by Sierra July
The forest was always shouting. Uta tried to shield her ears with her fists, even tried plugging them with moss, but the cries still slithered in. All around her, the other villagers carried on about their business, talking, laughing. Uta couldn’t take it anymore.
She snuck to the farthest hut from the village center, the home of the only citizen her age. She crept to the stool kept beside the hut’s window. She’d have to be quiet to not alert his mother. She was always home, always in a fitful sleep and, though dark sleep visions plagued her, she wouldn’t take kindly to being woken. “Toshi, koi,” Uta beckoned the boy inside, her voice a whisper. “I have a story to tell.”
“One I’ll enjoy?” Toshi’s eyes glinted with hope.
She shook her head and said no more. She didn’t have to. Toshi would come. He was intrigued by her. Others might see her wide-eyed alarm as she gazed into the forest and think her brain was disrupted by cloud fluff; Toshi wanted her thoughts, knowing they were there and too big to spread on to everyone. He lived to keep secrets, and she’d kept the voices to herself for too long.
Toshi made his way from the hut and the two of them ventured past village borders.
“Do you think we’ll ever get found out, coming out here after venture hours?” Toshi asked.
“’Haps,” Uta answered. She glimpsed Toshi’s grin and managed a smile herself. She often abbreviated her speech. She bet he liked it, was thinking how it reminded him of his grandmother.
Toshi had no response. Uta was glad of it because the screams were making her head throb. Her feet stopped moving when her sight blurred.
She felt herself get caught as her legs gave and knew it was Toshi’s arms doing the catching. “What’s wrong? What’s happening?”
“It’s the screams. I’ve been hearing them a long time.” She cracked her eyes and saw Toshi’s brow wrinkle.
“What screams? Who’s screaming?”
She’d have to explain, quick, felt like. “All the trees beyond the border are screeching just so my ears can hear. I’ve been keeping it secret since I realized. The further out you go, the louder they bellow. I thought they were being eaten or burned, ventured out far as I could once to see so, but it’s too loud. I get dizzy like this. I need to know why they scream, ‘haps more than I need to stop it. I’ve just got to know.”
Toshi swiped a hand over his eyes, wiping sweat, tears, or both. “What can I do?”
“I made a niche in a wimpy tree once, to see what’d do, and it roared like a boar bent to kill. Seemed an eternity it did too. I fainted, woke, and had to faint again before it stopped. I can’t show anyone. I need you to break a little one and take it to the Village Chief before—”
Uta couldn’t finish the thought, even in her own head. Forget the trees burning. It was her that was aflame. Her world ruptured and dissolved black as ash.
“Uta! Uta, what’s wrong?” Toshi gripped her, helpless as her eyes rolled back and she flapped like a fish. Her arms thwarted him now and again, but he held on anyway. Part of him thought if he let go she’d flop away.
All the while, he kept shouting her name. He didn’t know how loud or long, but by the time others came running up, his voice had grinded his throat raw.
“Get the Chief!”
All these words came mingled and lonely of faces to Toshi. He couldn’t tell who said what nor did he care. Uta still grappled with her own self, wanting to put her hands and feet here or there and having them run off where they pleased. White foam edged from her parted lips. The one change was that her eyes were coming back down, showing dilated pupils instead of paper-blank nothing.
The Chief came just before the shakes stopped and Uta’s eyelids shut. She breathed shallow but rapid, exhausted. He shuffled over to her without a word, parting the crowd with his presence, taking her from Toshi’s arms, and marching away. Toshi sat stunned as he watched the eyes around him cast down and close, praying for her lost soul because that’s what she was now, a lost soul, and in their village lost souls needed releasing.
Toshi stood and ran into the trees. Forbidden or not, no one stopped him.
They couldn’t kill her (but they would). They couldn’t call her being sick, some kind of evil, a possession (but they had). Uta was good as a downed cow unless Toshi did what she had beseeched of him.
There were many trees about him, but most bore twigs too steely for his pocket knife to sever. He ventured deeper, trying to feel soothed by the green shadows being cast by the dying sunlight by the thin star-shaped leaves above. He kept his ears alert, kept his eyes trailing.
A squeal erupted.
Toshi darted to his left as a boar plowed towards him. Both turned and the boar charged again, its eyes wide and wild, its tusks gleaming. This time Toshi didn’t dodge.
He held his pocketknife forward, his free hand supporting his weapon-wielding one. When the boar came on him, the knife came on it, puncturing its chest. But not before one of its tusks pierced his arm. Toshi roared but didn’t dare release his knife. The boar still struggled against it, trying to back up and wrenching Toshi’s arm all the while. Toshi clenched his teeth, grounded his feet. If he dropped now he’d have a trampled leg or torso to worry about; that is, if his head didn’t meet the beast’s hooves first.
When Toshi thought all his blood would drain away, the boar quit. There was no more frenzy in its eyes, only clouded ease. Toshi pulled out his knife, set beside the boar to pray, then ripped his shirt to tie a makeshift tourniquet around his wound. It was while tending his wound that he noticed the boar’s veins protruding its skin with a sickly green color, more like vines than blood vessels. His head spun.
It had attacked unprovoked, kept charging despite the cut of his blade . . . It was like a puppet having its strings pulled. It took magic to get a boar’s loyalty as powerful as that. He couldn’t help but ask himself what kind of force was pulling the strings.
Nearby a wild dog yelped, high-pitched in infancy. Two or three more yaps followed it. Deciding to leave the boar carcass to the mother dog and pups to determine if it was edible, Toshi trudged on.
He wound up where he wanted, at a grove of young trees, their stems still hollow like brittle bones. But like bones, another year or so would see them rock solid, unbreakable without sawing-all-day effort. Toshi was fortunate for the seedlings. Still, Toshi didn’t want the weakest source. Weak wood became a pile of sand with too much handling and he needed his sampling to last the trip to the village and then some.
Toshi found the sturdiest stem he could find and nicked it. At that instant he heard the scream, like an uncorked water basin crying from the heat. A wayward bird mimicked the call.
His stomach flopped, all queasy, but Toshi kept steady.
He was careful as he cut the stem all the way through, nestled it into his pocket and set about returning to the village. Despite his pain and blood loss, Toshi sprinted. His heart pummeled hard, but not from his near-misses with pitfalls and coiled snakes in the dark, or the floating cackles of hungry tree cats anticipating his collapse. In his pocket was proof of everything Uta. The severed stem was still making a faint whistle.
About halfway to reaching human company, Toshi wasn’t sure, but his heartbeat seemed to be drowning the stem’s whistle out, that or it was fading. He quickened his pace. If he hurried, perhaps he could save Uta.
He entered the village border and the first person he came across was the Chief.
“Come to say goodbye to Uta, Toshi? Early morrow brings her execution. I know you were close.” His sights fell to Toshi’s wound. “What happened to your arm?”
Toshi said nothing. He merely produced the stem from his pocket and thrusted it as close as he dared to the Chief’s ear. The Chief opened his mouth as if to speak then froze mid-gap without uttering a word. He grabbed the stem and pressed his ear into it. Worry or anger bred hills and gorges on the man’s face.
“What is this?”
Toshi thought the stem literally spoke for itself, but thought against saying so. “Uta told me she was hearing the trees scream and asked that I get a sample to prove it to you. I didn’t hear it myself until I cut through that seedling, but it proves what she says is true.”
“It proves that she’s the one who corrupted them.” Toshi started, but the Chief continued. “For all the trees cut here, never have I heard such a cry.”
“Perhaps our sawing was too loud to hear it from the full grown trees, or perhaps they no longer make a sound audible for our ears.”
“But only to Uta’s?”
Rage tore through Toshi. “It’s not her fault if she has better hearing than the rest of us, or a better brain.” He kept going before the Chief could interject, tears spangling his eyes. “She wanted so desperately to show us this, this . . . sobbing. The trees are hurting, our main livelihood, and she wanted to warn us so we could do something about it. She shouldn’t have the back of her hand whacked, let alone be killed.”
The Chief’s rigid expression crumbled with a sigh. “I’ll release the girl. But don’t think it’s because you changed my mind,” he added as he saw Toshi relax. “If Uta is the cause of the sound, as I suspect she is, she may be the only person capable of ending it.”
Uta flew to him as soon as her cage was opened. Toshi returned her embrace then pulled her away to look at her. Her eyes were there with their rightful spark and her mouth was a smile instead of a helpless divide; the sickness that had shuddered her earlier forgotten.
Uta gasped, seeing Toshi’s arm. “You’re bleeding.”
Others hovered around them instead of their night fires. Toshi half expected a chorus of stomach gurgles, but it was as if people were willing their hunger down, desperate to hear more of the gossip that had spread like disease: tale of the trees’ upset.
Toshi asked Uta what everyone wanted to know most, even though he expected ‘no’s for answers. “Do you know what’s causing it, Uta? How to stop it?”
The Chief strutted over to them before she could answer, surprising Toshi with his words.
“It’s my doing, isn’t it?” Everyone inhaled and held their breaths, only flames crinkling. “It isn’t empty shouts those trees are doing. It took me a while to recognize, but the forest bellows your true name.”
Toshi opened his mouth to shout the Chief was spouting dung, but felt Uta’s hand on his. They exchanged looks, Toshi’s angry, but Uta’s . . . Her eyes were imploring and that told Toshi what the Chief said was true. An ache pounded behind his eyelids as he thought of a young Uta introducing herself, pronouncing her name with a flick of her mossy hair and an upped chin of spite, like she dared him to doubt it. Perhaps he should have.
The Chief raised his voice. “You all don’t know, but I found Uta, a baby cradled in vines. As I pulled her away, I heard a whisper, one melodious note that somehow formed a song. I knew it as the child’s name. That’s when I named her the village equivalent, ‘Uta,’ ‘song.’ I told anyone who asked that her parents abandoned her and fled. It created some spite, but no fear, that’s what I wanted to avoid. It sounds to me that the trees are miserable, broken, begging for their child’s return.”
“No.” The word broke from Toshi’s lips without him thinking, but even after realizing the consequence, he said it again, louder. “No. What do you plan to do? Release her in the forest for the wild to finish her? That’s what will happen. I don’t care of her origins; she’s human.”
At this point Toshi was almost in the Chief’s face, and then Uta stepped between them. She glared at Toshi, her face red, her hands quivering.
“No . . . I’m not.”
Here the Chief was getting solemn, and Toshi squaring to quarrel, for what? She knew. Uta had always known in the back of her mind. She’d never lied purposely to Toshi. Like any other kid’s, her backstory had fuzzed with age. But she’d known that, to the trees, she was all important. The cry did feel familiar, likening to hearing a piper playing a tune that was once her lullaby. So, so familiar a melody; she’d just forgotten the words. That’s what had scared her.
When she blacked out too, she didn’t see black always, after a bit nothing altered to olive, emerald, jade . . . a great number of greens, enough to rival the stars in the sky.
“I didn’t lie on purpose,” she said again, this time out loud. “I really didn’t know what the screams were ‘bout. I just felt funny— no . . . perfect, around them. Unnaturally so, like a piece of bark plastered back where it fell from. That’s all there is to it.”
Toshi had sympathy pooling his eyes. Seeing that, Uta could breathe again.
She turned to the Chief. “What should I do? What do you want me to do?”
Lookin’ at him, she thought it belly-tickling: one person in the village to find bush-baby her, Mr. Sturdy-As-A-Tree himself. Still, if there was one infantile memory she possessed, it was stumbling through the forest on new legs, and two big hands coming out to steady her.
Her gaze stayed steady on him now.
“You go out into that forest, and never come back.”
Murmurs resonated. Uta’s ears picked out the trees’.
“’Ii wa,” she agreed, nodding. She turned that moment and marched off. Toshi halted her.
“Don’t,” he stammered. “Why?”
She smirked and spoke the truth. “Who knows?” Her guts ached to ice over their goodbye, but there was no use for sap, except in trees. She watched Toshi just long enough for his mother to snatch him, drag the weeping boy home. Everyone else kept watching her till she passed the village border for the second time that day.
Sun deep in bed, Uta entered the forest. Animals lurked; she heard them panting, but they kept their distance. Good thing because soon she couldn’t hear a roar if it flustered her hair. Her ears began to ring and she trembled despite a lack of cold. Branches shook overhead and leaves scattered, raining on her like grains on a bride. They wanted her all right, the trees. No telling what they would have done if the villagers hadn’t paid up. All topple ‘haps. Crush homes, arms and legs, skulls.
How long had she walked through here? Her feet remembered the earth’s cracks. She had a sense that it wouldn’t be the last she relished them, just a break, a rest. For all the times, her blood had never run so, tingled. She was electric with more than fear when the ground beneath her changed. Here her head threatened to crack, tree noises were so loud, not screaming anymore, she thought, not the hurt, scared kind anyhow.
Uta was at a place she’d never walked before, but had been all the same. The place she was at before she could walk. She saw the vines waving at her, saw them bend into a basket shape, a cradle.
No hesitating, she got in and the vines curled around her in a hug. Eyes shut tight, she snuggled deeper, bundling till she thought she’d shrink and poof away. That didn’t happen. Instead her head quit pounding and she heard voices with words she understood.
“Welcome home, Aa!”
“We were getting sick, missing you!”
Uta looked about at a world of green sky, ground, and air. It appeared empty and full at once. Orbs flew around her, seeds, glowing as voices poured out.
“We’ll get better now,” one said as it kissed her cheek. “Our sister is here and she can tell us how to grow.”
“Then we can all come out,” sang another, “feet and hands for roots and branches. We can spread like mother wanted, save the forest.”
“And the villagers, ‘haps,” Uta thought. She gathered the children, little spheres as she had been, she recollected. She knew what they needed.
“Welcome home,” the littlest one repeated.
“I’m home,” she responded. “Now settle for a song.”
Toshi searched for Uta every trip to the forest he got, but couldn’t even find trail of her footprints the next day. Time passed slow, and slower for his healing wound. In the end it didn’t vanish, but left the imprint of a green leaf under his skin like a brand.
He wondered if he would be possessed by the trees as Uta had been, manipulated like the boar that had seemingly passed on its infection. If nothing else, he was certain it linked him to Uta.
At night, pressing his ear to the scar, he was sure he could hear her singing.
Read more about Sierra July.