THE WHITE WOOD, by MG Buehrlen
Most of the local villagers steered clear of the White Wood. They knew what dwelled within.
Most, but not all.
Bronwen never heeded the warnings.
The White Wood, so named by the locals, was tucked between two peaks deep in the mountains of Snowdonia. The trees there rarely felt the sun warm their branches, and so the wood remained white year round, laden with snow. A lingering cold resided there, where shadows blanketed the space between canopy and earth. A cold so biting it seeped through to the skin no matter what time of year it was, no matter how many layers one wore under his coat, no matter how tightly one knotted his cap.
At the center of the White Wood was a lane, straight and true, that served as a shortcut through the mountains. If Bronwen were to follow it, she would find herself at the door of a little stone cottage, warm and inviting, with smoke curling from its chimney and winterberry pies cooling on the windowsills. But the little stone cottage was not as inviting as it seemed. The locals warned each traveler who passed through about the wood. They leaned forward, elbows to knees, huddled around a fire at the only tavern in town. The travelers leaned forward too, clutching their caps in their hands. Do not venture by way of the White Wood, the locals would say. Take the long way ‘round the mountains where the sun warms your path as well as your shoulders.
They’d go on to tell of a witch, beautiful and fair, who lived at the end of the lane, with a crackling fire and sweet smelling treats for weary travelers who wandered her way. Here was how she trapped them: The cold was so bitter, it rattled the travelers’ bones; the wind bit at their ears and nose and the tips of their fingers. Unknowingly, they knocked at the witch’s door, hoping to find rest and warmth and food to fill their bellies. What they found, instead, was the gleaming blade of a butcher’s knife and the inside of an oven.
But Bronwen wasn’t afraid of the woods like the locals were, nor of the house nestled deep within. The stories never worried her or sent shivers rising up her back. She wandered the White Wood daily, admiring the way the snow ridged each and every bare branch, the hush that fell with downy flakes, and how the pond at the side of the lane shimmered like glass beneath the gray sky. In the White Wood, the foliage was icy white, not green nor red nor brown, and each leaf was rimmed with a delicate layer of frost, like lace trimming on a dress. The trees bowed under the weight of their snowy caps, bowing to Bronwen as she strolled through her winter cathedral.
Just like the stories never bothered Bronwen, neither did the cold. Her coat hung open as she stepped through the forest, the icy wind ruffling her skirt and slicing through her tights. She was always warm, no matter how deeply she ventured into the white and gray. No matter how high the snow drifts crept up her legs and soaked into her boots. The stories and the cold kept the locals far from the wood, and Bronwen was glad of it. She liked having the trees and the snow and the red berries to herself.
She also liked having the hunter to herself.
Once a week, at the edge of the pond, she met the young hunter, with ink black hair and green eyes shining beneath his dark tartan hood. Gray and gold, his family colors. He would bring her fresh rabbit for her table, and she would kiss him long into the late afternoon, until the cold and the stories of the White Wood no longer bothered him, just like they didn’t bother her. When his body was warm and his heart was full, he would whisper words like love in her ear. That’s when Bronwen knew it was time to go home. She didn’t know a thing about love. Her parents never taught her the meaning of the word. When they died, leaving their small child alone to fend for herself, the secret of love died with them.
Bronwen was sure her mother and father loved each other. They held hands and spoke softly and gazed at each other with full eyes. Bronwen was not so sure they loved her. They struck her, spoke sharply to her, locked her away, and never spared her a second glance.
Bronwen knew hate. She knew survival.
She did not know love.
She was certain, though, that if anyone could teach her about love, it was the hunter. He held her hand and spoke softly and gazed at her with full eyes. He spoke of his young brother and sister and often asked Bronwen to come home with him to meet his family. But she wasn’t ready to love and be loved in return. She was only eighteen. Love would come in its own time, and until then, she lived each day in the moment, exploring her snowy kingdom, free from striking hands and harsh words and rooms without light or sound or fresh air.
On the days when Bronwen’s body was tangled with the hunter’s, the only sounds in the White Wood were his satisfied sighs and his whispers warming her hair. On the days when Bronwen strolled alone, the wind moving through the trees was her only audible companion. And then there were the days when unfortunate travelers wandered down the lane, and echoes of clopping hooves and rustling manes and jingling tack twisted their way through the tree trunks and snow banks.
On those days, Bronwen ran home, quick as a wink, and let the legends of the White Wood multiply. Another weary traveler knocked at the little stone cottage door and was invited to stay for supper, never to come out.
Bronwen wasn’t one to tamper with tradition. Except for one particularly cold afternoon, while she was admiring how her breath swirled and danced on the frigid air. On that day, she heard a new sound. One that pricked at her ears and made her shiver despite her warmth.
On all fours, Bronwen climbed a little hill, pressing her knees into the snow, soaking her tights straight through, and peered out from behind a giant oak trunk, as thick as she was tall. Two children, a brother and sister, darted down the lane, dodging snowballs and giggling wildly. The snowballs exploded into powder when they met their target and stuck to their hoods and capes.
Bronwen shook her head, shivering even more. Didn’t they know about the White Wood? The witch at the end of the lane? Hadn’t their parents told them the stories late at night when they were warm and safe in their beds? Hadn’t they been warned never to tread where sunbeams refuse to shine?
The children skipped and laughed, making their way further down the lane. Bronwen followed, hiding behind the deep white trees, until she could smell wood smoke and see the roof of the stone cottage through the snowy boughs.
Foolish children. Surely they would turn back soon. Surely they wouldn’t knock at the witch’s door. But Bronwen watched, shivering, as the children approached the cottage, noses in the air, breathing in the buttery and sweet scent of the winterberry pies. Like a wolf snared in a trap, the children gripped the windowsills with their mittens and, on tiptoes, peered in through the panes.
Bronwen padded up behind them, as soft and silent as snowflakes. “Come children,” she said, laying her hands on their shoulders, on their snow-dusted tartan capes. Gray and gold. She knew those colors. “Come away from the window.”
“But we’re cold,” said the boy, his nose red beneath green eyes. “And there is a fire inside.”
“And a pie on the table,” said the girl, swiping inky black hair from her cheeks. “Our brother is not yet done with his hunt, and we’re hungry.”
“Come,” whispered Bronwen, taking their hands, cold and small inside woolen mittens. “Come with me.”
She led them away from the window.
She led them to the front door.
“Step inside my little stone cottage,” Bronwen said, licking her lips, shivering, shivering. “Step inside and stay for supper.”