Art by Atanas Dzhingarov.
From the author: A furry animal living beneath a sentient tree prepares for the long winter.
Beneath the roots of the honeyglow tree, a small creature dreams. Not the cold, empty sleep of winter, only a nap on a warm autumn day. His bed, a nest of moss and grass, has been fortified with yellow leaves, and there he lies, curled like a vine, hugging his thick silvery tail. His nose snuffles and his mouth twitches as he dreams of fruit.
With a yawn, he unfurls, skitters along a tunnel and emerges into the light. Nose up, he sniffs the air. There’s a change in the wind. A new scent, cold and sweet, mixing with distant wood smoke. It makes the trees shiver.
He climbs the honeyglow tree, all the way to the highest branches, but finds no clusters of fruit, only golden leaves.
He spends most of the light-hours of each day looking for food. Unlike the squirrels zooming past with fat acorns in their mouths who bury food for winter, the small creature eats all he can find. Berries and mushrooms, the core of an apple dropped by a crow.
All is well in his world as long as his belly’s full.
Yet another darkness descends. The small creature shifts in his nest, hungry for summer fruit, hungry for anything at all. His eyes are pinched tight, his sleep ragged and light.
A gentle wind swirls around the honeyglow tree, plays with the branches and moves on.
Dreams come — comforting, strange. The warmth of sun against golden bark. The scent of summer days. Secret underground chambers bursting with fruit.
He relaxes, lets go of his tail.
Dreams won’t fill his belly, but it’s the only way the tree knows how to speak.
Ever since the furry one made his home beneath her, she has warded off nightmares and scared off foxes venturing too close to his trail. It’s a kindness, but hardly unearned. All summer he fed on her golden fruit, freeing her branches from its weight. Sitting on her shoulder, he licked his sticky paws for hours, not letting a single drop go to waste.
He thinks of her as home, but through the sugar of her fruit, she lives inside him too.
The nights grow more biting. His hunger grows until it’s bigger than him, bigger than the dreams floating inside his head. He sniffs, nose close to the ground, travels a circle around the honeyglow tree.
Something smells sweet like summer. He digs, nose and paws dirty in the soil. The smell in his nostrils intensifies.
He sees it. A thin, golden fruit buried in the soil. No, not a fruit — a root. His mouth waters. He sticks his nose down, inhales, almost faints from the heavenly scent.
A little nibble won’t hurt, he tells himself. There are many more, a whole network twisting and curling underground. And so he sinks his teeth into the sweet, sweet root.
A flash of lightning against black skies flickers through his mind. A cold, dark feeling like an echo of winter. He jumps back, eyes wide with fear, heart racing down a dark tunnel.
He looks up. The sky is blue, not a drop of rain on his nose or a cloud in sight. And the invisible beast of hunger still growls in his belly, unsatisfied.
He takes another bite, and another. The roots are sweet and hearty, good work for his teeth. There’s no lightning this time, nothing to stop him.
The small creature, his belly fat and round, should be sleeping, but something dark at the back of his mind keeps him from rest. He goes outside one last time.
He crouches in the sea of golden leaves, making a small and terrible sound. Beneath the leaves lies destruction, tunnels upon tunnels where he gorged on the tree’s sweet, sweet roots. He snuggles against the base of the tree, against the cool bark, closes his eyes, and waits.
The tree stays silent, sharing no more image-feelings. Her naked shadow falls over her very last leaves.
The small creature curls into his nest for the last time before spring. Bundled tight, he hugs his round belly and thick silvery tail. More than foxes, he fears the nightmares that may come.
His world becomes soft and black as he falls somewhere deep. Between here and there, everything slows and cools. His heart, his breath, the flow of blood through his veins, finer than the finest roots.
There, he stops, so close to the border of death that, if not careful, he might slip over to the other side.
A voice slices through his black, empty sleep. It creaks, “I’ve been waiting for you.”
“I didn’t mean to,” the small creature squeaks, imagining dark snakelike roots dragging him away. “But I was so hungry.”
“I know you were, and though it hurt, I wanted you to eat.”
“I filled my belly with your roots. I killed you.”
“Everything you took was freely given. My branches are old and brittle, and would not survive the coming snow. I knew this winter would be my last.”
The image conjured by his fears changes, begins to fill with light. The roots, turning golden, don’t pull him away. They push back, keep him from slipping away.
The tree whispers, “Now sleep till spring, my little friend, and let me dream for you.”
This story originally appeared in The Mad River.