Mr. Chester was a dedicated worrier. This was due, in part, to his rather fiery religious past, but his own disposition was equally to blame. The man's appetite for worry was simply more vigorous than most. It was not uncommon for him to wake up in a cloud of fearful certainty that the four horsemen of the apocalypse were at hand, or that Britain’s enemies were nearly upon her, or that calamity had struck the royal family. Normally this puritanical worry provided him a backwards sort of comfort. This morning, however, was different.
It was Wednesday, and the weekly paper, the Bury & Norfolk Post, was sitting on the breakfast table with tea stains near its middle. The headline that startled Mr. Chester into spraying tea from his mouth, through his mustache, onto his freshly pressed pants, and of course, directly onto the paper, read as follows: “Man Escapes Insane Asylum, Three Guards Unconscious.” This was distressing news in itself, but the problem was that the asylum in question was in Gedding, a village only a few kilometers east of the Chester’s estate. In between Gedding and the Chester’s was nothing more than a strip of forest called Bradfield Wood, and Mr. Chester was sure that a few measly trees would not stop a madman.
Mr. Chester’s worry would have been somewhat containable, had his daughter Ophelia spent her morning at home. The girl, however, had packed a lunch of bread and cheese and biscuits, and set off with her parents’ permission to spend the day exploring in the wood. Oh, how Mr. Chester rued his generosity of the night before; how he rued his fanciful acceptance of Ophelia’s plea to play among the quiet trees. It was summer, the leaves were thick and green, and the forest floor was swathed in ferns and flowers. No child could resist the call of the forest, not on a day like today. But as far as Mr. Chester was concerned, Bradfield Wood was the absolute last place his little girl should be.
Ophelia, however, was blissfully unconcerned. Things were fine; at least, at first. There was nothing she liked more than marching up to her favorite giant oak tree, right on the edge of the forest, and introducing herself. And so she did: "Hello Mr. Oak Tree! I'm Ophelia, and it's such a lovely day, don't you think?"
After curtseying to her arboreal friend, she giggled and skipped into the forest, swinging her lunch basket and taking a familiar trail. If she had known how to whistle, she would have done so, such was her joy. A light wind played with her hair, and she relished its gentle touch. As she leapt in and out of shadows, she squinted and unsquinted her eyes, taking the sun and the shade each in turn. So contented was she with these simple revelries that she failed to notice that her familiar path was growing more unfamiliar by the minute.
The first sign that things were, perhaps, not fine, came when she stumbled over a tree root. Now Ophelia was normally a very careful girl, and she made it a point not to trip and skin her elbows like other children. But she had heard something that startled her and made her forget to watch her way. It was her name, carried on the wind between the trees. As she sat on the ground holding her wrist and brushing dried leaves from her dress, she heard it again. Ophelia. She shook her head. No one was speaking, there wasn't even a voice. But her name was floating there all the same, and it wasn't being addressed to her, just passed along; she could hear it moving farther away, deeper into the forest.
It was about that time when she realized that the trees around her were not among her acquaintances. This was a part of the wood she had never been to, a depth she had never explored. The trunks grew nearer here, and the branches were more crooked and wild. Ophelia sat for a moment puzzling how she could have gone so very far so very quickly. But soon she snapped out of her revery and leapt to her feet with her eyes full of purpose. Her name was getting away from her, and she had to find where it was going.
Birds called back and forth amidst the forest canopy, but Ophelia barely heard them. Sunlight hit clusters of leaves and spent half it's strength before illumining Ophelia's feet on the dark forest floor. After nearly twenty minutes of pursuit, Ophelia's lungs were involved in a very colorful argument with her legs. She was so committed to her task that when her name finally broke from the beaten path and meandered off to the east, she followed it without a second thought. She didn't know it, but she was about midway through Bradfield Wood on the way toward Gedding.
Every so often Ophelia would pass a thick tree trunk cut off near the ground with twenty or so new shoots growing from its neck. These were coppiced trees, cut back repeatedly for their valuable shoots. Every time her name hit one of these arboreal nerve bundles it broke into a hundred syllables and half-syllables, like a little cloud of sounds, then reformed into Ophelia and kept speeding ahead.
Truthfully, no one could call Ophelia slow. She could outrun her hellion of a cousin, she could outrun her father, and she could nearly outrun her neighbor's wolfhound. But try as she might, she could not outrun her name. It was getting away from her. Just when she thought it would pass out of hearing, it stopped altogether, like the snuffing of a lamp. And then, before she had even taken another breath, she heard something new.
"Ophelia?" A voice.
She stopped so suddenly she nearly tripped over another root. Thunder rolled in her chest, booming back and forth, pumping in and out. The racket was so loud so nearly missed her name the second time.
The forest was darker than natural. It was stuffy and congested. Ophelia stood frozen, breathing in the close air, examining her surroundings. Huge oaks encircled the spot where she stood, but inside the oaks there was a grove of ancient low-cut trunks, the coppiced trees. These coppiced necks were thicker than any live tree she'd come across in the forest; the new shoots from the trunks were like trees unto themselves. Ophelia's eyes stopped on a huge trunk not six meters in front of her. It's thick shoots arced out and away from the center of the trunk, making the middle like a throne of trees. There was a figure seated there, barely visible in the deep shadows. Ophelia watched it, but it didn't move.
"How did you know my name?" she whispered.
Nothing. She heard a cough come from the heart of the coppice, where a head should have been. Ophelia was getting scared. She started to back away, she was just making to turn and run.
"Wait, please," the voice said.
She went rigid. "Tell me how you knew my name."
"The trees... the trees told me."
Ophelia said nothing. The voice coughed again. It was a man's voice, she could tell that, and he sounded exhausted. His shape shifted in the shadows.
"Who are you?" she asked.
"It's not important," he said.
"Please, you know my name."
"Fine. Mine's Laben." He coughed.
"What's wrong? Are you sick, Mr. Laben?"
Ophelia thought for a moment. "Did you tell the trees to find me?"
"I told them to find help."
"I don't know, I just can. Not many people can, but I can."
"Talk to them."
"I heard them too."
"It means you can help me."
To be continued...
This post is part of two projects. First, it is part of a Synchroblog, where myself and other friends post on the same topic every two weeks. I chose this week's topic: 'The Secret Life of Trees.' To read the other posts, go here: Creative Collective.
Secondly, this post represents a new direction for some recent writing, and the possibility of working my Ophelia material into a novel/novella. I'm rather excited, to be honest.