Hey everyone! Do you remember this post I made a few months ago? Well, I finished that story and Twitter told me to blog it, so that’s what this post is. It’s about 4.3k words long, as is a different genre and style than I usually write in. I recommend listening to Áine Minogue and Forest Mood while reading.
As always, all comments/questions/criticisms are welcome!
The trees shivered at the caress of a morning breeze. Fallen petals drifted into the music room through the open balcony door, the only listeners to the melancholic tune Áine played on her harp.
A man entered the room, his steps a muffled backdrop to the progression of notes impersonating this woman’s tragedy. He placed a small black box on the table beside her and left in silence.
Áine continued her song, her fingers gliding across the strings even as tears clouded her vision. Each note blended with the next, rising and falling with her breath, in rhythm with her beating heart.
She played for those whose songs ended early, pages lost to the wind. She wept for the husband she would never see again, whose memory was contained in a single black box.
The dying petals danced as the cool breeze blew, carrying her song through time.
Mist hung thick around the winding trees that made up the small forest by Áine’s home. The drooping branches stirred the mist as she passed, her shoes sinking slightly into the damp earth. She ducked under an outstretched branch and stopped in her usual spot. Waiting.
The mist began to condense a few paces from her until it took on color and definition.
“Welcome, Áine,” the apparition said, voice steady as the earth. His name was Meallán. Or rather, that’s what he had Áine call him. Though human-like in shape, Meallán was semi-translucent and his features were in constant flux. At the turn of his head, his nose might seem longer, his eyes deeper set. His face would look wider or thinner depending on the light. Even his body would change shape, sometimes tall, sometimes muscular, other times lean or short. Today, he was not much taller than Áine. His skin was tanned and hair short.
Years ago, when they first met, Meallán was naught but a whispered voice on the wind. He eventually learned human form, his earliest attempts a discomforting medley of ill-proportioned limbs and features. Now, his voice was strong and he’d even learned to move his mouth when he spoke. Blinking, however, continued to elude him. His green eyes watched Áine with the attentiveness of a hawk.
Áine nodded to him and sat on a moss-covered stone. She rested her trembling hands on her lap. White fingers gripped her husband’s box as they had for the past month, ever since she lost any hope she had of seeing her husband again. Not his warm smile, his deep voice, his pale blue eyes…
Meallán waited, but she did not speak. She simply stared, unfocused, at the roots of a tree. Her fingers traced each feature of her late husband’s face onto the sides of the black box.
“You are not well,” he said.
“I thought you didn’t understand humans.” Her voice was quiet from lack of use.
“I do not, but sometimes humans are remarkably like plants.”
Áine looked up at him with a raised brow, “In what manner?” she asked when he offered no further explanation.
“When a plant is ill, it wilts,” he lifted a lock of her brown hair, which she usually had tied back. His movements were silent as the wind. “What makes Áine wilt quite so?”
She lowered her head, staring at the box. Meallán let the curls of her hair slip through his fingers.
Áine’s feet itched to move, to take her away from Meallán, away from everyone. She’d not spoken to anyone in the past month. Over the past six months, ever since Thomas departed, she’d grown increasingly reclusive. Meallán hadn’t questioned it until now, or perhaps he hadn’t noticed. Yet now he had, and she could not escape his gaze.
“It’s my husband. Thomas…” She savored the sound of his name as it passed through her lips. How many times had she said his name to the air, hoping she could will him back to life?
“I remember the name. It has been four seasons since his arrival, has it not?”
“Five,” Áine corrected him. It was unusual for the husband to move in with the wife, but Áine refused to leave her home. She never told Meallán, but he was the reason why. Though she spoke at length about Thomas, she never introduced the two.
“Is it customary for husbands to give boxes to their wives?”
“The box is only a container. What he wanted to give me is inside. I’ve just not opened it yet.” She stared at the unbroken seal. A military seal.
Áine sighed. Too late to turn back now. “What do you know about war?”
He paused. “Far more than I would like to. Many human wars have crossed this area in centuries past.”
“My husband…” images of their wedding flashed in her mind, the nervous exuberance on Thomas’ face when he saw his bride. She blinked away resurfacing tears, steadying her shaking breath, “he was a soldier. All soldiers have a box like this one. They fill it with items they wish to pass to their loved ones in case the worst happens.”
“In case they die, Meallán. The fact that I have this box means…” the words stuck in her throat. She hated them too much.
“The worst has happened?”
She nodded and let her hair fall in front of her face. She could hide the redness of her face, but there was no disguising her shallow breath.
“And this is what makes you wilt?”
She breathed deep, conquering her tears for the moment, “It makes me sad, yes.”
“Oh.” He stood thoughtful for a moment. His expression held no emotion, it never did, but the only time he was quiet was when he was thinking. “Why is that?”
“Why is that?” she looked up at him, strands of hair clinging to the damp trails down her cheeks, “Thomas is dead, Meallán! Certainly you understand death.”
“I do, but when a flower dies, its companions do not wilt.”
“Flowers also don’t have feelings.”
“Are you certain of that?”
“I have seen much death, Áine. Trees and flowers, birds and foxes… they all die eventually. The world does not stop for them.”
“But they don’t love as a human does. I loved Thomas dearly, and now I will never see him again.” Her tears came back with renewed vigor. She didn’t fight them; she didn’t have the strength. It was all she could do to keep her voice coherent.
“But the world has not stopped.”
“My world has.” Her world was Thomas. It was days of music and nights of laughter. It was surprise outings. It was little gifts from his trips to town. It was walking, arm linked with his, seeing nothing but his scruffy hair and crooked nose. Eight months of bliss gone so quick, followed by six eternal months of waiting. No matter what, she would always see Thomas as the goofy man sitting at his desk, carefully dipping his pen in ink as he drafted contracts to bring to town.
The man in the uniform, hair shaved close… he was someone else. A face now cold and buried. Maybe burnt, maybe cut, maybe no longer recognizable. She couldn’t bare it.
Silence fell over them. Some of the clouds had parted, releasing the sun’s light and warmth unto the land below, which in turn thinned the mists that still clung to the trees. A light breeze penetrated the woods and dried the tears on Áine’s cheeks.
“Áine should speak with the forest,” Meallán said, “She likes Áine’s music, and wants Áine to listen to hers.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Sit and listen, Áine. Listen to the forest sing.”
With that, Meallán disappeared, faded back into the mist from which he came. Áine was alone once more, alone with the haunting memories of a happiness she will never enjoy again.
Leaves mimicked the sound of the previous night’s rain as wind swept across the canopy. Patterns of light shifted with the swaying trees, bars and stripes in the calm mist.
Áine shut her eyes.
Branches shook slightly as birds hopped from tree to tree. The stream maintained a persistent rhythm as they sang, echoing across the wood.
Áine breathed deep the smell of the rain and dirt, moss and must heavy in her lungs.
Mist cradled her, leaving her skin damp. A creature stirred nearby, darting from fern to fern. The forest sang a melody of harmony, of wholeness and purity. Inhale as the wind blows, exhale as it passes you by. Step in time with the gentle cadence, and follow the river’s flow.
Light and shadow reflected across the water of the stream as it whispered along its path. The occasional frog or salamander dove into the water, fleeing from Áine’s unhurried steps.
She always thought Meallán was the biggest secret this little forest held. How many years had she lived beside it? Fifteen, sixteen? Since she was a girl, and yet she’d never thought to follow the stream, to see where it lead and what it passed along the way.
The forest continued to sing, full of more life and wonder than Áine had ever seen. Or perhaps she had simply never noticed. Despite her realizations, she knew there was something she was missing, something that would connect to Meallán’s words and make sense of them. She was convinced this stream would lead her to that missing piece.
Or perhaps she had simply gone mad.
For the moment, she had forgotten her tears and her sorrows, caught up in the sudden mystery. With each step, the sound of running water grew louder. Soon, the trees thinned and the chatter of birds died down. Áine stepped out from the forest’s shadow and onto the bank of a river.
The river moved swift, but gentle. An otter hunted fish on the opposite bank, and a couple ducks bathed themselves as they drifted along the sparkling water. Áine knelt at the edge and, placing her box in her lap, rested her hands on its surface. The cool water hugged her fingers, fitting their every contour.
That’s when she heard it. The sound of another person. She turned to the direction of the sound and saw hints of a small cottage beyond a row of yews, sitting at the base of a tree-covered hill. She dried her hands on the front of her dress and went to investigate.
An older woman sang as she dropped food for a small group of chickens. She had her gray hair pulled back in a simple bun and wore an undecorated wool dress. The song she sang was in an unfamiliar language, but the melody was calming. The woman’s voice carried the strain of years, as if her words brought her memories to life, memories both sad and beautiful. Áine listened, drawn into the unknown tale.
The woman stopped when she saw Áine standing, half-hidden by a yew, and blinked several times.
“That song was lovely,” Áine said.
The woman smiled. “My mother sang it to me when I was a child,” she resumed feeding her chickens, “and I used to sing it to my kids as well.” Her voice was sturdy in her age, dotted with a slight accent.
Áine played the melody in her head, trying to memorize it. Perhaps she could learn how to play it on her harp when she returned. And play it for whom? Her heart stung with the reminder of her empty home.
“Rare for someone to be way out here,” the woman said, packing up the remainder of the chickens’ food, “I can’t recall the last time I had a visitor. What brings you to these parts?”
Áine weighed her possible answers. “I’m looking for something,” she said.
“I can’t imagine what that might be, if it’s brought you here.” The woman glanced at the box in Áine’s hands.
Áine gripped it tighter.
“Why don’t you come in and clean yourself up a bit?” the woman said, turning to the door, “Perhaps I can be of some help to you.”
Áine turned her eyes to the river. Was this what she needed to see? Everything seemed so peaceful here, but that hill… Now that she was closer, she could see how dark it truly was, a somber guardian to the quaint cottage. She debated fleeing, but instead followed the woman into her home. What did she have to lose?
The inside of the cottage was dark but spacious, especially for a single person’s home. Sap sat dried and hardened where it had oozed from the log walls in years previous. Several paintings covered the walls and shelves, some of animals and landscape, but many of the same people. A young girl, a young boy, an older man, and even the woman herself in her younger years. The color in the older ones had faded, but the images were still there. Children’s faces covered in mud, the man’s face serious as he hefted an axe or jovial as he splashed a young boy with water from the river.
“Come, sit down,” the woman said, gesturing to a nearby chair, “I’ll get some of these leaves out of your hair.”
Áine reached up and felt the top of her head. She hadn’t even realized how dirty she’d gotten in her short walk. Even her hands were covered in dirt, with a solid line along the sides where the water had reached. Áine sat down as requested, hands folded around her box in her lap. The woman began detangling.
“The name’s Moyra, by the way,” she said.
“Áine,” she said. Moyra was a foreign name. Áine wondered what could have brought her here, to this river, this cottage. “Is that your family?” she asked, in reference to the paintings.
“Yes, my two kids and my husband.”
“They’re beautiful. The paintings and the people.” Áine noticed others not made with paint, but charcoal or pasted-on flower petals.
“Where are they now?
“I’m the only one left. My daughter died of illness when she was young. Her immune system never did work quite right. My husband died of a hunting wound some years later. My son left for the city not long after, and I’ve not heard from him since.”
Áine’s breath stopped a moment. “I’m terribly sorry.”
“No need to be, dear. I’ve lost track on how long it’s been. Painting is one of the few things that gets these old bones out of bed in the morning. That and the animals. Can’t leave them to starve and feel right about it.”
“How many animals do you have?”
“Oh… I don’t know the numbers. Have chickens for their meat and eggs, goats for their milk, sheep for their wool…” she began to pull Áine’s hair back into a bun. The cool air on her neck was refreshing.
“You never go to town, then?”
“Not even to get paint or paper?”
“Not even. Can make the paint I need, though paper isn’t as easy. A flat piece of wood or strip of birch bark works just fine. Would be a bit more difficult if I played a stringed instrument like yourself. I couldn’t imagine trying to replace a broken string with sinew.”
Áine’s eyes grew wide. She would have turned around if Moyra didn’t have such a tight grip on her hair. “How did you…?”
“Your hands, dear,” Moyra sounded amused. Áine could only imagine she was smiling. “They’ve been strumming invisible strings since you sat down. I’m sure your fingertips are callused, too?”
Áine felt her face go red with embarrassment. Moyra just laughed.
“There you are,” Moyra said, having finished with Áine’s hair, “It’s a simple knot, but it should do you well for your travels.”
“Thank you…” she said, standing up.
“If you think what you’re looking for is around these parts, you’re welcome to stay. I wouldn’t mind the company, and these woods can be right dangerous at night.”
Áine looked out one of the small windows and saw the sky turning periwinkle in the twilight, the entire area turning to shadow. It would only grow darker, and the moon could not light her way through the woods.
“Yes, I would like that,” Áine said. Not like she had much to go home to, anyways. She wasn’t sure what she thought of Moyra, but if she had indeed suffered the loss of not one, but three family members… Maybe she could help Áine after all. Maybe she could understand Meallán’s words.
Moyra looked at Áine the way a mother looks at her child and smiled.
An evening breeze rushed into the cottage. Áine couldn’t shake the feeling that it was proud of her decision.
The sun burned the midday sky on Áine’s second day at Moyra’s. She sat at the kitchen table avoiding the gaze of the unopened box.
Opening it would be finally admitting he was gone. There would be no more correspondences, no more waiting, no more hope.
She picked the box up and ran a callused finger along its smooth edges. Two days and no closer to her goal, to understanding what Meallán tried to tell her. She couldn’t even understand Moyra’s way of life. Impressive though it was, how could she stand the loneliness such isolation caused? Áine’s fingers longed for the harp, and her heart her husband. She held the box tighter, muscles in her face contracting at the threat of tears.
Moyra’s voice drifted into the cottage, echoing softly against the walls. The gentle adagio mingled with the river’s portamento.
Áine listened as she stared out a window, eyes gazing deep into the dark wood running up the hill. Sullen darkness embedded within a realm of peace. As Moyra’s bittersweet melody sank into Áine’s heart, she felt herself drawn into the forest’s shadow, invisible strings pulling at her and dragging her in. With little conscious thought encouraging the idea, she began her descent into darkness.
Branches and brambles clung to her hair and dress as she started her climb. The path soon became steeper. Rocks, logs, and puddles cluttered the narrow path. Patches of mud attempted to claim her shoes as their own, slowing her progress and tiring her legs.
Moyra’s song repeated in her mind, each refrain bringing forth another memory of Thomas. His tired face behind coffee steam. His voice muffled from a cold. The quick movements of his ink-stained hands across a page, pen trailing words behind it.
The wood grew thicker and unnaturally dark. Each tree seemed to lean forward, grasping at her as if trying to pull her into the darkness. Her heart raced to cope with her shallow breath. She moved faster with every step, the song changing pace with her in an accelerando, pushing her past every obstacle. She ran for an eternity, grasping Thomas’ box to her chest lest the darkness take it, struggling to convince herself the growling she heard was only her imagination, until she finally saw light through the trees ahead. She dashed forward and broke through the forest’s clutch as the music in her mind reached the climax of its crescendo. She stood panting in the warm sun, music abruptly atempo.
But the roar did not subside. In fact, it was louder. It did not come from the forest, nor was it her pounding heart in her ears.
Áine stepped forward, over the crest of the hill. The scene before her made her breath stop.
The hill was not a hill at all, but a cliff. Past its sharp drop, the ocean stretched out past the horizon until it turned into the sky and came crashing back. Rippling clouds mimicked the cresting waves that pounded into the cliff face. Never had she felt so small and yet, so tall. The sturdy earth had brought her to such great heights, only to disappear and leave her in awe of the massive, ever-changing landscape so far below. Áine leaned over the edge, staring down at the crushing sea below her. Tufts of foliage clung to life on jagged edges and sharp protrusions of rock. Nothing could stop her if she fell, if she…
“Impressive, isn’t it?” Moyra said from behind Áine.
Áine stepped back with a start. How long had Moyra been standing there? How did she get here so quickly?
Moyra stepped forward and stood beside Áine at the edge of the cliff.
Áine followed the woman’s gaze, not down but forward, toward the never-ending horizon. “How did I not know this was here? The whole time, I’ve lived so close…”
“The same reason you don’t see the stars during the day. Something brighter and more beautiful stands in the way.”
Áine looked down at the box in her hands.
“But we have to remember,” Moyra continued, “as much as we love the sun, when it sets is when we can see the starts. And in a few hours, it will rise again.”
Áine traced the seal, a fingernail digging slightly beneath its edges. “Thomas isn’t coming back.”
“I’m afraid not. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy the world around you. That’s the beauty of nature. The earth will always catch you if you lose your footing.”
“The world still goes on,” Áine repeated Meallán’s words.
“Aye, it does. Your life can turn upside down, but the tides will still come and go as always. Nothing in this world will change that.”
Áine stared out to sea, searching in vain for the line between sea and sky. There would be no more breakfasts together, but the morning sun still cut through mist with a gentle hand. There would be no more late nights of music of books by candlelight, but stars still shone every night.
The wind still caressed the thinning grass earning their living so close to the sea, so close to the ceaseless waves carving their mark on this land.
Thomas is dead, but I am not, Áine thought. It seemed an obvious realization, but it felt profound, as if lifting a tremendous weight off her spirit. She suddenly felt stones lighter, a single gust of wind able to lift her into its arms and take her away.
“I understand now,” she said, turning to face Moyra, “I have to go back. I have to go…home. I’ll come back to visit.”
Moyra nodded slowly, “Of course, dear. You do what you must.”
Áine stared at the woman in front of her as if seeing her for the first time. A woman worlds apart, with a lifestyle Áine couldn’t understand, but also her best friend. She wrapped an arm around the woman, pulling her into an embrace. “Thank you,” she said, smiling for the first time in months. “When I return, maybe I’ll have my own song!”
“I look forward to it,” Moyra said with a smile.
Áine returned the smile before charging back down the hill at full speed. The trees stepped aside for her to pass, and the wind hastened her steps.
The stream whispered of Áine’s return to Meallán’s clearing. Her feet on the ground marked time as the birds sang in beat with her heart.
“Meallán!” she called when she arrived to the usual spot.
“Áine has returned,” he said from behind her a moment later, “Welcome back.”
“I understand now,” she said, turning to face him. Today, his skin was even darker than before, and hair ran past his shoulders. “Flowers do not wilt at the passing of their companions because they know death allows new life to fill the gap. New, and maybe even better. Just like night follows day, death follows life, not as an end but as the next stage in the cycle. Everything is a cycle, from the tides to the phases of the moon to the seasons themselves. Life and death, too, create a cycle. One that never ends.”
“Áine has learned much. The forest is happ–”
“But humans are not like plants,” Áine cut his sentence short, “I don’t know if plants have feelings or not, but I do know they can’t learn the way a human does. When we experience the pain of death or loss, we learn from it. We become stronger because of it. Through sadness, we find happiness we couldn’t see before. We can journey through darkness and reach hope on the other side. A flower can’t do that. And that is why being human is the best gift of all.”
She grinned, then bolted off toward her home. She had been gone too long and there were songs she needed to write.
Meallán watched her leave, watched the drooping branches swaying in anticipation to the music to come. He did a very human thing then.
Wind lifted Áine’s hair from her face as she played. The sun’s glow reflecting off the polished wood floor turned the silk strings into threads of gold. The strings hummed in harmony, reverberating against her fingertips.
The allegro etude drifted from piano to forte, mimicking the persistent waves comprising Áine’s mental metronome. Each phrase expounded the memories, releasing them into the world. Áine’s harp sang a melody of the past, of smiles whispered between sheets and fingertips tracing promises into bare skin. On the repeat, the melody changed, legato notes forming a deceptive cadence. It was a song that didn’t end, that couldn’t end. An eternal repeat forever changing. One nature sang every day.
The afternoon sun dipped behind the trees whose leaves shook in respectful applause. Beside Áine stood a table. Atop it, a dried rose head nodded to the wind from its housing in the lid to a small black box. The box itself served as a paperweight, holding down a note written in a familiar hand. It contained only a single sentence, ten words that would forever cause Áine’s tears to fall upon her smile, a promise more permanent than the stars.
“I will always love you, even from the next life.”