I begin this journal for the woman who will follow in my footsteps, because Ista, God rest her soul, did not jot one single word of help for me.
August 21st, 2009
Driving through the impenetrable woodlands of the mountain pass, I felt like I was the only person left on earth. The forest loomed over me in all directions, dark as twilight and choked with underbrush. There hadn’t been an exit for over ten miles, and the road seemed to narrow ahead, tapering away into oblivion.
I hoped I had enough gas to make it. The gauge in my two-door Toyota read half empty, and I still had hundreds of miles to go. Why anyone would plan a business retreat in the middle of no man’s land stumped my logic and reasoning beyond comprehension.
Titled, “Strategic Planning for the Success of Financial Assets,” this series of meetings was scheduled to shamble on for days. I’d be a fly in a horde of financial wasps, listening on the sidelines and bringing everyone coffee. My insignificance teased my soul. I wished I was more important, so I could actually make a difference in the world around me.
My parents had pushed me into banking. I loved the outdoors, hiking and swimming. Most of all, I absolutely adored children. As I pushed harder on the pedal, I wondered why I didn’t pursue a career in child care, or become a teacher? Why not a mountain ranger or a parks and recreation attendant?
If you want to make money nowadays, my father would say, you need to go into financial management. Yeah, well I’d suffered this entry position for three years now, and it hadn’t done much for me at all. In fact, I could barely afford my cramped one bedroom apartment in upstate New York.
The drive was getting to me, making me question every job decision I’d made in my life. Before I could talk myself out of my dreary mood, I saw a little brown clump in the road. At first I thought it was fallen leaves, but as I drove closer it moved of its own accord.
I veered the car and slammed on the breaks, tires squealing. Pens went flying and my blackberry crashed into the windshield. I cursed as my Toyota screeched to a dramatic halt on the side of the road. Settling down from the rush of the moment, I looked back in the rear window to see if I had hit the clump.
Surprisingly, it lay untouched. I squinted my eyes. The texture looked like feathers. In fact, the more I stared, the more it seemed like two fuzzy baby birds. What were the chances that two birds would wander out into the middle of the road? And the probability that I’d see them, swerve the car, and miss them was extraordinarily minute. Or at least I thought.
I checked my watch. I was doing well for time, and the morning meetings wouldn’t start for another three hours. I couldn’t leave the babies in the middle of the road, vulnerable to oncoming cars. I decided to get out for two minutes, pick them up, and put them on the side of the highway.
Ignoring an incoming call, I unbuckled my seatbelt and put on my paisley suit coat. The morning was chilly with a foggy mist and drizzle. I opened the door to the tangy smell of fresh foliage and burning wood. The air hung heavy and silent as if I teetered on the edge of the world.
I turned and checked the road in both directions. No signs of oncoming cars. I hurried over to the birds, high heels clacking on the pavement. They sat a few feet from the yellow line, directly in the middle of my lane. I shook my head in horror. If I hadn’t seen them, I would have driven right over their barely feathered bodies.
I bent down to pick one up, but the other moved as well, and I saw a string of homespun yarn tying them together.
Who would do such a cruel thing? I undid the knot. The birds chirped, anxious for rescue. I cradled them in my both my hands, making sure not to get droppings on my new suit, and walked to the side of the road.
Somehow, the spindly grass beside the pavement didn’t seem like the ideal place to leave the babies. I risked the chance they would run back into the road. I walked a little ways into the forest, cracking twigs and stumbling through underbrush.
I was about to put them down behind a log when I heard an answering peep deeper within the dense weave work of bows. If I took a few more steps, I’d leave them closer to their mother. Then, I’d know for sure they were safe. My motherly instinct took over. I was too invested now. I couldn’t walk back to my car and drive away without knowing that they were taken care of.
I looked back at my green Toyota for a reference point. I’d propped the car door open and the light inside was on. I could hear the four warning beeps issued when the seatbelt was unbuckled. The sound was alien to the quiet solitude of the forest.
My life would be insufferable if the battery died. I could picture myself calling my office coworkers to say I’d be late and then waiting on the side of the road for hours until a tow truck could get to me. But I thought this would only take a few more moments.
Branches scratched my pantyhose, leaving pulls. My designer heels stuck in the mud. Ready to give up and place the birds down, I heard the noise again. This time it was farther away, calling from the darkness of the inner woods.
Damn it. I pushed on despite the foliage blocking my sight of my car. My short, pencil shaped skirt ripped in the back when I widened my gait to climb over a log. A heel tangled on a leafy branch as I stepped over it and I landed with a thump in the leaves. The birds fell from my hands and plopped gently on the ground beside me. An answering peep came from the bushes hanging over my head. They hopped into the undergrowth and disappeared
Not that the birds had been any decent company, but somehow their absence made me feel alone and vulnerable. I put my hand out to spread the branches of the bush, peering in. Suddenly, I felt something small and warm grab my arm. I looked down in astonishment to see a tiny human shaped hand.
I froze, studying the slender arm and pale hand as if it were a poisonous barb. I struggled and let out a few curses, but another hand reached out, and another. Before I could pull away, the tiny hands tugged me into the bush with a strong yank.
Leaves rustled around me as I fell onto my back. I opened my eyes, half expecting to be killed or eaten.
A halo of round faces with large eyes, plump cheeks, and button-shaped noses peered down at me, their mouths forming an astonished ‘o’. I blinked, trying to adjust my skewed vision. But what I saw didn’t change.
They were too small and lean to be children, and too earthy to be mythical fairies or elves. Besides, they didn’t have pointed ears or wings. They were much too cute to be trolls and too exotic to be dwarfs. The beings wore homespun wool frocks and overalls and had frizzy hair that stood up on end. Their eyes shone uncommonly round and bright in the greenery of the woods, some with hues of the rainbow and others with more metallic colors like bronze, silver, and gold.
Two of them had the twin birds perched on their shoulders. They mimicked a peep, and the birds answered back, like they were communicating with each other. I realized with shock I’d been tricked and snared. But, looking into their charming faces, I found it difficult to be angry.
A female with white blonde hair, wearing a red cape with a hood came forward. Her eyes were a deep violet with long lashes that batted the air. I was astounded when she spoke in a little, chiming voice, “Will you help us?”
I could hardly bring myself to answer, “Help you?” My voice sounded like a low croak compared to the female’s musical cadence.
The little ones surrounding me nodded and pointed to the East. One especially small male with silver eyes that twinkled grabbed and tugged on my hand.
“With what?” I suddenly thought back to my car, my meeting, the outside world. I didn’t have time for unnecessary appointments.
“Ista” was all that the small female said. The others uttered the name in a chorus of echoes, each one looking worrisome and sad. I looked around me. What could I do? Leave them all there? Tell the newspaper? Anything besides helping them seemed cruel.
“All right,” I said, getting up and dusting soil off my skirt. “What can I do?”
One by one, they latched onto me, holding my hands, my skirt, my suit coat until most of them had a handhold. Their hands clung and tugged. Slowly and carefully they pulled my through the forest, a few of them hopping and skipping ahead to lead the way.
I’d given up on preserving my now muddied and scratched high heels and threw the plastic into the woods for the mice to nestle in. I thought I could change into sneakers when I got back to my car. Barefoot, I followed as they led my down a steep incline.
A sign painted with the letters Private Property was staked into the earth. I paused. I looked down at my leaders and admitted, “I’m not going past that sign.”
But they insisted, calling out, “Ista, Ista,” and pointing to the North. One of them jumped up and down, looking like she’d explode into a tantrum right on the spot. I sighed and allowed myself to be dragged. I’d come too far now to go back.
They trekked for miles until the forest broke and a clearing emerged on a bald spot of a foothill. A single, old log cabin, surrounded by a vegetable garden and wildflowers rested in the light of the morning sun.
“Ista! Ista!” they called, bringing me up the hill. A few of them broke free and ran in, leaving the door ajar. I approached warily, my weight creaking on the old wooden steps. I thought of the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood and wondered if this were another of their crafty traps, leading me to their leader to swallow me whole. Again, I looked down at their eager faces, but all I saw was concern and fear mingling with curiosity.
I stepped inside. Twelve little hooks stuck out from the wall, some empty, and others with coats small enough to fit dolls and hats the size of my palm. A woodstove heated the cabin in the corner, a thick stew boiling on top. A table, set with twelve ceramic bowls and twelve wooden spoons, was next to the woodstove. An adjacent room revealed a cozy den with a bookshelf, an old armchair, and an antique oil lantern. I counted the small human like people around me and only came up to eleven each time.
“Where’s Ista?” I said, finally understanding what they were talking about.
“Upstairs.” The red hooded female took my hand and led me up a rickety staircase. To one side was a room with small beds, all lined up with comforters made out of old fabric and straw. I took a step in, but the female tugged me the other way. Across from their bedroom was another room with a closed door.
“Ista.” She pointed to the wood.
A number of horror strewn images came to my mind. I thought of the wolf, wrapped in an old grandmother’s shawl, or one of the small people, hurt and bloodied by a hunter’s arrow or a metal trap. I stifled a shudder. I couldn’t stand the sight of blood. But they had asked for my help, and I would not disappoint them.
I knocked gently, but there was no answer. I opened the door sliver by sliver.
The room was dark, with curtains drawn to block out light. An antique dresser, a desk, a rocking chair, and a bed cluttered the small room. In the bed was the last thing I’d expected. An old woman, slight as a bird with wispy white hair and paper-thin skin lay wrapped in quilts.
I inched forward, “Ma’am, are you all right?”
The woman’s eyes remained shut and she barely breathed. She reminded me of my own grandmother who lived a staggering ninety two years before she passed away. Though, this woman looked even older. Her face was the color of old yellowed sheets, stretched taunt over hollow looking bones.
The hooded female had followed me into the room and stood behind me, holding onto the back ribbon of my paisley suit coat. She whispered, “Can you help?”
I felt my heart drop to my feet. There was nothing I could do. I thought about carrying her through the miles of forest to my car and driving my to a nearby hospital, but what would it do? It looked as though it were her time to pass on.
Suddenly the woman gasped as if she’d had a bad dream. She reached out grabbed my arm, pulling me close to her face.
“Ma’am, are you okay?”
But the woman wasn’t concerned about her own well being. She delved deep into my eyes until I thought she could see into my very soul. “You are a good person.”
She looked beyond me to the small female clinging to my suit coat, “Berrybee, get my papers, my quill, and some ink, too!”
The little person stood up straight, as if she were hit with lightning, nodded, then ran to the desk. She shuffled through the odds and ends in the top drawer until she found an old, yellowed paper with an official seal at the top. Running over to the old woman, she handed her the paper and an inked quill as well.
“What’s your name, Miss?”
It took me a moment to realize she addressed me again. “Beth. Beth Friedland.”
The little one echoed my name, “Beth.” Behind my, in the hallway, there was a chain of Beths as each little person tried out my name for the first time. One of the higher voices got it wrong, murmuring, “Bath,” and was corrected by a surge of irritated whispers.
“What year is it?”
I thought that was an odd question, “Why it’s 2009. How come?”
But the woman didn’t answer. She kept writing, although her eyes widened. The little people fidgeted behind me, distracting me from the old woman’s scribbles.
I knelt down next to Berrybee, “How long has Ista been with you?”
Berrybee looked down at her tiny fingers and started counting, wiggling each digit in the air. Her face wrinkled up with all the calculations before she looked up at me, proud to have an answer.
“Not long,” she frowned. “Ninety seasons.”
“Ninety Seasons?” When I turned back around, the old woman named Ista had finished scribbling with the quill.
“Promise me that you’ll look after them,” she beseeched, her old eyes watery and luminescent in the filtered light.
“What?” I didn’t know what was going on. Everything was going so fast. Just hours ago, I was driving to my business meeting. And now, here I was in the middle of the woods in a timeless house, surrounded by enchanting little people. It was as if I’d stumbled into a fairytale.
“Promise me,” Ista pleaded. “That you’ll be their mother.” She took my hand and squeezed until her old knuckles turned from white to red.
Suddenly her breathing changed. She sucked in sporadic gasps of air, as if she drowned and couldn’t get enough breath. Her eyes implored, “Please.”
“All right,” I said, taking the paper from my hands. “All right, I will.”
Despite her struggling, Ista smiled. A moment of calm settled in her eyes, and she relaxed into the bed.
“No, Ma’am, don’t fall asleep,” I started to panic. I’d never done CPR and had no medical training. There were so many questions needing to be answered, and I didn’t know where to start.
Ista’s eyes closed and her breathing stopped. Her skin grew lighter until she faded away and the quilts sunk into the bed. The papers she held spread like wings over the wooden floor.
I was astonished, but I did not have time to consider the magic any further. Behind me, meager sobs erupted as the little people realized their caretaker was gone. Overwhelmed with sympathy, I dropped to my knees and spread out my arms.
“It’s all right,” I said over and over. They came to me, clinging onto my arms, my suit, my hair. I comforted them as best I could, holding their little bodies close. Long moments later, they settled around me and fell asleep.
I picked up the papers Ista wrote on before she faded away. To my surprise, it was a birth certificate, dated back to 1891 and a will. Ista owned acres of land around the cottage. At the bottom of the paper, she’d signed it off to Beth Friedland. I was the sole inheritor of the estate and all that came with it.
I thought long and hard on the floor while the little ones whimpered and slept by my feet. I considered my life thus far, my goals, my belongings. It took only a moment for me to realize where my true destiny lay.
“Come on,” I whispered, waking them up gently. “Let’s go eat some of that stew.”