In a far distant and long forgotten land, there stands a great forest. An ancient power is said to live within, fed into the earth through deep and powerful roots. The vastness of the strange forest covers a mountain from its base to its peak, brushing the clouds. If you were to visit it, what you would find would depend entirely on where you came from and where you stepped inside. If you came from the plains to the north, no matter the position of the sun or the turn of seasons, you would find bare and frosted branches. Snowflakes might be tossed around, like perfect white feathers in the air, before landing on your coat, or – if you were unprepared – melt upon meeting the warmth of your skin.
If you came from the shores to the west your boots or soft soled sandals would find their way through dry leaves, crackling orange, red, and yellow sparks around your ankles. At the southern boarder a hot breath of sun baked air would welcome you, though with the heat would come full leaves of emerald green, casting deep shade to rest in. Finally, from the east you would discover a forest brimming with life. Plants would unfurl at your feet, fresh and shining in their infancy. Flowers would be just beginning to bud and the creeks would be running full with fresh rain water.
Just outside this final eastern edge, in a valley between one mountain and the next, there stood a village called Aulkura. It was a small and isolated affair, but strong and sturdy and old enough that even then, nobody alive could remember a time before it had grown old. One year, many decades ago, Aulkura fell into a long, deep winter. Night after night, snow tumbled from the heavens, settling upon itself as it draped the valley in white. Roofs were laden and creaking with ice, cold air cutting mercilessly through any crevice it could find. The passage from the valley was thick with snow and, try as they might, impassable. The crops were long dead and supplies of food, as well as medicine, were running low. The people did all they could, but as the cold dragged on hope of survival seemed to dwindle.
In a home on the outskirts of the village a young boy had grown very ill. His mother was preparing to send his sister to fetch the doctor when the little girl asked, “Ma, why don’t we just go to the forest where it is still warm?”
“Don’t go near the woodland, Irska,” her mother said. “Sorcery is the only thing keeping those plants alive, and it poisons them.” Irska did not understand, but her mother’s expression was dire and she knew when to hold her tongue.
Her mother wrapped Irska in her warmest purple cloak, and reminded her again to go straight to the doctor’s house. Though, despite her mother’s warning, when the door closed behind her she did not go to fetch the doctor.
She knew the doctor had been called to help Miss Elena, but Miss Elena was gone. Irska did not want her brother to be buried in the snow like Miss Elena. She did not want to say goodbye to him, so she knew what she must do.
It did not take long for her to reach the forest’s border, less time than it should have taken to be sure, but soon she was stepping from the last drifts of snow onto soft brown earth. Little sprigs of grass and tiny flowers leapt up to meet her and the flakes of snow melted from her clothes until they were nothing but a distant memory. She stepped carefully over brightly colored toadstools and patches of wild clover, beginning her journey toward the glow of the sun.
Irska, who had spent so many days in the shelter of her village looking over the fields and wondering what it would be to walk the forest floor, was now a brush-stroke of violet in a landscape of green and yellow. She marveled at the glowing plants and wide-eyed animals who knew too little of humanity to run and hide when she passed by. It was in studying one of these creatures, a shiny silver squirrel, that Irska noticed a root breaching the damp soil. She had climbed over many a twisted, knuckled strand of tree already, but none compared to the one she saw now. Only a small part was visible, and yet it was almost as wide as Irska was tall. When she reached down she could feel it was warm to the touch. From it came a soft golden glow. She knew then, if she could only find the tree the root belonged to, she would find what she came for.
“I will find the sun, Miguel, and I will bring it back to make you better.”
Irska followed the root on a twisting and turning path, but the longer she walked the more unsure she became. Despite her best efforts, young Irska could not remember how long she had traveled or from which way she had come. The only direction she had was the root at her feet and the growing fear for her brother, tightening like a fist around her little heart. She picked up speed until she was skipping over rocks and dashing past bushes so quickly their little branches whipped against her arms and legs.
Finally she found it. Behind a tangle of roots even bigger than the one she followed, stood the tree’s massive trunk, rising into the canopy above like a strong and graceful god. A steady yellow light pulsed from within the bark of the great tree, as if with a life of its own.
Irska wasted no time pulling off her boots and stockings, and began to climb the nearest root. When she reached the top of one she climbed to the next until she was standing atop them all, looking towards the trunk. It curved out of sight in either direction, and if she had followed it all the way around, Irska would have passed through all the forest’s seasons.
Just ahead of where she stood, there was a high archway carved into the tree’s trunk. It looked dark, but a golden light beckoned Irska in. She took a deep breath, summoning all her courage, and walked inside the ancient tree. She followed a corridor thats walls stretched high above her, so high even the yellow glow couldn’t reach the top.
When she rounded a final corner a second archway came into view, this one bathed in warm, comforting light. The end in sight, Irska ran the rest of the way, but as she reached the end of the narrow path, the vastness that opened before her stopped her dead in her tracks. The sheer size of it dwarfed poor Irska, and for a moment, she felt so terribly small and helpless she wanted nothing more than to turn and run away. She wanted to keep running until cold and hunger wrapped their arms around her once more.
That was when she saw the man made of golden light. He looked as terribly small as she felt. He sat in the center of the great hollow, his arms resting on folded legs and his eyes closed. The sight of his calmness brought a sudden shame to Irska as she remembered her promise to her brother.
Having overcome her fear, she entered the glowing hall, and padded toward the golden man. He was much further away than the time it took her to reach him. She saw he wore lose linen clothes and his hair fell to his shoulders in white waves – his long beard like a cloud that had gotten lost on its way to the sky. She sat down across from him, mirroring his position. Soon his eyes flickered open.
“What brings you here, my child,” he asked, fixing her with an amber gaze.
Irska knew he was the one who kept the forest warm, she knew it was his light that brought the spring, so she begged him to help her village, but he only shook his head. It was not within his power to do so.
“I am not what you think, dear child. Because of me spring arrives, but it is also because of me that winter lingers. Do you know why your mother warns you away from this place?” Irska shook her head.
“Because sometimes people wander into this wood and they never leave. They are not lost, but they are afraid – afraid of the passing of time. They stay here because time does not pass in this forest, but even as they hide, their friends and family are left to wonder what happened to them. Those who cower in fear leave the rest of the world to face their fate alone. They do not die, but without time they do not live.”
Irska was silent for a long time, trying to understand. Finally, she said,
“If I brought my brother here, I would never have to say goodbye.”
“If you brought him here now he would not die, but he would not get better. He would remain sick forever.” Irska knew how much Miguel hated being stuck in bed, how much he longed to go outside and play with her again. She didn’t know if it would be helping him to bring him to this place.
“Who are you?” she asked, looking past the golden light at the aged man before her.
“I am Father Time. I wandered here once, but now I stay, as a vessel for time, so that it can reach the whole world – so that no one has to be sick forever; so that no one has to live on while their loved ones age and fall away; so that spring comes to every village eventually. I am the guardian of time so that no one else has to be.”
Irska knew then that she would not bring her brother here, and that there was nothing she could do to bring the sun back before it was going to come. She saw Father Time for what he was, a kind old man who had spent such a very long time all by himself.
“I have to go now, but I will come back. I promise.” She did not fully understand her own decision then, but she would come to. She returned home to Aulkura, to her mother and her brother, but she kept her word. She sat in the tree again the very next month when her brother died. Spring finally arrived and flowers grew over his grave, so she went and told Father Time about their beautiful colors. She visited many times when nothing at all had happened, and again when her mother passed. She would walk, and climb, and sit, and they would talk and smile. The more she came, the less sadness could be read from the lines around the old man’s eyes.
Until one day, when she had lived well, Irska made the long journey to their tree, and she did not leave. Not long after, an old man with amber eyes stumbled from the strange, timeless wood, and made his way to a nearby village.
So if you ever find yourself taking your time for granted, or wishing you had more, remember the forest and the village, and the girl who made both her home. Remember she still waits there, bleeding her endless life into the world; Mother Time.