I was really beginning to hate trees.
The treewitch had touched me and stopped my second heart, my stronger heart, my wiser heart. I hadn’t known I could survive without it beating. I kept having to press my hand to my chest to remind myself that it was still there, that thing which sustained me.
Now Kezia had taken the hand of the little boy who bore the marks of the witch’s curse, those dreadful growths protruding from his neck and leg. He was weeping, hardly able to move. I was frozen with fear. Would he spread fell seeds upon the wind?
“Kezia,” I said, weakly. But she was kneeling down before the boy, with no sign of having any sense of self-preservation whatsoever. She reached out to stroke his cheek, wiping her tears with her thumb; when had she learned such an intimate gesture?
“Where is your mother?” she asked, and when the boy, with his one eye milky, stared at her silently, added, “Or your father?”
“You’re only making it worse,” I couldn’t help but hiss, and she finally looked back at me.
I shook my head wordlessly. Surely she had to know what the boy’s fate was going to be…!
“How did the witch get the tree out of you?” asked Kezia, and I felt my hearts cringe for the little boy, listening silently.
“It won’t work on him,” I said, and managed to reach out and grip her arm. “Kezia… please, we don’t know what rides on the wind here…”
I saw her take this in, and hesitate, looking skyward, and then she put her hand over mine on her arm.
“I am safe,” she said, “from things like this, because I am like Sorina-”
“You don’t know that! Not for sure!”
“-so I will stay with him, but you should stay back,” she finished, and stroked the boy’s hair. “He is hurting, Gabi.”
I licked my lips, caught her eye in a hard stare. If the child hadn’t been watching and listening, I would have said any number of things about how useless it all was going to be- very soon, by the look of him- but even I had a bit of a conscience left. And so I merely growled, “Don’t be foolish.”
“My mother,” whispered the boy, in a voice that creaked. My fingers curled; he was looking up at me with his mismatched eyes. The protruding branch had made a wretched red weal of his shoulder; it had the dark stink of something that had been there for many days. Now that I looked closer, part of it was a stump, as though somebody had tried to saw it off, but the white shoots had grown forth from the broken place regardless.
“What about your mother?” asked Kezia.
The boy winked- I think it was a blink, really, but his cloudy eye could only half-close- and tried to turn his torso. Where his shirt rose off his belly, I saw his flesh bunch and twist unnaturally around something solid. He raised his right arm- the arm opposite the tree branch- and managed to point.
“That way,” he said, and there was a fearful quaver in his voice. “I’m the only one that could move. Please help. Please…”
“Oh…” said Kezia, and I gritted my teeth.
“I am going to see if I can help them,” she said, riding over me. There was a strange calmness in her voice, and it shook me a little.
“It’s useless- you can’t do anything, and you know that, or you should, Kezia.” My flesh prickled and itched, like a myriad of tiny ants were crawling over my arms, and I shivered and rubbed them. The boy was looking at me again, absorbing, but curse it, what use was it to hide the truth from him now? I didn’t even know how he could still walk!
Kezia rose from her crouch, and put one hand on my shoulder and turned me so the two of us faced slightly away from the little boy. I tensed, reading her expression as anger, but then she said something I did not expect to hear:
“I want to see it.”
Her hand was cold; I could feel it even through the fabric of my blouse, and the uneasy thought of her standing there, barely clothed, in the night air, came to the forefront of my mind.
“I cannot say why,” she murmured, her words low; she didn’t want the little boy to hear, but I think she underestimated either ordinary human hearing or the volume of her own voice. “I cannot say why, because I do not really know, but I remember… it was happening the night that she died.”
Here she touched the side of her head, and for a moment I was bewildered, until I remembered the ghost: that spiteful spirit which had once inhabited her. I’d utterly forgotten it- hadn’t it gone away, sometime around the time when Kezia shrank down to miniature?
“Kezia,” I murmured back, “she died; what is it you’re hoping to see?”
Kezia merely shook her head, and turned back to the silent little boy, and took his hand in hers, and said, “Will you show me the place where your mother and father are?”
The boy’s eyelids fluttered, his lashes catching the slight moonlight, and then began to walk, herky-jerky, leading Kezia slowly forward. I hissed under my breath and caught up her vine, which was dragging behind, and took her prickly bush in my own arms. Somehow the weight and girth of it seemed… less.
I was frightened, and not so much now of becoming infected with a white seed. The dark forest seemed to stare back at me as I trailed behind the two of them.
It was not long before I realized that we had come closer to the edge of the forest than I had realized: I heard the river lapping at its sandy banks, and then, as we came over a low hill, I saw it.
Here I hesitated, inadvertently pulling Kezia to a stop. Something felt very off about the sight of the river. Something about the shape of it, the curve of it. The trees ran right up to the bank, and some arched over it, their bare branches jagged and reaching, as though seeking to cross it.
“Gabi,” said Kezia. She was looking down at the ground, and I followed her gaze. In the dim light it was hard to see, but I shifted my foot, and something long and slimy came with it: dead grass, strewn over the knobby roots that seemed to squirm through the dirt. It looked as though it had been abruptly uprooted, and then left there to rot. My toes encountered the colorless remains of a cluster of wildflowers.
“This isn’t…” I trailed off, unsure of my own thoughts; looked around. What part of the forest were we in? I had followed the whole length of this river through it, I ought to know; except in my memory the river in the Starving Forest had been spread and swampy, making the earth thick and wet. But this part of the river neatly cut its banks; there were little stone outcroppings here and there. Across it, on the other side, was high grass, and a little ways past that…
My stomach dropped. Houses. Buildings. The tall white spire of the church.
“Gabi,” said Kezia; I felt her slowly reaching the same fearful conclusion. “The meadow… beside the river… where you rested…”
“This is it,” I said. “Well, this was it.”
The trees were crowded along the riverbank, their roots bulging outwards, their naked branches straining and reaching. The dead grass all around; like evidence of a murder. The little meadow, where Kezia had played with moths and I had slept in the shade of a solitary oak tree. It had gone- and it had gone quickly.
The little boy made a soft sound, tugging on Kezia’s arm, and pointed across the river, towards the houses.
“What happened?” I demanded, grabbing his unmarked shoulder. “Did you see it? How did the forest get here?”
He merely held still; after a moment I realized that he probably couldn’t move his neck enough to look back up at me, and let him go. There was an odd clicking sound coming with each breath he took.
“Did you cross the river?” Kezia asked him, and his eyes flickered, and he managed to incline his head the tiniest amount, the clicking breaths coming swifter and more ragged.
“That was brave of you,” she said. “Are your mother and father on the other side?”
Click, click, stutter. His cloudy eye was leaking something that I didn’t think was tears. His hand started to slip from Kezia’s and she frowned and took it more firmly.
“We can’t go across,” I hissed. “She told us not to leave the forest- we’ve left Pascha behind-”
“Please, let’s try to get as close as we can,” said Kezia, turning a beseeching look towards me, and I bit my lip.
“Fine, fine- but don’t leave the trees…”
I hated saying that. I wanted nothing more to leave these trees, which creaked slowly in the dead air. God, how I hated this forest; even more now that I had seen the ugly, lumpy mess the roots had made of the meadow’s soil, how they leaned greedily towards the silent, dark little village on the river’s other side. Thank goodness the river had been there to stop them! Who knew how far they would have gone… Trees that moved! Unimaginable…
We walked a little longer along the riverbank, towards a place that would have us parallel to the village. I ached at the sight of the open meadow on the other side, tantalizing freedom, it was. How desperate I felt to leave the thick, clinging gloom of the forest! But Kezia’s tether in my hands was my own as well.
The little boy was still holding Kezia’s hand, but now it was she who was leading him, finding a safe path for him on the wet, gnarled ground, as he stumped ever more slowly. Finally he stumbled on a slick root and fell to the ground, losing her hand; she gave a little shout and knelt beside him.
I stayed where I was, my arms full of prickling branches. My nose was full of their sickly-sweet scent… and another scent. The boy had reopened the old wounds caused by his parasite in his fall. Blood lay wet and shiny over the protruding tree roots.
“Gabi,” Kezia was gasping, “Gabi, he is not moving, I can not pick him u-”
She looked up at me, her eyes full of tears, and then stopped. A strange change came over her face as she looked at mine. The grief and shock in her eyes changed to something like… disgust.
When I realized it, I recoiled, nearly dropping her bush. It must have shown, in my expression, in my eyes- it must have shown that I smelled the blood. I had only smelled it! I had not done anything- but she looked at me like-
Fitful, sputtering fear and anger in my gut; I put the bush down, and said, “I’ll carry him.”
She rose to her feet, standing before the boy, and I glared daggers at her: would she try to stop me? To protect him from the blood-drinker that I was? Did she think I would consume him over the mere sight of blood?
It was a wretched, aching moment of silence that passed, and then Kezia said, “Gabi, I- I think that he is already dead.”
The sick anger dropped from me in a whoosh; I looked down at the still, curled figure of the boy, where he had fallen. His rattling breaths had ceased, and the wet blood no longer seeped from his wounds. Protruding from his shoulder, the white branch did not so much as tremble.
“So,” I said, “so he is.”
She turned and looked at the river, at those distant cold houses.
“But he was so close…”
I was silent. Close to what? Crossing the river would not have changed his fate, seeing his dead or dying parents could have done little good. It was all an illusion… a mad dream of freedom. We couldn’t have left the forest.
“At least he was trying,” I said; hollow words of comfort. “He died thinking that he’d got his parents help. I suppose it might give his soul a little peace…”
Kezia shook her head, first once, then again; she clutched at her temples. Automatically I moved towards her, then hesitated. The sight of her disgusted expression still loomed large in my mind’s eye.
Suddenly the earth beneath my feet rumbled and shook, and I nearly lost my balance, grabbing onto the slimy trunk of a nearby tree. Kezia fell over, beside the boy’s still body, nearly impaling herself on his leafless branches.
I pushed myself off the disgusting tree and stumbled over to her as the tremor passed. She turned her face up to me, blinking; she’d opened a cut on one cheek. I drew back at the rich iron scent, the sickly-sweet scent.
She saw my face, and reached up towards her cheek. I could already see tears forming in her eyes, at the unheard-of pain she must have felt just then. Her fingers touched the fluid that leaked from her split skin: thick as honey, it was, dripping just as sluggishly. As she held her sticky fingers up to the moonlight, I saw the translucent pink tinge it had.
It was… not blood, but neither was it the colorless fluid that ran through the veins of the other fadua.
“Gabi,” said Kezia, holding her wet hand up towards me. Her voice was odd; she was crying, tears and hoarseness and all, but hadn’t appeared to notice it yet. “Could you drink this?”
I recoiled, stepping back, stumbling on the wet roots.
“I wouldn’t ever!”
“Why?” Her questioned seem genuine, and she looked at me with red, wet eyes. “Is it disgusting to you?”
“It’s- it isn’t, I don’t know, but it’s yours, Kezia! I’d never feed from yours!”
She looked at me a moment, from on the ground, coughed, then sniffed, and said, “But I would rather you feed from me than have to hurt anyone else.”
Her lying there, beside the dead child- I couldn’t stop a bitter smile from rising to my lips.
“So that’s how you think.”
“What do you mean?” She was rubbing her eyes, looking with bewilderment at the tears that mixed with the sticky blood on her cheek and hand, cringing and whimpering every time she brushed against her cut. It was already closing, I noticed; but then again it was not a large cut, and there was nothing supernatural about that.
She struggled and fell into real weeping on the ground, cupping her cheek, looking between the child and I, great sobs wracked her body, and I could see the surprise in her eyes over every one. I observed, but did not move to help her: for the moment I felt cool and detached from it all. It had come upon me so suddenly: the great rift between us. She understood so little about what I was. She didn’t want me to hurt anyone else: if that was true, then I should cease to exist.
In that frozen moment I felt such a creeping cold, and a tiredness, while Kezia cried without knowing why. Then, from above us: a rustling sound.
It had not come from another tremor of the earth. I looked up, and Kezia did too. Something child-sized leapt from one branch to another in the canopy over our heads.
Kezia opened her mouth to say something, but I shook my head and put a finger to my lips. The shape had vanished from sight within the branches, but I heard rustling from a different direction, and another: movement above us and all around us.
The dead little boy on the ground gasped and sat up.
To say that Kezia and I were both stunned was an understatement- neither of us moved, me standing a few feet away, her raised on her side directly beside him. The boy rubbed his eyes and yawned widely. When he took his hands away, I saw that the left was no longer milky- it was perfectly clear and healthy. He blinked in the dimness for a few moments, then took hold of the branch in his shoulder. Kezia made a little sound- a little squeak- as he pushed it right out of his flesh.
There was no rending, tearing; no blood. No wounds. The branch slipped out of him as though his skin were made of milk. He stood up, and then aside: tugging out of him came the trunk of the white tree, the rest of the branches, rooted to the spot where his corpse had lain.
I realized the truth of it then, and felt a great pity for Kezia, who looked upon him with a strange hope still in her eyes. She moved her hand, as if she sought to grasp his, but he seemed to sense the impending touch and flinched away, shaking his head and blinking as if there were flies in his vision.
The boy looked down and pushed the earth with his toes, testing it, a little frown of confusion coming over his face. Above us again there came a rusting, the movements of dark shapes: then two red eyes gleamed like rubies in the black canopy.
“He’s dead!” came a cry, in a voice that sounded like a child’s, and other voices added to it: “He’s dead! He died!”
The boy’s head jerked up and he stumbled backwards against his tree. His feet left no impressions behind in the dark mud. I saw the realization dawning on Kezia as her face sank. The boy raised one arm to shield his eyes as things began leaping down from the branches: Blajini, many of them. They ignored Kezia and I and swept in a ring towards the boy, chittering in their ratlike way, all wrinkled hands and whipping bald tails and yellow, sharp incisors.
“He’s a dead ‘un, all right,” said one Blajini, with the head of a white rat. “Look at his face!”
The one beside him, a short female wearing a skirt, thrust her whiskers forward.
“He won’t need one anymore, right? He’s dead like us.”
“I’m not dead,” said the boy, in a sudden snivel. He kept his arm up to shield his face from them, curling against the damp tree trunk as though it would protect him from their words.
“Yeah, you are! You’re dead!” crowed the female Blajini. She had no tail, only a scarred stump, and it wagged like a dog’s. “Ha! What’d you do, huh? Why’d you get killed? Did you scoff off at your mum and pa?”
“He’s got that tree in him,” said the white Blajini. “You know. He must’ve been really, really bad.”
“I didn’t do nothing!” said the boy, his eyes still hidden. “I didn’t do anything bad! Mama told me to run!”
“You didn’t run fast enough, then, did you?” The female Blajini capered in place with a kind of glee. “You didn’t do right by your mama! Boy, you’re rotten! You’re a rat!”
“A dead rat!” chimed in another, squeaking at his own cleverness.
“Go away!” cried the boy. “Please! I want my-”
“Mama?” said the white Blajini, his voice taking on a mocking lilt. “Ooh! He wants his Mama! Mama! Mama!”
That had been Kezia, clambering to her feet beside the boy, scattering startled Blajini. All eyes now turned upon her, as though they had only just realized she’d been lying there the whole time; they all went quite silent.
“Leave him alone,” said Kezia, more quietly. “He has not done anything wrong.”
The assembled Blajini exchanged looks with one another, and I heard soft squeaks being traded. The female spoke.
“He has, he has, all right! He’s dead.”
“That does not mean that he is bad,” said Kezia, frowning.
“Yes it does! Yes it does!” The Blajini chittered up in a chorus. “Good boys and girls don’t get punished!”
“He didn’t listen to his ma!”
“He threw stones at the dog!”
“He cut the hair off his sister’s doll!”
“He dropped the butter and lied about it!”
“He ran away past the fence!”
“He ate a worm, a real live worm!”
“He didn’t eat no turnips!”
Their shrill voices clamored, listing off endless childish misdeeds; Kezia seemed stunned by the sheer volume of it all. I was less affected.
“Be quiet!” I snarled, putting a little something of a wolf in my throat. “You’ll split my head with all that squealing! You little night-rats- I’ll drink the death out of you!”
This prompted some more legitimate squeals, and the trees shook as several Blajini made a hasty escape. The white one and the stump-tailed female stayed where they were, though they pressed into one another fearfully.
“You must’ve been bad too!” squeaked the female, pointing a quivering, wrinkled finger at me. “You’re dead like us!”
“Yes, I was bad,” I said, advancing upon them, so they shrank away from me. “I was the most terrible creature- and when I died, I got even worse. So go away before I really get angry!”
That broke the two of them, and they scampered away in different directions, the male on all fours, the female clutching her stump-tail as she glanced back at me over her shoulder.
“That’s got rid of them,” I said, with a small, mean sense of satisfaction. I turned to meet Kezia’s eye, to grimace at her like the dreadful monster I was, but she was looking at the boy: he’d begin to slowly lower his arm.
“It’s too late,” I noted, as I saw the round ears, the brown fur, the long, twitching nose. The dark button eyes. The newborn Blajini stared at us- or perhaps through us- for a moment, before turning and climbing up the tree he’d been pressed against. His long tail slithered away along the wood and followed him out of sight.
“Too late,” Kezia repeated, softly, when he had gone. She skirted the white tree, which protruded silently and peaceably from the ground, and came to stand at my side.
“If we had not let the Blajini speak to him, would things have been different?” she asked. “It seemed… it seemed as though they were the ones that changed him.”
I glanced at her, took in her wistful expression.
“I expect he would have become one either way. He got back up, which corpses aren’t supposed to do: it’s a sign of a monster.”
“But he was only a little boy,” said Kezia, and I replied, “Well, now he’s a little rat.”
She frowned at me; perhaps I’d been a little too on the nose. “Can he not go to see his parents now?”
I shook my head. “Blajini can’t leave the forest without help, and in any case I suspect he’s mostly forgotten about them. Death will change a person.” If the Blajini were anything like me, they wouldn’t remember anything at all of their life for a good long while- I hoped so, anyhow.
“Why did they think that dying meant that they were bad?” Kezia wondered.
I snorted. “Why? That white one said it- because the good don’t get punished. You pray to God, you work hard and do the right penance: that’s when you live a long, peaceful life and get sent off to Heaven. We wicked sinners remain bound to the earth.”
She raised her eyebrows, which made me smile a little in spite of myself- it was so funny to see on her face.
“It sounds like you believe the same thing… But I do not think it is true.”
“If it isn’t true,” I said, “than good people suffer for no reason, and bad ones might never get what they deserve.”
“Well, I did not think about that,” Kezia admitted. “But- I do not think that a little boy could have been so terrible that he deserved that!”
She pointed to the white tree, gleaming innocently in a shaft of moonlight. I shifted from foot to foot, suddenly uncomfortably aware of the damp soil squelching between my toes.
“Perhaps not, but…”
“Also,” Kezia said, and laid a cool hand on my arm. “I do not think that you were very wicked when you were still alive.”
Now I had to scowl at her. “What makes you say that- you didn’t know me then!”
“No,” she said, “but I know you now. You told the Blajini that you are even more wicked now then you were then; I do not think you are very wicked at all now, so you must have been very nearly good then.”
I pulled back and nearly slipped on a root, heat rising to my cheeks.
Kezia watched me, her eyes very stern, but I caught a glimpse of the corner of her mouth twitching. I felt the heat spread down to my neck.
“Well- you’re wrong, you know! Or simply lying. Yes- surely you haven’t forgotten what it is I have to do to keep existing. The terrible thing.”
What had started to turn into a smile on Kezia’s face faded.
“Yes, it is terrible. But I do not think that it is wicked when you do it, Gabi.”
She tried to touch me again, her pale arm covered in gooseflesh from the cold, and I moved away from it.
“You said you didn’t want me to hurt anyone!”
“I was not lying.” Kezia withdrew her hand, curling her fingers, and blinked her damp, reddened eyes. “I do not like that you must hurt people. But I would like it less if you died. Did you not know this?”
I swallowed and squirmed, suddenly feeling pinned by her gaze: just a little while ago I had felt completely frozen, indifferent, and she had only taken a few words to melt me back down.
“I suppose I guessed so,” I finally ground out, and looked away so that I wouldn’t see her being pleased about it.
“I am sorry,” she said, while I wasn’t looking.
This surprised me; I turned back to her. “Why on earth are you sorry?”
“I think that I said something cruel to you before,” she said, and suddenly her hand slipped back into mine- caught in a trap, I was. “It hurt you. I am sorry.”
I managed to say, “You don’t have anything to be sorry for.”
“You cannot stop me from being sorry anyway.”
Her hand squeezed mine; it was so cold that I squeezed it back, trying to share some of my warmth. My poor golem; she was shivering, even while she set her face into a stubborn frown.
Then she looked past me, and her eyes widened.
I followed her gaze towards the river. Pale yellow lights, like hovering fireflies, adorned its surface. Only they weren’t lights. No- they were the shining shapes of humans, straggling in twos and threes over the surface of the water towards the forest. Some clutched hands, as Kezia and I did. Others carried their silent, shining children. The line of them, moving over the water without a sound, stretched all the way across the opposite bank and back into the dark houses of the village.
Their glowing faces all seemed confused, and frightened: old men and women gaped like children at the dark water they stood on, at the trees reaching out towards them from the other side. Some of them seemed to want very much to go back, and they would turn around every few steps and face towards the village, only to stagger forwards again. Their feet didn’t leave so much as a ripple on the water’s surface.
Kezia leaned close to whisper in a hushed voice, “Are they…?”
“They’re dead,” I said, softly, but not in a whisper: ghosts couldn’t hurt us.
“Yes. It must be finished, then.”
Kezia’s eyes were growing moist again, and she wiped them with the back of her wrist. I squeezed her hand a second time, and we watched the slow procession draw nearer and nearer to the forest’s bank.
As the first woman reached the trees, the earth below our feet rumbled.