The Brave Girl
This is the short story I wrote for my wife for Valentine’s Day. As I’ve said previously, it’s the first story I wrote after 4 years or so, and it was the first thing I needed to write in a very long time. She inspires me every day, and I wanted to share with her a little glimpse of how she is in my imagination. This is a small part of her, and since people asked to see it and she said it was okay, I’m sharing it here.
Also, the drawing is a sketch I made of Spaniel Day Lewis for the Valentine’s Day before this one, and since he also graces this story, I thought I’d share it, too. I’d illustrate the whole thing if I could, but I sadly lack that talent.
Once there was a girl who lived in a house that was down a hill and up a hill away from the woods. The girl loved the woods very much, and was often found there, exploring the hidden places and listening to the music of the trees. She was very bright and imaginative and kind and clever, and a million other wonderful things besides, but most of all she was brave. She felt no fear under the boughs and amidst the brush, even when the shadows lengthened, because she loved the forest near her home. There were always adventures to be had there, and she would run or skip or stalk or sit quietly, however the mood struck her, as a branch became a wizard’s staff or a wind-borne blossom sprouted fairy wings or all the birds gathered to sing her a lullaby.
The girl also had a companion. He was far too sophisticated to be called merely a pet, and entirely too much a dog to be considered human, and he happily joined with the girl on all of the journeys she undertook. He could talk but never spoke in words, and the girl was happy to speak for him, giving voice to his speech that was a little deeper and hoarser than her own. Likewise, he enjoyed expansive gestures, but his legs made it difficult to perform them without the girl’s help, so she would gladly help him make his legs move like arms. His large brown eyes and fuzzy whiskers gave him a look of wise earnestness. He had told her that his name was Lewis, so that is what the girl called him.
One fine summer day the girl set out from her house, and began the journey down a hill and up a hill to the woods. Her boots cut through the green grass with lovely swishing sounds as Lewis danced around her feet, eager for the adventure to begin in earnest. As she reached the gate that separated the house from the wider world, she asked Lewis if he was ready. He was already rigid with anticipation, one hairy paw lifted and nose high to catch the wind, as he faced the gate. “I am ready,” he said in the voice that was a little deeper and hoarser than the girl’s.
“OK,” she replied, then held the gate closed a moment longer to build the tension. “Go!” she cried, flinging the gate wide at last, and Lewis tore through the opening as fast as his little legs could carry him, which was astonishingly fast. His fuzzy white body gave him the appearance of a tiny sheep, but no sheep could move so fast, nor bound like a fawn over every imaginary obstacle that crossed his path. As he ran through the tall grass, black floppy ears trailing behind his head like furry streamers, the girl sang his theme song:
Fly so high
His name is Lewis
And he runs so fast
Never catch him
‘Cause he’s too far past
His name is Lewis, yeah
The words were different sometimes, but the tune was always the same, and as she sang in her bright clear voice Lewis raced part of the way down the hill, then back up to her again, over and over as she began her journey down the hill.
They went along that way, him racing and her singing, and made their way down the hill and started up the hill that led to the woods. They stretched out ahead of her, a green and brown wall that separated the ordinary from the magical. She was still singing as she reached the entrance she liked the most, the one that had branches that framed it like a cave and made her duck to get beneath. She finished her song and took a deep breath, as if she were about to dive into deep water. The girl imagined that instead of a little entrance of branches that a large metal gated arch stood there, and she were about to pass through her own private portal to a world of wonders, and because of the girl and the magic the gate stood there just as she pictured it. She smiled at Lewis, who stood at her feet with his own huge panting grin, and went through her own private portal, and entered into the world of wonders.
Lewis stayed close by her as they entered the forest and walked the little path that led to a small clearing. The girl loved it here, as she did all of the woods, but this place was one of her favorite spots. The branches above made a roof of green leaves, and bushes and shrubs and ferns framed a cozy space amid the trees. She felt a paw on her legs, which was Lewis’ quiet way of asking to be picked up. He clung to her chest tightly as she walked around the clearing. “I’m going to make a camp here one day,” the girl told Lewis, “and I’m going to sleep under the trees and stars, and I’ll have a bed with furs on it to stay warm, and the fairies will come out at night and glow in the branches.”
Her companion looked around agreeably. “You could put a fire pit there,” he said, and the girl helpfully pointed his arm to just the perfect spot. “That would help us stay warm and we could read books by it.” She smiled, thinking that Lewis always came up with the best ideas.
Soon after Lewis was sniffing around some of the leaves and sticks accumulated along the forest floor, and the girl moved on deeper into the forest. As she wandered she found a stick, a very nice one. It became a wand for a time as the girl cast spells on the trees, making them walk about and speak in low grumbly voices until she conjured them back into place. Then girl turned Lewis into a dragon for a time, a small fast one but fierce and very protective. She let him rampage through the forest chasing after the squirrels and roaring at the birds that flew just out of reach. The forest was filled with his dragon roar for a while as she wandered, but then the girl decided that the other animals deserved a break from being chased by a dangerous dragon so she changed him back again.
Later the stick became a sword as she stalked through the trees, wary of the highwaymen and bandits that roamed in this area of the woods. When she found their camp there was a long and fierce battle, until the bandit king swooned before her strength and beauty as his men groaned and rolled about on the ground from the wounds she’d given them. The king professed his undying love to her, but the girl just laughed and left them all tied up for the Elf Queen’s guards to find.
The girl came across a wide expanse of ferns, a bright green carpet below the tallest trees in the forest. There she encountered a pack of dinosaurs, reaching high with their long necks to crunch the leaves. Lewis was shy of them, because of their size, but the girl reassured him by patting the side of one of the smaller ones. The wide face swung down to get a better look at her, and the girl could see her reflection in the wide wet eyes. In minutes she was on the dinosaur’s back, and soon enough the big lizard lifted her high up on its neck so the girl could get a view of the whole forest. Lewis looked very relieved when she clambered back down, pawing at her legs in silent appreciation of her return.
She wandered the woods a long while like this, stopping at times to conduct a small quartet of frogs that were having trouble staying in time and harmony, or to have a whispered conversation with a fat little groundhog about which birds sang the best, or to sing the songs that came into her head and wouldn’t stop buzzing around her ears until she let them out of her mouth. The girl journeyed long and far, and had more adventures than can be properly recounted, including an especially auspicious visit to the Elf Queen’s court.
Eventually her feet took her to her especially favorite place, an open valley surrounded by the woods with a pond and little stream running through it. The girl warned Lewis about the giant turtle that lived in the pond (for the thousandth time) and he promised that he wouldn’t go in it, but she knew he liked to try to see the turtle so she kept a close eye on him until they passed the pond entirely. They went together to the stream and splashed around in it, looking for gold and gems and fish.
After some time the girl grew tired and walked a short ways to her most favorite place of all, a green area framed by trees next to the stream. Lewis was panting and joined her as she sat in the shade. The insects hummed and the stream babbled as it ran over the smooth stones in its bed. The sun was dipping down as the afternoon passed and the gentle breeze ruffled her hair and set the leaves above her to hushed whisperings. She yawned and lay upon the soft grass, curling herself around Lewis who was already nestled in. “I’m going to get married here one day,” she told Lewis, just before another yawn could cut her off. He made no answer besides a yawn of his own. In no time at all, the girl was asleep, running and playing with Lewis in her dreams.
As the girl slept and the shadows grew long, a spirit descended into the woods. It had come from a different faraway forest in search of food. The spirit called himself Fearghus, for the name amused him, and no other creature ever made use of it. In fact, most creatures didn’t know there was an entity to name, since the spirit shifted its form to suit its thoughts. It was the shadow lurking behind a far-off tree, the chill breeze that carried mouthless whispers, the sudden snap of a twig from just behind, the creaking limbs of a dead tree. Where Fearghus dwelt, the friendly became frightful, and all of the creatures of the wood would be afraid, know doubt, and feel despair and hopelessness, while the spirit would feed on their feelings and grow stronger. When the wood where he dwelt was drained of its courage and resolve and hope, when the vines strangled the trees and the creatures fled and the whole forest became dark and haunted, then the spirit would move on to the next wood and his next victims. Now, it was in the girl’s forest.
The girl awoke suddenly, when the dreams of romping with Lewis had become strange and dark. She was surprised to see how long the shadows had become, and the glow of sunset was orange while the rest of the sky grew darker. As she sat up, Lewis groaned and stretched, then hopped to his feet and sniffed the air. They’d slept much longer than she’d planned to, but she wasn’t worried at all. “Come on sleepyhead,” she said brightly to the stretching Lewis, “dinner will be soon and we don’t want anyone to worry.”
“I was awake a while ago,” Lewis grumbled in his wake-up voice, pawing at the sleep in his eyes to hide his fib.
Together they left the valley, saying goodbye to the stream and the giant turtle and her favorite place of all favorites as they left the valley and walked back to the forest. As they made it there, the sun went down, and the wall of trees in front of the girl was very dark and shadowy.
The girl felt a little nervous as they approached the dark woods, but she didn’t slow down since she was very brave and these were her woods. Lewis didn’t dash ahead as he’d done before, but instead he stuck close, sniffing the air more and more. “Don’t be scared,” she said to Lewis, “these are our woods and there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“I know,” he grumbled, but the girl thought he still looked anxious.
Together they walked along. The woods were very quiet. The frogs and their harmony were silent. The birds weren’t chirping. Even the rustling of the leaves was muted. The sound of her boots shuffling through the old leaves on the forest floor made the only noise. It was a lonely sound.
The girl started to sing a song and the words to her school song started out bright and clear, but as she went along the sound seemed to get swallowed in the forest, and her voice grew quieter and smaller until she was just whispering the words. Soon enough the girl was walking through the dark woods in silence once again.
As they went the woods became darker and darker. The paths that were so familiar to the girl became strange, and her steps became less sure. Was she still on the path? Was that path the right one? The faint light from the sky only made the trunks and branches shadowy and twisted.
The girl passed one tree and started at the shadow of a tall man with long fingers standing farther down the path. She stared for a long moment while Lewis pressed against her calf. Her heart pounded in her ears before she realized that the shadow was just part sapling, part branch, and all make-believe. Still, she felt uneasy. But the girl was brave, and kept walking down the path.
She shivered as a chill wind blew against her back, pricking up the hairs on her neck. It hissed through the branches and made them creak like old musty doors swinging open in an abandoned house. The leaves it stirred made sounds that sounded like words. Lost, they said, and cold and alone. The girl rubbed her arms and walked a little faster.
She was in the middle of the woods now. There were no fireflies, no hum of cicadas, no flapping of wings or any of the normal sights and sounds of her woods at night. The dark shadows and whispering wind were all around her. The girl turned around suddenly, sure that something behind her was watching and creeping up on her. She saw nothing but the dark of the woods behind, so like that in front. She turned in a circle, feeling the eyes on her back once again, and she spun several times, knowing that something was there. She spun around one last time and saw a shadow darting behind a tree.
Lewis growled, lower and deeper than his voice sounded, but he pressed hard against her leg and the girl could feel him trembling. She picked him up and he hugged her tight, head pressed against her cheek as he watched behind her. The girl realized that she didn’t know what direction she should be going, and the trees loomed over her and bent close, as if they wished to grasp her in their claws. The whispering wind grew loud in her ears, and she felt the eyes on her from every direction, and the girl suddenly wanted to cry.
She held Lewis and shook silently, lost and afraid. She thought of her family, so far away. The girl wondered what her mother would do without her, who would help make messes in the kitchen and make up stories for the other to laugh at and take care of the animals. She thought of her father, endlessly unable to choose which tie he should wear or which suit was just right. She felt afraid for all of them, mother, father, and brother, and didn’t know what they’d do with her lost in the dark.
She cried a little, standing in the dark, holding Lewis. She didn’t know where to go or what she should do. The girl wasn’t in her woods anymore. She was alone in a strange place with no one who could tell her how to get home. There was no path to follow and no hand to hold, and she was lost. The whispers were all around her now and the wind felt like spiderwebs brushing against her skin and she could hear footsteps creeping around her.
“No,” she said.
It was a quiet word, but it was spoken firmly. “No,” she said again, and this time her voice was louder. “I have things I want to do, I want to go home, and you’re scaring Lewis.” The girl started walking firmly but unhurriedly through the woods.
She could see more shadows darting ahead of her and the whispers grew louder. The wind grew even colder as it sought to chill her bones. The girl walked a little faster, but it was a walk that was towards something rather than away from something. “I’m afraid,” she said to the dark woods, “but I’m going home anyway, and you can’t stop me. Because these are my woods!”
She started singing again, her elementary school song, and this time her voice got louder as she went. The trees crowding her drew back as she sang, and her steps became more sure. When her song ended she started another, and another after that, and soon Lewis was howling happily with her. Her voice blew away the wind and stopped the whispers, and the strange shadows became trees and stumps and logs and bracken, and with a sudden last gust of wind the woods became familiar once again.
As she sang through the woods, the girl realized she had been on the right path all along, and the fireflies started to flicker around her, and the birds and the insects brought their music back to accompany her. She saw the stars in the gaps along the treetops, and the leaves rustled above her like frilly dresses at a dance, and the girl reached the edge of the woods and saw her house, brightly lit, just down a hill and up a hill away. Lewis hopped down from her arms and dashed madly through the field once again, chasing the scent of summer.
The girl smiled as she turned and faced the woods. “I can be afraid,” she said brightly, “but I won’t let it stop me.” The nasty old spirit Fearghus didn’t hear her, because he’d already fled far away. The woods were her own again, because she was brave.