The transition from the void of unconsciousness to awareness was slow, a string of sensations that gradually accumulated, physical processes steadily kicking into action; my heartbeat intruded upon the veins and arteries, awakening as the blood flowed. As breath was drawn, shakily at first, but with increasing confidence, collected by my blood, re-oxygenating the industries that maintain my frail physical flesh. As each organ, each nerve reconnected and established its little nation state, they federated, grew stronger and larger, each dependent on the other. And finally, consciousness could supervene on the layers of meat, sparkling electricity and chemistry which build the platform for our minds. While that train of activity was slow, the final step of awareness was sharply and suddenly achieved; a burst of sound, cold and the thick tang of the earth signalled my return to the existence.
Newly aware of breathing I relished the sensation, lungs that inflated and deflated with ease, each breath stretching those membranes and bronchioles to their fullest. Even the musty air was a sweet relief from the last they remembered – starving and strained to their limits. Though awareness of my physical presence returned, any sense of place, time and history remained blissfully absent. I was able to experience each sense as they checked in. The cold sent streams of goosebumps up my arms, down my body and legs. A glorious effervescence of feeling. I heard little but a faint scratching, nothing more than my own heartbeat and breathing beyond that. I was held by a hammock, each cord distinct to my horripilated flesh, wrapping all around me, and, I dimly registered, through me. Those cords threaded through my body just as my own veins and sinews did, holding me in place, rigid, if comfortable. It was the muscular pulses of those cords that had awakened feeling in the rest of me.
At last, I opened my eyes. At first I thought I must be in darkness, but faintly I made out a glow, emanating from all around me, a blue verging on black, which intensified as I noticed it. A web of fine strings depended from the ceiling just above my face, wrapping me in this cocoon that penetrated my skin. I could barely move, but I was able to turn my face and get a brief glimpse of dark shapes suspended from the roof around me, seemingly enveloped as I was. And then those fine wires began to pull.
Before me a ripple ran across the roof, and it folded inwards and upwards. I vaguely recognised that the net that held me was of roots, tipped off by the scent of the earth, and almost grasped my place. And then it was abruptly taken from me. I was pulled into the unfolding roof, a dense network of roots gently drawing me up into darkness. The earth continued to collapse before me, folded away by the roots which bore me up. I felt no fear – as yet I could perceive my body and was slowly interpreting what I saw and felt – but I could not apply context. When I saw the dark it connected to nothing inside me, no memories, no thoughts – a simple apprehending of darkness. So the surprise as I was pushed through a final, soft topsoil was relegated to noting a lack of pressure on my body. I was gently laid upon the surface.
When the roots retracted from my body, they took with them the curious lassitude in my thoughts; the dissociative separation of body and mind disappeared as they pulled free from my pores, leaving me naked and alone. I shivered in the cold night air, the earth cool and damp beneath me. I began to analyse, and to recognise myself in relation to my environment. Dark. Night. But how…? I lay in a shallow depression – a faint crater sketched up around me that I could just about see in the dark blue grey light. Details fell into place – the period after sunset, before moonrise. I lay on the ground, the dark shadows of a tree rising above me, its comforting shape distinct as an alltree, though it seemed less… complete than the form I held in my memory.
I continued to lie there, shivering. No particular will or desire entered my mind. I was content to simply be, to experience the world as it presented itself to me. I’d been delivered up into this dark new place and I would await a cue, a direction, a need before I would move from this spot. I soon received the trigger I was waiting for. Light spread slowly across the sky, as Calia – a word that seared itself against my mind even as my eyes funnelled data to it – our beautiful first moon rose. But there was something terribly wrong with her. She was not her familiar disc of golden light, but a shattered scatter of irregular shapes, drifting across the night sky. The light came not from her, but from the round shape of Talens who followed, brilliantly illuminating those lunar chunks that passed across his surface. Calia was just a smear of rubble across the sky, intermittently glowing with her brother’s light.
Its deep wrongness agitated something deep in me and I was able to move at last. I gathered myself into a huddle, unable to take my eyes off the appalling celestial sight of the orphaned twin, Talens. Then I realised what was wrong with the silhouettes ringing my view of the sky. The alltrees, those wondrous, voracious and luxuriant sprawls were just shadows of their former selves. The branches were twisted, denuded of leaves, torn and cracked. The mostly intact alltree that loomed over me was alone, its neighbours were stumps and broken trunks. As I tried to stand I stumbled, sprawling into a tangle of branches and hard, rough shapes which gleamed white and yellow in the diminished light of the moons. I jerked upright, away from the instantly recognisable form of a human skull, cracked and blackened, staring at me.
Upright, in the centre of wide crater, ringed by a ruined forest I wrapped my arms around myself, shaking with the cold, absorbing what warmth I could from our fractured moon. And it all came back to me. I’d been reborn, healed and rejuvenated by the allforest – and now returned to the world to live again. But where were my circle? Where were the mothers and fathers to collect us, bundle us in blankets and carry us off, piled higgledy-piggledy in the back of an auto, to take us into our new life together? Of a sudden, I knew they weren’t coming. A vision of the forest on fire, my brothers and sisters struck down, and the awful remembrance of flames burning away my skin. I shouldn’t have been able to remember that – it should have been taken away by the allforest. I – I was still myself. An appalling notion. Where was my rebirth? How could I begin again, grow anew if I held all of my former life in me? And my circle… all gone, all lost, all horribly murdered. I was alone, truly alone.
The forest felt dead, or something so awfully close to dead that it might as well have been the same. The roots that had borne my upwards lay motionless on the ground around me, splayed like a vast, many-fingered hand reaching out in supplication. I could offer them no absolution. My world was in chaos – one life had ended, and yet continued. The allforest had taken me just in time, and now returned me. But for what? This silent forest, deprived of the sound of its leaves straining for the moonlight, was more horrifying than anything.
I could hardly conceive of myself apart from my circle, and my last memories of them reduced me to choking tears. I flailed in the dry mud, taking fistfuls of the roots in my hands, trying to wrap them around me. I begged them to take me back, to draw me under and purge me of this nightmare, either return me fresh and empty, or take me forever. There was nothing here – no allforest, no Maina, no Eleran. I’d seen Miqual and the others burst into flame, even as their shettling cocoons tightened about them. Whose skull was it I’d almost fallen into? Was it Tesh, with his wicked smile, or Tereis, with his beautiful green eyes, now boiled from their sockets… How could I be alone? The roots were still, and dry. Whatever moisture had once been in them was gone, they cracked and snapped in my hands, their once-fine bristling tips fell to powder. The alltree had given its last in returning me to this scorched and terrible world. While it seemed a terrible to reject the life I’d been given, I wanted nothing more than to disappear forever.
I don’t know how long I lay there, in a stunned grief. The tears ceased after a while, my body exhausted from its weeping; the tremors that wracked me subsided. I must have fallen asleep. When I woke, Talens had chased much of the debris of Calia across the sky, though I could see that a thin band of detritus persisted – perhaps a thin ring of our first moon now stretched all around the world, and even in the sunlight I’d be able to see some trace of her. Dawn was fast approaching, though I had no desire to know what kind of world it would reveal. The broken moonlight had offered but a fraction of its former glory. Without the refracting lens of Calia, Talens was lessened, and between them they had barely lit the seared grove I’d emerged from. The promise of day affected me: I had no choice but to live. The allforest had saved me. I had been returned to life. There must be something I could do with it. I wasn’t yet ready to consider what else might have befallen the land before the earth swallowed me; if I had, perhaps I would have just lain down again and waited to die.
My legs were shaky, but they held me as I staggered away from the shallow depression I’d sunk into. As I passed between the blackened, wrecked stumps of alltrees, I was shocked by the sound of a voice. Still confused, and numb from cold and grief, I let myself be enveloped in softness. A blanket had been thrown around me, and I was pulled tight against a warm body. Pathetically, I was moved once more to a flood of tears. Further voices called quietly around me, and I was hustled, now between two people, their arms around my shoulders, speeding me on and hoisting me up when I fell. I heard the sound of an automotive door opening, a noise somehow distinctive enough to penetrate the exhaustion which came over me – a relief perhaps in being saved, which somehow rid me of all sense of responsibility. I gave myself willingly over to these strangers; I had no clue what else I should have done otherwise. Any independence or desire I’d once had were gone, burned away with my circle.
I was pushed up into the boot – I fell into it, and my legs were boosted up behind me until I was in. It was a flat, warm space where I could curl up, and did so without prompting. Warm bodies pressed in around me; the automotive sank on its suspension. The door closed, another opened, and closed again. There was a murmur of conversation I failed to interpret. An arm rested over my back, a gentle hand ran over my hair. And I faded away again, into sweet, empty sleep.