In a dark hollow in an ancient wood, the sound of a little girl’s disconsolate wails echoed. The softer tones of a consoling adult led her away, down a bright path to the safety of a parked car and, later, home.
But, under the gaze of an aging deity, the hollow remained, hidden from view of anyone on the lane by a close-packed grove of old trees. It was as old as the forest itself, an untamed corner where only whispers moved.
In a corner of the grove, nearly overgrown, stood a small pile of stones. Rounded and worn by rain and wind, nearly covered in moss, the occasional act of maintenance by those that inhabited the darkest shadows was the only thing that kept it from utter collapse. The wood seemed eager to absorb the pile: tendrils of green wrapped around the its lower reaches, as if tensing to pull away the very foundations.
The pile of stones had been built in time immemorial by hands that believed, back when men had been capable of belief. It had been lovingly crafted with a flat top to be strong enough to survive winds and rain and centuries.
But the mortals who’d tended it were long gone. The forest shrine had been left to the hands of those smaller and unseen. Those hands remembered, they remembered the older days and their efforts, small though they were, had sufficed to keep the cairn erect through the centuries.
An unexpected riot of color sat above the stones, a recent offering. Torn from its rightful place, the soft figure was of a green lighter yet more vibrant than the forest around it, framed by yellows and gauze.
The deity eyed the offering that his people had put forth, unsure whether to be gratified or offended. An uncertain wind rustled among the leaves.
It wasn’t the right kind of offering. Not the fruit of a tree or the flesh of an animal, as was traditional. Not even nuts gathered from beneath the trees. The soft skin was of woven fabric, the eyes made of beads sewn to the cloth face. Soft, sensual and bewinged.
Finally, the spirit of the forest accepted with a rustling sigh, the sylvan equivalent of a shrug. It knew the risk the little folk had taken to bring it this offering, and had heard the pain its abduction had caused the rightful owner. The small child’s yells had only just stopped reverberating. In that light, the offering was worthy, if strange.
Relief filled the clearing as tiny figures watched the offering vanish; it had bought them another century of peace, the power to remain hidden from all but the most perceptive of humans — a power only the deity could bestow.
Had humans still believed, it would have allowed them, too, powers unlike any they knew in this world they’d created for themselves, abilities they could never recapture. Had the big people been there to watch, they would have known the shadows and the wind responded to a will which would guide them.
But they weren’t. Only small eyes watched.
The fabric grew insubstantial, slowly disappearing into the woods themselves.
Then the watchers, too, disappeared into the shadows.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer with over two hundred stories published in fourteen countries, in seven languages. His latest books are Ice Station Death (2019) and The Malakiad (2018). He has also published three science fiction novels: Incursion (2017), Outside (2017) and Siege (2016) and an ebook novella entitled Branch. His short fiction is collected in Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011). In 2019, Gustavo was awarded second place in the Jim Baen Memorial Contest and in 2018 he received a Judges Commendation (and second place) in The James White Award. He was also a 2019 finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest. His website is at www.gustavobondoni.com.