One Tiny Leaf

Short stories and poems

**This is a sneak peak of the story I will expand and revise for my final project of my writing degree. By the end of April, it will be at least 50 pages long and very polished. In the meantime, I am offering this preview because I'm not sure that this part of the story will appear in the final version (at least not in this form). Enjoy!

No one ventures into the Taiga. No one. A deep forest of firs who whisper on winter nights, it stretches far beyond our lands, some say through the whole world. Its mists and fire are inaccessible to us, and if we wander too deeply into the forest, its mysteries consume us. It is a ruled dominion of course, and it has boundaries and populations that do not mingle with ours. We have treaties with the Taiga Queen that govern against it. The Taiga Queen keeps or kills anyone who goes too far into her house. We kill the pests that enter into our house, the cockroaches, spiders, ants, and mice. Why shouldn’t she kill us when we go into hers? Some areas are neutral, like the fir wall, the very edge of the Taiga. But if you go more than one hundred paces into the forest, she will catch you, and then you are hers. Just last summer, our own cousin, Lim, heard the river daughters singing at the foot of the mountain where the trees block the sun, and he tried to find them. He never came out again, and we knew what happened.
The summer is a dangerous time. The Taiga Queen’s lover, Boreal, is gone hunting Elk kings all summer, and she will not see him again until the first snow. She grows lonely in the warm evening air and walks about disguised as a white mountain lion or a great brown she-bear looking for stray children. During the day, she shows the children glimpses of wild beasts, colorful birds, and strange animals, and she lures them with wild berries which grow just inside her borders. If they take the forbidden berries, the poor children are goners. At night, she throws her magic net into the sky, fishing for stars. You can see its long plumes grazing the treetops very late when the stars are brightest. Her pink and blue net waves in the sky, and if she catches enough stars, she weaves a necklace or a coronet to crown her dark head. She is deep in the forest when she casts it, and the youngest children believe if they find where the hem of it falls, they will find berries and honey and stars to bring their mothers. We lost the tailor’s daughter, Miska, that way.
My youngest brother, Kye, likes to wander ninety-nine paces into the forest and reach out his hand into the hundredth. My mother weeps whenever he does this and sobs, “You’re already hers.” I should have watched him closer. I should have kept him with me, but no declaration of “ought” will bring him back. In early October, we lost Kye. It was my fault.
The day Kye vanished, Boreal’s chariot was racing through the cedar trees, and their pointy heads were bowing beneath the rush of his return. My two sisters and I stepped ninety-nine paces into her house and walked the perimeter of our land calling out his name. Mother paced closer to home, wringing her hands and wailing with the neighbor women. Most of the others from the village came to help us, and soon everyone was involved in the familiar process. East and West for miles we searched, and we could not find him. Finally everyone gave up the search and declared him gone. This came as no surprise to me. How many other times had I given up on someone else’s brother? But those were not my fault.
“I knew he would go,” Mama sobbed. “He wanted her—she had him—from the start. If only there was some way to save him, somehow to get him back.”
I lay in my bed all night hearing her weep in my father’s arms. He feebly tried to console her and convince her to accept Kye’s fate.
“We could consult the Elders. We could ask for a brave --"
“It would be too late by then. He’s gone.”
My father is a weak man. His youngest son—his only son—is gone and surely not dead yet! How could he give up so easily? Someone should do something! I made my decision then. I had earned the consequence.
At dawn, I ran to the council where the Elders meet, and only Gisa the Wise was there so early. Gisa had known me since birth and had given me the sign of our people on my shoulder. I used to play with his wild dappled beard as he told me stories of our people’s long history of valor and triumph. His words were always honeyed with pride and love for our land and our people. The stories are grafted into my being, and because of them, I never feel alone.
“Well, Nanya, why are you here so early? Did your little Kye show up?”
“No, Grandfather Gisa,” I panted, the sharp morning air burning my lungs. “I must enter Taiga’s house to find him. If I go quickly enough, I may find him before it’s too late. Give me a blessing before I go!”
“I see,” he replied, stroking his long, wild beard. “Why would you do something so dangerous, Nanya? You know the danger of her house. You may never return if you go. Hasn’t your mother lost enough with Kye’s disappearance? You are but fifteen and newly a woman. What could you do to get Kye back? You should go back home and comfort your mother.” His earthy voice filled the house with warmth and security. I needed him, if only him, to understand.
“No, Grandfather Gisa, I can’t! It’s, it’s my fault,” I blurted, exposing the horrible secret I had sworn to bury that day. I started to cry as I continued. “I was supposed to be watching him, but our cistern was empty. I should have taken him to the well with me, but I left him playing behind the house. When I returned, he was gone. Oh, Grandfather Gisa, I know it’s not too late for Kye. He couldn’t have gone far in the space of one night. I have to find him! I have to go into the Taiga Queen’s house and get Kye back from her! If you bless my search for him, and I know I will find him.”
He looked at me deeply through his long white eyebrows. He sighed a long, ancient breath and drew an amulet from his neck. It was deep golden and covered in carvings, and in the center of it, an amber stone glittered in the light of the council fire. He hung it heavily around my neck, his eyes clouding with tears.
“Granddaughter, I see that nothing will deter you from this hell-bent pursuit. So take this token with you. Hopefully, it will keep you safe for awhile. I do not know much about it, but I have worn it since my childhood and never felt unsafe. My great-grandmother was a river daughter, you know. She gave this to my grandfather when he was a boy, and now I give it to you. May it be a help to you in her dangerous mansion. But remember this, if nothing else: you must return before the first snow, or you will be lost too. Now, go with my blessing.”
He kissed my forehead and promised to tell my family my message. So I entered Taiga’s house while the ice crystals turned to dew in the cold morning sun. I counted my steps slowly through the misty forest, entering from the point where I last saw Kye. When I reached the ninety-ninth, the rolling mists had thinned, and I saw an elk not thirty paces before me. He lifted his head, the crown of his antlers crashing with the low-hanging pine branches, and he lumbered back into the mist heading east. I held my breath, clutched Gisa’s amulet, and took the one hundredth step. I paused lingering on the thick carpet of needles. Silence surrounded me with throbbing intensity. The songbirds high in the branches cocked their heads and stared at me with curiosity. They knew I did not belong here. I heard noises behind me.
“Naaaanya! Naaaaanya!”My two younger sisters’ voices cried. Mother must have sent them after me. Their tearstained faces begging me to stay would mean the undoing of my quest, so I pressed ahead with reverent fear of the Taiga Queen tingling in my veins.
For an hour, I headed due north from our house, and in the entire hour, no one other than birds greeted me. I proceeded in silence and care, avoiding loose twigs and branches, always glancing around like a grazing doe. Finally, I stopped for rest in valley bogged with limbs and tree stumps. The last of the golden wildflowers lingered defiantly around the stumps, and I found a smooth one where I could take my rest.
As I sat, a gray wolf emerged from the trees to look at me. His yellow eyes stared into my hazel ones looking for a sign of submission. Frozen in fear, I did not move, not even to bow my head to him. I was an intruder, violating my people’s treaty with the Queen, and he would have been within his rights to tear me apart. When he saw that I was not going to move, he showed his teeth, growling a deep warning. Without knowing why I did it, I held out the amulet, and as the amber stone glittered in the sunlight, it grew warm in my hand. The wolf howled, his message echoing through the lonely trees, and retreated with his head lowered and his tail tucked. I still could not decipher any meaning from the amulet, nor could I understand my impulse to show it to the wolf. After he left, I wondered if Kye had met him too.
The trees were calm that night, and I was further into the forest than anyone had ever told in our village. If I made it back, I’d be the first to tell about it. I debated about building a fire. On the one hand, it would be a beacon to the Queen’s spies, but on the other hand, it was cold enough for me to be chilled beneath my furs. So I built the fire and hoped that nothing evil would find me. As it crackled and sparked, I leaned back against a fallen log and stared into the sky. The Queen’s net was spread wide above me, and stars glowed faintly behind its pink and green boundary.
A feathery rustle startled me out of my imaginings, and I clutched the amulet as I turned to see what had arrived. A white owl landed on the log beside me, and its cry almost sounded human. It alternated between staring at me and looking around the forest. After several minutes of this, the owl transformed into a girl before my eyes, and I was petrified in shock. I knew her; it was Miska, the tailor’s long lost daughter.
“Nanya, why are you here?” Miska asked. “Go home while you can, before she catches you.”
She was a pale shadow of the girl she I had known two years ago. Deep, black caverns had appeared under her eyes, and she was so thin that I thought my embrace would break her.
“Miska, I thought I’d never see you again. She turned you into an owl?”
“The day she caught me in her house and found out why I came, the Queen told me that if I gather and bring her the stars from the hem of her net, then I could go home. During the day, she makes me weave her robes with gold and silver thread, but at night she gives me the form of an owl to fly in search of her net’s end. Every time I reach one of the borders of the net, I see stars glittering in its tangles, and I am so close to them. But then the sunrise starts, and I must fly back to her before the sunlight touches my wingtips. All I want is to go home and hug my parents and sleep in my bed, but I am so tired.”
“Why don’t you just fly free of her and return home?”
“If I fly beyond her borders as an owl, I’ll stay an owl forever, and the wolves keep us from leaving by day.”
“Miska, this is terrible news. If I find the Queen, I’ll ask for your release too, but I came here looking for Kye. Have you seen him?”
“Oh, no! Your little brother is here?” she asked, her cavernous eyes filling with tears. She had often visited him with little molasses candies. “He was so little and curious when I used to come see him,” she sighed and shook her head. “If he is this far into Taiga’s house, he’s likely hers now. There’s nothing you can do for him. Just get out while you can, and be glad she didn’t find you. If I ever see him in daylight, I’ll look out for him as best I can. Now, I have to go. The night is getting late, but I may still have time to find the end of her net. It was good to see you, Nanya. If you make it out, please tell my parents about me.”
With that, Miska flew away, a white spot against the pink and green sky. As I turned back to the fire from watching her, a pair of unblinking yellow eyes stared at me from the other side of the fire. It was the great wolf from the afternoon. How long had he been there? As he sat down by the fire and curled up to sleep, I wondered if I would ever find Kye.
The next morning, the wolf herded me deeper into the forest, nudging me and forcing me to take his path, but he no longer bared his teeth or growled. Hours and hours we walked, over streams and rivers, through glades and dells, and finally up a steep mountainside. As the sun began to set and the pink strands of the Queen’s net appeared once again, I settled to camp on the open mountainside. The wolf circled me whining and nudging me to continue, but it would have been too dangerous to climb the rocky path in the dark.
I barely slept that night. During the long, cold hours various animals came to see what was by the fire on the mountain. Their shapes passed as dark shadows outside of the perimeter of the firelight, and occasionally the wolf would emit a low growl, keeping them at bay. I stared at the hazy net wafting through the sky and thought of Miska and Kye and all the others we lost and wished I could save them all.
By dawn, the fire had been cold ash for hours, and as I rose, so did the wolf. We continued our path up the mountain, and when we reached about half its height, the wolf led me to the far side of the mountain. As we approached northeast side, I heard the rushing roar of water. It was no whispering stream or babbling brook but a great convergence of rivers meeting in one ultimate plunge off of the precipice into a deep misty valley whose floor I couldn’t see from that height. A sprawling mansion had been carved into the face of the mountain, spanning either side of the waterfall as far as I could see. As the wolf prodded me forward, I knew we had arrived at the Queen’s royal palace.
The waterfall was too loud for me to hear the roar I could see escaping the mouths of the mountain lions guarding the entryway. The wolf preceded me, and the mountain lions sat obediently as he passed them. Their yellow eyes glared at me with dammed ferocity and barely restrained hunger. We entered her mansion, and I instinctively rubbed my thumb over the amulet. The wolf led me into a cavernous room with an enormous chair that stretched from the floor to the ceiling on the wall opposite the waterfall.
I stood immobile when I saw her in the chair. Her gold and silver robes rippled like water as she stood, and I was horrified to see that her height was several heads taller than any man I had ever seen. A coronet of stars was embedded in her black curling hair that fell untamed down the length of her back. Her skin was deathly white, and her obsidian eyes glinted at me from her enormous height. The wolf left me facing her with the falls at my back, and he sat like a noble statue by her side, watching my every shiver under her austere gaze. Yet somehow, I retained my composure and remained on my feet. I still don’t know how, for I was more terrified at that moment than ever before.
“Worm, you are in the presence of a queen,” she said, her rich voice drowning the waterfall’s roar. “You have come here to beg something of me, and you are not even kneeling. You must believe yourself to be very brave.”
The amulet in my hand grew hot, and the warmth seeped through my veins until I felt engulfed by it.
“I have never learned to kneel,” I replied, my small voice mingling with the water, “to neither a queen nor anyone else.”
“You are a fool,” she replied without changing her expression, “to enter my house unbidden so that you may beg from me and not even give the slightest gesture of obeisance or respect. So name your quest; what was worth breaking the promise your people swore to me?”
The amulet in my hand grew hotter.
“Where is Kye?” I demanded more confidently than I felt.
Her menacing laugh echoed off the rocky walls, surrounding me with her disdain.
“Pretty little Nanya, is he why you came? For a little boy too stupid to follow the decree? Your people didn’t care enough to keep him out of my house, so why did you risk your life to beg him back? He’s mine, mine, and you’ll never see him again,” she regarded me pensively for a moment and then continued. “No, I know what you really came for. You’re after my treasures, my silver and gold. Perhaps you even want to kill me and become queen yourself. Why do you think I called him and not you? I can see through this guise to your true desires. Your brother only wants to serve me, but you, you want to usurp me. Don’t you know how powerless you are against me? Why do you think your people made the treaty in the first place? An army of them couldn’t defeat me! The wolf said he was bringing me a warrior, but now I see that you are just a thoughtless child. You have nothing to offer me and are too stupid to know how to honor a queen. But I will teach you to fear me.”
As she stepped towards me, the amulet became unbearably hot, and I released it, exposing the glowing amber to the queen. She had stolen my brother and enslaved my friends, and anger at her boiled inside me as the amber cast orange light towards the queen. She doubled over and retreated back to her chair.
“I see I was right,” she gasped in short, choking breaths. “You want to kill me. Well, braver warriors than you have tried, little worm. My power is even more vast than my riches, and I will crush you before you ever learn to use Giza’s little trinket. And when you are dead, I will spread your bones beyond each horizon so that your people have nothing left of you for the burial grounds.”
The anger boiled over me, and I reacted from somewhere deep in my stomach.
“You hag,” I screamed, rousing the wolf and mountain lions who approached in bristled readiness. “You will not keep him. I will find him and bring him back, and then I’ll return for your head.”
With that, I ran straight into the waterfall, its icy rush cooling my rage and thrusting me down towards the mists.


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About One Tiny Leaf

I see my writing as one tiny leaf on a great big tree of budding authors. While I hope to one day publish professionally and find a community of writers and readers, for the present this blog allows me the space to put my work to the test. I welcome any constructive comments and feedback.