“I am forestborn,” the girl with a wild bird’s nest for hair said to me. “I can’t live in houses.”
I thought she meant some houses, large houses, and not all of them. Houses with a room for shoes, houses with keepers in aprons looking after said houses, houses with wings. I didn’t want that kind of home either. That’s the kind of house that ends up owning you, not the other way around.
I found us the perfect cabin built out of weathered logs, hugged by the forest on all sides. The carpenter who built it had quiet, loving hands–I could tell from the craftsmanship alone. The back garden was but a hare’s leap of grass, a humble doorstep between my world and hers.
Though we weren’t wed, I carried her over the threshold. “We are in the forest. I would never try to take you away.”
She moved into the cabin with me, and she ate and dressed and laughed like a real girl–and I was already forgetting her words.
Around midsummer, we discovered three bright blue eggs in the nest of her hair. I held her close, bursting with emotions I couldn’t separate, let alone name. My smile spoke for me.
“I can’t wait to have birdsong in the house.”
She smiled even wider, fern-green eyes glowing. “It will make me feel at home, even more than the mouse in our kitchen cupboard.”
I piled a mountain of pillows against the headboard of our bed so she could sleep upright, and the eggs wouldn’t fall out in the night. Otherwise, she seemed to already know how to carry herself perfectly, so effortlessly that the eggs barely shifted in their home of twigs and curls. It was me who felt clumsy and huge in the tiny house, around those tiny unborn eggs.
A few weeks later, the eggs hatched, and I found my footing again. With travel-sized tweezers, I manoeuvred meal worms into their gaping beaks, and watched them evolve from pink, fuzzy-skinned creatures into birds with red-chested feather suits.
One by one, I stroked their silky heads with a single finger.
“What kind are they?” I asked.
Her laughter jingled like a bell in a jar. “Robins, silly–like you.”
Apart from the redness of my hair, they looked nothing like me, but I liked that we shared a name. We were a real family.
One golden morning by the kitchen window, she rolled up her sleeves and proudly showed me her forearms. Delicate light brown threads trailed under her translucent skin. When I brushed a thumb over them, they shied a little deeper. No pink or blue veins were in sight; I couldn’t remember if there ever had been.
She twirled on the spot. “I am growing roots.”
She was happy and so was I. I took her hands and pulled her to me, turning the embrace into a dance. The kitchen could fit at least three steps of waltz.
As we danced in a very small circle, her head resting on my shoulder, the unnamed feeling returned, except this time, it came with sharper edges. It scratched at me like the mouse in the cupboards–fuzzy and harmless until it started gnawing its way out.
This was what I wanted, wasn’t it? For us to live in this house and be a family. She had given me three beautiful birds, and I couldn’t imagine my life without her. That was all the proof I needed.
I spun her softly to a full stop. “I would never try to change you.”
But she was already changing.
The roots under her skin grew more conspicuous. Streaming under her gossamer skin, they pushed toward the surface. She wore a dress with long sleeves, trying to keep them at bay. In return, they snaked up her neck and along her narrow fingers, until one day, silent as earthworms, they burst out between her toes.
At night, her tender roots tickled my feet in bed, momentarily looping around my big toe. In the day, they rattled against floorboards, looking for a crack to slip through, but never seeming to gain a lasting hold.
We kept the curtains drawn, but that only made the roots push even more violently against bare patches of skin. I realised the mistake–roots like dark–so I opened the curtains, inviting light in. The roots paled.
She sat by the south-facing window, staring into the gentle blue night where I didn’t see anything that could possibly warrant such thoughtful looking. No soft coos of doves; no movement in the grass or tree tops. Even the wind seemed to have gone to sleep. I saw only the forest that was always out there.
“What do you see?” I whispered, mouth close to her ear, careful not to wake the sleeping baby birds atop her tangled curls. Normally the robins perched on the bed-side curtain rod, but on chilly nights like this, they sought the warmth of their brood mother.
She sighed. “Everything.”
I saw my everything reflected on the window glass. I wanted to tell her that, but I was tired, and I knew what she saw out there was a lot more everything than the everything that fits in a cottage. She was forestborn; I was born in a hospital. I had no choice but to accept that her everything would always be bigger than mine.
Sitting cross-legged on the knotty pine floor, I was reading How Seeds Grow to the young robins when a noise came from behind me.
The birds, startled by her cry, dashed off my shoulders to the nearest curtain rod. I turned around and saw her sucking on her finger.
“Hold on,” I said.
I jumped up, grabbed the tweezers lying between the worm jar and the toaster, and prepared to remove a splinter. When you live in a wooden cabin with a mouse that likes the taste of edges and corners, such things happen.
“Are you hurt?”
She pulled her finger out of her mouth. After examining it closely, she held it up to me as if pointing at a new planet.
A shiver ran through me. One tiny green shoot glimpsed from the tip.
“This can’t be good. I thought you were only putting down roots. What’s happening to you?”
High on the curtain rod, the three young robins quietly observed us, their dark heads tilting and jerking in small, nervous movements.
Her smile faded, and she pulled her hand protectively to her chest. Tears crystallised in her eyelashes like dewdrops.
“You will still love me, won’t you?”
I lifted her chin to me so I could look her in the eye. They shone a darker green than I remembered, shadowed by whatever mysterious growth lurked behind them.
“I always will, and that is why I worry.”
“No matter what happens to me, promise me you will look after the robins. They’re almost ready to fly on their own, but they still need you to sing to them sometimes.”
I pulled her close, burying my face in her untamed curls. She smelled of spring flowers and summer’s end, both at once.
Slicing cheese onto my toast, I ducked as a robin soared above. The birds were more confident with flight, the eldest overly so, wanting to show off he was a little more robin than the rest. The curtains were kept drawn at all times to avoid any accidents caused by reflections. We had also discovered the dark discouraged, although wouldn’t stop, the growth of sprouts. This left the problem with the roots. We couldn’t win.
Knowing someone with a sweet tooth for golden cheddar, I cracked open the under-sink cupboard and dropped a slice into the darkness. At least it would stop the constant noise of nibbling and scratching for a while. Mr. Mouse had a carpentry project of his own going on, but he was neither quiet nor used his hands. Perhaps he was preparing a house for a Mrs. Mouse to move in.
I carried the breakfast tray to bed, careful not to spill the water in the jug.
I swallowed at the sight of her. Green sprouts obscured her fingertips, covered her breasts and neck. Tiny white flowers adorned her hairline, with a few large blooms by the left ear. Every time I caressed her cheek, I feared it would no longer feel soft and supple. Every time I kissed her lips, I imagined something biting me. A thorn perhaps.
She took one tired bite of her toast before abandoning it on my side of the plate and downing three big glasses of water. Finding it increasingly difficult to move around the cabin, she spent most of the days in bed. She lay on her back while she napped, careful not to crush any of the growth.
It became my responsibility to look after the robins, and sometimes the best way to look after things is to let them go. They were nimble and boisterous, old enough to fly on their own. A tiny house would never be enough for them, or even a large one, having four walls and one ceiling too many. They needed blue skies and treetops; strong, changeful winds to toughen their wings.
I parted the heavy curtains and opened the bed-side window so that their mother could bid them goodbye, too. The robins eagerly flocked to the window sill, but stopped there and turned around as if asking, “Aren’t you coming with us?”
“It’s time for you to fly free,” my mouth told them even though my heart begged them to stay. “Go.”
Before flying away, my winged sons whistled one last melancholy song.
For a long while after, their mother just lay there, hands folded at her chest, features wooden, unreadable. Tears rolled across her cheeks at a strange angle, into the drooping hairline flowers, into her hair and the empty nest hidden within their tangles.
Through the open window echoed the robins’ melody in the forest, already turning into a joyful one.
Crouching by the cupboard, I replaced yet another hardened piece of cheddar. Mr. Mouse hadn’t touched his cheese in days. I worried he had left us too after I raised my voice upon finding teeth marks in fresh roots he had no business nibbling.
New blooms had appeared along her temples while mature ones wilted, even fell off. Her roots never stopped growing, their jungle filling the foot of the bed. She rarely left the covers anymore so I stayed beside her, singing softly into her ear flowers.
She placed a strange yet familiar hand on top of mine. “Help me to the window, would you?”
She clung to my arm as we started the ten-foot distance, her roots sweeping the floors behind us like a wedding train. We crossed the same spot on the floorboards where we had once waltzed. It had been in celebration, yet I also remember it as the moment something darker settled in my stomach. Was it this very moment I was anticipating, dreading it without knowing?
I eased her into a chair and opened the window. The scent of pine needles wafted in on the forest’s breath, visibly softening the tight skin around her deep green eyes. The flowers, though closed and sleeping, faintly swayed their heads in the breeze.
She gazed into the distance, far beyond the trees.
“I can’t live in houses.”
There was only one thing I could say, yet the words caught in my throat.
I carried her deep into the forest, far from human-known paths, and there, in a soft grassy clearing, I set her on the ground. It was as close to everything as I knew where to take her. Her natural home.
She only spoke once before closing her eyes.
Lying down beside her, I rested my head against her flowering bosom, breathing in the sweet perfume of her blooms.
She didn’t die.
Her roots stretched out and downward, burrowing into the soil. The sprouts on her arms, and her arms themselves, grew tall and spindly as they reached for the sun, multiplying their leaves at every spurt. Bright red flowers much like poppies bloomed in her hair and burst forth everywhere around us. Sprouts turned into saplings into small trees into big trees.
There was no longer form or figure beneath me. Roots shackled me down, entangling my feet, but I knew if I pushed against them, they would let me go.
But I couldn’t leave her. Digging bare-handed among her roots, I carved out a hollow den, big enough to live in.