Note: this story is not related to the Journal of a Cartographer. I am posting this on July 9, 2007 because I am unable to post a usual entry. I don't remember much about this story, but I was thinking about it the other day and thought I shoul pull it out. I actually haven't re-read it before posting it--no time.

By way of background--as if you are interested--I wrote this story in either 1999 or 2000 in one of my English classes during my undergraduate work. It was one of those classes in which we studied the classics, and for some reason I had the option of writing a paper or writing a story. Fiction was the entire reason I wanted on English degree, so I chose to write this. When I pulled it out, I was surprised to see how long it was. I am not sure how good it is. I remember thinking at the time it was very good. I did get an A in the class, and I remember my professor's comments about the story: "You obviously take your writing very seriously." At the time, I took it as a compliment.

Enjoy it! As always, I would love to hear what you think of it: h e z e k i a h k i d r o n @ g w c a r t o g r a p h e r . c o m.


Mountain Valley

The humans, like soldier Shamen, called each other “he” and “she,” “him” and “her.”  They said “his” or “hers.”  That’s because they made their babies in that degrading, animalistic, body-fluid-depositing way.  But we lifens called each other “tu” and “eloa,” said “deloa,” because we made our children like plants, with the earth.  We became a parent tree, and the tree grew and provided shelter.  After years it dropped its seed on the ground.  And children sprouted from the seeds, grew like plants until ready to break free of their stalks.

At least, that’s how it used to be.  No one had become a parent tree in over twenty winters.  The magic to create parent trees had Died when the humans first came and wanted to learn the magic.  They’d asked us to teach them.  We had to say no because they did not know Life, or respect it and could not learn the magic.  They only wanted magic so they could Kill their enemies. They didn’t understand that magic doesn’t end life.  It transforms.  So they Killed the magicians and left soldier Shamen in the village to make sure the magic didn’t return.  No longer could lifens become parent trees.  Instead they had their hearts cut out and buried in the ground.

When it finally happened, even the youngest parent tree hadn’t dropped a seed for two years.  The newest child in the tribe had already aged to the point that deloa skin had already changed from that early dirt brown to the yellow color of young grass.  The youngest children could already put their fingers into the ground and make the soil come alive, and could make the trees quiver in gratitude.

No one saw it happen--no one that didn’t become a parent tree.  And later, not even winters later when all of the ones learning magic in secret had revealed themselves, no one would even admit to it.  One minute the youngest children laughed and played in the dirt of the village center, seeing who could call the most worms to a handful of dirt, and the next they were parent trees. Vines sprouted from the ground, broke into their ankles and found the veins.  The magic transformed their blood to vines that raced up the blood vessels in the children’s legs, through their torsos and arms, into their heads, turning them into new parent trees.  The first in twenty winters.

They stayed there motionless, where they had been squatting or standing.  Their skin had changed color, to the mature green of adult lifens, as if they’d aged but not grown taller.  But the change came from the vines that had filled their vessels, from the largest arteries to the smallest capillaries.  Even the whites of their eyes had become green.

The parent trees had returned.

#

Dirn heard the commotion from within the home tu shared with five others.  In the days before the magic was Killed only two lifen shared a home, when they self-bonded, but the absence of new parent trees had reduced the number of homes available.  At the moment Dirn sat alone on the ground, deloa fingers stuck into the dirt, leaning against the trunk of the parent tree that had dropped deloa seed.  Tu heard them shouting; the sound carried easily through the walls created by thin branches and leaves that hung to the ground.  Tu heard them exclaiming something about parent trees and yanked deloa hands from the soil and stood.  Tu was taller than most lifens, and deloa body was greener than most.  Tu had long fingers that reached deep into the ground.

Tu had been a normal lifen when growing--the same height as most lifens, the same color--but that had changed when, at four winters tu began to have the visions that made eloa think tu was crazy.  A lifen, old and colored a green so deep it almost seemed black, came to eloa at night and took eloa from the shelter of the parent tree, led eloa deep into the mountain forest, and taught eloa magic.  Dirn never knew if it was indeed a dream, or if the lifen truly took tu away from deloa home.  It seemed like a dream, but felt more real and substantial, and the things tu learned at night about how to do the magic held true in the morning.  Now, after fifteen winters, Dirn knew how to make the seeds that, when spread on the ground and trod upon, turned a lifen into a parent tree.  Tu knew many ways to transform one life into another, so it didn’t die, but continued on and on.  Tu knew how to take a corn stalk after the corn had been harvested, and turn it into a caterpillar before it Died, so that it didn’t have to be buried.  All of these magics had made Dirn’s skin a deeper green, his fingers longer, and his height greater.  They had made deloa think many times tu was crazy.  Learning from dreams, from visions--that was crazy.

But tu could not do any of the magic.  The lifen in deloa dreams had forbidden eloa because the soldier Shamen would see and report to the other humans, who would come and slaughter all lifens in a hope to learn the magic.

Which is why Dirn felt panic when tu heard through deloa parent tree the lifens shouting about newly-grown parent trees.

Dirn walked through the wall, not bothering to part the branches and leaves with deloa hand.  They shifted and gave way before eloa, respecting deloa respect for life, the fact that tu had never Killed anything.

Brank stood just outside deloa parent tree, just opposite Dirn, looking in confusion at the lifens running between them, toward the village center.  Eloa gave Dirn a questioning look and they ran side by side through the grass, joining the flow of lifens toward the village center.  They sped past many of the dome-shaped parent trees and past a field of young corn.  About two hundred lifen, half the village’s population, had already assembled in the center, speaking in amazed tones and with wide eyes.  Dirn could see over the heads of most, but could not see what they all looked at, converged around.

“The youngest children have become parent trees!” a lifen exclaimed to another.

“But how?” asked the other.

Dirn asked himself the same thing.  Someone had somehow used magic.  But who?  Had they, too, learned from the lifen in deloa visions about how to create the trees?  A few lifen in the village had grown tall and dark like Dirn---Brank was one of them---and eloa suspected that they, too, had learned the magic and become close to Life.  But to use the magic was folly.  Shamen would see, and he would descend from the high mountains to the endless plains and tell the other humans what had happened, that the lifens had regained magic.  Then they would come, and they would Kill the lifens and cut down the parent trees.

Dirn began to push past other lifens.  Brank followed.  Many looked at eloa in anger, their large eyes widening and their thin mouths dropping open.  Tu ignored them.  Tu knew that if the parent trees had indeed come back, it would mean the village’s destruction.  Tu could not let the village be destroyed.  The man in the visions had told eloa not to let it be destroyed.

#

A cold wind blew over the slumbering ground and the frozen-asleep undergrowth as if whispering a thousand tales that no one could understand.  Dirn stood at the base of a pine--or dreamed that tu did.  Tu couldn’t tell.  Details only ten feet away seemed blurred, hazy as if unimportant.  It made eloa think tu might be crazy.  Snow covered the needles and reflected moon and starlight with placid confidence, as if to say, “This time, the winter time, is mine.”

A lifen, the same that Dirn had seen so often during the past several winters, approached.  At fist Dirn only saw the shifting of blurred trees in the distance.  Then tu seemed to see a shadow moving through the forest.  The next moment, the lifen stepped out from behind a pine.  Eloa stood almost three feet taller than Dirn, and deloa skin looked black in the night.  Dirn could feel the respect the lifen had for life, and could sense it even in the sleeping mountain forests.  The trees, the leafless, icy bushes and roots of grass that would grow in the spring--they all knew of the lifen’s respect for life.  Even the snow began to melt at deloa approach.

The lifen came to a stop opposite Dirn, under a tree.  Dirn felt small beneath the huge eyes’ gaze, felt like tu could never draw so near to Life like this lifen had.  It must take fifty winters of communion with Life to have the very snow melt as you draw near.

“What lesson will you teach me tonight?” Dirn asked.

The wind burst momentarily.  Snow sprayed from the branches above dirn, created a white mist between eloa and the lifen.  When the haze passed, the lifen spoke.

“I will teach you only one small thing.”  Eloa voice sounded ancient like the rustling of wind through parent trees.  Water began to drip from the tree above eloa, striking the hard dirt with quiet taps.  “One small thing that has great importance.  You must remember it.”

Dirn nodded, swallowed.

“The humans know nothing of Life.  When Life created us three hundred winters ago, and gave the lifens dominion over the mountain valleys, the humans still had not been created.  They hate us for our heritage, for the closeness we have with our ultimate parent, Life.  Soon after Life created them, they turned away, began to Kill the beasts of the plains.  They separated into tribes and fought.  They Killed one another.  When they discovered us, they did not understand our magic, thought it could be used in their ongoing struggle between tribes, and wanted to learn.  When we would not teach them, because of how they kill the very grass when they walk, slaughter the trees to build their artificial homes, and do no respect to Life or life--when we would not teach them, they began to Kill us.

“You have never seen anything so terrible, Dirn, as the killing of lifens.  Hard, deadly steel slicing through life.  Red blood against green bodies, severed heads and arms and legs.  Lifens Died.  They did not even have their still-beating hearts buried in the soil.

“Life taught us what to do.  We knew we must transform the humans to stop them, so the magicians fought.  They scattered parent tree seeds under the armies of the humans, turned them into parent trees that would bear no fruit.  They filled the spiders with cloning venom, and let them crawl into the humans mouths.  All types of magic did the magicians perform---and many humans became harmless trees or spiders, caterpillars or stalks of grass.  But it wasn’t enough.  The armies of the humans proved too numerous, and Killed the magicians.  They slaughtered thousands of lifens---“

”I’ve heard the lifens once filled the mountains,” Dirn said.

The lifen nodded.  The forest darkened as a cloud passed over the moon.  The water that dripped from above eloa, began to splash, and in the strange way of dreams, Dirn saw clearly in the darkness that the lifen had thawed the ground.  Eloa toes, the length of fingers, wriggled as if unconsciously, worked the water into the dirt, creating mud.

Tu continued.  “The humans Killed nearly all the lifens, chased us here to the highest of the mountain valleys.  Only then did they stop.  They seemed to realize that if they killed us all, they would have no chance of ever learning the magic.  So they left us alone, with the soldier Shamen to watch us, to warn when the magic had returned.”

“I have seen Shamen every day since he came,” Dirn said.  “The trees shy away from him.  The grass weeps under his footfalls.  The deer and the mountain goat flee from his murderous weapons and hands.”

“All humans are like that,” the lifen said.  “They want only dominion by controlling and killing.  Because of them, the magic has gone, and lifens can no longer do the magic.”

“But you’ve taught me.”

“I have.  But you cannot use it.  You must hide the powers you have until I allow you to use them.  And this is why, this is the lesson:  the humans will slaughter us again if they know you have regained magic.  Do not let the humans know you have magic.  For if you do, the humans will come and Kill all the lifens.  Do all you can to prevent your discovery.”

For but a moment the lifen looked at Dirn.  Then tu turned away.  Tu seemed to meld with the trees--the trees and sleeping underbrush, as if momentarily awakened, seemed to hide eloa, for after one step, Dirn could not see the lifen.  All that remained was the mud, now rapidly freezing, where tu had stood.

#

When Dirn reached the center of the village, had pushed past the last lifen, tu found that tu could not go any further.  Wonder filled deloa heart, along with fear and anger.  Though when very young, before the magicians had been killed, tu had certainly seen the transformation of old lifens to parent trees, and though the lifen in deloa visions--dreams--had taught eloa how to create a parent tree, tu had never seen a newly-transformed parent tree.

They still looked like young lifens, except for how their smooth green skin had begun to peel away.  They still had their legs and arms, the features of their faces, their fingers and toes, but they remained motionless.  They’d taken root close together.  One knelt in the dirt, another stood over its shoulder, its head tilted back and it mouth wide in a laugh.  Dirn could see the sprouts of vine in the roof of that one’s mouth.  Three stood close to one another, looking down into the soil in the cupped hands of one.

Dirn found them beautiful, and eloa knew that this was how life should continue on.   Tu understood in that moment, as tears filled deloa eyes, the travesty of not having magic to turn the old ones into parent trees, the atrocity of any lifen’s head being severed, of Dying.

#

Dirn, only aged four winters, stood at the side of another lifen, a child of the same parent tree as eloa.  Before them, on the ground, lay another, colored deep green with tight, unyielding skin.  Tu had come from the same parent tree, was one of Dirn’s siblings.  Eloa had lived forty winters.  The time had come for eloa to become a parent tree.  Only there was no magic, since the humans had Killed the magicians two years before.  Four held eloa arms and legs down in the small, grassless clearing, next to a hole five feet deep and half a foot wide.   A fifth lay over the ancient’s belly.  Yet another lifen knelt at the ancient’s chest.

“Must it be like this?” Dirn asked.

The lifen next to Dirn said, “Yes.  It must.  Without the magic, this is the only way for us to try and continue life.”

The lifen at the chest of the ancient touched the ancient one’s chest with long fingers, ran them tentatively down the wrinkled torso.  With a grim, long look into the ancient’s eyes, eloa dug deloa fingers into the chest.  Blood gushed upwards and out, and the ancient one arched deloa back with a shrill screech.  The lifen dug with deloa fingers, pulling away skin and flesh.  Dirn heard ribs crack and the lifen tossed aside a set of small bones.  The ancient one continued to wail, and the five holding eloa down struggled to keep eloa still.

Dirn felt tears welling in deloa eyes, anger and indignation in deloa heart.  How dare the humans do this to them!  Take their magic so that lifens must continue life in this manner!

The lifen dug, reached in with both hands into the ancient’s chest.  Blood ran down the transforming lifen’s torso, spurted up into deloa face.  With a sickening tearing sound, the lifen yanked, and deloa hands came free of the chest, holding a red, pulsing mass.

“Say the words!” the lifen shouted.

“May the earth take my heart!” the ancient one shouted, fixing deloa eyes on the organ in the other’s hand.  “May my life continue in the earth!”  Dirn could hardly understand the words, whether because of what went on in delao mind, or because of the tortured mispronunciations, tu couldn’t be sure.

With that the lifen turned and dropped the heart into the hole.  It beat as it fell, red and glistening into the earth.

The ancient struggled for a few last moments as the lifen with blood up and down deloa chest and arms shoveled the dirt into the hole with deloa hands.  By the time eloa filled the hole, the ancient had become still.

When all the others had left, young Dirn stepped up to the husk of the ancient, still laying next to where deloa heart was burried, deloa fingers and toes deep in the ground.  Dirn looked down in the gaping chest, saw bones pointing in several directions, a few other organs, one blue, one white, another yellow, smashed and deformed.  The smell made his own heart flutter, his own inner organs twist.

No lifen should transform, continue life, in such a manner.  It was not right.

#

But this was right, Dirn knew as he looked at the new parent trees.  This was very right.

But it could not be.  The humans would know that magic had returned.  They would come and Kill the lifens.

Dirn looked around, at the lifens surrounding eloa.  There, in the very front row, stood crazy Edean, who claimed that the lifen tu had bonded with, taken as a mind companion thirty winters ago, visited eloa many nights.  There stood, in the midst of other, shorter lifens, Brank, an inch taller than Dirn, a deeper green.  Dirn had always suspected that Blank and several other knew magic, because of their height and color, because of how the plants seemed to respect them.

#

Brank had long since concluded that tu was as crazy as Edean, only not as great a fool because tu didn’t tell anyone that tu saw a lifen in deloa sleep.  Only now, looking at the new parent trees, tu wondered if tu wasn’t insane for thining tu was insane.  Someone had to have created the parent trees.  Who?  Hadn’t the lifen in deloa dreams warned that this would happen someday?  Tu couldn’t remember.  The lifen acted so mysterious, knowledgeable, holy, and feigned to teach Brank magic.  Eloa was so tall and so dark that at first Brank thought that surely eloa was simply a dream, so tu resisted the eloa at first.  After they persisted for months, eloa believed them.  Then eloa didn’t.  Eloa shifted from belief to disbelief and after a while, after having the same dreams over and over, tried it once, tried the magic.

Tu had walked far away from the village, to a place where the ice laced the river during all times of the year, and tried to do the magic.  Tu had buried eloaself in the dirt, up to eloa chest, stuck deloa fingers into the ground, and tried to make the corn seed tu had just planted grow tall in moments.  The magic failed, and so Brank tried to ignore the lifen in deloa dreams.  But eloa wouldn’t go away, and insisted there were reasons for the magic’s failure.  Brank had long since forgotten about the reasons, because the lifen had pestered eloa so much in deloa dreams that eloa decided to simply go along with it all, pretend that eloa believed in the methods of magic the lifen taught.

Tu had lost track of how many winters eloa had had the dreams.  Tu immediately forgot about them when tu woke up.  Deloa extra height and darker color almost made eloa sometimes think that perhaps the things the lifen taught eloa were true.  After all, the grass did seem to enjoy deloa touch, and the corn responded to deloa coaxing very well.  But if there were others who had also grown tall and dark, who could plant and grow well.  Surly they, too, weren’t having the insane dreams.  Some lifens simply grew taller and darker than others, and could make the plants grow better.  Eloa couldn’t explain it beyond that.

But now, eloa knew that someone knew the magic.  Someone had gotten it to work.  Had Edean?  Had the lifen taught eloa the magic, as well, and eloa had done this?  No.  Looking at eloa Brank as that tu was as short and pale as many other lifens.

#

Dirn’s eyes met Brank’s, and the fear and knowledge Dirn saw in deloa eyes confirmed deloa suspicions:  Brank understood what went on in Dirn’s own mind, because Brank knew what would happen if Shamen found out about the parent trees.  Tu knew because the same lifen in Dirn’s visions--dreams--had told eloa.  The look in Brank’s eyes suddenly made this fact clear to Dirn.

And Dirn saw the struggle going on in Brank’s eyes, the same one that went on in deloa own.

Brank nodded, almost imperceptibly, and Dirn knew what must be done.

Us both? Dirn mouthed.

Brank looked at eloa in confusion, mouthed back.  I can’t.  Brank eyes, how they got small, said eloa told the truth.  Eloa couldn’t disrespect life, couldn’t preserve the lifens.

Please do it with me, Dirn mouthed.

Brank looked at eloa for one more second, then turned away and began to push back through the crowd, away from the parent trees.

#

Brank didn’t know what to think as eloa hurried off and away from Dirn.  What had Dirn wanted?  Brank couldn’t tell, could hardly read lips, but knew that eloa needed to think, to decide what eloa should do about deloa dreams and the magic.

#

Dirn’s heart felt weak as eloa turned back to the parent trees.  All around eloa the lifens still exclaimed and pointed, wondered aloud at how this happened.  A few wondered what Shamen would do.

Dirn knew, and eloa knew what needed to happen before Shamen came and saw the parent trees.

Tu stepped forward, and though tu knew it would forever change deloa life, knelt and reached into the chest of the nearest parent tree.  The skin gave way, ripped before his long, slender fingers.  Some of it flaked off, falling to the ground.  Dirn had almost expected blood to flood out over deloa hands, but instead there came nothing.  The organs inside the parent tree’s trunk felt cold and lifeless, and the ribs cracked easily at deloa fingers’ intrusion.  Tu found the heart, still beating, and closed deloa hand around it.  With all deloa strength--of mind and body---tu pulled.

Tu had once watched as Shamen pulled a flower from the earth, roots and all.  He had never forgotten the sound it made, the sound of life being torn out of the soil.  The heart coming out of the parent tree’s torso made the same sound.

Cold enveloped Dirn and tu understood why Shamen always wore five layers of clothes--he was not close to Life, did not receive life’s comforting warmth.  And now, with this action, Dirn too was not close to life, and a chill filled deloa body.  Deloa hands and arms turned a pale yellow in an instant, before tu could even throw the heart down and reach for the second.  Tu wanted to scream at the iciness in deloa heart and body, at the emptiness tu suddenly felt.  The parent trees a hundred feet away, the grass beneath the feet of other lifens ten feet away, the deer and mountain goats off in the forest, all suddenly seemed to leap away from eloa, to shy away at deloa mere presence.

The lifens, too, suddenly fell silent at this sudden entrance of Death.  Where tu had always felt very near to them, to all of the other lifens, Dirn now felt like a stranger.  But with hardly a glance at them, eloa threw the heart into the dirt with a thud, and reached for a second.

A deafening roar filled deloa ears, and tu felt hands grabbing eloa.

“How could you do this?” a voice shouted as tu was lifted up into the air, so if tu did not turn deloa head tu would stare past the trees and nearby mountain peaks, into the endless blue sky.  The hands gripped eloa, felt warm against deloa cold skin as they carried eloa away from the parent trees.

“Tu must be ejected from the village!” someone cried.

“Tu has desecrated life!”

“Why would tu Kill a parent tree?”

“Why, when it had just returned?”

The voices pounded deloa ears as tu looked around, at the faces and arms that carried eloa past the full-grown parent trees.  A sudden wind made the hanging leaves and branches whisper in reproach, and Dirn wailed at their song.

#

Only a few lifens stayed behind as the rest carried the murderer Dirn off, to expel eloa from their presence until tu could gain forgiveness from Life.  They never expected to see eloa again.

The few that remained behind watched as Shamen approached the new parent trees.  He stepped cautiously, as if trying not to kill the grass he trod on.  The lifens stood motionless as Shamen, dressed in his abhorrent furs, walked up to the parent trees.  Realization painted his dirty, bearded face, and in only a few moments he turned and began to run eastward.  He smiled as he sprinted.

#

Dirn had never shivered before.  Even in the deepest winters when the snows went up to deloa chest, tu had never felt cold.  But now tu shivered, tu felt cold as tu sat with deloa back against an oak, deloa fingers deep in the ground for a semblance of comfort.  But the little bugs in the dirt wouldn’t come near eloa.  The blind earthworms wriggled away.  Even the soil seemed to want eloa to leave.

Tu wanted to disappear, to Die.  Tu wanted to turn eloaself into a parent tree--and would have if tu had thought the magic would work for eloa now.  But it wouldn’t.  A strange emotion, one tu thought tu had never felt before, flitted across the back of deloa mind.

Tu knew, as tu sat there in a grove miles away from the village, listening to the sound of a distant waterfall talking endlessly to the plants around it--tu knew that tu had acted rashly, had done the wrong.  But tu knew that tu would make the same decision again if tu had to.  The human Shamen would see the parent trees and tell the other humans.  He probably already had.  Dirn had tried to prevent that, and although tu had failed, tu knew it had been necessary.  Now, because no other lifen understood the danger, or was willing to do what needed doing, the whole village would suffer.

Dirn shifted, lifted deloa knees to deloa chest, and wriggled deloa toes into the dirt.  Tu felt a centipede flinch at deloa touch, then hurry off.  All around tu heard the noise of the forest.  The birds singing, the trees rustling and the bushes, flowers, and grass humming.  But tu understood none of it.  Tu felt like a victim, like a misunderstood martyr.  The feeling continued to taunt the back of deloa mind.

Tu sat there throughout most of the afternoon, thinking and feeling sorry for deloaself.  Many thoughts passed through deloa mind, many desires.  Tu thought of returning to the village and explaining eloaself, and having Brank verify deloa story.  But they wouldn’t believe.  They would cast eloa out again, not caring that soon the humans would come and they all would Die or become slaves.  Tu thought of just going off, of leaving the village and heading even further into the mountains, or lower, and eventually, after regaining the trust of Life, turning deloaself into a parent tree to drop seeds and begin a new village of lifens.  But no, that wouldn’t work.  Who would teach the children the magic?  Who would teach the children how to treat the earth and help grow the corn?

Again tu thought of the stupidity of the other lifens, their unwillingness to let eloa Kill the parent trees in order to save the whole village.  They were idiots!  They would suffer for it!  Abruptly the emotion that had teased eloa came to the front of deloa mind, and tu understood what it was:  anger.  Tu had felt it before, when watching the lifen rip another’s heart out and burry it.  Only now it wasn’t directed toward the humans.

Tu continued to sit there for some time, considering this anger, letting it fill eloa, as if nourished enough it would grow to fill the emptiness inside eloa, warm the cold tu felt.  It did grow, and it made Dirn think of things tu had never considered, brought new and unspeakable thoughts.  As the afternoon waned, as the anger transformed to hate, a plan sprouted in deloa mind, and just before the sun set, tu stood and headed east, toward the plains.

#

No one saw the tall, dark lifen walking through the village near dusk.  No one ever did.  Eloa moved under the cover of Life, visible to anyone that asked the parent trees, the grass, the wind to show the invisible things, the things they hid from the eyes of those not so close to them as to see the one that wanted to be hidden.  A few, the ones who secretly knew magic, who understood what Dirn had done and why, thought they saw a shifting or rippling of the parent trees, grass, or bushes, just like they’d seen in their visions or dreams.  But they said nothing.  The blur passed quickly, could not be kept in the direct line of sight for more than a moment.

The lifen, tall and dark, hidden by Life, headed for the village center, where hundreds of lifen still congregated, rejoicing over the new parent trees.  Tu seemed to move twice the normal length for one stride of a lifen--and doubtlessly tu did; the grass and the wind and the trees pushed eloa along, helped eloa move further with each step.  Tu arrived at the crowd and sifted through them.  They stepped aside without realizing why, without understanding that the wind bade them move for the deep green lifen that towered feet over even the tallest of them.

When tu came to the parent trees, tu looked at them with wide eyes soon replaced by a grim realization.  Most of the skin had already flaked off the parent trees, crackling away like leaves falling in the late autumn, revealing an intricate system of vines ranging from the thinness of the tinniest root, to the thickness of a lifen’s finger.  The sloughed-off skin lay on the ground around the parent trees, shifted in the wind.  The parent tree without a heart had already shriveled and stood stooped like an unbearably ancient human, unable to continue life any longer.  Its vines looked haggard and listless, dry and lifeless.

The lifen looked through the crowd until spotting one tu recognized.

“Brank,” tu said, using the magic to make eloaself visible to the one tu addressed.

Brank, who stood about twenty feet away, a head taller than most lifens, started at the call and upon seeing the one tu had only seen in dream visions.  “Master?  What are you doing here?  I’m not dreaming.”

“Who did this, Brank,” the lifen asked.

Brank still appeared lost.  “Dirn did it.  Dirn tore out the heart.”

“Not that.  Who transformed these children to parent trees?”

“I don’t know.  Nobody knows.”

Some lifens began to look at Brank in confusion.  “Who are you talking to?” one asked.  Tu looked at the lifen who’d spoken, did not respond, and looked back to deloa master.  Tu wrung deloa hands, swallowed nervously.

“It wasn’t time yet,” the lifen said, furrowing deloa ancient brow.  “The lifen’s aren’t strong enough yet.  Has Shamen already seen these?”

Brank nodded.  “They say he saw them and ran off.”

“Why didn’t you stop him, like I commanded you?”

“I wasn’t here,” Brank said.  “I was . . . helping to take care of Dirn for deloa offenses.”

“Neither of you have learned the lessons I had hoped to teach you,” the lifen said.  “None of you have.”  Tu shook deloa head once more, then made deloaself invisible.

Brank lowered deloa head and turned.  For a second time, tu pushed back through the crowd.

The towering lifen looked for a few moments at the parent trees.  “Where is Shamen?” tu asked the wind.  Eloa watched as a patch of dry skin flaked from one of the parent tree’s arms, and waited for the answer.  It came in a few moments, as the nearby parent trees rustled like a hundred voices whispering in unison.  The lifen could hear the fear of the human in the forest’s voice, the longing of Life for him to love it.

“He is by the fork in the river, above the waterfall and below the rapids, where the deer drink their fill.”

“And where is Dirn?”

The answer came too quickly, tinged with sadness and regret.  “Eloa runs to the east by the river, toward the fork above the waterfall and by the rapids, by where the deer drink their fill.”

The lifen’s eyes widened once again at the response, and tu turned and moved back through the crowd, toward the east.

#

When the humans brought their multitudes into the mountains, thousands of magician lifens joined forces to transform them into harmless animals or plants.  Soid was one of them, but when the time came for the battle, deloa chief, the oldest of all the lifens, told eloa to stay back and behind, to run off into the forest and not let anyone know tu had abandoned the army by orders.  That way, the chief said, if the humans overcame, at least one lifen would remain to teach the lifens magic again.  Soid obeyed, and after two winters went to the village the remaining lifens had established in the highest mountain valley.

Tu watched in sadness as so many lifens had their hearts buried in the ground.  Corn stalks died upon giving up their offering.

Soid visited deloa bonding-partner, and tu became known as Crazy Edean because tu claimed that Soid had not died in the battle, but lived and would teach magic to the sensitive ones.  No one believe eloa.  No one tried.

Now, almost twenty winters later, Soid recognized the danger of having Edean tell about deloa willingness to teach anyone magic.  Shamen might’ve taken it seriously.  But, luckily, he hadn’t.  Soid also now knew that deloa initial effort to gain followers would now work for deloa good:  if anyone tu chose to teach tried to tell anyone about the dream-visions, they would be named crazy.  They would be quiet.  They all had been, for twenty winters.

But now this.  Now one of deloa students had made a grave error.  Two of them had, counting Dirn.  Three, counting Brank.  The fools.  None of them had been thinking, apparently.  Despite deloa sternest, most solemn warnings, they’d not thought before acting.  Now tu would have to fix the problem.  It shouldn’t be too difficult, though.  Not with the power tu had.

#

Night had already arrived when Dirn caught up with Shamen.  The human lay on the ground, bundled in furs and sleeping with his mouth wide open.  His snoring could hardly be heard next to the river’s rumbling---the falls down river, the rapids up river.  Dirn had never known it got colder during the night.  Tu longed for warmth, to cover eloaself in furs like Shamen had done.

Tu sat for several minutes, hugging eloaself and trying to ignore the voices in the back of deloa head, saying that what tu planned wasn’t right, shouldn’t be done no matter what.  Tu had already done one thing wrong that day, had already chased away the closeness with Life.  Why do it again?  The answer came easily and quickly, now, after repeating it so many times.  Why do it again?  Because.  Because tu had nothing else to live for, no more hope, nothing else to loose.  It would take winters and winters to regain the closeness to Life, probably more winters than Dirn had left.  The average Lifen lived to forty winters, and Dirn had already reached twenty-four.

Yes, tu had to do this.  Not only for eloaself, but also to get back at the other lifens, the short-sighted, unforgiving creatures.  They would understand why tu had done it--all of them would understand.

Dirn stood.  Tu nearly tripped over a root and anger welled in eloa.  Tu had never tripped over anything, not even on a moonless, stormy night---not only because the wind and the plants had spoken to eloa, taught eloa where to set down deloa foot with each step, but because tu could see well at night.  But now with the cold came a darkness that tu had never encountered, a silence in the rustling trees and swaying plants.  Dirn hated to trip, and that made eloa angry.  Tu took a step toward Shamen, to wake him.

Tu saw for the first time a spot of orange light no larger than a spider, undulating, growing more intense one moment, less the next.  Dirn stepped closer and saw in the darkness a thin stream of smoke rising from the glow embedded in the surface of a black, charred log.  Ashes surrounded the dead wood, and smaller black sticks.  A ring of stones surrounded the dead fire.  And as Dirn stepped on one and bent to get a closer look at the ember, a blessed warmth on the bottom of deloa foot surprised eloa.

It was a tiny warmth, one that hardly dispelled the coldness in Dirn’s foot, let alone the rest of eloa.  But it changed Dirn’s plans in an instant.  Tu could have warmth, didn’t have to wait twenty winters.  Tu could have warmth now.

A wind gushed through the dark forest.  The trees shuddered and hissed under the blowing, as if to warn Dirn about the dangers of fire.  The wind also made the ashes twirl and twist inside the ring of stones, as if to show the horror of Dead things, of things not transformed into another life.  Yet the wind also made the glowing ember flare, grow larger.  When the breeze died, the glow lessened, became smaller.

Dirn understood how to make eloaself warm right then.

Kneeling with deloa knees on the rocks, deloa hands in the warm ashes and burnt sticks, Dirn put his face close to the ember and blew with all deloa force.  The ember flared.  Tu blew again, and the spark grew larger.  A third blow made a thin flame sprout from the wood.  It winked out a moment later.

Another gale pushed through the glade.  The smell of the ground, so much duller than even earlier that day, swirled around the fire pit.  For a moment Dirn seemed to hear a plea from the forest, the waterfalls and rapids, the very earth---he heard a begging that tu not tap the power of fire.  The begging grew louder and louder.  Dirn looked up and around, amazed that the forest would talk to eloa.  Then tu saw it.

It came from the river’s other bank, like the forest itself was shifting and moving toward eloa.  Just like in deloa dreams---visions.  The green shape of the forest advanced, seemed to detach itself from the undergrowth and leaves, and hesitated for a moment on the riverbank.  As Dirn pulled deloa hands from the ashes and stood, the living forest glided, flew across the fifteen feet of the river, over the roiling waters as if it were solid ground, then halted on the other side of the still snoring human.  At that moment, the blur disappeared, and there stood the ancient lifen, looking like a living shadow.

“I’m not dreaming or seeing a vision,” Dirn whispered.

“You should have thought a moment more,” the ancient said, and the trees shook their branches in agreement.  “You should have waited and used the magic to turn Shamen into a parent tree.  Or waited until he was alone, and done this.”

The lifen extended a hand over the human’s head, and magically Dirn saw in perfect detail, as if tu had not lost the night vision, a spider dangling from the ancient’s forefinger.  It descended from the finger on a shining thread, and in but a moment had disappeared into Shamen’s gaping mouth.

“I panicked,” Dirn said.  Tu did not pull deloa eyes from the human.  Tu knew what would happen, knew tu could have done with magic exactly what the ancient had done.  “I know I did the wrong.”

“And you must suffer the consequences.”

“It’s so cold.”

“It will get colder.”

“I can’t wait.”

“You must wait.”

“I---.”  Tu had kept deloa eyes on the human, and as expected saw a spider crawl out of his mouth, down his bearded cheek, over the blankets, and onto the dirt.  A second followed.  Then five more.  Then the spiders poured from the mouth, crawling over the human’s face and neck, in his ears and up his nose, on his chest.  Thousands of them, ranging in color from dull brown to white to red.  They spread out over the ground, crawling away from their birthplace.  They skirted around the fire pit and avoided Dirn with equal precision.  Soon, when all of the spiders had left, only she skin would remain, and it would collapse to the ground, empty like unused clothing.

“It will take time before Life accepts you again.”

“I can’t wait.  It’s too cold.  Too dark.”  Tu continued to watch the spiders.  The flow from the mouth had slowed, and already the mound of blankets and skin had begun to sag.

The lifen stayed silent.  Tu looked at Dirn with measuring, weighing eyes and thin lips.  “I can help you.”

“How?”

The last of the spiders had emerged, and with a quiet whistling, an escape of air from the useless, open mouth, the husk of Shamen deflated, flattened.  The deformed, bearded face looked much like the lifeless blankets of fur.  The spiders still covered the nearby ground, and in the darkness it looked like the soil lived and moved.

“I can stay with you, help you on the way.  But there are no shortcuts.”

Dirn did not respond for a moment.  Tu looked from Shamen to the fire pit, and saw that the ember had died out.  Tu took a step forward, so Tu stood in the midst of the ashes and burnt sticks.  They felt warm on deloa feet, yet Tu shivered.  Tu thought of the new parent trees, of Brank, and the ancient before eloa.  Tu thought of the humans and Life’s unforgiving nature.

“Come,” the ancient said, and turned to walk.

After a moment of watching the tall, dark green lifen walk, Dirn, too, began to walk.

END

 
 
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