The evening was misty and darkness was about to descend.
One by one, the small group of foresters turned around and headed back. Coming out of the forest’s cover, they saw the sky again.
Maïa was standing at the edge of the village, facing the wall of trees, awaiting the return of her mother Rhea. Rhea was used to leaving earlier than most, going deep into the woods and coming home just before dusk, when the power of Men retreated, and the forest once again ruled under the moon.
That day, the mist had forced the foresters to return early. Maïa had watched each silhouette emerge from the greyish-green fog, their small axes bumping against their thighs. They had in their eyes the faraway look of those who had glanced at the great mystery.
Maïa’s mother often wore the same look and sometimes, when the girl awoke at night, the moon would be reflected in eyes that couldn’t find sleep. Maïa would reach out then and, with a light brush of her fingers, close Rhea’s eyelids.
That night, her mother didn’t return home. Sitting next to the path that left the houses to enter the forest, Maïa felt the night drawing in. The dark, as all children knew, was the realm of the trees. The only refuge from their spells was a deep sleep inside the shelter of home.
The sun was only minutes away from disappearing completely now. Maïa was expecting her mother any second now, expecting the mist to spit her out without a sound. A couple of foresters approached the girl, offering to welcome her into their home for the night. They spoke with a low voice, almost apologising. They had noticed Rhea’s absence, but it was forbidden to search for a forester in the woods at nightfall. One person missing was tragic enough not to risk losing more in the search.
Maïa shook her head wordlessly, so as not to betray the fear that was choking her. She kept her eyes fixed on the border of the forbidden world which had swallowed Rhea. The couple left. The moon resumed her journey and the night made the woods’ breathing even more eerie. Maïa hummed nursery rhymes under her breath, less to give herself courage and more to focus on the sound of her own voice and block out the other noises around her. Maybe, on the other side of the border, her mother would be able to hear her.
The next morning found her lying on the wet grass. Retracing her steps home, she passed all those who were forest-bound. The foresters kept their distance. Her house was exactly how she had left it – empty. The smell of moss and wet earth that Rhea always carried with her no longer lingered in the air.
Hours went by without Maïa knowing how. The sun began to sink slowly and the girl returned to her place at the edge of the village, where she once again stood facing the mist. It shrouded the copse so that the first trunks were barely visible.
The foresters’ choreography resumed, each one ripped from the woolly thickness. Shreds of fog clung to them before dissipating reluctantly. There was still no sign of Rhea. While the night progressed, the mist also advanced and Maïa backed away, running towards the house for the last couple of meters. She was more determined than ever to wait for her mother, so she sat on a hard chair to spend the night, and kept herself busy with darning and other small repairs.
Like the previous day, sleep took her anyway and she slumbered, back straight, arms dropping on either side of her chair. The shirt she had been mending fell from her hands while she dreamed of forests. A pale sun rising dragged her from a nightmare of whispering brambles and sprawling roots.
When Maïa stepped outside, rubbing her aching back, she found a bunch of silvery ferns tied together with a grey ribbon on the doorstep. Reaching for the similar tie that held the long braid of her hair, Maïa smiled slightly.
This short story was inspired by a writing workshop organised by my friend Lucie Rivet in 2017-2018.
Many thanks to Giverney for helping me translate my own text into English (an exercice that's proven more difficult than writing in English first).
The sentence that acts as an incipit is taken from a short story by Karen Blixen. As far as I know, it hasn't been translated into English, so the translation is mine.