Story Info: Each image you will come across in this story is a photograph of the land outside my house. I live on a 20-acre property (about 8 hectares) consisting mostly of forest, with a creek wrapping around the west and north side. When it rains here mist rises among the trees, and droplets glisten on the leaves and branches. I was inspired to write this story on such a day.
Early that morning, as the rain nestled into the background of wake and dream, the spirit of a household dog chased the mist into the woods. The dog belonged to Esther, who lived in a small wooden house with light walls and gentle sounds. The mottled arms of the hinterland embraced the house’s outer structure, its leafy landscape as wild and expressive as flicked paint on water-soaked paper. Esther dreamed of strange creatures that sung and hissed and growled and sobbed and said absolutely nothing at all.
The dog spirit had left an old body behind on the living room rug named Sol, his fur golden like sunshine and other warm things. Yet his warmth had faded with a sleep that could not be unslept, his peaceful eyes far, far—very far—away.
Esther’s two parents watched the world through the steam of their mismatched coffee mugs, waiting for Esther to rise and greet them, waiting to sigh and speak of the body with sadness. However, one moment they could not wait for was that of their own understanding, because only Esther had understood the spirit of the dog that had chased the mist, and only the dog spirit had understood Esther. Together they were understood, and together they had lived until early that morning.
The scent of fresh rain drifted into Esther’s bedroom on a tide of simple memories, coaxing her awake as if there were all the time in the world. It felt different to how Sol usually woke her – distant instead of messy, cool instead of sweet, blank instead of vibrant.
The softs waves in her hair slipped off the pillow as she stirred. The rhythmic tapping of a thin tree branch against her window alerted her with some sense of urgency, lifting her upright. With sleepy eyes and heavy raindrops, she failed to grasp the news the branch tried to inform her of. Only later would she wonder, with quiet self-disapproval, whether she could have prevented what was to come by understanding the branch better.
Esther wrapped her cozy bed blanket like a cape when she stood, the lowest edge dragging across the floorboards behind her bare feet. The house hallway smelt of dampness and dwindling incense.
A tit bird bounced along the outer windowsill of the kitchen, perplexed by its reflection among the clouds and tangled impressions of the woods. The world was slow to wake.
Upon seeing the golden body on its side, Esther raced out of the house to the edge of the porch, blanket flapping in the momentum she imprinted on the air behind. Naked toes curled over the drop between the porch and the untamed grass, she searched over and between and through the trees for any traces of mist or dog spirits. Hair and blanket and nightgown danced around her figure.
Not a single spirit to be seen.
A terrifying monster stirred in the pit of her stomach, eerie and black like the deep sea. It was the monster of Grief and Loss, and it opened its wide mouth – an even darker void, about to suck out her insides until there was nothing left but a fragile shell. But wait, Esther thought, and the monster paused to listen, if I follow the direction of the mist, and if I follow it very soon, I can reunite with the spirit of Sol. The monster closed its mouth slowly, encouraging her to continue. And when I find Sol’s spirit, I will bring him back home, and it will be as if none of this happened.
The monster nodded its approval.
Esther dashed back inside the house, past her parents and the body of Sol, her bed blanket flailing with distressed confusion. “Esther, what in the world are you in such a hurry for? Aren’t you going to mourn Sol’s passing with us?” asked the blur of Esther’s mother, as Esther swooped into her bedroom.
On came her warm coat and her lace-up boots. “I’m going to look for the mist,” Esther called out in response. “It took Sol away from me, and I’m going to get him back.” With one long, twirling movement she tossed a knitted scarf around her neck and abandoned her room. The cozy bed blanket lay crumpled on the floor.
“Don’t be silly, Esther,” said her mother, visible again now that Esther had returned to the living area. “Sol can’t come back. It wouldn’t be right if he did.” The shapes her mother's face took were kind ones, but the words cut like singing blades.
It was in that moment that Esther felt more alone than she’d ever been before. The walls and the furniture had changed somehow, as if she were navigating a filtered dream. The black monster in her gut crept towards her chest, wrapping its clawed fingers around her beating heart. Are you afraid? It asked in a sickly, purring voice.
“No!” Esther said aloud. “You’re wrong. Sol isn’t gone. Just you wait.” She made a concerted effort not to look at the body on the rug as she strode away. That body wasn’t Sol. Sol was full of love and joy and sunshine, not whatever excuse lay in his place.
Her parents watched her through the steam of their mugs. Outside the kitchen, the little tit bird pecked at the glass of the widow. “Esther, don’t leave. We need to bury Sol’s body before it begins to decay.” Her father’s voice carried to her by the front door.
The monster chuckled.
“I’ll be back before then,” Esther assured, stepping outside.
Mist swirled after her breath on the other side of the door. Her hair spilled around the hood of her coat in tawny waves. Nothing was real. Above the porch roof smoky clouds monopolized the sky, stretching into a vast canvas no one had bothered to illustrate. Esther wondered how far Sol had run to within the mighty wall of trees.
“Esther, come back!” She could hear her father’s footsteps looming behind her, wanting to reach out and stop her. They didn’t understand. They didn’t understand the spirit of the dog who chased the mist, or the spirit of the girl about to chase the dog. Only Sol had understood. Only Sol could remove this dangerous monster in her stomach.
Esther descended the porch and jogged towards the tree line, feeling the leaves and branches wrap layers around her, swallowing her up in emerald hues. The calls of her two parents drowned against intermittent birdcalls the further she ventured into the woodland.
Occasionally a glimpse of surrounding hills revealed the direction of the nomadic mist, slinking its way across the lofty terrain. Esther had always loved the mist, but now she despised it. She wondered if it was laughing at her... or was it too indifferent to even notice? On and on she trekked, her scarf pulled high around her neck. It wasn't until she'd stopped by an uprooted tree that the silence of her parents' absence sunk over her. Her home was a long way away; she was in the mist's territory now.
Sighing, Esther scanned the area around the fallen tree. The day was still young, yet she had travelled quite a distance already. Perhaps she really could make it back before Sol's body was buried.
It was then that she came across her first unusual spirit of the forest.
[Not-so-fun fact: Old dogs are known to go off alone into the woods to die due to an instinct to protect their “pack” (or their loved ones) from attracting predators that might be drawn to their dead body. When I discovered this it broke my heart. Dogs are so loyal, yet that seems like such a lonely way to die.]