The moon shone weak light over the tangled underbrush. Samantha poked at it with her walking stick. She couldn’t afford to step on some small animal or worse still a snake. She’d made it this far; she wasn’t going to get stupid now. The backpack dug into the small of her back. It was getting heavier with every step. She needed to find a safe place to bed down for the night. She had her mummy-sack. That should be enough to protect her from the weather as long as she found a place where she wouldn’t be a sitting duck for predators.
She scanned the area, eyes squinting to bring details forth on the moon-flattened terrain. She carefully stepped through the underbrush, doing her best not to disturb any of it. She wanted as few markers to her path as possible. She moved through the woods, doing her best to make no noise. She found a hollow in the roots of an ancient tree. It was too large for her to wrap her arms around. One root rose up to about waist height. She’d fit in the curve of it. She tapped the ground with her walking stick. She felt for rocks. She shifted the pack off of her back. She strung it up in the branches of a close tree after retrieving her sleeping sack.
She curled up in the sack and rested her head on the root. She was asleep almost as soon as she closed her eyes. The moon painted her with leaf shadows.
A delicate giggle sounded from nearby. It didn’t wake her, but Samantha did shift in her sleep, headed turning toward the noise. When she didn’t move again, the giggle started again, moving closer. Small fingers painted her cheeks with mud and plaited flowers into her hair. She didn’t wake. Instead, she relaxed further into the arms of the tree.
The sun warmed Samantha’s face. Her eyes flickered open to the warm red light flooding the clearing she’d found. A small chipmunk was asleep on her lap. A mother doe and her fawn were watching her from the treeline. She moved slowly, wishing she’d thought to keep her camera around her neck. The deer didn’t move. She smiled as the chipmunk scampered off. She got ready for the day.
She stretched, then put the pack back onto her back. She flipped her braid over her shoulder and paused. There were flowers in her hair. Her breath caught. She didn’t speak. She bowed formally to the tree in thanks. She continued deeper in. The tree branches spread over her head in a canopy of leaves and singing birds. There were more butterflies on her way today. They swirled around her in a maddening moving blanket of color. Her camera caught blurs of color and a few close-up pictures of wings.
She walked in silence, listening to her soft foot-falls and the shifting of small creatures in the underbrush. She held her breath as she heard something much larger than a squirrel passing by. The deer crossed her path no more than a yard in front of her. Her eyes were deep black-brown and unafraid. Her finger moved on the button of her camera of its own volition. The deer startled at the soft noise and bounded away.
Soon enough it was time for a break. She settled down on a moss-covered tree trunk that had fallen. She put her pack down on the ground by her feet and rubbed at her sore shoulders. She’d cut her supplies to the bone, but she still needed provisions for six days. She’d packed for seven, just to be safe. She sipped at her water for the day. She nibbled on the raw snacks that she’d brought with her, nuts and fruit to keep her energized. She laid down on her back to watch the skies. She didn’t even notice that she’d fallen asleep.
Small creatures scampered to finish off her meal for her. A hawk called sharply from its perch. She gathered food for herself and her children. Then, she tucked a loose feather into Samantha’s hair. And another into the top of her bag. It flew away with another cry. This one woke Samantha from her slumber.
Her mouth twitched, but she managed to stay quiet. She touched the feather reverently. She didn’t know if she’d be allowed to keep it, but she tucked it safely into the bottom of her bag in a hard-side container she’d used for her first day’s sandwich. She swung the pack back onto her back. She pressed on until she was walking up toward the top of the mountain. It would be the solstice moon by the next night and she wanted to be able to appreciate it.
She crossed the creek. It accompanied her steps with burbling laughter as she started to climb. Eventually, she needed to actually reach for handholds and push off firmly to get up to the top of the rocks. She paused, considering. If she went any higher she’d need actual rock-climbing equipment. She created a small clearing for herself that was surrounded by rocks. She settled to watch and take pictures. She heard the gentle plops of fish in the water.
Small rocks skittered and jumped dislodged by animals or birds higher on the hill. The leaves moves softly in the breeze. There were smaller trees here. They had grown into the side of the mountain with tenacious roots. Samantha took off her boots and socks. She rested her weary feet against the stone. It was cool to the touch, rough and smooth. She rested her camera on her lap. She leaned her head back against the solid mountain.
High above her birds circled in the sky. The clouds moved lazily across the sky. The creek leapt and burbled, chattering to her as it crossed the rocks. The sun set in a brilliant painting of reds and oranges. The sky slowly purpled and the stars became visible. The full moon set her light across the ground. It glittered off of the water.
Samantha offered a small cup of stone some wine. The moonlight touched it, making it look black instead of red. Samantha took a mouthful for herself. She held her palms out in supplication. Still, she did not speak. She would not speak until she returned to the world outside of these woods.
She curled up to sleep in her sack. She didn’t rouse as the form of silvery smoke solidified into the form of a woman. The woman knelt beside her. She pressed a soft kiss to Samantha’s forehead. She lifted the stone cup and drank the sweet wine that had been offered. She pressed her hand to the cup and it was transformed into a tiara made of thin alabaster. She set it into Samantha’s hair.
Then, she was gone.
Samantha woke from dreams of dancing and light laughter. She prepared herself for the trip back. She followed the river down the mountain. The trees seemed the same as she passed by them, though the underbrush seemed more impassible. It was likely the lethargy that pulled at her limbs. It took her three nights of rest to reach the front of the forest.
She stepped out onto a world transformed. Her car was gone. The parking lot was still there. Still gravel lined. But there were metal gates and a new sign on the space. She stared at the memorial for Samantha King.
“Excuse me, Miss,” the ranger said. She was a tall woman with wild curly brown hair. Samantha turned. The ranger gasped. “I’m sorry, it’s just I’ve never met someone coming back from a quest.”
“Why is this sign here?”
“Samantha King went on a vision quest nearly thirty years ago. No trace of her was ever found.”