Ava and the Forest Spirit
Another surgery, Ava thought as she looked at her chest in her mom’s full-length mirror. The big scar ran from the top of her abdomen to just above where her collar bone fused with her sternum. There were smaller scars, too, but they were less visible--scattered across her stomach, where various tubes and wires had entered and exited in order to save her life.
Clutching a thick note folded in her hand, she pulled on a sweater, a polka-dot raincoat, and matching rain boots--a gift from her dad for her recent eleventh birthday--she ran into the living room and told her mother that she was off to see the Forest Spirit again. Her mother heaved a heavy sigh and said, “hold on, I’ll go with you.”
“Mom, I can go by myself. I have an important message I need to leave him. He won’t visit the mailbox anymore if I show you where it is.”
“Ava, you know I don’t like you going into the woods alone. Besides, it’s raining!”
“Mom, I have to tell him I’ll be gone for a while. What if he thinks I’ve forgotten him while I’m in the hospital? Or moved away? As soon as I come home, I’ll visit him right away. I need to tell him to wait for me.”
“I’m walking you across the street and waiting for you to come right back,” her mother insisted, yanking her umbrella out of the hall closet.
Ava knew the small nature preserve across the street from their apartment complex like the back of her hand. She had been going there since she was a small child, and felt safer there than anywhere else in the neighborhood, but her mother had become even more protective of her as the date of her upcoming surgery drew near. Her mother marched grimly to the edge of the woods, while Ava took her time, splashing in puddles and stooping to inspect the earth worms wriggling on the pavement. Separating from her mother, she walked down to the familiar path that led to the river, but veered off just before it sloped down to the shore. An old weeping willow tree arched over the river, bridging land and water in air, and it was into its curtain of drooping branches that Ava disappeared, feeling as if she’d walked into another, more magical world.
Peering into the hollow of the shady willow tree, which she had labelled with a tiny flag 123 Willow Tree, she took out a polished river stone. It felt warm and smooth in her hand, and had a groove in the middle like a worry stone. The Forest Spirit always left her something in return for her notes. She stood at the trunk of the old tree that arched over the river and before she slipped her note into its eye-level hollow, she read it one last time to make sure it was clear enough:
Dear Forest Spirit,
Thank you for the robin’s eggshell you left me last time. It was very pretty and I took it home with me and showed mom. I will be gone for a while because my heart needs another surgery. I will be back as soon as I can. Mom says I am getting tired more and more. The doctors said my lips look blue because of low oxygen. This will be my fourth heart surgery. I do not remember the others very well. I remember being very, very thirsty after I woke up from the last one. I was wondering if I could finally meet you in person before my surgery. It would mean a lot to me. Please? And maybe you can help look after Cory, my parakeet? I’ve told you about him before. Unless you are a bear, or an owl. Then maybe you shouldn’t. I will return in two days at this time. If you are real, meet me here.
Ava stood at the tree watching the river and rubbing the groove of the river stone with her thumb until she felt calm, and then turned to go.
Ava wrote daily to her best friend, the Forest Spirit, but she didn’t deliver all the notes. Sometimes she forgot, or felt she would worry the spirit, so she tried to leave only the happiest notes when she visited the woods. The next day, she thought hard about her final note and visit before her hospital stay. She knew she would have to slip away after school, but even if her mom caught her, there wasn’t much trouble she could get into on the eve of her surgery. Mom is probably on the phone anyway, she thought. Making arrangements. When I asked her what that meant, she said she needs to do stuff like put the mail on hold and figure out her leave at work and talk to the insurance company. She looks tired all the time. She won’t notice if I’m late.
Dear Forest Spirit,
I am not afraid of it hurting, because I don’t remember any pain from my other surgeries. But I am afraid of dying. My heart is sick but that is just how I was born. My teacher sent a note home a few weeks ago. It said I act young for my age and that the other kids at school are starting to avoid me. Mom shut herself into the bathroom and I heard a lot of sniffling after that. Then she called the teacher and told me not to listen. But I did anyway. Mom hates how I’m always listening in. Mom said that all my surgeries and low oxygen affect my cognitive functioning, but I don’t know what that is. She also said I’m an only child and have spent a lot of time in the hospital, so it’s no wonder I don’t always act like the other kids. I just act like me. I try to keep up with the other kids, but I can’t. Sometimes I get out of breath when I walk to the river to see you. I didn’t want to tell you, though. You are my best friend and I am bringing the river stone, robin’s eggshell, and the acorn you gave me to the hospital with me. They are already packed. Mom didn’t want me to but my therapist thought it was a good idea, so mom stopped tightening her mouth up in that way she does when she’s stressed out. Mom is going to call Dad and see if he can take Cory while I’m in the hospital. She said it’s the least he can do. I don’t know why she says that. He says he’ll come visit me in the hospital, and bring me the biggest stuffed bear he can find.
When the school bus dropped her off in front of her apartment building, Ava waited until it drove away before crossing the street into the nature preserve. Her backpack was stuffed with handmade get well cards from her classmates, and notes from her teacher and principal about being strong and brave and how they knew they would see her back at school soon. She walked the familiar path down to the willow tree with her heart racing, although she tried to take deep, calming breaths like her therapist had shown her. She silently begged the Forest Spirit to appear, but she was almost afraid to look.
She gently parted the willow branches with her eyes scrunched shut and stepped inside. She took a deep breath, opened her eyes, and looked around. Seeing no one, she tried to fight the tears welling in her eyes as she walked to the hollow she had labeled 123 Willow Tree and reached inside. She shrieked as her fingers brushed against something wet and flopping wildly in the tree. Summoning her courage, she reached in and pulled out a gasping silvery fish, which she cupped in her hands and stared at. If this is the Forest Spirit, it’s dying, she thought frantically as she ran to the river and dropped the fish in.
The fish swam just beneath the surface to where the drooping branches of the weeping willow tree brushed the water, and there, Ava saw two river otters bobbing and looking at her. “Forest Spirit?” she whispered at them. The otters began to dive and play with each other as if putting on a show just for her, and Ava stayed and watched them until she felt at peace again, until all the sediment from the day and its worries had settled to the bottom of her being, undisturbed on a riverbed, just like her therapist had told her to imagine. She stayed until sundown, and still the otters swam and splashed and she laughed with them, until it got dark and they waved goodbye to her, diving far below the surface until she turned to go home.
MARGARET KING is a Wisconsin writer who enjoys penning poetry, short stories, and young adult novels. In her spare time, she likes to haunt the shores of Lake Michigan, similar to many of her fictional characters. Her recent work has appeared in Scintilla Press, Unlost Journal, Moonchild Magazine, Verdancies, Poetry Superhighway, and The Ginger Collect. She is also the author of the novella Fire Under Water.