The blizzard had let up a few hours later. Mark and I slept by the warmth of the fire for most of the time. Sure, we spoke a little more, but we agreed that finding the old woman would be our top priority. We left at dawn to brave the forest in search of the lake, the witch, and some definitive answers…
We’ve been meandering for hours around this frozen forest. The comfort of the warm cottage is so far behind us I doubt we’d be able to find our way back. We travel through a maze of trees grouped together in rows for as far as the eye can see. It’s hard to tell if we are heading for the lake, or more important – does it even exist?
“Mark,” I groan, “I thought you knew where this lake was.”
“We should have been there by now. She injured me. When you found me, my face was full of blood and snow from the attack. I may have been confused, and scared, but I remember the lake. It was the first thing I saw when I arrived. Then the old woman called my name. Next thing I knew you were standing over me,” he recollects as he scratches his head and shrugs shoulders.
I wave my hands at him and exclaim, “so, you could have been walking around for hours! Right?”
“My god, Raquel! Doubting me is as bad as doubting yourself!”
“I’m doubting both of us,” I respond. He does, in fact, have a point. I was never one to exaggerate. “I do believe you. Well, I want to believe you but there’s been nothing but trees for miles and I’m freezing. We could literally die out here if we don’t find the lake or some type of shelter-“
“Agreed,” he interrupts, “let’s keep walking until we find this lake. There must be a way out of this place.”
We walk, search, then stop to rest, repeating for hours. More time passes, and we’re still walking. Unless my eyes are deceiving me, there’s nothing, but pine trees encased in snow. Oh, and a few bushes covered with snow. And I forgot to mention a whole entire shitload of snow. One tree after the next, and then another again. The paths are never-ending, and the scenery doesn’t move. Did the old crone conjure this trickery?
“Look over there,” Mark screams as my eyes trail his pointed finger to a group of trees in the distance.
I squint trying to extend my vision. The usual objects enter my view: trees, bushes, snow, frozen ground, frozen trees, white bushes, dead bushes, and that dark gray cloak; those cold gray eyes. I’m positive, it’s the old woman. She strolls weaving in and out from between the trees without a care in the world. I hate her.
Mark sprints towards her and I have no choice but to follow. If we split up, I fear she will tear us apart. I’ve seen too many movies, and it never ends well. Our only chance of survival is to face her together. So, I run. I see her slip behind another pine tree and Mark blurts out words I don’t understand. I catch up to him and he’s spinning his head in different directions like a top.
“That lady vanished! Dammit!” He gasps.
I notice the old woman again, this time in the opposite direction. I scream, “over there!” How did she do that? She must be a sorceress or something. We sprint again and reach the trunk of another tree, but she disappears. Mark dashes in a different direction. I follow behind and see that old hag once more. We reach our destination with the same result. Nothing.
“What the hell!” He shouts. Mark punches a tree and grimaces in pain.
“Calm down,” I moan, “I’m dyin’ over here! So tired. And if you don’t take it easy you’re gonna break your damn hands.”
The echo of my voice bounces around the forest and pleases me. I still can’t get over how feminine it sounds. When I listen to Mark speak, it reminds me of an old recording stuck in my head. It’s hard to believe I’ve come this far in such a short time in this new world. Perhaps, it’s been longer than I know, I remember little beyond yesterday.
No time to celebrate as I spot the woman. I tug on Mark’s arm and we’re off racing again. We reach the pine tree where she was standing a few seconds ago, but there is no woman, and this is getting ridiculous. Her plan must be to tire us, wait until we’re vulnerable, then strike! If that’s the strategy, it’s working.
Mark and I are panting like a pack of wearied snow dogs. My lungs burn as I suck in freezing air trying to catch my breath. A strange sound collects my attention. Are ducks quacking or has the frost poisoned my brain? It’s delirium. I’m going crazy, for sure. Ducks?
“Shhh,” I whisper as Mark scowls at me. He hunches with both hands resting on his knees, wheezing like a boiling teapot.
“I-damn-wuh-mon,” he huffs.
“Shhh,” I whisper again, “do you hear ducks? It’s coming from over there.”
“What ducks? Ducks? Are you kidding me?”
“The quacking of ducks, dammit. Fuck! Don’t you hear ducks quacking?” Mark looks at me as if I’m crazed. His eyebrows raise to the middle of his forehead. As the quacking continues he smiles. I feel like he heard it this time. “It’s ducks. Ducks?” He says.
“Obviously,” I scoff.
We begin a brisk walk to locate ducks which seems utterly futile and silly. I spin in different directions following the sound. Left, right, right, left, right, right, in between some trees, and around a corner or two. The scenery changes and the trees scatter. I run towards the sound of glorious quacks which get louder with each step we take. There’s a new refreshing dampness in the air, and the light from the sun peaks through, brightening up this dreary forest.
I spin around a final group of Pines and there’s the lake just as Mark described. Bleak winter on our side, and what appears to be a warmer climate on the other. Peculiar, considering the distance across couldn’t be more than a half-mile. The opposite side of the lake already seems more inviting! There is where I want to be, need to be, should be. It’s like paradise from my skewed point of view.
The waters look like a photograph. As I approach the bank, I gawk into the glassy surface dazzled by my reflection. My cheekbones are high and defined, lips are plump and perfect, breasts are full and perky, and body is curvy and voluptuous. I only wish I had makeup, so I could see the full effect. My blonde hair hangs over my shoulders as I bend over the lake.
“Beautiful. Perfect. Harmony. Sync,” rumbles a thunderous voice from the sky. It sounds almost ethereal, majestic. Was it real? I glance at Mark who already had his head tilted up at the murky clouds overhead. It’s obvious we both received the same mysterious message.
“What the hell!” He says.
“You heard that, right? I’m not crazy? Right?” I plead, hoping for reassurance.
“Yes. It sounded like what I imagine God would sound like if he spoke,” Mark describes. I nod my head in agreement.
“What the hell was that voice? It sounded like something out of a dream.”
“Why must you know? Because it mentioned beautiful and perfect? Obviously, it wasn’t talking about me,” snaps Mark.
“How do you know what it was about? Don’t be so sure? Since I arrived, besides this transformation nothing has gone right.” “Oh, my god! You were beautified, I was attacked. Nothing has gone right? Come on, Raquel.”
“Well, you know what I mean.”
“Just don’t change. I always feared we’d change eventually after we felt comfortable in our own skin. Some girls get so beautiful then forget about everyone else. They can pass so well, they sort of lose sight of the struggle. You really didn’t have a struggle in this case. So I don’t know,” Mark lectures.
“No. I guess not. It was too easy. Scary easy. I promise I won’t change. I promise.”
“But, there is one thing we’ve overlooked here,” he continues, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“Probably,” I nod.
“We may have found the lake, but how do we get across it? And don’t forget the old lady is still on our asses. Somewhere, out there,” he points.
I reaffirm, “I couldn’t have said it better myself.”
“Well technically you did,” he jests, and we both laugh.
That voice from the sky – was it speaking about me? Suspicions tell me it’s another clue. I scan the bank of the lake for a solution to our little problem. We need to get to a warmer climate before it’s too late for both of us. Either we’re gonna freeze to death, or the witch will attack. Let’s see what happens first.