Forest Born

First published in The Periodical, Forlorn

A short fiction piece, which uses elements of magical realism to explore the relationships between human and nature, girlhood and the world.

I was born to the forest. People used to tell me that to have two arms and two legs and blood and bone wrapped in flesh meant that I must have parents—and by that they meant human parents. Maybe that was true once, but if it were still I wouldn’t have skin as dark and rough as a maple tree’s trunk, hair that sprouts from my head as wild and tangled as a curly oak’s branches, eyes like the knots in a pine, the smell of rain-fresh leaves hidden behind my ears and knees. If that was true, I wouldn’t be able to disappear between trees so easily and completely.

Maybe I had human parents once, but now the forest has claimed me. Now the forest is my mother and father, my friends and mirror.

When it storms, I climb as high as I can in the willow tree by the river, let its vines and leaves curl around me, become part of me, support me just enough to push off with the soles of my feet and find the next branch until I’ve reached the sky. I stand up there, my arms reaching so high my shoulders pop along with the rustling of the leaves, and I let the rain bathe me, clothe me. The trees never let the lightning touch me, but when it grabs onto a birch in the distance and latches its white-hot fingers into the tree like barbs, I too feel it singeing my skin and boiling my blood. The smell of burning wood and charred leaves, melting skin and scorched hair filling my lungs.

But I am clothed in the rain and I let that calm the fire so that we’re both only a little toasted, a little extra browned at the edges, but none the worse for wear. Fire always leaves the land more fertile than it was before.

I wish someone would tell the Others that. The ones born of human parents. They only know how to run from fires and flee from the trees, cower from the rain and hide from the dark. They are the lightning that I protect the forest from, same as it protects me.

When the bold find their way here, heavy rubber feet crushing leaves and grass and grinding down the just-beginnings of mushrooms, I can hear them coming from a mile away. Their voices carry on the wind—no, ride inside of the wind, hollow it out until it collapses and all that’s left are their howls and bluster. The sound finds me wherever I am.

This is when I see the differences between us, wonder how anyone could have ever thought I was like them. They think because the trees do not cower, the shrubs do not chase them away, and the bushes do not block their path that the forest is welcoming them. But I know it is holding its ground. Not giving an inch unless forced with metal and teeth.

I follow them, the Others, like a bat at night. They think they see, from the corner of their eye, the darkness taking shape and swooping closer; but when they turn their head they see only silhouettes of leaves on the thinnest tips of branches. What they think are leaves.

I could be absolutely silent if I wanted, like the forest when the deer and the owls and the skunks have all tucked in after dawn. Instead, I let my feet find the twigs on the ground, let my toes apply just enough pressure to a rock to let it slide and settle. I let them hear me, let them know I am there, but only barely. The quiet can be as powerful and more.

I hear their whispers then, see their darting eyes. Ghost, phantom, haunting, lurking.

Waiting. I am waiting for someone else born to the forest. Someone who may have been lost, been stolen and not yet found their way back.

Because we have blood and bones and arms with fingers like theirs, they think that we are theirs. They try to make us belong to them. It’s not our fault that their parents or parents’ parents or grandparents’ parents decided to leave and shake off their dirt and rain. They may have cut themselves off at the roots, but we are still grounded here. I know there must be someone else, just one more, who cam hear the song in the leaves, feel the welcome in the open wings of the sparrows above.

One thing the forest has taught me is that there is never just one, no matter how rare. At the very least, one thing has to come from another thing. There has to be another like me.

What I didn’t expect—but should have since the forest taught me that sometimes you bring forth things on your own, drop your pinecone right into the underbrush, let the dirt swallow it up and drip enough drops of water from one leaf to another until the water finds the pinecone in the ground, bloats the pinecone, convinces it to break out of the ground, dig deeper into the ground, come out of the ground to meet you. The forest taught me that sometimes you have to create your own mirror and friend when the bees find your seeds too heavy to share—

What I didn’t expect was that although Someone might come to the forest, I’d have to bring them to me. To the places that Others don’t go, to the places that are just for the forest and me. For us.

But that is exactly what happened—and I almost missed it. She was alone and she was quiet, her feet not shaking the ground and her voice eating up not a single song from the wind.

But she wasn’t used to living like the forest, with the forest, wasn’t used to stepping lightly over twigs and keeping toes away from rocks. She’d only be taught to run, flee, cower, hide—that those were her only options. Only visiting, never belonging. Replacing, never joining. She’d hadn’t been taught the power of the quiet, so the miss was only an almost.

When I heard her footsteps, I nearly fell from the pine I was hanging upside down from. Because she was so close.

Her crunching grew nearer, and I desperately scoured my mind for a way to call her in, to banish any fear that ate up the belonging, the fear the Others taught her, and bring her in deeper to that place. Our place. The forest.

The forest. It knew what I was thinking, had already been thinking it, didn’t even need to think it because the forest always just knew.

There was a great thudding in the distance that sent the smallest ripples through the trees, a collection of crunching and snapping and rustling that grew together into one long, too-loud sliding. By the time I was on my feet, on the ground, there was nothing. But I could tell from the smell of fresh lily blooms and the sweat of running-turned-to-sprinting water—excitement, eagerness, readiness. I could tell from the smell that there was Someone. She was still here.

I ran as fast as the water, let the moss on the rocks guide me, and made not a sound out of place. She was at the edge of the river, the bottom of the muddy bank. It wasn’t raining, so the current was trying to bathe her, clothe her like she was supposed to be. It was just having trouble with all that other clothing she already had on. The heavy rubber glommed on to her feet was no help when her feet were calling out for the mud, for somewhere to coax out the roots she’d never been allowed to let loose.

She pulled herself up to standing, keeping more weight on one leg than the other, and gasped when she saw me. She tried to speak to me the way the Others had taught her: to apologize, to question, to placate. I’m sorry, I didn’t see you. I think I hurt my ankle—can you help me? Uh, I was only trying to go for a short hike, didn’t mean any harm.

I understood, of course, still knew all those sounds. But the forest did not respond and neither did I.

I tilted my head so she knew not to apologize for being where we both belonged. Let the wind from my lungs tell her the forest would help me help her. My hair swayed to show her nothing here meant any harm to us, nor us to anything here.

I could tell from the clovers beginning to blossom in her irises that she understood—of course she did—but didn’t know what it meant to understand. She made a sound like they did. Uhm.

We would teach her, the forest and I.

I crouched down so I slipped down the riverbank, a trout gliding downstream. I came to a stop right next to her, just toes in the water. I reached out a hand and she made like to take it, but I grabbed the bundle tied up on her back, pulled it from her shoulders and emptied it into the mud. She resisted understanding—Hey! Stop! What are you doing! But when she crouched down next to me take her things back, keep them from the water trying to push them away from where they were not welcome, the belonging began to seep in and the clovers reached their roots deep through her bones.

Wait. Do I know you?

Yes, you know me and I know you and the forest knows us both the way a parent knows their child whether it was born from them or to them. This I told her by throwing the rest of her things, pack and all, into the river so that they would be swept away.

When I took her hand, I said to her: We are not an invasive species, you only lived too long in an exotic environment. And I could tell she understood. Was coming to understand, at least, the way a bird knows it can fly before it has ever done so.

I pulled her up the riverbank with me, let her feel the way the forest supported her and we both helped her along. By the time we made it back to the top of the bank, she was still limping, but her feet had come free of their heavy rubber traps and her bare toes wriggled into the ground, finally finding a place where she felt like Someone. Soon her feet would adapt to the trees and rocks like mine had, no longer getting splinters and little cuts because they’d thickened up into the bark, the hide they were always meant to be. Soon she’d be as rooted in this forest as I was.

She started to say something like they would want her to, but I kept pulling her along—almost too fast for her but not fast enough for the wind, I knew—and she took this as the lesson it was. We communicated like the forest, with the forest—she already knew that she could, though she never had before. She gave my hand a squeeze.

By the time we made it back to the parts where the Others didn’t come, where only we were allowed, she had begun to allow the forest into her, too. There were little nettles in her hair, mud still caked to one side of her face, the unnaturally pink top that had been neatly tucked now starting to tear in multiple places. Out here, we only needed what protected us. Something for the bottom, maybe—and the rain, and the trees, and the bears for the rest.

She was looking around with the widest and brightest of eyes, a smile just forming on her lips. Maybe there was still some fear in the tautness of her eyes, but the butterflies would soften that up when they came to welcome her soon enough. And I knew they would come.

One ankle did look a little red, a little fat, but I’d brought her into the deep of the forest, away from the path the Others had carefully carved—carved out little bits of the forest and the power it held. The power that we all had some of too, whether we chose to believe it or to leave the forest and forget how the smell clung to our skin. To leave and join the Others.

But here, in the deep and vibrant, thick and lush, powerful and beautiful—here, the forest retained all. Everything was tinged a little bit green, even the taste of the air and the sounds of the squirrels. Even me. Even her.

I let go of her hand and I could tell she was thinking about leaving, running, even still. But she’d begun to communicate without realizing it and I could see it all in the way she moved her eyes, the way her hands opened and closed.

But she didn’t run. She brushed both of her hands over her face, getting the mud from her cheek between her fingers and letting the sweat from her palms dampen her temples. Then she laid down, legs wide and arms straight out, her smile growing as her eyes softened into a meadow.

I could smell the honey sweet smell of the butterflies approaching to greet her and visit me. They would never miss a chance to say hi to Someone new, or to rest on the curve of an old friend’s ear.

Still standing, I threw my arms out like hers, and I spun. I turned my face to the treetops, closed my eyes to the sun, and opened my mouth to the taste of the clouds. I swirled and swirled, a honeybee through the wildflowers.

It may have been the forest trying to coax us together, same as it may have been the forest that peeled the unnaturally pink top away from her body. Either way, soon I collapsed right next to her and her shirt was in half, laying open all around her. I cooed back to a sparrow in the distance as the first of the butterflies settled onto the tip of her nose. She didn’t flinch, only lifted her hand to welcome the rest.

I’d long suspected I was part butterfly, or that maybe the forest had sent them to raise me, because I loved anything that they did, and they warmed as quickly as I did to anything new. Always had. I belonged to the forest, but I belonged with the butterflies. I don’t know which one of us knew first, the forest or me, that she belonged here too. But I was born to the forest, and the forest had sent the butterflies. The forest was officially laying its claim.

If the forest claimed you there was little you could do to ignore the call. If the forest claimed you, you couldn’t hide away the scraps from the life the Others stole you away to. If you tried to cling to what had stolen you, the forest would only cling harder to you. I’d learned that the hard way. Nearly lost myself in the river when I tried to cling to a big fluffy top with a line down the middle that went zzzzzooop. I thought I would need it to keep me warm. I didn’t have anyone to show me otherwise. No one but the forest who finally had me back and wasn’t going to let me go again. Better to let the river take everything right off the bat.

But she didn’t have to learn that way, this girl laughing at the rabbit that came to nudge at her reddened ankle with its downy-soft head. Already the swelling had gone down, healed by the sunshine and water and the soil. The trees and the mud and the leaves.

I’d learned only from the forest, but this girl would learn from us both.

I pulled the ripped-up pink top out from under her and she didn’t even notice. She was too busy gazing at the butterflies twirling around her, running her fingers along the grass, smiling at the rabbit trying to convince its friends to come out from the trees too. I balled up the top, the dirt on my hands marking it up even more, and threw it as far into the trees as I could. Away from the path the Others had made so they wouldn’t come looking for us. Wouldn’t try to steal us away again, cut us up at the roots.

If the forest claimed Someone, I would too.