I was a whining apathetic little girl. I was always hanging on to someone else like a burr caught in fabric. I wasn’t brave, and I didn’t scamper or play. I never ran or shouted. Listless and pale, I mostly cried. The elders said it was because I was more sensitive to the world than the other children. I could sense the trees; woes, they said. I think I was just a spoiled and ignored little girl, nothing more. I remember I spent most of my time sitting and moaning about some imagined ache that was in my head or my legs. When I was content I would play with sticks and leaves that I had tied together into indiscernible shapes on my orange cushion. It was vividly orange. I recall it was the only thing we owned that didn’t fit in with the trees all around me.
My mother was an important woman, always busy speaking to old men with serious, drawn faces. She mostly ignored me, since I didn’t get into trouble. To atone for leaving me alone all the time, she coddled me intolerably when she was around. I was a baby in a nine year old’s body when the attacks first started. I was used to amusing myself when I was alone and whining incessantly when there was some hope of getting attention. I remember lying in my bed, swinging back and forth- our beds are in the open air, like hammocks. Many Easterners shake their heads and mutter when I tell them things like this- I was lying in my bed and I heard my mother’s voice travel up and down, like the unsteady and deep groaning of a tree about to fall. I could not hear the words, but fear pierced through her voice like a needle. I laid there and swung back and forth until the stars and leaves above me blurred together and I couldn’t keep my eyes open.
I had dreams back then, most of them were frightening. I was a timid child and I thought the terrible things I saw when I slept were just my childhood fears taking over my subconscious. Sometimes I dreamt of my father and brothers. Or at least I liked to think they were my father and brothers. I didn’t really know where my father was. I knew that I must have one somewhere. I knew that I also had brothers because there were certain little things around the house that my mother would not let me touch. They were little toys, or feathers, or rocks. The boys that I knew played with things like that, but my mother kept them on a shelf with a large bow and quiver of arrows. It was my father’s bow. My mother kept all these things but she would not look at them very often. When she did, her face weighed down, suddenly old and sad looking. Those moments always scared me, so I tried to keep her away from the shelf. It reminded me that I was not her only “little elfling” as she liked to call me. I cannot remember anything about my brothers and father, except what I saw when I was asleep. One dream I have over and over, so much that I know it must be a memory: I am in a sunny field and a round smiling face with curly dark hair is looking over me. This boy is much bigger than me, I think he is my second oldest brother. Then, he is distracted by something- a noise or a movement, I cannot tell. He bends down to pick me up and suddenly I am hugging his neck as he runs. I watch the grass part behind him and as I look over his shoulder I see a dark, dark, dark as ink thing skulking though the brush. It is bent forward and looks as if its bones are all broken because the joints look terribly out of place. But it moves too easily and quickly to be wounded or broken. My heart beats hard and fast. That is all.
Whenever I woke from that dream, I begged my mother to tell me stories of my brothers. I would sit on my orange cushion and try so very hard to remember their faces more clearly. I wanted to dream of them every night, even if the monster I saw was there too, because being in their arms felt so safe.
When the first attacks came, it was late at night and I woke up because strange lights were flashing behind my eyelids. I was incredibly irritable, and stumbled out of my little sling bed, calling for my mother. She wasn’t there but there were large orange billows in the sky, and some of the greater trees were on fire. The terror was more overwhelming than I can describe.
I should explain. My people live in the trees, much in the way fish live in water or Easterners live in the air. We build circles around the tallest region of the trunks and make our houses there. We use parts of the tree as walls, staircases, windows, fire pits, cabinets, chairs, tables...everything. My people are a mystery to the Easterners, I know. I wish I could explain more clearly for you, but I do not know how. The trees are our survival but also our greatest treasure. We respect them and love them. They are a symbol of who we are, and in a way we are the embodiment of them. When we move, it is slow and strong. When we talk it is strange and thick. We are slow to anger, slow to joy, steadfast to tradition and growth. Our minds are tangled in the roots of the trees with whom we live. They are in every small ritual to every big celebration, all parts of our lives. So perhaps this can help explain the panic, the childish terror that erupted as I saw the violent destruction of the forest in which I lived. I was frozen in time, watching it all unfold like it was happening in a separate world. I saw people leap from the burning masses of dying twisted tree flesh. I saw smoke cover up the moon, making everything a confusion of orange and brown. My eyes burned with the ash; I could not breathe without coughing. The smoke felt like thick sinewy fabric twisting inside my lungs, stinging my throat.
Then I saw one. It was that shape, running between the trees. I knew it was the creature from my dream by the way it moved. I could see every detail now, it’s body illuminated by the merciless flames. I saw bulging eyes and mottled skin, twisted features and that bent frame. It’s teeth were blackened in it’s deformed mouth. That is what stopped and looked me straight in the face. I could not scream. I could not look away. I could do nothing. I have lived through so many things since that night but looking back I can’t remember a single moment when the blindness of death was so welcoming and preferred to living.
My mother found me soon after, standing like a little statue, staring forward to where the monster had been. I must have looked like I had gone mad, gaping into empty space and muttering. She shook me, first gently, and then very hard. When I turned to see her face it was covered in sweat and ash. She looked so old, older than she ever did looking at the shelf. But more than anything she looked scared. I had never seen my mother scared before.
She took my hands in hers. I looked down. They were wet with something red and thick. She told me to promise her something. Hoping for the affection I would receive if I agreed, I eagerly promised to do whatever she wanted. I will never forget her words.
Run. To the East. Your uncle, he left this place many years ago. He lives in the east, in a tall fort by the sea. It is called Fort Cale. Remember that. Say it to me. Say it to me eleven times: Fort Cale.”
I glared at her reproachingly. I could not understand why she was asking me to do such a thing. I began to pout.
“Say it!” said my mother, losing her patience. I muttered the name and directions under my breath. I only said them eight times but it was enough.
“Good.” She got up, towering over me, and took me by the hand. She dragged me down from our home and onto the forest floor. “You must wait for me at Sithiya for three days. It’s the closest town. I will come and find you in three days. Three days, remember? But after three days you have to start going east. I will come and find you. Remember: Three days, then Fort Cale.”
I only nodded my head sullenly, and she shoved me gently but firmly in the direction of the trail that snaked through our forest. She had tears in her eyes, maybe from the smoke, maybe from something else. I thought about running away and hiding in the brush, simply to spite her. Then I remembered the image of the thing from my dream, silhouetted by yellow smoke. I made my way towards the road, frightened and sniveling to myself as I stumbled over the uneven ground.
I slept on the doorstep of an old farmer. His wife shooed me away at sunrise with her stiff broom, clicking her tongue like one of the strange birds I sometimes saw in the deeper forest.
I waited in the town for three weeks. My mother never came.