When I am feeling like myself, I sit on the western slope of the land below the thick-timbered house my grandmothers built, down in the leaves under the clinging trees, and I watch the river exist. Its green glass surface, marred only by an occasional breeze or an insect swooping down for a drink, hides a churning current. This morning, a cast-off leaf turns in the stillness, and I play a game in which I imagine first that the river flows left to right, then right to left. Until one of the trees floats downstream.

It darkens the distant curve to the left and takes forever to arrive. The trunk lies low in the water, a hundred feet long, its limbs torn off close to the trunk, its bark chewed to ribbons. It is a floating corpse. The shredded roots spread wide, like a dirty hand grasping helplessly for its place in the earth.

The tree slides by, conveyed by hidden forces, its trunk bearing great splintering wounds carved deep into its pale heartwood. Somewhere upstream, monsters tear the trees from the earth and cast their shattered bones aside, half-consumed. The trees stretching over the river bank whisper as if in sympathy.

If I stay here too long, the dry leaves under me will absorb the dampness from the soil, and I’ll come away with wet shorts, like a child who has peed himself. I don’t want my father to be disappointed in my inability to stay dry. He might forbid me to return down the steep slope to the river, under the trees that were already old when my grandmothers built the house.

I stay too long anyway.

Now I’ll have to stand up and wait for my shorts to dry. It will take a while. There’s only a feeble breeze down under the living trees at the river’s edge, this abundant space where nothing happens.

The floating tree takes forever to depart, but once it does, the river grows flat and impenetrable once more. Fresh ripples spread from the spot where a fish swallows a bug for the small crime of thirst. It becomes impossible to detect the current’s direction again.

Eventually, another fallen tree appears, one in an endless procession, and my shorts are still a little wet, so I remain. It’s identical in size to the ones sheltering the riverbank. I’m tired of standing, and I sit down again in the leaves.

The next trunk does something strange. Rather than stay in the river’s center, it turns slowly, its ends nearly grazing the bank. As it approaches, the tip of its shattered trunk rotates toward me, the current driving it into the soil at the water’s edge. I walk down to meet it. The roots at the far end rise like a broken fan, still stained with soil. The trunk forms a raft as wide as I am tall.

The leaves over my head hiss in the stale air, as if encouraging me forward.

I feel a reason coiled within this moment, a strand of logic I recognize even if it’s beyond my capacity to understand. I step on to it, steadying myself against one of the broken limbs. The trunk is as solid and ungiving as dry land.

Perhaps it’s as simple as not wanting to be scolded for sitting too long on the damp earth, to be reminded for the hundredth time that I am not what my father wanted. But I think it’s something else. His disappointment is but one variation of misery in a world covered in sorrow as constant as the sky. If I stay, I’ll know the sadness of many more goodbyes. If I go, they will all happen at once.

The trunk detaches from the bank. The river furrows with faint ripples that disperse into glass. The tree turns in the current, and it and I proceed downstream together.

The next time I feel like myself, it’s one of many times when the boy Rista has shuffled back up the trail with his knees slightly bent, avoiding my eyes, so that I can tell that he has sat for too long on the wet riverbank, watching the fallen trees go by. His shorts are wet, and he anticipates a scolding.

How many times... It’s not a question—more of a lament. How many times must I tell him.

It’s not the wet clothes that bother me; it’s the inability to do better. He can’t seem to retain the simplest advice. For all I care, he can jump in the river and soak all his clothes, but when he gets uncomfortable and starts to whine, I’ll be the one to remind him that he is the author of his own misery.

I just want him to demonstrate a measure of common sense. I won’t always be here to tell him what to do.

I’m sizing up which cabbage to offer to the skies, strolling up and down the mulched rows, enjoying the give of the earth under my boots. I wonder why we lay hard wooden floors in our homes when our feet clearly prefer this softness. Our lives are framed by hardship, as if we’re so untrustworthy that mercy is a poor instrument to lift us up.

Rista walks to the end of the row and watches me. I decide not to mention his clothing.

“Would you like some help?” His words are careful, wary of rebuke.

“I would. We need to find the biggest one.”

“For the skies?” he asks.

“Certainly not for us.”

His lips tighten in concentration. “We could devise a means of measuring them,” he offers. “Although we’d have to decide how to measure ‘biggest’ when it could mean weight, or the... the distance around.”

“Uh, circumference,” I reach for the word, thinking for the thousandth time that I’m not the one who should be teaching this to him. Annell would have been a better parent to this gentle, precise child. She deserved the gift of these years with him. “I’ve don’t have a system, really. I always just judge it by eye.”

He nods, although I can tell he doesn’t like this lack of rigor. We each work our way along the green-dotted lines of cabbages, doubling back at the garden’s edge, so that we repeatedly pass each other halfway down the rows.

It doesn’t have to be the biggest one, I know. It just has to be the one I think is the largest. The skies are not measuring the sacrifice; they’re measuring us.

Rista is certain he’s found the best of them, but I reject it. It’s massive, a swollen green heart splitting its outermost leaves like a snake’s head emerging from a paper skin, but it’s peppered with brown spots, and near the base it appears that an insect has taken a few exploratory nibbles. I point out how the overall presentation of the offering sometimes outweighs its sheer size. I’ve found another one of nearly the same bulk that will be more likely to appease the skies.

“But how do you know what to prioritize?” he asks in dismay. “Size or appearance?”

I show him my selection. “Just watch me,” I tell him. “Every different vegetable and fruit, we’ll pick out the right one. You just have to pay attention.”

“Because someday I’ll be the one picking out the offerings,” he says, repeating a familiar refrain. His voice is flat, unbelieving, but I still feel a quiet sense of satisfaction, as vague as the gray dark before morning. He doesn’t have to embrace it, just understand it.

The sky is growing purple-dark overhead. We should hurry.

I draw the knife from my pocket, unfold the blade from the blackened wooden handle, and pass it to him, running through the same instructions I’ve covered before. I show him the shadowy neck of the cabbage against the earth, repositioning his blade to nearly scrape the soil, and stop him before he thoughtlessly makes the cut with his hand on the facing side of the stem. The decapitated cabbage comes free, and he cradles it between his forearms.

“Give it here,” I say.

He hands it over and backs up, knowing what comes next. I shift the cabbage to one hand, lowering it down almost to the ground. I take a deep breath and heave it as hard as I can at the sky.

It rises, hangs for just an instant against the tree line, and falls. I run to catch it, stumbling over the rows, but can’t make it in time. The cabbage hits the dirt at the garden’s edge with a crack. The trees shiver in a disapproving wind.

Annell had a better arm than I do. Her throws always rose high enough that the skies accepted her sacrifice. Why isn’t she here? Why did she have to leave instead of me?

Why her instead of the boy?

There it is, in the dark at the edge of my mind: the forbidden thought. The true monster. It stalks me late at night when Rista cries out in his sleep and I grip my own hands in bed and wonder if it’s better to go reassure him or to let him suffer alone into an understanding that there is no reassurance to be had. Everyone he loves will leave, one by one. No comfort can change that.

Two people in each house, the skies decreed. No more. When a new one comes, another must go.

We were happy, Annell and I. The memory torments me more than the terror upstream, the monsters that devour the trees and throw their corpses into the river. I hate it more than I hate this sickened, demanding sky.

The two of us were so happy, but when Rista came, someone had to leave.

The cabbage appears unharmed.

Without thinking, without any preparation, I heave it up once more, putting all my rage into the throw, all the fury and loss I hide behind a taciturn face for Rista’s benefit. This one barely goes as high as the last before crashing back into the garden, splitting in two.

Rista wisely says nothing. He turns and begins to look for a substitute. We’ll stew the ruined cabbage tonight and select the next-best one for an offering.

He cuts another and comes to me. “I want to try throwing it,” he says.

“You’re not big enough yet,” I tell him.

“That’s what you always say.”

“Because you’re always not big enough,” I say, managing to organize a smile.

“Let me just try once,” he pleads. “I’ve been watching you.”

I’ve never noticed him observing me. He’s never shown much interest in anything but the river and the husks of dead trees floating by.

Surprised, I relent. “One throw,” I tell him, preparing to run after his attempt.

He takes it in one hand, lowering it until it nearly meets the soil. I see myself for an instant, even the way I nearly close my eyes in concentration, squinting into the careless sky as one would size up an enemy. He unfolds violently and sends the cabbage skyward. It rises, and rises, and doesn’t slow quite the way that the eye expects. At the height of the highest trees, it seems to hover for a moment, as if undecided on its trajectory. Then it begins to ascend again, slowly at first. The higher it goes, the faster it travels, until it becomes a speck and blinks away into the bruised patch of darkness overhead.

The skies have their offering. The purple stain over the house recedes into brightness. Rista turns, gathers the fractured cabbage from the dirt, and heads to the house. There is nothing self-satisfied in the movement, no recrimination. He simply did what he set out to do, and now he has moved on to the next thing.

Perhaps I’ve taught him too well. There is no reassurance for anyone. We just go on, observing the rules, as somewhere upstream the world is chewed apart, a ravenous tide that may someday reach us, or may not.

He can remain, claim the house and the garden for his own, and when he finds a partner it will be my time to go. For a moment, I wish there was something better out there for him.

He should be the one to go, and he knows it.

Oiver was never confident holding our son. He fumbles and catches Rista as if surprised by a child’s excitement. When Rista trips and collapses into the dirt, hovering at the edge of tears, Oiver hesitates a moment too long, his hands clenching each other.

  • It happens all too often. He waits for the tears to come, although we both know that once they flow they’re hard to stop. Better to prevent the tears. I don’t know why he won’t do it.

He should go, but I hate seeing the knowledge of it in his face.

The house smells like stale smoke, even in summer. It comes down the cold chimney on late afternoons. It permeates the quilts and our clothes. I have always hated it, even when I was a girl and my mother was still laying the last river-clay tiles around the base of the wood stove.

The scent of the stove in winter: that is what I love. It draws us in close, Oiver and I, watching the flames as if we see the same things in them. Watching them like we used to watch the trees go by, down at the river’s edge, quiet and comfortably distant.

Not the summer smoke. It reeks of mildew and exhausted warmth, of love gone cool and practical.

The next time I feel like myself, I’m coming back from the garden for a drink in the restful shade of the house, smelling the fetid old ashes and thinking of the contracts between people, agreements spoken and unspoken.

I don’t linger. Even from inside the doorway I can see the daylight is wrong. The sky has gone purple with restrained rage.

As I head back to the garden, something collides with the backs of my legs. Rista grins up at me, clinging to my calves. Now that he can walk, he runs everywhere. I glance back at the house. Oiver is supposed to be watching him in the kitchen.

The sky over the house grows darker, a bruise forming directly overhead. I can see an edge of untouched blue at the horizon. We wanted to stay together in the house until Rista could eat solid food, but even after he began munching cut-up bits of apple and squash we remained here together, avoiding any talk of what we had to do. The question hung between us like the scent of cold ashes. Who will go? Who will stay?

When Rista was born, the sky demanded its offering once every ten days. Now it darkens in need every day. Soon there will be nothing we can do to appease it.

The three of us have lingered here too long.

The light is dying. I need to find something to throw skyward. I sweep up Rista, settle him on to my hip, and turn down the rows to the carrot patch.

Perhaps it’s the gathering darkness that fools my eyes, or I’ve just gone careless with the exhaustion of knowing our time is running out. One foot catches the edge of a tomato stake on the corner of a plot, and the next moment I’m pitching headlong. I twist as I go down, trying to shield Rista from falling under me, and my forearm strikes one of the thick limbs that outline the vegetable beds. I hear the sudden ugliness of the bone.

I lie for a moment in the soil, cradling my right arm. The fingers of my left hand find the faint edge of a fracture under the muscle. I’m still strangely calm. Rista, sprawled in the dirt, begins to wail. I roll over to comfort him, and this brings the first dull wave of pain, an alarmingly deep ache. I hunch over as if in heavy rain, my body instinctively protecting its injury. I have to force myself to let go of my broken arm—this brings fresh pain, sharp and urgent—to reach for Rista.

“Are you hurt?” I ask, feeling his limbs, his neck, the scalp under his baby-thin hair.

He reaches for me, both hands extended, wanting to be held. I shake my head. I can’t let him grapple his way into my arms, squeeze my broken bone with his eager fingers.

I get my feet under me and stand, reaching for his hand, tucking my other arm into my chest as best I can. “Come on, little man,” I tell him. “You have to get up and walk.”

He shrieks at the unfairness of this. I wave my free hand at him. “Come on,” I say, frustration and pain creeping into my voice. “You have to.”

He only wails louder. Why hasn’t Oiver come? He must be able to hear his son bawling, even from this side of the garden.

I lower myself into the dirt beside Rista, dizzy and nauseated. He tries to climb into my lap, and I have to push him off so he doesn’t grab my injured arm. At this, he cries even harder, but his sobs are increasingly drowned out by a rumbling in the sky, like thunder that does not end.

I relent and maneuver him into my lap, keeping him tight against my left side. His tears are washing little channels through the dirt on his face. Once he starts weeping, he’s like someone who has broken through ice on a pond, floundering and incapable of pulling themself back to safety.

The heavens contract, blues and purples drawing together into a seething darkness so complete that I have the sudden unbidden fear that we’ll be pulled into it.  

All at once, Oiver is there. “What are you doing?” he shouts. I feel a soft burst of pressure, and the eaves of the house emit a ghostly puff of dust, the heavy beams quavering under the roofline.

I offer up my arm. “It’s broken,” I say, my voice barely audible over the thunder and Rista’s cries.

He doesn’t seem to understand. He glances at the sky. “Did you send up the offering?”

“My arm is broken!” I shout.

There is the truth, held up between us. Our eyes come together, and we both understand. I can’t throw the offering with a broken arm. This injury is the end of the unspoken debate we’ve been locked in for months.

Oiver will stay, and I will go.

I don’t know what I expected to see in him at the moment we decided. Relief? Fear? Sorrow? What I hadn’t anticipated is this: blank confusion. He squints as if trying to see in heavy rain. He never expected this. He always believed I would be the one to remain behind. The long silence between us wasn’t an effort to put off the decision; he just didn’t want to leave.

I make my voice calm, in the way I might speak to Rista. “Grab some carrots, or something, and make the offering,” I tell him.

He runs into the patch to pull the largest bunch of greens, returning with it clasped to his chest. It’s a beautiful bunch, each carrot perfectly straight and dark orange. He’s always had a good eye for the best offerings.

It takes him four frustrating attempts to heave them into the sky before the offering is accepted. The thunder subsides into blue silence.

He hovers over me. “What can I do?” he asks.

I release my good arm from around Rista. Oiver hesitates before leaning down to accept our crying boy. I feel the emptiness in my lap, the absence of everything I’ve loved, as if the house my mothers built and the garden I’ve farmed since I was a girl were weights tying me to the earth. Without them anchoring me, I feel insubstantial.

Rista weeps and reaches for me, but I pretend not to see. That small cruelty is the only gift I have left for him. All the years we might have had in this house are gone.

Perhaps Oiver is the better choice after all. He has always rationed his comfort like rainwater from our cistern, ever watchful for drought. He’s wooden and uncomfortable holding Rista, frustrated that he can’t say a single word to stop the tears. He looks back to the house, uncertain what to do next.

“Go on,” I tell him. “Take him home.”

She loves Oiver, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.

I raised Annell tough, same as I built the house. Everything from the foundations up was over-engineered. Not meant to be perfect, mind you, but confident in its ability to weather a storm.

When I hammered the last nail down, I thought this house would be my greatest achievement. She changed that in her first ten minutes in this world.

And now she’s in love. With him.

There’s nothing wrong with Oiver, not exactly. He could just be so much better. He could stand straighter, the way you do when your muscles are tired and you feel them ache with every movement. He could look me in the eye when he talks. He could acknowledge what his presence here means: I have to leave.

I’m not old—I don’t feel it, at least—but there’s gray sifted into my long hair, and this is how it’s supposed to be: the old make way for the young. If he stays, I go. The world prefers fresh, frantic love over the settled kind.

He can’t even throw an offering. It took him three tries yesterday to get a beet to fly up, and when I tried to give him some pointers, he glowered at me like a child caught stealing. Then he left early to walk back down the valley road to his mother’s house, and Annell cried to see him go.

“What did you say to him?” she asked, despondent.

“I tried to show him how to throw,” I replied.

She let out a short, exasperated breath. “Not everyone does things exactly the way you do,” she said, and I thought well, that’s it for me. I’ve done all I can for her. At least she can get a beet into the air on the first try. But she wants to watch him flounder, because that’s love.

And she’s happy, damn it. I raised her to recognize happiness when it appeared, the moments when we forgot about everything we’d lost, when it felt like the two of us would live here forever. I can’t begrudge that to her.

Anyway, I’m going. I slip out while the two of them are by the river watching the trees float by between kisses.

I could have left them a note. It would clear up any temporary confusion about what has happened. Instead, I simply leave the door open. Annell is always trying to air out the house, saying she hates the smell of the chimney. Maybe she thinks Oiver doesn’t like the scent. He’s exactly the kind of young man who would turn up his nose at some smoke while eating the food you cooked on the fire.  

I prop the door open with a stone from the front yard. Oiver won’t understand, but Annell will. I’m always closing it, keeping out the insects. Not this time. The sky over the house is deep and suspicious.

“Relax,” I tell it, “I’m going.”

No one ever told me where to go when the time came, so I figure it must not matter. People just leave and never come back.

I start up the hill road toward Claddi and Tuml’s farm. They lost a child during its birthing and never had another, so they have been together as long as any couple I know. Sometimes I visit for a few hours, until the faint rumble overhead signals the heavens’ disapproval. I turn off the road before reaching a spot where they would see me from the house.

After a while, I no longer recognize the terrain. I’ve never been this far into the woods. I catch a glimpse of the river shining in the afternoon light, far down the ravine to one side. I’m not certain how far upstream I’ve gone. It doesn’t seem to be getting any later in the day.

I’m doing what I’ve always known I would do for Annell, when the time came. It’s good to let it go. I feel like myself.

I crest the top of a hill and behold a landscape I’ve never seen before. The river winds up between the shoulders of a narrowing valley. Just at the edge of the folded horizon hovers a shimmering absence.

I need to see it better. I find a tree with low-slung boughs and scramble up into its embrace. Soon, I’ve climbed into the thin scrub of the treetop. Even as a child I didn’t dare to go as high as this.

The limbs become branches, and these become twigs. They no longer bend under my weight because I weigh nothing.

High in the hills, a massive shape breaks loose from the forest. A tree rises from the surrounding terrain, its limbs splintering as if crushed within airy jaws. Its shorn-off roots clear the canopy and it continues skyward, turning as it ascends, until it is folded into the yawing space behind the sky.

I look into the bruised and bitter emptiness. Whatever it is that haunts us, that pulls us apart wherever we gather, it’s worse up there. In the fissure at the river’s source, a terrible loss is ripping up the world itself.

Another giant rises from the distant forest.

My feet lift free of their perches. I’m like a ghost, suspended between two worlds. I could cling to the leaf-tips a few moments more, but I open my hands and follow the trees skyward.

They live so briefly that we seldom learn their names.

Their homes lie scattered across the valley downstream. We watch them from a great distance, listen to them speak, feel their footsteps on the soil. We discuss them through the finery of our interwoven roots, our voices flowing like rainwater. They ricochet through their lives, heedless of our existence. Still, for reasons we can’t explain, we love them.

Whenever more than two of them linger in one place, the pestilent sky descends on them. We watch from the hillsides. We feel the bitterness in their footsteps, a thrumming sorrow. We whisper our worry through the soil. From time to time, one climbs into the foothills, flies up through a tree like a bird, and vanishes into the sickness overhead.

We’re not immune to the same pestilence that demands their sacrifice. The sky torments us as well. We feel the heavens tug hungrily against our branches.

We whisper a question to the trees far downstream: is it as bad there as it is here?

The answer comes singing through the roots: not here, not yet. The sky has not turned vengeful. It demands no offerings. This may yet change, but for now, the people live in close proximity. They gather without fear. When one laughs, many laugh along.

How can we convey this to the ones trapped here? Their lives are so brief but so precious. They pass from child to parent in the time we might unfold a thought. To them, our voices are the hiss of the wind in leaves. Yet their suffering, however brief, is unbearable to us.

And so, one by one, we act.

When I am at last myself, I release my roots from the earth. The sky lifts my limbs, bears me up as we see them lift their children. The voices of the other trees grow garbled as my roots tear loose. They have been part of me since I first awoke in the soil. Now their words subside into a hiss. The last few filaments are severed, and I ascend in silence and purpose.

The skies may maul us, they may shred our bark and break the spine of our trunks, but they cannot devour us completely. I can endure their brief, meaningless violence.

At last I am cast aside, thrown into the river to be borne away.

It is a long river, but we have never been concerned with time. The important thing is that I am being carried downstream, past the settlements where the people live in twos.

Sometimes I flicker by one or two watching from the bank. I want to gesture, to howl in cadences audible to them, but I can do neither. I want to tell them that I am here to take them somewhere better. They only need to climb atop me, and I will bear them away.

I hope one of them will understand before I reach the sea.

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Adam R. Shannon is a career firefighter/paramedic, Sturgeon Award-nominated writer, aspiring cook, and steadfast companion of several animals. His work has appeared in Apex, Nightmare, The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019, and other magazines and anthologies. He’s a graduate of Clarion West 2017.

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