I was born in a castle at the edge of an ancient forest. My father and his brother, and their father and his father and all their fathers before them had guarded that land and tended the path through the trees.
My father was wide and hearty. In his winter furs, he looked like nothing so much as a huge bear, reaching out to embrace you with his crushing arms. My mother was like a birch tree: slim and silver, swaying to a breeze no one else could feel, lit by a light no one else contained. My father and I adored her.
And then there was my uncle, who seemed cut out of the stone of the castle. The same honey-gold color, the same pitted surface. Even his eyes were the grey-green of the lichen on the walls.
The castle itself was not beautiful. Built for defense, it had no charm about it. My mother had imposed a kind of coziness on it: flowers and polish and fires in every fireplace. But it was still bare and drafty, the home of those whose charge lies outside its walls.
The one lovely place was the tower which rose at the northwest corner, looking out over the forest and the road. It had an arched window framed with twisting pillars and at the top a roaring lion—an amazing flight of fancy. There was even a small balcony where you could step out and eat a honey cake while you watched the sky and dreamed.
When I was old enough to wonder, I asked about the tower, who planned it and carved the lion. My father said it was a long ago ancestor, less sensible than the rest of my family. They didn’t ban me from it, though, and that was all I needed. I made it my own, kept my few treasures and a store of apples there. I leaned against the pillars and stared at the forbidden forest and, gradually, began to dream of the day a prince would ride up the path and whisk me away.
In the winter of my fifteenth year, two things happened. My father died, in a hunting accident, of the sort where you can only shake your head and imagine that everyone involved was willfully stupid. That’s if you’re outside it. If it’s your father, you cry and scream and refuse to speak to your uncle, because he was there and he should have done something. You see your mother’s grace broken like a fragile twig.
And I realized for the first time that my father and my uncle were meant to guard the land against the forest. I had always been forbidden to go near it and, content in my warm world, I had not tested my limits. I might stare at the trees, but I was waiting for someone to come out of them; I felt no call in my heart, enticing me in. Now my father had died in the shadow of its branches and no one in the castle made any secret of their fear. I saw for the first time the patterns that my uncle rode, making lines in the snow, trying to keep something out, trying to keep us safely in. Trying to keep the shadows away.
Time went on, and my father’s death became a familiar companion, the sometimes ache of a bone broken and badly healed. I grew restless, full of questions I could not even voice. Full of wishes I could not name. The castle became colder, more barren. Only my tower was a haven, and I spent my days there. So I did not notice my uncle becoming more definite, more sure of himself in my father’s absence. Nor did I notice my mother melt away in the sun of her grief. I only had eyes for the mist-ridden road than ran beneath the twisted roots.
On my sixteenth birthday, I found out what the castle guarded against.
No one had marked the day; I hardly noticed myself. But at sundown, when we gathered in the courtyard before dinner, they came. Tall and slim, like birches. I don’t mean the color of their skin, because some of them were as dark as southerners. But they had the luminous quality that I remembered in my mother, that I saw kindling in her now. My breath stopped as she walked toward them and they reached out for her, closed her into their circle. Beside me, my uncle was stiff with anger and helplessness. I only felt a deep longing. “Take me with you,” my heart was crying as they faded away together.
My uncle swung on his heel and strode away into the dim hall, snapping at the servants. And I? And I went to my tower, to think about the fact that there were fairies in the forest, that my mother was one of them. That she had come out of those trees when she was never supposed to, and that now she had gone back again. And I felt my longing overflow, like a spring rush breaking through a dam.
I am writing this on a scrap, which I will tuck away in my tower. Tomorrow I will pack a bag and leave the castle behind. Perhaps I will come back someday; perhaps I will laugh at the plans I had once. For now, there is nothing for me here, nothing in the patterns my uncle makes.
So goodbye to the tower, and the castle. Goodbye silly dreams of princes and longing sighs. The truth of the wood is better than my daydreams, I think, and I am ready to find it for myself.
I am not afraid of the people who live in the forest; after all, we are kin. I will follow the tangled trees and misty path until I find the place at the end of that road. Until I find home.