Rufus and the Forest

Chapter 1    
    In a curious land, tucked away under folds of snow, there was an icy, dark forest that no creature dared go near.  Some said the forest fell from the great sky, that the wintry clouds were careless and let it slip to the ground.  Others said it grew slowly each night during the deepest frost, while they huddled inside, hoarding what warmth they could.  To children the forest was every cold breath on their window, every piece of ice that clawed at their feet.  Even the plants and animals found the winters somehow bleaker.
    There were a few that didn't listen to the stories others told.  One in particular was a little squirrel named Rufus.  Rufus was fascinated by the forest.  He dreamt about what he might find if ever he went in.  Often while lying awake at night with an empty stomach, he would think of berries and tasty acorns and how many he could eat at one time.  Such thoughts pleased Rufus, and he was sure that there was plenty of food waiting in the forest.   
    One day near the end of Autumn was a good day for strolling around.  Rufus visited his favorite tree and a boulder that he liked to lie on in the sun sometimes, that is, when the sun could find its way through the clouds.  He passed the homes of some of the animals that he played with when he was still the size of a mouse.  He missed the days of exploring the land with his friends.  There were so many places to run and hide, trees to climb up and branches to jump to.  He hoped to stop by here more often in the future.  It would be good to see his friends again.

Chapter 2
    "I see hope before us," said a voice in the distance, unheard by any ears, a voice covered in cobwebs.  "Can this be the one that will loosen our bindings?  Let us draw him in and see if he will crumble."
    A cold breath arose from the forest, icy fingers reached out into the valley walls.  "Where is this one?  Where will we find him?  Come to us little one and tread the path that stretches away from the hurting.  A delicate thing is a heart, this thing that beats the life through.  In our hands, warmth and peace this thing will find.  Delights.  Senses revealed.  Listen to the gentle ways and you will see the misty weavings of the soul."
    The chilled fingers wove a spell around Rufus, lulling him into a blind numbness.  He strolled, and he tumbled, and he spun right around... until he found himself quite alone.
    Oh, there was much around him that lived.  Ancient trees reached up to a cold, white sky.  Birds and insects swarmed the air.  Small animals gathered food and made shelters from bits of twigs and leaves.  But something was not right, something he could feel but not know.  What was it?
    "Why, hello there," said Rufus to a small chipmunk lying nearby.  But the chipmunk didn't answer.  It slowly raised its head from the ground and turned towards him.  Sunken eye cavities and pieces of what was once healthy, living skin looked at Rufus.  The chipmunk turned away and lied back down.
    Poor Rufus wasn't quite sure what to do.  There was a smell of death about the animal that was very disturbing.  But he crept closer.
    "What's the matter?" he said.   
    "I feel sick", said the chipmunk.  "I thought there would be warm things in the forest here.  But when I went in, everything went upside-down, and I started lying around feeling sad.  Now everything is the same, and it doesn't matter much."
    Rufus felt sad for the chipmunk.  It seemed like a nice enough animal.  "Maybe I can find help.  There might be medicine somewhere that could make you feel better.  Wait here while I go see."
    The chipmunk lay still.  It had never seen anyone before that offered to help.  

Chapter 3
    "Now is the time to see," unheard.  
    Rufus ventured deeper into the forest, hoping to find something to help the poor chipmunk.  As he searched through the mass of trees, he saw things that did not seem as bad as he had heard.  All the animals around him were sad or sick, but it did not have to be like that forever.  Things could be better.  He could feel that.
    A faint shaking of the ground began to be felt.
    A rumbling somewhere.  Snowfall.  Something moving under the ground, through the quiet, peaceful earth.

    Shhrrriek!  All at once the forest turned wrongways up and sideways down in an explosion of soil and brittle roots.  Pure, dark decay broke free of the ground and reached up into the stale air, hands and fingers grabbing at anything with life.  Pain-wracked bodies beat back and forth and climbed higher yet.  Up and up.  The frenzy of disease and decay swirled around and then curiously stopped.  A smell in the air.  Something they were looking for.  Eyes then gazed upon Rufus.  Tiny, brave Rufus, this insignificant thing below them.  Now they would see.
    "Greetings noble one.  From the far corners of the earth we came to see what hides within.  Feel the warmth of the mountain air rushing by, while hungry limbs stumble over you and crack your bones.  Fall into a deep, comforting sleep as hands that know only the bite of the earth smother your breaths with a rich layer of filth.  For this you came to the forest.  This you will know until the last strands of time have been chewed away."
    But Rufus did not feel afraid.  It seemed strange to him that anything could want to be so dark and lonely.  There was no forest of foul haunts.  The gentle forest of his dreams felt true and right to him.  It had a grace and natural beauty that sought only to provide comfort.  Closing his eyes, he felt only this.
    Away from the whole of rot and filth a voice is slowly heard, a voice rising within every layer of sod, roots burrowing into the ground, and limbs breaking free from the soil.  The putrid mass shook and twisted and melted down.  Flailing limbs broke apart, joined together, and dissolved.  Away-away into that far realm where horrid things live crouched in shadows.
    A stillness was left behind.  Rufus opened his eyes and saw the forest he dreamt of.

Chapter 4
    A warm voice fell from the sky.  Tiny whispers pressed into the soil and released it gently.  A crisp breeze shouted merrily and told all that the spin-spine backity-back that played so lively in these lofty every-all freelies would once again be where they might look about and see that nothing really was what such things never quite faded passed grew spread thrived waited saw and went about.
    The voice crept about Rufus and showed the wonderings that he might find, "These things you see, you helped restore.  Lost long ago, the fears and hatred of those so near were more than we could withstand.  We became as we were seen--a horrid shadow."   
    "You stayed true to what you knew, even faced with the nightmare.  And we are again whole.  Now go and be with those that you might bring these things to."

    So off he went, hopping away from the forest into familiar places.  Lying down under a thick, branchy tree, he began to miss his friends.  "I should see them," he said.  And he did just that.

Chapter 5

    Gentle winds caress the ground.  Lofty branches hold fragile life.  And somehow, to the people and animals of the village, the forest seems not as hostile as it once was.

(c) 1994, Matthew K. Coughlin