This is an experimental short story. I wanted to stretch my boundaries, do something I wasn’t comfortable with. I feel like it’s still incomplete. It could be that I’m overly critical or picky.
Regardless, I will publish it as-is and see if it fits within the larger narratives I’m crafting.
She spoke to faces flitting through her mind. Spoke, though her voice didn’t catch the air. A soundless sob escaped from her. She grabbed her knees to steady herself, rocking gently upon soot-black ground covered in short, misty tendrils.
“This place again.” She spoke in resignation.
Grey light filtered through a canopy of charcoal-colored leaves, illuminating her thin frame covered in shapeless brown rags. Trees covered in sickly brown bark stretched through winding, indistinct pathways. The last step felt like the first, and the forest looked the same wherever she stood.
She made marks on the trees with a dull knife whose scabbard had been broken and discarded long ago. Each morning those marks were gone, and her footprints were swallowed by the mud. There was no trace of her, and she could find no one else.
The world was mute save for the rustling leaves and a faint song in the distance. The melody rang clear in her mind; it was familiar, perhaps a piece of who she’d been, but she couldn’t remember. She found herself humming it, moving closer to it, then fear gripped her and she fled.
It was the only marker, her only measure of distance. She couldn’t recall her own name, but the song spoke to her as though it formed her soul… and could undo it.
“I left something undone.” There was no emotion in her voice, but tears flowed. She touched her cheek and blinked at the tip of her glistening finger. She felt herself unraveling, and – clinging to life as a babe yet to live – she’d go back whichever way she came, any way but the path leading to the piper calling in the mists.
Yet all paths led to him, and she sat, paralyzed, wishing she could sink into the dreamless sleep that served as her respite. The dark of the day and the dark of oblivion blended into one another, and the hope of dreams gave way to the relief of thoughtlessness, of singular moments within this damned eternity that her impossible task didn’t weigh on her mind.
“I failed someone.”
She sat up with a start. Sleep had taken her again. A face, vaguely male in its shape, appeared within the black and her heart raced. Who it was, she knew not; she cursed and punched the ground while trying to will it back into her head. The key was there but she couldn’t grasp it, and she was left to wander again.
She found her courage and rose to her feet, determined to find some road that would leave her whole by its end. The dead forest responded to her – the trees, to her eyes, bent slightly away from her as she stood. She watched them carefully and lowered herself, but they remained still.
“A hallucination. Not the first. Best get going.” Her voice carried weak determination – the fire that flickered but wouldn’t die.
She plucked her knife from the ground and etched the trees she passed. The smallest marks took immense will to carve; her arms hung like bones attached by thin layers of skin. Her stomach’s roars would offer a symphony if the forest didn’t absorb its sounds. She stumbled; when she first woke aeons ago she could bound across the pathways, but time sapped her vitality, and the slightest growth threatened to pull her to the earth.
Time… She was running out of time. Was she dreaming it? How could time expire when it held no sway, when dusk was everlasting and the land refused to change?
She stood in shocked silence. There was a mark on the tree ahead of her – the same shape as one made by her knife, and it glowed red, the only thing she’d seen that could pierce the oppressive blacks of her prison.
That song which played quietly in the distance suddenly overwhelmed her and she collapsed, awaking several hours later on the floor of an unfurnished cabin.
The floorboards were soot-black and the walls pitch dark. Grey light filtered through a single window near what appeared to be a door served as the only contrast against the darkness.
She gathered her thoughts, more confused than afraid. Broken pieces of her former self – brought to life by the cabin – swirled and meshed, creating pictures that blurred and never quite made sense.
Her head hurt. Something wanted through, and she called to it, but the harder she willed, the more overwhelming it became.
The door flew open and a solid figure invisible to her eyes grabbed her by the throat and pinned her to the wall. She gasped for air, and awoke again in the forest.
The red mark still glowed on the tree. She struggled to steady her breath and calm her heart – what did it mean? The forest she’d trudged through for time beyond counting had suddenly become strange to her, and the music – though distant once more – inched closer to where she sat.
Then she realized – every tree bore her mark. Every tree shone bright red.
The black of night had been swallowed by blood. The mist upon the ground gave way to shallow pools of crimson, and once more the song blared in her mind and forced her into sleep.
“I’m sorry… I’m sorry… I’m so sorry…”
She stirred in a small pool of her own tears. Her hand shuddered when she reached in front of her.
It was the forest again, returned to normal. Not a sound could be heard, not even the distant notes of that familiar yet dreadful song.
She wept with joy. She hated the forest and the tricks it played, but if she could expect a day of aimless wandering, how much better it would be than the nightmares of the unknown.
Slowly, she forced herself to her feet, eyes fixed on the trees. They didn’t move at all. No sound caught the air save the rustling of leaves. She sobbed, grateful for any hint of the familiar. She gripped the hilt of her knife and once again lost herself in those winding paths.
She never stopped shaking. She started with no motion, no change at all in her surroundings, just anticipation of some unseen disaster. She felt unease at calm itself. When she relaxed, she tightened her muscles twice as much as they’d been and looked high and low for some demon about to devour her.
Whatever strength of purpose had kept her going had faded into terror, and no sooner did she bend under that weight than the song returned loud and deafening mere feet behind her.
She screamed, and fell into another dreamless sleep. Dreamless, save for feeling that someone was choking her.
She awoke, gasping, her cheeks soaked with her own distress. She sobbed, heard her own voice, then grew still.
It wasn’t terror that gripped her but all the things she had ever felt screaming at once and pulling her down into numbness.
She could hear the leaves rustling above her head. She heard creatures, insects, things she could not see or feel, skittering across the tendril-turfed ground.
She erupted in laughter. The forest sounded alive, but looked as dead as ever.
To her left she saw a faint, golden light. It was obscured behind trees, and it was calming and still.
Her fatigue vanished into curiosity. She could no longer feel her fear; of what use was it when the forest did what it willed and she was its plaything? Whether this light held her purpose or her doom no longer mattered when either was preferable to waiting for whatever would come to her.
This path didn’t blend into the others; it gave way to a small clearing within which a girl no older than nine stood at its center. She was the source of the light, and upon seeing her the woman fell to her knees and hugged the girl as tight as she could.
She couldn’t remember why she knew this, but that child was the reason she was in the forest.
“I’ll protect you… Whatever I have to do, I will protect you…”
The child, wide-eyed and curious, said nothing.
Suddenly the forest opened around them. In an instant they stood on solid, featureless black ground illuminated by an open sky of grey light, and the cabin the woman had woken in days before erected itself around them, and the song sounded with a deafening reverb across the heavens.
The reaper had come, and the song was his call. There was no more time for wandering souls.
The same invisible figure that had pinned the woman to the wall instead grabbed the child by the throat and held her against the window.
The child couldn’t breathe, but didn’t struggle; its curiosity became confusion and she gasped what little air she could.
The woman, fighting to her feet against the weight of the reaper’s song, pushed against the unseen man, but although she freed the child she was choked in her stead.
Once free, the child – unshaken by the reaper’s song – picked the woman’s knife off the ground, and watched her protector grow red-faced as she struggled for air.
She kicked and flailed with a might she no longer believed she possessed. In front of her flashed the faces from her dreams. Wordless remembrance – the reaper became everyone she lost, everyone she failed, everyone… who caused her pain.
She could see him, grinning like the devil. The man who crushed her spirit and took her life. The man she begged and pleaded with. The man she loved, who she failed.
Anger rose and crashed in waves of sadness. Her hatred turned to desperation. She wished the same fate on him he’d given her, but she could not force the thought away – “I deserved this.” She sobbed. “I deserve it.” She knew she lied, but she no longer had the will to resist, and wondered if she ever had.
The child looked at the knife in her own hand, and she knew – the woman wasn’t there for her. She was there to rescue the woman. She was the last vestige of the woman’s living soul, trapped deep within her heart – cherished, but unable to emerge and rejoin herself.
Without hesitation, the child slit her throat and fell to the ground.
The world went quiet, and the cabin disappeared. The woman ran to the child, taking her into her arms. The girl’s blood stained the rags that clothed her skeletal frame.
She wept bitterly. “Why…Why…Why…”
Grass sprouted beneath them. Slowly, the trees reappeared, but brown and green as they’d been meant to be. The birds’ chirping replaced the silence and the song.
But the woman noticed none of it and grieved the child she held in her arms, even as its body merged into herself, restoring her to youth and vitality. Still she wept, unaware of the world. Still she wept, shaking violently.
Hours passed, hours that felt like eternities. The sun faded in twilight.
A figure appeared and offered his hand. He bore a look of compassion in his eyes, and smiled.
“It’s time to go.”
She nodded, and got to her feet, knowing who she was, knowing who he’d been. The reaper vanished, his visage a reflection of her calm and not her terror, her misplaced guilt. She stepped forward, and little by little the forest fell away.
A new path opened in front of her, leading from the heavens to the Earth. She closed her eyes and whispered a prayer she was taught as a girl. Memories of her mother flooded back and she hunched over, hugging her knees.
Who she’d been, on Earth and in the heavens, had been swallowed. She never got to live.
She looked behind her and saw nothing but light. Regret still clung to her – could she not go back and lead her former life? Was there truly no second chance? Her grief poured from her like rain – her robes, now shining like the stars themselves, absorbed tears into the galaxies woven into herself.
She saw visions of stars and planets aligning – whole universes coming into existence as a mere extension of her desire.
She understood – what was to come, what could come, it would sate her, and she would cease mourning what could no longer be.
With renewed determination, she descended the stairs and began her new life.