Samantha’s diminutive young fingers sunk into the dark soil, plowing through the old oak leaves married with the dirt through time. Stopping she felt the burden of no memory of how she got here and most of all why she was digging in the ground for what seemed to a forest floor. The surround trees, told her that much. The moon, full tonight, gave all its light to tell her it was at least late autumn if not early winter, for the leaves were few on the slender oaks, but many on the ground. Though, the moon was ominous and the the trees talkative with their creaking sways to the night’s breeze, none of this felt threatening to Samantha. In fact, all of this sewn together felt more like — home. Oddly, even the winter air did not feel cold, if anything, she felt a sudden swell of warmth. Possibly from inside, she was unsure, she just knew felt a sense of comfort that, despite her lack of memory, seemed foreign to her recent past.
If digging is what she was doing when realizing where she was, maybe digging will help her remember how she got here, or even better, get her to where she needs to be going. Certainly a 9-year old girl should not be aimless in a forest alone on a winter’s night. As her hands went to work once more, she was reminded of the work she once had. Work at her small cottage, set on an opening of a mountainside, that overlooked a valley, home to a thick forest and running into mountains and a horizon she only dreamed of venturing to. In the cool of dusk, she carried wood into their home to be used for this week’s fire for the stove and fireplace. Though she was enervated from the day’s drudgery she persisted, because if she didn’t it would not get done, and that would be a foolish fate for both her and her father. Her father was very much the fool it seemed, and she could not allow herself to live by his standards. Sure he made sure she was fed, at least enough that she would not die, and gave her a shelter to live in, and at least 2 sets of clothes. Neither specific to any lifestyle, just a simple shirt and trousers that might as well be for the son he never had. The other a dress, that must be her mother’s from long ago, and who had passed as she came into this world. By sight, it was no more than a patchwork of history to be pondered in her quiet moments of fidgeting it’s tattered edges for comfort, but by wearing it, Samantha imagined it was the soul of her mother holding her, wishing she could guide her through this world.
As she came out from putting the last bit of wood inside, twilight had set in, and her father lumbered up the pathway leading from the forest in the valley. He set the horse up in the stable in the back then made his way inside only giving her a discarding glance as 3 coneys swung limp in his hand. She was glad there was food, but dismayed it was so little. If hope were a lantern it only turned up in the slightest with a flicker threatening to snuff it out. She thought to herself she should be the one hunting. She surely would bring home something that would make enough stew for an entire winter. The night would be long and her stomach would surely pang as she slept, but it was assuaged by the thought of tomorrow. Tomorrow, is Harlan’s return.
Harlan the Grand, lived on other side of the mountain that was a near 2-hour walk away. Every step was worth it to Samantha. She had discovered him 2 summers ago in search herbs and possibly salt to help her father’s flavorless stew that was sure to come about that evening. While delighting in a find of some thyme, she heard jovial conversing coming from over a hill top. Just over the edge was a small drop off into a glade, and it was nestled a modest home with obvious warmth and delight inside as she observed a large burly man inside talking to himself while simultaneously roasting a boar and going over a series of maps and scrolls. He was such a delight in sprite of what she the life she was use, that she could not help but go out of her way to meet him.
She knocked on his door, to which he promptly answered in great curiosity. Harlan had met people from all around the world of different sizes. Not just small and large people as people normally assume, but extremely tiny people that had an entire civilization inside of a tree. Enormous people that lived in even larger mountains behind the great ice wall in the Unreachable North. So he knew to look in any direction when greeting strangers behind closed doors. His eyes fell right on Samantha’s. She instantly was in awe. And Harlan, no matter the traveler he was, found adventure scintillating in this young girl’s eyes, and was instantly taken.
Harlan was as tall and charismatic as he was interesting. Long reddish golden hair, braided beard, and blue eyes that lit up anytime he’d tell her of the far corners of the world from his travels or listen intently to her for whatever she had to say. Harlan’s stories were more than any book could tell or dreams could imagine. Any doubt from Samantha, which there rarely was, was quickly answered with his magnificent assortment of trinkets on display in his home.
One such trinket though, was too special to have in the open, and after a long visit last year before he was to set out on a Winter’s journey he sat her down at his dining table. He told her of the tale of a an island between the oceans. He had to clarify that he did not mean in between two oceans on the surface, but there was actually a place underneath the ocean we know and another body of water below it. And on this island suspended between them lived an ancient being belong to no race or creature. A sage of sages. He was The Great Listener. He listened to all the songs in the seas and all the voices in the winds. He understood all, and therefore, had an insurmountable amount of patience. Through, time he honed his skills in and knowledge into a single stone, and promised to pass it on to one he found deserving.
Harlan was that person, at least, at that point in the journey he seemed to be. Harlan did not think so, as he told Samantha. With that he laid a small chest onto the table, unlocked it, and pulled out soft purple cloth wrapped around an object. Harlan presented it to Samantha and told her he knows it is her. She is the one that deserves this stone. She quivered, as she overwhelmed by the thought of Harlan’s sentiment. Unfolding the cloth she found this stone was more magnificent than she imagined. It was faintly luminescent as not to grab too much attention from a far off wander, but up close you could see a glittering pool of liquid stirring in hues of purple and blue. Harlan told her that when you need it most, you will hear the song that is meant for you. To you it should be the most beautiful music in the world and only you will hear it.
To this day, Samantha, still has yet to hear this music pouring out of this magical stone, but there is not a day that goes by she is not comforted by it’s site and touched by Harlan’s kindness.
Today, she woke before the sun, and made sure she was going to be at Harlan’s in time for breakfast and not to give time a single minute of a chance of letting Harlan think she’d forgotten the date of his return he’d told her before departing months ago.
It was another day of otherworldly tales, laughter, and showcase of new finds and relics from around the globe. As the afternoon was turning to dusk, Harlan told Samantha that he had discovered something quite unique this time around, so much so, it took him this long to bring it up.
“Samantha, if you could be anything in the world, creature or thing, what would you be?” Samantha hands slowly swelled around her warm cup of tea as if it helped her gather the truthful answer. “An owl.”, she said with much aplomb. “An owl?”, Harlan seemed either genuinely surprised or impressed, Samantha wasn’t completely sure. She doubted he was surprised. “Yes, an owl.” “Why so?”, he kindly inquired. “They’re beautiful for one, but equally cunning, and wise. I’ve also always been fond of the night, it’s quieter and with an owl’s eyes you can everything.”
“Harlan, why do you ask?” “I just needed help making something. That’s all, Sama.” Harlan still seemed reserved and Samantha didn’t feel the need to pry. Whatever it was, she knew it must be something grand.
They talked themselves further into the night as they always had on his first day but this one was different, Harlan unexpected had to leave the next day. Never had he stayed so briefly making the day both Samantha’s best and worst day this season. She missed missed him as soon as she got up to leave knowing she must return once more to her absent father.
Samantha always kept her burdens to herself, but never hid anything if Harlan asked. She just did not want him to feel weighted by her own woes, but those were lifted any time he was around regardless, so she never saw the need to risk ruining their time together with such a life. What she did know though, is that Harlan did know, and he cared for her deeply to no have such a life.
The next day Samantha fought both her hunger and sadness of Harlan’s abrupt departure by taking the initiative to go hunting herself. She hunted all day and hunted well, in that no creature saw her hiding. What she our brave Samantha did not see coming was a creature the wanted her catch. Bears love small deer as well, but this bear was not the real threat to Samantha. It was her fear that drove her haste, and haste onto the slippery stone from dew setting in the night and then the long drop off that followed.
The slender trees creek lightly as the winter’s breeze passed through the forest and moved Samantha’s wisp of hair into her vision as she pushed the dirt more and found she had a good enough sized hole. “A hole for what?”, she thought. With that, from behind her she heard the most beautiful sound she had ever heard in her life. Music beyond all tales and feelings. Samantha turned around to see — herself. The Listener’s stone in hand glowing it’s beautiful hue, and her body seemed to be the same shade of blue and purple as lay head hung over her mother’s patchwork dress at the bottom of the cliff of where she fell. Her grave was ready.
She looked at her hands and arms and realized she was no longer herself, but an image of herself. An automaton. She felt around dismayed, alarmed, but uplifted as she knew this was Harlan’s way of preserving her. As she observes she felt a latch losses at the front of her torso. She opened her chest and the warmth she felt was indeed from within. An automaton barn owl, her soul in machine, twitched it’s head playfully and took flight into the night, free from all her life’s burdens.