a short story by Nikki Bollman
She snuck out at midnight through the window in her room. The full moon cast white light over her, and she was glad for the fact that the only observers she needed to worry about were inside, asleep. Shivering in the cold moonlight, she pulled her woolen shawl close around her. Dry leaves rustled under her feet and the breeze carried more to the ground.
With a purposeful stride, Amaya walked toward the forest. It had been calling her for a while now, and she’d resisted as long as she could. No longer. The call was strong, and a tiny vein of excitement slithered through the cloud of dread in her heart. As her feet padded softly down the worn trail, she took a deep breath and allowed herself to absorb the scent of the leaves, dirt, and loam of the forest.
The faces of her children shone bright in her mind, her memory of kissing their sleeping cheeks before slipping away. Whatever happened tonight, she knew they would be all right. She had been prepared for this for years, or if not prepared, at least expectant.
The forest welcomed her, accompanied her with sighs and moans of leaning branches and rustling leaves. Soon she heard the voices and footsteps of small creatures—foxes, hares, deer, raccoons, and mice. Predator and prey all put aside their natures now to acknowledge her return. She also knew they would all be curious to see what happened in the grove.
It was as if the forest opened up, enveloped her, and closed around her. Amaya did not have to look back to know that the path had closed behind her as she walked. There was no escaping her duty this night. Although the forest closed up, she did not feel trapped. It was, after all, home.
It seemed that she walked for hours through the shining moonlit trees, her army of animals, now joined by larger beasts like wolves and bears, following, surrounding, and preceding her. Finally, before her, lay the grove. The stand of ancient trees shone with its own lights, warm like fire but fueled by magic. Amaya slowed as she reached the stately, silent trees. The crowd of animals spread out around the grove, taking their places to watch the outcome of tonight’s events.
A murmur arose when Amaya took another step into the clear space around the ancient trunks of the trees. She felt her skin prickle and held up her hand to look. Across the back of it, green-brown lines spread, the pattern of the bark on the trees. Her magic, her concealment, was being wiped away. Looking up at the trees again, she saw the figures emerging out onto the low branches, their faces illuminated by the warm glowing orbs of light.
“Welcome back, daughter,” boomed a voice. It carried through all the forest.
Amaya inclined her head to the figure who had spoken. He was small, seated on a platform in the centermost tree. Though his voice was strong still, Amaya could see the signs of aging on his body. The wrinkled, brown barklike skin, the dry, slight hair that fell like autumn leaves when he moved his head. She said nothing, but waited for him to speak again.
“So you have deigned to return to us,” said the forest father in a wry voice.
“I had no choice,” Amaya answered.
“Then still, you persist in your stubbornness, even when this forest needs you most of all.” A rustle of discomfort passed over all who were gathered at the anger in his words.
“If you call it stubborn. Yes, I have refused to leave my husband and my children. It seems we are equally matched in stubbornness.”
“Not so equal, for I have succeeded in calling you here to your duties.”
“My duties lie elsewhere now. I am not the only daughter of the forest.” She looked now to her sisters, who stood motionless in branches all around. She missed them, and her mother.
“The responsibility only passes to the heir upon death. Why do you think our call has been so persistent? The magic does not change, or work another way, simply because I say. I am a servant, not a ruler. And so shall you be, too.”
These last words seemed to tire him, for he bent over and breathed heavily. The two daughters closest to him went to him, and helped him up from his seat. The gathering was over.
Amaya slept that night on the forest floor, and the foxes curled around her to give her warmth. When she woke, the foxes had melted into the trees, and a quiet grove stood tall around her.
The day dawned cloudy, with a muted light. Briefly, Amaya thought of her children. They would be waking now too. They’d begin their chores, stoke the fire, collect water for the oats. They may not even notice at first that she was gone. She began to imagine their faces when they realized she was not there. Then she closed her eyes.
From the trees above her, a sound arose. It was so small at first that she didn’t know what animal made it. Then as the sound grew, she knew that it was not an animal, but the forest. It was the sound of her sisters, brothers, and the other people of the forest. It was the sound of their grief.
From the branches, from the hidden homes high up in the trees, they descended. In slow lines they seemed to float, clothed in the mossy colors of the trees. Amaya craned her neck to find his tree, his home, high above. And there, borne gently aloft by four of her sisters, was his body. Like the others, it seemed to float on air. They carried him down, and the other marchers fell in line behind him. The procession wove among the trees in the grove. Amaya found her place at the end of it, following.
As before, the animals of the forest joined in the procession as well, swelling in numbers behind Amaya as she followed the solemn line of people ahead of her.
Her skin had almost completely transformed now, and she felt other changes taking place, too. In her ears, the chatter of the animals took shape into words, and the sighing of the wind through the trees carried information. The chill breeze that dropped leaves from the trees did not prickle her skin or make her shiver. She tied her shawl around her now simply so she would not lose it, an item of her own making.
It began to rain, only lightly, and as it did, the procession reached a clearing. They filed into it and filled it, leaving an opening in the center. Amaya’s sisters who carried her father brought his still form to the center of the clearing and lay it down. Amaya strode forward to them through the crowd, moving them aside with gentle touches.
She felt something new as she approached him. Now she heard not just the voices of the animals around her, but the voices of the trees, the flowers, the grass. She felt the will of the people around her, her people of the forest. More than anything, she felt her duty and the need of the forest that she had denied these last ten years.
He had been right, then. It couldn’t be someone else. It had to be her, his firstborn. She nodded in silence at her younger sisters as she stood before him. They stared back and waited.
Amaya knelt and lay her head on his chest, as she now felt she should do. She put her hand over his hands, clasped atop his stomach. She laid her head on his chest and listened, as if for the wisdom and knowledge she’d missed while she’d been gone, pretending she could have another life. As if he whispered to her, she suddenly knew to check his clasped hands. She sat up, and pried them open.
Inside lay a single acorn. She took it and clutched it in her hand. Then she rose and took the circlet from her father’s head, and placed it on her own. She faced the still, silent crowd.
In a rush, she felt her being pulled from her body. No, stretched. She felt herself within every part of the forest, every stone, creature, and tree. And she knew they felt her, too.
Without trying, her thoughts went to her children and her husband, back at their little cabin. And as quickly as she thought of them, she was there. She saw them from the trees all around, heard them crying out to her with the ears of the creatures hidden in the brush. She felt their footsteps on the crunching leaves that blanketed the trails nearby.
Now she wept, for she finally knew for certain she could never return to them, not as their mother in the way she had been. And she wept for the loss of her husband, too, the man she’d abandoned the forest for. She felt the forest weep with her, for she was the forest, and it was her, now. In sadness she returned to her body and the clearing.
Behind her, her father’s body had been swallowed up by the ground, and a soft pile of black dirt was all that remained.
Amaya knelt and dug a hole with her bare hands, then put the tiny acorn inside. She covered the hole over and pressed her hands down onto the dirt. Even as she removed her hands, a tiny green seedling pushed up through the dirt, and she smiled at it.
She rose to her feet, and with a nod to her sisters, she began to walk. They fell in line behind her, and behind them, the great procession filed back out of the clearing the way it had come. Gradually, the followers filtered back in among the trees, until all had disappeared. Finally, even the children of the forest, Amaya’s people had left, except her four nearest sisters.
“Welcome back,” they said to her, as they stood at the base of the tree that was now her home. She knew they meant it.
“Thank you,” was all she said, inclining her head slightly.
Her sisters returned to their own homes, where their children and families awaited. Amaya climbed her tree silently, a tear sparkling on her cheek for the family she had lost.
A long time later, she rose from her bed at the sound of distant shouting. It was one of her babies, calling for her. The sound echoed through the grove. She peered down from her perch in the tree, but could not see the child.
She did not go to him, as much as she wanted, but stayed in her tree. He would not even recognize her now, for she was queen of the forest, mother of all. Gradually, his shouts died away, and she slept.
“Forest Mother” copyright © 2014 by Nikki Bollman