Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.
C. S. Lewis
My face was still red with anger as I burst out of the side door of our house. That was the very last fight I could stand, I didn't think I could even bear to hear my parent's voices ever again. I hated them - no question, and needed to get as far away from them as possible. I wasn't so blind from anger as to not know where to turn. The woods were calling to me.
The small town in Illinois was close to Chicago- but not close enough. That's why the woods were always a safe place. For the City kids, it would definitely be downtown to hang out and play some basketball. Even go to the park, or the free of cost Lincoln Park Zoo. For us suburban kids, well, we were left to suffer the cold wrath of video games, exclusion from the cool kids [unless you WERE a cool kid] and my personal favorite- the woods. At this time of the year, they were cold and muddy, but I didn't care. The entire woods used to be mine and my twin sister Veronica's.
"Vanessa!" I hear my father yell behind me. I pick up my pace and silently warn him not to follow. If he chased me into the woods, he'd be lost before he knew it. Me, I'm an expert. I know where I'm going, and could never get lost in the Forest Preserve. I shoved my hands in my coat pockets and trudged to the end of my block, turning left. I was barely even paying attention, my feet were on autopilot, my brain on lockdown. I willed myself not to look behind me. I hoped Veronica wouldn't follow; I was too angry to even deal with her.
But it melted away, the anger, replaced with wonder of how the woods would look just now. Leaves were falling from the trees, the sky was grey but light. Enough light to see from under the canopy. I pass the main path entrance, knowing that was for the sissies who take their dogs out for a stroll. The place I was looking for was just around the slight curve. And there it was. The short arch of overhanging intertwined branches. Small, but easy enough for me to get through.
The ground was soft, and a thin covering of leaves layering the ground. A short walk from the entrance, as I knew, was the pond, which I always remember vividly how it looks in the summer. Surprisingly, as I reached it, it did look the same as in the summer. Or at least the pond did. I got as close to the water as possible without my feet sinking it. I bent down to see there were little green sprouts poking through the mud. My eyebrows raised at them.
A twig snapped close to me, and I looked up. A deer lifted her head from the water a few yards away, her muzzle dripping. The look on her face was almost comical. "Good girl," I whispered. The deer shook her head and continued drinking. Apparently I posed as no threat.
I skirted the edge of the pond, circling the trees to get to the rickety bridge. The pond turned into a small flowing river, and I wanted to get to the other side. I began to walk onto the bridge, but it shook so I crawled the rest of the way. When I got to the other side, I saw what I'd crossed for. A large pile of logs and branches sat in front of me. Though that's not what it looked like to me. They looked like ruins.
My sister, our friend, and I used to sit inside the fort that someone else had made and make imaginary battle plans. We'd cleared out the webs and the spiders and had played make believe all day in the woods we weren't even aloud in. Technically I wasn't even supposed to be there now, but I honestly didn't care.
Then, after a few summers of royalty over the woods, the land we'd renamed from 'The Forest Preserve' to Farei, a huge storm came that had flooded everyone's backyards and basements. We knew that rain always flooded the pond [or, in our eyes, the sea] that spread out beneath the castle, but we were unsure of the damage that would be inflicted this time. We gritted our teeth until it was over.
When it was, only our friend Andy [King Andrew] was free to go into the woods. When he came back, he brought horrible news. The kingdom had fallen in the storm. Now only the wet ruins and mud remained.
I kicked at one of the logs and a few beetles scuttled out from underneath. A worm poked it's head out, then squiggled back in. I sighed. The ruins were already decomposing.
I turned and cantered down the hill from where our 'castle' used to stand. There was a bright open valley where there were trees all around and some scattered here and there. This used to be our practice grounds for battle, where we'd take long branches and fight each other with them. We'd use the tree's as a target and throw emptied beer bottles and rocks at them, pretending that they were the enemy. We each had some sort of special power, too, so we'd use them. I know I had the ability to talk to the animals. We'd never get lost because the deer would 'tell' me to follow the deer paths. Veronica would control the weather, so we never got caught in the rain. Andy could grow plants, and find out where the enemy was just by touching them. We always won against our enemies.
We each had incredible weapons, too. I couldn't remember what the others had, but I remembered mine vividly. It was an ebony bow with silver arrows. The feathers were jet black crow. I looked down and saw a few sticks and branches lying on the forest floor. It wouldn't be like the sharpened branch I'd carried around with me, which had also been taken by the flood, but it'd have to do. I picked one of them up.
After a few minutes of reminiscing and walking, I came across a tree taller than the others. I recognized it right away. It was the old hollow tree we used to use as our secondary base! I'd personally loved that tree because it seemed like every animal could have lived in it. But today it looked odd.
Not a bad odd, a good odd, actually. It looked a bit younger, for some reason, yet I knew it was still our tree. It had the same shaped opening and the same knot in the side. It stood out amongst the rest of the trees, which had shed, or was shedding it's leaves. Ours still hung to it's large, bright, green-yellow, fanned out leaves. It was the strangest, most liveliest tree in the woods.
I walked up to it and found our names still carved in the side. It sounded completely ridiculous, Queen Vanessa. I looked into the hole and raised the branch, paranoid in case an animal hopped out at me. But there was nothing inside the hallow tree. Absolutely nothing at all. Not one mushroom, leaf, or rock was inside. It was hollowed out completely, totally smooth, with nothing but the dirt floor.
My eyes widened. This was without a doubt the weirdest thing I'd ever seen in the woods. I dropped to my knees and stuck my head in. The tree had always been big enough to fit all three of us inside, but not one of us had ever wanted to venture inside. It was always infested with spiders, dead wood, and plenty of fungus. So we stayed out. I wondered what had made it this way.
I looked up the tree, and saw that it was hollow a good way up. I was so confused; I'd never seen this happen to a tree before. Curiosity overtook me and I climbed inside, sitting and wrapping my arms around me knees. It was warmer in the tree than outside, which added to the list of oddities. But not a much as when I looked directly in front of me.
Something was carved intricately into the inside wall of the tree. I stared at it. Whoever had carved it must have hallowed out the rest of the tree. It made me think they'd by doing this they'd claimed the tree for themselves, but somehow I felt to comfortable to think that this place had been meant for no one else but me.
The carving was of two creatures; a lion, and my favorite animal, a tiger. Somehow I knew that the tiger was in fact a Tigress, and that the lion was a male. They didn't seem to be mates, more like they coincided with each other. It was beautiful, and I let my mind wander as I stared at it. I took my hand and ran it over the design, only to pull it back in shock.
Where my hand had trailed over the carved wood, it had disappeared. When my hand was moved the carving was gone entirely. I stared at it, feeling slightly worried. I pulled my nails across the area where the wood used to be, but nothing caught. Nothing was there. No ridges, not even a painting.
In my frustration I reached out of the opening for my branch. But it wasn't there. I stuck out my head and blinked in the setting sun. It was nowhere to be seen. Then I looked up.
These weren't my woods.