By Mattie Fitzpatrick | October 2, 2023
Photo Credit: Romolo Tavani on Shutterstock
The last thing I remember was they said the mountain air was refreshing and they left me here. I can still remember the solemn look on my mother’s face as her eyes focused on my feet rather than the daughter she gave up and my father, the apple of my eye, with silent tears streaming down his face. Powerless to stop my fate, helpless against the forest.
They never tell girls what happens in the forest, just that it’s refreshing. They never tell girls they’ll never be seen again, no, it’s in their eyes though. When the wagon is finally out of sight and my father’s tears have dried into the dirt in front of me, I finally turn and look up at the branches glaring at me from the sky. The air might be refreshing but the scenery is downright unnerving.
I begin to walk because if I’m going to die it’s not going to be standing here like a fool. My flats are used to this rough terrain as the bottom flaps. I wish they had gotten me new ones but death doesn’t require shoes. Death doesn’t require shoes, I flick the shoes off of my feet and feel the bare pine needles against my skin. The air is crisp as I take in the gravity of my situation, laughter bubbling up from my lungs.
I am free from the responsibility, from the cage I have lived in my whole life. I began to sprint until I’m so out of breath and dizzy from joy that I lean up against a tree. One deep breath, two and although my heart is slowing down, my mind is racing.
I take the braids out of my hair, I won’t be needing them anymore and stare up at the sky framed by the trees. I can’t believe these stars are the same ones at home, that this sky could be the same one I felt crushed under the weight of. Born with the weight of the world, I grew constricted and molded and unlike the plants I wiggle beneath my toes, there was no freedom, there was no sunshine.
I begin to walk again. The ground changes from the pine needles of fall to the green grass of spring and I feel like dancing all of the sudden. So I do. I spin and I dance and I sing until my throat is hoarse and all the animals of this forest know my name. I sing the songs my mother taught me and the ones my father hummed. The only songs I don’t sing are those blasted wedding hymns I would have been sentenced to had I not been chosen for a different fate.
I’d heard the stories but I didn’t believe them. I didn’t believe them when my name got picked or when my parents pushed me forward or on the wagon here and even now I don’t believe that I am where I am. This is all just a pleasant dream and tomorrow I’m going to wake up in the security of my bed, the security of my cage.
When the rain begins to fall and the night descends, I’m still giddy with joy and freedom. My flats are lost far behind me on the path and I’ve been floating the whole way. My footsteps are light as I glide across the ground and think of the fairies in the stories they told me. Village girls, they said, are required by the fae every twenty years. They’re dropped off and left behind and never seen again. Parents have been losing daughters longer than my grandparents have been alive and my great-grandparents and today my parents lost me.
Given to the earth is what they call it.
They never tell the girls the truth, refreshing air is the lie we tell ourselves like the daughters lost are going to show up for dinner that night. No bodies have even been found however, but nobody has even come out of this forest alive. Knowing this and living it are two different feelings though. A daughter lost, that’s what I am now and forevermore. Even if by some miracle I find my gentle father and my wallflower mother I will never be the same as I was. I will never be just their daughter again.
If I belong to the forest, with my feet buried in the dirt and my hands in the air and the sky above me, I may as well live as I want. Burn bright and fast.
When you’re born with the weight of the world like Atlas, like me, your only option is to do the next right thing. To create a stable foundation to grow on, your growth is not your own though. It’s the growth of your village, of your parents, of your siblings as you begin to sink into the ground up to your knees.
The forest has taken that burden from me though. The lost daughters before me have foretold the future. I will never be seen again. If the fae must take me then I shall go in my own way, with the proof of my own choices clear.
I have been given my freedom along with this death sentence and I want to do things I was never allowed to before. I begin to hunt, staring at the ground, squinting my eyes as the moonlight pours down. My exhaustion overcomes my adrenaline but it’s not time yet. It’s not time yet. If I fall asleep, I fear I may never wake up. If I fall asleep without enjoying my freedom, is my life really worth anything? I continue to hunt and to scavenge, probing the dirt as it cakes under my fingernails. When I finally find a sharp rock, I display it up to the moon.
I stare her down in defiance as I text the point of the rock like I’ve been taught. Those homemakers lessons might reach some use after all.
When the first clump of hair hits the ground I don’t look. My eyes are closed tight as I feel the lightness of my actions. I continue on, hacking and shearing my long brunette hair off. The hair that never stayed out of my face, the hair that weighed me down to the earth, the hair that my father gave me. Maybe one day I’ll mourn if I survive but grief is a luxury I cannot afford with the time I am given.
I have never been a fighter but when I look in the reflection of a stream slowly moving by, I don’t recognize the fierceness in my face. Is this how I would have always looked if I’d grown up in the forest? If the moon read my bed times stories and instead of the sky crushing me, it dips me and dances with me till the sun comes and chases it away.
When I’m finally satisfied with the choppy waves and uneven parts of my hair, my perfect masterpiece, I walk a little, escaping the remnants of my old life, escaping the remnants of daughterhood.
When exhaustion finally wins and my eyelids can no longer withstand the fight, I lay down, my back against a tree and the roots swirling underneath me. I wiggle my bare toes under the stars and close my eyes. My head lulls to the side and I don’t even remember drifting into the corridor of sleep until I’m there.
The roots began to move and encompass the legs of the child. As the fireflies lit up the scene, fluttering their wings, apologizing to the child who had only begun to live, the roots and the trees and the dirt grew around the small girl. Sunrises and sunsets past and the girl who belonged to the forest stayed the same encompassed in roots. Grass began to grow and with grass flowers as the seasons changed in each part of this forest. When the young girl finally opened her eyes many seasons later, a thought placed itself on the tip of her tongue. The last thing I remember was they said the mountain air was refreshing and they left me here.