Come in, traveler, and shut the door behind you. The wind blows with a vengeance this time of year, and my coat is frayed and worn. Now, sit down and have some of this mulligan stew!
It is late, and stars speckle the sky like children dancing in a sea of ebony and burnished gold. It is the time of night when the spirits walk, when giants stalk the streets and witches climb aboard their brooms and cackle as they rise into the air. This is the time when stories come alive.
So let us run our fingers along the yarn that lines the loom of time, and peer through the spaces in between into a time long, long ago, into a tale that is not of our own, and yet maybe— possibly— is in fact our very story. Through the web of years and memories a forest appears, and in that forest walk two children…
Two children walk through the forest, enjoying the golden sunlight filtered green as it dances down between the tree trunks, hopping from leaf to leaf to illuminate the world around them. The first, a boy, hops over a twisted root and laughs to see a frog shoot away into the undergrowth. The second, a girl, runs to the bush to peer at the creature, but is distracted by the peal of bird song that permeates the air.
And the two children walk, and the sun rises, and life goes on. They do not talk much, except to laugh or to point out an interesting bug darting amongst the leaves, or perhaps to wonder at the dust particles that hang in a rare ray of sunlight shining unfiltered through the leaves, tiny spheres that spin in the glowing column of light. The boy says they are planets, worlds from another realm, that they are seeing something never before seen by any man: a rip in the fabric of the forest itself. The girl says that they saw the same thing just a few minutes ago back on the other side of that tree, silly.
The children have names; or perhaps they do not, but in the time they have known each other there have been some words that just seem right to say, and so the boy calls her Anna and the girl calls him Eon. They do not mean anything, these names: they are merely words, ripped from the air, from the trees, from the planets spinning in the rays of sunlight.
And so Anna and Eon walk through the forest, and life goes on.
After a while Eon sees a large and twisted tree in the distance: a great troll, guarding the way forward, demanding a toll from any travelers unlucky enough to stumble upon his path. But luckily the two of them have come prepared, and Eon has a sword. The troll is attacked by a friendly couple of sparrows, and Eon races forward to finish him off.
Anna runs forward beside him, and two warriors round the bend and see what the troll has been guarding all along: a river, of sparkling blue and alabaster-tinted foam, with great waves that crash upon the banks in a roar that drowns out the warriors’ cries. It passes under a bridge across the path that must be the troll’s home, because as everyone knows, the under-sides of bridges are where trolls live. You will not threaten this land any longer! Eon yells, and throws himself at his foe.
The two cut at him easily, taking the creature down with barely a sweat. Anna steps to the side to let Eon land the final blow, and he screams his throat raw as he races to the beast— but his foot catches in one of the troll’s lengthy feet, and he topples over the root into the river.
Anna throws down her stick and runs to the river, and pulls Eon from its depths minutes before he is swept all the way to the ends of the Earth. He is shivering, soaked, and frozen to the bone, but he thanks her courteously as all knights must do when saved from being carried off to the edge of the world, and dissolves into laughter when they realize that the troll let them through without even asking them his usual riddle.
Anna and Eon continue through the forest, and the sun dries Eon’s clothes.
At length night begins to fall: it gets dark below the trees, and the night animals slink out of their homes, creatures with glowing eyes and chattering teeth. Anna whimpers as they surround them, but Eon laughs. He plucks a berry from a bush and gives it to her, clutching her hand in his and holding it up, and Anna freezes as a wet tongue rasps at her hand. As their eyes adjust to the darkness, she sees they are merely surrounded by a circle of small furry creatures, and a fox that licks her hand once more, seeking for any remaining berry juice.
See, says Eon. There is nothing to worry about. We have already killed a troll. We have braved the river to the edges of the Earth. We are invincible!
They share a meal of berries and mushrooms in the starlight, surrounded by plants and friendly woodland creatures. As they drift off to sleep, Anna murmurs, that if they really are invincible, then they will have to live forever. Eon says, Good. I don’t want to ever have to face the trolls alone.
That night, they agree to always stay together. They decide that when they take their last breath they will do it side by side, and then they spit and shake on it and the fox is the witness and the stars promise to hold them to it. Then Eon stretches out on the ground and Anna follows suit, and they drift off to sleep with smiles on their faces.
And so the years pass. Trees grow and fall, and animals creep through the underbrush, but the forest remains much the same. It is the children, as they find one day to their surprise and astonishment, who have changed.
It is Anna who decides they need to leave first. No longer are they scared of eyes in the dark, or thrash about in rivers that might lead to the very edges of the planet itself. No: they have met with all the animals, seen them live and die, and journeyed the entire length of the river and back. The forest holds no secrets anymore.
Eon tells stories of the great gods of the trees, of the armies of turtles and snakes that clash endlessly through the long grasses of the Great Clearing, of the foxes who sail down the river in tiny boats and deliver messages all across the forest. But Anna has heard them all, and even when he comes up with new ones she has already heard them too.
So one day they approach the edge of the forest, the one place they have never gone before.
Eon reminds her that there they were going to climb the tallest tree that day, that they were going to chase sparrows through the gnarled branches, but Anna reminds him that they did that a week ago. There will be stories to tell on the other side of the tree line, she says. There will be monsters to fight and planets to explore.
Eon says that he wants to stay, and Anna whispers that she cannot go by herself.
They stand side by side as they approach the tree line, and push aside the branches together, and gaze upon the landscape as one. What they see is a plain: waving with tall grasses, dotted by stunted trees as far as their eyes can see, and above them, open sky. Sky going on for forever.
Anna looks at the ground, and tells Eon that this is not so bad, not so different from the forest. It is just like a larger Great Clearing! Think of the turtle armies that must fight in this domain. But Eon can only stare at the sky, so much more vast than anything they have ever seen before, so big they can get lost in it; and he fears that they already have, and knows in his heart that everything has changed.
Anna promises him that they will only spend a day out here, and then they will return to their forest.
And so two older children walk through the world, crossing from plain to mountain to valley and everything in between, wondering at the places around them, at the huge beasts that tower over them and jump around on two powerful hind legs, at the strange white substance that falls around them when they climb to the top of the rocky peaks, at the steep slope that they skid down on the far side, tiny rocks leaping away from them as they pass.
There are many things that remind them of their home, many things: tiny frogs burping and croaking amongst the leaves, rain pattering upon their skin as the sky grows dark and leathery. But Eon knows it is all different. The frogs are larger, wartier. The rain does not trickle off of leaves but rather splats with a thud upon the splintered mountain rocks.
And then one day, as they walk along a sparkling river that flows across a valley dipped between two towering mountains, they find a metal city walking towards them.
A carriage lowers down and carries them up, and they meet other people for the first time in a very, very, very long while.
Eon strikes up a conversation with a kid named Jan Green, and they go to Jan’s house, which is perched in a nook atop the metal surface, a shack bolted to the ground with tape and wires. Eon revels to hear that this is where Jan sleeps, where Jan eats, where Jan spends the entire day— sometimes never even leaving! He laughs when it is revealed that this is how everyone lives on the metal city, and when Jan protests that it is not a joke, he leans in close and demands to hear everything.
Anna is there too, but she does not laugh. She cannot see the sun in the city, cannot see the wide open sky that she lost herself in so long ago. Eon looks about with wonder in his eyes when he realizes that he stands in one of his own childhood stories, but Anna is sure he never spun a tale of a place such as this.
They stay in the city for some time, as it walks up and down the valley, and Anna wanders the crowded, darkened streets as Eon tells stories of their forest to Jan. Jan’s eyes widen at the tales of trolls crouched over bridges, of glowing eyes in the night, and puts a hand up in disbelief at the thought of wandering through endless trees, at the image of sunlight filtering down amongst the translucent leaves.
At last one night, Anna, laying on the cold metal roof of Jan’s shack, whispers to Eon that they can go back to their forest now. She has seen enough of the world: she liked it, but she remembers her promise and knows they have been away for far too long. She nearly cries with relief when Eon agrees it is time to go back.
The next day Eon says goodbye to Jan. He whispers that he wishes he could stay, but Anna does not like the city. She hates it so much that she offered to go back to their forest, and Eon knows that she is sacrificing much indeed. He tells Jan what he does not tell her, that he has finally caught up with Anna and moved on from their old home. But Anna’s offer shows just how much she needs to leave.
Jan waves from the shack as Eon and Anna go down in the carriage, and Eon quietly gestures onward, in the opposite direction of their forest. He and Anna share a look, each see that the other understands, and then they continue on their way.
And so the years pass on. The lands change and the seasons change, and the children change along with it, and so it comes to be that one day, as far away from their childhood home as they have ever gone, the two old friends sit in a house they have built in a foreign woods, and Eon drinks tea he has learned how to make in their travels and recalls the people and places that they have met on the way. Anna smiles whenever he sneaks in something that had not happened, embellishes a tale to make it just that much more interesting, but she does not say anything. Birds fly past their window and sunlight filters in through the crossed branches that serve as their ceiling, because even after all their travels there are some habits they have not been able to break.
As they spread blankets and lie out on the forest floor that night, Eon whispers to Anna that she was right. They have lived forever.
They are invincible, Anna replies, and they fall asleep.
The next day Eon wakes up with a cough, and the sky is cold and leathery with rain.
And so the years creep along their path, though now they are days that twist slowly into weeks and even more slowly into months, as Eon grows gray and frail and clings to life with an ever-slowing breath. He smiles in the morning and talks of foxes that sit with him when Anna forages for food, but his voice is weakened and the stories are short. Anna builds him a bed in the house, for he can no longer sleep on the bumpy forest floor, and she takes long walks— alone— to the edge of the tree line, to gaze up for long soulless moments at the endless sky; but no longer she does crave to venture forth into it: she can finally understand what Eon saw in those early days so many years ago, that the sky is not really a plain to explore but is instead a vast ocean to get lost in, especially if one is facing it alone.
At night Anna whispers that they are invincible, and Eon repeats that they will live forever, but it is with a wry and sad smile on his face, and Anna has to admit that she knows it is not true. And then one night there are no more stories in the morning, and Anna decides that she will lose herself in the sky, actually, and she leaves the forest that afternoon.
And now they could be years, or perhaps they could be minutes, because the truth is it does not really matter. Anna crosses the mountains, sleeps in the plains, wanders through the canyons and stares for hours into the waves crashing relentlessly upon the beach: she does not think anymore about the past, or the future, because there is nothing more to think about. She bends down, aching now in her old age, picking up a shiny pebble and throwing it into the sea. The endless blue of the ocean is in front of her, the endless sky is above, and she feels overwhelmed, enveloped by infinity and emptiness.
The world is too vast and empty now, so Anna decides to return to the metal city.
The carriage is already lowered when she gets there, so she raises it herself. She steps onto the metal surface to find it empty. The city is abandoned. Jan’s shack still stands, but its inhabitants are gone. There is no one left, and the city sits still and sad and functionless.
At first Anna thinks of war, or famine, but inside Jan’s shack she discovers a pile of papers, all marked with the words, Join the Great Expedition to Explore the Wilds!, decorated with pictures of trolls and trees and foxes. Anna remembers stories told in the darkness and smiles, and a single tear makes its way down her face. She leaves the city and continues on once again.
Now Anna is old and worn: her joints creak when she moves and she finds it hard to stand up in the morning. Everything is blurry out of one eye. But still she recognizes the snow-covered mountain, and then the plain filled with stunted trees, and last of all the distinctive tree line itself.
Anna looks around at the plain behind her and remembers turtle armies and a Great Clearing, and a promise she made so many years ago. She knows it is not the same, really, but she realizes she is sort of fulfilling that promise now. It has been longer than a day, and the one she made the promise to is no longer with her, but Anna has finally returned to the forest.
The forest has not changed in the countless years since they left: trees tower and animals slink through the underbrush, turtles and frogs and birds Anna has not seen for a lifetime crawl and jump and fly around her. She sees an unbroken ray of sunlight and the first thing that pops into her mind is Planets. She wanders under a troll and throws sticks into the river that flows to the edges of the world.
As night falls and glowing eyes appear in a circle all around her, welcoming Anna back home, she can see the question in their expressions. Where is Eon? Weren’t they both supposed to be immortal?
Out of all the things Anna has remembered over the years, a line she had long forgotten only now pops back into her head. Another promise, one two young and laughing children had spat and shook on, had solemnly asked the stars to hold them to it. They had left those stars, Anna knows, and perhaps they had journeyed too far out of their reach. But in her heart she pictured Eon’s smiles in their roofless cabin far away, and knew that the stars had seen enough. They had held them to their promise, in their own way, in the end.
Anna closes her eyes, there in the darkness, and though she does not know it she is in the same place two children had closed their eyes a lifetime ago. She whispers to herself:
We are invincible. We will live forever.
When we take our last breath we will do it side by side.
And then spit
And the fox is the witness and the stars will hold us to it.
Because I don’t want to ever have to face the trolls alone.
In her mind, two little children lie down side by side, and the stars look away respectfully as they take their last breath and the world fades away forever.