Standing at the edge of the grave, Marcus could not come up with a single thought. He closed his eyes and searched for any emotion. He tried to force tears out of his eyes but he couldn’t. He clenched his fists and let out a sigh. He stared back at the pile of fresh dirt but still felt nothing.
“I’ve always hated sunny funerals.” A voice called from behind him, “I find them very contradicting. But at the same time, at least the flowers get some light.”
Marcus turned around for a second. The woman seemed young, but he didn’t look for too long. He only caught a glimpse of her tangled black hair and black tired eyes. He turned his sight back to the dirt. “Avery,” the woman read, “what a lovely name. How old was she?”
“Barely two years old.”
“How quick,” she muttered, “Was she yours?”
He nodded and turned to the woman, “I’m sorry, who are you?”
She smiled softly, “I don’t believe we’ve met. My name is Fatima.”
“Fatima.” He repeated, “I’m sorry, how are you related?”
“I’m related to everyone.” She replied, “Through my, let’s call it ‘adoptive parent´, that is.” She pushed her hair back. Dark dirt smudged itself over her pale skin like ink over a page.
Marcus stared at the stranger for a moment and shook his head, “If you don’t mind, Fatima, I’d like to be alone right now.”
Fatima´s smile disappeared. She knelt down and dug her fingers into the earth. Marcus jolted back and yelled, “What do you think you’re you doing?”
“She seems comfortable enough.” Fatima murmured. She closed her eyes and let a single breath out. Green roots sprouted from her fingers and clawed on to her arms. Bright green leaves and yellow flowers grew into the dirt. The brown disappeared beneath the colors of the plants. The grave turned into a flowerbed.
Marcus stepped back. He could not believe what he was seeing. His breathing grew rapid. Fatima dug her hands out and pulled off the roots that had grown on her arms. “That will give her a nice blanket to stay warm during the cold nights.” She stepped toward Marcus, but he took a step back. “Do not be afraid. I can’t do much more than grow flowers.” She said.
“How- how did you do that?” He stuttered.
“I’m the maid of the forest. It raised me and it taught me its secrets.” She explained.
“That doesn’t help!” He yelled, “I don’t understand anything.”
“It is something hard to explain to those that haven’t lived it.” She acknowledged, “You see, my job is to keep the spirits that live in the forest at peace. The plants, the animals, the creatures that hide in plain sight, and sometimes human spirits. I help them live at peace so that the forest can remain tranquil.”
“What do you mean ‘creatures’?”
“Exactly what you’d imagine.” She replied, “But you see, I have a problem and I need a father. Three days ago, a spirit arrived into the forest, a child. But this child won’t stop screaming and crying. The noise has been disturbing everyone and everything. It has made the birds stop singing, the flowers stop growing, and everybody scared of going into the forest. I’ve never had children nor do I remember my own parents. I don’t know how to appease a crying child.”
Marcus looked at the flowerbed, “Three days ago.”
“You said the spirit arrived three days ago, right?” Fatima nodded. “What does this child look like?”
She shook her head, “I’ve tried to find it, but whenever I get close, it hides. It almost seems to be afraid of me.”
Marcus raised his sight to the gravestone. He couldn’t help but think that maybe he knew the spirit. His body was cold, his head hurt, his hands were shaking, his breathe seemed like ice, but he managed to nod. “I’ll help you find the child.”
“Sir,” Fatima added, “I might not be right, but I believe all the child wants is to go to sleep.”
Hope disappeared from Marcus´s thoughts, but he still managed to nod again. He could at least say goodbye. “I’ll do it.”
Fatima stretched out her hand, “Thank you, sir. Please, come with me.”
Marcus grabbed her hand. Fatima breathed out and roots crawled over her arm and clawed onto his skin. He bit his lip as he felt the roots dig into his arm like knives. He pressed his eyelids together, trying to hold back tears. “If you want to help, you must see the forest through my eyes.” Fatima whispered.
Marcus opened his eyes. Everything looked grey. He looked down at the flowerbed. The colors looked move vibrant against the grey. The brow of the root around his arm popped out against his grey skin. “Hold my hand, sir, and don’t let go.” Fatima began to walk, pulling Marcus behind. She turned and left the grave behind her.
Marcus gasped. Before, he hadn’t given much notice to the woods around the cemetery, but in between greys, the green looked like emeralds in the sun. He didn’t look away from the color as the forest seemed to swallow him whole.
Marcus had grown tired of walking in circles through the forest. The patterns of the leaves seemed to repeat themselves throughout the floor. The bright green color had begun taking its toll on his eyes. They burned as he opened them after every blink. His skin grew sore and red around the root that tied him to Fatima.
He ran his fingers through the bark of a tree. It felt exactly like the others he had passed. “We haven’t moved in hours.” He pulled on the root.
Fatima stopped and turned to face him. “Of course we have,” she replied, “Look around.”
“All I’m seeing are the same trees over and over.” He stated.
“Then you are not seeing the forest through my eyes.” She whispered, “Quiet, sir. Listen.”
Marcus held silent for a moment. The forest was quiet. Still. It sent shivers down his spine. Nothing dared move but the wind and the leaves. The air passed by his neck and ran through his skin. He could not hear a single animal or a single breath.
“What do you hear?” She asked.
“Nothing.” He murmured, “No animals, no people, not anything.”
Fatima nodded, “Yes, but there’s something else. Something behind the nothing. Listen closely.”
Marcus focused on any sound he could hear. He listened to Fatima´s slow breathing for a moment. He passed on to his own breathing. He felt every movement his chest made. He watched as the movements fell into synchrony with the breathing of the girl. They inhaled together and then exhaled.
His arm burned and everything went quiet. The wind grew and blew his hair to his face. It passed through him as if he weren’t there. Then he heard it. It was soft, almost unnoticeable. It was a cry. He could not distinguish who it came from, but he could hear it. It was uncontrolled. Desperate. His hand shook. He gasped and the sound was gone. “I heard it.” He sighed.
“I know we’ve been moving because the sound keeps getting closer.” She explained, “There is a lake nearby where we can rest for the night.”
“Night?” He asked. Fatima ran her fingers through the root. A chill passed through his veins as the root grew black and fell dead onto the floor.
Marcus blinked and darkness hit him. He could not see more than a few steps in front of him. Fatima´s face was hidden in darkness. Her black eyes were the only thing reflecting light. “It’s been harder telling the day away from the night since the child started crying and scared the owls away, but I know that when I get tired, it must be night.” She grabbed his arm and pulled him, “Follow me, sir.”
Marcus walked slowly behind Fatima. He felt the terrain with the sole of his shoe before he took a step. Dripping water echoed in the distance. He listened as the trickling got louder and louder. He took a step and water soaked into his shoe.
He jumped back. “Be careful, sir.” Fatima pulled on his hand as she sat down on dry land. “Try to sleep for we have a long way to go.” Marcus shook off Fatima’s grasps and sat down. Leaves rustled as Fatima laid down and closed her eyes.
Marcus did not move. His hands jittered although there was no wind. He closed his eyes and focused on the sounds of the forest. He heard nothing, not even Fatima’s breathing. He wasn’t sure if it was the nothing or what was behind the nothing that made him uneasy. He didn’t even want to lay down.
He heard something and opened his eyes. He thought for a second it has just been a voice in his head. It was brief and he couldn’t remember how it sounded the second it disappeared. He tried to look around but he saw nothing but darkness.
The sound appeared again. It was a soft, deep laugh that ended just as quickly as it appeared. White light fell onto the lake. It painted a white path over the waves that seemed to be made of fallen stars. Marcus’ eyes widened. He leaned back but could not take his eyes off the light.
A woman stepped onto the path. She walked over the water, light radiating from her body. Golden hair fell to her waist and a white dress covered her body. She reached the edge of the lake and smiled at Marcus. The instant he saw her eyes, he felt breathless. “Evelyn?” He whispered.
“Hello, my love.” Her voice was harmonious.
A thousand thoughts rushed to his head at the same time but he could not make out a single one. “How?” he muttered.
“I heard my child crying and I had to come.” She replied, “She misses you. I miss you.”
“I miss you too.” He stood up, “What did you think of her?”
She nodded, “She’s beautiful.”
“She has your eyes.” He commented, “I thought you’d never get to see her.”
“Those who are torn apart by death will be reunited through death.” She said, “Now we’re finally together.”
“And I’m stuck here.”
She shook her head, “You don’t have to be.” She reached out and grabbed his hand, “Dying is not that bad. It pinches for a second, but it’s over soon. Life seems a small price to pay to spend eternity with those you love. And who love you.” He stepped closer and stared into her eyes once more. He could not feel his body. Senseless thoughts fogged his mind.
She kissed his lips and his thoughts ceased. “Come with us.” She whispered. She let herself sink into the water, “We miss you.” She stepped back and the path of light disappeared. She was the only light in the darkness.
She pulled him into the water. He didn’t fight. He stepped in and felt the cold splash onto skin. He didn’t mind it. She pulled him in farther. The waves climbed up to this knees, then to his waist, and then to his elbows. He didn’t feel fear. He was calm.
The water shook and a large wave crashed onto Marcus’ head. He slipped and fell under. Panic invaded him. Adrenaline rushed through his body. He clawed the water but could not find the surface. His lungs burned.
A hand grasped his ankle and pulled him down. He opened his eyes and looked down. The creature had skin dark like coal and teeth like knives. Its claws dug themselves into his skin until they drew blood. It had the same eyes he had been staring into. He kicked but the creature would not let go. He opened his mouth and swallowed water.
A hand grabbed his wrist and pulled him up onto the surface. He did not have time to react as a wave pushed on him and threw him onto the shore. He fell onto the ground and coughed out water.
Fatima sat next to Marcus and dug her shivering hands onto the earth. Ivy crawled onto them and covered them like gloves.
“What was that?” Marcus coughed.
Fatima stared into the dark lake, “Most creatures go away when a child is crying, but there are some that are enticed by it. That want it. They are creatures that feed on fear, sorrow, life. It seems this is one of those creatures.” She stood up and offered Marcus his hand, “It was a bad idea to sleep here. I apologize, sir. We’ll move for the night and I’ll keep a watch.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
She dug her fingers into her skin and pulled him through the darkness, “I listen to the forest so the forest listens to me. I protect the forest so it protects me. I can keep both of us safe. It would not be my first time.”
Marcus followed Fatima until the sound of water was far behind. She sat on the ground in between roots and twigs and watched as Marcus laid down on the dirt. “Please, try to sleep this time, sir.” Fatima begged.
Marcus closed his eyes but sleep eluded him. He shivered through the night. He wasn’t sure why or if he’d ever stop.
Daylight crawled through the branches and onto the grass. Marcus opened his eyes but he didn’t sit up. He was too tired to move. He stared at Fatima as the light fell over her. He hadn’t gotten a chance to look at her so closely. She had a soft face that resembled the one of a child, but with bags under her eyes that aged her terribly. Her skin seemed to be covered by a soft layer of fog. Her eyes were fixed in the trees of the forest.
“You lied to me.” Marcus muttered.
Fatima looked down, “About what?”
“You said you could only grow flowers, but you controlled the waves last night.”
She shook her head and looked back at the trees, “I said I couldn’t do much more than grow flowers. Either way, I didn’t move the waves.”
He tried to push himself up but the weight was too much for him, “Then who was it?”
“The forest.” She replied, “I told you, it protects me because I protect it. It helped me last night because I’ve spent my life helping it.” She stood up and offered Marcus a hand, “Come on, we still have a long way to go.”
Marcus grabbed her hand and pulled himself to his feet. His knees collapsed. He grabbed onto the bark of a tree as he tried to keep his legs steady. “You didn’t sleep.” Fatima mentioned.
“You didn’t either and you seem fine.” He pushed himself off the bark and managed to keep his balance.
“I haven’t slept since the child started crying. I’m used to it.” She grabbed his hand and breathed out. The root crawled out of her skin and onto Marcus. He was beginning to get used to its pain. The colors hit his eyes like needles. He rubbed them as a pounding started in his head. “Will you be alright?” Fatima asked.
“Yes, I’m fine.” He muttered, “Let’s go.” Fatima nodded and began walking.
She didn’t walk as quickly as she was used to, for Marcus tugged on the root every couple of steps. He could not take more than two steps without fumbling with his own feet. He tried to keep his eyes closed, but the roots grabbed onto his ankles the instant he closed his eyelids. The sound of the crying child grew stronger. He could not ignore it anymore. Every noise pierced into his head.
The floor grew steep. “Perhaps we should stop.” Fatima turned around.
“No, it’s ok. Let’s keep going.” Marcus rubbed his eyes.
“We’re about to go up a hill.” Fatima stated, “Are you sure you don’t want to rest?”
“The sooner we get to the child, the sooner both of us get to rest.” Fatima nodded and kept walking.
Every step got harder. Rocks blocked the path and slid down the steep hill the moment Marcus pressed his foot on them. He grabbed onto any branch he could and held Fatima’s hand tightly. He looked down. He wasn’t sure if it was his state, the root, or his inexperience with the forest that made the side of the hill look like a tall bright green wall underneath him. He rubbed his eyes once more.
A rock slid under his shoes and he lost his breath. He grabbed Fatima´s hand but his grasp slipped and in that instant, the root broke. His heart raced as his body hit the floor and fell down the hill.
Branches and roots dug into his skin as he rolled down. He grasped on to anything he could reach for but it snapped in his hands. He could feel his heart about to rip through his chest. Everything stung like fire. He didn’t notice when the sharp rock hit him in the head and knocked him out.
Marcus awoke with a sharp pain on his chest. He wasn’t sure if it was from all the work his lungs did or from something that had stabbed itself into his torso. Something wet fell on his forehead. He opened his eyes and touched it. Leaves covered the liquid. He took one off and pressed his fingers against it. Sharp pain shot across his forehead. He brought down his fingers and observed the dark red color.
“Don’t take them off.” A voice said, “They’re good for you.”
Marcus lifted his head and turned around. A young girl sat next to a tree as she weaved dry branches into a braid. She hummed a tuneless melody that she seemed to be making up in the moment. Red marks were painted across her forehead, under her long brown hair. Marcus tried to push himself upright but a sharp headache stopped him. “You took an awful long fall.” The girl bended the braided branches and placed them at the brim of a basket. She continued braiding it into the basket.
“What are you?” Marcus asked.
The girl stopped braiding and looked down at herself, confused. “Hope.” She replied.
“Hope.” Marcus repeated. He thought that perhaps finding “hope” in the middle of the forest weaving a basket might be the strangest thing he had seen.
The girl nodded, “What’s your name?”
“Marcus.” He replied. A thought occurred to him. Fatima was nowhere to be seen. “Have you seen a small woman with black hair and big eyes around here?”
“You mean Fatima?”
Marcus tried to nod but the movement made his head hurt. “Yes,” he said.
Hope shook her head as she grabbed a branch from the floor and peeled it, “I don’t like her. She doesn’t let me make friends.”
Marcus shivered. “Why?” He asked. Hope shrugged. He thought there had to be a reason Fatima kept this girl solitary. But the longer he looked at the girl, the less frightened he was. Her fingers were meticulous and quick with the weaving. Her sight was fixed on her every movement. She looked concentrated and even sweet while she weaved. He thought that perhaps Fatima had been wrong about her.
He waited for the headache to stop. He sat up and watched in silence as Hope weaved. She grabbed some branches and began a new basket. “You can do it too, if you want.” Hope said without taking her eyes off the branches.
“I don’t know how,” He shook his head.
“It’s easy,” she smiled. She weaved a small circle and handed it to Marcus, “All you do is braid it, like a little girl’s hair.”
Marcus let a soft laugh escape his lips, “I’ve never done that.”
“Oh well, here’s your chance.” Hope grabbed more branches and began her own basket.
Marcus looked at the small circle, puzzled. He grabbed a single strand of the branch and braided it through the others. He thought it was odd how it felt like soft hair, just like Hope had said, like braiding a child’s hair. He continued to weave through the branches. At first, his movements were slow, but as he gained speed, his mind went blank.
Marcus forgot where he was. He didn’t look at the sky to see how late it was getting. He didn’t bother thinking about finding Fatima to continue his journey. He didn’t think about Hope who looked over at him from time to time to check on his progress before returning to her own weaving.
He began to forget the face of his wife he had seen the night before and the face of his daughter that he had been fighting to see again. He forgot the funerals, the pain, the nights of praying for a miracle that never happened. He began to forget his name.
The branches cut onto his fingers. They left wounds on his hands. Blood fell onto the weaved basket and began to fill it like a glass. He didn’t feel the pain. He had forgotten how to. He simply kept weaving. He could swear he heard the laughter of a little girl as he weaved, and he was sure that it wasn’t real laughter but he liked hearing it. Weaving until his fingers bled, it made him feel content.
He heard a whisper in his ear but could not make out the words. He didn’t care to listen to it. The whisper was there again, stronger. He felt wind on his hands as it pushed them off the basket, but he ignored it and kept weaving. He started to make out words from the wind but the words had no meaning to him.
“Make him stop.”
“Why? He is so happy.”
“He’s going to die of hunger if he doesn’t stop.”
“He’s going to die of pain if someone else stops him.”
“Then what do I do?”
“Nothing. Only he can decide to stop, but look at him. He’s so happy. Let him be.”
Marcus didn’t linger in trying to find sense out of the meaningless words. He focused on his hands as they weaved over and over in the same pattern.
He felt a pinch on his wrist and the color of his basket grew bright. He felt the air push on his chest. He heard a whisper again, but it wasn’t a word. It was a sound. It took him a moment to recognize the sound. It seemed unfamiliar at first, but the memory hit him like a knife on his chest. It was the sound of the crying child.
He dropped the basket and looked up.
All the lost memories hit him at once. The pain of every single one felt fresh again. They stabbed into his body like needles and froze him in place. He screamed as his headache grew stronger until he could not think. He snapped the root that had grown onto his arm and pulled on his hair. Tears ran down his cheek. He couldn’t move. Everything burned. Everything was cold. Everything ached. Everything was numb. He felt every type pain possible in an instant.
Then it was gone.
He felt to his side and gasped for air. His heart was racing. The moon was once again lighting up the sky. He didn’t realize how late it was. He tried to push himself off the ground but his fingers burned. He looked up. Fatima and Hope stood beside him. Fatima knelt down and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “Let’s go, sir.” He grabbed onto Fatima as she pulled him upright.
“He was happy, Fatima. Why did you have to ruin it?” Hope cried. Fatima ignored her as she walked Marcus back into the forest.
“Marcus, you can return if you want.” Hope called. Marcus stumbled over his own feet as he turned around to see Hope. “It’s nice, isn’t it? The nothing.” She smiled. He kept his eyes on her smile until it disappeared and there was nothing but darkness.
Marcus couldn’t see a thing beyond the light of the fire Fatima had set. She held dried leaves over the flame and let them fall into it. Marcus could barely keep himself awake. Only the pain of his cut fingers kept him from falling asleep. He watched Fatima feed the fire. “You keep surprising me,” he muttered. Fatima turned to look at him for an instant before returning her sight to the fire. “What happened after I fell?”
She folded her hands over her lap, “I tried to follow you but I lost you. I spent the day climbing down the mountain, looking for you. I tried to ask the forest but it couldn’t find you either. It’s no surprise since Hope found you first.”
“What was she?” Marcus asked.
“Hope? She’s a forest witch.” Fatima explained, “She has good intentions but dangerous methods. Many travelers have died after she has tried to help them.”
Marcus shivered. There was so much he didn’t know about the forest before Fatima found him, and wondered how much more he still didn’t know. He couldn’t stop staring at Fatima. That was one more mystery he realized he knew nothing about. “Fatima,” he said, “how old are you?”
Fatima closed her eyes as she muttered something. She opened them again, “I don’t recall.”
“I stopped counting the days a long time ago.” To Marcus, Fatima looked like a statue. She didn’t move anything other than her lips.
“How did you end up daughter of the forest?” He asked.
Fatima ran her fingers through her long, black hair. “I remember waking up one day in the middle of the forest. I was naked and I didn’t remember anything, not even my name. Everything hurt. I was really scared so I started to cry. But then, I heard a whisper. It talked to me without saying a word. I stopped crying and listened. It told me that my name was Fatima and that it would protect me if I protected it. And so I did. It has kept its promise and I have kept mine ever since.”
Marcus listened in silence. Fatima never questioned. She didn’t seem to need to. She knew the forest better than anyone. There was nothing new to ask about. Except him. “You never asked for my name.” He stated.
She passed her hand through the dirt floor and scooped up dry leaves, “I suppose I didn’t.” She let the leaves fall onto the fire once more. Marcus thought he saw them burn before the flames had even reached them.
“Have you ever wondered who you were?” He asked, “What you were?”
She turned her gaze to him. Her eyes pierced like ice. “What I was?”
He looked away, “Hope didn’t look too different from you.”
“I’m not a witch.”
“You could have been.” He insisted.
She turned back to the flame and closed her eyes, “It’s not important anymore. The here, the now, that’s all that’s important to me.”
“How?” he asked.
“How do you not care about the past?”
She remained silent. She leaned her head back. Wind blew off the leaves from the trees and let the white moonlight fall over her pale face. Her skin soaked it up like sunlight. “It hurts.” She confessed, “Whenever I try to look back to my life before the forest, it hurts. I’d rather not look back.”
Marcus leaned back onto a tree. He didn’t need to wonder what it was like to hurt when looking back at one’s life. He closed his eyes. The image of his wife appeared in his mind. He could feel her soft arms around his neck and her warm lips on his. He could smell her hair like honey. His heart raced and he could not help but smile.
The image shifted. He held a child in his arms. She was crying. Car lights passed through the window and painted the room for only an instant before they disappeared. Marcus sang something he could barely understand. He fought the tiredness that pulled on his eyelids and kept singing. She stopped crying and closed her eyes. Marcus smiled.
He opened his eyes and it was all gone. He grasped his chest and fought through the pain, fresh as if he had just lost them again. It seemed the pain was the only thing he had left of them. “I forgot my name.” He muttered, “When I was weaving baskets with Hope, I forgot my name. It didn’t feel wrong at the time. It felt pleasant. But looking back, that’s what scares me the most. I forgot who I was. I forgot what I cared about. I forgot why I’m here.” He looked down at his hand. His fingers had stopped bleeding and the cuts had begun to heal. “We’ve come so far and you’ve saved my life, yet you don’t know who I am and I don’t really who you are.” Fatima opened her eyes and met his gaze, “Do you know who you are?”
She breathed out and looked at the dark forest. “Who am I?” She whispered.
Marcus extended his hand, “Hello, I’m Marcus.”
Fatima gazed at his hand for a moment. Cold wind blew through the forest. She gritted her teeth and closed her eyes. She opened them and took his hand. “Hello, Marcus.” She said, “I’m…”
She dug her nails into her skin. She squeezed her eyelids and let out a gasp. Marcus shivered. Fatima looked pale like snow. “Who am I?” She breathed out. The wind intensified. It grasped on her hair and pulled it out. Leaves cut onto her skin. Blood painted her face. She screamed. Her nails drew blood from Marcus’ hand.
“Who am I?” She yelled. Her ears bled.
“Fatima!” Marcus screamed. He pressed his hands around hers and let her claw at his skin. His heart raced. He didn’t know what to do but he had to do something.
“I heard you!” She roared, “Stop trying to protect me and tell me! Who am I?” The wind hissed so clearly that even Marcus could make out voices. He didn’t understand a single word. He knew they weren’t meant for him.
“The child,” Fatima whispered, “Marcus, get to the child.”
“The child?” He gasped.
“The forest would never hurt me. Not like this.” Tears ran down her cheeks, “The child’s cry is hurting it. It’s losing its balance.” She let go of his hands and jolted back. “Go!” A red stained formed on her stomach. It grew as Fatima breathed harder. Her irises went white. “Stop it,” she whispered. A hand marked itself on her throat. “Let me go. Please, don’t hurt me.” She grasped the floor. “Help me!” She screamed.
“The child.” Marcus repeated. He didn’t think. He had to save her. He stood up and ran. The wind pushed on him but he pushed back. He broke the roots that grabbed his feet. He pushed through the branches that clawed at him. He ran until Fatima’s cries faded.
Then he heard it. He heard it without Fatima’s help. He heard it crystal clear. The child’s cry.
As the sun came out, Marcus followed the sound. He had never heard the cry of the child with such clarity. He had grown used to the stillness of the forest. The quiet that had accompanied him through the trees had disappeared. They child’s cry disturb it. At every inflection, the leaves shook and fell off the branches. Its sound sent continuous chills through Marcus’ body. He tried to ignore them, but as soon as he had gotten used to them, the crying got louder and the chills returned as if they were a new sensation.
He didn’t want to focus on the sound. It hurt him to listen. He tried to keep his mind distracted as he walked toward it. His thoughts wandered to those of his daughter. He remembered how her smile warmed him and made the world disappeared. He thought of her eyes, so wide and bright. He was sure they were going to see so many things. He wished nothing but to see her smile again. To see her eyes again. Perhaps to sing her to sleep one last time.
He didn’t think of her cry. He didn’t want to. But with the child’s cry so close, could not keep his thoughts away. Fatima had shown him the child’s cry so many times before, and every time he had tried to not pay attention to it. He followed the volume of the noise as if it were a path, but didn’t listen to it.
As it grew closer, he shivered. His body grew cold. He clenched his hands into fists. His breath froze into vapor the instant it left his lips. His heart raced as his feet stopped moving. He closed his eyes and listened. He could not figure out what direction to take. The sound was around him. He could not ignore it anymore. He had arrived.
He searched in between the falling leaves for a child, but he could not find one. It seemed he was alone.
Marcus recalled how he talked to his daughter. He took a deep breath and sat down in between the leaves. He could not push the thought away anymore. The cry sounded deeper than his daughter’s cry.
“Hey, little one.” Marcus called. A face peeked through fallen branches. Tears ran down the cheeks of the child. Marcus looked at the child. His heart dropped. Looking through the branches were round, brown eyes just like his.
Not like hers.
He thought perhaps it was a trick of the light. He smiled at the child, “It’s ok. Come closer.” The crying turned into soft sobs. The child did not move. Its eyes were fixed on Marcus. “Come on,” he insisted, “do you want to play a game? Let’s play a game.”
Everything was still. Marcus questioned if he could get the child come out at all.
The leaves rattled. The child crawled out from under the blanket of branches. He stood up and took a wary step toward Marcus.
A lump formed in Marcus’ throat. The child was a little boy. Not so little as he looked as old as Avery would have been. Not so strange as he had brown hair and brown eyes, just like Marcus.
But it wasn’t his daughter. Marcus closed his eyes and tried to keep a smile on his face. He wasn’t going to let himself cry. “Come here, it’s ok.” He tried to comfort. The little boy stepped closer. “Come sit down with me.” Marcus didn’t want to look at the little boy. It made the realization hurt much more. He forced himself to watch as the child sat in front of him.
“Let’s play a clapping game. Do you like clapping?” Marcus tried to keep his voice from breaking. The little boy didn’t respond. He let his hands fall onto his laps and looked at the floor. He wouldn’t stop sobbing.
Marcus tapped his hand on his laps. He counted in his head as the taps turned into a rhythm. The sound drowned everything else out. His arms grew stiffer which each movement. He pushed harder on his muscles each time to simply get them to move.
The child wiped away his tears with his arm. He watched Marcus’ hands as they tapped on his legs. His sobbing grew quieter.
Tears weld up in Marcus’ eyes. He shook his head. He wasn’t going to allow himself to cry. He slowed down his claps and watched how the child’s eyes followed his movements. He stopped and breathed in sharply. He forced every thought of of his mind, but they were pushing their way back in.
Marcus tapped on his laps a short rhythm. He looked up at the child, “can you do it?” The child stared down as if ignoring the question. Marcus repeated the pattern. He closed his eyes and pushed the tears back.
The child tapped on his laps. Marcus opened his eyes. He tapped another pattern onto his laps and stopped. The child copied it. Marcus tapped faster. The child listened and copied. Marcus went faster. His arms burned at each movement. He gritted his teeth as his eyes turned red. The child’s sobbing got quieter.
Marcus’ throat burned. He squeezed his eyelids as he tapped. He didn’t wait for the child to copy it. He made up pattern after pattern hoping to forget, to let the sound take over, to have it take away his pain. The child repeated the pattern, his small hands tapping as rapidly as Marcus’. Bruises formed on Marcus’ legs. He hit on them harder and harder and the child copied. The two tapping sounds matched each other like an echo.
Marcus shook his head over and over but it was no use. His wife was dead. His daughter was dead. He could not save them. He could not bring them back. He followed a cry that he knew was not his daughter’s hoping that he could find her again but here a child stood and it wasn’t her. Because she was gone.
The child stopped crying.
Marcus fell forward and screamed. He dug his fingers into the ground. His arms shivered. Tears ran down his eyes. He pounded the ground and cried.
He let every tear burn his skin. He let every breath stab his chest. He let all the thoughts he desperately wanted to block into his head. He was alone. They had left him behind. He had never felt so helpless.
The child tapped on his laps. Marcus looked up through his tears. The child’s eyes fell on him.
Marcus sat up and passed his hands through his eyes. He exhaled. Everything went quiet and the pain went away.
Marcus smiled at the child. “I heard you’ve been crying a lot.” He murmured, “Do you want to go to bed?”
The child shook his head.
“Do you,” Marcus started, “do you want to come with me?” The child nodded. He grabbed Marcus’ hand and pressed it against his chest. Marcus felt the child’s heartbeat grow steady. His small hands clasped on Marcus’ fingers. Marcus listened to the child’s breath, and then his own. He closed his eyes and felt as the two breaths grew into one.
Marcus’ hand grasped air. The child’s fingers faded into his. He gasped. He opened his eyes. The child was gone. Marcus smiled.
He stood up and gazed into the trees. The wind sang for him. Everything was at peace.
Photo credit to Luis Del Río Camacho