“Stop coming back,” she whispered, kissing the top of his head. Her deep brown hair, smelling of petrichor and soft moss, tickled the tops of his cheeks.
“But Mama,” he protested, wrapping his chubby little child hands around her dainty waist. “I can’t leave you.”
“You must.” She kissed the top of his head again, harder this time. “It is the way of the world, and it is very important that you cross this forest.”
“Why? I don’t want to leave you.”
She laughed softly, in the way he liked: it sounded like bells echoing through the trees, spurred forwards through the lush gray canopy by the gentle breeze that seemed to follow her. She reached down, ruffling his bright orange hair softly with thin fingers.
“You are strong, brave, and wise.” She knelt now, leaning towards him. He could smell her, like honeysuckle and warm rocks in the sun. Her eyes were deep, glittering—and filled with tears.
“Mama, you are crying.”
“I cry every time one of my sons leaves me. But it is the way of the world. Go, now, my sweet child; go forth and claim your destiny.” She held him tightly one last time to her breast before gently turning him around, pushing him towards the path that led into the forest.
He took a few wary steps, stopping at the archway made by the trees that guarded the path like sentinels, looking back to his mother. He sent her a pained expression, begging with big doe-eyes for her to take him back. He wanted nothing more than to be settled in her lap, surrounded by her smells and sounds—where her warmth kept the constantly chilled feeling inside him in check.
She shook her head at him, waving with one pale hand as she wiped a tear from her cheek with the other. The tears fell freely now. She wrung her hands together, forcing them close to her body so that she could not beckon for him to return.
“Go,” she mouthed.
He swallowed dryly, turning back to face the winding path that disappeared into the heart of the forest. Even when the trees swallowed up the path behind him, the boy did not look back, forcing himself to stay inside.
Wearily, he wandered the trail for longer than he had ever walked before. He missed Mother more and more with every uneasy, plodding step. Missed her so badly that his own eyes flooded with salty tears, blurring his vision and making the path swim before him. After a time of struggling to forge on like his mother had willed him to, he sat and cried while the wind whistled through the boughs, trying to sing him a calming lullaby. The leaves rustled restlessly with his misery. It was palpable, suffocating.
A darkness descended on the forest, and the boy slept, curled up in the middle of the path. A wolf came to lay beside him, to warm him as the heat began to leave the forest. There was a chill in the air that was beginning to cut through the humidity that had once claimed the space between the trees. A doe stepped into the path, eying the wolf nervously. She pawed the ground a few times before deciding that the boy was more important, and came to lay beside him also, nosing herself under his head so that he had a soft pillow for his slumber.
When he woke, still wrapped in a blanket of living pelts, things had changed. A red squirrel was curled under his chin and chittered as he stirred, bounding off into the trees. He opened his eyes and was stunned at what he saw.
The forest, once lush and green, was on fire. Not real flames, but a swath of reds and oranges and yellows burned brightly above him in the canopy. He got up and the wolf growled warningly, sending the doe skittering into the underbrush with the predator, job now done, nipping at her hooves. The other creatures around him trundled back into the safety of the trunks, and again, he was alone. Just him and the endless path. He got up, dusting the earth and hair from his brown and gold clothes, and stood, rubbing his eyes. He was surprised to feel dirt on his face and went to scrub it off with the pad of his thumb, but found hair sprouting from his cheeks.
He had grown and matured in his time of sleep. It did not feel that long but it also felt like forever, like something that hadn't actually happened or happened so long ago he didn't remember it properly.
The trail beckoned to him, a hollowness in the trees that spurred him down it. Leaves, caught underfoot, crunched beneath his bare feet. He enjoyed this, enjoyed the earth pushing up softly through his toes. The once-humid breeze, now cool and crisp, pushed him ever-forward down the path.
The forest breathed with an ethereal beauty he had not known before; in his time with Mother, it was always warm. Always green, dark, and lush. Animals would play and eat the fruit that fell from heavy limbs. Now, leaves fell like aerial dancers before landing gracefully in a whirlwind of color. It felt like the forest itself had swallowed the sunset. He fell in love with the woods like this, set aflame, and his heart swelled with joy.
He walked. Zephyrs followed him, bringing the cold air and stripping the colored foliage from the limbs. They fell around, surrounding him in a vibrant swirl, caressing his cheeks, clinging to his clothing. He laughed, spinning in the flurry of leaves, taking long, loping strides. He grinned widely, flinging his arms to the sky.
His joy died when he realized the leaves were no longer alight for him. Bare branches met him, a pregnant moon hanging low, caught in the tangle. Black fingers writhed in the now-darkness. How long had he been lost in his joy? How far had he walked? More importantly, how far did he have to go?
Face set determinedly; he stormed ahead. The trees were still bare, rubbing and scratching together, making eerie noises in the dark.
He shivered—his crisp breeze had become a chilling wind, pushing him deeper into the trees. The wood took on an eerie blue shimmer, glittering mysteriously in the moonlight. His bare feet were numbed as he walked, but since he could no longer feel them, he did not notice them. He stared at them curiously; it was strange to walk and not feel your feet touching the ground.
"Ah, you have come."
He jerked his gaze up, following the path through the frosted trees. Directly in the middle stood a woman, pale as the snow that fell around her. Her raven-black hair, studded with thousands of flakes that glistened like diamonds, fell to her waist. She was beautiful, and the love he had felt for the forest on fire was overshadowed by what he felt for this beautiful creature illuminated by the pale moonlight.
"You expected me?" he asked, trying to catch his breath. It was so cold. She was so cold. But his heart burned so brightly for her that he thought that he could save her from this place. Her cheeks were chapped and pink, but otherwise, she seemed unaffected by the temperature.
"We were destined to meet. It is Fate." She held out her hand to him. "I am yours to claim, according to destiny."
He pulled her close and did exactly that, claimed her for his own. When it was done and the moments of warmth and passion over, he stood before her, naked and shivering in the snow.
"I do love you," he said, shuddering. His nose ached. His limbs were stiff and heavy with the freezing cold that had sunk into his bones.
"And I, you," she whispered. "But we cannot stay together; we are only allowed these few moments. I must be going, and your time here has come to pass."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that your walk is over. You can rest now, Autumn. It is now my time to travel through the Wood of the World."
She kissed his lips, and when she pulled back, her eyes glittered in sorrow. His brown eyes widened in surprise as he found he could no longer move. The cold in his bones had immobilized him.
"Thank you for my gift," she whispered, watching the freeze of her kiss consume him until he was covered in a layer of diamantine frost.
A harsh wind blew through, pushing over Autumn and shattering him into a thousand shards that danced with the snowflakes that trailed Winter. She turned, deeper into the icy forest, the snowstorm growing steadily around her on her own voyage and blanketing the wood in silence. Hers was a slow and steady walk to the end; until she gave birth to a son, Spring.
Malise, the winner of WriterVana's September 2021 writing contest, is a fantasy, contemporary romance, general fiction, paranormal, sci-fi, and horror writer.