Between Oak and Acorn, a Sunset Waits
By Marisca Pichette
Hedgehog walks into the Woods.
She is following a path she did not make and no one said was there. The path she discovered by herself this morning, quite by accident, as she walked across the field abutting her neighbor’s farm. When she walks into the woods, she still carries her morning cup of coffee, floral mug half-full and cooling with every step into the shade of ancient trees.
It doesn’t occur to Hedgehog that this idle exploration could take any longer than the time to finish her lukewarm coffee and walk home to her house at the edge of the field she shares with her neighbor.
When Hedgehog is twenty steps into the Woods, she meets Moose. He stands in the center of the well-worn path, and she wonders--staring up at his huge, prehistoric form— if his hooves beat the path into shape.
“Good morning,” she says, stopping some distance back from him. She can’t remember what one is supposed to do on encountering a moose. Should she stand still or run? Make eye contact or not?
“Good morning,” says Moose. His voice is low and powerful, like the trees. “Are you following the path?”
Hedgehog feels like she should be surprised he can speak, but she isn’t. It makes sense, somehow. The Woods allow such things.
“I am,” she says, clutching her cup. The shade feels cool and distant on her hands. “How far does it go?”
“It ends here.” Moose lowers his head and shakes his broad antlers. Hedgehog is both relieved and disappointed. As impromptu as her exploration was, she expected to go further.
But as Moose steps to the side, still shaking his head, she sees that the path continues deeper into the Woods.
“Wait. You said it ended here, but it keeps going.”
Moose grunts. “That’s a different path. The path you began on led to me. That path leads elsewhere.”
Hedgehog opens her mouth to argue, but what Moose says makes sense, in a way. Instead, she says, “If I follow it, what will I find?”
“I do not know. This path is the only one I’ve traveled, and it ends here, with me.”
Hedgehog thinks about this. Beyond Moose, the foliage grows thicker, pruning the sunlight into sparser dapples. “You’ve never gone further?” she asks.
Moose shakes his head and Hedgehog inhales the textured air of the Woods. It is still early. Why shouldn’t she walk a little further? “I think I’ll follow the path deeper. And when I come back, will you be here?”
“Then I will tell you all about what I’ve found.”
Hedgehog walks along the path through the Woods. Soon Moose is out of sight. After forty steps, she meets Bear.
Bear’s black bulk covers the path. She sits beside a blackberry bush, her claws stained purple.
“Good morning,” says Bear.
“Good morning,” Hedgehog replies. She tries to see past Bear, but her shadow obscures what lies beyond, and with the sharp contrast of sunlight and shade, Hedgehog can’t tell if the path continues.
“Does the path go on?” Hedgehog asks.
Bear plucks a blackberry from the bush, its thorns combing her dark fur. “No. It ends here, with me.”
“And you sit by this bush all day?” Hedgehog sees how the grass is flattened all around Bear’s bottom. Bear nods. “Then how do you know that the path ends?”
Ponderously, Bear rises. As she shuffles to the side, Hedgehog sees the path winding away, deeper into the Woods.
“That,” says Bear, “is another path. I have never followed it.”
“Well,” says Hedgehog, downing the rest of her coffee; it is cold. “I’m taking it. And when I come back, I’ll tell you what I’ve found.”
“No one ever comes back,” says Bear, sitting down beside the blackberry bush. “That’s why I never followed it.”
Hedgehog hesitates. “Aren’t you curious? Maybe the path goes out the other side of the Woods.”
“Nope.” Bear pops blackberries into her mouth. Hedgehog frowns.
“If there’s a path this worn, someone must be using it. I’m sure there’s more to find.”
Bear picks some blackberries from her bush and drops them into Hedgehog’s empty cup. “Good luck,” she says.
Not sure what else to do, Hedgehog thanks her and walks on.
Eighty steps after she leaves Bear, Hedgehog meets Deer. He lounges across the path, his antlers more modest than Moose’s, though no less elegant.
As she approaches, Hedgehog sees the path clearly extending beyond Deer. The trees have become thicker and crowd around her, leaning in. But the path remains as worn as ever, and Hedgehog decides there must be something at the end of it worth finding.
“Good morning,” she says to Deer. “I’m following the path.”
“It ends here,” says Deer with a yawn.
Hedgehog is becoming annoyed. “Only for you,” she snaps.
It takes Deer a long time to stand. Hedgehog eats a blackberry while she waits for him to move out of her way.
“It ends for everyone,” Deer says, yawning again. “The path before me is bright and noisy with life. The path beyond me is dark and silent.”
Hedgehog chews her blackberry, listening. She does notice that the Woods are darker ahead, only limited sunlight reaching the ground, and the path. But she began this journey, and something inside her itches for the end—the true end.
Besides, if something dangerous faced her, she would simply turn around and walk back along the path past Deer and Bear and Moose.
“Thanks for your concern,” she says to Deer as he yawns again. He is larger than she expected, almost as big, she thinks, as Moose and Bear. “I’ll keep walking, though. On my way back, I’ll tell you what I saw.”
Deer saunters onto the grass beside the path, lowering his horned head to graze. “Sure.”
With that, Hedgehog tosses another blackberry into her mouth and bites down, walking on.
One hundred and sixty steps later, Hedgehog meets Coyote. In a dark and shady part of the Woods he gnaws on a jawbone, teeth clicking against teeth.
Coyote meets her eyes and lets the jawbone fall onto the path. “You want to step from my path to the one that leads on— deep into the Woods.”
Hedgehog nods, wondering how he knows this. Did Moose or Bear tell him she was coming? Surely Deer wouldn’t have time. But they all claimed to never venture further into the Woods than where she found them.
Perhaps the trees conveyed the message. It is another thought that catches her by surprise, making a bizarre sort of sense.
Coyote nudges the jawbone with his paw. “It is dangerous to go on.”
“No one knows what lies ahead. This is the end of my path. I cannot help you if you go beyond me.”
“Can’t I come back this way?”
“No one ever has.”
Hedgehog looks down into her cup. She has three blackberries left--the largest of what Bear gave her. She doesn’t remember them being so large when she got them. They must have been buried by the other, smaller berries.
“I’ll take the next path,” she says, looking back at Coyote. He nods.
“As you wish.”
He stands and trots into the myrtle that borders this section of the path. Hedgehog steps over the jawbone— another item that seems larger than it should be--and walks deeper into the Woods. Trees weave together, blocking out sunlight and making her shiver.
Soon Coyote is lost from sight. She continues on alone.
Three hundred and twenty steps into the darker Woods and Hedgehog finds eyes in the shadows. Lynx sits in the middle of the path.
“Turn back,” she says.
Hedgehog shakes her head. Tree branches hang low, reaching for her hair. She wonders if it is still morning beyond the Woods, or if she has been walking into the afternoon. Or evening.
“I want to find the end of the paths. All the paths.”
Lynx studies her. She is tall, almost as tall as Hedgehog. “If you go further, you can’t come back this way.”
Lynx’s eyes glow. “We’ll be gone,” she says, her whiskers twitching. “The paths will have changed. We will not be in the places you left us.”
“It’s the way.” Lynx stands, arching her gray back. “Do you still wish to go on? The trees will grow tighter, the spaces smaller. It will be difficult to see.”
Hedgehog swallows. Blackberry seeds pepper the recesses of her teeth. “I want to find the end.”
Lynx smiles then, her teeth sharper than Coyote’s. “Then take this.”
She bats something across the path. It rolls against Hedgehog’s foot and she picks it up. It’s a candle.
“Thank you. But how do I light it?”
Lynx shrugs, settling herself in the moss along the side of the path. “Ask the one after me.”
Hedgehog sets the candle in her cup with her two remaining blackberries, which seem even larger now. She walks on, leaving Lynx to be swallowed by the increasing gloom.
She walks in near total darkness for a long time. After six hundred and forty steps, she sees a light ahead. She follows it along the path until she meets Turkey.
They stand on the path. Next to them is a box of matches. Between them and Hedgehog is a lighted candle.
“You need light,” Turkey says, before Hedgehog can greet them. She nods, pulling Lynx’s candle from her cup and lighting it using Turkey’s candle. They watch her, ruffling their feathers.
“How far is it to the end of the path?” Hedgehog asks. She is worried about light. Lynx’s candle is not very big.
“Not far,” Turkey replies. “The path ends here, with me.”
Hedgehog looks around at the candle-lit trees. They are woven tight, bounded with vines and shrubs in a dense mat of green. Perhaps the path does end here. She is surprised she fits in this section of the Woods at all. Turkey’s head nearly reaches the canopy, but Hedgehog has space around her. They are taller than her, she realizes. But that makes no sense at all.
“Does your path end here, or the whole path?” she asks them.
“Oh, that.” Turkey resettles their wings and struts into the leaf litter abutting the path. Through the wavering shadows and candlelight, Hedgehog sees the shape of the path continuing on into still denser foliage.
“That path goes on and on,” Turkey says. “It has no end.”
“It must. Everything has an end.”
“Does it?” Turkey eyes her, their feathers shimmering. They kick the box of matches towards her. “Take these, then. You’ll need them before you’re through.”
Hedgehog is nervous now. But she picks up the matches and puts them into her cup with the blackberries. There is barely any space in the cup now, and she holds the candle in her other hand. She stares along the path ahead.
The trees seem taller here, yet closer, too. She feels smaller than when she began.
Holding out her light, she walks past Turkey, leaving their light for deeper darkness. Before they fade away completely, she hears their voice calling after her:
“Good night, little hog. Welcome home.”
Before long, Hedgehog has to stop. Her hair tangles in the vines and roots trip her constantly. She relights the candle several times, and has used up many matches before she blunders into Raccoon. More than twelve hundred steps lie between her and Turkey.
Raccoon squints at Hedgehog, backing away from her half-spent candle. She apologizes for not seeing Raccoon, despite her light.
“It’s you,” Raccoon says, ignoring her apology. “The one who won’t stop.”
“You know me?” Hedgehog is caught off-guard by the pitch of her own voice. Reedy and high.
Raccoon grunts. “We all know you. The paths know you. The Woods know you.”
She finds herself looking up at Raccoon. “But I’ve never been here before.”
“Haven’t you?” Raccoon moves aside, revealing the path winding further into the trees. “Haven’t you?”
Not sure what to say in return, Hedgehog passes, Raccoon’s words following behind her.
“Haven’t you? Haven’t you? Haven’t you?”
More than two thousand steps later, her candle almost spent, Hedgehog meets Opossum. The foliage is so dense that she stoops, the air damp and cold.
“Here,” says Opossum, her fingers lingering on Hedgehog’s as she hands her a second candle. “It’s not far now.”
“But Turkey said it never ends.” Hedgehog finds herself crying, scared and tired and cold. Her feet hurt and her back aches from stooping, her eyes from straining in the dark.
Opossum shakes her head. “They never walked this far. Only you. Besides, they’re too big.”
Opossum is taller than Hedgehog, almost as tall as Raccoon seemed, and Bear, and even Moose. Are they growing, or am I shrinking? But she can’t be shrinking. Her coffee cup is the same size as when she began. She looks down at it to confirm this. The blackberries are as large as apples, pushing the box of matches out so it is liable to fall. She can’t lose her matches.
She pulls a blackberry out and bites into it, juice running down her chin. Now there is room in her cup for the matches and Opossum’s candle.
“Thank you,” she says as Opossum places the gift in her cup. “Is it nighttime?”
Opossum cocks her head to the side. “I don’t know. It’s the Woods. It could be any and all time.”
“Turkey said ‘Good night’ to me. They also said ‘welcome home.’”
“Well, it must be night, then.” Opossum smiled. “Good night.”
“Good night,” Hedgehog replies, feeling soft and vague. She passes Opossum and follows the path, the Woods growing around her until she feels herself slipping between blades of grass. Behind her, Opossum whispers.
Hedgehog is halfway through her second candle. The Woods are around her, but she cannot see them. All is dark except for the sphere of light around her hand, which shakes with exhaustion. Periodically she stops, setting down her cup and moving the candle to her other hand before picking the cup up again. She can no longer make out the floral pattern and the ceramic feels rough and misshapen in her hand. She eats the last blackberry because it cannot fit in the cup anymore.
She is still freeing seeds from her teeth with her tongue when she meets Squirrel.
Gray, taller than her, Squirrel emerges from the gloom. They squat in a nest of sticks and grass, squinting as Hedgehog stumbles before them.
“You came back,” Squirrel says.
“I don’t know you,” Hedgehog says, though their voice, she thinks, is familiar. Like a dream half-forgotten. “I haven’t known anyone here,” she adds.
“No!” Hedgehog squeaks, her hands shaking. The candlelight dips and wavers. “I live outside of the Woods. I have a neighbor who is not an animal and doesn’t talk about paths and where they lead. I have a house and a garden and there is a field nearby and there is sunshine, not candles and darkness.”
“The paths lead to you,” Squirrel says, ignoring her squeaking—because she is squeaking, her voice nothing like it should be. They sit up in their nest and meet her eyes.
Their nose, their whiskers, the curve of their tufted ears. Hedgehog recognizes them. In the candlelight, Squirrel is more familiar than the house she left behind, or the cup in her hand.
“Once you pass me,” Squirrel says, “you’ll see that the paths do end. They end for all of us.”
Hedgehog realizes that her neighbor is not on a farm by a field. Her neighbor is in the Woods, in a nest. “How do you know? You’ve never gone further than this. Just like Turkey and Coyote and Moose— you stay right where you are, and never explore. How do you know what’s beyond?”
“You told me,” Squirrel says. “Before you left.”
Squirrel nods. “I don’t know how. You didn’t pass by me or Opossum or Raccoon. You must have found another way, another path that ends with someone else. But you stopped visiting one day, and we waited and waited for you to return, knowing that when you did, you would be different.”
“Am I different?”
“A little. I think you were very different when you first entered the Woods. Maybe that’s why Moose and Bear and Deer didn’t recognize you. But the paths have a way of putting things back in place. You’re almost back, now.”
Hedgehog looks from Squirrel to the path beyond. Her path. “If I told you what it’s like, before...what’s there, deeper in the Woods?”
Squirrel gnaws on a twig in their nest, snapping it in two. “A place too small for me. We each go only as far as we fit.”
“Is there another side? Is that where I went?”
“Not for me.” Squirrel scratches their side. “Maybe for you. You left, and maybe that’s how you did it. But now you’re back.”
Hedgehog looks at her candle, wax dripping onto the path between her feet. She is barefoot, her toes narrow and clawed. She can’t now remember if she had shoes when she began.
“How many steps until I reach the end?” she asks Squirrel.
“As many as you can take. You’ve been walking a long time, Hedgehog.”
“I’m tired,” she says. She wants to climb into Squirrel’s nest, but there’s only room for one. “I don’t think I’ll make it the rest of the way.”
Squirrel rummages around in their nest and hands her a sunflower seed. It fills her palm.
“Tomorrow, come visit me. You’ll feel like yourself then.” They lean forward and lick her cheek. “We missed you.”
Hedgehog puts the seed in her cup. The handle is gone and she realizes it is not ceramic at all; it is made from a hollowed-out acorn. It feels familiar, though. More familiar than the mug she had before.
Holding up her candle, she bids goodbye to Squirrel. Willing strength into her limbs, she walks on.
For one thousand steps, Hedgehog thinks day will never come. By two thousand steps, light begins to steal through the undergrowth. At three thousand steps, she snuffs her candle and moves her cup to her mouth, falling onto all fours to move more swiftly and avoid the overhanging branches of myrtle that tangle in her spikes. Dawn follows her four and five thousand steps, and she finds herself reinvigorated. She stops after six thousand steps to eat the sunflower seed from Squirrel. After that, she walks only two thousand steps more, to the end of her path.
Her home is woven from moss and leaves. She recognizes it immediately, the smell as familiar as her paws. She scuttles inside and collapses, sleep enfolding her with her cup still clutched in her jaws.
She sleeps for the rest of the day and into the night. When she awakes, she is comforted by her surroundings. She thinks about visiting Squirrel, but the journey is so far for her small legs. What might take only twenty steps for a human takes many more for her.
She spends the rest of the night tidying. She has been away from her home for a long time, and roots now puncture the walls. These she rips out and brings to the mound outside. As she turns to go back into her home, she catches sight of the path in the moonlight.
Her home rests just beside it. Beyond, the undergrowth becomes so tangled and thick that only a creature much smaller than her could have continued.
Hedgehog wonders about that creature. Mouse, perhaps? Or Beetle, or Snake. How far do the paths go, before they run out? Do they always narrow, or do the Woods open up again, and welcome Pheasant, Fox, Wolf, Cougar, on the other side?
Hedgehog remembers having thoughts like these. They were behind her leaving. But she is back now. She will not make the same choice again.
Still, as she returns to her home, she wonders. Every path has to have an end— a true end.
In the morning she hunts slugs and beetles in the vast undergrowth. When she is at last satisfied, she returns to her home to prepare for a journey to visit Squirrel. Perhaps she will go all the way to Opossum too, and the three of them can have a picnic. Hedgehog likes that idea.
It is midday when she gets back. The path brings her to Squirrel, and she and Squirrel walk to Opossum. They spend an hour together, sharing stories. Hedgehog enjoys hearing about neighbors she hasn’t seen since she’s been gone. But when it gets to her turn, she can’t remember what she’s done between leaving and returning. She can’t remember who she was.
“Moose told the trees that you were tall and hairless,” Opossum says.
“Not hairless,” counters Squirrel. “There was hair on your head, instead of spikes.”
What a strange image. Hedgehog nods, trying to find the past fascinating and funny— but her stomach squirms. She and Squirrel leave Opossum a little while later.
They walk together to the end of Squirrel’s path. Hedgehog declines Squirrel’s invitation to stop for some seeds, continuing on to her home. The sun is setting as she arrives, the myrtle above her gleaming with slanted light.
She is distracted, thinking about all the things she can’t remember. At the top of the list is why she left the Woods. Why did she become that other creature, the creature too big to find her way home?
And what home did I make outside, large enough to hold me?
Hedgehog almost misses her door. The myrtle thickens and catches her spikes, the path becoming too small for her to continue. She stops, blinking and backing up until she is where she’s supposed to be.
As she turns to enter her little home, something catches her eye. A bright spot of light, uninterrupted by branch or leaf. She stares, mesmerized.
Off the path, there is a clearing in the Woods. Large enough for her to fit.
Hedgehog trots over to the hole, sniffing. Sunlight shines in her eyes and she can’t see how far the tunnel goes. Does it lead to a different part of the Woods? Does it lead to a new path?
She looks back at her home. It waited for her once.
A breeze blows into her face, fresh and warm and new.
She starts walking. Around her the Woods shrink, and she feels herself start, again, to grow.