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“Do you hear them?” the old woman said to us around the campfire. “The wolves in the night? Howling at the moon, at the stars?”


A silence filled the air, broken only by the crackle of flames, the noise of the forest, and the murmur of the lake. The old woman looked up at the night sky, where the moon shone and the stars twinkled with brilliant radiance, as if listening to a sound that none of us could hear. 


“I don’t hear a thing!” Sarah spoke at length.


“Then listen closely, my dear,” declaimed the old woman in a whisper. “And instead I will tell you a story about the wolves, about the stars.”


The old woman’s face lit up with excitement, and on her face there gleamed a white marking – the shape of a crescent around the eye. Sarah, James, and I leaned in to hear her, huddling as close to the fire as the heat would allow. Then the old woman spoke.


“There is a story,” she began, “about a young girl, who, according to the folklore of these parts, lost herself in the woods, much like the ones you see around us now.”


A smile rose to Sarah’s lips as she listened, and James and I lifted our gaze from the firepit to the old woman.


“Her name was Emily,” she continued, “and she must have been around your age, Sarah, when she left home one day. You see, it happened that she lived at the edge of a great forest, and, except for her old parents and a pet dog, she lived there alone.”


As the old woman spoke, plumes of smoke billowed up in the air, before disappearing in the pale sky.


“Her dog – loyal and affectionate, as you will soon know – she loved more than anything in the world, and she pampered it to its heart’s content. But one day, and for reasons unknown by anyone, it ran away from home, into the woods one summer evening, never to return again.”


James breathed a silent yawn to himself, while Sarah and I kept our eyes fixed on the old woman.


“You can imagine the sadness the little girl must have felt in the days that passed, for no sooner had she been told to forget about the little mongrel, as her parents liked to call it, than she resolved to go looking for the pet herself! How her mother and father could seem so uncaring, she could not understand.”


Here, the old woman paused to herself to collect her thoughts, and after a minute, she continued in a low tone.


“But to tell you the truth, Emily was naive and reckless, and, though she left for her parents a note about her plans and whereabouts, she did little to ensure that she could be found. And so the story goes that Emily went deep into the woods, through thicket and briar, and became lost after two days. Her parents, needless to say, were beside themselves with grief when they discovered that she was missing, and the town was thrown into an uproar. Search parties were organized, investigations were made, and news was spread, all so that the little girl might be found. And for weeks, they combed the forest, but to no avail.”


The flames of the fire sputtered and illumed the face of the old woman as she spoke.


“So rumors began to emerge from the townspeople about the missing girl. Many believed the wild things of the forest had gotten to her, for none of her remains had been found. Some guessed that she died another death, of dehydration or a fall perhaps, for there were terrible cliffs in that forest, and that her body was off somewhere waiting to be found. Still, others who were superstitious thought she had been spirited away by a witch said to live in the same woods. And few suspected her disappearance a hoax invented by her parents to cover up foul play. None, however, could have imagined the truth! And I do know the truth, for it happened long ago, when I was young woman, that I met the missing girl.”


Sarah gasped with pleasure, and James and I looked to the old woman with beaming smiles.


“Yes. I met Emily once. It happened far from here, at a place where the forest and the lake come together to form an inlet. I saw her there, amid a grove of trees, at the water’s edge, washing her face in a clear pool.”


“What were you doing there?” Sarah blurted out, and she cradled her knees together.


The old woman set her gaze on Sarah and then spoke.


“I was there with my husband,” she said. “And he was there to catch fish, for his desire had brought him far across the lake, deep into the woods. While he fished along the shores, it gave me time to wander, to explore. And so it happened that one day I came upon the missing girl, as I have already said, only, she was no longer a girl then, but a young woman, no older or younger than I.”


The old woman’s gaze settled on the embers of the fire as they glowed and faded with the passing of a warm breeze.


“At first the young woman was afraid, for she had seen me in the reflection of the clear pool. But when I drew near she did not run away. Instead she waited for me, and I came to her in the marshy soil. When I could see her in plain view, I noticed that she had cuts and bruises along her arms and legs, that she wore tattered clothes, and that she suffered from a wound about the eye. When I asked her about it, she told me a remarkable story. Listen!  This what she said to me:


‘It happened years ago,’ the young woman said, ‘when I entered the woods here. I was alone and lost and far away from home, and I had come looking for my pet Camilla, who had run away.’


‘I searched for a day without finding her, and when I decided to go home, I found that I had lost my way. It soon became dark, and though I ran and cried and shouted for help, my cries were met only by the silence of the woods. I spent a sleepless night praying for a miracle to save me, but none came. The next day I wondered deeper into the forest, though I tried to retrace my steps, and my distress only grew. Night came, and it was then that I heard the wolves.’


‘For hours they pursued me. I ran from them through the darkness, under the trees, but their howls grew louder still. Soon I came to a clearing, where tall grasses blew and the stars shined, and there they surrounded me. They snarled and whined, and I fell to my knees and clasped my hands together and prayed.’


‘One leapt out from the darkness and bit me, here, around the eye,’ said the young woman, and she showed me the marking on her face. 


‘I cried out in pain,’ she continued, ‘and did the little I could to fight back. But, at once, a second leapt out and threw the first away. I heard a yelp and then the scampering of feet. I fell back, raised my eyes to the sky, and felt cool blood trickling down my cheek. Time slowed, and I thought to myself about how beautiful the stars looked. Never had I seen them so bright, so lovely.’


‘Then came a strange sensation, the warmth of a tongue against my cheek. I looked and saw Camilla as if in a dream. She nuzzled me, and I, without knowing why, stroked her head. A calm swept over me, and a long time I lay there in the tall grasses with Camilla nestled against me. And soon the sound of the wolves died away in the distance.’”


Again the old woman became silent, and she stared into the flames. A tremor flitted across her wrinkled brow as if she were recalling a memory from the faraway parts of her mind. The smoke continued to rise above her and diffuse in the moonlit air.


“What happened next?” Sarah spoke, eager to get on with the story.


“Well,” the old woman said, “the young woman told me that ever since that night, when she was attacked and then saved, she had been living in the forest! She told me that, and believe it or not, she had been living with the wolves, with her pet Camilla.”


“Didn’t she want to go home?” I asked.


“She did,” replied the old woman. “She had even tried to once! But when she went home, she learned that not only her mother had died, but also her father no longer recognized her, so scarred was her face and long her absence. She went to the townspeople, but they jeered at her and laughed for nobody could believe her story! And so with a heavy heart she had returned to the forest.”


“Hmm,” I said after a moment of quiet. “All of it sounds made up! Like something out of a storybook. Are you telling the truth, Grandma, or not?”


The old woman breathed a sigh and stoked up the fire with a couple of broken sticks. The flames burned with a new light and the sound of light popping came to our ears.  The old woman turned her gaze on me and then spoke.


“Jacky, my dear, you are, of course, free to make of the story whatever you wish, but know this: I did see Emily there once in the forest, and she did speak to me, though perhaps not in the words I have already spoken. And she did return to the woods, when she left me, and I never did see her again.”


“What ever happened to her?” Sarah spoke.


A smile rose to the old woman’s lips, and she laughed.


“That I don’t know,” she said. “The story goes that after Emily lost herself in the forest, she found a way to live. How? Well, that I have already mentioned. But what ever became of her? I know none who can say.”


James breathed another yawn, and I followed suit. The old woman grew quiet, while the sounds of the forest hummed in the air. She looked up to the stars in the sky, listened for a moment, and then spoke.


“Do you hear them?” she said. “The wolves in the night? Listen! Closely. They are calling us now.”

April 29, 2020 16:54

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2 comments

Harken Void
18:22 May 04, 2020

Hey there! I read your story and I realy like how you describe things. The storytelling is smooth and the story cohesive. It makes me wonder if what the woman was saying was true? Or perhaps, that she and Emily are the same person and that she saw Emily at the lake as a reflection of herself? Keep on writing!

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John Blood
21:49 May 04, 2020

Thank you for the comment! I'm glad you got what I was going for. My hope is that it can be read either way.

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