Angela ran. She pumped her arms and legs until they carried her to the edge of town and beyond, through the tall grassy field and up the steep hill that shadowed the town like an imposing mountain. At the top of the hill began a forest, a deep and mysterious cluster of trees that for all she knew enveloped the whole rest of the world. No one ever went into the forest. In fact, most town’s folk made a point of avoiding it. Spirits and demons, they mumbled behind newspapers and mugs of coffee. Like her grandmother, who threatened if she should ever wander in a demon would eat her. But she should really be focusing on the task at hand.
Three boys chased after her, yelling familiar taunts. They chased her every day after school, and she always ran. She would try to take a different path every few days or so, just to keep things interesting for her. That day she had decided to take the sidewalk leading out of town. She didn’t bother looking over her shoulder, only focused on the swish of her pink cotton skirt and tall grass against her legs as she made her way up the hill. She wasn’t the most athletic kid in school, but she had become quite the decent long distance runner in recent times. Maybe she would try out of track next fall?
“Freak! Better keep running!”
As she neared the top of the hill and the forest she heard the boys and their voices fading into the distance. When she reached the top of the hill she skidded to a halt and looked over her shoulder. Sure enough the three boys were walking back down the hill, occasionally shoving one another in a playful manner. They were probably talking about what they were going to have for supper that night, pizza or chicken or whatever their parents made.
Putting her hands on her knees, Angela heaved a sigh of relief. She took off her backpack, pink and white with sparkles set into the plastic front cover. It was an image of the sky, full of stars she had never seen. Leaning against the nearest tree, she looked first at the setting sun in the west. Pretty pink and orange hues coated the sky like frosting. She looked up at the tree, thick green leaves waving down at her in the slight breeze. Everything was quiet, the sounds of her town minuscule even to an attentive ear. Truth be told, this was not her first time at the edge of the forest. Once or twice, or maybe even five times, she had found herself wandering up the grassy hill to examine the forest the town seemed to dislike so much. She had never gone past the tree line, but still found she didn’t mind the peace and quiet that came with being closer to a cluster of trees than a cluster of people, regardless of any old demon her grandmother threatened her with. Sighing, she slid down the tree trunk until her knees touched her chin and began tugging absentmindedly at her pig tails.
The sun continued to set, and Angela continued to stare off into the distance. She really should be on her way home, it was getting late. Her eyes squinted at the sun, almost gone now, as she folded her arms over her knees and let her cheek rest in the crook of her elbow. Her eye lids drooped down and closed. When she opened them all around her was cool darkness. Yawning, she unfolded herself from sleep and stretched until all the joints in her body felt taunt as a bow string. Sighing, she looked up at the sky and imagined the scolding she would get when she finally walked through the front door. A movement out of the corner of her eye caught her attention, a patch of black moving against the grey.
She looked closer, and out of the shadows emerged a tall figure shrouded in a black cloak with the head of a fox’s skull. It stretched out a hand, skeletal like it’s head but human, to pick at a few small mushrooms it found growing near the tree line. It took a few steps, occasionally stooping, picking and planting mushrooms, pushing aside grass and digging in the dirt with its thin ivory fingers. Finally, only a few feet away, it noticed Angela in her bright pink converse shoes with glow in the dark laces. Seeming to give a little start the creature froze, staring at Angela as she stared back.
“Hello there.” The creature said. Its jaw did not move, but she knew the voice had come from it.
“Hello,” Angela said. “Are you going to eat me?”
“Eat… you?” The creature looked taken aback. “Of course not. I am strictly vegetarian.”
“Oh.” Angela nodded. “What are you doing?”
The creature continued to stand still, except to fidget with its hands the small bag it held. “I am picking and planting mushrooms. It is the season you know, and nighttime is the best time to do this sort of thing.” The creature seemed to look her up and down. “Who are you?”
Excitedly, Angela jumped to her feet and skipped up to the creature. “My name is Angela; I live in that town down the hill.” Holding out her hand, she looked up into the two black pit eyes of the creature expectedly. Looking down at her, the creature obliged and took her hand in its own, giving it a good shake.
“My name is Wald. Spelled with a W but pronounced with a V.”
Angela stared up at Wald, fascinated with every river bed crevice in its skull and worn thread in its coat. “How do you talk if your jaw doesn’t move?” She asked.
The creature again looked taken aback. “I… do not know. I have never thought about it.”
“Oooooooohhhh.” Angela cooed. Her eyes shined wide in the night light. “You’re so cool. Is the rest of your body a skeleton too? Why is your head a fox but your hands human? Do you have feet?” The young girl grabbed at the creature’s cloak only to have it gently but firmly yanked away.
“Why are you here? At this time of night?” Wald asked. Just then a deep rumble came from Angela’s stomach. Gasping, she slapped her hands over her abdomen and looked up at the creature, slightly embarrassed. If Wald had eyebrows, she was sure it would have risen them. Sighing, it set down its sack of mushrooms and reached into its sleeve. Pulling out another sack, it motioned for Angela to sit back down against the tree she’d fallen asleep against. Obeying, she watched with wide eyes as Wald sat down next to her and opened the sack. A small spread of bread and cheese greeted her on the grass soon after.
Angela looked at Wald. “I was not expecting a fox to like bread and cheese.”
Wald chuckled. “I am not a fox.”
“What are you?” Angela asked, already stuffing bits of food into her mouth.
“I am the forest.” Wald explained. “I am the trees and the grass, the water in the creeks and the air that ruffles the leaves.”
“That’s cool.” Angela said, chewing thoughtfully. “How old are you?”
“As old as time.” Wald said. “Yet as young as the new leaves every spring.”
“I’m twelve.” She offered up.
“Angela,” Wald said. “Why are you here? No one goes into the forest, let alone at night.”
“Oh,” Angela said. “Some boys chased me up here this afternoon. It’s no big deal. I’ve been up here a few times by myself just to wonder around. I’ve never been into the forest though.”
“No one has been into the forest in quite some time.” Wald said.
“Everyone’s too scared to.” Angela continued talking in-between bites. “They think the forest is haunted by a demon. I think that’s supposed to be you.”
“Humans are strange.” Wald said, staring down at the small quiet town at the bottom of the hill. “When did that happen?”
“People have always been strange. Least for as long as I’ve been alive. You probably never noticed. Do you have more cheese?” Wald reached into its sleeve again and pulled out a branch of berries.
“Dessert.” It said. “Why were those boys chasing you?”
Angela shrugged. “I don’t know. Just different I guess. Do you have any friends?”
“A few.” Wald said. “Do you?”
“No.” Angela smiled. “I’m a freak, and no one wants to be friends with a freak.”
Wald thought for a moment. “Why do you come up here? To wander?”
Angela shrugged. “It’s quiet. Who are your friends?”
Wald thought for a moment. “Not so much friends… From the deers to the birds and even the ants. I am connected to everything within my presence. I am their home, and they are my reason for being. I am never alone, and neither are they.”
“Sounds nice,” Angela said, biting into another berry.
Wald looked over at her. “You say you have no friends; do you like being alone?” Angela shrugged. “Do you feel alone?” Wald pressed.
“Not right now.” She smiled.
“Before this?” Angela looked down at her sneakers and shrugged. Wald tilted his head and sighed. “Young one, place you hand on the ground.” It demonstrated, straightening its bones so it’s hand lay flat against the ground. Angela followed suit, cool blades of grass poking through the space between her fingers. Wald looked at her. “What do you feel?”
Angela screwed up her eyes, concentrating. “The… Earth?”
“Do you think you are ever truly alone?” Wald asked. “We are all connected, all living things, to one another. Even this tree you are leaning against right now, it is a part of you just as you are a part of it. All living things are bound together. We breath the same air and walk under the same sky. True, there may be moments when you are physically alone, even emotionally alone. Sitting in your room at night perhaps. But there are bats flying to and fro, roots growing deeper, and other humans down the block playing cards. Every living thing is related in some way, through the heartbeat of the very planet we all call home. You might feel you are alone, but that could not be farther from the truth.”
Angela started up at Wald, a bit mystified. “I guess so.” She said, and looked back down the hill at the town.
Wald followed her line of sight. They sat in silence, listening to the cool night air. In the distance, a cricket chirped its opinion. “Those boys who chased you up here…” Wald said. “You are connected to them as well. It is important to remember that.”
“Yuck,” Angela scrunched up her face.
“All you can do,” Wald reached out and put his arm around Angela’s shoulders. “Is treat them like the family they are. That we all are.”
“Like brothers…” Angela suddenly stood up. Looking back at Wald a smile spread across her lips. “Can I ask you a favor?”
The next afternoon found Angela in a similar scenario; the same three boys chased her after school through the town. Taking the same route as the day before, Angela found herself jogging up the grassy hill that led to the forest. Normally outrunning the boys wasn’t an issue, but exhaustion weighed down her legs. She arrived home late the night before and spent most of her time once there lying in bed staring at the ceiling, thinking back to the conversation she had with Wald. She heard the boys grow closer and closer, and began to panic. What would they do if they caught her?
She heard a grand rustling noise and felt the ground shift beneath her. She turned around just in time to see a shadowy figure rise from the tall grass between her and her pursuers. The boys stopped short, staring wide eyed up at Wald, who loomed over them. “Listen carefully little boys,” it boomed. “Whoever trespass this hill is in my domain, and I do not take kindly to those who would bring disorder. This girl tells me you bully her every day. Enough! Do not bother her again or next time you will find yourselves between my jaws.” Wald had steadily moving closer and closer to the boys and was now standing directly in front of them. Bending down to their eye level, it paused for a moment before opening its jaws for the first time, letting out such a furious roar even Angela was impressed. The boys screamed and high tailed it back down the hill, stumbling and pushing each other along the way.
Wald turned towards Angela. “I am still not convinced that was the right thing to do.”
“Aww come on,” Angela said. “You said it yourself. We’re all family; and I for one think that was a very sisterly thing to do.”
“Ask me to scare those boys half to death?”
“Yup.” Wald and Angela stood side by side, watching as the last of the boys ran into town and disappeared behind a building. “Do you think anyone will believe them?”
“No.” Wald said. “The belief in a forest creature is an old folk tale at best. It is true no one comes up here anymore, out of fear or disinterest, but I do not think I should worry about fire and pitch forks any time soon because of a child’s overactive imagination.”
“That’s good.” Angela said. Turning on her heels she started to trek the rest of the way up to the forest. “That way you can help me with my math homework.”
Wald looked over its shoulder, surprised. “I am? Oh dear.”