A stroke of chestnut. Then one more, thicker; fan out the brush and dab, dab, dab, some tans. Layers. Another stroke, rugged, quick. An old brush, with dried tips and disobeying hairs, immersed in green. A touch of colour, extra texture, and a trunk stands firm. A swirl in deep umber, freehand limbs, arms, straying from its roots and reaching toward the sky. Its branches twist around one another, in salutations and farewells, in hopes and longings and the freedom to touch the stars. A splash of emerald and lighter greens upon greens and just like that, a tree is born.
Eve stared at her creation. Her giant oak, full of life, danced across her room. Another dip in the paint and a brush of the wall and another sapling began to grow. She would craft this tree, and another, until a forest bloomed around her. A forest to shield her from all the noise, all the screams that filled her head, all the sounds she wanted to hide from.
A dip in olive, and yells thundered from the floor below. A female voice, accusing. A male, defending. With a calm and steady arch, a vine, connecting the two trees. Voices, raising. Stomps and slams, booms of rubber against wood and skin against skin. A whistle, a song, from her lips, a song from her bird. She switched brushes and stirred the blue. Feathers and beaks and a little black eye staring back at her. Bruises, forming. Blues and purples and reds.
She closed her eyes, and she was in her forest.
Eve’s feet sunk into the soft ground, a mixture of sand and soil. The trees towered over her, leaves casting a curtain over the sunlit sky. Branches stretched, moss and ferns blossomed by her feet. With each step, the crunch of grass and nuts and sticks. Somewhere in the distance was a stone bridge, arching over a deep pond, and in the opposite direction, the sea. She could remember the feeling of the hot sand between her toes and the shells of crab on the beach, beetles and crickets hiding in the tall grasses.
Eve’s soft melody, humming the noise away.
But her song was cut short by a soft crunch beneath her heel. She froze, slowly lifting her leg and kneeling to the floor, where a small, white shell lay shattered in a dozen pieces. Examining the ground around her, she spotted another little white shell, and scooped it into her palms. Tracing her finger along the smooth ridges along its back, a spot of white glinted just underneath a fern. Eve brushed its leaves out of the way, revealing a row of these shells, nearly identical, leading further into the forest.
Her heart skipped a beat - in this forest she had visited so many times, never had she seen shells such as these. Ducking under a collapsed tree, bark grey and peeling, she followed the trail.
The brush grew thicker with every step she took. Thorns grabbed at her ankles and spiderwebs tickled her hair, the sounds of the outside world weakening to the call of the woods. Her calves stung as she climbed over a log, careful to avoid the hairy vine wrapping around its dim bark. Jumping back onto the muddy floor, the shells began to wither to a clearing, hidden by a veil of leaves.
Hesitantly, Eve pushed her way through to take in the sight. Tall oaks stood in a wide circle, with paper and written notes tucked within the cracks of a short cliff. Within the dusty grey of the forest were bursts of reds and yellows and purples, the colours of others who had wandered there before. She stepped to the small piece of paper nearest her and gently unfolded it.
“To my family, my daughter Elisia, with love…” it began. Her mind buzzed with curiosity as she gazed at the next note, “....thank you for blessing our home…” and the next, “....I pray to you for peace and safety…” One after another, letters and words of love and aspiration and prayer decorated the lonely forest. Eve’s own heart swelled and she thought of her own home, the place she had longed so desperately to escape from.
At the center of this circle, was a little box, and inside, blank paper and a small pencil. She removed a pink note and scribbled, “I love you Dad. We will make it out of here…” Folding it in half, she squeezed it through a notch in the stone, becoming one with the rainbow of hope. She was ready to return home.
All she had to do was open her eyes.
Except...she was still there.
The trees still surrounded Eve, the sand caking her feet, cool breeze whipping around her. Hastily, she grabbed her skin between her fingers and pinched, but she still didn’t wake up. Her cheeks burned with the sun that hung in the sky. Her heart pounded through her chest. Why couldn’t she leave her forest?
She spun on her heels, searching for the trail of white shells to lead her out. Only, they were no longer in a neat line, just scattered randomly across the forest floor. Her throat stung and she took off in a sprint, but the brush was too thick and the ferns seemed to be reaching for her ankles. Her breath caught as she found herself tumbling to the ground. A bright, leafy vine was wrapping itself around her leg. She dug her fingers under it and pried herself out, jumping to her feet.
The world was closing in. With each step, the path ahead narrowed, trees slowly shifting around one another. Roots curved along her feet, threatening to pull her down again. So she ran, soaring over logs and roots and stems, dodging their ploys. Wood and acorns cut up her feet, but she hissed the pain away and just kept running.
Through the trees, Eve spotted the long bridge, arching over a cascade of water. She raced to the stone, shoulders lifting after stepping off the forest floor. But as she crossed the bridge, peering into the water below, the ground cracked and crumbled beneath her. Her thighs ached as she darted across, and the floor fell from under her. She grasped at a jagged rock as she fell, trying to pull herself up, but it too disintegrated.
Her own screams echoed through the trees as she plummeted into the freezing water. The world quieted, rumbles and cries muted by the rush of the current. Eve’s lungs burned and climbed upward, only to be dragged under again. Something tickled her ankle below and another scream escaped her throat. It wrapped around her leg, growing tighter and tighter as it pulled her deeper. She clawed at it desperately, squinting through the murky darkness.
Eve saw the slimy weed around her ankle, but beyond that, was a glint of metal. A necklace. A ring. Beside them, shoes, and...bones. Her nail sliced through the stem and it loosened its grasp. She spotted the bank, overhung with roots, and she grabbed it, kicking as hard as she could. With the energy she had left, she used the root to propel her to the surface and grab onto the faltering rock and grasses.
The air was welcoming as she resurfaced, gasping, the pressure lessening in her chest. Her arms shook as she pulled herself to the shore, collapsing onto her back, thoughts racing. The items beneath the bridge. Valuables and bones, perhaps their owners. She wasn’t the first one to be trapped in these woods. She imagined the paintbrush in her hand, dipping it into bright orange paint, touching it to the grasses and the roots.
She rolled onto her knees and she gathered two thick branches.
Her nail beds dripped red as she pried off the bark, revealing a dry layer beneath. Her hands found a rock and sharpened a stick to a broad point.
Vines and roots crawled around her. She grasped the stick firmly in her palms and rubbed it aggressively against the dry branch.
The groan of the trees yelled to her, charred bark beginning to form.
Her paintbrush flew, strokes of curved flame climbing her trees.
A spark, and the dusty floor ignited.
Screams. The ground pulled at her limbs as embers erupted from its heart and reached higher, higher. Eve had nowhere to go. She was trapped there; the forest would never let her leave. So she had to make sure it would take no one else. There was nothing left that she could do, so she danced.
And she danced. The trees stretched far above her, dark smoke clouding the sky. Ferns and sticks crunched beneath her feet, and nuts and pinecones - and is that a fox skull?
And she spun, arms outstretched, letting the breeze encircle her open palms and fill her curls and carry her away, away from the trees, away from her mind, away from the pain. And there was the song of a bird with the whistle of the wind and she breathed, blind to the heart in the roots beneath her.
And she moved as the trees stalked toward her and its vines twisted and bark cried.
So she danced,
Until she was one with its branches.