
Standing in the center of the clearing, I caught my first glimpse of her as she paced among the trees that nestled the lofty stone-hewn monument. In the shadows, her slender frame fell in and out of clarity, first distinct, then blurred, then distinct again. I perceived her to be wearing a silken gown, threaded with glistening strands of starlight, replenishingthe earth as its glorious train obediently followed its master’s stride.
She was magnificent, and terrifying, and her words had been a warning. One false step and she would end my life.
“What is your name,” I asked in a shaky voice, knowing that attempting to maintain mental privacy was a wasteful and fruitless endeavor
“Ah,” she replied, “no one has ever asked me that.” Her voice rang with genuine surprise, and, to my great relief, amusement. “I am called many things, but my name is Saniya.”
At this, she stopped pacing and came to stand beside, yet slightly behind the monument, making sure to keep herself tucked safely in its shadow. I breathed a sigh of relief, taking her stillness and front-facing orientation as a sign of approval.
“Do you mind if I ask….I mean, would it be rude of me…it’s just that I don’t know-”
“What I am.” She cut me off before I could complete my question, but her tone was not severe or disapproving. She seemed to have been waiting a long time for someone to take interest in her and I was willing to talk about anything that would ensure my survival.
“You can think of me as a spirit,” she began, “though that is not all I am. I am both flesh and phenom; I am both here and not here. I endure both within and outside of space, and live both according to and apart from the laws of being. I have the power to sustain as well as destroy, and the way I act upon this world is both finite and immeasurable. I am a great many things, but the most important thing for you to understand about me is that I am Time.”
In her eagerness to expound upon the unfathomable aspects of her nature, she had forgotten to remain in the shelter of the monument. As she explained herself to me, she was drawn out from her hiding place, and had come to stand directly in front of it, the fullness of her splendor now unleashed upon the clearing.
I was dumbfounded. The fullness of her splendor was no longer hidden in monument’s shadow, and her gown, its substance pulsing in and out of visibility, gave off a light that could only be described as piercingly brilliant. In the fullness of her presence, I perceived the whole history of man dancing about the clearing, it to bursting in and out of focus around me. My own life seemed to swim amid the chaos of the ages, and for one terrifying moment I was given a glimpse of my own future.
That glimpse, not so much an image as a feeling, brought me to my knees, and forced the contents of my stomach to spew involuntarily upon the bright-white blades of grass that were gyrating violently around me.
“No,” I gagged. “Not that. Please, not that.”
“It is already done,” she said coldly. “It is the cost of entering this place, and the cost of leaving this place alive.”
“But,” I stammered, windless and disoriented, “I didn’t know.”
“You have been granted the remainder of your days,” she stated beneficently. “Is that not enough?”
“What lays before me is not life,” I hissed. “What lays before me is a waking death.”
“Do not despise Death,” she cooed. “For if you wish your passing to be a peaceful one, you need only greet Her with a smile when she knocks upon your door.”
With tears plummeting down my cheeks in droves, I lifted my eyes to gaze into the blinding face of Time.
When I awoke, I found myself sprawled out upon the grassy meadow at the base of the forest. Head swimming, I lifted my hand to my cheek, and was relieved to find that it was still scraped and throbbing. Could it have been a dream?
I drew myself up onto uncertain legs, shooed the grass from my rumpled skirt with trembling hands, and hastened toward my father’s house. Opening the door, I expected to find him awaiting my return with a stern but relieved brow.
But he was not there, and the house was strangely different. The furniture was the same; so too were the fabrics and flatware. But there was something not quite right. There was something missing.
With my heart beginning to race, and the sting of tears beginning to form behind my eyes, I bolted toward the pub in a final attempt to prove that it had all been a dream.
When I burst through the door, I was met with startled looks and disapproving murmurs.
“Have you seen my father,” I asked frantically. “Please, I must speak to him. Can you tell me if he’s been here.”
No one answered. No one even listened.
“Lost yer way, did ya, Lass?” A drunken merchant stumbled over and hung his heavy arm upon my shoulder, drawing me into himself, hissing his foul breath into my face.
I gagged at the rottenness of both his breath and pelvic movements. It disgusted me that a man his age could bear to treat a girl as young as I so perversely. I wasn’t yet fourteen and he was well over sixty.
“Leave ‘er alone, Joe,” came a woman’s voice from behind the counter. “Back to your pint before it goes flat.”
As I looked at her, I realized I knew her. She was the same bar maid that had always worked at the pub, but there was something different about her eyes. They were heavier, darker, more worn. She looked like herself, but…older.
Joe had not yet released me, and his hands were now groping parts of me that even I touched only out of necessity.
“Get off,” I shouted, and began to jab him violently with my elbows and heels.
“Joe, that’s enough,” said the bar maid sternly. “Leave her alone.”
“I’m not stoppin’ till the Lass asks me to herself,” Joe growled incoherently.
“I already did, you drunken fool! As you deaf as well as stup-”
“She can’t ask you to, Joe,” the bar maid said, cutting me off. She looked at me pityingly and said, “she’s mute.”
No. It couldn’t be. It wasn’t real.
Joe had finally released me, and in a haze of disbelief, I made my way back to my father’s house.
The room was spinning. I stumbled from table, to chair, to bed, to stool, before finally coming to stand directly in front of the looking glass. How was it possible. I looked like me, but…different. My face was thinner and more feminine. My skin was taught and more mature. My breasts were larger, my hips more curved, and my eyes, my eyes were not my own. Well, they were my own, but they were so much…older.
In the corner of the looking glass, at the other end of the room, a shimmering box caught my eye. Perched lovingly in the center of the bureau was my father’s trinket box.
I approached it for the first time with the knowledge that he was truly gone. Gently lifting its lid as tears began to stream down my face, I removed precious and valuable items:the deed to our house, a drawing of my mother, a love letter she had written him during their courtship. My father’s wedding band.
And there, there at the very bottom of his box, on a shred of parchment that seemed to have been torn in haste, in my father’s handwriting, was the name Saniya.
Until next time, my friends!
S. Taylor, The Taylor of all Trades