Into the Woods Alone
First published in Merry Sorrows (Un)Happy Endings: Fairy Tales for Our Time(Copyright © 2010)
When the air was still heavy sweet and the forest midnight dark, a girl tread alone. She was lost. She really shouldn’t have been out in the woods alone, and definitely not out in the woods at night. Or was it? She couldn’t tell, the canopy was so thick. She did know that she couldn’t see a thing. Her feet tread upon a soft carpet. What it was, she didn’t know. Maybe pine needles, judging from the smell. She had to stoop low to get under the bulk of the foliage, down where the boars had cleared all the lower tree branches.
She never should have left the path. That was a mistake. Now she couldn’t find it again. She heard snuffling sounds not far away. Please don’t let that be boar, she thought to herself. The great pigs would rip her to shreds if they found her. They weren’t generally the nicest creatures in the woods. But then, they weren’t the worst, either. By far.
She knew she shouldn’t be out here alone, but her family was poor, and needed food, so she set out, determined to find some for them. She really didn’t have much of a plan, just determination. So she wandered down the trails awhile, then decided that she hadn’t any money, and hadn’t any real skills to sell, so perhaps she could just find something. Perhaps some berries, or mushrooms, or some wild carrots or cabbages. So off the path she stepped, pushing aside the underbrush and sidestepping the poison nettles. It wouldn’t do to get herself stung. Soon she found herself beyond the dimly lit area of the trail and flailing about the brushes and brambles in the pitch-dark.
Then the leaves turned to needles and she realized she was amongst the pines. She realized the futility of trying to push through their branches and began to stoop beneath them. And that is where she found herself now. And the signs of boar began to show, with the cleared lower branches and the lack of undergrowth. And that is when she began to realize she was in trouble. She began to fret.
But what’s that sound? Not snuffling. Something else. So light. She could barely tell it was there – a tinkling, almost. Bells? No. She paused, and leaned, trying to listen for it. Then she slowly began heading in what she thought was the direction of its source. It still sounded almost like the ringing of bells, but not quite. Slowly, it became louder. Surely she was getting closer. As it began to resolve, it sounded more and more like laughter, but not like any kind of laughter she’d ever heard before.
She tripped. Standing back up, she dusted herself off, and she could see that it was pine needles upon which she had been treading. Wait, she could see? She could! She looked around, and, yes, there was a light up ahead, dimly illuminating her surroundings. Enheartened by this, she increased her pace. And the light grew brighter.
It was a tiny, golden light, definitely in near the glorious tinkling, ringing, laughing sound. Steadily, she approached it, and steadily, it grew brighter. And the laughter, she was sure it was laughter now, grew louder, almost merrier. And then she saw them.
Tiny, they were, and numbered twelve. One dozen tiny creatures, with tiny wings and cherubic faces, naked as Adam before the fall. One dozen tiny creatures, singing and twirling, dancing in a ring. One dozen tiny creatures, each with a soft, golden nimbus of light encompassing its miniature angelic form. They danced around a ring of a dozen silver mushrooms. She was amazed by what she saw, and in her amazement, stumbled into the clearing. They all stopped and looked her way.
“What have we here?” said the first.
“A girl! A human girl!” said the second.
“In our midst, she is. This cannot be; it is not allowed!” said the third.
“We must punish her!” chimed in all twelve.
“Wait! Kind sirs!” said she, “Surely ones with such angelic faces must truly have angelic hearts! Please be merciful! I was merely trying to find food for my family.”
They paused. Then the twelve gathered together close, and whispered amongst themselves. She waited, and chewed upon her fingernails. Then the twelve tiny folk separated, and turned to her again.
“Trying to find food for you family were you?” said the first.
“Truly, I was, kind sir. Please, can you help me? My family is hungry, for we do not have enough to eat. I would do anything to alleviate my family’s suffering. Anything, truly!”
“Anything?” chimed the twelve.
“Yes, sirs, anything. Just name it; I’ll do it, if only you’ll agree to help assuage my family’s hunger.”
“Oh, that we can, that we can,” said the third.
“But first,” said the second.
“You must put on this,” said the first, and suddenly in her hands was a golden blindfold. It hadn’t been there before, she was sure, but now it was, plain as day. She put it on.
“Now put out your hands,” she heard. She could not tell which of them was speaking now that she could no longer see. She did as she was told.
Then she felt bonds being placed around her hands. She started to jerk them back, suddenly afraid, but they pulled tighter and tighter, too fast for her to wriggle free. She started to run, but she found that bonds encircled her ankles as well, and she tripped and fell crashing to the ground. She screamed.
“Let me go, let me go, you said you’d help!”
“And you said you’d do anything,” chimed the twelve. “We are collecting our debt.”
Then something tugged on the bonds around her feet and she felt herself lifted into the air. She screamed some more. She felt tiny pricks along her arms, and then on her neck. It didn’t hurt at first, but it certainly frightened her. Then the pricks at her wrist and the pricks at her neck suddenly became sharp, stabbing pains. She felt her skin pierced and her blood begin to flow. The pain in her neck spread in a line. She screamed again until the line crossed her throat and she could scream no longer.
“With one less mouth to feed, your family’s hunger will be assuaged,” she heard one of the twelve say.
As she felt her life-blood pour out of her and onto the forest floor, she thought to herself, she really shouldn’t have been out in the woods alone, and certainly not at night.