Children of spring
She crept through the grove, alone. It was not how she wanted it but it was how things had worked out. She was getting used to it. Just.
Yet this journey she took wasn’t about that. It was about trying to change it. Or at least it was when she wasn’t lying to herself.
I want answers. I will hold them accountable.
I don’t want to be alone anymore. I want...
What I can’t have.
Gretel shook herself. She had to keep going. She crushed the voice that told her the woods were dark and frightening. That it was a bad idea to be alone here. To be alone without a torch. Without a friend.
It had quietened to a dim echo, muffled white noise, when she was a child. When she was abandoned by her father to be lost in the witches wood forever. To look after her brother, a sister turned mother.
He looked to me. He begged me to look after him. He made me step up. But he never realised it. That I was as lost as he was.
Memories started to flood her brain, like rapids breaking through a dam. Gretel quieted them, stilled the water in her mind to a calm sea.
I will have my answers. One way or another today I will know more than I did yesterday. And if they’re still alive... They will answer.
Pushing on through the murky wood, Gretel move with haste, without a sound. She had learned to move quietly when she was just a girl. There were things that lurked in the witches wood. Things with fangs and claws. Things with eyes that glowed and appetites that hungered. And they would have loved to have a little girl, a child in their grasps.
Not you girl! Girls are too stringy! You will sweep and when you are older, a woman blossomed, you will bring more boys to me, yes!
Guess monsters like ‘stringy’ because they all wanted to get a taste of me. If you had liked the taste of a little girl over her stupid brother you might still be here. But then that’s where my luck kicks in and yours runs dry.
“You saved me, sis!” Her brother’s round face beamed up at her, eyes smiling like a cats.
“You’re a horrible bitch, y’know that? You’ll regret that!” He struck her. Not for the first time in their lives, but the first time he meant it. The first time it really hurt. Her brother’s angry face, his cruel lips curled as he loomed above her. He had contempt in his eyes. Contempt for her.
‘Why do you hate me? What happened to you?’ She had badly wanted to ask him, but instead…
Gretel snapped back to reality, shaking away the shadows of her past. She was lost in thought a lot today, having difficulty focusing.
That wasn’t good. Gretel needed to be focused. She needed to be ready. It was a bad idea to lose focus in the witch wood. And what she was planning on doing today may have been the most important decision she had made in her life.
Finally reaching the edge of the woods. Gretel parted the bushes, stepped into the light and -
Came face first into spikes.
Gretel stepped back quickly, just narrowly avoiding a spike in her eye.
Her sleeve snagged on the brambles, knocking her off balance.
Gretel straightened back up and unhooked herself from the brambles. She freed herself, but her shirt tore on the thorn, leaving a piece of fabric behind.
Gretel folded her sleeve over, covering the rip, and continued.
She surveyed the brambles. They appeared to be twenty feet high, blocking out the world outside the witch wood, casting long shadows over her. Looking to the east and west, the bramble wall stretched on and on, further than she could see.
For Gretel this moment was a little anti-climatic. She always expected that when she finally left the witches wood she would step into sunlight.
She would have her sunlight.
Gretel took a deep breath and concentrated. Holding her hands out in front of her, she began to chant. A guttural sound from deep within her, ancient and rooted in history and nature.
Gretel sang the song of the earth.
The brambles emitted a hum, a deep vibration from within, and one by one they curled back, inviting her in.
Sweating from the concentration, Gretel readied herself and stepped forward, through the brambles.
The brambles closed in all around her, letting in no light.
Gretel paused, confusion causing hesitation. Whenever she performed her nature wards before they never reversed, not until she reversed them. It was perplexing, and made even more frustrating by the darkness that surrounded her.
Gretel reached her hands out, ignoring the thorns that poked them. She took a deep breath, channeling her inner most strength and unleashed the song with more vigor and commitment than before. She commanded the brambles, willed them.
You will answer to me.
I command you.
Part for me.
The brambles writhed like angry snakes but they would not do her bidding.
Gretel clenched her hands, blood trickled through her fists. The thorns had hurt.
What is happening? Why won’t these brambles obey me? Is my song not as potent outside the witch wood?
The brambles curled around her, snaring her on their thorns. Her cloak, her shirt and practical pants, her braid, all caught on thick, blood red thorns.
Gretel struggled, only giving to slight panic, but her struggling only caught her more in the brambles grasp.
The brambles moved upwards, elevating Gretel into the heart of its nest. Other thick bramble vines curled back out of her trajectory, clearing the way up.
Although frightened (as hard as it was for her to admit) Gretel was also deeply fascinated. What power commanded these brambles? And what did the one wielding them want from her?
The brambles came to a grinding halt, slowing some twelve feet in the air. Gretel felt uneasy.
Above her the brambles parted slowly, revealing a green, leathery face with large, crimson spikes extending from its forehead.
The face was framed by brambles that writhed and squirmed with all the anger of a hornets nest. They practically vibrated with anticipation of receiving their next command.
Gretel was genuinely stunned, she had never encountered a creature such as this. She was even more stunned when the face openly wept.
I don’t understand.
The voice of an ancient red wood spoke to her.
YOU LOOK JUST LIKE HER.
It all came out, in a steady pace like the footfall of a marching soldier. Disciplined, outwardly calm, inwardly prepping for battle.
His name was Sylvain. And he was her father.
And he had been married to Chloris, her mother.
This is my father?? This man betrayed me! Betrayed my brother, turned him into a monster!
This man is a bramble bush?
There was a lot that Gretel wanted to say just then. A lot she had imagined herself saying for such a long time it was as if she had prepared and rehearsed a script for a one woman play. That wasn’t what came out just then.
“So I suppose I have you to thank for my song.” Gretel said, strangely calm for all this insanity around her.
NOT ME. CHLORIS.
The name sent shivers down her spine.
Against everything she ever felt, Gretel began to long and she listened to the bramble man’s (her father’s) tale.
As her father had already stated, he had met her mother and fallen in love with her when he was a young man.
I WAS A YOUNG MAN. MY HEAD FULL OF NONSENSE AND BRAVADO. BUT WHEN I MET YOUR MOTHER IT WAS AS IF I HAD BEEN PROPELLED BACK IN TIME, A LITTLE BOY AGAIN.
IT WAS A SPRING DAY, WARM. I TRAVELED TO THE MOST BEAUTIFUL MEADOW IN ALL THE LAND TO PICK THE MOST BEAUTIFUL FLOWER FOR THE MOST BEAUTIFUL GIRL IN MY VILLAGE. I WAS GOING TO MARRY THAT GIRL. BUT EVERYTHING CHANGED THE MOMENT I PICKED THAT FLOWER.
CHLORIS APPEARED TO ME THEN, A VISION OF FLOWERS, THE MEADOW ITSELF SCULPTED INTO THE MOST PERFECT WOMAN.
SHE SCOLDED ME FOR PICKING HER FLOWER. YOUNG AND FULL OF ARROGANCE, I AM EMBARRASED TO ADMIT THAT I ARGUED WITH THE GREAT CHLORIS, NOT KNOWING OR CARING WHO OR WHAT SHE WAS.
“And who was she?” Gretel interrupted.
THE GODESS OF SPRING. The bramble man whispered.
The story unfolded like a flower blooming, petals peeling back. They had fallen in love almost at first sight. Sylvain had journeyed to the meadow each day since to be with her and their love blossomed as spring did around them.
One day, Sylvain came to the meadow again and found his lover tearful. ‘Today must be the last day.’
she told him. ‘Spring is over and I must slumber for another year.’ Sylvain had cried that this wasn’t fair, he wouldn’t be parted from her. Chloris told him not to grow angry, it was the natural cycle of this world, one she must obey. She would be back again the following year.
The following spring Sylvain returned to the meadow, desperate to see his love. Chloris appeared to him in that sea of flowers and they embraced. They were together, in the meadow, for every day of Spring.
On the last night of Springs, just hours from summer, Sylvain had begged her again,
This time Chloris gave in.
Wed in the meadow they met and fell in love in, for a time they were happy. Chloris was delicate out of season, needing protecting from scorching summer suns, blustering autumn gales, and frigid winter frosts. Sylvain was more than happy to provide the care that his beloved needed, he was so deeply committed to her and their love. Having survived winter, they birthed two beautiful children by the following spring.
YOU WERE PERFECT, YOU AND YOUR TWIN. YOU BOTH TOOK AFTER HER SO MUCH, WHEN I SAW YOU I SAW HER. AND I ALWAYS SMILED.
WE WERE ALL REALLY HAPPY FOR A TIME, YOU MUST BELIEVE ME. WE LOVED YOU BOTH AS DEEPLY AS WE LOVED ONE ANOTHER.
Gretel guffawed at that. Her disbelief had been suspended this whole time as she took in her father’s strange tale, the strange form she found him in, but this was too much.
“You abandoned us in the woods! How can you say you loved us?!”
MY DEAR GRETEL. THE WOODS WERE THE SAFEST PLACE FOR YOU. WE KNEW THE WOODS WOULD CARE FOR YOU, NURTURE YOU BOTH.
“My song?” Gretel murmured.
TAUGHT TO YOU BY YOUR MOTHER. YOUR ANCIENT BLOOD.
YOU WERE ALWAYS SAFE.
Tears threatened to form in the corners of Gretel’s eyes. She blinked them away.
Sylvain continued his tale.
They made a home on the boarder of the woods together, halfway between his world and hers. They raised their children there and had six happy years together. Chloris was sick much of the year and she needed Sylvain’s care, so the children were often left to play together and formed a close bond.
FROM A YOUNG AGE YOU BOTH SUNG SO WELL. PLAYING WITH NATURE, ENJOYING ITS PRECENSE AND CONNECTION TO YOUR YOUNG SOULS.
“But Hanzel never sang.” Gretel interjected, surprised.
HANZEL ALWAYS SANG AS A BOY, ALWAYS. YOU ARE BOTH YOUR MOTHER'S CHILDREN.
“Hanzel… He changed. He turned away from me.”
Her father smiled at her, a soft expression crossing his leathery green face. DO NOT FRET LITTLE ONE. HANZEL IS A CHILD OF SPRING. HE WILL FIND HIS WAY BACK TO US.
Gretel very much wanted to believe him.
On their eight year together, Chloris was far sicker than any year she had been before. Sylvain was frightened he would lose her.
In her absence, Skadi, the goddess of winter, had grown ever stronger with each passing year. Her hunts grew longer and more wolves ran to her side.
Her icy touch extened down from the mountains into the valley. Skadi took aim with her bow and shot an arrow of ice into the lands of spring, penetrating it with cold.
Chloris took her lover Sylvain’s face in her hands and gave him only one instruction ‘Protect the children.’
On his beloved’s order, Sylvain took the children into the wood where they so often played, far enough where they were out of Skadi’s grasp. Once this was done, Skadi used the last of her strength to transform sylvain into a powerful barrier, one winter could never penetrate.
They were protecting us.
They loved us.
Tears openly fell down Gretel’s face, rolling down her cheeks. “Where is my mother now?”
SKADI LEADS THE GREAT HUNT. THE ICY HUNTRESS HEADS A PACK OF GREAT WOLVES WHO HUNT YOUR MOTHER.
CHLORIS HAS ALWAYS STAYED ONE STEP AHEAD. A LONE SNOWBELL IN A BLIZZARD. SHE SURVIVES. BUT THAT IS ALL SHE DOES.
Picturing her mother cowering in an icy landscape, predators stalking her, Gretel made her decision. “I will find mother. I will stop Skadi and bring her to safety.”
YOU CANNOT! I FORBID IT! Her father suddenly commanded, his leathery green face contorted in rage.
“You forbid me?!” Gretel stated, incredulous.
YOUR MOTHER DID NOT WANT YOU TO CROSS, SHE WANTED YOU SAFE! MY LIFE IS FOREFIT TO THAT!
“So you are my prison not my protector, is that how it is?!” Gretel snapped.
DO NOT BE ABSURD CHLD! IF YOU ONLY KNEW WHAT YOU FACED-
“I will not leave my mother to be hunted by wolves! I’m going to her!” Gretel yelled. She flared with anger and felt the song flow through her stronger than ever. The brambles that held her withered and shrank away.
YOU ARE YOUR MOTHER'S CHILD. Her father caved, defeat leaking into his tone.
BUT MY DEAREST GRETEL I MUST WARN YOU. WHEN YOU LEAVE THE SANCTUARY OF THE WOODS YOU WILL ENTER A WORLD OF ALWAYS WINTER. A WORLD RULED BY THE CRUEL HAND OF SKADI, A LAND WHERE THE HUNT NEVER ENDS. THE FAINTEST MEMORIES YOU HAVE OF WINTER AS A CHILD ARE NOTHING COMPARED WITH WHAT YOU WILL FACE IN HER LANDS.
“I see. Set me down in the woods.” Gretel demanded.
Her father was puzzled I THOUGHT YOU DECIDED YOU WERE GOING AFTER YOUR MOTHER?
“Not alone.” Gretel said with finality.
Back in the woods, Gretel stared at the twenty foot high wall of brambles. Her father as it turned out.
She wasn’t going to leave yet. Gretel was strong, stronger than she ever knew. But she could not save their mother alone.
I’m coming Hanzel. I will put our family back together.
“I’m going to free you too, father.” Gretel whispered, blowing a kiss at the thick brambles.
Gretel turned and walked back into the woods, the imagined sound of a hunting horn blaring in her mind.
A wolf howled in the distance.