TRAVELLERS ON A WINTRY NIGHT
A little girl wearing a blue coat with fur lining woke at the bottom of a hill. Snow surrounded her. Above, a blanket of stars, moonlight, darkness, and clouds cradled her. Her body trembled in the frigid air, and all around her was unfamiliar and strange. The big trees that excited her during the day were looming giants, and the pure white hills hid away everything she knew. She couldn't see home or the old trails, and she struggled to move her fingers.
The girl hadn't gone far from home, she was sure. She always made it back home before her parents realized she'd snuck out at night again. The woods were her kingdom during all hours--her secret, magical place to explore where she alone ruled. During the day, she pretended to be an adventurer protecting the land, and in the night, she became a ghost to haunt it.
Tonight was different. Snow rarely graced her woods, and never so much as now. The storm itself had blown over, but the freezing temperatures disguised her personal kingdom as a strange, frightening land.
The girl wanted to call out to her parents for help, but she was afraid of getting in trouble for being out. She had to get home on her own. Desperate, she pleaded with the crescent moon above to help her. "Please, give me a sign!"
The girl waited, and waited, and waited. The forest was still and silent.
Scared, she curled up underneath the minimal shelter of young birch tree. As she was nodding off to sleep from the cold, she heard a creaking to her left.
A black cat watched her from a tree branch. Its eyes were pale blue, like two little moons.
The girl rose to touch it. The cat allowed her to come close. Her fears left her as she looked into those eyes.
The black cat wore a small pink color around its neck with a silver, heart-shaped tag. The lower left side was broken off. She read off the words "Heather", "May 10, 1983", and "1998". She assumed the bottom row had been the contact number of the owner. With only the last four digits remaining, anyone who found the cat could no longer contact them.
She petted the cat on the head. "Are you lost too?"
The cat rubbed against her with an audible purr. Without warning, the cat leaped down from the low branch and hopped into the snow. It looked back at her before taking off.
The girl ran after the cat. "Wait! Where are you going?!"
Staying a few feet ahead, the cat occasionally stopped and looked back at the girl. It led her deeper into the woods. They both ran until the cat stopped at a place the girl had never seen before.
No snow touched the ground. Bright red berries grew on bushes, and trees that should have lost their leaves weeks ago were full of green. The cat picked a berry off the bush with its mouth and carried it over to the girl. It presented it to her.
She wasn't sure what kind of berry it was, but in her innocence, she trusted the cat and ate it. The cat tugged at her left coat sleeve to pull her toward the berry bushes.
The girl ate until she couldn't eat anymore. With each berry she consumed, her body grew a little warmer.
While she ate, the cat made silly movements for her. Briefly hopping on its hind legs, pouncing on fallen berries, running circles around fairy rings at the center of the clearing. The girl laughed. She joined the cat in its silliness and danced in the rings.
They played together until the girl's body was fully warmed.
Abruptly, the cat stopped and looked up at the crescent moon. The cat ran again, and the girl followed right behind.
The cat led her back into the snowy hills and barren trees. She struggled to keep up in the snow. This area was deeper than where they left from.
At another clearing, the cat perched itself atop an old, wooden cross. The girl recognized the cross. It was the first familiar thing she'd seen.
Her mother told her some time ago, she couldn't remember when, on a warm fall evening, about the cross. A couple of years before she was born, a teenage girl was found in the woods, but her body had been there so long, it was hard to tell what happened to her. The cops told the parents she'd likely slipped off a ledge and fallen to her death. No one knew why the girl was there. She didn't live near the woods.
Her mother said in a low voice, "Some say, she was running from a monster."
The girl asked, "What kind of monster? Like an ogre or a troll?"
"Oh, you're too young to understand it, dear. This kind of monster is real, and far crueller." Her mother said no more, and was just as silent about the crosses that lined the field further down the road.
Since that day, when she passed by the cross in the woods, she would imagine the girl's spirit was there with her. She'd have one-sided conversations with the unseen ghost. On many days, she often brought treats for the ghost girl and decorated the planks with them. Sometimes, she brought flower crowns. The last time she visited, she had a tea party.
The girl never saw a spirit there, but it was always chilliest there in that part of the woods. She reckoned it was the ghost playing with her like Jack Frost. While her body lightly shivered from coldness, she felt the warmest inside when she came to that spot.
The girl cheered up as her body grew cold again. "I'm almost home! Home is..."
The cross was near the beginning of the trail that led into the woods from her home, but she couldn't tell which side of the cross she was on. Everything looked identical all around her. The girl started to panic again. Scared and freezing, she ran back towards the direction of the berries. The cat chased her and meowed loudly.
She ran as fast as she could. Though she was certain this was the way they'd come from, she felt lost. Everything looked the same in all directions. She ran until she tripped forward. The cat leaped on top of her in an attempt to hold her still.
When the girl looked up, she thought she was in the sky.
Before her, under a thin layer of ice, a river glowed. The presence of the river was as unfamiliar to her as the clearing with the berry bushes. The night disguised most of what was flowing in the water, but strange bits of blue lit up the water. It reminded her of stars. She'd never seen something so beautiful before.
The azure light mesmerized her. She wanted to touch it. She pressed her hands against the ice. Small cracks shot out from under her palms. The cat pulled at her coat sleeve, then hissed at the ice. It pulled again before biting her.
She moved away at the pain. As she moved, the spot of ice she was sitting on cracked open and fell into the flowing river underneath.
The cat hissed at the water. She ignored the cat. With the ice out of the way, the water entranced her more. She had to touch it.
She lowered her left arm into the water to touch the glowing blue lights. The water was cold in a way nothing she had ever touched was like. It was so cold, her skin burned. The excruciating pain surging through her arm didn't dissuade her from wanting to touch more. It was too beautiful. She wanted to swim in it.
The cat clawed at the back of her coat.
"Stop it!" She tried to push the cat with her left arm. Her arm felt too light as she moved. She looked closely at it, and saw right through.
The arm she had raised in the air was transparent and glowing blue. In the water, also connected to her body, her physical arm hung half submerged. She could not move it. Only the blue shape attached to her would move at her command.
She tried to stand up to pull the arm out of the water, but the water held it under. Her struggling nearly caused her to fall into the river.
The cat paced around her, frantically meowing while the girl cried. She pulled and pulled. Nothing helped.
"Are you lost?" Someone asked.
The girl looked back. Behind her was a man in a black coat. He leaned down and petted the cat. The cat became calm instantly.
He noticed her arm. "Do you need help?"
"I can't...I can't lift it..." She said with tears streaming down her face.
The man in black reached into the river and raised her arm out of it. He touched her incorporeal limb with his other hand and brought the two together again as one. "There."
"I only wanted to see the river." She examined her arm and moved her hand. Her body was colder than ever. Though she could control them, using her fingers was far more difficult than when she woke up earlier.
"Is that all?" The man put his hand on the ice. All the ice to the left of them slowly cracked apart and sunk. With the ice out of the way on that side, the sparkling blue river looked as if it joined the stars at the place where it met the horizon. From that point of infinity, something floated down the water counter to the current. Its form became clearer to her as it drew near--a small wooden boat. It floated all the way to them, stopping only once it hit against the icy part of the river.
She stared at it briefly before her gaze returned to the starry horizon.
"It's so beautiful..." The girl was in awe at it.
"I can show you where it goes," The man said. He added, "One day."
"I'd like to see it." She leaned over the edge of the banks. She wanted to touch it again.
"You will see it all one day. You don't have to see it now." The man put his hand on her shoulder and pushed her slightly back, away from the river.
The girl looked back at the boat and got an idea. "But I want to see it now! Will you take me in your boat?"
He paused before responding to her. "I can, but you can't come back."
"That's how it is. You may touch the river and return, but you cannot return if you touch the boat." He said.
"How do you come here then?" She asked.
"It's because I am like the wind. I don't belong to anywhere." He walked into the river. The water did not affect him. He rested his hand upon the boat and stared up at the sky. "I will take you if you'd like, but you will see it all one day. You don't need to go now."
"When?" The girl grew impatient.
The man stared at her with sad eyes. He wore a kind smile. "Soon enough."
"Can't you tell me more than that?" She wanted to stomp her feet, but moving her legs was tiring. If she wasn't so angry and intrigued, she would be falling asleep again.
The man thought over what to tell her. "You'll find this place again after a long car ride."
"I hate those." She grumbled. "Will I be able to come back that time?"
"No." His voice was cold at first, but he changed his tone to a cheerier one. "That's why you should go back now. Don't you think you have plenty more games to play and adventures to have?"
"I guess..." The girl fought back the urge to touch the water. It was beautiful, but she wanted to go home too. She had no idea where the river would take her, and her body was getting colder.
More than anything, she wanted to be home in her warm bed.
The girl cried again. "Mommy's going to be mad."
"You're not supposed to be out here, are you?" The man crossed back onto land and sat beside the girl in the snow, dragging bits of blue across the white. "But you must go home. She'll forgive you. I should think she'll be more worried than angry."
"I don't know...I don't know which way is home anymore." She buried her head in her hands. "Maybe I should run away. She can't punish me if I'm gone. I'll get on the boat and go away somewhere else!"
"She'll be sad if you do that." The man said. "But I will take you if you wish it. I refuse no one."
The girl debated with herself over what to do. A thought occurred to her. "Will my parents see the whole river one day too?"
"Oh, everyone will, eventually."
"Then...it's not like I'll never see her again if I go." The girl watched the steady water flowing past her.
"That is true, but I think you should go home now. It's very cold out." He said.
The cat pawed at the girl to let it sit in her lap. She picked it up and petted it. The cat purred.
"We're both lost tonight. How will we get home?" She held the cat closer.
"It'll be alright. I know where you both need to be." He gave the cat a light scratch on the head. "This little one also knows, how to get you back home. You should listen to her. She's been trying to get you home all this time."
The girl recalled her time spent with the cat. She hugged it. "Awe, good kitty. How do I get home?"
The cat hopped out of her lap and pranced over to a steep drop-off beside the river a little farther down. The girl got up. She started to walk towards the cat, but stopped. She looked back once more at the man and the river. He watched her for a while, then returned to his boat. The little girl looked at the cat again, and took another step forward.
She stood beside the cat and looked down the hill. Below, the girl saw something in the snow at the bottom that she couldn't quite make out. It was too dark outside. A little over, she saw the light of her home.
The cat meowed at her. The girl petted the cat. "Will you be alright?"
"She'll be fine." The man said to her from beside his boat.
The girl hugged the cat one more time before descending the hill. Getting down was harder than she expected. She couldn't keep her footing, and all the snow was making her slip. Halfway down, she tripped and tumbled the rest of the way down. Every part of her ached.
At the bottom of the hill, she struggled to keep her eyes open. A pair of bright lights shifted in the darkness. She watched them dance on the trunks of the trees, then she paid them no mind. Her attention moved back to her friends in black. Above, where the river curved and nearly fell over the edge of the steep hill and where the ice had first broken through, the two strangers looked over her. The man stood in the water beside the wooden boat. He smiled at her, then walked away through the blue. On the boat, the cat's eyes never turned away from hers as it moved along beside the man in black.
She watched the cat until everything drifted away.
After a spell of darkness, she opened her eyes. Her parents stared down at her with tears in their eyes. Her blue coat with the fur lining was replaced with a white gown as she lay in a bed covered in the shade of snow. A nurse stood behind her father, and by the door, two police officers. Neatly folded on the chair by the window were her winter clothes, freshly dried.
The crescent moon and stars peeked in through the window. She looked up at the moon. A stinging sadness hit her, then it faded into something warm.