I was panting among the dark thickets; only jagged moonlight shining through the branches offered solace. It was raining rather unnaturally; the sky seemed unwilling to let the rain go, like a grieved widow holding back her tears. Each rain drop fell heavily as if it was still tethered to the clouds.
I knew that I had fallen to the ground; I knew that my feet were no longer carrying my weight, but in my head I was still running. I could still feel the air swooping against my cheeks and blowing out of my lungs. Within the black forest, under a black sky and above soggy, unwelcoming earth, I faded into darkness, into lifelessness. The feeling couldn’t be described as sleep; it was rather a form of death, a diluted death.
I was meteoring through space. I wasn’t breathing, there were no heartbeats, there was no blood flow; only indistinct flashing images. I realized what was happening, I was dreaming. However, I must have been led so deeply into the sluggish world of sleep that I could not wake myself. Through the flashes I saw the old man in the market warning about the forest into which I was about to venture, I could clearly discern his hoarse voice and his arched gait.
“There was a traveler conquering plains
Treading where the black forest reigns
Flowing with life and might
Followed the darkness not the light
Benighted, unenlightened that only god remains.”
The images merged into a haze. I could not feel my flesh, I thought I was going to perish and disperse into the very atoms from which I was made. Just then, I saw the young shop keeper from whom I sought to buy supplies. Each of her eyes were half green and half blue. Like the horizon dividing the sky and shallow waters.
She was a fairy. It’s said they are creatures of the forest itself, born from the trees. I had never seen a fairy. I could look in her eyes no longer than seconds, as if I didn’t deserve to see such beauty, or that it was too dangerous to indulge myself in it. It had to be treated gingerly, like a rose or fine wine, like it was the last apostle of pleasure and art on earth; it couldn’t be gorged upon. Her hair looked as if it was constantly changing colors, through bright and dim, though when looking directly at it, it was unchanged.
I blinked; she and I were lying on the grass looking up at the star-dotted sky; I reckoned this was the night before I went into the forest. She begged me not to venture into the forest, not pathetic, as a human might, but gracious, elegant even in her pleas. But I was willful, and imprudent. Never have I been intimidated by the grounds I’ve conquered as a traveler and I was determined to find out what happened to the home of my sky and sea, my love. She turned her face and looked at me; she had a small vial in her fingers. A white glow slithered up her fingers and settled in the vial, I thought I saw her hair turn grey for a moment, but it was exactly the same beautiful hue. She gave me the vial and made me promise to keep it with me; which I did. At that point I was yet to admit it but my heart had already been colored by her pastel skin.
I began levitating off the ground, the sky getting closer and she getting farther away. I was descending into the sky at an exponentially increasing speed; I felt as if my lungs were trying to escape their cavities; through the atmosphere, space and planets; through the scorching sun, to finally emerge on the other side of this twisted universe, plummeting down to earth, where my corpse lay between the rampant tree branches. I crashed into my carcass and sprang to life. I had a needle-sharp headache but I was physically unhurt. I wondered how I had made it through the night. I felt as if I had just evaded great danger or cheated death, but no matter how hard I tried to remember I did not know why I had been running in the first place.
The sun was high in the sky, but the light was dolent. It had become somehow sick within the woodland; it had no warmth, like it had lost its will. Reeling, I stood up. The smell of rain diffused in my lungs, abnormally unpleasant; nevertheless, I decided to continue my journey. I wasn’t ready to abandon my curiosity: I had to know what happened to the home of my love, my earth and heaven.
It was quiet but far from peaceful; a leaf crunching beneath my feet broke the silence. Something moved; my eyes searched the periphery and landed on tree roots. They were slithering slowly, like I had awoken them. The trees felt as if they were coming closer, surrounding me; I felt asphyxiated by them. The roots were morphing into snakes. I fell to the ground in terror. A snake lunged at me; I could see the inside of its throat, and my impending ruin.
A moment before my downfall, a rather small man leaped into view, howling in a shrieky voice. With a torch in his hand he bludgeoned my assailant, and the serpent vaporized with a flare. He waved the torch menacingly at the rest of the snakes.
“Back off, you writhing, mischievous chaperones of the shadows; crawl back into your holes!” Reluctantly they morphed back into roots, leaving an echo of hisses. The small man looked at me with suspicion, before helping me up.
He was a hairy, disheveled fellow; he had a perfectly normal, well-proportioned body, but was about half my height, and with no nose; only holes where it should be. Ironically, he had a pungent odor, unexpectedly good for someone so hairy. He smelled like a mixture of herbs; something along the lines of mint and basil.
“Bloody snakes, they won’t leave us in peace.”
“The snakes, and whatever chased me last night.”
“Chased you? There are no predators here; only snakes, herbs, and shadows. You probably drank from a lake; everyone who does so gets his own personal hallucinations.”
I had quenched a thirst next to a wooden sign with ‘Visions’ carved on it. In fact, the water had tasted rather confectionary.
He continued, “This was my home since before everything left. Alas, only shadows and its snakes remain; look” – pointing at his nose – “they did this to me; I got bitten and had to cut it off, lest the poison spread to my soul!”
“Yes, everything in this land is diseased. Unlike venom that spreads through a man’s veins to his heart, the poison was plunged into the heart of this forest and is pumping to its extremities. You see, it’s not after your life, but your soul; you could get grazed by the shade and live hundreds of years; but once your soul is tarnished you become filled with anger and bitterness and lack sympathy. You become a shell of a man; forever deciduous, like autumn or this forest, a distorted reflection of what you used to be, a shadow. You’re unable to feel love for anyone but you’re more than able to feel loneliness, emptiness and all they entail. It’s the worst kind of poison, and like all poison was intended to be, incurable.”
“Death would be a more suitable fate than a life in the arias of the shade. I suppose I’m in your debt, thank you.”
“Don’t thank me, grab a torch. Light is the only thing that has a fighting chance in here.”
He let out a sigh then continued, “Speaking of light, what’s in your pack?”
I looked around: there was an unordinary bright light, fighting to get out; I opened my pack. The vial had broken. A spherical ball of light floated out of the bag and, suddenly, dived deep into the earth, disappearing. I looked at the tiny man and saw he had a ghastly look on his face. He pointed behind me and I turned my head to see a small white tree, growing where the seed had disappeared at an accelerating pace. It grew till it was slightly taller than myself; one branch grew out of it, bearing a single fruit that grew into the shiniest spherical crystal I’d ever seen. I saw my reflection on its undulating surface as I stared. I heard a shy whisper from behind me.
“Where did you get that fairy seed?”
“It was given to me.”
“Incredible, I thought there were no more fairies. Even if there were, they don’t just show their true form: that’s how they started dying in the first place. Man’s greed subdues their love and will always do so.”
He paused for a breath as if trying to gather his courage. He let out a sigh and finally nerved himself to say,
”I suppose this is far-fetched, but could I have a small bite?”
I handed him the fruit without much hesitation if any. I had no idea what it was and he seemed to show reverence to it, additionally he just saved my life. His face silently drew a grateful smile and he took a bite as soon as he had it; his teeth sank into it like metal into an ocean. His face began churning, like tepid water softly disturbed; and the wound where his nose was supposed to be began to heal; in moments his nose had grown back fully. He was jumping up and down in merriment, frantically laughing and thanking me. When he had finally had his fill of joy, he took a deep breath and asked if there was anything he could do for me before we parted ways.
“Take me to the heart of the forest.”
“That’d be unwise; there’s no curing that hatred, it has been lingering inside the heart for years.”
I insisted on trying, for I would not be able to walk the earth, glance at the sky or stare into her eyes if I gave up now; he let out a second sigh, took an even deeper breath, and agreed to lead me only to where I could continue on my own.
He led me to the road and wished me luck. Cautiously I proceeded, feeling the atmosphere getting heavier as I moved forward; soon moving my feet was a task needing focus. I heard a voice ringing in my head; a tune that increased in volume as the distance to the heart diminished.
“The earth chastely quakes
And the fire calmly burns
The trees do not break
And the wind’s wrath yearns
While the ocean wildly churns
All awaiting the release of their reigns
Time ends then and only god remains.”
I raised my head. I could see the heart, a thick, black-leafed willow tree. The tree pulsed; with each eerie thud I felt a gush of wind. Shadows emerged from around the heart and formed an amorphous cloud; I heard the heart in my head, talking to me. It said,
“Vice outweighs virtue; you creatures are the same.”
“I didn’t claim to be a saint. But your evil is beyond creation.”
“I am your creation, your evil. This world is ill-balanced; it has been inflicted with more evil than good, more depravity than righteousness; I am merely a plague among plagues. It’s the nature of being; destruction outruns construction.”
“That may be true; but it’s the nature of evil to be proud. Evil overpowers good but it is immutable, constant; it cannot be learnt, only taught. It is the same since time began and it will be the same till time ends. Good is inherent, amassing, cumulative; it does not possess the limits wickedness does. There’s more good now than before; and good will continue to blossom.”
Absence of sound took over; the thudding stopped; I could hear my lungs expelling air. Then the pulsating resumed; faster than before, un-rhythmic and threatening. With it I could feel my own heart drumming. I got out the fruit, and squeezed it as if for comfort. My pupils dilated as the ball of shadow expanded in my direction; I hurled the fruit into the air towards the pounding willowy-core. Before my body and vision were engulfed by shadows I could see the twinkling trajectory of the fruit, coloring the darkness that came over me with stars of white. An immense force flung me and my consciousness away.
A warm ray of sunlight piercing through my eyelids coaxed them to open; the blue of the sky filled my sight; I convinced my feet to stand me up; I looked around and there were no trees and no darkness, but only because there was no forest.