The girl stands upon the bluff and looks down to the wood of a million dreams. The red-orange light of fall holds close just before the darkness of night and the coming bleakness of winter. The wind blows and she shutters. She has a girl’s mind, a boy’s heart and legs slightly too long for her stature. Her soft black hair is kept tucked inside a cloth on her head and her back has become hunched. Her boots are those of a man, but her feminine hands are gentle and kind. The quills that have formed along her spine are becoming sharper and more pronounced as the years pass.
She once stood tall with skin smooth as the newest petals of spring, but the enormous weight upon her makes her look twenty older than her years and the mysterious quills have made her something altogether different. The heavy cloak she now wears helps keep them hidden from sight.
She listens intently as the remaining leaves rustle in last season’s place within the darkened wood where a small trail marks the entry. Once a place of childhood adventure and endless intrigue, she remembers the summer sun as it filtered through the canopy and the blanket of moss creating a gentle cushion for her bare feet. As she walked, she would sing whispers to herself and believed that with each footstep her narrow feet released the subtle scents of the wood. She spent days sitting on the banks of the slow moving creek which offered a place of solitary tranquility to conjure up images of all the places she would someday go and the people she would meet along the way. Even the shadowy places within the wood held in them no fear, only adventure and respite from the sun.
But now a dark and sinister sadness inhabits the wood of limitless possibility. Always a bit different, he had once been more like them and she his closest ally. He taught her more of him than any of the others along with how to survive and live peacefully within the wood. He is the one she should trust above all and like her, has legs that are slightly long for his stature. For the girl, he always stood taller than the rest. But nine years had passed since the great sadness overtook him and he left them to roam about the wood in solitude. He is now more beast than man and the wood of a million dreams holds her most pernicious fears. With each isolated breath he extracts more of its former joy and the wood becomes darker and more desolate. His insidious grasp casting a great shadow of fear and uncertainty over all those who live at its edge.
The sorrowful darkness is all the others know and they cower in his wake. The girl is the only one who remembers a time when her skin was soft as spring petals and she knew not the sharpness of the quills along her back. The time when he stood taller than the rest.
She hears her mother calling, “Come inside, it’s almost dark.”
She starts back from the bluff toward the simple, bare house along the edge of the wood. Although he’s been silent since that desperate night last summer, they have taken once again to spending the nights underground. She gathers a few things from above before heading down to join her mother in the small hole below the floor that serves as sanctuary.
Once within, she looks to her mother who is preparing a sparse, but ample meal for them. Her mother now inhabits the hole throughout most of the day, coming out only to gather food and wash clothes.
She removes her boots and cloak and her mother motions for her to sit.
With muffled voice she says, “Eat, please.”
After dinner, they lay down to rest. As the girl drifts off to sleep she thinks about how the fear in her mother’s heart now outdistances all of the joy she has seen in her lifetime.
The night is dangerously still and the frogs aren’t singing their repetitive throaty songs. The girl only sleeps for a few moments at a time and is sharply aware of the quills along her back.
In the dead silence, she hears the low, gravely howl — the sound they all fear most. The howl is a distance away, which gives her some comfort, but she knows the inevitable pattern of his wander. Within minutes, she hears him approaching the humble house. He circles the house for minutes that drag on like hours. She glances over to see that her mother is still sleeping. He is now right outside the door to their shabby home, breathing in their remaining joy and out his limitless sadness. He begins to push on the door — at first a slight budge, then a horrific jolt. He is in the house now, standing just above their sanctuary. Her mother awakens and the girl motions to her to stay still. She lies motionless except for the dreadful tingling of her waxing quills and watches him through the knotted floor — the immense thievery of his each and every breath.
She notices how grotesque he has become. How he no longer walks upright like a man, but on all fours — more canine than human. He puts his nose down to the floor and she knows he is aware they are only a few inches below him. Then, he turns and goes back through the door he destroyed minutes before.
The girl knows he won’t be back on this night. For tonight he simply seeks to bludgeon what is left of their joy so that he might better tolerate the great depths of his own misery. As she holds her mother tight, she thinks how his patterns are changing and wonders if his hunger for control is growing stronger.
At morning’s first light, the girl and her mother come out from below the floor. The girl notices that the quills have doubled in length through the night. She puts on her boots and cloak and begins the task of fixing the shattered door while her mother looks outside with an empty stare.
“Don’t despair, Mother, we can dig the hole deeper and reinforce the door.”
Her mother nods almost without notice.
“Today I will find his tracks so we can understand this new pattern.”
With that, her mother quietly returns to the hole beneath the floor.
With the door repaired, the girl sets out wearing her boots and cloak, the past night’s fear still surging through her veins. The clouds are low and the light changing from fall’s clarity to winter’s haze.
As she walks toward the bluff, she remembers for a moment the days before the sadness came. She approaches the top of the bluff ands stops to look down upon the wood below. She hears the sound of the eagle far above her. He descends toward her and lands on a nearby rock. She remembers how he would watch over her from up high throughout the days passed with happiness in the wood of a million dreams. But, she hasn’t seen him since the sadness came.
She notices that he now has a grayer wisdom about him.
She looks to him and says, “Why have you come now, after so much time has passed?”
The eagle is silent.
She continues, “I thought you had gone away, do you know about the great sadness that now lives in the wood?”
She wants to go on, but stops herself.
Then the eagle speaks in a way she can understand.
“I have come to warn you about what I have seen,” he says, “he is no longer anything that you can remember or even imagine.”
She becomes aware of her quills once more.
“He no longer walks or lives as a man and he is no longer content to wander with his sadness in solitude,” he says.
She listens and thinks of the night before and her mother sitting within the hole under the floor.
The eagle continues, “His sadness has turned into an incurable anger and I have seen the cruelty with which he now acts. You must take your mother, tell the others and leave the edge of the wood. It is no longer safe here.”
“But this is our home, why must we leave?” she asks.
“His cruelty is too great and I fear for you all now, you must go,” he replies.
The girl feels her quills lengthening once more. But this time, she feels herself flood with an anger she has never before felt and she begins to feel her memories fading.
The eagle says, “Now go, don’t wait.”
He looks at her kindly and returns to his place in the sky above the wood.
As the girl walks down from the bluff toward the edge of the wood, her feet feel heavier in her boots and her back drags lower — the anger and hatred growing with every step. She tries to remember the past, but can only feel fear and sadness now. The quills beneath her cloak beginning to hurt her more and more with each step. She returns home to find her mother still waiting in the hole beneath the floor.
“He wants more now, he has become angry and wants others to feel what he feels,” the girl explains, “we must leave this place.”
Her mother nods in silent agreement and says, “Rest now, we shall leave in the morning.”
They both secure their places in the hole beneath the floor for the night. On this night there is no moon and the mist from the day has changed to a drenching rain. She keeps her boots on to sleep, unsure of what the night might bring.
Then, she hears the howl in the distance. She remembers the words of the eagle upon the bluff, “he is no longer content to wander with his sadness in solitude…” She feels her anger growing and the painful quills starting to become her. She then opens the lock to the hole beneath the floor and stands in the room with her boots planted while her mother sleeps.
The girl hears nothing but her own breathing. As she stands in the room, her back is straight and the quills stand beneath her cloak are almost as long as she is tall. Then, the door crashes in sync with an enormous clap of thunder. She sees the rain outside blowing with an unearthly force and her anger grows stronger.
He is there, just outside the door, peering in at her. Each breath he takes a misty fog of sadness, anger and insufferable cruelty.
In an instant, she feels a force unseen cast itself upon her as she collapses to the floor. He is still outside the door and water begins to pour into the house. She looks up, but nothing is there. It feels like she is shrinking under the pressure and the roof of the house seems as tall as the forest. She is no longer herself, there is something else inhabiting her now.
With each breath, she retreats further into herself and the force takes over. In her retreat, she looks out the door once more to see him calmly watching with an insidious smile — a subtle welcome to join in his madness. She feels her body being pulled by something from beyond her toward the hole where her mother still sleeps. The force pulls her close to her mother as she tries to scream from her retreat, but her lips don’t move. She knows that the force wants to take her mother from her by her own hand. She draws closer and closer to her mother and the force places her hands upon her mother’s throat and her mouth just behind her mother’s ear. She tries once more to scream and wake her mother. At that moment, the girl feels herself rushing back from beyond.
“Mother! He’s here!”
Her mother wakes and the girl pushes her away into the safe shadow of the hole. She then rushes outside where he is waiting in the cold, pouring rain — the shadow of a cruel smile upon his twisted face. She stands up straight and throws her cloak onto the ground. She stands tall with the razor sharp quills standing straight upon her back.
She beckons him to challenge her.
“You want us to feel your sadness!”
She turns to the side and charges towards him. As she steps back, she sees that one of her quills has lodged in the side of his face. He winces and begins to step away. She charges again, this time lodging a dozen quills in his neck. He is now on the ground, the smile has gone.
She senses his fear.
She then places her heavy boot upon his neck as the rain pours down upon them, realizing that she has the power to kill him with one more blow. As she stands above him, she looks down into his eyes and sees for once his overwhelming fear and profound sadness. That he is broken, his cruelty merely a mask for his own weakness. In that instant, she realizes that mercy is her only salvation and that by standing tall she can turn the tide and cast her own fear away.
She whispers, “Who have you become?”
He looks up at her in agony and says nothing.
She removes her boot from his throat and he gets up slowly from the heaviness of the mud and tremendous weight of his own immense sadness. He turns to walk away, then looks back. They stand motionless in the pouring rain for what seems like an eternity. She sees tears forming in his eyes and, in them, her own reflection. She wishes to return to the time when the wood held within it such promise.
“I fear no more,” she says softly.
She sees a tiny glimpse of the the man he is beyond the beast. He reluctantly breaks their gaze and begins to walk slowly away from the edge of the wood. She remains standing upright in the pouring rain. The memories of the time when he once stood taller than the rest come rushing back. Just as he begins to fade from sight, the rain turns to snow and a soft blanket of winter’s first covers the wood of a million dreams. With her quills exposed, she stands by her mother’s side with peace in her eyes.
For many years to come, the girl inhabited the wood of a million dreams. She spent hours each day writing about who she may one day become — with her pain as her instrument and the forest her ink. She would daydream with her guardian eagle and used her quills to scribe thoughts and dreams upon the trees until no quills remained. She sometimes thought about the sadness of the past, but mostly the joy of the present and the promise of the future. When the final word was scribed from the last remaining quill, a light began to cast down through the canopy, creating shadows that danced more vibrantly than ever before.