Her long golden hair whipped in the breeze. Flying into her face as it came loose from the black ribbon that had tied it, she watched the ribbon fly off, clinging too a tiny branch out of her reach. She couldn't climb further out, those branches were to slight to hold her small frame. The last dregs of light was sinking over the horizon as she settled herself as best she could, wrapping her legs around the base of the branch and clinging to it with her slender arms.
Without the moon, tonight would be the darkest night of the year. So black even coal would seem bright in comparison. The stars which normally gave some light, however tiny that might be, were covered over by clouds. Each year there were the eleven dark moon nights and one that was the night of no moon, the moonless night. Helen disappeared near here last year on the moonless night. She had gone out late to fetch a bit of wood for their fire and that was the last anyone had ever seen her.
We both heard the warnings since childhood about this place on the no moon night, but how could we believe them? The villagers were all such an illiterate and superstitious lot, Altori mused. Why they wouldn't even plant their crops in the fields below her.
Blackness descended, the sound of the hooting owls, calling crickets, and even the howling of the wolves stopped. Silence fell like a blanket over the air itself. Not a sound escaped, no whisper of leaves, no sound of wind, all was shrouded in nothingness, till she thought she would scream. It pressed into her being, crowding her thoughts, stifling her ability to breathe, except in short shallow gasps.
Closer and closer it came, that terrible emptiness. The golden hairs on her arms standing up, her skin parched in the void. She could still feel her body, but she could not see, the closer the vacuum came the less she could feel. Still she held on and waited, for now there was nothing she could do except wait, for movement was impossible. Fear gripped her tightly in its arms. All too soon the silence was broken, not by the normal sounds of the night, but by a chanting from below. It began slowly, shallowly, quietly, swelling, filling, and becoming the night.
Down below her on the prairie in the distance lights danced with the harmony of the chants. Louder and louder they became, and the lights grew brighter and stronger until she could see something small dancing in the shadows of the flames. One creature became two, then three, until the plain below her, filled till she couldn't tell how many beings there were or if there was only one that had grown immense taking over the field. The chanting went on and on, the lights, and the creatures became the night itself, everything outside of them was nonexistent.
Altori watched and clung to the tree though she couldn't feel her arms or legs now. She held onto her thought of separateness, fearing she would lose herself, just as Helen must have if she surrendered to the night or the oblivion beyond the dancing, moving, chanting night. Then with an upsurge of the inundating presence below, it was gone and the void pushed in on her again, and she fought to hold on to her sanity once more. It must end soon she thought. My name is Altori, I have a sister somewhere named Helen, and I live in the village on the other side of the forest. Her mind continued to shout these words to herself while she fought the oblivion and abruptly that too was gone. She felt the roughness of the branch she was clinging to and heard the crickets singing the last of their night songs. A final wolf howled, and owl hooted as the sky began to brighten.
Tangled in the leaves and the branches, her golden locks pulled with each movement of the wind. She was now shaking with exhaustion. For with the disappearance of the void so went the last of her strength. Still she began the tedious job of removing the strands of her hair from the branches and leaves. Sometimes, she pulled in terror when she discovered a part of her hair had become one with the tree. Finally, sliding and nearly falling to the ground, sinking to her knees, she fell and curling into a ball, she lay there for a few minutes unable to move.
I don’t believe I can walk, she thought. Though I must get back to the village before dawn, no one must see me like this. Her brown dress ripped, soiled with sap, sweat, and her fear, hair disheveled, with twigs and leaves sticking in it. Her skin completely covered in scratches and soil, lips parched, tongue swollen from thirst, she began to crawl. Pulling herself along until she managed, with the help of a long branch, she got to her feet and staggered forward.
No thoughts went through her mind now, except two words. Get home. Over and over they rolled around in her head, nothing else just those two words, she hadn't the strength for anything else.
At last, her feet felt the dirt road of the village, just as the cock crowed she fell against the door of her small hut. Pulling herself into her home, shutting the door she fell to her knees again, crawling to the water basin. She drank, lapping the water like a dog, quenching her thirst, then ripping what was left of her dress off, she used a portion of it to wash herself.
Shivering in the crisp dawn air, not yet able to stand nor light the stove, she pulled the remnants of her dress over her body and slept. Through the depth of her unconsciousness,, she heard the pounding and banging on her door, it went on becoming louder and louder. It was insistent, dragging herself to her knees, she yelled. “I’ll be out as soon as I can, I’m not well today.” The banging stopped and footsteps moved away from the door.
Still weak, Altori pushed herself to stand and stagger to the peg that held her only other, day dress. “Nothing can be done with that one.” She said to herself as she looked at the rag lying on the floor in front of the door. Turning she made her way to the small table, slumping down on one of the rickety chairs standing beside it. In the middle of the table sat the day old bread, dried out from sitting in the open air, and a block of cheese on a dish. It was to have been my supper. She mused as she slowly pulled tiny pieces of the crumbly bread and stuffing it into her mouth. Finally, able to hold a knife she cut a small sliver of the cheese and ate that too. Still drained of energy, but able to stand she walked to the table by the bed and picked up her comb and began to brush out her hair. When she had it as neat as possible, and the small bald spots were hidden, those spots that she had pulled out in chunks while trying to free it from the tree, she tied another ribbon around it. She hoped no one would notice; usually she felt invisible in the village and hoped today would be no different. No one must know she had been out in the void. No one must ever know. If Helen was there she could have talked about it with her, but after last night she was afraid that maybe the villagers were right, and she would never see Helen again.
The villagers had said Helen was gone for good, but she didn't believe it. She would have felt it if Helen was dead and she didn't Something was terribly wrong though, and somehow she must find out what it was if she were ever to get Helen back. Today, she had her share of the village work to do. Even those who were invisible to the rest of the village had to work. They were only visible if their work was not done or done incorrectly. “I am an outsider here. Once when Helen was still here I had someone I felt I belonged to. We were family, now everything is empty.” Altori spoke quietly to the walls and shuddered. “At least it isn't the void though.”
She didn't know if she could go on feeling as if she didn't belong anywhere, yet where would she go? Would she fit in anywhere? If she went would she ever find Helen? She pondered these questions all day. Throughout her lunch break, sitting alone as usual she thought and wondered. What is the mystery, what was that thing or things down in the prairie last night? Her mind couldn't wrap itself around that question, instead continued to shy away from any thought of that or of the void. Think about that tomorrow it said to her.
Copyright 2013 Marta Moran Bishop