To the brothers Strugatsky
After the war, we lived in hovels, eating roots and leaves for our enjoyment. There were times when the monotony began to pall upon us; at those times, we would take up our sticks and ascend the low, craggy hills to the north, in search of small game. When, as sometimes occured, one of the surviving songbirds would startle us, we would flee in terror down the mud-slick slopes and green, snowy vales of this twisted landscape.
There were occasions when the trees would move. We were all certain of this, even though there had never been a time when we actually apprehended that disconcerting event.
It was decided one day that one of us would lie awake at night, the tempo of his breathing masked in a blanket of strong soporific drugs brewed from the flesh of a certain nut that had been found strewn in copious profusion about a field to the east one day. We avoided that field with superstitious dread after the event, for the strewing of nuts from heaven was not an event that we altogether trusted or intended to tolerate on a regular basis. Trees that moved of their own accord were one thing, but that could not be borne.
Nonetheless, it served as the basis of our scheme. A youth of nineteen years lay awake that night, in the clearing between three of the least shabby of the encampment's hovels. He brushed the hair out of his eyes and gazed at the stars, their baleful gaze seeming, as well, different from that to which we had been accustomed to in the past. None of us remembered this past too clearly, he thought. And as he thought that, he realized that the nether moon had been down for a strikingly long time, and the trees seemed to be dancing in the gloaming. The dance was striking in its stateliness, its alien grandeur speaking of a world other than our own, a world more similar to that which had been before. It seemed to be lurking at the edges of perception, just behind the veil; and the longer he looked, the more clear it became to him. If the night sky was made of tissue, it could be stripped away, revealing the cold radiance that shone through tiny pinpricks unheeded.
He pulled his attention from the sky, back to the slow dance of the trees, for something in him understood that those which lurk beyond the sky value their privacy to an extent almost incomprehensible to human beings. As they moved, he saw the trails of congealed air like sheets of ice behind them, but an ice which moved in a manner altogether unlike that which was wont to fall inexplicably from the sky on certain spring days. The trees seemed to be calling out to him, beckoning in a strange and eldritch chorus, and he felt his body begin to rise.
In the morning, we found his body by the stream. It was filled with effervescent, ebullient statements about that which it had seen, but we could tell that it was empty, for his eyes no longer had that spark they once had, and the twitch, which used to contort his lip when he became excited, was completely absent.
Sometimes we still search the fields for him, though we know that we will not find him. A traveller alone in the forest will often come upon him at night, and it is said that merely to speak with him brings a great joy; but it is a terrible joy, as well, for all the oldest and the wisest among us have gone to ask him questions. When they return, as they will do, they speak only in riddles, with faces so expressionless you cannot say how you know that they are happy; they will flit about the village for a while, but as the night draws near, you can see them casting hungry glances at the forest; and before the sun has set, they will have gone from us, back to sit in court with the agent of their transfiguration.
The trees are growing thicker, up on the hills. We are certain it has something to do with the youth; the wisest among us have hinted that it has something to do with the strange scents that emanate from the fungoid masses at their bases on occasion, but there are none of us left who posess both the knowledge and the will to tell us what it means.
A girl says she saw a tree dancing in the day recently. She was covered in a sticky black substance from head to toe when we found her, and her lips were blue with cold. After a time, she began to breathe again, so we moved her to the hut the children sleep in, that they might see her and know the dangers of traveling alone. They say that, as she tossed and turned in her sleep, she told them stories of wondrous places, incomprehensible and alien; places in which, she said, the trees held still as the world danced around them. We attempted to extract the truth from her by offering the seven pleasures, but she fell into a deep and dreamless sleep in the middle of the third, the one that involves the stroking of the lower joints. We stood watch around her as she slept, in spite of the risk, for it seemed unwise to move her at the time. When she awoke, we all could see that her eyes were perfect mirrors, although none of us could remember what a mirror had been.
There was disagreement over how to handle the situation. Several of the children believed that she had died, that the only thing remaining was to drive her from the encampment. The wise suggested that we place her upon the top of the largest of the hovels and permit her to wash the sticky substance off in the rains, but it was clear that the rains were several hours away. Eventually, the faction in favour of exile won, and she was driven from the village. I followed her for a time, but she spoke only of the smell of the fungus and the strange, shattering glow that suffused the forest more and more often as the years passed. Eventually I realised that to follow her further would lead me to spend the night in the forest with her; I paniced then, and fled back to the village, fearful lest the wise in their dancing come upon us and recognize myself for what I was, an uninitiate, unaware of their strange projects nor of any but the most peripheral of their discussions. In my fear, I ran faster and faster in order to reach the village by nightfall. As the sun was almost behind the southern mountains, the ones over which the plumes of bluish radiance twist in endless coruscation, occasionally bright enough to be seen even in the day, I realised that they were in the wrong place in the sky, that I had in fact run the wrong way. I attempted to retrace my steps, to at least have the companionship of the strangely changed girl. As I reached the pond by which I had left her, I slowed, looking carefully for signs of her passing; but there were none save a single set of footprints, leading to the clearing and away, left by wide bare feet in the soft earth. Failing in my search, I bent down to drink from the limpid surface of the pool, and it is there that I saw the girl again, her eyes like mirrors beneath the water, the thick substance coating her now cluttered with an adhesion of leaves. She moved slowly beneath the surface, her lips meeting mine as they touched the water, her eyes, so strange, so like my own.
It was the time, I realised. Time for the girl to go and tell the wise what she had learned in the village, what she now knew of our ways. We flitted between them so fast that it seemed almost as if they were holding still, immobile, only the blurred discontinuities in the air marking trails where they had been. It seemed but a moment's dash to reach the place of meeting, though the upper moon had reached its zenith by the time we arrived. We spun in the clearing, a frantic, leaping ebullience as we sought to find a suitable perch; at last, satiated, we sat upon the fallen trunk of a tree to wait. The wise came to us then, but they were darting, lightning motion like the red minnows that swam in the stream, unable to hold still long enough for us to speak to them. We eventially hit upon the idea of writing, and explained the results of our exploration thusly. With feverish hands, the eldest of the wise carefully removed the sticky substance that was coating our bodies. When she finished, we looked down at ourselves, to find ourselves conjoined by a queer rope of flesh. The rope proved sensitive, and we busied ourselves in exploration for a time.
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