Illuminated by the lantern light, long grass swayed against the boy’s legs. He came to a pause. He took a moment to stare at the treeline’s silhouette against the star-speckled night sky. It wasn’t there the day before, or the day before that one, or as long as he had enjoyed wandering the fields behind the family house. He was hesitant, but the forest’s edge beckoned him. It wasn’t long before the trees towered above him, small as he was, their canopies stretching out and covering the sky with their branches. The boy looked in every direction around him, the night still and silent. He entered the forest. There were no animals or bugs, nor the sounds that accompany them, only the whistling of wind through the leaves. Something about the gnarled trunks reminded him of human forms. If he stared long enough he swore he could’ve made out a face, or maybe it was only a trick of the low light. He felt exposed.
After a while, the flame of his lantern was starting to fade, as was his curiosity. He wandered back to the field and turned his back to the forest.
“Don’t you need something?”
The boy jumped, snapping back towards the trees and waving the lantern around in his shaking hand. “Who’s there?” His voice was barely a whisper even in the unnatural silence.
“Be not afraid, I come proposing no harm.” The branches of a nearby tree shook, and from them emerged a barn owl as it landed on a low branch where the boy could see it. It flapped its wings as if stretching after a long rest, the white of its feathers glowing against the dark canopy.
The boy’s eyes widened, “Who are you?”
“Many people call me many things, but you can refer to me as Worth, for everything is worth something. What do you want?”
“What do I want?” The boy thought for a moment. “Food for my family. There are too many mouths to feed, and I get the last pickings of crumbs.”
Worth hooted and stared its round eyes towards the boy, such a small speck. “Food. Food. Food. Food. If I take a part of you, I will give you food. Do you accept?”
The boy nodded immediately, for he was young and had not yet learned the art of doubt. Before a breath could leave him, Worth swooped down and bit a chunk of hair out from his head. He looked all about, but the barn owl had disappeared into the inky blackness. The boy traveled back home and went to sleep.
The next morning, the boy awoke to the smell of meat and fresh bread. He went to the kitchen, where a plentiful feast was laid out before him and his family of twelve older siblings and father. There was enough food to feed a village, but not one sibling moved aside for the young boy and his arms, weak from hunger, couldn’t push anyone aside. There were only scraps of fat left scattered around the table when the feast was done. He chewed on the remains as his family laughed and pushed him around as if he were a ball for play.
That night he wandered into the fields and towards the forest. Worth was sitting where it had been the night before, that low gnarled branch stretching out to the boy.
“You return. What do you want?” Worth cooed and flapped its wings.
With tears at the corners of his eyes, the boy spoke boldly. “I want my family to love and pay attention to me.”
“Attention. Attention. Attention. If I take a part of you, I will give you attention. Do you accept?” Worth craned his head towards the boy, his unblinking eyes inky pools of darkness.
Just as quickly as the previous night, Worth dived at him, this time leaving a bloody scratch upon his cheek. Though the price was more than he thought, the boy returned to his home with the silent forest at his back.
The boy opened his eyes to sunlight and his father’s face hovering above his. His face spread into a smile as the boy lay startled on the pile of blankets he called a bed.
“Hello, father.” The boy knew he had asked for attention and love, but he wasn’t expecting it so intensely.
“Hello, my son! What a wonderful day it is.” He lifted himself onto his feet and the boy noticed his siblings stood around him in a ring, each with a bright smile. “There’s a meal for you. You should eat.”
The boy nodded as they piled out of the room, met with the same array of food as there had been the morning before. This time, his siblings sat him in one of the few chairs and watched intently as he scarfed down the meal. Not one of them touched a morsel until the boy declared he was done, and when they did eat, they continuously offered the boy their food no matter how often he declined. He felt uneasy. The boy excused himself and declared that he was going to do his barn chores. His family laughed as if he had said a joke, and followed him with their eyes as he left. He appreciated the meal and new found respect, though he wasn’t sure if he could stand their stares for any longer. This wish had not turned out as perfectly as the other one had.
The boy did his chores as normal. He swept and groomed and fed, but he felt the presence of eyes on him. He gave a glance out the doors and noticed several figures standing outside the distant house. They were still, eyes trained on him as he moved. They didn’t even sway or play with their clothes as one might when bored. They were as motionless as the forest branches, and just as silent.
Nonetheless, the boy carried on for several days with his family observing his every move. It drove him mad, and he eventually decided that the solitude of rejection was preferable to the careful watching. He was used to being alone, after all.
When the boy returned once again to the forest’s edge, Worth was not where he had normally been. He took a moment to observe the trees. All around him were thick trunks of bark, and yet he felt eyes on him. He thought of the faces in the trees he saw the first night he noticed the forest, and if he squinted he could see them, their woodland expressions morphed into those of pain, of suffering, of regret. The boy looked behind him, anticipating the distant figures of his family, yet there was nothing on the horizon except for the silhouette of grass. He tightened his cloak around himself, eyes darting from leaf to leaf as if there lay secrets in their veins, or perhaps a warning he couldn’t understand.
Then there came the flapping of wings, and Worth perched on that same low branch. “What do you want?”
“You made my family watch my every move. I want them to stop, and I want solitude.”
“Solitude. Solitude. If I take a part of you, I will give you solitude. Do you accept?”
The boy nodded with certainty, though he wondered if his wish could go wrong just as the last one had. In a blink, Worth was gone in a flash of white feathers, and there was a sudden pulsing pain in his hand. He looked down to see that Worth had bitten off the index finger of his right hand at the knuckle, now jagged and pouring blood. The boy screamed and wrapped his hand in his cloak, retreating to his house.
The morning was met with silence. His spot on the floor was usually crowded with other bodies around him, but the room was empty. The entire house was. The boy looked down and unwrapped the bloody cloak from his hand, the jagged edge of the bite now fully healed to a stump. He questioned how for a moment, but the logic of magic was a mystery. He ate from the untouched feast in the kitchen, surrounded by the eeriness of vacancy. The birds outside sang their songs as if it were any other day. It came time for the boy to do his barn chores, but when he opened the front door he was taken aback by the sight of red.
Only a few feet from the entrance, his siblings and father were impaled through their chests on iron stakes, each of their hearts perched on the tips like a trophy. Their bodies were mangled, no two the same. Some had their lower jaws ripped off, bloodstained teeth scattered in the grass. Some were missing entire limbs, thrown yards away. Some had slashes across their body in groups of three. In the middle of them all was the boy’s father, his eye sockets pools of blood and his chest tore open. His ribcage was split down the middle and forced outwards, the bones blossoming like a pair of wings.
The sight of it all was too much, and the boy collapsed on the blood splattered grass. When he awoke again, the full moon was high in the sky. He averted his eyes and ran to the edge of the forest. Worth was sitting on his normal branch, tilting his head as the boy approached.
“What do you want?”
“Why did you kill my family?” The boy’s eyes swelled with tears as he balled his fists by his side.
“You wanted solitude and solitude I gave.”
“I wanted peace, not for my family to be killed!”
“The inner machinations of magic are beyond your comprehension.” Worth narrowed his eyes and the night seemed to darken.
The boy stomped his foot, “Who are you? Where did you even come from? Why me?”
For a moment, all was quiet, only the boy’s stifled sobs filling the whole forest. After a moment, Worth answered:
“I am the endless, the boundless. I am the sky and the ground and the trees. I am all you may or may never know.”
The wind picked up, the sudden gale nearly knocking the boy off his feet. Finally, he let tears hit the soil. A young tree began growing where they fell, branches and leaves sprouting. The boy stepped back.
Worth continued, “I may offer you one last wish, if you choose to use it. What do you want?”
The boy thought of all he lost and his empty house. “I want peace.”
“Peace. If I take a part of you, I will give you peace. Do you accept?”
The boy winced as he remembered the pain of his lost finger.
This time, Worth did not fly to claim a part of him. The young tree grew and thickened, and the boy soon noticed his foot was caught in the expanding roots. He tried to pull it free, but the tree rushed like flooding water up his legs and body. His young skin turned rough as bark traveled across his face, capturing his innocent and suffering features in the grain. And there he remained. The endless and the forever and the watching.