The Weeping Willow
Staring into the looming forest, Catrin was blind to the trees before her. She was seeing, but unreceptive to her surrounds, her focus on the thoughts plaguing her restless mind. Missing a step nearly sent her sprawling, but she caught herself before she fell and turned around, kicking the stone she had lost her balance on. The grey stone skittered across the road with a plume of dust and disappeared into a ditch.
She walked on, her eyes on the nearing forest as she walked home. The small village she called home was Erkin, a place of the old faith, of standing stones, rites and rituals. In her pack she carried the stone effigy of Erulus, their most revered God. It was carved from jade and Catrin did not like it. She kept the statue wrapped in her cloak, but the warmth still infiltrated her, seeped into her back through the pack, making her too warm for comfort. When it had been in her hands, it felt as though it hummed. It reverberated deep in her bones and she wondered if the God’s energies were inside it, or whether something darker was at play.
Catrin glanced over her shoulder, a thing she had done many times since the Erulus jade had been given to her. The old priest had been glad to be rid of it, he amongst many other guardians who had touched its smooth green surface over the years. Catrin shivered, thinking the object bode no well, but the statue would be in the Erkin priest’s hands before nightfall and for that, she was grateful.
Walking on, the gut clenching feeling of eyes watching her made her cold.
“You’re not the paranoid type,” she said aloud, annoyed for letting her thoughts and apprehension get the better of her. “Just walk on – another hour and you’ll be home.”
Catrin’s focus finally took in the twisted, prehistoric trees. The bark had silvered, the girth of each denoting thousands of years’ existence. They had inhabited this land long before man and Catrin respected the age and history of it. A shiver crawled over as the shadow of the boughs welcomed her in. There was barely a sound – no rustle of leaves, no call of a distant animal. Only the sound of her boots crunching on the gravel road with each step she took. The weight on her back grew heavier and warmer the deeper she went into the forest. A hum begun to sound from the jade Erulus and apprehensive, Catrin quickened her thin legs.
“You’ll be no good to anyone scaring yourself out of your own wits,” she whispered to calm herself, but with little avail. The forest had not been so quiet nor so dark when she had been leaving it the previous morning.
Convinced the unnatural statue was to blame, Catrin made a gesture of blessing over herself, attempting to ward off the impending sense of doom. She shook it off her shoulders, wondering if she should run the rest of the way, then laughed when she realised how ridiculous she sounded.
“Such a pretty laugh,” a woman’s voice spoke, causing Catrin to curse with fright. When she turned around, an old woman stood at the edge of the woods, wrapped in a forest green shawl. Her white hair shone and her eyes, like the grass plains of summer, seemed too bright under the dark canopy.
“Who are you?” Catrin asked warily, her hand dropping to the small dagger kept sheathed on her belt.
“But a lonely old woman on her travels,” she smiled, her face wrinkling pleasantly. The woman had a vague resemblance to her own beloved grandmother, who had died the previous spring and Catrin smiled in return.
“You frightened me is all, old mother. Do you need some help?” she asked, knowing to respect her elders.
“You are kind for asking,” the old woman replied, stepping onto the road. She leaned heavily on a gnarled, white stick and limped towards Catrin. “If you can, would you help me climb that path there? There was a place I visited there when I was a young woman your age and I’d like to see it again, but my legs are not what they once were.”
Seeing the path behind the woman made Catrin frown. She had been raised in reared in the old forest and she had never seen this particular path before. It wound its way up a steady slope.
“It is not far. A few hundred paces at most… It is rocky however, and I might need a little aid with the stonier parts.”
“As long as it doesn’t take too long, old mother. I must get back to my village before dark.”
Catrin walked towards the smiling woman and held out her arm. The old woman linked with her and together, they began to traverse the path. It was rocky as the old woman had described and the deeper they followed it, the more nervous Catrin became.
“It is an ancient and wise place, Catrin,” the old woman said. “A place untouched by man for thousands of years… Unsullied.”
“Yes,” Catrin said, wondering how the old woman knew her name. Had they introduced themselves? Catrin wondered if she might be going mad for not remembering, but her wondering was soon forgotten when she glanced over her shoulder. Her heart lurched when she realised she could no longer see the main road. The branches had covered the way.
“I am hoping it remains that way, but I see the effects of man encroaching each day… They promise to protect the forest and yet, they take from her and do not give back. She grows angry,” the old woman told Catrin. Taking a sidelong glance at her, Catrin felt her alarm grow. The jade statue burned against her back, warning her.
“And you will help child,” she said, when they entered a clearing. Golden sunlight filtered through the trees and reflected on a pool of water. It was as clear as glass. Surrounding the mirror-like pool were standing stones, each a various size and shape. Catrin and the old woman walked towards them.
“How can I help?”
“By handing that statue to me. It is a cursed thing and should not be in the forest. It will taint it and will bring more people to it. They will wish to worship a worthless, lifeless stone over the gifts of life. And they will take and steal from the forest, turn it, change it, destroy it. I cannot let it happen.”
Catrin’s breath caught when they stopped before one of the stones. They were unlike anything she had seen before. In the deformed stone was a man’s face. His eyes were closed, but the details of horror were painstakingly etched. It was done with such intricate precision, Catrin wondered how such a feat of artistry could have been created. It seemed impossible and yet, as she took in the details, she thought the face looked very familiar.
“He was once a priest,” the old woman told her.
“It is a carving of a priest?” she asked, her stomaching tightening with anxiety. He looked like the priest she had seen the day before. The double chin, the bags beneath the eyes – the features were too similar and confusion stirred in Catrin’s mind. What joke was being played on her?
“No… He was a priest.”
“But…” Catrin’s voice drifted off as she turned and faced the old woman. Her white hair seemed to glow in the sunlight and the stone burned with such an intensity she had to pull it off her back and cast it to the ground. The grass withered and browned around it. “He only gave me the jade yesterday.” How could he be interred in stone here? She wondered, what magic dwelt in this secret place?
The old woman smiled, though no humour shone from her green gaze.
“Nature has a way of getting around things,” she told Catrin. And pointing at the pack said, “See what a vile thing that stone is?”
Catrin said nothing, but felt a rise in static energy. Terror swelled in her breast and when she tried to turn and run, was unable to move. She dropped her gaze to her feet and saw they were changing, melting into the earth and becoming woody and hardened.
“What are you doing to me?” she cried out. “Who are you?”
A cruel smile graced her weathered face as she walked towards Catrin. “I am the forest, nature, the land – whatever you wish to call me… Humankind keeps taking and taking from me. You are selfish, damaging creatures and I think I have been more than patient. I have grown tired of your kind and I am angry. Now, I am returning the favour and taking what is owed to me.”
Catrin screamed as the burning transformation wound its way up her thighs. She thrashed and begged, but the old woman stood before her and watched, pleasure in her gaze.
“The heart wants you for this place, sweet Catrin. What will you become? A wise oak? An elegant elm? A cheerful chestnut? No?”
The old woman placed her cold fingers against Catrin’s face and held her by the chin, while her woody arms stretched and sprouted long green fronds.
“Why so sad? You should be happy. The others became lifeless, soulless stone. You will be something better, something gentle and lovely in the heart of the forest. Look at what you become as you turn…” The old woman pointed to the water, where the reflection of a growing tree shimmered on the water. Catrin sobbed, unable to control her terror and sadness. “Still more tears, Catrin? You should not be sad.”
Catrin could no longer speak, her voice taken by the metamorphosis. Everything hazed and darkened around her, but the tears still came. The final words she heard were the old woman’s.
“Then weep you shall, until the end of time, my little willow.”