Everything began when Ella got lost in the woods. She’d been hiking, watching the sun stream in languorous ribbons down the trees and crumble through the leaves. She got distracted. It was easy to do when the light sliced through the forest the way it was doing. But then the shadows grew, and stretched. The light faded and the blue darkness pooled on the ground until the trees and the sky were steeped in it. The shadows spread and Ella was alone in the forest in the dark under a violet dimming sky.
Ella tried to figure out which way was north, or which way she’d come. The moon was no help at all. It just glimmered at her, indifferently, offering a sliver’s worth of silver light. She’d worn shorts and a sleeveless top, which was sensible in the sun. In the deepening dusk the mosquitoes swarmed and before too long she was covered in bites, slapping at her arms and brushing bugs from her neck. Finally Ella sat, her back to the prickly bark of a tree, and closed her eyes to wait for the sun.
A chirp sounded. She sighed. Crickets. Another chirp, and another rang out. Soon the air was clamoring with crickets, and probably the odd frog. The noise continued for a while, and then in a moment the forest was silent. Ella opened her eyes.
There was a woman there, sitting against a tree facing Ella. She was wearing long pants – Ella’s bug bites itched in envy – and a t-shirt. She smiled when Ella looked up at her, and said, “Hello there, sweet one. You seem a bit lost.”
Ella scrambled to her feet, bracing herself against the tree when her legs buckled. Her whole body seemed to be asleep. The strange woman rose too, somewhat more gracefully. “Yes,” said Ella, her voice loud against her own ears. “Could you tell me the way back to Angram Street? It’s just against the woods, it’s where I came from -”
The woman was shaking her head. “No, dear. I’m sorry, I simple don’t know the geography of this place. With me, though, you have nothing to fear, and I can tell you a story to pass the hours until day breaks. If you like, that is.”
Ella’s brow crinkled. What a strange suggestion. “Okay,” she said, knowing that she sounded as bewildered as she felt. “Sure, I’ll hear a story.”
“Oh, how wonderful!” the woman clapped her hands together. “But first, what is your name?”
“Ah.” The woman let out a long sigh. “Ella. That was my name once.” Ella just looked at her, blank.
“Right then, on with the story. It’s a tale long and seldom told, a tale you can find once and never again. A tale that is spun lost in the wood by the light of the almost-moon. It’s about a story, in a manner of speaking. A tale within a tale. Though what is a story, of course? That is the question. A dream, a ghost, a wish? I wouldn’t know, of course. I only tell the tale. You know, when the tale is told by a good storyteller, all else ceases to exist? But I’m rambling now, and I will tell you.”
Ella was thoroughly perplexed at this point, but the strange woman continued.
“This is a story cobbled together from the half-remembered and nearly-known. It’s about a ghost more than a wish, I suppose, because it’s about itself. You see, when a person -” she nodded to Ella, “when a person such as yourself, my dear, finds herself wandering a strange place where the moon is barely gleaming on the trees, she may meet with a ghost. Or a dream, or whatever else it may be. Nobody quite knows who the stranger is, who the dream is. There have been arguments on this point, naturally. Some say that the dream is nothing more than that, the fancy woven of fear and moonlight. Some say that it is a shadow of the past. Those ones have a story all embroidered and blood-spattered. It’s the ghost of a woman who fled to freedom, who escaped a vengeful lover, who – oh, I don’t know. Who can say. Those ones think it’s the heroine of some story who’s run from it, only to find herself in another. It’s a very dramatic view of things.”
Ella coughed and the strange woman looked up, as though she’d forgotten her listener was there. Neither spoke for a minute, and then the woman went on with her tale.