The forest was black and Darko was afraid to enter. The trees, covered from apex to root with dry, sloughing scales, beckoned him with their crackling branches. The forest floor erupted into a cloud of dust as the gnarled, ragged tree roots burst from the earth and turned into massive, thrashing limbs. Swaying, the trees began to lumber toward Darko. He wanted to escape, but terror paralyzed him. He opened his mouth to scream, but no sound came.
“Don’t be frightened, Darko.”
He recognized his Mama’s voice at once. Relief swept through him and rendered him light and free. Joy swelled in his chest and knotted in his throat as he saw Mama emerge from the shadows. She walked toward him as if floating, her head held high in the assurance that she would allow nothing to harm her boy.
She held out her hand. “Come along. It’s all right.”
Her palm softly and completely cocooned his. He looked up. She smiled down at him, her eyes deep and warm and liquid. She was strong and beautiful. He loved the touch of her hand and the scent of her skin.
And she took him into the musty forest of putrefying trees. The forest floor was carpeted with ashen leaves and brittle twigs that snapped underfoot. For a moment, the trees stopped moving and let Darko and his Mama pass through like ghosts.
“You see?” she said. “They can’t trouble us because we’re not afraid of them.”
One of the trees moaned loudly – a wrenching sound, full of the pain of approaching death. Roots flailing, its bulbous trunk took on a distorted likeness of Darko’s Papa, eyes cruel and mouth bitter as quinine. Darko shied away but Mama held him fast.
“No, Darko, you can’t go back now. I’ve led you here to find the truth. I want you to find it.”
“I’m scared to go on, Mama.”
“What if the truth is more terrible than the forest?”
At that very instant, his hand slipped from hers. She faded away, and in the void she left, there was no answer. The Papa Tree, suddenly luminous in the darkness, floundered in the soil as it lurched closer.
“Mama?” His reaching hand touched empty space. “Mama, where are you?”
Darko turned in circles, straining his eyes to see, but Mama had vanished. The trees grunted, scrabbling at the ground to gain traction as they closed in.
Darko Dawson, the boy, cried out. “Mama!”
Darko Dawson, the man, cried out. Gasping, soaked in sweat, he sat bolt upright in bed. “Mama?”
The room flooded with light and he cringed, expecting to see the hideous trees closing in. He felt arms wrapping around him and he tried to fight them off.
“The trees,” he said. “The trees.”
“No trees,” Christine said. “No trees. Just me. In the bedroom, here with you.”
His wife held him and wiped the sweat from his brow. He sighed deeply and let the tension go as he leaned against her.
“The dream was different from before,” he whispered.
He nodded. “This time, Mama was there in the forest with me. She’s calling for me, Christine. I know she is. She wants me to find her. She’s ready for me now.”