Under the Willow

by Quinn W

Jason could not focus on school. He was a solid student with reasonable grade, a reasonable teacher, and the standard share of stress associated with the activities of school. But school wasnt Jasons thing. After all, why focus on school when you can stare out the window towards the willow forest that stretched into the horizon in both directions? It was like a solid wall in the distance, with boughs drooping and linking together in a green curtain. The forest was a fascinating place. After all, his father had gone into it once about four months ago. Jason could clearly remember his father walking towards the wall, and disappearing into it like a ghost passing through concrete.

After school, Jason started home down one of the two major streets in the town. As he approached the place where the forest connected with the town, he started trailing towards the willows, inexplicably attracted to their tangled boughs and comforting shape. However, just before he entered into the forest under the trance of wonder the trees always placed upon him, he snapped back into reality, remembering what had happened the last time he had tried to go in. Just as he had been about to enter, his mother Patricia had stopped him. Those woods are a dangerous place! she had warned him in a shaky voice. People who enter there are sometimes missing for days! I hear its almost impossible to find your way out. Jason wondered why his mother always had to be so preoccupied with the dangers of everyday life, but he felt genuinely concerned for her feelings, so he generally just went along with all of her regulations.

Jason arrived home, just like he always did, just five minutes before his mother. They usually did their separate activities, as Jason did not really associate with Patricia much. However, at around seven o'clock, Jasons father was still missing from home. Jason sat at the dinner table, as was custom in their family. Fifteen minutes later, Jason and his mother sat twiddling their thumbs, waiting politely for father to arrive.

After ten more minutes of waiting, the food was starting to look and smell delicious. However, Patricia couldnt stand the waiting. When is that man ever gonna get home on time! she growled at no one in particular. Jason was a little frustrated as well. Maybe they had an extra job for him at work, and he had to stay overnight. Well next time, Patricia commented, Hed better tell us.

With that, they ate, one person short of a family.

The next day, Jason entered the kitchen. Momentarily taken aback by the cleanliness of the kitchen, he realised that his father didnt use it that morning. Jason walked into the kitchen, surveying the dishes like they were imposters. Father always let a mess.

Jason left for school, half-heartedly talking to his classmates about the most recent events outside of the city. But Jasons mind was astray, and his friends could tell. What's wrong? asked one of his friends worriedly. Nothing, grumbled Jason. His friend looked away, starting to talk to someone else instead of him. They pass the forest, but he wouldnt be caught dead walking towards the forest, so they pass it without incident.

School is once again largely unable to steal his attention, but as soon as school is out Jason quickly strode towards home, looking forward to finding his father and the mess that came with his father. However, when he arrived at home, he found his mother already there, looking out of breath and worried. Lets look for him, Jason said simply. Lets, said Patricia.

They both dropped their various evening chores and activities and left, moving side by side down Central Street. They headed towards his Fathers work, and as they did so, the sky darkened as clouds drifted over the small town, ominously hanging over the duo as they entered his fathers work.

They walked into his fathers office, and went straight to the attendant at the main desk of the building. Jason looked out the window on the side of the office at the clouds, and noticed that the clouds seemed to slide around the willows like there was some kind of unnatural shield around them. He turned around to listen to his mothers conversation with the attendant.

I told you, our records state that he was not present at work today, and that he left work yesterday at the same time as everyone else did. Thats not possible! His mother said.

At that moment, Jason decided that there was one other option for where his father might be. He asked Patricia if he could go home in order to work on homework. To distracted to consider whether something might happen, she absentmindedly accepted Jasons proposal. Not willing to risk Patricia changing her mind, Jason quickly exited the building, and started speeding down Central Street towards the woods where his father would sometimes go.

He slowed down as he approached the green barrier of tangled branches, and took a breather before sliding past the curtain to the other side of the wall. After entering the forest, the sheer darkness is what caught him by surprise. he roof of entangled greenery could be described as blacker than it was green, with very little in the way of dappling or even differentiation of shape. He decided to follow the straightest path he could, unwilling to admit to himself that he was afraid to trek through the deeper array of maze-like corridors that made up the willow forest.

He walked for a while, getting more and more lost by the second. Also, the forest was apparently on some kind of hill, because Jason was breathing heavily from his brisk pace after only a minute or so of moving. Jason could not be certain, but it felt like the branches of the trees were trying to comfort him, surrounding him and making him feel upbeat despite the black surroundings and his ever growing fatigue. Soon, he couldnt go one more step up the steep slope, and decided to turn around, as he knew from the mess of a kitchen his father always left that there was no way he would put in the effort to go that far. Jason turned directly around, and set out in what he assumed was the direction he had come from.

He was still going up. Somehow, the hill was not receding, but increasing as Jason walked along. As Jason stood up straight to check around, something move underneath him, And he fell flat on a crackly floor that nearly gave under his weight.

Jason screeched, and immediately felt embarrassed by it. But what he noticed next made him forget about tripping. The ground wasnt composed of dirt from his now close up view, but instead the shifting leaves of a willow tree. It had apparently been forming an upward path this whole time, as Jason also realized that he was starting to be able to see light. The forest canopy then split before his eyes, blinding him momentarily as his eyes adjusted to the light.

Spread out before him was like a plateau of willow. The ground rose and fell, twisting into firm knots of wood and wrapped branches where he placed his foot. In the distance, he also saw the object of his search. His father lay sprawled out on a bed of branches, fast asleep but smiling widely. Jason approached him, slowly at first but gaining speed as he realised that the ground wasnt going to fall away from under him.

Jason sat down next to his father, and nudged him gently. His father groaned, his smiling face turning into a grumpy face in a flash. He sat up, looked at Jason and almost levitated from his seat in the brush. How did you find me? Who let you in? Uh, please dont tell Patty that Im here. Jason opened his mouth, then closed it again, before simply stating Dont worry, we were never here. His father smiled, and before long, they left the willow woods with the assistance and gentle caress of the trees.

The next day, Jason awoke to find the kitchen in its usual messy state, almost worse than usual because Patricia had not cleaned up from yelling at his father. One thing, however, was out of the ordinary.

Sitting in the center of the kitchen in a little blue pot was a baby willow tree. It swayed by itself, a little rippling green wave flowing over the surface of the plant. Jason smiled, then walked over to it, carefully looking at the note scribbled on the desk next to the tree. Dear Jason... Sorry for scaring you and your mother. I will try to make sure I don't get distracted by friends in the trees to much again. I hope, though, that you might come to love the forest just like I do.

The note was signed by his father. Jason looked over it several times, then folded it up and placed into his pocket. He turned back to the tree, and stuck out his finger. A skinny twig unwound from the tree, and slowly wrapped around his finger, squeezing it gently. Jason shook his hand, then removed his finger from the tree. Stroking the top of it, he gathered his stuff and prepared for the new day, hoping that nature would continue to love him for as long as he lived.

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