The night unfolded cool and damp, a misted blanket of dark settling chill around the shoulders. In the distance the screech owl sounded like an argument about to come to blows.
We stood in the middle of the path with our feet sinking deeper into the mud. We were a cliché at the side of the road with a broken down Jimmy, hood popped and key useless on a night better spent in a warm home with hot tea and a favorite book.
The low clouds glowed mysterious, and every second that passed the trees seemed to creep closer to us, crowding together in the ominous way of the imagination. Jen cursed again as she shone her phone light over the engine.
“I swear, it was just fine when I had the oil changed.” Carly and I stood in the path glancing distrustfully at the short stone tower which held the mailbox.
There had been no signs of inhabitants along the road for miles, and we were loathe to start down that path. Jen closed the hood of the Jimmy, and we startled a little, laughing even though nothing was funny.
Absurd, of course. The whole night had been absurd, so of course we were stranded by a creepy mud path with a stone tower for a mailbox.
We started down the path away from the road.
The Jimmy was found along a desolate stretch of highway surrounded by State forest. There was no evidence of vehicle trouble, and the driver and her companions were never found. Sometimes on a damp, foggy night, legend says you can see their ghostly forms standing in the middle of the road, trying to wave you down, but don’t stop. Never stop.
Jen trailed behind Carly who walked a half step behind me one muddy step after the next. Not enough leaves had fallen on the path to protect our shoes. The temperature was dropping, and though the path ahead was wide, the dark and damp, the low branches grabbing our hair like wet fingers made me want nothing more than to be home, safe and warm.
The light from Jen’s phone periodically flashed across the trail. “I’m losing bars,” she said. “I tried to text Brian, but it failed to send.” Brian was her complicated friend. Some days they were always together, and others they were ‘just friends,’ and rarely they would have those long argumentative silences, where if you asked about him, she would shrug and say, “Who knows? He’s doing his thing,” and change the subject. Brian was out of reach now.
We walked further from the Jimmy, further from the road on a path that seemed flat, but felt like a descent from the way my stomach continued to sink.
Carly wondered if 911 would work, but Jen had already tried that too. The lack of signs of passage on the trail bothered me as much as the lack of tree limbs. There were no ruts from vehicles. Our feet disturbed the fallen leaves. We had been walking for too long. Warmed and chilled at the same time, I wished I had a hat and a thinner coat. I tried unzipping it, but that became too cold too soon, and I zipped it back up again.
When the path began to bend, and then narrow, we bunched together, jostling for the middle position, but in the end, I still lead the way, and Jen stepped just behind Carly. The path didn’t end then, but became a trail. We were pushing through branches, knocking droplets of moisture onto each other as we tried not to let loose the branches on the one following.
Now the land began to rise and fall, the trail twisted, the dark deepened, and we began to argue in quiet whispers.
“I still think we should go back. If there’s nothing after that next rise, I am headed back up the…” Jen stumbled into Carly, who had walked right into my back when I stopped.
Ahead on the trail, a small cabin stood, silent and dark, with a stone wall around what might have been a garden, a wooden gate sloping down into the mud.
We stood in the shadows of the trail, whispering fiercely about how to proceed, wondering if we should just head back, and discussing our growing discomfort.
Jen woke us up in the morning with her loud yawn, and I rolled out of bed and started putting on my shoes. The ticking mattress and blankets of indeterminate colors had been placed up on a wooden platform, and smelled like dust and dry grass.
Light filtered through the few windows which were shuttered from the inside with wooden slats and tilt rods that didn’t completely open or close them. There was a small counter space, no sink, and a cast iron stove on a stone base. I had expected the structure at the end of the trail to be of stone because of the mailbox, but just the chimney and the garden wall were made of stone. Logs and wood shake made up the building, which wasn’t quite a house, but more than a shack.
We had decided to spend the night there and make our way back up the trail in the morning. Jen and Carly were struggling with the covers as I pulled and kicked open the sagging door.
“We are going, Carly. Get up. You’re the one who’s been whining because you’re missing all the messages from your friends.”I didn’t hear Carly’s reply as I stepped into the morning fog. Carly had a group of friends who all hung out together. Carly was crushing on Jim, who was in love with Sheila, who was obsessed with Tim, who adored Carly. They went just about everywhere together randomly hooking up with each other out of loneliness and heartache.
I told Carly once that they should find a drummer and formalize their relationship by forming a Blues band called the Quintessential Blues Group, and she near didn’t speak to me for a week. When I ran into them a couple of weeks after that, they introduced me to Paul, and all bought me beers until I could barely stand, so I guess something worked out for them.
The tall plants in the garden were beyond harvest and gone to seed. The dew coating them would have sparkled if there were some sun, but the fog lay heavy across the land and trees like a damp wool coat that had been caught in a downpour.
I made my way back out the garden gate and headed in the direction where I thought I would find the trail again. I could hear the rumble of Jen’s voice from the cabin as she motivated Carly off the mattress and back into her shoes.
From the garden gate to the edge of the woods, maybe twenty feet, tall grasses with some wildflowers covered uneven ground hiding some rocks. The edge of the wood spilled over the grass with the young growth of bushes and trees reaching out of the shadows for the brighter light. I couldn’t even find a low game trail as I paced first one way and then the other. The clearing opened up behind the cabin some ways, and the only path I found led away from the back side, and not any where near the garden gate. I found a well house with a hand pump, a rotted wood bucket and a larger steel bowl, what looked to be a woodshed just off the backside of the cabin, and some mystery mounds grown over and hiding junk or treasure.
I met back up with Carly and Jen near the garden gate.
“I know we came up to this cabin from this way. Where is the stinking trail?” Jen demanded of me. I shrugged, and let them keep looking for a while.
We had a decision to make. I knew we would be off trail and headed into the woods a little later, but also, we would need to eat eventually. I went into the cabin to see if there were something I could use for a pack.
The weak autumn sun didn’t quite keep the chill away as we trudged in semi-circles further and further away from the garden gate into the woods. None of us were quite dressed for hiking, and Carly’s canvas shoes, in yellow of all colors with those obnoxious white toe caps and soles, were coated in those triangle burrs. I hadn’t noticed, but every ten feet she complained about it until Jen told her, “Your shoes look better than they ever have. Keep looking for the trail.”
We moved through the underbrush with increasing agitation. Concern rising to an internal panic, shortened breath and racing heartbeats, we were afraid of losing contact with our only known source of water and shelter. The search for the muddy path back to the road became desperate even as fatigue and hunger began to affect us all.
We had been driving back from a wake for our friend, Ramona. She had wanted a celebration of life, and it had been held in a large barn surrounded by fields and miles of winding, hilly roads. The four of us had all known each other from years ago. Ramona, short and round with curly hair, had always been a spunky, warm spark of light in the darkness. Never cruel, Ramona still had an edge to her words which she wielded with painful insight. We had been in line at a coffee shop when she turned to me, half-joking, when she told me that coffee held one of the keys to unlock some mysteries about the universe.
We met regularly after that, and our friendship grew. I stood with her at her wedding. She became godmother to my children. When she had moved a few hours west to work in a vet clinic as the receptionist, I missed her so much. We talked on the phone, visited when our schedules allowed. The distance didn’t affect our closeness, but it never seemed like there was enough time.
Of course, we would go to her wake. So, we had met at Jen’s house, piled into the Jimmy and set off to the boondocks, and the big barn, and the gathering of people in torch light, and around the bonfire, and the music and dancing on the packed dirt floor under twinkle lights. Ramona would have loved to be there.
We cried, and danced, and told stories of Ramona. Remember when Ramona climbed on the roof to get Josie, the cat, and we had to call the fire department to get them both down?
Here we were, heartsick and lost in forest.
We came to a halt, and our shoulders all seemed to sag as one. I had found some edible mushrooms and crabapples, elderberries and wild rose hips, and black walnuts too. With a little work, we could cook up a small meal. We headed back to the cabin to rest, recharge, and regroup.
When we approached the cabin, there stood a tall, angular figure in the garden. We watched silently from the underbrush, as the creature dressed in rippling shadows raised slender (far too slender) arms, and pointed a long, knobbed finger upward. Our eyes followed the movement to see a lone hawk soaring. We realized that we had not seen nor heard any birds here until this moment.
We exchanged glances, agreeing silently that the truly weird was just beginning.
How can one describe a coat made of shadows?
Flat shifting clouds swirling in the shape of a canvas jacket giving off tendrils of smoky strands which wove back into the coat in other places covered the figure’s slender frame.
A tall hat wisping, shape shifting from flat top to pointed, from brimmed to brimless on a round head, as if a greyed pumpkin head had been slightly squashed when attached to the narrow shoulders perched on top of (surrounding) coils of sprung locks. A long squared off nose protruded from the center of the face, and the narrow squared off jaw poked out of the rounded cheeks.
“Is this your place? We didn’t mean to intrude, our car broke down back on the road so we stayed the night here, and now we can’t find our way back,” Jen said.
I took two steps forward, placing myself between the gate and the others. I handed the bowl of foraged goods back to Carly, keeping the small knife I had found in the cabin. The handle nestled into the palm of my right hand, I stood limbs loose, centering my weight. I suspected the small blade would be useless against the shadow, but I felt better for a moment.
The sound of air escaping a tire formed into words that the hawk was a message. The hawk was a message. Come eat and not return. Home now. Fated. With the sound of rising steam came visual intrusions.
Carly made a small noise of distress, and Jen stepped closer to her resting her hand on Carly’s shoulder. Brightly colored geometric shapes spun through my mind against a white static field, then the void of space filled with stars, a nebula in oranges and pinks racing as I expanded to hold the universe. A rushing sound filled my ears, a thousand waterfalls echoing against my stone mind, then the sharp crack of a sudden fissure rent in granite.
I became rocks and trees, stream and ocean, atom and infinite, a single drop of rain falling, a plant bursting from seed to leaf to flower to decayed, hunted as fox, flew as eagle, spun as planet, rolled down hillside as lava.
I burned and froze and exploded and reformed from the inside out. The small knife fell from my hand.
Like the sun streaming unexpectedly from the clouds, the visions stopped.
The shadow figure was gone from the garden leaving a small, charred circle of plants where the swirling boots or bare feet had stood. It bothered me that I didn’t remember which. Boots or bare feet? I should have known that.
I picked up the knife, took the bowl back from Carly, and met Jen’s eyes. She had seen something too. She shook her head slightly. We would talk later. The sun had moved into deep afternoon while we had stood there.
I led them into the cabin to start a fire, start the food, and start to process this. Survival first. Understanding might never arrive, so we might as well eat something.
“We didn’t go far enough,” Jen said as she crushed walnuts into a paste with a rock.
Carly brought in loads of dried twigs and branches, then logs from the woodshed, while I teased out some cotton stuffing from the mattress and some half-dried grasses to start a fire in the stove. The small pot filled with our forest findings waited on the top of the stove, while I wondered if we had crossed through one of those mystical thin places one could feel in the woods sometimes.
Many times, I had been close, I think, walking on a desolate stretch of road, or path, or trail when the feeling of the forest would shift, a growing tension in the air, a slight change in the light cast through the fog or mist or leaves, and a sense that a wrong step would lead into a different world with no way to return. There would always be a mixture of relief and disappointment when my feet found familiar ground again, when wilderness turned back into civilization, when the life I had lived, somewhat regretfully, resumed where I had left it there at the trailhead.
Never in a million years would I have thought to take that transitional step on a mud path with no awareness of the shift. If that were indeed what had happened, it had been a stealth move in the dark by the powers that be, spirits or angels or gods or jinn or slender shadow cloaked finger pointing hiss-breathed stick people.
Twigs balanced on each other over the tinder in the belly of the stove. I took the pink lighter and held it sideways as I sparked the flame to life. Grass and cotton curled, glowed, and leapt to flames.
The elephant in the cabin was the shadow cloaked figure. We spoke of wood, and food, and finding the trail like we had never seen something standing in the garden. Anger within was stoked like the fire to beat back the chill of fear threatening to freeze all motion.
Every trip Carly made to the woodshed, Jen stepped out the cabin door to watch her, to watch out for her, to keep eyes on her. Certainty was something left back at the Jimmy. We hadn’t realized we were leaving it. Anything had happened, and what else could go wrong seemed more and more likely, so we didn’t ask.
We sat around the small pot and scooped out food with the wooden spoons found in the cabinet under the counter. We longed for the feeling of fullness, and peaceful lethargy one comes to expect from a hot meal. When everyone had taken a bite, thunder smacked the sky, lightning hit the earth, and the cold rain that shot to the ground chilled the very air right up to the wood stove.
Carly shrieked, and Jen sighed, and I put two more logs on the stove and adjusted the draw. Looking for the road again would have to wait until the storm passed, if it would pass.
I began preparations to forage in the rain in case it didn’t.
On the third day, the rain seemed to have run its course. Jen and Carly had swept and cleaned the worst of the dirt from the cabin, organized and counted the tools and implements we had at our disposal, and learned how to keep the stove going to keep the worst of the chill at bay.
I had taken some rope and set snares for rabbits, foraged for wild onions and parsley, and in general got soaked to my bones over and again.
Tension lived with us like an unkempt roommate who always entered the room with an unreasonable request while never pulling their own weight.
Our taut nerves sprung at the least friction between us.
I took my solace in the rain and the quiet of the forest. The trees understood. The long years I had spent living alone in silence, or noise only of my own making, had left me unprepared for day after day of interacting with others. My silences were often misunderstood, so I found myself pouring word after word on top of them to quench sparks which threatened to burn the bridges of connection I had with the others.
We stood in the garden with our foraging packs, made from old burlap we had hand sewn from the burlap scraps we had untangled. The sun here always seemed weak and old, the blue of the sky muted and bored, and the air, too, wasn’t exactly stale, but did not invite one to take a deep breath of it for rejuvenation.
We hiked straight out from the front of the cabin, full of purpose and desperation, to seek the road left behind. Futility dogged our steps as we crossed rises and falls, and creeks and fallen trees with no wide trails or inviting paths to be found.
No birds sang. We didn’t startle deer or hear squirrels stirring. There was life here, I knew. Rabbits in the snares, random scat found on low game trails all pointed to inhabitants of the woods.
Jen shouted. Carly and I ran to the right where she had been searching. We had spread out within sight of each other to cover more ground as we moved through the forest. Carly had been in the middle and reached Jen first.
They stood at the foot of a trail which ended at a fallen tree stump. I searched around it to see where it might have led, but it just ended there. With a spring in our steps, we headed up the path ascending slightly to a ridge.
There was a bit of a curve leading a little higher and to our ultimate despondency. We left the woods into the clearing where we could see the back side of the cabin. And we stood there.
We stood there looking at the backside of the cabin wondering if we would ever be able to find a way back to our lives.
A crow landed on the well house roof cawing once as it settled. We watched it watch us.
“We have to try again,” Jen said.
Carly started to cry, and I wished for a moment that I could cry too for all we had lost, for all we had attempted and failed, for every time I had taken my simple, silent life for granted.
We headed slowly toward the cabin for there was no other place to go.
The phone batteries were all dead, run down by incomplete calls and failed text messages, use of flashlights and obsessively checking the date, and scrolling back through photos of our friends and homes and places we used to go.
We had tried again and again to strike out beyond the return zone, only managing to approach the cabin from different angles. There was no discernable symmetry to where we would arrive based on where we had left or what direction we had taken.
The shadow figure had not returned.
I found the shears in a neglected pile of random items out by the well pump house. In between forays out into the woods in search of the road, we had been tending the garden, gathering kindling and wood, and we even built a rough platform outhouse on the edge of a slight ridge. The random grown-over piles often yielded little of use, but we cleared and searched and sorted stockpiles of things that we might later use.
Despite the clay which clung to the blades, the shears had no rust on them. They cleaned up gleaming and sharp. I stared at them for a while as my mind ran backwards counting blades gone by, blades left behind, and the work I had done silencing lives for money. For me, penance in a wooded glade was a soft retribution for the actions comprising the bulk of my life.
I had left it behind. Saved enough, smart enough, old enough to die to that life and be reborn as wife, mother, grandmother come into some money through a well-documented inheritance. The philanthropic artist I had become would be hard pressed to be linked with that other life.
These shears would need a sheath, I thought, already planning the leatherwork.
“You take us back home right now!” Jen’s voice cut through the reverie.
I stood and ran towards her, shears gripped around the blades as I moved.
Carly stood just behind her. They were in the garden facing the woods.
The edge of the forest writhed in shadows. Like sentries they emerged in step until we were encircled garden, cabin, us, by tall slender figures cloaked in dark wisps of moving shades. The rushing, hissing sound of their words drove us together.
Thrumming through the head, more of a vibration on top of the noise, that this was all. Cease resisting. Work to do. I braced for the mind cracking, but they withdrew instead, and with a sucking noise were gone completely.
The silence dropped us even as the overwhelming noise had propped us up. I sat in the garden, Jen sat on her feet knees in the mud, and Carly flopped down cheek to grass, nestled up next to the weeds she watered with the tears streaming down her face.
If only there were something to eliminate that would fix this, I thought.
The shears were cool in my hand as I stared into the forest where the shadows had been.
We didn’t refer to it as magic at first.
Luck, coincidence, synchronicity, amazing, can you believe this were the words and phrases in the beginning, the question. That was the question.
We couldn’t believe any of it, but here we were living in a small portion of forest which brought us back to this cabin again and again. Jen said she missed having tomatoes, and the next day in the garden found a full plant with three small Romas ready for harvest.
“I must have missed them while I was weeding yesterday,” Jen said as she set them on the counter. Could we believe that? That she had never seen or noticed a tomato plant as it grew, flowered, and made its fruit, only to come across it in a well-tended part of the garden, did we believe that?
My snares were rarely empty. We always found enough to eat between the garden and the woods to satiate the worst of hunger, though Carly hovered close to underweight, and Jen’s curves were less pronounced. By the time the hens arrived, we had become accustomed to the uncanny appearance of things needed or wanted within the unknown limits of this place.
How many times in the woods had I come across another dump pile partially grown over as if it had been there for months, or a year, to dig through it and come up with an item needed for immediate use? Too many.
I had mapped our woods as best I could, noting that while some landmarks remained the same, other areas shifted when I wasn’t looking. Rises would be lowlands, streams would be in a different location or section of the woods. Striking out to the West of the cabin might bring me back from any other direction.
I no longer feared getting lost in the forest.
The holster I had made for my shears hung on my hips. I never used them, but I always kept them to hand. The possessiveness I felt towards them, now that felt out of control. I had been in love once, with the Frenchman who had fathered Jen, and felt a similar obsession to this. One morning he woke to find me gone. I hadn’t even left him a note. Love was not for my kind, then. My presence would have only brought him danger or death. My second death and my rebirth as artist came soon after that.
The first time I had died to who I had been, well that had been clumsily staged, and if anyone had cared to really pry into the circumstances, they might have wondered if I were truly dead. I had only been thirteen then, carelessly kept and frequently disregarded. Certainly, more than one person sighed in relief that I was gone, and any mourning would have been brief and used to collect some sorrow money.
I lived many years as a ghost of a ghost, and now as a woodland spirit. I touched the handle of the shears, cool and firm and real. I longed to snip something, but I kept them sheathed. I found the garlic patch near the beech trees and added several heads to my pack and headed back.
After the previous visit from the Shadow figures, the others had agreed to the plan I had set forth. On the theory that if they had the ability to do anything or truly affect our life here other than sound and mental intrusions, they were not helping us in any way on purpose, but that maybe they didn’t and were just as stuck as we were and hazing us, or bored and having some fun, so on that theory we had agreed to ignore them completely if they showed up again.
We did mental exercises to focus our mind and, hopefully, keep out any projections from them. We carried on with making our existence better. We still sought out the road now and again, mourning anew all that we’d lost each time we couldn’t find our way home. I came across the clearing almost as soon as I thought about the cabin, the land rose slightly and at the top was home. When had the cabin become home, I wondered as I approached the garden. I held up the foraging bag as I walked through the gate.
Jen showed me the walking staff she had just found tucked in behind the cupboard. She snarled at me when I reached for it.Polished wood with a knobbed top, tapering to a thick, blunted point, the staff’s grain was evenly notched down one side and marked with what appeared to be runes, but none that I recognized.
A whooshing sound brought the Shadow figures around the clearing. Jen and I locked eyes on one another. She nodded to me, and we began our meditation as we walked into the cabin to find Carly.
We could hear their rushing voices, like wind rustling leaves in a summer gust. Jen tapped her staff on the floor as we counted beans until the silence filled the whole of the wood and clearing and our ears turned inside out trying to find a noise, any noise at all.
The tap tapping of the staff came in from far away. Closer and louder and sharper with each tap until sound equilibrium returned. We could hear ourselves breathe again, hear the pounding of our hearts, and the rushing of blood through our arteries and veins.
“Don’t touch my staff,” Jen said. I nodded to her, handing her two of the heads of garlic to plant in the garden.
We didn’t call it magic at first.
We didn’t believe that it was, until we could no longer disbelieve it.
The day Carly found what looked to be a short-handled mop and a spinning top, we were completing another project in the hen house we had attached together from boards found in another mystery pile.
We no longer question the appearance and disappearance of the mystery piles, but we learned not to leave scavenging them for later. Whenever one of us found one, the finder began scavenging and brought the most useful, portable items back to the clearing to get the others to help finish the salvage. Sometimes we wouldn’t find the pile again even if we hurried.
We had begun organizing our clearing into areas. We had a small three-sided workshop where we kept our tools and had a crude work bench. The more we built, the better things looked as we learned how to wield the different tools, and work with wood and other scavenged materials. Our garden kept growing our tended plants, and bonus plants. The changing nature of the inhabitants in there, we learned to take in stride. In the mornings, we planned out chores for the day, and in the evenings, we strategized about long term projects.
The shadow figures had visited a number of times, but Jen’s tapping staff created the silent buffer, so that their voices, which were more disturbing than their shadow clothes and long slender frames, rarely reached us. There were no other signs of them.
More often than not, Jen used her staff to measure out distances for new structures, or to measure out the cut points of the materials for projects. She always had it with her, just as my shears hung from my hip without fail.
“We need put up a shelf higher for the nesting boxes,” Jen said.
This argument was technically finished, adding a shelf would not harm anything, though the effort was wasted in my opinion, as we had never lost a hen or rooster to any predators. She pointed to the presence of owls and hawks, which had become more common the more we settled into the cabin and clearing.
Carly came running up holding an armful of items, most of which she dropped there near the edge of the clearing in what we had come to think of as the safe zone, where the only area which changed unexpectedly was in the garden which mostly grew whatever it wanted. Some days we had potatoes, and some days we had kale. We watered and weeded and took what it gave us.
As soon as she saw that we had seen her, Carly fled back down the way she had come, and we leapt after her across the clearing and into the woods. We were too late this time.
The forest had shifted. I remembered times in the woods where I had walked through places which felt transitional, temporary. The hairs on my arms raising, the slight electric sting to the air, the breezes which swung back and forth rather than from a static direction all had brought a heightened awareness of my surroundings then. Now that we lived in a place where the terrain could be anything when we crossed out of the clearing, barring a few landmarks which remained in spite of the land changing around them, I rarely felt that mysterious forest feeling. The mind adapts.
We headed back to the cabin, neither defeated nor jubilant. This was our life now. We had fought it, fought each other, searched, cried, raised fists to the sky, fell to our knees, begged, bartered, promised improvement, and it didn’t matter if anyone or anything was listening. Each day we woke up in the same place, no road to be found, our former lives lost to us like childhood to the aged.
Jen tried to examine Carly’s find, but in a rare fit of independence, Carly denied her mother.
We stood clustered just inside the clearing, and the shadow figures arrived. Instead of airy hissing words, an eerie melody came from them, and the writhing shadows which cloaked their bodies began to brighten, then glow. The pale sun receded in the shine of the beings, and the sound didn’t grow louder really, even as it permeated our bodies with a pulsing frequency.
Here it comes, I thought, let the mind cracking begin.
Then I was falling, but upward, spinning through space. Jen and Carly were twirling points just out of reach. They were outlined in a blue light. Jen’s staff glowed. Carly’s items glowed. I glanced down at the shears to see them glowing. I pulled them out of the sheath expecting them to be softer somehow, but they were as solid as ever.
Awareness came then – the mind expanded, had I been mortal on earth I could not have held onto all of this information, this control of time which shifted with my attention, like having thousands of different videos playing and being able to keep track of each story line, pausing all but the one with my focus, able to rewind and fast forward by sheer will alone. Each star in the universe a complex story, each ending giving way to beginnings.
I could see Carly taking a strand from the mop head, no, distaff with her hand and threading it onto the spindle, and Jen reached out with her staff measuring then nodding once, and in a moment, I was beside them clipping the strand with my shears. A lifetime of love and loss, born lived and died in moments. Our work before us, we continued at speed. No one deserved to die, I knew better than most, but it was an end that must come at some point to everyone. Snip.
How apropos that I would have left that quiet work, only to have it scaled so cosmically to become a duty, terrifying, awful, and tremendously sad task working for a cosmos I neither understood, nor cared to understand.
A billion lifetimes later, we stood at the edge of the clearing, tools to hand, shaking our heads until our minds fit back into them firmly. The glowing formerly shadow cloaked figures nodded. One final message reached us: You’ll know when.
Over the centuries, that phrase would come to have different meanings. For now, it meant we were fated to, on occasion, mete out the life cycle of souls throughout the universe, in between our uncommon and common duties in the clearing and cabin, safely sheltered ourselves from both life and death.
We knew, without a doubt now, that there were fates worse than death.