The village had grown too small. She wanted to see what was beyond the incessant sea of trees. There had to be more out there. Sometimes she saw tracks on the forest floor not belonging to her people or the animals they hunt. They looked all wrong, as if they were not human made. She had asked nana what to make of them, but she had drawn a protective sign and spat over her shoulder three times, refusing to speak. The same sign she did when there was a suspicion of black magic being used.
She didn’t believe in black magic, curses, evil eyes, or witches, or the beast of all beasts roaming in the forest. Yes, there was herbal magic, and what the elders of the village did with vision quests. But those were different. They were plants and power of stories, healing and shaping the lives of her people.
All around her, the leaves rustled. The wind had picked up, but it was yet to turn into a storm. She had climbed up the tree with the strongest branches and trunk to hold her weight. Not that she was heavy. Light and small, they called her. Also, with a lot of other names, annoying and nuisance being amongst them. She had ebony hair, as dark as the night sky. She braided the unruly curls off her face to see and move better. Her mother appraised her hair. She hated it. She rather had it short as nana had, but she wasn’t allowed.
Past the branches and leaves opened up a small passing between the hills. This was the farthest she had ever come from the village alone—eight days’ travel. She had left her sleeping mat and spear to the root of the tree along with her other supplies. The birds were making a racket around her, as they always did when anyone got too close. She let them complain. There was no danger to her, and she wasn’t hunting anything. The birds would soon tire to consider her as a threat. She waited for what; she wasn’t sure. Papa and the rest weren’t happy when she disappeared for a long time, but nana let her. No one dared to defy nana. Sometimes she tried to object with some silly remark, but she always chickened out. One look from her grandma was enough to silence a bear of a man. But granny had said she saw greatness in her grandchild, that there was a likeness. It was a great honor; she just didn’t want to be like nana. She tried to leave.
But she always went back. The last time a week-long storm had driven her home. More like an excuse, as she was too afraid to go on alone. She glanced at the bundle waiting for her at the ground. She only had to climb down and head home, and the world made sense. But what was so good with easy, constrained answers that no one could deny? There was more to be known. Why was nana so scared of the tracks? This time she didn’t go back home. She had decided.
She pushed her head against the trunk, laid her legs in front of her, and then tied them around the branch. A brief nap would sort out her thoughts if to push past the eight-day. She shut her eyes and let her mind rest. Not fully sleep, having no desire to drop off.
The forest came alive as soon as she closed her eyes. The sweet smell of damp soil was familiar, but beyond that, the tree’s sap and the delicate scent of almost citrusy leaves were welcoming. They said mosquitoes and other unwelcoming insects stayed away under the branches. They were right. The tree was void of the usual high pitch buzz. But now, as she thought about it, she no longer heard the birds either.
When the whole forest went silent, nothing good would follow. She slowly opened her eyes, fearing what to expect. Two dark creatures moved against the background. They looked human, walking on two feet and having a head and hands, but she couldn’t be sure. They were covered with thick multi-color fabric, which left them formless and unidentifiable. The masks they had on had two huge reflecting disks and a tube that let to a back bag of some sort—nothing which made sense.
The pair signaled as they moved amongst the forest floor. She watched them transfixed as they searched, measured, and cataloged everything on their way to a small box-like thing, or she was sure they did. The box flashed with light and made strange confirming sounds. She was both excited and scared to witness the process the strange creatures made. If they communicated with each other, she only heard the noise the box made, which came muffled and distorted to this far.
One of the greenish-black human—she had started to think them as humans from the way they moved—turned to face the direction she was in. A red beam of light shot from the box it was carrying. She froze, fighting to keep her heartbeat down and her breathing silent. Everything burned inside her as fear of getting caught followed the reflecting disks. Did they see her? What about the red beam? Only now, she remembered she had left her spear and possessions under the tree for anyone to see. She was so used to be alone in the woods to pay attention to where she left her things. The worst that had ever happened was a pack of raccoons tearing into the food.
The human faced away, speaking to the other one. She was sure of that as there were nodding and hand movements. She withdrew her legs and pressed against the trunk. Nothing was going as she had pictured so many times when the world came to her forest. She had imagined to go and greet whoever came. Offer them fruits and fish and meat and hear they share their stories of the great beyond. Now she was too scared to drop to the ground and hide her belongings. She was trembling. She had imagined similar to her or nana or papa to come, not these creatures that looked nightmarish. Where were their mouths? Their eyes were lakes stealing her soul. Black magic. Nana had been right.
She would have to warn the village. They would have to believe her she wasn’t making up stories of strange tracks or wonders she saw on her travels this time. What if they were in danger? She fought to get her breathing back. You can do this, she thought. I’m not afraid of anything. She had never been. Nana’s brave girl, they said. She slowly moved her left foot on the branch below, trying to keep at the tree’s shadowy side. She froze every time the creatures turned towards her, breathing slowly but steadily. They didn’t see her. When she was at the lowest branch, she had to jump. As she did, she caused an avalanche of birds to fly in the air, cawing loudly.
They saw her. She ran to her sack and spear, scooping them into her arms and running in the opposite direction. She leaped over the roots, the bushes, not stopping to see if anyone was following her. From the loud thudding, she was sure they were giving her a chase. But she knew this woods, how they grew, how they bend, how they hid the secrets from the novice. She dived into the undergrowth, sealing a ditch when she was sure she had put enough distance between her and the others for them to think she had disappeared into the horizon. She was right. They came running past her, their feet leaving those strange tracks she had witnessed many times in her travels. She laid there, letting them go. When the time was right, and no one could follow her, she would start her trek back home.
Thank you for reading, have an adventurous day!
© K.A. Ashcomb
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