Miqual took our automotive off the main road, within moments we were hidden under the allforest canopy. Waves of dappled green light washed over us – the last of the sun’s efforts to penetrate their leaves, before the lunar eclipse took over. The road faded away into being the space between the trees. The alltrees’ peculiar aggression led to their being widely spaced, though the joined up root networks sometimes protruded above the ground. Before long we had to park up and leave the automotives behind. They’d be claimed and collected by a department of the archive, if procedure was followed in full. More likely mothers and fathers would pick up a second vehicle out of those abandoned under the trees, and they would cart off any fresh shettles to their new life.
We had left everything we owned at the archive, barring the clothes on our backs. It was a curiously purifying sense that the only things which truly mattered to us were the people around us. Which made it all the worse that I felt uncertain about what I wanted. I was still avoiding Miqual, and had slunk to the back of our group, trailing with Eleran, who simply walked slowly if she wasn’t running. At other times her pace had annoyed me intensely, but now it was exactly what I needed. We ambled along, not speaking much, but taking in the forest around us.
This area was one in which study and research were not permitted, an ancient (for the allforest) region of densely interconnected trees, whose degree of unification into a single organism had enabled it to develop abilities beyond those we usually saw. While it had become common in outlying settlements to tap into the power supply of the alltrees – those of a sufficient age and size, not the juveniles, who would respond violently, and sometimes fatally – our culture had discovered that far greater secrets could be unlocked. For generations our people had been buried in the earth beneath the trees, where their roots would quest for further nutrients, and find them in our bodies. Their energy needs were delivered by our sun and moons, but in their advanced, conjoined form they needed something else, and they took it from us: memory, experience, emotion. We would remain in the earth, fed and cared for by the trees while they extracted our memories of people, our actions, and our feelings. This was the shettling, the process of our lives being turned over and started again, and to a degree, physically rejuvenated by the allforest. Once released from the alltree we would be cleansed of our errors and failures, free to begin again, to love anew, to rediscover the world and relish it. How the allforest distinguished between personal and practical memories was unknown, for I would retain my scientific knowledge of the forest, how to drive and dress myself, but all trace of how I’d come to acquire them would be gone.
Culturally, we ignored the date, the actual passing of time. A huge chunk of our social norm was spent in ignoring the fact that a good proportion of our population would reset their lives every few decades. And though they remained productive members of society, at least they did after spending a few years rediscovering themselves, it was increasingly difficult to ignore the incredible privilege we’d be granted, in being allowed to escape the natural run of the world. The notion that this was a given, and a normal part of my – our lives – had been emphasised early in my own emergence from the shettle; relatively naïve, though retaining the many facts and knowledge of my earlier shettles, it was clear to me that this was how we lived: rebooting our relationships and exploring the world from a fresh start. With enough repetition, we can come to believe anything.
Ahead of us, the rest of our circle were merging into a small crowd of others, here for shettling. They had come into the allforest from all directions. Mixed into the group were couples, or trios who walked somewhat apart from the rest of us. They still soaked in the same celebratory atmosphere, yet remained distinct. They appeared fractionally older than we shettles. They would be the parents to those about to be unearthed. They are what Miqual and the others had revered during our mental adolescence: parents, willing to collect a fresh crop of amnesiac youths, and set us on course for our circle. Our renewed youth required guardians, to champion the growth of our social existence, to find the route between our practical recollections and the raw interactions with our peers. Typically, these we people who had fallen out of their cycle of rebirth, their circles broken and found themselves left behind, alone, and yet recalling their own growth, felt bound to promote another’s. I wondered if that might be the position I should find myself in. Compassionate toward those undergoing shettling, yet no longer able to participate. Was that the road I was on myself? Pulled out of the circle, doubtful, yet committed to prolonging the experience for those who still desired it.
And yet… the archive had been empty, save for our small group, and even now our numbers had merely quadrupled. So few to return to the earth. Was our choice the norm any more, or had we become stuck in an unproductive cycle of activity? Where was my choice? Had I made it , or had Aer and Rumula decided to end it all, dragging myself and the others along with them… How to distinguish between a social good and a personal good?
I was haunted by these thoughts as we hiked deeper into the allforest. Above the canopy the moons slowly rose, in tandem, Talens’ light blasting through Calia’s – she focused it like a lens, blasting ther combined light into the greedy secondary leaves of the alltrees. Their fierce golden light battered through the gaps between the leaves, striking us in turn golden, silver, and black silhouettes. The raw power being funnelled by the trees’ fleshy extremities made the earth itself hum beneath our feet. And this was merely moonrise, far from its apex. It was an enlivening sensation. Sparks crackled between my palms and Eleran’s, as we walked, hand in hand beneath the branches. All the shettles were affected. Static electricity strobed over their bodies, dispersing into the tree trunks around us, fizzling out after ringing our bodies and crackled hoops and discharging into the soil, there to stimulate the roots.
The whole forest felt alive, beyond the simple fact of existence, I felt that we were at the heart of a vibrant mystery, inducted into a sacred order, with rituals incomprehensible to those not captured in the web of energy hanging between the trees in the allforest. I had never felt so alive, and yet so close to death, or at least dispersal into the vast energies of the universe – my matter was prepared to dissolve and seek a new form in the heart of a star, or the frailest capillary of a leaf, and everything in between. The strobing of light down through the leaves was hypnotic, those fat meaty leaves splashing us with the stuff of existence.
We arrived in a clearing, densely ringed with alltrees, at a proximity between the trunks unikely according to my studies. These must be truly ancient trees, that had either tolerated each other’s grasping at the sky, or through competition dragged themselves, root by root to this formidable temple of the allforest. We gathered, staring at the intricate intermingling of the alltrees’ vines, branches and roots: a cathedral carved of a single living thing. Our future parents stopped at the periphery of this holy dell, and we, the shettles, proceeded into its heart.
The ground sloped down, into a shallow bowl formed between six alltrees. Their roots stood guard in bone-like ridges, an inverted ribcage awaiting a heart. Into that depression we shettles walked. My doubts, my fears were overridden by the intensity of the place; I was scarcely able to form a word in my mind, let alone a cogent objection. Miqual and the others gathered at the rim of the crater. They held hands, the bright light of the moons casting stark shadows behing them, from which low-lying branches recoiled, intent on their fair share of lunar power.
The moons were steadily reaching their apex, Talens blasting his light through Calia, whose crystalline structure magnified it. The forest was on fire around us, each leaf and twig outlined in a harsh metallic whiteness. Had I touched a leaf, my fingers would have burned. This was the very limit of their adaptive powers, this night, twice a year. My own studies had shown that during the two nights of aviposis (as we researchers prefer to name the occasion), the allforest would convert up to a hundred times the light into sugars of an average day of sunlight. And along with that, they would be primed for a special and intricate ceremony.
Aer began the chanting. Within a verse it had been taken up by the thirty or so individuals standing in that basin. As the moons reached their zenith, the ground at the centre of our ring began to shake. The trees roots were unearthing themselves, pulling up clods of earth. Their roots retracted like an anchor, rattling from the deep sea into a ship’s hull. And with them came human forms. Along with Miqual and the others, I dived forward to help pluck our cousins from the earth. They were confused, mud-spattered, and profoundly childlike. Each one with tugged free from the ground, and they came out choking, blackened and grateful. We passed them back to the mothers and fathers waiting at the edge of the crater, who unveiled blankets to wrap the shettlers in. Their soft weeping, and gasping for air filled my ears.
And then it was our turn. The ground roiled once more, roots splaying out of the ground, leaving sarcophagi carved from soil behind, those roots poised over the holes, ready to entrap and enclose. Miqual turned around to catch each one of our eyes. Rumala and Aer were the first to descend. They did so with joy, discarding their clothes as the went, until their naked feet pressed into the dirt, and they nestled down inside the excavated mud coffins. Tesh and Tereis went next, holding hands and kissing deeply, with tears on their cheeks as they too settled into the earth. The roots began to close over my friends, drawing them deeper into the mud below the trees. Miqual and Maina went next, curling down face to face in the dark, dark soil. That left just Eleran and I. The other circles had already descended into the earth, eager, with smiles on their faces.
“I don’t know that I’m ready to do this,” I said to Eleran, her hand tight in mine.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” she said, gently pulling me by the hand, back into the circle.
But then everything changed. There was a flicker in the buttery golden light, cast by our twin moons. I looked up, this place permitted the light of the moons to enter, and so I caught a glimpse of both our starless heavens, and the twin, double-sized moon. There was another flicker, some pulse of light passed from Talens to Calia, and then a vast sonic explosion struck my ears. They instantly ran red with blood, my eardrums ruptured. Eleran fell down the slight incline, similarly bleeding. I fell to my knee, staring at the sky. An especially bright point appeared in the heart of Calia, intensifying to a near-purple glow, before bursting out of the smaller moon. That intense light struck the trees around us, instantly igniting their fleshy leaves and branches. It persisted, I was surrounded by a ring of flaming alltrees. I just noted the mothers and father around the edge of the basin burst into flame, before the roots of the allforest themselves caught light. At the heart of the basin, my beloved circle were slowly sinking beneath the ground, drawn down by the alltrees. But too slow: the intense light hammering through Calia ignited the thick network of roots that bound my companions. Flame danced along them, touched my friends and they were suddenly immolated, burning along the trees on the other side of the clearing, their vines and branches flailing, even as they blackened.
A further string of sonic booms attacked my ears and I fell forwards. Something arrested my fall, coiling around my legs and hips. I looked to the sky once more, to see the impossible: Calia fractured, her heart exposed, and the a spiderweb of cracks spreading across her distant surface. Talens glowed through the shattered canyons, as Calia began to fragment. After this I remember nothing, save for that tight presence around my hips squeezing further and dragging me down, into the earth.