Blood slowly dripped from the top of the tallest tree surrounding the clearing. It glistened again the moonlight and didn’t stop until it hit the frozen forest soil. Something had happened up there, something that no creature in the forest was willing to explain or understand. The blood on the tree froze and remained there forever, working as reminder to every single creature to be very careful on this part of the world.
A long time after that, a woman dedicated to washing the clothes of others got lost in the forest. She had been washing sheets and dirty underwear in the cold water of the river but she had lost her way because of the snow, that had begun to fall very slowly, changing every single aspect of the forest in the process.
Unknown to the woman, she was being watched by various creatures but not because they wanted her out of because they feared her. They just wanted her to leave forever and never return. They knew that the frozen trail of blood on the tallest tree was from human origin and that, in simple words, meant that humans were better off very far from the forest.
However, the laundry lady had gotten lost. She was not a young woman, rather having a lot of experience in what she did, as she had been doing it for the past thirty years, at least. It had been her mother who taught her everything “ a woman should know”. And she learned everything because women could learn so little that it was better for her to get every piece of information available, instead of suffering for what wasn’t true.
She had dreamed, long ago, to marry a handsome man and have beautiful children and leave the rest of her days as the best housewife in town. Her little corner of the world was so peaceful and small, that she never thought thinking what she thought was asking too much. After all, every other girl had exactly the same luck, with various results but at least they got to have a proper family.
Her name was Irene, after her mother, and no one had ever asked her to marry. She knew she wasn’t the prettiest girl in town but she was one of few girls available. And, as uncommon as it was, there were more single men in town than single women. And even so, she remained a spinster for the rest of her life. As old as she was now, she knew she wasn’t going to have any chance of having the life she had always wanted. Instead, she found herself a nice little cottage and people came over to leave their dirty laundry for her to wash. It was a simple and sad life.
When she got lost, she didn’t really got scared. Her life was so full of the same always, that a little bit of excitement wasn’t unwelcomed. Irene had a big bag on her back, carrying everything she had been washing and realized she needed to head back fast or frost will begin to form on the wet parts of the sheets and defrosting them would be even harder inside of her house. She used her chimney fire to dry the clothes and other items but if frost was involved, it would take much longer and the payment would also take longer to reach her.
She walked and walked, first with no worry but as the sun began to fold, she accelerated her steps. Suddenly, Irene arrived to the clearing were the tall tree stood but because of the snow, she didn’t notice the frozen blood or the large amount of birds watching her from above. She stopped walking and started yelling “Hello!” to no avail. The truth was, and she had no way of knowing it, that she had walked farther and farther away from town instead of getting closer to it.
No one ever reached the clearing, not even in the summer. It was a private place the forest revealed only in special occasions and, apparently, Irene was special enough to get there. But that, somehow, wasn’t a good thing. Snow was pilling up and the forest was slowly getting darker. The woman, now desperate, turned around and ran into the forest but it was too late. The trees had suddenly decided to be closer that they had been before, so walking between them was now very difficult. The lack of light made it hard for Irene to see that she was slowly making a circle.
After a while, she got back into the clearing and it was then when she dropped her bag, fell to her knees and started to cry and to beg for help. She yelled and cried very loudly in order to be heard and she actually managed to do that but that person, a hunter returning home, confused her voice with the sounds in the wind. To put it simply, he thought he had been too long out in the woods and that he needed food and the warmth of his home and family.
Irene stopped yelling, she also stopped punching the frozen soil, which made her hands hurt because it was like punching steel. She cried but it hurt too badly so she stopped fast. She looked around and realized that, despite being night, there was some kind of light illuminating the clearing. She looked everywhere for the source and realized someone was coming. She stood up fast, thinking help was on the way.
But it wasn’t a helping hand. It was a figure wearing a cloak, revealing no human attributes except the shape. It didn’t seem to be walking like normal people did, instead floating around, as it happened to be some sort of ghost. Irene’s hope vanished and tried to get back to the forest but everything behind her was black, she couldn’t see trees or anything else. There appeared to be a very black wall there and she just couldn’t run anywhere. Anyway, her feet were unresponsive and once she tried to walk, she fell to the ground.
The figure then stood in front of her and appeared to wait there. It was unclear what it was waiting for, if it needed Irene to speak first or if it was there for other matters and was completely ignoring the fact that Irene was there.
Then, the creature started to transform. It grew a bit larger and Irene could see feet and hand emerge from the bright cloak that had been floating in front of her before. As the feet touched the ground, the hands pulled back the cloak’s hood and revealed the head of a woman. In appearance, it did look like a woman but she wasn’t like Irene. The laundry lady was older, had pale skin and blue eyes. She was taller than many women and her nose was bigger too.
The figure, or rather, the woman beneath the cloak, was smaller even as it had grown larger, had bronze skin and big hazelnut eyes. Her skin seemed to be really soft and her ears and nose were very delicate. She looked patiently at Irene, and then spoke.
- You are alone. – She said.
Irene started crying again, but this time she didn’t care about how much it hurt to do that in a frozen forest. Slowly, she nodded to accept the spirit’s statement. She then noticed the women that had appeared before her had some sort of drawing on her faces, very subtle and beautiful.
- You don’t have to.
And she raised one hand and offered it to Irene. The villager had no idea what to do. Something, a voice in her head, told her to hold that hand. But her inner voice, the one that was actually hers, was afraid of what might happen. She was afraid that this apparition had something to do with death and, she had known this for a while, she wasn’t ready to die.
- I’m not ready to die.
It escaped her lips as she had thought about it. Surprisingly, the spirit kept its hand stretched towards Irene and, suddenly, she smiled. And then Irene’s hand just decided, almost by itself, to grab the hand of the spirit. Then it was all engulfed in white light and the older woman thought her moment had finally come.
But that wasn’t the case. Irene was again at the edge of the river and it was still day. The sheets were on the bag and she had to get going. She could see the smoke of a house and knew that was the way towards the town. As she walked to her home, she wondered about the spirit and asked herself if she had dreamt the whole thing. It was only when she got home and found a person knocking on her door, that she realized she hadn’t dreamt anything.
The girl with hazelnut eyes, bronze skin and beautiful nose, was knocking on her door.