The boy walked through the forest, admiring the glistening of the snow on the branches of the trees. He was checking the traps his father had laid out the day before last, hoping they'd be able to have seconds for dinner. This winter has been harsh, and with three children sick in bed, it was up to the father and his youngest son to procure more supplies. So far none of the traps had caught anything. He coughed as he continued down the trail.
Finding the last of the traps triggered but empty, the boy was about to turn and head home when a splash of color caught his eye. He crouched and inspected the drop of red, stark against the white of the snow. Blood, still fresh, led away from the trap into the forest. The boy hesitated. If he left now, he would reach home just before the sun set and the temperature plummeted. If he followed the trail, there was a possible meal waiting. Thinking a nice warm meal would help his siblings recover faster, he stood to follow the trail, and the world spun, and he fell to his knees. He'd stood up too fast, in his excitement. When he regained his balance, he stood up again and started forward.
The farther he followed the blood, the colder the air became. The sun was setting, and the boy realized that he was the furthest from home he had ever been. There was no chance of coming home before dark. His father would be both worried and angry that the boy had taken so long. He hoped the blood belonged to a large animal, so that the promise of a few good meals would appease him. The trees thinned until he reached a wide field, with a blanket of snow undisturbed but for the scarlet drops of blood that led to a large tree. His heart skipped a beat.
The boy had never seen a stranger tree. The bark shimmered gold, and the lower branches spiraled around the trunk, with leaves that were blue at the stem, fading into purple and then red, which fell onto the snow with a steady drip, drip, drip. The higher branches were twisted, curving up to form a large sphere. With a start, the boy realized that the blood he had been following wasn't blood at all - it seemed to be some sort of sap, coming from the tree, but how was it possible? The tree couldn't have moved with its roots buried in the ground, and the boy realized that while following the blood-like sap there had been no other prints in the snow beside his own.
Drawing closer to the tree, he reached up and brushed his hand against one of the leaves, pulling it away to inspect the sap now covering his fingers. It smelled sweet, and tasted of a fruit that the boy could not name but felt distantly familiar. Gathering more of the sap to taste again, he tried to recall just where he had encountered this flavor before. The more he drank, the more familiar it became. It was on the tip of his tongue, both literally and figuratively. Glaring up at the tree as he tried to figure it out, the boy saw that the sphere of branches had relaxed, now forming a loose weave with small gaps. Through the gaps he caught sight of a woman sitting in the cradle the branches formed.
The boy called out to her, but she didn't respond. She was swaying back and forth as if listening to a silent song only she could hear. He grabbed one of the lowest branches and hoisted himself up to straddle it. The woman had noticed him now, peering down at him with delighted eyes. She looked very beautiful, he thought. She also looked very lonely, and the boy decided he ought to keep her company for a little while, before he went back home. She smiled at him and ran a finger down one of the branches she sat upon, and one of the gaps grew larger and larger until it formed a doorway into the wooden net that made up the sphere of the tree.
He continued climbing the tree, the branches growing closer and closer together until they were a staircase leading to the top of the tree. A low humming reached his ears, and he recognized it as the lullaby his mother would sing to him when he was sick as a very small child, before she passed away of illness herself. When he reached the doorway, the woman was waiting for him. The boy wondered how long she'd been here alone, and why she didn't look cold even with no cloak on in the middle of winter. She waved a hand, gesturing for him to come inside. He suddenly realized he had forgotten all about his original goal of finding a meal for him and his family. His stomach growled, and the woman took a step back to reveal the inside of the sphere, where a pot of what looked like a meaty stew sat, giving off a light steam. He licked his lips. After the meal he would ask if he could bring the leftovers with him when he went home, he decided. The woman smiled larger, and reached out a hand in invitation. The boy smiled back at her and accepted it.
The father held his youngest son's wrist loosely in his grasp, desperately searching for a beat. When he'd found his youngest son collapsed of fever by the last of the traps, he'd gathered the boy in his arms and rushed back home to lay him down next to his brothers. All three of them had come down with the same sickness. It had looked as if it had passed the youngest by, but then he had been hit the hardest. His fever had spiked drastically, hot enough that the father could almost believe his hand would be burned when he checked the boy's forehead. When his heart had stopped beating, the father had frantically performed chest compressions or what seemed like hours, praying with all his heart that his son would survive.
He couldn't find a pulse. His son's wrist laid cold and limp in his hands. The father started weeping, bent over his son's body. It didn't look like a corpse at all. With his eyes closed and face still, he looked as if he was merely sleeping, like his brothers. The father dreaded the morning, when he would have to tell his sons that their brother was dead. He sat there crying for what seemed like an eternity. After a long pause, he stood up, making no move to wipe the tears still falling off of his face.
Scooping the body in his arms, he moved his son over to the table, and rummaged around the house until he found a clean sheet to cover him with. Glancing back as he moved towards the door, the father hoped his son was met with a warm welcome by the mother he had barely known. He grabbed his shovel. Although he would wait until his sons have said their goodbyes, it would be best to start the preparations now. He opened the door to be greeted by the coming dawn. Still weeping, the father stepped outside to dig his youngest son's grave.