Flowers in Mid-Winter
On midwinter morning, the dawn of the shortest day of the year, it is tradition to share gifts with loved ones. These gifts were reminders of the turning of the seasons and meant to help in the year to come.
It was snowy and cold that morning, but excited children left their beds early. Today was to be a day off, all the work that could be put off would be. The sounds of excited children began to fill the house, waking indulgent parents.
Alan woke up early and left the house before dawn, witnessed only by his younger cousin Jonathan. They shared a room and woke up together, but Alan didn’t want Jonathan to come with him and Jonathan wasn’t interested in going out into the cold snowy world outside.
At first no one noticed Alan’s absence, and Jonathan kept quiet to keep his cousin out of trouble. When breakfast came and everyone sat down in the same room the parents realized that there was one missing. Jonathan shared the departure he had witnessed reluctantly.
Before a worried mother and father and aunts and uncles could do more than begin planning their search mission, the door opened and the truant child returned, face red from the cold and a bright smile lighting up his face that remained undiminished by parental scolds. In his hand Alan had a bouquet of fresh flowers that he offered to his mother.
“Where did you get fresh spring flowers in midwinter?” Isabella asked her son.
“I got them from the Heart of the Woods.” Alan answered.
A frightened mother quickly gathered her jacket, put on her boots. Her sister handed her a scarf and gloves. To visit the heart of the woods is not an easy journey, especially in midwinter when the woods are sleeping. The thought of her child going through it scared Isabella.
Approaching the Heart of the Woods wasn’t something to do lightly. The Heart of the Woods can offer you your heart’s desire, but there is always a price. The Heart of the Woods offers you a bargain. And be careful what you ask for. There are many tales of people who get what they ask for and it isn’t quite what they thought it would be. Or to get what they asked for they have to give up something they value more. It is a chancy thing to bargain with the Heart of the Woods, something that should be approached with deliberation and much forethought.
Forethought is not something five year olds have an abundance of.
Worry over what bargain Alan might have made to get his flowers hung over the adults and carried over to the children despite their parents attempts to keep up the traditions of midwinter.
At first Isabella was grateful for the time to pull her thoughts together as she sought the Heart of the Woods. The Heart of the Woods was not a place you could find whenever you wanted, and the path that lead to the Heart one time wouldn’t necessarily lead there the next time. Some people find the Heart several times, some only once. And some, though they search their whole lives will never find it. Only those who the Heart wants to see will find it.
As Isabella climbed over logs buried in snow and ducked under branches who deposited their burdens of snow on her head she forced herself to calm. She had never yet been refused entrance to the Heart of the Woods when she sought it, and there had been a few times that she had arrived in the Heart unlooked for.
Isabella had been fifteen when she sought her first encounter with the Heart of the Woods. Most in her family made it to the Heart of the Woods at least once in their life, some more often. A few had a relationship like Isabella, seeing the Heart several times a year. Isabella read their journals as a guide to her own relationship with the Heart of the Woods.
Apparently her popularity with the heart of the woods had been passed on to her son as well. Alan was only five and he was her baby. He didn’t know how dangerous the bargain he had made could be. But Isabella did.
Sometimes the journey to the Heart of the Woods was so easy that she made the trip by accident. Isabella had never had a more difficult journey than this one. She struggled, and there were many obstacles in her path. If it wasn’t for her worry for her son she would have taken the hint and turned back, but fear and desperation kept her going forward. She had to see if there was anything she could do to protect her son. Or at least know what was coming so she could help him face it.
It was mid-afternoon. Isabella had left after eating a quick breakfast that morning and it was cold. She was tiring. And for the first time in her life, it looked like the Heart of the Woods was going to refuse to meet her.
Isabella’s dark brown hair was full of tangles and sticks. Her feet were cold, though she could still feel them. Barely. Her clothing was wet, and the chill was starting to spread to her body. She was considering turning back to try again another day when she took one step forward and ducked under a tree branch. That one step carried her from midwinter to spring. She had reached the Heart of the Woods.
Isabella paused after that first step to catch her breath. The air was warm, carrying the warmth of the sun. All around her it was green, contrasting with the grey and white she had been stumbling through.
The Heart of the Woods was quieter than Isabella was used to. She usually came during the spring and summer, occasionally in the fall. This was her first visit in the winter. There was still the sense of waiting that she always felt. There was still the circle of moss covered stones that showed the center of this place. The power of the Heart of the Woods still filled her. The clearing had a stream to her right, and an old weathered tree to her left. Isabella’s great-great-great grandfather had described the Heart as looking the same way. It had a timelessness to it. Or maybe a sense of all times. There was a sapling to Isabella’s right. It had been a sapling in all the years since Isabella’s first visit more than twenty years ago.
The stream was a soothing burble. It never flooded, never ran dry. The season wasn’t actually spring, though it felt like it after the winter she had been climbing through. It was season-less, all seasons. The old tree had leaves that were beginning to turn. The young tree had new leaves just budding out. There were other trees that had their leaves out to full. There was a dead tree still standing. There was a log lying on the ground that never seemed to rot, however long it had been lying there.
There was also a large stone, taller than Isabella and wider than it was tall. There were several smaller stones in other places. It was a place that radiated peace. Contentment. The sun was always just overhead.
Isabella was beginning to thaw. She cautiously took a second step into the clearing, and a third. She walked up to the border stones, the boundary of the inner section of the heart. Around from the big old tree came the Shalleigh.
“You seek the Heart of the Woods.” The voice was low and gravelly. It always reminded Isabella of a grandfather’s voice. The Shalleigh’s wrinkled skin also contributed to that impression, along with the slow, dignified movements.
“I seek knowledge, Old One.” Isabella gave a respectful bow of her head. When one is asking a favor it is always beneficial to be polite.
There was silence as her words were considered. After many sessions of bargaining at the Heart of the Woods Isabella was aware of the rhythm of the exchange. Never before had she been so impatient. She forced herself to take a deep breath. To distance herself emotionally from what she was doing. This was not the time to be a worried mother. This was time to be Isabella, self taught Earth Walker, and protector of those in her charge. Including her son.
As Isabella found her center and pulled herself together the Shalleigh nodded, respectfully she thought.
“What information do you seek?”
Isabella set aside the worried mother and thought of her goals. Find out what bargain Alan had made. Find out if there was a way she could fulfill the bargain in his stead. Find out the best way to protect her son and her family without pitting herself against the earth or the Heart of the woods. Those that went back on a bargain made with the Heart of the Woods usually came to a bad end. Isabella had no intention of allowing her son to become one of them.
“My son made a bargain. Spring flowers in midwinter. I would ask the terms of his bargain, that I might help him fulfill it.”
The Shalleigh studied Isabella for a time. When she began to grow impatient she reached into herself for the calm peace she held while she did her magic. It flickered as thoughts of home and children filled her mind. Worry over what might befall those she loved. Without focusing on her control over the magic she commanded Isabella found it harder to keep a hold on the unemotional detachment.
“The bargain is done. The Child has fulfilled the bargain.” The Shalleigh finally said.
“What price to know the terms of the bargain?” Isabella persisted. Silence fell in the clearing as the Shalleigh considered her words. It gave Isabella time to regain her calm center.
“To know the terms is to know what you would not have known for years to come. If you wish to know the terms you will not use the knowledge to interfere with the Child.”
“I want to know.” Isabella insisted.
“It is a bargain then. You will know the Child’s price for flowers in midwinter and you will not interfere in what could be.”
“A bargain.” Isabella repeated the words that bound her to the bargain she was making.
“The fall before last the Child asked of the Heart of the Woods a favor. He wanted a gift for Midwinter. Flowers, for a mother who loved them. He brought a gift: a stone from the river. It was not enough but a bargain was struck. In exchange for flowers in midwinter the Child would bring the flowers that he wished to the Heart of The Woods throughout the spring and summer. They would be saved for him. On the midwinter morning the Child could come and get them.”
“The Child came to deliver flowers throughout spring, summer and fall.” Isabella had been focused on the Shalleigh, so she was surprised at the interruption. Several of the Imarelli had arrived in the clearing. In all of her times here in the Heart of the Woods Isabella had never talked to the Imarelli. She had seen them around but they were not interested in humans the way the Shalleigh was.
“After making the delivery the Child stayed, spent time here. And it became habit to travel to the Heart of the Woods with flowers.” The Imarelli continued. “This winter, when there were no longer flowers to deliver, the Child continues to visit. Your price, Isabella of the Earth, is not to discourage his visits.”
“I understand.” Isabella assured them, shaken. “I will be sure to teach him to be respectful in his visits.”
“Isabella of the Earth. You have been welcomed here for all of your life. Because you are of the Earth. A reminder of the old days. You have learned how to act from old books and those who found you interesting. The Child does not need you to teach him or to learn from books. He is who he is and is welcome because of it. If he seeks us he will find us.” The Imarelli left, disappearing as they took one step back.
“You need not fear for the Child. He is safe here. The Old Ones protect those who are their own.” The Shalleigh reassured her.
This time Isabella heard the capital letters. The Child. Not just her child anymore. The Shalleigh and the Imarelli were laying claim to her child. It was an honor, and a danger. But Isabella had given her word not to interfere. And she wouldn’t. But she would tell the others in the clan what she had learned. Raising Alan was going to be an interesting challenge.
“I think it is time you returned to your home.” The Shalleigh spoke gently. Isabella took a deep breath and nodded.
“My thanks for your help.”
As Isabella left the clearing she felt the shift in temperature. From comfortable to below freezing in a single step. She blinked as she looked at her house from the edge of the woods. Apparently the Heart of the Woods felt she had had enough trouble on her way to reach it. Returning home was easy.
As she crossed the lawn, Isabella thought once more of her son and how she was going to explain him to the clan. For a moment she wished he would be normal, just another child, not a Child of the Woods. For a moment. And then the mother wrapped herself up in her love for her son. He is who he is, and he is hers. The future looked to be a very interesting, trying to raise this child for whom the rules are different. A challenge. A gift.
As children and adults poured out of the door and came to surround her, Isabella put out of mind the stories of the lives of others who were called Child of the Woods.
For those who became the link between the human and the old ones life was not always easy or kind.