Published: “The North Shoreian Magazine,” The Writer’s Issue, Volume 1, Issue 9, September 2008.
The forest watched Jared run. He could feel their eyes on him, even if he didn’t believe it. He had grown to love these woods, and today he felt a part of them. He moved among them. Under branch, over fallen tree, around bush, and across stream, he ran, more akin to the forest than a passenger under its shadowy gaze.
He never ventured so deep before this. His heart raced. The taste of forbidden sweetened his lips. He wouldn’t be able to return before dark. He laughed at the sense of freedom.
The sky was closing. Branch intertwined with twig and trunk, becoming a barrier between him and the sky. Jared squinted as his eyes adjusted, but didn’t slow his prideful steps. Nothing would stop him. He would see the heart of the forest, of which the townspeople spoke in haunted whispers and dark corners. A forbidden place, and he would be there. His determined heart beat to the rhythm of his goal.
“I’m coming,” he called to the trees, speaking with them as naturally as ever he did his own family. After all, he spent equally as much, and often more pleasurable, time amidst the woods.
He stumbled, but regained his balance. Where did that root come from?
Some said the forest was alive, old, and angry in its age. Jared shook off the thought. “Just more of their scary tales,” he told himself. “Fairy tales to keep children from going so far.” Shadows shifted from behind two large trees he passed between. My imagination. The feeling of being watched persisted, prickling at the nape of his neck. He glanced over his shoulder so frequently he ran face-first into a branch.
Jared shoved it aside and sprinted deeper into the forest. That branch…wasn’t there. He swiped leaves from his hair, and his hand came back red. He remembered the path, there had been nothing in his way before he glanced over his shoulder. His resolve wavered. A root caught his foot and he tripped, stopping his fall with his hands. He shoved himself upward to regain his balance, but vines ensnared his right hand.
Jared crashed to the ground, ripped his hand free, and tumbled into a bush. Propelled by momentum, he passed through the thick foliage and rolled into a dry clearing. Towering trees raised their trunks to unimaginable heights to form a canopy of interwoven branches and leaves. Pallid light squeezed through, as if exhausted from its travel to the clearing. Around him, a wall of old trunks, thick roots, and tangled vines caged him. He couldn’t even tell how or where he’d entered.
In frustration, he tried to force his way between two trees, but the opening proved too narrow and seemed to close all the more tightly with his efforts.
“Now I’ve done it. I’m all but trapped.” His usual resourcefulness fled, he couldn’t think of a way out. His mother would already be terrified he was gone so late. How would she feel when she only found his bones? “I have to get out of here.”
Searching the perimeter of the clearing, he examined the brush and even tried to make an opening, but only came away with a handful of crushed leaves and no progress toward making or finding an exit. He set the leaves on the ground.
“Sorry. I need to get out,” he murmured from habit.
“I admit the sapling confuses me.”
Jared jumped at the sound of a deep, creaking voice, which carried from somewhere above. “Hello?”
“Yes, he does confuse, sunfuse, concuse.” A rustling, breezy voice responded.
“I wonder. What do you think he is?”
“Me, I have ideas! Lots of them. Maybe he is a branch. A stick!”
“Yes, yes, that’s enough, Pine. It is just another fleshling. He’s just like the rest. We should finish him.”
“Hasty, you always are. Vine, calm yourself. We must think on this first.”
Jared fell to the ground, staring up into the talking branches. Certainly it seemed they were talking. They have to be, he told himself. They even sounded like trees, though he couldn’t explain what precisely that meant.
“Who are you?” he demanded. “What do you want with me?”
“Too many questions. I can’t take this ramble, rabble, babble. Lost, he must be Lost.”
“You might be right, Spruce, but we must take our time with these things.”
The vines around the clearing moved and rustled into a slithery voice. “We should pinch the life out of the fleshling and be done with it.”
Spruce interjected, “I don’t blow, sow, know if that be good idea. What do you think, Oak, Smoke, Hoke?”
“Watch your tongue, Spruce! Anyways, it is just a sapling. Barely old enough for its first greens. No, Vine, we cannot. We vowed always be watchful, to always hear and wait till they return. We cannot forget what we are.”
“What you are. I did not agree to the pact when they left.”
Oak continued, seeming unruffled by Vine’s disregard. “We have given every other creature fair chance, why not this one? The Trees of Evermore…”
“Forevermore…” Spruce intoned.
“Nevermore…” Pine continued.
“…will always keep watch for the Lost.” Oak, a large towering tree in front of Jared, seemed to bend with age and sadness, as if the steady crawl of the ages had worn deep into its bark.
The vines covering each tree coiled slowly down to the edge of the clearing. It made him think of a snake with no end. He shuddered with a sudden aversion to the thought.
Jared heard the voice come from the vines, yet it seemed not so clearly a voice so much as he understood what the natural rustling and creaking meant. His mind put words to every sound. “Who are you?”
Oak glared down at him as if considering what to say. Jared couldn’t explain how he knew the tree looked at him, but he decided not to question it. Enough was strange already.
“He understands us. It has been a long since one has understood.” Oak’s leaves rustled as if releasing a long held tension.
“A sign! It must be! Right, Oak? It must be, must. Yup must.” Pine creaked, evidently quite giddy.
“Are you, young sapling?” Oak asked.
Jared didn’t understand what they were asking and inched backward, but heard the vines moving close behind. What did they want of him?
“Am I what?” He almost shouted, barely holding back tears. Sweat chilled his neck and he shivered.
“He is confused.”
Vine slithered by inches into the clearing, as if testing water. “Maybe he is Lost, and the Found are never to be.”
Jared’s stomach churned.
Oak creaked. “Do you know who we are? If you can answer this question we will know if you are one of the Lost or Found.”
Jared’s heart quickened with fear. All he could see were vines, root, and trunk. No escape.
“Your silence is an answer. Do you want to keep it?” Oak rumbled.
“You called yourselves the Trees of Evermore, Forevermore, Nevermore.”
“That is what we are called not what we are.”
“Maybe I don’t remember.” Jared wasn’t sure where he was going with this, but if he stalled long enough he might be able to figure something out or find a way to escape.
Pine, thin and tall, bristled. “What you mean? Speak! Want to know.”
“Umm…” Jared had no answers. His time was up. I’m dead.
“Not yet.” Vine coiled closer, covering the dry ground of the clearing.
On instinct, Jared said the first thing which flew into his mind. “Last year, I buried one of my favorite toys, a wooden gargoyle my grandfather carved for me. I did it because my older brother kept saying he would break it. Later when my brother was away I went to dig it up and play with the gargoyle, but I couldn’t remember where I put it. I looked and looked and looked.” Tears welled in his eyes and he wiped them away with the back of his fist, but not before a few drops salted his lips.
“Poor, lad. Look what you’ve done, Vine.” The great oak rustled its leaves. “Did you find the gargoyle, young sapling?”
“No, but he still is my favorite. I can’t remember where it is. Just because I can’t remember doesn’t mean it isn’t there.” Jared dried his face on his sleeve and waited.
The vines circled closer and Jared brought his feet in close to his body and huddled against his knees. He tried to peel his eyes from the slithering mass and failed.
“I think the creature, vreeture, deeture, makes good its point.”
Oak’s exposed roots twitched. “What do you mean, Spruce?”
“Maybe, he doesn’t remember, september, varember, who he was. I think wees should fiddle, spiddle, riddle, him. Then we knows yes or not.”
Vine shivered, exhilarated. “Yes, riddle. I like riddles.”
Pine gave its agreement in a whistle of wind through the tower of its needles.
Silence covered the clearing. Nothing stirred aside from the small movements of Vine as it made sudden shifts around the boy.
“You are best at these things. Riddle him.”
“Hmm, I might be able to oblige you.”
No, please don’t let Vine have me. Jared stood as the vines writhed with even more vigor.
“But he isn’t part of the forest. You said he wasn’t part of the Trees of Evermore, Forevermore, Nevermore.”
Vine grew still.
“You are right,” Oak rumbled. “It is strange that we ask you to do this, Vine.”
Pine needled in. “Wasn’t always such. Nope, nope, not always such. Never Vine before Lost. Nope, nope.”
“Shut up!” The vines tightened around Pine. “Those times are gone. You will listen to me. I riddle. It has been such since they left and it will be till they return.” Vines knotted around the trees, but Jared noticed they also caressed and soothed.
The trees calmed and whistled with the wind.
Oak answered. “We see what you mean, Vine. Please, riddle him.”
“Wait!” Jared cried. “Do you know the answers to his riddles? What if he asks me something that doesn’t have an answer so that he can kill me?”
Vine lurched toward Jared’s face and stopped within inches before retreating. Jared was sure he went too far.
Spruce perked up. “Good point, voint, joint, the creature has.”
“Yes, I would say he does.” Oak bowed lower. “Vine, you will give him the riddle of old, which we know and have put to heart.”
“I will say it in my own words. Agreed, Trees of Evermore, Forevermore, Nevermore?” Vine gave emphasis to the last word.
In unison the three trees responded by the creak of root, the rustle of leaf, and bristle of needle. “Agreed.”
Tendrils closed about Jared and wrapped around his ankles, waist, and arms.
In front of him, roping vines coalesced into the shape of a man, clothed in leaves, flesh of root, and smile of embittered age. It spoke, but its lips did not move. “Your time has come fleshling. Are you ready to be riddled?” With the last word, the vines tightened around Jared, making him gasp for air.
He’s just trying to scare me. He wouldn’t give in. He never gave in to his brother. He came into the forest even though people said it was dangerous. Vine wouldn’t scare him now. “I’m ready.”
“This is their riddle, but I will say it.” Vine paused as if gathering a breath. “We are the Trees of Evermore, Forevermore, Nevermore. Branch, root, and trunk make us one. We are Evermore. Bug, claw, and feather are akin. We are Forevermore. Betrayal, slavery, and yearning marks the Lost. We are Nevermore. Who are we?” The vine man smiled down on him with malice and surety.
Jared had no idea. It could be the names of the trees. But, that would be too easy.
“What is your answer, fleshling?”
The vines constricted and he struggled to breath. His vision blurred from lack of air and panic began to take him, but anger conquered his fear. This was too much like what his brother did to him. He wouldn’t be bullied. “My name isn’t…fleshling. My name is Jared!” Suddenly, the vines fell away and he took in a full gasp of air.
The vine man glared at him and pounced, gnarled hands going for Jared’s throat.
Loud cracks and snaps reverberated through the clearing and Vine reared up in surprise. The vines on the trees broke away to fall in a rain of broken root and twisted leaf. The trees straightened, as if casting away a long held weight. Their leaves straightened with new vibrancy.
“You are done, Vine. Leave the Trees. Your riddles are no longer needed.” Oak’s deep voice boomed through bark and flesh.
Jared smiled, but hid it when Vine looked back at him.
“I will remember this, fleshling.” Vine unraveled and slithered from the clearing, revealing exits among the trees.
“You have done well. One of the Lost is Found. Welcome home.” Old, muscular roots parted soil and lifted Jared to the sky, passing him from one thick branch to another till he perched above the trees elevated on a nest of soft leaves. The forest came alive with song and celebration.
Wind, rustle, and creak comprised the tune and it brought tears of joy to Jared’s eyes, washing away all fear. He could see the green floor roll away into the hazy distance, forever alive, forever there.
Still the riddle plagued him, and he frowned. “Oak?”
“Why did Vine leave?”
“Because you answered the riddle correctly, releasing us from his chains. When you left so long ago we had no one to protect us and Vine promised just that, but his gifts were twisted as you could see.”
“But how did I answer correctly?”
“You said your name.”
“But, Vine asked who you were.”
“That is true and you answered correctly.”
“So I am the forest?”
“And the forest is you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s alright, sapling. With time you will.”
“What do I have to do?”
“Whenever you are here, live with us. This your home now as much as it is ours.”
Jared grinned and held tight to a branch, enjoying the view as the sun worked its golden fingers on the green landscape. Home.