A large expanse of trees guarded the entrance to the forest. There was a small path, almost hidden from the snow that snaked through the wall of pine. Before entering, I glanced one last time back toward the city. The skyline was just barely visible. It appeared as a dark blur against a grey overcast horizon in the distance. Wrapping my scarf tighter about my body, I continued my path away from the great hive of the city and towards the wooded wild.
The snowfall was gentle and my footsteps were light atop the sparkling surface. I made a serpentine weave of hip, thigh, and toe as I glided, step by step, along the path. The columns of trees were hulking green sentinels directing me to go further, to continue forward into the woods.
Minutes past as I trekked deeper and deeper. The visibility became worse and I had to continuously wipe snow from my glasses in order to see. A deep howl of wind broke the brittle silence and a large snap followed as a heavy branch fell in the distance. Startled, I picked up the pace. My body heat didn’t so much leach out slowly but seemed to abandon me immediately and caused my nose to turn numb and my toes to shake within my boots. My winter coat seemed like a joke as wind blustered through the fibers with absurd ease. Just as I was thinking about heading back, the trees thinned as I reached the head of a clearing.
A small creek, now frozen over, became visible, and I headed towards it. The winds had formed snow into great monolithic dunes of ice and frost upon the waters edge. My feet sunk deep in the snowfall as I moved closer and my coat grew heavy as it gathered snow upon its hem. Upon reaching the mouth of the frozen creek, I breathed a sigh of relief. I could see it off in the distance. A few more minutes yet.
With a quickening of step, I hurried towards the cabin. Dead plants and shrubs, ghosts of what once must have been a lively garden surrounded the small wooden structure. There were many bird feeders strung about, a feeble attempt to bring life to this winter wasteland. Upon seeing thick smoke rising from a chimney, my toes began to ache in anticipation of being warmed by the fire. In the middle of the door was a heavy knocker made in the shape of a lion. I knocked it three times. The resounding sound of lead knocking against wood caused the surrounding birds to take flight in alarm.
A gnarled hand punctuated by thick arthritic knuckles appeared as the door creaked slowly open. She was slightly hunched over as if to maintain her balance and moved slowly as she gave me space to enter, as if each movement required monumental effort.
“Come in” she announced. “I have been expecting you.”
It appeared she was prepared for my arrival for the cabin was a bastion of warmth and comfort against the cold. A fire was roaring in the hearth and a steaming teakettle sat atop the stove in an adjacent kitchen.
“Thank you for having me over this afternoon.” I replied as I took off my heavy boots and winter coat. My hair slowly began to defrost and streams of melted snow began to pool atop my shoulders.
The old woman gave me a large smile and as she did so her face widened, cheeks forming into deep valleys of wrinkles. Her eyes, also smiling, were twinkling blue orbs bracketed by laugh lines atop a face punctuated with constellations of liver spots. “Please warm up” she offered kindly, pouring me a cup of tea and directing me to a comfy armchair by the fire. “It must have been a cold journey from the city. I know my home is not easy to get to.”
As she slowly moved about the cabin, the waddle of her neck jiggled and the puff of grey dandelion that was her hair swayed humorously back and forth. I cracked a slight smile in amusement.
“Yes, it is a bit of a ways away.” I chuckled. “But your place is wonderfully cozy, I can see why you live out here.” I took a sip of my tea. The taste was bitter in my mouth, but the warmth seemed to seep deep into my bones, making me question whether she might have added a bit of whisky to the brew.
The old woman took a seat in a rocking chair beside me and placed a blanket atop her lap.
“So, tell me why you are here today.” She spoke slowly and clearly as she rocked in her chair.
“I’ve been studying the old ways for a while now.” I paused to take another sip of the warming tea. “The high priestess of my coven mentioned you might be able to teach me something about the vale”
“Hmmmm.” she murmured softly and stared into the fire a moment as she rocked back and forth in her chair.
The crone turned to face me, “One cannot be taught about the vale.”
“Why can one not be taught? I’m sorry, I’m not sure I fully understand.”
“Most don’t I’m afraid.” She had a forlorn expression on her face as she spoke and her cheeks sagged towards her thin lips.
She stared towards the fire for a few more seconds then seemed to jerk out of her morose meditation and turned to give me a mischievous smile.
“Luckily us witches need not worry for we can experience such things in person.” She glanced towards my left wrist and gave a slight nod.
I followed her gaze and saw a thick black line creeping out from the tip of my sleeve. My heartbeat jumped to my head as sudden confusion and alarm pounded through my veins.
Grabbing my sleeve and pushing it up my arm revealed strange groupings of thick lines snaking up to my elbow. The shapes seemed to morph and change as the lines lengthened and retreated beneath my skin.
“What is this? What’s going on?” I gasped, jumping from my chair.
It was like she didn't hear me or was refusing to answer as she just continued to stare into the flames of the fire.
Noticing the cup of tea to my left, I remembered the strange warmth I felt upon first drinking it and the fear of realization hit me.
“You poisoned me, didn’t you.” Glancing back at my arm, the lines were still morphing and were now beginning to grow, moving down past my wrist and blackening the tips of my fingers. Drops of sweat began to crawl like bugs across my forehead.
“I’m hallucinating, I must be. The forms of black shapes snaking beneath my skin mesmerized me.
“What’s going on!” My shout ricocheted throughout the small room, filling each corner with my fearful urgency. Yet, the crone still sat motionless staring into the fire.
“Tell me what’s happening to me,” I pleaded, bending down till we were eye to eye. She finally turned from the fire to face me.
“Don’t worry, that symbol will protect you.” The Crone said this nonchalantly as if strange markings appearing on your body were an everyday occurrence.
“Protect me from what?”
“Time” She said this slowly and gently as if caressing a note through her mouth. And as she spoke the floor seemed to shake, books fell from their shelves and utensils rattled in their kitchen drawers. Once again she turned from me and towards the hearth. But the fire was no longer there. In the hearth, there was now a large mirror contained within a golden brocade frame. The edges were tinged with soot and bright embers of coal simmered at it’s base.
Staring into the mirror I could see the crones reflection. Yet I could not see my own despite standing right in front of it.
The reflection of the crone stared back not at herself as it should have done, but instead stared directly at me. I was terrified but for some reason I could not look away. The crone’s reflection stared at me for a moment, then the reflection began to change: the lines in her face lessoned and smoothed. Her hair grew out from the root and changed from mothball grey to a deep black. Her frame lengthened and slimmed so that there was no longer an old crone before me but a beautiful maiden.
The maiden looked like a heavenly statue brought to life: long flowing hair, porcelain skin, and eyes of clear blue like slivers of ice. Yet, her beauty was made uncanny in its lack of imperfections.
“Do not be afraid.” The reflection said to me. “The change is temporary.”
A prickly feeling raised the hair on my neck and glancing to the right I saw that I was now alone. The crone no longer sat next to me in her chair. All that remained was the reflection in the mirror of her younger self.
The realization that I was now alone in the room caused my body to jolt with fear. There was a momentary stillness as my stomach dropped, and then a sickening feeling of bile rose in my throat followed by an incessant pounding in my head. I tried to turn away and go towards the door, but something in my body seemed to mutiny against departure. All my body seemed to be able to do was to stare ahead at her. The uncanny maiden in the mirror mesmerized me.
“Where did you, or the old version of you, go?” I asked her. I was shaking and the quake of my lips slowed my speaking so that it was in rhythm with the pounding of my heart.
“You did want to learn of the Vale, did you not?” She asked in a hypnotizing soothing voice. Her hair framed her face and swayed as if there was a quiet tempest beginning to form behind the mirror.
“Yes, but not this way. I thought I was maybe going to be lent a few books or something, not start hallucinating.”
“You are not hallucinating, you are experiencing knowledge first hand and it’s too late to turn back now I’m afraid.” The lullaby cadence of her voice contrasted with the dark implications of her words.
‘What do you mean it’s too late to turn back’ I thought. Before I could speak my fears I began to see a second shadowy figure in the mirror next to the maiden. It was hazy at first but seemed to become clearer as the seconds past.
I was afraid of what I would see if I continued to look at the figures in the mirror so I looked away and that’s when I noticed my hands.
The lines in my knuckles were deepening by the second and my skin was becoming thinner and paler. Taking a lock of hair in hand, I watched it turn from gold to a white sliver in mere moments. My clothes became heavier as I felt my frame shorten and thin.
“What’s happening?” I cried, “Make it stop. Make it stop”
I put my hands over my eyes to catch the tears. I didn’t want to see my face in the mirror, I was afraid of what I would see, ashamed of the hideous appearance that was sure to greet me.
“To understand the Vale you must be close to it both physically and in time. Like I said before, the change is only temporary and fear not, for the sigil upon your body will protect you during our journey.”
“What do you mean, our journey?”
“Open your eyes and see.” She commanded.
Wanting to confirm that the black protective marks were still there I removed my wrinkled hands from my eyes. Yes, the marks were still there, but it appeared everything else had changed. I was no longer in the cabin but in an expanse of silver mist. Turning around I realized with a shock that I knew where I was. Behind me I could see the room of the cabin, but it appeared within the brocade frame, just out of reach. I knew that I was now on the other side of the mirror with the maiden. That second shadowy figure that was appearing in the mirror had been me and as it became clearer within the mirror I must have blurred within in the real world till I had somehow transitioned fully to the other side.
Engulfed with confusion and fear I ran towards the bright cabin room within the brocade frame but the maiden grasped my arm and pulled me away from the light. I tried to break away but realized with humiliating defeat that I was now weak, and she was now strong.
The brief struggle made me breathe heavy and I inhaled the smoky haze of the new atmosphere. The air felt somehow charged, like how it feels right before a storm. The misty air didn’t make me cough, but the electric nature of it caused my lungs to prickle slightly with each gulping breath.
My muscles relaxed as my resolve faltered. I surrendered to the fact that I was utterly defenseless in this foreign space.
“Ok” I said to the maiden. My shoulders slumped defeated and she let go of my arm. Five red marks where her fingers had been shone bright against the paleness of my skin.
“Lead me then” I said, hopeful that her words were true and this was indeed all temporary.
I followed her further away from the light of the mirror, deeper into the mist. I could make out rows of trees but all else was obscured by the silvery wisps. The mist was thick and I could barely see as if layers of gauze obscured my vision.
“Where are we?” I blinked my eyes hoping it would improve my sight yet all I could make out was the green of the pines that surrounded us.
“These trees are familiar, are they not? And this path beneath our feet?” She asked.
“We are in the forests beyond your cabin.” I remarked with realization. “But it looks different in this heavy mist. And the temperature’s different. There’s no snow and the air is warm.
Are we beyond the Vale?” I started to connect the dots. “Does this mean… are we dead?”
“We are not dead, and we are not beyond the Vale, we are within it.”
“We are within it...What does that mean?” While I still felt fear, it now simmered down in the base of my stomach as a new sensation started to swim through my brain. Curiosity began to sharpen my eyes and flow waves of energy through my body. As I walked with the maiden it seemed as if I glided over the surface of the ground and I started to relish in the sublimity of the experience. My legs felt like liquid yet my body felt light as air.
“We are in the in-between. A place that exists without time.” The maiden gestured with her arm upwards and the mists moved and swirled around her slim frame. “From here, you can see and experience both realms. Though I don’t recommend we stay long for there are those that get lost in the mists and end up on the wrong side.”
As she said this I heard a rustling noise from my left and jumped with the sound.
“What is that? Are there others here?” I took a step closer to her hoping that she had brought some kind of weapon. Looking at her tight fitted dress, I thought probably not. Yet she didn’t seem afraid.
“Yes, there are many that linger here.” She reached towards her left sleeve and pulled it up to reveal a black sigil identical to mine.
“I drank the tea before transforming just as you did.” She smiled warmly.
“What did you put in it?” I asked
“Oh, just a combination of bay laurel, angelica, and perhaps a couple of other secret ingredients.” she said with a wink.
“And this will protect us? Protect us from what, from who?” I asked looking at the black lines that dancing beneath my skin.
“Ah, those are questions for another day I’m afraid. Besides, we are not here for them, we are here for something else.” She continued. “Tell me, why did you fear the aging of your body? Why were you afraid to look upon your own face.”
I wanted to ask more about the mysterious sounds in the distance but I didn’t want to press the one person who would be able to, hopefully, take me back.
I considered her question for a moment.
“I guess it’s because I’m not ready to be old. I have too much to do.” I replied.
“Is that truly your answer? She asked.
“Yes” I said stubbornly. “I don’t want to give up my youth and beauty. I need strength and youth to accomplish my goals. I can’t be just be some little old lady struggling to carry her groceries home. When you’re old, you’re weak and need to rely on others. Age strips away your independence and your dignity”
“Do not be sorry for those that have lost the strength of their body, be sorry for those that have not yet built up the strength of their mind.” She scolded.
“I’m sorry, you’re right. I didn’t mean to offend.” I replied.
“I’ve caused you to experience age to show you that it is not a punishing sentence. It is not something to be feared or disgusted by. Age is power.”
“What power? Do you mean the power of wisdom?” I asked.
“Ah, that is a common misconception. Just because one is old, it does not mean they are wise. What I speak of is the power of perspective. Only those years away from moving beyond the vale can look upon their life with perspective. Those that have achieved this perspective have a greater sense and understanding of time.”
“How so?” I asked
“Just as I aged you and provided myself with youth, time within one’s life can be manipulated with perspective. One can mold years of time into chunks of unimportance to be forgotten as if that time never occurred. And indeed, as they are forgotten they cease to exist. Just because this process occurs in your mind does not make it any less real. On the other side, you can take a positive memory and form it into a foundation of your being, making that moment exist not in the past, but as a living entity that vibrates through your body in a continuous state of timelessness. You are the master of your own time and can form it to your will. As one ages they slowly begin to realize this perspective, understand the moldable nature of time and how they can consciously manipulate this force. This is why, when anthropomorphized, time appears as an elderly ‘father time’ or the female equivalent, a wrinkled crone.”
The maiden turned from the main path and headed along a smaller side trail.
“Where are we going?” I followed several paces behind her as I contemplated her words.
“You’ll see soon enough.”
After a few moments the mists began to thin and a large pond came into view. The color of the water was unlike anything I had seen before. It was a clear light blue, almost white and it produced a slight glow that rippled beneath the surface. Bright sparks of golden light glimmered atop its surface like stars.
“This pond is just a shadow of the understanding one receives beyond the vale. Reach in and touch the waters.” She said softly.
I bent down and plunged my hand beneath the glassy surface of the water. The water was cool to the touch and felt light, as if it was a combination of smoke and liquid. Beneath the water I could see that my hand was once again youthful with taut skin and the nail polish I had applied just that morning. Yet, when I took my hand out of the water, the skin and bones became old once again.
I glanced up towards the far side of the pond where a great stag had approached the stream to drink. As he drank the waters, his horns slowly retreated into his head and he began to shrink, finally forming bright white spots atop his thick coat. Noticing my glare, the stag, now a small faun, stopped drinking and leaped back into the forest.
“This pond.. this pond is full of Time isn’t it.” I asked.
“Yes, these waters are but a glimmer, a reflection of time.” The Maiden said.
“It’s beautiful” I exclaimed. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.”
The maiden smiled “Would you like to take a drink?”
“Will it make me young again?” I asked
“Does that mean I must leave? I want to stay and learn more of this place. How far does the Vale extend? What happens when we cross it and what happens after? What other knowledge, and people, and creatures are here among these trees?” My current appearance was forgotten as my curiosity took hold. So many questions, so many thoughts floated through my mind.
“Those are questions for a crone to ponder, not a maiden I’m afraid. Answers such as these must be earned. For you, your time here is running out. For you are still a maiden in heart. The crone you see in the waters reflection is but a cloak of age, a vision of your future.”
The maiden reached towards the ground and took in hand a silver goblet that had been lying by the water's edge.
“Drink the water and return.” She said. “I ask but one thing. I ask that as you age you will remember the wonder and curiosity you feel now. And in that way you will find comfort in age and greet time as an old friend.
“I will remember. I promise.” A took the silver cup in hand and dipped it into the water. Touching it to my lips I closed my eyes and I felt the cool rush of liquid flow down my throat. A strange happiness invaded me. It started in the base of my stomach and flowed down my thighs till even my toes seemed to be experiencing joy. All the fear I had felt before was forgotten and I felt a warm comfort.
Upon opening my eyes, I was no longer next to the silvery pond with the maiden by my side. I was back in the cabin in the armchair. In the hearth, there was no longer a mirror, and checking my arm I found no black sigil. My youth was fully restored.
I turned to my right, hearing a noise coming from the kitchen. The woman, now returned to her crone form, was putting cookies on a plate as if nothing had happened.
“How long were we gone?” I asked
Still recovering from the sublime rollercoaster of emotion I was a bit unsteady on my feet as I walked towards the kitchen.
“Oh, just a few minutes. Just long enough for the cookies to be done upon our return.” She smiled and gave me a wink.
“Be sure to take one on your way back, it’s a long journey back to the city.”
“Thank you.” I said taking a warm chocolate cookie from her plate.
The sense of beauty, fear, and wonderment still swam through my brain but just I tried to hold on to that feeling of exhilaration, it began to slip away like the remembrance of a dream.
“Will I see you again?” My face flushed with hope as I buttoned my winter coat.
“Maybe” The crone smiled and gave me a wink “If the time is right.”