The forest’s song
The Niad rose from the roiling just after noon, when the sun still sparked off the foaming river from which a hand sprang up and gripped the bank pulling the Niad out of the water, first head, then the beginnings of a chest, then another arm, and finally her legs. As she drew herself onto the bank her body (then only water given a feminine form) had begun to solidify; she was short and pale with golden hair and wearing a sandy colored dress that swayed in the wind. She followed no path as she left the riverbank for the woods. She left her river for the shade offered by the trees, the shade was a welcome thing in the summertime, when the nights were as hot as the days.
She was a respected dweller of the forest (her river brought life to much of it), and she had lived long enough to know each of the older trees by name. From the dryads she knew of many birds that nested in the forest, and had in her memory many of their songs. Few dryads came out to greet her this day, for it was hot even in the shade of the trees, and the dryads were a lazing sort in the day; their emergencies came most often at night, when the moon would gaze upon the wood, painting watery shadows onto the leave strewn ground with its silver light. The Niad often slept at night, allowing the river to run unwatched until the sky had brightened to gray.
The Niad came upon a clearing lit bright by the glaring sun overhead. A bird stood in the center. The bird was unremarkable, with dark brown feathers over most of its body and its underbelly colored a paler brown, but it did not move as the niad neared, it only cocked its head to the side. It began to sing staccato notes. The Niad sang back in a crystalline, lilting voice that rose and fell in pitch and volume like a storming ocean. When she stopped the bird sang back in clear piercing notes.
The niad sang back straining up to a shrill register that was heard through the forest. Animals came and watched at the edge of the clearing as the bird sang back; the staccato notes rose to an almost unhearable pitch where the bird trilled the note before stopping abruptly. The niad retorted with by diving from the top of her range down to the bottom, then back up again in one breath. The bird did an arpeggio of whistling pitches. At these the niad laughed and made a gesture of defeat. The bird twittered out a triumphant twitter. The niad glared at the little brown bird.
“There’s no need to brag.” The niad muttered. The end of her sentence was almost lost when the bird interrupted her, singing out a cascade of shrill descending notes. After muttering under her breath for a moment, niad answered with airy upward scale. She breathed in to begin another series of high notes, but the bird flew up onto her shoulder, making her halt her breathing and let it out in a long sigh. She moved to pet the bird’s head, but a warning peck on the temple stayed her hand. The niad laughed and walked out of the clearing, uncaring of the animals looking on.
There was a smell of rain in the air and the stone gray sky promised more. But from where she hung, Lune didn’t particularly care; she gripped the chafing rope by a loop and hung there until her mother’s muted voice called to her. She shifted her grip slightly and let go. She dropped from where she hung on the tree branch, landing on the ground barely two feet below a heartbeat later. The grass around the tree was short and colored bright green by the midday sun where the shadows gapped. There was an uneven arc of green between Lune and the gently bubbling river interrupted about halfway through by a rickety bridge, the only way off her little island.
She ran across the bridge carelessly to the small cabin. She kept onto the dirt path and stopped a short distance away from the door for a moment. She moved closer to the door and opened it. It swung open to reveal her mother sitting on the couch.
“Time for your nap, love!” she said.
Lune shivered unconsciously. Sleep means dreams.
“But mother,” she whined “I—”
“Now hush my little moon.” Her mother cut her off sharply, “everybody needs their rest.”
“Fine.” She muttered sullenly, following her mother to her room.
A squat bed was pushed into one corner under a window framed by bunched up curtains. The curtains were the same dull brown as the sheets. She got into bed without undressing; despite her best efforts she fell asleep as her mother sang a familiar lullaby at her bedside.
She found herself on an island like her own but barren, its only populous being herself and a large oak, bare despite the warmth from the winds whipping up from the chasms that sat itself where the river ought to have been.
“I will ask a final time.” The voice rang out through the dreamland as if it were a cave. Lune turned around and found herself staring at the same black haired, silver gowned woman who had haunted her dreams for the past week. She was tall, and just barely close enough for Lune to make out her face; high cheekbones gave a curved framing to her pale, gray eyed face. Her dress seemed to glow with a pure, silver light.
“The answer is still no,” Lune answered, squeezing her hands into fists around the hem of her shirt.
The woman’s sigh echoed. “Very well then,” she said, her tone resigned and cold.
The ground dropped out from under Lune. A vine snaked its way around her hand and she screamed, shooting up in her bed. She could still hear the scream fading in her room as her mother rushed in; she leapt onto Lune’s bed and wrapped her arms around her daughter.
“Oh my moon, are you okay!” she asked, holding Lune by the shoulders. “Tell me you’re okay —I heard screaming! Are you okay?” She brought her daughter in for another fierce embrace.
“I’m fine,” Lune said shakily, hugging her mother tightly.
“C-can I go outside?” Lune asked. Her mother nodded.
“Yes,” her mother answered “be safe my little moon!” She shouted as Lune stood and left the bedroom. She passed in a daze out of the house, walking with stuttering strides towards her island, eyes fixed on the oak. Try as she mite, she was unable to erase the image of the bare tree from her mind.
It came in winter
Winter came (as it always did) after the final leaf of autumn, plucked off its branch by a gentle wind, fell to the ground. The final falling leaf (one of the few still tinted copper) marked the dozing of the forest and its slow drifting to slumber.
But not all the spirits in the forest slept equally, and there came a day —cold and lightly touched by snow —when one of the dryads was roused by a sound; she had heard of the sound from the birds and knew it as a babe’s crying. She emerged from the bark of her tree (a bare, snow dusted oak) and walked down the avenue marked out by her fellow trees who arched above like the skeletal remains of a great cathedral. The sun beamed cooly down on the snow covered ground through the gaps in the trees. The path outlined by her fellow trees wound about the forest like a careless serpent. As she continued down the path she grew more frantic, she knew the path but the knowledge of its warped, twisting length only quickened her pace. By this time she could see the clearing (blanketed thinly in snow) through the thin, irregularly spaced gaps between the trees. They were young in the reckoning of the dryads and their placement at that moment seemed impetuous to her.
She ran through a gap in the trees, ducking under the branches. In the center of the clearing there was a rock upon its worn, gouged top lay a swaddled, crying baby. The dryad slowed as she neared the flat topped stone. In a few moments she was standing over the babe. She softly touched her forefinger against the middle of the newborn’s brow. It was icy cold. Quickly she took the baby into her arms and ran through the woods to a cave she knew. When she came upon the mouth of the cave she slowed and stepped in and sat with her back against the damp wall and rested the baby on her lap and swayed slightly as she sang a song of warming she knew. The baby did not stop crying, but when the dryad touched its brow she found it warm and smiled.
The hours passed and eventually, with night falling outside the cave, the baby’s cries faded. The dryad did not sleep, nor did she not tire, for she was not a victim of human failings of body. Despite this, when day broke, casting light on the melting snows outside the cave mouth, she felt a growing weariness and her mind was haunted by the image of her tree, a broad, tall oak. She took the baby up in her hands and let the immaterial tether draw her back to her tree.
So was the manner in which the winter proceeded, fading into spring and then into summer. By now the other spirits of the forest knew of the strange arrival, and soon the animals knew. By fall they had all participated in caring for the child, and by winter the dryad was allowed her winter peace as the animals cared for the babe (it was now known to be a she) until spring came again.
The winters came and passed thusly until the babe’s fourteenth spring, which began with the first leafbud on a gray, rain warmed morning wet with dew. It was on this morning the dryad decided to teach the girl in the language of man. She learned slowly and others picked up the task when winter came again. By the coming of the next spring, she could speak legibly in the words of man. This new routine continued unbroken until her twentieth winter, when the dryad was woken by news from birds of visitors in the clearing. The dryad rushed to the clearing and saw the woman glaring at the visitors.
The three men, still in the shadows of the trees, wore the hides of beasts hunted in the woods. The sight of that was enough to set anger simmering in the dryad; however, she kept in the shade of the trees and listened.
“Please come home with us.” the oldest of the men implored, “it is birthplace, we are your family the kingdom is–”
“My home?” The women cut the man off. “No,” she answered herself, “no– not my home, why on earth would I return to a family who left me to die?” her voice grew in volume as she continued “my home is here, I will stay here until I die. You may go sort yourselves out, do not come begging to me. You have no right to ask anything of me.” she ended with an imperious shout and turned, striding back into the forest, her unkempt brown hair trailing in the snow behind her.
The visits continued for ten winters more, when the fifth winter came, only two men came to stand at the edge of the forest and by the eleventh winter the intrusions had ceased. By now she had grown into a woman, well versed in the rambling forest paths. She would sing to the ancient ballads and chants of the dryads to the animals when they would come to rest in her clearing in the spring and summer days. This was how the forest remained until the end of the woman’s fortieth autumn.
It is the way of living things to die; indeed, the woman’s life, like the days of summer, passed; and on an afternoon in her fortieth winter, she was laid to rest at her founding place on the ancient rock. And when the dryad sang the rites of death in a teary, quivering voice, a tree began to grow; it began as a sapling in the center of her chest and grew. When the dryad finished the song, she collapsed in the shadow of a fully grown willow whose roots snaked down the sides of the rock and into the grass. Some say this tree still stands in that forest, weathered by the passing seasons and the storms that come and leave with them.