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he forest was swollen with a soft breeze, and a sleepy sun was getting ready to set. Birch toddled around in the grass between trees with heavy eyes that on occasion fluttered shut, then snapped open as he realized he was falling asleep. A basket swung unenthusiastically from his hand. It was nearly empty except for a small bundle of pastel wildflowers stem-wrapped in a damp cloth. The boy squatted to wrinkle his brow at a budding plant before tugging on it and breaking the stem. It was carefully placed inside the handkerchief.
The woods seemed quiet, ready to nestle down to sleep for the long night hours. In another hour the sky would be dark, and the wildlife would explode into life. Villagers would move through the trees by path, an abundance of fireflies lighting the way. The moon would swing up over the horizon just as people began to wake themselves for the night ahead. There would be enough light to see clearly, hardly any need for lanterns; if there were any they carried lightning bugs, not flames. Nightlife would start again.
Birch had planned all week to rise before the moon could. Flowers only bloomed by daylight - to pick them at night defeated the purpose of picking them at all. It had to be done with the sun up. He was sure he could collect enough before the night came, but sleepiness was a factor left out of his long-thought equation.
There was a soft rustle, the kind of someone moving through long grass slowly, deliberately, sweeping it side to side with their hands to look for something. Without a thought coming to mind the boy sidestepped behind a tree, the image of running into someone scaring him. Strangers weren’t to be trifled with in the woods, not even by an old traveling town. He hesitantly positioned himself to look on the disturbance, praying with held breath it was someone he knew. One blue eye peeked its way around the bark of the tree.
A small girl, bent at the waist, was wading her way through a patch of apple polish grass swinging her arms out to part a way. The top of her head was only just visible, giving Birch the thought that she looked like a snorkeler. Her soft brown hair was held up into a very frizzy bun that often spilled a lock or two, forcing her to quickly sweep it aside. He thought it was strange that she didn’t wear a dress like most little girls. Instead she opted for an ill-fitting pair of pants tied at the waist with a braided rope which pouches hung from, normal in size but looking abnormally large in contrast to her small stature. She waddled forward, closer and closer to the tree Birch was hiding behind, unknowing that her path was taking her directly towards him. He, too enchanted by her sudden appearance, didn’t have the thought to move or call out to her, so before either of them knew it she bumped her head straight into his stomach.
She shrieked and jumped backward, pulling her shoulders in and tightening her hands to fists. He yelled and stumbled away from her, dropping his basket of flowers. For a long moment that seemed to extend into a painful eternity they stared at each other. In that time he noted the large vest that hung from her shoulders and over her shirt as well as her barefeet and abundance of charms that glistened from where her makeshift belt was tied. Her face was full of sharp, but unusually rounded features - her eyes, though certainly circular, came to hard points where the lids met at the corners, her nose rounded but sharply turned upward, her lips full but acute at the edges. Her unnerving isabelline eyes blinked. In a slow motion moment she pulled her right fist back behind her head, then hurled something straight at him.
“CREEP!” she screamed at Birch.
Something hard smacked him cleanly between the eyes, the shock and pain of it making him fall backwards onto his rear. The girl turned and ran away at full speed pumping her arms like two pistons until she was out of sight. Birch looked down at the missile that had landed between his feet - a stone arrowhead. A hand rubbed his forehead, another grabbed up the item to pocket it, and then he stood, took his basket, and left.
Birch threw the front door shut behind him once he reached home, only to be greeted by a wide-eyed smile from his mother. He placed the basket with care on the kitchen counter and scuffled his left foot back and forth, hands held behind his back, head down.
“What happened to you?” she asked, giggling.
Birch sniffed and blushed crimson. “It was a girl.”
He wasn’t sure he’d ever heard his mother laugh harder before, and the laughter carried on for weeks to come each time she looked at his forehead. It was something he would never forget.