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An adult fairy tale with four illustrations by Sarah Ferrick
The day outside was becoming purple but within the forest it was already night. The cold, collective branches that covered the world within strived to curse its populace with an absence of the life-giving light of the sun. When the sun was bright enough to burn, light could shoot through the cracks. But otherwise the forest was the other world inverted: shooting stars rose from the grass in the flashing form of fireflies, while the many moons were glowing mushrooms, fat and wide, on which frogs sat and consumed.
In the corner of a clearing was a dog rose. A bramble. In the clearing was also a jagged shape standing over a luminous girl. The girl lay supine on a stone slab with her arms set at her sides, positioned for either a ritualistic sacrifice or funeral rite. Her dark brown hair spilled around her soft brown face with burnt curls appearing wherever it touched the stone. With her half-opened eyes and parted lips she could have been confused for the dead; her irises were the paling purple of the world outside, transient and delicate like the light in glass flowers. She wore a heavy grey dress that weighed her to the stone slab. Blood blackened the grass around her but there was not a spot of blood on her body.
The shape, a black onyx statue, did not touch her or move her or speak. The statue grasped the hilt of a long black sword with both of its gauntleted hands, the sword’s dull blade delving deep into the earth near the stone slab. A powdery ball of light circled the statue and tried squeezing into the thin eye slots of its helmet before giving up and flying away.
Sticks cracked. A bird fluttered from one branch to another. Somebody murmured something, and then a person fell into the clearing, crushing all of the twigs and insects beneath him. The bird took flight, dotting the forest floor with a quick succession of white splashes. Frogs leapt from their comfortable seats and various other small creatures vacated the area.
The man groaned as he pushed himself up, never letting his eyes move from the girl on the stone slab before him. His left hand was wrapped in bloodied white bandages and he tried to apply the least amount of pressure to it as possible. When he stood it was with the support of his magic sword, its blade made from a light blue stone that held no weight. He used it as a cane as he forced himself towards the glowing girl and looked over her opposite the black statue. Despite being in a deep sleep, she appeared more damaged and troubled than peaceful.
There was a light jingling of bells behind him and he knew that another girl had just arrived on the scene, a being he believed to be a figment of his imagination; this new girl wore a scant blue dress wrapped around her lithe and golden body.
‘Who’s this girl, Ace?’ she asked as she danced towards him. She was barefoot and dug her toes into the earth wherever she stood, sending up worms and clumps of dirt.
‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I’ve never seen her before.’
She was now standing beside him with her arms wrapped around his body and he knew that she was squeezing as hard as she could even though he could not feel it. ‘She looks like she’s sleeping,’ she said, her innocent blue eyes drinking in every detail of the mysterious girl in front of them.
‘No,’ the man said, shaking his head. ‘She’s had her heart stolen. Look, I’ll show you.’
He then took out a pair of scissors and cut a section of the girl’s dress. He pulled down the flap to reveal a heart-shaped hole near her left breast.
The cavity was completely empty; inside was darkness blacker than even the deepest depths of the forest.
‘Golly, Ace, who would do such an awful thing?’ the girl asked, her eyes wide with fright. He pulled the flap back up.
He had met the girl at the same time that he had found the magic sword. He had been searching for an exit in the forest when he had come across the weightless blue sword stabbed through the trunk of a dead grey tree, its roots large and gnarled. As soon as he had touched the hilt of the sword he had heard a mousey squeak, and a yellow-haired head had appeared from behind the tree, peering shyly at him.
‘Go on,’ the girl had said. She had her fingers pressed inside a deep fissure in the tree’s ancient bark, clutching onto the tree as if she would blow away with the slightest breeze.
‘Who are you?’ the man had asked. He had a feeling that the girl would vanish as soon as he had let go of the sword.
‘It should be obvious that I’m the spirit of the sword,’ the girl had said, ‘and I want to get out of this cursed forest just as much as you do, so please.’
‘Please take the sword?’
She had nodded. Pressing his boot to the tree, he had then grabbed the hilt of the sword with both of his gloved hands. He had then closed his eyes, muttered a prayer, spat to the side and put all of his strength into freeing the sword from its earthy sheath. All of that effort had been for nought, however, as the sword slipped out of the tree as if he had been pulling it straight through air, and he fell backwards, hitting his head on a large rock, his left hand bouncing against a smaller one.
When he had woken up he was in intense, throbbing pain. He had looked to his left to see that his hand was bandaged and then he looked to his right to see he was holding onto the blue sword. As he forced himself up he could feel his hair, matted behind him, sticking to the rock it rested on, and when he was finally standing he had turned to see all of the blood and stray hairs on the cold hard pillow that had cracked his fall.
He had then lifted the sword and made a few motions with it to feel how it handled, finding that it felt like nothing at all. He danced with it to a small pond where he crouched and splashed water on his face. Glowing bugs lit his reflection, his sunken eyes and tight skin barely dressing the skull underneath.
Tired of looking at death, he had turned back to where he had fallen and saw the yellow-haired girl grunting as she turned over the bloodied rocks. Her dress was the same colour as the sword he carried and the curve of her spine was perfectly bow-shaped as she struggled over her peculiar activity.
‘What are you doing?’ he had asked her, coming close to her just as she finished turning over the rocks.
‘I’m turning over these rocks,’ she had told him. ‘I don’t think anyone would want to see all this blood. Would you? Come on, Ace, we have to work hard to get out of this place.’
That was when she revealed that they would have to perform a certain act in order to obtain freedom from the forest.
‘We have to do something that is noble in intention even if it’s not noble in execution. I don’t know what that something is, exactly, but it’ll reveal itself in time.’
‘So you’re saying we’re going to be here forever.’
‘Of course not!’
‘What about all the others who found this sword? What happened to them?’
She had given him a wounded, apologetic look in answer that told him not to ask.
Since then they had been wandering the endless forest together, heading in whichever direction that was most appealing and marking the trees along the way. The man used his sword to kill black rabbits and other delectable creatures for his meals, of which the girl never partook. Her lack of consuming and ejecting caused him to believe that she either really was the spirit of the sword or existed solely in his head, and once he had even tried to see if he could kill her – to prove once and for all if she was real or not – but his hands had merely fallen through her body as if she was not there.
During their travels they had come across many bones – bones from the skeletons of human beings and other familiar animals – and once happened upon the complete skeleton of a freakishly tall humanoid, its skull twice the length of that of an adult human male. There were roots and weeds tying its bones to the earth.
‘Anyone you know?’ the man had asked the girl. She had crouched down and was peering into its wide eye sockets.
‘I think this guy was before our time,’ she had answered. She had then reached her slender hand into one of the sockets and fished around, a look of intense concentration taking over her face. When she had pulled her hand out it was balled up in a fist.
‘Anything?’ the man had asked, not really caring either way.
The girl had shook her head. ‘Nothing,’ she had said.
Soon after this distraction she had found another: a pill bug on a damp log, its back glistening in the light of a glowing white flower. The girl had made them stop so she could play with it. She had kneeled before the log and poked at the bug until it curled up into a little ball, and then rolled it back and forth with her index finger.
‘I wonder if he thinks it’s a game?’ she had asked the man. He had no answer for her and neither did the pill bug; they were both silent, drawn into their protective shells. ‘So how did you find your way into the forest, Ace?’
He had not thought about it for so long that he had nearly forgotten. With the memory came a flood of emotional and physical pain, as if his body was reliving the experience. He had to sit down.
‘I was riding with my family when we were stopped by bandits. They threw me in here when they were done with my wife and children. I—’
‘Okay, Ace, that’s enough of that,’ the girl had said. She had been holding the pill bug still with her finger, wanting to see if it would remain there forever, but it had uncurled itself and crawled away.
When she had turned around it was to the sight of the man holding the point of the magic blue sword to his stomach. ‘Okay! Let’s not do that!’ she had called, and she reached for the handle of the blue sword, her fingers going through the man’s as she touched upon it. ‘Come on, Ace, think about me – if you don’t care for yourself then at least think about me. Please.’
He had cast her an angry gaze. ‘You don’t exist.’
‘Of course I exist,’ she had said. ‘I moved all those rocks, didn’t I?’
He had then pressed the blade deep inside of him, but nothing had happened: no blood gushed from his lips and no sharp pain exploded from the inside of his stomach. He had wondered where the welcoming light of darkness went.
‘The sword will only work for the act we have to perform,’ the girl had explained.
The sword had fallen through his body and he picked it up again. ‘Then why make such a big deal about saving my life?’ he had asked.
He had swiped at her with his hand but it only went through her. ‘Stop trying to hurt me,’ she had said. ‘Stop being such a jerk and help us get out of here.’
She had given him an upset look, with her cheeks red and hot and tears lighting the corners of her eyes, but it had only lasted for less than a second before she collapsed into a fit of sobbing. In that moment the man could see his wife and children in her, and for the first time he had looked at her as if she might be real.
‘I’m sorry,’ he had apologised under his breath, shaking the dirt and madness from his head.
The pill bug had found its way back to the girl and was crawling its way up her arm. The man had watched the bug make its determined ascent and wondered why it did not go through her; while watching it he decided to use it as an excuse to look at the girl more carefully, searching for clues of her existence. She was very pretty, to be sure, and the simple blue dress she wore furthered the sense of unquestioning purity that surrounded her. The girl had used the front of her dress to wipe the wetness away from her face, making the fabric translucent, and when the man had noticed this he looked away.
‘Do you want to know what my name is?’ she had asked the man upon calming herself.
‘Sure,’ he had said, mentally preparing himself for some great revelation.
She had rubbed the soft, smooth white of her leg while apparently thinking about it. ‘I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.’
The man stumbled out of an adjoining clearing, grasped onto a mossy tree trunk to support himself and vomited fur and unchewed meat onto the forest floor. The ground beneath his feet seemed to be growing more and more distant, as if he was floating, rising towards the ragged, knotted ceiling of cursed branches. His knees wobbled and his hands disappeared from his wrists; he fell, eternally, to the puddle of his interior. The girl walked over to him and helped him back up by clapping her hands together encouragingly.
‘I guess that was her family,’ he said.
‘Are they okay?’
‘There were blade wounds in the sides of their heads.’
‘You’re not feeling well. Did you eat something bad?’
‘Take me to her,’ he asked.
‘Don’t be silly. You can walk just as well as I can. And besides, I can’t even touch you.’
He nodded. He took deliberate steps towards the girl on the stone slab and then collapsed on top of her; tears formed in his eyes and sparkled as they fell upwards to the ceiling of the forest. The girl raced over and caught one of them. She felt the tear dry out between her thumb and forefinger and then she stuck her hand in her mouth.
‘I guess we have to save this girl if we want to get out of here,’ she said through the fingers between her lips.
‘Save her from what?’ the man asked. ‘How can we save her from something that’s already happened?’
She took her hand out of her mouth and wiped it on her dress. ‘I don’t know, Ace, but if someone’s gonna do it then it’s gotta be you. Come on, let’s go get her heart.’
‘Let’s go get her heart,’ he repeated, like a golem being fed a piece of paper with its orders on it. He forced himself off the glowing girl’s body and saw that he had soiled her dress with dirt and blood.
He moved sickly, slowly, in the direction he had found himself facing after looking away from the girl’s dress. The birds had ceased singing and the only sounds he could hear were those of his boots trudging through a patch of mud and the bells of the girl’s balletic movement.
‘Going to find her heart hey hey!’ she sang, her voice a sudden burst of colour in the grim, dim forest. ‘Go-ing to fi-ind her heart.’
‘I don’t know if she’ll want to come back to life,’ the man said. Sweat was trickling down his forehead and he wondered if he had contracted some type of fever. ‘Would you want to wake to this world, with your family gone and no hope remaining for someone to find you, recognise you, love you? Maybe it was best that her heart had been taken away. That way she won’t have to deal with all the pain again.’
‘We’ll fill her heart with love and happiness,’ the girl told him. ‘We’ll fill it up and feed the sword and all of us can get out of here and see the world outside.’
‘The world outside doesn’t want us. That’s why it put us here.’
The girl stopped and looked at him. He stopped as well. The man thought that she had stopped and looked at him because she was about to say something important, but instead she just looked at him with sadness in her eyes and then they started walking again.
Soon she found a butterfly hovering low to the ground and put it in her hair. The butterfly’s wings were blue with orange spots outlined in red. It flapped its wings but did not take off.
‘If I put enough in here,’ she said, pointing to her head, ‘maybe I can fly up and away. I’d keep flying until I reached the sun.’
He could barely hear her. Sweat fell into the man’s eyes and temporarily blinded him, causing him to trip over a thick root and fall into a circle of rocks. He wiped his eyes and moaned. Half his body felt like it existed in some dream, fuzzy and weak.
He looked around him in a daze, first at the circle of round, smooth rocks and then up at the three black statues that surrounded him. The statues were similar to the one in the clearing, black onyx knights with the blades of their swords delving deep into the earth. They faced the man in a confrontational triangle.
‘Take this death,’ came a deep and slightly silly bass voice. It seemed to be emanating from one of the statues.
‘Are you all right, Ace?’ the girl asked from outside of the circle. She seemed hesitant to step any closer.
‘My head is exploding,’ the man said, clutching onto his head and wincing.
‘Take this,’ another low voice said from a different statue.
‘Take this violence,’ said the third voice, and the man could see his family in his head, all of them humiliated before being sacrificed to silence and nothingness.
The man took his sword and tried to dig a hole under him, a place to escape to. He somehow knew he would be powerless against the statues if he tried to strike them. He wanted to escape. He wanted to hide. He wanted to take all of the death and rape and sorrow and humiliation and pain and suffering and despair and violence and bury it in the ground with him, to have all of it forgotten just as he would be forgotten, and leave only peace and joy and understanding and love in the world above. He wanted there to be more to life for others than this cursed forest.
He dug, and he did not stop digging until he found a heart buried deep in the soil, a heart blackened but alive.
‘You found it!’ the girl exclaimed joyfully from between two of the statues. ‘You did it, Ace!’
‘I did it?’ he asked, looking at the heart pulsing in his hands. ‘What did I do?’
‘You got her heart and now we’re one step closer to getting out of here! I can’t believe it! Nobody has ever made it this far!’
‘Like it’s a game.’
They brought the heart back to the girl on the stone slab and placed it in her chest cavity. She came to life unexpectedly, coughing up blood and grabbing onto the front of the man’s shirt to hold herself up. She then began speaking urgently in a language he could not understand.
‘Do you know what she’s saying?’ the man asked the other girl, expecting that the so-called sword spirit would be able to translate for him. He was feeling like he was about to throw up again even though he had not eaten anything and he was desperately worried that he might throw up on the girl.
The other girl was silent. The man knew she was still there, however, for he heard a light jingle.
‘Do you know what she’s saying?’
The glowing girl suddenly stopped speaking and stared straight ahead, through the man’s head, through the ceiling of the forest and into the sky above. She then said a single word; her features drew tight, blood trickled out of her nose like a river on a map and—
‘What did she say?’ the man demanded. ‘She’s dead. What did she say?’
‘Her last word was “blue”,’ the girl said behind him.
‘But what else did she say? I need to know. We’ve gone through all of this and I need to know.’
The girl was standing next to him now and was holding something in her hands.
‘What’s that?’ he asked.
‘I found it inside of that skeleton,’ she said.
In her hands was a golden key. She pressed it into the limp, lifeless hands of the glowing girl and set the girl’s hands together over her chest, over her heart.
The magic sword began to glow bright blue in the man’s hand; the glow wrapped itself around his arm and then his entire body, the brightness of it all bringing excruciating pain to his eyes even when he closed them. The glow soon covered the entire clearing, from the grassy floor to the tall ceiling of cruel branches, and then spread out into all of the trails and up all of the trees in the forest. Everything was glowing with the burning brightness of the absolute blue until nothing else could be seen.
The man felt something hold onto him and then he felt a soft, wet, gentle kiss on his cheek. He heard the girl call him Ace and thank him but he was not sure of her actual words.
‘Thank you,’ he said.
A strong wind then came up from behind him and threw his hair into his face. When he turned around the forest was gone.