I’m currently working on the next track for Chiptune Chaos, ploughing through Stargirl revisions and trying to find time to watch Gurren Lagann so I can do the next Overthinkalong. All of this is probably a good topic for Creativity Quest, but in the meantime, I thought I’d share a story I wrote not too long ago. It’s about… well, the title’s fairly self-explanatory. It is quite long, but I couldn’t be bothered to break it up into parts, so here it is. Enjoy.
Today my girlfriend turned into a tree.
I mean, not like today today. I’d be way too messed up to be writing this down. Three years ago today, which I guess is just about long enough that I feel ready to talk about it. It’s her Tree Year Anniversary, that’s how she would have said it. She had one of those perfect Irish accents that makes everything sound about six hundred percent more magical. One time, when my baby brother couldn’t sleep, she sat next to his bed and read out the ingredients off the back of a cereal box. He drifted off with this little smile on his face before she’d got halfway through.
We didn’t get a Tree Year Anniversary of our own. We got two and a half, and then… well, you know the rest by now. She got me a necklace for year two, with a big red autumn leaf set in amber. It’s heavy on my chest right now, warm when the sun shines on it. It’s a warm day today, late spring. I haven’t been out much lately, so the necklace has hung cold against my skin, but today I’ll be going to see her. She liked nature, a lot. I think I got her a stuffed elephant or something that year. Nowhere near as nice as the necklace, but she held it up and gave it a big squeeze, and then kissed me and made me believe she really did love it.
It wasn’t long after that that things started happening. By then, Rose had been in this… group for about a year, this little gathering of eco-minded people. They just sort of met up every month or so, drank green tea and talked about the issues or something. I think they mostly just got together for the company; environmentalism was more of a shared interest, not a motivation. Talked about life, you know. They didn’t have any sort of agenda beyond each doing their bit; no leader, no dreams of changing the world. They just liked hanging out with other people who felt that we should probably take a bit more care of the planet.
Then, without any invitation or warning, someone new showed up at one of their meetings. Somewhere in the area of thirty years old, buzz cut, army jacket: ‘Major Greatheart’, he introduced himself as. We found out later that he’d never been in the forces and his real name was John Browning. At first, though, the little group was won over. The Major strolled in one day, flanked by a man built like a house and a woman built like a leaner but equally sturdy house, and announced that he had come to mobilise the forces of Earth against those who sought to destroy it. I imagine that most of them thought of the whole thing as a fun little fantasy; I doubt many would have been willing to go along with it had they thought he was being serious. The Major named the group ‘Third Battalion of Earth’s Warriors’, or ‘Unit Three’ – nobody was quite sure whether he also had a First and Second Battalion, and apparently nobody bothered to ask – and before any of them knew what was happening he had them meeting every week, dressing in combat uniform and discussing how best to oppose the evil ones who plotted to cause climate change. Or something like that. Rose kept going along to the meetings: because they were her friends, she said, although I could tell that she was just as swept up as any of the rest of them, roleplaying at eco-war.
Maybe two months after the Major first swanned into the new Battalion, he heard that something was going to happen which he simply could not allow.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he began. Rose recited the speech to me later; she got into character, pacing stiffly with her arms crossed behind her back and barking the lines out like whip cracks. I think it was around that time that she started to realise that the Major was someone she ought to be mocking, not idolising. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, it has come to my attention that the forces of despair, those honourless armies responsible for all past and future injustices to our great Earth –’ (Rose swore that those were his actual words) ‘– have now made plans to shave her of her beautiful hair right in our very neighbourhood.’
I cracked up laughing at that. ‘Did he really say they wanted to shave Earth’s hair?’
‘Yup,’ Rose said, nodding with a wide grin of amusement. ‘He once referred to the factories making smoke and CO2 as the great anuses spewing gas of desolation. Sonya laughed at that, and then he snapped at her that she needed to take the vast destructive anuses more seriously, and then she said she had to go to the toilet and ran out but we could all hear her laughing her head off about the farts of desolation.’
‘I can understand why,’ I said.
‘Anyway,’ said Rose, drawing herself up again into her stiff-backed military pose and assuming the grave yet slightly cross-eyed expression with which she had decided to portray the Major, ‘the lowly cockroaches that crawl upon the beautifully tiled bathroom floor that is Earth’s wondrous surface –’
‘You must have made that one up.’
‘– are now preparing to deforest the woods nearest to the places called home by so many of us.’
I sat up at that. ‘Wait, they’re going to cut down Haldon?’
‘And Woodbury, apparently – and Stoke Woods, too.’
‘Wait, so… pretty much every tree in the area is, like… condemned for chopping?’
Rose shrugged, holding her arms close to her sadly. ‘That’s what they’re saying.’
‘They can’t do that,’ I said, somewhere between dumbstruck and outraged. ‘Can they?’
‘So what’s the Major going to have his little band of crack troops do about it?’ I asked, trying not to sound too dismissive. It was still something she cared about, after all, even if she was coming to realise that the Major might not be quite as brilliant as he made out.
‘Meeting next week about it,’ she said, running her hand through her hair. She had the most beautiful long hair. I always kept mine much shorter; dyed and spiked so I wouldn’t look too much like a boy, but I was definitely the less feminine one. She thought I was beautiful anyway. ‘We’re supposed to come up with suggestions.’
‘Oh, so it’s environmental terrorism show-and-tell now?’
‘Don’t call it that,’ she said with a frown.
‘Sorry,’ I said, sticking my tongue out. ‘Environmental terrorism brainstorming, that more accurate?’
She gave me a look: eyebrows furrowed like she wanted to be mad with me, mouth twitching like she wanted to burst into laughter. Or kiss me. I’d have been fine with either, but I was definitely happy when she decided to go with the latter.
‘We’re not terrorists,’ she said to me quietly, later.
‘Try to stay that way,’ I told her.
The majority of the suggestions put forward by Unit Three were peaceful, reasonable suggestions. Some sort of demonstration; a petition; Mags, an elderly sweetheart who suggested baking as the solution to any and all problems, suggested baking. The Major dismissed them all.
‘What we need,’ he said, ‘is a good assassination.’
Everyone fell silent at that. I’d come along to my first ever assembly of Unit Three, just because I had to see for myself what sort of ideas the Major’s brainstorming session yielded. His contribution took me aback.
‘Are you serious?’ someone said with disbelief.
‘Entirely,’ he said. He spoke just as Rose had played it: every syllable cut as short as possible, hands behind the back, standing bolt upright as if his vertebrae had been welded into a perfectly straight line. ‘What is one human life… maybe two, compared to the entirety of life on Earth? All life that we know of.’
Murmurs. Heads turned; people glanced at each other, trying to work out the socially acceptable reaction to being asked to be party to environmentally-motivated murder. There were a couple of groans, as some decided to go with horror; a laugh, as Sonya opted for derision; to my discomfort, a raised fist or two. The Major sent a sharp gaze around the room, studying the reactions of everyone present. Our eyes met, and I knew he saw my fear of him and what he might do. Then his stare moved on. I could see him assessing who was for him, who might cause trouble; adding those he felt unsatisfactory to his mental recycling bin, dismissing them. My suspicions were confirmed when Rose and I showed up next week.
‘Oh, you’re here too,’ said Sonya, sat on the stage twiddling her thumbs. ‘Well, that makes… what, half of us?’
I glanced around: somewhere in the region of half the people who had been in attendance for the Major’s murderous declaration were there. I recognised a few of them as those who had looked uncomfortable, or made noises of dissent at the Major’s idea. Those who had met his gaze with steely resolve, or raised their fists in solidarity with their leader, were not present.
‘He’s taken them somewhere else,’ I said. ‘He’s got the ones he wanted and told them to come with him, and left behind the ones that he thought wouldn’t be useful to his little plot.’
‘Pff,’ Sonya snorted. ‘I didn’t like him anyway. Jumped-up, self-important narcissist. He’s welcome to go elsewhere, and if he’s taking with him the ones that decided he was actually talking sense when he said we should be killing people, then so much the better.’
Rose stood chewing her thumbnail. I put my arm around her. ‘Well said,’ I agreed. ‘If he doesn’t want us, we’ll just hang out without him.’
‘Things were better before he came anyway,’ Rose murmured.
‘Too right,’ said Mags, lifting a clingfilm covering from a tray of cupcakes. I was glad, and I thought relieved, that the Major had left her behind too. ‘Laura, Rose, eat, you’re both far too skinny.’
Rose gave a small smile at that, and we spent the evening with the rest of the Major’s rejects – talking about how glad we were to be rid of him, mostly. Nobody brought up the fact that the rest of Unit Three were still in his clique, perhaps even planning murder at that very moment. I think we were all doing our best not to think about it.
The next day, after work, Rose headed out into the woods. She didn’t tell me where she was going; I just got home and found the flat empty, populated only by a note telling me not to worry and that she loved me. Rose went out a lot, just enjoying being in the world, so I wasn’t concerned, but I remembered her face the night before. She was afraid of something, I thought. I couldn’t exactly blame her.
She came back around nine, later than she usually returned from her excursions. I heard the door open and turned the oven on to warm up leftover enchiladas, but she wasn’t concerned about eating.
‘I found something,’ was the first thing she said to me when she came in the door, red leaves falling from her coat as she threw it off.
‘Something?’ I prompted, since she was just staring at me with what looked like wonder.
‘Someone – someones – I went to the woods, and –’
‘You went to the woods?’ I tried not to sound angry. I wasn’t, but I was alarmed. ‘The ones that are going to be cut down soon and might end up being in the middle of an assassination plot?’
‘Yeah,’ she said breathlessly, ‘those. Anyway, I was walking through them, thinking how much it would suck if they were all gone, and I went down through these thick swathes of trees and up steep paths and down again and into this part of the woods I’d never been in before, and then I saw something move, and I –’
‘Are you hurt?’ I interjected.
She gave me a wide-eyed look that both answered my question and demanded of me what possible reason I would have to assume that such a clearly magical experience would have been a source of hurt to her. Then she took a deep breath and carried on. ‘So I followed it, and it was a tree, and it was walking, and I went even further down and there was this place and all these – these fireflies, and there were trees that moved about like people and grass that was shuffling along and flowers that were dancing, and even the whole side of a hill covered in moss was moving up and down like it was breathing –’
I put my hands on her shoulders gently. ‘Did you eat any mushrooms?’ I asked very seriously.
‘No,’ she said, looking deflated. ‘I’m not high, and I’m not lying either.’
I gazed into her eyes, and could only say one thing. ‘I believe you,’ I told her.
It’s weird, when the person you love more than anything in the world tells you completely sincerely that something that you believe to be fully impossible is in fact true. This ticking little sense machine that sits inside your head and keeps you experiencing a world as close to the real one as possible, it starts buzzing as if to say ‘this does not fit’, and you want to reject it. But then you remember who’s telling you to accept it, and even though you think you know that it isn’t true, you start to believe that it is anyway.
It’s weird. I don’t know whether, when I said ‘I believe you’, I really did or not. I think I believed that it was true, but also that it couldn’t be. It was confusing. Maybe one day someone you love will tell you with total sincerity that they’ve seen a teacup pig that isn’t completely adorable, and then you’ll know how it feels to simultaneously think something’s impossible and wholeheartedly believe that it’s true.
‘I’m going back tomorrow,’ she said firmly. ‘I’m going to go and see them again.’
‘You should get a picture,’ I suggested, to which she frowned.
‘I don’t know how they’ll feel about that,’ she said thoughtfully.
‘How they’ll feel?’
‘I think they were trying to talk to me,’ she said. ‘I need to go back and let them try again.’
I loved her with all my heart, so I wasn’t going to stop her. But I did make her take some pepper spray with her, just in case the woodcutters or the Major decided to show up.
She came back the next day with pictures.
‘That just looks like a tree,’ I said reluctantly, swiping on her phone to see the next one. I wanted to tell her that yes, it was definitely proof, but there really wasn’t any way of telling from picture to picture whether it was actually the same tree moving about or not. There were little dots of light scattered about in each shot, though, which might have been sunlight breaking through the leaves or it might have been fireflies.
‘I know,’ she said with a huff. Her eyes glowed with excitement and her cheeks were red from the cold; autumn was turning into winter fast. ‘But hey, I talked to them this time.’
‘Did they talk to you too?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘They did.’ She stared off, apparently remembering. I gave her a moment, then motioned for her to go on. She told me the story.
Rose found the valley of the fireflies again through sheer luck, stumbling around in the woods until she found a path she thought she recognised. When she found herself back in the grove, she mapped the location into her phone so she would be able to find it again. When she came in, everything was still, but then the grass shifted and the moss opened up and the fireflies rose up out of the earth.
‘I felt them speaking in my head,’ she told me, pointing firmly at her temples. ‘Like it was my own thoughts.’
She asked them who they were, and they told her: ‘We call us Tauga, some call us Semini. You think of us fireflies. We fireflies.’
Their voice resonated in her mind, all of them speaking at once. She wondered whether they each had names, whether each tiny spot of light was an individual person, and they heard her wondering. A single firefly came and hovered in front of her face, and she heard one voice: ‘I Tauga.’ Then many of them hung in the air in a great glowing cloud, and in many voices: ‘We Tauga.’ Then all at once: ‘We Tauga.’
‘It’s like… all of them, together, are one big person,’ Rose explained. ‘But then, if they split up, each tiny one is its own person, too. And if some of them, but not all of them, are in a group together, then that’s one big person as well.’
I didn’t really get it, but I nodded and smiled anyway.
‘You should see it, L,’ she said, getting misty-eyed again. ‘When they want to be big, they all cloud together into one big shiny haze, and then they sort of sink into the trees and… it becomes their body, and they can move it however they like. Even a whole hill, they just cover the plant life on it like an enormous glowing blanket, and then the entire thing becomes a living being.’
‘It sounds… amazing,’ I said.
‘It is,’ she breathed. ‘I have to take you to see it – I have to…’ She blinked, as if suddenly realising something. ‘I have to tell everyone.’
‘That seems like something you should probably think through,’ I said cautiously.
‘No, L, I’ve got to let the world know about this! I can’t let them cut down the woods when there are conscious beings in there – they’re people, we can’t let them lose their home!’
‘You think it’ll be as easy as just… telling them?’ I asked, a sceptical quirk creeping in. Rose looked crestfallen; I compensated with an apologetic wiggle of the eyebrow.
She stood there for a moment, finger to her cheek in thought. ‘Maybe not,’ she admitted. Then she took a breath and looked up at me, wide-eyed. ‘You can come with me!’ she exclaimed. ‘They’ll believe it if two of us tell them, and if I make a video of it…’
I took a deep breath. I still didn’t know whether or not I really believed that these fireflies were real. But even if I did… ‘What if they don’t want the world to know about them?’ I asked. ‘If they really are sentient, and they can communicate, then… that makes them conscious, that makes them people. Least as far as I’m concerned. So they must have feelings, and… if they’ve been hidden in the woods this long, maybe they want to stay there.’
Rose sighed, running a hand through her hair. I caught a waft of her shampoo. ‘But just think, L,’ she said, almost pleadingly. ‘These things could be in every forest, all over the world. Think how many of them might have died already because of humans. We can’t let more of them get wiped out.’
I couldn’t disagree. ‘Take me there,’ was all I could say.
By the time Rose led me into the woods, the sun had disappeared, leaving only a faint tinge in the westernmost reaches of the sky, the colour of a blushing orange. She used the light on her phone to see by, holding my hand as she took me deep into the most densely forested parts. I had been in these woods a hundred times, but never before noticed the steep paths that she walked me down.
‘We’re getting close,’ she whispered, checking the location on her phone. Then the light went out. ‘Shit!’ She poked hard at the power button, but nothing happened. ‘Didn’t charge it,’ she groaned, shaking the useless piece of circuitry around in frustration.
‘Let’s just head back for now,’ I urged, extremely conscious of the fact that I had no idea where we were or in which direction we needed to go if we wanted to get home. ‘We can come back.’
She looked around, her head whipping in every direction. Her eyes glistened in the dark. ‘I know,’ she said, hugging herself. ‘We’ll… we’ll come back.’
‘It won’t be too late,’ I promised her, putting my arms around her. ‘It won’t.’
She shook her head firmly, cheek pressed into my chest. ‘I hope not,’ she said. Then she turned sharply, and led me back out of the woods.
As we emerged back onto the road, where there were hardly any cars at this time of night and the stars glittered in the sky as if all the headlights had gone up there instead, Rose suddenly gasped and pulled me back under the cover of the trees. ‘Look,’ she hissed; I looked. There had definitely not been any enormous orange works vehicles there when we arrived, but there definitely were now.
‘They’re coming to cut it down already?’ I wondered aloud; Rose stared at the troupe of vehicles defiantly.
‘They can’t be,’ she said. ‘We have to do something.’
‘Like what?’ I asked, then regretted it.
‘I have to tell someone,’ she said. ‘Anyone. The world.’
I sighed. ‘Can’t we just… peacefully protest?’
‘No!’ she exclaimed. ‘That won’t do anything! We’re talking about… I don’t know, maybe hundreds of conscious beings’ lives in there. If we don’t do something, something really immediate and really big, they’re going to die!’
‘So something drastic, basically,’ I said.
‘That’s the word,’ she breathed, still staring daggers at the vehicles.
Her opportunity came earlier than I had hoped.
‘I told the Major,’ she told me the next day, as I poured milk onto my cereal.
‘You what,’ I said flatly, the milk spilling unnoticed onto the countertop.
‘I called him last night, while you were asleep,’ she said, nonchalant. ‘I had to do something.’
‘I know you felt like you had to do something –’
‘I did have to do something.’
‘But… why tell the Major?’
‘Because I couldn’t think of anything else to do,’ she said, staring down at the half-eaten slice of toast in front of her. She pushed it away after a moment, then folded her arms. ‘But I bet he can.’
‘Rose,’ I said, sliding into the chair in front of her, leaving the soggy cereal where it was on the milk-sodden counter. ‘I get it. For real. But… the guy wanted to kill somebody to stop them cutting the woods down. Like… murder.’
‘It’s murder if we let them destroy the woods with the fireflies in them,’ she said, looking up with bloodshot eyes.
‘Did you sleep last night?’ I asked her, looking at her with concern.
‘Not a lot,’ she admitted. ‘Not important – look at the big picture, L, come on! This is… genocide!’
I waved the big issues away anxiously. ‘The pressing thing,’ I said, ‘is what you actually said to the Major.’
She suddenly became interested in her toast again, taking an overly large bite and chewing hard. ‘Y’know,’ she mumbled around her mouthful. ‘N’much.’
‘Oh, come on,’ I moaned. I didn’t want to be exasperated with her, but I felt that there was an issue to hand that she might not be appreciating the full magnitude of. ‘What happened last night?’
Rose sighed, then swallowed loudly. ‘I called him,’ she said finally, ‘and told him that he had to do whatever was necessary to stop them cutting it down.’
‘And he said something to the effect of, “oh, I didn’t expect this from you”, or something just as patronising, and then he asked what had made me come around, and I told him about the fireflies.’
I looked down at my fingers, which I hadn’t noticed were uncontrollably tapping the table, then back up at her.
‘And,’ she continued after a moment, ‘he said he thought I was stupid, or delusional, or I was trying to claim there was some personified forest deity or something.’
I sighed. ‘So he didn’t believe you?’ I hoped he hadn’t, if only because I didn’t want to see the course of action that might be taken by a Major who actually believed there were sentient beings in there on top of the already unimpeachably sacred trees.
‘Don’t think so,’ she said, taking another bite. Her face contorted in what I thought was a disappointed expression, badly disguised as a hefty chew.
‘Hey,’ I said, trying to sound reassuring. ‘We don’t need him anyway, he’s a dick.’
She gave a small smile. ‘He is, isn’t he?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘He is.’ I kissed her on the forehead. ‘Now I gotta go to work, and so do you, so have a good day and I shall see you…’ I half-danced over to the door, picking up my bowl of cereal and slurping it down with a flourish. ‘… late-ahhhh.’
‘Later,’ she echoed, the corner of her mouth curving up.
She was distraught when I got back.
‘My phone’s gone,’ she was saying, frantically scattering everything off counters and shelves. Cushions flew off the sofa; I caught one and threw it back at her.
‘Didn’t you have it today?’ I asked, confused. She’d sent me a little heart emoji at lunch.
‘Yeah, but now I’m back and it’s nowhere and I don’t know, I –’
‘Hang on,’ I said, in what I hoped was a calming and reassuring tone. ‘If you had it at work today, and now you’re back here but it isn’t here, then you probably left it at work somewhere.’
She ceased her relentless clutter-making for a moment. ‘I… guess,’ she said uncertainly.
‘So you can just go back to work tomorrow,’ I said, holding my arms out to her, ‘and find it then. Okay?’
She thought about it for a moment. ‘Okay,’ she said eventually. She let me take her into my arms; I stroked her hair, looking down at the top of her head.
‘It’ll be alright,’ I said, hoping it was true.
I woke up in the middle of the night to find an empty space where Rose should have been. She needed the map on her phone to find the clearing with the fireflies, I knew, but… even so, I couldn’t imagine where else she might have gone. So I went back to the woods, shivering in the cold. There was a sharp wind that night; I found myself half-sneaking through the trees, staying close to the thickest trunks for protection from the bitter cold. Or perhaps I was trying to stay hidden from any watching eyes those woods might have held. I wasn’t sure.
I had no idea where to go. Every corner seemed labyrinthine in the dark, every branch grasping. Rose might have had a vague idea of which paths to follow to find the glowing heart of the place, but I had only guesswork and a wind-up torch she’d bought me when we went camping. It wasn’t even a proper one: it was a pink plastic thing, about the same heft as a cheap can opener, with a Disney princess on the grip. As I stole my way deeper into the thick blanket of copses, it stopped working.
‘Come on,’ I whispered, winding frantically. Nothing. I gave it a good smack. It responded with a brief flicker of light, then a spluttering death. For a moment, I wanted nothing more than to hurl it at the nearest thick trunk, to shatter and be buried under mud and dust and leaves. I didn’t, though. I might not have even liked Disney, or pink, or camping, but Rose gave me this torch – and I didn’t think she would be very happy with me if I went about littering the woods with shards of plastic.
I exhaled, holding the useless piece of plastic tightly in my half-numb fingers. The howling of the wind ceased, just for a moment, and in the darkness and the quiet I looked through the trees and saw hundreds of tiny glowing lights, lying like a thick blanket over a wide clearing. And I heard Rose.
‘You can’t make them,’ I heard her saying defiantly as I crept closer, her voice filtering through the leaves and branches. ‘They won’t fight for you.’
‘I’m not asking them to fight for me,’ an impassioned voice retorted. The Major. ‘I’m asking them to fight for themselves, for Earth!’ I heard the crunching of forest matter under his feet, and strained to see through the dense woods. I saw two black shapes blocking the path of the fireflies’ light to my eyes, the larger of the two advancing slowly towards the smaller.
‘They aren’t going to do it,’ Rose told him. ‘If you have so much respect for Earth and all the things in it, why are you trying to force them to do something against their nature?’
The Major took another step closer, reaching out as if to grab her. ‘Because I want the Earth to save itself, and I want to witness its power, and I want blood,’ he spat, and as his hand began to touch her shoulder, the fireflies moved.
The thick layer of glowing specks lying across the earth whipped themselves into a single dense cloud, engulfing the Major instantly. He fell back; I could just make out hands inside the flurry of light, swatting at the swarm. I dashed to Rose, grabbing her arm.
‘We need to go,’ I hissed urgently, shaking her.
‘No,’ she said. Her voice was soft, her eyes glazed over. I watched the swirling horde of tiny lights reflected in them. ‘We should stay.’
I pulled at her arm, but she wouldn’t move. ‘What are you – we have to get out of here!’
‘Put him down,’ she said. She spoke in a clear voice, and she wasn’t talking to me. The spinning net of fireflies dispersed, leaving a shadowy, camouflage-clad heap on the ground.
‘We not fight,’ I thought. Then I blinked, and looked from Rose to the hovering mass of fireflies in confusion. ‘What…’ I said; I wasn’t sure whether out loud or not.
‘You friend,’ said my thoughts. The golden lights formed themselves into a shining face, and its mouth moved in time with the words as they popped into my head. ‘We speak to you.’
Rose looked at me with adoration; I could see her eyes shimmering in the light. ‘They’re talking to you,’ she told me. ‘I know, it’s weird, but isn’t it amazing?’
I nodded, aware that my jaw was hanging open.
‘Show her what you can do,’ she instructed the face; with what I thought was a gleeful laugh piped straight into my mind, the fireflies split. The face disintegrated, the individual lights that had formed it spiralling away like a sand sculpture blown to nothing in the wind.
For a moment, I thought the fireflies were gone: that they’d just dissipated and left us there alone. Then everything started to move.
The trees around us glowed gently, each one covered in a web of golden specks. Branches shifted, the wood warping with a gentle creak; roots revealed themselves and split into legs; an earthy mound of moss and flowers slowly began to vibrate as if with deep breaths, lifting itself from the earth like an enormous tortoise emerging from hiding. The trees walked around us, making no more noise than a human treading with the gentlest of steps, and individual flowers sprouted leafy wings and fluttered in front of my face.
‘It’s incredible,’ was all I could say. Rose gazed about at the scene with what I thought was pride.
‘It’s miraculous,’ grunted the Major-shaped shadow in the middle of it all, hauling himself to his knees. ‘It’s a gift from the planet to itself. It’s an army of warriors that can become as big as a mountain or as small as a fly and take a new shape each time their bodies are destroyed.’ He sat back on his haunches, head firmly upright – he stood to attention even on his knees, I thought. ‘And yet they won’t fight.’
‘Of course they won’t,’ Rose said, almost contemptuously. ‘War isn’t natural.’
‘Neither is all the destruction humans inflict on the world,’ the Major barked. ‘It has to fight back, to save itself.’
‘I don’t like what people have done to the planet any more than you,’ Rose told him, taking a step closer. ‘I want them to stop. But people are natural too, and I want them to stop because they want to, not because they’re all dead!’
The Major bared his teeth. They were usually gleaming white, but in the yellow light it wasn’t a good look. ‘They’re not worth saving,’ he growled. ‘They won’t stop because they want to, because even if they did want to stop they wouldn’t be able to keep themselves from living self-serving, destructive lives.’
‘Look,’ I said, interjecting myself before it turned into a shouting match. I glanced first at the Major, then at Rose. ‘You don’t want people to kill the planet, and you don’t want to kill people.’ The Major opened his mouth, but I cut him off. ‘And you –’ this to the fireflies all around ‘- you probably don’t want to die because of people, but it’s not in your nature to fight back. And that’s totally fine, and we should all respect that.’ I gave the Major a wilting stare. ‘Especially those of us who for some reason think we can speak on behalf of the entire planet.’
‘So what do you propose?’ the Major asked, his tone making it clear that he fully expected not to care for any solution I might have to suggest.
‘I don’t know,’ I said, shrugging.
‘What good is –‘
‘Well, it’s not the best,’ I freely admitted. ‘But people are people, these fireflies are people too, we’re all from the same dirt at the end of the day. So everyone’s just gotta make their own decisions. If we can’t be responsible, maybe we don’t deserve to be here.’
‘Not good enough,’ the Major almost spat. ‘What makes us so special that we think we can destroy a world filled with infinite creatures that have no say in the matter?’
‘We’re dumb,’ I said. ‘We don’t have the right. But I don’t think we have the right to kill people, either.’
The Major dragged himself to his feet; his legs rustled and cracked the twigs and leaves underneath him. ‘Not good enough,’ he said again.
I tried to think of a compelling response, but came up empty. I had nothing. I stood there, watching as the heap of shadows drew itself up and started to shuffle towards me. ‘I don’t –‘ I said, without a clue as to where that sentence would have gone had I continued it. I knew the Major was wrong, I knew that deeply. But I couldn’t put into words why that was the case, and in that moment I understood as well as anyone how he had been able to turn half Rose’s friends into soldiers of Earth.
‘You’ll be the first martyr of the cause,’ he said, something like reverence in his voice and his eyes as he approached me. He reached out his hands, and a vice grip closed around my wrists. ‘We’ll say you tried to stop this beautiful place being defiled, but the merciless destroyers of nature cut you down in their path. Then the world will see.’
One of the hands clasping my wrist let go, and reached inside his heavy jacket.
Branches shot out of nowhere, leafy tendrils wrapping themselves around the Major like whips and ropes. The trees that walked strode in to stand over him, vine-arms stretching out to constrict the one-time commander of Gaia’s finest.
‘No death,’ the fireflies said into my head, and I knew from the Major’s wide eyes that he heard it too.
‘What are you going to do?’ he challenged, almost laughing. Something cracked as the branches wrapped tighter, and he hacked up a spatter of blood and phlegm, black in the gentle light. ‘You won’t fight, even to defend yourselves. You won’t let me kill anyone on your behalf – what, you’re going to kill me?’ One of his hands was still tightly clenched on my wrist, though his own wrist was bound in bark, the pressure increasing by the second.
‘Not kill,’ said the fireflies. ‘You will live.’
‘Then how do you think you’re going to stop me?’ he said through sharp breaths.
A white flower drifted in front of his face. I almost missed it, until a soft glow emanated from it and the Major’s eyes crossed trying to keep it in focus. Then the firefly inside left it, and the petals fell softly to the ground. The tiny golden light hovered there for a moment, and then it wandered up and touched the Major in the centre of his forehead.
He stared up at the little light for a second, cross-eyed and gurning. His mouth flapped open and closed like some obstacle on a crazy golf course. I felt the fingers around my wrist stabbing into me, clenching in wild pulses. In the darkness of the night, his body lit only by the evanescent shine of the multitude of fireflies all around, his skin began to turn grey. Cracks appeared, spindling outwards from where the firefly touched him; a bark texture spread across his face. His eyes focused, looking straight into mine with rage and terror, and then pupils and iris disappeared and all that was left were two sculpted divots in his wooden face. I felt a scratching around my wrist as his fingers froze in place. I watched with surprise as Rose’s phone fell out of a pocket, pushed out by the solidifying of the material around him.
‘He lives,’ said the fireflies, in my head.
I stared at what had been the Major: a wooden statue, to all appearances. I yanked my hand free of his grip, breaking the twig fingers off with splinters of bark. There was green under the surface where the digits ended in cracked stumps.
‘You turned him into… a tree?’ Rose breathed. She stepped up to the Major, leaning in close to inspect his face. It had frozen in an open-mouthed snarl; I thought I could see green moss slowly beginning to cover the inside of his mouth, leaves sprouting out of his hair.
‘He hate humans,’ the fireflies said. ‘Maybe he happier as plant.’
The trees holding the Major released him, bindings turning back into branches. A shower of fireflies came forth from the surroundings, sinking into the Major. He glowed softly, and the fireflies made him move. I watched as he walked gracefully from the clearing into the darkness of the woods, his expression not shifting.
Rose stared after him with a strange expression on her face. The sun was just beginning to rise over the canopies; suddenly she dashed out of the clearing, back towards the entrance where all the deforestation vehicles were. I followed her, grabbing her phone as I went. He had found the clearing from the co-ordinates she stored on it, I realised dumbly. She had been right to be afraid when it went missing.
I caught up with her as she emerged out onto the road, the sunlight starting to illuminate the world from behind us. There were already workers there.
‘You aren’t cutting this place down,’ she said defiantly, standing with wide arms as if to protect the entire forest. One of her fists was tightly clenched.
‘Look,’ one of them said, a rakish man with a moustache that was too wide for his face, ‘we got our permission, we got our orders. We’re just doing a job.’
‘You’ll have to go through me,’ she told them. I felt my heart drop out of my chest.
‘We can ask the police to remove you if we feel we have to,’ Moustache said. ‘I don’t wanna do that, cos you seem like a nice young lady and all that, but I gotta do my work here.’
‘Good luck removing me,’ she said. Then she looked in my eyes. ‘I’m sorry,’ she told me. ‘I love you.’
She opened her fingers, and a single firefly rose from her palm. I wanted to scream ‘No!’, for everything to be in slow motion, but before I could even process the appropriate response the firefly was inside my Rose’s head, and then I could do nothing but watch as her soft skin turned hard and her beautiful eyes and hair turned into flaky bark.
‘What the…’ breathed Moustache. ‘I don’t…’ He looked helplessly between me and the arrangement of branches and leaves and wood that had until a moment ago been my Rose.
‘She lives,’ said the fireflies, and each one of the workers looked around in surprise.
‘Did you hear -?’ one of them began. Moustache nodded, his face turning whiter by the second.
‘She is alive,’ the fireflies repeated. ‘You move her, you kill human.’
The workers exchanged shocked glances.
‘You want to cut down forest, you must murder,’ the fireflies said.
‘I’m… not…’ Moustache gulped for air for a moment. Then he shook his head and strode shakily away, glancing back every few steps, speeding up each time. The rest of the workers followed, forgetting to take their vehicles with them.
I was left with Rose.
‘Did you have to?’ I asked her motionless face. ‘Did you really have to?’
She glowed gently, and the fireflies moved her eyelids into a clumsy blink. She straightened up, wood creaking and cracking as she moved.
‘She say she can not let us die,’ the fireflies told me.
‘So you really are still in there?’ I whispered to the tree.
‘She here,’ the fireflies said.
So that’s how that happened. Three years later, here I am, back in the clearing of the fireflies. She lives here now; she could hardly come out, so to the best of everyone’s knowledge Rose died that day. The current theory is that the Major was secretly in love with her, so he dragged her into the forest to have his nefarious way with her; I followed them, and I think the rumours at the moment are that I killed them both in a fit of jealous rage or something. I don’t know. Nobody asks me about that day; nobody’s really talked to me at all since then, actually.
The woods never did get cut down. Not sure what the workers said to convince the higher-ups that these ones weren’t worth bothering again, but I did read an article in the local paper a couple of weeks later. They’d interviewed Moustache, whose take on the whole thing was that a nymph or forest spirit had appeared before them and threatened death to them and all their crops if they didn’t leave. I think he got fired.
The fireflies took the Major to a great tree right in the heart of the forest. I haven’t seen it with my own eyes, but they showed me a picture in my head. It’s an enormous thing, bigger by far than any of the others around here. The Major’s petrified body crouches like a gargoyle at its base, keeping watch. If anyone ever did come across him, they’d probably think it was an incredibly lifelike statue. The Major himself is still conscious in there, I guess, looking out at the world from inside a body he can’t move. He’ll be there until that new body dies, and given how long trees can live… I wouldn’t want to be in his position.
Rose is coming out into the clearing now. I think she spends most of her time hidden away, just spending time with the fireflies and the woods and the world. I come to visit whenever I can. Never could find it in me to think about moving on, not when she’s still alive in here. The fireflies live in her, allowing her to move around however she wants.
‘Happy anniversary,’ I say as she emerges. Her hair has grown: she’s got long, thin leaves, like blades of grass, growing out of her head.
‘She say she love you,’ the fireflies tell me. They form her face into a smile. I wonder sometimes how it works: does she tell them how she wants to move, what she wants to say? For all I know, she really is dead and they’ve just been pretending ever since.
But then I look at her. She might be made of wood, but she’s still my Rose. And that’s all I can think about.
‘I love you too,’ I say.