Written by: Natasha Effendy
Your eyes flutter open.
The first thing you see is the overwhelming green that surrounds you. Tall trees rise towards the sky and tower above. Their leaves, though young, bend inwards with the most delicate layer of winter frost. As you get up, your eyes fixate on the decay around you. Moss clings to the barks of the trees, and some fungi and toxic mushrooms sprout along the uneven roots. The mud beneath your bare feet sinks from the pressure.
You start walking, your feet cold. The canopy of leaves blocks out any form of light from the world outside, and the darkness is overwhelming. After further inspection, you realise you’re in a forest slowly dying from the onset of winter. The image of a naked forest encased in snow sweeps through your mind briefly, and it’s almost comforting; but the quiet is unsettling: where are all the animals?
A bush suddenly rustles nearby, and a brown squirrel sprints out. Tiny hands wrapped around a red berry, his beady, glinting eyes glance at you before it disappears into a willow tree in the distance. Out of curiosity, you follow the squirrel and step through the leaves.
On the other side, warmth embraces you, and the cold mud turns into emerald grass, soft as a pillow around your toes. The air is fresh, and the morning sun blinds you. Dewdrops drip from the remaining leaves, dampening your skin and your dress – blue, like the morning skies of this mysterious clearing, you note. Everything is illuminated: a lake glints to your left, iridescent and perfect. Meanwhile, the same squirrel runs over your feet, and disappears into the horizon.
More woodland animals start to emerge, roaming free in peaceful serenity – well, except the rabbits: they sit like ceramic ornaments at the base of the willow tree, their eyes like blood droplets against white snow. Flowers have sprouted everywhere, gracing your eyes with a pastel spectrum of blue, pink, yellow, and purple. Butterflies the colour of vibrant sunsets, and busy bees, unite over these blossoms; and as if to welcome you, a dozen birds settle down in the willow tree before trilling a lively melody – nature’s wonderful orchestra.
Behind the tree, a majestic deer emerges, its antlers twitching shyly. For a brief moment it steps towards you, before suddenly halting, fixated on something behind you. You turn – there’s a dining table in the centre of the clearing, and you’re reminded of the old maiden’s tale of Midas and his golden touch – all of the plates and cutlery shine with the unmistakable glint of gold. The wooden table is long, covered by an exquisite royal blue tablecloth with tasselled ends. Crystal flutes sparkle in the spotlight, complementing a luxurious feast meant for royalty.
However, the seats are empty.
Something compels you to sit at the head of the table, where a crown sits untouched on a plate. The second your fingers touch it, your dress morphs into an ebony gown that spills across your limbs like black ink. Inexplicably, your hair is now intricately tied up, embedded with pearls. Foreign figures materialise before you, swathed in silks and jewels, taking their seats at the table.
You sit in a pool of confusion, but despite that, the stench of their intentions still pervades your senses; and for the first time, something manifests in your gut: doubt.
Before you can even look closer, they’re gone, now ghosts of the past. Blood starts to fill the flutes in an unpleasant flood, causing the precious glass to crack and burst. It spills onto the table, onto your dress, and paints your hands a disturbing red. In the distance, the rabbits and the deer crumple dead on the grass; the birds start to fall from the tree too, unsettlingly still.
The light of the morning fades away, replaced by a cold wintry night. The temperature drops in an instant, and the dress – now torn – does little to help you. Over the rushing cold wind, someone’s ear-splitting scream rips the fabric of the deadly quiet night.
You look up, and to your horror, you see a massacre unfolding in the clearing – now it’s your turn to be the ghost. Battle cries shatter the night as horses scream. People around you drop like flies. You recognise them as the guests of the feast, but now their clothes are irrevocably soaked in their own murder. Corpses are shoved aside, and the gold on the table is snatched as a token of victory.
As you stumble back in fear, you crash into the seat. The pain of the fall sears across your tailbone, and before you can even move, the trees’ roots burst through the grass in a filthy shower of earth. They slither up your legs and circle around your wrists where they bind you to the chair. Panic and fear sets in, coursing through your veins like a disease.
Over the battle, the clouds rumble in anger before striking out with lightning, sparks of electricity lighting the grass aflame. Fire spreads across the clearing like a river branching into tributaries, setting everything on fire. The criminals scatter, some ruthlessly tossing things into the fire in victory, some gorging down food at the feast. You flinch back, but in the commotion, a wine glass falls and crashes by your feet. All eyes turn to you, and your breath catches.
Slowly, one by one, they return to celebrating, laughing around the fire and eating roasted game, but one of them draws out a sword and skulks towards you. Your hands tremor with fear, and your heart pounds. With the swoop of his arm, his sword cuts through the vines binding you, but there is no time for relief. He drags you roughly out of the seat, and shoves you to the charred grass where you land.
You look up at him. His eyes are chilling and sinister, and there’s no way out now. With both hands, he lifts up his sword and –
With a gasp for air, your eyes flutter open. This time, you see a starry night and you’re back in reality, tucked in a sleeping bag around a dying campfire with your family. A bush rustles beside you, and you turn your head towards it. A squirrel darts out of the leaves, and for a second, you meet its beady eyes, fear lingering in your breath. Then it twitches, and scampers away. This time, you do not follow.