Whilo stepped outside his front door and walked down the pathway through his garden. He sighed happily at the scent of flowers drifting in the breeze and the sound of the fountain gurgling as he walked by. When he reached the gate, he thought he knew exactly what he was going to do. His gate led out into the country side, and there was one road that led through it. At a point it would split into two roads. Every day, he would take the road that veered left, led onto the bridge over the river and continued on into the little town. He would go there to buy produce and to chat with old friends on their front porches while enjoying the midsummer air. The other road took a sharp right and wound deep through the meadow and into the wilderness beyond. Whilo never went down that road, and neither had anyone in recent years. Further back, when Whilo was a child and his parents were still alive, they warned him not to go down there, or else a big wildcat may wander along and eat him. The oldest man in the town was eighty-seven, and the last time he ventured through there, he was ten. “There’s nothing down there,” said the old man one day. Brom was his name. “The closest thing to a town was this mean old hermit, but apparently the further back you go, the more unfriendly it gets.”
There were no clouds in the sky today and nothing to obscure the light of the sun. It seemed to bring out the fullest of the colors of everything in the countryside. Radiant hues shown from every flower and every tree. As Whilo got closer to the fork in the road, houses began popping up on his left, not much different from his own. They were made of wood and stone and had gardens, and a couple had ponds where ducks would come to settle. It was a very controlled and familiar charm that he had seen every day of his life. He looked to the right. It was wild. Untamed. Caught in the sunlight, the flowers glowed the brightest, and the trees stood the tallest. Flocks of birds rose from their branches and soared in every which way. He couldn’t explain why he felt this way, today and not any day before, but he felt an itching curiosity that lead him away from his homely left. He reached the fork in the road and saw the river and the bridge and the bend, on the other side of which was the little town. He saw the unkempt road that led away from everything he knew into a country that only Old Brom vaguely remembered. The town will be there when I get back. He thought to himself. He scratched his head for a moment, and then he turned right.
He did not know how long he planned to spend venturing out here. He had walked for an hour, and certainly, there was not so much as a woodshed to be found. One would assume no one had ever even seen this place. But it was serene. Quiet. The only thing that could be heard was the sound of birds chirping. The sunlight touching the forest gave it the likeness of silent emerald flames. This isn’t bad at all. Thought Whilo. I rather like it, to be honest. I think I’ll come out here more often. It’s not as though I do anything much these days. He did not stop, and he came upon a river. The same river from home made a wide curve around the country and made its way out here. Hmm. How about that? But something else caught his eye. A boathouse sat on the other side of the river, and a row boat was tethered to the deck. It knocked against the wood as it bobbed up and down in the water. Immediately, Whilo harkened back to Brom’s tale about the mean old hermit, and for a brief second, he felt the timidity he had when as a child, he looked down the road that went right, anticipating a wild beast to come running after him. Nothing happened, and Whilo chuckled at himself. Brom knew the old hermit seventy-seven years ago. The fact remained however, that someone lived out here and was perhaps at home, seeing that the front door was wide open.
A noise suddenly came out from inside the house, and Whilo jumped. There was the sound of objects colliding with each other and of rummaging through equipment. Whilo stepped over to the edge of the river, and he saw a shadow in the doorway. He waited to see if anyone would come out. A young man stepped through the door, and he carried with him a travel sack. He was no hermit, and he dressed similarly to a townsfolk with a white buttoned shirt and brown trousers with suspenders. He was humming to himself when he caught sight of Whilo staring at him from across the river.
“Hello,” said the man with an inviting smile. “What’s your name?”
“Whilo, what’s yours?”
“Alder. I’ve never seen anyone come down this way before. Where are you from?” Whilo now came to ease. “Do you know the town of Shane? It’s an hour in the direction I came from.” Alder squinted as he placed his travel sack in the boat. “Can’t say that I do. I go east mostly. From what I heard not much goes on the other way.” Whilo chuckled at that. “You’re not wrong. That’s sort of why I came out here. I’m looking for some where interesting to go.”
“Well you came to the right place.” Alder hopped into the boat and began untying it from the post. “Do you have to get home anytime soon?” He grabbed the oars and rowed over to the bank Whilo stood at. “You’re inviting me to come with you?” He asked Alder as he drew up on shore. “Sure, why not? It’s nice to have company every now and then.”
“Well, I can’t see why I shouldn’t come. Do you have enough rations for two?”
“I’ve packed enough for three.” Alder patted his travel bag next to him. Whilo gingerly stepped into the boat and fell on his face as the boat teetered back and forth. “Whoa, just don’t capsize us, friend! You’ll upset the fish.” Whilo sat up and shook his head laughing. “Sorry, it’s been a long time since I’ve been in a boat…” he looked at the travel sack confusedly. “Are we going fishing?” “No, it’s just that the fish will eat us if we fall in.” Whilo took that as a joke, and Alder began rowing.
The river took them deeper into the forest. Along the banks grew willow trees, their branches draping lazily over the water. Little robins and blue birds flew in and out among them picking remains and flying them back to their nests hidden further back into the forest. A lone porcupine waddled by on the far bank, and on the left hand, a family of beavers wandered down the opposite direction with bundles of sticks in their mouths. The sunlight reflected off of the water, creating a golden ripple in the branches. Evergreens towered beyond the river and from within their shadows, wilder cries from animals unseen could be heard.
“Are you all alone out here, Alder?” Whilo asked his new friend who continued to row them. He shook his head. “Not at all. My family lives in the village just a few miles away. That was our old boathouse you saw when we left. We haven’t really used it in years. However, lately, I just wanted to get away for a little while—see these old sights, explore the old woods again. There’s something about this place that just feels like coming home again.”
“I see it.” Whilo reclined back with his arms behind his head. “I rather prefer this place in the wilderness than my own house. However I’m not so lucky as to have a family to need a break from.” “No?” Alder saddened a little. Whilo sighed. “A few years ago, a fever had spread in my town. Nearly a quarter of everyone died, including my mother and my father.” “I’m sorry, Whilo.” Whilo’s eyes became glassy, but he changed the subject as quickly as he’d brought it up.
“It’s funny that you say you live in a village. Old Brom told me that the closest thing to a town out here was some cranky hermit that didn’t take too kindly to him.” Alder smiled. “That certainly was an overstatement; yet he’s not far off from the truth. There is my village east of here, and there’s another that’s a good distance away. Beyond that is the hermit you speak of who lives on the edge of the Goblin King’s land.” Whilo opened his mouth, ready to question him about the hermit he claimed was still alive and the Goblin King he said was real, when he was cut short by the sight of a grizzly bear crouched at the far side of the river. It would not have been so distracting had it not been the size of Alder’s boathouse. Alder noticed that Whilo’s fearful gaze was fixed on the enormous creature, and he laughed. “That’s Malto. He has protected the inhabitants of this forest for hundreds of years. By far he’s the most good-natured beast in all the countryside.” As they passed Malto, the bear looked up at them and shook his head up and down excitedly. “Hi, Malto, good luck fishing!” Alder waved as they turned around the bend.
Whilo could not hide the smile on his face. “Alder, this might be my favorite place on earth.”
“I’m glad you think so. To be quite honest, not everyone likes it out here.” Alder frowned a little bit. “Why is that?” asked Whilo. A dragonfly hovered between them and stopped as if to listen in. “If you don’t know what you’re doing out here, it can be dangerous. Careless people have gotten into trouble in the past, and the stories have grown in the telling. Only a handful of people in my village come out here, but only when they need to hunt food for the winter. Hardly anyone comes out here simply to enjoy this splendid world.” “Is there anyone else?” Whilo jumped as the gigantic face of a catfish emerged out of the river. Its open mouth was certainly large enough to fit him inside, however it disappeared the second it glanced over at Alder. “My cousin Lilly, comes out here sometimes. She may be fonder of this place than even I.” Alder continued as though he had not seen what just happened. “Well, perhaps the three of us should come out here sometime,” said Whilo as he regained his composure and sat back down again. Alder smiled. “I’d like that. You and Lilly would get along well, I think.”
They had been traveling longer than Whilo had realized. The sun had lowered and turned the sky orange, casting dark shadows over the forest, and the lightning bugs were out. “I suppose we’re going to set up camp soon?” asked Whilo. Alder drew the boat onto the bank and brought out his travel bag. “Yes, but we’ll turn back tomorrow in case you need to get home. I took you out here, and I don’t even know if I ruined your schedule or not.”
“Not at all. I have no real desire to go back, however it is probably not for the best that I stay away too, too long. On the other hand, I’ll be happy for our next meeting.” They set up a ring of stones and made a campfire. They then rolled out mats, blankets and pillows and laid down after having a meal of roasted nuts. Whilo did not realize there were so many stars in the sky.
At home in Shane, the lanterns were always burning in the streets and lights would often remain on in the windows of some houses. Only a handful of stars would appear over his little town. Out here, unobscured by yellow light showed untold millions of stars in the wilderness glimmering like little pearls. It struck him as ironic that in the place he was most familiar with, with the people he had known his whole life: he had felt less at home than he did now, in the forbidden woods with only monsters as companions and this one stranger he had met only earlier today. But to the sounds of creatures lurking in the shadows he happily fell asleep.