There are fairy tales that double as warnings, about creatures that lurk in forests and deep waters.
Your hazel eyes shine green among the bamboo, and your touch is fragile in my hand as you say “wildflowers and wildfires; both are equal in beauty, but not in terror.”
I pull us farther in, trying to reassure you with a shaking voice. This will work, you’ll never have to go back. I swear it.
You whisper, more to yourself than to anyone, “I’m not sure I’ve really seen a wildflower that didn’t burst into flame.”
I know, darling, I know. It breaks my heart, to hear the certainty in your voice. Someday, I hope you will believe me when I say not everything burns your skin.
For now, you took my hand and followed when I said the word ‘escape’, and that is enough, though I don’t know what to make of the trust you gave so easily when it’s never brought anything but pain before.
We’re deep into the forest now, and each direction looks the same. I can feel the panic consuming you. There isn’t much to calm your fears, but I try anyway. “If we can’t find ourselves, they won’t be able to find us either.”
I don’t say that the place we’re going can only be found once lost. I don’t speak about what lives there.
We are raised to beware anything that is not us.
Thin tendrils of mist poke out between green stalks. It’s still morning and we’re catching up to the retreating fog. We’re almost there, and I can’t tell if I just think it or say it, but we’re so, so close. Your trembling legs need to carry you a little ways farther, and then you can rest; or at least start learning what rest is supposed to be. We just have to find where mist sits as thick as a thundercloud.
Because the fog doesn’t disappear. Not in the bamboo. Not if you go deep enough.
Not once you’re good and lost.
“It looks like smoke,” you say, the words as bare as sudden thought. You stop yourself, but the rest springs out anyway.
I’m running in circles and I’ve always run in circles. There cannot be a good ending to this. There never is.
I know it looks like that to you. I know that’s how it feels, and you don’t know any different. But you aren’t running in circles and you haven’t been. You can’t see it, until you do.
There isn’t a good ending. Until there is.
I just say, “It isn’t smoke.”
You wouldn’t believe me if I said the rest, and I don’t blame you. Only time will separate me from the others. You’ll figure it all out for yourself when you have the space for curiosity. You won’t need me for that.
The fog is growing thicker, and I have to remind you to breathe. Cool mist brushes up against our skin and sticks. Light fades the farther in we go. I don’t know how to convince you if you decide you can’t go farther. I don’t think I can. Just please, please. You’re so scared of the future because it’s unknown, but what if there’s something good in it?
You catch your breath the same moment I feel it. The air has shifted, my feet aren’t grounded, and my head feels like it’s finally been laid on a pillow after a draining day. The fog is comforting and sheltering and safe.
It terrifies you more than anything.
I hold your hand like it’s the last peg holding down a tent in a windstorm. I know you don’t know a calm that doesn’t usher storms. I know you were raised with the warnings about these kinds of things.
There’s movement, a shadow. I try to whisper for you to breathe.
A creature emerges from the fog. Built like a knotted tree, it has rough bark and soft moss and eyes as old as time. Other shadows begin to move and emerge around him, from as short as reaching my kneecap to as tall as the bamboo. The elder lowers himself to the ground, his eyes softening as he looks at you. “We invite you to stay,” he says, and his voice is deep like sleep, “and we invite you to be free.”
Now I’m the one holding my breath.
“As long as you are with us, they will not find you. When you decide to leave us, we will show you the way out. You will not have to return to where you once were. Should they wander near, we will make them leave. This is our promise. This is our vow.” He holds out his hand for her to take, and he waits patiently.
You are staring at his hand of sticks and leaves. The tales always say they cannot lie, but you have known too many lies in your life to believe them.
This is the part of the story that I cannot control. This is the decision I do not get to make.
You rise on trembling legs. The elder does not rise, nor does he retract his hand. He merely tilts his head to watch. You take a step closer, and I wonder if you can hear the pounding beat of my heart. You stare into his eyes, his ancient, patient eyes, and you place your hand in his.
The tension in your shoulders drops. I think I see relief gather in your eye. The elder stands, drawing you in, turning to me. “She is protected.” he says. “She is safe.”
They disappear back into the mist, taking you with them.
There are fairy tales that warn about these creatures. I think most people get it wrong.
The elder spoke true with his vow. They are the creatures of the mist, and fire will not follow you there. You will figure out what it is to not see fire everywhere you turn, they will give you the space to be curious. They will give you the space to feel your healing burns.
I know this. After all, I remember following someone into the fog. I remember clinging to the word escape. I remember taking the elders hand with shaking fingers and clacking teeth.
The warnings about these creatures, they weren’t meant for the children.
They are warnings for the ones that children run from.