He buried her in the forest before the leaves of the quaking aspen turned golden. No one noticed the tamped down soil, or the way the wild grasses died back all around her, or even the circle of whimsy brown mushrooms that erupted soon after.
And when autumn came, and the leaves changed, the trembling giant whose roots she fed turned scarlet instead.
“I am here,” she called. “Please find me!”
But, after the first frost, the leaves turned rusty, and were then indistinguishable from the rest.
No one noticed her, buried in the forest beneath the quaking aspen.
Snow falls, blanketing her in a cold white solitude with only her thoughts for company, and she wonders…
Does her family know she isn’t coming home?
Or do they maybe think she’s just run away from it all? Does anyone suspect foul play? Or has he once again convinced everyone of his harmless temper?
“We argued, but I loved her. I never would have done anything to hurt her.”
Then why did she (the other woman) drive her car—in neutral—into the lake?
She wonders what he’ll say about her.
“We argued, but I loved her. She said she would leave me a hundred times, and I guess she finally did.”
She wonders if anyone ever found the unused airplane tickets in the back of her underwear drawer, rolled up in a sock with the wad of twenties she’d been collecting for months? Did he find them? Is that why…?
Is that why she’s rotting away in the earth now?
Spring arrives and the bugs return, but she only has so much of herself left to give them. The grass grows back, greener than before, and the roots of the quaking aspen snake through her ribs.
He returns—and steps on her grave.
Just with one foot, at first. She thinks he’s testing the ground, or checking for bones sticking out of the soil; when he doesn’t fall through, he stands on her grave fully. The pressure on her chest is unbearable, but he already broke her heart once.
When he breaks her ribs, she feels nothing.
He steps off quickly, sheepishly, and reaches forward. He grabs a branch from the tree he buried her under and snaps it off with a quick tug.
Is that how she died? She remembers his hands on her neck and then nothing else.
It was so quick.
They argued. She told him she didn’t love who he was anymore, but she never got the chance to leave, like she’d planned to for months.
He walks away with his souvenir and she doesn’t see him again for a long time.
A million thoughts fill her up, and she wonders if she’ll ever have peace from them. They never ceased while she was alive, in her waking hours or otherwise, and now they continue even as her body returns to the earth. Restful oblivion does not come to her and she wonders… if not in death, then when?
Did Niki worry when she didn’t show up? Or did they just assume she never meant to arrive in the first place? Are they angry she broke her promise? What about her cat? Did they keep Mr. Jenkins? Is he healthy and happy with Niki?
And, more than anything, she worries no one knew her thoughts in those final months, because he stole her from her family and friends—stole her from herself, even.
She’d said so many awful things to so many people, and all they’d ever wanted was for her to be happy and safe. But she never listened—was too proud to admit she’d been wrong until it was too late.
She almost doesn’t recognize who she was in those final months anymore.
(Why does she even care? She’s not —— anymore.)
She begins growing out of her broken body the following year, and feels for the first time in a long time the gentle rays of sunlight beating down on her through the budding leaves of the surrounding quaking aspen trees.
However, almost before she can appreciate the new sensations that come with being a sprouting aspen tree, a browsing deer strips her of her leaves—and then a hare finishes her off.
But that’s fine. Her roots remain, and she continues pulling water and other nutrients from the ground for the giants she shares herself with.
They don’t speak, but she feels their sympathy as they wordlessly console her, and offer her their full support when spring arrives again.
She grows quickly with their tender support, and when the browsing deer returns, she has more than enough of herself to give.
When they see him again, they almost don’t recognize him.
He’s older, grayer. Feebler. He walks with a cane now and uses it to push around the mulchy layers of decaying leaves. The top layer of soil has grown sugary over the years and he has to hold on to branches as he steps up the incline, or risk slipping.
But he is himself still, and they could never forget his eyes. Warm like honey; hard like amber; and, sometimes, colder than moonlight. Wrinkles (and time) have softened his piercing gaze, but they still feel it as he looks about. There’s an unmistakable hint of sharpness—like raw edges on smooth river stones.
He does not recognize them.
They have grown up strong and tall since he saw them last, and the animal path he followed all those years ago has meandered ever so slightly off track. He is not lost, but neither can he find his destination.
He looks up, straining his neck, searching for the tree with the cracked-off branch—searching for the piece of them he broke. He turns around three full times, facing north after each spin.
Still, he does not find what he’s looking for.
Forgiveness. Closure. Maybe the tree he buried them beneath, which no longer stands.
It blew over some years ago, when the summer storms came. The uprooted stump is just to his right, but he does not make the connection, because the thick trunk was hauled away for campfire fuel the same year it fell.
He leans against his cane, silently stewing over his dilemma. He’s never had much patience for anything, really.
The wind rattles through their bare branches and a chill creeps through him. He shivers, hunching his shoulders against the stiff wind, and lifts his cane. He turns right, shuffling through the frost laden leaves, and unknowingly walks over their grave.
He stumbles over the exposed roots still attached to the rotting stump and falls—hard.
He lays there for a long moment, winded from his rough landing. When he recovers enough to move, his shifting is accompanied by a low groan.
He does not stand up—cannot stand up—and rolls onto his stomach, searching for his cane in the leaves. He does not find it; it flew quite far when he fell.
A crow caws overhead and he curses while struggling to push himself up onto his knees. One hand sinks into the frosty leaves, and closes around something smooth and roughly the same diameter as his cane.
He pulls on it, yanking it out of the ground after a couple of firm tugs. He’s not as strong as he once was.
A brown stained bone comes up, and he stares at it before flinging it away from himself with a startled cry.
He finally calls for help, having accepted that he’s too injured to escape the forest of quaking aspen on his own.
“Help!” he screams. “Please, someone!”
But no one hears him and each shout is more desperate than the last, until he’s screaming himself hoarse, sobbing between breaths.
“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
The answer has never been more obvious to them than it is now.
No one noticed him, fallen in the forest beneath the quaking aspen.