The house appeared in the middle of the forest one mid-winter night. Sleepily sensing a strangeness, the spirit of the forest brushed the frost out of her eyelashes, stretched her cold-stiffened body, and realized she couldn’t feel any roots to the house.
All homes had roots, be they shallow or deep, for homes were where creatures and humans planted themselves. A house could last for a mere few days, like the shelters of migrating creatures, or for seasons, like the squirrel nests that warmed multiple generations, but they were all places where the inhabitants could find comfort and safety.
How could a house have no roots? That question was enough to draw Forest out of her winter slumber. The spirit stepped into one tree….
…and stepped out of another in the very spot she wished, before the house.
The house was clearly magical, crafted of food items Forest recognized from various human picnics: gingerbread for the walls with candy sticks and candy circles creating delicate swirling patterns. No practical human would ever create such a house. Hungry winter birds would peck holes in that gingerbread for a fatty treat, and before you knew it, you’d have a house more like a woodpecker’s rampage than a warm retreat. Forest placed her hand upon the side of the house and felt its magic. This was a house that was meant to jump from place to place, its inhabitant seeking lost souls to consume. This house, indeed, had no roots, and no one would ever find sanctuary within those sweet walls.
At once, Forest foresaw the future seasons, with humans walking into that house and never walking out. Other humans, angry and worried, searching for lost loved ones, would stomp through her trees, cutting through underbrush, swinging torches into shadowed corners. The spirit shuddered at what was to come.
Her forest would change. Instead of being a place of tall trees and brambly corners, of picnics and hidden meetings between lovers, it would become a place of fear and darkness. Not my forest, the spirit thought, and marched up to the door for a swift knock.
A graying woman whose plumpness was barely contained beneath a white apron opened the door. “Hello dearie, have you lost your way?” Her tone was sweet as sap. Then her gaze fell on Forest’s winter dress of woven brown pine needles covering skin that was the mottled hue of decaying leaves. “Oh,” the woman said in surprise, “You’re the spirit of the forest. I thought you’d be sleeping.”
“I was,” Forest replied dryly.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, dearie, I didn’t mean to disturb your winter nap. I was just looking for someplace to settle my old bones, and your forest was so welcoming.” She smiled, warm as a mother bear welcoming her cub back to the burrow.
Forest resisted the urge to roll her eyes up to the pale winter sky. “We both know you’re not here to put down roots. That house of yours is meant to lure human prey. That’ll not happen here. You’re not welcome in my forest. Please leave.”
The image of the sweet old woman hardened into a dark amber. “I think I’d prefer to stay, dearie. The dark woods never have quite as much prey. This forest is perfect for my needs.”
“You’ll not change my forest into a tool for evil. Leave. Now.”
“And what power are you going to use to drive me out? Winter is my time, when the bare branches become gnarly fingers that rip at the skin. When the worms eat the last of the dead leaves, and the past life that once hung on the trees decays into black dirt. When the few animals that venture out chew bark and their bellies echo with hunger calls. This is my time, the time of death, of curses, of darkness. You’re a forest in winter; you have no power.
“But,” the witch continued, “I’ll be gone in the spring, after I’ve had my fill. Why don’t you just return to your nap, little spirit.” She grinned like a rotting crack in a tree.
Forest sighed. “You’re right, witch, that it does seem like the forest is dead and diminished in the winter. But you forget why the forest endures.” Forest reached down, her fingers slipping through the dirt and emerging with an acorn. “Every small seed has within it the hope for new life.”
“A little bit of hope is nothing.”
Now Forest smiled. “Do you know how many seeds lie beneath your house?”
The witch looked at the barren ground, then back at Forest. Her mouth drew into a tight crack. “No, you’ll not trick me. You’ll not sacrifice any tree seeds.”
Forest kept her face as blank and smooth as fresh snow, but inwardly, she was melting into tears. If only the witch hadn’t called her bluff. Yes, she could draw power from the seeds, but those seeds would die, and her heart mourned the trees that would never be. For she knew she now had to act.
A deep breath, and she pulled the hope from the seeds. The spirit’s skin brightened, the mottled browns shifting to a pale green. The brown pine needle dress wrinkled, then shifted to green spring leaves. She seemed to grow several inches, back straight as an oak, and she spread her hands. Green grew where she pointed, branches and roots began whipping the air as leaves spouted. In a circle around the gingerbread house, spring had come in the heart of winter.
Forest’s hands were raised, and with the slightest motion, the branches and roots would spear the house and witch. “Do not think that the forest in winter is powerless. Hope is every bit as powerful as the change that results from it. If you wish to challenge me, witch, you will lose. You were ignorant of your peril when you came here, so I’ll give you one more chance. Leave my forest.”
The witch eyed the green around her, then quietly stepped back through the door. Forest watched as the gingerbread house faded slowly away, off to another location. Hopefully a dark forest, where creatures thirsted for souls and evil roamed. Hopefully somewhere far, far away.
Forest lowered her hands, and the green shriveled into brown and fell to the ground. Her dress rippled back into brown, and icy tears fell from her frost-covered eyes as she felt the dead acorns beneath her feet. There would be another season to replace those lost, the spirit told herself. And their loss was not in vain.
She felt the quiet of the woods returning to its tranquility, holding its breath until the seasons changed, and Forest stepped through the trees, back to her slumber. All was normal again in the forest in winter.
Carol Scheina writes and edits as a freelancer. In her spare moments, she dreams up strange stories while trying to keep the cat from jumping on the keyboard and messing everything up.
Cover: Amanda Bergloff @AMANDABERGLOFF