The young girl and her critter creatures hung high from a suspended tree log above the great forest. Above her was only brush; below was a world of wonder. It was the only world she had ever known. The trees around her stood taller than the largest towers ever built by Man. Spiralling around them were staircases of wood. Yes, they were made of wood, for nothing was introduced into the forest, save for Man and their Machines.
But those things would leave in time. They were never permanent fixtures in this place, in the great and mighty and wondrous forest of eternal splendour. The forest’s floor was dotted with huts and shacks made of wood and twig and earth. Everything made by them in the forest was made from the forest itself. They did not take; they only reshaped and replaced.
The light shone through the leaves only in sporadic bursts, creating a dimly lit ambience. All around the trees and their spiral staircases were glowing embers, just bright enough to illuminate the darkness below the canopy. This was a place that was never dark, nor was it ever truly bright. It was… a pleasant dimness, but it was never difficult to see, for the forest broke apart and retreated into a vast meadow just to her south.
“This is my place.” She affirmed to herself.
It was now the time of day in which the sun would set in the south, causing brilliant rays of sunshine to peer through the edge of the forest. Beneath the girl, the forest was bisected by a thin river that ran the length of the entire wood itself. It was through this watery passage the foreign Men of the Grey Places would come. Some came to take. Some came to gawk. But none came to stay. On that day, there were three passing the steam all at once. Three boats! Typically they travelled alone, or on the odd day, two would happen to sail through on the same day at once. Three was a rarity, and she had never seen four or more though the elders speak of days long past when the Grey Men of the North sent great lines of boats in straight lines through the river. But this was a time before the little girl. Today, there were three boats in her ken.
She watched for a moment as the ships glided across the river like water striders. It was almost serene to her. But there was that feeling in her gut she could discern. There was a strange churning in her gut. From atop her swing suspended from the tree tops, they looked like logs floating downstream. But she knew this was only a deception. They were machines. They were the foreign devices of Man.
A great gust hit her back from the North, rocking her log swing ever slightly. Looking down, the young girl was filled once more with disgust. She could no longer bear the sight of the boats below. The wind had spurred her into action.
With a powerful heave, she swung the swing back against the wind, bringing it closer to the nearby platform. All in an instant, she lifted her legs from where they were dangling and mingling in the air and stood up on her two feet. She balanced atop the thin log as the critter creatures fled and leapt to the nearby tree. She leapt as well, landing squarely on the platform. Then the young girl lifted her skinny legs and sprinted straight across the platform and toward the wood bridge that wrapped itself around the trees and across the space betwixt them. Finally, she leapt off of the bridge, soaring briefly through the air before catching onto an upward sprouting root that had begun coiling about the bark. She did this all without breaking a sweat or showing even the slightest hesitancy, for this was a dance she had danced many times before. She was a girl of the greatest forest in all the land; their people could move about the trees with greater grace and skill than that of the critter creatures themselves.
She slid down the root and planted her feet on the terra firma once more. It was the first time her bare feet had touched the soil in a couple of days. Breaking into a sprint once more, those feet squished in the damp mud underfoot as she felt the cool breeze running against her cheeks. The young girl ran alongside the riverbank until she had finally caught up to the boat farthest back. Unlike the others, this one was lazily drifting along, leaving a faint trail of ripples behind it. This one was not propelled by any device or machine. There was a single person in the boat. It was a woman. Pushing against the stream rhythmically with a simple wooden oar, the woman hummed to herself. Annoyed, the girl of the forest waved and shouted at her.
“Hey you! Yes, I know you. You’re a Woman of the Grey Places. No doubt.”
The woman continued to hum and swayed in the breeze like the leaves falling all around them.
“Did I not catch your attention, Woman of the Grey Place?”
The woman looked up, pushing back her conical hat and revealing a face slightly wrinkled and a smile that was altogether warmer and brighter than sunshine.
“Why yes, you did, young one. But more than that. You caught my admiration.”
“Your what?” The young girl tilted her head as her face formed a puzzled expression.
“Yes, my admiration. I saw you dancing amongst the branches above, and now I must say, you’ve caught my admiration. Would you like to know what that is?”
The girl stood still as the ship continued to float downstream ever so slightly. Finally, she nodded her head in silence. The woman offered a hand and another smile, but the child rejected the gesture, choosing instead to leap from the forest floor and into the humble vessel. Her feet hit the deck with a loud thud, causing it rock wildly for a moment. The woman laughed as water splashed onto their shins.
“Now will you tell me what you mean, Woman of the Grey?”
She placed a firm hand on her shoulder. “Admiration is…” She paused and took a deep breath through her nostrils.
“It’s when you love something very much.”
“Then why didn’t you just say that?” The girl pushed the hand away as she spoke.
“Because it’s a different kind of love, dear. It’s a special love.”
The woman looked at the surrounding scenery wistfully. “This is a special place, after all. It’s a place that I admire. I hold it in my heart and remember it with great joy. From time to time, I like to sail through this stream, just to gaze at these woods. The trees are an awesome sight, when viewed from the river.
“Well, the Elders say this land used to be nothing but forest, that the Great Forest covered every inch of the world. Even the Grey Places!”
“Yes, I think there is some truth to that dear,” She said, not averting her gaze from the windswept leaves above. “My father came here too, in his youth. As did his father, and every father in my family. But they only came to take, I think.”
“Then why don’t you stay here if you love it so much?”
“Because this is not just love, my child. It is admiration. In time, that love would fade and the forests would cease to be a wonder but would instead become an old, tired familiar place. I want to admire this place only in passing. That way, it will always be a place of beauty in my heart.”
“Old and tired like you, you mean?”
The middle-aged woman chuckled to herself slightly. “Yes, I suppose that’s an accurate assessment. Tell me, did my presence here bother you?”
The young one her shook her head. She wanted to say yes, but suddenly that seemed to be the incorrect response. It felt as though all of the animosity and bitterness had left her at that moment. She found those feeling replaced with a burning desire. She sorely wanted to understand this “admiration” that the older woman carried in her heart. “Ma’am, where are you headed?”
“Towards one of the Grey Places, of course. Then it will be back again through the steam to return to my home.” “What is it like there?”
“Well, they’re large and sprawling and bustling and teeming and overflowing with all kinds of life!” The woman became animated as she described the places to her.
“Like the forest?”
“Yes, I… I suppose you could say that.”
The child looked up and stared into the woman’s face with a look of what could only be described as pure innocence. “Then, won’t you take me to one of these Grey Forests?”
The old woman’s smile never faded. She nodded but once and with that, the child’s face was teeming with pure happiness. She leant against the short wooden railing at the front of the craft and stared Southward into the setting sun. She had never felt this feeling before, of discontent and wonder. She wanted to see what lie past the vast meadow beyond the wood. She wanted to see the Grey Places and the large rivers past them.
“Tell me, Grey Woman, are there other forests like this one?”
“Yes, but there is no place in the world just like this. I think there’s beauty in every inch of the world. You’ll see it in the “Grey Place”, perhaps.“
The young girl’s eyes widened as the forest retreated behind her. Grassy meadowland lie ahead of her now.
“If I go to the Grey Place with you, you must make a promise.” The girl suddenly spouted, crossing her arms as she spoke.
“Oh, and what is that, my dear?”
“You must return and plant a sapling with me. I don’t think it’s enough to simply ‘admire’ this place. You shouldn’t just take or admire. You should give.”
“Perhaps you are right, child. Perhaps I too will contribute to our place.”
“I’d like that very much.” The girl’s voice took on a pleasant tone.
Far behind them, the village elder leant over the railing of a platform on the edge of the forest. The young girl would certainly miss the night’s dinner; and surely the breakfast after that; and likely the luncheon afterwards; and perhaps even the dinner of tomorrow. But he paid it no mind. This was a dance that had been danced many times before. Whether the young girl would return to stay in their place amongst the trees was ultimately her decision.