I am standing among dark trunks, breathing loam-thick air perfumed by clusters of sweetmoss that make this dream of mine feel real. Something has unsettled the forest. There is no caw of crows, no chitter of indignant squirrels or huffs of sleepy boar that root with their tusks in the rich dirt.
There are no sounds at all.
Dawn’s light peeks through trees ahead of me, slivers of pink-gold that cut between tree trunks and illuminate the undergrowth’s leaves. The light grows stronger with every step I take until I need to lift a hand to shield my eyes. I squint to see what could possibly be so bright so far into the forest. My eyes water, but I manage to make out the sun itself half-hidden by tree trunks.
The sun belongs in the sky. It is too hot to be down among us, and its heat curls branches with hisses and pops until trees burst into flame one after the other. The sun will kill the forest. It will kill me too if I do not flee.
How can I leave? The forest is more than my home, it is what feeds me, keeps me safe. I cannot run away and leave it to burn.
The sun grows, sparking wildfire in its orbit. I choke on acrid smoke, eyes stinging as flame devours the forest around me. I cover my face with my hands, but the brightness is still blinding, the heat still sears. And then, as it grows to be too much… I hear a voice whisper my name.
I wake up, coughing up the taste of smoke. My hut is dark and cool. The only sounds I hear are the huffy snores from my daughter. Ibai sleeps in a hammock across from mine, only the lump of her body and delicate point of her ear visible in the dim light that sneaks under our oilskin doorflap.
I watch as her ear flicks and trembles as she dreams. I hope that she is having better dreams than her mother.
I want nothing more than to crawl into the hammock next to her and press soft kisses to wiggly ears until Ibai’s snores lull me to better sleep.
As tired as I am, I cannot shake off the sizzle of the sun or the familiarity of the voice that called my name. A voice that I have not heard, nor even dreamt of in many years. Reluctantly I slip from my hammock and pull on my leather tunic. I tie my belt in place while taking slow, deep breaths.
I will go check the trails to prove that this was simply a dream. That the voice was only a dream.
I will be back before sunrise, to sleep next to my snoring daughter and wake her with tickles to her ears. It’s a promise to myself that gets moccasins on my feet, and my bow slung over my shoulder.
I duck under the oilskin flap and out to the platform of my home. Grateful, I listen to this real forest. It is not quiet. An owl hoots in greeting and a pair of raccoons argue over something on the ground below. The air is cool on my skin and fresh with the scent of sweetmoss that grows on the titan oak that holds my hut aloft. The giant trees cradle our homes like mothers, though this late at night most homes are dark. The one home that is lit is that of our chief, a fire’s embers glowing still, tended by a guard.
I whistle a soft greeting: twuh-ee-oo.
The response is curious. Twa-wee-eet? Why am I up? And that’s a question worthy of an answer with proper words. The cedar bark rope bridge creaks under my moccasins as I hurry across it to the chief’s home.
“You’re up early,” Aroa teases as I reach the Chief’s platform, a smile on her face. “Is Ibai having nightmares again?” The granddaughter of our shaman, Aroa and I have grown to be… friendly.
“Not Ibai,” I say, greeting Aroa with a dip of my head. “Can you watch over her for some time? I-”
“Your face is covered with soot, Irati,” Aroa says, her callused fingers gentle as she wipes at my forehead. I look at her hand as she pulls it back, and see she has told the truth. No, not just a dream then.
“I was dreaming,” I tell her. “That the sun came to the forest, burning away all the trees. Burning away us.”
“Sounds like a warning,” Aroa says quietly. She has always been good at picking up when words mean more than they should. Maybe she learned from her grandmother and her own dreams, and I am left wondering if Aroa should have been a ‘singer instead. She would be much better at it than I am.
“I’m no shaman-” I murmur and Aroa crosses her arms, clears her throat.
“I’m no shaman, yet,” I correct. It will be some time before I am. “But I can’t ignore this dream. I need to see that the game trail is empty of suns.” I frown. It sounds like when Ibai asks me to check for monsters before bed. Like mother like daughter, it would seem. I too, need to check for monsters before I can sleep.
“You dreamed of a real place?” Aroa asks. I can see her growing concerned. “Not just a dream-place?”
“Real,” I nod. “It’s on the trail where the elm fell last fall and has blocked part of the creek.” She nods. It was a good place to rest on a hunt.
“Go on,” she tells me. “I’ll watch over Ibai. If you don’t return by sunrise, I’ll lead a hunting party to find you.” She smiles to reassure me, and knowing that makes me appreciate it all the more. I try to smile back and give her hand a light squeeze before I let go. I hope that I am wrong, and will return to tell her so, so she can laugh about bad dreams while Ibai snores.
I hesitate before reaching for the rope ladder that leads down to the forest floor. I should tell Aroa about the voice, but I am a coward who values her friendliness too much.
“Irati,” she says. For a moment I am sure I’ve been caught. “If you do find danger there, come back.”
“I promise.” I mean that.
The forest is home and while it holds many dangers, this would be the first time the sun is among them. At least Ibai’s monsters have teeth and claws. Mine just has sunshine.
The dry ground under my moccasins reminds me that it has been too long since we have had rain. A storm is due. I know that Aroa’s grandmother could sing down some rain for us, but stormsinging is dangerous. Few stormsingers are born and fewer still survive their first song. The song is last resort and we are not yet in full drought: the creeks still run cool and clear.
Yet, after dreaming of fire, I worry that the moss is so dry that it crackles underfoot.
I begin to hurry.
I am certain that my ears grow thick with wax as I head to the creek. Why else do I not hear the insects chirp? Or the owls hoot? I do not allow myself to stop and rub my ears but flick them back and forth in annoyance to dislodge whatever has muffled the forest’s sounds.
I do not hear insects.
I do hear the softest crackle of a fire.
This is not the sun, I tell myself. I creep along game trails to keep from rustling brush and alerting whatever might be by the fire.
The orange glow of fire ahead reveals strange shapes. Two tents of some kind, strange and sharply pointed, though both are mostly hidden behind a fallen oak’s roots. A spear sticks up from the ground, a flaccid scrap of fabric tied to it.
Outsiders have gotten lost in the forest before, but this feels different. Wrong. Outsiders do not usually get so deep into the forest; they do not usually camp so boldly.
I climb the nearest titan oak to reach a better vantage point. The tree is younger than those of our village, but its limbs are still so thick they do not sag under my weight. I creep forward on my hands and feet, long ears perked to catch any sounds that might suggest I have been spotted.
It is when I see the camp in full, that I flatten myself to the oak: knees and arms clamped around the branch to keep me stable. Cool bark scrapes my cheek, and I hold my breath, certain I had been noticed.
Painted on both sharp tents, vermillion rays stretch out from an ochre circle. It’s unmistakable: I have found the sun, and it is in the forest.
I press my lips together between my teeth, ears flicking in agitation. The dream was too close to being true. I desperately look around the camp for some sign that I am wrong. I want to be wrong. Please.
Two figures sit with their backs to the fire, keeping watch. The one who faces my direction is pale with wild hair covering what must be small ears. This man holds a spear tightly and moves his head sharply whenever the wind rustles leaves.
I press my face to the bark of the oak, squeezing my eyes shut.
The other has tannin skin, like mine. He has sharp, pointed ears that swivel to listen to the sounds of the forest, like mine. His eyes are wide and shine in the low light, like mine. And I remember those eyes, so sweet and soft when they looked at me. I remember the way those eyes shone looked when he asked if I would marry him through a lopsided and lazy smile.
I remember those eyes and how distant they were the last time I saw him, as he kissed my nose and told me not to worry. It was only a hunt. He would be back in a few days.
We found the bodies of the rest of his hunting party, but not his.
We never found his.
I open my eyes, forcing myself to look back to where he sits by the fire, speaking to the pale man in a language I do not understand. A few words are in my –our- language: ‘Forest’, ‘Village’, ‘People’.
I am numb. I stare at the tunic my wayward husband wears, with the same fearsome sun painted upon his chest. His hair is cropped short now, although my fingertips remember how soft his long hair was each morning when I pulled it into braids for him.
I feel ill, and consider biting my fingers so they forget. I want to forget.
This cannot be right.
I must be dreaming.
He had died.
It would have been better if he had died.
A thickness builds in my throat, as I hear this man who was once my husband laugh as the pale man fails to pronounce the words I had recognized.
I wait, unsure if it’s for them to leave, or for me to wake up from what must be another dream. As I wait, the pale one stands and disappears into the nearer tent. I glimpse a pair of feet as he slips inside. While I want to believe there are only three, my heart tells me that there are more.
I wait, still.
My once-husband keeps watch, his long ears perked to the sounds of the forest, though they lag in response to sounds. He has been away for so long. So, so long. He didn’t know about Ibai.
I taste the acrid smoke from my dream on the back of my tongue again, and I force it –and the bile that comes with it—back down. I am furious: I want to scream at him that he missed our daughter being born. That he does not know how wonderful and funny our daughter is. How her smile is infectious and how she wrinkles her nose when she laughs.
But I do neither. Instead, I pull a pinch of moss from the oak I lay on, and hold it in my palm. This is a small song; one I whisper under my breath before I blow the small pinch of moss from my hand.
The wind answers, stirring graciously at my request.
“Bakar,” I whisper to the air spirits, and my voice comes from everywhere at once. A name, one I used to whisper at night into his ear— memories evaporate as I see his hand reach to the knife at his belt. He’s alert, immediately. He stands, ears perked and eyes wide, searching the forest for the source of my voice.
But I can see that his hand is still on his knife.
He says my name and it is exactly the same as I had heard in my dream. I hear hope and sadness and love in it, and my body trembles: convulsing to rid itself of the softness that his recognition stirs in me. This is not the man I had loved. This man was a danger, one of those reaching arms of the sun that is meant to burn, to sear, to hurt.
“I thought you had died,” I whisper to the wind. It carries the words to him, obfuscating my location. “We found bodies.”
I should draw an arrow and let it sink into the man’s chest, right over his heart, where I once slept, or perhaps in the centre of that horrid sun.
Bakar searches desperately through the underbrush. Eyes wide, hands out, as though he could feel for my voice itself. And I, devoted wife Irati, do not reach out to soothe him. Instead, I let him speak.
“I was taken by outsiders. These men saved me from them. Irati, they showed me how small the Forest is-” but it’s not. From its gargantuan titan oaks to its minute lichen flowers, the forest is dense and deep. It has edges, borders the way anything does, but it is not small.
“How?” The single word conveys more hurt than I mean it to. It tells of abandonment, of loss, of hurt and solitude. I had mourned this man, who now was here trying to tell me that the forest was small. Unable to find his body, I had built an effigy of twigs and vine, and we had buried that in Bakar’s place.
A sudden fear grips me: had I driven him to the sun by giving a false burial?
“The sun,” he is still looking for me, but he is facing several paces to my right and moving beyond me toward a cluster of young birch. The branches rustle. I can see that it is a skunk, but Bakar, his eyes burnt by that sun he wears, thinks it is me. I do not correct him.
“The sun is the true source of all life,” he whispers, edging towards the maple brush. “It warms us, shows us the truth, lights our paths. It reveals the evil that waits in shadows-”
“The sun is fire. It can burn,” I hiss, the memory of my dream still fresh. The wind swirls the words around him, and Bakar turns, trying to find me. I see his hand creep back toward his waist, where his knife waits.
“The sun only burns those who do not accept it,” Bakar pleading, creeping ahead. As though he were hiding, as though the self he thinks I am would not notice.
“And you accept it?” I ask, voice hesitant. “Why are you here? Why come back if you have found a new path?”
This once-husband of mine stops. I cannot see his face, but I watch his ears dip and then lift back upright, as though he has solved some hidden puzzle. He steps back from the brush and looks up, though not at me. He looks to the night sky, peeking through thick branches of the forest’s canopy.
“Because, you Irati, you were smart. You would understand-” he sounds choked up, close to crying. “I came back for you. You understand that the Village, the elders, the dreams… all of it is wrong. It is evil and the sun must shine upon such evilness to save you. To save our people.”
I feel chilled, and hug myself tight to the limb of the oak I hide upon. My husband has come to burn down the forest for his newfound sun.
It would have been better, had he died.
“What evil lies in the forest? In nature? It is not good, nor bad. It simply is,” I whisper, and the wind repeats it, the forest itself wanting to know this singular answer. What evil lies in nature? In living?
“False gods,” he says. It is an answer that doesn’t make sense. The forest is not a god. It is a being, made of many things. It breathes, it lives, it gets sick. It is like us, only larger. Deeper. A god, the word itself ancient and rarely used, is a spirit stronger than any other. A being, far away. We do not pray to any gods. We whisper prayers to the spirits of living things. Had he forgotten?
“Irati, please,” he begs. “I can save you; I know I can.”
I do not want to be saved. I want to go back to sleep, lulled by my daughter’s snores with little worry other than if I’ll understand tomorrow’s lessons. Bakar has taken that away, all in the name of ‘saving’ me? No. This all rings false.
I wriggle back along the limb I had laid upon.
“We have a child,” I whisper, choosing to buy time. “Let me get her. I will meet you here tomorrow at midday.”
I do not wait to see his face: whether he cries from joy or is struck dumb from shock, it doesn’t matter. I need to escape his madness without drawing him along my trail. A hornet’s nest of a secret dropped onto him would buy me the time I need to get away. The forest has changed in the years he has been gone. Game trails he might remember were overgrown, the ones we now use too new for him to know.
I am sick on my way back to the village. One of our people, leading the sun to us to burn us to the ground because of what? What false beliefs did my once-husband now hold about us, after so long staring at the sun?
Aroa greets me as I rush back into the village, hastily climbing up the rope ladder to the elder’s platform with shaking hands. She reaches down, grabbing my bicep and hauls me up the last few rungs. The words I had practiced on my return to the village disappear all at once, and I collapse into her, a breathless sob slipping out of me.
A literal sun, huge and impartial, would have been easier to cope with than this.
“Irati, what is it?” she asks, holding me close. “What did you find?”
And so, I tell her that my husband has returned with death in his mind.
It is not yet dawn as I return to Sun camp, clutching a small bundle to my front. I navigate tree roots and skunk-holes carefully, unwilling to stumble and let my precious cargo fall. The forest must survive. I am of the forest, and so are my sisters and brothers that move forward with me in the darkness. Most, I do not see. My eyes are still gritty from tears, my mouth dry and lips stick together whenever I close them, but I have what I need.
Aroa is at my shoulder in silent, grim, support. Her bow is strung, arrow notched.
We are ready.
A restless wind stirs as we climb the larger trees, finding our perches in their loving arms. Others crawl forward into comforting thickets, hidden from view. I return to the titan I had been in earlier. It is the tallest tree near the camp, and the higher I can get, the safer we all will be in the end. I climb until I am among branches as thin as my thigh, and creep out as far as I dare. Aroa follows, settling on a limb a dozen feet below me.
The wind swirls around me, tickling my ears and whispering to me its secrets. While I was gone, this small spirit had stayed to watch the strange camp, and now had only worries to share.
“They’re all awake,” I whisper down to Aroa. “He woke them after I left.” A planned ambush, or defense? I try to focus on my task at hand. Slowly I lay down the bundle I had held for the last hour, resting it across the limb and my knees. It holds flint and metal, and a rare shell from the great ocean beyond the forest. My tools as a new stormsinger, gifted to me by our Shaman, Aroa’s grandmother, before we left the village.
The forest thirsts for rain. The sun men have arrived, smelling the drought as an opportunity, and I, Irati, once-loyal wife and hunter, now mother, now stormsinger, am given a choice: save my returned husband, or to drive him out.
It is an easy choice.
I take flint in one hand, and the metal in the other. The shell lays in front of me, filled with dried sweetmoss.
The elders wait back at the village, watching the babies and children. Every last able-bodied villager has come with me. They are trusting me to get the lessons right. This one time, this crucial time.
This first time.
I clear my throat, and the wind stills, waiting for me. I begin to sing, soft at first as nerves tense in my throat. The wind spirit catches the sound, spinning it out to the ears of the rest of my people who lie in wait. Aroa is the first to take up the song, her timbre deepening it. Bolstered, I close my eyes and let go of my fear. I can feel every voice as they weave into harmony with mine, filling my chest with power.
Stormsinging takes a whole village. I had thought, until now, that meant the song needed to be loud enough for the spirits to hear. But that wasn’t it. Every voice brought its own prayer for rain, its own need to unleash the skies. I hear other voices now, the deep hum of the tree where I sit, the airy trills of the wind spirit who has been so helpful. The forest sings with us tonight, and I can feel the hairs on my arms lift as the air grows thick with static.
I hear, too, the angry shouting in a language that I do not understand. I hear, faintly, Bakar’s voice shouting in a panic. I disregard them, singing even louder to call the clouds down. I feel the first drop of cold rain on my cheek, still hot from my earlier tears. The second drop hits my forehead and rolls down to my lips, whetting them for another chorus.
I call down the rain, asking it to drench this forest and save us all from the fire the men below have brought to us. I sing to drive out these unwelcome sun worshippers from our home, voice too powerful to be ignored. I sing down the storm, my voice getting louder as the shouts from below grow sharpened with fear.
Bakar wheedles and begs below.
Lifting both hands, I strike the metal to flint, sending sparks into the small shell of moss. I lean down, singing into the moss until the fire catches. Around me, the wind whips tree branches into fury, no longer such a small thing. It howls, and I sing louder along with it.
We are both joined by a roll of furious thunder.
An arrow misses me by inches, I feel the wind knock it aside so that it thuds into the oak’s trunk instead. I open my eyes and look down to see Bakar, bow drawn, notching another arrow. He is shouting something, but his voice alone cannot be heard over the chorus of the forest. For that, I am grateful.
I breathe in the last of the sweetmoss smoke and finish my song.
To sing down a storm is dangerous, but I knew the risks when I agreed to it. It is worth any risk if the song keeps the village, my daughter, and my home safe from the sun’s flames.
I look up to the sky, though I only see the flash of lightning as it strikes me.
Every muscle screams. Maybe I do too, voice lost in the deafening crack of thunder as the storm answers my song. The pain eases, the lightning’s grip on my body releasing me. I hear nothing over the ringing in my ears, see nothing past the green and purple light smeared in my eyes.
The world tilts and a strong hand grabs my arm, holding me steady.
I can hear Aroa’s voice asking if I’m alright from very far away.
I do not know.
I cannot see much until another strike lights up the forest and the camp below us. The tents are scorched and collapsed. Men in melted metal armor are scattered, and I think that Bakar is gone, at first. But he is there, his sun-painted tunic scorched and smoldering from where the lightning struck. I look away, to Aroa.
Another flash of lightning lets me see her, hair plastered to her skull from rain and her ears flicking at the roll of thunder that followed. Maybe, like me, her ears won’t stop ringing.
“You have soot on you,” she says and wipes my forehead with her thumb. “Again. No wonder Ibai is always dirty, she learned it from you.”
I understand that she says these words more than I hear them, and I smile, my own hands still trembling and useless as I try to soothe her anxious ears. I bump her cheek instead, and I feel her smile. I press my hand to her skin, a happy mistake.
“Aroa,” I whisper, voice raw. “How long did your grandmother say these storms lasted?”
Aroa looks at me, holds me still.
“Sometimes days, sometimes weeks,” she said. I can hear her a little more clearly now. I can also hear others calling out to check on us. I want to wave them away and tell them to come back later, but my hand won’t leave her cheek.
“Weeks?” I mumble. “Oh, good. Ibai has been bugging me to teach her how to hunt; the rain will buy me time to rest.”
Aroa laughs and pulls me closer to her while others arrive to help carry me down the tree. The thunderclaps grow more distant, but they are not gone. We, the forest and its people, are not gone. I close my eyes, letting out a long, slow breath.
We are safe for now: the monsters are gone and I can sleep.