• Dzama

The North Woods

Sharp edges inside the helmet cut into his temples and he could barely see out the eye slit. His face was slick with sweat. He stumbled down the path, swiveling his head back and forth just to see. What he saw were black tree trunks and dry leaves. Occasionally his metal boots slipped in the mud and he’d flail around to grab a tree for support.

Eventually he made it to the river, breathing hard. Beyond the trees a large slab of white rock extended into the dark water. He stepped cautiously onto the slab, pivoting his head around to make sure he was alone. With some effort he got himself down to a seated position on the rock, his metal armor clanking and grating. He aimed his eye-slit at the water and saw his reflection- he looked like a stack of rusty tin cans. There was a dark hole in his breastplate on the left side of his chest, still encrusted with dried blood.

He remained seated like that for a long time, his breathing gradually becoming more regular. Soon he could hear the river flowing. On the opposite shore a fawn bent down to drink. There were butterflies. He closed his eyes and saw crimsons and violets swirling like molten lava. He found himself feeling very tall. He felt like he was growing bigger, rising higher and higher, towering over the trees.

When he opened his eyes a tiny hummingbird hovered a foot away, right at eye-level. Its wings were invisible. Its green and red body gently bobbed up and down. You must go to the North Woods, the humming bird said in a high-pitched voice. The Woods of Death. Before the knight could reply the bird was gone. The sky had darkened and an evening breeze blew through his eye-slit, cooling the sweat on his face. Come back, Bird! he growled. I ain’t goin’ to no Death Woods!

He pushed himself up and almost lost his balance before pitching forward and trudging along the slab of rock down to the edge of the water. He gazed into the blackness and saw schools of little white minnows swirling around.


A dark shape floated down the current toward him. As it neared he saw it was a boy in a wide-brimmed hat, paddling a small boat. The boat grated against the rock right in front of the knight until it came to a stop. The boy’s face was pale and his eyes were dark voids. All aboard for the North Woods, the boy said, his teeth red with betel nut. The knight stood there, immobile. The boy poked him with an oar. Tink! Tink! Tink! Anybody home?

Before long the two of them were floating together, drawn downriver by the ebony current. Bird sent you? asked the knight. Yes, the boy said, paddling first on one side then the other.

What’s going to happen when we get there? he asked the boy. Nothing, said the boy. They floated in silence. The knight closed his eyes. He remembered a tune his mother used to play on the lyre. It was a beautiful melody with one wrong note. He’d never been sure if it was supposed to have a wrong note or if his mother was playing it incorrectly. Either way, thinking about it took him back to the pig farm and the smell of stew cooking in their small kitchen. He saw his sister leaning in the doorway, smiling her lopsided smile.

When he opened his eyes again it was pitch-black night. He could hear the paddling and the water going by but the boy was invisible in the darkness.

When they arrived at the North Woods the knight had fallen asleep sitting up. The boy struggled to drag the knight’s sleeping body off the boat. Finally the knight lay on the shore, snores muffled by his helmet.

The boy pushed off with an oar and floated away down the river. The knight went on dreaming about his sister. Wake up! she kept saying to him. But he stuck his fingers in his ears and squeezed his eyes shut tight. I’m never gonna wake up! he told her. Never!



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