out of the forest

We came out of the forest one day, and everyone else was gone.

For a long time we’d hidden in the forest. Before, we’d gone outside to trade, but then we stopped. We had received a prophecy: the outside world that brought tools and death to the generations before would bring only death to us. This foreseen change was mysterious. To those who’d visited it, the outside world had always meant the risk of death.

The others lived there, surrounded by death. They moved through death easily, like a wind through the trees, not noticing it. We went there to trade for things the others made. We brought them back and cleansed them, but sometimes death clung to them anyway.

But after the prophecy, we stopped going out at all. We stayed in the forest. We thought the others might come looking for us, so we hid in the most distant places we knew. But they never came. People were born and died, born and died. At last there was no one left among us who remembered the outside world except as a story.

Then one year the rains came and didn’t stop. A flood came. No one had ever seen the like of this flood. It seemed to sweep whole mountains into the rivers and carry them away. Trees that had stood down the generations were torn from the earth and carried on the waters.

We moved to higher ground, but the waters rose after us. They chased us to the highest places we knew. We shook with cold as we waited there, but still it rained and rained. Some of us were washed away and drowned, some died of cold. The rain kept falling.

Then one day it stopped. The floodwaters began to recede, and we looked around us. And we saw that there was nothing to eat. The waters had taken everything with them. We knew we would have to leave the forest now and find the others, or we would all starve.

We were afraid to do it. None of us knew what might be outside the forest, where the others lived, or whether they would help us. We’d have to discover the way and hope the danger was past. We swallowed our fear. We had no choice. There was no food.

So we set out blindly, looking for any path we recognized. But the forest had become strange; we recognized nothing. The flood had altered all our paths, cut new channels and buried old ones. The most terrible thing was the silence. Before the flood, the forest was filled with the calls of birds, which told us where we were. Now there were no birds.

For many days we wandered in the forest. We ate leaves and roots, drank from the streams. We saw no animals. Sometimes we’d hear a rustling in the leaves and look for game, but we never found any. Only insects chirring in the trees, and once a tiny fish darting in a stream.

At last the lesser streams we followed found the true river. We carved boats from fallen trees and set off down its wide back.

But still we saw no one. We came to clearings cut out of the forest by the others, which our people had visited long before, but there was no one. We stopped to look at one of these places, but there were no houses, and no things. It was just an empty place in the forest. The forest was starting to cover it again.

It was puzzling, because we still carried knives and other tools gotten by those who had gone out before any of us were born. But now there was no sign that the others had ever been there. It was as if they’d taken every last, smallest thing with them. Or could the flood have swept it all away so completely? The silence gave us no answer.

We tried calling the spirits of the forest. The elders said the spirits used to gather at the edges of these clearings, drawn by the others, who didn’t notice them any more than they seemed to notice death. We thought maybe the spirits had eaten the others in the end. But there was no answer to our calls.

Now our fear was even greater. We wondered: if the forest was empty, was there anything left outside it?

Down the current we raced, no longer stopping at the silent clearings we saw. Slowly the river widened, the sky brightened, the trees fell back. We were coming to the edge of our world. We passed the last trees and saw the open land begin, something none of us had ever seen.

The elders still kept stories of the outside world: they said that the others crawled over it like ants in an anthill. They said there were great herds of animals on the open lands, and plantings that covered a day’s walk.

Now as we came ashore, we looked about us as far as we could. There were no others. No animals. No plantings. There was only grass and sky. We stood at the beginning of a wide red path and as far as we could see, nothing moved but the grasses in the wind.

Behind us was the forest, but it was empty. Only our dead were there. We wept, under the open sky.

In the morning we set out along the red path. The sun was fierce; the path was like a trough of hot coals. The sky over our heads was bigger than anything we’d ever seen. We covered our heads with fronds cut from the last of the forest palms. Wherever we found even a bush we’d stop to take shade. We began to look about everywhere for water. There was no water.

That night we stopped under a lone tree and made a fire. We spoke of the emptiness of the world and wondered if it would fill again. We called the name of every creature we knew that swam, crawled, walked or flew, and asked each if it would come back into the world and live with us. Then we slept, and we dreamed.

In the morning we told one another our dreams. They were the same dream. The animals were there, waiting for something, but they wouldn’t speak to us. We discussed this carefully but nothing became clear. So we ate the little food we had and drank the rest of the water. Then we set out again.

That day as we walked we saw a heron flying, her great wings beating silver against the white sky. In the evening we saw her again and left the path to follow her line of flight. We found a spring, with a stream flowing out of it. There were fruits there to eat. A few fish flashed in the stream. A few small animals rustled in the grass. We didn’t try to catch and eat them, afraid now that there might be no more. Instead, we asked them what to do.

We’ll tell you when you’re asleep, the animals whispered, sounding like the wind in the grass.

As night fell, we ate and prayed and slept.

Find the others, the animals told us as we slept. Then you will know what to do.

The next day we walked on. We saw how parts of the red path were being covered by grass, by brush, like a scar healing. We saw nothing of the others. Where are they? we wondered. Once we’d had to hide in the farthest places we knew to avoid them. Now we’d come looking for them and they were gone.

But we did as the dream animals told us and kept searching, following the unbending path under the blazing sky. And each day, some creature would appear and show us where there was water or food, when we thought we could go no farther without it.

After many days, we came to the place where the path had its end. It stopped at a lake whose far shore we couldn’t see. But on the horizon was an island, and upon it there seemed to be something half-round and shining like a rising moon. We didn’t know if it was a built place or a type of land we’d never seen before. If it was a built place, it was the only one we’d seen since we left the forest. We decided to make boats and travel to the island.

The muddy bank was covered with stiff reeds. They were like reeds that grew by streams and pools in the forest. We knew how to weave these reeds – we would make our boats with them.

For days we worked at the lake’s edge, cutting, drying, stripping, tying the reeds into bundles. We lashed the bundles together with cords made from braided grass. We made poles and oars from the fallen branches of a willow that stood on the bank. We were glad to be doing these things. We sang as we worked.

The water was the same color as the sky, and changed as it changed. One day an eagle circled far overhead.

When the boats were ready we prepared to dance. First we bathed in the cold water of the lake. Then we painted our faces and arms with mud from the bank, and paste made from charred reeds. We built a fire and gave thanks, each in turn. We remembered the forest. We told the story of the flood and how we survived it, each in turn. Then we began to dance. We weren’t in the forest anymore, so we had to sing songs we had just made up to accompany our dance.

We had no herbs to drink to make our bodies flow into the spirit world. We had nothing to offer but our songs and our dance. Come to us, we sang to the animals and spirits. Help us find the others and learn what happened to the world.

When dawn came we stopped dancing and slept.

When we woke, we washed and ate. Then we set our boats in the water and headed for the island. In the morning, the half-moon shimmered colorfully like falling water in the sun. We rowed for a long time before it began to look any larger. As we approached, we wondered if the others were there, and what they would do when they saw us. Perhaps they would kill us. But we couldn’t turn back.

We reached the island. As we beached our boats and climbed up a rocky slope from the shore, we began to feel strange. The island was humming, very low, like a hive of bees. There was nothing on the island but the half-moon, which shone oddly, not like a built thing but like a difference in air. We began to suspect that the moon, the island, and perhaps even the great lake across which we’d traveled were all built places. We came up to the shimmering moon and stood there wondering.

As we wondered, a raven flashed darkly across the sky above our heads. It flew straight at one side of the moon and disappeared. Before we could even puzzle at this, the raven appeared on the other side as if it had never vanished, as if there were nothing in between but air. We wondered, and then we understood. We approached the line of light that marked the edge of the moon, and passed through it as if it were a spider’s web, feeling only a change of air upon our skin. Then we saw the others.

The others were there, but they were not as we’d been told, moving about, covering the ground like ants. These others were few, and they stood still. Each one faced a space of air that seemed to dance with light before it. As we watched, we saw that sometimes one would shudder, and the dance before it would change. A faint noise came from the air in that space, as if sounds were being made that only that one could hear.

We came closer, and saw that the others were covered in shining filaments touching them at many points. But the bodies we glimpsed under the shining threads were wasted and strange, like the carcasses of long dead animals. None stood close to any other; none seemed aware of any other. We didn’t exist for them; their sunken eyes followed only the light that danced in the air before them.

We stood a long time watching. We tried to make sense of what they saw, but to us it was only shapes and figures flashing in the air. Once in a while we thought we saw something from the world we knew: a tree, bird, or animal from the forest, before the flood. It would dance in the air for an instant—then it was gone.

We saw no food, nothing we could use. We saw no way to make the others understand or even recognize us. They had become a different thing.

We passed through the wall of air again and stood outside the moon. Back across the still waters was the world—forest, river and plains, insects, fish and birds. The animals who had whispered to us were there. We would go and find them. Everywhere the world was filling in its empty places and covering its scars again. And these others we’d found had no need for the world. They were finished with it. It was ours now: earth, waters, sky – all.

Then we thought again, and saw it a different way. We thought perhaps that while we waited inside the forest, the others had fought the world to the death – and the world had won.