~ a short story
Tristán led their contingent through the thickening wood. The yawning layers of leaf and thresh compelled them into a tighter knit. Dead crunches underfoot resounded the near area as they inevitably fanned out again into smaller groups. The night sky bore down, from far above a canopy that already stretched high and away, beyond them and their inane conversations, lives.
“You guys know this forest is haunted?” said Tristán with a backward look and a slow smile. He wore a green turtleneck and a black beret, spritely placed upon his head and mismatched against his sandy blonde hair. His eyes were like a hawk’s; his steps sure of their place over the twisting landscape. The pair just behind him shook their heads.
“No,” mentioned Severino, glancing furtively to the surrounding greenery.
“Of course,” said Thorvald, his eyes rolling. He spoke with supposition and not with knowledge. He’d heard of no such thing. But judging from everything Tristán had said and done leading up to this, there was no surprise at the words.
The sound of running water from a nearby river, which had invaded the silence of the forest for the last half mile, was suddenly muted and absent. This scored their attention closely to the words of their guide. He walked with eyes ahead, scouting their traversal. But his words were to those behind him, these two and any others in the other groups who might hear nearby. They had not come on this trip to hear the guide’s stories, just his warnings, recommendations. His guiding and pathing through the wilderness, which had been invaluable leading up to this moment, was their primary focus. But they listened nevertheless. For now, there was nothing else to do.
“In the olden days, they called it “The Emerald Cathedral”-”
“Why?” interrupted Severino, whose eyes remained on the shades of distant treelines, his unsteady tone already revealing fear. Overpacked and overlayered for this journey, Sev sweated profusely under his jackets and packs.
“Because,” Tristán smiled with patience, “it is here that the spirits from under the earth gather to worship. It’s ornate, natural beauty is matched only by the long tradition of immortal power that has run through its passages.”
“Poetic. What does that even mean?” panned Thorvald. Short-sleeved and moving easily beside his tweaking walkabout partner, Thor’s bald head shone in the fading moonlight, where he harried it with scratches borne of a lifelong tic.
“It means that the forest is just like our own cathedrals. We build them to venerate life beyond life. And we build them to be beautiful, powerful,” said Tristán.
Thorvald nodded as he surveyed the grand scape of forest about him, crowded with the magnificence of trees, the sigils of a beauteous nature.
“And, as everyone knows, it means that it — this forest — is haunted.”
“You already said that,” Thorvald interjected.
“But have you really ascertained what that means? Perhaps you don’t really need to. For can’t you feel it?” Tristán ventured, his eyes glaring back at the trailing duo and the troupe of walkers just behind. Thor narrowed his eyes while Sev shifted his head on a swivel, looking yet again for something within the thresh around them.
“It means that we are not alone here,” Tristán continued. “These grounds you step over are inhabited. By the spirits from the afterworlds.”
“Worlds?” intoned Severino, surprised at the conjecture of there being more than ‘world’ for the afterlife. He did not believe in any one world himself. But the prospect of many chilled his heart for reasons that he could not currently crack. The forest floor darkened then, even from the moon’s light, as clouds covered their passage.
“Yes, there are many. And all their potential inhabitants, going to and fro, rest here,” Tristán explained succinctly. The man sounded distracted for a moment as he picked up a tall walking stick from the forest floor and brushed it off. The silence of the surroundings, a forest floor of scattered and frayed wood and leaf came as a continuous surprise. No insects, or night beasts, small or large, howled their songs into this void. There was only the voice of Tristán. And the steady cadence of their collective breaths. Not even the spirits that he spoke of could be heard.
Could they be felt? Sev wondered, the hairs on his arms and on his head sticking up then, perhaps to try to reach out to their flowing, invisible presence about them.
“‘Here’. What do you mean by that? This forest, this country? Where we step even now?” Thorvald questioned.
“All of the above,” Tristán returned, walking onward, leveraging each step with the recovered stick. The troupe behind him slowed, struggling with the heavy-set roots now marking their path. He spoke up to the canopy, with only a half-hearted understanding of Thor’s sentiment.
“Here of all places, yes. Why would our world’s dead and going gather here, in this forest, in this country? Are they gathering among us even now?” he asked with a fading voice, eyes taking in starlight.
Thorvald and Severino awaited an answer to his rhetorical question. Tristán only shrugged after a moment and picked up the pace. Thorvald always thought it a bit contradictory that ‘spirits’ and ghosts would ever *go* to a place at all, that their new ethereal existence would require them to gather anywhere, materially. Ghosts don’t occupy space; the spirit world is not like the one we know… But he kept the doubts to himself. Severino felt the chill of their passage through his bones. The further he looked out into the darkness beyond those nearest trunks, the more he could make out the shifting dance of those that the guide had named as travelers from under the earth.
“You said in the ‘olden days’, when exactly was that?” Severino asked not longer after.
“Ah, many decades, many centuries ago.”
“What changed?” Thorvald followed.
“People forgot,” Tristán said, a creeping sadness coming into his voice.
“Forgot?” Severino repeated weakly.
“About the haunt, the spirits, the worlds. The forest itself.”
“The forest itself?” Severino asked, his confusion increasing.
Thorvald, who was growing increasingly annoyed at the guide’s gaudy crypticism and its spoiling nature upon the serenity of their night hike, snarked, “And why do you remember?”
“Because…” Tristán turned back to them with an unfathomable and turbulent look upon his face, his voice rising but just to them, their hearts booming suddenly in their chests, silent screams rising from the earth about them like fires from the underworld.
“I am your guide.”
“This is the last leg of the journey, then?” asked Roderick.
Ryōta nodded, walking with her hands firmly on the straps of her backpack, her face open and smile fresh, pleasant. “It is. The last component piece of my life’s work.”
Cecílie shook her head with secondhand pride. From everything she’d heard Ryōta espouse, it was quite a journey indeed. Against her habit, she decided to vocalize it here, “You should be proud of yourself, girl.”
“Oh, I am. At least, I try to be. For the both of us,” Ryōta stated, referring to her late wife, who died only a few years before in the midst of their work together. Mapping the southron biomes in their entirety. The whole project had begun as their joint thesis, and then went far beyond that, as they grew in fame on the internet through their streaming channel and companion blog. As they fell in love and became married, partners at work and in life. The journey had become their life together. And from everything Roderick had heard her say, and the way she said it, the lovely pair had never been closer than when they were on this venture.
The trio all smiled in the silence, thinking of those they’d known, loved, lost. Each had their fair share. The memories, painful as they might be to revisit then, in the midst of a walk amongst semi-strangers, were warm and pleasant. For now, those gone were returned, memories re-lived, souls re-loved.
“I must say, however, there is some small regret within me that Buu did not get to see this place,” Ryōta said as she scanned the shaded canopy. “This might be the most majestic forest of all.”
The others took in the same sight, basking in the spectral gallery of their surroundings. Though they’d come here for vastly different reasons, their appreciation of the scape was dawning to a singularity. Their unspoken language for beauty was identical now.
“I swear, I could write a book about it,” said Adeline with sweetness in her voice.
“Why don’t you?” asked Gil, an insufferable interest in his voice. Sofie eyed him from behind with suspicion. So much talking, all about her. So many questions, all unto her…
“Well, that’s not what I meant. Insofar that I really want to write a book about all this,” explained Adeline. “That’s not my medium. But it’s also-”
“Not everyone is a writer, Gil,” Sofie interjected, with more venom than she intended. Gil glanced back to her and her flowing black hair. He fidgeted with the satchel strapped around his waist. He turned back to Adeline, as ever.
“It’s not just the fact that I’m not a writer. I really couldn’t imagine it,” Adeline said playfully, to Gil with half-hearted grin. “Impressive as this place is.”
Gil nearly stumbled and fell flat on his face, a root catching the toe of his crimson sneakers. He gathered himself. Adeline helped him; Gil’s blushing only became more intense. They walked side by side now. Sofie worked to catch up to them, but stayed firmly behind, where she could emote in peace. A fury captured her, one she’d held in check she was a girl. She breathed it away, scowl on her unseen features.
“There is just something about traveling,” Adeline continued. She stared at the forest floor, and together alongside Gil they looked at the trees together, the whole forest beckoning its beautiful expanse before them.
“This wanderlust that has always been so much a part of me,” Adeline said. “It has drawn me to places, to sights and sounds… And experiences. That I think … I believe cannot truly be captured by the written word.”
Adeline turned to stare Gil, whose expression was blank and in awe. Has he heard anything she has said? Sophie wondered with annoyance. I am cursed, here to hear everything…
“So when you say ‘you could write a book about it’, what you really mean is that you’ve … had a lot of experiences,” Gil reasoned. “A lot of accumulated material for such a thing…” His eyes fluttered, voice crackled. “But that a book would not – could not – do it justice.”
Adeline nodded. Sophie sighed and looked into the distance directly behind them. A single traveler, the final one within their troupe trailed the others. She wondered about him. Who he was. What had brought him here. She’d heard just about enough of the traveler and the writer. She wanted something new. Something different…
When she looked ahead again, seeing that the others had left her in their dust, already moved far up on the trail, she hurried to join them without a thought, the instinctive fears of being left away from the core striking at her without mercy.
What beauty. Grand majesty of Mother Nature borne before us without a light to showcase herself, without any heed to our returning visions. What raw and terrifying beauty.
Joel had always believed what is beautiful points us far beyond it, to what is true. And Joel believed wholeheartedly that what is true is good, no matter to its context or costs. Even to life. Thoughts of the forest’s dangerous prowess came to him as he trailed the group, increasingly out of a thrill-seeking compulsion that he could not fully ascertain the source of. He’d never been much of a risk-taker before. Why now?
“Race ya to the abyss!”
“Last one there is a rotten soul!”
Voices and memories flooded him, nearly buckling his knees. They came from childhood, he and his buddy, his crush, lost in the forest… One not unlike this. Whatever happened to her? To Perseph? The memories forced him to stop. He staggered and reached down to pull up his socks. Sticker burrs from the threshes of the forest floor clung there. Sheening moonbeams began to strike his glasses as he bent down and gathered the slack of each sock within his boots. Joel looked up to the source of that luminescence, to the sky.
There, he saw through the canopy overhead, to the clear sky above them. All of the treetops gathered in a nearly perfect circle. Beyond their tops, which he’d not been able to overcome in their hike, to the stars or the darkening blank night, he finally saw. Joel now understood that he stood at something of a threshold here. This path he was on… His fellow hikers… Their guide. Everything came into place.
The sky breaching through those leaves, it was beautiful. More beautiful than anything he’d ever seen. Midnight elysium, eternal and pure and peaceful. Its space touched down among them; their troupe traveled through more than the forest.
Joel’s gaze returned to the trail. He slapped his knee, rose and kept walking. Such realizations didn’t change his train.
What is beautiful is true. And what is true is good. No matter to costs, or loss. Especially now. Especially for all of them.
Joel knew he would catch up to the others eventually. He’d catch up to them and tell them all about it.
About where they were. About where they were going.