A woman and a little girl sat by a babbling winter river. They sat close enough to touch and watched the swirls of clear, cool water swim by. The grey winter sunlight through the trees sent freckles of light dancing around them. The air was cold — cold enough to turn breath to smoke and crisp the edges of the river into thin sheets like brittle glass.

But they were warm. Despite the cold, they sat there together, generating their own internal summer.

The woman curled her arm around the girl and the girl accepted this offer of safety with a cautious smile. They listened as birds greeted the day in the distance, feeling the forest around them hum with life. The girl didn’t know the woman, she was sure of it. Though the woman looked familiar and smelled familiar, she was a stranger. The woman knew the little girl very well. She remembered her like a song.

“I’m here to help you,” the woman finally spoke.

The girl looked at the woman, opened her small mouth to speak, then closed it again, looking away. She shifted nervous feet against damp, packed earth.

“I know it’s difficult,” the woman continued, “keeping secrets like you do.”

The girl’s small hand moved to a bandage on her left wrist where it froze, protective. Tears welled in her bright, hazel eyes.

The woman smiled down at her and squeezed her shoulders. “It’s okay,” her words floated softly in the crisp air. “This is a safe space. Nobody can hurt you here.” The frozen leaves overhead swayed in the breeze, sending flakes of the morning dew to the soft forest floor.

“There’s a monster in my house,” the girl finally spoke, her voice small, barely a whisper in the air between them. “Do you believe in monsters?” She lifted her gaze to the calm presence of the woman’s face and saw a tear gathering there in familiar hazel eyes.

The woman’s lips formed a tight line and she swallowed, nodding slowly. “Yes,” she said, the quivering tear sliding down one cheek as she blinked. “I do. I believe in your monster.” 

“My monster…” the little girl looked at her loosely bandaged left wrist. A small amount of blood was seeping through, a bright red rose blossoming on clean gauze. She winced.

“It will be alright,” the woman said. “Let me show you.”

The woman took the girl’s small pale hand in her own and unwrapped the clumsily applied bandage. She led the little girl through the forest to a tree where the long fibres of old man’s beard lichen grew. She taught her about the healing properties of the forest and showed her how to use the lichen as a dressing. Using a clean section of gauze and threads of lichen, her expert hands helped the little girl wrap her wrist snug and secure. The pale worry that had appeared on the girl’s face at the sight of the blood lifted then, a new confidence taking its place.

“Will it heal?” The little girl asked.

“It will heal,” the woman answered. “People tend to get stronger at their broken places.”

The two walked hand in hand back to the river.

“Living with a monster is really hard,” the woman spoke. “I also know you’re a very strong and smart little girl. You’re going to keep getting better at healing yourself until one day your monster can’t hurt you anymore.”

The girl smiled at this and collapsed exhausted into the arms of the woman. The woman let her sleep, watching the sun move through the trees. When the little girl awoke, she stood up and thanked the woman for all she’d said and shown to her on the bank of that frosty river.

“I need to go home now.” the little girl spoke, her breath leaving tiny frozen clouds in the air as she made her way back through the trees.

The woman watched the little girl depart with a smile playing at the corners of her trembling lips. She rolled up the left sleeve of her coat and there, against skin turned pink with cold, was a line — a scar faded with age and barely visible, where the anger of a monster had broken her, and where she’d learned to heal.