I can’t seem to help it.
There was a bit of stilted reddish light filtering in from somewhere above, so I could perceive the ground, formed almost entirely of a dense mat of pale, hairlike roots. I wished I couldn’t. The light had a dense, dreamy quality to it, and it was full of small particles that flickered, and kept making it look like the little roots were writhing when I saw them out of the corner of my eye.
Best I could understand it, I was in some sort of hollow cavern, with curving, rotten-smelling walls, and a sloping floor of white roots that led to a tree in the center. Ah, the tree. It, too, lurked in the edges of my vision when I turned my head, and I felt a great mistrust towards it, even though it had done nothing at all except sit there and be a tree. It was a little thing, nearly as short as I was, and rather twisted and withered, with stubby branches that were mostly broken. The wood was warped and grayish and lined with so many burls and whorls it made me dizzy to look at it. It had no leaves. In fact, by all accounts the tree appeared to be stone dead.
As I had said, I didn’t trust it. I was also beginning to get the most nasty feeling that Kezia was nowhere nearby.
The light flickered, or rather rippled; the weird not-quite-transparent quality that it had, coupled with the floating particles, gave me the oddest sensation that I was underwater, if water were dark red. I thought I felt a slight pulse beneath my toes and resisted the urge to curl them into the tickly root mass. It was strange, because I wasn’t quite frightened. Unnerved, most certainly; highly suspicious, undoubtedly. But nothing about this queer little cavern made my hackles rise. If anything, it made my shoulders loosen slightly, and the beating of my hearts seemed to slow to match the steady pulsing of the light.
From somewhere above me I heard a slow breath of wind, like an exhale, or a sigh; I began to have the distinct feeling that I was not alone.
“Well?” I said, turning slowly. I still wasn’t very frightened. I could see the bramble-filled gap I had entered the chamber through- I could get back into it in an instant and escape. And there was something else- harder to describe- the place didn’t feel like magic. It felt like something, something old and tired and dense and heavy; but not like the harsh, grating power of a witch, nor the ever-whirring intensity of a forest spectre.
My curls lifted from my forehead as a slow eddy of air circled through the broad cavern. It felt as though some giant had sighed; the air was wet and warm. I squinted; was there something stirring on the dark, mouldering walls? But then a soft creak from behind me made me turn back around.
The dead tree was moving.
I confess that this did not alarm me as it might have a good few months ago; as it was, I watched it warily and took a few measured steps backwards. The movement of the wood was quite slow, and there seemed to be some resistance- in fact, with the creaking, I heard splintering noises, and saw a few thin cracks open up along the tree’s whorls. For the direction of the tree’s movement seemed not towards me, or in any attempt to escape the spot it was rooted to. Rather, it seemed to be trying to untwist itself.
The wood shuddered and cracked as the tension increased, and I had to wince as it split wider in places, seemingly shaking from the effort, great seams opening up along the twisted sides. With a stuttering jerk, and a loud crack, it pushed itself straighter, and opened the gaps wider, and I bit my lip as the pale core lay exposed- stop, please, I almost said, for it looked painful.
Then the tree suddenly froze, split open with gaping cracks all along the sides, like a braid which has had too much pressure put on it at both ends. It froze so completely that I could almost believe that it had grown that way, and was perfectly stable; it also froze so completely that I saw what I thought was a white core was really… someone. A white hand slowly draped out from one of the cracks.
At once I turned back towards the gap in the brambles, my shoulders stiff, the image of the pine marten forming in my head.
A little voice from behind me said, “Please don’t go.”
I didn’t move. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled with gooseflesh.
“I don’t get very many visitors,” said the voice. It was plantative, and familiar. “It’s hard for most things to survive here. But you’re all right.”
I became keenly aware of how thick and heavy the air felt in my lungs.
“You smell familiar,” said the voice. “But I don’t think I’ve ever seen you before.”
As I remained silent, the voice said, “Won’t you speak to me- and tell me your name?”
The air in the cavern seemed to have gotten even denser, weighing down on me, and the walls seemed to lean inwards. The little gap in the hedge seemed ever more enticing to me, but I stayed still, in the manner of a mouse who has spotted a hawk. A thick gust of warm air teased at my curls.
“Are you frightened of me?”
The voice had changed slightly, just enough for me to feel a tingle at the base of my breastbone, and I got a sense of something threatening to turn. The frail little voice could only be a diversion, a jest, for the monstrous thing I knew lived in this chamber, but if I didn’t play along…
Slowly I turned around, and the walls seemed to shrink farther back again, and the pressure that had begun pounding in my head eased. The tree, untwisted, stood before me, and through the gaps within the cracked wood I saw several parts of what seemed to be a human being: a hand, an ear, a milk-white thigh, with pale violet veins spread over it like spiderwebbing… a single red eye. It blinked at me, as the creature trapped within the tree-prison shifted slightly. The thin fingers curled around and gripped the wood that barred it in.
“The light hurts you too, doesn’t it,” whispered the thing within the tree. “Stay here. You’ll be safe here.”
I licked my dry lips, and dug out my voice from where it had gotten buried.
“You’re Mother Forest, aren’t you?”
The eye blinked, and the wood trembled- crick crick– and I got a gnawing sense of constriction as red patches bloomed on the pale thigh.
“I’m not anybody’s mother,” whispered the pale thing. “Why do they call me that?”
My toes were sinking slightly into the dense mass of roots. I had to step forward.
“They also call you Treewitch,” I said. “Which, I suppose, is more appropriate.”
Blink, blink- and then the thing giggled, and the tree shook, the tips of the branches vibrating.
“Maybe,” it said. “Am I a witch?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t think I really know what a witch is.”
Or what you are, I wanted to add, but held it back.
“I don’t think I am. I don’t think I like witches,” said the Treewitch. “They don’t want my forest to spread any further. Why? They live there, as well. If I could only cover this earth…”
She sighed, and the wood around her did too, and there was a great, lonely creaking sound that whined through the rotten walls that enclosed us.
I tried not to glance back at my escape route. Best to keep her talking, for now.
“A witch told me,” I said, “that you want to remake the Hercynian forest. What is that?”
“Ahh,” said the Treewitch, and the sound shuddered and resonated through my breastbone. The wood of the twisted tree splintered and cracked. “That forest! Do you remember it, my love? No… you are so young. It was so strong… so protected! An ocean of trees, for miles and miles… Beasts of power and beauty that lived nowhere else… Indomitable. Unstoppable.”
Her voice dropped slightly lower.
“Under the great oaks at the northern edge, they sacrificed two white bulls each year., and fed the blood to the thirsty roots. To the east, they cut May-trees to plant before their houses. To the west, they punished those who would peel bark by nailing the skin of their navel to the naked trees and running them ‘round until their entrails circled the trunk. To the south, they bade their pregnant women to place their shifts beneath my branches, to receive my blessing for their easy birth…”
The young girlishness of her earlier tone had now entirely vanished, and I found myself caught in the deep gravel of her voice, and when I blinked visions of leaves and faces appeared on the backs of my eyelids.
“The sacred trees,” whispered the Treewitch, “where none could die, lest they disturb the spirits sleeping in the branches- a sanctuary. But it was broken. The thought of any protection is a lie, that there is no truth to the feeling of safeness and goodness. You must know this, Gabi.”
The roots were curling around my toes, as my fists clenched, and I said, “How do you know that?”
“I have been listening,” said the Treewitch. “My thoughts wind through the roots and branches, and my dreams whisper through the broken boughs and exposed green shoots. Many times I have heard your own voice within my forest. I heard when you spoke with the growling black beast, Gabi. I sent my cat-shaped servant to fetch you.”
“A seed, once rooted, is hard to destroy,” said the Treewitch, and for a sickening moment that roving red eye caught my gaze and held it. “He stepped into my forest again, and it sprouted anew. He should not have left me… He nearly faded away. As will you.”
I couldn’t help it- my whole being jerked in the direction of the bracken tunnel, and the Treewitch laughed. With a rustle, the thorny branches drew tighter together, locking me in.
My fingernails dug tight into my palms.
“You would trap me here? Why?”
“Because I don’t want you to leave,” said the Treewitch, and here her voice took on that higher lilt again, and I saw the twisted wood tighten to dig more painfully into the pale body within. The paper-thin skin blushed dark red.
“I can’t leave either,” she said, light and soft, childlike in her tone. “But I don’t want to leave.” The wood tightened, and a drop of blood rolled down the white wrist. “I can’t leave. Won’t you… take my hand?”
The fingers loosened their grasp on the strangling wood, the palm tilting upwards, beckoning to me. I stumbled back, tearing my toes from the tightening roots.
“You must be dead like me,” I hissed, throwing a wary glance back towards the dense bracken. Perhaps… there was still the tiniest of gaps left…
“What do you mean?” asked the Treewitch, her hand hanging forlornly in the air.
“You’re nothing but a spectre,” I said. “A ghost that won’t go away! You died- as I did-”
“Yes,” said the Treewitch, “yes… I did… I died…”
“So why should you trap me? I wasn’t the one who killed you- you were killed, weren’t you?”
“Yes… Oh, yes, I was killed… I remember…”
I edged a little farther back, the thought of that tiny gap filling my mind’s eye. “Who did it, then? Tell me, and I’ll find them- I’ll bring them back to you, and you may trap them in my place.”
She was silent for a long moment, and my twin hearts stuttered, for the wide red eye had gone thin, and the hand tilted and drooped.
I swallowed. Well, it had been a dicey thing to try, but I was getting a bit desperate.
“Besides,” continued the Treewitch, and again her fingers curled around the wood, and her voice dropped lower as it splintered, “I have already caught them, and I bring them in, one by one- the ones who killed me. A hundred thousand times, they killed me. Once I thought that nothing could harm me, that I was too strong, too beloved- but there is no such thing as strength or love, Gabi; you know this. Did you not feel it too? The snap and crack of a heart breaking- a striking, striking, striking, tearing, snapping, falling– sawing, grinding, churning, slow death– a thousand gaping white cores and stumps and sickly light pouring in where there was none, accursed grass growing and feeding on the dead. Houses made of skeletons- bones built and burnt and cut in half- pieces of myself cut and torn away and fragmented- all in an instant, all of what was once strong and beautiful and impenetrable for a hundred thousand years wrenched apart.
“And so I died- and I am still dying, as you are, Gabi. Can you feel it happening?”
With a jolt, I realized that the roots were growing up around my feet again, and they had reached my ankles. With a cry I tried to jerk free and fell clumsily forwards onto the soft, root-filled ground. A horrid slithering sound filled my ears as the tiny roots began to crawl over my bare forearms, my back, my neck. I struggled, ripping the delicate tendrils and pushing myself up onto my palms.
“Let me go!”
“I’m sorry,” said the Treewitch, in her child’s voice. “I’m sorry… I can’t seem to help it… I’m sorry…”
She reached towards me with her trembling hand, but the wood snapped tight around her forearm, pinning it there. I saw the splinters pricking scabbed skin and was reminded of the grotesque way the chicken legs of Baba Yaga’s hut joined the wood.
With a snarl, I changed my shape into the smooth-scaled snake and wormed my way free of the roots, which stayed taut in the shape of my human self. More tendrils rubbed against my scales, but found no purchase there, and I slithered swiftly to the only high ground I could see- the base of the twisted tree.
My snake’s senses had already warned me, but from the first touch against the damp wood I felt sick; it was feverishly warm to the touch, as though it were inches from a fire. There was a nasty spongy quality to it as well, of something not-quite-solid, of something more like flesh.
The heat and the scent of it overwhelmed the snake, and so I became myself again, scrambling back on the raised, woody roots to keep off the ground. A cold hand grabbed my shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” the Treewitch’s voice said in my ear. “I can’t help it. I’m sorry.”
I gasped- little white rootlets were sprouting from her fingers, her thigh, the corners of her red eye, winding round and round in the air as they grew in search of me. Her other arm came and wrapped around my neck, pinning me tight against the tree.
I coughed and struggled, but to no avail, and felt the sickening sensation of roots crawling up my sides. Not again! O, god, not this again!
“Who were you!” I managed to gasp, fighting for some purchase with my feet to brace myself with so that I didn’t hang by my throat. “The human trapped inside the tree- who were you! You’re the spectre- not the trees!”
“You’re wrong,” said the child’s voice, clear and calm in my ear. “They’re the ones who died. They’re the ones in control.”
I choked, squirming, until my toes finally dug into soft, rotten wood, and I managed to take some of the weight from my neck.
“Trees- don’t- usually- behave like this-”
“I was cut up,” said the voice. “With an axe. That’s how I died.”
“You’re not- a dratted- tree!”
“No,” said the voice, “but that’s how I died.”
I hung there silent for a moment, breathing through that thin gap.
“I promised not to tell anybody what he’d done,” hissed the voice. “But my promise wasn’t enough. I did want to tell. I did want somebody to come protect me. I did want to run away. He must have known that. He knew you wanted to, didn’t he Gabi?”
“Don’t,” I managed to snarl, clawing at the merciless arm.
“Trapped,” said the Treewitch. “Helpless. You know there is nothing that can save you. You’re falling to pieces. So you must cover it all up. Blacken it out.”
“I don’t want to,” I choked out. “Let me go!”
“I can’t,” she said. “I love you. I’m sorry.”
The wood creaked, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a pale blur of a face emerge from the tree. I couldn’t turn my head enough to see it clearly, though I twitched and jerked in vain. The blurry neck seemed too long as it arched over me, long straight red hair shading my eyes like a curtain. The Treewitch’s dry, cold lips pressed against my cheek, and roots wriggled and crawled out from the place of contact.
This I howled, as air suddenly rushed into my lungs; the arm had loosened. I kicked my heels backwards into the rotten tree and felt them fill with sharp splinters, but no matter; I had room to squeeze my head out of that wretched grasp and fly forwards as a little red bat.
In midair I was swept and tumbled by another gust of moist wind, but I righted myself and spiraled upwards, searching for some ceiling to roost on, but the cavern went up and up. I was aware, suddenly, of the heat and weight of the air with every breath I drew into my tiny lungs- something in the air, something was clouding my head. Bad air here! She had said that no ordinary creature could survive here- no wonder my wits were slow and befuddled!
My wings ached, and I flapped towards the moldering, dark red wall to land- and flipped back around with a screech. There was a face on the wall. A girl’s face! It had been staring straight at me!
As I flapped on the hot air, and sent frantic squeaks out to get my bearings, I became aware of something horrible. It was not merely a face. It was a body, embedded in the wall. And it was not one. O god, there was not just one, inside the rotten, wet, moldy red walls; they were everywhere, all silent and staring, and they looked like Crina.
The one before me blinked, and said, in the Treewitch’s voice, “I thought you were like me.”
I squeaked and flew up, up and up with my shoulder muscles burning. The red light had to be falling in from somewhere! Another face blinked as I passed by.
“You can’t escape. Even if you think you’ve gotten away, you can’t escape!”
I shrilled defiance at it and drove myself upwards. The sun! No matter how far I had gone underground, if I went up far enough I ought to find the sun, that accursed thing that had always been my enemy- now it would be my friend!
Something crossed my way above as I flapped in tight rising spirals- a stick, or branch- no, an arm, a white hand falling towards me to knock me from the air. I swerved to avoid it, my heart hammering, and then the next once that swept towards me. The ghostly bodies leaned forwards out of the rot and waved weakly at me, a forest of frail arms covered with a fuzz of roots. Thicker and thicker they grew, for the walls were narrowing above me, and son all I saw was a wall of shifting white- but I flitted through them, using every ounce of agility within my bat’s body- O, thank everything that I had thought to take on this shape instead of the bird- and up and up and up, the tips of my wings sometimes just catching the cold flesh, up and up and up and-
I saw the bright, blinding circle of light and before I was really aware of what it meant I had flung myself through it and out into the open air.
Fresh, cool air filled my lungs, and with a shocked gasp I tilted and began to fall back downwards. The hot sun beat down merrily and mercilessly onto my furry back. I blinked and squinted as my eyes adjusted, and then my exhausted little body slammed against something hard.
It was a branch. I knew from the whorled ridges of bark that were now pressed up against my face. I scrambled to get on all fours, hooking in my claws, and looked around with a dizzy, throbbing head.
There were thick, leafless branches all around me, covered in grey bark. Somehow, I had landed in the crown of a massive tree. My head reeled. Hadn’t I just been underground?
I caught my breath- at least none of the branches seemed to be moving in any suspicious way, and the air was clear- and crawled to the edge of the one I had made my inglorious landing on. My tiny bat eyes couldn’t even see the ground below; I was dizzyingly high. The branch itself was nearly as thick as my human torso, barely tapering- I was far from the tip.
With another long breath, I changed from bat to bird, so that I could hop and flutter instead of crawl, though this did not erase the agony from my exhausted limbs. My beak opened and closed with my pants, but I managed to fly to a higher branch, and look down, and make sense of just how I had come to be here.
There was a tiny little hole at the base of the branch I’d been standing on previously, just a tiny little knot that would ordinarily make the home of some small animal. I stared at the blackness of it and realized: I had not been underground. I had never been underground. No- I had been inside the hollow trunk of this absolutely gigantic tree.
With my stronger bird’s eyes, I hopped to the edge of the branch and looked down: a sea of red and black spread out before me. Red: from the red leaves of the white, bloodthirsty trees. Black: the bare branches of those sleeping for winter. And in the center: the massive creature I perched upon. I was at the very heart of the Starving Forest.
Even as this all came to me, the wind sighed gently, and the Treewitch’s voice vibrated up through the bark beneath my claws.
“I thought you were like me…”
I burst from the branch in a flurry of flapping, and angled my wings to drop downwards towards the trees below, and to skim over their red-leaved tops. The gigantic tree fell away behind me, moaning in the wind; and I felt something very strange. Was I like her? No- it seemed I had lied more than once to the Treewitch. It had come to me just now, inexplicably, through all the terror I had just experienced. And it made me want to laugh.
Dead like me. But I wasn’t dead, was I? No: my hearts both beat and thrummed, and I moved and breathed and hated and loved. I had lied to myself. I hadn’t died, ever. I had only changed.
It was a peculiar realization to come to at that very moment, with my eyes growing misty with exhaustion and my bird’s wings beating slower and slower under the harsh light of the sun. The branches grew closer and closer beneath me; I was certainly in trouble.
But I wasn’t dead like her.