5.2 – [life. love. loss]
Seasons flew by. The world was only her and Cutting. Growing and learning. Together. They laughed a lot. Well, Cutting didn’t laugh audibly, of course. But when it suddenly smelled like an explosion of spring out of season, she knew that he had found something amusing. Whether it be a smoke cloud erupting from a big puffball mushroom, a bear cub trying to grab its first fish in the stream or a hedgehog impaled on a stick, probably the work of one of the crueller humans nearby. If he found something especially funny, like that time a passing skylark shat on her head, his entire body would tremble as well, a vibration that would reverberate in her own three tails.
Over time, she had started to referring to Cutting as ’he’ in her mind. She wasn’t sure why, maybe because she saw qualities in him that she had used to dream that her father would have, if he had still been alive and around when she was growing up. Sometimes, when Cutting would alert her with a sharp and focused smell to a tremor in the ground announcing the arrival of a hunting party from the settlement, she thought of him as that protective father. Other times, when he was lost in the sheer joy and wonder of exploring the world around him, she thought of him as her son. And then there were times when, well, when…
Like that time when they sat on top of a barren hill with their backs against a boulder. The wide forest below stretched as far as the eye could see. It was the early days of spring and the stars were giving way to the first flickers of morning. Dawn’s light stretched its arms lazily up towards them, and as it touched them, Brittle saw how Cutting seemed to light up from the inside. As if he was aglow with something Brittle could only describe, or feel, as love. In its most essential, undiluted form. It reminded her of the vision of the blood moon, of the interconnectedness of things, and it made her skin tingle. A myriad of tiny, white flowers sprung into existence all along her wood tails. Their scent was light and intoxicating and made her heart, the heart which had slowed its pulse to a crawl after her transformation inside the tree, beat so fast she started to fear the strain would make it burst. Cutting’s petal-eyed face turned towards her then, and in the centre of his torso-like area another bloom appeared. A rainbow-coloured flower of dazzling intensity. Its three golden anthers grew into long, wavy tendrils that reached out to caress her face. They touched her forehead, ears, cheeks, and as they reached her lips she started to sing. Her only way of expressing that which could not be expressed. The song, she could faintly see it as pulses of energy in the air, as a musical river. And when that stream hit the anthers, the sound refracted, just like light shining through ice, splitting into a three-part harmony of bliss. A swarm of furry bumblebees, vast enough to block out the rising sun, descended upon them like devoted pilgrims from a far-off land, submerging themselves in the field of amplified love between the odd pair, before spreading it on to all the corners of the forest.
Like that time. The memory still quickened her heart, though it had never happened again.
They avoided people. Most of her old kin stayed far away from their home base, the tree, as if they feared the place. Sometimes they noticed other small groups of humans, passing through the forest. They did not seem to belong to the holds of Breaker or Breem. Some had painted their faces in a curious fashion. Others had pierced their skin with tiny bones. Almost to a fault, they seemed lost, as if searching for something they could not name. In many cases there were wounded among them, limping legs, hanging arms, burned faces. Once, Brittle spied a confrontation between a small family of rust-haired folk with tan skin and a group of spear-wielding men led by feather-cloaked Brute. The family was promptly chased off.
One day, in the height of summer, Cutting touched her arm. They were relaxing in the shadow of their tree, but all of a sudden, Cutting seemed agitated. He touched the ground with his other stem-fingered hand. A shiver went through him into her body, constricting her wood tails and making her wince with pain. She got to her feet. „What is going on?“ she asked.
[smell of rot, but not from natural causes, like how a plant would decompose if inverted, its flowers buried underground, its roots exposed to the air]
„I don’t understand. What does that mean?“ Cutting jumped up as well, and without a moment’s hesitation, he rushed off into the woods. „Cutting!!“ She ran after him as fast as she could, her tails pushing underbrush and low-hanging branches aside. The chase went on forever. Finally, her breath gave out and she collapsed on the ground. She had never been good at sprinting. „Cu….hhh…tting!! Please!“ Her plant friend quickly retraced his steps and helped her to her feet. He offered her his back and she latched on to him with her tails. She was like an oversized child in a nettle net. Cutting kept on running.
His speed was intense. But navigating through this thick, pathless part of the forest was hard. Fallen trees in different states of decay. Thorny shrubs, massive anthills, patches of marshy ground. Cutting stopped, giving off an exasperated smell reminding Brittle of dead leaf mulch. One of his kin, a mighty grey tower, was just nearby. Cutting looked up at its crown.
„Why not?“ said Brittle. Cutting threw himself at the trunk and crawled up into the branches like a fast-moving spider, not stopping before they were at the very top. Forest as far as the eye could see.
Just like that time.
With one startling exception. A plume of dark smoke on the horizon. Close to the looming presence of Hollow Mountain. „That’s…that’s the direction of Breaker’s Hold“ whispered Brittle. As herbswoman and medicine dancer, Briar had dragged her around to both Breem’s and Breaker’s Hold quite a few times during her upbringing. They had always stayed at the outskirts, though, in the settlements’ respective dream tents. So she had never truly seen the place up close, only their people, either writhing under mother’s healing charms or gathered for the annual spring feast at Middler’s Glen. But she did know that most of the children of Bray lived in the hold bearing the name of the Morning Queen’s middle daughter. Or at least they used to, back before Brittle spent the better part of two generations subsumed inside a tree.
„That must be a massive fire“ she gulped, „How? Whatever could have started it?“. Cutting didn’t respond. He jumped to the top of the closest tree, a prickly pine. And kept on going with a speed far superseding their ground run. The coat of summer leaves covering his arms and chest like ivy stretched towards the glaring sun to absorb as much energy as possible. Brittle thought she could see them growing broader in front of her very eyes. Fear and worry intermingled with the rush of what could only be described as flying. A wobbly sort of flying, to be sure, like the mad careening of a wounded wood grouse, but flying, nonetheless.
When they found the source of the fire, the sun had started to set. It was hard to make out, however, because the fiery ball seemed to dip down into the roiling sea of flames and smoke. The skyline on both sides of the fire was bleeding red. Cutting landed on the ground close to the big lake she remembered. The water was between them and the raging heat. Brittle unlatched herself and looked across the inland sea. Yes. The hold. The hold was burning. Luckily the fire hadn’t spread towards the forest. The settlement was in the open, the waters of the lake were between the flames and the trees, and the warm wind blew in the direction of the vast plains stretching out towards Hollow Mountain and its siblings. The fire, she had never seen anything like it. It was like a hundred firewalks and then a hundred more. She couldn’t understand how the tents of the hold could fuel such a conflagration, but then she remembered. The ring. Breaker’s Hold was surrounded by a ring of trees, standing by themselves apart from the forest proper. That’s why they chose to settle here in the first place. Briar had told her. Gentle giants that must be as old as the roots of the mountains themselves. Grey giants. Brittle looked at Cutting. His kin. He had felt the pain of his kin. The underlying source from which he himself had sprung. Whose ashes now filled the sky. Cutting gave off a chaotic scent which made Brittle’s tails tremble like arrows just after they hit their mark.
[withering, wilting, drought, not-rain, twisted, twisted, twisted]
And then, not a scent at all. Just an incredibly hollow feeling in her chest that she knew was a mirror to what Cutting was feeling, a feeling that she would best describe as:
All of Cutting’s summer leaves turned autumn red and gold in that very instant and fell slowly to the ground, one after the other. The closest to crying she had ever seen him do. She cried too. Brittle couldn’t imagine how painful this must be. Those trees were ancient and probably a big part of the whole that Cutting had split from, but was still connected to. How would that be? Like losing part of your history, your memory, your sense of self? The wind shifted, spreading the ashes towards their right, onto the lake, onto the right-hand shore, onto the side of the dream tent, which still stood unharmed close to the water’s edge. Golden spirit creepers covered the tent from top to bottom, moreso than what Brittle could remember. Cutting followed the trail of ashes too and when he noticed the tent, his flower eyes emitted a scent Brittle knew well. A sweet smell that she often connected to him being joyful and happy, but when, as now, it was more precise, sharp and defined, it usually meant:
[life. singular life]
Someone was still alive in the dream tent. And at that moment, it struck Brittle that she hadn’t thought about the loss of human life in this catastrophe at all. She had become more tree than Daughter. „Whoever they are, they will be safe. No need to…“ But Cutting was already on his way, paddling across the waters in a direct line, using his buoyant body as a makeshift boat. She hurried after him. Again.
When she got closer, a sharp, pungent smell made her queasy. For once, the olfactory intrusion wasn’t Cutting’s fault. She smelt blood. Human blood. A smeared dark path across the grass from the lakeshore to the tent entrance. With Cutting dripping wet beside her, she gingerly pushed the creepers aside and opened the flap.
The interior was exactly as she remembered it from her and mother’s visits all that time ago. The hanging strings of vertebrae. The wicker dolls. The hundred painted spirals on the tent skins. A woman, old, lay exactly where the sick and afflicted would have lain when Briar came to dance around them. She was on her stomach, a pool of thick blood underneath her. Her long, snow white hair was braided together with the brown hair of a girl, a bit younger than Brittle’s age when she had escaped from mother.
The old woman was clearly dead. The young girl clearly not. She sat on the ground holding her knees while rocking back and forth. Seeing her anguish made Brittle feel like a Daughter again, for the first time in ages. Softly she said „From my Deepheart to your Deepheart, I grieve“. The girl looked up, first with panic in her eyes. But recognizing the familiar phrase calmed her somewhat. „Who…are you?“ she whimpered. „Brittle, daughter of Briar“ Brittle replied. „Of the line of Brief“ she added, when the girl seemed to respond with confusion. That, however, didn’t help. „Has there been a new Briar? There’s only been one, as far as we know.“ The girl looked down to the side, as if trying to concentrate, to make sense of things. „You can’t be Briar’s daughter. Briar the Bone Rattler? Who died alone and old and whose last words were heard by no one? With the seven stillbirths and the one survivor who..“ She really seemed to be going through a chain of recollection. „..who fell into the deep end of the ravine by…Bray’s Wound…and whose body was never found?“ „Is that the end she dreamed up for me?“ snorted Brittle. „If it is you“ said the girl, looking back up at her, „how are you still this young?“. Brittle took one step inside the tent, sliding her wood tails in in their full, elongated glory. The girl gasped, but to her credit, she did not flinch. „A tree saved me from my mother’s fangs and turned me into…“ „…a wood maiden. So they do exist“ said the girl, wonder in her voice. „Well“, said Brittle, „I exist. But who are you and how do you know the story of my mother?“ Getting to her feet, the girl gestured to the old woman and said „This is Brilliance, first Keeper of the Daughters’ Memory. I am her Braid. Or…well…now that she is no more, that means I am the new Keeper. And I must assume my birth name anew.“ „And what is that?“
The girl looked at Brittle’s hovering tails. „Branch. I am Branch, first of my name“.