“Welcome back, Child,” the old gods whispered through the leaves.
Maddie flopped into the grass just short of the forest’s tree line and held her arms out with a grin.
The trees were impossibly tall, towering over her and casting their shade over the village. At their bases, the shadows condensed themselves into a tiny kitten that bounded into Maddie’s open arms.
“Hi, friends,” Maddie cooed, rubbing her cheek against the kitten’s cool darkness. Maddie had been drawn to the forest since she could remember, but she never crossed the tree line. Once she entered the forest, she knew she would never be able to return.
The old gods spoke through the shadow kitten, a shape that delighted Maddie, in a voice that wrapped around the air. The voice echoed from the kitten like a tangible whisper, mussing Maddie’s hair and playfully pinching at her cheeks.
She told the kitten about the friends she made at school, the crafts her mother was teaching her, and the prank she had played on Silas the day before.
Each time Maddie visited the tree line, the old gods reminded her that she was theirs. She had been promised to them at birth, and when she was older, she would join them, her soul uniting with the trees to keep watch over the village.
“Do not be afraid, Child,” the kitten had whispered with its god voice, and Maddie wasn’t.
Maddie lazed in the grass next to the trees, warm in a stray beam of sun. The shadow kitten rolled happily by her feet. “What will happen to me?” she asked. “When I cross into the forest, I mean.”
“You will become one of us.” The kitten butted its head against her calf lovingly. “Your soul will meld with ours, and you will become one of the sentinels of the forest.”
She looked up at the mighty trees, old beyond her imagining. Each one, a soul like hers, promised to the old gods and delivered. Maddie reached out and settled her palm against the closest tree. She could feel the hum of life and power coursing through her skin, comforting, welcoming.
The kitten climbed onto Maddie’s chest. It had no face, but Maddie could feel it look into her eyes. “Are you ready?”
She was tempted to say yes, to sink into the forest that brought her such peace, but she glanced back to the village. She saw her mother sitting on the stoop of the small clinic and teaching a rapt group of students how to treat wounds and cure ailments. Maddie looked at Silas who was helping his grandfather with the firewood for the coming snows.
She thought of all the friends she had yet to make, all the books she hadn’t read. And she thought of Silas most of all.
“Not yet,” Maddie replied.
“No. There’s so much more I want to do.”
The shadow kitten regarded her silently for a moment. “We have not heard ‘no’ before,” it stated simply.
Maddie stiffened, and she immediately braced herself for a reprimand. Instead, she felt the cool slip of the kitten nuzzle against her neck.
“Perhaps no one knew it was an option,” it purred with a thousand voices.
Maddie carried her precious bundle to the treeline. “Hello, friends!” she called. “I have someone I want you to meet.”
The shadow kitten emerged from the trees as Maddie knelt down to show it what she carried. A tear slipped down her cheek as the shadow kitten curled up against her swaddled infant daughter.
“Please,” Maddie whispered. “Please don’t take her, too. I want so much for her.”
The kitten flicked its tail dismissively. “Child, she has not been promised to us. We do not take what is not ours.”
Maddie breathed out heavily. “Good. I didn’t know how it all worked.”
“Your mother never told you? We claim only those who are born twice,” the kitten explained with a casual stretch. “First from your mother, and then again from the caul.”
“Your soul is twice as powerful. For the forest to continue to grow and protect the people, we need those with the strongest spirits. Now, as before, I will ask you. Are you ready?”
Maddie held her baby, the perfect combination of her and Silas, to her chest and smiled brightly at the kitten. “No.”
Maddie’s hair had gone silver, and her face bore the lines of aging, of years of smiles and tears and other human moments. She approached the forest, pulling a clumsily knit shawl tighter to block the chilly breeze.
The kitten bounded from the tree line to greet her. “Welcome back, Child.”
Maddie laughed and stroked its back. “A child, indeed. Look at how old I’ve become. I’m a mother and a grandmother. I’ve seen so many harvests and so many snows.”
“Yes,” the kitten agreed. “You have experienced much. There is more still to experience once you have joined us. So I ask you. Are you ready?”
Maddie thought of her new grandson at home, his face wrinkled but differently than her own. She thought of her daughters and her son and her simple and beautiful life with Silas at the little hut in the center of town.
Today, her visit to the edge of the old growth forest takes her a very long time. She moves slowly now, age firmly settled into her bones, but she walks with her head high and her heart light with the knowledge of a long and happy life lived.
The old gods pool together, and the kitten steps into the sunshine and rubs against Maddie’s legs in greeting.
“Child, you have returned.”
“Always,” Maggie croaks with a toothless grin.
“Are you ready?”
Maggie looks back at her house, white curls of smoke piping from the chimney. Secure in the knowledge that her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren are loved and safe and happy and warm.
She picks the shadow kitten up and cradles it to her chest.