The Wild Woman in the Woods

This modern fairy tale is pure fiction, but is inspired by old Hopi Legends.

Have you ever looked into a pool of water and asked yourself, or no one in particular, who is that being reflected back at me, and how has that anything to do with what I feel inside?

I the beginning there was only the wild ones running about in an endless moss-toothed forest. They didn’t cast shadows, neither from light nor from darkness. One of them was called Tawa, she was silence. She beheld the world and opened her mouth to howl against the white moon. A silvery trail stretched out from her mouth to the moon and it drew all the water into her womb, and so a hurricane was conceived within her. After that, she howled every time the moon was full, to release all the wildness and all the winds growing inside her, and she was silence no more.

In 1993, The Forest of Dean endured a summer so miserable that all the tourists changed their plans and went back home to their townhouses to swim in umbrellaed swimming pools perfectly heated. They could enjoy the rain then, tapping melodiously on the thin tin sheets, without worrying about becoming the wrong kind of wet. The London pavements turned black with cold rain, and the Chelsea shops went into hibernation even with the July sales going on. Anyone who could afford to leave the city did. The Paris train was overbooked and chartered planes did not even have to advertise their vacant seats to Malaga and Crete. That was why, when the little streams in the Forest of Dean overbanked and flooded on a cold July morning, nobody even noticed. Except Goya that is.

Goya had moved with her parents to an old abandoned cottage in the forest three years ago. Her father was one of those 70s Cornwall hippie-go-lucky kids who had dreamt of living in a forest and being completely self-sufficient all his life. His motto was, quite literally, flower power – he ran a small natural remedies business. Goya’s mother had run off to India in the 80s when Goya was just a toddler, to join the Free Love Osho Ashram. Goya didn’t really think too much about her. Except for that July morning when she stumbled into a forest pool so vast it could be mistaken for the ocean.

Earlier that morning Goya had overheard the weatherman in the radio promising sun and blue sky, but the heavy grey-black clouds had once again refused to budge littering the heavily pregnant trees with more cold water, to which they sighed with exhaustion and tried to shake it off in the wind. Goya leaned against one of those moist dark brown trees looking down into the rippling pool only to spot fragments of her drenched face set against a backdrop of opaque sky. She had an eerie sense of it being someone else looking back at her, a changeling waiting to take her place. Then a shiver of pine needles dropped from a low branch and the image vanished into oblivion. “Who are you?” said a deep voice and Goya startled and looked up to locate where the voice had come from. She spotted an old woman standing half hidden behind the trunk of a huge oak. The woman was dressed in tall green rubber boots and an oil skin coat covering her entire body. Her hair was unruly and wet, hanging down to the woman’s waist in thin spidery braids. Goya was embarrassed to catch herself thinking of a perfect storybook hag. “I am Goya,” she answered. The old woman glared at her disapprovingly and harrumphed. “Are you lost?” She asked in her old crow’s voice. “No, I live just over there,” said Goya and pointed in the direction of her house. “What about you, do you live here too?” she asked the old woman. She didn’t reply, just continued to glare at Goya with her black bird-like eyes. “What is your name?” Goya tried. “I am Grandmother,” the old woman spat the answer at her, like a piece of food gone bad. “Eh….okay…..nice to meet you Grandmother. Horrible weather, isn’t it?” “Horrible!?” Grandmother looked outraged, her features darkening considerably, then she smirked and said vehemently: “The world needs a good flooding. Washes away the dirt.” She threw her head back and laughed loud and eerily as though she had made the world’s best joke. Goya shivered and looked away from the old woman. “Eh…I better get back,” she said and glanced briefly up at the woman. “Yeah, you better, or else I might turn you into a frog!” Grandmother said it so threateningly that Goya flinched. “Come back tomorrow child, and bring me something to eat, I am starving!” Goya didn’t reply, she turned around and ran, as much as you can run in water reaching up to your knees, and didn’t stop until she was safely back in her cottage and could hear her father humming and pattering around in his herb garden.

The next morning it rained even heavier than the day before and Goya , quite shockingly, found herself feeling sorry for the old woman in the forest. Did she really not have anything to eat? Goya opened the kitchen cabinets and found a pack of chips and a jar of shop-bought cookies. “Don’t we have anything to eat?” she asked her dad who was just putting on the kettle for tea. “Of course we have, sweetie.” “What?” “Well, the garden is full of vegetables, why don’t you make something?” Goya sighed. The only thing she really knew how to make was soup. So she did. She spent the whole morning brewing the vegetable soup, adding her father’s herbs and a little pinch of pepper and salt. She poured the soup on a thermos and tossed it into a Spar plastic bag.

The rain poured into her rubber boots and the umbrella she tried to hide under was rather useless in the relentless wind. The path had washed away entirely and the trees kept swishing and swooshing complainingly, undressed by the cold morning showers. Goya waded through the pool, which reached her thighs, and tried to ignore the icy cold creeping up her legs and freezing her muscles. Sure enough, when she reached the old oak the hag was standing there watching her. Somehow she looked at bit less old and witch-like that morning, and when Goya reached out handing her the thermos her face even broke into a small grin. “So you came,” stated Grandmother and even managed to look a bit pleased. She opened the thermos and sniffed the hot soup. “Did you cook it with love?” she asked and glared at Goya, a bit of yesterday’s suspicion back in her black eyes. “You won’t find my heart in there if that is what you mean,” replied Goya and glared back. Grandmother threw back her head and cackled at that. “I think I am starting to like you, girl!” she roared and slapped Goya so hard on the back that she almost fell over. Goya watched her slurp up the scorching soup. She didn’t offer any compliments and when she was finished with the soup she stuffed the empty thermos into her inner breast pocket. She gave a sideway glance at Goya daring her to object. But Goya didn’t say anything. She was NOT going to fight an old lady for a pink school thermos. “Tomorrow,” said Grandmother and smirked, “you bring something to entertain me. An old woman gets lonely.” “Like what?” asked Goya. “Like a movie or something?” “A movie!?” Grandmother snapped. “Is that all you young people can think of? I don’t want any fake play-acting, I want something real!” Goya had no idea what she meant by that, but she shrugged and decided to worry about it later. “I guess, I’ll see you tomorrow then,” she said unenthusiastically and turned away from the mad-looking woman. “Something real! You hear me!?” roared Grandmother after her. Goya had really no idea what the hag had meant by “something real”. So she decided to ask her father what he thought of as real entertainment. “That’s easy, sweetie, singing, dancing, art, poetry, something from the heart.” He smiled and patted Goya on the head. “Dad,” she asked hesitantly, “do I have any talents?” “Loads!” he replied and smiled, “but my favorite is your voice. You are a great singer.” Goya laughed at that. “Only you would ever think so, dad.” Her father smiled and shrugged and started belting out an old Beatles song. “Yeeesterdaaay, all my troubles seeeemed soooo faaar away!” “Tell me about it,” mumbled Goya and left her father singing in the kitchen.

The next morning Goya had still not thought of anything to do to entertain the old woman, so she decided to follow her father’s advice and sing. Her mother had once told her, when she was tiny, that everyone could sing it was just that some people were better at it than others and could therefor pursue it as a professional career. Well, at least Goya knew that that was out of the question for her. She landed on an old 70s tune her mom used to sing to her when she was a baby.

The sky was, if that was even possible, even darker that morning, and the rain lashed down like mad. “This is starting to feel a lot like Ragnarok,” said her father and pulled his basketball cap further down over his face. At least the temperature had gone up a little so Goya decided to stick with just a shorts and a long rain coat, that way she didn’t have to walk home in soaked jeans. The water on the path now reached up to her waist, and wading through it was much like trying to walk through a lake. “So you are finally here,” said the old woman as soon as Goya reached the clearing in the forest. “So come on, hit me, whaddya got for me?” Goya stared at the hag. “Since when do you speak street?” The croon roared out a thunderous laughter and slapped her knees violently. “I thought you were going to entertain me?” she demanded, but with a slight twinkle in her raven eyes. “Well, uh, I thought…I thought I’d sing…” “Excellent!” exclaimed Grandmother. “So, let’s hear it then, whaddya waiting for, hon?” Goya glared at her suspiciously, then cleared her throat. This was a lot harder than what she thought it would be. Why was she so nervous singing in front of a mad, probably homeless, old woman? “If you are going to Saaaan Fraaansisco, be suuuure to weaaaar some flowers in your hair.” Goya started weakly, but picked up the pace and raised her voice as she got further into the song. And then, to her utter amazement, the old woman started dancing! Yes, dancing! She lifted her skirts and tapped her feet heavily on the ground while swaying her upper body back and forth quite wildly so much so that her….ummm…..girls (or were they perhaps called ladies in the elderly?) jumped merrily back and forth. “You’ve brought life to me old bones!” she roared and clapped her hands to the made-up beat. “Come on, girl! Dance!” Goya hesitated. Dancing was definitely NOT her strong suit, but what the heck, she was in the wild woods in the rain with a crazy homeless person, why the ever not? So she relaxed her shoulders and jumped up and down while clapping her hands and swaying her hips. It probably looked ridiculous, but Goya didn’t care. When the song finished they were both panting and laughing. “Well that was fun,” said Grandmother and smiled mischievously. “But now I have to get back home in the rain and I have nothing dry and warm to wear, so tomorrow I want you to bring me some new clothes.” “What?” exclaimed Goya. “You want me to go shopping for you?” “Shopping!? Whaddya mean shopping? Don’t they teach girls to sow nowadays? To knit and weave and spin?” “Eeeh….I don’t know what century you are from, no offense, but this is 1993 and we get our clothes from shops. And there are no shops around here so I am sorry but no can do.” Grandmother studied her angrily. “I am sure you have some old rags for a poor soul in your overstuffed wardrobe. Something to mend, to break, to put together?” It wasn’t really a question, it was more like an order. Goya sighed. “Fine, I’ll see what I can do.” “See you tomorrow then,” said the old woman. Goya gave a half wave, turned around and waded back home. “If this keeps up I’ll have to swim out here tomorrow, “she muttered to herself. “So much for your dry clothes.”

As soon as Goya had walked through her front door she called her father. He was out in the garden as usual in his red wellingtons and yellow rain coat. “Daaaad, do you we have any old clothes at home? Like something mum left behind or something?” Goya’s father froze with an iron spade mid-air. “What do you want with that?” he asked his daughter. “I just thought perhaps I’d donate it to some homeless people.” That was precisely the kind of answer that would earn Goya’s father’s approval, and he came swooshing inside in his drenched muddy wellies. “I think there might perhaps be some in the back of my wardrobe. I think they might be your mum’s or my mum’s or granny’s, I am not sure, but you can take what you find. “He smiled warmly at Goya. “It is a really lovely thing to do, sweetie.” He ruffled her hair and gave her a quick hug. “Yeah, yeah, I know,” mumbled Goya and leaned awkwardly away from the hug. The wardrobe did indeed contain old female clothes of varying quality and questionable style. “Looks like I come from a long line of hippies,” sighed Goya and dragged out another neon pink and mustard yellow floral dress. It was hard to find anything that could be categorized as “warm” except for a poncho with lots of holes in it and a faux fur coat smelling of moth balls and old dried-up sweat. “Looks like I have to brush up on my sowing skills after all,” sighed Goya and set to work. It was midnight when she was finished and the result was a rather questionable poncho cum cape cum shawl thing made up of different patches of cloth, some in bright florals, other in knitted Indian cardigans and even a few in faded brown stinky fur. All perfectly asymmetrical and as far from vogue-worthy as possible. “It will have to do,” yawned Goya and went to sleep.

The next morning the rain had of course flooded the entire forest, even the garden was dangerously close to the muddy lake that used to be the Forest of Dean. Goya put the cape she had made in a plastic bag and tied it to her head. Fortunately the weather was a bit warmer so Goya decided to wear her bathing suit. She put a big towel in the plastic bag and waded into the forest. This time the water reached up to her neck. “So you came?” said the old woman, perched happily on a fat branch of a tree. How she had managed to get up there Goya had no idea. “Yup, and I brought you this,” said Goya and handed her the cape. The old woman’s face broke into a toothy grin and she wrapped the ugly cloth around her body. “This brings warmth to me old bones,” she said and touched the fur patch tenderly. “Well, it took me all night to make it,” said Goya and shivered in her bathing suit. There was no point trying to dry herself with the towel, even here the water reached above her waist. “Look, Grandmother, I better head home right away or I’ll catch pneumonia or something.” Grandmother cackled mischievously and beat her fist against the trunk of the tree she was sitting in, making the droopy leaves empty their stack of rain water right unto Goya. “Thanks a lot,” muttered Goya and gave the old woman a mean look. But Grandmother just cackled louder and wrapped the cape tighter around herself. “Well, I’m off,” said Goya and turned around to walk away. Suddenly she stopped, waited a little and turned back towards the old woman. “Aren’t you going to ask me to bring you something?” The old woman smiled and nodded her head. “Yup, just bring…yourself.” Goya shrugged, it was a funny answer, but it meant that she didn’t have to spend the rest of the day making something out of nothing, so she didn’t question it.

When she came back home, she felt weirdly empty and rather restless, so she spent the afternoon helping her father in the garden, to his very obvious delight. The next morning, Goya woke up and startled. The sun was shining brightly through her window! She ran out in the garden where she found her father humming and weeding in his herb bed. The sky was a brilliant blue and the sun teased and caressed the little herbs, the trees and the grass. The water had subsided drastically and there was hardly any sign of yesterday’s flood. Goya hurried and got dressed and headed in to the forest to meet the old woman even before she had had any breakfast. The forest path was back into visibility and the only leftovers from the flood were tiny silvery puddles. When Goya reached the little clearing the old woman was not there. She thought perhaps she was too early so she climbed a tall oak and waited. She waited and waited, but there was no sign of the old woman. Eventually Goya had to come down from the tree and except that Grandmother was not coming. Goya had no idea where to look for her, she didn’t even know if she lived in a house. Searching for her would be pointless so Goya decided to head back home and prepare lunch for her father. As she was walking slowly along the path, enjoying the warmth of the sun, her eyes wandered to a little puddle just next to the path and suddenly she startled. Hadn’t that been…..in the puddle…? Goya looked again, but this time all she found in the puddle was her own well-known reflection. She shrugged, it was probably just her mind playing tricks with her, so she lifted her eyes to the sun and walked back home.

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Where the Wild things are

This story story is pure fiction, but it is inspired by Norse Mythology and True Events.

Aren’t we all born with a longing for all that is wild, and organic and authentic? We are shaped like seeds spinning around in darkness. Without mountains, without soil, the endlessness will last, until one day when we knock on the shell and tear it apart, step outside and ask: Who am I? Who is the land? Who is the sea? And then, when no one listens, we shape ourselves into rocks and sand, leaving only our heads to rest on the broken shell.

When you stand in “The hundred-acre-Forest”, lovingly named after the forest in A.A Milne’s books, you will see nothing but mountains, even though Rooster’s Cove is just nearby, hidden behind a canopy of tall evergreens. The forest is always dark, with small tunnels of sunlight piercing through the tall forms of ash and oak, leaving pale light-shadows on the zigzagging paths. Soft white-pink Hedge-Parsley and bright purple Alpine Catchfly huddle together in clusters along the rocky pathways. You will have to be careful where you walk, for ant mounds are built close to the paths, and the red and black ants use the discarded pine needles, scattered everywhere on the paths, as insulation when they construct their homes. If you are up for a climb, there is steep hike you can follow that will lead you to the Lodge Pond. The Pond is unapproachable, fences of heather and snake grass and rushes hide the swamp-like banks of the pond, so that you will never know when the land ends and the water starts. The pond is populated by Daddy Longlegs whirling around the tall purple Lady’s Gloves and the weeping small shrubs, popularly called Fairy Spools, and Water Striders standing quietly on the pond’s surface waiting for a child to come along and call it Jesus Bugs. If you come at night you will hear the pygmy owls hooting from their woodsy homes, often stolen form inattentive Spotted woodpeckers. If you stay to early dawn you will meet the skittish roe deer probably already shying away from you, long gone when the birds starts twittering. My favorites were always the friendly white wagtail and the curious yellow-breasted great tit. Their song is full of spring and sun, echoing in the thick forest, much like I imagined fairy music to be like. This was the landscape of my childhood, until one day, when it all changed.

In an open clearing in the forest, just before the landscape slide into a bog, there is an Apple tree, an unusually tall apple tree. In the midst of all things wild and free and unattended, there is something so domestic and human-like, something that makes even businessmen in blue suits and politicians in pencil-skirts and thin-framed glasses smile. Because in every childhood there is an apple tree. In mine, that apple tree was wild. I didn’t want to name the tree, because a little bit of the wildness goes away when you name something, but if I had I would have named it Liv, which in our language means life, for my tree bore the juiciest apples I had ever tasted.

The afternoon sun is squinting through the trees, lowering her hot feet into a chuckling stream, she sighs with pleasure, and the sigh plummets through the forest, and when I hear it, it sounds like a whisper. Something the leaves would say, perhaps. The rocks have all dried up and it is easy to walk dry-footed through the forest. The apple tree has sported a cluster of red apples today and I reach for one and bite into it to quench my thirst. A brown bushy-tailed squirrel peeks out from the round glass-less window in the Bird House my father made last year. I know this squirrel well, he is always running from the roots of the tree to the crown, making funny noises and wagging his tail. He moved in to the Bird House earlier this year. I put my hand on the trunk of the apple tree, running it slowly against the smooth bark. It’s only then that I discover it, the mark on the tree. It is an ugly paint-bruise smeared on with neon red paint. I look around, thinking perhaps it is a joke, but many more trees surrounding the clearing have been marked in the same way. What is this? The paint and the gaudy color look unnatural in this beautiful landscape of lilac starflowers, wintergreens, and magenta Willow Herbs. I put the half-eaten apple in my pocket and head home.

“Mom, why are there paint-mark on the trees?” I ask my mother when she returns from her office job. She sighs and looks at me, “They’re building a hospital, sweetie, the paint marks the trees they have to get rid of to make room for the hospital.” I shrink from her gaze and shudder in horror. “What do you mean get rid of? Like chop down? “My mother nods. “But that’s…that’s murder!” My mother shakes her head at me and sighs. “No, Sweetie, people are more important than trees. They’re building a hospital, a place to heal and cure sick people. Surely you must understand that that is more important than trees?” “But why can’t they build it somewhere else? Why here, in our forest?” My mother sits down and sips her cup of tea, I can see how tired she is, but I can’t help it, I just can’t hold back my anger. “There is nowhere else, honey. All the available land has already been turned into roads and houses; your own school was once a marsh! This is the way of life, Ira, people come first, and we need places to live and work and learn.” I know that that is the way we are supposed to think, the rational way of thinking, but the thought of losing the trees, the apple tree, makes me shake all over, as though it was me who had just been given a death sentence. “Can we not talk about this now?” My mother closes her eyes and leans back in her chair. I know how busy she is, how much she needs her rest, so I nod my head obediently and leave her there to have her rest. But I can’t just sit there and not do anything to prevent this from happening, I need to do something. So I call my friend Bean for assistance.

“It’s awful, Ira, but what can we do?” says Bean when I show him the painted trees in the forest. “Well,” I say, “we can start by scrubbing off this bloody paint!” Bean doesn’t look convinced, but he is a good friend, and nods in agreement. “Fine, I’ll get the water and brushes.” Bean disappears back through the trees, and I am left alone, standing hopelessly forlorn under the Apple Tree. I lean in to the tree and put my cheek against the rough bark. “What should I do?” I whisper, and feel the sting of tears in my eyes. There is no reply. Twenty minutes later Bean is back with two buckets of water and two brushes. We split up and start scrubbing the paint. I scrub and scrub until my hands are red and blistered, but to no use, the industrial paint doesn’t even budge. The neon sheen only seems to burn brighter as the ruby light of the setting sun send gem-like showers through the clippings in the canopy. “Oh, it’s hopeless!” I scream desperately. “Can’t those stupid people just eat apples like me? Haven’t they heard of “an apple a day keeps the doctor away? I have been eating apples every day of my life and I have never had to go to a doctor!” I start sobbing and Bean comes over and puts his arm around my shoulder. I turn around and lean into his body, crying wet tears on his blue knitted sweater. We stand like that until I have managed to calm down. Then suddenly the light disappears, and a faint drizzle waters the forest before us. “Come on,” says Bean, “let’s go home.” The last thing I hear before the sky opens up, and thunder rolls angrily across the black clouds, is the bushy squirrel hurrying into the bird house.

That night Google informs me that the clearing of the forest will start in two days. Two days. I doubt I will get any sleep. But I do. When my mother wakes me up for school the next morning, I feel sick, my whole body is aching and my forehead is hot. My mother sighs and tells me to stay home. I have never been home sick from school before. The house feels empty and too big, and I start thinking about all the trees that had to die for this house, my home, to be built. It makes me sadder than I already am so I decide to go out despite my fever. The forest is always beautiful after the rain. Cobwebs look like diamond jewelry with the droplets of rain garlanding the almost invisible spider’s nets, and the white anemones have refused to tie their bonnets and let hair be hair in the freshness of the day. Green leaves are covered in puddles of frog’s spit, and centipedes and black rhinoceros beetles have been left to roam free as the ants have all run for cover. The apple tree has borne even more fruits, red and yellow juicy gems droop from almost all of its branches. The ripest ones are higher up, and I decide to climb up to try to get them. I am quite good at climbing trees, but no matter how high I climb I just can’t seem to get to the top. Exhausted I sit down on a thick branch and let my eyes wander through the landscape below. From here I can even see my school, it is recess and the kids are running around or sitting in clusters talking among themselves. It all seems so small, so insignificant and pointless from here. Like groups of ants just marching back and forth on autopilot because some queen has told them to. I start laughing. What a stupid life. Just as I am about to climb down I spot a pale ribbon of a rainbow forming in the sky above me. At first the colors are faded and pale, but little by little they grow in strength until they make a perfect arch blazing vividly in the wet sun. It makes me think of a bridge to faraway places.

“We need some sort of plan,” I insist when Bean comes to see me after school. “Well,” he says, “we can always write a mail to the forest department.” “And you really that think that is gonna help?” I can hear the terrible sarcastic tone in my own voice, but I can’t help it. When has any department ever listened to a bunch of kids? “We can at least give it a try,” suggests Bean. I shrug. “Fine.” We, or rather Bean, compose a rather B.S mail about the apple tree being a rear and endangered species. Bean grins when he hits send. “I am sure it will help.” “Oh, you’re sure are you?” I stare at him moodily. He shrugs. “We can at least hope it will.” “Or maybe…” I say and smile, “We can chain ourselves to a tree when they come with the chainsaws. I mean, I’ve seen it in films, they can’t hurt us, so they can’t chop down the trees.” Bean looks at me, I can see uncertainty in his eyes, “I hope you’re just kidding, Ira, that stuff is dangerous.” “Sure,” I say, just to make him stop worrying. But I am not. Kidding, I mean.

The construction workers are supposed to come in the morning, at least according to Google, so I fake illness again, and stay home from school. I’ve found some iron chains in the garage and I pack them into a bag I toss over my shoulder. The forest is quiet, as though it knows that something horrible is about to happen. The leaves are trembling, but soundlessly and eerily, there is no bird chatter or pecks from woodpeckers, it’s just quiet. It is one of those days when we say that there is no weather at all. No sun, no rain, no wind, no nothing, just a gray mass of quiet non-being. The air is heavy and wet. And the gray veil of the nothingness has wrapped the forest in something that reminds me of a fever. The forest feels sick. I have a difficult time climbing the apple tree; the branches are wet and slippery and covered in moss. I have never seen moss on this tree before. I climb as high as the tree will let me, and perch down on a branch scouting the terrain for the executioners. I have tied the chains loosely around my body. I really had no idea it was so hard to tie chains. I hear them before I see them. They are loud, talking, laughing, walking with heavy careless steps. Not bothering much about ants or beetles or anemones. They walk without looking where they walk. When I spot them I see only their bright orange overalls, the work clothes provided for them by the government. And then it all starts. I close my eyes and lean against the trunk of my dear apple tree. I can’t look, I can’t witness the dying of the ancient trees. A quote from the Bible crosses my mind. Forgive them father, for they do not know what they are doing. But they do, they do know what they are doing. The sound of chainsaws resonates through the forest, and I can feel how the trees tremble, how they lean as far away from the sound and the murderers as they can. It is their day of sorrow, their day of loss. And then the chainsaw is right under me, and the apple tree starts to shake violently. They can’t see me, is all I can think. They don’t know that I am here. I am going to die. And somehow that is okay. I accept it. This is a good death. Just then I hear a voice: “Heeeey, stop!! Stop it! There is a girl in the tree! Stop!” It sounds like Bean. But just as I am about to open my eyes to look, I fall.

I’ve heard that people say that everything goes black when they lose consciousness. That is not true, at least not for me. I see colors. I see a glass bridge arched like a rainbow sporting a palette of violet, indigo, emerald, and pink. It is beautiful. And on that bridge there is a squirrel, a bushy brown one. It looks like he is waiting for me. His beady black eyes are fixed on mine, but just as I am about to reach out and follow him, I wake up. I am in a colorless, too bright room, and on a chair next to me sits my mother. “Oh, honey, thank god, you are okay!” exclaims my mother and hugs me fiercely. I back away from her hug, feeling pains and bruises all over my body. “Sorry,” she apologizes and lets go of me. “I’m…I’m thirsty,” I manage to say, and it is true, I am parched! “Baldur, will you please fetch my daughter a glass of water?” Bean frowns at the sound of his given name, but says nothing; he just gets up and leaves me alone with my mother. “What…what is Bean doing here?” I ask my mother. My mother clasps her palms together, and I can see in her eyes that she has been crying. “Baldur,” she almost sobs, “is a hero! He…he rescued you. I don’t know how he knew, but somehow he did, and…and he got there just in time…he caught you, Ira, as you fell, he…he caught you! Don’t ask me how, he is just a boy, but he did. He caught you.” Tears are running along my mother’s high beautiful cheekbones, and she sniffs unladylike. “And what about the trees, mom, are they okay?” My mother stiffens and that is all the answer I need. “The apple tree…?” I stammer. “Is safe!” says Bean as he enters the room and hands me the glass of water. “But how?” I insist. “Well, it worked, the mail worked. The forest department came just in time and they declared the tree to be protected due to its rarity. They’ve uprooted it, and the guy I spoke to said that they will re-plant it in the botanical garden in the city.” Bean grins, and I smile back, even though I don’t feel like smiling. Somehow, thinking about the majestic never-ending apple tree trapped inside a city is not very comforting. But I can’t show that to Bean, he has done so much for me.

I’m released from the hospital the next day with only a couple of bruises and sore muscles, thanks to Bean. “I want to see it,” I say to Bean. We are sitting on the couch in my living room watching Shark Week on National Geographic. “See what?” asks Bean distractedly. “Ground Zero,” I reply sarcastically, “The place of the great massacre.” “Ira,” protests Bean, “I don’t think that is such a good idea…” “Well, luckily you are not in charge of me, so let’s go.” I switch off the TV and get up. Bean sighs, but he doesn’t object. “Fine.”

The clearing really looks like a Ground Zero, the soil has been upturned and whisked into mud, the corpses of beautiful tall trees lie scattered everywhere, white naked and bruised stumps gape into the air, filthy with decay and rot. There are no birds in sight, no ant mounds, no Daddy Longlegs buzzing by, there is just emptiness, space being readied for something else. Where the apple tree once stood there is only a deep black hole now, it is so deep that I cannot see the end of it. “Hey, look,” I say and run over to the edge of the hole. Bean runs after me. “Watch it!” he calls out and grabs my green cardigan. But I am not about to fall into that hole. “Look, Bean,” I say, “It’s the bird house.” I lift the battered bird house up from the ground. It is heavy, too heavy. “Something is in there.” My voice comes out thin and weak. “Ira,” warns Bean, “don’t, just don’t.” But I do. I break open the floor board and catch the dead squirrel as he falls through the opening and into my hands. His little bushy brown body is lifeless. “I want to bury him,” I say, my voice barely audible now. “Yeah okay, where?” Even Bean sounds disturbed by the dead squirrel. “In the garden, next to the apple tree.” Bean nods.

We wrap the squirrel in a plastic bag and take the bus downtown. The botanic garden has an entrance fee. Go figure. I refuse to pay, and when Bean mentions the head of the forest department by first name, the security lady reluctantly lets us in. As soon as I am inside, it is as though I know where I am supposed to go. Perfectly graveled lanes meander through beds of roses, tulips and peonies, flowers that don’t belong here in our cold climate. They look sad; their heads are drooping towards the stony ground. At first I don’t recognize the apple tree. It has been planted next to a lilac tree. But the lilac tree is much taller than the apple tree. How could that be? I couldn’t even climb to the top of the apple tree in the clearing. There are no fruits on the tree. The leaves have turned orangey brown and are barely hanging on to the thin branches. I start crying. Bean tries to comfort me, but I turn away from him. “What did they do to you?” I ask as I approach the tree. What did they do to you? I dig a hole in the ground with my bare hands, Bean offers to help, but I decline. I remove the plastic from the squirrel’s body and bury him there, in the hole next to the apple tree. I am wondering if maybe I should have left him in the forest, but somehow this feels right. He belongs with the tree. Bean and I stay silent all the way home, both of us lost in our own thoughts, or at least I am.

A week later they start building the hospital. All the neighbors complain about the noise from the construction site. Even my mother. The banging goes on for hours and hours, even into the night, and my mother can’t sleep. Neither can I, but that is for entirely different reasons. A year after, the hospital has its opening ceremony. I am off to college that autumn; Bean and I are attending the same college, and plan to get an apartment together. I won’t miss home. I never saw the apple tree again. But Bean tells me it is still there, but it never bears any fruit anymore. It looks forlorn, he says, out of place, like a majestic lion in a zoo hand-fed by keepers. I always hated the zoo.

There was once upon a time a tree, so big you almost thought it would take you to the heavens if you managed to climb to the top, but the tree was cunning, it wouldn’t let anyone reach that far. On the tree’s branches there were fruits, apples shining like gold, and it was said that if you just took one bite you would keep young and healthy forever. In that tree lived a squirrel, and it was the only one who could find its way to the top of the tree, and perhaps even further. The squirrel ran from the crown to the root of the tree many times a day, and some people claimed that it bore messages from the gods. But people stopped believing in those gods, and the squirrel, with its constant comings and goings, irritated them, they had become deaf to its speech, so they killed it, and moved the tree to a park where it would be safe. In place of the tree was a hospital ,said to cure almost all illnesses. And the apples…the apples of life became something of a myth, laughed at by intellectuals in learning institutions. Magic apples and talking squirrels were stuff of fairy tales. Something to make the kids sleep at night. And so, that world was lost, the world where the wild things are, and the human beings moved back into their broken shells, and called it freedom. For me, the world where the wild things are, became my lost childhood, but I still hope, one day, that we will look back, and say: Let’s set the tree of life free.

The River Goddess

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This story is inspired by the myths and legends of the country I am now living in: India. Here rivers are goddesses and are worshipped by all hindus. They are said to have magic powers, cleansing souls and giving the departed easy passage to the afterlife.

There is always the river, and the people crossing it. My grandmother would say that rivers were the black locks of the goddess’ twisting, growing, and winding silky hair; pathways to the valley of the dead, and the lands of the unborn. Chaos and creation came washing down like cold floods from the Himalayas, cleansing and taking, drowning and sustaining. After a good storm my brother and I would search the banks for pieces of debris, be it a washed up fish or the green pieces of a broken bottle. My brother knew the best crabbing and fishing spots, I knew the best places to swim. “Don’t disturb the goddess!” my grandmother would shout after us, waving her fist for effect, but we, young as we were, took no notice. Every morning the ladies released their flower rafts into the river after the men had taken their morning bath. What they prayed for we never asked. “Maybe it is the goddess that makes them do it, ” said my brother. “Or maybe it is the dead,” I grinned and pulled a grimace trying to resemble a ghost. My brother air-boxed me and we started laughing.

The river carries stories, mother used to say. The whispers of the goddess Yamuna and the prayers of millions of people. But for us children, it was all about a good swim. “Look out for the sharks!” my father would say. The sharks came to release the souls of the dead from their bodies. “We aint dead!” protested my brother. My father sighed. The sharks were real enough, we saw them sometimes, lurking in the dark, but it never crossed our minds that they would bother about us living people. One day my brother found a shark tooth in the river. He fashioned it into a good luck charm and wore it around his neck. All the other children were mad with jealousy, why had the goddess favored him and not them? It became his most precious possession. “It aint right,” protested grandmother, “a shark tooth is a bad thing. it can carry black magic.” But my brother just pulled a face and ignored her. We all ignored grandmother, she was too old to matter.

Right at the edge of the river there is a place we call Sarayu, it means tear of the goddess. The river has taken an unexpected turn and carved a pool into the bank, a pool shaped like a tear. Women in saffron colored saris and naked toddlers, darkly tanned by the burning sun, come to bathe and wash clothes here. But after a storm it is always empty, the men say that the walls of the pool can cave in and suck up whoever is in the pool. The currents are always stronger after a storm. The goddess is wild, she cannot be tamed by people or river banks, and she does what she pleases, not bothering too much about the river people. Father says it is our job to respect her, not her job to respect us. It was a day like that, in the aftermath of a storm, my brother and I came to the pool to fish for crabs. From the pool you can see for miles and miles across the bank. The fields are burnt amber by the heat and the sky is grey and misty and colorless. On such days the river is black. The red sun makes no difference. The goddess is moody and throws her anger tantrums as she pleases. But she is often eerily still after a storm. “Don’t let her meekness fool you, ” says father, “underneath she is hiding her other aspect, the rageful Kala, she can pull you in faster than you can say tomato.”

“Look, the monkeys have beat us to it!” shouted my brother angrily, and he was right. A band of five monkeys were gathered by the tawny pool, carefully hovering their tiny red hands over the water. “Shooosh!” we roared, and started picking up stones from the ground throwing them at the monkeys. They screamed in anger and fear, but eventually after sustaining a few hard hitting blows they ran away, climbing hurriedly up the nearby coconut trees, still watching us suspiciously as we approached the pool. “Heeeey!!” shouted my brother as a coconut thumped and landed dangerously close to his head. He waved his clenched fist at the monkeys in the tree, and I had to laugh because he looked so much like grandmother. We quickly understood why the monkeys had been so reluctant to give up their hunting ground, the pool was teaming with crabs! We tried fishing them out with our hands, but many of them got away, hiding in the many nooks and corners of the pool. “I’ll go in,” said my brother. I felt a bit nervous, remembering my father’s warning, but I didn’t want to show that I was scared so I didn’t say anything. As soon as my brother was in the pool I knew it was a bad idea. He seemed to struggle to stand up right, his body was being pulled towards the mouth of the river by invisible hands. But he fought against the anger of the goddess, and by using all the muscles in his arms and legs he managed to sustain his position in the water, and he started grabbing crabs from underneath him. It was an easy game, now the crabs had nowhere to run where he could not reach them. Overjoyed by the prospect of the delicious meal we would have, I failed to see what was about to happen. As my brother reached even deeper into the water something grabbed hold of the thread around his neck bearing his precious shark tooth, and he went under. I screamed. I called his name over and over again. But he was gone. I began to climb down towards the river, desperate to save my brother, but something held me back, it was my father. He had heard my screams and had rushed from his work in the fields to come to my aid. “Where is he? Where is he?” he shouted. “He went into the river,” was all I could say. My father ran for help and soon the river was full of people in small canoes stabbing the water with sticks and calling my brother’s name. But he was gone. Vanished from sight, as though the goddess had swallowed him whole and left not a single ripple to prove that he was ever there.

Three days my father and his friends searched for my brother while the women in the village cried and begged Yamuna to release him. I was left to myself. “They blame me, ” I thought, as they should. Why had I not stopped him, why had I let my pride win over the warning my fear had given me?

On the fourth day after my brother’s disappearance there was a horrible storm. The roof of our hut almost blew into the river and everyone in the village huddled together for comfort. The goddess spat her anger at us, floading our crops and spraying our faces with cold foul smelling water. The women started praying, and for once the men joined them. But the goddess would not be appeased. For two days she raged, until our entire village was left in ruins. Then she calmed down and a sudden inspiration came to me. The debris after a storm like this must be stupendous! I walked on my bare feet down to the messy banks where sand and soil and torn off plants were piled together like a garbage dumpster, and there he sat: my brother, by that messy bank with a coconut in his hands. His face was pale and his eyes glassy. I started laughing and crying at the same time, pulling him desperately into my arms. “She took my shark tooth,” he said weakly. “I fought her for it, but she won. It’s gone, see! ” He pointed to the place around his neck where the chain with the shark tooth had been. “It’s gone!” He started crying bitterly, as though he had parted with his own soul.

There was a celebration in our village that day, to give thanks to Yamuna for giving us my brother back. But my brother took no part in honoring his enemy. He grieved the loss of his beloved shark tooth for a long time, and he never got over his grudge against the goddess, he avoided the river like the plague, but I was happy for it, at least I never had to fear losing him to the angry Yamuna ever again