The forest speaks in these parts.
The trees whisper, their voices low to the ground. The wind hushes to hear them, stilling itself in face of the chill, so that the only breath in the forest, the only movement, is the patter of voices. On stormy days when the clouds layer themselves near the ground and rumble with anger and sharpness, the voices shriek in terror. On bright summer days, the voices perk up and chant into the light, as if stretching skyward like the leaves on the trees. And on gentle days, when the warmth of spring is around the corner and the snowflakes are tender to the touch, landing softly on leaf and branch, the voices mimic the careful fall of the snow and sing in reverberating decrescendo.
In the shadow of these voices, I grew.
“Stacia! Get out of the forest!” Mother called from the back porch.
I had taken a step into the trees, my face half-hidden in darkness. The bark on the backside of the hemlock in front of my eyes was covered in moss.
“I’m not in the forest!” I called. “I can still see the house.”
Mother fumed for a moment on the top step by the door. Then she lunged down the steps, one hand on the railing, her chest filling up. She was on me in a few seconds, pulling me by the arm.
“Stacia, you know the rules! Not one step! Understood! Or, or…you won’t be allowed outside at all!”
Her angry face pinched inward. Mother struggled with threats, but I noticed she felt it was important to make them nonetheless.
Mother’s face softened. “Why don’t you come in and have a cup of soup, hmm?”
“Pumpkin?” I asked.
I followed her toward the house, but as I neared the porch, I turned back, eyes on the forest, because I’d caught the scent of voices, slick as oil and tangy as sour pulp.
Pumpkin, they creeped toward the porch steps and creaked against the old swing—the metal swing, self-standing, because wood wasn’t allowed near the house. The steps were made of tin, like the house. Like the things in the house. Nothing was made of wood.
Pumpkin? The forest asked. Pumpkin? Pumpkin? Pumpkin? Pumpkin? Pumpkin? Pumpkin?
Soon, I told them, but I was careful to only say it in my mind, lest Mother hear me as well.
The men came later that day.
I remember because I thought at first it was my punishment.
Earlier, when Mother had lain down for her nap, I’d snuck out back, a dribble of pumpkin soup leftover in my bowl. I remembered what Mother had said and was careful not to step into the forest. I kept my feet firmly on the barren ground that edged the woods, leaned toward the trunk of the nearest hemlock, and tipped the bowl over. The drips were few. I looked at the small orange puddle at the base of the trunk and felt a bit embarrassed to be offering so little. I’d been hungry and had nearly forgotten to save some.
The voices didn’t seem to mind the meagerness of my gift.
They jumped at it, slurring their sounds together as if spurred to a sudden wakefulness. Such was their excitement I could not catch one understandable word in the mix. The voices clamored up and down, around and through, a dizzying whirlwind that filled my head with thunder.
A force blew into me, and I plopped onto the dirt on my backside. Heart thumping, I pushed up to standing, brushed off my skirts, grabbed the bowl, and ran for the house.
When the men showed up at the front door that evening, I thought Mother had seen me take the pumpkin soup to the forest. I thought she’d finally been forced to follow through with one of her earlier threats—that if I went in the forest, the men from the Tin Vale would take me away.
Mother opened the door and the two men stepped inside.
The clop of their black boots fell heavy against the stone floor. Their coats were long, dark enough green to be black. Their beards were thick and wiry and disguised their mouths. This, for some reason, was terrifying. You never know what will come out of a mouth you cannot see. Over their coats, they wore mail of iron, loosely woven, because it wasn’t made for stopping a sword. It was made for carrying tin. The tin was thin and laced through the iron to form a shining layer of armor that would protect them from falling leaves.
Around their leather belts they carried dozens of thin coils of tin. One of them also carried a knife, a long skinny blade with many sharp points on the end and no sheath.
I knew without ever seeing one before that these were Burners.
One of them lifted his eyes to me. They were brown, like dirt, like the stories I’d heard of the sky in Tin Vale. Brown from horizon to horizon. Some people called it the Empty Land.
When those eyes hit mine, it felt like a promise of fears to come. I gasped and ran for my room at the end of the hall. I threw myself inside and shivered under the blankets. Mother wouldn’t let them take me. She wouldn’t do it. Who would she have to threaten anymore if she sent me away?
But then my ears perked up.
I’d always been good at hearing things, even through the walls.
“We’ve come to provide you and your family safe passage.”
“Yes,” Mother replied. “Thank you for coming. It’s only the one truck, then?”
“Yes, ma’am. All the other settlers have already left, so you’ll have plenty of room.”
“Of course. Thank you.”
“Would you like a meal before we depart?” A fourth voice asked. I sat up in my bed, the blankets falling off me. Father was back from the fields.
“We should go now, eat later,” one of them said.
“Yes, pack it for the road,” the other agreed. “I’m not sure how you’ve lasted this long out here, to be honest. The forest is wailing even now.”
I’d hardly noticed my feet doing it, but I’d crawled out of bed and inched down the hall and was peering at the Burner who’d said that last comment about the forest. He was right, of course. The forest was calling out, the voices bereft. The Burner on the right pulled a few wads of cloth out of his pocket and stuffed them in his ears, then said in a too loud voice, “We’ll help you load up.”
That’s when I finally realized what was happening.
I looked around the kitchen, and for the first time, I noticed the piles. Metal boxes were filled to the brim, contents spilling over. How had I not noticed Mother doing all of this?
The Burners weren’t here for me. At least, not only me.
We were all leaving.
10 Years Later
My boots splashed muck behind me as I ran through the back streets of Tin Vale. My pack slapped against my spine with each thumping step. I held my mail shirt above my head to keep it clear of the flying clods caused by my sprint. The tin wires in the mail shirt were pure hell to clean. My other hand kept my morning crust of bread from falling out of my mouth as I both chewed and ran.
I cursed the street wetters for getting up so early. If I’d gotten onto the streets before them, I wouldn’t be splashing in the mud. Of course, then I’d be choking on the dirt in the air. Either way, I had three more streets to go and one minute to do it in.
The metallic burn of the tin furnaces filled the air as I dove deeper into the city. The white smoke rose into the sky, puffing into tight balls that slowly dissipated across the horizon. I navigated the familiar melange of tin and mud houses, skirting past the street vendors that were already uncovering their stalls and dusting their wares.
I swallowed my last heaping bite of bread a moment before I plunged into the darkness of a low mud building whose open door gaped like the maw of a demon.
“Cutting it close, don’t you think, Stacia?”
My eyes didn’t need to adjust to recognize the speaker. I stepped on a toe or two as I sidled through the crowded room to reach Bede where he hung near the wall.
“I’m on time.” I shoved my pack into his hands so I could slip into my mail. Then I threaded my belt and tin coils onto my waist.
“Barely. And you’re filthy.”
I strapped my pack on as Legionnaire Gertove stepped onto the platform near the front of the room. I mumbled to Bede. “Everything in this city is filthy.”
He offered me a smirk, and then Gertove snapped us to attention and sent us out the door with our platoons. Excitement buzzed beneath my skin as I jumped into the back of the sludge truck with Bede and the others in our group.
Finally, it was my first day on the job as a Burner.
Sludge trucks are twice as fast as horses and thirty times smellier. By the time we had reached the edge of town and Metal Mount had come into view, I was already feeling sick from the fumes. Bede sat beside me, his eyes on the road. If he was nervous about his first day out in the field, it didn’t show. I eyed Metal Mount, marveling at the tin-wrapped trees, their wooden husks shrunken beneath the burn of the tin on their long-withered flesh. This forest had been dead for over fifty years. It was the first place the men of Tin Vale had succeeded in subduing the forests when they’d suddenly come alive to haunt all creatures within reach of their voices.
Now it stood like a naked monument, the tin glinting in the sunlight and the blackened trees hanging their heads like imprisoned ghosts.
The truck bounced along the bumpy path. Jak began to stuff his ears with tightly wound bits of cloth.
“We’ve got hours till we reach the forest,” Maela told Jak. Jak shook his head at her, uncomprehending, no doubt due to the cloth stuffed in his ears. Everybody laughed. Jak glared at them.
“Not funny,” he shouted more loudly than necessary. We all laughed again. Finally, he pulled the cloth from his ears.
“This is serious,” Jak told us. “We are Burners now.”
“Nobody’s making fun of you,” Maela told him. “Just wait to stuff your ears. Gertove will tell us when we need to do it.”
I looked to the front of the truck where Gertove and the other Legionnaires rode in reverent silence. They were the old guys, the ones who’d been out to the forest time and time again, killing the trees to save us. When I looked at them, I remembered the two Burners who’d come to my house all those years back, when I was only eight years old and we’d left for Tin Vale.
“It’s just this is our first time,” Jak pointed out, his face white. “None of us have ever seen the trees.”
“Stacia has,” Bede said.
All eyes turned to me. I’d have to slug Bede for this later.
I shrugged. “Oh come on, so I was rescued from Listar Forest, big deal. It was a long time ago.”
I didn’t like the way people from Tin Vale looked at you when they found out you were from the untamed outskirts. Most of them were Vale-born. I’d been in one of the last groups of salvaged families. Now the land that used to run all the way to the ocean was covered in a whispering forest that drove men mad. On dark nights, the people of Tin Vale murmured stories in hushed voices of those who ran into the forests and were never seen again.
“Do you remember it?” Maela asked.
“A little bit.”
“What did it say?”
The noise of the sludge truck seemed to hush as the circle of young Burners cluttered in the bed of the truck waited for my answer.
“I don’t know,” I lied. I wasn’t about to tell them it liked pumpkin soup and warm days and licks of water from my small watering can. Like I said, it was a long time ago. It was before I knew what the forest meant, what it did to people. And it was before I’d spent weeks in the infirmary upon arriving in Tin Vale, because I had forest sickness and didn’t know it. I hadn’t been released until the fevers passed and a new silence had formed inside my mind.
The late morning sun beat against my shoulders and back as I climbed out of the truck. Bede motioned me over to him, and I followed, readjusting the wads in my ears for good measure. We might tease Jak for his zeal, but in truth, we all feared the same thing. Madness hung on the balance between silence and sound. And out here on the edge of the world, demons grew into trees as tall as the sky.
The wall of forest sprouted from the barren ground like the claws of an ancient giant. I craned my neck to see the canopy of leaves and found myself staring into the sun.
They’d tried fire, at first.
Wood burns. That’s the truth we functioned under in days passed. But wood doesn’t only burn. It smokes. And smoke might seem to disappear, but really, it travels. And when it came to rest upon the ears of residents in nearby villages, the effect was the same as plunging deep into the shadow of the forest.
Bede and I worked side-by-side as we unspooled our coils of tin and wrapped them around the trunks of the trees. Another team of Burners had been at work the day before; the trees to my right were already coiled, their leaves crisping on the edges. Within a few more days, the leaves would fall off, and the trees would slowly die.
The line of dying trees was minuscule compared to the length and depth of the forest. Our worked seemed suddenly endless and unprofitable. How would we ever fight this? It was like trying to hold back a crashing ocean wave with a spoon.
We worked till dusk with no breaks. One didn’t rest while in view of the trees. It was like standing on enemy ground. As the light waned, Gertove inspected our work. Bede and I had wrapped a total of eighteen trees, our ladders only reaching about a third as high as the trees were tall, but as long as the trunk and base of the tree were thoroughly wrapped, the tree would succumb.
Before we climbed into the back of the truck, we all stripped naked and shook out our mail and our clothes. What happened if we brought back a stray leaf in our hair? Voices happened. So we shook off our modesty and our socks, turning them inside out. I did notice Bede put himself between me and the others, as if to shelter me. Perhaps he liked to think he was the only one who’d ever seen me naked.
The sludge truck whirled to life in a fit of exhaust and a gust of malodorous fume. It wasn’t until the wheels had begun to turn that something pressed itself against my awareness, like a sudden knock at the door.
Its voice cut past the cloth in my ears and spoke straight into my mind.
Pumpkin, is that you?
I met Bede behind a noisy tin building filled with young people seeking release from their day’s labors. He smiled when he saw me, and to my surprise, grabbed me in the open street and kissed me on the mouth. Bede wasn’t one for public displays of affection. Such was our natural reticence that none of the other members of our platoon even knew we were more than friends.
I blinked up at him when he let me go. He laughed at the look on my face.
“You’re in a good mood,” I said.
“We survived our first day.”
We went inside, found a few of our friends, and drank vile Magda until we were snorting with laughter. We stayed late until our friends had left, and Bede and I were the only two remaining at the circular table. He ran his finger up and down my arm.
“Doesn’t it bother you?” I asked.
“That we don’t know what it is or why it’s here?”
“Well, yeah. Course. Why do you think I became a Burner?”
“I dunno. Why?”
“To fight it.”
“But what is it?”
Bede leaned back in his chair. The band scraping against their instruments in the far corner was losing its focus, and raucous sounds pounded against my skull.
“Now you’re scaring me. Come on, let’s get out of here.”
Pumpkin, is that you?
The trees greeted me the moment my feet hit the ground near the forest wall the next morning. I eyed Bede’s face as the words repeated themselves in my head.
Pumpkin, is that you? Pumpkin, is that you? Pumpkin, is that you?
Bede caught my glance and frowned. “What’s wrong?” He mouthed the words to me, since our ears were stuffed with cloth.
I shook my head. If I admitted to hearing the forest voices, I’d be sent home. I’d be fired, possibly hospitalized. Bede tried to take the heavy spool of tin from my shoulders.
I brushed him off, and we headed toward the trees and set to work.
We worked silently and quickly, earning a nod from Gertove at the end of the day. When we returned to Tin Vale, I jumped out of the truck and began to walk home, but Bede grabbed me by the belt and whispered in my ear.
“You know you’re my girl, right?”
He said it like a reassurance or a promise. It brought a smile to my lips.
He grinned at me. “I’ll find you later.”
In bed that night at my cramped house, my parents breathing in the opposite room, I stared at the ceiling unable to sleep. I ran my fingertips against the mudded wall. Thoughts swirled inside of me. Frustration beaded underneath my skin like the ache of sickness.
We were six weeks into our job as Burners, and already, we were veterans.
Bede tossed me the shears. I cut the tin wire. We proceeded down the line to the next tree, and the next. One day, Gertove found a circle of saplings breaking out from the forest wall and sent us to subdue them before they matured. If not killed, the trees grew from saplings to giants within weeks.
The forest continued to whisper to me from time to time. Pumpkin, is that you? It asked.
I shut the voices out as much as possible, assuming their presence in my mind was sign of leftover forest sickness from my early years. For distraction, I watched the stretch of Bede’s shoulders and spine when he twined the tin around a high branch.
Routine clasped its nails deep into us, and I clung equally as hard onto it. Work. Spend evenings with Bede. Sleep. Do it again. On days off, I wandered Tin Vale as if searching for something to break the monotony of the white smoke and brown streets.
Bede grabbed my arm. “What are you looking at?” he mouthed at me.
I snapped my gaze to him, his brown eyes tightened in concern. He’d caught me staring into the forest. In the shadowy depths, glints of silver light sashayed against the forest floor. A swaying movement, like the beckoning of a wisp, tantalized my vision. There was something in there. I could feel it.
“Nothing,” I mouthed back.
Bede frowned and slipped the sheers from my back pocket. I gave him a playful nudge of my hip. His eyes widened in alarm, but then a grin formed on one corner of his mouth. I hurried to help him unroll the next spool of tin, careful to keep my eyes on the task at hand.
Weeks later, in the dusk of day, the voices washed over me as I labored beside Bede. Sweat coated my back, my hair slick against the crown of my head. Pumpkin? Pumpkin? I gritted my teeth and pushed harder, faster. Bede sped up to keep pace with me.
It was useless. The might of the forest pressed upon me as I eyed the tin-wrapped tree line. We had no idea how deep the forest went. Our measures to protect our people would never eradicate the voices. There were too many. The labor was too time-intensive.
Anger flushed beneath my skin.
Pumpkin, is that you?
Yes! I shouted inside my mind.
The thick layer of duff at our feet came alive in a sudden whirlwind. Leaves swirled around me. A gust pushed me into the trunk of the tree, scratching my face. Bede shouted something. His arms yanked me from behind.
Stop it, I begged the forest.
Moments later, the two of us clung to each other on the forest floor, our chests heaving. The wind had died, and in the wake, we eyed each other with frightened eyes. Bits of dust and leaves covered us from head to toe. We stripped down right there in the middle of the job and shook our clothes as if their touch would burn. Bede picked the leaves out of my hair.
Back at home, I scrubbed my skin till it shone bright pink. And then I scrubbed again. But nothing could stop the silent tears from dripping down my cheeks.
A haze descended upon Tin Vale. Or maybe the haze was from within me, but the muddy streets and smoky air left an unease in my gut and a sour taste in my throat. I wandered the empty paths at night, circling the edge of the city and staring into the dull horizon. Colorless by day and night, the city seemed like a shadow or a foggy dream.
Unlike the Vale, the forest was color and life. Ever since I’d answered it, the trees sung their thoughts to me day after day as I wrapped their cousins in tin and watched them die.
Don’t talk to me.
Dark last night. Many clouds. A storm will come. Hope its soft. Dislike when the water crashes down, hurts. Dislike when the sky rumbles.
Sometimes, it seemed like the forest voices were those of a child, scared of thunder and seeking small comforts. Other times, the voices pressed deep into abstract thoughts.
Life will transform us from dark to light. Birth to death will be our burden and our salvation.
Please don’t talk to me.
Why? Why? Why?
The voices were both wise and innocent, foolish and profound.
Why can’t the others hear you?
Many hear, few listen.
I need you to leave me alone.
We like Pumpkin. Pumpkin is like ours.
The others who live inside.
There are others in the forest?
Oh, yes. They are lovely. We like them. They listen.
“What’s up with you lately?” Bede stroked my bare back. I turned on my side and faced him where we lay in his bed.
“You seem upset.”
“I don’t like all the dust.”
Bede chuckled. “Who does?”
“I dunno. Somebody. Somebody likes muck and smoke and dust.”
“I like it all right.”
“I knew there was something wrong with you.”
“Okay, I don’t like it. But it’s life. There’s good stuff too.” He nudged his nose against my cheek.
“You are the only good thing is this stinking city,” I told Bede.
“I’m gonna take that as a compliment.” Bede pressed himself against me, and I buried my head in his neck.
As the sludge truck gasped to a halt at the tree line, a dark sorrow gripped my body. Tin-wrapped trees wilted into black husks, their bare limbs drooping toward the ground like hands reaching in the moment of death. Something inside of me mourned. The blackened trees had no voice. Their color was all gone. And yet, behind the dead tree line, the forest breathed with life, scents and sounds that bested the attempts of all who entered therein to demolish it.
My hands became hateful to me.
Their labor even more so.
Who are the others? I asked the forest.
Children. Mothers. Fathers. We love them. They listen.
What do you mean by that? That they listen?
They hear. They gather and honor.
Let me get this straight. There are people, real live people, like me, in the forest?
Oh yes. We love them.
I wanted to rip the words from my mind and stomp on them. Silence! I commanded over and over again. Then they would whisper in soothing tones, beseeching me to hear their words. The worst and most terrifying of all were the times when I found myself wishing that I was the wind, wishing that I could swim inside the voices and lose myself to their lulling cadence forever.
Who are you? What do you want?
We are the journey. We are the sound of life on the verge of death. We are the morning sun grasping the land. We are the exchange between truth and lies.
That doesn’t make any sense.
We are what we are.
Well thanks, that explains everything.
You are welcome.
My eyes bored deep into the forest. Needles of light hung between the tightly clustered trunks. Leaves danced in pools of emerald and olive and jade. Their twinkling forms played against my vision. If I could only move a little closer, step a little farther into the shadow of the forest, those blurred echoes of light would clear.
Perhaps I would see them—the people of the forest.
Maybe I would find another world behind that dark forest canopy, like a copy of this one, but better. I would be there, another version of myself, one that bathed daily in azure lagoons and laughed easily at the simplest things, like a sunrise or an intake of sweet summer air.
Or maybe there was a city behind the forest, a grand one with high stone walls and regal flags. They had an army of giants whose stick and leaf bodies protected them from other men, the ones like us who destroy.
Or maybe there was simply nothing but trees. Maybe the forest had swallowed the ocean until the wall of trees wrapped the entirety of the world, and to step into its depth was to understand the smallness of one human life.
Bede’s voice called past the wadding in my ears.
I turned to see him reaching. He waved his hand at me, urging me to come nearer to him. That’s when I realized I stood in darkness. I had stepped past the tree line and into the forest. Above me, towering branches bowed like the touch of angels wings.
Men fear two things, the voices told me. Silence and sound.
I understood this time. It meant silence as death and sound as life. We fear them both.
Bede’s face had grown frantic. His arm beckoned. He swallowed his fear of the forest and began to approach me, a steely determination in his stride.
Before he could reach me, I turned and ran into the hovering arms of the forest.
Voices buzzed beneath my feet.
Murmurs whispered encouragements and directions.
I threw my tin mail and spooled coils to the ground. Night fell yet my feet continued.
Not much farther, Pumpkin.
My heart burned, from both exertion and the look on Bede’s face when I fled from him.
Confusion clamored in my head, alongside the voices of the forest. Had I led myself to my own demise? Had I heeded voices that intended to betray me? Uncertainty slowed my feet until at last I came to a stop.
Breathless and lost, I huddled at the base of a tree.
I wouldn’t be able to find my way back now.
The forest lied. It promised there would be people. It promised I would understand why I hated the Vale and why I loved the scent of pine and the sight of leaves flitting in the breeze. The storm arrived.
Wet drops trickled past the canopy and splashed onto my head, neck and shoulders.
Get up, Pumpkin. Not much farther.
I don’t believe you.
Shivering set in. I trembled and pitied myself in equal measures. I had succumbed to the voice of the forest. I had let myself be driven mad, and now, in perfect lucidity, I would behold my fall from grace.
I’d left Bede.
Lost in my terror, I didn’t notice at first how the light had come through after the storm, or how the leaves had bent back to allow the sunshine to dry my clothes. And not until I was surrounded by a sea of faces did I notice the arrival of the people around me.
We brought them to you.
There were many of them. Old, leathered faces with white wispy hair. Young mothers with children at their hips. Men with spears in their hands and knives at their belts. All of them wore plain brown clothing, their shoes wrapped in animal hide.
My eyes fell upon the sharp blue orbs of an old woman. “Are you real?”
“As real as you,” she replied. A few chuckles went around the group.
“I’m not sure that’s clear proof anymore.”
“Not to worry, my dear, after you’ve filled your stomach with our meal and milk, you can decide how real it feels.”
“The forest sent you to me?” I asked.
“In here, none are lost.”
It wasn’t much further. The trees disguised the sprawling depth of the community, but as I walked with Milla—the old woman who’d spoken to me—I counted dozens and dozens of small wood homes cramped in between the giant trees.
“You use wood?”
Milla nodded. “Trees die like the rest of us. When they do, the forest offers them to us for shelter.”
Milla’s home was a small two-room shelter that she’d adorned with beautifully woven hangings. She told me of her life as a young woman in a small town near the ocean. Her husband and three little ones had witnessed the rise of the forest. While many of her town ran in fear, she and her family had entered the forest and built a home within it. Her husband had passed away some years ago, but her children were grown and lived here in the forest with families of their own.
That night, I curled up on a pile of blankets on the floor of her home to sleep.
At the cusp of day, she took me to the pools to wash. Children and mothers splashed in the water, their naked bodies pale and shimmering in the filtered light. Laughter simmered on the froth.
“I think I’ve died,” I told Milla. Her crinkling eyes brimmed with laughter.
I bathed in the warm pool, dunking my head in. With water streaming down my face, no one could notice my tears.
I spent the day at Milla’s side, and in the evening she took me to a vast meadow. She said it had formed shortly after their arrival. The trees seemed to understand their need for a wide open space where sunshine could leak onto the land unhindered. Parts of the grassland were cultivated with grain and vegetables. But on the hinter side, a large area was left bare for the children to run and play. A group of logs lay around a fire pit. People clapped while a large man sung in deep bass, his voice romping through the evening light.
Welcome, Pumpkin. Welcome.
“The forest gives you what you need. What does it get from you?” I asked Milla. She huddled beside me on a log so wide, I could have lain my body longwise against its width.
“What do voices ever want?”
“To be heard?”
Milla nodded. She left me to my thoughts for much of the evening, but when the circle had quieted and the children had been ushered to their beds, Milla and I lingered by the dying fire.
“Who have you left behind to be here?” she asked.
I couldn’t get Bede’s name out, but Milla must have seen the grief on my face. I thought of my parents. Stirred within the same mix was a red hot shame.
“I was a Burner. I killed trees. I killed a lot of trees.”
She swallowed this news with a sharp intake of breath.
“It scares men,” she told me. “The trees evolved in a flash, becoming something else. Suddenly, the things we knew were different. Trees speak now. But what of it? We speak. Animals speak to each other. Maybe one day, we’ll hear the animals too. But fear makes men deaf.”
“We must make them listen.”
“People choose for themselves, like you chose.”
“But they think the forest will drive them mad. If they knew we’d been in the forest and had come out unharmed, it could change everything.”
“Are you sure that’s what would happen if you stepped out of the forest again?”
Milla was right, of course. I stared into the white coals of the waning fire. If I were to return, they would hospitalize me. They would take my words as rantings of the insane. The loss of the forest voices would leave me feverish and alone.
Milla patted my shoulder and left me to work out my regrets in silence. Except here in the forest, there is no silence.
Pumpkin, we saw him today. The one you cling to. He is well. He works.
He kills trees.
We know, but we do not hate him. We understand.
You shouldn’t. You shouldn’t accept the hate of others. You should fight back with all you have.
Peace, Pumpkin. Let your heart be at peace.
I tried to heed the forest’s wisdom, and if there was one thing I could do well, it was work till my body ached and my mind didn’t have the strength to question. I washed linens in buckets of water, made soap from fragrant leaves and powdered bark, and stripped dead logs for board.
Eight weeks into my work, the solution came to me.
I asked the forest if it would give me what I needed, and it did.
With a heavy pack over my shoulder and a spade for a walking stick, I left Milla with a nod and a carved hunk of soap in the shape of a leafy oak. Fear makes men deaf, Milla had said.
Then I would give them ears to hear.
The voices led me. When I strayed from the path, they directed me until I was on track again. When I came upon the tree line near dusk, the barren cracked land looked back at me like a dried carcass.
Without a truck, it took hours to walk to the Vale.
Behind the city, a dip in the land obscured a swath of open ground that would suit my purpose ideally. From my pack, I withdrew the saplings the forest had given me.
I planted all night.
The only thing to fear is silence.
For three weeks, I traveled between the new saplings and the forest, bringing water.
Late in the evening, on the fourth day of the third week, the voices erupted from the young trees.
Pumpkin? Is that you?
Why yes it is.
You did it.
Not yet. You need to speak to them.
That’s a lovely idea.
Bede took it well.
In other words, he punched some holes in the wall, wept like a baby, and ranted about how I’d delivered the entire city to the whimsy of a vengeful entity that had stolen me from him and sent me back to murder them all in their sleep.
We hid in his house while the city flooded itself in chaos.
“You’re not asleep. I can’t murder you in your sleep if you’re not asleep.”
“It’s poisoned your mind.”
“Ask the forest. You can hear it, can’t you?”
“I’m not asking it anything but to shut the hell up.”
“I missed you, Bede.”
That’s when the wall got peppered with the mighty fists of an angry, abandoned boyfriend.
“I’m not leaving here until you ask the forest something you’ve always wanted to know.”
“You’re not leaving here at all. Ever. I’ll chain up your ass.”
“That would be interesting.”
That’s when Bede wrapped his arms around me and wept.
“It’ll drive us all mad.”
“It’s a lot to hear, but it won’t hurt you.”
“They’ll Burn it.”
“Perhaps. But some of them will learn the truth, when they calm down enough to see it.”
“You don’t seem crazy, not truly crazy.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“What do you mean by ask it something I’ve always wanted to know. Does it know everything?”
I snorted at that. Bede sat beside me on his bed. I leaned my shoulder against his. “No, but its answers are always surprising.”
Bede fell silent. Outside, the clamor had fallen to a few distant shouts and calls. In the interim, Bede wrapped his arm around my back.
He never told me what the forest said to him that night, but there we sat side by side through the hours of darkness as the city fell still and our thoughts fell inward and the future hung like a dew drop on the edge of a cliff.
The Burners were called out the next day.
The trees were tin-wrapped and suffocated.
Bede never went to work. He packed his bag and followed me to the forest. We spoke little on the journey, but in his eyes, I knew that look. We would return. We would plant again. One day, the people would hear, and one day, trees would grow in the middle of the Vale.
The tin refineries would cease their smoking. The dust would give way to pine and oak.
And in the evening, there would be shade.
© Tyra Tanner 2016