An Archivist of Leaves

Abigail and Del stomped on old leaves for fun.

They marched through the Light Forest each autumn and laughed as each leaf crunched beneath their feet into fragments.

One day in October, the sky grew dark as they walked. The trilling birds hushed. Smoke and dust clung in the air.

But Abigail didn’t notice any of these things until she’d slipped through the veil into the Dark Forest. She didn’t notice until the dense trees had swallowed her whole.

She targeted a large brownish leaf and leapt toward it. As her feet landed, that familiar crunching noise she and Del loved so much didn’t resound.

She whipped around to find the forest had closed in about her. The tree bark was blue-black, the air thick and stagnant. Sunlight no longer flickered through the trees. And most importantly, Del was gone.

“Del?” she said.

She took a cautious step forward, then another. Whatever path she’d been on was no longer visible in the dense overgrowth. Roots entangled the entire forest floor. Had they taken a wrong turn? Did they venture farther than before? She wasn’t sure. All she knew for certain was that she was alone.

“Del?” she said again. She took another step and the sound of a twig breaking cut the otherwise silent air.

The breath rushed out of her lungs. Something snapped and cinched around her ankle. The world pivoted on its axis. Her hair rose from her scalp. She blinked at the upside-down trees, her body dangling in midair at least twenty feet off the ground.

And in front of her were a pair of white eyes nestled within a clump of leaves.

“How dare you disturb my forest!” a voice boomed.

She squinted at it and quickly realized the leaves themselves were talking. Rather, they had taken on the shape of a face within the tree and moved in unison to accommodate words.

Abigail froze. She didn’t know what to say, and the sensation of all her blood rushing to her head was making her dizzy. She looked at her feet and could see a vine snaked around her ankles.

“You’ve come into my forest uninvited. What is my name? Answer before I kill you.” The mouth in the leaves moved smoothly.

“I—I,” she stammered, her voice impossibly small. “I don’t know.”

“That is the wrong answer.”

“No please! I was just walking. Jumping on leaves. I got lost. I’ll go back home and leave you alone.”

“You don’t get it. Leaving me alone won’t fix anything. You don’t know my name.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, the phrase tasting sour, “But I was only playing a game with my friend. He’s back out in the Light Forest waiting for me. Just put me down and I’ll leave you alone.”

The face in the leaves of the tree made a little huffing sound. It blew hot mud breath into her face. “A game. It’s so like your kind to revel in the ruining of the dead. You tromp on the leaves and don’t know their names. You show no respect for the ancestors.”

The leafy face tilted upward and shook, letting out a thunderous bellow that sent vibrations through the earth and cast twigs down on top of her. Two branches cracked and creaked until they rested on either side of her. Smaller branches and twigs reached out like fingers and grasped onto her middle.

“How about I squeeze you until you make a crunching sound?” it asked her, the leaves forming a heinous smile. “How would you like if I flung you to the ground once I was done and stomped on your dead brittle bones?”

“Please, I’ll do whatever you want, I’m so sorry,” she said, tears threatening to spill back up her forehead. “Please, tell me your name and I’ll never forget it—”

“Hush,” the tree beast said, releasing its grip on her slightly. “Begging will do you no good.”

“Who are you?” Abigail asked. At any moment, the tree would crush her. For now, all she could do was hope to lure the beast into conversation.

“I don’t know why I’m surprised you don’t remember me. No one does,” the leaves said, the voice taking on a much more feminine tone. “But I suppose I could tell you my story before I kill you. At least then someone would know of all I’ve done in the name of the forest.”

“Would you mind tilting me right side up?” Abigail asked, as politely as she could.

“What? Oh, yes. I suppose so. But I won’t loosen this vine. I am wary of clever little girls,” it said before righting her and placing a branch with a tuft of leaves beneath her. Abigail took a deep breath and tried to steady her vision from being held upside down for so long.

“My story begins centuries ago in this forest. I was its guardian and I served to protect it.”

“I didn’t have a name then. I was just a woman of the forest, another creature living amongst the trees, eating berries, and drinking from streams. There were others like me, but I was the only one to steal the heart of a tree.”

“Wait,” Abigail, raising her hand like she were in a classroom. “You were a woman once?”

The face comprised of leaves smiled, “Yes, I was. A woman, just as you would be one day if I wasn’t going to crush you into a fine powder,” the leaves that were also a woman grinned wider.

“All trees have hearts. But the one I loved was Ash. He was dashing and so charming. He always said the right things. One day, he cut a hole in his trunk and carved out a spot where I could live.

There were other women in the forest, and other men, too, but I was the only one with a tree husband. He brushed my hair away from my face with twig hands. He was perfect.

Some would say that I first became Askafroa on that day he carved a hole for me so I could be closer to his heart. And though he was my husband then and I his wife, I did not become Askafroa as the people of this land came to know me then. I became that woman, the Ash Wife, much later.”

Askafroa slouched as though getting more comfortable. Her branches drooped downward. If she had shoulders, they would have been rounded, folding over Abigail like she was telling her a secret.

“After a while, my husband did not pay attention to me. He consorted with the other trees and paid no mind to the woman within him. He let the bark grow up and around me until I was trapped inside. I could feel his heart beating below me, beneath the ground in the roots. That soft pulse lulled me to sleep each evening. But he no longer responded when I pressed my palms against the pulpy interior. He was cold.

So I dug with my fingers into the earth. I bore through the roots and into the soil until I reached his heart. I held it within my fingers and took a bite. It tasted sweet, like blueberries.

And with that one bite, the entire tree shivered. He acknowledged me for the first time in years. So, if I couldn’t get his attention with love and kindness, I would get it through anger.

I bit his heart to say good morning and I bit it to say goodnight. I jabbed a finger into it to tell him I loved him and I pinched it between my palms when I felt lonely.

I didn’t know it then, but parts of me were seeping into the soil. I had grown so entangled into the roots that my saliva was mingling with sap and changing the nature of Ash. And soon it changed the nature of the forest.”

Askafroa waved her branch arms around her, as if presenting the entire forest. “The trees grew dense and blocked out the sun. The sky darkened. Plants died or changed shape into hob knobs and grasping hands. The tree trunks grew gray and the leaves faded one by one. The oldest trees, like Mother Maple, withstood my influence for a while. But over time, even she succumbed.”

The leafy face looked downward, seemingly saddened at the thought. “Now you must know that wasn’t my intent. I didn’t mean to turn the leaves gray and the bark black. I didn’t mean to block out the sun. But it happened and the ancestors of the trees died. And soon, even my dear husband, Ash, died.

I held his heart in my hands as it beat one last time. I didn’t want to let go of it or him. Around the same time, people started to build homes in the surrounding forests. Only the bravest of champions would quest into these dark woods. They thought themselves noble. I thought they were funny little men. They, who thought getting a scratch from a twig on my dear husband’s carcass would render them ill and defenseless, brave? Hardly!

But who was I to argue? If they wanted to blame their illnesses on me, fine. Let them. That is when I truly became Askafroa. The Ash Wife, the thing of legends. They started pouring water on my husband’s roots. Can you imagine? As though that would do anything. And they muttered a phrase to beg my favor. I giggled so hard I was certain they could hear it even though I was buried down in the roots of the tree.

And it is true. If they brought water I didn’t go out of my way to hurt them. After all, they remembered me, which was important in a land that can’t seem to remember the day before yesterday. So for those that remembered me, I was lenient. But that’s not to say I went out of my way to help them. If a man tripped over the Ash’s roots and broke his neck, I did not intervene. If a woman wandered into the forest and got lost in the brush and was taken by…” she paused and looked up at the sky. “Oh, I don’t know, wild animals or something, I didn’t view it as my problem.

I thought I was doing them a favor by not snapping their filthy little necks for trespassing into my domain, but your kind, they are greedy. The people got tired of my lack of favors and stopped worshipping. People forgot me, just like my husband forgot me. And all of my rage seeped down into the soil and bubbled up in the trees. So now I am a little part–”

“–of everything–” her voice said from another tree.

“–in the forest–” her voice echoed from several yards away.

“So you see,” she said, her voice back in the tree that held Abigail, “I am the guardian of all the Dark Forest and if people disregard the memory of the trees and my name, they must pay for it.”

“I never meant to disrespect you,” Abigail said. Her voice was calm, but her mind screamed.

“What you meant doesn’t matter. You know my name now, Askafroa, which would be wonderful if you were to live so you could remember me. But you won’t live.”

The face in the leaves shook and the branches crept around Abigail’s waist. They cinched down tight, pressing the air out of her chest.

“Please, please, I can fix this,” Abigail said, and being a practical girl, she thought of a plan on the spot to save her life. It wouldn’t be easy, but as with most things in life, it was better than being dead. “What if I catalog every leaf? I’ll remember all the branches and document the twigs. Would that stop you from squishing me?”

Askafroa thought for a moment, glancing up at a sky that was not visible through the dense foliage. Finally, she sighed. “The trees used to sing songs of their ancestors. Of Mother Maple and Father Alder and Brother Pine. But they have no records. Records require paper, which are the carcasses of the young.”

“But I’ll remember them, too!” she said, the plan becoming clearer to her at every moment. “I’ll write them all down so no one could ever forget again. Everyone will know it’s unacceptable to step on a leaf and unforgivable to break a twig and they’ll come back to the forest to worship at Ash’s roots.”

Askafroa thought again then nodded, sending a few stray leaves down onto Abigail’s face.

“Tell me more of what you will do,” the Ash Wife said. The tree beast slowly, gently let go of Abigail’s waist. The girl settled onto the edge of the branch like a bird in a nest. The vines shook free from her ankles.

Abigail rubbed her ribs with her hands and took a deep breath. “I’ll write down your story, too, so everyone in all the towns nearby will know the name Askafroa, not from the old myths, but from real life.” She paused and met the creature’s eyes. “No one will forget you ever again.”

Askafroa smiled and shook the leaves. It made Abigail dizzy but she did her best to keep a smile on her face. It was best not to displease tree beasts, she found.

Abigail spent the afternoon telling Askafroa of her plans for remembering the Dark Forest and all of its ancestors. Whenever she would come to a pause in the details, the Ash Wife would contemplate her words then nod. It was good for Askafroa of the Dark Forest who would always be remembered and good for Abigail who wouldn’t be crushed into a fine powder at the hands of branches. The plan suited them both. For a time.

On her first night in the forest, Abigail curled up in a hole in a massive tree. She laid her head on her bent knees and slept.

When she awoke, it still looked like nighttime. Barely any light filtered through the trees. She thought it best not to dally. All the leaves that could be faces bore down on her. Even the air pressed in. They would not be patient with her. So she set about to work immediately.

As agreed upon the day before, she wandered through the forest until she found a fallen tree. Its bark was brittle and dried. She used her fingernails to pry back a piece of the bark. It pulled off like a bandage. Beetles scurried in every direction and she nearly threw the hunk of bark when a bug crawled up her arm.

But she collected herself, plucked a beetle that had stuck itself to her lapel, and set about to making a small fire. She chose the most open area she could find. She brushed away dead leaves and twigs until there was only dirt and started a fire on a pile of debris. Askafroa allowed her this. “In order to be remembered, there must be sacrifices,” she had said, “and so long as our dead are used with honor, no harm will come to you.”

So as the flame finally ignited the first leaf, and as Abigail blew on it tenderly to help it catch, she whispered a thank you to the forest and to the trees. She kissed her fingers and placed them on the earth as a sign of commemoration.

When a tree branch didn’t strike her down, she assumed her tribute had been acceptable.

She let the fire burn for a few minutes before blowing it out. She rubbed a stick in the half burnt remains of foliage. Then she set about making the first record on the slab of bark.

“Brown oak leaf, withered and crushed,” she wrote, dipping back into the pile of burnt leaves to use the ash as ink. And on the next line, “Willow twig, encrusted with moss.”

She catalogued every piece of the forest that had fallen to the ground, even the trunk from which she’d stripped off the chunk of bark and the chunk of bark itself, the pile of burnt leaves, and the twig segment with which she wrote. While she was at it, she noted the berries and dandelion leaves the forest gave her to eat, too.

Once the light grew even dimmer to the point where she couldn’t see the bark in her lap, she placed it in another hole in a tree for safekeeping. It was a place she’d come to know as the library.

Then she sat in front of the large tree she called her bed and sang a song until the world grew black. She created a melody for the trees and all they’d lost. She remembered each stem as if it were the most important person she’d ever known. She sang their mourning song.

After a while, all of the trees sang with her, their voices wailing, branches shaking and quivering. The more she sang, the more they sobbed, leaves crying down on top of her and building puddles at her feet. I will archive these tomorrow, she thought and made a hash mark on her arm as a reminder in the last bit of ash. If she didn’t bathe in the little stream every few days, she would’ve been covered in those marks. Every evening ended like that. With her singing and the trees crying.

Her job would never be done. She knew that now. Not until the trees exhaled their last breaths, would she know rest.

Abigail crawled into the hole in the tree and cried. She wanted to go home. She missed Del, even her mother and father. These were truths she came to understand: the first night alone in the forest is an adventure. The second is a sentence.

Years passed. Leaves and twigs ensnared her hair. Her skin turned as rough as bark. And yet she was still lovely, just worn with the seasons. Some days, she even smiled.

Abigail sang the songs of the forest each night and her lament carried on the wind and the people in all the neighboring towns and cities and villages heard it in their sleep. Suddenly, stories of the trees entered conversation again. They knew of Mother Maple and Father Alder. They knew of the Ash tree and his wife, Askafroa. And more than anything else, they knew to fear her.

She had documented so much of the forest, she found herself treading deeper and deeper into the overgrowth, where light barely penetrated. She had to squint to distinguish between branches and twigs; willow and elm.

One day, she walked much deeper into the forest than she ever had before. She’d wondered just how far the forest went and just how many trees Askafroa had turned dark but the more she walked, the less she knew.

“Askafroa,” she said, keeping her voice soft, “what do you call this part of the forest?”

The trees were quiet for a while then a face appeared in the bark of a tree beside her. “What does it matter what it’s called? Now quit pestering me. I am tired and I must be rested once the worshippers come back to pay tribute.”

“I wanted to know so I could document it properly.”

The face in the bark sighed. After some time, Askafroa spoke again. “Just call it the Forgotten Trees because even I have forgotten their name.” Her voice sounded sad. “Now please, do not disturb me again.”

Abigail continued to walk. The branches grew more and more disfigured. They bent and curved in unnatural shapes. So many looked like hands reaching out to grab her. She knew that if she angered Askafroa, they would become hands and they would snatch her up and crush her. Because even after all these years, she still wasn’t safe.

Her bare feet sunk into the muddy ground and she shivered. A musty smell washed over her. It was like the air hadn’t been breathed here for years, so it stank of wood rot and stagnant water and other dead things.

She coughed.

Down from the gnarled branches of the trees came hundreds of fleshy protrusions. They dangled above her. It only took a moment for her to realize they were each the arms of infants, reaching and grasping.

A voice that was many voices, that were not Askafroa, sounded from within the trees or the ground or that stagnant air and bellowed, “Won’t you hold us? We are so lonely.”

Abigail jumped and slinked backward a few steps. The chubby baby arms reached out for her, tiny fists clenching at the air.

“Please, mommy, won’t you hold us?” The voices layered one on top of the other like an out of tune chorus.

Abigail took a tentative step forward. “Who are you?” she asked.

“Didn’t you hear? We have no name,” the voices said, “but we love you.”

And though she had been a child herself when she’d entered the dark forest, she was now a woman and the sound of the children tore at her heart. And more than anything else, they reminded her of herself, cold and scared and alone and tucked into a tree because she didn’t dare leave.

And that’s when she understood. “Where are your parents?” she asked, her voice cracking.

“They’re gone,” the voices said. Those tiny hands never stopped reaching for her. “The Tree Mother killed them. She said she’d love us and take care of us but she didn’t. She forgot us, too. Just like the world forgot her.”

“What?” a voice shouted. “Who told you brats you could talk?” Askafroa’s voice encompassed every tree at once, reverberating in the earth.

“What did you do to them?” Abigail asked, tears brimmed at her eyes but she didn’t move. “Is what they say true? I thought you didn’t go out of your way to harm people?”

Laughter echoed in the forest. “Oh please, we all tell stories about ourselves. I told you the story I thought you’d want to hear. Besides, these children were unsatisfactory. They didn’t do what I told them and they whined and complained all day and all night and did nothing to tell people about me,” she paused then laughed again, “Useless little creatures.”

“They were only babies. You killed their parents. How can you expect them to raise up your name if you cut them down at birth?”

The sound of hundreds of babies crying filled the forest, their voices filling every space within the leaves.

“You are much too dramatic,” Askafroa said to Abigail then raised her voice to the children, “Enough! You will be punished for this outburst. Go to bed right now unless you want to make it worse for yourselves.”

The infant arms seized in panic and slowly retreated back up into the branches. Retracted, they weren’t even visible from the ground. The last infant arm hung down and grasped one more time, made a fussy noise then flung back up into the tree.

“See what you’ve done?” Askafroa said, her voice now coming from just one tree. A branch swung down at Abigail and slapped her across the face. “You’ve stirred them up. You cause any more trouble and you’ll see a worst fate than any of them.”

Abigail didn’t say another word. She held her hand to her face and walked back through the forest the way she had come. She didn’t pause at the library to pick up the piece of bark to continue her documentation. She didn’t start a fire to make the day’s ink. She just kept walking through the dense brush until finally she stood at the edge of the Dark Forest where the Light Forest began. There was no point in being afraid. She would leave and that would be the end of it.

The sun nearly blinded her.

In the new light, she looked down at herself for the first time in years. Her dress had ripped in all manner of places, the seam busting out of the waist. It fit her like a shirt now and she walked through the brush naked from the waist down, hair long past her hips. Her feet were caked in dirt and her arms and legs had taken on the cracked appearance of bark. She felt her face with her fingertips as if to confirm her suspicions: it too had the rough texture of tree roots.

She fell into a heap on the soft forest floor. All hopes of going home to see her parents or even Del fell away from her. They had forgotten about her. And as a thing of the forest, she’d no longer be welcome. She hated the tears that fell from her eyes, but they came anyway. She wondered if her family was still alive. Time melted away in the forest. She could be an old woman. It was hard to tell.

She fell asleep at the spot where the Dark Forest met the Light, the moss beneath collecting her tears.

Someone tapped her on the shoulder.

Abigail startled awake and sat up to see a young man bent at her side and gawking.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

She drew in a shaky breath and tried to respond. Her voice felt like ash, unused and dusty. “Y-yes,” she said.

The man glanced down at her. Modesty fell over her and she tried to cover her bare lower half but he held her hands. He traced his fingers over the rough calluses and lines in her skin and looked her in the eye again. “Don’t you remember me?”

Abigail cocked her head to one side. The man smiled and something clicked within her brain, some part of her she’d kept locked up for so many years flew open. Out poured mud puddles and crunchy leaves.

He nodded, his smile widening.

“Del,” she threw her arms around him and he hugged her so fiercely she thought she might break.

“Where did you go?” he asked, his breath brushing her ear. “I looked all over for you. But you never came out of the woods.”

“You looked for me?” she asked. She pulled away from him.

“Of course. I waited for you to come out but you didn’t. I ran home and everyone searched for you. They went into the Dark Forest with torches and some never returned. The ones that did were never the same,” he paused and helped her to her feet. “What happened to you in there?”

Suddenly, she was aware of how close they were to the dividing line between the darkness and the light. She didn’t dare peer over her shoulder into the blackness. Instead, she took his coat when he offered it, tying it about her waist, and walked forward into the clearing.

“It’s a long story, one I’d rather not tell,” she said and picked twigs and leaves from her hair.

“Is it true?” he asked. He leaned in close to her.

“Is what true?”

“The stories? The woman who married the tree and became so jealous she infected the soil with her scorn?”

“Askafroa?” she said, without even thinking. A chill ran across her body. “No, those are just legends.”

“Oh,” he said, his face falling slightly. “I didn’t think so, but ever since you left, people have been talking about the Ash wife and how she’ll kill you if you don’t make an offering to her.” He let out a little laugh. “It’s funny because people wanted to make offerings to her just in case, but they were too afraid to go into the Dark Forest.”

Abigail nodded and picked a leaf from her hair. “I think I’d like to go home now,” she said. “Let’s get away from here.”

He didn’t respond. Instead, he linked his arm in hers and they started to walk again, this time toward the edge of the Light Forest where it broke into grass down a hilly embankment to the town below.

A shriek sliced the air.

“God, what was–?” Del asked, but his voice cut off as a giant root shot out from the ground and coiled about his waist.

“So what have you brought me?” Askafroa asked. She rose out of the earth as a giant trunk, marred with black moss and wood rot. Her voice split and cracked the ground beneath them. Blackness spilled out of the cracks and crawled across the grass like a fungus. She was taking the Light Forest for herself.

“No one, let him go,” Abigail said, “Let him go now!”

Askafroa’s laughter shook the earth, causing more cracks and more blackness. “You were trying to leave me, weren’t you? That’s too bad. I won’t let you leave me. You’re making people remember me.” She wrapped the roots around Del’s waist tighter. He groaned. “And let this be a reminder to you of what I can do.”

Before Abigail could speak or react, Askafroa had cinched down on Del’s waist with the roots so tightly his ribs broke. Blood spilled from his mouth. He met Abigail’s eyes, confused and pleading, before the final draught of life escaped him.

Once he hung limp, Askafroa flung him into the air. He plummeted into one of the cracks she’d opened up in the ground.

“It will be best not to speak of this when singing the songs of mourning,” Askafroa said, wiping her bloody branches on what was left of the fresh grass.

Abigail trembled, but not from fear. Every ounce of fear drained from her body the moment Del exhaled for the last time. The tang of revenge bit at her throat and seeped into her palsied hands like a bitterroot remedy. “Very well,” she said and sighed long and slow.

Abigail waited.

Askafroa retreated, the trunk disappearing into the ground. But the cracks didn’t go away. They were permanent fixtures of the landscape now, just like the stench of stagnant air, the hot skin press of impenetrable leaves.

Abigail waited until night took what was left of the Light Forest. She waited until the moonlight cast the shadows of trees over the grass.

Finally, once the moon was high in the sky, she trudged back into the thickness of the Dark Forest. The cover of night made everything she was about to do inherently more dangerous, but Askafroa would expect her to be afraid—an assumption that could work in her favor.

A smile played about her lips. She would weep for Del soon enough. Until then, she would smile and feel the confidence of the expression soak into her skin.

She walked for hours through the Dark Forest. What had been dark only seemed to get darker with each step. She made it past the stream where she bathed and the library tree. She moved past the part of the forest overtaken by vines and into the black trees where the infant arms had swung and grasped at her. They slept now and appeared as nothing more than the white caps of mushrooms along dead branches.

She walked further and deeper into the forest than she’d ever gone before. She cut her foot on a sharp stone and blood flowed into the ground. But she kept walking until the forest opened up slightly into a clearing devoid of life.

Hazy fog hung thick in the air and in the middle of the clearing stood a single tree. It wasn’t particularly tall or grand, but an oily sheen clung to the bark. It slid down the trunk in a perpetual ooze. The surrounding ground was black with pitch. That explained the clearing. Nothing could stay rooted in this muck, let alone grow or thrive.

Abigail stepped into the clearing and approached the Ash tree. She fell onto her hands and knees in the black ooze and dug at the ground. The oily slime overtook her hands, covering her knuckles and wrists. She stopped digging. It wasn’t slime at all.

Millions of slithering black worms moved as one undulating mass across the ground, up the tree, across her hands.

She sucked in a breath and tried to ignore the feeling of fingers dancing up her spine as she dug into the ground again. Her fingers worked past the worms, squishing several, until she found dirt. It crumbled beneath her nails. She raked back handfuls of it, digging a hole next to the trunk of the tree. But the more she dug, the more worms crawled over her hands and into the space she’d just cleared.

She stood back and grabbed a pointed branch that lay on the ground. She shook off some of the bugs and took a swing at the trunk.

Just as she’d thought, it caved inward where the branch struck. More worms gushed out. She closed her eyes and plunged her arm into the trunk. The bark broke away easily. The tree was nothing more than a shell, completely hollow inside. Abigail swung one leg over into the hole and then the next, holding onto the coat tied around her waist and the branch.

She sat on the edge of the hole in the tree for a moment then let go.

Abigail fell for what felt like forever. Falling and falling with no end in sight. After a while, she couldn’t even see the trace bits of light from the hole she’d punctured in the trunk. Just falling.

And then her feet slammed into something. She fell forward and nearly dropped the branch as her hands sunk into something surprisingly soft. Furry, almost.

Two glowing white eyes flicked into existence in the dark. They blinked once. Twice. And rolled up and back to stare at her.

“This is most unusual,” Askafroa said.

Abigail shivered as Askafroa unfurled eight legs, twitching every joint in a languid stretch. The hairs on the spider’s back tickled the girl’s knees and she shuddered.

“I thought you said you were a woman,” Abigail said, holding the branch steady in her lap.

“I am a woman, can’t you tell?” Askafroa laughed and though it echoed within the deep roots of the Ash tree, it didn’t shake the ground. This was a private laugh, meant especially for Abigail.

“I was nothing more than a guardian of the forest. A female of my species. Ash loved me and betrayed me. All the rest is the same.”

“I see,” Abigail said, squinting into the harsh light of the beast’s eyes. “And you thought it best to take the entire forest than to pass into history as all things do?”

Askafroa kicked one of her legs up at Abigail. She ducked, the spiny hairs just missing her head. “I’ve had enough of you. There will be someone else who wanders into the forest soon enough. I don’t need you to remember me anymore.”

The spider reached back with two legs to try to grab at her, but Abigail was ready with the branch. Slightly sharp on one end, it easily slid into the creature’s back.

Black worms gushed out in every direction and Abigail had to stand to avoid them crawling all over her.

“What did you do?” Askafroa asked, her voice sounding more surprised than reflecting pain. “What did you do to me?”

“I forgot you,” Abigail said and stabbed the branch in between the beast’s eyes.

Askafroa twitched all over, her legs dancing about in a flurry. The cavern beneath the tree plunged into blackness each time she blinked.

Abigail raised the branch again and waited for Askafroa to open her eyes. The branch slid in between them with ease.

The spider groaned and fell limp, eyes still glowing blankly in the darkness. But even they began to fade after a few seconds.

Most would have been satisfied at that, killing the great monster in the Ash tree, the Ash wife, Askafroa, but Abigail was not like most and she knew she must be sure of one thing before attempting to climb out of the tree.

She slid down one of the bristly legs onto the roots. The cavern was huge, fit for the roots of a tree that stood the height of twenty houses. She crawled beneath the spider’s legs into a little alcove. And there, shriveled and no larger than her palm was the Ash tree’s heart. It was gray and filled with dust. She held it close to her chest. “One heart of an Ash tree, broken and forgotten,” she said. The mental notation would have to do.

“I’m sorry,” she said and sang the mourning song for Ash and the tree’s ancestors and even Askafroa. The tree heart blew away into dust with every somber note.

When Abigail emerged from the tree, the sun was up. Thin shafts of light broke through the trees. The darkness that had taken over the forest was receding.

She ran through the Dark Forest and only stopped when she reached the library tree. She grabbed up all of the slabs of bark and tossed them into a pile. The fire caught quickly. She watched as the impromptu charcoal ink smudged away with the flame.

Once it burned down to nothing more than smoke, she clutched the cuff of Del’s coat and cried. As each tear hit the soil, they planted her firmly into the ground. Her feet sunk below the surface into roots. Her arms pulled above her head. Her hair stuck up and out in a splay of leaves. Her body stretched and strained, sending shocks of pain through her limbs. For just a moment, she wanted to give in. Because the forest needed a guardian and her skin was bark already. It would have been easier to just stay, to set down roots.

It would have been easier than living amongst people with their questions and sorrow.

But Abigail shook the leaves free from her hair. She lowered her arms and plucked her legs from the soft earth. “One tree, uprooted, never grown,” she murmured and set out on the path toward home.
Brenda Stokes Barron is a freelance writer from southern California.
Her work has appeared in Apex Magazine, Electric Velocipede, The
, and others. She blogs regularly at
Digital Inkwell.

Leave a Reply