“It was here,” Abigail muttered as she paced back and forth over the clearing.
“You should have seen it, Jesse. The branches were so thick that you couldn’t even see the sky when you sat by the trunk.” She paused, wiped away a tear, and looked up at the sky.
“I left a piece of my soul here,” she whsipered, and sat down in the dirt.
I looked down at my watch. Dusk was beginning to fall around us. A lightning bug flashed to my right, and a mosquito bit into my arm.
“We only have a little longer before it’s too dark to see anything, Abby. Maybe we should just head back,” I said.
She didn’t respond at first–just stared at a blade of grass she twirled in her hand. When she began to speak, her voice trembled with sadness.
“This place was so different a decade ago. I used to come out here all the time by myself in the summer. I always preferred to be alone. There is something about the sound of the forest when you are the only human in earshot. When you are still for a while, the animals begin to trust you. They emerge from their hiding places and walk right by you like you aren’t even there.”
“Except the mosquitoes,” I muttered bitterly.
“Yes, except those.”
She sighed and I sat down next to her, surprised to find the ground hard beneath me. Before I could say anything, she continued.
“One morning, in my early twenties, I came out here with a mission. A man who claimed to love me had given me a necklace with my birthstone in it. I remember thinking it odd since he always forgot my birthday. When he left me, I kept it for weeks, hoping he would return. He didn’t, and with each passing day it became heavier around my neck.
I buried it at the base of my favorite tree with a note for the person who found it that said something like, ‘I hope this necklace brings you joy, because it has only brought me sorrow.’
I left, and life began to move so fast that I forgot to visit again until I saw you sitting in the coffee shop last week. I couldn’t take my eyes off your necklace. I knew I’d seen it before, but I had to be sure.”
My hands instinctively went to my throat and touched the small charm. She turned to me, her eyes searching mine for an explanation.
“The tree isn’t here, Jesse. I left the necklace, and every trace of who I was is gone.”
I took her hands in mine, fighting the urge to cry myself. I did not owe her, an almost perfect stranger, any explanation. Yet, we both spoke the language of heartbreak, and letting go was a choice I could not make for her.
“I’ve only had it a few years,” I began. “It was a gift from a hiking buddy of mine. He always wanted me to go on long hikes and camping trips with him. He couldn’t stay in one place. On his last trip, he decided to spend a few weeks on the Applachian Trail. It was right after the first hurricane of the season, and the trails were damaged in several spots. He wasn’t prepared for that and got lost. They found his body a couple of weeks after he was supposed to check in around Bristol. This is the last thing he gave me.”
I lifted my hands to unclasp the necklace, and passed it to Abigail.
“And as for your tree,” I added, patting the ground, “It may be gone, but the roots are still buried beneath us.”
Abigail’s eyes widened and she placed one hand on the soil next to her, frantically feeling the remaining roots of the missing tree. Then, she threw her arms around me and pressed her face into my shoulder. When she pulled away, the necklace was around my neck once more.
“I’m so glad,” she whispered, “that everything with a past has the opportunity to start again. How blessed are we, Jesse, to witness that?”
We left, hand-in-hand, both stunned to silence. The stars balanced on branches in the night sky as we made our way back to our cars. Crickets sang, fireflies danced, and the heart of the forest continued to beat.
(Writing prompt from http://www.thinkwritten.com: Pick a few words from the start of an article in a magazine and write a story or poem about it. This story was written in response to an article in the October 2018 issue of National Geographic (page 26) that began, “A fallen tree in a forest may seem unremarkable…”.)