Fossil—oldest of the Yromem—had survived many seasons. He had known blight, powdery mildew, cedar rusts, drought, and more. His ancient roots burrowed to unknown depths. Still, when Fossil looked upon Holly, she noticed his leaves twitched. His thoughts seemed hard to gather, much less voice. Even so, he spoke.
“Give that furless cub back to her own kind,” Fossil said. “Or better yet, leave her to wither and die.”
Standing in Longleaf’s shade, Holly clenched a string of flint around her neck and stared at Fossil. Took in his rough bark, his crooked joints. His voice frightened her, so raspy, with the lingering sting of a wasp.
“Holly is mine,” Longleaf said, her summer-green leaves rustling in protest. “A cub is like a seed. It needs the sun. It thirsts and is eager to grow.”
“This cub you claim stirs memories of ash and smoke,” Fossil said. “She might burn the forest to stumps. She could grow wings and steal the very sky.”
His words had a fierce bite. Holly held back a sob until it burned her throat. She turned and fled, running fast through the trees, over fern moss and across narrow animal trails, until she met the river. Its water glinted silver, and its direction was certain. Holly touched the water and felt its chill across her bare skin, for she grew no fur, nor leaves or bark. Her long mane fell forward, hiding her cheeks.
Time passed, and the sun moved with it. A creak of wood sounded, then a canopy of shade fell over Holly. She pushed back her hair and sniffed, taking in a sharp, sweet odor. Longleaf smelled of pine, for her thin leaves were numerous upon her strong branches.
“I first found you among the mayflies and the reeds,” Longleaf said. She moved closer, her roots tangled beneath her, snagging in the dirt. “You are like a salmon who returns to the water of its birth.”
The river flowed by. Holly envied how it knew where it must go. “Is it true, what Fossil said?”
“His memories are old,” Longleaf said. “He fears the dragon who lost its fire and wants it back.”
“You said I wouldn’t wake him,” Holly said. She picked up a stone and threw it into the passing current. “Sleeping Yromem only stir when the winds are strong or before a hard freeze.”
“Fossil has stood in one place a long time,” Longleaf said. “I don’t know why he woke, but words like his have many meanings. Best to leave such things buried, I think, and out of the sunlight.”
Holly scrambled to her feet and wrapped her arms around Longleaf’s trunk. “Am I a wolf without fur, then? If I were, I’d belong here, with you.”
“You must choose for yourself,” Longleaf said. “Even I must grow roots, then find a place to plant them.”
The seasons turned. Holly remembered them as a blur of honeysuckle and frost-gilded wood ferns, maple-red leaves and fragile green shoots. She was not meant to recollect but to learn. Holly tried to keep her face in the sun’s warmth. To never turn bitter or gnarled inside.
Her nails grew. Her smooth skin, once paler than sunlight, deepened to the color of ripe acorns. She took to adding a layer of thick mud to her cheeks, to her would-be trunk, and the strands of her dark mane. She stuck fallen leaves to the wet dirt across her skin. When it dried, it left a rough texture similar to ash-brown bark. Holly learned to avoid sumac leaves, locust thorns, and sick-making mushrooms. She read the tracks of rabbits and stalked wolves, and she evaded old roots lest they trip her.
Sometimes saplings asked to see her fire, crowding her, their stem-thin branches pointing to the flint swinging around her neck. Holly created sparks for them.
“You shouldn’t do that,” Longleaf said when she heard of it. Her words harsh and cold as a winter gale.
Holly clenched the flint until her fingers turned white. “I’ve had it since you found me. I remember that much.”
“That bit of rock holds your truths,” Longleaf said, “but if you would live among us, you mustn’t make fire.”
In time, Holly learned all Yromem buried their roots. It was a matter of great discussion. There were coveted areas near the meadow, but also rocky soil and full shade to avoid.
“What about at the forest’s center, near the river?” Holly asked.
“Not there,” Longleaf said. “No one roots so close to Fossil. It’s forbidden.”
Holly tilted her head. What did Fossil protect, to keep others from old-growth and damp leaf litter? She set her jaw. Maybe it was the place she belonged to.
Alone, Holly trekked the woods, her feet arrowed toward the deepest shadows. Her soles were hard underneath and carried her without pain. The ground sloped downward, muddy and twig-covered. She walked among elderly Yromem who slumbered season after season, their great trunks and heavy branches full of golden light. Their wood creaked but none stirred. It was rare for sleeping Yromem to wake.
Holly reminded herself of the fact as she snuck past Fossil, grateful for her smaller size, traveling wide to avoid his roots, stepping over his chosen earth bed with care. As she moved, she didn’t dare breathe.
His leaves shivered. Holly paused with one foot suspended. Fossil mumbled. She hurried ahead.
Sunlight flickered through the green brush, highlighting large boulders half-buried in the soil. No Yromem slept here. The space was too narrow between stone and dirt, but there were many smaller ferns with delicate, curled growth, elusive short-leafed ginseng, and spurts of lush hawkweed.
She found a cave. A great, yawning mouth of rock. Hot air blew out of it and swept back her muddy hair, and it made her nose wrinkle, for it smelled of rotten meat.
Holly crept closer. Her feet were deft, and she moved as a wolf on the hunt—alert, with the softest footfalls. The outer rocks held long white scars. She breathed through her mouth to avoid the horrible stench that polluted the air. The sun didn’t follow her. In the weak light, Holly looked into the cavern but made out little. She tiptoed forward. Her feet brushed against moss and dampness, and she tripped over a huge root.
A root? Holly bent her knees and held her hands out. What she felt was scaly and warm. It was alive, for it shifted beneath her palms. Holly jumped back. A roar like cracking stone met her ears.
She ran. Fossil yelled as Holly breezed past, but she didn’t stop until her feet touched the river. There she waded in the shallows until her heart slowed. She listened hard, but there was nothing save the quiet of the water. She was safe, she told herself. She had not been chased, though her thoughts were dark and scattered.
Like her, what dwelled in the cave was no Yromem.
Another season passed. Longleaf sought a permanent spot for her tangled roots. It was a difficult task. The forest floor had grown thick of late, and the brush tall.
Holly rubbed her chin, displacing mud. “There’s an old wolf den close by,” she said to Longleaf. “Maybe there.”
Longleaf followed, her hairy roots dragging behind. Holly led the Yromem near the river’s banks, close to encroaching boulders, but not too close to Fossil or the cave. That place, she decided, belonged to fear.
Something white peeked through the greenery and caught her attention. Holly bent and pulled back dark-veined leaves. A wolf glared back at her. She froze. Her sight took in furless bone, and she exhaled. Reaching out, she picked up a wolf’s skull. The bottom jaw chattered loose and fell back to the earth. She lifted the rest to her face, then turned to stare at Longleaf through the empty eye sockets.
“I see as a wolf sees,” Holly said. She peeled back her lips and showed off her pointy fangs.
“It is good to see as others do,” Longleaf said, “but that is not why we came here.”
Holly nodded, hiding her disappointment. She’d hoped Longleaf would change her mind. That this season would be no different than the others.
Longleaf circled the small clearing. Her roots twined about each other, tangling. As Holly watched, she imagined aged ridges marked her own too-smooth skin, and that her arms were of wood and leaf.
“I wonder what clouds feel like,” Holly said, looking through the skull’s empty sockets and eyeing wisps of white in the vault of pale sky.
“I don’t know,” Longleaf said, for though her branches reached high, they weren’t the same as wings.
Holly placed the wolf’s skull atop her long mane and tied it into place with an obliging vine. The bone pinched against her own forehead, but it made her feel braver having it there. Maybe she could borrow its truths and its memories.
“This is a good place,” Longleaf said. Her words were distant. “The earth is rich here. My roots sense water below.”
Holly longed to ask what drove Longleaf to this. Why stand still? It was better to chase the wind than to let it find you. It was useless to argue, though. Longleaf would do as other Yromem before her. Holly couldn’t understand. Not really. She walked with the Yromem, but she would never have roots of her own.
With her bare hands, Holly dug, letting her muscles take out her frustration. She pulled up thickets and raked the soil. The sun was low when she finished her task. Clay-streaked earth stained the underside of her nails.
Longleaf planted herself and drifted to sleep. Her needle-like leaves pointed toward the sun’s great eye. Birds flocked to her massive trunk, and red squirrels explored her branches.
Holly smiled, but her lips wavered. Longleaf’s roots were well-protected by a blanket of soil, and her trunk was rigid under beautiful, thick-layered bark. It could never burn easily, so dense and strong as it was, and her arms wrapped around Holly when she climbed into them, cradling her close.
And yet, Holly felt restless. She reached up and felt the grooves in the wolf’s skull. She sighed, then reached her hands up high, where clouds drifted.
Holly slept until first light. Dawn glinted through fine-tipped needles. Longleaf held her but did not stir or wake.
With a yawn, Holly climbed down and made her way to a fat-bellied boulder near the river. A cavity under the stone held a store of summer-fattened berries. As she dug, a sapling named Spruce approached. His pace was purposeful but slow. His roots had started to grow in, she noticed, forcing him to take greater care. She eyed his handsome rosy bark through her peripherals. Took in his sharp-edged leaves and his lithe, branching arms.
With flared nostrils, Holly faced him so he might admire her wolf skull.
“You don’t scare me,” Spruce said, his branches swaying with gentle laughter. “You look like a fawn who lost sight of her mother.”
She tapped the wolf’s bony muzzle. “I’m no deer.”
“Come to think of it,” Spruce said, “I haven’t seen any wolves this season.”
Holly wondered at his words. She had not followed the local pack as usual. Not for some time. “I haven’t either.” She scratched mud-bark off her chin. “Maybe they found easier prey outside the forest.”
“Or,” Spruce said, “something scared them off.”
“Nothing scares a wolf,” Holly said. She tilted her head sideways. “Maybe a bigger wolf, but little else.” She chewed a handful of sweet berries, then another.
Spruce shifted closer. “My roots are almost mature.”
“I’m not a mole,” Holly said, throwing a berry at him. “I can’t keep digging out holes for Yromem. I helped Longleaf and now she’s left me behind for a world of dreams.”
“You sound jealous,” Spruce said. “You shouldn’t be. You keep fire as a servant around your neck.”
Holly frowned. “I’d rather have wings than fire. Fossil said I might grow wings. Said I could become a terrible shadow in the sky.”
“You avoid him,” Spruce said. “Are you scared, then?”
Holly didn’t answer. Instead, she did something she shouldn’t: she struck her flint. It made sparks which fell to the ground like flakes of melted rock. She noticed Spruce shudder, for much of the ignorance of his youth had been carved away, for he’d seen wood rot and other blights, but he didn’t bolt. She held up her flint so he could see it better.
Spruce shook his upper leaves. “Fire is dangerous. It could eat me. You have no wood to burn. Your hands will keep it safe.”
“I have a trunk,” Holly said, standing tall. “I have four strong limbs. I am like you but also not. If not with you, where do I belong, then?”
“A wolf pack, maybe,” Spruce said. “Isn’t that why you wear one’s skull?”
She dropped her flint back to her neck. “The wolves, then. I’ll find them, and I’ll hunt alongside them.”
“I wish I could run alongside a pack,” Spruce said, his voice grown softer.
Holly plucked a green leaf off Spruce and wove the stem into her snarled mane. “I’ll take you wherever I go.”
She jogged through the forest in a stir of leaves and a crack of dead twigs. Spruce’s leaf fluttered in her mane. Her calves burned, but they carried her, and she made her way to the old den where Longleaf slept. Holly placed a flattened palm against the broad trunk. Her hand trailed across the rough bark, then fell back to her side. Her friend slept without rousing in well-earned peace.
Squatting, Holly searched for paw prints near Longleaf’s woody ankles. She discovered none though it was the season for pups. The wolves would be hidden somewhere, protecting their young. A cave would suit their purpose best.
A cave like the one she dreaded. A cold sweat broke across her furless skin. She needed strength. If not hers, then borrowed from another. Holly touched a hand to her wolf skull and pulled it down so it covered her face. It wasn’t a perfect fit. Her own features were flatter, and her nose wasn’t a muzzle. Still, she looked out of those empty eyes, and exhaled.
Holly spun on her heels and scrambled through brush and over moss-covered boulders. She was a wolf—fierce and bold. She carried sleeping fire, didn’t she? Even Fossil trembled in her presence despite his seasoned wood. Holly squared her shoulders. She wouldn’t fear secrets hidden in the dark.
The sunset met Holly at the cave’s entrance. It draped the forest in hues of blush and citrus and fire. The rocky chasm appeared as uninviting as before. A good place for a wolf pack to gather. Except another lived there. Its breath smelled the same: of old meat in the hot sun.
Holly approached on silent feet. With her nose close to the ground, she pushed back ferns and checked for signs of passage: paw prints, remnants of kills, or loose fur. All Holly found were dull scents of sage and crushed leaves beneath the rotten air. There were no tracks. Not even those of a rabbit. Had she come here for the wolves, or to face a truth? Perhaps she meant to challenge the forest, and see if she belonged to it once and for all.
Either way, Holly was tired of being afraid. She picked up hand-sized stones. She threw one against the cave’s entrance, then another. It made a clatter, and she heard something echo. A growl or the fall of rock.
“Hello?” Holly called out. “I’m looking for the wolves.”
Hot, sour breath choked the air. Holly pinched her nose.
“No wolves here,” a voice said, rumbling through the rock. “They left after I said they couldn’t have my cave. I recognize your scent. You came this way before.”
“By chance,” Holly said, her voice gargled. “I snuck by Fossil, then saw a cave I’d never seen before, and then there was this smell—”
A rough chuckle interrupted her. “Is that why you’re holding your snout?”
Holly removed her hand fast but couldn’t keep her face from wrinkling. The chuckle turned to a laugh, and the ground shook with it.
“What are you, if not a wolf?” Holly asked. “I wish you’d come out of there and show me. It’ll be dark soon.”
The laugh stopped. “I can’t do that.”
Holly pictured Longleaf with her newly buried roots. “Are you stuck?” she asked. “I could help. I’m good at digging, but I’m not a mole, so don’t call me one.”
“It isn’t that. I’d scare you.”
On instinct, Holly stepped back. Was she so easily startled? She stomped the growth underfoot. “If I was a true wolf, I wouldn’t be afraid. If I were an Yromem, I’d have roots, and I wouldn’t wander where I shouldn’t. I don’t know how I should be or what I should want. I don’t know what I am.”
“You’re neither of those,” the voice said. “You smell of salt and iron, of men and their dens of stone and timber. I roared before because I thought you’d come to hunt me. That is what your kind do.”
Holly sat, flattening a nice patch of hawkweed. She brought her knees to her chest and rubbed off some mud-bark which yet patched her skin.
“You’re not happy with what you are?” the voice said.
“It’s not that,” Holly said. She gripped the string with her flint and twirled it between her fingers. “You tell me what I am, but I still don’t know where I belong. I can’t see what you see.”
A pause. “I used to be dragon, but I lost my fire. I don’t know where I belong either. Not anymore.”
“I’m sorry,” Holly said. She set her chin on her knees. More mud flaked off. The moon’s face was visible above. Wispy clouds flocked it. “Can you tell me,” she said, “what do clouds feel like?”
Talons tapped against rock. The dragon peeked out of the cave and two star-like eyes blinked at Holly. She held their gaze. The dragon blew air from its snout, and it was so warm, she almost didn’t smell the lingering rot.
“You are braver than a wolf,” the dragon said. “I will not hide from you.” It clambered from its rocky den. It stood taller than a full-grown Yromem, and its scales were shinier than bark. They were smooth and silvery as a maple. Its wings were folded at its sides. Holly longed to see them spread wide.
“I could give you my memories,” the dragon said. “I could tell you that clouds are like a cold, wet tongue, but wouldn’t you rather decide for yourself?”
Holly stood up. She craned her neck to get a full look at the dragon. The tail was a long vine, but thicker, and the chest broader than the greatest oak. “You mean, I could fly with you?”
“Yes,” the dragon said, snaking its face closer to hers. “It would be a first for me too. A new memory is a rare and precious thing. I collect them.”
Holly bit her lip. “You collect them…”
She thought about the flint she wore around her neck, and the mud she had smeared across herself. There was the weight of the wolf’s skull on her forehead, and the twirl of Spruce’s leaf in her mane. They were tangible and meaningful. Dear, precious things.
Timber creaked. “Out of my way,” a gnarled and familiar voice said. “I won’t allow this.”
Fossil appeared. Squinting, Holly saw damaged roots, their ends splintered, their sides caked in loam-colored dirt. Another Yromem followed in his wake. A glint of distinctive red bark caught Holly’s eye.
“Spruce?” she said, crossing her arms. “You woke Fossil?”
“I went to ask him what you were,” Spruce said. “He said he smelled fire and ripped up his roots. I tried to calm him, but he wouldn’t listen.”
The dragon shivered and the ground quaked. It lowered its head, as though trying to blend with the rocks and the moss.
“You know Fossil, too, don’t you?” Holly asked.
“He took my fire,” the dragon said. “Stole it while I slept.”
A dragon without fire was no threat to the Yromem. Still, looking at the dragon, Holly felt tears drop between the wolf’s skull and her cheeks. The dragon still had talons and teeth. It could have attacked her, she who pretended to be a wolf, but it hadn’t.
“Get out of my way, thankless cub,” Fossil said. “Longleaf isn’t here to stand for you anymore. I will do what I should have done seasons ago.”
“I am no cub.” Holly positioned herself in front of the dragon, her stance wide, her feet planted into the dirt beneath her. With her chin raised, she bared her teeth at Fossil and imagined them as menacing as thorn-pointed fangs.
Spruce stood tall beside Holly. He held his branches wide.
Holly kept one eye on Fossil, the other on the dragon. She grabbed the string round her neck and showed her flint to the dragon. “With this,” she said, “you can get back what was taken from you. You may have it, so long you promise not to burn this forest. It has been a home for me. A place of growth.”
The dragon watched her. “I promise.”
Fossil groaned. His leaves shook. “I warned Longleaf. You, who make fire, and that dragon, who breathes it. You are too alike.”
The dragon could have taken the flint with ease, but it leaned back on its haunches. It waited with the patience of the changing seasons. Holly uncurled her palm. The dragon bent down and carefully gripped the little shard of flint in its sharp teeth. With one gulp, it swallowed it, then turned its long neck to the side. Facing the cave, it took a deep breath and exhaled. A spark hit the rocky surface. The stones sizzled, bright as embers, then dampened.
“I can’t remember when I last did that,” the dragon said.
Holly sniffed, tentatively, then deeper, for the air had been scorched clean.
Fossil crowded closer. “You’re not welcome here.”
Roots snapped on rocks, revealing vulnerable green heartwood underneath. He pointed his branches at Holly. Their ends looked sharp. Spruce blocked the larger Yromem with his slim reddish trunk.
Holly placed a hand on Spruce’s trunk. “Don’t,” she said. “I’ll go.”
Spruce leaned against her touch. “I will bury my roots in this place. I’ll wait for your return.”
Looking at narrow, rock-strewn ground, she shook her head. “There’s no good soil here. When it’s your time, go to where Longleaf stands. The dirt is soft still and easy to root.” Holly reached for his leaf in her mane and twirled it, the promise it carried unforgotten.
The dragon crouched low and turned its neck, signaling her.
Holly patted Spruce goodbye. With a heave, she climbed the dragon. Its scales weren’t much different from ridged bark, and their texture felt similar. She brought a leg over its back and gripped tight.
Holly touched her wolf skull. She didn’t rely on its memory of strength anymore. Still, like the flint on its string, it carried truths. She would find more, even as the dragon collected new memories.
The dragon spread its beautiful dusky wings. Holly leaned over its scaly neck. She fit perfectly on its back. Below, the forest shrank. She looked down at Spruce and Fossil. They looked no larger than young shrubs. Her mane floated behind her like reeds underwater, and the wind sung loud in her ears. A howl escaped her throat. The clouds were so dense, without clear lines, and Holly couldn’t hold them. She tried, but her fingers fell through the vapor, gathering tiny wet droplets.
The dragon had spoken the truth. No words could capture this feeling. Perhaps that realization wasn’t so remarkable. And yet, it was certain.
It was everything.