Maria went into the forest one day, and she did not come back. No one really looked for her.
It was almost as if the forest had swallowed her whole, had shielded her beneath its verdant leaves and bowed branches. In another life, in another story, a prince would have gone to look for her. But all of the princes at that time were occupied.
Maria entered the woods for the reason most young girls enter the woods: her father was sick and needed medicine. So, when she disappeared, so did he. The day the forest took her, she carried with her a robe embroidered with flowers, an empty basket, and three ribbons tied into her long black hair. It was these ribbons, yellow, pink and purple, that caught the kapre's eyes.
As she was crossing in front of the balete tree, its leaves drooping down to meet her and tickling the top of her head, the kapre revealed himself. His feet came first, large and hairy; his spindly legs next. His gnarled knees, his rainbow-hued loincloth, his white torso and giant hands. Last was his face, grinning and ape-like, and his black eyes staring straight at her.
He scooped her into his hands and pulled her very close to his face and he breathed his musty breath on her and he said, "Beautiful."
"Thank you," Maria replied.
"Stay with me," he said, and she did.
It was simple really. Her father was already nearly gone, her mother was nonexistent. The people in the village thought her strange – too tall, too quiet, too dark. This was where she belonged, after all; this was her destiny. She fit perfectly in his palm.
She lived and loved in the trees. She hid in the trunks, she played in the leaves. And always she was by the kapre’s side.
The townspeople still say that the kapre eats smoke for breakfast, and lost humans for lunch and dinner. Maria eats plantains for breakfast, and rice for lunch and dinner. Some of the townspeople say she too eats humans, but no one really believes that.
In between eating, they wander the forest together, the kapre taking one step for Maria’s fifteen. They talk of many things: of the best way to confuse humans wandering through the woods, of the flowers that grow in thick bushels at the bases of the trees, of books Maria once read, but now only half-remembers. She fills in the rest of the stories with what she thinks should happen.
Oftentimes they don’t talk at all. They sit and they watch the people below, circling the same trunk for hours. They laugh, and to the humans it sounds like wind blowing through the leaves.
Sometimes, at Maria’s urging, the kapre will reveal itself. The townspeople will spit and shake and shudder. Or else say nothing, but laugh. The kapre will reveal the way out of the forest to them, the path suddenly glowing as if lit from inside the earth, and they will be on their way. Sometimes Maria will see this path, this golden yellow path, and wonder what lays on the other side. But it’s only ever a very fleeting thought, of course, and then it’s gone.
Here is what happens when two beings who are not supposed to be together, come together: others try to force them apart.
The first sign that rumors were giving way to hate was a letter that appeared at the roots of the balete tree. It was addressed only to The Kapre’s Wife. Maria opened it, her long slim finger slicing open the seal, and read it to herself. It told her to come back to the village, that it was safer there. She crumpled up the piece of paper and let the kapre set it on fire.
The second sign was when Maria and the kapre returned from a walk through the forest. Their beloved tree had been stripped of all bark, with markings carved into its side: a small, triangle shape of a girl and a circular big beast, both with an “x” marked through their faces. They moved a few trees down to a small and secluded mango tree, and did their best not to stare at the trunk when they walked by.
Signs always come in threes. The third was when the furthest tree in the forest, a small and hapless little acacia, was set alight. And just like that, the entire forest became a golden pathway. It was Maria that smelled the smoke first, the kapre’s nostrils so used to the gray curling plume. She awakened him and wrapped her arms around his finger, and she said, “We must go.”
The kapre could see the fire over the tops of the trees, could see the orange and yellow and black and green intermingling. And he said, “A kapre lives in the woods.”
“There are other woods in this world. Plenty of them.”
“A kapre lives in his woods,” he amended. “And humans live in towns. In houses. In cities. Not in trees.”
There was much that Maria could have said. But the kapre said it for her. “All the pathways are lit. Go.”
Maria turned to look in the direction of the town she was supposed to have gone to so long ago. She imagined the people, the shops, the restaurants. She turned in another direction, another golden path, towards the mountains and thought how sweet it would be to taste the air up there. She looked, too, in the direction of her old village, and wondered where her father had been buried.
At last she turned to the kapre. She motioned for his palm and sat inside of it, enclosed as the trees blackened one by one.
When Maria’s mother was very young, she was also very beautiful. In every nativity scene, she would play an angel and the townspeople would only wish that they could afford more beautiful wings, more beautiful dresses, to match the face.
She entered the woods one day to find herbs for her father’s tea, and she became lost, too, wandering around in dizzy circles. She passed the same tall balete trees. The same tall mango trees. The same pile of rocks.
She was wearing a trio of ribbons: yellow, purple, pink. And it was these that the kapre saw. He revealed himself to her, but did not ask her to stay. Instead, he asked for one of the ribbons.
“But, which one?” she had replied.
He shook his great big head and smiled. “It does not matter to me,” he said. “Whichever I can take.”
“Well, then none of them,” Maria’s mother said. “These are the only ribbons I’ve ever had. Please don’t take them.”
“The only ribbons?” the kapre said. He had thought the human world was full of them, but perhaps they were a finite resource. Only a few ribbons per girl. “I see. I will not take them. Go home.” He gestured towards the trees and they began to snap backwards, the path a bright yellow.
“Thank you,” Maria’s mother said, and rushed towards the path. When she returned to the village, her face was flushed pink, but none could tell the reason why, nor why her ribbons were now clutched in her fist and not braided through her hair.
From then on, she never wore her ribbons in the woods. But sometimes, she would find one curled at the base of a tree, emitting a soft and golden glow, and she would take them and place them carefully in her pocket for the daughter she knew might come one day.
Ashley Burnett is a writer living in California. Her work has appeared on The Toast, Necessary Fiction and Split Lip Magazine. You can find her at ashleyburnett.net.