Fantasy Science Fiction Strange

Short Straw

By Rebecca Schwarz
3,839 words · 14-minute reading time
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“Don't tell the trees your name,” the wild grasses whispered as they batted their bearded heads against the linen skirt wrapped around Nina’s thin hips. Her great grandparents, the first colonists, had brought rice and wheat, barley and rye, and crossed their seeds with the new-world plants. But the grains they produced were inedible. Still, the abandoned grasses persisted, and the wild meadow won a few more inches of ground every year.

She looked up, past the settlement to where the tallest branches of the forest canopy snared the sinking sun. “I have to go,” she said.

“If you must go, take us with you,” they whispered.

Nina closed her hands capturing two fistfuls of seed heads, pulled them off their stems, and shoved them into her skirt pockets. “There. Happy?”

“No.”

Lightheaded from days of excitement and dread, Nina ran up the rutted dirt path toward the settlement’s mud and wattle buildings.

Daylight fled from the sky as everyone gathered in the strip of bare earth between the buildings and the carnfruit orchard. Preach stood in the middle, and he graced Nina with an indulgent smile as she joined the gathering. She found Papa who smoothed the loose curls at the nape of her neck by way of greeting. The blade of his hatchet gleamed from where it hung on his belt. Heat radiated off him along with the smell of fresh cut wood. Papa spent his days cutting back the ever-advancing forest saplings. A job no one else wanted.

“Rootless we arrived here, and rootless we remain.” Preach held his hands out to them, a dozen family groups, hollow-cheeked and sinewy. “Once every long season, we make the divine sacrifice. We gather tonight to sate our hunger, and to call out the names of those of us who have gone to the orchard. Tonight one of us will join the orchard, so that the devoured may return to sustain us. Flesh for flesh.”

Nina looked up past the orchard at the forest towering over them. Every year the great trees encroached. Their roots choked the ground. The orchard’s gnarled branches had become brittle in the shade, and the carnfruits that fell into the clearing were pale and flabby. One day the forest would swallow their orchard whole and they would starve, but not today.

Nina’s stomach growled. Thin slices of carnfruit sizzled on the griddle over the fire. Everyone sat as plates heaped with food were passed around; fried wood termites, boiled rhizomes topped with a bitter paste made from the carrion flies that hovered around the orchard, and the still sizzling carnfruit. Preach bowed his head. “As we take your bounty into our bodies, we remember that every meal is a communion.”

After the feast, Preach stood and took up the carved goblet of pike, the holy drink brewed from the jagged, black leaves that drifted down from the great trees beyond the orchard. All who would draw imbibed. Nina began to shake as the goblet made its way around the circle. Today she was thirteen by the old Sol calendar. She was an adult. This year she would drink – and draw. She hoped her hands would be steady when it was her turn.

People coughed and choked on the liquid, but everyone’s face relaxed after a swallow or two. The goblet came to Papa. He raised it to his lips, and bent forward coughing, but his throat never moved. She was sure he hadn’t swallowed any. If Preach saw, there would be trouble.

Papa smiled as he handed the goblet to her, but his eyes were hard as stones. The thick, black liquid wobbled as she drew the goblet to her lips. The pike seemed to boil as it raged down her throat. Points of light dappled her vision; someone took the goblet from her as she gasped and sucked in the cool night air.

The orchard began whispering the names of the dead. Celia, Joseph, Bethany, Dan, Jeremy. She listened for Mama’s name, even though she’d never heard it. Papa said she never would. She could only remember bits and pieces of Mama; playing with her long, curly hair while riding on her hip as they checked the water collection barrels, the smell of her sweat, the way she would hum an aimless melody in the dark when Nina couldn’t sleep.

The faces in the circle wavered in the warm light of the fire as the night filled with the names of those who’d gone to the orchard. The goblet came to her again and she took a second swallow, which burned less. Preach moved around the circle holding a fistful of straws.

She watched the others as they drew out long straws, their faces stretching and drifting in expressions of relief. When they talked it sounded like raindrops plinking in the barrels.

Then Preach stood in front of her. She looked at the bristling crown of stems he held before her and thought of the wild grasses of the meadow. The one she drew out was just long enough to fit in the palm of her hand.

Black holes grew in the faces of the others. A howl filled her ears. It was their voices, she knew, joining together to sing her name. She had drawn the short straw. She would be commended to the orchard.

Everyone rose above her as the hard earth hit her knees. Then Papa yanked her back to her feet and started shouting.

No! She tried to form the word but she couldn’t move her mouth. She wasn’t afraid. She wanted to go to the orchard, to repay her debt to Papa, Mama, and everyone who had struggled to feed her season after season. She twisted in Papa’s iron grip. His voice hammered at Preach who screamed back, their words an unrecognizable slurry shattering the orchard’s chorus of names.

Faces crowded in, bright and hollow-eyed in the firelight, twisted in anger.

“I’ll go,” Nina managed a choked whisper. They would kill Papa or worse, Preach would banish him to the forest. “Let me go!” Preach grabbed Nina’s other arm, and Papa’s huge fist arrived out of nowhere slamming Preach’s jaw so hard he spun like a top before falling to the ground. The blade of Papa’s hatchet flashed and the faces fell away.

Papa hoisted Nina over his shoulder. She glimpsed the black silhouettes of their houses and a scrap of the starlit meadow beyond before he plunged into the orchard.

The sticks breaking underfoot sounded like bones snapping. The branches clutched at them and tore at her clothes. The world spun. Her fists unclenched. It was the pike. The drink bestowed a few moments of courage, then demanded sleep.

She fell through the night and woke when she hit the ground. Papa lay next to her panting in the leaf litter. He groaned and rolled over on his back.

“I can’t carry you any further.” He wiped jagged leaves off his sweat-soaked forehead.

She sat up in the deep shade, surrounded by the massive trunks of the forest. All was silence except for her blood pulsing a painful beat in her head. The rich, sweet scent of rotting carnfruit dropped in the heart of the orchard was gone, replaced by the bitter odor of the loam she sat on.

“I would have gone to the sacrifice.”

“Of course you would have, foolish child.”

“I’m not a child! You had no right. Now who will say our names? We’ll be forgotten like Uncle Joe and Mama.”

“I’ve forgotten nothing, have you?” He glared. She couldn’t remember much. She was only six when Uncle Joe lost his mind and fled, raving into the forest. The next day Mama went in to try to bring him back. “Your mama didn’t bring you into this world just to be fed to those damn weeds.” Papa sat and pulled off his boots. “Put these on.” He tossed them to Nina.

She looked at her bare feet. “I don’t want to wear your stupid boots.”

“Put them on!” he roared. She flinched and pulled the boots on while Papa studied the enormous trunks. His bare feet sank in to the loam when he stood. He pulled her up, and swept his hand forward in an impatient gesture. “Walk.”

She turned and stomped off. The canopy overhead completely obscured the sky leaving the forest floor in murky twilight. It was like waking through vast interior space, as if they’d invaded a sleeping giant’s castle. The only other plants she saw were pale ferns and some small patches of tough moss. Blisters formed where Papa’s boots knocked against her feet.

Tired, she stopped and turned on Papa bracing for more of his bluster, but his face was drawn and pale. He stumbled to avoid walking into her and sat down hard.

“Where are we going?”

He sat for so long without speaking, she thought he wasn’t going to answer her. “Maybe one of the lost missions made it. Maybe there is another settlement – somewhere.”

Papa sneered at the stories about the first ship, the one that had crashed in the forest with its xenobotanists and a payload of plants from earth. But the other colonists loved to talk about it, especially when Preach wasn’t around. We all wanted to imagine that there was something, and maybe someone, beyond the forest, that there was a beyond. Papa told Nina not to believe in fairy tales, said that the astronauts and their missions were history, that mooning over the past didn’t put food in anyone’s mouths. Fear squeezed her throat. His revised outlook scared her more than anything else. She sat too.

“Try not to touch the ground.” He moved his hands up and down his shins, “or anything.”

“Why?”

“Just don’t.”

She pulled her knees up and rested her chin on them. Papa’s feet looked strange in the dim light, like polished wood.

“Papa?” She reached out to touch his toes. He jerked his foot back.

“Don’t!” He stood awkwardly, stiff-legged – as if his ankles wouldn’t move. She stood and looked at the black trunks, everywhere their twisted roots swelled the ground. “Let’s keep moving.” Papa walked ahead of her with a stumping gait.

Frightened, she followed, keeping her eyes on the woodcutter’s hatchet swinging on his belt.

The pulse of her headache from the pike faded, replaced by a low droning. The sound wavered then steadied into a cadence. The voices of the trees were strange, deep and hollow, a vibration rattling through her lungs. The names were unfamiliar.

Nina caught her breath and pointed. “Look!” A figure sat in the leaf litter beyond one of the tree trunks. Lichen rimed the edges of the man’s tunic. Bare feet stuck out from the bottoms of his trousers. She ran to him. Papa staggered after her. She studied the gaunt, motionless face, the unseeing eyes and open mouth, all solid wood. The trees had taken him.

“Dead.” Papa said. “Look at the wood.”

She knelt by the man. The wood was gray as ash with long black cracks.

“Dale,” the trees hummed his name.

“Did you know him, Papa?”

Papa knitted his brows. “He disappeared into the forest when I was younger than you.” Papa limped away, unconsciously hefting his hatchet like he did whenever he was frustrated.

Each step hurt. Her blisters broke; fluid slicked the insides of Papa’s boots. She ignored the pain and trotted after him. They passed more people frozen into gray wood. Some stood, others lay half submerged in the leaf litter as if drowned. The trees chorused their names. Evening arrived; draining away what little light they had, until the massive trunks melted into the darkness.

“Papa, we have to stop,” she called after him breathlessly, straining to keep him in sight.

“Did you hear that?”

“What?”

He broke into a stiff-legged run.

“Papa!” She followed his receding white shirt as he staggered from one huddled figure to the next.

Then Nina heard her name: The one that Papa alone had kept alive on his lips all these years.

Papa fell down and pulled himself forward dragging his frozen legs. She ran to him as he wrapped his arms around the figure of a woman sitting cross-legged in the loam, her head tilted up toward where the sky would be.

The trees called down, “Adelaide,” brandishing their bitter trophy.

“Adelaide!” Papa wept.

Nina knelt next to Papa and looked at her mother's face. A crack ran through the parched wood from her forehead down across her lips, splitting her chin. Her eyes were blank knots, but Nina recognized the curve of her cheek and the cascading curls of her hair, perfectly rendered in wood.

“Climb up.” Papa pushed her onto Mama’s lap. Nina pulled her knees to her chest and tried to tug him closer. His wooden legs stretched out behind him. Tears drained into his beard. Her own dropped to soak into Mama’s wooden skirts. Exhausted, Nina leaned against the cool, dry wood and closed her eyes.

“Child?” His voice faltered.

“It’s okay, Papa.” He would never speak her name out here.

“When you were born, your mother said your name the moment she saw you. I was angry at first because she didn’t ask me what I thought, but then I looked at you and I could see she was right.” Papa smoothed the curls at the nape of Nina’s neck. “She gave you your name.”

The three of them sat together in the darkness. Nina listened to Papa’s breathing and thought of Mama and Papa holding her for the first time in their little room and suddenly wanted to go home. Tears rolled down her cheeks. Somewhere above, the sky stretched from here all the way back to the settlement where everyone she ever knew would be settling down for the night inside their houses made from the saplings Papa had cut.

“Papa?”

“Mmm.”

“You punched Preach.”

“I surely did.”

She giggled. “He squeaked like a cricket.”

“I think I’ve wanted to do that maybe my whole life,” he said. She could tell by the sound of his voice that he was smiling.

“I thought the voices in the orchard were our voices.” She found a button on his shirt and traced its perfect circle. “That we lived on in the orchard.” Silence washed over them again. She huddled in the warmth rising off his neck. “Who will cut the forest back now?”

He heaved a sigh. “I don’t know.”

She closed her eyes against the darkness and slept.

Nina woke without opening her eyes. Chilled and stiff, she clung to Mama’s carved bodice and tried to claim a few more moments of sleep. Far above, a breeze stirred the branches to a low moan, which resolved into whispered syllables; John, Kelly, Megan, the trees recited the catalog of those they’d murdered. Adelaide, they said.

Her heart began to pound with the urge to say her name, and she knew the trees were getting inside her too. They would pull her name from her mouth, kill her, and add it into their mocking litany.

She opened her eyes. Papa looked back at her with deep brown, fine-grained eyes of still-living wood. His arms, now wrapped around Mama’s waist, were already greying. Sometime during the night, he’d torn off the bottom of his shirt and wrapped it around his mouth so that he wouldn’t give up his name. She ran her fingers across the warp and weft of the threads, more delicate than anything even he could carve.

“Oh, Papa.” Alone, she flung her arms around his hard shoulders and cried on his neck like a child. She looked up at the towering trunks. It could end here. She could just give up her name and stay and it would all be over.

She tore her eyes away from the trees and looked at her legs. Papa’s boots had turned to wood where they touched the soft soil. Green, sinuous roots had climbed up them to wind around her calves. She wiggled her feet inside the boots, tried to pry the roots off, but they were strong and growing fast.

She reached around and found Papa’s hatchet where it was slung in his belt. The blade broke off in her hand, useless grey wood. She grabbed the handle and pulled. Papa had carved it from carnfruit wood and cured it over a fire until it was black and hard as stone. The handle broke off his belt loop, and she worked it between the flesh of her leg and the roots, ignoring the pain as she pried the grasping tendrils off and yanked her feet out of Papa’s boots.

She stretched her toes and ran her hands over the tough skin on the soles of her feet. It felt wonderful to be out of those boots. She looked at the loamy ground, so soft and inviting. Once she started she would have to keep moving. She kissed Mama on the cheek and Papa on the forehead, then stood. Her bare feet tingled pleasantly where they touched the forest floor. There was no path, but many ways. She walked through the trees without looking back. Hungry, thirsty and barefoot, she wouldn’t last long, but she’d go as far as she could.

She walked through the day under the constant drone of names. There were fewer and fewer wooden corpses, a record of how far a body could go before succumbing. Dry and swollen, her tongue twitched inside her mouth. If only she could forget her name. It weighed on her – a stone she carried and could not put down and she was so tired. What did it matter if the trees repeated it to each other like a cruel joke, no one would hear it. No! She clamped her lips shut. Her name was hers, a gift they could never understand.

Dizzy with hunger, she walked through afternoon and evening. She kept going after darkness swallowed the trunks, shuffling on stiff legs, until rough bark clapped her face and chest and knocked her to the ground. She got up and staggered on, arms outstretched. She couldn’t see anything, couldn’t feel her feet or bend her ankles. Another few steps and she tripped over something on the ground. She explored the object with her hands, the supine body of another settler. She curled up on it, digging her fingers into the rotting wood of its shoulders. A castaway clinging to a tiny piece of flotsam in a vast ocean.

A carrion smell woke her. The sun was up somewhere beyond the trees. Her mouth watered. It smelled like the sweet flesh of the carnfruit. Her feet were deep brown. She touched polished wood of her carved toes.

She stood awkwardly and stumped toward the smell. She was so hungry, empty of everything except for her name. It rattled around inside her. The trees murmured urgently, inviting her to set it free. She hobbled on towards the scent. Bright light filtered between the black trunks here.

A clearing.

She fell to her knees, squinting in the sunlight’s glare. Soft moss covered the ground. She crawled toward a stand of enormous flowers. Their wrinkled petals shimmered peach and ochre and brown – human skin tones. Black hair curled out from their fat stems.

Beyond the flowers, crumpled metal glinted. The clothes scattered on the ground didn’t look like anything from the settlement. Older, tougher fabric, bleached from years in the sun. A helmet. A space suit, she realized, torn and deflated where the ground had absorbed the body.

She looked up at the petals drinking in the sunlight. The lost mission. A clutch of small trees stood in the very center of the clearing, pink and white blossoms shuddering in the breeze. True fruit trees. Broad-leaved vines smothered the black trunks of the forest. Ferns and short grass carpeted the ground, a thick network of runners under their soft blades. The astronauts and their seeds had survived after all.

Her feet were grey and cracked, her thighs solid wood. She lay down in the shade of the bobbing petals and reached out to clasp the base of the nearest stem. It was warm from the sun, but also from inside. A human warmth. She thought of Mama and Papa embracing deep in the woods. When she was a baby, Papa had carved little figurines from scraps of wood and the memories handed down from his grandparents, a cat, a car, a pair of astronauts in their bulky suits, and their lander. She wondered if they still there, laying in the dark inside the hinged wooden box under her bed. Tears welled in her eyes. Above her, the petals nodded.

She remembered the meadow seeds. They would need moisture to sprout. With stiff fingers, she dug them out of her pockets, opened her cracked lips and put them in her mouth. They tasted like linen and sunlight. And with them resting on her tongue she slept.

As her breathing slowed, a great confusion of voices rose around her, the tree-climbing vines and the ferns chattered in a staccato patois. The young fruit trees, an apple, a cherry, and a fig, were full of questions about the world beyond the clearing, the ancient astronauts from earth were more reticent, content after so long to simply bloom in the sun. When her new friends asked if she had a name, she said, “You can call me Short Straw.” She imagined her human name in the little box under her bed, safe among the figures Papa had carved for her so long ago.

The seasons came and went. Nina sank into the rich soil. She learned to drink the sun and eat the dark loam. The grasses she’d carried with her grew from the place where her mouth had been. She bowed to the drenching rain that fell into the clearing and felt the breezes flow through her stems. She told the others about her life in the settlement, about the meadow grasses and the people and how they all loved the sky the same.

As the years passed, the clearing grew into a long swath. The chattering vines climbed the nearest forest trees smothering and silencing them before felling the great trunks. The fruit trees multiplied in the sunlight, raising a spine of young saplings in the center of the open land.

With each season, she released her pollen to the wind and soared up with the sweet flowering scent until one day the wind carried her all the way over the settlement and to the wild meadow beyond.

“I'm here!” she called to the grasses.

“Welcome home,” they whispered.

She settled in adding her voice to theirs, whispering to anyone who might be listening, who might be able to hear, that there was something more than the forest beyond the settlement - and that it was coming.

This story originally appeared in Lost Worlds by Flame Tree Press.


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