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Heart and Bone

What the Forest Said to Zazhina Finley

By Scott C LillardPublished 2 months ago Updated 2 months ago 9 min read
Second Place in Whispering Woods Challenge

Worst. Birthday. Ever.

Thirteen was supposed to be exciting. A time of beginnings, endings. A rite of passage, a door to individuality and maturity. She was supposed to be surrounded by friends and family, not alone in the mud on the forest floor. Well, she was not entirely alone; there was the voice. That almost made it worse.

Do not be afraid,” the voice seemed to say again. But it was not a voice. It did not really “say” anything. Zazh breathed deeply, staring at the tapestry of deep greens, blues, and hints of yellow above her, which completely obscured her view of the sky. Though the sun was not visible, it was never completely dark in these woods. The trees themselves seemed to provide light, though there were no noticeable signs of lights or other bioluminescence. Still, this absolute isolation from the world outside had made Zazh feel unusually panicked. She loved this forest. It was a second home to her. Sometimes it felt more like a first home. Lying in the mud, incapacitated, however, changes perspective on one’s surroundings. But she was told not to be afraid. She had been told to breathe.

In. Out. In. Out.

Her breathing was steady now; not labored and broken as it had been when she had first fallen, an hour or two ago. She had not screamed. She had been thinking in the instant after her foot had caught on the exposed root, this is my fault; I wasn’t careful enough. If she had not been so distraught, she might have paid closer attention to her surroundings. But she had been down this path countless times and did not remember that root sticking out the way it was. At first, Zazh had been sure she had fractured both her wrist and something in her leg. The pain that had encompassed her had made her realize for the first time in her short life why a person would beg for death. Right now, however, she felt no pain. She might even call it “comfortable.” Was she dying?

As though sensing this thought, the glow that was not a glow seemed to become denser, but also softer, warmer, and the voice that was not a voice repeated, “Do not be afraid.” Though it was certainly not a voice, there was something about it that seemed gentler this time, nurturing, whereas before it had felt matter of fact, more commanding. If only Minn were here. But Minn was the reason Zazh had run out here in the first place. Suddenly, for the first time since entering the forest today, Zazh’s eyes filled with tears.

In some ways, Minn and Zazh were opposites. While Minn’s hair was an ethereal white-gold and her skin a soft cream, Zazh had the complexion of rich, freshly tilled earth and hair the color of dark roasted coffee. Rather than contrast, however, their appearances seemed to complement one another, a bond that was strengthened by Minn’s dark eyes and Zazh’s light ones. Her mother used to say Zazh’s eyes were the color of desert sand at twilight. “Zazhina,” she would say when Zazh’s temper would rise, “what storms are your desert bringing today?” This usually had the effect of bringing “the storm” more quickly. Around Zazh, the din of the forest seemed to dampen, as though every bird and every flower were following her train of thought.

Today her eyes brought no storms, but held their own, a silent rain pooling between dunes where one might have expected wind and thunder. Zazh could not keep her thoughts from Minn, though Minn was the last thing she wanted to think about. For every way in which Minn and Zazh were different, there were ten ways in which they were similar. They loved the same songs, laughed at the same absurdities, were swept in by nature at a level deeper than anyone else they knew. This was why, of all the friends Zazh had ever had, Minn was the only person she had ever brought here, to her forest, and it had been here, among a cluster of ancient cypress, that they had shared their first kiss. Zazh shuddered slightly with nostalgic pleasure. So, it seemed, did the forest. And then, a strange thing happened.

The voice that was not a voice asked her about Minn, about Zazh’s mother and father, about school, friends, insecurities, and about what had led Zazh here today. It did so without words, but Zazh knew what it wanted, and she also knew, somehow, that it was requesting this information with a spirit of kindness, not malice. The forest glow seemed to darken, and Zazh could have sworn she saw tiny specks of light rushing up and down some of the nearby branches, trunks, and vines. If she had known more about electricity, she would have described it as a visual representation of electrical current moving within circuitry, which would have been closer to the truth than fairies (of which there were surprisingly few in these woods, and they were much larger than specks of light). But because she had no other words or thoughts by which to register this, to her, they were fairies.

As Zazh thought about her mother—Serafina Finley, a farmgirl who once packed up her things and infant child and traveled to a distant land to save the life of her soldier husband—the fairies would sway in rhythm with her thoughts. They seemed to whisper ooh’s and ah’s as she focused on points of climax or particular interest. Serafina’s encounters with trolls, rogues, magicians and demons intrigued the fairies, and they were excited to witness Zazh think through the story as it had been told to her. They were even more intrigued—and perhaps, Zazh thought, confused?—by the fact that Serafina had happily returned to her farm after the ordeal. They began to coo sympathetically as Zazh reminisced about moving here, the strange looks she received from grownups as she walked to school, with she and her mother having a complexion unique in this town. They rejoiced with her as she remembered her relief when such stares did not come from the children, and her joy at finding true friends in them. As she relived her personal experiences, Zazh noticed something about the fairies—and the voice that was not a voice—that she had not noticed during the story of her mother’s journey.

Whenever Zazh reached moments in her retelling that bore deep emotional meaning for her, the voice that was not a voice would pause its encouragement, the fairies would dim, and she would suddenly be hit with a sense of profound vastness, like an intelligence beyond anything she could have previously imagined. But here it was, and she was connected to it. She would have glimpses of images the contexts of which she did not fully understand: a galaxy, a pocket watch. The deeper the emotion, the stranger the image: a balding man flying a kite in the rain, a small village on fire, a large stone being pushed, sunlight shining brightly into a dark corridor.

“Minn,” Zazh said aloud. Her voice was little more than a croak as she had not used it in a while. At her word, the forest dimmed beyond what she had so far experienced, and in her mind’s eye she saw a small sphere that was nothing and something at the same time. “I have to say this aloud,” she continued, almost apologetically, when the forest had regained its composure. Over the next half a minute, sounds all around her decreased and stopped until there was complete silence. The forest was ready. Zazh cleared her throat, and the forest smiled encouragingly. Zazh did not know how, but that is what it was doing.

“I was in love with her,” Zazh said, “from the first time I saw her. It wasn’t that she was beautiful. I mean, she was—is—totally gorgeous. But, like, I felt like I knew her. I guess you always think you know somebody if they look like somebody you want to know.” The last statement surprised Zazh even as she spoke it. It did not feel like something she thought or knew, and yet, now, she did know it to be true. She continued, “we met two years ago, when we were both eleven. I had just won an award at school and, well, some of my classmates didn’t think I deserved it. One classmate, really, who had followers. Minn came to my rescue, and we were inseparable after that. There was nobody as kind as her. Nobody as funny, either. Before long, it was like each of us had become a part of the other.” The forest, an entire little world of life forms supporting, protecting, and nourishing one another, understood. Zazh relived the entirety of her friendship with Minn, pointedly skipping the kiss.

“And then there was the birthday party today,” Zazh said with a sigh. “I was a little nervous because I invited Brent Wickham, who isn’t really my friend, but who…” she sighed again. “I mean, I want her for myself, you know? But if I love her...” now, beginning to cry again, “I can’t expect her to love me just because of one kiss, right? But I did, I really did. But Minn wanted me to invite Brent. I knew why, and I invited him anyway, because I love much.” Zazh did not notice that the forest’s whispers had ceased, the glow did not seem to know how intense it needed to be and flickered manically, the animal life started moving and chirping again, the voice that was not a voice trying to speak comfort through it all. Zazh pushed herself on, through gritted teeth. “Brent told me, like, without even caring, that it was too bad I would never amount to anything. That ‘my people’ belong in the fields…and Minn just, just…” Zazh’s voice broke like a desert storm falling upon an oasis, “she just laughed.” Her agony was beyond her broken bones, beyond judgmental stares, beyond the bullying of Brent Wickham; her heart felt like it would be crushed under the weight of a million worlds, and the forest went pitch black.

Everything, including Zazh herself, fell silent.

She did not know how long the dark lasted. She was not entirely sure where she was, or if she was anywhere. All sensation was gone. She was not sure she was even still alive.

In. Out. In. Out.

She was breathing. Her heart was aching. She must be alive. Zazh looked around and started making out the shapes of the woods around her. Was the glow coming back, or were her eyes just adjusting to the dark? She did not feel the fairies, or the voice that was not a voice. She pushed herself up out of the mud and discovered, to her surprise, that she did so with ease. If her bones had been broken, they were not broken anymore. Zazh walked out of the forest, feeling a strange sense of loss that had nothing to do with Minn. She found herself trying to see the fairies. The only light was that filtering through the lush green upper leaves of the forest. She listened, in her brain, as hard as she could for the voice that was not a voice, which was a strange thing to try to do. There was nothing. They were gone. But just before the blackout—a split second before—Zazh had reached an understanding. She still hurt. She might always hurt. But she knew what to do now. Because, powerless as she felt, she could still love, and she could still talk. And if others could not do the same for her, maybe that could still be okay. Maybe. As she made her way into the meadow at the edge of town, into thirteen, into all the pain and joy that would come with it, Zazhina Finley turned, smiled sadly, and waved her thanks to the forest.

She turned toward town, and did not look again, so she did not see the forest wave back.

FantasyYoung AdultShort StoryPsychologicalMysteryLove

About the Creator

Scott C Lillard

Father, Husband, Physicist, Award-Winning Composer and Musician

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Comments (18)

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  • Brid Ituka14 days ago


  • Congratulations on your victory.

  • Amy Black24 days ago

    Visually stunning. Well done!

  • Brin J.25 days ago

    Woah, what?! You got second place! That's incredible! Geesh, I've been so busy this past week- alright month- and I haven't been as active as I'd like to be. Congratulations! This is well deserved! Ugh and the end, not seeing the forest wave back at her after pouring her heart out to it, left a crater in my soul. Lol.

  • Dana Crandell25 days ago

    This is incredibly well written. I found a lot of depth in your references, such as the "voice that was not a voice." Superb storytelling, sir! Congratulations on placing in the challenge!

  • Novel Allenabout a month ago

    Beautifully written story. Glad she survived, congrats.

  • Anna about a month ago

    Congrats on Top Story!🥳🥳🥳

  • Shaun Waltersabout a month ago

    Congratulations! Loved the line/metaphor you had going about the storms, desert, dunes, etc. well done!

  • Gabriel Huizengaabout a month ago

    Really, really lovely work! The forest has such a vibrant personality- and the progressive revelation of Zazh's character and story is excellent- congrats on the win!!

  • Mariann Carrollabout a month ago


  • angela hepworthabout a month ago

    Back to say congrats on the win!!

  • Christy Munsonabout a month ago


  • ROCK about a month ago

    Happy to discover you! Congratulations on your win in the Whispering Woods challenge! newly subscribed:)

  • Anna about a month ago

    Congrats on the win!🥳

  • Melissa Ingoldsbyabout a month ago

    Very exquisitely detailed and well wrought, great work and I enjoyed the last part it reminded me of Life of Pi when the tiger didn’t turn around to say goodbye to Pi.

  • Andrea Corwin about a month ago

    I loved this description: Her mother used to say Zazh’s eyes were the color of desert sand at twilight. “Zazhina,” she would say when Zazh’s temper would rise, “what storms are your desert bringing today?” AND the forest waved back, oh how I love forests. Wonderful story. And Congrats on TS.

  • D. D. Leeabout a month ago

    Nice! Congrats on Top Story!

  • angela hepworth2 months ago

    I loved the ending!! Amazing story

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