This story is by S.J. Siedenburg and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Stella looked over her shoulder one last time. She couldn’t afford for anyone to see her run into the woods tonight—they all thought she was crazy as it was. If they knew what she was searching for, they’d say she was insane for sure.
No one was in sight. She made a run for the woods across a white field. In twenty seconds she had traversed the space, and now stopped in front of the trees breathless. Anticipation rose in her, tightening her chest. She forced herself to take a deep breath which ended in a puff of steam, then took the final step into the woods.
It was ten to midnight; she didn’t have much time before she had to be deep in the woods. She switched on her flashlight and picked up her pace, the snow crunching underneath her boots.
It was a whole new world under the cover of the evergreen trees. Each bough a shelf to a layer of pure white snow. It was a bit haunting, the tall trees against the empty night sky, especially to where she was headed.
The air bit at her face and hands, but she kept moving forward past one tree then the next, following a path she had taken on many Christmas Eve nights.
Her watch just turned twelve, and she stopped. Without moving she listened hard, but heard nothing except the creak of the trees and the breath of the wind. She wasn’t far enough in; she had to hurry.
Stella started to run, the cold air burning her lungs and the flashlight’s beam bobbing amongst the trees. She hesitated a few times to be sure she was on the right track then kept pushing on.
Five minutes later she stopped, the blood now running through her with vigor and battling the winter cold. She listened again, and this time it was there. Strings of music whispering through the air, the sweetest she had ever heard.
Every year, as Christmas Eve became Christmas, music filled the woods. Yet she could never find the source of the music, it always ended just minutes after it started and just before she found it. She came back every year, unable to resist the music’s call. Maybe she was crazy for chasing it through the woods instead of living life with everyone else, but she had to find the music that sounded like it was from heaven itself.
She started walking in the direction she guessed the music came from, trying to be as quiet as possible to listen to the smooth melody. The music grew stronger the further she went in, adjusting her path occasionally to where the music seemed loudest.
Now the sound was stronger than she had ever heard it before. Her heart raced, expecting any moment for the music to fade away without her finding it. She began scouring the woods endlessly for any sign of light or movement, but as always, there was nothing.
She stopped and tried to figure out where to go next, but she couldn’t. The music sounded like it was right where she was, calling to her, but nothing was there. Then the music began to fade. Her heart beat faster as she held onto the last notes that drifted through the wind, leaving her cold and alone. She checked her watch: Fifteen minutes past midnight, the time the music always fell into silence.
Her heart dropped. After all these years she had failed again. Maybe she would always fail. She turned to walk back to the white empty field.
“Where are you going?”
She spun around at the sudden voice. A woman stood a few yards from her. She was strange looking, silver hair falling beside her youthful face, and wearing a dress made for much warmer weather.
“Back home.” Stella began to turn away.
“Are you searching for something?”
She glanced back. “I was, but it’s gone now.”
She turned forwards in excitement. “You’ve heard it, too?”
“Yes, I always hear it.”
“What it is it, where does it come from?”
“It comes from here.” She gestured to the place where they both stood.
“There’s no one here.” Her hope fell, this was just a lunatic. Maybe she really was one, too.
“Just because you cannot see something, or hear it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.”
“Of course it does.”
“Does it? You don’t believe it exists in this place, yet every year you come to this spot to find it.”
“How do you know that?” Her pulse quickened in defense.
“The same way I know that your name is Stella, and that you are a very special young woman.”
She stepped back, eyes wide. “Who are you?”
“Don’t be afraid. I am Elaine, the keeper of the secrets of these woods. The music you hear is one of those secrets that only few stumble upon. Those who search for what you do.”
“And what do you think I search for?”
She wanted to retort, but couldn’t. She realized that Elaine was right. Hope was what the music gave her.
“Do you wish to see where the music comes from?”
Her eyes welled with tears and she didn’t know why. This was all crazy, but she was desperate to know the truth. “Yes.”
“Then tell me, do you believe what I am telling you?”
Stella searched herself. She bit her lip, she couldn’t give a whole-hearted yes.
The woman smiled, sending a light to her blue eyes that showed strength and knowledge. “Then do you think you can trust me?”
Her pulse raced faster than ever, like her heart would break right out of her chest. She knew she shouldn’t trust her, but she felt a deep longing for the truth that was stronger.
The woman walked up to her, and she fought to stay her ground and not run.
“Then believe.” She reached for both of Stella’s hands and clasped them.
With her touch the music swelled in her ears greater than ever before, and all around her the woods were transformed. Men and women were present, gliding through the trees in shimmering clothes, laughing and talking and dancing in movement with the song. Along the trees above lights twinkled down, and the air of the whole place was of hope and joy. Across from her was the source of music, people like the others playing instruments that looked as beautiful as they sounded, white and pure.
Stella smiled and laughed. “What is this?”
“It’s a celebration, for the birth of hope that Christmas brings.”
“Who are all these people?”
“They are like me, servants of all that is pure and true. The part of the world that many do not believe in.”
She took it all in, letting the music, joy, and hope fill her soul.
Elaine let go of her hands and the scene disappeared, leaving the woods bare. Stella searched for any remaining sign of what she had just seen, but it was all gone.
“Stella,” Elaine said, grabbing her attention, “it’s still there, as real as your heart is beating. You just need to look for it.”
A tear fell from her eye, not because it was all gone, but because she did believe it was there.
Elaine wiped her tear away. “Always believe, Stella, and hold on to hope.”
Stella nodded, then looked down at the snow for a moment to curb the tears that welled up at her eyes and burned her throat.
“I will see you again.”
Stella looked up, but Elaine had gone. She searched all around her but there was no sign of her, not even a footprint.
She turned to leave the place, then heard a whisper of laughter on the wind. She smiled.
Looking down, her watch said it was half past twelve. In three-hundred and sixty-four days and twenty-three and a half hours she would be back in this place to answer the music’s call. Until then, she was going to hold on to hope with everything she had, in every day she had left.
She began her cold walk out of the woods, but this time when she came out of the trees, the white field felt a little less empty.