by Jennifer Tiemann
When the man came into her sphere of perception, she had almost not realized he was there, concentrating as she was on the new nest of cardinal chicks that rested high on her south side. So occupied was she on shifting her branches just so to protect the nestlings, it wasn’t until the male cardinal reacted with alarm that she turned her awareness down from her branches to her roots.
At first, she thought he was a sapling – he was so very small. Then she remembered that no, that was the size men generally came in. What was startling to her, though, is that she perceived that he was colored much as she was; his body was a rich green and there was a tuft of bright red at his top end, almost exactly the color that she herself became when the cold winds began at the end of the Summer.
She understood that this was a male man, and not a female man, because deep inside still lived the memory of the part of her that had once been human. She and all her siblings were female; there were no males in her family- except for her father, whom she saw but seldom.
The man put his hand out and touched her body lightly. She shivered – this had never happened before. She had perceived men near her in the past, mostly their small ones, (children, she suddenly remembered they were called) but none had actually touched her. She wondered if he saw what some other men had seen when he looked at her. Much had been sung and written of her kind, particularly her mother.
All of her sisters were slightly different, but they had this in common; tall, straight trunks with heavy crowns of leaves; the crowns representing their sovereignty in the sight of the gods. Their gently curving trunks and twin upraised branches hinted at the womanly spirit hidden within. She doubted that this man saw anything but a birch tree. Most didn’t.
The man stood for a moment with his hand on her waist, looking up into the shaded green of her. Then, he dropped his hand, turned, and sat down on one of her roots. He had something with him. As he began to put the thing near his face and take it away at regular intervals, she realized it was some kind of food. (She understood food, the squirrels talked of nothing else, and were quite tiresome about it. Especially in winter.)
Eventually, the man got up and went away, but not without touching her waist gently once more.
After the first day, the man came every day, when the sun was at its highest. He always brought something with him, mostly food. Occasionally he brought another thing which was not food; he would place this near his face also, but it was never consumed the way the food was.
She was greatly puzzled about what this thing might be, so one evening she sang down through the Deepest Root and inquired of her mother if she knew what this small, oblong thing was.
Her mother’s spirit touched hers and she felt a rush of love and humor cascade over her, along with the scent of bay leaf. They exchanged pleasantries; her mother asked after the cardinals’ nest and if the chicks had flown yet. When they had done with that, she brought up the man and his object.
A great puzzlement flowed to her from her mother; she did not know what the thing might be. However, she was worried about the man being so close to her daughter so often.
“Men should be feared, my daughter. No good comes of them. They destroy. I remember.”
“Oh, Mother. How can you know for sure that ALL men destroy? You have been out of the world for many, many years, protected as you are by my father. Surely men can’t all be the same as they were when you were in the world?”
“Daughter, you forget that also you have sisters. Some of your sisters have spoken of great catastrophes brought down by men. Some of your Elder sisters have perished as well. You know this.”
“That was many, many seasons ago. I am Eldest in the wood; for all of my years I have never seen such a thing. I have seen lightning and fire and death, but these are natural things, not precipitated by men. Are you sure you don’t know what the man’s object is?”
Her mother assured her that she did not know, but she thought that surely her father did. She should ask him instead.
With a gentle caress, she left her mother and sang back along the Deepest Root until she was returned to her body. She settled back in with a sigh; she did not have the strength to call upon her father tonight.
A few days later, when the sun was just touching the mountaintop, she stretched her branches skyward to the sun and sang to her father. As she sang, she swayed slightly in a graceful arc, back and forth. The song, the dance, these were her father’s devices, his escutcheon. Soon, the sound and vibration that she had begun began to sustain themselves, and then coalesce into a shape before her.
In form, this time, her father appeared as a muscular man, clothed in white. Upon his head of golden hair he wore a crown that echoed the one she wore.
“Greetings daughter! I command you to come forth.”
Inwardly, she smiled. Her father much preferred his daughters to manifest their womanly form in his presence. They couldn’t do it without his aid, and frankly, she felt it a bit of a waste of time, as he could communicate with her regardless of what form she dwelt in.
He did have his little peculiarities, she thought.
She stepped forward, away from herself and felt the sun on her shoulders, and warming her moss-colored hair. She took a few steps forward and embraced him.
“Why have you called me, Daughter?”
She gazed into his eyes, and as she did, the whole of her story flew between them. The man. The object he carried that she did not know, and wished to learn of.
When her father began to laugh, she stared at him in astonishment until he got control of his mirth and told her what the thing was.
“A—book? It has words on it? Words that stay? Like a scroll?”
“Just so, my Daughter. The form has changed, but it is still much as the ones I gave to his ancestors. A carrier of knowledge, from one spirit to another.”
She considered this for a moment, and found herself very pleased that the man would share something so significant in common with her father. It spoke well of him.
She spent the remainder of the day with her father, showing him all of the places that were within her domain. She introduced him to the squirrels, who greatly amused him, and to the red-tailed hawk as well. The time passed quickly, and soon, the sun was setting and they must part.
She embraced him warmly, and stepped back into herself as the fading sunlight took him with it.
Now that she knew what the man was doing, sitting there with the book at the end of his nose, she found herself wondering what he was reading about. So, she expanded her perception to touch him gently and see if she could find out.
At first, it was difficult – he was much harder to perceive than say, a rabbit. His thoughts were chaotic and complex. But as the days passed, she began to gather random thoughts of his to her. At first, she could barely make sense of them – but at last she began to know.
He was reading a book of children’s stories, it seemed to her. There were fabulous beasts that she knew quite well did not exist, as well as magic of a form she had never experienced nor heard of before. Most fascinating to her, though, was the fact that every one of these stories seemed to take place in a vast wood – he was reading about her! It warmed her inside to know it.
One day -quite surprising herself- she began to do things for him. It started with the mosquitoes. She realized that the small insects were annoying to him – he would swat and slap at them, and curse when one drank from his arm or neck. She decided to let it be known to the mosquitoes that they were not welcome in her sphere of influence. They left the man in peace. On another day, when a light drizzle began to fall, rather than have the man leave for shelter as he had done before, she subtly moved her branches to block the raindrops from him. On a particularly hot day, she moved herself gently to and fro to create a small cooling breeze.
And every day, when he got up to leave, he would touch her for a moment, at the place where her waist would have been.
It was her favorite part of his visit.
The summer waned and the cool winds began to blow. The squirrels grew even more frenzied in their hunting and burying, so much so that they made her a bit dizzy. But it was a joyful dizziness, for the squirrels had managed to put by more than enough already. There would be no small deaths this spring to mourn, she thought. The kits had a very good chance.
Her glorious crown began to turn red-gold, much as the hair of the man was. With the rich green moss that covered her body, they were now dressed alike. This thought pleased her. Every day that he came to her pleased her now. She joined her mind with his and listened to his thoughts gather and flit about. She smiled inwardly when he was amused by what he was reading, and shook with indignation when he was displeased by it. Inevitably, she began to wonder: “I can hear him. How can I make him hear me? For he does not yet know me, and I want him to.”
For days, she puzzled over the problem. Unlike her father, the man did not have the power to draw her forth. Unlike her mother, the man did not sing along the Deepest Root. As time passed with no solution to her dilemma, it began to grieve and worry her.
She was still preoccupied when she noticed that the first of her leaves was beginning to fall. She sighed. With the cold weather coming, she would not see the man. Soon she would have to sleep and dream, with only the dreams of her sisters to keep her company.
She was so lost in her melancholia that she did not hear the man approaching. When he touched her waist, she was startled. More startling yet were the dark and turbulent thoughts coming to her from him.
She shrank away from them; they were full of resentment and sorrow. Regret, which such as she barely understood. Yet she could not escape them. They crawled over her and numbed her mind, and she started to weep, tears of amber sliding down the place where her face would have been, and collecting in the hollows of her body.
A screaming noise filled the air, and as she felt the pain, she, too, began to scream.
She had never known that she could scream. But as she died, the forest shook with the sound.
Alex was sitting in the break room, drinking coffee when Norm came stomping in and tossed his chainsaw onto the work bench, along with his lunchbox and a paperback. His green State Park uniform was covered in sawdust and sweat, and his reddish hair and beard were greyed with dirt.
“What’s the matter with you?”
Norm poured a cuppa and sat down across from him. His face was like a thundercloud. “Damn thing threw its chain. I couldn’t finish today – I gotta have Barry fix it and then go back up the mountain tomorrow to finish bucking up the trunk.”
Alex sighed – he knew that wasn’t what was really bugging Norm. “Dude, you had no choice.”
“I know, but I hate cutting down a perfectly healthy damn tree. John’s an idiot – there’s no way that tree was close enough to Cabin Six to fall on it. This winter or EVER.” He took a sip of his coffee.
Alex sighed again. The incompetence of their Park Supervisor was well known amongst both the permanent employees and the seasonal. Hell, he’d even heard that John was a joke as far away as Ringwood. Thank God the guy was due to retire this year. Still, that didn’t help at the moment.
Norm said, “I really wonder if that jerk knew that I liked to take my lunch breaks under that birch, and made me cut it down just to get me.”
“Nah, man, it must have been just coincidence. John’s not that smart.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right, but still.” Norm sat quietly with his coffee and thought about how beautiful the tree had been with its fall colors, and how he had laid his hand on it to apologize for what he had to do. He didn’t believe in anything particular – God, or whatever you call it – but he did believe in the soul of the forest he worked in. He had started the ritual out of respect for that soul. Or maybe he did it for himself, to assuage the guilt he felt. Today it hadn’t helped, though. Today he felt like a murderer.
Maybe it was time to put in for a transfer.
About the Author
Jennifer Tiemann was born in New Jersey on the 544th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt to an editor and a maritime historian. Swiping dad’s copy of H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy instantly hooked her on Science Fiction. Andrew Lang’s Color Fairy Books were also favorites under the covers with a flashlight. An active member of the Society for Creative Anachronism for 28 years, she resides in the northwestern ‘wilds’ of New Jersey in a cabin in the woods with her husband, son, four rabbits and two ditzy Pomeranians. Technical Documentation for an e-commerce software company pays the bills.
About the Narrator
Veronica Giguere is a voice artist and author who has appeared in a variety of audio projects and podcasts covering genres such as science fiction, erotica, fantasy, horror, romance, and steampunk. She is a coauthor of the Secret World Chronicles podcast novel series, as well as the narrator and voice for a plethora of heroes and villains therein. She has voiced spoiled supervillains, tempting demons, fierce pirates, suspicious journalists, Greek goddesses, white foxlings, virus-laden robots, and a young woman facing an odd spider infestation.
Veronica recently published Broken, an inner-city cyberpunk adventure with coauthor Cedric Johnson. It’s available on Smashwords and Amazon. If you want to hear more of Veronica’s work, check out her project list or search for her name at Audible.