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January Writing Challenge – The Protectors

February 1, 2022

Prompt: When nobody is around, the trees gossip about the people who have walked under them.

“Anise, are you listening to me?” my grandmother hissed under her breath.

“Quiet grandmother. I’m trying to hear what they’re saying,” I whispered. Her lips quirked up, but she didn’t reprimand me.

“They won’t speak while we’re around, but I can show you how to hear them.” She put her hands on my shoulders as she spoke and winked before releasing me. “Go dispel the shadows with your joy, my lovely little Anise.”

That was the day my grandmother gave me the onyx, crimson, and ochre enamel bracelets and showed me how to transform myself into a Red-winged blackbird. The claw hanging from her throat ushered in new meaning as my grandmother transformed herself into a sleek kestrel with tapered wings, sharp enough to slice through the underbrush. We flew toward the clouds and dove into the forest canopy together. Perched on a branch high above the shadowed paths, my grandmother and I listened to the trees gossip in their lilting cadence, we heard them laugh as breezes tickled leaves against their rough bark, and we lost ourselves in their stories.

I shuffled the paths of the forest for an hour before I could go no further. I sank into the emerald moss at the base of a towering oak and let my tears fall. Roots drank them greedily, followed by sighs of relief. The underbrush crept closer, offering wild blackberries and mint, while the canopy bowed, and curled around my consciousness like a freshly laundered quilt.

I closed my eyes and let the forest take me. I traveled through memories like a slide show, each still image portraying a poignant moment full of inertia. I saw my grandmother gliding along trails in gossamer gowns. I saw myself in her arms as a baby, swaddled and cooing as she pointed toward the leaves of the canopy and the shafts of light darting toward me. I saw myself racing ahead of my grandmother, sure-footed and laughing as I called for her to hurry. I saw my grandmother twirling barefooted through the mossy paths, her dress flowing out from her body like an endless stream. I saw our last walk together under the trees, my grandmother supported by my arm, her gaze languidly trying to commit the forest to memory.

“Anise.” The voice was soft, and urging. I opened my eyes. There was no one. Nothing.

“Anise.”

“Anise.” The voice was in the breeze as it caressed my cheeks.

“Anise.” The voice was in the stirring of the fallen leaves as they moved deeper into the forest.

“Anise.” This time it was louder, the syllables joining with the breeze. Leaves jumped in the air, blown along the path, tracing unpredictable trajectories. The breeze blew harder, urging my ebony curls to…

“Follow.” It was seductive whisper in my ear.

The Red-winged blackbird in me stretched it’s feathers and cawed. Flashes of onyx, crimson, and ochre swirled through my stomach and I transformed. I let the breeze carry me. Shafts of sunlight threw splashes of warmth over my feathers as the forest cooled and the trees grew closer to each other.

It could have been seconds or hours when the breeze placed me on a gnarled branch above a clearing. Faint smells of lavender, roses, camellias, jasmine, and gardenias wafted up from the ground. It was a heady smell that wrapped past the Red-winged blackbird and into my human senses and centered me in the moment, the calm of my flight here forgotten and my focus redirected.

“Anise.” The words brushed through my feathers.

“Look.” I looked. I didn’t see anything and shook my wings before settling them against my sides.

“Anise. Open yourself and look.” This was one of my grandmother’s favorite sayings when she was teaching me magic. Magic has to accept you as the wielder before it will allow you to manipulate it. The first step was always finding and understanding it before asking it to do your bidding. My mind slipped to my grandmother, but another “Anise” had me opening my mind and soul to see the magic filtering through the clearing.

There was magic concentrated in each of the flowers on the ground, so I glided down and settled myself in the grass next to a gardenia. Its edges were like the space between ice and water on a pond, the only way to tell if it’s frozen is to stick a finger in it. In the unfurled white petals I saw laughter and joy. The center was still protected tightly by a guard of petals but I saw the soul, the essence of a person, in the middle. This was a graveyard of souls.

As if sensing my discovery, the voice spoke again. “Anise, you will find your grandmother here once she settles. You are welcome to visit her.”

I cawed my question.

“Yes, the trees have been protectors for millennia and will continue to protect for many more millennia.”

I cawed again.

“Oh little Anise, of course you can hear us in your human skin, you just never needed to before.”

“What should we do today?” Camille asked as she spun on her toes along the path.

“Let’s just walk,” I replied.

“We could collect mushrooms and moss to put in Madame Ogechi’s tea. Maybe we could turn her into a frog.” Her eyes sparkled with mischief. Camille is what most people would call a “troublemaker”, but she’d been willing to overlook my motherless situation and had been my friend for as long as I could remember. My grandmother had taken her on as a pupil and Camille had claimed us as family. She’d become my little sister. “Come on. Please. You’ve been so sad. Can we at least transform and play with the trees?”

I stopped walking and studied her. Camille was bouncing on her toes, hands clasped together in front of her chest. She mouthed “please”.

I felt myself smiling against my will. This was a losing battle. “Fine.”

We both transformed instantly, me into my familiar feathers and Camille into delicate fluttering scales. She made a beautiful butterfly as the light bounced off her wings, creating iridescent patterns reflected onto the tree branches. We flew and fluttered until we were tired, and then flew and fluttered some more, as if we could outfly our sadness.

We came to the northern most parcel of the forest amid a cacophony of grinding and whirring and crashing. From a branch we spied yellow trucks with open maws of steel teeth waiting for a meal. There were saws bigger than any tree I’d seen in our forest. Men and women in hats checked equipment, looked at maps, and directed crews to different trucks. I cawed my terror and frustration, and then cawed my anger when I realized what part of the forest we were in. One old man out of the throng cocked his head, listening to my outburst above the mechanical din.

I nudged Camille with my beak. She followed as I soared past branches and around tangles of underbrush. I flew into the clearing and transformed as I settled onto the grass. Camille settled beside me.

“Open yourself and look,” I told her before she could question me.

There was a sharp intake of breath before Camille was on her feet and pacing through the long grass, careful not to disturb the flowers. I let her stomp out the anger. “We need to go see the village elders and get them to stop the logging. They’ll destroy this place.” Camille spoke quickly, and the moment I nodded, she transformed into her butterfly form again, but this time iridescent reds and oranges reflected back at me instead of their previous blues and purples.

I took a moment before following to search the clearing for Grandmother. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked when I found her. “Why didn’t the trees tell me?”

Her answer came to me in images. I sifted through them. All of them showed pain. Pain from the trees, pain from me trying to stand up to the loggers, pain from arguing elders, pain from the graveyard. The pain had no reprieve and no hope. The forest magic knew there was no way to stop what would come to pass. Grandmother and the trees had only been sheltering me from this pain.

I transformed into my Red-winged blackbird and followed Camille.

The elders were ambivalent to our anger and pleas for action. They had already reallocated the money from the logging company to repair the primary school in our village. They assured us that only a small part of the forest would be taken, and there would be no impact on the streams or woodland creatures. Houses would arise from the cleared land and the people occupying them would become stewards of that side of the forest.

It was idealistic thinking on a good day. Camille and I couldn’t tell them about the graveyard. Manipulating magic was forbidden and the elders convinced themselves that everyone followed the rules.

I pulled a screaming Camille away from the elders and whispered in her ear, “We’ll figure this out on our own.”

We stomped to my grandmother’s old house, my house now, and started in the library. I was convinced we would find something, a spell, or an object, or a gibbon who could help us, but I soon found myself slumped on the floor with my head in my hands.

“Anise, it’ll be okay. We can do this.” Camille said optimistically.

She fell silent when I told her about the visions my grandmother gave me from the clearing. “So you’re telling me it’s hopeless?” She whispered.

I took a deep breath. “We can’t save the graveyard or the forest, Camille.” I looked at her face as I said it. The corners of her eyes were downcast, hair falling down her cheeks straight as a waterfall, and she was biting her bottom lip. I hated seeing her so sad, so I tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and said, “I know we can’t save the actual space, but I was hoping we might be able to save the idea of it.”

Camille cocked her head. “What do you mean?”

“Well if we could transmute the souls from the graveyard and the trees, we could store them in some inanimate object until we find a willing place to keep them.” I paused, thinking. “From what Grandmother told me, I think it’s possible. I don’t think it’s ever been done, but I’m willing to try.” I searched Camille’s face as she considered.

“Yeah, that could work if we could find your Grandmother’s book on souls and transmutation objects. I could probably figure it out.” Despite Camille’s fluttery energy and outward appearance, she was the scholar between the two of us.

Three hours later, Camille had located and read through my grandmother’s book on souls and transmutation and I had located an ingot of pure jade. We worked through the spells and words and actions we’d need to patch together if this was going to work.

We needed to be at the site and we’d likely need to join together somehow to convince the magic to help us. So the next morning we set off through the forest in our human forms. I hoped we wouldn’t be too late. It took far longer than either of us expected, but it wouldn’t do to run out of energy.

Patterns of color swirled around me and I could feel blood oozing through our fingers and dripping silently onto the mossy ground. I could hear the occasional crack and the inevitable boom that followed as the trees were felled one by one nearby. I could hear their screams, but I ignored them, focusing instead on the words of entreaty.

The noises grew louder before the magic bowed before us and offered its services. Camille said words over the jade ingot as it warmed in my hand. Camille provided the directionality for our quest and I acted as the conduit, she was the finesse and I was the power.

The clearing got lighter as the surrounding canopy vanished, and I could see the yellow of the trucks through the trees across the way. “Hurry,” I urged Camille as I grasped the jade ingot so tightly my fingers turned white.

Camille spoke words that would attract the souls to the jade ingot. She started slowly and then chanted them faster in a “ba ba ba, bum ba” rhythm. The jade ingot pulled and pushed in my hand and I felt the tug.

A sharp thread of fear wound through me. I could feel the curiosity of the souls in the graveyard, feel their movement toward me. My own soul felt the same curiosity, the same tug, but I held it tight.

Across the clearing I saw an old man approaching. He wore a windbreaker with the logging company name splashed across the left breast, and walked with a limp. He was yelling something at Camille and me, but I couldn’t hear it for the static in my ears. I knew the old man couldn’t hear the magic in our heads.

I felt the souls of the trees now, swirling around me, studying the jade ingot. They’d known me since I was a babe and I pleaded with them to sacrifice their woody bark for a chance, another chance to be protectors. They accepted after a time and vanished into the jade ingot. The static in my ears grew louder as Camille’s words shifted to seal the jade ingot and the rhythm became a more lyrical “ba daa, da da da, dee”.

The old man stood before us now. He was the one who had looked up at the outburst of anger and sorrow from my Red-winged blackbird. He wore the same curious expression on his face as he studied us.

Camille’s voice grew softer and her grip on my hand loosened. “Camille, hang on. We’re not done. Please finish it,” I willed her silently, for I didn’t have the energy to speak either. But she had done all she could do and slumped to the ground in a deep sleep. I still gripped the jade ingot and I knew the words that would seal in and protect all those souls, so I took up Camille’s lyrical words and poured myself into them.

Without Camille’s energy, I made the only choice I could.

To the old man I whispered desperately, “Protect her. Protect it,” and then poured the last of my energy, along with my soul, into the jade ingot and closed the door behind me.

Camille walked up the path, surrounded by towering cliffs and the sound of dripping water. The old man followed without a sound. The days and nights bled together but food was plentiful. The cliffs became mountains and the dripping water became waterfalls. The mountains became meadows with views of the sea, and all the while Camille and the old man walked. Occasionally they’d stop to study the land, to talk to the magic, but eventually they’d move on, and Camille would stroke the jade ingot in her pocket and whisper, “be patient, we’re almost there.”

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