Early in the morning, before the dawn had a chance to light the forest leaves, Tzezympo, the eldest tree standing on the bank of the Small River, had been killed in front of their friends and family. Felled by axes swung by hungry loggers, the giant humble poet roared in agony as their waist tore from the tendons of their base. They collapsed, like a crashing mountain, on the crying ground, bleeding profusely before the boots of the loggers who had come to drink their blood and take their limbs to begin the settlement not so far away. It had been a horrible–and merciless–death, an unexpected and tortuous, excruciating demise. The plants and animals who had the misfortune of having to hear Tzezympo’s screams–those who lived in their many wombs, especially: the gathering squirrels, the singing birds, the working ants, the healing mushrooms–all found themselves ensnared in trauma. Descending into unparalleled frightful frenzies, they panicked, fleeing with their young from their home, the great guardian tree.
It was a novel catastrophe, a murder, and it didn’t go unnoticed. On the opposite side of the river, the magical trees of the sacred Elkí Forest swayed their branches in horror as the loggers snickered and picked apart the bark of their friend by the teeth of their axes. The swaying Elkí Forest trees, now croaking, were a generation older than Tzezympo, hailing from a time that went as far back as the start of the world. Most of them were Éña trees. They were tall, elegant beings which turned curvy the higher any curious creature dared to climb. They housed terrific and vibrant leaves which radiated spectacularly at all times of day–even at night, until the Éña tree tucked their roots in for peaceful sleep. Tzezympo was their cousin – not an Éña but an Íńa tree, who grew up on the other side of the magic forest’s border, on the other side of Small River. Never did they think the danger of the world would reach them, but it did. As Tzezympo’s drew their final breaths, the Elkí’s trees lit up in whirling blue solidarity, swirling their warm magic up their nervous trunks in the hopes the forest’s protectors would see it: the Elka.
• • •
A sleepy Gūmí was the first Elka to notice the blue call for help. As the others of Radicle 5 snored like baby bears cuddled together for warmth in their nooks, Gūmí, the youngest of them and whose head had been drooping and snapping up throughout his first shift, barely caught the blue night light pulsating blurry in his vision. Its peaceful and hypnotic illumination caressed the shadows of the forest’s floor. Had the aura been any dimmer, he might have just given into the weariness of his eyelids overpowering his strict warrior’s protocol as the radicle night-watcher. That would have been a most embarrassing and unpleasant beginning to his time as the patrol’s rookie warrior. The other veterans wouldn’t have ever let him live it down, either. No doubt they would have shunned him for the rest of his life, ashamed to call him one of their own. With his remaining might, Gūmí pried his wildly open by pinching the terse Elka skin of his hand. With his nails digging in, Gūmí broke the skin and a little blood pooled like tainted resin out onto the surface. Its sting burned against the air. Now he was wide awake again, on edge, and the only one to take in the warm spring morning before the dawn, the only one to heed the call.
“Rekka,” he whispered, nudging his first lieutenant with his nervous foot as she slept in the fetal position directly in front of him obscured by the long grass. This had been her last order to him, in case he noticed anything strange. “Rekka,” he whispered again, this time trying his clammy hand for better luck.
“What?” hissed the groggy shadow as her snoring broke off. “What is it, Gūmí?” Gūmí swallowed, wondering for a split moment whether or not he had made the rookie mistake of waking the radicle’s second-in-command for nothing. He cleansed himself of his doubt and swallowed again to regain his courage.
“Blue,” his voice cracked. “Blue light.”
“Behind you.” A rustle of the grass told Gūmí, Rekka shifted her weight. Another rustle, swifter than the first, told him she had leapt to her feet. She cursed, spat, then cracked her knuckles.
“I’ll go wake Amhaka. Help me get the others up,” she hissed. Even before Gūmí was able to open his mouth, Rekka began doing the waking herself, using her feet to push her sleeping subordinates out of their dreams, as she made her way around the tree to Radicle 5’s leader, Amhaka, who slept quietly on the other side. “Get up! Get up!” Rekka hissed. Gūmí tried his version, except limiting himself to his fingers, lightly pressing on the groggy shadows that were becoming more discernable with the chirping dawn.
“Hey… D-Drendí? It’s time to wake up… now. Néa? R-rekka…wants us to get up.”
“Sludge-mud of a rain puddle!” Néa said agitated, swatting Gūmí’s hand off her shoulder. Unsure if Néa had opened her eyes, he tried again to nudge her. That was the rookie mistake. As Néa shot up towering over him like a tree dominating a sprout, she shoved Gūmí, knocking him back on his butt on the one patch of grass that had no grass, only rocks. “The sludge-puddle is wrong with you? You blind, boy? Can’t you see I’m getting up?” Gūmí swallowed. In a way, he was blind, blinder than the rest, due to his age. His brown-earth eyes just hadn’t grown in all the way yet, hadn’t matured their nocturnal binocular powers, the same as the others, the same as the owls.
“This, Drendí, is why Amhaka should have never have let boys in to do our work. They’re weak and stupid and their eyes suck!”
“Take it easy, Néa. The boy was probably ordered,” Drendí replied with a yawn. A moment of quiet came between them as the radicle came awake. “Weren’t you, boy?”
“Y-yes. Rekka’s orders.” At that moment, he was thankful that the dawn was only just beginning to trickle in. Any lighter, surely, the others would have been able to discern his lavender cheeks growing red and the soft glimmer of water beginning to pall over his eyes
“Pathetic, either way,” Néa continued. “One night in the radicle, and the boy already thinks he’s one of the pack. A real tough boy, already tou–”
“What’s the issue this time?” Rekka spat, hissing back around the tree with Amhaka flexing her arms in tow. Néa wheeled around and addressed the radicle’s lieutenant using the Last Warrior’s Stance. Gūmí shot up, too, mimicking Néa to the best of his abilities, posturing his chin up and his hands clamped at his sides.
“The boy is using his hands to wake us up. His rank forbids it, Lieutenant.”
“I ordered it,” Rekka snapped. “How else is a night-watcher supposed to wake the group? Singing lullabies?” Néa had a response, a smart remark about Amhaka’s nepotism influencing the ranks, but didn’t share it, kept it bolted with thick tree roots behind her lips. It wasn’t worth the beat-down. Not this time, anyway.
“Rekka is right,” Amhaka said, cutting into the air. “Gūmí may be our newest and youngest warrior. But he proved himself this morning, – didn’t you, Gūmí?” Gūmí kept his pose, noticing his tears were no more. You followed orders and woke us to the threat. Good work, Gūmí. Good work.”
“Actually,” Néa replied, gritting her teeth. “It was the trees who woke us, not the boy.”
“Knock it off!” Rekka barked. Taking her club from its leafy scabbard, she slammed it into Néa’s calve. Néa groaned as she had the day before and took a hard knee to the earth. “Smart mouth. Why I ought t–“
“Enough!” Amhaka injected, her eyes flaring in lime. “You ought to be ashamed. You’re wasting precious time. Focus. The trees call. It’s time to leave. Scale the trees and use the swings to the bank. I’ll lead. Everyone else, fall in behind Rekka.” Without wasting another moment, Amhaka pivoted and to face the Éña tree they had all slept under. With her arms outstretched, she used her tough, hooked nails to grip the bark, then pulled her lean, muscular body up the trunk at impressive speed.
“Well, just don’t stand there. You heard Amhaka. Fall in!” Rekka ordered. “Néa, Drendí, Gūmí. You three follow behind me. Everyone else – follow their lead. Leave a space of three branches. We dive when Amhaka signals.” As Gūmí sorted behind Néa, his heart began to beat mercilessly against him. Not once had he come to blows with anyone or anything in the forest, yet, he had trained extensively for it. Even with Drendí placed in between him and Néa, Gūmí could feel the heat of Néa’s judgment searing through the layers of his skin, penetrating into the root of his new warrior’s soul. This would be the battle he would have to prove himself, prove his love for the forest to the others and himself. Now, all eyes were on him – or so it felt – towering over his already puny frame, with Néa’s eyes looming larger than Rekka’s, even Amhaka’s. As Rekka moved up the tree, his cheeks began to flush. Next was Nèa, and the flush spread all over, heating up his entire body. As Néa stopped to turn her head, she called back to him.
“Boy,” Néa hissed. “You better not make me laugh. You better not fall.” Gūmí swallowed. Now, he imagined the future, and his legs were trembling. He gripped his sweaty hand over his thigh in an attempt to steady it. As Néa pulled herself up the trunk in a huff, Gūmí did everything he could to remember his training, but he couldn’t recall it, couldn’t recall the list of commands, nor the hand gestures. Instead, a light space proliferated from the center of his head, as though there was new plant blossoming inside. As the forest colors flashed before him, the earth underneath his feet started to buckle. No–it wasn’t buckling, he was starting to buckle. He quickly pinched his hand again, this time as a spider would stab its fangs. For a moment, it worked. Prying himself back into focus, he stepped forward drenched in sweat towards the trunk as Drendí followed Néa up the bark. Looking up, Gūmí took in the wonder of the sacred canopy’s vibrant and shimmering colors. Its leaves were wildly springing to life, but–they were all running away from him, escaping towards the sky. A voice was calling down to him. No – two voices were calling down, yelling from far away; another voice was also yelling from behind. A loud ringing from ear-to-ear muffled them, drowned out everything. The proliferation was now pushing against all walls of his head, the plant’s leaves were ballooning. Gūmí opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. He placed his slippery hands and face on the trunk and slumped down, cutting his chest on the bark, as the world of sacred forest fell away.
• • •
“I’ve never seen anything like that.”
“I could tell something was off. The line stopped…”
“I’m glad that didn’t happen to me when I joined.”
“Néa was pissed.”
“She’s always pissed.”
“Yeah, but she let Amhaka have it.”
“Did you see the way Rekka let in to her?”
“That’s why I never say nothing. You can’t speak up to leadership.”
“It isn’t good for morale. Besides, Néa should have known better.”
“She can’t help it. Everyone knows she speaks for the others.”
“That’s why they shut her up.”
“To shut everyone up…”
As Gūmí came around, he found himself on his back. Slowly, he opened his eyes to the canopy’s tremendous light and shut them again. He chose to listen, listen intently to the Elkí Forest and its calming songs of life wash over him. Things were different. The morning chirps that had dominated the early dawn were now replaced with soft animal paws whisking and hopping about, swishing their way through brush and grass. The soft breeze gently poured in from the canopy’s humming leaves. This told him he was in the long grass. Their whistle was the giveaway. Only long grass by the border whistled so whimsically. Short grass, which grew closer to the forest’s heart and the sacred Elkí, stayed quiet. He remembered the first time he had heard the long grass sing. He must have been no older than two when his mother, a warrior, and father, a gardener, took him to see the Small River for the first time. It had been a relatively windless afternoon, much like the day he had joined Amhaka’s ranks. As he ran towards the rushing water with his tiny hands, sticky from his peanut butter snack, outstretched, a large gust had howled out of nowhere and knocked his munchkin boy body onto the grass. Just as he picked his head up, the grass began whistling from the wind. It had scared his curious self, and he burst into tears. Both his mother and father had comforted him. His father propped him up and wiped the dirt from his arms and legs, took the caterpillar that had clung to his ear. His mother then scooped him in her trunky arms and walked him to the water’s edge. Gūmí loved that memory, of the grass and the water and them as a family – even though it emptied his chest know over four years had passed since his parents’ tragic deaths.
“What – what happened?” Gūmí said, finally sitting up and rubbing his eyes, as if this was the moment he had sprung awake.
“Well, if it isn’t so. The boy lives!”
“Oh. Hey, Drendí – Hey, Olma,” Gūmí said, greeting their eyes as his own adjusted to the light.
“Enjoy your vacation?” Olma snickered.
“‘Vacation’,” Drendí laughed, slapping her knee. “That’s a good one. Maybe we should try fainting before the next battle, huh? See how it goes.”
“I’ll spare you the trouble,” Olma said, with a snicker. “It won’t go well.”
“I – I don’t know what happened.”
“You collapsed, kiddo,” Drendí replied.
“Didn’t even get one leg up on the bark.”
“Slobbered all over the Éña, though, with that opened mouth of yours” Olma said, grinning sardonically, as she screwed up her own tongue and let it hang to the side of her mouth.
“Poor Éña tree.”
“All – all I remember is getting in line,” Gûmí said, scratching his head.
“That’s it?” Drendí said.
“Néa wanted to leave your butt behind,” Olma said, smirking as she braided the grass.
“She – she did?”
“Rekka stopped it, of course,” Drendí added. “Ordered us to babysit your butt until they came back.”
“Good thing leadership likes you, boy. If Drendí or me had pulled that sludge, it would have been lights out for us for days.” Slowly, the details were coming back to Gūmí.
“Where did is everyone?”
“Off beating the sludge out of whoever that blue light was about,” Drendí said, stretching her neck into several cracks.
“What? Are you serious?” Drendí replied.
“Wow, boy. You really weren’t kidding. Good thing Néa isn’t here to smack you on the back of the head. I mean, I’d smack you myself, but you know how these braids get to be,” Olma began. She stopped and intensified her eyes, creepying her voice. “Once I get started, I just got to make it to the end! Curse my Elka ways.” Figments of the blue light started coming back to Gūmí. Now, he remembered being the one who had spotted it. He stood up, wobbling a little, realizing his stomach was empty and his mouth was dry.
“Whoa there, boy,” Olma said. “Take it easy on the standing. We don’t need you falling over again.”
“Here, kid,” Drendí said, digging through her waist pouch. “At least, have some seeds and a little water.” Gūmí sat back down and took Drendí’s seeds from her hand, then waterfalled a long swig from her coconut canteen. He loved the forest’s water. This one, he could tell, had dripped from mint leaves. It cleaned his spirits. The older Elka watched, then looked at each other grinning. At the same time, they rolled their eyes.
“Yeah, don’t drink all of it now, kid,” Drendí said, snatching back her canteen. Gūmí choked.
“There you go!” Olma laughed.
“Sheesh!” Drendí said, squinting into her bottle and shaking it furiously. “You boys really don’t know when to stop.” Turning to Olma, she showed her the remainder inside the canteen. “I give it to him for just a quick sip, and he leaves me with half – half!”
“Sorry,” Gūmí said, wiping his face as he continued to cough.
“Serves you right choking like that. Last time I’m ever doing something nice for you, kid,”
“You are so lucky Néa isn’t here,” Olma said, cracking up. “Boy, she’d have you in bandages by now. You, too, Drendí.”
“Me?!” Drendí squeaked. “I tried to help the kid!”
“Yeah, and she would have smacked you for doing that.”
“Because he’s a boy?”
“No–though, sorry boy, it doesn’t help. Because she doesn’t believe in Amhaka’s ways. She comes from the old days when Shoa was the leader.” Olma stopped and inspected her braid, then continued, tightening it. “Back then, Elka warriors were meaner than we are now.”
“Meaner? We’re pretty mean now, I’d say,” Drendí said. “I mean, Amhaka didn’t show any mercy on that logger family last week, did she?”
“She showed some – she let the family go.”
“Yeah but she broke most of their jaws and arms.”
“Most. That’s mercy. Shoa didn’t just break bones. She killed.”
“Amhaka’s killed, too.”
“No–not like that. In fact, the legend goes that until Shoa was killed herself, she killed every single logger and poacher that so much as thought about trespassing onto the forest floor.”
“Sheesh. I mean, I knew she was tough, but I guess I thought she had let a few of them go.”
“No,” Olma said sternly. “Not Shoa. Not ever.”
“No wonder Néa is the way she is.”
“She was in Shoa’s group. The surprising thing is that Amhaka turned out to be so different.”
“Wasn’t Amhaka Shoa’s student?”
“That’s what’s surprising. Shoa knew her time was coming. I mean, how could you not? You kill so many people in one life, someone’s going to have it out for you. Poor Néa expected to be made the designated leader, being just a year younger than Shoa. They even grew up together! Instead, Shoa chose her student to be the second-in-command, thinking Amhaka would continue her legacy. In a way, Amhaka did but not in the way Shoa probably intended. Even in our training, Amhaka’s approach has been different. She’s more of a a hand-holder than a grit-trainer. That’s why Néa speaks so much. She thinks Amhaka’s style is weak.” Olma stopped, then turned her head to Gūmí who had recovered from his coughing and sat with his attention submerged in the rainbow canopy. His pupils were dilate, and his mouth was agape. “Hey, boy,” Olma tried. Gūmí didn’t respond. Instead, he darted his eyes about from leaf to leaf, as if this were the very first time he had laid eyes on their spellbinding dances. Olma began again. “HEY, BOY!”, she said, nudging his legs with her foot. Gūmí snapped out of his daze and shook his head like a fox shedding water to reorient himself.
“What did you say?” he said shakily.
“What’s the matter with you? Can’t you see I’m talking to you? Don’t you go repeating what I said about Shoa to Amhaka, you hear?”
“Or Néa,” Drendí added.
“Or Néa. Or anyone. I don’t need to be getting in trouble now.”
“Why would I say anything to Amhaka?”
“Well, I hope you would say nothing to Amhaka. But I don’t know if you’ll say nothing, you being related and all.”
“Aren’t we all related?” Gūmí asked.
“That’s cute, boy, but don’t get smart. You know what I mean. She’s your aunty, right?”
“Not my blood aunty, if that’s what you mean.”
“Huh?” both Elka said in unison.
“I mean–she’s a guardian. A close friend–of my parents.”
“Well, there you go. Good enough. She’s your aunty.”
“Yeah–we’re all related in this forest.”
“Whatever. Just don’t say nothing about what I said, okay?” Olma stressed again. Gūmí turned his earthen eyes back to the canopy, causing Olma and Drendí to look up themselves, then back at Gūmí with their eyebrows raised. “OK?” Olma underscored, finishing her long grass braid. Gūmí said nothing. She nudged him with the ball of her foot.
“Okay,” Gūmí replied, his mouth agape, returned to wonder.
• • •
It was an eerie feeling to be sitting around doing nothing, knowing full well the rest of the radicle was probably out fighting. Olma and Drendí wondered out loud whether something more sinister had happened to the band, now that the sun was reaching mid-morning. Ultimately, they decided to keep true to Rekka’s orders and not take things into their own hands – after all, no Elka enjoyed a reprimand, and it was dishonorable to disobey leadership in any way. Brutal consequences came to those double-time who disobeyed battle commands.
Sitting crossed legged, Olma and Drendí passed the time by reminiscing past battles with loggers, eating peanut butter and sharing their contraband wine berries. In their pauses, they tried to figure out the boy Gūmí, who they had allowed to wander the general perimeter, because, truly, he stupefied them as a warrior–and as an Elka. He just wasn’t–normal. He talked funny and walked weird. Was he drunk? No. He was too young to be drunk. He just walked odd, even dumb, like an oblivious ostrich walking straight into the rising sun. He seemed more preoccupied with elements of the forest than making conversation. The whole morning they had watched as he moved from one patch of long grass to another, from one berry bush to its other, crouching low in front of it and whispering to the plants as if they had ears.
By the time a runner – Tūní – finally did arrive out of breath to dole out amended battle instructions, Gūmí was seated in front of a baby Éña tree, caressing its newly sprouted rainbow leaves with the back of his hand, his back facing his team, and a budding smile across his face. He was giggling.
For Gūmí, the sprawling Elkí Forest was more than just a home. Every part of it was family. He had always felt that way– talked to plants, rocks, and animals all the same. That was the way of his parents, the way their parents, too. After his parents were killed by the loggers who felled the Éña tree they were sleeping in, the forest took it upon itself to care for him. It played with him, tickled him with its vines and leaves. It kept him company on sunny days and on rainy nights. Though Amhaka’s community helped to care of Gūmí, he always found himself meandering away from them, choosing to get lost in the forest, the whole forest, talking to everything on every level–because, at that time, being a warrior, like his mother, was out of the question. After Amhaka opened up the ranks to include Elka boys, Gūmí joined ready to avenge his parents and eager to defend the forest. Yet, in all that time, Gūmí still found ways to slip away from his bunkmates in canopy school, sneaking down from the canopy under every kind of shimmering moon to reunite with the animals and plants he had left behind; to see how they were and to share the things he learned to do in school. It wasn’t the look of the forest that made it the most beautiful forest in all the world. It was its friendship. Adopted by the forest, Gūmí felt an uncanny unbridled love for its spirit, even for an Elka who were all lovers of the Elkí Forest and its beauty. The sight of the forest’s brilliant glowing leaves and magic came second to the beauty of its guardian soul.
“Hey, boy,” Olma called. Still entranced, Gūmí didn’t budge. “BOY!” Olma tried again, this time with a hard whistle. Pulling out of his daze, Gūmí kissed the baby Éña tree goodbye, stood up, and spun around to face the three Elka waiting impatiently for him.
“Are you going to look at us all day? Get your rookie butt over here. Tūní has orders.” Hustling over, Gūmí joined the others but stopped just short of their huddle, remembering his rank and what Néa said about touching other Elka.
“Oh, to sludge with it, boy. Néa’s not coming, and Tūní could care less. Just get in here already.” Opening their arms, Olma and Drendí ushered Gūmí between them and the four Elka joined heads.
“Here’s the deal,” Tūní began. “The old tree across Small River, Tzezympo, was murdered before the sun came up.” Drendí and Olma groaned. “When we got there, the loggers had left. Because it happened on the other side of the river, Amhaka had us survey the scene.”
“They got away?” Olma said.
“Yes and no,” Tūní replied. “According to the animals, the group of loggers broke into threes. One third headed back to the sludge hole they came from, carrying the loot – branches, bowls of blood, the usual. The other two third crossed the river and apparently split in opposite directions along the bank, disguising themselves in–you guessed it–animal skin.” Tūní paused to regain her breath. “Amhaka is leading one patrol, and Rekka is leading the other.”
“So, what are our orders?”
“Amhaka wanted you to stay here, but she changed her mind. She doesn’t want you three to find yourselves the target of an ambush. Your orders to come with me and hook up with Rekka’s patrol scouting in the talons of the scene.”
“Who’s in that one?” Drendí asked.
“Rekka, Néa, Drundu, Kayi– what does it matter?”
“Sorry, kid,” Drendí said, as Gūmí’s mouth turned a frown.
“Huh? Kid? Oh, the boy. Well–whatever, those are the orders. Now, let’s get moving.”
“Wait,” Olma said. “How many loggers we talking? 5? 15?”
“We’re not sure,” Tūní replied. “The numbers between the animals varied. The squirrels, though. They counted upwards of 40 loggers per group. So, yeah. A big one this time. She thinks Rekka will be closer to this position.”
“Well, boy. Looks like you’re about to get your first taste of blood. You feeling okay?” Gūmí nodded. Although his hands were clamming up, and his heart was beating fast, he didn’t want to show anything that might prove Néa right in the end.
“Gūmí,” Gūmí said, keeping his eyes on the grass between the four of them.
“My name. My name is Gūmí,” he said again stronger than before. Olma grinned.
“Alright, Gūmí,” Tūní said. “Olma’s right. Just remember your training. Follow my lead, you’ll be alright. Everyone gets nervous their first battle. I’ll go slow–unless we have to pick up speed. You just keep using your nails to keep yourself latched to the tree. When we swing, keep your eyes focused ahead. Don’t look down. You might miss your next vine that way. Got your club?”
“He doesn’t have a club, yet. He’s the rookie runner, remember?”
“Oh. Right. Never cared for that rule–you two got yours, though?”
“Got mine,” Drendí said.
“Right here,” Olma said gesturing with her hip, where her club rested in its scabbard. “Still got the blood from the last logger on it, too,” she added licking her lips.
“Nice,” Tūní said.
As the four Elka broke off their huddle, Tūní wasted no time ascending the nearest Éña tree. Olma followed. Then Drendí. Then Gūmí. Just as Gūmí took his first steps up the trunk, Tūní stopped.
“Oh yeah. I almost forgot,” she called back down, her scabbard lopsiding. “This group doesn’t just have axes with them. They also have arrows! And not just any arrows–the BIG kind!”
“Wonderful!” Olma retorted. “Can’t wait to get shot!” Drendí looked down at Gūmí.
“Did you hear that?” she said. Had Gūmí looked up just then, he would have seen Drendí smiling at him in an attempt to ease his anxiety. But he didn’t. Instead, Gūmí nodded, keeping his focus on his hands and the mesmerizing way his fingers and nails slid perfectly into the trunk of the towering Éña tree.
• • •
Swooshing through the forest was the easy part–and most fun.
Tree swinging had always been Gūmí’s favorite drill to do in canopy training, despite it being considered the most dangerous. Though most Elka trainees were fast learners and many were naturals at the drill, some accidents still occurred. Every year, at least one to three trainees was bound to lose their grip or miss their next vine entirely from simply being distracted in one way or another. That happened at the understory layer, and the worst injuries were, usually, fractured ribs and other bones. Only one Elka, an instructor, was known to have died teaching the technique at the canopy level. After inhaling an unusually strong cloud of pollen, she had broken out into a sneezing fit, causing her to lose her grip and fall screaming through her fanged teeth all the way to the earth. No one, yet, had fallen from that high in a serious battle engagement, and everybody hoped to keep it that way.
For Gūmí, the breeze from swinging and all the rushing colors had made him forget he was in training. Now, it made him forget he was even part of a hunting party to repel logging trespassers in the first place. The vines, which were looped around the Éña trees’ thickest branches, were strong and braided, unbreakable like his parents’ skin. Gūmí remembered Amhaka telling him at the start of his training that it wasn’t even possible for them to break–even if a whole radicle swung on one at the same time. “You’ll need the whole tree to come crashing down for those vines to move out of place. They’re strengthened by the tree, who is strengthened by the soil. You could live a thousand years, and they will never break.” At that time, just after his parents had died, it seemed unbelievable to Gūmí. Now, on the way to his first call to battle after a brutal year of training, Gūmí could believe every single word Amhaka had said about the strength of the forest was true.
Two trees ahead, Drendí suddenly gave the fist-up to Gūmí with her left hand, which meant Olma had gotten the fist-up from Tūní’s left hand, commanding the group make an abrupt stop. Gūmí watched Drendí intently, as his vine shed its momentum, triggering a stall. He couldn’t fail again. He focused his eyes on Drendí’s hand, as she held up five fingers, then pointed down. Five belligerents. Reclaiming the vine with her left hand, she extended her right and did a double pump, then pointed to the trunk. Climb the vine, use the hooks, get on top, stay out of sight. One hand over the other, Gūmí followed Tūní’s passed orders to a tee, pulling himself up his vine and hauling himself onto the Éña’s branch, using the Elka hooks. Scurrying to the trunk, he watched Drendí take her position on her branch, and waited for the next command.
Somewhere down below, he could hear meandering voices, but it wasn’t the Elka–or the forest. These voices were low, rumbling and coughing. Gūmí closed his eyes to increase his hearing. Maybe this way he would be able to make out a word or two. Instead, he saw the horrible sight of mother and father lying on the earth as he found them, with their eyes rolled into the back of their heads and dead leaves all around them. A flash of light streaked across his vision–something hit him. He opened his eyes and looked down, just as an acorn came to rest by his toes. Another acorn hit his temple and rolled off the branch toward the voices. They stopped for a moment, then started up again. Suddenly, he remembered where he was. He looked to Drendí. Her arm was pulling back into the air, and her eyes were wide. Olma and Tūní were standing beside her, their eyes just as wide, their brows angled down. Tūní made an urgent T with her hands, then whirled her finger around, and pointed to Drendí’s trunk. Meet together, here. Now, a hint of smoke was wafting into the air. The voices below continued to rumble, and Gūmí made his way to the pod disappointed in himself for closing his eyes, determined not to make the same mistake again, determined to keep them wide open until closing them was the only option for defense.
• • •
Tūní’s first order was to wait for the loggers to pass, then move on to find Rekka’s band. All waited motionless on Drendí’s branch, which swayed ever so slightly in the eternal lull. Below, the low voices continued to hammer and cough, and the smell of smoke that began as a whiff now permeated everywhere, tainting the air and twisting the Elka’s lungs. Gūmí hated this smell the most, burning flesh of the forest. The voices weren’t getting quieter, but they weren’t getting louder, either. They were staying perfectly still, which meant only one thing to everyone on the branch: the belligerents had set up camp.
Three times Tūní sent Gūmí down to scout and count heads. Three times he came back with the same open hand. One old man and four younger men but not kids, none Gūmí’s age. When Tūní asked with her hands what they were armed with, Gūmí replied by what he saw. Each had an axe. The group of loggers were exposed, he continued, sitting on the ground with their animal suits off, wearing their big shirts and logger gear. A few Éña trees had already been marked in red paint but no attempts to hack the trees had been made. Four of the loggers were sitting down, eating; feeding on meat they had brought in a crate. The old man was sharpening his blade, telling stories to the others. This detail of the old man prepping his axe, more than any other, seemed to startle Tūní. Peering over the branch herself, she looked to be weighing something, looking down below and then looking out in front of her. At last, she stood up and faced her pod, then began moving her hands. They would not wait for others to act. They would move now; move six trees away, then climb down and set up ambush. Olma, Drendí, and Gūmí would form position to take out the old man. At Tūní’s bird chirp, they would move to neutralize him, as Tūní would distract the others. With the old man down, the three would join Tūní, gaining an advantage over the loggers by flanking the remaining four from behind their backs.
Crossing over Éña branches, Gūmí’s heart started to thump. Then it slumped. As he climbed down the last Éña trunk, his being without a club stuck out in his mind like a sore thumb. He began to wonder if he wasn’t now inching closer to his own death. Now, on the forest floor crouched on all fours, Gūmí followed behind Olma and Drendí as they slow-wayed themselves towards the planned position. He focused to remember his training. Hands like paws, be present, tune ears, look all around, watch for dry leaves, if you make a sound, stop–then continue; be like spider, think like animal, fight with the forest.
• • •
Steadying into position, the three Elka waited. Olma and Drendí caressed their clubs, as Gūmí touched his hands as though this would be the last time he would see them. Now, a bush and Tūní’s bird chirp was all that separated the Elka from battle. Though their view remained limited bt the bush, the old man, Gūmí wagered to himself, couldn’t have been more than a dozen running paces away. One thing had changed–now that they had closed the distance, the sharpening of the axe had stopped. The sound of the logger’s whetstone sliding across the metal blade had directed the Elka to his position. Now, it ceased entirely. The old man seemed to be moving around, seemed to be moving right towards them. A panic set upon Gūmí, he clenched his fists–and his teeth.
“Let me show you little cuties how it’s done,” the burly voice rumbled. “You take your axe like so–and go like this to remove the bark.” Gūmí’s heart crumpled with each methodical whack of the axe’s teeth slamming into the trunk. “See the marks? See how it bleeds? That’s how it’s done. It’s supposed to look that way. It just takes a few good strikes to chip away at the shell. After that, all that’s left is the skin inside. Don’t be fooled. It may look weird, but this Éña’s blue goo is strong. It isn’t normal resin, you see. It’s better. This is the blood that will keep our colony indestructible.”
“Yeah, yeah–we see. We’re not done eating lunch, yet.” A blue glow began emanating through the bush. The tree groaned.
“You boys are sorry. We come all this way, and you’re just sitting there. We could have had ourselves four buckets of this by now, but you’d rather stuff your face. You know, you sit long enough and you’re going to attract some of those Tree Walkers.” He paused. “The last thing I need is a Tree Walker tearing up my butt.”
As a hard wind blew through the trees, a whiff of pollen suddenly caught Gūmí’s nose. It tickled his nostrils and his eyes started to close. He tried to hold it back, but there was no holding it back. He sneezed–not once but three times in rapid succession, with the final sneeze so hard, it forced him to his feet. The logger–who was not the old man from before–whirled around. His blue eyes widened at the sight of Gūmí’s terrified dilated pupils staring back at him. The Elka’s cover was blown.
Pushing Gūmí aside, Olma and Drendí charged in with a ferocious roar, connecting their clubs with the lean’s logger’s stomach and face. The power of their clubs combined knocked him clean off his feet and his head went smashing into the Éña tree. He rolled onto the ground in disbelief. Gūmí watched in horror as the logger suddenly became terrified, his body convulsing like a fish out of water. As the four other loggers leapt to their feet and drew their axes, Tūní emerged shrieking from her position on the opposite flank. Two of the loggers–the old man among them– took her on, as the other two young loggers rushed Olma and Drendí.
A sixth logger came running through the bushes on the far end opposite the bushes, already armed with a bow and arrow. Gūmí’s heart sank, he wondered how he could have missed him in his scouts. Immediately, the bowman fired at Tūní and missed, lodging the arrow deep into an adolescent Éña trunk behind her shoulder. It arched over in a groan and started to bleed. The bowman cursed through his ruby beard, then quickly drew another arrow. He shakily placed it on his bow.
“FOR THE LOVE OF THE ELKÍ, DO SOMETHING, GŪMÍ!” Olma screamed, as she and Drendí fought off the loggers’ axes, using fast footwork to lure the loggers from Tūní.
Gūmí – who almost didn’t recognize his own name – scanned the ground desperately for a branch he might be able to arm himself with. Finding none, he grabbed the nearest thing to him – a large potato-shaped rock – and threw it at the bowman, just as his finger released the string. As the bowman ducked, the arrow whiffed in a clumsy arc, falling just a few paces ahead. He cursed and reached to his back to draw again. With the bowman preoccupied and butter fingering, Gūmí scooped another rock and threw it in Tūní’s direction. This time an audible thunk could be heard. It was immediately followed by a tender yelp, as the old man jumped and curved around, reaching for his back. Gūmí threw another rock and hit him again hard in the side. He fell to the ground, wailing in pain.
Now, one-on-one, Tūní was able to press the advantage, knocking the remaining logger’s axe clear out of his hand. A desperate reverse swing connected with his neck, and he fell to the earth gasping for breath. Just as Gūmí returned his attention to the bowman, he watched in terror as the bowman got his arrow off, lodging deep into Tūní’s side. Tūní roared – and so did Olma and Drendí as soon as they realized what happened. The bowman smirked, licking his lips as though he had eaten a savory dish, as he began to reload.
Out of rocks, Gūmí was left with no choice. He sent his energy to his legs and charged terrified at the bowman but was tripped by the old man on the ground. As the old logger piled himself onto Gūmí, pinning him to the earth, a second arrow whirled through the air and connected with Tūní again, this time piercing her striking arm. Gūmí tried to yell out to Olma and Drendí, who were still battling for their lives, for help. Just as he tried to yell again, his voice was cut off as the old man’s frenzied staled hands wrapped around Gūmí’s neck in a coiling vendetta. From the corner of his eye, Gūmí watched horrified as the bowman drew his axe and ran toward Tūní’s direction for the killing blow, disappearing out of Gūmí’s sight behind the strong-hand logger whose cherry blushing face reveled in depriving Gūmí of air. Tears began to stream down the young Elka’s cheeks, and his sight went blurry. This was all his fault–again–he was sure. If he hadn’t fainted. If he had paid closer attention. If he hadn’t sneezed–none of this would have happened. Soon, there was going to be Elka blood everywhere, and Tūní was going to meet her end. He tried overpower the old logger’s tremendous hands, but he couldn’t. The flushed logger was running out of life to squeeze. Gūmí gasped, he couldn’t feel his feet. He couldn’t feel his legs, or his hands, or his arms. The light of the canopy was escaping. He had failed Tūní. He had failed Olma. He had failed Drendí and Rekka and Amhaka. Worst of all, he had failed himself, and the memory of his parents–and the Elkí Forest. He had failed everyone and everything. He–
As his ears went ringing, a tremendous thunder thunk boomed in front of him. Gūmí watched as the logger’s blurry scarlet face dissolved and the grip of his hands released. Suddenly, the weight of the old man’s body fell away, freeing the crushing pressure from Gūmí’s chest. Gūmí wondered for a split moment if this is what it was like to be dead, to be taken away. But he wasn’t dead. Air rushed back into him. The light of the world returned, and someone, a shadow, was standing over him.
“Get up, boy,” it said. He rubbed his eyes, and the voice yelled at him. “GET UP!” The shadow came into focus. Her mouth was bleeding, and her cheek was purple-swollen. He was flat on his back, but she wasn’t laughing. It was Néa, holding her club in her hand, with the light of the canopy illuminating her entire body.
• • •
Over and over, the surviving logger screamed in terror for his mother–and his father. Over and over, Néa lay into him, switching between beating his protruding belly and his face.
“Why did you come here?” Néa hissed. The logger, whose orange shirt was mixed with Éña blood, Elka blood, and his own blood, struggled to speak. He looked to Rekka, who stood stoic with her vermillion eyes glaring back at him.
“Please,” he said. “I–I didn’t–”. Before he had a chance to finish, Néa whooped him again. And again. And again. This time, colliding her knuckles with his cheek and jawline. Pieces of his teeth shot out of his mouth. Another tooth rolled out as he coughed on his blood and swollen tongue. “I’m–I’m sorry,” he said, his voice squeaking and trembling.
“You’re ‘sorry’?” Néa asked. “You’re ‘SORRY’!?” she roared. “You murder an Ína, then come into our forest. You start to hack the Éña tree, but you get caught. You get beat, and, NOW, you say you’re ‘sorry’?”
“It wasn’t me.”
“Don’t play games with me, old man.”
Standing next to Rekka, Gūmí looked away from the logger, even as the logger desperately tried to make eye contact with him. It was the same logger, the same old man who had tried to kill him, who had tried to kill Tūní. Gone was the angry red face that had wrapped his hands around Gūmí’s neck like a vice. Gone was the unsettling look of delight as he began succeeding. Now, the logger looked frail, helpless, and almost child-like–white.
Néa hit him, and the logger yelled for his mother. Néa hit him again, and he yelled for his father. Then his brother. And his sister. He yelled for his children. He yelled for help–for life.
“Halt,” Rekka ordered. Néa stopped. Olma and Drendí emerged from the brush, returning with a stretcher. Gently, the three of them loaded Tūní’s body onto it, the arrows still lodged into her, her chest opened up from the killing stroke. Olma raised the back of the stretcher, and Drendí took the front. Rekka muttered the Elka Prayer, and the two Elka began moving the body away with their heads down. As they passed Gūmí, Gūmí looked to Tūní, then to Drendí and Olma. All of them had been crying. Even Tūní’s paled face bore a permanent weeping expression. The stretcher-bearers slowed down, Drendí frowned.
“It wasn’t your fault. Gūmí. We know–it wasn’t your fault,” she whispered.
“Now, you know,” Olma said. “This is it, kid. This is what it means to be Elka. This is death, boy. This is death–Gūmí.” Gūmí watched as they broke away. He watched until they and the stretcher were disappeared entirely behind by the brush.
“Give the logger to me,” Rekka said to Néa.
“With pleasure,” Néa replied, letting go of her grip on the old shambles. Stepping back, she stood beside Gūmí, who pointed his eyes away as his hands became clammy.
“You’re going to die today, logger,” Rekka said, cracking her bruised knuckles. “Plunderer. Poacher. Murderer.” The old white man swallowed.
“I…I didn’t kill your warrior. It wasn’t me. I didn’t hurt no tree, either!” he stammered.
“No,” Rekka said coldly, pressing her head onto his, flaring her eyes in vibrant lime energy. “It was you. And you’re going to answer.” The old man became hysterical, sobbing and snotting, like the way Gūmí had sobbed and snotted the night he held his parents’ lifeless bodies pleading for them to talk to him. “I’m going to break your sludge-jaw, logger. I’m going to break your sludge-nose, too. And your legs. And your arms. And your hands. And each little sludge-finger in different directions. And then–I’m going to finish you.” Turning her head over her shoulder, Rekka called to Néa. “Hand him his axe.” Néa snickered, walked over and picked the cumbersome weapon off the ground. She handed it to the doomed old man who no longer had the courage to look at the Elka. It was covered in blue Éña blood. He grasped it, shaking uncontrollably. He wept. “I want you to remember this axe of yours, logger. I want you to remember the axe of your people, and what you did with it, stepping into onto sacred land. I want you to remember what you did to the tree by the river. What you did to this tree, too, and what you did to all the trees who came before. I want you to remember your crimes.”As Rekka stepped back and began laying into the old man, pummeling him through tears and sheer delight.
Gūmí looked to the canopy. Every time he looked up, it never failed to stupefy him. It never failed to be harmonious and beautiful, shimmering in its variety of light. He closed his eyes and felt his mother and father, again. This time, they were leading him to the water’s edge clasping their massive hands over his little ones. Now, they were in their tree together, asking him about his day. Except, this one wasn’t a memory. They looked concerned about something. He opened his eyes and saw the canopy. For the first time, it was no longer beaming back at him. His heart thumped.
“Please,” the old logger coughed. His face was drooped down and covered in blood.
“No!” Rekka barked. Pulling her hand back, she smashed him again. He blinked and rubbed his eyes. The forest’s colors continued to wane.
“No,” a whole chorus of voices said. “No,” they cried. Tears began to build in the corners of Gūmí’s eyes.
With the last of his strength, the old man raised his head. He looked to Gūmí, who saw him as a blossoming blur. Rekka was also a blooming blur. Gūmí blinked again, and, still, nothing changed. A lightness proliferated from the center of the Elka warrior’s head. A voice in his periphery was saying something to him. Now, many voices were saying things. They were coming from everywhere, all indecipherable, all slurring together in the wind. Ringing overcame his ears. He opened his mouth, and this time he managed to speak. As the world of the forest started falling away, he choked.
“No,” Gūmí said
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