The cold wind battered the fortune teller’s wagon, threatening an early frost. The girls climbed down, simultaneously giggling and shivering about the message the old witch had delivered. As their feet pushed through the red and orange leaves, a shadow emerged from the gnarled maple trees. A bent man in tattered layers stepped in front of the girls, leaned over, and put his crooked finger to his lips…

(Entries must touch on the topic in some way to qualify.)

Drink from the maple, drink from the spring, live the life you’re dying like it doesn’t mean a thing. Reach to the treetops, reach through the ground, live a life in shadow ‘til they come back around.

Kids sang it hopping hopscotch or jumping rope. Adults would shush them, saying it was bad luck. Then the kids sang it in secret.

Jane and Kathy grew up with the song. They sensed that it was about the old forest at the edge of town. The superstitious elderly folk said it was bad luck, so the younger kids gave it wide berth.

The older kids darted in and out between the trees, racing to the spring and daring each other to take a drink. The water tasted pure and crisp, but left a strange aftertaste.

As they entered high school, Jane and Kathy forgot the children’s chant, jumping rope, and the “spring sprint.” Boys and learners permits dominated their thoughts. One particular weekend, the old-style carnival being held in the vacant lot near the wood was the object of their attention.

The fall carnival came in every five years or so. The girls had been too young to explore on their own the last time. Now, at nearly sixteen, they met their friends and rode the rides without their parents watching.

Neither girl remembered who wanted to see the fortune teller, but they sat in her wagon as she spun tales of their futures. As she waved her hands over a crystal ball, her bracelets clattered and the fringe of her shawl swayed. The girls snickered, too mature to be taken in by a fake.

The old woman frowned and snatched a hair from each of their heads.

“Come to mock me, then? Pretty words and petty fortunes are too sweet for you? Fine then. I will tell you what I see: two girls turned into nymphs before their sixteenth birthdays.” She spat into her hand and smeared it onto the table.

The giggling girls left the wagon. It had grown dark, and the cold air cut through their thin cardigans. The girls had no context for the witch’s words. They mistook nymph for nympho, and denied it.

“I’m waiting until I get married,” Jane insisted.

“I didn’t even like sex,” Kathy confided.

They shivered and pushed their way through the red and orange leaves, cutting close to the old forest.

“Pretty ladies want some sweets?” came a voice from the shadows. A bent man in tattered layers beckoned them to a crude stand with a sign that said “Maple Candy.”

The girls sighed in relief. This wasn’t a creepy hobo from the woods. He was part of the carnival. Still creepy, but surely he meant no harm.

Hand-rolled candies decorated the booth. “Anything that strikes your fancy?”

Jane shrugged shyly. She didn’t have much money left.

Sensing her hesitation, the old man pulled out a small silver tube that glinted in the dim light.

“How about a taste for free?” he crooned.

Free was the magic word. They leaned forward excitedly.

He took the spile and hammered it into one of the sugar maples behind him.

“Hurry, hurry,” he hissed, and the girls sprang forward.

Kathy drank first. The warm, sticky liquid burst sweetly on her tongue. Sweet, sour, bitter. So many flavors at once. She nearly moaned with the pleasure of it.

Jane hesitated, but Kathy insisted. Her eyes lit up with the thrill of something strange and wonderful.

The maple’s bare branches tapped together and groaned as they bled syrup into the girls’ mouths. The old man’s creased features lit with greedy joy.

Kathy used her last five dollars to buy a handful of candies. “Mom will like them,” she said, although she planned to keep them for herself.

Emboldened by their free taste, they danced into the night to enjoy the bright lights and singing calliope of the carnival ahead of them.

The old man grinned, his teeth rotted from decades of drinking maple sugar. He rubbed his arms to warm them.

“Now can I dance?” he crooned. “Can I dance?”

“Yes, you can dance,” said a voice that sounded like wind through the trees. “We will see you at the equinox,” the wind sighed.

The girls spent the rest of their night living like life was meant to be lived: full of joy and a touch of fear.

Late in the night, their bellies began to cramp. Their parents blamed the carnival. Too many rich foods and spinning rides.

As they drifted off to sleep, they heard the familiar chant from their childhood.

As the fall equinox approached, the pain in their bellies intensified. Some compulsion whispered to them to go outside, into the fall moonlight. The pain increased, urging them into the forest. The girls clutched each other as they stumbled, fingers stiff with cold.

They entered a clearing. When the moonlight touched them, their bare feet burrowed into the ground. Their arms reached upward towards the night sky. Toes dug into the ground, forming roots, and fingers stretched into branches tipped with delicate green leaf buds. Their skin hardened and split into bark, their blood thickened into sap. Their hearts slowed to a low hum.

The clearing filled with the nymphs of the wood. They danced in the moonlight, casting their writhing shadows across the new saplings. As the transition completed, the girls, newly rid of their human bodies, stepped into the clearing, translucent as ghosts. The tree spirits welcomed them and called them to dance.

And in the darkness just outside of the clearing, the bent old man watched in awe, swaying in time to a song he could no longer hear.