Sasha Earle – “The Boy and the Woods” (2019)

Once upon a time, a baby was left wailing in the midwinter night. Outside the cottage where he lay, the wind howled, the rain poured from the clouds, the thunder crashed, and the lightning struck, endlessly, so it was as if the storm and the babe were one in anguish and sorrow. There was no calming warmth of the sun or a mother’s soft embrace. Swayed strongly in one direction and then the next, the trees struggled to remain rooted in the earth. And so moved by the wind’s howling they made a low rumbling sound of their own that became an undertone to the cry of the storm. The woman at the babe’s side, was, too, swayed by raw emotion and sobbed softly. The mountains saw all the chaos and were amongst the chaos but remained still, unshaken by it. The Old Witch of the North passed through the ajar door and passed the sobbing woman to the crib where the wailing child lay. Then she cast a curse on him, leaving a phrase that served only as an explanation before she left.

“It is the only thing I can do for the child.”

The woman watched the witch disappear into the woods before turning to soothe the babe’s cries.

~~~~~~~~~~~<><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>~~~~~~~~~~~

August was raised lovingly by his aunt in his parent’s cottage, spending his days helping his aunt around the house. In the Spring, August splashed in rain puddles while his aunt would listen for bird songs. In Summer, he would bury his head in her arms as the crashes of the sky seemed to shake the ground. In Fall, August flew his kite. In Winter, the woman would sit and knit in their armchair by the fire while she watched August play with his toys. When August grew older, he began to take on most of the household chores himself for his aunt was getting old with age.

Scrub and wash the clothes in the hamper, please. I’m gathering herbs from the forest today, but I’ll be back to make supper,” Aunt Martha’s would read one winter morning.

So August would proceed to scrub and wash the clothes until all the dirt and filth were well removed. But instead of walking away, August would tie one end of the rope around one of the branches of the tree in their backyard, and tie the other end around the drain pipe on the cottage wall. August had seen his aunt do it plenty of times and the task proved to be as easy as it seemed. He would hang the clothes on the rope and work on a rather large puzzle while he waited. The clothes would finish drying about the same time August’s aunt came back from her peaceful walk in the woods. She put her basket of various herbs in the sink and greeted August. Aunt Martha would then reward August with praise for what he had done.

“What a diligent boy,” She would say, as she watched him grin with pride. “I shall cook you supper for you must be exhausted.”

That night they ate buttered bread and peas for supper, after folding the laundry together.

The next day Aunt Martha would say, “August dear, go out into the garden and pick the tomatoes. I checked on them yesterday so I know today’s the day for picking. I can’t pick them myself for I am sewing your trousers.”

And August would reply with “Yes, Auntie, I’ll do anything you ask of me.”

August slipped on his garden boots and walked around the cottage to the vegetable garden. He picked the tomatoes and placed them in the basket with care.

Out of the corner of his eye, or maybe by the sniff of his nose, he sensed the daisies. They were his least favorite of the garden. All the other plants in the garden were for practical use, like eating. Green beans, beets, pea pods, lettuce, green onions, carrots, strawberries, squash, pumpkins, blueberries, corn, blackberries, potatoes, black beans, raspberries, and tomatoes all seemed to fit in. He didn’t see the use of daisies. All they did were stink up the garden even though his aunt had insisted that their beauty gave it a woman’s touch. August noticed that they were drooping more than the last time he saw them. His aunt would need to water them soon. He carried the tomatoes inside and set them by the sink. He saw his aunt was still sitting in their armchair, sewing away. August marched out to the garden and pumped water into a pail. He plugged his nose with his left hand and watered the daisies with his right. August still hated his daisies but his aunt loved them. So he could learn to tolerate them for her.

When August had finished telling her all that he had done, his aunt praised him saying, “What a kind boy you are. Why don’t you play outside while I make supper?”

They had tomato soup and cheese that night.

The next day his aunt told him to “Fetch water from the river, for I am feeling too weak and tired on this day.”

August replied, ”Yes, Auntie. I will do anything you ask of me, ” with a waver in his voice.

The river was the dividing line of the grasslands, where August lived, and the forest. August took his time to reach the river and took no time at all to come back. Running into his aunt’s arms, pails only filled halfway with water, he cried and clung to her. August would later deny that he had cried at all.

“What took you so long, dear? Why are you frightened?” his aunt asked.

“I saw something in the woods,” August whispered. “I tried not to gaze at the dark path, but I saw … I saw—”

“Hush dear, it’s alright, it’s alright. You have nothing to fear here.”

His aunt pet his head and hugged him close— something she had done many times before —while they sat together on the armchair.

“I’m sorry,” August said when his tears had dried on his cheek. “I spilled the water in the pails. I failed you.”

The tears rolled down August’s cheek once more.

Aunt Martha turned August’s face to look at her.

“August, you are a smart, kind, diligent boy,” she told him. “You have so much to offer the world. You do everything I ask you to except when I ask you to take risks and explore the world. The one thing you need is bravery. Bravery is what allows you to do what‘s right when there is danger all around you. I know that in time you will learn how to be brave even if the odds seem stacked against you.”

“But how does one become brave?” August asked.

“You will become brave when what you love the most is at stake. Then you’ll know what bravery is  August. Then you’ll know.”

Her eyes filled with emotion and they gazed into his. August, not understanding but affected by her emotion, matched her gaze.

They had carrots and potatoes for supper.

Three days later, Aunt Martha left a note for August as she always did when she went out.

Dear August,

I will gather herbs to bring to your grandmother today. She is sick and frail so I will stay at her home to take care of her. I know that I have never been gone for so long before but I know that you will be fine on your own. If anything happens while I am gone, take the map out of my bottom drawer. I will be back to you in five days.

                                                                                                                   Love,

                                                                                                    Auntie Martha.”

Indeed, Aunt Martha had never been away from August for more than a few hours and August had never been alone at night. Pushing the note away, he tried to also push away the feeling of dread that had crept up on him and rested its clammy hands on his shoulders.

“You’re an older boy than you were before, so you will be fine on your own,” was what he whispered to himself.

On the first day, August made sure to be very productive in scrubbing the dishes with warm water and tidying his room the way his aunt preferred it. The first night was difficult for August. Aunt Martha would usually be there comfort August from his nightly terrors and grim fantasies. But she was not there that night.

“We’re safe here,” he said. One, two, three, four days flew by. August spent them burdening various chores alone, which he did usually, except this time he wished he wasn’t truly alone. One, two, three, four, nights stalked the cottage. August spent them hiding under his blanket, waiting for the morning light and Aunt Martha.

Then the fifth day flew by and the fifth night came. It crashed and roared and shook the trees. The curtains were shut tight in the cottage but blue flashes of light could be seen through the thin fabric. August did not see the flashes. He was hiding under a blanket near the fire. Trying to block out the noise, he pressed his hands to his ears and shut his eyes tight. To August all the world had been transformed into a monster that could topple trees and destroy mountains by the evil poison that was the night. He screamed against the patter on his roof, the howling of the wind and the crashes of the world outside in hopes to drown them with his own terrible sound.

“I do not know how to be brave!” he shouted at the storm.

But the sound did not stop so he was left alone and shakin

.

The sixth day Aunt Martha did not return. August decided that he couldn’t go any longer without her. He found the map in her bottom drawer and caught sight of her golden locket. August secured her locket in a small pouch fastened to his belt. Searching into the back of the closet with his hands, he found the black chest. With a key in hand, August opened the chest to obtain what he sought. Inside was a cloak and a hatchet. Before leaving the safety of the cottage he clasped his father’s cloak around his neck and pulled on his garden boots. Through the gate and into the garden August trudged. The morning light was slow to come and quick to go in those winter days so he used his lantern to pick the vegetables. After he had packed his food he walked away from the cottage and towards the woods.

He came to the river an hour later. He was immediately reminded of the pail incident and winced. ”I failed her then so I should make up for it now, ” August thought. But then he looked into the forest on the other side of the river and his determination disintegrated. August had been so sure of his decision to find his aunt — like his decision to fetch water — but that was because he forgot about the effect the forest had on him. Every time he looked into the darkness of the woods he felt his stomach twist and turn like the trees at the entrance did. August sat down at the water’s edge, conflicted. He found his reflection staring back at him. A memory came back to him and he took out the locket from its pouch. Aunt Martha and August had gone to the river before, although he was much younger then. He remembered giggling at his reflection, fascinated. Her reflection smiled at him with the golden locket hung around her neck.

“That’s your reflection, August. Legend has it that travelers from long ago would be granted wisdom from the river spirit  . . .”

Deep in thought, August drifted away from sights and sounds of his present world. The pendant slowly slipped from his hands until it plopped into the stream.

From within the center of the river a blue light began to glow. A silky voice seemed to originate from the light. “Greetings, young boy. I am the spirit of the river. I have tumbled down the mountains and raced through the rolling hills since the beginning of time itself. I have reached lands far beyond here and witnessed earth’s never ending cycle,” it announced.

August stared at the river in disbelief.

“Surely, now I have finally gone mad for I hear a voice inside my head,” he thought aloud.

I would never do what you are suggesting. That is a disgraceful act that I refuse to take part of. Great and wise spirits should never invade a person’s private thoughts, ” the river spirit assured August.

“Huzah! I have not gone mad, there is just a spirit speaking to me!”

I have guided your kind for centuries on their quests,” the river spirit continued. “I gave every one of them a word of truth and a word of advice. Now it is your turn to be granted these gifts before you go on your quest.”

“What do you mean by ‘my kind’ —“

In order for you to obtain a word of truth I must have your full consent. If you will allow me, I shall peer into your soul and see the truth of your character. Then I shall —“

“Consent to what?”

If you will allow me, I shall peer into your soul —“

No, I heard you. I just don’t trust you enough to give you my consent. How do I know that you will not grab and drown me when I lean over the river? Or possess my soul the second you ‘peer into it’? You are a spirit after all. My aunt told me stories about evil spirits.”

I assure you that I bear no evil and have no desire to take possession of someone’s soul. Possession not only corrupts the soul’s host but the spirit as well. As I was saying, after I see the truth of your character then I shall reveal a truth unbeknownst to you about yourself. I will not grant you the truth if you do not wish to hear it.”

“I give you my consent,” August said after some consideration.

The light traveled to the side of the river August was on. August stared into the light and the light seemed to look back at him. They stared for what felt like eons until the light pulled away back to the center of the river.

August stared at it expectantly.

What you think you do not have is already inside of you,” the river spirit said, finally. “My word of advice to you is to keep the locket. You’ll need it on your journey.”

The golden locket was washed onto the grass. August hadn’t realized he had forgot about it. He picked it up and secured it in its pouch.

Goodbye, August,” the river spirit said.

Before August could protest the light dimmed out and the river seemed to be a normal river again. He crossed over the old, creaky bridge.

August looked into the woods. He looked into the deep darkness that shrouded the trail. But this time he did not turn back.

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