Saturday, 31 October 2015

Around the Cauldron - "Into the Woods" by guest storyteller Virginia Carraway Stark

This is how it happened, that I ended up in that strange place, that strange forest where nothing was as it seemed.

I was only sixteen when I got lost. I guess sixteen is old enough that you should know better, but it's different when you're actually in the situation and things get weird.

It's different too when you're angry at your mother and you kind of want to make a point. She had insisted I come along for the long weekend camping trip with her and her new boyfriend. He was trying so hard to be friendly when every ounce of my being was screaming in his face, 'you aren't my dad!'. He was older than my mom by quite a bit, and he always had ferrets with him and smelled like them. He had a face a little like one of the ferrets, not exactly unattractive but with a bit of the weasel to him. Even his name sounded a little like a name for a pet and not for a man, 'Howie'. It was  so easy for my mom to sound whiny and imploring when she said it. 'Can't you get along with Hoooowwie?', 'Howwwwie makes the best roast chicken.'. Ugh, every word of praise she heaped on him made him even more distasteful to me, but ultimately, it was the ferrets I couldn't get over, that musky smell that pervaded everything he owned and started to seep into my mother's clothing.

“Let's go out on the lake, I'll teach you how to fish.”

“I already know how to fish, my Dad taught me.” I said, emphasizing the word 'Dad' and then wincing. It sounded meaner than it had in my head. He looked at me with his sorrowful, basset hound eyes and I slumped and took the fishing rod from him.

We caught several rainbow trout and went back and fried them up in a pan. My mom was excited and Howie was showing my how to gut the fish... and yes, I already knew how to do that part too. I watched him 'showing' me how to eviscerate the fish and tried to keep my temper. This was absurd, I didn't want to be condescended to no matter how well meaning he was about it. I suffered through it and ate my fish but then I announced that I was going for a walk.

“Take your brother with you.” My mom suggested.

I shook my head, “He walks too slow.”

She looked at me and then to Howie for help. I felt sick at how quickly she had turned from needing my dad's approval to needing random ferret boyfriend's approval and turned and walked away. I knew my brother was winding himself up to get upset about me leaving but I didn't care.

'Let Mom and Howwwie deal with it.' I thought, after all, he's my brother, not my son. I walked quickly down a path and into the deepest trees that I could find. I walked quickly, trying to walk out of range of the voices I heard still behind me. Finally the scrub land around the lake turned into proper tall trees and I sighed with relief and the cool and the calm that came with a coniferous forest.

I thought conifers were quieter than deciduous trees. No rustling of leaves for conifers, just solemn tall creaking as they thought their dark thoughts in the increasing shade of the forest. The forest was cool and soft after the glare of the sun off of the lake. I sat down at the feet of one of the giants and closed my eyes, letting myself feel the bark against my back, scratching me lightly through my tee-shirt. I couldn't feel the wind that moved the trees, it was almost as though they were talking without any physical stimulation to make them do so. I listened to their voices and watched the little bits of dappled sun that had fought their way to the forest floor play on the veins on the back of my hand. I think it was then that I fell asleep.

I woke up hours later to see that it was nearly dark. I was bitten by black flies and mosquitoes when I slept and felt uncomfortable. I also had to pee. I walked unnecessarily to the far side of the tree I had been sleeping against to do my thing and wiped with leaves, (not poison ivy, I could tell that stuff even in the twilight's gloom). I knew which way to go back but I was a little worried about picking out the path in the gathering dark. I had never been here before and I didn't know this forest at all. I walked for awhile before growing uncertain.

It's much harder to tell distance in the dark, and when you are starting to get scared it's even more difficult. I debated changing directions and setting out on a new course but I knew that if I wasn't already walking in circles I would for sure be if I started second guessing myself.

Darkness was falling quickly. That's more of the nature of a conifer wood. It expels the sun quickly and shadows gather even at midday. I was fighting panic and my chest was tightening. I forced myself to walk more slowly, cautiously. If I rushed in the dark and hurt myself I could be in a bad situation very quickly. Running wasn't going to get me back to the campground. I was certain by now that the forest should have shrunk back down to scrub and I should be able to hear the other campers and see firelight reflected off the lake. It was hard to tell in the dark but I was sure that the trees were at least as large as they had been, but probably larger still. I had gotten turned around and lost.

I had to stay calm. It was quiet, I was safe, I just had to keep my head until morning and everything would be alright.

I stumbled in the dark and pinwheeled my arms to keep my balance. It mostly worked, but it hadn't stopped me from getting half soaked from the small pond that I had nearly stumbled right into in the dark.  Looking closely I could see that it was reflecting a blacker black than the surrounding forest floor around it. I sat down and rung out the calves of my jeans as best as I could. At least the water didn't smell stale or swampy. It smelled like fresh air and ozone. I decided that part of keeping my head was giving up trying to find my way in the darkness and to sit down until daybreak.

The great thing about being lost in a northern forest in the summer is that the sun rises very very early. I put my back to one of the trees a little bit away from the water and focused on trying to breathe slowly. I fell asleep again and this time when I woke up it was early dawn and my stomach growled at me. I was also thirsty. I walked over to the pond and looked in it. It was very dark and I could see that it got even darker the deeper it got. I knew that that likely meant that it was rich in tannins and the good thing about tannins is that they can make water a bit safer to drink. The pond had a very small stream that ran into it, now that I was sitting and not walking I could hear it talking quietly to itself as it poured itself into the forest pool. I went down to the water and took a cautious drink. It tasted cool and delicious and I was already parched from my walk and even more from my near panic. I cupped my hands and poured as much as my hands could hold into my mouth and then forced myself to sit and see if I felt okay after.

I knew that a lot of things that live in bad water don't effect you right away, but some of them make you throw up or queasy really quick. I sat and waited.

When I decided I had waited long enough and all I felt was a deep thirst for more of the delicious water I went back to the edge of it and lie down so I could sip it up right from the edge of the water. I had lost my hair tie while I slept so I held my hair out of the water and tucked it into the neck of my shirt and drank deeply. It tasted a little bitter, almost like black tea from the pine needles and other forest offal that fell into it regularly, it also tasted delicious.

I stopped and looked up, still lying on my belly when I felt eyes watching me. Yellow eyes stared at me in the face of a large black wolf. He was panting, his mouth held open and I saw that he was trembling. He took a few steps closer to me and collapsed about four feet from the edge of the water. I pulled myself up into a cautious crouch, moving slowly. I knew a little about sick animals, enough to know that they can be far more dangerous than a healthy one. Carefully and in a crouch I edged away from the pond. I got far enough away to feel comfortable enough to stand up straight and slowly edged away. The wolf made so sign of following but his ears moved alertly, and his eyes were on me. I turned to walk away and I heard him whine.

It was the same whine my own dog would make when she was sad or lonely or hurt and I turned back before I even was aware I was doing so. I took a couple of steps towards him, waiting to see if he would tense his shoulders or make the slightest sound of a growl.

He didn't, and I walked over to him. He was still panting and up close I could see that his brilliant yellow eyes had a glaze of fear and pain on them. Feeling like I was in a dream I walked right up to him, he didn't growl and I could see now that I was close to him why he was lying down. Two wounds that I recognized at gunshots were high up on his ribs. They were matted with blood but had caked over except for a bit of dark ooze at the sides of the rough circles.  I knew that he wanted something from me, but what it was I couldn't think of until I saw him look longingly at the pool.

He was thirsty. Maybe, most likely, he was dying and he wanted a drink of water.

I reached out a hand towards him. His skin flinched and he whimpered but he put his head down on the ground. I gently touched the area near the gunshots. It radiated heat. I guessed that whoever had shot him had left him to die and now the non-lethal wounds were infected with the bullets still inside. He panted harder and whined again.

I went down to the stream and cupped my hands and brought it back to him. I held them out, wondering if he would bite my hands off even as I saw my hands going out to them, water dripping out from between them. He lapped it up, my hands were fine. His tongue had been soft and his teeth were the healthy white of an animal with a long life ahead of him. I wondered if I could do anything about the bullets. I knew that if I could get him to a vet they might be able to remove the bullets and save his life but I had no tools and no way to do any sort of surgery. I had only seen a bullet removed once, in a dog and the dog had to be sedated to keep him from biting from the pain. This was a wolf.

He looked at me with mournful eyes. I went and got him another scoop of water. He was very thirsty and most of it was spilled by his lapping tongue or my leaking hands. It wasn't enough, he was sick and thirsty and what I was able to give him wasn't enough. I reached out a cautious hand and touched his dark ear. It twitched and then sat still. I stroked the shape of his skull, the sense of terror I had had was gone and I was mesmerized by the fact that I was sitting with a wolf and he was letting me. I felt a sense of understanding with him. We were different he and I, but we were both lost. He licked at my fingers that I had left to dangle beside him. What strange nihilism had seized me that I no longer feared him?

“Do you want more water?” I was a little startled by the sound of my voice after being in silence for so long. He looked at me, his gaze was level and direct and intelligent. I wished that I knew more humans that were as honest as his gaze. I nodded at him and got him more scoops of water.

I sat down beside him, “I should probably go soon. I'm lost, I don't have any food, any way to get food and I can't stay here forever.”

He looked at me.

“I could... maybe I could find help for you... I could bring back a vet, or someone with the park... a ranger, someone might be able to help you.”

He gazed at me still.

“Don't be like that. I could bring back help, someone would care. I mean look at you, you're awesome.”

He panted, smiling at me.

“I don't know who would want to hurt you... you weren't going after something you shouldn't have were you? After a sheep or a calf or something?”

He looked at me reproachfully.

“Well, I thought I should ask. If I got help and it turned out you were in trouble somewhere I wouldn't want to bring more trouble your way.”

High above us in the pine trees a squirrel chittered angrily and a scattering of pine needles fell down into the pond. The wolf sighed.

“Do you want me to have a look at your wounds? I'm not a doctor, or anything like a doctor, but maybe I can look at it and it's not as bad as it seems.”

I swear he understood me. He put his head down and his back was more accessible to me. I looked at the shots, it was bad but maybe not as bad as I thought. It looked like the gun had only been a .22 and I could see a glint of metal when I moved his skin around. I washed my hands in the pond.

“I'm going to see if I can get those out, even if I can get one out it might hurt a bit less. Is that what you want me to do? It could hurt a lot when I try to dig around and I don't have any soap.”

His tail thudded gently in a wag on the forest floor and he kept his head down. I put my fingers into the wounds without thinking about whether it was safe or clean or anything else. He whined but stayed still as I chased the bullet with my fingers. I pulled it out carefully and slowly and then went after the next one.

After closely examining him I decided that he didn't have more than three stuck in him. The other two wounds looked like glancing blows. When I had pulled out the third one he started to bleed quite a bit. I pulled off my t-shirt and pushed it against the wound hard and the bleeding stopped after a few minutes. The wolf didn't say a word to me, but this is what I knew to be true.

He had come here from a far away place. This forest was not his home although this pond was the same in this world as it had been in his and was the reason why he had come here. He had gotten lost in this place, mistaking it at first for his own place and had returned to the pond as the last spot he had been sure was his home.

He had given up, wounded and lost but had found the pond with his last strength and by some miracle I had been here too. His name was Loberius and in his world he was the King of the Wood.

“Loberius.” I said softly. He raised his head in surprise. Had he not meant to tell me things? How had I known? I walked down to the water and washed my fingers off. Loberius got to his feet and came to the edge of the pond. He was feeling better from the wounds being clear! He lapped up water gratefully. Blood muddied the water where I had washed off my fingers. I took the bullets and washed them off too and put them in my pocket.

I expected him to leave, now that he had drank his fill and he was feeling better, but he lie down where I had fallen asleep earlier and closed his eyes. He still had my t-shirt and I felt that this gave me certain rights. I went over to him and put my head down against his flank and closed my eyes. He kissed my forehead and we both fell asleep.

I woke up again and once more, it was getting dark. I was hungry but since there was nothing to eat I took another long drink. Lobarius was awake and alert.

“I'm hungry.”

He didn't say a word, but now I could almost hear him, a voice deep and somber in my head, “Hunt with me.”

“I'll only slow you down.”

He looked at me levelly, his invitation to follow him. Looking behind me as though the campground lay within easy distance and I knew the direction I shook it off. All of it, what had been was passed and so I followed him into the woods and never saw this world again.

+ + + + +

Virginia Carraway Stark has a diverse portfolio and has many publications. Getting an early start on writing, Virginia has had a gift for communication, oration and storytelling from an early age. Over the years she has developed this into a wide range of products from screenplays to novels to articles to blogging to travel journalism. She works with other writers, artists and poets to hone her talents and to offer encouragement and insight to others.  She has been an honorable mention at Cannes Film Festival for her screenplay, “Blind Eye” and was nominated for an Aurora Award.
You can read more of her words at

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