This story is by Susan Hope and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Autumn. It used to be her favourite time of year. The freshness of the air made everything smell like a new start was possible. While the spectacle of russet leaves falling from the trees, painted vivid colours on the grey, cloud filled skies. It used to be a season filled with hope. Not now.
Her long auburn hair worked loose from the scarf she wore, whipping around her face. A delicate, pale skinned hand pushed the unruly tresses back under the silk covering as she quickly walked to the forest. The trees would give her shelter from the gusts of wind coming off the moor. As she entered the tree line, the air went still. Instinctively she drew in a deep breath, filling her nostrils with the familiar sweet scent of damp earth and moss, a perfume that had always calmed her. Not now. Now the eerie dawn mist, swirling between the ancient trees appeared malevolent, opening a deep, black pit in her stomach.
Her body moved in a familiar direction, not consciously because that place would cause her pain. The little known track she took was obscured by the fallen caramel leaves that made a crunchy carpet underfoot. The pale morning sunlight dimmed by the towering ash, oak and willow trees did little to warm the crisp air. Minutes into the wood and she felt transported, away from the noise and stress of the rest of the world. The stillness, broken only by the occasional falling leaf and blast of melodic birdsong, enveloped her like an amiable old friend. This world used to be a cherished escape but not now. Now her heartbeat quickened and a now familiar burning began to build in the corners of her soft green eyes.
Drifting, her mind recalled precious moments here in this world… before… before things went so wrong. First came the childhood memory, the treasured discovery of her place. She’d wandered away from her father, away from the way marked route through the wood. She’d found a path, a winding narrow track, hidden by an evergreen shrub intertwined with honeysuckle. It was hers and hers alone. Meandering along, the dirt trail took her deep into the forest where the trees grew bigger, darker and closer together. Just as she began to get scared because in all directions the oppressive darkness pressed against her skin, the silence was broken by the bubbling of a stream. A few more steps and the forest opened it’s heart to her. An idyllic glade of the greenest grass, opened out into an almost perfect circle under the tallest oak tree she had ever seen. Rays of sunlight flooded the clearing, dancing off the gurgling surface of the babbling brook. The crystal clear water rushing into the circle forked into two streams, creating a small island with the mystical oak in its centre, before they rejoined to gush ever onward towards the river a few miles away. It was there, under the wizened branches, she would sit for hours, reading, writing, allowing the song of the forest to sink into her bones, absorbing the solitude, restoring her soul, until she would hear her father calling her name for supper. Memories of a childhood spent in this unspoilt world tumbled from her mind.
As she automatically pushed aside that honeysuckle shrub at the start of the trek to that place, the place she swore she would never enter again, her footsteps crunched ever onwards and her memory rushed forward in time. Now a beautiful Spring day, two years and three months before. Her work had pulled her spirit so far down into a black well of despair that if she didn’t take time to decompress, it would have broken her. So into the forest and down her path to her secret, private island, she went. A spectacular carpet of bluebells filled the forest air with a heady scent. She felt the weights around her heart lifting, one after another, with each step further down her path she went. Suddenly, the hairs on the back of her neck stood up, something wasn’t quite right. She stopped a few steps from her glade, every inch of her being taut and aware. Her mind struggled to identify the discrepancy, the reason for her unconscious screaming it wasn’t safe.
Then she heard it. The soft, tuneful whistling that carried on the air, mixing with the usual symphony of forest sounds. Someone was there, an interloper in her world. Angry now that her peaceful realm had been invaded, she had quickened her pace to confront this thorn in her garden. That was the moment. The moment the bottom of her world disappeared and she fell. He was there, reclining with his back to the oak, eyes closed with his face uplifted to the sun. Light danced off his angular, high cheek bones, filling his soft chestnut hair with sparks of fire. His moist, full lips were pursed as he whistled a hypnotic tune. All she could do was stare. She couldn’t even breathe. All thoughts of running off the invader to her island had gone, she didn’t want to move, scared that any hint she was watching would make this angel disappear.
Involuntarily, she had stepped forward and a twig underfoot snapped. His eyes sprung open and they locked on to hers. She had gasped because his eyes appeared as midnight pools of bottomless water and she was drowning in them. She could barely hear as he stood and that languid, lopsided smile she came to love so dearly, spread across his face. He’d had to repeat himself then but she would never forget those first words; “You must be D.B., I’ve been hoping to meet you!” He’d known her initials because she’d carved them into the oak.
That day had passed into night, they had talked non-stop… well almost non-stop… about everything; their lives, pasts, hopes, dreams and their future. As they had watched the sunrise, cuddled together under a blanket on what was now their island, his nickname for her had already stuck. My doodlebug, two words that cemented a bond between them that she had thought would never be broken.
She had arrived, her mind snapped back to the present as she moved into the clearing and onto their island. The tears ran silently down her cheeks as she knelt next to the oak and traced the D.B. and A.R. carved in a heart. The pain, she felt it was tearing her in two, as she clutched on to the urn that held her love. Her mind raced through images; the doctor who told them why his headaches were so bad, his hair falling out in clumps as he threw up in the toilet, his wasted body lying in the hospital bed crying in pain. Her sobbing changed. She stood as white hot anger from deep in her soul ripped it’s way out as a scream. Once she started, she couldn’t stop. She screamed and shouted, raging against the world, a world that would let her fall so deeply in love to just snatch it away.
She didn’t know how long she’d been on the little island surrounded by trees resplendent in Autumnal colour but as she fell forward on her knees, hoarse, her eyes bloodshot from crying, the early evening sunlight lit up the oak in a warm orange glow. A sudden breeze lifted her hair from her scarf, strange as usually the surrounding tree line acted as a buffer. Then she heard it, that soft, tuneful whistle. Madly she looked for him until her eye fell on the urn, then her memory played other moments in their short life together. Laughing as they ran through the rain on a formal “first date” that would have been disastrous if it hadn’t been so funny. His lopsided smile as he served her a burnt breakfast in bed which was soon forgotten and cold, so they ate strawberries and ice cream because he’d used every other piece of food in the fridge. Acting like kids as they rode the carousel on the pier and had hotdogs for lunch like the tourists do. Their wedding day, a perfect day where he never stopped grinning and looked gorgeous (and he knew it) even with his shaved head. Their first dance together as man and wife, all their friends and family were watching but it felt like they were the only two people in the world. Her promise… the solemn promise he’d made her swear… she repeated it now to the oak, with one hand on the growing stomach that held their baby, feeling him speak it with her as she scattered his ashes, lifting her soul with every word…
“No matter where I am, I will never stop living. You are always there with me in my heart. I have to go on to have adventures for the both of us now and teach our child to laugh and love.”