She lived alone in the woods.
As far as anyone knew, it was just nature beyond the Clifton Wilderness Park’s Welcome Center. Trees and mosquitos and dirt. What else was there to it? Hikers might enjoy the crisp air and momentary escape from their day-to-day life, which they termed “becoming one with nature.” City dwellers may spend a weekend camping there to earn the adjectives “outdoorsy” and “down-to-earth.”
No one stayed long and no one spent any time thinking about the areas deeper in the woods. Not even the Clifton Park rangers would have guessed that she was there.
If they had, if someone had stumbled upon her unlikely existence and the mystery of her origin raised, it would have made the news for a night or two. Been the mildly interesting subject sparking light dinner party conversation. Her parents had died and no one remembered they had a daughter, maybe. Her family was undocumented, or criminals on the run from the law. Perhaps she’d run away. No doubt, an argyle-clad opinionator would blame the parents, freshly manicured hands clasped around a glass of wine would bemoan a particular generation, and someone else would loudly shake their head at the president.
In any case, the woman’s presence was never known and so never remarked upon.
Through simply existing quietly amidst leaves and bird calls and dirt, she’d successfully faded from importance to the backdrop of dreams. The foliage ensconced her, pulling her into its depths and breathing in her sighs as the weight of whatever her past was fell from her shoulders.
If asked, Dendra wouldn’t have remembered how she got there. Faded memories sometimes cropped up – a home, other people, a blue bedspread – suggesting a former life, but these murky thoughts raised no longing, no regret. She wasn’t interested in dwelling on forgotten pasts and didn’t know enough about the world outside the forest to care about it.
Hidden away from the pristine trails and campsites, Dendra lived in a small hut. It was sturdy and well-maintained, made from solid branches and thatched greenery. Other than Dendra herself, no one could have recognized it for what it was. Once or twice the unmistakably clumsy sounds of human footsteps came to her through the tree trunks, but it was always far enough away that Dendra was content.
For her, it was just air and trees and the chirping of summer. She was friends with the wind, could ride the sunlight, and spoke with her plants. Life was not definable – it was all around her. It simply was.
In the morning, she would rise with the sun and tend to her small garden. While the forest provided its many small offerings - lettuce, berries, garlic, and more - she found it an enjoyable project to cultivate her little garden in the clearing beside where she slept. Flowers mixed in with strawberry plants, knotwood beside bittercress. There were no lines, only vines and leaves spreading as they wished. Dendra cleared away dead plants and leaves, adding fresh soil and watering the thriving verdure.
Each leaf responded to her touch, curving gently in her hand and leaning towards her when she was near. Animals, too, found themselves near her yet never threatening or harming her.
As she worked, one animal in particular kept her company: a large groundhog she thought of as Hungry One. Most mornings he was there, rustling through the underbrush or lying in her lap while she pulls weeds or fixed one of her water lines trickling between tall stems. Other animals would visit her, coyotes, squirrels, beavers, deer, foxes, but Hungry One kept coming back and stayed with her the longest. He would sometimes scurry off through the low brush and leaves, but she would see him again in a few days, lounging on a rock near her garden, soaking in the sun. Dendra suspected his burrow was nearby, but she never tried to find it. He was entitled to his privacy, after all.
Whenever possible, Dendra would toss some greenery his way. He ate voraciously, often succumbing to hunger pangs and loping off to eat before returning to her side. Despite these pangs, he never touched her garden.
When an animal got sick or hurt, they would come to her and she would try to help. Dendra wasn’t always able to save the animal but was successful more often than not. She didn’t know how she knew, but there was a pulse to the life around her, a rhythm, that her hands tapped into as they worked.
Through this heartbeat, and some trial and error, Dendra knew which plants to eat, which to cultivate, and which to leave alone. She rarely ate larger animals, feeling too close to them, but contentedly subsisted on fish and insects. Once, many years ago, she’d delivered a mercy blow to an already mortally wounded deer. From his hide she gained an invaluable tool, aiding her in heating water for tea and carrying liquids. From his horns, tools. From his meat and bones, food to last her for quite some time.
In this way, Dendra lived in harmony with the natural flow around her. She bowed to its powers of life and death, while coaxing its inhabitants to her gentle will. The pulse lived within her and within it. Her body and soul were as part of the full air, the rich soil, and the breathing tree trunks as any other being in the woods.
Dendra loved the projects that brought her closer to the world around her. She cultivated her garden, healed her companions, and created baskets, feathered paintings, and rock collections. She used the elements of her world to build things of beauty and purpose – though the two were not separate in her mind. Like any forest creatures, her subtle changes to the landscape, to bugs and water flows, created new diversity and new interactions. She breathed new life with every step she took.
In expressing her love and connection with her surroundings, she created new potential for it. New insects, plants, habitats, and homes. She was the Creator, but also the Observer and the Servant to the greater pulse and life around her.
Dendra coaxed long branches with vines, creating a way to carry water from the nearby creek. She gently tugged on a particular branch outside her door, and fruit would roll down a wooden slide from a stockpile she’d created in the trees, away from ravenous bears and deer. The heavens above were charted on a large stone behind her dwelling, predicting the seasons and when to start collecting in advance of the cold days.
And some Creations were accidental, unconscious. Those human footsteps she heard would never reach her. The path in front of Clifton Park rangers or lost campers would curve subtly away from her dwelling. Trees would grow thicker around her, and light would shine brighter along a different route. The sound of water would echo promisingly off in the distance, away from her and towards the civilization that would bring unsuspecting humans relief.
Park rangers would talk about how the foliage was greener, the animals more plentiful deeper in the woods, but attributed it to the lack of humans and tourism and left it alone. In any case, the rangers were more concerned about the problems outside the Park, their faces and worries turned to news of battles, of coups and ravaged fields and the unstable future of the world they knew.
Yet she persisted. In this way, alone and powerful in her smooth quietude, Dendra was content to build her Creations, help her animals, and grow her world around her.
In the way of humans, however, Dendra grew old. She found it harder to bend and carry as she once did but made her way through life just the same. Routines changed; animals did more for her. The woman noticed she slept more, ate less, and felt too many hurts. Finally, she knew it was time. Dendra finished her last project, said goodbye to the animals, felt the Hungry One’s fur against her hand for the last time, and lay down on the rushes she’d slept on for innumerable years. With a sigh that whispered through the trees for many years after, Dendra left her body.
Outside the Park, the rangers’ fears had proven true. Modern society was now a warscape, with different factions and countries caught in the fray. No altercation had ever been like this - every human from every country and walk of life was involved yet the weapons were more effective than ever. Younger and younger men and women felt the weight of a gun in their hands, and scientists turned to the art of death, rather than life.
The Endless War took human lives, decades’ worth, and left behind an altered landscape. Countries had toppled, technology gone, survivors left to tend their wounds and scavenge for survival. Gone were argyle sweaters, manicures, and wine. Traumatized men and women clung to each other in their poor attempts at homes, fearful of others and of each other. Without the convenience and ease of a society, blanketed around them, even fewer survived the time after the war. The survivors didn’t know what to eat, when, or how. Few knew how to build a shelter or prevent disease. Cracked nails, formerly manicured, clung to hope instead of a spear, and perished.
Decades passed and, of course, humans learned. They formed bands and tribes, protecting themselves in numbers, learning the seasons, and understanding new expectations. There was discord, as there always would be, but the successful learned to forget the civilization they’d once known. Forget what they could not recover.
One such small tribe camped near what was once called the Clifton Wilderness Park. It was now just Wilderness.
“Mison, Mison!” A dark brown man ran out towards the tribe from between the trees. He wore the short brown cloth around his waist indicative of their tribe. He was out of breath – he’d clearly been running as hard as he could through the trees.
Mison stood and started toward the man, concerned. “What is it, Jasper? What is wrong?” He also wore the tribe’s brown loincloth and a dark beard. He’d been sitting with some tribesmen, showing younger boys how to sharpen their blades with stones. At the runner’s entrance, activities stopped and talking quieted.
The younger man clasped Mison’s arms. “You must come now. You must see what I have found.”
“What is it?” Mison tried to ask Jasper, but Jasper only shook his head. “You must see.”
Mison left several Mison men to look after the women and took three others with him, fearing a fight. They hurried through the woods as Jasper led them. Finally, the young man pulled aside a large tree bough and beckoned them down a ridge.
Once Mison had his footing at the bottom, he looked up – and gasped.
They were surrounded by machines, tools, and markings. A large wheel stood beside a river, turning and carrying water in baskets up a rope and depositing them in a large overflowing container upstream. Tools, cut from stone and wood, littered the ground. Some he could remember faintly seeing before the war, but some were unfamiliar. Many looked complicated and delicate, with many pieces and a purpose unknown.
As the men peered around the clearing, their eyes fell on more marvels than they’d ever seen. Ways of doing things, of lessening work, technology and potential lost in the Endless War. They saw carefully cut logs and chiseled stone, pulleys and levers, waterpower serving moving contraptions. They spent all afternoon searching the clearing, discovering more and more wonders. As they moved through the trees, Mison found a small structure with a plain door.
He cautioned his men to stay back as he grasped his knife, leaned against the door, and pushed gently. It swung inward, and he stepped inside quickly, looking for an occupant. Instantly, as he’d stepped over the threshold, he felt a tingle slide up his spine and spread through the base of his skull. He shook himself, disconcerted.
The structure housed one small room. More tools lay piled in a corner, but Mison was immediately drawn to the form lying prostrate on the ground. There was no movement from it. He edged forward slowly. The grasses outside and even in this room flourished – no one had stepped in this area in many years.
As he looked at the form, closer now, he saw no signs of animals ravaging the body as he might have expected. The fabrics covering the body were handwoven, as fresh as if they’d been finished yesterday, and he noticed dark locks of hair framing a clear face. The face of a woman. She must have just died! Or … does she live yet?
Mison spoke aloud but saw no change in the woman’s face. He reached his hand toward her, slowly. Still no movement, even as his fingers found her throat. He felt for a pulse, but there was none. Instead, her flesh was like ice.
How was this possible? No disturbance, no sign of living for many years, no signs of decomposition or animals feasting. She could not have died recently or long ago. As Mison continued to look at the body and where it lay, it made no sense.
Grass, brush, flowers, and vines had thrived in the small room, despite the limited light. Yet they didn’t cover her – just gingerly skirted the edges of where she lay. Vines of small flowers were curled across her hands, woven between still fingers.
Mison shook his head again, uncomprehending and chilled. He left the room, thoughts jumbled, wanting air to breathe. He allowed his men to go inside, but insisted they touch nothing and not disturb her.
Over the next several weeks, the tribe thoroughly explored and studied the creations that overtook that part of the forest. The smartest of their group immediately saw their applications and understood their importance. As each item was touched, the threshold crossed, the woman gazed upon, each man, woman, and child felt the shimmer in their bodies and a strange power in the air.
It may have been the discoveries or the awed whispers by campfire, but the water from the river seemed to taste sweeter, the food and animals were more plentiful, and the weather calmer. As the tribe enjoyed more food and the comfort of staying in one place, smiles appeared on faces and the woman began to dance again, something they hadn’t done since they were children.
Mison hadn’t said anything and he didn’t need to – the woman’s body and hut were left pristine, unmolested, but many of his tribe took to leaving flowers and small offerings of herbs by the door. He saw many touch their hearts and bow their heads as they passed by, and some of the more superstitious would spend time on their knees, foreheads pressed to the dirt, murmuring prayers of thanks.
Mison was not a superstitious man, but he could never explain the woman in the hut and the miracle of their discoveries. He couldn’t blame his people for feeling blessed by a greater power. Whoever this woman was, she was a miracle.
Through the woman’s Creations, they learned to maintain a crop with river water, pulling it from the river and portioning it into lines. They used the complicated angles and measurements left inscribed on stone and painted onto trees, somehow untouched by the passage of time, to create gears and mechanisms that predicted the weather and the stars.
Over time, others came. They helped, and benefited, and worshipped the beautiful woman inside the hut - though no one ever entered it anymore. The door and walls were piled high with flowers, with branches, apples, bread, foodstuffs. As they crumbled and decayed, a sweet pungent aroma filled the air near the hut. More offerings were laid on top, creating higher and higher piles for the woman.
Every newcomer would be told the story, would press their own flowers against the now disappearing walls. As new generations were born, they didn’t forget the miracle of their parents’ wanderings, the change these Creations had wrought. Some day when they were adults, too, and tending their own crops or flocks, they would make the journey to give their own offering to the Goddess. To the growing hill of flowers and food and notes and wishes, the woman’s body buried under their adoration.
“And that’s how Miracle Mountain came to be! But that was many years ago, before even my grandparents’ time. Before their grandparents’ time!”
The mother sat on the edge of her daughter’s bed and tucked her in tighter as she talked. The blue bedspread was getting too small – it must keep shrinking in the dryer.
“Still today many make the pilgrimage from their home to visit the original site of our creation, where our Goddess lived and left the beginnings of civilization behind for us to find. They climb up the mountain to leave their offering at the top. Deep down, down at the bottom, it’s said that the Goddess lives yet, waiting to return to our world.” The woman paused for dramatic effect. “The end.”
She smiled at her girl, snuggled up in her small bed, green eyes wide and riveted by her mother’s story.
The woman pushed back curled, dyed hair, and as she did so, caught the time on the wall clock. “Oh, goodness, dear. I have to go, or your father and I will miss the play. Now will you go to bed? No bothering Nanny Martha?” The mother tweaked the little girl’s nose and the girl smiled.
“Just one more question, Mommy?”
Her mother sighed, glanced at the clock, and said, “One more.”
“What did the Goddess look like? And,” she quickly added in the same breath, “And how do we know she left those Creations for us?”
The mother smiled and stroked her daughter’s black hair. “That’s two questions! But alright. She had long, dark hair. And green, green eyes. Indeed, she looked very much like you!” The mother smiled at her daughter as she grabbed the girl’s closest stuffed animal, a groundhog, and tucked it in under the covers beside her.
“As for your other question. What else would the Goddess have created all those things for? She loved humanity and wanted to give us the tools to grow!”
The daughter frowned, not satisfied with this answer, but pulled her favorite groundhog in close and let her mother kiss her goodnight.
The little girl drifted into dreams, thinking of the Goddess. She dreamed of walking between familiar trees, singing to a garden and helping animals who were hurt. Though the girl had never been into the woods, in her dream she recognized all the plants and what they did. In her dream, she felt the vibration of life coursing through her. In the dream, her name was Dendra and she lived alone in the woods.