Bourbon Penn 18

The Arborists

by Rebecca Bennett

Never plan for the smoothest cut.

Even before the whistle of the bone flute reaches its highest pitch, Craig has the gold paint smeared across his nose. He’s off and running, vanished. Already deep in the forest, darting between the trees. Like always, there is no hesitation to my brother’s movements. He’s swift and sure. Confident in a way that I can only guess. The sound of the whistle is carved into his bones, childhood memories writ into muscle. When Craig was younger, he’d wear the full costume, hiding under the skin of a deer with his face fully painted gold, but now just a faint swipe of gold is all he allows.

Another whistle, this time further away. The sound is sharper. It doesn’t echo through the trees. Instead the sound hangs in the air, heavy and thick as fog. The forest stills, waiting. My father and I don’t move. Even breathing seems too disruptive. My legs tense, aching with the desire to follow the sound as well. To race into the forest and lose myself. The oak tree begins to rustle, its leaves shake, rattling in tune with the vibration of the pitch.

The bark of the tree splits and opens, glowing as the wisp of a dryad is drawn out. It follows Craig as he runs through the woods.

If you don’t draw out the dryad before you cut the oak, the sap turns red and stains the wood. Unstained oak is worth a fortune. There are acres of trees in the bush, but tricking a spirit is always a dangerous prospect. Untrained woodcutters die every year, so many waltz out into the forest with a painted flute looking for their fortune. Worse than the missing bodies are the half-chopped trees left to decay. Stained wood is useless, never fully drying. The sap hardens like crystal until the wood splits.

There’s the barest glow of the dryad through the trees as she chases my brother. The chain saw pitches as it makes the backcut, piercing through the middle and then out the side of the tree. The ax is by my father’s feet, ready to be grabbed the moment the tree falls so we can free it completely. He’s more than halfway through when I hear the three warning whistles of my brother.

Something has gone wrong.

The chain saw stops.

Every spring I worry a little more. Craig is fast, but middle-age is something you can’t outrun. If he’s caught, there’s no goodbye, no body. My brother will vanish and become another system of roots added to the forest floor.

“Beth.” Dad shouts until I turn to face him. His face is red from exertion and cold. The chain saw is still halfway through the tree. He’s so close to being done, stopping now would waste the wood. We’d be destroying a home for no reason at all.

“There’s not much more to go. Get to Craig, I’ll finish off the tree. Everything will be fine. Okay, Bethie? Get Craig. Everything will be fine.”

At his nod, I race into the trees. The chain saw echoes behind me, loud and violent. Even as I run further from the site, I can still hear the shatter of the bark. The chips of wood scattering into the air. From the moment the cutting begins, the dryad will either continue her hunt or return home to protect her tree.

From here on out it’s just timing. Either my father will finish or the dryad will. There’s no in-between: The tree is upright or it’s on the ground. Beyond the whine of the chain saw, there’s a higher pitched noise. One that only I can hear.

The forest hums around me. Pushing me to run faster, run deeper. I spot my brother’s yellow fleece but my legs have trouble slowing. A switch clicks on in the back of my mind, something primitive and selfish. It wants speed and wind. It almost hurts to slow and veer course. Stumbling, nearly tripping across exposed roots, I slow enough to fall to my knees next to Craig. The cold, wetness of mud and dead leaves soak through my jeans.

“Craig?” I didn’t expect to find him — not really. When things go wrong out in the bush, they really go wrong. We’re hours away from any town. Craig is shaking, his arm bent at a strange angle. He’s injured, but he should be dead. “What happened? Are you okay?”

“I fell.” Craig’s face is bloodless. The paleness makes him look older. He could be a stranger, all sweaty and wheezing.

It feels wrong. A dryad never abandons her hunt, not when she’s that close. We’ve lost our own in these woods before. Our blood is sewn into the soil. Granddad hadn’t been too far from the work site either when a dryad caught him. Grandma said she knew the moment it happened, it didn’t matter that she had been washing dishes miles away. It took months before I could speak to her again. I had hated her soft, weighty form that was built for hugs but not for running. She wanted walls and children, but she should have been in the forest. She’d have heard the song; perhaps she could have changed it.

Craig loops his good arm around me and we struggle to stand. Once he’s up, his back is stiff. He’s not leaning into me as much as he should. “Is it here? Can you see it?”

There’s no glowing wisp. But the humming in the base of my spine tells me that the dryad is still alive. She’s circling maybe. Either us or the tree. We need to move faster.

“Did dad finish cutting? I tried to give you as much time before — ”

“No, he’s still working on it.” We hobble together, moving as fast as we can. There’s still chainsawing in the distance. It doesn’t make sense – the dryads have never waited this long to defend their home before. The closer we get to the site, the more the humming strengthens until I can feel the thrum in my chest. She’s here, somewhere. Just watching us.

The site is visible through the trees. The oak has slanted to the left, my father still working at the base. By the time we make it to the edge of camp, the tree is already in motion. The hinge of wood and bark bends. Cracking and splintering up the length until it folds in on itself. It falls with a sharp crack. There’s a finality to the thud when it hits the ground.

My spine tingles. I don’t need to turn around to know the dryad returned. She’s too late, I know that by the chop of the ax. But dryads always return to their tree when it dies. Neither my father nor brother can hear the hum. They don’t see the waning figure of the dryad. The burst of green that shapes itself into a woman’s form, she’ll shrink and harden until an acorn falls to the ground in her place. To them she’s already gone, lost in the debris that carpets the forest’s floor. There’s still a faint hum, muted like it’s been buried. I know she’ll return one day, growing stronger until the next generation cuts her again.

Craig pulls away, almost falling into our father’s open arms. Dad claps him on the back, careful to avoid the injured arm. When dad lets go, Craig steps back, avoiding both of our gazes and rubs the gold paint from his face.

“I’ll cut up the trunk and then we’ll go,” Dad says quietly. “It’s was close today, too close. What happened?”

Craig shrugs, his ears are flushed. He’s still looking out into the trees instead of at us. “I fell.” There’s something he’s not saying. Probably some embarrassment like a bum knee or other marker of age that he wants to ignore. We’re all older than we’d like to admit. Forty is closing in; I never had the patience to hide the gray or cover my lines.

There’s a scratch from a rock or branch on the top of my brother’s head, visible now that he’s losing hair. He’s been planning for his sons to be down here next summer as spotters. If they do well enough they might become runners soon too. Craig has never said that he’d prefer I stayed home, like my grandmother did before me. The hesitation, when he calls me out to the carriage, the too-quick snap of a closed door, speaks clearly enough.

Dad frowns but doesn’t ask again. “Okay, I can ask Uncle Steve, or someone else, to help out next time.” Uncle Steve is younger than dad, he’s in better shape but still pushing 50. It already feels too dangerous.

Craig shakes his head. “No. It’s a good day; it’ll be week before we get another day like this.”

The season for cutting oaks is almost over, the harsh winter kept us out of the woods far too long. We can’t just pick and choose whatever trees to cut. There’s a system, you switch acres with every felling. The dryads take longer to emerge if there are too many cuttings in the same area. It’s better to keep switching places. No one’s stolen onto our property to cut more trees, but who’s to say if next week doesn’t bring more loggers.

“You can’t run with that arm.” Dad’s words are clipped. There’s no room for discussion.

“I know.” Craig sighs. “Beth can run.” Finally he looks away from the forest and nods at me. “She’s fast and she’s always wanted to. She’s been out here as long as I have, she’s paid her dues.”

“No.” It’s quick, decisive. “She can’t.”

I’m not surprised by my father’s reaction. It doesn’t matter that I’ve followed them since my childhood or that I’ve trained longer. There are no children to distract or slow me down. I can run but they’ve never let me. It’s never been an option.

“Beth?” Craig asks. “Do you want to run? If dad binds my arm, I can keep lookout.”

“Yes.” There’s a grin spreading across my face. I want to run. I’ve always wanted to run. At home, I keep to the street. Hard stone beneath my feet keeps me focused. It’s easy to know your limits when the path has already been set and marked. In the forest there’s no limits, no guidance. Even just standing amid the trees, my old life strips away. I have never craved anything the way I crave the sound of rustling trees.

Dad sits on the fallen oak, weight forward on his bad knees until the cartilage pops. He frowns, “I don’t like it. She’s never run before, it’s too dangerous.”

“I can do it.” It’s like being a child again, begging to join them. Pleading to just try on Craig’s costume and promising that I wouldn’t dare run in it.

“Beth … do you still hear the sound?” Dad asks it softly, hesitantly.

The hum is always there. I feel it every time I’m near a tree. It’s gentle, like the whooshing of blood through veins. The steady pulse of the world around me. The sound is stronger when the dryads emerge, it becomes dizzying and intoxicating. It’s why I have to live in the city, limiting my time in the woods to these few outings. Gray buildings, busy roads, they have their own sounds. Loud, of course. Everything in the city is loud. But it dampens the call.

“I haven’t heard it in years.” The lie comes so easily. It falls off the tongue without thought, without hesitation. For a moment, I almost believe it, too. “Not since I was little.”

Dad trusts me. I can see it in his face. He’s wary and concerned about the danger, but he has no reference to double-check. Mom and grandma are not with us in the woods. There’s no other woman to ask for the truth.

• • •

I asked my grandmother about the noise when I was little. I hated being left behind to watch as my brother got to become a god for an afternoon. She told me that when she was little, she had been the runner once. Her brothers had all gone off to fight and she was left behind to help her father with the farm. She wore her brother’s deerskin suit and spent a month practicing darting through the forest. When she blew the whistle, another sound triggered, a hum from the forest that she felt down to her toes. She ran and never wanted to stop. She ran and ran, luring the dryad deeper into the trees — until she swore that both she and the dryad forgot about the old oak tree, until she wanted to disappear into the hum of the forest. Since then, we’ve been left to wait on the sidelines.

When dad brings up the story, it’s easy to remind him that it all happened fifty years ago, two generations removed. He doesn’t like it, but Craig’s confidence sways him.

Craig hands me the bone flute. When I was little, the carvings entranced me. I’d always hold it carefully on the drive out to the woods, making sure it didn’t jostle as we drove over rocks and stumps. It’s shaped like a pan flute, made with hollowed bones. Mom used to say they were just chicken bones, but I’ve never seen a bird with bones that shape.

I stoop a little, so Craig can paint the gold on my nose, taking care to swipe it across my cheeks. The paint dries quickly and crinkles softly when I smile at him.

He surprises me by dipping in for a quick hug. It’s sudden and awkward. Craig mutters something under his breath. It sounds like an apology but the words are lost before he pulls away.

“Ready?” Dad shouts. The chain saw is by his hand, ready to be grabbed once I’m past the first marker. Craig has scrambled on top of the carriage bed so he can see how far into the forest I go.

My teeth clench on the flute, its leather tie stretched against the back of my neck. I breathe through my nose, careful not to make a sound too early. This time when the whistle blows, it echoes from my lips to my ear drums, louder than anything I’ve imagined. This close, it drowns out the sound of heartbeats in my ear.

The first marker blurs behind me before I even realize that I started running. There’s no ache in my legs or chest. Any initial awkwardness melts away as my strides lengthen and pace increases. I blow the whistle again to keep the dryad’s attention. When the grind of the chain saw starts, I know for sure that the dryad is giving chase.

The branches reach out, their limbs rubbing against my own. My arm burns from their scratches, I don’t know whether to veer into them to get a deeper cut or avoid them completely. The thrum of the forest has caught up, drowning out the chain saw. She’s behind me but I can’t say how close.

The buzzing continues until my vision doubles. The chain saw is somewhere far beyond me. I can’t see the orange markers meant to guide the runner, telling them how far they are from camp. If I’ve passed them, I’ve run too far already. Losing track of sightlines is dangerous. There’s always the chance the dryad will abandon the chase in order protect her home. Still something tells me to run, and run, and run. My neck prickles, my coat is damp from sweat that drips from my forehead and burns my eyes.

Grandma used to say our family carried a light inside of us; it just glowed a little more brightly in me and her. At night, when the men were still out in the bush, she’d tuck me into bed and tell me stories about her mother, the fair maiden her father found in the woods. It was why we belonged out there, she’d say. Why we could hear the heartbeat of the forest until it flowed in our veins like sap through the trees. It was dangerous to get lost in it.

Everything blurs. All I can hear is the forest; all I can see is an endless path that just takes me further away from the song. Maybe I can outrun the sound, run until I reach the clearing, leave that buzz somewhere far beyond me. I don’t think I can. The music is intimate and natural. It feels more like home than the city ever has.

I stop running.

In that loss of momentum all of my body’s aches came to the fore. The muscles in my legs stretch and pull like saltwater taffy. There’s a stabbing stitch in my side. It’d all disappear if I started running again. I know it to be as true as my grandmother’s stories. It takes a few blinks before my vision clears. There are no markers. I can’t tell if I’ve run in a straight line. Nothing looks familiar. There’s the dim roar of a chain saw that sounds like it is miles away.

The forest hums at a higher pitch. I can almost hear a song lost in the tones. The dryad is behind me but the music doesn’t sound like a warning. Her scent is carried by breeze, sharp like pine but heady with decay. It’s earth and life, rot and death. Strange and unsettling, but completely familiar. It feels like reaching the end of a race that I didn’t know I had been running.

The dryad moves in front of me. Her wisp is small, no larger than a fist, but it radiates light so it seems larger. Dad would call the color green but he’s never seen them properly. There’s too much brown and red. The wisp brightens until there’s a brief shadow of a woman. But the shape disappears when my eyes readjust. The forest’s pulse skips a beat.

The wisp shakes until the trees shake with her. The ground is still, the birds don’t move, but I can see the trunks of the trees rattle back and forth. I could start running, I should. The dryad hasn’t caught me, not yet. But she’s so close and my family seems so far away.

Had Craig been lured by the sound too? Had he felt the same compulsion to stay? My brother and I so rarely find common ground. These trips to the woods are all there is between us. Once dad goes and Craig brings his children instead, we won’t even have that.

The wisp gets closer and everything becomes simple.

The pounding in my blood, echoing the call of the forest. A tree falls, or we do. That’s always been the trade when felling trees. There’s the human urge to flinch and flee, but it’s buried under the dryad’s song. My skin buzzes when the light touches it. The dryad song changes, it twists until it matches my pulse. It’s like remembering a lullaby, one that you only heard as a child but remember just the same.

“What are you doing to me?” My ears are ringing, my nose bleeding. Is this what happens to the other hunters? My hands are shaking, but I notice a faint green glow under my fingernails. There’s the bright blue of my veins underneath the light.

“You’ve felt the call and are retaking the form that was denied to you.” There’s no voice. But the words are heard. “Your people have taken our homes. Those who don’t steal from us, kill us while we’re sleeping.”

I think of the dead oaks stained with red sap. The small acorns that drop to the forest floor and take root. Each tree has its own song that continues even when the dryad loses her home and makes another. My father and brother have never seen them, never heard their song. Disappeared is a good enough word for them, dead is even better.

“We rejoin the leaves until we create a home again.” The wisp answers what I don’t ask. “Hundred of years.”

The blood from my nose tastes thick and sweet, like sap.

“Once your family took one of ours. We’ve waited a long time for one of our own to return. Your brother promised that you would join us.”

My legs are rooted to the ground. They feel heavy and stiff. The forest has never been clearer, the songs sharper. “Craig?” There’s no surprise. His reluctance to touch me, his willingness to send me as a runner, his mumbled apologies.

The dryad blinks, her color fading. It takes a moment to realize that, beneath the forest’s noise, the chain saw has stopped. The tree is down, her home is gone. She’s disappearing. My father will be hacking at the strip of bark still tying the tree to the base.

There’s a frisson running through my body, one I’m tired of ignoring. My skin burns and glows as it changes. It reminds me of the brightness of my clock back home. I’ve spent years staying awake and watching those numbers. Waiting for the moment I could go outside and run again. I craved grass and trees but was willing to settle for gravel and building.

I called my grandmother weak for avoiding the forests. Thought that she was too afraid, too old-fashioned, too fixated on her family. She had run faster and harder than I could. She outran the dryad, outran the forest’s call. Her single-mindedness drove her. She wanted home and family. I never cared for either.

If I close my eyes I can see him and my brother. One waiting for me to return, the other hoping that I don’t. There’s no room for anger in my changing. The jealousy that spiked whenever he slathered on gold paint and started running seems distant and petty. I’ll join the forest floor and grow into my roots.

We’ll both age, we’ll both die. But I will grow tall and he will shrink back into the earth.

Rebecca writes speculative fiction with small town flair. She’s based in Canada’s capital and spends her free time as a friendly neighbourhood Associate Editor at Apparition Lit. Her short stories and poetry have been published in Strange Horizons, Devilfish Review, Bewildering Stories, Non Binary Review and Flash Fiction Magazine. You can follow her occasional tweets at @_rebeccab