Flipping-Book Forest #2
It is not a grove, the tiny clearing in the woods. Nothing so formal or clear-cut as a grove or a meadow or a glade. Nothing to inspire the breast of some modern-day Oscar Wilde or Thoreau. It is merely a bald patch on top of a small hill or mound, like the shaven cranium of a medieval monk, surrounded on all sides by thickly interwoven bodies of birch, ash, and pine. A place in the woods where the trees just didn't take. Meadow grass as smooth as satin grew there, whispering quietly in the low spring breeze, conversing with the hissing leaves of the silver birches. A cardboard box, measuring four feet by eight, stood at angle height to hold back the forest, to keep in the coffee-brown topsoil. Here, the rosemary grew tall alongside the thyme, St. John's wort, bay laurel, and mint. A pair of pallets stood upright nearby, supporting plastic and ceramic pots shadowed by numerous berry fruits.
She comes here whenever she can, the black-haired girl with the dragonfly necklace made of painted green and blue glass. Girl as sickly-thin as old train tracks and still so short even though she turned thirteen two days ago, her menses hitting her with the suddenness of a crossbow bolt, convinced that she'd always be called those old childish names even into adulthood. She comes here to tend to her garden, offering water when the sky won't supply it or shade if no clouds deign to form. She plays here, too, inventing games and worlds where a twelve year-old girl can be more than what she is, more than what school and her stepfather say she is.
She also talks to the flowers and the trees. She'd once read an article in some forgotten magazine that special proteins in the cellular walls of vegetation might allow them to perceive sounds by the vibrations in the air and ground, and that they can respond to it, in their own little ways. It might only be as illusory as scientific theory, just a nice thought, but it was good to have nice thoughts. So, she talks to them, about the events of her day, about the events she thinks will happen in days to come, or anything that she thinks is relevant to the plants.
She picks up a plastic bowl, keeping her hands steady so the rainwater doesn't spill over the sides. She drizzles it over a patch of lilies, white as river pearls, humming a song she heard in a dream. Suddenly she pauses, spots an orbweaver crawling across the black trail of her thin spring jacket. Each of its skeletal legs seemed about as long as her fingers, its zebra-striped cephalothorax like a big marble of citrine shot through with onyx.
"Hey, little sister," the girl says, "What're you doing there?" Holding out her arm, she walks to a bushel of yarrow, where the ladybugs are running amok and causing too much trouble for the rest of her garden. The girl presses her arm against the small beige flowers, while the spider, perhaps too suspicious of her, perhaps just sluggish in the morning air, hesitantly paws at its eyes. The girl gives the spider's rear a prod, and the spider lurches over onto the flowers.
"Have yourself a nice day," the girl says, before she walks away. The spider says nothing, but the girl knows it will keep itself busy wresting control of the yarrow from the congregation of ladybugs.
The little girl has no name here, nothing that would make her head turn if she heard those syllables rushing through the trees. Her charges have no names, either, none that they've told her. She's never been able to explain why, as if the whys really matter, but somehow that just feels right to her, as right as thunder chasing after lightning or frost on the ground announcing the first snows.
After a while, the sunlight began to creep up to its highest point in the sky as well as into her jacket, and she feels her strength waning, draining down through her feet into the ground. Her eyelids struggle to stay upright and breathing becomes a struggle, even in the still forest air. She offers her help to a few more plants, prunes and waters, adjusts the placement of her boxes one more time, before she crosses across to a broad tamarack and sits down beside its roots, in the softness of warm old soil and shadow. She tells herself to keep her eyes open just a bit longer, and she does until the sight of the woods shuts them for her.
The dream is different this time, only in that the dress she's wearing is the dark color of moss and November lichens, no longer the dull white-grey of hornet nests or damp spidersilk. The rest is all familiar to her, this old dream that she's had as far back as she could remember.
In the dream she's not a little girl anymore, though nor is she an adult. She's something that could no more be affected by the slow gnawing of time than anything else here. She is old, and she is young, and she feels she is both a girl and a boy, even though her dress doesn't betray anything. She is a state between two states, with feet on both…or all, rather. She is walking through a forest, a forest taller and thicker than anything she's ever seen or read about, a forest great enough to silence the sun. But things grew and lived down in the shadows, things that whispered and spoke with lights and soft rustlings, or didn't speak at all.
She breathes, this new woman, breathes in the mingled scent of life and rot, of constant and intangible age. She can smell every leaf from every tree, every strange insect and animal, smells the swamps nearby with its cold black waters and the bright things that flew over its glassy surface, the odd things that swam there. She walks between the trees, tough old coniferous needles not strong enough to break the skin of her feet, nearly giggling as they broke between her toes. A thing like a centipede, right on cue, crawls up her leg on long yellow legs, and now she laughs as if it was for the first time. She allows it to work its way up her leg, passing through her dress and between her breasts, winding its way around her throat like a living choker. She lets it rest there as she continues through the woods, already familiar with the path she's walked many times before.
There are things watching her; she can feel the gaze of every eye and she knows that what she radiates is filling them with curiosity. She doesn't look back at them, already knowing that they don't mean her harm, not in this eternal shadowed woodland. Nothing would dare.
She knows each and every landmark by now, knows when to tilt her path a little to the right or a bit to the left. She knows to set the centipede onto the long olivine boulder when it sidles over the back of her right hand, knows to stroke the bullfrog's back with the tips of her fingers.
The reddish glow of firelight makes her stop, and then she walks towards it. Sometimes it is on her right when she sees it, and sometimes on the left, but she's never simply just found it on her own.
There is a clearing here in the woods, one, she knows, among thousands just like it, where the dead old wood is piled high and burned in magnificent bonfires that might be seen from miles afar, were it not for the trees. It's to these bonfires that things come out to dance and sing.
There is already a procession by the time she gets there, a wild ring dance around the flames. She sees things that shouldn't be walking on two legs making a solid effort, and things that normally go about two legs shuffling on their hands. And there are things with more than four legs, and these she tries to ignore, but it's too difficult even with the knowledge that she's seen them before. Someone grabs her hand, and like a star ripped out of its orbit she's flung into the void of celebration. She falls into the revelry with ease now, a contrast with that first dream as sharp as black and white. She feels she could follow the embers all the way up into the darkness, where they stick to that hidden canopy like suckered stardust.
The dance lasts all of a moment, which takes an eternity in a dream. The flames guttered, the wood spitting and sparking like angry cats, the procession slowly torn as everything went back to the places they were enjoying before they too were pulled toward the bonfire. There are three stragglers, standing in the dimmed light of the fire, three fay people who stood there staring at her. Their skin was mottled and stained, and they were clothed in fabric woven from long grasses. They looked at her, small smiles on their faces, eyes glinting with light stolen from the fire. One of them waves for her to come to them, and she does. They turn and walk quickly into the dark, and she follows.
It's all as it was before, waiting for her. The tree as wide as a town, a pitted hole set into its base and spilling through the ground in front of it, the city down below; feeling something in the tree watching her descend the carven steps in the stone, something ancient and fickle. She follows the trio all the way down, everyone silent, even those she meets. She finds that the repetition doesn't dilute the anticipation in any way, doesn't forestall any bit of fear that anything can happen in the dark.
She hears them chattering about her, nattering to her, but she knows she isn't supposed to pay them any mind. They bring her down the winding whale-big roots, cross rivers that weren't made for anything touched by the sun, through a fungal meadow that gleamed with shifting light at their intrusion; down, down, ever down until they find the nest, and it's here that her shallow defense of familiarity recedes, because the nest is ashen grey like the jaws of time, is as wide as existence, and the whole thing is a living organism.
It calls to her, the writhing, singing nest, and she walks toward it. A woman meets her halfway through, blocking the way. A woman with blue-green eyes like hers, a crown of hard black carbon and bone; there's something insectile about her face, something not wholly human, but that doesn't matter because any horror the girl had is torn away with the woman's smile, an open-armed embrace, and here the dream is supposed to tear apart, reality rushing in to fill the interim before their skin can touch. But it doesn't this time.
The dream doesn't break until the girl and the woman embrace in the pale light of the heaving nest. And then the world was pushing in against her cold wonder and the forested dark.
The sun was already cowering behind the treeline when the girl woke up, swaddled in the evening air and the scents of her garden. A spider must have drawn silk across her dress as she slept – it crackled like radio static and telephone receivers when there's lightning in the sky while she sits up and brushes herself off. She knows she will be catching holy hell from her stepdad if she came into the house before he fell asleep, but there was always the risk that he would stay awake anyway, just for the sake of shouting at her for committing some offense. She slips into a leisurely pace as she makes her way back home, trying to savor the way the woods smell for a little bit longer.
Their house is one of those you pass when you're trying to get someplace in a hurry and you find yourself lost. You may notice it if you have enough interest, but you're likely not to, nor will you remember it when it passes your field of view. It's a squat two-story shamble half a mile out of town, the end result of a house built ninety-some years ago by Finnish pioneers, now left to go to seed. An empty chicken coop was all that remained of a farm, and to the extent of her memory she couldn't ever remember seeing any chickens. The paint had been white a long time ago, now weathered to a piebald grey, and peeling in the sun like dead skin. Grime-coated windows staring like a blind leper.
She can see the window for her room, a little sticker she put there a year ago twinkling with cheap glitter, a pink flower. She zeroes in on it like a beacon, feeling drained, feeling like she needed to sleep again.
She hears the door slam open, banging off the wall, pistol-fire paternal rage as her stepdad bellows "Where the hell have you been? Do you have any idea what time it is!?" He's standing in the doorway like Saturn Himself, like a Bosch painting all threatening and sodden with beer fumes.
She starts with something like "I was," or "I'm just," and that's as far as she will ever get. He reaches out – she makes sure to twist a bit so his dirt-stained fingers only dig into the flesh of her shoulder and not tear at her hair. "Get into the house!" he says, adding "What's the matter with you!?" after he drags her past the threshold and slams the door shut. She slips on the welcome mat and falls to her knees, multiplying the pain he's putting onto the space between her neck and arm.
"Stop it!" she screams, fox-mean snap that makes her stepdad wince and growl like something meaner, and she doesn't hear the whistle of his hand as it arcs and connects with her face. Head rocking back, something popping somewhere in her neck, quicker than thought or pain. And when he's finished dispensing justice to the daughter of the woman he accidentally married, leaves her teeth-pale skin bruised, he lets the empty bottle of beer drop and stalks off to his bedroom. While she sits there, listening to him slamming off the walls like a pinball, she thinks about her garden in the forest, bald patch where the trees neglected to grow, spiders and flies. She doesn't know when she picks herself up, walks to her own room near the downstairs living room, tosses her jacket into a rumpled black mess in the corner by the bed, where she will forget it's only an old spring jacket and not a black cat – strips out of her clothes except her green underwear and lies on the bed. The coolness of the fabric seems like a poor draught on her skin, but it's enough to pull her eyelids down, and soon she's asleep.
A noise, a bang in the night. Broken glass, the girl thinks, an image always associated with intruders, prowlers, criminals. She sits up, eyes squinting in the dark and cocking her head at a retriever angle, expecting it to be nothing but the sliver of dream she'd had.
Then she hears it again, dull clatter and musical crash of glass upstairs. She throws the covers aside and walks to the door, pausing at each noise she hears. Her hand wavers at the doorknob, not half as sure of what she was doing as when she was still in bed. She breathes and opens the door, black opening to black until her eyes finally adjust, and then there's only bluish-grey outlines. She walks through that velvety dark and listens, flinches when she hears a familiar grunt from her stepfather. There are feet stomping around upstairs, more than two, more than four, and her heart is beating rabbit-quick in her ribcage, loud enough for her to think – just for a moment – that the entire house is throbbing like a raw wound.
The girl grabs a pair of pliers from the top of the television, not sure why, it just seems right to her, not sure it or she can do very much, but she does it anyway. She feels her way for the staircase balustrade, follows it to the edge and slowly walks up the steps. The wood is raw and unpolished, no varnish, and her bare feet make a sandpaper sound that's much too loud in her ears, probably too loud to someone else as well. She keeps to the right side of the steps, knowing that the sixth and ninth steps creak like old barn rafters in November.
At the top of the stairs, the girl pauses, listens to the ruckus that was happening in her stepfather's room. Things were breaking, her stepfather was making strained, pained sounds, too alien coming from him and not her. She waits, mouth much too dry for her to swallow her nerves, gut too full of moths – never butterflies, never ever butterflies – for her to do anything but shift around on her feet. The pliers that she's holding with both of her hands are shaking too hard, and the grease on the rubber handles is mixing with her sweat, making them as bad as a bar of soap. She can only peek around the corner, staring at the door of her stepfather's room, watching it shake along with the rest of the house, along with herself. Moonlight was coming in through the circular window in the hallway, bathing everything in bright liquid silver.
She almost wilts when the door opens, turned squirrel and darted away down the stairs. Someone steps out, a tall thin silhouette. The girl saw each rounded muscle wreathed in moonlight, sweat curved, no clothes. She can see mottled skin the color of woodlands, long hair corded, eyes with an animal glow, something vaguely insectile in the face, not wholly human. The womanish shape stops when it sees her, and the girl knows that it sees her because her heart gives out then and she's running, running and hopping down the steps so fast she slams into the wall. A photo frame is jostled and falls onto the floor with a jingling crash but she doesn't care, too scared to care about anything but her own survival. She leaps into the living room and runs out the back door, hearing footsteps coming behind her, rapid-fire and she doesn't know when they'll catch her, those long and powerful legs.
The night is filled with moonlight, so bright like some corruption of the sun itself instead of mere stolen light, and she can see every leaf in every tree. The girl keeps running, not taking a chance to stop. The only thing on her mind is to get away, as fast as she possibly can.
And then she does stop, because standing in front of the trees are three other shapes, three tall figures bathed in moonlight and forest-mottled skin. She watches them watching her, and the pliers drop from her hand. The girl's heart twitches, because the figure standing in the middle is much too familiar to her. She sees green-blue eyes, a crown of hard black carbon and bone. The woman steps toward her while the other two remain behind. Their eyes are drawn up toward the house, where the sounds have become louder.
The woman stops just in front of her, the girl feels like running, and she feels like standing still and never moving again. She can see stars twinkling in the pores of the woman's skin. Like water rushing through old pipes she can feel tears beginning to well in the crevices of her eyes, and the girl is weeping before the woman stops bare feet in front of her. She can smell the woman, smell the forest and the old heaving nest beneath the heart of an ancient tree. She can smell a place that used to be her cradle, the real one, away from cotton and plastic and other useless castoffs from a surrogate infancy.
When she looks up into the eyes of the fairy woman she feels as though something has given way beneath her feet, as if everything has been ripped apart and made whole again. When the girl walks up and wraps her arms about her mother's legs, feels the moon-dampened warm skin against her cheek, she can smell places a world away, generations away, and she starts to cry. "It's time for you to go home," a voice whispers into her ear, as soft and as sharp as any pin, and it only makes her tears flow even harder.
When her mother ends the embrace, she takes the girl by the hand, and for the span of a moment, her attention is diverted, old myth of the hero[ine] looking back toward a threshold they will never see again. She sees her house, a house that belonged to a man who used to be her stepfather, flames licking and chewing and already swallowing whole the old timbers, plaster, and cement blocks. She watches the paint curl and blacken, embered ashes launching into the air like lightning bugs, the glass puckering and shearing into jagged ice that will never melt. She can hear her stepfather inside, his screams howling up among the embers and the billowing, hungry smoke, where they fade and are forgotten. By some stray silver of pity, or perhaps mere chance, the old coop that hadn't sheltered a chicken in decades also catches fire and collapses with what she takes for a sigh of relief.
She also sees other fires in the distance, beyond a road and a treeline, bright flickers in the sleeping little town. Soon, many towns from many miles away will smell woodsmoke and wonder where it was coming from.
After having enough of the sights, glutted and engorged on an old dream coming to an end and her reality coming back in to fill the void, the little girl looks up and smiles at her mother, at the cold starlight in her mother's exotic eyes. Together, each shedding a tear, they step into the woods.