White frost glittered on the rose-prickles in the sunrise. He hardly noticed the icicles that hung down the roof of the outhouse like a frozen waterfall. He rushed by the stone walls that divided the blue garden into different sections, and then abruptly came to a halt at the outskirts of the woods. There was no going back now. One more step, and he would most likely never return.
The decision was his, after all. No one could say that his will was not free, or that he had not chosen this on his own. They would miss him, he was sure, but he knew that he could not live if he did not at least try.
So he took another step. And yet another. He was lost in the old forest which he had never before dared to enter. The unknown had always frightened him, and in this darkness, no one would hear him scream.
He was, for the first time in his life, entirely dependent on no one else but himself. But it was not only his life that was in danger.
The others had told him to forget her. Hope was lost, they said, but he refused to believe them. She, who had always been so alive, so full of life, had not, should not have, could not have, left him. No, he sensed her still.
But there was no point in looking back now. He was no longer a child, and no dreams could save him out here. He had to leave the past behind, and try to be as courageous as she had always been.
Stick-in-the-mud, she called him. Not only because he was down-to-earth, but because he had always doubted her fairy tales. He lacked imagination, she had informed him more than once. While she daydreamed, he was bound to seeing no longer than what was right in front of his eyes. And sometimes, she would laugh, not even this.
Upon reaching the glade, he came to an abrupt halt. Until now, the luxury of doubting had been his. But now, seeing with his own eyes, and not willing to trust his own senses, he had to admit to himself that it was as she had told him.
Only, much worse.
"Let your imagination run away with you," she had advised, over and over again. Now, when he no longer needed any to picture what she had seen, the scene in front of him was dust and ashes. He had come here, thinking it would all turn out to be an illusion. Superstition had blinded him, but even worse, he had been duped by his own memories.
He had expected the daybreak to drive them away. But the mist over the golden grass, rimmed with rime, must have enticed them into staying a little longer.
"Them", he said, and yet he did not know what creatures they were.Nothing he had ever seen could be used as a metaphor for this vision. They were hazy, no more distinct than the mist they were outlined against. Outlined, yes, because of how they moved.
He dared not venture any closer. As the sun rose, the mist lifted, and he could see the fairy ring on the grass. Trembling, he advanced. He fumbled as he picked the fungi, one by one, and when he was done, when there was no more fungus to be seen, he retired to the edge of the woodland meadow, where he carefully lit a fire. As the smoke rose from the charring toadstools, doubt nagged at his heart. What if this would not work? What if this folly would only curse him further? But no, he did not believe in such things. He forced himself to not believe in such things. Only fools were so superstitious. The light and the mist had played a joke on his eyes and mind. He was no longer sure of what he had seen. He refused to believe he had seen such a thing. What had he even seen? Frost, that was all. It had moved because the wind had stirred the grass ... but there had been no wind ...
It had all begun the previous winter. Although he had suspected nothing like this at the time, she had often caused him great worry. Then, in the spring, she had left the village frequently, without wanting to tell even him where she had been, or what she had done. He had shrugged it off. Thought that she needed her freedom, needed this last time of her childhood to play and feign secrecy. He had teased her about it, said that she probably only wandered around over the hills.
Not a single time had it occurred to him that she would have gone into the forest. Everyone knew that it was dangerous to be there alone. Not even the most fearsome hunters were inclined to stay in there for long. But she had gone into the forest willingly, and gone mad because of it.
When the fire had gone out, he rose from the damp ground, hoping with all his heart that this childish act would be enough. To have performed it, he had acknowledged the fact that there was a chance of her wild stories being true, and that was something he was ashamed of. Nevertheless, the scheme was so simple that it must work.
She had spoken of women turning into trees, and stones turning into trolls. He had noticed her sitting all day by the creek, murmuring about the shade of the water. And then, she had vanished. The rumour said that she had taken her life, but he knew better. He could still sense her.
It was something she had said to him, the last time they had met. It hadn't made any sense to him then, and he didn't understand it any more now. But now he had kept his promise, and even though that couldn't bring her back, for whatever reason she had left, he could deny her nothing, and had now fulfilled her last wish.
He had expected to feel relief, but all he felt was longing and loss. He had destroyed the fairy ring she had been so hysterical about, and yet nothing had changed for him. Discouraged, he sank down on the ground again. A sudden fatigue came over him, and not caring about anything else, he fell sound asleep.
He awoke at dusk. At first, he felt disoriented, but he soon summoned up his courage. He just had to walk home the same way as he had come. Resolute to be back before the darkness became too compact, he headed into the forest at a high speed.
But where had he come from?
Wherefrom? echoed the woods, and he was sure to go crazy, just like her. He could not even remember why he had come into her. What was he doing in the forest? He knew of the dangers in here; what had made him venture her against his better judgement?
Wherefore? asked the woods, but he had no answer to give. Why, he did not even remember where he was going … Whereto, mused the woods, and in his heart, he did not know where home lay. Why not stay in the forest? Suddenly, it seemed like the most obvious thing in the world.
Not knowing how, his feet carried him to the glen where the fairy ring had been. No, where the fairy ring was. Because it was there, just like it had been on the morrow, not any different in the least. Even though the fungi perhaps looked a little bit burned, and there was a fume of smoke.
Somewhere near, someone was whimpering. He turned to the sound, and found himself looking into the bluest eyes he had ever seen. It was a girl, her fair hair pinned up and decorated with white roses, her light gown shifting from cream to silver and into ebony at her every move.
She was gruesome. In all his life, he had never seen anything look so horrible. He couldn't put his finger on what it was, but everything about her features seemed mismatched, as if she was a caricature of a human. She smiled, and it chilled him to the bones.
He ran then. Fled into the night, spurred by his unexplainable fear. But he couldn't leave. For another creature, equally alarming, but because this one looked way too perfect, blocked his path.
Her stories had been true. The fairy ring was no mere circle of funguses, it was as magical as the old storytellers always had proclaimed. He drew his knife from its sheath, ready to fight, though suspecting that no steel could wound these creatures.
And then he saw her.
She steadily returned his amazed gaze. With lifted eyebrows, as if saying; "I told you so, didn't I?" He couldn't decipher whether she was happy to see him or not. Her face bore no expression whatsoever, and first when he had lowered his eyes from her, he realized that she looked all too tidy for having lived in the forest during more than a fortnight.
"It was not very nice of you to burn us."
He looked up with a start. Her vacant tone was such a sharp contrast to the meaning of her words that he couldn't take her seriously.
"I see you," he said. "That means you're not …" His voice died as he saw his own error. He had seen the others, too … that part of the folklore was untrue, then.
"You can see me as I choose to show myself to you. Just like they have taken human form when presenting themselves to you. But you see my true self no more than you see who they really are."
He shook his head. What was she taking about? He saw her, she was here, right in front of him.
"Come with me," he begged. "Let's leave this place. You can explain everything later." He stretched out his hand towards her, but she only looked at it.
"You still don't believe a single word I've said to you," she said matter-of-factly, not sounding surprised in the least. "I told you I had seen the elves. I told you I had seen them dance. You laughed at it. But you'd better believe it now."
He made an attempt to follow her, but she hissed, "Don't walk into it, your fool, or you'll never leave it."
They danced. At first he thought it ridiculous. Had he come all this way to find her, to save her from the forest, only to watch her swirl around with some other girls? The other girls had probably run away from home, and now they lived on what the woods could offer. Yes, so it must be, he had to stay sensible about things. Everything could be explained if one only thought about it …
They danced, and yet no one seemed to take any pleasure in it. It was distressing. She looked exhausted, and yet she continued with the others, around in a great circle, swirling faster and faster. She would break down if he didn't stop her.
"Wait!" he cried, but she didn't seem to hear. Faster and faster they danced, and he ran into their midst to try to catch her, to force her to stop.
And stop she did, as did all the others. They ceased to be, it seems, for all he could see was shells. They weren't alive, or perhaps they were more alive than him, but however, they weren't alive in the common meaning of the word.
And she … she was one of them. Trapped in her body, with no one who listened to her will. She had always seen herself as one of them, but now she truly was so.
"I see you," he said, and might have added, "I see you now. See you as I have never seen you before. As no one has ever seen you." But that was all he said, and these three little words were quite enough. As a bubble bursts, the spell broke … or no. Nothing dramatic happened. The world didn't brighten around them. But she managed to free herself from the others, found strength enough to stand before him and smile.
But the smile held no warmth. "Too late," she said with sorrow, as he shook his head violently, denying the fact. "You couldn't free me by destroying the fairy ring. The magic is too strong."
"There must be a way."
"Well, if you find one, please tell me."
"Of course I will!"
"So you don't think I'm crazy any more?"
"No, I never … "
"Don't lie to me. I know you didn't believe me before. But now you've seen it."
"Yes, now I believe in magic." It was the hardest thing he had ever said, and yet it felt relieving.
"Here," she said, pressing something into his right hand. "Take it. That way, you may follow me when your time comes." And with those words, she left, and he never saw her again for many a year.
Opening his hand, he found a little silver ring resting on his palm. The roses on it reminded him of the winter garden at home. He suddenly knew that he would find his way back home. And with equal certainty, he knew that, in time, the ring would lead him back to her.