The woods were broken, Willa decided. The woods were broken, and she didn’t know how to fix them.
The Earth always died when December came, but she still found a beauty in it then. Willa lived for the crunch of frosted grass underfoot, and a cold scent sitting heavy in the sky. It came after the first snow melted, but before the second and third and many thereafter which compounded into the formidable white sheet that made Massachusetts winters what they were.
Willa was eight, and was allowed to wander the woods on her own. There must have been a time before, one where her mother and father doggedly looked after her every step, but she couldn’t remember it. When Willa stepped off the school bus, her father was still at work, and her mother played with her baby brother Toby. She dropped her bookbag on the couch before and pulling her sneakers back on and running off until dinner, banana in hand.
Unlike her past adventures, this day’s walk was muted. What’s worse, she took nature’s silence for granted, and found it to be something that made sense. Willa had forgotten how to listen. There were chipmunks scrambling between branches overhead, but Willa stumbled through the rotting logs without once looking up. Her class was taking a field trip the next day, and she was carefully weighing whether Lucas or Bea would be a better bus buddy. On patches of dirt along her path she passed iterations of her closest confidante, Edward the Newt, without so much as a glance in his direction.
The further she got from home, the more her enthusiasm waned. She drew her sweatshirt sleeves over her fingertips, and the wind carried nips to her ears, not stories.
A plank carried Willa across a spot of pond. She crossed it often, and sometimes even dipped her toes off the edge so that they could grace the lily pads. Willa’s breath was raspy, and she could feel all the work it took to bring the frozen air to her lungs. She sat, and all she saw beyond her were tones of gray and beige.
In class, Lucas had been bragging about how he could skip a stone five times over, so Willa brought over a handful of pebbles with which to practice. The first skipped once before sinking, with a destabilizing ripple on the water’s surface. The second landed next to a dragonfly, which flew off in panic as the stone plunged straight into the water’s depths.
She turned the third pebble between her thumb and forefinger, before extending her right arm way out over the water, her right foot raised like a ballerina mid twirl. Her left one gave out, and with an sudden sharpness Willa’s heat was stolen.
She stood out of the water, which was only waist deep, shivering. Her palms were scratched and swelling, and her chest started to heave. Willa looked out along the landscape she had disrupted with anger. For the first time, she saw no beauty in the scene.
The woods were broken, so Willa walked home.