Into the woods

Submitted into Contest #74 in response to: Write a story in the form of a top-ten list.... view prompt


Bedtime Coming of Age Mystery

1.Patience, I tell you. You know already, but I remind you, for I have seen far too often the way fear short circuits the frontal lobe and paralyses human decision making; I tell you, the woods are alive. The trees, of course, grow and reproduce and respire, but I am talking of the spaces in between, of the essence of the woods. The lone birch tree that the nosy woman - you know the one - hangs her washing line on is not frightening as it stands silently in her garden, though the bleached bark peels like ribbons of flayed skin. It was dug up from the woods as a sapling and now it never looks quite morbid. Why, you should have seen the blundering fools the night they took it! All whispers and muffled axes - they believed nothing could hear them and nothing could see them in the darkness, just because their pitiful eyes are night-blind. How deliciously it makes me smile to remember. Nobody knows exactly how many trees must grow together before they become something collective, not just a plural but an intention. But when there’s a tree after a tree after a tree there begins to grow something else, in the gaps between trunks. Living spaces, they are called. Be wary.

2. Bring offerings and gifts. Baked breads are the best; plaited ones with sweet raisins and spices of cinnamon and clove, like the ones I brought you yesterday to celebrate. Sixteen winters already! (Gods above! You do grow fast.) Take them fresh out the oven, cradle them to your breast like a newborn babe you have just been given, unexpectedly, precious in her foreign fragility. Wrap them in blue cloth - linen, not satin - and place them in a basket.

3. Should a stranger chance upon the path you tread, ignore his questions. Idle tongues cause idle minds cause short lives. Do not tell where you are headed but do not lie. You think this to be contradictory? Is that why you laugh and shake your head so impudently at your mother? It is a talent of the highest degree to mislead but not lie, to say “What a dangerous journey, perhaps I should accompany you” and imply “I shall keep you safe”, without any promises of the sort. 

4. Walk, not run, even if you hear twigs cracking behind you. There are things that smell fear. Walk steadily and swiftly with a purpose in your mind, but Do Not Run. You do not know what might choose to chase. If a creature is low in the food chain it will not chase you whether you move fast or slow. If it is a predator, running will incite the thrill of the hunt. You remember the cat I brought you when you begged for company, when you said you were tired of seeing only two sets of eyes, mine dark to yours blue and watery in the mirror? Remember how she pounced if you turned your back, the thin scars on your arm that you hide with your cloak. That was the thrill of the hunt for only a pet. And if what scents you in the woods lies somewhere between predator and prey, it is unpredictable. Running tells it that it has more power than you.

5. If you see small eyes that watch you but do not disturb, it is only the Little Folk. They may leave you ornaments from twigs and leaves and string. Sometimes there will be scraps of meat for you. Place them in your basket, and whisper the old words for thanks I taught you. 

Hunted, hunter

Killer, killed

Ice, steam

Fire, ash

Wolf packs

Weavers three

Huntsman’s axe

Thanks be to ye

I have whispered this gratitude over your sleeping ears since you were a babe. Since the alderman stole you from the Church doorstep and handed you over to me. I knew you would be special: I could see it on your palm, the same threads I always see but brighter, bolder.

6. You must reach the Grandmother’s house by nightfall. She does not like any of the novitiates to keep her waiting. You will know the house for it stands alone in the heart of the woods like a spider at the centre of a web. You will know the Grandmother by the ordinariness of her garb, her face, her eyes. Nothing will be strange about her for she is designed to welcome you all. 

7. Do not stop to pick the flowers at the edge of the forest, beckoning you in. Pretty things are not always pleasant. The grass snake lies beneath the boldest of blooms because here he finds the most shade. Let your childhood vanish as you leave behind those tempting flowers, though their sweet-smelling perfume will follow you still. 

8. Follow the path. I have traced it upon your heart, the winding path through the tall trees. Look neither left nor right, nor to the canopy nor to the floor. The light will play tricks as it filters through the dense foliage and casts flickering, guttering shadows. Do not follow. Stay on the path with the surety of an arrow from a bow of charmed rowan wood.

9. I cannot charm you; the Coven forbids it. This is your initiation, therefore, you and only you may charm yourself, if you have the raw strength. Remember the words for they have power even for the uninitiated. 

First I will chant thee

The charm oft tried

No monster or wolf

Shall be your guide

Second will I chant thee

Your path shall be straight

Welcome you find

And an open gate

Third I will chant thee

That justice be swift

Injury returned for injury

Foul trick for foul trick.

You have memorised them long ago, I know. Do not roll your eyes at me. If you- when you return, you will know new chants from the Grandmother. 

10. Wear your red cloak always. The riding dress I stitched for you, and stitched into the red hood prayers that you will see through the sheep’s clothing, see through the nightcap pulled low over the face, and lastly see through the darkness a slice of light and be pulled through, a rebirth. You are laughing at your poor mother again. You think I speak nonsense. But you must leave now if you are to make it through the woods before nightfall. Here, your basket. Keep straight. Wave to me at the end of the gate and be careful as you pass through the village. It is your first journey out into the big wide world, after all, and there is a reason our cottage- with the odd woman and her beautiful daughter- is set apart from the others. You cannot hear me, but I wish you would stop laughing and skipping down the path so gaily. I know what you can not, my child; the way your story ends. 

January 01, 2021 23:25

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Luna G
20:18 Jan 09, 2021

I love fairy tales retold and this was was interesting. It’s well written and kept me interested until the head. However, I’m not sure how this fits as a top ten list though it’s a good story on its own.


Mya Radword
22:24 Jan 09, 2021

Thanks for commenting and your feedback! :) I envisioned it as a list of her top 10 instructions, but I totally see where you're coming from - it became a little jumbled as I rushed to write it.


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