I walk down the path in the woods. Already, I miss the old man at the house, but walking in the dappled sunlight of the forest is one of my favorite things. The cool dampness and song of the birds divert my attention. My feet are sure, so I simply walk. I take in the wholeness of the scene. Everything is doing what it should, when it should and as it should. Nothing could be more perfect.
Ahead, I hear a bird calling, warning of danger. There’s no mistaking it. There seems to be a predator ahead, so I slow my pace. I step off of the path and hide behind a large Alder tree. After listening to the bird for a few more moments, I realize that I am ready to run in the other direction. Then, I realize just how dumb that is. I’m already dead. I’m pretty sure that there isn’t anything that can make me deader than I already am. So, I forge ahead carefully.
The bird is not longer sounding a warning. However, I am still hyper-aware of every sound in the forest. Successful predators are silent. I keep watching all around me and above me. Still there’s nothing, so I let my guard down just a fraction and pick up my pace. I don’t really know where I’m going, but I figure that I might, at least, do my best to try and get there quickly.
Suddenly, the normal forest sounds stop. The only sounds are my muted steps on the grass pathway. I hear the giggle of a little girl echo around me. I didn’t know, until that point, that dead people could get chill bumps. I freeze. Maybe it’s fear. Maybe I’m trying to figure out where this little girl is. I’m not sure. The sound echoes again. It’s chilling.
Slowly, I press forward. “Come play with me,” echoes through the forest.
Again, I freeze. Even dead, I’m creeped completely out by this. Laughter. “Come play with me.” More laughter.
I hear a dress rustling. As I hear another round of laughter, I see the tail of a dress and blonde curls disappear behind a tree. I follow. “Little girl?” I ask hesitantly.
It seems sacrilege to speak even at a normal volume. There’s nothing behind the tree when I get there. “Little girl? Are you lost?”
“Come play with me,” is the response. More laughter.
I shudder. “Little girl!” I say with a little more urgency. “Can you come where I can see you? Are you lost?”
At this point, I notice the mist. It has surrounded me and I can not find my way back to the path. I sit on the moss covered ground at the base of a tree. I’m trying not to panic. I hear the little girl laughing and running, her dress rustling against the trunks of trees, her laughter echoing off of the trees and all of the unseen forces in the forest. I’m panicking.
Drawing my knees up to my chest, I rest my forehead on them and take a deep breath. The laughter and rustling stop. I strain to hear anything. Then, a tap on my shoulder and a “BOO!” just about give me heart failure. (Well, if I weren’t dead it would have…)
In my fright, I jump away from the tree trunk and end up supine on the moss covered soil. A laughing little girl walks up and looks at me. “Did I scare you?” she asks very innocently.
I sit up and look at her. “Yes, you did,” I reply.
She laughs again. I’m irritated. “Don’t be mad. I was just playing,” she says.
Silently, I take in this child of, maybe 6 years old. Her golden pigtails hang in ringlets on either side of her head and are tied back with pink ribbons. Her little black pinafore is accented by a pale pink shirt underneath. She’s also wearing black patent Mary Jane shoes with lacy socks. She looks like she is going to church. “Like my dress? Mama made it,” she says, watching me, watching her.
I stand. “Your mama is very talented,” I respond. “Why are you playing in the forest?”
She giggles. “I live here, silly. Where else would I play?”
Great, I think. I have encountered a little forest kid who, do doubt, is the reason I had to come this way. “You have a point, my little friend. What is your name?”
“I am called Tia,” she responds. “I know who you are. Will you play with me?”
“Tia, I am on my way to see someone. I can not play right now. Can you help me get through the forest since you live here?”
Little Tia looked up at me. There was something strange about her eyes. They were too close or maybe too far apart, maybe they were too blue or too large. When she spoke her voice had changed. All innocence was gone and there was an edge to it. “You didn’t even ask how I know you. Come. Play.”
“If you could just help me get back on the path, Tia. I need to be going,” I responded as I took her hand.
As I turned and tugged her hand to leave, she planted her feet. “Now, I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” said a voice that was not at all child-like.
Once again, I get chill bumps and I freeze. I turn and look down at the hand I am holding. It isn’t the hand of a child, but the withered claw of my greatest fear. I am staring into the hooded face of Death.
The clawed hand grasps my wrist and pulls me close. Cold trickles down the side of my face and neck as it speaks, “Will you hear me now?” it asks.
I can not make the words come. I am the dead idiot who still fears death. Yeah, that makes total sense. I stare into the abyss under the hood. I am silent. I am scared. Death lets me go with a sardonic chuckle. “I thought you might.” It seems to brush me off of itself and then straighten its robe before becoming Tia again.
“See? This is much better, isn’t it?” the little girl says with a laugh.
I am still shocked mute, so Tia takes my hand and guides me back to the forest path. It is at this point, I realize that the mist has cleared. It is at this point that I realize that Death is, quite literally, my guide.
“Tia, I wasn’t expecting to see you today. I know, now, that you are who I have been searching for. Since I am already dead, what is it that you could possibly have to show or tell me?”
Tia laughed. It wasn’t a child’s giggle, but a full-on, serious adult laugh. “Death is not just the degradation of the physical body. It is not just the spirit letting go of the physical realm. Death comes in many forms. You have seen this today.”
I nodded. We have not stopped walking the path. Tia leads me on as I listen to what she says. “Death is but one part of a cycle. It is birth, life, death, and rest before being reborn again. Death is the literal and metaphorical shedding of the unneeded. Whether one no longer needs a person, a habit, a thought process, or breath, the process is the same. The connection withers and, ultimately, is no more. It is a change, an evolution. I am neither bad nor am I good. I am simply a stage in a lifecycle.
“The mind must assign a binary to everything: good/bad, male/female, up/down. Sometimes, things simply are. Sometimes the progression from one stage to the other has to seem traumatic. Sometimes the progression from one stage to the next is seamless and accepted. These things are all decided within the mind of the one who is having the experience.”
We haven’t stopped walking. I am enthralled by this child’s wisdom. I am enthralled by her dichotomy. She is the very essence of what she is saying. She is young in body, yet older than time. She is smoothed skin and playful, yet wiser than even the oldest person alive. The forest is thinning out. I am almost certain that we are coming to the end of this part of the journey. “Tia, if I am truly dead and in the world of the spirit, then why was I so afraid of your cloaked form?”
The little girl looks at me. Her eyes are no longer blue. They are a hazy gray-green. We walk up a rise that is leading to a clearing ahead. She doesn’t speak, yet we keep walking.
The trees cease at the top of the rise. I look down at her and she smiles. “You fear me because you have yet to let go of your life and accept that it is time for you to rest.”
I nod at her, accepting her answer. She kisses my knuckles, giggles and says, “Let’s play!” As she throws me off of the cliff we have just walked out to.
As I am falling, she leans over the edge and waves at me. That is the last thing I remember before succumbing to the darkness.