Tom pulled his sister along by the hand and she danced on the end of his arm, humming and rustling and clicking. She reached out for the trunks of trees as she passed, and he tugged her away. Already they liked her too much. They couldn’t have a-bloody-nother one.
‘Shut up, Bib.’
He swung her up onto his back and made a seat for her with his hands. She tickled his ear with bird-feather and blew on his neck. Two sisters were altogether too many. He would leave Bib here in the forest with the other one, if she wasn’t careful.
Tom began to jog, bouncing her in his hands. In the daytime was all very well, but he didn’t want to be caught here when the light began to fade. The forest let them come and go, but it was an uneasy peace he had with it. They needed to do what they had come for, and leave.
At the stream, Tom knelt and slid Bib from his back to the leaf-mulched ground. She was knee deep in the water before he’d had a chance to stand again. Above them, stretching out over the stream, was the largest tree in the forest. Tom kept his eyes lowered and nodded a greeting. He took the bread and fruit from his satchel and leant it at the base of the trunk. Then he allowed himself one quick look up, into the canopy that seemed to continue to the sky. Leaves moved and branches swayed and he looked away from the dappling light before he caught sight of anything he didn’t want to see.
‘Go to the forest,’ Tom’s father ordered each week, pressing food into his hands. ‘Go and see if you can see her.’
But the forest-sister didn’t want to be seen, and she didn’t want to be saved.
Tom scooped up Bib again and let his legs stretch into long strides as they returned along the forest path. He kept his eyes straight ahead. Bib wriggled up his back and whispered in his ear.
‘Tommy? Will you take me next time too? I like it here.’
He grunted non-committally, but they both knew he would. Bib was never far from Tom. By the time they re-entered the town through the Western Gate, she was asleep against his back.
‘Did you see her?’
‘No, Da. We didn’t see her.’ Tom avoided his father’s eyes as he unlaced his boots at the front door.
Not today. But Tom had seen her. He knew that his half-sister was a wide eyed creature of the forest now, who sang a different song and couldn’t remember the name she was born to. She was lost to them, taken by the trees many years ago, but Tom’s father was the only one who couldn’t seem to let her go. What would it change, to tell? She was never coming back. But sometimes Tom wondered if his father could smell his secret leaking out of his sweat. He stood now in the doorway in his socks, pinned by his father’s expectations; by his endless exhausting hope. He waited for his father to turn his heavy gaze away from him and return it to the fire.
Bib slid from his back and moved sleepily towards their father, curling herself into the deep fold of his lap. Tom stayed in the kitchen, watching through the window for his mother; waiting for her to return to the house with pumpkins and spinach and a loaf of bread from market day. Waiting for her to open the door and let some light into the house.
Next week—on market day, it was always on market day, when his mother was gone from the house—his father would send him again. But until then, Tom would work hard to forget his unwanted history. He knew the forest-sister had saved him. He hated that it left him in her debt.
Tom’s father pushed him towards the door and pressed a parcel into his hands, and Bib attached herself to his pant leg as he passed. Tom flared red hot. One of these days, he would tell his mother of these secret visits, of his father’s attempts to find the forest-sister. Of his obsession with the lost daughter of his first wife. Tom swore to himself as he left the house that this would be the last time he would go to the forest.
The day was cool and the sun high in the pale blue sky. Market day smells filled the air. Bib stopped for bees and spiders, cats and ants. Tom stopped for nothing.
At the Western Gate Bib raced ahead, slipping through the bars and across the field towards the first trees, giant sentinels cloaked in moss. Tom held his breath as he passed them, and took Bib’s hand as they stepped into the forest.
‘Tommy, look! The trees have fallen us a carpet!’
It was true; the trees had begun to shimmy off their leaves in a dance of amber and gold. Soft light played in the sharp air of the turning season, and Tom and Bib lifted their eyes to the canopy. In their absence, the forest had been transformed into a cathedral of colour.
Bib whispered, ‘Tommy, they’re changing their clothes. Every year they have to do it. Don’t look too hard or they’ll be shy.’
Tom looked down at his sister. Her face was very serious.
‘Changing their clothes?’
‘Mmm-hmm.’ She bent to pick up a five fingered leaf, larger than her head.
Tom bounced from one foot to the other and looked at the trees raining leaves, ignoring Bib’s advice. It was so beautiful. He forgot for a moment that he didn’t want to be here, on this ridiculous mission of his father’s. Town felt very far away amongst the giants of the forest. They felt so…benign, today. Like maybe they had nothing to fear from them at all.
Tom’s bouncing became more vigorous. Strength surged in his muscles, and before he knew it he was running along the path, picking up speed, air brushing his cheeks.
‘Tom!’ Bib shouted in delight and scampered after him, kicking leaves and touching trunks as she ran. Tom could hear her close behind, ready to toss herself against the back of his legs, he was sure. He grinned to himself and increased his pace. A light breeze loosened more leaves and they alighted on the path like birds as Tom and Bib flew past.
At the stream, beneath the largest tree, Tom skidded to a stop and bent, puffing and laughing, hands on knees. He braced himself for the impact of a small body, and listened for the sound of feet in the leaves. When neither came, he turned to look back along the path.
No Bib. Was she hiding from him?
He walked back the way he had just run, panting and calling his sister’s name, looking up and around and behind. Waiting for the giggle, the exhaled breath; the hard landing as she jumped from a tree. But it didn’t come, and the smile slipped from his face as he walked back and forth along the path. A heavy squirming feeling began to grow in the pit of his stomach. Why had he taken his eyes off her, even for a minute? What was he thinking, to drop his guard like that in the forest? When he thought of his father waiting for them at home it was suddenly hard to breathe.
On his fourth trip back along the path, Tom saw her. She was sitting very still in a low branch close to the path, legs dangling.
It was not like Bib to be still.
He ran to her, suddenly able to breathe again but now angry, big-brother-who-has-nearly-lost-his-sister angry, because he must have passed her again and again, and why had she said nothing? He opened his mouth to chastise, lifted his hand to scare, batted away thoughts of what he would have done if he hadn’t found her, pulled to a halt in front of her bare dangling legs, and there—on the branch above Bib, partially hidden amongst leaves—was the forest-sister.
Tom opened his mouth and closed it again.
The forest-sister stared with slow-blinking eyes. Tom reached out his hand very slowly and curled his fingers around Bib’s ankle. The forest-sister moved her eyes to Tom’s hand, and back to his face.
Then—in an instant, in a fire-cracker second—she was in front of him on the branch beside Bib, and he had not seen her move. He sucked in his breath and blinked rapidly, then tightened his hold on Bib. This creature may well be his sister, but he didn’t trust her for a moment.
The forest-sister paused in her crouch, then reached out a small gnarly hand to place it flat and firm on Tom’s chest. He curled away from her touch, but was bound by his hold on Bib. Words shot into his mind like twig-snap. Like bird-cry sharp and sudden.
You for me. Me for you.
The words crackled and ricocheted inside the walls of his head.
That was the trade, and his forest-sister had made it.
She had given herself to the forest so that Tom could stay. She had saved him from the trees that day, sure and true, and the whole town had seen it—how she had pushed Tom back to their father and lifted her arms to the waiting trees, how their father had screamed Pippa! as the trees carried her away, how the forest had subsided then, stayed where it belonged, stopped taking from the town…This endless story of his family. He was so damned tired of it. Did she want something now, in return? After all this time? Tom’s heart beat faster.
The forest-sister’s eyes moved again to his hand on Bib’s ankle.
‘Tommy,’ whispered Bib. ‘You are hurting me.’
But Tom was locked in the gaze of the forest-sister.
Through her eyes, he felt the yearning of the forest enter him and run through his blood and he ached with it and he did not want it. He wanted his own small yearnings only—the feel of Frannie’s hand in his, the knowledge that they would one day be together in an ordinary life with ordinary concerns. The feel of a good meal in his belly, the desire for the townsmen to think well of him in his own right, and not as the brother of the forest-sister who had saved the town.
They were such small and ordinary things to want, and he had a right to them.
Tom squirmed beneath the touch of this strange creature that he was bound to, whose hold he could never escape. Must it always be yearning and wanting, the forest? Why must it never rest? Why must it take and take?
He felt Bib wriggle inside his finger-hold and he held tight, even as the leaves above him began to rustle and brush and sigh, even as the whole forest began to sing and sway, each tree joining until a chorus of sound grew up around them.
Bib’s eyes grew wide.
She tilted her head.
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Oh.’
‘What?’ said Tom, feeling something happening on the edges of his understanding, something beginning that he was not part of. ‘What?’
He felt his eyelids grow heavy, as though they had great weights attached to them; he had to fight an immense battle just to keep them open. It was an even harder fight to keep hold of Bib, but he would, he would fight, he would never let the forest have her. The great wall of sound grew and grew around them, and he held tight to Bib’s ankle, he reached for her, knew he would never let go, but he was losing the battle with this strange sleepiness, it was thick like fog, like soup…
Tom felt himself begin to sway. In the moments before he was overcome completely he felt the forest-sister feather-stroke his cheek, and Bib’s ankle slip out of his hand, and then both sisters were gone, forest-singing in a place he couldn’t follow.
Tom woke in a nest of leaves and a swirl of panic, unsure of how much time had passed.
He sat up slowly, praying that his wakefulness, his presence, would go unnoticed. The trees had put him to sleep, and they would do it again if they chose. A wave of nausea swam up his throat and made a neat pile on the leaves between his knees.
It’s too late, he thought. Is it too late?
He couldn’t go home to his father now. Bib was gone, and he couldn’t go anywhere without Bib.
Tom, who had not cried since he was eight years old, felt a tightness begin in his chest. His face crumpled and great heaving sounds rose up into his throat and pushed their way out of his mouth. He tried to silence them, to stop these ugly sounds, but it was as though there was something large inside of him trying to get out, something he couldn’t stop. It forced him onto his hands and knees and told him terrible and frightening things, and when it was finally done with him it left him scoured and bruised inside.
Tom laid himself back down in the leaves and thought that he might stay there forever. He had lost Bib. He could not see another step beyond this one. He wanted his mother’s arms around him, her bright lilting words of comfort, and was ashamed at the intensity of this childish need.
Curled in the leaves next to his fearful vomit, a great silent emptiness spread through his head and his chest and his belly and his legs. The forest moved and breathed around him and he did not move. Birds came and went and leaves drifted and branches sighed. The great being-ness of the forest surrounded him. Its frightening intelligence, and its pulse. It was as though an entire world existed just outside of his hearing.
Words drifted in and out of his mind.
He thought—we have only come and gone from here because the forest has chosen it.
And then he thought—and I will only find Bib, if it wills it.
Tom sat up.
Suddenly, to listen felt very, very important. As though now it was imperative, that he listen as he had never listened before. He sat straighter and turned his ears this way, and that.
On the trunk of the closest tree, he reached out and placed his hand.
Centuries hummed beneath the surface of the smooth cool tree-skin, and the web of the forest tickled his fingers. In his mind he saw the roots that stretched beneath the town. The futility of the wall the townspeople had built to keep out the trees, to be safe from their wandering and their taking. The interconnectedness of them all. How they had thought they were choosing, but they never were.
Tom ripped his hand away from the immensity of it. It was too much, and he was too small, he and Bib, all of them, they were nothing against it. His eyelids grew heavy, and he fought them open. They would put him to sleep again, if he wasn’t careful. If he was in the way, like a noisy mosquito in the ear of their greater purpose.
He put his hand back on the tree. Shuffled closer, and pressed his ear against it.
Listen, he told himself. Listen.
In his mind grew a picture of Bib and the forest-sister amongst the trees, and he was filled with a surge of longing not his own.
Tom fought to keep his hand in place, to keep touching all the hard things, the too-big things.
He waited, and something shifted inside of him; a space opened, large and new.
He ran his mind around the shape of it, the texture. It held thoughts and feelings not his own. It was alive and awake, and full of more of the world’s suffering and joy than he felt he could bear.
Tom thought that maybe this place already existed inside of his sisters, and always had.
He knew that the forest would show him nothing without it.
He kept his hand on the tree, and his ear. He stayed in the new place in an endless string of waiting moments. Such alive stillness, inside of him and everywhere. He felt his skin fall away, and as it fell, he saw the path to the forest-heart, and followed it.
A heart is a secret place, shown only in trust.
Tom trod carefully, over fallen branches and withered leaves. Above him stretched trees of unimaginable height, their dark trunks slippery and wet. Something was wrong, here in the forest-heart; there was sadness, and sickness, and forest-longing so fervent he felt he might be pressed to the ground under the weight of it.
Amongst it all, was Bib.
Tiny and bright and unafraid, humming a song as though she belonged. Stroking the trees and holding the hand of the forest-sister. There she was, laying her cheek on the wronged places, on the hurting places—so tenderly—and under her touch small bursts of green appeared.
Tom hovered at the edge of the heart grove, watching his sister wander bare-foot across the sacred ground. As she scattered the strange and beautiful song, he felt he may not know her at all.
Until he saw her crumple to the ground beneath the towering trees. He ran then, flying over logs and sliding in the leaf litter to arrive panting at her side. He curled his body around her, crouching, watching the forest-sister out of the corner of his eye. Inside the circle of his body he felt the rise and fall of Bib’s ribs. Warm, and breathing. He brushed at his eyes angrily, and tugged Bib into his arms. Could they leave? Was he allowed to take her? He was damn well taking her. He stood, glaring at the forest-sister as she came closer, reaching out her hand to touch Bib’s hair, just once. Teeth appeared in her face, and Tom, unsure if he had just been given a smile or a grimace, recoiled. Then, she was gone.
Tom stood with a pounding heart and Bib in his arms. He began to back slowly away from the sacred place, to step carefully out of the forest-heart, to gradually find his way back to the familiar paths. The trees reached out to Bib as he carried her; they brushed her foot, her face. Tom increased his speed and pulled her closer, and she whimpered in her sleep. He hurried them along the paths until they reached at last the moss-cloaked sentinel trees at the edge of the forest.
Only there did Tom pause and look back. The sun was low in the sky and there were shadowy places beneath the trees now; uncertain movement. A ripple shivered along the length of his spine, and he looked down at Bib. In his mind, he heard the song again; the song she had sung in the forest-heart. In his arms she felt tiny and unfathomable. He squeezed her tight and began to run towards the Western Gate. That was enough, now. No more. The forest-sister had made her choice, and he owed her nothing. He and Bib were not setting foot in the forest again, no matter what their father wanted. What was he even thinking, to send them into the place that had already taken so much?
But tucked in the back of his mind as he ran was the picture of Bib, so at home amongst the trees. Singing the strange song, green life appearing under her touch. Who even was she? And if she could do those things, would the forest come for her again?
Tom ran faster, and Bib banged and thumped against his chest, and woke.
‘Tommy,’ she said, blinking up at him with a crease of a frown. ‘Why are you running?’