By Rex Caleval
It was a dark and stormy night. I know how that sounds. Contests are devoted to mocking it. Snoopy got good mileage out of it in the comics. But that night actually was dark and stormy, and what’s more, it mattered. If it hadn’t been dark, I wouldn’t have been lost. And if it hadn’t been stormy, I wouldn’t have been found.
My family had been out at the lake for a week, and my dad had sent me for more fishing line after he’d lost most of his to a big one that got away. It took his favorite lure, too. He was so mad he chucked his rod in the water, and my brother and I had to go diving to get it back. It was still afternoon, but the sky was already getting dark with towering black clouds that promised a big storm coming. Our cabin wasn’t with most of the others, so you had to cut through a good stretch of woods to get to the store. It was a gas station, bait shop, restaurant, convenience store and post office all rolled into one. You know the kind; every lake town has one. Dad said to take the quad to beat the storm, but I decided to hike. I’ve always liked storms.
That one was a doozy. I’d gotten maybe halfway back when it hit. The wind was so strong and gusty that the rain pelting down never came from the same direction twice, and it always seemed to be in my eyes. It was very dark except for blinding flashes of lightning, and the thunder seemed to have physical force, like when you’re too close to a big amp at a concert. Imagine running an obstacle course in the dark through a gauntlet of cannons while getting blasted with a fire hose and a strobe light. I’d been through those woods plenty of times, but it didn’t take long before I couldn’t tell what direction I was going or see well enough to spot anything familiar.
I decided to wait it out, so as the lightning flashed I started looking for a spot. After a few tries I saw a spreading oak tree on a small hill. Looking back, I realize going to the highest point might not have been the smartest move in the middle of a thunderstorm, but it seemed like a good idea then. I wanted someplace solid to hunker down, and there was so much rain that I started to get worried about being caught in a low spot. I tried to move toward where I’d seen the oak in the last flash.
It felt like I was climbing, so I figured I was headed in the right direction. The sky lit up briefly and I saw the tree close in front of me. Then every hair on my head stood on end, and the brightest light and the loudest sound there could ever be blasted all my senses away.
I couldn’t see anything, just brightness so white that it was almost blue. I couldn’t feel anything except a weird floating sensation, like falling off a ladder if the fall went on forever. My hearing was overwhelmed by a wildly changing noise that went from high-pitched squeal to low-toned rumbling and everything in between. When it was lower, I thought I heard screaming from somewhere nearby. I wondered idly if it was me doing it, but I couldn’t focus on anything long enough to figure it out.
Some unknown time later I snapped out of it enough to start feeling again, and immediately wished I hadn’t. Everything hurt. I had bright flares in my vision, like the afterimage from a camera flash, but worse. I smelled something burning and tasted blood in my mouth, and my ears were still ringing like crazy. My feet were cold, and I realized that my hiking boots were on the ground a few feet away. Smoke was rising from them.
As my brain started working again, I realized that I must have been hit by lightning. I tried to figure out how bad it was. It hurt to move, but amazingly I didn’t seem to be burned. I could smell smoke, though, and as I looked around I saw the oak tree smoldering. Rain was still coming down, but enough embers were still flickering to see by. The lightning had hit the tree, not me. That must be why I survived, despite getting blasted right out of my boots.
I didn’t remember any hill or tree like that one from any of my other trips through the woods. I was totally lost, it was too dark to see, and I could hardly move. I started to wonder how I was ever going to find my way out of there. Then I felt a touch on my leg as something found me instead.
If I hadn’t been having so much trouble moving, I’d have jumped out of my skin. Looking back frantically to see what had grabbed me I saw a girl, her arm still stretched out toward me, crying out incoherently. I thought the lightning had gotten her, too, so I crawled over to see if I could help. In the dim light coming from the smoldering oak tree, she looked like no other girl I’d seen. She was small, but when she looked up at me her eyes were large, almost too big for her face. They were so green that they glowed. She had wide cheekbones, but a narrow, almost pointed jaw. Her skin was a deep brown and looked roughly textured. Her hair seemed to be both red and green at the same time. She was so covered in dirt and leaves that I couldn’t tell what kind of clothes she wore.
As I leaned down to ask if she was all right, a gust of wind made the embers in the oak tree flare up, and as they did, the girl screamed and reached for her back. It was the same scream I’d heard earlier. I hadn’t been hearing myself, after all. It had been her. I started to look at her back, to see how bad it was, but she grabbed my arm. She didn’t say anything, but her large eyes looked right into mine as she pointed to the oak tree. I glanced over at it, but it looked the same. She realized that I wasn’t getting what she was trying to tell me. Sobbing, she pointed at the tree, then herself, then the tree again. As I glanced over at the tree once more, I heard a loud crack and saw one of the branches near where the lightning had struck splinter away from the trunk. When it did, the girl screamed again, grabbing at her arm. It sounded like she was in agony.
It was almost like she was hurt when something happened to the tree. A crazy idea, for sure, but that’s how it seemed. She somehow realized what I’d thought, because she gasped and grabbed my arm again, looking up at me and nodding. Then she pointed to herself and to the tree once more. It was really strange, but I didn’t know what else to do, so I nodded to her and reached down to pick her up. She put her arms around my neck to help, and I felt her hands on my skin. She was cool to the touch, and her skin was rough. It felt like tree bark.
Getting to my feet took an effort, but I managed it. The girl felt light in my arms, which helped since I didn’t have much strength back yet. She was even smaller than I’d thought. Slowly, I made my way over to the tree and set her down against it. As soon as she touched the trunk she gave a great sigh of relief. She looked up at me and bowed her head. It looked like she was doing better, but then the branch that had splintered earlier pulled further away from the trunk and I heard her cry out again.
I stepped over to the branch and lifted it back into place. The girl stopped crying, but as I looked down her eyes were glazed and her head sagged forward. The ordeal was taking a toll. I tried to come up with something I could do. I couldn’t stand there holding the branch up forever, but if I let it go, it seemed like it would hurt her again.
The spool of fishing line! It was still in my pocket. I could use it to bind the branch in place. It was strong line, and I thought it would hold. It was worth a try. Shifting to get the branch onto my shoulder, I fumbled in my pocket for the line. I had a heck of a time finding the loose end to get started, but once I did, I looped the whole spool around the split in the branch. I ran it under and over itself repeatedly since I wasn’t sure how well I could tie it off at the end.
When I’d used up the whole spool, I slowly let the weight off my shoulder to see if my patchwork job would hold. It did, but only just. Looking around I saw a lot of branches that had come down in the wind, so I grabbed the biggest one and used it as a brace to help hold the splintered branch up. I got it set as well as I could, then turned back to check on the girl.
She looked tired, but her eyes seemed clear again. I could barely see her. The glow from the embers on the tree was almost gone. I patted the last of them out, then sank down against the trunk beside the girl. I was done in. The last thing I remember was the rain slowing as the branches of the tree seemed to reach out and shelter me.
When I woke, it was light and calm. The storm had passed. There was no sign of the girl. I felt pretty bad, but still better than I had. As I tried to figure out where I was, I saw that the brace I’d put up had fallen, but it didn’t matter. The splintered branch had recovered almost magically. I could still see that it had come away at some point, but it looked like that had been long ago and the tree had recovered. It was the same with the lightning burn. Since it wasn’t needed anymore, I removed the fishing line so it wouldn’t cause problems as the tree grew.
There was a rustling sound, even though there wasn’t any wind, and as I looked over at the noise I saw a canopy of branches above where I’d been asleep. They made an almost perfect arbor, like mom has in the backyard garden at home, but there was no framework for it to grow on. It had just formed that way naturally. It was a beautiful spot, with a sense of peace and serenity. I laid a hand on the oak’s trunk in farewell, then turned to find my way back to the cabin. A bit later I ran into my dad and brother as they came looking for me.
I never told anyone about the encounter. It sounded crazy, and maybe it was just the result of my brain getting scrambled by the lightning. The funny thing is, though, after that people around the lake started talking about a forest spirit that would appear as a small girl and help people lost in the woods to find their way. Everyone acted like it was an old local legend, even my family. But we’d been going to that lake for years, and I’d never heard that story before, from them or anyone else.
About Rex Caleval
Rex Caleval lives in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, where he spent twenty years as an air traffic controller. Always an avid reader with story ideas popping into his head, he decided to try writing a few, and has been pleased to find that some people like them. His stories have been published by or are upcoming in Every Day Fiction, Antipodean SF, Medusa’s Laugh, Ripples in Space, and MYTHIC.