The Dead River
Where there is a dead river, there is a wilting echo in time, a parched memory frayed and thinned in the helix of life. All that thrived has dried and vanished, but the fish will return. The larvae will reclaim sustenance to convert gelatinous bodies into fluttering, gossamer, black velvet wings, and sunlight will find a fractured path down the clear, jade run once again. There will be no more blood, no more sinew and muscle folding over sand and rock—just bones, camouflaged within the rocky banks of crusted clay and lime.
* * *
The Lady of the Forest lifted her head from a corner of foliage. “Yes?” It was Little Fawn again. So new to and unsure of his world, she thought. She nestled her head back under a fern and counted the striated rows of spores that laced the edges.
“There is a ruckus of a flock down at the Dead River.”
Flock meant only one thing—Raven and her clan. “Did Raven send for me?”
Little Fawn nibbled on tender shoots of wild yarrow stretching from a blanket of rot. “No, but the girl did.”
“Girl?” The Lady’s brow creased into a blade of grass.
“Yes, down at the Dead River.”
The Lady of the Forest stood, tuning her senses past a symphony of June bugs that snapped like summer fire in the hollowed-out trunks of cedar and pine. There, in the soft emerald of the hills, a whisper drifted. Why had she not heard it until now? She heard every call, knew of every misplaced spirit, answered to all cries as do the elephants of the prairie.
Little Fawn sensed her thoughts. “It is difficult to concentrate with so many requests, Lady of the Forest.”
“No, Little Fawn. It is something else, another reason.”
The Lady of the Forest slid from a bed of liverwort and traveled through the dark of the forest toward the Dead River. Little Fawn skipped and bounded close behind her, stumbling across slippery logs and earth-covered boulders. Brush rustled of foxes and chipmunks, and beneath the needles, the night crawlers slithered, foraging organics from sodden dirt.
Like the first crisp chill of dawn, the Lady of the Forest sensed a season of change. Fall was afoot, but it went deeper than that. There was an ebbing of her spirit, not so much a weakening as it was a turning inward, a need for dormancy. She felt it in the rigidity of her step and the languor of her reflections, but to question if her disconnection might be to blame for the girl’s lost spirit, settled shadows across her soul.
Cool breeze stirred the Lady’s attention. The Air Maiden is a delicate power. She is a portable vessel of scent, seed, and sound, and she can be an ominous fury of unseen force. Tonight, she wrapped between the trunks of the forest reverberating with yesterday’s wails.
A gust of wind whips beside the Lady of the Forest, Air Maiden’s whisper, “She called for you. Listen—”
Bitter as regret in the Lady’s heart, the girl’s cry ricocheted from mountain to shore. It crested like an icy tide against the Lady’s heart, and she ducked against the coldness of truth, determined to persevere through her journey.
Another gust curls around the Lady.“She said you were cruel and heartless.”
“She doesn’t understand,” the Lady replied.
Worry tainted the Air Maiden’s question with a cold bite. “How can you help her now?”
That the Lady did not know, and she wondered if she even could.
Little Fawn dipped into a valley to escape the Air Maiden’s icy current. The Lady of the Forest followed. He paused at the crackling of twigs and turned his head to the side.
Mother Bear’s shadow was a hollow darkness through the trees. Two specks of light from her eyes centered on Little Fawn. He stilled with fear racing beneath his hide, seemingly to hope that inert silence equated with invisibility.
“Back up, Little Fawn,” the Lady of the Forest whispered.
But Little Fawn must learn on his own. He searched the blackness beyond Mother Bear, perceived safety, and cut past the left of her. She disliked Little Fawn’s rapid movement and his proximity to her young nearby. Her claws stretched out, raking the backside of Little Fawn. He twisted under her strength and continued bounding towards deep shadows.
The stench of blood surrounding Mother Bear assured Lady of the Forest that she was too gorged and fatigued to bother with Little Fawn, and she and her cubs rumbled back to a warm, dry den. The Lady of the Forest moved on, the foreign sense of urgency quickening her pace. The flora of the forest blinked and stared.
Green Man keeps a watchful gaze, his heart a verdant cauldron of life, but his eyes are sharp as the hawk’s, and he guards the wildlife of the forest with fierce devotion. He shuddered branches in front of the Lady.
“The girl was here, circling around for days,” he groaned. “She tore at limbs and shrubs and disrupted the animals. She could not change her outcome.
“Change is…” difficult to undertake when forced upon us, the Lady thought. “Change can be premature.”
The crown of a hemlock bowed toward the Lady. “And where were you, Great Lady? What of your nature?”
To deny her state was of no use. “My nature is wrought with obstacles, but you know as well as I do that the spiral of the universe will continue its endless voyage.”
“Even the girl’s?”
“Yes. The girl’s too.”
Green Man lifted his eyes from the Lady and allowed her passage through a dense grove.
The Lady of the Forest came into a clearing, the valley of the Dead River. Fallen trunks crisscrossed through an arid canyon, and boulders were stacked precariously where gravity had expired.
It was here that Air Maiden called home. The canyon was a natural, melodic hallway, and the border of evergreens danced in her breeze.
The Lady of the Forest attuned herself. Along with Air Maiden’s harmonics, she also brought the scent of death—putrid, sweet, and sour. The Lady knew then that she was close.
Moonlight slipped through the branches and shone upon a trail of a thousand carnivorous ants and beetles. The Lady noted their direction: south, toward the bottom of the Dead River. Their journey would lead to sustenance. Death.
Little Fawn caught up with the Lady and licked at the gash in his pelt. She knew he would heal well, so she continued through the canyon. It wasn’t long before the Lady of the Forest and Little Fawn found the ruckus of animals circled around a bend in the Dead River.
There, tucked in the elbow of a birch, the girl’s body lay. Concaved flesh decayed, withered into wood and stone, and her cavities were splayed to the hunger of others. In the ugliness of her death, she is splendor, as brilliant as the reddest of roses. So absolute is she that all else gathers to her presence. She is one of miracles mysteries.
“She will not let us eat,” Raven spat when the Lady of the Forest approached.
Another black bird, smaller, but just as brave, cawed. “We’re starving, and the flies are embedding their eggs into the best part!”
A gray shadow flitted near the base of a stump. It was the presence of the girl. Her clothes were soiled and torn, and her dark hair was long and matted. Her eyes had sunken in, as if empty.
She straightened and marched toward the Lady of the Forest. “You did this!” She shouted at her. “You made me lost! I was so cold, delirious, and desperate that I couldn’t find my way out!” Sobs overcame her will to stop them.
The yelling scared Little Fawn, and he crouched behind the Lady. Raven and her clan hopped onto a stiff elbow and jerked at exposed flesh. The girl picked up a handful of rocks and threw them at the scavengers, shooing them away from her body.
“Get out of here!” She lunged at them, waving her thin arms.
The birds squawked and drummed black wings into the air. Forlorn, the girl slumped back to the ground, holding her hands up to cover her face.
The Lady of the Forest wanted to hold her, tell her that there was more to life than the one she knew, that life was a pattern of many.
Collected in the hollow of a boulder, a small pool of water reflected the dim radiance of the stars and moon above. The Lady leaned over it. Lines had deepened into her face, grooved like the bark of trees. The time for change had come. It wasn’t until that moment that the Lady remembered: even answers had their own clock.
“I didn’t hear you, my child, for I wasn’t supposed to.”
The girl looked up. “I don’t understand.”
The Lady turned to Little Fawn and wiped her weathered hand across his back, scooping his white spots into a palm-full of ivory-feathered petals. He was too old for them now.
The Lady of the Forest walked over to the girl. “In the helix of life, we cannot remain constant. Adaptation is in our nature, and the more we oppose the cycles of the cosmos, the further we recede from our destiny.”
The Lady of the Forest blew the petals like children’s bubbles over the girl’s body. At their touch, a lucent essence lifted from the remains. Sheer as a dragonfly’s wing, it crossed into the threshold of the lost girl.
She stopped crying and stood. Brightness filled her eyes. She reached for the Lady’s hands, who clasped them in her own.
There was a moment of recognition between the Girl of the Woods and the Lady of the Forest. The Girl understood that life was a continuous cycle—birth, death, and rebirth. The Lady realized that each twist in the helix brought fear and uncertainty, neither of which was ever permanent.
“Thank you, my Lady,” the Girl of the Woods said.
The Lady of the Forest smiled and let go of the Girl’s hands. Her arms lengthened and twisted into timber. Roots protruded from her feet and burrowed into the ground. Her hair molded into weeping bows of pine and needle, ears and nose into cones, and her crown soared upward, aspiring for the eye of Andromeda in the ocean of night above.
Little Fawn scratched his back against the Lady’s trunk, nudging tender spots at the top of his head where bone was pushing through. The Girl of the Woods gazed around the forest, knowing that she too would discover its secrets, just as the Lady of the Forest had.
She pulled herself up onto a branch of the Lady Redwood. Swinging her bare feet from a mossy perch, the Girl of the Woods listened to a cricket lullaby and watched the universe turn.