We bowed to our grandfather, trying to be solemn through our eagerness. He smiled and then he began.
“There is something living in the forest.
It is neither good nor evil.
There is something lurking in the forest.
It is neither human nor animal.
There is something dying in the forest.
He was called to save it.
She was called to free it.
Neither ever returned.”
We held our breaths, for we knew the passage well. It was written on a plaque that was mounted at the edge of the woods. An ancient warning to travelers from the people who lived in the town. Grandfather continued.
“Be thankful that you can walk the woods safely, free from the harm of brigands and thieves. Free from the harm of hunting and hungry beasts. Free from the fright of slithering things. It was not always so.”
There was a legend about that wood. It was said that if one traveled the forest by night, one should always use only one kind of light. Only the white flame of a moon lantern would appease the strange creature that hid within the depths of the dark forest. But this was not always so. Once, in ancient times, the opposite was true. Once, the light of the lantern was deadly to travelers of the wood.
Many earth beings once lived in the wood among the trees. Birds, beasts, bugs, and people. The wood was their place.
There were also beings who lived above them. Far, far above. They were not like the people who lived below. They had only one leader. One leader over them all. Their world was never as rich as the world below, but they did not need it to be so. They had all they needed and were happy in themselves.
But not all were content to stay where they were. To stay as they were. Some left their home and traveled outward and above. To explore. On rare occasions, such travelers would return home, but they typically did not. The beings who lived above, unlike the people who lived below, did not experience loneliness. They rarely missed the company of their own kind.
A few among their kind were curious about the ways of the people below. They studied the people below. Sometimes, they joined the people below. They took on the shapes of the people below, but their natures were so luminescent, those who remained above could still see those who had descended, and discern between them and the native people of the earth.
They who went below were different from those who went outward and above. The ones who went below always longed to return to their homes. They wanted to come back and tell their people what they had learned, how they had lived. Some returned with praise for their lives below. Some returned with disdain. But all returned home.
The native people of the land below had a name for that home. Moon.
The people who lived above, the moon beings, learned that they had not hidden themselves as well as they believed they had. The people who lived below, the earth people, knew of the moon beings and knew that some of them descended and took their form.
The moon beings who descended lived among the earth people. They befriended the earth people. They fought with the earth people.
Never did they bond with the earth people. Not as the earth people bonded with each other. Not in the way the moon beings bonded among themselves. Until one day, when one of the moon beings took the form of a man and he bonded with a woman. He stayed with her all her life and when she died, he ascended back to his home. Back to the moon.
This being was admonished for his ways. But no harm had come from it and so when the being asked to descend again, it was allowed.
This time, the moon being took the form of a woman and she bonded with a man. This time, their bonding produced a new life. This new life grew within the luminescent woman. They who were above watched with wonder and curiosity. They waited to see what the nature of this new being would be. Would it be like the people below? Or would it be like those above?
Soon the time came for the woman to bear the child. It was known among the people above that earth women suffered great pains when they bore children. The moon beings, on the contrary, felt great pleasure and comfort when bearing children. The moon beings were not split in two as the earth people were, so each one of them could bear new life.
So the luminescent woman was at peace as she bore three children. The first was a girl. She came into life quiet and watchful. The second child was a boy. He came into life sleeping. The third was a strange creature indeed. Its form was much like a human. But it was covered in fine thick fur that appeared dark yet silvery.
The girl and the boy were well-loved, for as they grew older their characters were revealed. The girl was roguish but kind. The boy was cunning but sweet.
Their sibling, the furred creature, was also a girl. But unlike her sister, she appeared so strange that she was not wanted or even tolerated. It was believed she was a curse that came with the blessing that was her brother and sister. When she was first born, her mother was advised to drown her, or leave her on a mountain to die, or to send her down the river (and the misfortune she carried with her).
The luminescent being, the mother to the children, would not allow any to speak such ill and brutal words. She loved all her children, but guarded her youngest most. She taught all her children many things. She knew there were many others who loved all her children, who thought her youngest was a blessing. She knew that her eldest two would protect their young sister. But as the children grew up, some still remained who mistreated the youngest child and called her a curse and an abomination. At last, their mother could take no more.
The moon being prepared to return to her home above, and take her three children with her. She loved her husband and would have taken him as well. But he was of the people below. He could not ascend without losing his form and his life. So she told him what she had planned. He loved his wife and children. But when he looked at his youngest, he could not bear for her to suffer. He agreed and bid his family a tearful farewell.
When the moon being began to ascend, she reached a point between the world below and world above where she could go no further. Or rather, her children could go no further. The moon being ascended and grew her hair longer and longer. She told the children to grasp her hair and pull themselves up, but when they tried, they found they could not move. They were stuck. They saw below, but not as much as they would if they were on the moon, on their second home.
Their mother left them there, in the care of the eldest, while she went on ahead to seek help.
But she did not receive help. She received punishment for disobeying the rules of the people above and doing so for the second time. The children did not know this as they hung suspended between two worlds. They did not know at first that the being they watched falling from above, glowing with sharp white light, was the being they knew as their mother. When they realized who was falling from the sky, they watched in panic and doubt.
For if that was what became of their mother, what would become of them? They watched in fear and horror, for they could not see their mother’s luminescence as they could see it in other beings who had descended from above. They could not see her at all. The woods seemed to have grown thicker. They had swallowed her up.
The children were helpless, floating in the air, among the clouds, unable to ascend further. Their mother had taught them how to ascend, how to hold themselves up in the air. But they could feel that if they let go, they would fall. And they were afraid, for they were growing tired. Soon they would need to sleep, and when they slept, they would surely fall.
Knowing this, the eldest devised a plan. She had noted that her mother had grown her hair longer and longer as she ascended past them, in her hopes that her children would be able to climb her hair. That plan had failed. The children had pulled and tugged at the hair, but had not moved from their spot. All they managed to do was pull their mother down a bit.
Of all the skills, songs, and sorcery their mother had taught the children, she had never taught them how to grow their hair at will. Nevertheless, the eldest daughter tried. She told her brother and sister to be quiet and to let her concentrate, because she had a plan to save them. She closed her eyes and began to focus.
For one day and night, nothing happened. The brother tried to keep the youngest awake, but she kept dozing off, so he had to hold her by the waist and bear the weight of them both. He watched his older sister and willed her plan to work.
Then as the sun rose on the second morning of her contemplation, the eldest’s hair began to grow. It flowed past her shoulders and down the length of her arms, then her legs, then past her feet, descending like a falls. Shining dark hair with a touch of silver moonlight. The hair grew beyond the brother’s sight. He gently shook his younger sister awake so she could see.
The elder sister’s eyes opened. She declared that her hair had grown long enough to touch the earth below them. She encouraged her brother and sister to hold onto her hair and to stop trying to ascend. But when the little sister tried this, the elder sister cried out in pain for the weight was too much for her head to bear. So the elder sister pulled out her cutting knife. She asked her brother and sister to do the same. The three went to work, cutting the eldest’s hair, careful to hold on to the pieces. The elder sister then tied the cut ends off into a giant knot. She wrapped the hair around her waist and tied it off again. Then she asked her little sister to try climbing down again.
This time, though the eldest strained, she was able to hold her sister’s weight and did so patiently. They could see their sister. Though her luminescence was not as bright as that of others, since she was half human, they could see her.
When she was safely on the ground below, the eldest turned to her brother and bid him climb down next. But her brother hesitated and asked her how she planned on returning to below since she had no one above to bear her weight as she descended.
The eldest said she would try to focus, just as she had when growing her hair. She would focus so hard that she would release her hold on the force of ascending bit by bit and so glide down to the earth like a leaf or a feather.
Her brother, though filled with some doubt, was also filled with great faith in his elder sister. So he too began to climb down. As he did, he encountered a flock of sparrows swooping and diving in play. He thought if only his elder sister had wings, even if she couldn’t fly, she might be able to glide down to the earth as she planned.
He yelled up to his sister and told her of his idea. The elder sister was greatly relieved and pleased to hear it. For she had been mostly bluffing about her confidence in descending, if only to encourage her siblings to reach safety first. She had planned to contemplate, but she was already tired and wanted badly to sleep. And their mother was still out in the wood, possibly hurt. They had to find her and rescue her. And if the world below would not tolerate them and the world above would not take them, they had to find some place where they all could live in peace.
What the children did not know, what they had not seen in all the time they had been floating in the air, was that much more time had passed in the world below than they knew.
The brother had sent his little sister to go fetch their father, warning her to remain hidden. She did so, for she was stealthy, agile, and quick. She did not often do so when others were watching, but she could run on all four limbs. She could jump and climb better than her siblings, though she did not like high places.
When she reached the village that was her home, she found it much changed. She thought she had lost her way, for the village was larger, much larger than it had been. And while she had left it a village of wood and earth and a little bit of stone, it was now mostly stone and wood, and only a little bit of earth. So much of the forest was gone, and replaced with homes and other structures that were so tall, the little sister could not bear to look at them, for fear they would topple on the people who were walking about around them.
The people too were different, their garb, their mannerisms. They did still seem a jolly and bustling people. The little sister crept through the village and tried to find her house, the house of her mother and father. She did not find it. In its place, she found a most beautiful house of wood and some stone that looked like the moon, white and creamy but streaked with dark gray.
The little sister returned to her brother and reported what she had seen.
The children at once realized that more time had passed in the world below than they had known. Being far up above, the children had not aged as they would have had they remained on the earth below. Fearing they would not find their father or mother, the eldest declared that she would try to descend, so they could start searching. But her brother insisted that it was far too dangerous. He remembered the sight of his mother falling from the sky, unable to descend gently.
The brother had hoped to have his father’s help in building his sister wings, but he would have to devise another way. He noted how light and strong his sister’s hair was. He told his younger sister to find a loom and bring it to him. His mother had taught him how to spin thread, just as she had taught her daughters. He began to spin his sister’s hair into a dark cloth, thin and vast, like the sail of a ship. As his sister had done, he focused and worked so quickly that he completed the sail in only three days. The eldest sister pulled up the sail. If it were only common cloth, it would not have worked. But the children hoped that the sail made of the eldest’s enchanted hair might work.
The eldest began to descend. She held the sail up above her head. She panicked and tried to stop the fall by ascending. But she had lost her grip on the force of ascending. She could not regain it. She fell and fell.
The sail caught the wind and puffed open. The winds pushed her toward the wood and her siblings ran to follow her as she glided down to the earth.
She crashed among the trees of the wood. She managed to salvage a long ropey strand of hair. She would have liked to keep the sail, but it was torn and caught in the branches of a tree. And it was further cut and torn in the effort to remove her from the tree.
The children, weary, hungry, thirsty, and covered in bruises and scratches from their descent, headed back to the town that was once their village.
When they reached the nearest village, the youngest remained hidden. The village could no longer be called a village. Truly, it was a town. The elder children entered the smallest inn they could find, close to the wood. They watched for a while. They listened, for the language of the people in the town was strange to them. Somewhat familiar, but much changed from what they spoke. It did not take them long to learn, however, for they were skilled in many languages, as all the children of their village were—or had been.
Almost three hundred years had passed. Their father was gone. All the people of the village whom they knew were gone. And there was a strange and horrific legend about the woods into which they had seen their mother fall.
It was said to be haunted by some unseen and unseeable monster. When it first made itself known, it killed and maimed any who wandered the woods. In time, intrepid, or perhaps foolish, travelers and adventurers tried to seek the monster, or to appease it.
The people who lived in the lands just bordering the woods would leave offerings of food and treasure. So long as they did so, the monster never wandered into the lands. It remained always in the wood.
The children, hearing of this horror, wondered what to do. They feared their mother was long dead. They feared she had perished at the hands of the monster. The elder two feared so in any case. But the youngest had a different fear. She was reluctant to speak of it, even with her brother and sister coaxing her. She had a thought that they could not fathom, for they looked like the people who lived below. She did not. She did not look like any other kind of creature that lived on the earth. She feared that the monster who had haunted the woods in all the time they had been hanging between the earth and the moon was their own mother.
She feared that their mother had lost her luminescence. That was why they could not see her from above. And she must have lost her luminescence because her nature had changed. The youngest could see that her brother and sister did not want to believe that their mother would have chosen wickedness and wrath instead of choosing to come and rescue them.
The eldest declared that they all needed to rest. They could decide what they would do in the morning.
She convinced the head of the kitchen workers that she could clean and cook and serve well and would do the work for one night’s stay at the inn for herself and her brother.
This she earned. Her brother and sister slept while she worked. Then her brother worked so she could sleep. It was night before the children could gather again in the small but tidy room near the stables of the inn. But they had forgotten some of their woes in the jollity of the inn’s happenings. None wanted to speak of anything but resting and sleeping. So they all went to bed.
Later that night, the eldest woke to find that her brother was readying himself to go out. He had his own pocket knife, and was taking his sisters’ knives as well. He had planned to sneak off, but as his elder sibling was awake, he could not leave without her permission. He entreated his sister to let him go into the woods and find their mother, or die trying. He entreated the eldest to take care of their little sister, who would not survive in the world on her own.
The eldest sister refused to give permission, for it was her responsibility to care for him and for their little sister. She bid him give her the knives, for she would go and find their mother. She instructed him to stay behind and take care of their little sister.
Suddenly, a soft voice spoke to them from above and scolded them for not knowing where their little sister was. Alarmed, the two children searched the bed where their little sister was supposed to be sleeping. She was not there. The sheets had been cleverly bunched to make it appear that someone slept beneath them.
The voice beckoned them to look above and when they did, there they saw her. Their little sister was hanging from the beams of the ceiling, grinning at them. In her round furry face, they saw the luminescence of the moon. And they were gladdened.
“All her children should go to her rescue,” the little sister said.
The brother looked at the eldest. The eldest agreed.
The children gathered what provisions they could manage. When they left the inn, the night was bright and warm with torches. The glow of the town’s light was as a shield against the dark mysteries of the woods beyond.
“What has become of her?” the brother mused as they started into the woods.
“Would that we could ask,” the eldest said, “but none here would know the answer.”
There was a crescent moon in the sky that night and though the canopy of the wood was thick, a thin stream of moonlight, no wider than a hair, passed through and lit upon the forest floor.
If the children had been only of the world below, they would not have seen it. But they were also of the world above, so they saw the moonlight and they stopped. For they saw something else. Something inside the moonlight.
In the moonlight, they saw an appearance of their mother as if in a moving picture book. They watched her ascend and entreat her people on behalf of her children. Though the beings above had no form, the children perceived them gathering around their mother. Some were awed. Others were angered. Though the thread of moonlight was silent, they heard in their minds the tumult of their mother’s battle. She fought one of her people, then another, and others. Some tried to help her, but they were overwhelmed. Their mother fought her enemies. In a rage, they cast her down. One among them, their leader, cast a curse down upon her.
Their mother was cursed to have what she most desired, to abide below for the rest of her days. Her life was bound to the life of the woods she had loved so much that she had descended again and again to visit them. So long lived the wood, so long would she live. She was cursed to take on a new form, just as she had so wished to try new forms. But this one would not be of her choice. She would not so easily cast it off as she had cast off her other forms. The children watched their mother cry out as she fell from above. She cried out for them. She begged mercy for them. A voice fell with her. The last words she heard from her own people.
“Your children will be forgotten. As will you.”
It was not so at first. The children were not forgotten, but sought, by their father, by the people of their village, and by their mother.
In that thread of moonlight, the children saw their mother in the woods. She looked like a great serpent, covered in muddy gray scales, all luminescence lost. All color lost. Her eyes were white and milky, their appearance the only remnant in her of her home. She had fallen with such force that she was broken for many a moon. Her body healed. Her mind and spirit did not. She did not remember who she was, or what she had been. She remembered only one thing. Her children. She went slithering through the forest, searching for them. She did not remember their names. She did not remember their natures. She remembered only one thing. Their luminescence.
She searched for it. Many times she thought she had found it, but all she found was the light of a lantern. In that time, those who traversed the woods used all manner of light. Torches, candles, enchanted gems, jars containing glowworms. Those who were well-to-do used a special type of lantern that cast a ghostly white glow. A moon lantern it was called. The light came from sparking a special white powder contained in the lantern chamber.
Whenever the serpent saw the light of that lantern, she would turn to it, follow it, be mesmerized by it. But whenever she came close enough to see that the light was not coming from her children, she became enraged. In her rage, she struck against the light and those who bore it. Many died in gruesome ways. Many more were torn and maimed before escaping.
The forest seemed a prison for their mother. Even when she reached its edge, she could not find her way out. One day, she did find the edge. When she tried to pass it, she was wracked with a great pain and writhed away from the edge. She would never try to leave the wood again. Time passed. Those who were of an age with the children grew up and old.
The children were indeed forgotten.
The thread of moonlight thinned, faded, then vanished.
“A more powerful being, causing horror and havoc among the less powerful.” The eldest sighed in grief and dismay. “It is indeed our mother.”
The eldest wondered who had sent them the message in the moonlight. The brother scoffed and insisted they go search for their serpent mother. Their little sister raised her head and sniffed the air. She had a sharper nose than her siblings, and she thought she could find their mother if she retained a bit of her old scent in her new form.
The elder siblings were doubtful, but they followed their little sister deeper into the forest. To assure they would find their way back, the eldest, used the rope of hair she had grown and then cut off and tied some of that hair around tree trunks and branches as they walked.
After a few days, the children had drunk all their water. They had little food left. They had encountered no creatures. No birds sang in the woods. No insects chirped. No creatures scurried or lounged.
No travelers traveled there.
The eldest told her siblings to take heart. For her sister was dismayed and her brother was impatient. The eldest took one of the lanterns they had been using. She turned down the fuel until the lantern went dark. She pulled from her belongings a pouch and poured its contents into the lantern. When next it sparked to life, the light from the lantern glowed white and luminescent, like the moon.
If they could not find their mother, perhaps she could find them.
The brother declared that the eldest was mad, but he said so calmly and with some admiration, as his eyes searched the forest. The eldest had proclaimed that they would leave the forest if they did not find their mother that night and return later. They had entered the woods in haste, poorly prepared for a long journey. They waited for many hours.
All three children, resting against a great elm, dozed off, so tired were they. The youngest woke first. The smell woke her. It was not her mother’s scent. But it was strong. It was cracking and pungent. The little sister held still, but heard nothing. She gently woke her brother and sister.
As the children rose from troubled sleep, they watched a shape emerge from the dark of the wood. It was as broad as a man, the serpent with muddy gray scales and milky white eyes.
The children searched those eyes, but they did not find their mother. But she seemed to recognize them. She had not yet struck them. The children noted the scars of slash marks and burns on the serpent’s body. She swayed back and forth and side to side. It was an eerie sight, but it seemed an almost happy kind of swaying. Then she stopped and the children braced themselves. They though it was the lantern light that drew their mother, the fallen moon being. They did not know that she could not see the lantern, for her eyes were fixed on a far, far brighter light. The luminescence of her children.
The brother tightened his grip on his knife. The eldest kept her eyes on the serpent’s eyes and her hand on the blazing lantern, ready to toss it. The youngest sniffed the air, still searching for, still hoping for, her mother’s scent.
The children felt a sudden wave of sorrow and loss. It was not their own. It was hers. The serpent, their mother, opened her mouth slowly. The children tensed. The serpent uttered a sound. A sound the children recognized. Words from an older language than the one they spoke, for the words were once spoken by the people who lived above. Their mother’s people.
“My stars,” she had said.
They had forgotten that their mother had called them her stars. For the moon rose above the earth, but the stars rose above the moon. And there was nothing in their mother’s life that rose above her children.
All three children spoke at once.
“I will stay with her.”
They glowed brighter than the moon for a brief moment.
“I will stay with our mother,” the youngest said. As she spoke, she bowed to her elder brother and her elder sister, and her form began to change. Her limbs grew small and lithe. Her body grew lean. Her nose grew long and its tip turn black. Her ears stretched thin and pointed. And all over, her old fur fell out and instead there grew beautiful gray and white fur.
“You may be able to ascend again,” the little sister said, standing on four limbs now. “You will have to find another way, for you will not have mother’s help.”
“I do not wish to ascend,” said the brother. “The people above betrayed my mother. I will stay here, in the world below. It welcomed my mother, and even now gives her shelter.”
“I will find a way to ascend,” said the eldest. “For there may be worthy beings who still abide in the world above. Perhaps they will dare to help our mother find peace.”
“We must search for some way to save our mother, but so too must we live,” the little sister said. She gazed up at the moon. “So too must we thrive.”
Grandfather smiled again.
“The eldest sister and the only brother had many more adventures before they settled in faraway lands. Of those, I will tell you another time. Tonight I will tell you only what became of the youngest child. The one who was not written of in the warning before the woods. The strange child. The wolf child, for that is what she was.
“She remained with her mother and bore the duty of restoring her mother’s spirit, knowing she might never succeed. But if she did not, she would care for and protect those who traversed the wood. She would assure that none were harmed by her mother. But she also assured that none would harm each other.
“Sometimes she would sing, howling up to the moon, entreating the ones who lived above to take pity on her mother, to have mercy on her mother.”
“What became of the serpent mother?” someone asked. “Didn’t the other sister or the brother find some way to save her?”
“Some believed that she regained her spirit form, shedding the form of the serpent at last. But because of the many people and beasts she had harmed, she was and is still bound to the wood.”
“Is she still dangerous?”
“She might be,” Grandfather said.
“Unless you carry a moon lantern,” someone quipped. “Then the wolves will protect you.”
“They might,” Grandfather said. “They just might.”
“Did she get her luminescence back?”
“Not as yet.”
“Grandfather, can we be luminescent, even though we’re just the people below and we never had it to begin with?”
Grandfather grinned. “Perhaps. If luminescence is like knowledge and can be learned. If it is like a seed and can be grown. If it is like virtue and can be pursued. Then perhaps you can do as the children in the story did. Perhaps you can focus and persevere.”
He peered at all of us. “Then perhaps one day, you can glow brighter than the light of a lantern. Brighter than the light of the moon.”
Copyright © 2016. Nila L. Patel