The darkness never ended. I’d tripped and fallen, pitching forwards into space. Still surrounded by the hallucinatory patina of roots and stars, I fell forever.
The fall plunged me back into the dreams and memories I’d been besieged with while being rehabilitated by the allforest: a perplexing melange of images in which I recognised myself, but struggled to associate with as my memories. I remember being wrapped in Aer’s arms, all thoughts of Rumala belonging to different lifetime – one in which he and I had never chased each other up trees and into mountain streams. A perfect time, his warm chest beneath my ear and cheek. Utterly safe, utterly secure. Whole days spent tracing the bone structure of his face, turning it into deep muscle memory that even in waking I could sketch him with my fingers. There was an extraordinary sense of connection… one that blurs and blends, soft and subtle, face and scent transformed into Eleran… another lazy sunny day, half-covered and ill-concealed by blankets in the attic no one else realised our chalet had, listening to our circle demanding to know where we were, stifling our laughter with kisses… Tesh, Maina and I, ecstatic, splayed by the shore, absorbing the fullness of the moons while the trees creak and rattle in worship of the energy they’re receiving, then fleeing, giggling and shocked to freezing when surprised by rain. Each drop an icy slap, hastening us home. Hands stretched out across the kitchen table, all of us, fingers touching, remembering our time, before shettling. Drunk, dancing outrageously on the veranda, falling through the wooden railings. Picking splinters out of Tereis’s arm while he shouts his own name in triumph. Eleran looking down at me in disgust when I say that I’m leaving, an immense wave of regret and sorrow barricaded in my chest. Watching Maina go to bed with Miqual… a vast sense of loss and wasted opportunity, juvenile ambition crushed, left bleeding on the edge of the lake… Eleran fished out of the cold water, barely breathing, as we panicked around her.
So many memories, so many lives, all pressing down on me. I was lost, unrooted from the existence I thought I had, flailing and reaching for an anchor – anything to give me a moment’s grace. A handhold to halt my descent, prevent me from plummeting headfirst into an abyss of lost chances and absent love. As my arms flailed, fingers and feet splayed for any kind of grip in the darkness, I cracked my head against some invisible enemy or other – a jutting rock, a spar of wood buttressing the mine – blood filled the void, its coppery taste in my mouth flavouring my dive into the past. Brain rattled, tumbling further.
Very, very carefully I unseal the pressurised container. Its sides unfold, like a carriage case. Shelves and compartments are revealed, lined with fine glass tubes, sealable jars and delicate silvered instruments, gleaming wicked sharp in the moonlight. At the box’s heart, a tiny seedling. Its leaves unfurl in the moonlight, showing themselves a rich red, while its green leaves turn away, wrapping under the thin young branches – barely twigs – they shiver in the buttery light. I tenderly pluck the seedling, in its plastic pot from the case, and hold it up to the moons. It is an act of worship, of reverence – an offering even. A promise, to the tiny tree, of the rewards it can claim. I am purposeful, and sure. In my heart glows an ember of pride, fanned by the tree’s leaves as they embrace their new world – I have given it everything it needs. All of my care and attention are rewarded. This is the culmination of so many years of work. My hands are trembling as I gently hold the tree by its nascent trunk and pull the pot free. Its roots writhe in the night air, anxious at the sudden expansion of their realm – they taste the air, and the light. They try to wrap around my wrist, but I whisper to it that it’s not yet time, and pry them loose with a fine spatula. At arms’ length I lower the seedling into the hole I’ve prepared for it. Just deep enough to enclose its root system and the plug of earth its grown in – a drop into an ocean.
I pat down the native soil around the little trunk of my tree, my fingerprints impressed onto the damp soil. By my hand shall it thrive. Already the tree is twisting up towards the moonlight, bending its trunk to offer its branches and leaves to the best advantage. It will live, it will succeed. I stand back, making sure I cast no shadow over the baby tree. A few steps backwards take me to the edge of the land I’ve cleared, giving me full view of the dozens of like seedlings I’ve planted. Behind me is a stack of containers, all now empty. Satisfied with a job well done, I brush the earth from my hands, and sit on the ground, cross legged, to watch them feed on the moonlight.
A crushing thud rattled my whole body. Complete silence claimed me for a moment, then quickly matched my blindness with a rising whistle that lived only in my head. Cautiously I tested my arms and legs. I was bruised, for sure, but nothing felt broken. Other than any sense of pride I ought have had, of course. I’d managed to freak out in a mine and in my panic, had fallen down a mineshaft. As a day, it couldn’t have gone much worse. It was a miracle I hadn’t broken a leg – or my neck – in the fall. Everything ached, but that pain was a helpful reminder that it was all still properly attached and working, reluctantly. For a moment I wasn’t sure whether my eyes were open – only by gingerly touching my fingertips to my eyelids could I be certain that they were. It was no longer utterly black. In front of me – in whatever direction that was – a pale violet glow gave me the shape of rocks, the very edges of the walls of this shaft and a purple luminance that tapered off in the distance – the perspective revealing a corridor I could follow. When I looked up, I saw nothing. The glowing walls didn’t extend upwards, and I couldn’t see the slash of torchlight I’d hoped for from Grellan.
I cleared my throat and called Grellan’s name. It echoed for a while, before being consumed by the slick earth walls around me. Nothing returned, save my own voice, muddied. I could feel the walls of the mineshaft I’d slipped down. They were severe, and I couldn’t see them, which made them doubly unappealing. I saw little reason to double the risk to life and limb by scrambling back up it. I had two choices. Wait, and hope for rescue. Or pursue this strange violet path before me. The first was, undoubtedly, the sensible choice. My newfound companions had proven resourceful, and determined. They had already rescued me at least twice. And yet. They weren’t my circle. I knew I couldn’t have them back. I hadn’t yet found a way to resolve the upwelling guilt that I had considered leaving them before the End. That I hadn’t left them, and yet had survived them…
That was something too awful for me to really deal with. But down here, in this hole I’d fallen into, no one else would know if I cried. So I did. Since clawing my way out of the earth, torn from the forest, torn from sleep, thrown into a race I didn’t understand against strangers I’d never heard of, with people I only dimly knew and now chased back into the oppressive darkness I’d barely escaped from, I hadn’t had the time to live with my feelings. I took the opportunity to rage, to rake the mud and spit bitter tears of loss and abandonment, of exile and my horror at being lost in time and lives. We all need to indulge ourselves sometimes. And though I had no one to wipe the tears from my face, to take me in their arms, and murmur meaningless hope and comfort, I was freed. As the last shaking breath left me, as I streaked mud down my face in scrubbing away the tears, I felt a fresh calm come over me.
I was grateful that someone had come for me, in the allforest. But gratitude doesn’t mean I was indebted to them. They seemed like good men, but already their accounts of how they found me, and their scant details of the strangers had pricked my suspicions. Not that I thought them villains, but I’d found Grellan was edging into threatening, and it did not yet make sense to me. How could anyone monitor the forbidden region of the allforest for sixty-four years? The audaciousness of such a project seemed just too great. While I’d missed the fallout of the End, I found I simply could not believe in it. An enemy we had no knowledge of? Strangers… The destruction of the allforest was the destruction of a way of life. Our culture had long been founded upon the principles of shettling: cleansing and rebirth, of free exploration and companionship. I found it hard to believe that anyone would oppose that. People had stayed outside of it; the mothers and fathers, who supported those in it, and who would take advantage of the alltrees’ rejuvenative properties, and shettle when they were moved to do so. Even if our society had begun to drift away from our traditional practices… Who could be our enemy? More than that, the archivists had displayed a possessiveness that disturbed me. Those who could lay claim to me were all gone – long in the past now. But those were the only men and women who had a right to my heart and body; and Relyan, I had to concede.
My circle had grown by one in the time I’d been away from home. Perhaps I wasn’t as alone as I thought. Brisingham, from what Grellan and the others had told me, was largely intact. Relyan could easily still be there. Perhaps still living in the house next door to mine. I wondered if the photograph of us together under that alltree was still sitting on the table beside my bed. No one who emerged from shettling would have taken that house, and unless someone else had moved into the city, it might still lie empty, but for that photograph – a testament to a couple now thrown out of the natural order. I didn’t know if she would even want to see me. She took the letter with her, and until now I’d not thought of what it might contain. A declaration of love? An ultimatum? I discovered that I wanted to know. Hands clasped together, I could feel the whorled weals of reddened skin around my hands, and I wondered if she would be able to bear the sight of me. I’d only seen myself in the windows of the auto, the clarity of the reflection improving as day turned to night, until I was a black and white spectre in the glass. I was as yet unused to my new appearance. I felt as I’d done before the shettling, smooth skinned and dark haired, but now all of that was gone. While we always hope people will be able to see past our external appearance, we’re constantly judging others by their faces. I didn’t know if I could blame someone else for making that same judgment. I wasn’t sure I could face Relyan and be rejected, even though the last time I saw her, I was the one doing the rejecting. The leaves turn, as they say.
I couldn’t get back up the mineshaft. I had no indication that rescue was imminent. I didn’t really want to be saved again. It was time for me to take some control of myself, in my newfound world, whatever it truly was. Despite that, only one avenue presented itself, limned in violent: the horizontal mineshaft in front of me. I chose to accept my only choice, and walked on.