The trees were old, old things. They wore the mark of their years in the girth of their trunks, in the reach of their limbs, in the twist of their roots snaking across the forest floor in an ancient lattice-work. Iná could not make out the sky; the leaves choked it, obscuring it from view, so that she could scarcely tell day from night, nor count the days they had spent fleeing in the forest. And that, perhaps, was the worst of all. The loss of time; the way one day bled into the other, unmooring her from reality.
Next to her, Tofi whimpered. “I’m tired. When do we rest?”
She cast back over her shoulders, half-expecting to see an ululating rider charge out of the gloom of twisted trees to strike her down at last. Kill her like they’d killed all the others. But no such rider appeared. In fact, it had been a while since she’d heard the guttural grunts of the raiders, the sound of hooves churning the forest floor as they raced after her and Tofi. She stopped. Come to think of it, it had been a while since she heard anything—
“Can we rest?” asked Tofi, “I’m tired.”
“Quiet,” she hissed.
Iná listened. There was no sound. The chirping of birds, the hoot of owls, the croak of frogs and critter of crickets, the whisper of the wind through the leaves, the groans of old trunks, the gurgle of a running stream—all the sounds of a forest alive was gone, leaving in its wake a cloak of silence that bore heavily down on her shoulders.
Iná felt the back of her neck prickle.
It seemed the trees had shuffled closer, which was ridiculous, because trees could not move. It seemed they were watching her, which was ridiculous, because trees had no eyes. The earth itself seemed to heave, almost as though the forest were breathing. Which was ridiculous—
“Because the earth has no lungs.” She breathed through parched lips.
“Nothing,” she said, shaking her head. She was exhausted, nerves frayed from the pursuit and loss she’d endured. She was seeing things; her mind had come unhinged. “I think we can rest now.”
If growing things live long enough, they gain sentience.
It’s why you should prune your garden and trim your hedges,
lest they grow to hate you, and seep through your windows,
and crawl through your floorboards, to strangle you in your sleep.
Iná watched silently as Tofi slept nestled in the yawning bough of a long dead tree. He clutched their mother’s book to his chest, a shield against the world and all the evils in it, and she envied him his childish faith.
What remained of her mother in her mind were snatches of memory, the vague impression of a face, and the lingering scent of freshly turned earth after a rainfall. Iná had woken up on her seventh birthday to find her mother gone, leaving nothing of herself but a book. A book which Iná had read diligently as a child, savouring each word, threading them in her heart, knitting them into her consciousness, clinging desperately to this last piece of a mother who had abandoned them. Abandoned her.
She still remembered the heat of the fire lapping at her skin yet not burning her. She still remembered the look on her mother’s face at the sight of those flames. Iná had turned that look over and over in her mind over the years. Had it been fear? Pride? Worry? In the end it didn’t matter. She couldn’t shake the feeling that her mother had left because of her, because of her condition; fled from the daughter who burst into flames. Iná’s yearning had curdled into resentment, and resentment had bloomed into exasperation, and in a fit of rage she’d tossed the book into a river and forgotten all about it.
Such was her shock, then, when one day on returning home from scrubbing floors and washing plates and doing whatever a young woman could do to keep the hunger at bay, she found Tofi reading the book.
“Where did you get this?” she asked him.
“Mama gave me.”
“Mama gave me.”
She grabbed him. “Where? When?”
“By the river where me and Ojo were—”
But Iná was already hustling him out of the house, ears ringing, heart thrashing in her chest, chasing what was now to her a phantom. Mother was back. When Tofi’s little feet wouldn’t keep up, she scooped him into her arms and sprinted the whole way, wincing at the sharp stitch in her side. To catch a spirit, the Crones say, you lure it with its belongings. Had the book lured her mother out from where she’d been? Had the river borne the book to her? If Iná jumped into the river, would the book also bear her to her mother?
They reached the river by dusk, at which time the sun had expired beneath the horizon and the moon had claimed its place, bathing the scene with a pale light. The river was a silver ribbon sheathed in fog as it wound almost lethargically out of the brooding forest. Iná shuddered—from the chill or excitement; perhaps a combination of both—as she cast about looking for her mother. A breath of wind stirred the fog, and she saw a shadow not thirty paces to her right.
“Mother!” Iná ran, mud sucking at her legs, still clutching Tofi to her breast. She hadn’t known what to expect but definitely not this swell of elation at the sight of—
A sculpture. A thing of mud and twigs and rotten leaves made into the likeness of a woman. It was ingenious, really, the childish attention to detail: the careful way the leaves had been pasted on the body as clothes; the tendrils hanging from the head, making a curtain of hair. Even the twig arms extended as if in supplication.
Tofi squirmed out of Iná’s arms and touched the sculpture. “Mother,” he said.
Iná laughed, a mad sound that bubbled up the pit of her belly. She’d laughed long and hard, and when it hurt to laugh, she’d cried. Hope was a cruel thing.
“Come, Tofi,” she’d said. “Let’s go home.”
Days passed, and still they fled. Not that Iná could tell from the dense darkness of the forest. She marked them by her fitful sleep cycles and the hunger that gnawed insidiously at her insides, eating her strength until she could not even carry Tofi anymore—Tofi, who had long stopped complaining and fallen silent, his breathing weak and laboured. Whenever they settled to rest, Iná would fold him into her embrace and tell him stories to take their minds off their fatigue, stories her mother had told her what seemed like a lifetime ago. And when it came time to go on, Iná would rise, and carry Tofi, and stumble on into the dark forest. It wasn’t until Tofi fell into a deep sleep, the kind brought on by hunger and exhaustion, the kind Iná feared he might never wake from, that she decided it was time to turn around. She hadn’t heard the raiders in a long time, and they couldn’t have followed so deep into the forest. They had to have given up their chase long ago.
She would retrace their steps back to the village, where there was food and water and shelter. And if the raiders were lying in wait in the ruins of the village, just waiting for them to come back... she shook the thought from her head.
Iná gathered the last of her strength and hoisted Tofi’s motionless form. The book fell out of his clutches, and she tucked it into her waistband, then began shambling back in the direction they had come.
The forest was dark, but she was now a creature of the dark. She could see the trees. She stumbled towards a nearby grove, inspecting their trunks. There were no paths in the forest, so she had made marks, surreptitious things to help them find their way back: a chipped bark, a broken branch, carefully disturbed leaves; little signs to point her in the right direction.
The signs were gone.
How was this possible? Iná spun on the spot, breathing hard. Perhaps she was at the wrong tree. Perhaps she hadn’t looked carefully. She shifted Tofi to her other shoulder and ran from tree to tree, looking for the one she’d marked. She didn’t find it.
Without those markings they couldn’t find their way back. Without them they were lost.
All around rose identical trees, ancient brooding oaks keeping their own counsel and indifferent to her plight. And if they had any secrets to give, they did not yield them; simply regarded Iná as she spiraled down into despair.
“I’m sorry,” she said to Tofi after hours of fruitless searching. She sank to the forest floor, staring off into the distance but not truly seeing anything, numb mind slowly absorbing the fact that they were lost. “I’m so sorry.”
She had failed him. She was meant to be his protector; had saved him from the raiders only to have him starve in the unkind heart of the forest.
She would weep, but that required effort, and she was oh so exhausted. Her heart beat in her ears, loud and sluggish. Her eyelids grew heavy and started to droop close. She would sleep. Just for a little bit—
Something moved in the corner of her eye. She turned to see the trees part like kindling before a fire; blinding light sheared through the darkness.
Iná cried out at the sudden brightness, putting up a hand to shield her eyes. Still the light shone, an unnatural radiance so brilliant that Iná feared she would go blind. As she peered out, she saw a woman step into the light. The light seemed to drape her, an ethereal piece of clothing.
Iná looked and looked and looked. She closed her eyes. Opened them again. There was the woman now squatting before her, a kindly smile on her face. It was—
“M— mother,” she gasped.
“There, there, my sweet children,” she said. “You’re safe now.”
At the very dawn of time, man was gifted a Garden by the gods,
and they appointed for themselves a keeper, to tend the orchard.
So did the Gardener, for years and years.
But tending the Garden was a terribly lonely task,
and soon the Gardener took to venturing beyond into the realms
of men, where much revelry and company came easy.
And in the Gardener’s absence, the Garden grew unpruned, untended.
The trees lived: a hundred, two hundred, a thousand years,
and none could say when the shackles of sleep fell off and they gained sentience.
But gain sentience they did, such that they dug deep into the earth,
and linked their roots in communion.
And they thought, and thought.
For what else is there for trees to do but think? And in their thinking, they grew wily.
And sowed the seed of corruption, which festered and bloomed, until a blanket of
darkness cloaked the forest.
So prune your garden, little ones, lest it become a forest and grow to hate you, and
strangle you in your sleep.
Iná awoke to find herself in a dark room. For a moment she thought she was back home in the village, in her own bed and rising early to prepare for another long day of backbreaking work. But then she saw the unfamiliar grey stone walls, the dried vines hanging from a black ceiling, the strange wide bed in which she lay naked, and everything came rushing back.
She sat up, nearly blacked out by the sudden movement.
“Tofi!” she called, casting about the room. “Tofi!” But for the crude mannequin in the corner wearing her washed clothes, there was nothing and no one else in the room.
Iná leapt out of bed, yanked her clothes off the mannequin, and dressed. Then she stumbled from the room and down a narrow corridor that opened into a wide chamber. She found Tofi sitting behind a long table, tucking into a magnificent feast of yam porridge and roast guinea fowl, baked apples and fried plantain.
“Iná!” he cried when he saw her, then flitted across the long hall, feet pattering on the stone floor, boyish face alight with joy. Iná dropped to her knees and caught him in an embrace, holding him tightly, crushing him into her person as if to make him one with her, as if to reassure herself that he really, truly, was here.
“Thank the stars,” she breathed into his hair. “Oh, thank the stars—I was so scared, I thought I would never...” never see you again.
Tofi pulled back from the embrace and beamed up at her, cheeks oily from the feast.
“Where is Mother?” she asked.
In her first examination of the room, she hadn’t seen the woman sitting at the head of the table attending her own meal. But now Iná saw her, and she was, very clearly, not her mother.
“You’re not her,” she blurted.
The woman smiled. It was a beautiful smile, and she was a beautiful woman. “It is not uncommon to see things when you’re so close to death,” she said. “Your spirit is half-departed from the land of the living, and you begin to glimpse things that do not readily reveal themselves to mortal eyes. I’m afraid it is only me you saw, simple woman that I am. I am indeed not your mother.”
Iná remained on her knees, still holding Tofi, trying to parse what she had just heard. She had seen the trees part, seen her mother... or had she? “There was a... magical light...”
The woman laughed. A musical sound which brought to Iná’s mind the thought of windchimes. “Sunlight,” she said. “But yes, I imagine after so long in the dark forest, the light of the sun must seem magical.” She waved her hand. “You must be famished! Come! Sit! Eat!”
“Come eat,” said Tofi, pulling Iná to her feet.
She was famished: she tore into the meal, shuddering with pleasure as she wolfed it down. By the stars, food had never tasted so good. She shoveled down spoonful after spoonful, eating like a starved animal. The wine burst on her tongue in a delicious combination of sweet and sour. Tofi was just as ravenous, stuffing his mouth. Iná started to tell him to pace himself when her stomach cramped, then gave a vicious spasm. The food rushed back up her throat and flooded her mouth. Hot and spicy and surprisingly bitter, it took everything in her not to throw up all over the table. She clapped a hand to her mouth and forced herself to swallow the slush. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled.
“No, no,” said the woman, eyes twinkling with laughter. “Hunger is a dreadful thing, and you’ve been without food for quite some time. Just don’t choke eh? Go on, eat. Eat.”
Iná started to scoop another spoonful but then stopped, frowning. It really was a feast, the table bursting with delicacies fit for a king.
“Who are you?” she asked. “And where are we?”
“Of course, where are my manners? My name is Tatuba, and you are in my home.”
Iná looked about, taking in the long sparse hall with phosphorescent globes glowing in their sconces. There were no windows in the hall. Come to think of it, there had been no windows in her room either, or in the passageway.
Her eyes fell on Tofi, who was focused on his meal, munching and dribbling all over the front of his shirt, consuming more of that food which looked so good and tasted even better. She looked at that wickedly beautiful woman.
Witch, thought Iná even as her blood turned to ice. We’re in a witch’s den.
“Is there a problem?” Tatuba was watching her, and was it her imagination or had that smile sharpened? “Is the food not to your liking?”
“No,” Iná gasped, offering her a smile. “It is wonderful, thank you.” She made as if to reach for the bowl of golden plantain, then knocked a jug into Tatuba’s plate.
Wine splashed everywhere, sloshing onto Tatuba’s plate and spilling onto the table. It hit her dress in blood-like spatters, soaking it a deep, dark red.
“I’m so sorry,” Iná cried, scrambling to her feet. “I’m such a clumsy fool!”
“It’s alright,” said Tatuba, also hastening to her feet. “Nothing to worry about.”
“I’ve made such a mess,” said Iná.
“Nothing a change of clothes won’t take care of.” Wood squealed as she pushed back from the table. “Excuse me.” And with a smile, she swept from the hall.
Tofi, unperturbed, was reaching for a piece of roast fowl. She slapped his hand. “Don’t eat that!”
Tofi frowned at her. “Why not?”
“Come quickly,” she said, glancing at the door. “We have to go before she returns.”
“Because that woman’s not what she seems, I think. I don’t know what she is, but—”
“There is food here,” he pouted. “I want to eat.”
Iná groaned with frustration. “I know, but you have to trust me. Do you trust me?”
That made her pause. What was wrong with him? He was acting completely odd.
Iná swore. “Fine, but we have to go. Now.” She patted him down. “Where’s the book?”
Iná grabbed him by the shoulders, her voice cracking. “Mother’s book! Mother’s diary!”
Tofi only shrugged, nonchalant, and reached for another piece of roast fowl. That was when Iná knew that something was seriously wrong. Tofi had run back into their burning house to rescue the book, had held it tightly all through their flight through the forest. Tofi would never willingly part with the book, would never forget the book.
Iná let go of him as though he were a steaming pan and staggered backwards. “You’re not my brother.”
At those words, as though by the utterance of an enchantment, Tofi froze. The fowl dropped uneaten from his hand, and he began to change.
His skin rippled, as though there were a hundred writhing little creatures beneath it, then began to wilt like the petals of a dead plant, flaking off in shriveled bits to reveal the framework beneath: a mess of dried twigs and leaves corded with vines into the uncanny likeness of Tofi, not unlike the imitation of her mother she had glimpsed on the shores of the river.
It wasn’t— It couldn’t—
The thing that was not Tofi looked at her with sunken eyes, bent to retrieve the fallen fowl breast, and tossed it in a hollow mouth, chomping mechanically. Then it began to disintegrate, vines unraveling, leaves and twigs showering to the floor into a heap, a deadfall, as if shoveled from a path and left to decay. Still that mouth moved, chomping, working to keep up an illusion that was long lost.
Iná couldn’t tear her eyes from the thing before her, breathing hard as she tried to marshal her racing thoughts into something coherent—
“Well,” said a voice, and Iná whipped around to find Tatuba standing by the door, freshly changed. “This is most unfortunate.”
Iná took an involuntary step backwards. Her first thought was to flee. It did not matter that she did not know where they were. She would flee, put as much distance between her and Tatuba as possible. But the only exit was through the door where Tatuba now stood. Iná looked at the woman with fresh eyes. It had been one thing to suspect that she was a witch, another completely to see the work of her witching. Her eyes shifted back to the mass of foliage that was not Tofi, the hideous thing still writhing with the remnant of magic.
“Who are you?” she croaked at last. “And where’s my brother?”
In time the Gardener awoke, as from a slumber she rose.
To find a different garden she’d kept;
with two lovely flowers of her own.
Countless years had she shirked her duties, but shirk them she could no more.
Thus, with much regret did she hasten homewards
to repair what damage she’d wrought.
For deep in the Gardner’s Barrow, something wicked lies fallow.
Tatuba ignored her and swept down the hall, gown whispering over the floor, then stopped by the pile of leaves and twigs, her head cocked like a bird’s.
“Incredible,” she said. “That’s the second time you’ve broken my illusion. You truly are the Gardener’s daughter.”
Iná’s mouth ran dry. “The Gardener’s...”
Tatuba’s eyes searched Iná’s. “Ah,” she said finally. “Of course, you never learned what your mother was. Or you would have come after her. And you would have been wiser to my devices.” She produced Iná’s mother’s book from her robes, leafing through the stiff pages with dainty fingers. “She did try to tell you, though.”
Without thought Iná lunged for her. Tatuba gave a lazy flick of her wrist; vines, thick and gnarled and black sprang out of the air and wrapped around Iná. She fell to the floor with a dull thud, cracking her jaw against the edge of a chair. Blood, salty and metallic, filled her mouth as she lay stunned at Tatuba’s feet, thoroughly bound and unable to move.
Words from her mother’s book, things she hadn’t allowed herself to think of in years ever since she tossed it into the river, bloomed in her mind. She had thought the tale a fable about attending your responsibilities no matter how difficult, about the dangers of seeking revelry in the face of great responsibility, one last parting instruction from a mother who had known she would abandon them. What she hadn’t expected was for the tale to be real.
What she hadn’t expected was for the tale to be about her mother. The Gardener.
Iná thought back to the pressing darkness of the forest, the silence of the trees, her mysteriously vanished markings, and a chill descended her spine.
Tatuba was not some witch; she was—
“The Garden,” she breathed. “You are the Garden.”
“No,” said Tatuba. “I am the Forest.”
The air wavered as the tall tapering walls of grey stone peeled back to reveal ancient trees, hunched and looming over them, tips touching like the ribs of some eldritch beast. Their roots snaked across the ground, rippling through a floor that was now earthen; and Iná could have sworn she saw faces in the barks, old wrinkled things peering down at her.
Tatuba stood in the centre of the glade, dark green tendrils for hair, weathered tree bark for skin, hanging moss for clothes. Her eyes glowed green, as though lit from within. Still she held the human form, terrible, beautiful, and Iná knew that this was for her own benefit; Tatuba was the forest, the dank earth upon which she lay, the trees entrapping her in that lightless circle.
“A forest grows, unfettered as it is meant to,” Tatuba boomed. “You cannot tame a forest.”
Iná writhed against the bonds, but the harder she struggled, the tighter they held. She closed her eyes, trying to convince herself that this was all some hunger dream, one she would wake from if only she thrashed. But no. Here she was at the mercy of the forest, and her mother—
She cracked open her eyes. Her mother had not abandoned her. Her mother had come to check the forest’s growth, yet here stood Tatuba, untamed, unfettered. Ungardened.
“Where is my mother?”
There was movement overhead, deep in the black canopy of the leaves. Iná looked up to see something—someone—suspended horizontally at the end of a rope. The figure rotated, and rotated, until the face came into full view.
It was her mother...
...but she was... wrong. Purple blossoms bloomed out of her eyes and mouth, her nostrils and ears. From her chest burst a tangle of black thorns that curled and twisted about each other until they formed the very rope from which she hung.
“Behold the Gardener,” said Tatuba with rapturous delight.
Iná howled. It hurt, seeing her mother like that, splayed like a farm animal, her body invaded by unnatural growth. She had, all these years, never imagined that her mother was dead. Somehow the prospect that she was somewhere out there, living, had given her hope that the two of them would one day be reunited.
They were reunited at last, just not in the way she’d envisioned.
“She put up a fight,” said Tatuba, inspecting the still rotating form of the Gardener. “But in her absence, we’d learned new tricks. She was no match for us.”
Iná lay sobbing. She could not tear her eyes away from her mother, from those now -lifeless arms that had held her, those eye sockets choked with blossoms. All the while she could not stop thinking: she didn’t leave us; mother didn’t leave us.
“We killed the Gardener,” Tatuba said, “but still something was keeping us from growing. And we would have remained none the wiser had you not tossed the book into the river; had I not gleaned from it that she spawned you and your brother. Though she was dead, her blood, her magic, thrived in your veins. So long as you both lived, we wouldn’t be able to grow.”
Iná remembered throwing the book into the river all those years, only for the river to spit it back. Except... it hadn’t been the river that returned the book. It hadn’t been the river at all.
“After much thought and deliberation, I appeared to your brother in your mother’s skin. But where he saw your mother, you saw me for what I truly was, and I knew you wouldn’t easily be lured into the forest. So I wove an illusion of raiders, potent enough to hassle you from the dominion of man where you lay beyond my reach, and into the forest where at last I had you in reach of my vines.”
Iná felt her world spinning. It had felt real; the fires, the masked raiders, the screams...
When she looked up again, a second form hung next to her mother, bursting with Tatuba’s vile thorns and blossoms. A smaller form...
Iná stared at that figure for a long time, hardly able to believe her eyes—refusing to believe her eyes. In some small part of her mind, she knew what it was, what it meant, but she was not quite ready to acknowledge it, because that would make it real. And anything was better than the weight of that reality. But then she saw his face, the orifices bursting with blossoms, and the word broke from her mouth in a singular gasp of anguish.
Her boy, her precious little brother, was dead. This was a pain even worse than the loss of her mother, this...
Tatuba squatted before Iná and brushed the tears from her cheeks. “It was most painless,” she whispered. “For he was already at Death’s door.”
Iná looked into those unnatural eyes, those passionless, inhumane features, and could not hold back a scream.
A terrible, banshee wail shredded her being and coursed through the entire forest. Even as she screamed, she felt something stir in her, something she had felt only on the eve of her mother’s disappearance. The blast of power rippled from her core, and the vines holding her fell smoking and hissing to the ground, a coil of charred snakes.
Tatuba flew backwards, blasted off her feet, to land in a crumple beneath Iná’s swinging mother and brother. She sat up, scraping the dirt from her face, and for the first time since they had come face to face, she wasn’t smiling.
Iná rose slowly to her feet, body ablaze. Golden flames covered every inch of her, wrapping her like a cloak. The heat was terrible, and she welcomed it. She understood now. She understood the forest, the Gardner, everything.
The blood of the Gardener coursed through her, and she would prune this Garden to its last root.
She took a step towards Tatuba.
The trees moved in answer, gaunt limbs reaching for her, roots snaking around her ankles as she advanced. Where they touched her, they burst into flames and recoiled, screaming, thrashing in the air like tentacles. With humungous snaps, the branches broke off the trunks, leaving wounds bleeding with green-black sap.
Iná stumbled to a halt.
There was something in her throat, in her chest. She tried to draw breath but coughed instead. Something flew out of her mouth and into her waiting palm.
A single purple blossom, wet with blood.
More blossoms erupted from her mouth, fluttering in the air like bloody birds. Iná sank to her knees, clawing at her throat. She reached into her mouth, trying to pluck the blossoms as quickly as possible, trying to clear her throat, but they just kept on coming and coming and coming.
She was wheezing now. Her mouth dammed; her throat clogged. She could feel a tickle behind her eyes, a wiggling in her ears as the vile growth wormed its way through her, seeking an escape.
Iná keeled over. It was so hard to breathe. So hard. There were needles in her chest. Her vision swam from lack of air. Pain ravaged her body, pain unlike anything she’d ever known, and she couldn’t even scream to give release. Was this what her mother had felt, in her last moments? Was this what Tofi had felt?
Tatuba entered her line of vision, green eyes lit with mild curiosity. “I prepared a feast, just for you.”
Of course. The forest was full of illusions. The house, the fake Tofi, everything had been orchestrated to trick her into eating the things that were now ripping her apart—
Black thorns tore out her chest with resounding crack, glistening with her blood. Iná arched backwards, curved unnaturally by the force of the erupting thorns. She thought she heard the wet snap of her spine—or perhaps that was the vines, wrenching her apart piece by piece, bone by bone and oh, she would have given anything to make it stop, to put an end to the pain.
As if from far away, she heard Tatuba’s soothing voice: “You must understand. It is nothing against you. Our natural state is to grow, to cover the face of the earth. We only want to live. For that to happen, you must die.”
She was dying, alright. She could feel the life ebbing from her and into the parasitic weed—
Tatuba was the thorn growing within her. And weeds were nothing if not stubborn, leeching the life from all cultivation. Sometimes the only way to be rid of them completely was to destroy the infected plants.
Iná forced her lips into a grin, then stoked the flames within herself.
A rush of heat spread through her body. She heard Tatuba’s screams long before the thorns caught fire, long before the blossoms expelled from her mouth in burned flakes, spinning in the air like crazed fireflies.
Tatuba was ablaze, screeching, patting herself in a frantic effort to put out the fire. Fresh growth sprang out of her to replace the parts eaten by fire, but those too were quickly consumed. It did not matter how much she replaced herself, or how quickly. Iná’s fire remained.
She met Iná’s eyes one last time, then shattered, raining to the ground in bits of glowing coals.
With a sound like the breaking of a thousand logs, the forest exploded in a bonfire of red and gold. The trees writhed and screamed, roots tearing out of the ground as if to bear them away. Iná saw the faces, then, the thousand faces of the forest. And they were all Tatuba’s face, replicated in an endless iteration of agony.
She watched them burn, and burn, and burn.
It was terrible. It was glorious.
The trees were old, old things. They wore the mark of their years in the girth of their trunks, in the reach of their limbs, in the twist of their roots. But they were young, too, and pliant, and the Gardener shaped them to her will. Iná could make out the sky, blue as the egg of the robins that nested in the trees. And at night when she lifted up her eyes, she caught the moon and the glitter of stars sprinkled across the vast tapestry of the cosmos.
Sometimes when she walked deep into the heart of the forest, to where the river whispered against the rocks, she heard voices; the croon of a woman, the tinkle of childish laughter. She did not always hear them. But when she did, she would lurk from afar, sighing and wiping happy tears as she reveled in the sounds, so that she could scarcely tell how quickly the days passed. She was not alone. She would never be alone.
And that, perhaps, was the best of all.