The forest knows what you took from it. It heard your heartbeat quicken as you pulled the saw from the bag and slew the ancient oak, leaving birds and squirrels and countless insects homeless. The forest felt you tramp, back and forth, across her network of roots that could only wait, inert, although they wished to trip you, to see you fall to the earth and rot back into the ground. You took what you wanted and left a stump where birds can never again nest. Left a forest to grieve. You will have all the money you desire, but it cannot last. The forest has marked you. Not now, for human years are swift, while a tree may live for millennia. You will wish her justice was as sudden as the strike of your axe.
James sits amongst plundered treasures, in the gloom of muted ivory chandeliers, tipping back imported whisky. There is a bitter taste in his mouth that nothing can wash away. He blames the endless re-use and wishes for the glorious days of single use, of packaging that could be ripped and thrown, of glass smashed across pavement, of beautiful callousness that came from the certainty that humans rule, the landlords of the earth.
Through the windows, the forest is in full bloom, delicate rose crab apple and paper-white hawthorne, glitches of yellow rowan. A display only for him, framed by a deceptively thin barrier of glass and Scandinavian wood. Exquisite to look on, but the air is too thick. The pollen chokes him more year by year, sends hives like branches scaling around his arm. No pills will cure this. He keeps the window permanently shut and the air conditioner on.
The recycled plastics and hemp carpets that the world requires are prominent. But woven in, hidden in plain sight, the kindergarten-bright plumage of a bird once thought extinct, a curtain of spider silk, snakeskin that lines the vegan leather of his shoe. The coffee table, pure oak with countless concentric rings, dark and light, the part he kept as a memento. It still bleeds, rusty resin staining his crystal glass.
The donations he heaps on environmental charities draw the curtain over everything else and this house is deep enough in the forest to avert suspicion. No one would follow him here. It is the perfect hideaway, forest bathing akin to a religious retreat in this new old world that values nature. He bathes only in the possibilities of what he could still root out, place in his museum.
There is a knock at the door, insistent, like a branch whipped in the wind. Impossible. He looks at the camera. A woman, cloaked, spectral in the half glow of the moonlit night. He opens a sliver.
‘Hello James,’ her voice is soft, pleading. The cadence of the stream that flows through the forest.
‘This is my retreat. You should know I don’t welcome visitors.’
‘Can I come in?’
Shadows gather round her, as if to fill the barely there frame. She wears a shimmering, rainbow flower in a copse of chestnut hair. The moon lily, which blooms once in seven years. Her loose clothes are felt-like, moss woven with gold. It is the Golden Fleece from the mountains of Peru. A bracelet snakes up her arm, scintillating amethyst scales and frozen amber eyes, a powerful talisman of the desert. These were all rare items, things thought extinct, that he had long coveted. A collector, like him.
He opens the door. ‘You should have gone through the Society,’ he says but he opens the door. There were others who would covet the things this woman wore so casually.
‘James, it is you who possess what I desire.’
‘Take a seat. Have some whisky.’
‘Thank you,’ she holds the glass in her hands, then places it on the rug. She does not sit but moves to stand by the coffee table.
Yes, collecting could attract eccentrics.
‘First, how did you find me?’
‘I tracked you.’
‘I thought I was untraceable here.’
‘James, You make such an imprint wherever you go,’ says the woman.
A compliment, he supposes. Man should leave an impact on the world.
He sneezes, eyes wheeze. The outside has entered on her skin and clothes.
‘What is it you want?’ he sweeps his hand around. ‘Or were you thinking of something from my private collection?’
‘The heart of an oak tree.’ She bends and strokes the table, gently tracing the rings of the stump. Her hands are skeletal but move gently.
‘That is not for sale, not even for what you have,’ he gestures to the bracelet. ‘It has sentimental value.’
‘There’s a lot more. Far more intriguing. Whoever helped you find me must have told you.’ He sweeps his hand in geometrical shapes in the air, a passcode, and something clicks loose. The rug slides away to reveal a glass floor, a viewing point to a cave of wonders below.
She gasps, a bluster of wind and a desiccated leaf settles on the floor. It appears to float from her breath, but it must have fallen from the mess of hair under her hood. He does not notice that the leaf is elongated, serrated, oaken.
Below her, a museum of the forbidden, of nature defiled. She stands on the glass to look down and her body droops under the cloak. A tank holds glowing fish like tiny stars, a pair of twisted cerulean horns sit on the wall, on the floor an array of exquisitely sculpted figurines, all made from rare wood. Jewellery of rare stones set in scarce metals in a display cabinet. Yet his cruelty was not limited to collection. On the wall, expansive photographs show before and after scenes of the 20th century, a meadow bulldozed to make a car park, a village turned into an oil field, wildfires that left barren land. Each is entitled, ‘Triumph.’
‘It’s…astonishing,’ she rasps.
‘Choose anything you can carry out of here. As you can imagine, I don’t deliver.’
‘I choose the oak. The heart.’
He thinks he glimpses beetles creeping in the shadows of her hood. He is tempted to turn up the chandelier to full luminosity. Something is wrong with her. Perhaps it is simply that he cannot sense her excitement, that hungry glow when collectors see the treasures he has amassed. She looks limp.
‘These are far more valuable. And the oak, how would you carry it to your car?’
‘Perhaps I am stronger than I appear.’
Then he thinks, does she plan to stay the night? Where was safe in this now wild forest? Wolves roamed again, bears and boars rewilded. Now the cities and farms no longer encroached and illegal felling of trees landed heads of corporations in prison. Those foolish enough to get caught. He would never outsource his acts of ecocide. A hunter’s joy in tracking and taking the last breath from his prey.
‘How about sabre tooth tiger DNA? Mixed with domestic cats, they make wonderful family pets. I can even give you the name of a lab that will create it for you.’ It’s a generous offer. He wants her gone now. She is getting under his skin. He wants to scratch it raw.
She shakes her head. ‘I only want the oak.’
He thinks of the sickly resin always gripping his glass, oozing onto the rug below, the churning in his gut. But he cannot give up his first kill. And the mother tree is evidence. The trees around her grew sickly after. They were nourished by her roots. Saplings with stunted growth. Years in prison. She could be a saboteur or worse, undercover. He should not have let her cross the threshold.
‘It’s simply not possible. If that’s all…’ He begins to stand up.
‘It isn’t all. I want you too. I want to collect you.’
He laughs. Just another gold-digger, despite her intriguing exterior. Not his type though. All draped and mysterious. He likes flesh on display in glowing Lycra or sequined dresses, falling into curves, scrubbed and shaved and injected and moulded. As far from the wild as possible.
‘That’s not what this place is for. I have my own little harem back in civilisation.’ No point offending her. She knows secrets, and silencing people costs money. He slams his glass down on the oak.
‘You can’t always get what you want.’ A shrug. She stands. Thank goodness, she is leaving. But instead she drifts towards him. Her hands brush his cheeks, rough.
He perceives for the first time, below her overpowering floral scent, undertones of decay, of marsh and fungi, something that could still have been a skilfully imitative perfume. His head swims, the blooms outside a blur in a sudden breeze. His face swells. She is wearing something he is allergic to, something he cannot stand.
‘I said I’m not in the mood. This is my retreat…’ he tries to shout, but his voice has lost all power. He can barely breathe.
‘Shhh…’ she says and kisses him. Her lips are viscous, slimy. Frog skin. He wants to run, but he cannot move. His legs grow wooden, his body flops into the chair. She pokes out a tongue. He sees, with eyes that can barely twitch, that she has no true face. It is only an illusion, stitched together from branches and flowers and insects that swarm amongst the crevices. She has no lips but a berry-red toad that jumps into his throat. Then he cannot move, only watch with wide-open eyes.
‘It was the same for me, when you swung the axe,’ she whispers into his ear.
The moss undulates, is thrown upwards and the thing he thought was a woman curves and warps until it is part of the forest, brush and branches, birds and beetles and a flurry of russet oak leaves. She draws a breath and the wind crashes in from outside, shattering the bulletproof glass, turning a tornado around the oak. Sharp pine cones rush in and shatter the glass. The alarm is set off in a distant police office. Soon they will come and find him above his museum of ecocide. Only when he is in handcuffs will the forest release him.
You will sit in a concrete jail without sky, built to punish and segregate before the time of biophilic architecture. You will not be able to rest. You will have no choice. Your crimes are too great for simple rehabilitation. They have created a new punishment for you, crueller than the forest could imagine. You are put on display, on their screens that show both wonders and depravities, as you mend and sow and nurture. You could have been an equal to nature, an eternal part of our cycle, and now you will remain subservient, begging as the thorns scratch and the wasps and frosts do not forgive. The forest will show you her claws and never again her beauty.
Emma C Baker England Emma is an ESL teacher with a writing addiction. She also facilitates freewriting workshops and am currently writing a middle grade novel involving fairies, the Industrial Revolution and the clash between old magic and modern technology. Her favourite place is either in the midst of an old English wood or swimming in a clear sea. https://wordpress.com/view/engularangulish.wordpress.com View all posts