Ash and Bone

 

Ash and Bone

Father and I sat on our legs and balanced on our feet, so only our toes could feel the mossy silt at the edge of the river. The mud was smooth and coated in a green slime that Father called water-moss. Father knew the names of things.

“You want to find a rock that hasn’t been worn too smooth by the water,” he told me, pointing to the stone-cobbled bottom of our river. All the stones I saw looked very smooth.

“The stones are all round and smooth,” I told Father, but Father was smart. He reached into the river and flipped over some of the stones. Underneath them he found a less smooth stone and pulled it up from the mud. The river-mud objected with a loud sucking pop. “You see?” he asked me, “the river hides things. We must look for the hidden things.” He handed me the rock he had stolen from the river and stole another for himself.

Father rose from his squat easily, for Father was strong as well as smart, and walked into the trees. The trees were wide vertical lines, pointing up and up and farther up than I could see. Their trunks were bare to the height of three men, but above their branches grew parallel to the floor, as straight out as the trunks grew straight up. I followed Father, but we did not go deeply into the trees before he bent to the ground.

“This,” he said proudly, hefting a long straight fallen branch as big around as his thumb, “this is the perfect branch for you,” and he tossed it to me. I snatched it from the air, and Father smiled. We walked back to our river. I waved at Mother, standing on the platform Father had built for our house between two trees on either side of our river. She smiled down at me and went back inside.

When Father and I returned to our rocks at the side of our river, he dropped back into his squat. I did the same and picked up my rock with the hand that wasn’t holding my branch. Father showed me how to peel the bark off one end of my stick and how to rub the rock against it to make a point. I squatted beside the river with the mud between my toes for a long time, sharpening my branch like Father showed me.

As the sun grew larger and dropped closer to the ground, Father called me up to our platform above our river. He was sitting with his feet dangling over the edge and his own sharp wooden spear in his hand. I sat next to him.

“Alright, let’s see how you did,” he said reaching for my stick. I handed it to him. He tested the point with the tip of his thumb, and smiled when a small dot of red bloomed there. “Very good,” he smiled and handed my spear back to me. “Now, you need to be both as still as a stone and quicker than the wind. Watch me.” Father sat very still, holding the tip of his spear just above our river below us. Then he moved so quickly I barely saw his spear flash in and out of the water, but when he pulled it back a fish squirmed on it. He pulled the fish off his spear and dropped it into a basket Mother had made by weaving strips of bark. “Your turn,” he announced, suddenly serious.

Together Father and I practiced fishing every day, and by the time the moon was full again I could catch as many as he could. Father was proud. We took our fish into our house on our platform above our river every night and Mother took off their heads and scales with a very flat rock, then slid their flesh from the bones. We ate them squishy and river-cold. Sometimes when we fished Mother went into the trees to gather berries and leaves and mushrooms. She did not grow up in the trees like Father did. She grew up in the tall grasses beyond the place the trees ended, and she knew well which plants tasted the best.

After dark, when Father slept,  I learned that Mother was wise. She taught me the stories of the stars and of her Mother’s people in the grasses, and she taught me about the Woodsmen.

We were quiet when we stood on our platform above our river and looked up. “There,” Mother said, pointing up at the stars, “is the Great Deer. He rules the the tall grasses, and the people of the grasses never kill him. The Great Deer showed my Mother’s Mother which grasses and leaves to eat, where to find berries, and which mushrooms would not kill a man. But there, see behind him? That is the Wolf of the Woods. He hunted all the deer from the trees, until they were forced to leave their homes and live among the grasses where the Great Deer would protect them.”

I loved learning about the stars from Mother, for Mother was wise. But I always asked for stories of the Woodsmen. Usually she’d shake her head quietly and look over her shoulder for Father. One night, though, he slept deeply and she did not refuse me.

“The Woodsmen found me after Father brought me from the grasses to live with him in the trees. Father grew up in the trees, and his Father before him, but I grew up in the grasses like my Mother before me, and the trees are dark at night. I was frightened. I stood outside every night while he slept and stared at the stars and wondered what would become of me. One night I walked down to the river to watch it wash over its’ smooth stones, and suddenly I was surrounded by tiny men. They wrapped my hands around a cool blue rock and I was never afraid of the trees again. They disappeared so quickly I did not see them go, and I have never found them again. But soon after their visit you were born. I believe their blue rock was courage for me, and courage for you.” Mother was wise, and even though Father said the Woodsmen weren’t real, I believed Mother. I had never been afraid of the trees, and I saw Mother’s blue rock hanging on a cord under her shirts.

Father had taught me to fish as his Father had taught him before he was sent into the trees alone. Mother taught me the stars as her Mother had taught her in the tall grasses she had once called home.

One night I stood with Mother above our river and pointed to the Wolf of the Woods.

“His tail is longer, Mother. There is a new star beyond his tail.”

“The Wolf of the Woods runs very slowly, but yes, child, he has moved and now we can see the trail he leaves behind him.”

I stared up at the new star in the sky and thought of the Wolf of the Woods and his battle with the Great Deer of the Grasses until my eyes began to feel strange and the night sky grew somehow clearer, brighter. I felt Mother staring at me and when I looked at her she put her hand to her chest, touching her cool blue rock from the Woodsmen through her clothes.

“What’s wrong Mother?” When I looked over at her she seemed washed by a tide of the deepest blue light swirled with specks of silver.

“I see you now, child. I see what you are. You have eyes of the night and the stars.”

The next morning I grabbed up my spear as usual and walked outside to sit beside Father at the edge of the platform to fish. He was on the ground though, as was Mother. I climbed down our ladder to face them next to our river.

“It is the end of summer,” Father began, “and you must go into the trees and find a strong husband.” He hugged me quickly and climbed back to his platform above his river.

Mother gave me two deer pelts she had saved from her childhood in the grasses. The first she draped gently around my shoulders. The fur was soft and thick, the sweet brown of young tree bark and shallow dirt, dappled with fawny white spots. The second she had fashioned into a sack. When she handed it to me I saw it was filled with berries and mushrooms, and wide leaves wrapped into packets filled with strips of cold fish flesh.

She wrapped her arms around my neck and brushed her lips against my ear. “You must hide from men,” she whispered, “for they will not know you for what you are. You must walk only at night, and you must find the Woodsmen.” She stood back and looked at me. I was barefoot, wrapped in the pelt she had given me, clutching my spear in one hand and her food in the other. “Go,” she commanded, so I nodded and turned away from her.

Father was smart, I knew. If I could find a strong man to lay beside me beneath my pelt I might stay warm enough to survive the winter nights ahead. But Mother was wise, so after walking out of sight of Fathers house I curled up on a warm rock and slept until night fell. As the moon brightened over me I woke and began to walk, and the walking kept me warm. My legs learned swiftness from the night wind, and my eyes learned to pour their silvery-blue light from the stars above. When I’d eaten Mother’s food I tore the sack into strips and wrapped them around my feet. I learned to hunt mice from the owls, and I learned from the mice to hide quietly from what would eat me.

Soon enough the air grew too cold for the sun to warm it during the day. The leaves faded from their brilliant green into golds and reds and oranges, then they faded further until each tree was wrapped in the same brown flag. In weak yellow sunlight I slept under the thick piles of fallen leaves that had layered themselves beneath the trees, but I lived at night. I walked among the tall straight sentries, the brown-skinned oaks and the red-skinned pines and the silvery-skinned birches. I watched the moon swell until she seemed she might burst, then I watched her waste away into nothing again. I kept moving through the trees, but only at night as Mother had told me, for Mother was wise. Some nights rain whispered onto the leaves around me, other night pressed cold air against my skin, but I kept walking. I saw great birds with long thin necks streak through the sky above me. I learned to tell the approach of sunrise by the mists rising heavy and blue and grey from the small round waters I passed. I walked until I saw sand beneath my feet among the trees, and then I walked amongst tree trunks crusted with black soot, veined and dead-looking. There were no leaves on the ground in this place, just sandy ground and blackened trees. That same night as I stared up at the stars, watching the Wolf of the Woods forever chasing the Great Deer of the Grasses, the wind spiraled around me. It carried flat white disks of snow. I watched them surround me, and before they could land to melt into the sand at my feet, the Woodsmen had found me.

They came down from the tree branches around me and up from the sand under my feet. I wondered how they’d gotten their name; they did not look like men. They were neither grown nor were they children; they were neither male nor female. Their feet did not touch the ground when they walked nor did their hands touch the tree branches they climbed. I was only as tall as a young sapling, but still I stood head and shoulders above them. They surrounded me suddenly on that night of the first snow and led me wordlessly to a great fallen tree whose roots had been wrenched from the ground and formed a wall of dirt I couldn’t reach the top of with my arms outstretched. The Woodsmen swarmed down into a hole between the roots and I followed them because Mother had told me to find them, and Mother was wise.

We walked silently down a long tunnel that wound deeper and deeper beneath the surface. They pointed at the silvery deep blue light from my eyes and gestured to each other excitedly. After walking longer than I knew, the tunnel opened into a great cavern with a stone floor like the bottom of Father’s river and walls threaded through with white roots as thick around as the oldest trees I’d ever known. The roof of this enormous space was so far above me I could not see it, but I could see the rest of the space as clearly as if the sun lit it. I had grown used to my eyes’ silver-blue light in the tunnel, and the sight of the sun’s own golden, orange, and red light deep under the ground frightened me. I clenched my spear tightly in one hand and shielded my eyes with the other. My apprehension set the little Woodsmen scampering about and pointing to the center of the room. I followed their fingers with my eyes and saw the sun itself cradled in a great black bowl and these tiny androgens who I’d thought were silent began speaking in the windy voices of trees.

“Fire. Fire. Fire.” they whispered.

I approached this underground sun with the Woodsmen circling me and chanting the one strange word they could speak. I reached out with my spear and stabbed into the ball of light, whose heat I could feel from several paces away. I pulled the point back quickly, half-expecting to have speared a piece of this sun, but the sharp point only came back blackened. I stared at it and soaked up the warmth of the Woodsmen’s earthbound sun. One of them pushed something hard and warm into my hand. I opened my palm to find a round red gemstone wrapped snugly in golden metal and attached to a long loop of leather cord. I slipped it around my neck and looked into the stone. I felt my eyes emit their silver-blue light and the Woodsmen together whispered “fire” again. As I looked deeper I felt my feet grow hot suddenly. When I looked at the ground in front of them I saw another sun erupted on the stones beyond the gemstone.

“Fire…” the Woodsmen moaned again. I dropped the stone against my chest as the surrounded me again and felt its heat against my skin as the walked me back up their tunnel. I was glad to be away from their strange golden-red light and back to mine own silver-blue.

When I pushed through the curtain of soft roots at the entrance of their tunnel and stepped outside I knew mother was wise.

“The Woodsmen have no use for time,” she had said, and it was true. I had followed them to their lair on the night of the first snow, and though I had stayed there less than half a night, I emerged at the end of spring. A soft dew lay over bright fresh grass and freshly-unfurled leaves. I was alone. The soft heat of the fire-stone throbbing against my chest was my only proof that the Woodsmen had found me. I walked on.

The ground beneath my feet changed from sand to damply packed fallen leaves. I left the charred trees behind and soon was surrounded by trees coated in familiar moss.

Mother was wise, so I walked again at night as she told me, lighting my way with the silvery deep blue light from the eyes she had given me. I watched the moon swell until she seemed she might burst, then waste away again until she vanished. I ran with the deer again and I howled with the wolves at the moon we both loved. One night the wolves attacked my herd of deer, but they were wary of my eyes. After that night I ran with the wolves instead, and forgot the warm fire-stone pulsing over my heart. I ate bloody deer and rabbits with my pack. I slept against their fur during the day and at night I told them the stories of the stars that Mother had told me. They looked at me as if they were listening, but I think they were staring at the light from my eyes.

One night we came to the edge of the trees and looked out at the great grasses Mother had once known. The grasses were not green, as Mother had said they would be, but baked brown by the summer sun, brittle and dry. The wolves did not trust the grasses. We spent many nights hunting the edge of the trees  and sleeping in their shade during the day.

I woke violently one day at the edge of the trees. My pack was not howling, but growling and crying. We were surrounded by a circle of men with long sharpened sticks like mine. The men shouted to each other in words that snagged at my memory, words I knew once, a long time ago, a time before I walked at night. I felt my tongue thick and heavy in my mouth and could not make the same words. I wanted to tell the men to go from us, to leave us to sleep in the sun at the edge of the trees. I could not make my tongue form the words. The wolves of my pack circled around me, snarling, showing the men their teeth. The men kept shouting at each other. The wolves’ fur stood on their backs, the fur that had softened my sleep for so many days. The men held their sticks out from their shoulders, and circled the wolves. One man dove in, stabbing at a wolf with his stick, and the wolf caught his hand between sharp teeth and tore the skin from it. The man cried out and waved his hand above his head, spraying blood around him in every direction. The sudden bright red splashing against the brown grass and grey fur must have enflamed the men, for at the sight of it they stabbed at the wolves heedlessly. The wolves fought back and I fought with them, and soon a man near me fell, his insides spilling great red worms and pouring more bright blood into the thirsty dirt beneath our feet. I burned then, angry at the men for attacking us and glad to see them falling. I stabbed at them and they stabbed at me and my wolves tore chunks of meat from their legs and their arms but they were many, and soon the ground drank the blood of my pack. The wolves cried as they died there in the dirt, and the men who still stood carried the men who had fallen away from me. I wanted to chase them down, to hunt them as I had hunted the deer among the trees, but without my pack I knew I would not catch them. I burned with anger then, and I remembered my gift from the Woodsmen. The men were retreating into the grasses when I held the gem in front of my eyes and felt them glow. The grasses before me exploded in a small sun, and the sun breathed and stretched through the grasses, and I heard the agony of the men when it caught them. I breathed the word the Woodsmen taught me, and the great sea of grass became fire as far as I could see. The ground around me became the surface of the sun, and the fire jumped and spun in the air. I heard more screaming from other men I had never seen from somewhere deep in the grasses.

The heat lapped against my skin, and I turned away from the undulating sea of fire and ran back into the cool of the trees. I ran through the trees until night fell, and I became cool and dark like the trees. Mother was wise, but the grasses of her home burned. I learned fury from the Woodsmen, and now where the trees end they meet sand, and ash, and bones.

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