The Trees That Breathe

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic
A strange forest holds more than meets the eye for an aimless wanderer.

Submitted: May 17, 2019

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Submitted: May 17, 2019

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She set herself down on the grass, knees bent under the hem of her dress. She looked about her, stopping her glance as it landed on the sky, her eyes squinting for the sun, which was hidden behind the clouds. She followed those lazy clouds as they passed, considering their mutating shapes as they by turns obscured and revealed the sun far above them. She grazed her hand absently across the surface of the coarse grass, pausing at a thistle and plucking it from the ground. She twirled it in her hand absently before tossing it away, after which she continued caressing the ground, letting the grass find the spaces between her fingers and digging their tips in the dirt.

A breeze played the ends of her hair. It passed over her and dissipated somewhere within the forest behind, out of which she had recently emerged. She had been walking a long time. She wiggled her toes and stretched her legs, arching her neck backward. Her outstretched back soon mimicked her neck, forming a gentle curve below her dress, the front of her pushed forward, up at the sky and into the wind. She maintained this position, either considering the trees behind her or letting the wind envelope her where the absent sunlight wouldn't. The day was gray and unremarkable, and seemed to slow as the sun hid, the passing moments indiscernible without the waning daylight to measure them by. Each moment dulled to a poor representation of those before and after it.

Finally, slowly, she rotated her neck forward until her head regained its original position, looking ahead of her, though her eyes were squinted, possibly closed. Her back and body straightened upright, though she remained supine on the grass. Her hair fell lank at the sides of her neck and the heath and briar unbent around her as the breeze subsided. She regretted its going, finding herself sitting in the unbroken air of the dull afternoon. She began to run her hands over the grass in indiscernible patterns, sweeping over it absently and feeling its corporeality intently. As if insisting on the realness of the world to herself she breathed in deeply, almost violently, letting the smell and air of everything enter her and then exhaling herself onto them.

She all at once fell backward, remaining prone for several seconds and then saitting back up forcefully, as if disappointed by something. She ran her hand over the grass one last time and stood. Following the clouds and the direction of the wind she left the clearing and entered the forest ahead of her. It was identical to that behind, trees twisting in curious variegations, including straight up, and plants strewn haphazardly about. The floor was dirt and fern and pine needles, and the air was still. Unseen birds announced their presence shrilly, as did she when she stepped upon dead leaves and stranded twigs that snapped beneath her.

It grew colder in the shade.

She nearly tripped over a knotted, serpentine root striking upward like a bony finger. She considered the tree from which it sprang and seemingly between blinks a human outline emerged against the trunk of the tree - that of an old man wrapped in a brown cloak, perfectly still and indistinct in the dim light. She wondered if he was alive and looked at him intently, trying to see his face beneath his hood, but the harder she looked the further it seemed to shrink into obscurity.

He seemed so small, wrapped in his cloak with no part of his body visible except his crooked nose and the hint of a brow, cheeks and a chin. She waved her hands in front of his face but he did not respond. She wanted to speak but was afraid to break the misty quiet that had fallen over the trees around her, as soft as the meager light which seemed forced through the tops of the trees but more also permanent, as if no noise could break the darkness of silence.

She knelt before him, smoothing her dress in front of her, and leaned forward cautiously on both hands to draw her face level with his. His hood fell very low, so that its tip might have touched her had she not ducked below it, her eyes now directly in front of his nose. She continued forward, trying to see through the penumbra cast by his hood, which only the bottom of his chin escaped.

She looked hard for his eyes, which she simply could not find. Discouraged, she got up abruptly and considered him a moment more before turning and walking away. Not until her back was to him did she hear the thump of his staff, deadened against the dirt.

She turned to find him prodding the ground intermittently but otherwise not moving. While she tried to think of something to say he asked:

"Yes?"

"Nothing," she said nervously. "What are you doing?"

"Sitting."

"Oh."

She was silent a time while he tapped. "I'm not looking for anything in particular," she said, unsure of what she meant by it.

"Neither am I."

No part of him except for his cane had yet moved. She watched for his mouth, but could not discern it. They waited together in silence, but for what she did not know. Eventually she walked away.

Water was evidently ahead; her feet began to sink and the ground squished around them, the water startling cold at first. She came upon a pond, translucent yet full of weight and being. It was only a small body of water, but its fullness seemed to pull at her, as if its whole, forceful being was pushing up and outward into the air around it and then returning to itself with all that surrounded it encapsulated in its gravity with the ineluctable power of its waves and currents, which beat ceaselessly against the muddy shore. She undressed and waded into the water, moving farther out as its surface rose from the bottoms of her feat, to her ankles, to her knees, to her waist, and finally her throat. She forcefully submerged herself, the surface of the water making a slight plop as it closed above her head. She wasn't below for long when her head again rose and she gasped for air. She swam idly until settling near the edge of the water, where she could stand comfortably, half below the surface and half above it. The silt below her feet was soft and fled from between her toes when she wiggled them.

She began to bathe in earnest, cupping water in her hands and pouring it on herself. It trickled down and around her and back into the water with the shrill yet muffled resonance of broken glass falling on fabric. Things had become quiet again, so that the sounds she made in the water seemed to fill not only the space around her but all of time as well, as if she and the pond were the only things that had ever made noise.

As a result, she became very attentive to the way the water, her only companion for all of time, sounded; the full thud of her hands breaking the tension of the surface and the reverse sucking of her pulling a handful from its body. She began hearing what she had never realized made a noise, such as the tonic ringing of exactly circular ripples within each other, and the delicate, wet slithering of droplets of water as they followed the curves and miniscule depressions of her bare skin before again joining the whole of the water around her. Individual drops rang out as they fell from her hair as she shook her head, and she splashed once or twice in pure insistence, noting the sound and feel of each precise moment of broken silence.

She breathed once as deeply as she could, smelling the living musk of the mud and water and marshy ground around the pond. Thereafter she breathed less deeply but still savored the smell, which was ripe and unpleasant, like a very old person, or moldy wood. She noticed that, despite seeming absolutely still, the water moved around her in tiny waves, a living body which gently heaved. She imagined its mass, its full, dead weight around her, hugging her gently and never letting go. She resolved to be still as long as possible, letting the movements of the water do what they would to her.

She sank a bit and had to readjust her footing. It was at that moment she turned her head slightly and so noticed a boy. He was walking alone nearby, lost in his own thoughts. She soon realized that he could not possibly be a boy; a beard surrounded his clenched jaws and his eyes, directed absently at the ground ahead of him, were not those of someone young. Then she saw his horse's tail dangling absentmindedly from the naked small of his back. He was smaller than any satyr she had ever seen, a pygmy version of those with which she were familiar. This may have explained why he was alone, which was unusual for his kind.

He began to vanish around the trees, graying gradually as he walked away from her, his tail occasionally swatting at some unseen fly. She emerged from the water, dripping noisily, following his fading afterglow into the trees. She craned her neck and tipped her toes, hoping to see through the fading clarity, but he was lost among the blurred perspective of overlapping tree trunks and plants.

The way he had disappeared, his outline altogether gone among the indistinctness of the forest reminded her of how she hadn't seen the old man until she was nearly on top of him. She suddenly became very aware of her nakedness. The breeze picked up, now harsh upon her wet skin, and she realized she was very cold. The reeds near the water bowed and straightened as the wind blew over them, and the branches of the trees near her groaned heavily as they swayed. She turned and saw that her dress was gone.

She looked around, trying not to panic. While she was looking among the reeds near the edge of the water she saw another satyr looking directly at her from the far side of the pond. His tail flicked eagerly back and forth as he watched her.

She stood her full height, despite her fear, and met his gaze. He smiled and leaned against a nearby tree; he crossed his arms and whistled an idle tune.

Three more satyrs, one on her right and two on her left, emerged unheard from the trees and stood on the sides of the pond. It began to rain, the first few reticent droplets falling softly before the following deluge made hoofbeats on the ground around her. She listened to the raindrops as they fell on the water; the sound was identical that made by the drops which had fallen from her hair as she had shaken it dry. The satyrs were staring at her; one giggled nervously.

The one directly across from her rounded the lake to the right, joining the other satyr there. The both of them advanced further around the pond toward her, and the two on her left followed. They would be soon reach her.

She considered the rain as it caused thousands of tiny ripples across the surface of the water. She became very aware of her surroundings, whether nearby reeds waving heavily in the wind, or the mud in which stood shifting unpleasantly beneath her, or rocks and twigs protruding from that mud and hurting her feet. The wind picked up momentarily, blowing her hair around her neck and causing her to shiver visibly. She closed her eyes and said aloud, "Deliver me."

She felt them approaching her rather than saw them do so. She could not hear their footfalls, nor smell their dense, animal odor, but she could nonetheless feel their movement in the air, and knew they were close. She felt near panic, and wondered if she would hyperventilate. She concentrated on breathing. She attempted a long, uncaring exhalation, like that of the wind which had once gusted around her, but managed only one halted gasp of breath before a hand closed around her mouth and she was dragged away.



© Copyright 2020 Zachary Schmitt. All rights reserved.

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