FICTION August 1, 2014

In the Deep Wood

But they did not have long to wonder, for the angel looked at the stumps where her arms had been and smiled violently and nodded at them as if to say thank you, and then her shoulders disappeared. Her head felt light, light as love, and she tipped it back, and her smile became a laugh as all of the sensations of the world concentrated into one exquisite climax. She laughed and laughed as her blond curls dissolved and then her ears and her cheeks and finally all that was left was the smile upon her lips, and that, too, dissolved.

The little girls clapped as their angel disappeared, but their mother could barely manage to shake her head in mute astonishment.

“The horror,” the mother finally whispered as she blinked away the memory, blinked until she could convince herself that it was only the fatigue of her eyes from the blinding sun and the knit-one, purl-two endless rows of black stitching. To be safe, however, the mother gathered her wet little charges into a large white sheet and bundled them off to home.

But the girls held onto the vision in white. “The angel,” they said in unison, kicking their mother and pointing to the place in the pool where now remained just a white froth of bubbles.

“Silly girls,” the mother said, “you have had too much of the sun. Nothing is there but water.”

But the girls did not believe her. Late at night for years afterward, under the cover of their blankets, they spoke of the angel’s visitation and what it meant. With each telling, the tale became embroidered with fact and fancy until neither one could distinguish truth from fiction . . .

. . . and meantime, of course, Hydra slept on in the deep, deep woods, waiting in vain for her twin to return with her medicine and perhaps a loaf of fresh-baked bread. But the days passed into weeks, and weeks to years. Too weak to move from her bed, she covered herself with a white coverlet and fell into a deeper sleep.

Twenty years passed, and the village became a town, and the town’s edges stole into the woods in what would one day be called suburban sprawl, so that what was once dark and deep became light and sun-dappled. The two fountain nymphs became women, and each married a handsome man on the same wedding day, and each of the handsome men built a home in the woods on the farthest verge of the town.

As it would happen, on the fifth anniversary of their marriages, the sisters decided to cook for their husbands a special truffle soup. The elder of the two young wives stayed home to prepare the broth and knead the bread and set a special table, while the younger donned her red and hooded cloak and set out for the primeval woods to gather the truffles from the moist earth. She had with her a basket into which she placed the choicest truffles, the ones that lay deep in the rich humus by the oldest trees along the path.

In the course of her gathering, she happened upon an ancient birch with a particularly rich store of smoky truffles. The tree’s curved trunk, its tangled halo of vines, and its single fallen limb impaled in the earth—together these reminded her of a hobbled woman pausing to rest on a walking stick. Curious, she crept closer to the tree and glimpsed the edges of a cottage peeking through the crevices of branches and vines. High up on the north wall, she noticed a small window into which, standing on tiptoes, she could peer. The window was covered inside by a dark velvet drape, and through a tiny slit in the drape, she spied what appeared to be a figure lying upon a bed, shrouded in white. Taking a deep breath for courage, she knocked on the window, but the shroud did not stir.

She circled the cottage and found a door; it, too, was covered in thick vines. She knock-knock-knocked three times, and each time she pressed her ear to the wood and listened for some sound of life. Hearing nothing, she looked about for a tool with which to cut through the vines and found a rusting ax sunk fast into the stump of an old oak. Her first thought was of the tale of the woodcutter who rescued the little red-hooded girl. She shuddered briefly, considering her own crimson and hooded cloak, for it seemed to her at that instant that fairy tales could come true. What would she find inside the cottage that might not be better left undisturbed?

Curiosity overcame caution, and so she spent the better part of the afternoon clearing the vines from the door, forgetting about truffles and truffle soup, hoping her sister would forgive her this small indiscretion. For would not her sister have indulged her own curiosity upon finding a forgotten cottage in the woods?

At last, the door yielded to her ministrations, and the first taste she had of what awaited her was the thick and dusty air of many undisturbed years escaping from the dark interior with a perceptible whoosh. From the doorway, she called once more, and once more heard no sound from the prone figure on the bed. Inching cautiously across the room, she cleared the cobwebs that draped from ceiling to floor and wall to wall, until finally she reached the bed. Taking another deep breath, she peeled back the white shroud and found to her surprise neither wolf nor sickly grandmother, but rather the most beautiful woman she had ever seen, an exquisite corpse with blond curls and blue eyes open to the world. Touching this woman, cold as marble, she knew that this was no fairy tale. This woman was real, and she was dead.

And though she knew this dead woman could not harm her by word or deed, yet the young woman dropped her basket of truffles and gasped in horror. What frightened her was not looking squarely at the face of death, for she had already seen the reaper’s stark truth. Her own mother had died soon after that long-ago afternoon by the fountain and was laid to rest in the very shawl she had been knitting by the fountain. The young woman knew, had always known, or thought she knew, that her mother’s death was caused by her insistence on the impossibility of angels.

The daughter recalled her mother’s voice that afternoon, her gasped exclamation of horror, as she pondered the odd beauty of the lifeless woman before her, perfectly preserved in every detail. She tried in vain to place the terror she felt as her hand touched the dead woman’s face. What frightened her, she finally realized, was the strange resemblance of this woman to the very angel whose visitation brought death to her beloved mother. She rubbed her eyes, not wanting to believe that somehow she had crossed the threshold of the dream of heaven where last she thought this angel dwelt.

Surely her eyes deceived her. But then she remembered why that long-ago angel had not made her tremble as this dead woman did. That long-ago angel had disappeared laughing with a violent smile upon her lips. But this angel’s still-ripe red lips were pursed, not with the untrammeled joy of having lived, but with the everlasting sadness of a small and soundless O.

Leaving her basket behind, the young woman fled the sylvan cottage to make her way home. Alas, she had not left a trail of truffles to mark her way back from the deep, deep woods. You may find her there still, wandering alone, trying to make sense of the vine-strewn, twining paths.

Cynthia Reeves is a fiction writer and poet. Her work has appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, most recently in Wreckage of Reason II, an anthology of experimental prose by women writers. Badlands (2008), her first book, won Miami University Press’s 2006 Novella Contest. She earned her MFA from Warren Wilson College and currently teaches in Bryn Mawr College's undergraduate Creative Writing program and Rosemont College's MFA program.