“Don’t go into the woods,” they said. Do not go under the emerald leaves, do not venture on the twisted paths. Fools see a shortcut; wise men went around. Strange things lurk there.
“Stay in the light,” they said. The shadows move. If they catch you, if they touch you, they will steal your shape and leave you flat.
“Don’t trust the beautiful,” they said. Don’t look at their faces, beautiful women though they seem, or their eyes will trap you. Look behind. They have no backs. Hollow they are and they are always hungry. They will fill themselves up with you.
“Don’t eat anything from the woods,” they said. The bright red berries poking out from the leaves, the golden apples of the hollow-backed women, the thick mushrooms, the fragrant loaves left on tables and tree stumps. Not even if it seems freely offered. If they don’t poison you, they will enchant you. You will wake to a world long gone without you. Your children will have wrinkles.
“Don’t speak,” they said. The trees are always listening.
“Don’t listen,” they said. The ancients are full of words and they are not often listened to. You will not be able to escape.
“Don’t go into the woods,” they said. But he did.
He let the shadows touch him and borrow his shape for a village dance. They came back after his math test. He was able to rest and slither around for a day. He always felt lighter afterward.
“Be kind,” they said. And he was. He was polite to the old women with the drooping chins and hard noses, faces sagging like old tree trunks. He carried their bags and let them lean on his arm and gritted his teeth and didn’t say anything about how they walked with the weight of the earth. He stepped out of the way of the blue mice. He was careful not to break any branches.
“Don’t listen,” they said. But he did. The trees were full of words, lonely for someone to listen. If he could survive Widow Larsen and her ramblings, he could handle them as well. The key was to have somewhere to go, some task to complete. When his family sent him over to Widow Larsen’s with leftovers, he always left the cow unmilked or some other chore undone. He would mention it when he came in. It was better to not sit down. He kept moving, putting the extras away in her cupboard, sweeping the floor, chopping wood. It made her think he’s sweet and made it easier for him to leave when the work was done. Then he “remembered” the task and starts to leave. It takes about five hints for her to be satisfied and he suggests he will come back.
It’s a simple method: have an excuse, keep moving, suggest you’ll come back, and it works. His excuses have to do with his mother and his sister. He doesn’t use their names, wary of faerie eavesdroppers, but the trees don’t care much about names. They are too old to remember. Just “the woman” or “the child” will do for them. He keeps walking, pacing around their trunks, fingers brushing against the bark. He reminds them that the Woman will be watching for him and the Child needs him to light the fire so she can be warm. He suggests that he will come back to hear more later. One never promises anything in the woods. They open their branches and let him pass. He never gets lost in the woods.
And he does come back.
“Don’t eat the food there,” they said. This, he listens to. He bakes his own bread and packs his own lunch. Bread, cheese, and some vegetables, maybe an apple. No meat. It attracts the wrong sort and it never satisfies them. They prefer the life still beating. But it’s amazing what chocolate will get you. They’ve even let him fly once. He does not eat their food, but he knows to share his own. Milk is good, too. There are no weeds in his garden anymore. His family’s harvest is plentiful.
Once, an apple blossom woman gave him a fruit, long and curved, golden like her hair. He still dreams about her, golden and bright as sunlight. It’s still fresh, faerie fruit always is. He keeps it. He is waiting. He never gave them his name. They cannot take him. It is his choice. One day, he will taste it. One day, when he’s finally ready to live in the woods.
He makes a good adult although the village looks at him askance. Rumors go around. But he was taught not to listen. He never promises more than he can perform. Fact is, he never promises anything at all, but they don’t notice. He takes words seriously. He gets people to make promises and he holds them to their contracts. He is a master at closing loopholes. He’s learned to look behind pretty words and pretty faces. He is polite, though, and generous. The men say he’s a hard man but good, if a bit odd. The old women love him. He carries their bags and shovels the snow out of their paths. The young women are interested but he has a long away look and he’s still tormented by the golden girl.
One day, when his mother, the Woman, is gone and his sister, the Child, is grown, he goes back into the woods. He brings with him the box of his childhood, the one with the golden fruit, still fresh, inside.
One night, when the Child’s grandchildren are dancing, a man comes out of the woods to dance with them. He has a golden glint in his eyes, and he seems both young and old. He is light on his feet, he whirls quickly, and then he’s gone. They see him sometimes in the village. He helps old women with their bags. He helps children lost in the woods, guiding them to the right path. They say he talks with the trees and they open the way for him. But you never find him if you’re looking for him. The children have searched. The elders shake their heads.
“Don’t go into the woods,” they say, “you never fully come back.”