As a child, she was curious about many things: stones, birds, fireflies, fish, the labyrinths of shells, why water wasn’t living, if clouds that moved so quickly across the sky could bring the day to a premature end. She tossed helicopter seeds into the air and watched them spin. She sloshed in puddles and made mud pies laced with flowers. She split pieces of grass with her teeth into long, shimmering slivers. She sped through the woods on her yellow-and-black banana seat, kicking up leaves, thrilling in the exhilaration of self-propelled flight.
Beyond the physical realm, she delved into the unseen: ancestors of myth and legend, faeries and elves and queens, witches and warlocks and trolls. They met her in empty fields, quiet woods, open seas. Animals joined in the conversation too: wolves, bears, dragons, owls. She conjured visions and dreams and let them take her, even the monsters: but only so far. Then, she would command them to roll back—at her leisure, at her pleasure.
As she grew older, she began spending more time with her head and less with her heart. She wasn’t sure how or why this was happening, or how to stop it. She told herself it was for survival. She couldn’t tell if this was her voice, or the voice of the system rising around her. Magic lost its potency. She struggled to steer her dreams and had fewer and fewer. The fields and woods and seas became strangely silent. Even the compartments in her head decreased incrementally to accommodate the small ideas being planted all around her. When she tried to let her heart speak, the atrophied rooms of her mind barked in surround-sound. After a time, she couldn’t hear her heart anymore. She began to doubt its existence.
Over the years, her mind led her dutifully through school, jobs, relationships. She was on a path. She didn’t know exactly where it would lead, but she trusted its importance. She had the thought that she missed the fields and woods and seas and the companions who once met her there. She observed that her path of rocks and dirt had become one of isolation: no trees, no grass, no winding creeks. She had the thought that she was surviving.
It took her years to realize she was climbing, that she was halfway up a mountain. This explained the diminishing greenery, her increasing exhaustion. She dragged her body, her heavy head, up the rocky trail. The worst thing, her hive mind said, would be to stop. She must keep moving—step, survival, step, survival—even as she grew numb, even as other climbers fell away.
One day, she came to a dead end. She was surrounded by towering cliffs, boulders as big as houses. Turning back, she saw that even the path behind her had disappeared. There was no way up or down the mountain. She tried to make sense of this, but she was too weary to think. She sat and wept for the first time in several years. She felt the glimmer of something she had once known creep up, then pass before she could name it. She fell asleep and dreamed.
Upon waking, she could not remember the dream, but the knowledge that she had dreamed comforted her. She looked over to see a clean pool of water in a rock hollow where her tears had fallen the night before. She puzzled at this, poked her finger into it suspiciously. The day was almost over before she tried a drop. It tasted like rain, like the ocean, like many things she had forgotten. She stayed in the crook of that mountain for days, months, years. She foraged for berries and found a way to make fire. Her tears flowed. She survived. Little by little, she began to remember.
One morning, shortly after waking from a dream she was just starting to recall, a wren landed by the pool beside her. It pecked at the clear water, cocked its head at her as if to say thank you. She reached out her hands, and the wren hopped into them. He pecked softly at her cupped flesh; then, a little harder. Ouch! She pulled back, and the wren flew off. She looked down to see a small speck of red on each palm. Without a thought, she licked up the blood. Suddenly, she felt an odd knocking inside her chest. She clutched at it and thought she may be dying. She told herself to breathe: in, out; in, out. She lay on the ground until the thumping passed.
When she woke, she saw the wren sitting beside her. “You are not lost,” he said. “You are just in a place of rest.”
She was bewildered for a long moment before she allowed herself to believe that the bird had just spoken to her. A place of rest. This went against everything she had been taught: Keep moving, keep working, don’t stop. But the bird’s words made sense, in a place deep inside her. She had that feeling again of almost remembering something, and then having it fly off—like trying to look squarely at a floater in the eye.
She heard herself speaking to the bird: “But what am I supposed to do?”
The bird chirped, “What do you want to do?”
“I want to get off this mountain.” The words rushed out of her.
“Follow me,” said the wren, darting off into the underbrush.
I can’t was her first thought. But after taking a few steps toward the brush, she saw a tiny opening where she could squeeze in. She climbed through the briars and thorns, trying to keep her shirt from tearing, trying to keep from thinking of snakes. She followed the wren through the maze until they reached a clearing. The bird landed on the corner of a rope bridge that swayed in the wind across a wide canyon. And, just like that, the wren flew away; no words, no farewell. She stared up into the sky where he had disappeared. She longed to follow.
Instead, she moved cautiously toward the bridge and peered over the edge. That’s a long way down. She knew she must cross the bridge if she ever wanted to leave this mountain. It was odd to see a man-made structure after all this time. It prompted her to look around and search for people. She became so aware of her loneliness that it almost knocked her to the ground. She barely had time to wonder if the bridge would hold her and where it would take her before stepping out onto a wavering plank. She realized that she must trust the wren, the unknown builder of the bridge, the other side. She felt the wind push her to and fro; she clutched the ropes and guided herself across. Counting each wooden wedge, she did not look down.
After an eternity of small steps and deep breaths, she finally reached the other side. She fell down in a tired heap. She lay there for a time, looking up at the sky and its changing colors. She wondered if the wren would return. She felt a sharp pang. She looked around and realized she was surrounded by sheer cliffs; no underbrush, no berries. The only path was a narrow stone ledge leading to a cave. She eyed the mouth suspiciously.
Rain began to flick down on her, turning to a heavy stream. Reluctantly, she moved toward the cave. Taking a few steps inside, she crouched against the stone and wrapped her arms around her body. But the rain blew into the opening. She had to go deeper. She stumbled forward a couple feet and sat again, looking out at the falling rain, the darkening night. Cold, wet, hungry, and tired—she slumped into sleep.
It was still dark when she woke, but the rain had stopped. She was struck by the quiet—and the vast starry sky peeking into the cave. She could see faint outlines of rocks and walls around her. Thank you, she said to the moon, grateful she was not in utter blackness. She realized she had not spoken to the moon in a very long time.
A guttural growl shot through the silence then, shoving her to her feet and out of the cave. She wanted to keep running, but the only place to go was across the bridge. She knew there was nothing back there for her. She reached for a stick. She stared into the dark mouth and willed herself to be brave.
She saw the yellow eyes first. She felt her feet moving backward, stumbling on rocks. She was partly sitting, partly lying down as she held the stick out with one hand and held herself up with the other. An outline of fur appeared at the cave opening, low to the ground. As it came closer, she struggled to push herself back with shaking feet. She couldn’t stand.
“I’m here to help you,” said a voice, low and soft, with a hint of a growl. She squinted at the sound, at the shape forming before her. “If you’ll let me.”
A gray wolf was suddenly sniffing at her foot.
OK, so I’m hearing all the animals now. Maybe I’m going crazy. Maybe I’m already dead.
“You are very much alive,” said the wolf, coming closer. He sat beside her now, looking down with softening eyes. “You are more alive now than you’ve been for many years.”
She forced herself to let out the breath she was holding. As she struggled to take in another, she felt herself nodding, letting go of the stick.
“Your mind has brought you this far. But you can go no farther without your heart.”
She stared at the dark fur, the crescent eyes, the moving mouth. She wondered if she was imagining this dialogue, if the mouth was really moving at all. She felt entranced. Maybe the wolf had hypnotized her to disarm her before attack.
“You’re still trying to do this with your head,” said the wolf, moving even closer, until he was sniffing at her face, at her throat. Help. She could feel the wet cold of his nose, the prick of his fur, the warmth of his breath. She had a sharp memory that she knew this wolf, this scent.
Suddenly, his tongue was lapping at her throat, moving down inside the V of her shirt, licking her chest. She tried to move, but she was lying flat on the ground now, the weight of the wolf’s heavy paw on her shoulder. She felt an explosive heat moving through her entire body, rushing out from where his tongue pressed down. She felt the outline of teeth, gentle scraping. Is this how I die? She felt such a strong vibration—drumming out from her chest: up to her head, out into her hands, down to her gut, groin, feet—that she gave herself up to it. If this is how I go, so be it.
At that, the wolf pulled away, gazed at her for a moment, and disappeared into the cave. She lay stunned for a long time, a loud roar in her ears. She sat up and recognized her heart, pounding inside. It was an old, familiar feeling—a long-lost memory, sensation, wonder. She looked down at her chest, wet from the wolf’s mouth, and saw a radiance rising from her skin. She stared, putting her hand on the spot. She felt the burn, the place where her heart had returned.
She knew what she must do. She didn’t wait for the light of day; she was done with this mountain. She followed the wolf into the cave, her path lit by the glow now flowing from her whole being. She felt the peripheral unknown, the risk—but more fiercely, she felt a deep stirring for the things, places, creatures she had once known. And she was not alone. The wren, the wolf, and the moon were her companions, and she would find more. Her heart swelled, trilling in its rib cage, as she broke out into a run. Soon she would be home again among old loves.