This piece of flash fiction is a bit longer than usual at 1,300 words, but what can I say? The Everwood just called for something a bit more robust. Plus, it felt good to write again after working on novel revisions for so many months; it was hard to reign in the word count.
Everwood started as a story prompt in the form of the word “blink” submitted by a friend on Facebook. There were several other excellent words to choose from so expect to see more Flash Fiction in the near future. For now, enjoy!
“Don’t blink, or you’ll miss it.”
“No, not the Everwood.” The old woman rolled her eyes. “No one misses that.”
Gleam felt her cheeks grow hot. She should have heeded her instincts and passed the crone by. But the Everwood was vast, and she was small. This woman, with her crinkled eyes and crooked grin, seemed like she might know the way.
“You’ll miss the path,” the old woman wheezed. “It meanders, you know. There’s an occasional steady stretch, but mostly just twists and turns. Unforseen. Unpredictable. The Everwood doesn’t make things easy.”
“Is there another way?”
“No, child.” The woman paused as though she’d finished, but after a moment’s hesitation and a hard look at Gleam she added, “Though, if I can do it, so can you.”
“You’ve been then,” said Gleam. A swell of hope lifted her heart.
“Oh, yes. I’ve traveled the Everwood.”
Gleam waited for more, but this time the witch – for that is what Gleam thought she must be – kept silent.
“I-I suppose I’ll be off,” Gleam said, marshaling her courage and turning to face the dark line of trees on the horizon. She’d taken a few steps when the witch’s voice reached her once more.
“Say hello to them for me.”
“Them?” Gleam kept her feet facing forward but twisted her shoulders around. The old woman was still perched on her mossy rock by the side of the path, but she looked different. Wistful, Gleam realized, or perhaps just tired.
“There aren’t signposts in the Everwood,” the witch said. “Only The Twelve. You’ll know them when you see them. They’ll mark your path.”
“And I’ll meet all of them? These twelve?”
“If you’re lucky.” And the witch laughed, a strange, sad sound.
Gleam turned and marched forward once again, hoping the steady rhythm of her footsteps would calm the wild racings of her heart.
When the slip of darkness on the horizon became a green-black wall of trees towering above her, Gleam kept sharp. Fear made her want to run. To hide. To bury her face in her hands. But she didn’t close her eyes.
Unblinking, she entered the Everwood.
It was cold there under the boughs. And dark. Gleam lost the path as soon as the thick trunks blocked the last glimpses of sky from view. She staggered forward, blind and confused.
“Don’t fight it.” The words hung in the air like icicles. She couldn’t see who spoke them. “The beginning is the hardest. Don’t give up. Don’t fight the Everwood. You’ll learn to make your way soon enough.”
Gleam wanted to cry. She wanted to scream. Maybe she did. But the echo of that winter voice pushed her forward.
Her numb feet stumbled on, and the dark gave way to a dim wash of grey, the thick forest thinning to a meadow glade. The sounds of children greeted her. A boy and a girl. They played, laughing or crying, Gleam couldn’t tell. It was a strange game, enchanting, a mix of love and war. She joined in, reckless and wild, running and leaping and fighting and dancing and tumbling and tussling and gliding through the trees. It was wonderful and horrible, and it was over too fast. The boy and girl disappeared among the piney sentinels.
Gleam slowed and stopped. It was lighter here in this part of the wood. Greener. Warmer. Here Gleam’s skirts felt heavy. Her vest felt too small. She stripped them away, relishing the way the breeze slid past the light cotton of her camisole and underskirt to brush against her skin.
The wind kissed her into action. And she danced. Not wild and reckless as before, but gentle and hesitant. Then bright and bold. She gave in to the wind, tilting her head back so that the leaves above whirled together into a sunlit canopy. Soft fingers wrapped themselves around her outstretched hands, and bringing her chin level once again, Gleam saw she no longer danced alone.
Three others skipped with her, treading a circle in the soft earth of the forest floor. Her fellow dancers were young and bright and filled with life. Flowers sprouted in their wake. The trees, willowy and tender, swayed to their vernal cadence. Around and around their quartet danced, fast now. Her hand slipped free, and she felt herself flying forward, all that energy blooming into forward motion. She catapulted through the wood.
When the leaves stopped whipping past, Gleam was by herself once again. She slowed to a walk, then a saunter. The sun-dappled shadows made a mosaic on her skin. She inhaled, pulling the lush forest air deep into her lungs. Another breath, and a woman dressed in gold was at her elbow. They walked together for a time, hand-in-hand, before she slipped away, breathing a kiss onto Gleam’s cheek.
She let the memory of soft lips on her skin linger as she moved on, luxuriating in the yellow light, the taste of ripe berries she pressed to her tongue, the emerald moss that cradled her when she lay down to rest.
“Stay with me. Just for now.” A man this time. And his words played down her neck and the curve of her hip. Burnished fingers followed. And she stayed. Until the light went orange and slanted and a new kind of breeze made her shiver. A shiver that dislodged memories of darkness and cold.
She got up and pressed on.
In a cascade of yellow leaves she appeared. Beautiful, still, this one. But there was something sad about her. They strolled together for a time through the fading warmth. When the woman stopped, Gleam walked on. She didn’t look back.
Green and gold seeped away with each step she took. The moss underfoot began to molder. The trees grew gnarled. And yet it was breathtaking, the Everwood in the gloaming light.
“Did no one warn you of me?”
Gleam started and turned. He emerged from a black gash in the trunk of the nearest tree, regarding her with shining eyes, inhaling the last of the crimson and orange. Exhaling cobwebs and dust. Gleam thought she should be afraid, but she only felt tired.
“No warnings, but I’m ready,” she said. “Let me pass.”
He stepped aside, and Gleam made her way. She didn’t run or dance or saunter. She only shuffled one foot in front of the other, the woods grew cold. Ahead she saw an old man and an even older woman. They shared a weathered-stump table, and they beckoned her to take a seat.
“Tell us about your journey,” they said.
And Gleam did. Until she felt a bone-deep fatigue she couldn’t shake. She excused herself and pressed on, though the weariness bent her back and slowed her step.
When the trees finally thinned she spotted a smooth rock at the edge of the forest. She perched upon it, waiting for the ache to leave her knees and the rattle to leave her chest.
“Pardon me, good woman,” came a voice that reminded her of someone she’d once known. “Is this the way through the Everwood?”
Gleam eyed the girl in front of her and smiled.
“It’s one of them. Perhaps not the best. Certainly not the worst. But you, dear one, you’ll need to find your own way through.”
“Oh,” said the girl. She looked confused, and a little scared. Gleam took pity on her.
“It won’t be easy,” she said softly. “But you’ll have quite the story to tell on the other side.”
The girl stared at her for a long moment before turning to leave. Just as she was about to disappear behind the trees, Gleam called after her.
“It’s a beautiful journey. Don’t blink, or you’ll miss it.”
But the girl was already gone.