We are thrilled to present you this dark and disturbing tale featured in "It Calls From the Forest: Volume Two"
One editorial review said this: "Donna J.W.Munro blasts the reader into her world-building from the outset, with I Speak for the Trees. From then on, the stories go further into madness as the trees and all its denizens come to life."
And with that, we hope you enjoy.
I SPEAK FOR THE TREES
BY DONNA J. W. MUNRO
On the hill that rose above Grickle Grove evergreens grew thick, brushing the clouds into wisps with needles pink and soft. Grickle Grove’s men worked in lumber, and they had built the first log and daub cabin that sat in the crook of Grockle Creek. Two hundred souls made their home in the valley, taking only the trees they needed and replacing what they took.
The oldest resident, Unc, had built the road, carrying stones from the creek bed and from the rockslides that came off the craggy cliffside. He led without appointment, deciding where to cull the trees and how many replacements to plant.
Unc was the head for the prayers that wove through the humming song of Grickle Creek. His voice would sing, low and sweet, “I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues. The trees, the fish and the birds are our kin. I speak for this hill, our mother, from where we take what we need. We take no more.”
The rest murmur along, grumbling beneath his song.
And they prospered.
Only Unc ever led the prayer, and only he climbed the cliff to bring the bundle of soft, pink needles to the cave where the Grickle lived. Only Unc ever went to Grickle and looked into his yellow eyes, but he told the others about the creature’s long teeth and spindle-bone legs.
Unc promised that any night wanderer on the hill would feel those teeth in the soft flesh for their throat, and that those long claws were allowed to tear at their skin. This was for the peace of Grickle Grove, which was negotiated and renewed each year by Unc and the Grickle among all the needle offerings.
Unc could not live forever though, could he?
Jacob Barbelot, the fifth child of Unc’s granddaughter Sara, didn’t think so.
“Unc, how old are you?” Jacob asked as they gathered the apples from the trees, taking what was needed and leaving the rest to tumble to the ground by the tree roots. Those were for the birds, and for the Grickle.
“As old as the grove,” Unc said, his hands full of apples. He turned his full attention to Jacob. “I speak for the trees, and they give me life. As long as these woods live so shall I.”
Jacob nodded, though inside he seethed. Why should Unc live forever, while the rest of the Barbelot family passed like dandelion seeds in a spring wind?
When the warrior woman stumbled into the village, Jacob’s anger found a kindred soul.
He’d found her, Captain Oncer, with moss growing on the scales of her armor. She’d laid her sword down to greedily drink from Grickle Creek, scooping the sparkling water by handfuls. A warrior from the plain, the kind who Jacob’s mother had depicted. Sara had wandered in her youth, returning with recollections of the fierce warriors. Of course she sang out with disdain at the brutality she’d found, but Jacob had heard the words between. How exciting the battles were, how life and death were decided by the skill of your arm and the strength of your comrades.
He’d wanted to leave, to wander as his mother had, but Sara had forbidden it. The Barbelot family needed a male to sit in the circle next to her, one to give Unc their annual offerings, and Jacob was the only male. Maybe now, with the arrival of this warrior woman, things could change.
As Jacob approached the new arrival she spun on her boot heel, grabbing her sword and challenging him, “Back off!”
Jacob raised his hands, palms out. “Peace, sister. You look tired, and I can offer you food and rest.”
The warrior didn’t drop her guard, but her features grew quizzical. “For what in return?”
“Words. Just words, about the world outside of this place.”
She stared at him, locked in the rigid stance of a soldier. Eventually she lowered her sword, cautiously following Jacob to his cabin. He maneuvered his pot of soup further onto the fireplace, stirring the banked peat lumps until the flames licked up the side. She sat at the table, sword next to her right hand.
The silence stretched, and Jacob’s stirring didn’t drown out the humming of Grickle Creek. He watched her out of the corner of his eye, her gaze shifting as she took in the cabin.
“Don’t have much, eh boy?”
“Jacob then.” Captain Oncer grabbed a hunk of bread from the bowl and bit the rough dough, chewing slowly. “You live in the midst of plenty, yet you have this little hut and rough bread. How many days has that soup been simmering?”
He glanced around, ashamed, though it wasn’t for the first time. He’d been raised in Grickle Grove’s poverty, and had always struggled with the facts of it compared to what Sara had said of the outside world. Now, even with dirt and moss encrusting it, pieces of the woman’s silver armor shone in the flickering light of the fireplace. It was worth more than all of his possessions combined.
Ladeling a bowl full of the three-day-old soup he merely grunted in response, then set the meager fare in front of her.
“Even in camp, we soldiers eat meat with our meal.” She stirred the apples in the spiced water. “You have fish and fowl, so why not eat those?”
“It isn’t allowed.”
“Allowed? If I were to go out and kill one of those fat birds in the trees would you really stop me?”
Jacob shook his head.
“Why do you burn peat, when you have so many trees?”
“We only take trees when we have to for winter, or when they fall and then we must replace – ”
“Why?” She crushed the crusty bread in her clenched fist. “Who makes you?”
He shook his head. How could she understand?
“Unc is our leader. He keeps us safe, and we follow the rules.” Jacob filled his own bowl, sitting next to her. As he spooned the thin soup into his mouth he shamefully noted that it had never tasted so bitter before.
“If my army had these trees, that clear water and those fat fish, we’d win our war. You fools don’t even know what you have! This Unc, is he a strong man that he holds you with such dedication?”
Jacob shook his head. “He’s the chosen one of Grickle. He speaks for the trees, because…”
She scoffed. “Trees are things to be used, Jacob. I’m going to lead my troops back here. There’s money for you to make from the use of your resources –”
“I don’t want money! I want to be a soldier, like you.”
At his outburst she laughed, holding out a hand. Jacob grasped it happily. “Then I’ll train you. Come Jacob, let us bring the army.”
Two evenings later, as the sun sank behind the grove, the army crested the far hill. It made its way down to Grickle Creek, bands breaking off to chop down the pink pines or to spear the geese squaking fearfully between the fallen tree trunks. The residents of Grickle Creek didn’t come to stop them, as Jacob had thought they would. In his shiny new armor, and standing next to Captain Oncer, he had hoped his mother Sara and his sisters could see how he’d changed.
He wanted them to see how much stronger he was under the army’s care, but only Unc came out of his hut. He walked without pause to Captain Oncer, easily recognizing someone who held power. As he passed Jacob he spared him a sorrowful glance, but not a word.
His low, sweet voice rang out in the dusk. “I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues. The trees, the fish and the birds are our kin. I speak for this hill, our mother, from where we take what we need. We take no more, so you take what you have and leave before it is too late.”
Captain Oncer dismounted from her horse, drawing her sword in a fluid motion. “Old fool! Get out of my way.”
She shoved Unc, laughing at the old man, but –
He didn’t fall.
The last of the daylight died in that moment, and Jacob’s jaw tightened as he watched Unc stand like stone.
“I speak for the trees, who have no tongues.” The words stretched in his throat and, strangely, so did Unc’s body. His eyes melted in his sockets, burned out by the bright-yellow light shining from deep within him. He grew upwards and out of his skin, stretching on bones tall and thin. The tips of his elongated claws scrambled in the dirt among the fallen, pink evergreens. His skull was now half buck and half wolf, with teeth longer than Captain Oncer’s sword.
The soldiers stopped chopping and spearing. They were frozen in horror as they took in the sight of Unc, took in the sight of the Grickle, slobbering over their Captain.
“You will replace what you take,” the Grickle rasped.
The warriors screamed as one. Their armor was ripping, metallic crunches filling the air as their bodies lengthened. All of them threw their heads back and stretched their arms out, branches breaking through their skin. Their flesh transformed from soft, pink skin into the ridged, hard skin of the pink evergreens. Metal scales sloughed off as their toes stretched into the earth, and the pink needles spiraled out from every branch and finger.
The Grickle raised its claws, clicking the tips, calling the tongues out from the mouths of the dying soldiers. The meaty organs snaked out from between lips, pink and shining wetly. Soldiers gurgled as their tongues ripped from them, the body parts flying to the Grickle. It popped the saliva-coated meat into its jaws, chewing it into mush that disappeared behind his gnashing teeth.
The Grickle repeated, “Trees have no tongues.”
Without the screaming the humming of the creek filled the space between Jacob and the Grickle. Its lamp-like eyes shone in the dark, glinting off of Jacob’s shiny new armor.
“Forgive me, Grandfather. I didn’t know they would…”
The monster listened to the echoes of Jacob’s lie bounce among the new stand of trees. It bent over the speared birds and pulled the death out of their wounds, releasing black clouds into the air.
“Jacob Barbelot, my little traitor…” The words rolled in the beast’s bone windpipe. “You let them in, you led them back. I thought, maybe someday, you might -”
“Please Grandfather, I’m sorry!”
The Grickle crept forward on long spindle legs, teeth shining red in the brightness of the moon.
“I can’t make you a tree, my child, because you didn’t protect them. I can’t make you into a fish or a bird, because you watched them die. No, I’ll make you part of me. This way I’ll know you’ll never hurt them again.”
Jacob opened his mouth to protest, but the Grickle caged him with its bony arms and long claws. It peeled Jacob’s skin, spilling blood on the roots of the new, pink-needled trees. He dropped hunks of skin over the bird’s wings, making them longer with each strip. The muscles and organs he tossed to the fish, who gobbled each piece up.
Jacob felt each injury, even once he was only bones.
And then the Grickle, humming with the creek, wove Jacob’s bones in with his, latching them on as they clacked and melded together. It made itself stronger.
Then it breathed out life in a white cloud, which wove around the bones and pulled them together back into the shape of Unc. Jacob’s bones ached to speak, but he had no breath. Unc laughed and patted his distended belly, Jacob’s bones like a shield on the inside, and walked through the grickle grass toward town, breathing in the slow, sour scent of blood on the wind as he greeted the laughing crows.
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