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By C. Janelle Tuma
My children, when I was born, the world was not as it is today. It was darker, and despair was as common and plentiful as the hairs on your little heads. It was as if the sun didn't shine for nearly a hundred years, and the hearts of men had fallen into shadow.
But you well know that all was not lost.
At the age of five, I possessed faith without bounds, and the mistrust of the great wide world had yet to take hold of me. Because of this, it was so easy to see the dog as simply a gift from some greater being for a lonely little girl who was desperate for a friend. He was loyal and steadfast as we patrolled the small spit of woods behind Mother's house, defending me from every creature, real or imagined, that we came across.
The dog—an unsightly, flea-bitten black beast—had a way of appearing precisely when he was needed. In retrospect, that should have been my first indication that there was nothing unplanned about our meetings. However, at five years old, all that I was able to comprehend when the black dog leapt out of nowhere and placed himself, teeth bared, between my tormentors and me, was that he had saved me from being mangled by the neighborhood bullies. And each subsequent time he defended me, I grew more fond of him.
It didn't take long for the children to realize that I was no longer an easy target for their violence. They left me alone to wander the neighborhood with my protector, perfectly happy to imagine myself a whole collection of friends that treated me as well as he did. For an entire year, the dog was all I had, and he was always there.
Mother used to tell me about a house deep within the Dead Forest. She said that it was small and leaned heavily to one side. The thin, weak walls were rotting and the foundation below them was slowly sinking into the barren mud, surrounded by the decaying corpses of what had once been mighty elms.
The house lies two miles beyond the old red ribbons that remain around the trees to this day, a reminder of a time when children had to be warned that they had wandered as far as they could go, and that they'd best turn back if they wanted to come back at all.
By my reckoning, it was late September when the dog first took me to see the ribbons. There was a faint breeze that day, sweeping up the remnants of the summer heat and carrying them off to the east with barely a passing whisper, and leaving an odd sort of chill in its wake.
The dog showed up on the street corner as usual, out by the curb and sprawled in his typical spot on top of Mrs. Pickwell's flowerbed as if he owned the patch. Mother sent me outside after lunch to play, and I raced down the steps to meet him.
Instead of the customary lick to my cheek and the patient waiting while I decided where we would play that day, he rose, gave a feeble shake that shouted of great age, and fixed me with a tired stare. When I did nothing but stare blankly back, he spun and trotted off towards the edge of town. It wasn't until he turned, his deep brown eyes settling on mine, that I took a single step.
When I reached him, I smiled down at him. "You want to lead the way today?" I asked, and my answer was a weak full-body wag. With a smile, I twisted my fingers into his wiry coat, and we set off on what would become the beginning of the most important adventure of my life.
We walked for what seemed like miles before I realized that the air had grown quiet. This wasn't a normal quiet, the kind that you usually hear outdoors where the static of white noise seems to blend into the background and into nothingness. No, this was silence.
The first feelings of panic closed around me when I looked up and saw the Dead Forest much too close. Mother had ordered me never to go near it, and now there it was not far ahead of me.
I drew to a halt, my hand slipping from the dog's fur as he took a few more steps before he realized that I was no longer beside him. He turned to me again, and when I finally managed to drop my gaze to his, there was something indecipherable in his eyes that, to this day, I can't describe.
I can't possibly pinpoint what it was that made me reach out to him again, but I suppose that doesn't matter anymore. All that matters is that I followed him, past long abandoned houses, past the point where the blacktop ended and the grass began to die, down the little dirt path that snakes along Addler Creek, which had run dry over a century before that day. I followed him right up to the edge of the Forest before I hesitated again.
Fear burned hot in my chest, and I fought the urge to leave the dog and turn back, but something in that deep, brown gaze seemed strangely pleading, melting my resistance. I tightened my fist in his fur, and we continued on.
A shiver traced up and down my spine and my skin prickled uncomfortably as we crossed through the tree line. I couldn't help but pause, one foot within the Forest and the other outside, unable to go any further. The dog had continued on and now stood, a few feet deeper inside the Forest, watching me with what I can only describe as a frown.
Another moment's hesitation, and I removed myself from the Forest entirely; I wrapped my arms around myself.
"I can't," I whispered.
The dog's head drooped, and he settled himself down with a silent sigh. He looked up at me, and within those mahogany depths, it was difficult to miss his desperate plea.
My heart beat faster, and I needed to know what he wanted me to see. My curiosity demanded to be satisfied. I had to go on.
Taking a shuddering breath, I squared my shoulders, closed my eyes and stepped fully into the trees.
If the world just outside of the Forest had seemed silent, inside its boundaries was like being deaf. There wasn't a single sound: not the rustle of a dead leaf or the clatter of hollow tree limbs moving against each other or the crunch of a twig beneath my heels. Only when my eyes flew open and I inhaled sharply and heard the dull, far away sound of my breath was I assured that I hadn't actually lost all hearing.
When the dog rose, I crossed to him, still unsettled when not a sound issued from my footsteps on the barren earth. I rested my hand on his shoulders as he led me deeper and deeper into the trees until I was sure I would never again be able to return to the world outside.
I couldn't even guess at how long we walked. The dog didn't stop, and thus, neither did I. I followed, at his mercy in this strange, unwelcoming place, and for the first time, I was afraid of my protector and of how far astray he might lead me.
It became obvious where he planned to take me when a flash of crimson caught my eye in the distance. In a place so colorless, so muted as the Dead Forest, the red ribbons stood out sharply against the blur of tree bark and bare wood that surrounded us.
The stories Mother had told me echoed in my mind, and I froze. All who went beyond the ribbons disappeared forever. Everyone knew that. The forest was bewitched, and fear bloomed new in my gut.
I wanted so badly to let go of the dog's fur, but my hand tensed every time I tried to pull away, and my feet wouldn't cease their progress towards the ribbons.
"No," I tried to scream, only to find my voice a mere whisper. "No, I don't want to go any further. Please don't make me go any further..."
The dog turned his head, his ears drooping as his eyes met mine and he drew to a halt. With a heavy sigh, he dropped his head and my grip finally relaxed.
I turned and fled, stumbling through the Forest, falling more than once, but not stopping until the less oppressive silence beyond the tree line crashed in upon me and I collapsed. I lay there for what may have been hours, may have been only minutes, my chest heaving, weeping bitter tears for the pinprick of emptiness, that feeling that something was missing, that had begun to ache in my heart the moment I'd broken free from the Forest.
I don't recall returning home, though I know I must have, for I woke the next morning in my own bed, head swimming with fever. All I know for sure is that I passed off that day's events as a hallucination, and I didn't see the dog again for two years.
The emptiness eventually began to grow. What had started out feeling the size of a mustard seed expanded within me over those two years until I was afraid it would swallow me whole. No one else could feel it, and Mother assured me that it was just a trick of the mind. Perhaps I wasn't really empty, but both my mind and body knew that something inside was desperate to be filled. The more I tried to push it from my mind, the more painful it became.
My dreams were silent, filled with the Dead Forest and the old black dog and an overpowering sense of emptiness that I could never escape. They all started the same, with the dog leading me to the edge of the Dead Forest. We stepped inside and made it as far as the ribbons before we stopped.
Here the dream went one of four ways. In some, I turned to run and found myself inexplicably lost, racing through the trees until I woke. In others, I ran and made it home before I realized that I was beginning to rot and decay like the Forest. In others still, I made it home intact and fell into bed, at which point I jerked awake and could not sleep again that night.
The most frightening dreams were the ones where I continued to follow the dog, past the ribbons and into the very heart of the cursed Forest where the dilapidated shack half-stood, waiting to swallow me down its suppurating gullet and plunge me straight into the fires of hell. Those were the dreams from which I woke screaming and weeping and begging the silent darkness around me not to let me die.
Mother didn't know what to do about my disturbed sleep, not understanding what haunted me when I refused to tell her that I'd been within the boundaries of the Dead Forest and it had done something to corrupt me. She consulted every doctor, every shaman, every religious authority, but none of them could do or say anything to banish the troubling dreams from my mind.
It wasn't only my sleep that was haunted, either. Immediately after my foray into the Forest, I saw the dog everywhere. In my bedroom, beside me on the bed, in the bath tub, in the kitchen, beneath my bed, in my closet...When my fever had broken after that day and my mind returned to some facsimile of normal, the sightings grew fewer and fewer. Occasionally I thought I saw a flash of black out of the corner of my eye, but there was never anything there.
His absence exacerbated the emptiness, even though I never wanted to see him again. I still glanced out the window beside the front door every time I passed it, looking for him in his customary place at the curb. Each time that he wasn't there I was flooded with a relief that was tainted with gut-wrenching disappointment.
For two years, I suffered those dreams, that consuming emptiness, and that fierce need to look out the window and see my strange champion sprawled across his flowerbed. For two years, I was only a ghost of myself, hollow and desperate to put everything right.
Just after my seventh birthday, the emptiness became too much. Plagued by a low fever for weeks, I remained bedridden, always tormented by visions of the Forest and the shack and black fur and hell and pain and despair and longing. Something had to be done, my fevered mind insisted, and soon.
I'm still not entirely sure how I escaped the house halfway through the third week of my convalescence, somehow slipping past Mother, who was watching me like a hawk. However I managed it, I toddled along wrapped in an afghan and unsteady on my feet, not even having to think about where I was going as I traversed the distance to the Dead Forest, so familiar after years of traveling it in my dreams.
I hesitated when I reached the edge of the trees, my addled brain reminding me of the danger I faced and the possibility that I might never return home. However, my fear was ephemeral. With that too familiar shiver and the strange prickling sensation that rolled over my skin, I was once again deaf, swaying on my feet as I took in a deep breath of the thick air that surrounded me.
I remember thinking that the air tasted how I imagined despair might taste and smelled how I imagined sorrow should smell: all death and decay and something completely un-nameable that made my skin crawl. I shuddered and took a tentative step forward, and then another. Soon I was hurrying along the same path that the dog and I had taken two years before, my eyes searching frantically for that flash of red that would let me know I was on the right track.
Soon, the ribbons came into view, and I saw the dog curled miserably at the base of one of the trees. At my approach, his head rose and his ears pricked, his tail thumping silently against the hollow tree trunk when I drew to a wobbly halt before him.
"Stop this," I begged, my firm tone rendered a whisper by the strange, dead air. "Whatever you've done to me, stop it."
The dog's hopeful posture fell away and his head drooped as he fixed me with a pleading look. He turned and crossed the red ribbon barrier, throwing another glance at me before setting off deeper into the Forest.
My eyes went wide. "Wait!" I called, hating the way my voice didn't carry. "Wait, you can't leave me here!" Still the dog continued to walk. "Please," I cried, hot tears tracing down my cheeks, "please don't leave me like this..."
When it was clear that he wasn't listening, my mind immediately settled on the only possible course of action if I wanted to stop the madness in my head. With a harsh sob, I jolted forward, throwing myself between the ribboned trees, helpless and empty, but filled with the knowledge that I had to end this.
Gone was the deafening silence, and back was the empty echo that I remembered from just outside the Forest. As I stumbled forward, the sound of the leaves crunching under my foot was deafening, and the dog swung to face me. He crossed to me and I dropped to my knees as my arms slid around his neck and I held on as tight as I could.
"Stop this," I begged again, pressing my face into his coarse hair. "Please. Tell me what I have to do to stop this."
The dog gave a gentle sigh and licked my chin, bracing himself as I used him to lever myself upright. My hand instinctively went to his shoulders, curling in the sparse hair there, and I mindlessly followed, too haunted to fear anymore where he would lead me.
My memories of the ensuing trek are hazy at best. I can't say whether it was the Forest or the fever that dulled me, but what I remember vividly is the moment my mind and vision cleared and I found myself capable of coherent thought. When I lifted my eyes, my breath hitched and I froze.
The air was still as death around the little cottage. It was as dilapidated as Mother had promised it would be and it had likely decayed beyond repair, but I saw it with the wonder that only a child can possess.
While desolation pervaded this place and a sense of agony was palpable, this was not the terrifying situation that I had imagined in my dreams. The shack didn't suck me in and swallow me up, merely squatted where it always had. Its rotting door hung open, nearly falling off its hinges and giving the little abandoned house the semblance of yawning. The two windows on either side of the door, their shutters barely attached, looked like half-lidded eyes, and the crumbling stone foundation like stubby little feet.
The dog forgotten and my fevered skin feeling suddenly healthy, I let the afghan slip from my shoulders as I stepped forward. A smile twitched at the corner of my mouth, and I pictured this house as it must have been when it was a home. I imagined the paint was fresh and the shutters righted and the door, while still standing open, hanging neatly on its hinges. I could see a garden sprawling out before the little cottage, filled with daisies and snapdragons and baby's breath.
Before I knew it, I had my hand on the decaying handrail and I was picking my careful way up the steps. Twice the rotting wood gave way beneath me, and I only managed to stay upright by clinging to the railing that creaked within my grip. Somehow I reached the top, and I turned to see the dog watching me expectantly from the bottom.
With a deep breath, I turned back to the house and as I stepped in through the gaping front door, a chill crept across my skin and raised gooseflesh in its wake. The sorrow and longing felt so much stronger inside, making it hard to breathe. As I took a tentative step further, I suddenly understood why the Forest was dead: what could live near such sorrow?
The interior of the little house was as decrepit as the outside: the wallpaper was faded and torn; the furniture was covered in a thick layer of dust and grime and in pieces all across the floor; the rug before the hearth was rotten, moth eaten and threadbare. Yet, even here, I could imagine it as if it were new, and I wished that I was older so I could have understood why everyone thought that this was irreparable.
With a start, I realized the air around me was warming and changing, the heavy weight of desperation lifting. A feeling that I couldn't name swelled around me. It filled the emptiness in my chest, and began to transform the little shack from the inside out.
The changes began with the muted crackle of a fire echoing in my otherwise deaf ears. As I cast about, I could see no fire, but the sound grew as if one were advancing on the cottage. I panicked before my eyes were drawn to an empty fireplace beneath a warped, cracked mirror on the far wall. A faint, flickering light spilled from it, and my heart began to beat furiously as a fire roared to life there.
The sound hit me full force then, filling the cabin as the light flared, casting eerie shadows on the walls that were suddenly no longer blank. As I watched, the faded wallpaper slowly found its brilliance again, revealing blue and white stripes, while fallen picture frames with shattered glass and shredded photographs were suddenly whole and pristine, aligning themselves on the walls as though by a precise hand.
My gaze traveled back to the fireplace, and the crumbling brick there repaired itself while the mirror absorbed the cracks and its surface smoothed. The collapsing wingback chair before the hearth reclaimed its broken leg and rose back to its original height, its rotting velvet upholstery regaining its beautiful, thick crimson luster. The couch beside it swelled with renewed batting and creaked as its wood was revitalized and strengthened while the rug beneath the furniture rewove itself with fresh thread and fibers, restored to its original immaculate condition.
As I moved further into the room, the dust lifted with a sigh and vanished while the cobwebs swept themselves tidily out of the corners and faded into nothingness. Another step and I felt the unexpected warmth of the sun on my face, and my eyes dropped to the cracked windows that were slowly repairing themselves. I couldn't believe what I saw.
There, superimposed over the corpses of trees, was an image of lush, live green. The soft, far away trill of birdsong filled my ears, and the buzz and chirp of bee and cricket joined the audible fray as tears filled my eyes.
At the time, I thought that it must have been death because the beauty of seeing living things in the Dead Forest was so overwhelming. I have never, even after all of this time, felt something so entirely beautiful and excruciating at the same time as that.
A rhythmic creaking outside the open front door broke my silent contemplation. When I looked over, I could just barely see the shape of the dog, curled and restored to his youth and vigor.
I crept forward, almost to the door when a voice like a gust of wind swept over me.
"You are under no threat, child. Come out where I can see you."
Drawing together what remained of my courage, I stepped out onto the porch, my wide eyes taking in the image of an old woman, hair white and wispy and thinning at the temples, rocking contentedly in a well-worn rocking chair.
"I have been waiting for you," she said, her shallow gray eyes drifting to rest upon my face. "I have been waiting for so long."
"Why?" I asked, surprised that my voice worked at all. "Why me?"
She gave a sad smile. "Because everyone else has failed us. You are the first to succeed."
Her words made no sense to me, and I felt a wash of confusion spread a hot blush across my cheeks. "I don't understand."
"You have found Hope," the old woman said softly. "When you saw my home, you saw promise where everyone else has seen only disrepair and worthlessness." Her smile was sad. "This is where Hope died, child. As the last living person to possess it, I was only trying to preserve it. I tried so hard to document it, to spread it back to the world, but death claimed me before I could finish what I had started." The sorrow was painful to witness in her eyes, and for a brief moment, the melancholy air returned with a vengeance. I suddenly understood where it came from.
"Your sadness killed the forest," I concluded quietly, heart breaking when the old woman nodded.
"My passing left an impression of anguish that Nature was unable to purge," she said, reaching down to scratch the dog whose head had risen at his name. "He did his best, but no matter who he drew here, they failed us. They could not see through their own hopelessness to imagine a better world, a better fate for what has been lost to despair." The smile returned to her lips with no hint of its earlier sadness. "But you have not failed, child. You can carry on where I am no longer able."
"I don't know how," I insisted. "I don't know what Hope is."
The old woman sat back in her rocker, her eyes sliding closed as she considered how best to explain it to me. "Hope is thinking that something old can be made new again despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary." Her eyes fluttered open and she made a sweeping gesture towards the cottage. I was surprised to see that it now boasted a fresh coat of pale green paint, pristine white shutters, and a flawless white door. "Do you see? You have already felt Hope, little one. You have made what was old and irreparable new again. You have brought Hope back to life in a world that so desperately needs it."
I took a long time to assimilate everything that I'd been told, everything that I saw. My silence stretched on and finally, with a soft sigh, I turned my gaze to the old woman. "How do I spread it?" I asked quietly.
The old woman smiled. "Simple, child. You reveal your own Hope to others. They will come to understand in time, and each of them will spread it further until the world is bursting with Hope and promise once more." She reached out and rested a cool, bony hand against my cheek. "All because of the wonder of a child."
With a grunt, the dog hefted himself to his feet and dropped his head onto the old woman's lap. She chuckled and ruffled the hair on the top of his head. "I thank you, child. You have given me the ability to rest now." Her face looked suddenly thin and weary. "I'm so very tired." She dropped her eyes to the dog. "Nature thanks you as well. He can now begin to repair what was lost due to my sorrow." She fixed me with another gentle gaze. "Take one last look. Let my home always be new in your mind."
I took in a sharp breath and turned, soaking up the last of the beauty before letting my eyes fall closed as I turned back to the rocking chair. I know I should have been surprised to find it gone and the cabin back in disrepair, but the Hope that swelled in my breast caused me only to smile and turn away from the decay. I slipped from the porch and set my course towards home.
I don't know what made me turn back, but as I did, in the clearing before the untidy cottage, I caught a flash of orange and black. When I strained my eyes, I could make out the fluttering wings of a monarch butterfly, and Hope rushed through me again.
The Dead Forest was returning to life.
C. Janelle is a writer who resides in the City of Broad Shoulders. She has written professionally for Game Refuge Inc., and is currently working on a dystopian series of novels. She hopes to soon find an agent and begin selling her work to publishers.
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