I first met her when I was young, only six year old, she was just sitting there, alone, but I never thought she was lonely, because she didn't look alone, not even by herself in the woods.
We were on our 'yearly' family holiday, even though we had only started last year. My parents were setting up the tents, they got one and I got one, I never thought to question that. "You go explore or something, ok," my father said, shooing me away.
I had left without saying anything, I was a quiet child because they never wanted to talk to me. I was walking, trying to remember where I was going, or how to get back, but I had deliberately not followed a path. The small plants tore at the pants that my mother had made me wear, even in the heat, even though they didn't suit me, because they had wanted a son, my parents, and I hadn't been right.
There was a clearing ahead, a break in the trees. I stumbled over another root and fell, face first into the clearing that would captivate me for the rest of my life. I slowly picked myself up, tired after walking so long, but I knew my parents wouldn't miss me, they never did.
"A stranger in the woods," a voice said. "A stranger lost among strangers, among her own family."
There was a young woman sitting in the clearing, she wasn't looking at me but I knew she saw me. She was somewhere between eighteen and twenty five, had long, light brown, hair that hung around her face and tanned skin. She wasn't wearing any clothes, but at that age I didn't care.
I say she was young, but she didn't feel young, she didn't have the look that other people who looked that age had. She was well muscled, but more than that she looked strong. She had small scars over most of her body, except for her hands and face.
"I am not lost," I protested, like the child I was. "I know my way back."
"Someone who knows their way back, but is still lost," she turned to look at me, and her eyes were beautiful, she had bright green eyes that had the colour of the woods. "How you can find a place like this if you are not lost? I wonder."
"I'm not lost, miss," I called her miss because that is what I called any woman who wasn't my Mother. "There is no need to worry."
"You think I am worried? So you won't admit that you are lost," she smiled and her teeth were yellow, not unhealthy, but not clean looking. "I am not worried, little one, if there was harm here you would have come to it by now."
At the time what she said was too big for me, I couldn't understand the way she spoke to me. "What are you talking about, miss? I am fine."
"I know you are fine, little one," she said. "There is no harm here," she looked away from me again, into the woods. "But it has been so long since I met a stranger, would I have helped if there had been harm here?" she stopped and listened.
"You don't look like a bad person," I said, trying to comfort her, I thought.
"Not on the outside, but does that mean anything?" she listened again but I said nothing, because she wasn't listening for me. "I guess that is right, I would have helped a child."
"So you are a good person," I said, smiling.
She looked at me and her expression made my smile fade. It was so strange that even as a child I understood that although she was not lonely, she was alone, and that did affect her in some way that I didn't understand.
I can never remember what we said to each other after that, but I found my way back, and we spent another two days there and I didn't see her again in that time.
My mother got pregnant, and we found out soon after that trip, so I've always thought it was there that it happened.
My brother was born and my parents were so happy, they pampered him and spoiled him and almost forgot about me. My brother was fine until he was five but about three weeks before we were going to go on our 'yearly' camping trip, he got sick.
So we postponed it, but he stayed sick.
I never found out what was wrong with him, my brother was sick for almost two years before he died. He left the hospital twice in that time.
My parents never suggested going on our 'yearly' camping trip again.
"I think we should go away for a few days," my boyfriend is sitting next to me on the train. He is a nice guy, but I don't like him that much, we have been 'going out' for about four months.
"Really?" I try my best to sound interested but I doubt it works. "Where were you thinking?"
"Maybe we could go camping," he says, trying to think of somewhere to go. This idea captures my attention.
"I know a good place, actually," I say, he looks at me sidelong, like he picked up that I wasn't interested. "I went there with my family, ages ago, it would be nice to go there again."
"Ok," he says after a pause. "I can't think of anywhere to go anyway."
So I asked my parents where it was, they told me reluctantly, they didn't really talk to me that much, hadn't for a while. I packed for four days and waited for my boyfriend to come over.
"Ready to go?" he asks, it makes me want to hit him.
"I wouldn't have come out yet if I wasn't," I point out and put my suitcase in the boot.
"You pack a lot less than most women I know," he says, getting into the driver's seat and unlocking the other side.
"You pack more than most men I know," I tell him as I get in.
"I guess we make up for each other then," he says, smiling.
He has been saying things like that for a couple of weeks, our relationship seems to be developing in his mind, but it certainly isn't in mine. I never know how to react to stuff like that, but he never seems to notice. I doubt he really sees me in this relationship, he just sees the girl who isn't really very girly.
Although I can see all this, I am reluctant to break up with him, I think it is because this is actually the longest relationship I have ever had. It even feels longer than the relationship I have with my parents, which seems strange even to me.
The tent is set up now, I helped this time, and there it is still before lunch time.
"I feel like going for a walk," I say. "I'm not sure where though," that is definitely a lie, I want to try and find that clearing.
"Sounds good, give me a second and I'll come too," he ducks into the tent and I hear him rummaging in his bag. He reappears after a few seconds. "Ok let's go."
I head straight for the gap in the trees that is right where I remember and he follows after a second of indecision, I am the man in this relationship, it seems.
We walk for a while, trying to remember where I am going, or how to get back, but I had deliberately not followed a path. The small plants tear at the pants that I always wear, I think it is to irritate the people who thought I shouldn't, my boyfriend wanted a girlfriend but I guess that I was good enough.
I see the clearing, the gap in the trees and hurry, exited at the idea of seeing her again. I don't stumble this time, but my boyfriend does, I don't even try to help. He isn't here, after all this time I should have expected it, but it saddens me.
"This is a nice place," my boyfriend says, sitting down. "Kind of romantic."
"I guess," I sit down next to him, not as close as he would like, but close enough for me.
"Kind of makes you wanna..." he trails off, looking at me.
"Not sure about that," I say, glancing at him, he is staring.
"You know you want to," he shifts over and puts his arm around me.
"I'm sure I would realise that before you," I say.
"Exactly," he replies, smiling brightly. I had meant it to be a rejection but I forget that some people don't get me.
"You don't even get me," I say scathingly. "How can you think this relationship is working out?"
"Because I want it to," his voice has gone dark. He pushes me onto my back and slides on top of me. "I'm sure that you do want to do this, you are my girlfriend after all."
"Not for much longer at this rate," I say. I push at him but he is heavier than I thought.
He has his hands above my shoulders, he leans in to try to kiss me but I turn my head away. Somehow he doesn't take the hint and moves one of his hands to my breasts.
"Stop it," I yell and slap him. "I don't want to."
"Of course you do," he tries to leave no room for argument, a tactic that has never gotten him anywhere with me.
"I really don't," I say and try to push him off again.
He smiles at me lustily and moves his hand down on my body, brushing along my stomach, heading for my crotch.
Suddenly he is up, I think he has come to his senses for a moment.
"She said she does not want to," I recognise the voice, a voice from long ago. It is a voice I have been treasuring since I was six years old
I look up and see her, the woman, the same light brown hair, the same tan skin, the same scars. The same eyes, those amazing, forest coloured eyes.
"Who do you think you are?" my now ex boyfriend says indignantly, I am surprised he manages to be indignant while being held in the air by the back of his shirt.
"She is a friend, obviously," I stand. "Who do you think you are?"
"What are you talking about?" he looks back at me. "I did nothing wrong."
I hit him, it is all I can do. She drops him onto his feet and I hit him again, he doubles over and coughs.
"Get out of here," I tell him.
"I'll leave your stuff, but that is it," he pulls himself to his feet and stumbles away.
"Thank you for saving me," I say to the woman. "I could have dealt with it myself though."
"Why didn't you?" she sits down, it is the same place as the first time I saw her. Except that now it is getting dark.
"Because I hoped he would come to his senses," I realise this is a lie as I say it. "Because I wanted you to come and save me."
"Cute," she looks the same, not a day older, except that her hair is a little bit longer. "Somehow you are still the girl you were eleven years ago."
"It is even stranger that you are the same woman from eleven years ago," I say, I want to sit down, but something doesn't feel right. "All most the exact same woman."
"I only came here for you," she says, smiling. She looks away and listens, like I remember her doing so long ago.
I finally realise what seems wrong, I pull off my shirt and am undoing my bra before she notices.
"What are you doing?" she asks, not seeming particularly interested.
"I want to sit with you, but it would feel wrong to wear clothes while doing it," I say, dropping the rest of my clothes to the ground.
She laughs, a wonderful sound, but I wonder if I only think so because it is her. I sit down next to her and stare out into the woods.
"Why did you take so long to come back?" she asks after a while, seeming genuinely interested.
"Well, I had a brother, so that postponed it for a while, but then he got sick, and we couldn't go then," I sigh and stare at the trees as the light fades. "Then he died, and my parents didn't want to go anymore, so this is the first opportunity that presented itself."
"You could have made your own opportunities," she says, smiling. "Not that it bothers me much, I just didn't come out, time passes so much faster that way. Besides, I am only a memory from your childhood, not much more to you."
"I think you are wrong there," I say, embarrassed I look at my feet, bare in the dust of the clearing. "I wanted to come back, I have thought about you a lot, but I just didn't know how to come here by myself."
She laughs again, softly this time, and it blends in with the sounds of the woods going to sleep. "Cute," she says and puts her arm around me.
"Thanks," I lay my head on her shoulder. "But I would rather be beautiful like you."
We stayed like that for a long time, and when she finally looked at me, her eyes were dark, like the forest at night.
"How did you stay the same all this time?" I ask.
"I stayed here, and did not change it," she says and smiles at my expression. "I am a spirit of the forest, you might say, a sprite. I am bound to these woods."
"So spirits don't age?" I don't know why I accept her story, but there is no reason to doubt her.
"Not physically, the woods stay young, and so do we," she hugged me. "I think you should go, get a tent and come back soon."
"I will," I say and stand up.
I go back there a lot, almost every second weekend and at least a week on most of my school holidays. I never told anybody what happened with my boyfriend but nothing really did happen, I always said I had fallen in love with someone else when people asked why we had broken up, and maybe it is true.