Mother never liked walking through the forest. He remembered being clutched to her side as they took tentative steps into the black thicket, night sky stewing in a mystical fog overhead. Sometimes the trees moved around them: slow, shambling movements like the tribesmen around a fire – but he never turned to look, because Mother always told him the forest had eyes. He didn’t want to see their eyes. He didn’t want to know what they looked like.
The day Mother went to town something came into their tent late at night. He was cold and he was shivering into her blue robe when a gust of wind sent leaves tumbling his way. He peered outside, where the communal fire had been reduced to a smattering of hot red coals. There was nothing but the sound of crickets chirping in the grass. He thought he could go back to sleep, but as his head touched the ground that wind came back again, screeching and hollering from the shadowy clearing that led straight into the forest. He didn’t fall back asleep.
The day they told him Mother had gone missing someone left a purple stone outside their tent. In his hands, it seemed to glow. It was some kind of crystal, like the ones the smaller children played with in the nursery – but its insides were broken. Beneath the smooth surface, a million cracks spun their way throughout the core of the stone, breaking apart the reflection of the stars that would have graced any other crystal on a night like that one. He did not think much of it at the time, just wiped his eyes and laid the odd trinket on top of Mother’s robe. Perhaps she would like to have it when they found her.
The day he lost that robe the whole tribe came with him to look for it. Someone suggested they check the forest for bower birds or thieving squirrels, but the trees wouldn’t stand for so many and they grunted and curled around the camp and blocked their path with a wall of thorns. One of the elders frowned, brow furrowed as he tapped the ebony bark with his torch. Sparks sprayed into the air, but the fire slipped and slid off of the tree like rainwater off a leaf, leaving a spire of smoke behind. The elder shook his head. No one would get past the forest that day.
The day he did go into the forest he went alone. Purring, the bushes and undergrowth parted gracefully to form a path for him. Small white wildflowers swayed gently as he walked past. It was all too strange and he wanted to go home – but the stone was already in his grasp and he had to find out. The older trees were hiding by the creek, their trunks hunched over and bunched together as if conferring in deep thought. A thin, hand-like root brushed past his side, landing on his shoulder and urging him forward.
The trees were cradling something. Squinting and craning his neck, he tried to get a better look at it, but the brambles and vines kept squirming over the precious cargo, as if trying to hide it away from his gaze. If that was so, why had the bushes led him here? He turned the stone over in his hand, chewing his lip in puzzlement.
Then there it was. That blasted wind again. It blew and buffeted his hair and sent a bone-deep shiver through his body. It took a moment for him to realize that the stone was shivering too: a buzzing vibration that hummed a low song into his ear.
In the centre of the wooden swirl, curled up into a ball was a young sapling with Mother’s face. In the place of her legs and arms, roots and branches – half-formed and brittle – twisted together in a mockery of the human body. In the place of her right eye, a sorrowful crack opened up into emptiness. In the middle of the forest that lived and breathed he howled – he howled at the trees, he howled at the bushes, he howled at the damp morning fog that let little trickles of sallow sunlight slip through its fingers and over Mother’s bark-covered nose.
The humming grew louder. Louder and sharper. Like a wave rising above one’s head. He walked forward; it pulled him that way – towards the trees. Towards Mother. He wasn’t thinking. He took a step. Another. Step, step, step against the squelching grass until finally – finally – he was by the Mother-sapling and her empty face. He put the stone where the eye was meant to be. He stared at his hand, wondering what he was expecting to happen. Suddenly the stone rolled over, an iris awoke in its cracks – and it blinked.
The day he saw the trees had eyes was the day Mother died.