“Katelyn, d-do you think they are p-poison?” Arabella asked me. Her voice sounded hoarse, the cold air sending small puffs of mist from her lips. Next to her, little Gregory bounced on his feet, the possibility of food giving the boy a sudden burst of energy. It was our third day alone in the Whispering Forest, our third day without food. The waterskin I had stolen from Father was almost empty, and dusk was fast approaching.
“I don’t know,” I answered. The bushy plant stood two paces high and held many clusters of berries. I pulled one from the clump. It was a juicy, deep crimson. A quick glance at Gregory revealed a string of saliva hanging from his chin, just above the sickening bruises where Father had strangled him.
“What if it’s baneberry?” Arabella questioned, her brown eyes both panicked and hopeful.
“No,” I answered, “baneberry has pointed leaves. I used to pick them for Mother when she had an ache in her belly.” One or two baneberries could remedy a stomach cramp. Six or more could stop your heart.
A sob escaped Arabella’s throat. She clutched my arm. “I miss her,” she murmured, and I immediately cursed myself for mentioning Mother. My little sister was only eight years old, and Gregory six. Our perilous escape into the Whispering Forest was wearing heavily upon them. I could see it in the hollows of their eyes, the sag of their shoulders. “As do I, little dove, every day,” I said softly, my mind wandering to Mother’s passing. It still held a great weight on us. She was the one who had held our family together, who made life in the Whispering Forest bearable. After her freakish death everything changed. Our world grew darker, the forest more threatening. But Father, Father had changed the most. In my mind I could still hear his scream as he strangled little Gregory, shaking him until the tips of his toes scraped the wooden floor of our cabin. “Don’t you shut that door, boy!” He had yelled at my baby brother. “Don’t you shut that damn door!” I remembered turning and seeing the cabin door closed and latched. Why shouldn’t the door be closed? I wondered, legs trembling, as Gregory let out a muffled yelp. His brown eyes pleaded for help, the skin on his face darkening as he struggled for breath. I picked Father’s sword off the dinner table. It felt so heavy in my hands. I walked to them…
Arabella’s sudden scream broke me from the spell of old memories. I spun and saw her lunge forward and swipe at Gregory’s face. But it was too late. Little Gregory smiled, his lips and teeth streaked red from the juice of the unknown berries.
“What are you doing?” I shouted, reaching out and slapping at his hands. He stepped backward, dropped the clump of berries to the forest floor, and started to cry. His face was chapped and the streaks of fresh tears made his pink cheeks glisten. I went to him, pulled him close. “How do you feel?” I said, trying to sound calm. “Tell me.”
He sniffled, wiped his nose on the sleeve of his deerskin. “I’m good,” he said. “It feels warm.” He patted his belly. I waited a moment, observing, yet saw no signs of sickness or poison.
While I was concentrating on Gregory, Arabella had wandered off a few paces ahead. “Katelyn,” she called out, “come see what I’ve found!” I guided Gregory through thick brush and found Arabella beside more berry bushes. Further beyond, a group of young saplings grew bunched together. Their bark looked sickened, taken with a fungus, yet as I drew closer I saw the smooth bark had in fact been painted on from the red juice of the nearby berries. Images of flowers and butterflies, of knights and dragons, wrapped themselves around the young trees like a child’s totems.
“Other people have been here!” Gregory shouted.
“And look,” I said, pointing to the nearby berries. “They’ve been picked from.”
“That means we can eat!” my sister said.
“Yes, I believe so.” Yet I wondered for a moment if the berries had been picked, not to eat, but only to decorate the saplings. Although I did not believe so—for what children would want poison on their fingers? And Gregory, he had shown no ill effects from the berries he had eaten, so we immediately began pulling clusters from the bush. I put three in my mouth and bit down. They were delicious and sweet. I felt a comforting warmth spreading in my belly, as if drinking from a glass of wine.
Once my stomach was full I spent a long moment enjoying my brother and sister. No longer hungry, their fingertips dipped into the berry juice and became crimson quills, creating the edges of a broadsword on an unmarked sapling. The sun had fallen lower, and the forest shadows grew long and thin. I closed my eyes, breathed in the cold air, and heard the sound of a giggling child.
I sprung to my feet.
“What w-was that?” Arabella asked in-between a harsh bout of hacking coughs.
“Someone’s over there,” I whispered. “Come.” We stayed close, continuing down the slim pathway. The trees were tall above, their branches gripping one another other like the outstretched hands of old, dear friends.
A shadow rushed between the trees.
“I’m scared,” Gregory said, clutching my hand tight.
“Hush now,” I scolded. We did not move. Waiting in silence, the wind howled, making my eyes water. I pulled the hood of my deerskin tight against my ears, stifling the chill. As I was about to step forward another figure appeared. “Weeeeeee…” it called forth, its shadow slipping between the trees, although much higher than the last, as if floating in the air.
“It’s a ghost,” Gregory said.
I told him he was being foolish, yet my thoughts had been the same as his words. After all, the laughter of children was known to be heard in distant areas of the Whispering Forest. Mother had called them ghosts of the young dead, forgotten not just by their families, but also the Gods, and left to roam the forest until the end times.
With my brother and sister each gripping one of my arms, I stepped from the tall oaks and into a clearing. To my left a shadow approached quickly with a glow of light at its center. I pulled my little ones close and watched the shining pink orb grow near. It rose above the ground, and from this closer distance I could see what made these people float. A rope was tied to an overhead branch, high up on a maple tree. The figure swung from it, sailed into the air, and landed nimbly on the ground before us.
It was a young girl, perhaps a year older than Arabella. She stood and stared with big blue eyes. I nodded to her and she giggled. She wore a long cloak, dyed pink, which matched the glowing light around her neck. Her shoes were pointed sandals shaped to the grooves of her feet.
“Hello,” she said with a smile.
“Hello,” I replied. I was about to say more, but the girl pulled the glowing necklace free and placed it around Arabella’s neck.
“Keep it,” she said quickly, “I have more.”
“Thanks,” my sister replied, but the girl was already on the move, skirting past a fallen tree, over a shallow creek, and out of sight.
We all stared at the glowing necklace. “What is it?” Arabella asked. I touched it gently with a fingertip. It was round, warm to the touch, with five narrowing points jutting out of it, each of which pointed in a different direction. The pink aura it encased us in seemed magical. “I believe it grows from ancient everling trees,” I said. “Most call them star apples.”
Arabella held it up to her eye. “It’s beautiful.”
“Come, we must hurry,” I said, pulling the sleeve of Arabella’s deerskin.
Gregory’s dark eyes held me in suspicion. “Why?” he asked.
“Because I want to see what lies beyond that creek.” We reached it just as the sun set. Darkness clung to everything outside the glow of the star apple. The creek waters were low lying, and we easily hopped across flat stones to the other side. As I was about to climb back up to the forest floor when I noticed something strange. Just in front of my eye the rock wall lightened from dark gray to a light silver. I put a finger to the darker stone and it came back moist. I helped Arabella and Gregory out of the creek, wondering how the water line had dropped so far, so soon. There hadn’t been a rainstorm in over a fortnight, and the weather had been quite dry.
So why had the creek waters been full?
With the night fully upon us we pushed forward to the chatter of crickets and the crunch of dead leaves. An orange glow appeared in the distance. I heard crackling and chattering and laughter.
“Fire!” Gregory yelled. I couldn’t stop him—he was running to the flames before I could say a word. Arabella followed, the hood of her deerskin slipping to her shoulders as she tried to keep Gregory in the glow of the star apple. I followed, and within moments we were engulfed in the glow of a massive bonfire. Its logs were stacked against each other in the shape of a cone, crackling and popping. Nearby children quickly surrounded us. Girls in pink cloaks and boys in blue ushered us closer to the fire. Soon I was seated beside my brother and sister as a wave of heat melted away three days of cold and fear. I closed my eyes, feeling tired, comfortable. My nose was runny and my eyes watered, but I did not care. For I was warm…we were warm.
The children offered hot cider and watched us drink. I took a small sip, enjoying the delightful heat spreading inside my belly. Gregory took quick sips, not taking the time to smile or speak. Arabella meanwhile, was quite the contrary, chatting with the little girl who had given her the star apple as if they had known one another for ages. The hoarseness in her voice lessened with every word. The usual sparkle in her eye was returning as well. Even her cough had slowed. “Where are we?” Arabella asked her new friend with the big blue eyes.
She smiled and said, “You are in a special place. A place for lost children to play!”
“Our garden of little angels,” a pleasant, yet older sounding voice spoke out just behind me. I turned to see an elderly woman smiling at us. She wore a plain tunic and a snug fitting cap tied under her chin. Many of the children ran to her. “Mother Dyana!” they exclaimed. She embraced them, yet never lost my eye. “A place where children can grow,” she said. “A place of hope.”
“Wonderful,” I said, and took another sip of hot cider. “But what is this doing out here? And why have I never—”
“Come with me for a moment, child,” she interrupted as kindly as possible. “I will explain.” She directed the other children back to the fire. They huddled around my brother and sister, as I was ushered along a dirt pathway. I glanced at Gregory and Arabella. They were laughing and joking with the others. Gregory had a tart in his hand, as did several of the other boys. He took a big bite, smiling as he wiped custard from the tip of his nose. Beside him, Arabella clapped hands with her new friend, reciting an old song I remembered singing when I was her age.
Here lays Thorus, snoring in the forest
By first light he will whisper death’s chorus
I left them there, at ease in their safety, and followed Mother Dyana down a curved trail, brightened by the light of torches staked into the nearby ground. They glowed in different shades and colors—reds and blues, violets and greens—creating the illusion of walking, not on a dirt pathway, but on the edges of a rainbow.
We approached two cabins, each with a wooden sign near its roof. As I looked closely, I saw pictures of dolls and soft bears had been painted on one, and on the other, a silver sword and shield. As I closed in on the cabin with the painted sword and shield I noticed something so spectacular I almost shouted out in surprise.
Windows! The cabin had glass windows!
“It’s beautiful,” I said, placing a gentle finger against the glass. It had been years since I had seen a window, and never before had I seen one so large. Beyond its invisible wall, under the glow of candlelight, toy swords and wooden shields lay on a table of white cloth, surrounded by painted carvings of famous knights. One of them was dressed in black armor with an insignia of an iguana on its breastplate.
The mark of the Talum.
I let my finger play along the edge of the glass where the Talum Knight stood with his sword pointed outward and ready to strike. I thought of Father.
“You can have that Talum Knight come the morn,” she said.
“No thank you, Mother Dyana,” I said with dryness. I stepped away from the glass, sadness gripping my chest. My father was a Talum Knight, and the finest swordsman I had ever seen. He knew both glory and honor. But after our Kingdom fell to the barbarian tribes, and the good King Rhaedon butchered in his own king’s chair, Father had taken us south, away from the promise of death and torture, and to the free cities, where a peaceful life could never be found. For father was a Knight of the Talum—and no matter how much we tried to hide, tried to blend—in the end he would always be recognized. And then we would run again. And it wasn’t until after many seasons of running that we finally escaped to the Whispering Forest. For only a fool would follow us any further. And there were no fools to be seen this far south of the compass—just ghosts and death.
Mother Dyana patted my shoulder. “Just wait until dawn,” she said near my ear. “The smell of the bakery will have your mouth watering before you take your first step from bed.”
“You have a bakery?” I asked, forgetting both the Talum Knight beyond the glass wall and the injured one, or perhaps dead one, I had escaped from back home. The bakery should not have surprised me, not after seeing Gregory eat the tart by the bonfire, but it did nonetheless.
“But wheat cannot grow in the forest.”
She put her hands together as if in prayer, and said, “In this forest, in our village, everything grows.” She smiled, making the folds of skin on her neck and cheeks wrinkle. “The children feed our garden with their love, their innocence, and from this sustenance we will always eat, we will always survive. It is the way it has always been. This is the forest’s gift to us.”
I nodded, wondering how that could be. As we continued down the path I indeed saw a bakery, larger than the toy shops I had just passed. It had two round chimneys of stone. They were unused at the moment, but I could only imagine the smells they would create come the morn. Further along stood a butchery. Mother Dyana pointed to the nearby pits. “We are roasting a boar for tomorrow’s feast, in celebration of your arrival.”
My stomach grumbled like a hungry bear. “A feast? You are too kind to us, Mother Dyana.” She smiled and we pressed on. “Do you always feast for the arrival of lost children?”
“Not always, my dear.” She placed a hand upon my arm and led me toward a grand looking homestead. “But young Angelet seems to have taken to your sister. And it has been long since I have seen her smile the way she had been by the fire.”
As we neared the front door I told Mother Dyana our names and explained that we had become lost in the Whispering Forest. I left my family’s story untold, although I did explain to her that both my mother and father were dead. She remained silent throughout, and at the end patted me softly on my back. She then pointed at the large structure before me. “This is the girls’ quarters,” she said. “On the other pathway of the forked road is the boys dwelling. But not to worry, Gregory will sleep with you tonight. I’m sure he will want your comfort for several nights, until he becomes settled.” I smiled, thankful that she understood my feelings.
Inside I was told to take off my leather boots and hung my deerskin on a large rack beside the door. The soft wool rug felt wonderful under my feet. I took in the comforts of the room. Toys and dolls lay on white tables, brightened by nearby oil lanterns. Vibrant paintings hung from the walls. A fireplace sent strong heat on my arms and face. Just beside it a door was propped open, and from the door a strapping boy entered carrying an armload of wood. He was perhaps my age or slightly older, with long dark hair, and handsome green eyes. He set the wood down, pitched in two logs.
“Boy, bring Katelyn a cup of cider, and some bread and honey.”
The boy turned, bowed, and walked out of sight.
I followed Mother Dyana up a twisting set of stairs. The lodging seemed much larger from the inside. Once on the third floor she showed me to my bed. “Your sister will sleep here,” she said, pointing to the bed beside me. “And Gregory on the next. You can bathe come the morn.”
I smiled and said, “Thank you Mother Dyana. Thank you so much.”
“You are quite welcome, child.”
“Do you—” I said, and then stopped, hesitating.
“Do I what, child?”
“Nothing, I just…have a question.”
“And what is your question, Lady Katelyn?”
“Do the children ever leave?” I asked quicker than I would have liked.
I watched her smile twitch, just once. “Now why would anyone want to leave our garden?” she asked, before standing up and smiling once again. “This is more than a passing stopover for these children. This is home.”
“Good. Now have a bite to eat and get some rest. I’m sure it’s much needed.”
“Thank you,” I said. “You’ve been so kind.” I sat upon the mattress. It was soft, so soft, and the blanket heavy and warm.
“Not to worry child, I have spent almost a lifetime here, and I have helped countless children find their way.”
A moment of silence crept by as the young man brought me the bread and cider. I took a bite of the deliciously sweet bread. Mother Dyana had not yet left, she was primping the pillow on a bed across the way, so I questioned her one last time. “Do other elders live here?”
She turned to me. “Yes child,” she said. “Damerus the butcher, and Espan our watch guard. They have served our children for many seasons.” Downstairs I heard the rush of happy children. My brother and sister soon found me, filling my arms with a warm embrace. It was so joyous to see them looking healthy and without fear. But then my eyes found the bruises on Gregory’s neck, and a cold chill rooted deep in my bones, as Father’s mad words continued to echo in my ears, in my head. “Don’t you shut that door!” he screamed, clutching Gregory’s throat until his eyes seemed about to pop from their sockets. “Don’t you shut that damn door, boy!”
I watched them wander off. Arabella played with her new friend, Angelet. They clapped hands on the mattress beside me.
Sleep forever, always together, holding each head that we dismember
The old song brought gooseflesh on my arms and neck. Arabella’s smile, however, was like magic.
I placed the empty dishes from the cider and bread on the bare floor just before the lanterns were put out. The girls had quieted, and even the blue-eyed Angelet had retreated to her bed. Gregory was still awake, beside the only lantern which still held flame. He sat on Mother Dyana’s lap, as she told him an old bedtime story. I did not like the way he looked at her, with those wide eyes, and that big grin. And the way he called her mommy—not mother, or Mother Dyana—but mommy. It made me quite angry, yet the comforts of bed soon pushed such emotions away. I struggled to hold open my eyes, but they were much too heavy. I pulled the thick blanket over my shoulders. The warmth was immediate.
The sound of heavy footsteps and the scent of musk told me the handsome boy had returned to take away my empty plate. I felt hair brush along the side of my cheek, felt warm breath as he leaned much closer than needed. As Mother Dyana spun tales of knights and kings to little Gregory, I heard him whisper beside my ear.
“You never should’ve come here.”
The early morning was filled with the bustle and excitement of the coming feast. The girls seemed in high spirits, dressing quickly into their linens and robes, chattering all the while. Angelet had already found my sister’s bed. She was lively, chirping like a robin. “It will be so much fun! We haven’t enjoyed a feast in ages!” Beside her, Arabella smiled from ear to ear. Her eye found mine, and she jumped from the mattress and into my arms. “I love it here,” she told me. I struggled to hold back tears. She looked so healthy. And her smile so genuine. “I know little princess,” I told her.
Soon after, Mother Dyana appeared with little Gregory at her side. I wondered where he had been, but was not surprised to see who he was with. “Mother Dyana has clean garments for us,” Gregory said. He wore a blue robe and newly crafted leather boots. He hugged me and I could smell the perfume of soap on his skin. “You bathed him?” I asked sharply.
“Why, yes,” Mother Dyana said. “Little Gregory was quite untidy. Such a mess young boys can make.”
“Yes, such a mess they can make. A mess suitable for his sister to clean.”
“Now, now, Katelyn,” she said sternly. “There is no need to be haughty. Not here.”
I forced a smile. “Yes, and no need for my brother to be undressed by strangers,” I answered, my voice holding sternness as well. “Even here.”
Mother Dyana seemed about to speak, but then paused and took a deep breath. She exhaled, appearing to lighten some as kindness returned to her eye. “My apologies, Lady Katelyn. I’ll be sure to tell you of the on goings of your family from now onward.”
“Thank you,” I replied.
“Although soon you will see just how much larger your family has truly grown.”
I nodded. “I look forward to it,” I said with a smile.
Gregory squeezed me tighter. “There’s a hot bath for you and Arabella. Mommy said—”
“Mommy is dead, Gregory,” I said, trying to hold on to that same smile.
“Not her,” Gregory replied, “new Mommy.”
I felt my stomach spike with anger, yet said no more. I allowed Mother Dyana to lead us outside, where several large wooden barrels sat beneath a large canopy. One of them was filled with bubbles of warm water. Gregory played in the nearby dirt while Arabella and I scrubbed off three days of dirt and grit in the soothing bathwaters. We then dried off, changed into clean linens and pink robes, and followed the sounds of laughing children. We walked the same path from the previous night, although no rainbow fires lit our way, just the golden rays of the morning sun. Outside the butchery Damerus swung a cleaver, chopping meat. He was thick and burly, with a balding head and eyes black as coal. His apron was stained red with blood. As we passed by him he did not look our way. I was thankful for that.
Near the bakery children ate steaming hot cereal and drank wild cider. Arabella explained how apple trees grew in abundance in the garden beyond our sleeping quarters, so cider was plentiful. She also was pleased to tell me the name of the berries we had eaten last night—sunberries. They only grew in the garden and other close, surrounding lands. I assumed Angelet had told her this, but did not ask.
We ate at a small table. Even though the porridge was made with plain water instead of milk I couldn’t deny its sweetness.
Once finished we crossed the path and made way to an area of flat land where the children played. It was a wondrous sight to behold. Rope swings hung from the branches of tall oaks and maples. Children swung, cheering and screaming, some letting go high in the air and crashing down into giant piles of leaves. Further down, old amber trees had been hollowed out and scattered along the grounds, creating a series of lengthy, joining tunnels. Some dipped underground, before reappearing elsewhere along the grassland. The boys seemed to mostly play in those.
The grandest sight, however, was a massive wooden horse as tall as the trees, which it surely was fashioned from. It was a remarkable work of craftsmanship, and, judging from the amount of children playing upon it, was also the most beloved. The horse reared on hind legs, muzzle pointed skyward, as if a grand knight should be mounted on its saddle, inspiring the beginnings of some great battle. From a distance it seemed as if the children could easily fall, but as we walked closer to the structure, I could see small steps carved into the wood. There were also shafts fastened for the hand to grip. Some of the boys played high atop the horse, fighting with wooden longswords. The muzzle, at least what I could see of it, was empty of children and seemed much too high for the boys to dare try and conquer.
I let Arabella and Gregory play while I watched from a table near the bakery. Emotions pulled me in opposing directions. I was glad to be away from Father and his vicious cruelty. I could not forget the way he glared at Gregory as he grabbed him, strangled him. If I hadn’t struck my father with his own sword, plunged it deep into his side, Gregory surely would have died.
Yet even in the comforts of this newfound land I still felt a cold sense of dread. I did not know who to trust in this garden of angels. I did not know who to believe. The boy from last night could have just been toying with me, trying to frighten me because, well, he was a boy. And Mother always said I was hardheaded. Trust did not come easily.
Dusk approached, the sun fell behind the trees. Angelet had gathered another star apple and placed it around Arabella’s neck. The star apple from last night had lost its glow before sunrise, so my sister was quite thankful for another. I heard a bell ring near the butchery. The children ran to it, cheering “Feast! Feast!” Gregory scurried away to Mother Dyana, who scooped him up and carried him toward the pleasant scents of roasting boar.
I was about to follow, for I did not like the way Mother Dyana embellished him. But a passing glance at the giant horse made me stop and change direction. The boy from the previous night, the handsome one who said I never should have come here, was sitting atop the horse’s muzzle, as high as the tips of the surrounding trees.
And he was watching me.
A strain of great effort took me just below the horse’s muzzle. The muscular young man sat above me, looking to the feast, where the children ate and played. “Hello, young man, can you hear me?” I yelled as loudly as I could, yet was answered only by the whispering winds. I yelled again, louder.
“I hear you, girl,” he said, shortly. “But you must meet me up here if you are to see the truth.”
A frightful moment of nerves left me unmoving. I dared not look down. I closed my eyes, took a long breath, and started to climb. It took great effort, and once I had almost lost my grip, but I made it. Scraped, bleeding and sore, but I made it. I sat next to him. “You could have helped me.”
“I could’ve pushed you.”
I had no answer for that. “So where is this truth, boy?”
“So where is this truth, William?”
He pointed out into the distance. “Beside the tower, Katelyn.”
A man stood on the high tower, looking off into the surrounding lands. “That must be Espan the watch guard,” I said. “Mother Dyana informed me—”
“Never mind him,” William said. His head snapped my way, long hair flapping like the wings of a crow. “Look below, at the base of the tower.”
“I see the creek.”
So I did. The waters rushed fiercely. “Is it the same I passed over last night?”
“It seems more like a river.”
He studied me. His green eyes almost glowed in the setting sun. “And why do you think that is?”
I had an answer, but was afraid to say it. “Because Espan controls the water…”
“Very good,” he said, nodding. “How did you know?”
I shrugged. “The water mark was high on the creek’s wall when we crossed it last night, yet the water itself was much lower.”
“But do you understand why?”
I thought this over.
“Because it’s a trap,” he said, answering the question for me. “Look around and see—how close together the trees grow to the east, how jagged the land grows to the north. There is no escape.”
Far below, the children ate and drank. No one seemed to notice I was gone. “Have you ever tried?” I asked.
He grimaced, spat to the ground far below. “Yes.”
“And what happened?”
“My little brother was taken to the garden,” he said, pointing east to an open area my eyes could not quite see. “I never saw him again.”
A jolt of anger struck me. “If that is true, then why are you still here? Why do you not fight?” I spit to the ground, just as William had a moment before. “Unless you are a coward.”
He considered me for a moment, perhaps deciding whether to push me to a crushing death or leave me be. “I have a sister,” he finally said. “Dyana said she would not call her here as long as I tended to the chores of the garden.”
“Call her?” I questioned. “Where is she?”
“She lives with Mother, near the edges of the forest. My brother Jon and I went hunting last summer. We lost our way, ended up here.” Down below, the torches that burned rainbow fire the previous night had returned, although now the fires burned purple and pink, Arabella’s favorites. As I watched below for my brother and sister, William continued, “My sister comes looking for us from time to time. She knows we—knows I—live somewhere in these parts. She hears some of the secrets these trees whisper.” Near William’s feet a sliver of wood had splintered off from its smooth mast. He snapped it off, dropped it over the side, and watched it fall. “Once, my sister grew so close I could hear her calling for me, for Jon.” He looked to me. “I feared more than a thousand deaths that she would cross over that stream and become trapped. You see, it is not just the high waters that cage you in—there are things, deadly things, with razors for teeth and a taste for young flesh—that swim in the creek waters when its level ris
es. And I will do what must be done to see that my sister does not become caged, like you, like me…” A moment of silence passed between us. I thought to question him further, yet his mind seemed farther away than the setting sun. Eventually he questioned me. “How did you come to be here?”
I gave him a simple story, much like I had to Mother Dyana. Although I did tell him truly of Mother’s passing. How a short walk to pick mushrooms turned deadly with a simple slip in the rain. And although William had begun to earn my trust, I did not tell anymore. I did not mention Father, and how he found her—for he finds everything. And how he carried mother home to our small cabin he had built the summer before and burned her on a slab of stone. “I will not bury her,” he said simply, his eyes sunken, as they would be from that day onward. “For the roots grow deep here. And I will not let them whisper her name.” I did not mention how he had changed after her death. How he no longer smiled, no longer put us to bed. How his days were spent sharpening his sword until it cut through the meat and bone of a skinned deer in one smooth stroke. He liked the sound of steel scraping the water stone. It was pleasing to him, he said. It silenced the whispers.
Once finished I asked him, “So what of us? What will become of my family?”
“You can stay here, enjoy the garden’s pleasures. Until it takes you.” He paused and let his legs hang over the side of the wooden post, rocking them back and forth. “Most everyone gets taken.”
“And what of this feast? Who will be taken tonight?” I asked, as a cold dread spread throughout my belly.
“Don’t you know this already?”
“I do not,” I snapped at him, “So tell me, boy!”
“New children do not get taken unless they are of such pure spirit the forest need not whisper in their ear.”
I felt a sudden dizziness.
“Bad children are not wanted here. Joy must be grown inside. So those torches become fake sunshine,” he said, pointing down below. “That bread becomes cursed soil. The cider wicked rain.”
William paused, as if deciding what to say next. “A pure soul, is she not? She’s always believed in you hasn’t she? No falsities needed to lighten her spirits?” I felt helpless. Hot tears burnt away the bitter wind stinging at my cheeks. The boy continued. “I believe Angelet sees this clearly. The other children are unaware of the happenings here, the diversions of this garden are many, but Angelet is different. She seems young, yes, yet she has been here longer than I, and her eyes see deep. Was it she that placed the star apple over your sister’s neck?”
“Then I am sorry, Katelyn. For once Angelet placed the star apple upon your sister’s neck, her fate was decided.”
“The child who wears Angelet’s star apple is the one whom the garden has chosen.”
“That is the way it has always been,” he said, and tried to squeeze my hand.
“No,” I screamed into the growing darkness, pulling away from him as if he was diseased.
“Where are you going?” William called forth, but I was already on the move. The moonlight was slim, and I hardly could see. William called out again, but I paid him no mind.
I was no coward. I would not let them take my Arabella.
My hands were numb from the bite of the cold and I feared losing my grip. As I climbed lower the wind relented, and I was able to reach the flatland safely, crunching over dry leaves as I ran to the butchery.
The children sat spread out in the grass. Some sat near the tables, stuffing boar meat into their mouths under the wash of purple and pink torches. Several children greeted me warmly, yet Arabella was nowhere to be seen, nor was Gregory. And as I looked around I could not find Mother Dyana as well. I asked a few of the children and they just shrugged their shoulders. The door to the butchery swung open and Damerus stepped out carrying a large wooden plate. “Where are they?” I asked, but he passed by without a word, went to the boar, and began pulling meat straight off the bone. I followed him. “Where are my brother and sister?” I asked again, and he turned, his fingers dropping a hunk of steaming meat on the plate. He smiled. The purple glow of torchlight and the orange flames roasting the boar made him appear mad, a vision from an old nightmare. He nodded to the pathway. “A feast is always a good day to see the garden, m’lady.”
I started to run, rushing along the pathway, a sickness growing in my stomach as I stormed past the girls’ lodgings. Running in the direction William had pointed out from atop the horse, I soon came to a clearing. Up ahead a torch burned. As it grew closer I saw a cabin. The torch was staked into the outside wall beside a door. I pushed and the door opened with a groan. Inside was a quiet stillness. Oil lamps burned, revealing a tidy room. Cupboards held items both strange and unfamiliar. I saw bones and spices, dried snakeskins, and a plate holding a tall mound of salt. The floor was hard wood. I stepped beside an old table where a black cat sat, watching me with emerald slits.
I entered a hallway. Up ahead a door rested half open.
This cabin is where Mother Dyana sleeps, I thought. This is her home. I went to the door and opened it fully, revealing a room flooded with light. Candles surrounded all four sides, neatly so, their flames flickering as one from the gust of air caused by the doors open thrust. On an old, worn bed Mother Dyana and Angelet sat together. Their eyes were closed, and they seemed to be in some kind of prayer. Gregory sat at the foot of the bed, leafing through the pages of a weathered book.
“Where is she,” I yelled with a fury. Angelet opened her eyes, calmly. “She is in the garden, Katelyn,” she said. Her eyes were icy diamonds in the firelight. “Down the hall. Go see, go see.”
Gregory hummed an unfamiliar song. He never took his eye from the book.
I left them there and stepped out into the hallway. I felt cold air on my lips, as if kissed by something long since dead. At the end of the hall was another door. I opened it and went outside, listening. Just the quiet of the night, the soft murmur of wind.
“Arabella?” I called out softly.
Star apples glowed from their branches, revealing rows of sunberry bushes. Beyond those a field of wheat stretched onward. Yet Arabella was nowhere to be found.
“Arabella?” I called out, moving forward. I approached the sunberry, praying for the sound of her voice. “Arabella…” A gale of wind pushed at my back. It chilled my ears and tossed my hair over my eyes, making me wish for my deerskin. I shivered, rubbed at my arms.
I stopped, glanced to the ground at my feet. A star apple lay in the grass, just before the first row of sunberry. A rope hung from it.
Tears welled in my eyes. I picked up the apple and stared into its glow.
Maybe she is just picking berries, I told myself. She does love them so…
A slow moan cut through the wind ahead of me. It was feeble, but I heard it well enough. Even in the cold my heart raced, and as I neared the source of the sound, I found her.
I dropped the star apple and stared for a moment, confused. My mind could not quite understand what my eyes were seeing, and when it finally did, the beginnings of a smile turned quickly and cruelly into a scream. Tears filled my eyes. It was as if the garden was consuming her. Everything below her waist was under the soil’s surface. And the rest of her, the parts that I could see, had changed. Branches had burst from her skin. Some were needle thin, while others were thicker and already sprouting young buds. They were everywhere—her neck, her face, from the arm that reached for me. I grabbed her hand yet quickly let go when I felt rigid, spindly wood instead of fingertips. “Oh, my little one,” I said, reaching for her face instead. “What have they done to you?” I dropped on my knees, close to my little sister. The brown had been taken from her eye, leaving a white film in its place. A single, small sunberry had formed in this whiteness and when I caressed her face it popped, sending a streak of red down her
cheek as if she cried blood.
“What have they done?!” There were other berries growing from her skin, and the beginnings of a small clusters forming on the twigs pushing through. “My little one, my little princess, what have they done.”
Arabella opened her mouth to speak but just a low exhale of steam came from her lips, followed by a low moan. From where her mouth hung open I saw earthy green. Where here tongue should be, rounded leaves were twisting, moving.
I gripped Arabella’s arm tight and pulled, trying to free her from the earth. She did not move, only made a sickening sound—not quite a scream—and I released her, cursing the cold night. I stood up, crying, wishing for a large rock between my hands so I could bring it down upon Arabella and end her suffering. As I glanced around for such a thing I heard the door creek behind me. My eyes found Gregory. A smile was on his lips and his skin was ghostly pale. Behind him, Mother Dyana stood with a hand upon his shoulder.
“What have you done to her?” I screamed, and ran towards the door. “What did you do to my sister?” But neither said a word. The only answer I was given was little Gregory’s grin as he backed away and closed the door before me.
As I raced to the door I could see my father clearly in my mind—the mad anger in his eyes, the purple vein swelling in his neck like a fat worm. “Don’t you shut that door, boy!” he had yelled, and as the door snapped shut in front of me, just before my fingers could jam inside the opening, I wondered if he had known, if he had somehow seen this wicked cruelty.
The door was barred shut from the inside, and I heard Gregory speak just beyond it, “Mommy, can you tell me a bedtime story?”
“Gregory,” I shouted, “Gregory, open this door!” I pounded on it with a balled up fist until the side of my hand was raw and bleeding. He would not answer me, although I had not expected him to. Not when Mother Dyana was telling him a story. I could feel her words slithering through my mind, through my bones.
Our garden will smile on us tonight, little Gregory. The leaves whisper to the birds and the soil.
I took a step back, struggling with my footing. Looking down, I saw grass creeping over my boot. I pulled away as hard as I could. My foot broke free.
What do they whisper Mommy?
The ground moved below me. I stepped away from the door.
Arabella, I thought. I must go to Arabella. So I went to her, pushing forward. Yet my feet seemed heavy. Each step harder than the last.
They whisper of hope. Hope for all lost children.
Something crawled up my leg. It scratched through my linens, cutting into my skin.
I love it here Mommy. Can I stay forever?
I ripped it free. It was a root, slithering like a snake.
Why of course. All children stay forever in our garden. Our little angels will always have a place to grow.
A torch burned beside the locked door.
Perhaps I could pull it free and burn this cursed garden to the ground? But my footing would not allow it, and as I lost my balance and fell backward my body struck one of the star apple trees. I gasped from its impact. Surely I would have fallen to the ground if not for the branches tight on my skin. I screamed, struggling, but the embrace of the whispering forest was too strong to break.
On the second floor of the cabin was a small, wooden window. And from this window Angelet watched me. It was not made of glass, just simple wood, and she had swung it open like a door. As the tree crept along my skin, swallowing me inward, she spoke to me. “She doesn’t like your taste very much,” she said with a giggle.
I tried to yell up to her, but things were inside me, crawling in my throat, scraping it raw. “She will take you anyways,” Angelet continued, “though it will take much longer than Arabella. She was what the forest needed, not you.” From the tips of my fingers I felt pointy twigs sprout from the skin and under my nails. The tree’s bark seemed to be crawling up my spine, attaching itself to me. It itched and burned as it changed me. “Although your star apples will grow bright, I am sure of this. Just as I am sure to place the brightest around the neck of the next child the forest brings us.” She closed the window. From the side of my neck came a pink glow. I could feel it, not warm, but cold as ice. It bubbled just on the edges of my skin. Surely more would follow.
I wished to scream. But the Whispering Forest would not allow it. It was already twisting deep in my throat, in my mouth.
Soon I just wished to die.
The morning hour came. The sun did not warm the flesh of my body, for it was no longer flesh. It had hardened, darkened. Leaves twisted into my hair. My feet were rooted deep into the soil. Everything was cold.
Eventually children came out to pick sunberries. They talked of how wonderful they appeared, how red and plump and delicious they would surely be. “Never have they been finer!” one young boy said, plucking berries right from the bush that was once my Arabella, his face smeared red with crimson juice. It was Gregory. He rubbed his belly and walked past me. I reached for him, yet my brother would not look my way. Although I was sure there was a hint of a smile playing on the edges of his lips.
As the children left the garden my thoughts became thick and confused. I thought of Mother, and how different everything would have been had she not slipped in the creek bed. I also thought of what Father said to us after her freakish death. “The roots grow deep here. And I will not let them whisper her name.”
Back then, I had thought the act of burning Mother to ash to be an act both cruel and cowardice. She should have been buried—such is the way of our people.
Although now I knew the truth.
The roots did grow deep here. Of that my father was honest. And while the forest will never whisper Mother’s name, it already whispers Arabella’s. I could hear it deep in my mind, in the cold place where my heart once beat.
She must feel so alone, my sweet Sister.
But she won’t for long.
Because soon, very soon, the forest will whisper my name as well.
Kevin Kekic resides in Brook Park, Ohio with his wonderful family. He enjoys reading and writing, and waits patiently for the Cavs, Browns, or Indians to win a championship. He is the twin brother of novelist Keith Kekic.