The moss was soft beneath her. She felt it pressing into the backs of her legs, holding her arms, cradling her back. The soft, sponginess provided comfort and the firmness reminded her she was real. She had her arms flung wide across the forest floor, legs stretched out, bare feet tilted outward. She imagined tree roots slowly working out of the ground, wrapping around her limbs and sinking her just below the moss, allowing her to be wholly swallowed up, finally free from the problems that had led her here.
She had her eyes closed for some time, welcoming the bugs and dew to settle on her skin. Something had accepted the invitation and was making its way across her eyelid. She directed all her energy towards not flinching while the many legs lifted rapidly, making contact over and over again. It worked its way to her eyebrow, following the curve and then resting there. It was a strange feeling becoming a caterpillar’s bed. Strange in a way that made her glad, she realized.
She laid there completely still, trying to ignore the alarm bells that were naturally going off in her body letting her know that she was getting hungry and thirsty and that it was getting late and there was definitely a spider crawling up her arm. She held out against the spider, trying to imagine it as a small one with cute, cartoon eyes and roller skates just to keep herself from brushing it away. It dismounted at her shoulder, and she hoped it would have the good graces to leave her alone, at least until she lost consciousness.
She was proud of herself for holding out against these two initial challenges and felt like she was getting pretty good at this whole “becoming the forest” thing. She was just starting to delight in the fact that nothing would ever bother her again when something did, in fact, bother her. That something struck her in the stomach and caused her to tense up and yelp, but she managed to keep her eyes shut. She figured something probably just fell from the tree and there might be some things that would still bother her but not for much longer. She tried to relax back into the earth– “Ow!” she yelled out as something else hit her, this time painfully bouncing off one of her ribs.
She opened her eyes, disturbing the caterpillar resting just above, and tried to find the source of the assault. She saw two crabapples lying next to her, presumably the projectiles that had struck her, but she knew she wasn’t laying by a crabapple tree. She scanned the woods around her and didn’t see anything that could have launched two wayward apples at her. After a few minutes of fruitless searching, she started to lay back down, still glancing around suspiciously until she caught a glimpse of movement up in the tree.
There was a young girl lounging on a branch about twenty feet up, her foot swinging below her gave her away. They met eyes, and the girl smiled wickedly, unbothered by being caught, and then launched another apple in Demeter’s direction. This one she was able to catch. She immediately leapt to her feet and yelled, “Hey, what is your problem?”
The girl in the tree laughed and said, “What is your problem? You’re the one lying in the woods like a weirdo, letting the bugs eat you alive.”
“Yeah, so? That’s got nothing to do with you.” Demeter stared up at her angrily, still clutching the apple. The girl didn’t say anything but just shrugged and kept smiling. Demeter threw the apple down at her feet and turned to walk away.
“Where’re you going?” The girl called after her. Demeter stomped off through the underbrush, not bothering to answer or turn to see if the girl was following.
Eventually she found a new mossy patch to settle into hoping that she’d walked far enough away that the girl wouldn’t be able to find her. She acknowledged the softness of the moss again and noticed that even through closed eyelids, the forest was getting darker. Good, she thought. Night would help the forest consume her faster. Hopefully, she wouldn’t be conscious at sunrise.
She yelled as she was struck again, this apple hitting her square in the forehead. “Are you fucking kidding me?” she yelled, sitting upright. She pounded her fists into the ground, angry at the forest for allowing this girl to find her. She saw the girl in the same pose as before, lounging in another tree, grinning and holding another apple with her left hand.
“What?” the girl said, making her eyes round and innocent. “Whatever seems to be the problem?” Demeter picked up the apple and whipped it back at the girl. Her aim was good but the girl just ducked and laughed. Demeter walked over and started to climb the tree. She didn’t know what she would do when she got to the girl. Push her? That was a horrifying thought. No, not that. She’d figure it out when she got there.
The tree was many limbed and easy to climb, and Demeter quickly made it up several branches before looking up at the girl. Impossibly, the girl was no longer there. She felt something hard hit her back, and she swiveled, looking down the way she’d come. Sure enough, the girl was on the ground, holding yet another apple. Where was she getting these apples? She didn’t have pockets or a bag. Demeter climbed back down, electing to jump the last few feet to the ground.
She faced the girl who was now only ten feet away. The girl shifted her weight to the right, placed her hand on her hip, cocked her head, and took a bite of the apple. Gross, thought Demeter. You don’t eat crabapples.
Neither moved toward each other nor further away. Demeter was sizing up this little girl, trying to figure out if she could outrun her or tackle her and why exactly she was antagonizing her. The girl kept staring back, wordlessly eating the apple.
She finished the apple, throwing down the core, and finally Demeter broke the silence. “Okay, so what’s the deal? Who are you? Why did you follow me? Where are you getting those apples?”
The girl shrugged and turned toward the west. She started walking away. When Demeter didn’t follow she paused, “Come on.” She waved her arm at Demeter. Then, when Demeter still didn’t move, the girl said, “I’m not going to leave you alone unless you follow me.” Demeter sighed and begrudgingly went along.
They walked in silence, the girl ignoring Demeter’s previous questions. Demeter stayed a few steps behind the girl in case she decided to turn around and chuck another apple. She tried to stop walking at one point, to see if the girl would notice, and of course she did, stopping without turning around, waiting for Demeter to start walking again.
Her shadow was long enough to touch the girl now, somewhat closing the gap that Demeter had maintained between them. “So… where are we going?” Demeter asked again.
“Where do you want to go?” the girl responded.
“I wanted to stay exactly where I was, but you wouldn’t let me do that,” Demeter said, sounding more whiny than she intended. Normally she’d be embarrassed taking that tone with anyone, much less a child, but this child threw things at her and Demeter simply didn’t care anymore.
“You think too small,” the girl said. She didn’t turn around to look at Demeter and asked again, “Where do you want to go? Really.”
They walked in silence for a bit. Demeter wasn’t sure how to answer the question. There were places she had wanted to go, sure, but what did that matter now?
“Well?” the girl prompted.
“I just want to lie down,” Demeter said.
The girl stopped abruptly. “All right, fine.”
She walked over to a tree and placed her palm on the bark. A gust of wind disturbed the nearby branches and a glowing archway appeared on the trunk. The girl wordlessly took a bite from a fresh crabapple and nodded her head towards the arch. “Come on, then.”
Demeter blinked rapidly, mouth agape, staring at this impossibility before her. “Where did you get that apple?” was the only thing she’d managed to say. The girl rolled her eyes and walked over to Demeter. Demeter didn’t move away from the girl as she approached, forgetting exactly how to make her legs move.
The girl walked behind Demeter and placed both hands on her back. She pushed gently, and Demeter’s body figured out how to move again, bringing her closer to the archway. When they were only a couple steps from the arch, Demeter’s sense finally kicked in. She started stammering protests and pushed back against the girl to halt their progress but it was unnecessary. As soon as Demeter started to resist, the girl had stopped pushing. Demeter lost balance, pushing back against hands that were no longer there, falling over backwards before she realized. She laid on the ground looking up at the girl who was once again standing beside the archway.
“Follow me or don’t, up to you,” the girl said and walked through the arch. The girl didn’t reappear on the other side, and Demeter was left alone on the ground with her thoughts in the arch’s light.
Logically, Demeter knew it was a bad choice to go through the arch. But then again, it was logically a bad idea to go into the forest in the first place. And there was a tree, beckoning her inside, and that’s what she had wanted from the beginning. Essentially.
She stood up on shaky knees and closed the remaining space between her and the tree.
She was expecting a little more pizazz, maybe some flashing, colorful lights, a whooshing sound or something that would let her know she made contact with a mysterious, otherworldly force but all that happened was a brief darkness and reappearance in a different part of the forest and the girl was before her again.
“What was that?” Demeter asked. “Where are we? What are you?”
The girl gestured to a patch of moss on the ground with three crabapples, one the resting place for a caterpillar. Demeter looked at the caterpillar with a frown, feeling irrationally betrayed. “This is it?”
“Didn’t you just say this was where you wanted to be?” the girl responded.
“Well, I didn’t know you could do that,” she said gesturing vaguely in the direction from which she’d come through the portal.
“No, you were right. I shouldn’t have disturbed you. Go ahead and lay down. I promise I’ll leave you alone this time,” the girl walked away. Demeter watched her go, feeling disappointed despite her best efforts not to. She laid back down on the ground, searching for the motivation that had led her here in the first place.
The moss was soft beneath her again, and the forest was finally dark. She missed the caterpillar on her eyebrow. She considered grabbing it off the apple and manually moving it to her face, but that felt like cheating. She’d let the forest come to her like she had before.
She noticed something poking her in the back. She sat up and adjusted, removing the pine needle and tossing it to the side. She laid back down.
The moss was beneath her. Her feet splayed to the sides. Then, she turned them in. Then out again. She rolled a pinecone between her fingers. “Fuck,” she whispered, giving up on trying to keep her eyes closed.
She sat up and scanned the trees but it was too dark to see far. She weighed her options. She could stay here, like she had originally planned to, go home, or wander through the forest at night, trying to find the girl. Only one option appealed to her. She huffed and stomped off through the darkness and underbrush in the direction the girl had gone.