The iciness of the winter had been replaced with a blanket of pink blossoms. The sun was radiant once again, creatures stirring from their shelters. Flowers bloomed from their buds, swaying in the breeze, festooning the lands in a myriad of various colors.
"It's pretty, isn't it?" Said Maria, peering outside, "I wonder when I can go outside."
She picked a few nuts from the pantry, gathering them inside a cloth cover before slinging it over her shoulder and heading towards the door.
"I'm heading over to my friend's, mom!" She called out. When she was greeted with silence, she swung around and wove through the footpath, her feet padding the pavement.
Out in the open, she shot a glance around, her eyes huge and wary. There was no one. Good. She soundlessly dove into a clump of bushes and entwined creepers next to the community park. She didn't have to dig a path through, because one had already been made, well-trodden from all her previous visits.
It weaved inwards to the woodlands that wrapped the lands behind her neighborhood. The trees grew closer and denser, beams of sunlight falling through gaps in the branches. The place smelled of damp earth and rain, insects and crickets chirping. Maria quickened her pace, her shoes sinking into the damp soil as she held the bag of nuts closer.
Pretty soon, she could hear muffled noises of animals, birds, and critters from ahead. Except, she didn't hear merely the noises. She heard voices, inhumanely lifelike as if there were people talking. She heard it right in her mind, not through her ears. It was almost like telepathy.
"Maybe she's not going to come at all."
"Sheesh! She'll be here before we know it."
"Says who? It's nearly dusk."
"I think- oh she's here! I told you she'd make it!"
Maria waded through long grass, tripping in her hurry. She broke through a line of trees and came upon a grassy clearing in the midst of the woods. It had previously been hidden away, so meticulously shawled away that you wouldn't ever guess it was here.
Right in the middle, was a gathering of several animals and birds, and among them, Maria could make out a deer, birds soaring in the air, a fox watching her from behind a tree, and a few squirrels hopping over the branches.
The arrival of any other human being would have sent these animals scattering, but Maria's appearance seemed to cheer them on. The hum and babble of voices multiplied tenfold.
"Here she is!"
"Hey Maria, we were getting worried you wouldn't come today."
"Did something hold you back?"
An impish grin stretched itself on Maria's lips. She began running towards the animals, the bag with the nuts in her outstretched arms, calling out: "Sorry I'm late, but hello everyone! I got nuts for you!"
The creatures began moving around, the squirrels hopping towards her and sniffing for the food as she came to a stop beside them.
Maria dipped her hand in the bag, bringing out a fistful of gleaming nuts, fresh and crunchy. She stretched her arms and scattered them at the animals which scrambled to snag some.
She propped herself on the ground, facing the sky, swinging her legs in the air. She spoke to the animals, prattling about everything that had happened, and they spoke back into her mind, chipping in.
The sun continued its descent, sucking the daylight away and bringing with it pink skies and intumesce clouds. The trees formed shadows over the clearing.
“You should go home.” the deer voiced, “It’s almost night.”
Maria wanted to stay back and continue talking, but she knew it was futile to object. She scurried up to her feet, scooped up the bag, and waved at the creatures.
“I’ll see you soon! I’ll be here tomorrow!” she said, before feeling her way through the bushes, returning on her initial path. She didn’t fear the dark, nor did she mind getting messy from scrambling about, but she knew her family would have many questions.
“Where were you?” her older sister, Margot asked her, the moment she slipped into her room.
“I was at my friend’s,”
“Oh right.” Margot narrowed her eyes, “When I went to check the pantry a couple of hours ago, there weren’t any nuts. Have any idea where they went?”
* * *
Maria continued visiting the woodland creatures whenever she could, spending an hour, two, or even three. She didn’t take along nuts or berries anymore, and mostly got away and returned without letting Margot be any the smarter, but when Margot was on the lookout, things suddenly became complicated.
“Are you off to your friend’s?” Margot would ask.
“Yes, I am.” Maria would say, hoping she didn’t sound too bothered.
She wished Margot didn’t do that.
One cloudy evening, Maria was getting ready to swoop in on another visit, when she found Margot hovering around her. When she made for the door, Margot blocked her way, stalling her.
“I need to go,” she said.
Margot moved aside to let Maria pass, but the look in her eyes couldn’t be missed. The glint, a gleam that flashed across her irises, lasting only an instant.
Too bad Maria didn’t catch it.
All through her journey to the woods, she didn’t suspect a thing. As usual, not a soul was around, but she had a strange feeling that she was being watched. Yet, when she turned around to look, abandoned pathways and empty streets greeted her eyes.
"We must be careful." Maria told the animals, "My sister smells something fishy and I find it impossible to sneak away right under her nose."
"That's a pity." The deer said, "Don't let her find this place. If she's being too intrusive and you can't throw her off your scent, keep away until the track is clear."
Maria nodded, her eyebrows knit together.
"Besides," the former continued, "It's nearly a year since we met for the first time."
"Why, yes it is!" Exclaimed Maria, "It was last spring, wasn't it?"
Even though it had been so long, the memory stood bright in Maria's mind. When she closed her eyes, she could picture the very first time she stumbled into this clearing and realized that there were animals she could talk to…
She hadn't known what was going to happen. She was just another lonely kid, roaming about in the neighborhood.
"Why can't I speak to other animals?" Maria asked, thinking of all the times she had tried to approach creatures elsewhere and hold a conversation but had failed terribly. Those animals had scampered from her, fright dancing in their eyes.
"There's something about this place." The deer said, its eyes glittering, "We can't speak to humans either, if we stray away. Something here empowers us to be able to communicate with creatures from another species."
"You mean this clearing has some- power?" Maria said, unable to believe her ears.
"Both this clearing and us. One wouldn't exist without the other."
"I have power?"
"Yes, you do."
"The thing is," began the fox, exasperated, "This place was created millennia ago, like everything else. And nothing can last forever, especially if word about it is out."
"Goodbye, Maria." Said the deer when she was leaving, "We can't say which goodbye will be the last."
Maria headed back home, the words echoing in her head. She wanted to believe that it was all a joke, but she couldn't dismiss the change today. The way the deer's eyes shone, the way the fox's words were filled with vehemence, the way all the other creatures present acted twitchy, and the way the clearing gave off an eerie vibe.
Her mind still buzzing, she opened the door to her house.
She froze the moment she did. Voices, a babble of voices from the living room.
Out of which, rose the most noticeable, her sister's.
“She glided into the bushes and just disappeared!” Margot was saying, “I searched all over for her, but she wasn’t there at all!” she paused, seeing Maria enter, “Here she is!”
“W-what happened?” the words had already formed in Maria's mouth before she could realize it.
“Don’t pretend you’re innocent.” Margot said, throwing all the contempt she could, in her voice, “I saw you burrow into a nasty hollow in the bushes and vanish into thin air.”
“But I-” began Maria, obvious to Margot’s accusing stares and the dubious looks showered on her by her family. Her words melted away, because she knew it would be too futile to try to repudiate Margot’s claim.
“Is that true, Maria?” her mother asked, sternly, “That you sneak off to places you don’t know instead of going to your friend’s like you say you do?”
‘It’s not unknown.’ Maria wanted to say, ‘It’s a special clearing in the woodlands and it’s the only one to exist. I’ve been going there for a year now.’
But how could she?
She could only stare at her shoes, her face pale. The words had begun to swell again, trying to escape into the open, but she forced them back.
“Are you going to speak up?” said her mom, “Or should I believe Margot’s side of the story?”
“It’s true!” Margot chanted, “She’s been lying to you and going off to dangerous places.”
The color in Maria’s cheeks rose. She couldn’t stand seeing her sister gloat over something like this while she stood aside, too overwhelmed to speak.
“I meet animals there.” she said, her words finally tumbling out, “I speak to them and they speak to me. I spend all my evening talking with them because it’s fun.”
“Animals?” Margot feigned choking, “You think we’d believe that?”
“I’m not lying!” Maria protested, “They’re special, you can’t find them anywhere else, and the place I go to is-”
“Wait,” cut in Maria’s mom, “You mean to say you’ve been talking to animals all these days?”
“Maria, if you were to say you played pretend with a few stuffed animals, I could take your word, but talking to animals?” her mom shook her head, “I can make out you’ve been up to mischief, and I forbid you from going anywhere without us knowing. You won’t go to those bushes again”
Maria’s mouth fell open.
No more secret meetings.
No more slipping away.
All because of her own sister.
And now she’d probably never see her only friends again.
* * *
Maria couldn’t make herself go to sleep that night. The events of the evening played in her mind on repeat. The uncomfortable feeling gripped her once again.
From the window, she could see the dead of night, trees waving soundlessly, and an owl hooting far away, as the neighborhood slumbered on. She was the only one awake, for all she knew. Even downstairs, her family had gone to sleep, the house still and echoing with silence.
Wait. She was the only one awake?
Maria leaped out of bed, a thrilling thought striking her. The back door leading into the garden would still be unlocked, and if she was really careful, no one would be able to hear her tiptoeing down the stairs and making her way out…
‘I’ll do it.’ she told herself, ‘I’ll meet them again and tell them everything that has happened.’
She creeped out of her room, her ears wide open for any telltale sounds. She wore a sweater over her pajamas and scooped a torch into her hands, her heart thumping.
Soon, she was out into the open, cool breeze ruffling her hair as she strode through to the hollow, the same place she had been used to seeing through the past year, every single day. She would swoop in just for a couple of minutes, notify them, and hurry back to bed.
No one would know, not even Margot.
She walked on and on, the path never seeming to end. Her legs began throbbing from carrying her weight, and the torch did little to show her the right way. When she came to the familiar place and spotted the bushes, she gave a yelp of satisfaction and dove through.
She hit brambles and branches instead.
Maybe she’d missed the hollow, maybe she’d only need to look around more properly and she’d find it again.
Grunting, she felt around for the hollow that would guide her inwards, but no matter how much she dug around for it, it didn’t present itself. She stuck her arm through, but it only came out on the other side. She scanned the shrubbery over and over again, but it was of no avail.
There was no hollow.
* * *
“Mom,” began Maria, the next morning, “Have you ever heard of the woodlands?”
The previous night, after her futile hunt, she had returned home, her spirits drenched. Perhaps her eyes were playing tricks on her and she hadn’t been able to locate it. Fortunately, no one had noticed her absence, and here she was, at the breakfast table. Just like anybody else.
“Woodlands?” her mom frowned, “I don’t get you.”
“Yeah, the woodlands that run behind our neighborhood.” Maria quipped, chewing her sandwich.
“Maria, I think you’re mistaken.” said her mother, as the girl looked up, her eyes wide, “There isn’t a woodland near our neighborhood. There never has been.”