I was wandering in the meadow in the middle of the forest. Our meadow. The one where we had first met. Cole was holding my hand, and we were laughing. The sun slanted through the trees shrouded in morning mist all around us. We walked aimlessly, weaving in and out of trees, now and then crossing the meadow to get to the other side. It wasn't really a meadow, just a large glade at the heart of a young forest. But we called it the meadow because it was special to us.
But wait. Something was different. Something was wrong. The wind picked up, and wayward leaves blew past us, hastening to their rendezvous somewhere deep in the woods. Then Cole stopped and turned towards me, taking my face in both his warm, sturdy hands, the love radiant in his eyes.
"I have to go, Li," he said softly.
I reached for him. "Don't leave me."
"Wait for me…." His voice hung on the still air as he faded into the trees.
Then I jolted awake and he was gone. He was gone. Forever. As the tears spilled heedlessly from my eyes, my hands reached up and sought to hug the pillow beneath my head.
I sat bolt upright. There was no pillow, only grass. Soft, green grass dotted with wildflowers as far as the eye could see. And above me, a cloudless, deep blue sky.
"Cole?" I managed in a quiet voice. The word hung on the air as his words had in my dream. I shivered and called his name louder. There was nothing but the echo of my own voice coming mockingly back at me. "Cole!" I screamed, and collapsed on the grass. "Where am I?"
A shimmering cerulean butterfly fluttered lazily toward me. It was the same color as the pendant that hung from my neck. Cole had given it to me. He'd said the color matched my eyes. My face contorted again, and tears sprang to my eyes. I held out my hand to the butterfly, seeking the comfort of another living creature. The beautiful insect hovered in front of my face for a few seconds, and then lighted gracefully on my finger.
With a gasp, I snatched my hand back as though I'd been burned. As soon as it had touched my skin, the butterfly had vanished, leaving in its place a sold droplet of deep blue swirled with teal, the same color as its former owner. After a few seconds of staring, I picked it up with delicate fingers. What was this place? Had I evoked this jewel with my thoughts?
A soft rustling noise to my right made me turn. A graceful, slender doe stood in the tall grass, gazing at me with large, melancholy eyes. She blinked slowly and took a step to her left. I got up silently, not wanting to scare her away. However, she showed no sign of fear as I came closer. Then she turned around and led me off at a slow, stately walk.
And I followed.
A small, dark cottage loomed up in front of us, and the doe slowed to a halt, turning to look back at me. Then suddenly, without warning, she scampered away, leaving me alone to make my own decisions.
The cottage was made entirely of stone, even the door, which was large and round, looking slightly like the entrance to an old tomb. The house was covered in gnarled ivy, and out of the stout chimney, thin blue smoke was curling. I took a step forward, onto the first smooth stepping stone. Hardly knowing what I was doing, I made my way up to the round stone door. On it was a golden knocker shaped like a bird in flight. I raised my hand and struck it against the door.
A shuffling noise sounded within, and after a minute, the door was heaved open. I found myself face to face with an old, bent witch, leaning on a short cane, so haggard I could not tell whether it was a man or a woman. I took an involuntary step back.
The figure cackled and said, "I'm sorry if my form is frightening to you. I can always change it, you know." And suddenly in the place of the old witch was a tall, beautiful woman in an emerald dress, her auburn hair crowned with a circlet of white flowers.
I stared. My mind went blank; I didn't know what to think. Was I still dreaming?
The woman's smooth brow creased elegantly into a frown. "I can see you don't like that either. Well then, how about this?" And then there was Cole, standing in front of me on the doorstep, his dark hair curling lazily into his warm brown eyes.
My heart skipped a beat and then began pounding like a galloping racehorse. "Cole!" I managed to whisper. He held out his arms to me, and I rushed forward, but right before I reached him, he vanished, and the old haggard witch was there again.
My heart plummeted, and I hissed at the creature, "Stop playing with me!"
It looked at me with genuine sorrow and pity. "Come inside, child." A gnarled old hand took mine, and I shuddered at its touch, but I had to follow.
The witch's house was just as tiny cottages had been described in old stories. A roaring fire was in one corner, despite the heat of the day, and many odd artifacts, collectibles, and statues were mounted on the walls or resting on the mantle. The only light, aside from the fire, came from a yellow lamp in the corner; the curtains were drawn over all the windows.
The witch, if it even was a witch, sat down on a log bench and motioned for me to do the same. "Now, child, what do you want?"
How did it know I even wanted anything? But I blurted out without thinking, "I want Cole back!"
The old witch gave me a long, searching look. "Do you know where you are, child?"
"No! I was in my bed, at my house, and then I woke up and I was here."
"You are in a land where magic is real," the witch told me. "Here, anything that you wish to come true will come true."
"Why am I here, then?" I asked, bewildered and shocked.
"That I cannot tell you. But what you do choose to do, choose carefully."
"I want to bring Cole back," I whispered again, blinking back tears.
The creature treated me to another searching gaze. "Then come here."
I knew for certain it was a witch when it led me to the back of the cottage, uncovered a large stone pot, and started mixing items to make a concoction. I stood ill at ease, unable to do anything but wait and wonder. Every time I felt unsure of what I was doing, I thought of Cole and how much I wanted him by my side again.
The witch turned to me suddenly. "Have you anything that he gave you?"
My hand went immediately to my necklace. No, I could not give that up. What if this did not work? I took from my pocket the blue gem that had once been a butterfly and handed it to the witch.
Yet again, I received a probing look, but into the stone pot went the jewel, and I waited. After a few minutes of tense silence, the witch drew from the concoction a heavy dark blue stone the size of my palm.
"Go to the mountains," the creature said to me. "And to a cave with a tall platform in the center. Then, at night, when the moon rises, do you place this stone on the platform and make your wish."
"How do I get there?" I asked. "I don't know the way."
"I will send you there," it responded. "But mark this well: you must not turn from your path. You must go to the cave only to do what you came for, and then you must return. Do not let yourself be distracted."
I nodded dumbly, my heart pounding.
"Have you the stone?"
I nodded and held it out.
"Look into it," the witch directed.
I brought it up to my face and stared at it, and immediately I was overwhelmed by images coming hard and fast through a haze of dark blue. Cole and I, now laughing, now crying, in each other's arms. Factory chimneys belching forth blue smoke. A commotion on the cobblestone street. A man with a twisted snarl on his dark face. A fist. A gunshot. Blood. Screams. Two men lying dead amidst the chaos. One of them was Cole. Then I was at his side, trying to stop the bleeding with my dress. No, no…Don't go. Don't leave me. You only just got back…
I stood riveted to the spot, unable to tear my gaze from the memories I had tried for so long to forget. Suddenly, I landed hard, and the memories stopped. For a split second, I recognized the dark cave with a shining stone platform in the center, but before I could do anything, I was thrown forward onto cold, hard rock. The blue stone flew from my hands and shattered into a million pieces on the ground. A blinding white flash enveloped the cave. Pain exploded in the back of my head. And then there was nothing.
When I awoke, I was lying on the grass. A warm sun was beaming down from an azure sky dotted with wispy clouds. I sat up suddenly, and then winced, waiting for the pain in my head to hit me. But it didn't. The pain was gone. In fact, I felt better than I had in a long time. I felt as free as a bird.
I rose, feeling the soft, thick grass under my bare feet. I spread my hands out and took a deep breath of the warm, fragrant air. A sense of unearthly peace surrounded me, and I twirled around, laughed, and took off running. I ran tirelessly; as if I were walking on air, my feet seemed hardly to touch the ground. I splashed through a murmuring stream, cool and refreshing. Then I bent to pick some wildflowers, more vibrant than any I had ever seen. I followed the stream, and it led me to a large grove of trees, all tall, stately birches. Small, quivering leaves danced and circled around their white garments.
Against one of these trees sat a young man, holding a small flute to his mouth. He began to play the most beautiful, peaceful, wistful melody I had ever heard. I could do nothing but sit down and listen. The notes washed over me, almost hauntingly beautiful and longing, yet somehow, with a calm gentle happiness about them.
My eyelids drooped in the warm sun, and the young man continued to play. I watched him from under half-closed lids. His brown hair, slightly curling by his ears and falling carelessly onto his forehead, gave him a slightly boyish appearance. The music swelled, bringing forth high, piercing notes, almost too beautiful to bear. It seemed as though other voices were joining in, but I could not open my eyes to see. I was falling deeper and deeper into darkness, but the song went on.
I woke with a start, back in the glowing cave. Had it been a dream? I looked down at the small bouquet of wildflowers and let out a breath of amazement. How did I get there? I wanted so desperately to go back. I brought the flowers to my nose and breathed in their heady fragrance, catching a wispy scent of the paradise where I had just been.
The young man I had seen, leaning against the tree, playing his flute. I closed my eyes, letting a tear slide down my cheek and fall silently to the stone floor. If I were to bring him back, I would be dragging him out of a perfect world. Yes, I would be happy, and he might be happy, simply because we were together again, but neither of us would be perfectly happy. That would only happen in paradise. And he was already there.
I got up and left the cave, left the shattered blue stone lying in the shaft of moonlight on the hard ground. I stood at the top of the mountain and looked up at the moon, high and majestic, surrounded by glittering stars. I held the wildflowers to my chest and breathed in their scent once more before letting them fall gracefully to the ground.
"I'll see you again, Cole," I whispered into the night. "I'll never forget you." I would never forget the sense of peace and comfort that had surrounded me, and the way that the sun had turned the rippling waters of the stream into pure gold. I would never forget the warm, fresh fragrance that still hung about me. And I would never forget the angels' song.