The Empty Forest
Little Crow knew he was getting close to the sacred place when his breath began to frost. He had left the village before sunrise and crossed the river while the sun still hung in the center of the sky. It wasn't until after dark normally that the air would begin to chill, in the dead of winter. And there was no turning back now. Not that there ever was.
His 16th birthday had come during the summer. One of the remaining Elders said that when Little Crow was born, was when the river was moved and the birds left, never to return. No one knew how or who, or what had moved the river. There were no storms or rains or flooding that year. The plains had been eerily quiet that whole season.
But that was only the bewildering part. The worst came exactly one moon later, when the neighboring tribe tore through the village like mad men. They screamed and yelled but spoke no language anyone had ever heard. They frothed at the mouth and scratched at their faces. It was is if their minds had been removed from their bodies, one of the Elders said. They couldn't even comprehend their surroundings as they ran, toppling children and traipsing through fires, and one even ran straight through a pike.
And another had crushed the head of Little Crows mother as he climbed over a natural stone wall. His father, Running Leaf, was the first to volunteer when the Elders decided they should send a scout. He was to discover if our neighbors were launching more attacks as part of some new war, or if they had been subject to their own.
What he found was worse than what anyone could have expected. The area they had used for farming was gone and in its place was a dark forest with bare white trees and no leaves that seemed to get closer together near its center. Between that and the new location of the river, my father could not see their village from the normal vantage spot of previous excursions. And afraid to go through the new wood, he circumnavigated until he grew close to the tortured cries and smell of charred flesh.
Their children had been piled into a pyre. Only a few mothers were still there, the rest just missing. The children had not woken from their dreams, exactly one moon ago. From what Running Leaf could gather, the men of the village declared in their outrage that the new forest had been the cause. It had stolen their children's spirits as they slept and were now trapped somewhere in its confines, perhaps with some Elder nomad shaman who had borne this curse. And with this in mind, the men had set off with their weapons into the dark wood.
They returned a few days later, looking perplexed and remaining silent. The few words of the dark wood that escaped them were of its limitlessness, of it's expanding and contracting center that would form and reform paths at random, and the lack of animals and food. And then the Chief of the village had an idea. He would take one of his children into the wood with him, in the hopes that his corporeal essence could show the way and even be rejoined with his spirit. It would be a test.
Another week passed, and nothing happened. The Chief did not return. The children did not wake. The fear and anger in the eyes of the mothers and fathers was dripping worry and dread was building to a point of pure panic, the kind in which one wishes to inflict harm on oneself and everything around them.
And then the moon returned they said. As it hung low and fat in the sky, deep in the middle of the night, they experienced a loud tearing sound and the earth shook slightly. Those that were awake already, which were many, were almost immediately driven mad. But then they made the most terrible discovery, the children had passed in their sleep.
As one of the few remaining elders in that destroyed village related the tale to Running Leaf he had felt a pang of remorse despite the death of his cherished. There was a child waiting for him now, and just like the others when they learnt of it, he too felt a mild anxiety that what had befallen their neighbors might come to visit them as well. It was only after he buried his love that he made his decision.
Many of the other tribesmen were so alarmed that they suggested they relocate entirely, to simply run. The Elders though argued how difficult it would be to find another suitable piece of land without encountering other more inhospitable tribes. When the impasse was reached, Running Leaf spoke up. He would go to the dark forest to learn the truth of it.
That was the last anyone had seen of him, and Little Crow was raised by the Elders. People had been afraid that sending Running Leaf would be the beginning of more troubles, but when he did not return and they had reflected on the events that led to his leaving they assumed that a price had been paid for their protection. A pact made in blood.
When Little Crow began to describe his father to Elder Falling Eagle, even though he had never lain adult eyes on the man, he revealed the dreams he had been having since pubescence. Little Crow would walk to the very edge of the dark wood and peer in for what felt like hours, and just when he felt his very eyes had been strained to the point of exhaustion, a shape would begin to form in the darkness. He knew it was his father as the apparition began to walk toward him.
With both of their arms outstretched for each other, Little Crow would begin to scream and Running Leaf moved his mouth silently. When Falling Eagle heard these dreams he asked Little Crow only one question: was there an echo? Little Crow responded no, and realized how the dark wood seemed to eat all sound and life that entered it, in his dreams and in life.
Falling Eagle declared to the village that Little Crow was ready for his vision quest. But that unlike the other boys, he would be going into the dark forest. The village quickly became upset and then Falling Eagle revealed more. The dark forest was still alive with its own cancer, as it was actually a home for a shapeless beast that had been born outside of time and fed on the souls of the living at random intervals. He believed that while it had not spread, pieces of it could bleed out and cause havoc like the fallow growing seasons they'd been having and the lack of hunting game recently. It was no longer safe for them.
Falling Eagle said that they could make no decisions though until Little Crow had returned from the dark forest. Everyone was dumbfounded at the end of his speech for a moment, and then someone brave started. They asked why. Falling Eagle looked to Little Crow and waited, then the young man had said "My father has a message to deliver."