The journey back to Brisingham took a couple of hours, a time filled with fidgeting and too little space. The back was filled to overflowing with boxes and bags, strapped down and still blocking any view to the rear. Miqual drove, while I was squeezed in with Tesh and Rumala; the rest were in Aer’s automotive, leading the way. There was an awkwardness I hadn’t anticipated, but in retrospect was obvious: we’d just spent a day and a half celebrating our lives together, virtually said goodbye, and now were mashed together for another day. It was much like saying goodbye to a friend and then realising you’re both going heading in the same direction. Do you acknowledge and walk together, having said all there was to say, or awkwardly pretend not to have noticed each other? Neither works out terribly well.
The road was lined with the scrubby half-woods that I spent much of my professional life in. Studying the allforest had kept me busy for many years; and not just me, generations of researchers, scientists, doctors and curious enthusiasts were drawn to the strange monoculture. In this region, we had but a single species of tree, which dominated almost all available space, competing with itself for sun and moonlight. While there were many varieties of grass, flowering shrub and smaller plants, nothing but the alltrees ever reached more than the average person’s height. Partly it was their extreme aggression, both towards rival plants, and to younger versions of itself. I’d spent a summer documenting alltree saplings, which had been planted specifically to observe their behaviour. At first they’d all grown evenly, their careful spacing allowing them to reach around five feet in height before their branches and leaves started to intrude on the others. At the first hint of shade being cast on one of the others’ leaves, the victim tree entered a period of aggressive growth, burning all the energy it could extract from the sky and the ground to attain new height. Obviously once that began, a whole arms race ensued. The trees sprouted vines that dangled from their branches until they found one of their rivals, wrapping round the branches and contracting until it withered and died. The same happened below ground: forays of over-active roots choked each other, and invaded their neighbours. In some cases the roots would grow up into a neighbouring tree, join with the vines and tear the tree apart from the inside. Sometimes a rival would put enough energy into height and spreading its branches that the trees below couldn’t keep up and, in their deprived and weakened state, simply faded away as the victor’s roots stretched out, cutting them off below as above.
Gazing out of the window I watched the vicious allforest battle itself, until the individual trees reached a state of critical mass and nutrition – no amount of light and space was going to help it grow further – and now fully mature, it potentially intruded on the domain of other, vast alltrees. The questing roots and vines switched from predation to symbiosis, merging their subterranean network, vines forming vast webs through the canopy, linking together all the alltrees’ resources and merging into one vast organism: the allforest. While there were as yet many parts of the world untouched by the allforest, its spread was clear and had been long documented. It had spread from a single sample across the northern continent, choking out the native specimens. When even a seed sprouted on our shores, it was soon killed off. The only place other trees flourished to any degree were in greenhouses, though even there it was important to keep them isolated. A hint of pollen would cause nearby alltrees to change their direction of growth, drawing ever nearer, the root systems actually dragging the trunk and canopy toward the greenhouse, with predictably disastrous consequences for the structure. Overseas of course, it was a different matter. Small islands were mostly safe from the alltrees as they sustain only a few mature plants, which were unable to join up with the allforest, and tended to dwindle as a consequence. The southern continent had a rather more direct approach to the alltrees’ colonisation plans: burning out any samples that arrived by sea or air. So far it had been quite successful. Here in the north, the trees had become the dominating feature of our landscape, and far more importantly, the defining influence in how we lived our lives.
Eventually we arrived in Brisingham. The road took us out of the scrublands and past the dead straight line where the allforest ended. The city had been built in the heart of a rocky crater, its earth too shallow to allow the alltrees to take root easily and grow to their full size. It was a constant challenge keeping it back, and the streets were of a composite sand, chemically treated to be inimical to fertilisation. It mostly worked, but we had to keep an eye out for the hardy plants. Brisingham was fairly decentralised, with offices and workplaces scattered across the city, its thousands of citizens living mostly near where they worked. Coppery structures passed us on either side, decorated with bark patterns, their roofs and upper walls coated in a patina of solar and lunar panels, contributing to the power grid. We were headed for the centre of the rock, where the archives were located. I was just a few streets away, so I was able to get out of the automotive first, leaving a little more space for the others.
“See you in two hours, in front of the archive, right?” Miqual confirmed as I hopped down, with just my bag.
I waved them off, the automotive wobbling more precariously than I’d realised under its load of personal items and the junk the others had decided to have stored. I walked down a sandy sidestreet, enjoying the quiet crunch underfoot. My home was in the middle of a block of identical houses fabricated from the basin’s stone, and had been clad with felled alltree wood. Not felled by us, of course, pulled down by the violent growth of the trees themselves. I lived in a house covered in failures. They were younger trees, their bark still smooth, with occasional blots of white and a darker green where branches had been ready to break out.
I nodded to a few neighbours, and received the usual mix of nods and waves. I’d been fairly happy here, not that I’d spent a lot of time at home – I much preferred to be out in the woods, working and walking. I’d wrapped up my last project, into how the vines sprouted, and the complex photosynthesis and its resulting sugars were able to be poured into their radical competitive growth. It wasn’t really very conclusive, or groundbreaking, but it was better than looking at the trees and shrugging. All that work had already been sent on to the institute, who would add it to the existing body of knowledge. My name would be attached of course, even though after the shettling I wouldn’t have any recollection of the work, or any claim to it. I still wasn’t sure how I felt about that. Perhaps I hadn’t been sure about it previously either, and this was a cycle I’d always gone through, and presumably would continue. It was thoughts like that which made me wonder if I was really suitable for shettling. Perhaps I’d just begun to settle this time, having moved away from most of the circle. Who knew, maybe next time would be my last. For now, after last night, I felt it was something I wanted to do with the others – I didn’t think I could just let them dissolve the circle and be left alone. That would be too much.
My keys were, of course, buried in my bag rather than in the pocket of the nice suit I’d worn for our final photograph earlier. Crouched over my rucksack, emptying its contents out onto the porch I didn’t notice the approaching footsteps until they crunched on the sandy gravel.
“So this is it, then?”
I looked up, keys in hand at my next door neighbour, Relyan. She was tightly clutching a square of paper between her hands.
“I suppose so,” I said, not sure how to provide a satisfactory answer, “do you want to come in for a minute?”
She hesitated. I guessed I’d arrived at the wrong time. A few minutes earlier or later and she could have just slipped the card under my door without having to see me.
“Come on in, I’ll make a cup of tea.”
She gave me a slight nod, so I got up and let us in.
The hallway was dark, one half of it made up of stacked boxes, labelled clearly with my name, reference ID and our circle’s number, and cycle. The rest was the soft red carpet that had been here before I moved in fifteen years ago. I’d felt no need to replace it; it was delightful on bare feet. Since I was home, and for the last time, I kicked my shoes off. Relyan did the same, and she followed me past the boxes into the living room.
“It’s good to see you Relyan,” I said, “is that for me?”
“Oh, yes.” She handed me the card, now creased and folded around the edges.
“Thank you Relyan, I do appreciate it.”
I smoothed out the edges and laid the card on the low table that lay along one edge of the room. Previously it had contained a stack of alltree samples, local carvings and the assorted junk I’d collected over the years. Most of it was now in a different set of boxes, not marked for the archive like those in the hall, but for anyone to take what they wanted. I’d leave those on the porch when I left.
Relyan sat on the edge of the sofa. I stepped through the oval arch that separated the living room from the kitchen and filled the kettle with water. I fussed with some mugs, the few that hadn’t been packed up, in anticipation of this meeting, or something like it. Relyan and I had been neighbours for all the time I’d been here, she’d lived in this terrace for much longer. At first she had been rather cool towards me, but I’d been keen to make some friends in the neighbourhood, given how far I was from my circle (we had still spoken and messaged almost daily, but it wasn’t the same as actually being with people). My overtures of friendship had been successful, in the end, and we’d become good friends. Not that you would have guessed it from the expression on her face. She let me make the tea in silence, and I didn’t feel the need to press her. The card on the table remained unopened. It’s always struck me as a little odd to open a letter while the person who sent it to you was right before you.
I brought the mugs back through and sat on the chair opposite Relyan. She was a striking woman, her dark skin offset by the vibrant tattoos that ran down the side of her face and neck, vanishing under clothes to emerge at wrist and ankle. I was well aware they ran all the way in between, too.
“I’m going to miss you Jenn,” she said.
“I’m going to miss you too,” I replied.
“No, you’re not. You’re not going to remember me at all, you’re not going to remember any of this. Calia’s tears, don’t you even care about that?”
“You know I do – but you know–“
“–about your precious circle? Of course I do, how could I forget? I thought you’d finally thought your way out of that ridiculous cult.”
“It’s not a cult – it’s a way of life.”
“It’s not a way of life, it’s a way of not having a life, of avoiding every damn responsibility that comes your way. You and your friends, you don’t even try, you just restart it, over and over again. And for what? What is the point?”
“You just don’t understand,” I said, “the point is the circle. We want that intimacy, that closeness, to be a family.”
“Why would you think I don’t understand? You’re not unique, you’re not special just because you shettle, over and over again. We know what shettling is, I know what it’s like. The rest of us have grown out of it. I can’t believe I wasted my time with you. And now you’re just throwing it away. You’ve all lost your minds. You’re exactly like the children you want to be. You know what, I’ve had enough. I shouldn’t ever have gotten involved with a bloody shettler.”
We were both standing up by now, shouting at each other. I’d never meant to hurt Relyan. She was right in so many ways – I had drifted from my circle, ended up out here, with her. But now I’d been drawn back in. She wasn’t interested in the bind of obligations and affection that drew us all together – that was the point, after all, to be immersed in that intense bond together. It was a test, of sorts, one that I’d thought for a while I might be failing, but in the end was going to pass.
“Do you even know how many times you’ve done this, Jenn? Do you have any idea that you’ve wiped your idiot mind again and again, with these same people, re-learned those relationships. Do you know if it’s been different this time? Or is it the same every stupid time?”
I recoiled from her words.
“Don’t you ever stop to think, to wonder why everyone else has stopped? There are only a few hundred of you, stubborn, endlessly repeating the same life, instead of dealing with this one. When are you going to grow up?”
“I don’t want to do this Relyan, I’m meeting my circle in an hour.”
“Fine, of course,” her sudden calmness was somehow more distressing than her anger, “just – don’t find me afterwards. And if you do, I won’t be here for you. I know you won’t remember this, so I’m saying it for me.”
She took the card from where I’d put it and left. The door closed quietly, and I was left with two undrunk cups of tea, in my empty living room. Ultimately, Relyan was right about one thing – soon, none of this would matter. I was aware that I was lazily absolving myself of the need to think about this, about our fight, and whether she was correct about shettling, and about me in particular. I’d made a commitment, to my circle, and I was going to see it through.
I rinsed out the mugs and returned them to their place in the cupboard. Time to go. I had a small automotive tucked away in the garage court behind the terrace. I stepped out through the patio doors into the garden I’d paid little attention to. I noticed an altree sapling taking root, so ducked back inside and retrieved the thick, metal-lined gloves I kept by the doors for this precise purpose. Safely gloved I tore the sapling out of the ground in a single, swift motion. The gloves protected me from the thorns that had sprung from the bark as soon as I gripped it. It was too young for them to have the stiffness and sharpness they would later acquire. The roots writhed in the air, seeking purchase in anything soft enough for them to puncture. I wasn’t going to give it that opportunity, and took it straight round to the communal steriliser on the other side of the garages. There was a good stack of dead wood already. We were all punctilious about preventing the trees from taking root in the city. It had been a long, hard battle to carve out this much space from the constant incursions of the alltree. The wood collected all over the city was distributed to various industries, from furniture making, to cladding homes like mine, and countless artisanal crafts. I’d given Maina some jewellery made from the varnished leaves of juvenile alltrees, uprooted from the city. Its roots curling up at me, I flipped open the steriliser, and dropped the sapling inside. It was young enough that its trunk was flexible and it looked like an arm with too many fingers at either end, flailing to escape the box.
“Sorry,” I whispered, shut the steriliser, and stabbed the red ‘on’ button.
The unit hummed, and the tree stopped struggling. Flipping the lid open again, I took the curled up tree out, and placed it on the stack. With the spot of good citizenship out of the way I sought out my automotive, unpeeling the armoured gloves and tucking them in my back pocket. My little auto was still waiting for me, a foreshortened triangle, with wheels at each corner, space only for me in the front, but a generous amount of storage space in the back. I reversed it out into the sunshine, and round the block in front of my house. There was a light in Relyan’s window, and I wondered wistfully if she would wave as I left. It seemed unlikely.
All the boxes fit neatly into the boot, as I’d hoped, and I did a last quick check of the house to make sure I’d forgotten nothing. In my bedroom I spotted the framed photograph of Relyan and I, standing under an alltree, a tangled nest of vines hanging down behind us, making an arch that we fit neatly inside of. It was from a week when Relyan decided to accompany me into the heart of the allforest; she’d had to sit in the boot of my auto, cushioned by tents and equipment. It had been a good week, sharing the forest, pointing out the especially results of the trees’ behaviour, from the vast thorns that had sprouted from some in their earlier years, to the sticky sap that had glued three trees together until they couldn’t compete with each other and had to grow as one. It was a memory worth recording. But not one I wanted to take with me. The fight with Relyan had both been confusing for me, both confirming my doubts about our circle shettling because of Aer and Rumula, but also reminding me of why I was in the circle to begin with. A difficult contradiction to bear, but the photograph clarified it for me: that I wanted to try again, to return to the amnesiac state we had begun our circle in all those years ago, no disappointments, no failures. Just the hope, and promise of togetherness, and the joy of discovery.
I left the photograph by the stripped bed, watching over an empty home that I would never think of again.
Stolen Skies – Part Nineteen (Nanowrimo 2022)
It was like a new dawn, a new heat and light that blasted through the clouds casting shadows on the ground below. It had been so long since clouds had