Once upon a time there was a huge, dark forest. Tall, twisted trees reached for the sun, their outstretched limbs sending the ground below into a cold, everlasting gloom. Primordial vines snaked around these trees and grasped at the air, searching for warmth, and light, and purchase. No breeze stirred the leaves, and the air was still and silent.
In this forest there was a path. Sometimes it went straight forward, and sometimes it would wind around the huge gray tree trunks, slinking under knotted roots and hiding in the litter of old leaves and twigs and dirt. Sometimes the path would disappear into a congestion of vines that twisted and grasped and struggled for light. But the path was always there.
And on this path there was a girl.
The girl walked forward, all alone, one step in front of the other. The girl was afraid of the forest. It was murky and gray and silent and cold, and the path was often hard to see. Sometimes in the shadows she thought she could see glowing eyes of unknown creatures. Sometimes in the quiet she could hear soft cries, and they sounded hungry and cruel. She did not feel safe. She wanted to hide away in the hollow of a tree. She wanted to turn back and find a way out. But she couldn’t. She had to walk the path. And she had to do it alone. No one else could walk it.
She continued on, one step in front of the other until she came to a vast chasm. She stood near the edge and peered down into the abyss, but could not see the bottom. She looked to the left and to the right, but she could only see the huge gray trees reaching up into the equally gray sky and fading into the distant gray mist. Nearby, the trees leaned over the chasm as thick grasping vines trailed off the edge and down into the abyss.
A glance behind her revealed only the darkness through which she had walked. She looked across and could see the other side, but it was so very far away. Was there no way forward? She looked down at the path and realized that it did continue across the chasm. But where before it was wide and relatively safe to walk, now it was no more than a narrow plank, stretching into the distance across the chasm.
The girl did not understand. Was it safe? It was so thin, and so narrow. Would it support her? Could she balance? She was no acrobat. There was barely room for her to stand with her feet together. Why was this her path? It didn’t make sense. She grew more afraid. Was the path a trick? Was it designed so that she would fail, so that she would fall? Tears distorted her vision, and she found she could not move. She had to walk the path, but if she did she would surely fail. The only path she could walk, the path that only she could walk, seemed destined to kill her.
As she stood at the edge, staring at the plank, she heard the cries of the menacing unknown creatures that lurked in the shadows. The cries grew closer. She could not stay here. She could not go back. There was no way around. She looked up into the cloud-darkened sky, which grew blacker with the coming night. There was nothing else to do, but go forward.
One step. She paused as the plank seemed to give slightly under her weight. She took a second step. Stood on the plank. It held. She told herself not to look straight down. She couldn’t look ahead without fearing she would fall. She turned her face slightly down toward the plank, so that she could see just a few steps ahead. Then she took a third step.
Her steps were small. She wanted to run across, to get this over with as soon as possible. But her fear kept her nearly frozen. She could only move her feet, slowly, ever so slowly. One step in front of the other.
After a while the girl stopped and looked up. Her heart seemed to slip from its housing. Had she made no progress at all? Carefully, she twisted her upper body so that she could glance behind her. The edge of the chasm was mere yards away. She had moved forward, but there was so far to go. And in the shadowy mist that surrounded her, the other side looked even more distant than before she stepped on the plank.
Returning her gaze to the plank, she took another step. Then another. One step in front of the other. She willed herself not to look ahead, not to see how distant the other side was, not to see how hopeless it was. Her foot slipped a little to the side and she wobbled. The plank vibrated slightly. She froze, her breath caught.
Don’t fall. Don’t look down. Don’t look ahead. Don’t look behind. Just keep walking.
The girl took a breath, and another. She began walking again.
She fought the urge to look up, but it was too late. Her eyes widened, then filled with tears. A few feet ahead, the mist had thickened into a blue-gray fog, into which the plank disappeared. She was surrounded by the fog, her breath joining it in shuddering clouds as she gasped. How far had she come? How far did she have to go? She trembled, and the plank trembled in response. She clinched her fists and tried to stop her body from shaking, but the shaking only increased until she knew that she would fall. In a panic she dropped into a crouch and gripped the sides of the plank with her hands. Splinters dug into her palms, but she did not move. She could not move. To move was to fall.
But to stay was to fail.
After a few moments her trembling had subsided. Have to move forward, she thought. She leaned forward until she was on her knees, her hands still clutching the plank. Slowly, experimentally, she slid one hand forward, then the opposite knee. Then the other hand, and the other knee.
Have to move forward. One hand, one knee.
Can’t fall. The other hand, the other knee.
Her hands, torn by the splinters, began to bleed, and she had to grip tighter to keep them from slipping. Sweat and tears dropped from her nose and beaded on the plank. One hand, one knee. The other hand, the other knee.
The fog was nearly black, and so cold. The girl shivered and the plank shivered in response. Then she heard it.
A creak of wood. The plank finally giving way? Or something else?
Is the plank breaking? Is something behind me? Is something waiting for me? I’m going to fall. I’m going to fail. I’m going to die. Her mind bounced from one fear to the next, whirling around in despair, until she found herself crumpled against the plank, her eyes squeezed shut, her face pressed into the wood. She struggled to breathe, her chest fighting the exchange of air. I cannot go forward. I cannot walk this path. I cannot make it. I’m going to fall. I’m going to fail. I’m going to die.
She thought perhaps she should let go. Her bloody hands were barely holding on. She opened her eyes and found herself staring into the blackness below. It was waiting for her. It was right there. It would be easy to fall. It is impossible to go forward. I’m going to fall. I’m going to fail. I’m going to die.
As the girl lay there, suspended above oblivion by no more than a few inches of wood, she heard herself whisper into the darkness. “Please. Help me.”
Silence, and cold, and darkness surrounded her. Hope seemed lost in the fog.
Silence, and cold, and darkness.
And a hand clasped her shoulder.
She jerked upward, the plank swaying slightly, and another hand gripped her other shoulder.
She looked up. To her left, barely visible in the gloom, was a woman. To her right, a boy. Each held on to her as she carefully pulled herself upward. They did not let go until she was standing, until the plank had stopped vibrating from her movements. Then the woman reached down and held the girl’s left hand. The boy clutched her right hand tightly.
“Are you angels?” She whispered.
“No,” said the woman with a smile.
The girl was confused. “How are you standing in mid-air?” she asked.
The boy said, “We’re not in mid-air.”
The girl looked down. Though the fog was thick, she could just barely see that the woman and the boy were each standing on what looked like wood. She peered into the murk and saw that each was on a plank that seemed to stretch into the distance alongside hers.
“Where did you come from?” she asked.
“I’m walking the path,” the boy replied.
“So am I,” the woman said.
The girl said, “But I thought I was the only one who could walk this path.”
The woman smiled at her again. “Yes. You are the only one who can walk your path. But I am walking my path. And he is walking his.” She turned away and nodded toward the fog. “And they are each walking theirs.”
And now the girl could see, ever so faintly, other people in the distance. She looked from side to side and saw them on her left and her right. The woman held the hand of a man to her left. The boy held the hand of another boy to his right. And each held the hand of another. One beside the other, continuing into the fog.
“But I didn’t see you on the path; I didn’t see your planks here. I thought I was alone.”
The boy shrugged. “So did I. Probably so did everyone. But I guess sometimes we need help. And so we can find each other, and help each other.”
The man beyond the woman spoke up. “We may walk our paths alone, but where we need it most, they meet.”
The girl said, “But aren’t you afraid? What if we fall?”
The man said, “I was afraid. The chasm is so deep. I knew I would fall. But now, I see that this plank is part of a wider path.”
The girl looked at the planks and saw that they were only separated by an inch or two. If everyone walked together, no one could fail. Even if someone were to fall, the others’ planks would be there to stop them, and the others’ hands would be there to save them.
The woman said, “Are you ready to go forward?”
The girl nodded. “I think so.”
“Good,” replied the woman. She took a step. The man beside her took a step. The boy took a step. And the girl took a step.
One step in front of the other.
Together they moved forward, across the chasm, into the mist.
Soon twisted shapes emerged from the fog, and the girl saw that they were trees. The edge of the chasm appeared. Sighing in relief, she stepped from her plank onto solid earth. The path stretched before her into the trees.
The woman and the boy and all the others stepped from their planks and paused at the edge. As the girl watched, the people in the distance began to fade away. She looked up at the woman in alarm.
“I think this is where we part,” said the woman, and she too began to fade. The girl shook her head.
“Please don’t go,” she said, clinging to the woman’s hand, “I don’t want to be alone.”
The boy, now barely visible in the gloom, his hand cold in hers, said “We have to walk our paths alone.”
The woman nodded. “But if we need each other again, we’ll find each other. Our paths are separate from yours, but we each go forward.”
“Keep walking, and we’ll be walking with you,” the boy’s voice faded away as he vanished.
The woman smiled and whispered, “Keep walking. I’m walking too.” And she, too, disappeared.
The girl stood there in the dark forest, shivering from the cold. Tears dampened her cheeks. She looked back at the chasm and saw that the fog had thinned, revealing the vast gulf across which she had walked. The planks were no longer there.
I made this far, she thought. I can keep going.
She studied the path before her. It led forward, winding slightly around the trees, under roots and leaf litter and dirt, through clusters of twisting vines and into the distance. It was her path. No one could walk it but her. Walk it she must. And walk it she would.
She took a step. And another.
One step in front of the other.