The Girl Who Tends to the Paper Forest
He finds her on the side of the road, and it is raining. This is how it begins for them. This is how it always begins. With the heavens splitting open their tear ducts. With the atmosphere mourning.
Here is a story that is like many stories:
A man finds a deep hole that leads to another world; a world of ogres and dragons and castles ripe with treasure. He lets himself fall through the hole and there, in one of those ripe castles, is a ripe girl waiting for something she doesn’t know the shape of. And he tells her that he wants; he wants the castle, he wants the treasure, and he wants her, and she tells him well, sure, but it all belongs to her brother, the ogre Ivan. But the man doesn’t care, and cuts Ivan’s head off the instant he comes home. Then he takes it all for himself, the castle and the treasure, and because she has no where else to go and no one else in the world and she knows no better, she lets herself be taken, too.
She is in a copse of trees, a small snatch of them left standing back aways from the new highway. It is the rain that drives them together, even as the rain is the sky’s weeping over their inevitable meeting.
The sky, dribbling tears, knowing before they know all that will happen from having to have watched it all, again and again, from its great distance.
So the rain pours, and it pulls her out from under the canopy of leaves into the open, because she so greatly needs the feeling of touch, even if the touch is something damp and cold and stinging.
And he sees her, there in the downpour with her arms open towards the sky and soaking wet, and misinterpreting her need, he slows to a stop to offer her refuge. But she doesn’t need shelter. She doesn’t need the metal roof and the electric heat and the fogged glass of his car. She has her own roof.
She has her own warmth. Her own glass, and it is clear enough to see all paths ahead.
Paths she has never shared; had never needed to share; had never known the need, being alone and being at peace.
But then he was there, waking, stirring, disturbing.
And there was a need.
Here, another story, another girl. Alone in the woods. Wait, no.
No, not alone.
She is with the Dwarves.
Or that girl, there, she is with the roses and thorns that are cradling her castle.
This girl, and that girl, they are at peace. Their eyes are closed. Their guardians, watching. The
Dwarves, the buds, the thorns. The sky is a great blanket of clouds they lay beneath.
And, you know this story.
A man, he comes, and he misinterprets her peace as need.
He wakes her.
He carries her away.
And does she ever see the Dwarves again?
Does she ever miss the budding thorn bushes?
Does he ever stop to ask?
She leads him away from the car and towards the copse, and he, as weightless and easy as a man falling down a deep hole, allows himself to be lead. They make it, wet and sopping, into the small shelter of the trees, and it isn’t until he is under their broad leaves that block the stinging rain from his eyes that he sees the woods for what they are.
All the tree’s bark is smooth. When he looks closely he sees that they only have the illusion of roughness. When he brings his face nearer, he sees the illusion is cast by the trailing lines of words that spiral down from the top-most boughs all the way around the trunk to seep out of sight beneath the earth. The bark isn’t bark at all; it is smooth and sanded sheets of paper layered one on top of the other.
He is just then putting his hands on the trees, the ink smudging under his palm and staining his skin, when she reaches over his head to pluck from a low hanging bough, an apple, made all of glass.
Look in here, at this story; a girl in a tower, content. She has a mother of a sort; she has shelter; she has sustenance; peace.
And then, outside her window, beneath the clouding sky;
What comes calling, and with who?
He puts his hands under her hands as she holds the apple before his eyes, and beyond the glass, in the core of it, he sees clouds forming. They color themselves and swirl, dizzying until they settle into shapes and become clear; there in the apple is a beautiful forest. There in the apple is a girl dressed all in red walking down the path, breadbasket on her arm. There, in the trees ahead, something is waiting on the path.
As he watches the story unfold, he stops feeling the hands of the girl against his. Stops hearing the hiss of the rain beyond the grove. Stops feeling the weight of his wet clothes dripping from his body; he is inside the apple. He’s no longer within those trees made of paper, but standing in the shadows of new ones, solid as him, watching the girl approach and grinning.
Here is an old woman, offering an apple to a girl. The girl eats it, and her eyes flutter. The girl eats it and is gifted sleep. The girl eats it, and is content and beautiful in peace.
Here, there is a girl in a garden, another apple, a snake slithering down from the topmost boroughs.
Another offer; another bite. Something unknown is waking up. It is stirring in the grass.
Here; a mother who died, who was buried under a juniper tree. And as that tree, she tried to grant her daughter’s every wish. But a tree is never enough, is it? There are always more wishes.
Always wants a mother can not satisfy; always dangers she can not keep at bay.
When the apple has told its tale, the clouds disperse and she sets it in a cradle of roots at the foot of a tree. She plucks him another, and they watch together, hands against hands, clouds swirling and taking shape, and the girl and the boy are pulled into the core, where they live and they breath and become the story. After he has found her opening the door she ought not; opening it to the secrets she should not know; and the knife is in his hand; and her brothers’ trumpeting their battle call beyond the castle walls, they come out, and she is laughing and holding herself where there had just been a wound, but now there is nothing. A fat drop of rain manages to worm its way through the leaves and it lands on her cheek, trails itself down to her lip, and he reaches up and wipes it away.
Her laughter dies in a gasp, and there is something blossoming, a deep bruise within her unfurling.
If you look here, there is a girl who can run; a girl left on the side of the mountain by a father who did not need nor want her; a girl who learned peace through speed, and lived with solid needs, practical needs, needs that could be filled. She knows no need for love. She wouldn’t accept it if it came calling, even if it offered up its life in return. It would have to beat her into submission, to catch her before she could flee.
In comes a man, three apples in his arms, and a challenge to a race yet won. He’ll wager his life if she wagers her love. Run they do, but the girl cannot keep her mind off of the apples. The way they shine and how they are as golden as the sun. Before she can outstrip him too much, he throws them, one after the glittering other, to land before her like comets. And she, numb-minded from need, leaves off their race to scoop them from the ground, to hold them up to the light, and see her own face reflected back at her, and behind her, him drawing closer, close enough to catch her up.
Love was won, yes, but was it his, or the apples’ for claiming?
After their fill of apples, and after he had touched her lips, and she had gasped, there were more touches and more gasps, and each bordered sweetly between a blossom and a wound. Then came words; sweet. Words; hesitant. Words; probing and curious. He laid beneath her head, her ear pressed to his chest and he held an apple, turning it this way and that between the shafts of moonlight filtered by the leaves. But no matter how he shifted it, it revealed nothing but the clouds stirring to take shape and dissipating with each turn, and no matter what he asked, she could tell him no more about the apples than they had always been there, with her; that she had always been there, with them, tending the trees, scrawling words on their surface to feed them, and harvesting the fruit, alone. But he was there now.
This story is about a young daughter whose family bartered her away to a bear. He took her away from everything she knew, and gave her a new life, with new rules. The most important being that she must never see who it was coming to share her bed with her at night. Of course it was hard, being alone in that castle with only a silhouette she was never allowed to see coming to lay beside her; of course, she had to look, to see, who was coming into her bed. Many would say that was only fair.
So she did what she ought not, and lit the candle, and in seeing the shape of that which she didn’t know, the tallow dripped, and something awoke; something beautiful and hurtful; and it all was ruined.
The bear who was sometimes a beautiful man left.
And she went through many hardships, she walked far enough to callous her feet, and rode battling winds, to come to a strange place where she was just a stranger, impoverished.
Only to find out he’d already been engaged.
She does not know much but she knows her trees, she knows her fruit. She knows, when she wakes up the next morning and finds him gone, how many apples have gone along with him. All the ones she plucked, plus an armload more.
Beyond the circle of her trees she can see the indents of his footsteps trailing away back to where he left his car, unbending themselves in the grass.
She sits, and she watches those stalks right themselves, and she holds an apple in her lap. In it, a story is swirling. A story it wants to tell her. A story she will not see. Instead, she waits, and probes, the way one will a sore tooth, the blossoming need inside of her and her wonder over what she had done, what rule she had broken, that he had left her like this, alone again.
A girl is given to a King, who will make her his wife if she can prove herself useful by spinning straw into gold. She never asked for this test, of course. She never wanted to be his wife. But now, it is wifedom or beheading, and she has no choice in the matter. The King will love her, but only if she can make him a profit. Which she can’t. She had never thought that love and profit went hand in hand, and never thought that gold could be straw, and so she had never developed the skill.
She is locked in, and powerless, until a small, strange little imp comes, and promises her deliverance.
After she’s delivered, and the King receives her as a wife, she has a child, a sweet little baby girl who one day will be bartered off for love and profit. But the imp comes back. He comes back to take the baby girl away from all of that.
What’s so wrong about that? That he should be hated so much for giving the child a third option?
He does come back. A week later. He pulls his car off of the highway and rolls it up to her copse of trees, and she goes out to meet him. He acts like nothing ever happened; like the week between the lack of a farewell and his returning was nothing; like she should feel nothing at all about it, and so, because she doesn’t want to do what she ought not, she pretends that this is the case as well.
The new watch on his wrist, the fine quality of his clothes; the silver lighter he flicks open to ignite the tip of a fat cigar he smokes as he waits leaning against his car for her to come to him, these, too, are nothing. Nothing at all to her, among the trees made out of their own corpse-stuff. And so she welcomes him.
They pluck apples, they become stories. They become less than they pick. They touch less, but they touch. And he lets her fall asleep on his chest, and her need is stoked and fed, and when she wakes again the next morning and he is gone, and she has less apples than before, she tries very hard not feel the soreness in her, to ignore its throb, until he comes again, the next week, and it all happens exactly as it happened before.
Here there is a King offering all of his possessions, his kingdom, his gold, and his daughter, for whoever is clever enough to build a ship that can travel both over land and water. There is a boy who wants this, though he doesn’t have the skill. But he, too, has a strange friend who will help him. An old man who gives him the boat on the condition he receives half of everything the boy wins.
So the boy goes, and he wins the King’s land, the King’s gold, and the daughter as his wife. And true to his word, he returns to the old man and he gives him half the land to rule and half the gold to have and then the old man looks through his filmed eyes at the girl and asks the boy what about her?
And the boy, he takes his sword out and he goes to cut the girl in half.
The old man stops him, and together they laugh, and laugh and the old man admires the boy for how true he stuck to his word.
But how must she feel? Knowing now what her freshly made husband was willing to do to her? Knowing know what kind of thing she is to him?
The apples have tales they want to tell her but she waits for him to come to pluck any. They will only last so long off their boughs before the glass fogs and they become dead and blackened things. And so the apples can only show their tales to them both, and when he is there, she only has eyes for him. She does not see the knife in the boy’s hand, she does not see the blood on the walls in the one locked room down the long, long hall. She doesn’t see his wallet thick with bills or the designer labels on his clothes.
These are symbols without meaning to her and all she can understand is her own need.
When he leaves, he takes so much of hers along with him, but never her. Never, even when she asks if she might see his world, his trees, his stories. He wears a waning smile in those moments and strokes her hair and nothing much is said on the matter.
The apples have tales they want to tell her, and each time there are less apples; each time he is taking more before they have the chance to regrown, and she is feeding the bark less and less words; and when she does feed it, she writes upon their surface one word, plaintive and begging. She writes love.
As she is writing, listless and lacking all the appetite save for her appetite for him, an apple falls from a withering branch, and lands itself in her lap.
Here is a girl promised to a man she does not know. She knows him so little, she doesn’t even know where he lives. And rather than take her there himself, he leaves her a trail of ash for her to follow on their wedding day.
And so she decides to follow the ashes early, wanting to see and know him, needing to see and know him, and it takes her through a forest, where all the leaves and the grass stalks and the birds in the branches are trying to warn her. They are singing to her;
He’s a cannibal who means to eat you up, up, up;
You are the sweetmeat on which he and his friends will sup;
Every bit of yourself, thought you think, and thing you do,
In their great maws they will gather and they’ll chew chew chew,
See, my girl, to him you were never anything dear,
But a meal, same as the chicken, fattened pig, or steer.
Still, the girl follows the ashes, and looking in the small hut, she see’s a group of men gathered around another young girl, sees them cut her up into small chunks, and baste and roast her, and glut themselves on her girl-meat as above her the sky opens up and begins to dribble its tears, washing the path of ash away.
After she has looked into the apple and seen all the secrets she ought not, he comes again. Again, he smiles his waning smile at her questions; where does he live, who does he know, where are her apples going, it is smile after smaller smile, and shifting answers that amount to no more than silence would.
He gathers what little there is to gather from withering branches, and asks her what words she has been feeding the bark, which looks more naked and smooth than he’s ever seen it before, and she smiles her own waning smile, and she shrugs it off. When they settle and he lights his cigar, and she lays there watching the plume of smoke gather against the tight ceiling of thinning leaves before finding nooks and crannies to wiggle out of, she thinks about how little rain there has been, she thinks about all the years she spent with the trees as her shelter, her mother, her friend. She thinks of all the girls she’s seen in the apples. She slips the lighter from his pocket into the palm of her hand, and it is cold and stinging to touch, but she holds it tight until it is warm from the pulse of her own blood.
Here is a young girl who loves more than anything in the world her golden ball. She plays with it constantly; it’s her most constant companion, and she sits it by herself at the dinner table, and in the bed while she sleeps, and whenever she looks at it she sees herself smiling back, and to her, that is love.
One day, a toad gets a hold of it in a place she can not reach. An ugly, spiteful little thing, he will not let her have it back unless she gives him half of everything she owns; unless her life becomes his for the choosing and taking.
And so, she has to agree. And the toad now is sitting at her side while she eats, and eating from her plate, and the toad now is sleeping in her bed between her and the golden ball, the toad is all she sees, and it eats away at the girl until something must be done.
She waits until he has gone again and soon to return to do it. She takes up the lighter, and she says her goodbyes, writing in their bark one last word, over and over, as a farewell. She writes love and she means it, but she knows now that love sometimes is a burning thing, a consuming thing, a hurtful thing, and so she is sorry when she writes it, too.
The trees are so dry, their paper flakes as she writes, and she knows it will not take long, and so she tries to find comfort in that. When they are all covered and the ink is sinking into their flesh and weaving new stories for fresh apples, she gathers old leaves together at their trunks.
She holds the lighter up for a brief moment to look at her face reflected back, a vague smear less clear then it had been in the apple, but hers all the same. She flicks it open. She lets the flame have its feast.
The girl with the dwarves, the girl with her cradle of buds and thorns, they never get to return to their caretakers. You know this. The girl leaves her tower, and in her leaving, its forever impenetrable. The girl who bites the snake’s apple can never unknow what is now known, and that knowing means the garden is no longer hers. The girl throws the toad against the wall, meaning to kill him, and after, she never looks at herself in the golden ball again; how can she? Somethings we must do change forever the places we call home, the ways and things we love, our vision of ourselves. There comes a time when all girls must leave the peace of sleep under white-clouded skies, the protective arch of their mother’s sturdy arms. There comes a time when all girls must follow a trail of ash and know what they ought not know. A time when the clouds must gather to mourn their departure, even as in doing so, they wash away the girl’s path home for forever.
She had stood close enough to feel the heat of the flames on her skin, and for it to blister and sting, as the fire ate her copse of trees. When it was all done, and the last bits of hot coals quit their burning, she went to the pile of ash. She shifted through it and found among the ruin one last apple, scuffed and burnt but whole. She sat in the middle of what had once been her home for as long as she could remember and held the apple in her lap.
He will return and find her there, alone among the ashes. She will see him see what she has done. She will see the look on his face again, his smile fully waned. She will learn what she ought not. What was loved and what wasn’t. The ash of her forest will coat his tires and leave her a path to follow.
She will walk it, as many girls have walked it. She will not be left alone with ruin.
She holds her last apple up, and its flittering clouds are struggling to gather despite the damage. To show, to tell, to warn.
In it she watches the highway take shape. She watches the clouds gather, the rain fall, and his car puttering its way towards her as she steps into the rain and holds her arms wide open, asking come. She sees him get out and offer his hand. She sees herself reaching to take it.
She puts the apple to her lips, and she bites, and she feels the glass shards cut into the roof of her mouth, needle into her gums, slice into her tongue. She feels wet hot blood dribbling down her chin and ash under her fingertips, the sting of cold rain like knives in her back, and his hand meeting hers.
Couri Johnson is a graduate of the North Eastern Ohio Master of Fine Arts currently attending the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Her short story collection, I'll Tell You a Love Story, is available through Bridge Eight Press. For more of her work, visit www.courijohnson.com.
East Tennessee native and mixed media artist Sara Barrett lives blissfully at the foothills of the Smokies with her husband of 12 years, their 11-year-old daughter and two cats. A full-time creative thinker, Barrett repurposes used and discarded materials of all types in her artwork. Scrap paper usually hogs the spotlight. Although she admires most all art forms, she is deeply inspired by music and the talent behind it. Artists including Billie Holiday, U2, Ray LaMontagne, Volbeat and dozens of others can be heard spinning on the turn table in her art room on any given evening. When not creating, Sara enjoys traveling to obscure locations with her family and documenting the experience with amateur photos. Enjoying chocolate, laughing loud and listening to classic rock are also priorities for her. Sara’s artwork has been seen locally at The Emporium in Knoxville and The District Gallery in Bearden. You can see more of her work on Instagram @freelance.muse.