Autumn sunshine veiled by grey clouds lit the lake at the heart of the forest. It was a secret place, spoken of in stories about knights and kings and magical swords, but those days were long gone. Some tales said the lake chose to be found. If it didn’t want you, then you could walk right by and see only endless trees.
Whether that was true scarcely mattered to the inhabitants of the lake. Fish and wild cats, birds, snakes, and insects lived and died by the lake without caring about magic or tales of adventure and knightly deeds. It was just as well for them that nobody ever disturbed the peace and balance of their home. There were no children to squeal and go jumping into the waters, no fishers in wooden boats, no travelers passing through.
But there was Vivienne.
It was morning, and the morning creatures were stretching their wings, shaking out their fur, and preparing for the day. The slinking, slithering night creatures were hidden, safe in their dark holes and rotting trees in the cold earth.
Vivienne lay curled up on the mossy bank, drowsing beneath the shade of a hazel tree. Her once white dress was barely distinguishable from the gray rock beneath her, tattered and dirty in the way dresses become if they’ve been dragged through forests and lake water for several centuries.
Nearby a bird burst into song, startling her awake. She rubbed at one pale green eye with the back of her thin hand. In the summer she loved mornings, rising with the birds and watching the lake come alive as sunrise warmed the water and trees. Now the sun was unwelcome and the sound of birds too loud. She slid off the wide, moss covered stone and gathered her ripped skirt into her hands to avoid tripping on the fabric. Sleep found her curled up in the crescent of another tree’s roots, an ancient oak that was older even than her.
Sometimes when she dreamt it was of days long in the past, when knights came to ask her blessing and she used her magic to bestow a gift in the shape of a sword or bow or enchanted ax. Now she dreamt only murky nonsense, too foggy and vague to hold meaningful shape.
The sun was gone when she woke and uncurled herself from the embrace of the old tree’s roots.
It started several decades ago, around the same time people stopped coming to the lake. Without interaction with those of her own kind or the humans who resembled them she had begun to wither during the cold days, becoming as spindly and brittle as the naked dark trees when their leaves fell and icicles dripped from their branches.
In the old days autumn and winter meant holly, glistening snow, and ghost stories shared around crackling fires. Winter was purifying and sacred, bringing with it the clarity of mind only present when the rest of the world slept. The forest stilled and the lake froze, and Vivienne guarded the silence, learning secrets from the stars. Travelers who visited during this time came not with adventure in their hearts, but reverence.
Now as the forest descended into darkness, her heart ached and fatigue dragged her into fitful sleep. She no longer found joy in the lengthened nights and frozen lake. The moon was her enemy and near constant companion, and the sun a traitor whose light failed to ease her sadness.
When spring arrived the sun would shine honey golden again, making the lake sparkle like glittering silk. She too would begin to thaw, color returning to her cheeks and flesh to her bones. She lived for those days, thrived in the sunlight, spending lazy afternoons floating on her back in the lake and racing deer in the forest, teaching the little fawns and rabbits to run quick and sure through the trees. But as soon as midsummer passed the shadow of winter loomed, filling her with a growing dread that darkened even those brighter, happier months.
“Someday the winter will swallow you up,” a beaver cautioned one evening as she helped him carry stones and mud to the river nearby. “The night will come and you’ll be too weak to fight it. You ought to make a dam like me. Stay warm and fed during the cold days.”
It was a good suggestion for a beaver. But cold and hunger weren’t the problem.
“You ought at least to stay awake for the sun,” an eavesdropping cat purred. “You humans were made for daylight.”
“I’m not a human,” Vivienne pointed out, placing rocks on the dam with care. “And there’s barely any sunlight to matter.”
The cat shrugged, hopping from mossy stone to fallen log with ease and peering down at the fish below the surface of the water.
It was well and good for the animals. They had each other and nature’s rules spun into their blood. Their bodies were made for the seasons. The bears grew fat and tired, the beavers swift and determined in their building. Maybe it wasn’t easy but it was inherent, unerring, a constant cycle for them. They needed only to stick to the path and the natural order would take care of them.
Vivienne remembered when people decorated pine trees with garlands, and filled the nights with songs and stories. Like the other creatures, she too changed with the seasons. But as every year passed with pervasive loneliness and long dark silences broken only by groaning wind, she no longer knew her purpose during the light starved months.
With each passing night as the animals and trees prepared for sleep and the daylight became less and less, loneliness crept in and covered her like a shroud. She wandered aimless, cool earth and crisp dried leaves giving way to ice that cracked beneath her bare feet. She told herself stories and sang bits of the songs she could recall, but most of them had faded from her memory long ago.
By midwinter she had begun to wonder whether this season might be her last. She’d been alive for so many years, seen so many ages pass. Didn’t she deserve a long rest?
One evening she sat by the frozen lake watching snow fall and tried to remember the old days of carols, campfires, and trees decked with ribbons and candles.
That joy was only a pale memory now, unreachable as the stars and their dull, unforgiving light.
With a sigh that disappeared into the wind she retreated into the forest to find a place to rest. She was always tired now, no matter whether it was day or night.
“Perhaps I won’t wake up,” she said aloud, testing the words. The forest had no answer for her.
She trudged between the trees, quiet without the rustle of leaves. Eddies of wind pulled at her dress and fallen branches caught the lace. She tugged gently to try and get free, but some of the fabric tore, holding fast to the branch. For some reason she couldn’t explain this made her overwhelmingly sad; tears pooled in her eyes, blurring her vision. Wiping at her cheeks she stumbled away and left behind the ruined lace, fluttering in the wind.
She knew the forest, every thorn and crooked path. But tonight she was becoming more and more lost. She couldn’t remember if she knew that stream or that stone, couldn’t recall the distance or find her direction. If she had more strength she could climb one of the trees, but she was too weak.
The further she walked, the more confused and foggy headed she became. Her body was heavy and horribly tired. At last she gave up and collapsed at the base of a young, barren maple tree. Sleep came almost instantly.
When she woke she was not alone. At first she thought it was daylight for there was a blinding, golden glow that filled her vision. But as her eyes adjusted she blinked into focus the source of the light. A great beast, a wild boar, stood so near she could smell his musty breath. It was an earthy scent that reminded her of summer. The golden light shone like a miniature sun that existed only here, only for her to experience.
The boar was not beautiful. He had only one eye, and his long snout was crossed by a jagged scar that twisted upward to his forehead like an ugly gray vine. The wound was very old, token of some battle fought long ago. His tufted fur was white, not the white of snow but of a poplar tree, streaked with gray and brown. But more curious than this were his hooves and tusks. They were scuffed and worn like the rest of him, but their coloring was golden like the jeweled crowns humans wore in the age of kings.
“Who are you?” she asked, barely a whisper.
His voice was in the air and all around her, like the sunny glow surrounding them.
“I am the forest, and you are the lake.”
A thousand questions clamored for purchase. Why had she never seen him before? Where did he come from? Who was he? What was he? He called himself the forest. Did that mean he was like her? He certainly didn’t look like any boar she’d ever seen. But there hadn’t been a creature of her kind in this place for centuries. For all she knew, she was the last.
“You are giving into despair,” he continued.
“I don’t know what you—“
“Do not lie.” His growl silenced her with its ferocity. This was no tame beast. “You have given up and want to die.”
“I don’t see how that’s your concern,” she said, wrapping frail arms around her body and slumping against the tree. The boar snorted, the warmth of his breath hitting her in the face.
“If you die, the lake dies. And the lake is part of my forest. That makes you my concern.”
The boar turned his head so that his one eye pointed outward to focus on her. The iris was the blue of the sky at midsummer, with delicate filaments of gold. Piercing as the sun, it was as if he could see right through her.
Anger rose unbidden in her chest and with sudden energy she leapt up, pointing an accusing finger at him. The boar seemed unbothered by her sudden outburst, continuing to watch her with the same quiet intensity.
“All this time you’ve been here, watching me suffer and grow ill and you did nothing.”
The boar turned away so that it was his ruined eye instead that faced her.
“It is not my place to make change. I guard life and death in the forest. I witness the growth of things and their return to earth. I do not interfere.”
Vivienne let her hand fall to her side, the rage gone out of her and weariness returning heavily to her limbs.
“So why now?” She asked.
“It’s not your time,” the boar said, again observing her with that sharp blue eye. “The night is long, and you have grown weak. You need to remember who you are.”
She wanted to be angry, or to resist his words, to deny them, to question how he could possibly know anything about her. But the truth was undeniable, a certainty that she herself had been harboring for days now.
“The night is so cold and so dark.”
The boar shook his great head.
“You are the one who shut out the light. You crave love and joy and life, but have closed yourself away from it. In your despair, you have forgotten how to let people in.”
A sharp wind moaned across the treetops above them.
“I didn’t mean to…” she whispered in a small voice stolen by a wind that howled with an intensity which set her ears ringing. She closed her eyes against it and clung to the tree until it passed.
When again she opened her eyes she found the world changed.
The sky was no longer dark but blue, a deep sapphire and indigo with streaks of billowing white and opalescent clouds. A gentler wind pressed against her, and she could smell warm rain on the air. Birds called from tree branches laden with new leaves, green and thick with blooming flowers. Nearby a stream bubbled up from the earth, unfrozen and flowing over smooth stones.
These were the fittings of spring, the richness of growing things, the forest releasing its breath after the long dark days of cold winter.
She couldn’t understand how, on the longest night of the year, spring had come.
“I’m dreaming,” she said, because surely there could be no other explanation.
“Maybe.” The boar’s glow had grown more faint, as if the light had bled into the rest of the world, turning night to day and winter to spring.
“It’s not real.”
He laughed with a guttural “ha!” that was half chuckle and half snort. “Are dreams any less real than anything else?”
She wasn’t sure how to answer so she kept her silence, listening instead to the sounds of the forest. Nearby the staccato tapping of a woodpecker echoed and there was the low, mournful call of a dove, the earthy growl of a forest cat. Intricate melodies and harmonies of bird and beast and trickling water and wind passing through treetops.
“Do you hear that?” the boar prompted after a while, breaking her dazed reverie.
“Hear what?” she asked, her voice far away. She felt drunk on the warmth, the intoxicating colors, the sheer beauty of it all. The rich smell of the earth after rain, of mushrooms growing in damp soil. Growth and decay, all balanced and unified, working together to create life.
“Listen,” the boar commanded.
She did. She listened, to the forest sounds, the birds and chattering squirrels, a cat stalking prey, a bear and her cubs splashing in a river, bees, dragon flies, a thousand trees waving their branches in the stirring wind.
Vivienne raised a hand to her mouth, forming a silent “oh”. Past the familiar minuet of forest sounds there was something else that she had not heard in many, many years. Song and laughter, the faint but unmistakable din of human voices.
It was too much. Vivienne pushed her palms against the trunk of the maple tree and closed her eyes, breathing slowly, trying to shut out this impossible world. It was not spring. It couldn’t be. She was dreaming or dying, or this was a cruel trick of the strange golden boar. Humans had not come to this place in years. They stopped long ago, leaving her to the company of only the simple beasts she watched over.
“It’s not real,” she said to herself and to the boar, clenching her teeth hard. “Tonight is the longest night of the year and I’ve fallen asleep. I must be dying. Nobody comes here anymore. Nobody visits me. I am alone and forgotten.”
A presence drawing closer, a golden tusk brushing her shoulder, hot breath against her hair which she realized absently was no longer brittle and crackling with icicles. The boar’s voice was gentle and kind now.
“You are nearing the end, it’s true. But if you give up, this is what you lose. All the promise and potential of the future. New stories, new friends. The lake will turn wild and unguarded without you, a lonely forsaken place.”
The ache inside her heart finally broke. She slid down to the soft ground and wrapped frail arms around her legs, burying her face in torn lace.
“But I don’t remember how. Winter is so long and empty. I’m lonely, but it’s easier to stay lonely than to hope for change that will never come.”
The boar scratched at the earth with a golden hoof, soft soil sprouting with moss and grass and undergrowth, not the dry dead earth of winter. The scent was so rich, so real. Vivienne dug her hands into the soil, feeling it give way beneath her palms. The pain in her chest eased.
“It is when you are at your most tired that you have to make the choice. Give in or survive? Freeze and crumble, or take back what’s yours? Move forward on the path, or stumble and fall? You are strong. It’s your choice to make. Spring will come again, and with it sunlight and warmth. You decide whether you will be there to see it, and to share it with others.”
When she woke next it was morning, a pale mist casting sunlight through the wintry forest like an apparition. The boar was gone.
For a while she lay still on the frozen earth, remembering the night before. The way the forest had changed so completely to appear like spring, the old days when she had purpose and joy in her life, and humans came to ask her blessing and share stories from the world beyond. Sitting up, Vivienne breathed in the cold air and wondered whether it was all just an elaborate dream. But then she noticed something strange. Raising her hands eye level, she saw they were stained with dirt. She cupped her palms and inhaled the scent of moss and rain.
Filled with wonder she leapt up from her place at the base of the maple tree and spun around and around to take in the forest in all its frozen glory. The longest night was over and she was still alive. She laughed aloud, stretching out her arms wide and greeting winter like an old friend. A new kind of energy kindled in her.
The growing light of morning set the forest to sparkling like diamonds. Vivienne braided holly into her air and brushed snow from her dress, seeing the forest with new sight. Somewhere in the distance, she could hear carolers.
Through the following winter days travelers returned to the forest. At first Vivienne was nervous, embarrassed by her own appearance, how gaunt and wraithlike she had become. It had been so long since she spoke with human folk, but slowly she found her voice. Her visitors treated her with kindness, inviting her to join them by their fires as they shared news of the world in exchange for her stories about the old times. Children and adults alike listened enraptured to her tales of brave knights and heroes, of ladies dressed in rich fabrics, their hair gathered in beaded nets and decorated with colorful flowers. She told them of the other people as well, humble villagers who wanted nothing more than to protect their families, farmers who faced down giants and terrifying monsters.
Winter no longer meant terrible, unending loneliness. Vivienne grew stronger, her life filled with renewed purpose.
One evening near spring she lay on her favorite rock below the hazel tree. The sky was lit by a waxing moon, and clouds shifted slowly across, the stars twinkling as they passed. She no longer hated the moon’s glow, or dreaded the setting of the sun. Over the past few months she’d remembered all the beautiful things she used to love about the dark half of the year. The soft light of nighttime, luminous against the lake, casting blue shadows over snow and ice. Friendly visits with travelers during their holiday pilgrimages to the forest.
She watched her breath rise on the air. It was cold still, but soon the days would stretch longer and warmth would return. As she watched the sun set and the moon take its place in the center of the night sky, she was startled by a familiar voice.
“You look well.”
Vivienne turned away from the lake to see the boar standing just at the edge of the trees. He made no movement toward the shore so she slipped off her rock and hopped over sand and pebbles polished smooth by the water. When she reached the tree line she threw her arms around the great beast’s neck, embracing him with her renewed strength. As before he smelled strongly of summer, as if he carried the season with him.
“You came back.” Vivienne released the boar from the embrace and stepped away, careful to avoid his golden tusks.
He bowed his huge head, the twisted scar shining in the mixed light of the moon and his own glow.
“I wanted to thank you for saving me,” Vivienne told him. “But when you came to me that night you made it clear you don’t usually make yourself known. I assumed I’d never see you again.”
She couldn’t be sure, but his expression almost seemed one of embarrassment. It was hard to imagine such a great beast could be anything but fierce and confident.
“I frighten the creatures of the forest,” he explained.
Vivienne laughed aloud.
“I don’t see how that’s funny,” the boar said gruffly.
“Of course not, I’m sorry. It’s just that I’ve spent months telling every person who visits about the golden boar who protects this forest. And every traveler I’ve told said they wanted to meet you.”
The boar’s one eye blinked in surprise.
“See? Perhaps you’re wrong after all.”
He shook his great head and snorted, sitting heavily on the ground. Vivienne stifled another laugh at the great beast’s tantrum, not wanting to upset him further. When they had met during the depth of winter he had seemed so serious and so ancient, but now that she was getting better she could see that he was just a living creature like any other. One who could grow lonely, like she had.
She sat beside him and lay a hand over the bristly fur of his back. He heaved a sigh, his breath coming out in a fog.
“If you don’t try, you’ll never know. You taught me that.”
She stretched her legs out in front of her, arranging the emerald green fabric of her new dress, a gift from a friendly traveler. Despite her height, she was tiny compared to the boar.
“Perhaps you’re right,” he agreed after a while.
“You should join me one night, when visitors come to the forest. With my company, nobody will fear you!” She raised her arm triumphantly and grinned, pretending to hold aloft a sword in the air.
The boar let forth a rumbling laugh that shook the ground.
“Yes, I’d like that I think.”
Above them the trees swayed in the wind, a promise of spring budding on their ancient branches. The two unlikely friends watched the moon make her way across the night sky and the sun rise crimson and orange over the horizon.