The woods were bathed in morning. A child, perhaps a year old, wandered through the trees, his attention stolen by any and every passing fancy as he ambled along. As time passed he wandered into a clearing where a large tree stood, branches wide and bowed and a dream for climbing. Though the child did not take notice, birds and insects sang around him like a scene from a fairytale book. The tree stood in the center of his vision, however, and did not go ignored. The babe made it halfway up the hill when a great rock, half-buried and bright green with moss, challenged his limited motor skills.
He landed on his bottom on his first attempt and sat, seemingly startled. For a moment his expression seemed to wander between laughter and tears before settling on a worried sort of face. Gently hands slipped under his arms, putting him back on his feet. Satisfied and noticing nothing strange, the boy attempted the climb once more. Aided by the mysterious arm, he made it, and raced towards the tree excitedly. Once there he seemed to pause for a moment to ponder what use it was to him, although it was a sight to behold indeed.
“Wherever are you headed, little traveler?” The voice was filled with sunshine and came from above. A being farther along in years might have thought it an angel, but as the child looked up, all it realized, and vaguely, was that a person sat on one of the branches. Truly she was a vision; hair the very color of the trees, with clothes of the richest peach and emerald, skin a creamy bronze, cheeks flushed pink with joy. The child was gripped suddenly with the innocent cheerfulness only children could have and he laughed joyously, reaching up at the figure. The fairy of a lady, for such an apparition could be no more human than a fairy, reached down for the babe, lifting him easily into her lap.
“Poor darling,” she murmured, with a voice as silken and delicate as butterfly wings. The child’s hand wrapped around hers and her smile grew, wrapping a slim arm protectively around the child’s chubby middle. She cocked her head dreamily, staring down at the miracle she held. “You know I rarely ask for favors,” she began, sheepishly if it was possible, her head turning very slightly.
A second figure emerged from behind the tree – a tall man, skeletally thin, and clothed in darkness. The merry chirping that had filled the clearing slowly fell away, uncertainty filling the air. The man looked down at the child that the woman held, then back up the woman. His eyes were silver pools of emotion, none of which happy. The impression of his face teetered on the very line between youthful and mature, and with his movements, it seemed as though the very air seemed to shiver in the unwelcome presence.
“Perhaps,” his voice was rough and raw, dusty like long-forgotten shelves. “We have a different definition of what is and is not a ‘favor’, as I seem to remember a great many.”
The woman pulled a face and held up the child. “He’s only a babe,” she implored. “See how little his hands are! He would have had so many years before him.”
The man stared down at the child, seemingly unfazed. He reached one bony finger out cautiously from under his night-colored robe to poke at the child’s cheek. At first the little thing seemed surprised, and then his face scrunched up most unbecomingly and he began to cry great grating sobs. The woman quickly moved the babe to her knee, flashing a glare at the man as she sweetly shushed the child and bounced him gently. The man withdrew his arm and slowly a smile once more appeared to replace the child’s tears. Throughout this the man’s expression did not change. He reached into his robe and withdrew a small hourglass from the shadowed space within, gazing down at it thoughtfully.
“Days,” he stated. “If that. His family was to blame for not keeping proper watch of the child. If they cared, he would not be wandering alone.”
“Chance,” the woman replied challengingly. “The elder sibling was called away, and the backyard gate was open.”
“Chance though it may be,” the man responded coldly, “one should not tamper with Fate.”
The woman was silent for a moment. She continued to bounce the babe thoughtfully on her knee, and as he gurgled happily she smiled sweetly. “Let me see that hourglass once more,” she requested, reaching out a hand to the dark man. He blinked in surprise.
“I just said—” he began. The woman grinned, a lively blush donning her cheeks once more. Slowly the sounds of life began to resume in the woods, as though her grin was their welcome.
“It won’t be your problem if I do it,” she said. He couldn’t argue with that. Rolling his eyes, he produced the hourglass once more and handed it off to the woman. She held it before the child and for a moment all stood still but for the sand trickling gently downward from the bulb above. So little sand compared to the amount normally in the countless multitudes that had gone through their hands. She looked down at the baby in her lap lovingly. “You won’t remember this,” she said, “but I will never forget. I give you a gift of time.” So saying, she kissed the child on the forehead, and with a bright flash, the hourglass filled.
The man looked on with a mixture of disgust and helplessness. Too often she bends the rules, he thought sourly. Though it was, he supposed, to be expected with her personality. She could never leave such things alone. Gently the woman slid off of her branch and alighted on the ground, leaning over to sit the child daintily on the moss. She blew a kiss to the babe, who wore an expression clouded with confusion. In the distance, shouting could be heard, growing nearer with every moment.
“There! I see him! Oh, my baby!”
Feet rushed forward. The child was collected desperately in the arms of its mother and quickly looked over for any wounds. The father followed with the elder sister, tears bountiful amongst the three of them. Their reunion was brief as they turned to return home as a family.
Life smiled from the trees as her eyes followed their retreating forms. “I do love a happy ending,” she murmured, cheeks flushing cheerily once more. Death looked on emotionlessly, a sigh escaping his thin lips. She really interfered far too often for his taste. “Live long, little traveler,” she whispered, her voice carrying in the spring wind, “live long and be happy.”
From his mother’s arms, the child, understanding nothing of the events that had just unfolded, gurgled innocently with pleasure.