She sprinted yet again through the forest over a bed of dead needles. The palms of her hands, her wrists, and the front of her shirt were caked in pine sap.
Under her feet, the flat ground tapered up into an incline. As she sprinted her way up the hill, her vision was pestered by a few short strands of hair that had come loose from her ponytail. The loose hair nettled at her face. Her skin felt clammy, and her throat and lungs burned. The soles of her feet ached, especially in the places where her wet socks had worn all the way through down to the soles of her boots. She wore a scowl.
Still sprinting up the hill, she reached up with one hand and tugged at the base of her ponytail to undo it. She winced as she pulled the ponytail loose: the pine sap on her hands had made her fingers sticky, causing her to pull her own hair as she was undoing the hair tie.
As she rounded the top of the hill, she pulled her hair back and formed a new ponytail using her sappy fingers. The new ponytail was no better than the old one had been: the same short stands of hair continued to get in her face. She put it out of her mind as best she could. She galloped down the hill as fast as her legs could carry her, only slowing down a yard before reaching the bottom of the valley.
In the snaking forest valley was a veritable river of chopped pinewood logs, small and large.
She knelt at the edge of the pinewood river. While kneeling in place, her deep breathing made large plumes of fog form in the air. She stacked a dozen of the narrower pinewood logs into a pile, and then hefted the pile up into her arms, bracing their unbalanced weight against her chest.
Loaded up, she turned back the way she’d come and started up the hill again at a jog. As she jogged up the incline, even more strands of hair came loose from her ponytail. Her arms trembled under the weight of the logs by the time she had rounded back up the top of the hill. As she started back down the hill, she considered dropping off a log or two. It was tempting, but not truly an option.
Slowly, the hill that she ran down flattened out again. With yet another bundle of pinewood in hand, Lucya once again made it back to the monument: it was a circular clearing in the forest, akin to a giant’s birdbath; one foot of stagnant water filled the large concrete pool from end to end; in the center of the monument was a concrete statue of a frog, submerged partially in the shallow water; all around the perimeter of the monument were sixteen chalice-like bonfire pits. Today, Lucya had filled fifteen of the bonfire pits with tall stacks of wood, each of the stacks piled just as tall as herself. The sixteenth bonfire pit was not stacked as tall as the rest. Even after Lucya unloaded the last bundle of the day onto it, the tallest log still only rose to the level of her collar bone. She stared at the pile. She took stock of where the sun was: nearly touching down to the horizon. There was no time at all to make another run. If anything, she had dallied far too long already.
Taking high steps to get through the shallow water, Lucya jogged towards the frog statue in the monument’s center. She crouched down in front of the statue, put her hand palm-up in its open mouth, and pushed down with the back of her wrist onto the frog’s tongue. The tongue depressed with a low gravely sound, and a small red cylinder of curled paper was dispensed into her hand. Paper obtained, Lucya went through the water to one of the bonfire pits, holding the paper high above her head to keep it dry. When she reached the bonfire pit, she uncurled the red paper and read aloud the words that where written thereupon: Ничего страшного. [It’s fine.] As these words were spoken, the paper crackled. As soon as Lucya had finished speaking, the paper caught fire—white fire. The paper did not disintegrate as it burned. Hastily, Lucya tossed the paper into the bonfire pit, where it landed against the pile of wood she had collected. The white fire spread from the paper to the logs, until the entire stack was engulfed. The flame burned with intense brightness and no heat. Lucya turned back towards the center of the monument and ran to the frog once again for the next scroll. She repeated this process for each of the sixteen bonfire pits, reading sixteen phrases in all.
I – Ничего страшного. [It’s fine.]
II – Большое спасибо. [Thank you very much.]
III – До свидания. [Goodbye.]
IV – Извините, пожалуйста. [Excuse me.]
V – Что ж, это было весело. [That was fun.]
VI – Рад познакомиться с вами. [I’m pleased to meet you.]
VII – Идём кушать. [Come, let’s eat.]
VIII – Я не знаю. [I don’t know.]
IX – Я понимаю. [I get it.]
X – Простите. [Sorry.]
XI – Я скучаю по тебе. [I miss you.]
XII – Всего́наилу́чшего. [All the best.]
XIII – Добрый вечер. [Good evening.]
XIV – Остань от меня. [Get away from me.]
XV – Кажется, ночью будет дождь. [It seems it may rain tonight.]
XVI – Мне пора идти. [I have to leave.]
It was with this final phrase that Lucya lit the shortest stack of pinewood last.
With all of the bonfires lit, the entire monument was shrouded in a pure, white, flickering light. The surface of the water gleamed. Night fell as Lucya walked back to the center of the monument. The forest outside of the monument darkened until only the nearest trees were visible by firelight. Overhead, the sky was too thickly clouded to let any starlight through. The world beyond the monument was a singular, infinitesimal pinprick of black paint; and the monument, even smaller, was the point at that blackness’ center; and Lucya, even smaller still, sat within the radiant monument, atop the back of the concrete frog.
She looked out into the darkness.
Out there on the edge of the light, they stood again. Again, they were still unwilling to step onto the illuminated water. They teased at the points on the edge between the bonfires, where the light was the weakest, but even there they did not step in. Every night, there were more of them. They circled round and round the monument, and many of them stopped and waited at the bonfire with the shortest stack. They looked at it, and at Lucya, and if they had lungs or minds, they might have laughed. Men and women, children and elders, the tall and the short, the strong and the feeble, the obese and the gaunt—all of them began in the form of human figures. Their departure from humanity was most apparent in the eye sockets and gaping mouths, which now served as damp cavities in which forests of tiny black mushrooms grew. No more teeth, no more tongues, no more tonsils; no more windows to the soul; the cavernous faces of these beings served only to show how non-human these once-human creatures now were.
Lucya sat in the center of the monument on the statue of the frog, looking around and around at the ring of predators that encircled her. She sat with her knees pulled up to her chest, and her hands clutched together in front of herself.
None of the creatures would step into the radiant water to claim her. It appeared, for another night, that she was safe.
Lucya took off her belt. Still keeping one eye on the creatures, she reached under the water and wrapped the belt around the frog’s front right leg, and tightened and fastened it so that it formed a small loop. She slipped her arm into the loop, all the way up to the bicep. Lying flat on her back, floating in the cold and shallow water while secured to the center of the monument, Lucya took one last look around at the creatures.
They faced back at her. They leaned over the edge of the water towards her. Still, they did not step into the water.
She looked around at the sixteen bonfires of pinewood.
Each one of them burned bright. The logs had still not yet begun to ash.
Lucya took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and slept.
In the morning, she awoke to find the monsters gone again in the daylight. The bonfires had each burned down.
Lucya undid her belt from the frog statue, stood, and threaded the wet leather belt back through her soaking beltloops as she marched towards one of the bonfire pits. Sitting down inside the ashy basin was a ball of dark-yellow sap the size of an apple. She reached in, grabbed it, walked to the next bonfire pit, and grabbed the one in there as well. The second was from the shorter bonfire, and the ball was only the size of a peach pit. Lucya’s stomach rumbled as she walked briskly back towards the frog. She eyed the two balls of sap in her two hands.
With some reluctance, she placed the larger ball into the frog’s mouth. She pulled up on its tongue, causing the ball to slowly roll back into the frog’s throat.
Once the frog had been fed his first of fifteen meals, Lucya started jogging back up the hill again, towards the river of pinewood logs, biting into her ball of sap as she went.