Sarah and the Enchanted Forest

By Maria Pavlova

Translated into English by Juliana Chakarova

s-big1ometimes, very rarely, Sarah looked up, widely opened her eyes and tried to see the happiness. In her thoughts it was glaring and beautiful and was slowly floating in the air. Beautiful, like her mother.

But she could see nothing. Clouds or no clouds in the sky.

When her mom died, Sarah’s soul started to die out. Turned more desolate than the homeless kittens, than her father’s sad face.

After the car accident he just stopped paying attention to her. Stopped loving her.

“That’s just a dream, a dream!” the girl kept telling herself. “When I wake up mom will be here, next to me! I can smell her. Everything here smells like mom. She will come back!”

But little by little Sarah began to forget her mom’s face, laughter, voice. The memories faded away as the girl’s soul died out.

Then Sarah understood that the soul is really alive when it is inhabited with live creatures, dear to us.

“Don’t trust anyone who would try to tell you what life is,” mom had told her once. “Because, my dear, the answer is hidden in a tiny spot deep in your heart.”

“But grown-ups know a lot more than I do!”

“That’s not true. You will recognize those who really know, but they are just a few. You will recognize them by their voice. With them you’ll feel comfortable.”

“Like when you tell me fairy tales?”

“Something like that,” her mom smiled. “If you have the feeling that they are giving you lessons, don’t trust them too much.”

Sarah didn’t really understand, but remembered this conversation. Soon after that her mom died, all of a sudden disappeared from the rooms, the kitchen, from everywhere.

Sarah was left alone. Her father forgot about her. And her grandma and grandpa, who she started visiting during every school break, were very old and ailing and had no energy to play with her or read her a story. They hardly ever spoke to her.

Sarah also remembered this:

“Life is a game, my pretty girl, a wonderful game, if you know how to have fun. And you do!”

But she didn’t understand what kind of a game there could be without a mother when you are not yet six years old.

It seemed that the accident was also an accident for Sarah, replacing the former girl with another one. The new girl also had long black hair and big black eyes, but she started looking like a doll.

In the beginning Sarah cried a lot. She thought that since she was so little she would die from her tears – would drown in them. But this didn’t scare her. She imagined that mom was waiting for her beyond the sky. She wanted so much to touch her one more time, hug her, cuddle in her arms and not move, even hold her breath – that way the magic would stay longer…

But little by little Sarah stopped feeling. Her soul felt like the flame of a candle that was getting smaller and smaller, flickering, guttering in the dark. She was forgetting both the pain and the good things.

Death is a meadow next to the stars, and that’s where her mom was waiting for her. But it leaves a hollow space down here. Like a cavity. And Sarah started feeling as if she was hollow.

Often she had this dream: she was drinking milk and got sick. She didn’t like milk and also hated potatoes. “If I were a bird,” Sarah thought, “I would eat only clouds and they would melt in my mouth like sugar. And when there are no clouds, I would wait for them to come.” Sarah would look at the sky or at the ceiling, feeling the sweet taste of the clouds. But she didn’t smile like she would before. The smiles of the hollow Sarah had become colorless, and colorless smiles are dead – both for her and for the others.

Her grandmother and grandfather lived in a small house, a desert place, over a hundred meters apart from the last houses of the village. They could hardly take care of themselves, but didn’t want to move to town. And the worst wasn’t the fact that they didn’t have a TV or a fridge and stuff like that. The worst was that just next to their place there was a forest.

People from the village called it the Enchanted Forest. As if an evil magician had cursed it. Or maybe had fallen in love with it? Maybe that was the way evil magicians loved?

The forest had only bare branches that reached the ground. No leaves, flowers, or grass. Sarah never saw a bird, on a tree or flying. The forest was enchanted. Dead and scary. The girl was even afraid to look in its direction. She had the feeling that she was living next to a cemetery full of tree skeletons.

In fact, the forest wasn’t big. Half an hour would be enough to go through it-there was a path. But everybody always went around, even though this way it took much longer to get to the next village.

One day a kid told her that the forest had turned vampire. At nighttime during a full moon the trees would pull up their roots, turn into people and start looking for victims. Sarah felt shivers crawling down her arms and couldn’t sleep for a few nights, waiting to hear wooden footsteps.

Christmas was approaching. Her father brought her to the village again. She tried to remember past Christmases, but she couldn’t. “I’m six now,” Sarah told herself profoundly. “Maybe it’s too late to believe in miracles.”

She thought, “Miracles are particles of laughter. They appear out of nowhere. You laugh, then they sink into nothing again and you can’t understand what it was.” But Sarah couldn’t remember a single miracle. She couldn’t even smile, since her smiles had become colorless. She had become separated from the world and now the world was passing by her without noticing she existed.

But she felt okay this way – it didn’t hurt anymore. She hated pain. She would cry even when she had the slightest scratch. She was sure that her mom was crying up there, too, and that mothers’ tears and tears of all dead people are trying to fall to earth, but it’s very cold between the earth and the sky, so they constellate, freeze and become stars – ice-cold pieces of somebody’s grief, suffering for a human being down here. But Sarah didn’t know why the stars fell down only sometimes. “But that’s better,” she told herself. “Otherwise they would fall on my head and hurt me.”

Little by little, without anybody noticing, she almost stopped talking. She started avoiding her friends – she had so much fun with those girls before. The boys were still bugging her because she was pretty, but she didn’t care. She didn’t look in the mirror, didn’t take toys out of the boxes.

Sarah was surviving the way she could. She couldn’t know that her father was doing the same and that he didn’t stop loving her, but hid in his own world.

She didn’t know that death always creates such lonely worlds, and you either escape from there or not. She just lived in one of them.

When grandma and grandpa got sick Sarah didn’t know right away what was going on. It was as if they were struck by lightning, lying lifelessly in bed. Just like that, in a second. They didn’t even give out a moan, but were burning from fever. Her big eyes were also burning – she felt helpless. She ran to the village and asked a man about the doctor. He told her the doctor was on leave and was in his house. He lived in the village on the other side of the forest.

When Sarah was going back she felt her feet sticking to the ground as if she had glue on them. All of a sudden the girl realized she had to go through the forest because she had no time to go around. And if she didn’t go through the forest they would die. Sarah felt it with her whole being. Somewhere beyond the fog she saw everything. She caught a glimpse of it – she would be left alone, her father would leave her here, wouldn’t even remember about her. All alone in this house, but really alone! For the first time after such a long time something moved inside her. It was fear – of the forest and the death waiting for her.

She didn’t even realize she could look for help. It didn’t even occur to her, maybe because a single thought captured her mind. It didn’t matter if she would go or stay – the forest was waiting for her! But it seemed even more horrible not to go.

As soon as she stepped among the trees something rolled down her cheek. It was a drop-either of the coming rain or of the tears welling up. It was getting dark. Sarah was freezing, she felt like a figurine in a pop-up book. But she couldn’t go back – grandma and grandpa smelled like the forest, they were dying. Her tears and the rain poured at the same time – that’s how the sky merged with her soul.

The cold passed quickly through her clothes. Her heart was beating fast, racing with the streams of rain. Her feet started sticking to the ground again, she felt dizzy; then the world started spinning slower and she forgot where she was going. Sarah stopped – she couldn’t go on or turn around. Why was she here? Her coat was torn from the tree branches, her hair was all wet, her arms scratched! And at this moment the branches braided into garlands and formed a warm tunnel. Somebody stood at the end, waving at her.

“While we are on earth we are never satisfied,” her grandfather told her once. That’s why Sarah was going to the sky and God was waiting for her, or no, that was her mom – waiting to take her to heaven. Sarah felt like she was God’s failure. She had too many burdens on her shoulders.

Her eyes were looking up and started to radiate. She didn’t notice when the rain stopped. There were tears on the dry sky. “Death is so beautiful!” Sarah thought.

She stretched her arms and felt the softness of the tunnel. And all of a sudden, before it engulfed her, she remembered…

They always bought a real, big Christmas tree. She adored the aroma of pine resin and of the delicious sweets her mom used to bake. For Christmas they were always home, just the three of them, but they dressed up for the occasion. And they used to dance and dance, sometimes together, hugging each other. At those times Sarah had the feeling she didn’t sense her mom and dad because she was one with them. She felt how love was caressing her to sleep and she had dreams about sand, waves, laughter, she was running along the coast, and this had no end.

“If something is over, did it exist?” Sarah asked herself. She was flying like a bird. Going back to that dance. She even heard the familiar music they listened to. She was in the beauty of a big hug.

Her mom was waiting for her up there, smiling. Sarah smiled too. She saw the meadow, just like she had imagined, but the stars were still far away. The next moment she ran toward her mom and that’s when she understood what infinity was-the time they were embracing each other.

When you love and you’re loved,

Everything is entirely different.

But hey, my little black-haired girl,

Looks like you forgot the enchanted forest.

“The forest? Mom, I’ll stay here, right?”

“I love you, Sarah!”

“I love you too! But I’ll stay here with you, right?”

“You have to go back! Grandma and grandpa will die if you don’t help them.”

“So what? It’s so wonderful here!”

“No, Sarah, it’s wonderful down there, because what you see here is the mirror of that world. People can look at themselves in the mirror and will feel warm. But from here we can also look in the mirror and see the pain, the grief, the cold, the people who are not loved, the birds who haven’t been fed. And we suffer. That’s why you have to go back, little princess, and make sure the pain goes away.”

“But I don’t want to! It feels so good with you here!”

“I know you don’t understand, but it’s only because you locked your heart. This will change very soon. And then you have to help your dad.”

“Please mom, let me stay here!”

“I love you, Sarah! And it will always be that way. Happy holidays, my girl!”

The transition was so abrupt that Sarah felt it like a slap. The black branches looked ominous. They were even scarier against the background of the starry sky.

Sarah was lying on the path. The girl didn’t know why she was dry and wasn’t feeling very cold. She was just afraid of the forest. Nobody was there, but still she was so afraid! Sarah closed her eyes, but the beautiful feeling didn’t come back. Just nothing. Only loneliness, bigger than the biggest chunk of ice.

She had to go away as soon as possible! Or this loneliness of the forest would enter her and the memory of her mom would disappear again. Didn’t mom want her? Why did she make her go? Sarah started running. She didn’t pay attention to the branches snapping her again. She was close and could already see the lights of the village.

There wasn’t even a full moon, but it seemed the trees moved in a strange way. They caught her coat and scarf. How she missed at this moment a little rainworm to hold it in her hand!

“Mothers’ and kids’ love shouldn’t be separated!” Sarah wanted to shout so that the forest would shake. “Mom shouldn’t have died!”

She felt ashes in her heart. In there, in a little spot, she could feel her answer to the question of what life is. It was hurting so much inside, and her tears were burning. Her mom had crashed into a tree on the wet road – that’s how she died. Sarah hated trees, especially these ones. These killers!

And then something happened. All of a sudden her pain, rage, her every movement slowed down. Sarah stopped. And everything else stopped with her. She looked up and around. She was standing at the end of the path and the village was right next to it.

The forest had quieted down. Sarah had the painful feeling that the forest had always been like that – a bunch of tired trees. She turned the flashlight on – how could she forget about it – and inspected her clothes and arms. Nothing was torn, and she didn’t have the slightest trace of a scratch. She touched the ground – it was dry.

But then, what had happened? Was she going crazy? The last particle of fear went away. An invisible particle. Did she imagine all this? The only thing that still looked real was meeting her mom.

A dog started barking nearby. Sarah smiled and quickly moved toward the village. She knocked on the first door she saw in front of her. People let her in, asked her what she wanted, called the doctor and while waiting for him made tea and gave her a snack. Sarah was hungry and swallowed the food without chewing. Next thing she knew they were driving in the young doctor’s car and Sarah almost dozed off from the warmth. Then the doctor was examining her grandmother and grandfather while she was putting some logs in the stove. He gave them shots, examined Sarah’s throat too, gave her a pill and after all this called somebody on the phone.

In just an hour Sarah’s dad arrived and the doctor told him that tomorrow morning he would come back, but they could call him any time if there was a problem.

Then Sarah fell asleep. When she woke up, it was already noon. Her grandma and grandpa looked a lot better. But her father said that they couldn’t ride so he would stay here a few more days.

He would stay here for Christmas? Sarah couldn’t believe that, but didn’t say anything. Her father went to buy food and when he came back Sarah devoured her food again. She hadn’t eaten for a long time with such an appetite. “With the exception of the walnuts and the dolmas yesterday at those people’s place,” Sarah said to herself and laughed.

Late in the afternoon the doctor came again. It wasn’t dark yet-it was just the time when the silence settles for a little bit and it feels so drowsy and nice.

There was also a boy who walked in the room. The doctor said he was his son. The boy was Sarah’s age. He said hi and walked up to her.

“Hi. My name is Niden. Do you want to go for a walk?” And while waiting for her answer he took her hand and led her outside.

“Let’s go to the enchanted forest! I heard you passed through it and it was at night. You must be very brave!”

“Me? Yes, I passed through the forest, but… What are we going to do there? There’s nothing interesting to see.”

“Let’s go! Are you afraid?”

“Afraid?!”

“Yeah!” Niden was laughing loudly. But somehow friendly. “Admit it, you lied yesterday… Just admit it!”

“I didn’t lie and I’m not afraid! But you’ll probably lose your tongue and won’t be able to speak. Let’s go!”

“These are just trees,” Sarah told herself, but didn’t want to go. The path was narrow and she had to touch them. “They look like shadows of trees,” Sarah thought and touched a branch – she couldn’t resist her curiosity. “Nothing special.

And still they were like shadows in a strange dream. They reminded her of that faded photo she saw in the museum.

But then where were the trees? Was it possible that their shadows had become so big and replaced the real trees? Just like the silent, hollow Sarah had replaced the former one?

But yesterday mom gave her the sky’s mirror and Sarah looked at her in that mirror. When you look like that at your shadow, no matter where it’s hidden, it dies or turns into a bird. This is why a bird woke up for life in Sarah’s soul when she was there, in the sky meadow.

Birds don’t notice that forest

because they like only real things.

Just like love

doesn’t disappear after death,

because it’s real, the most real thing.

“My dad told me yesterday about you and I knew you are so brave, so I brought you a gift.”

“A gift? For me?” Niden was really handing her something.

“For you. Take it!”

Sarah opened the package. There she found a big chocolate bar and a ribbon.

“Wow! Thank you. But I didn’t get you anything.”

“But you brought me to the forest.”

They laughed. Sarah opened the bar, tried the chocolate and offered some to Niden.

“But it’s the ugliest forest in the world!”

“You think so? It doesn’t look like that to me…”

And then she looked around. They both looked around.

All of a sudden they heard the sound of a little bell. Or bells. A small elephant passed by and playfully brushed his trunk against her. Sarah gasped with astonishment – she could hear the elephant’s laughter, just like the sounds coming out of a toy!

“Hi, little girl! Aren’t you going to close your mouth after all?”

Then a snake rustled around her feet and also laughed.

“Did you see that?”

“Yes, and they’re laughing!” Niden answered in a high-pitched voice.

All of a sudden everything unlocked. Different colored birds started flying around, all kinds of sparkles made out of… Sarah looked at her palm and couldn’t believe her eyes! Of little worms, spiders and other bugs. Motley and bright! But it wasn’t an unpleasant feeling while they were showering her.

The branches started moving and filling out with leaves. A little doe came close to her and snuggled to her arm. Sarah kissed her.

“You can speak too?”

“Would you give me your ribbon?”

“Where did you all come from?”

“We were all here, but you couldn’t see us.”

“But why?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know, I get tired when I have to think…”

“My God, the forest is magical!”

“Ha-ha, you are so silly! What forest is not magical? You are silly, very silly!”

“That’s enough, stop!” Niden shouted. “Enough calling names!”

“Well, okay, don’t be angry!”

“Catch me!” Sarah started running. It felt so good! “Life is a game,” Sarah remembered at this moment.

They came out of the forest only because they heard her father insistently calling them. Outside of the forest everything was like it was before, but they already knew. And promised each other to get together again after the holidays.

“Merry Christmas, Sarah! We are friends, right?”

“Sure. Merry Christmas!”

A friend. What is that?

“Somebody for whom you unlock your heart.”

“Is it what I’m feeling right now, mama? Sarah looked up, waved her hand and went looking for her father. She had so many things to tell him. Sarah was hoping it would snow. She imagined snow in the magical forest. Cool! But that little doe went away too far. I shouldn’t have given her my new ribbon…

——————–

Maria Pavlova was born in Plovdiv – the second largest city in Bulgaria called “The Pearl of Thrace”. She writes short stories, poetry, as well as essays, novelettes, and her works have been published in the press. Her book, “The Rival,” tells a story about a girl who was born blind. Maria gained experience as a journalist in numerous newspapers. Now she is working on her second book.


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