From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

People of Leaf and Branch

Maribel ran along the top boards. The planks went from roof to roof, along the ridges, with a jumping-space to reach the peaks of the round huts. She didn’t have the skill of a danseuse, nor the grace of the best of the girls from the stone city below her, but among the woodkin, she was often accounted the most lithe and best.

The Tower Wander was ahead, with Shrike House clinging to its neck like a collar. The old wall had long since been swallowed by the spread of the stone city, gone from defense to landmark to landform in the space of a few generations. The Duke of Copper Downs had forbidden the woodkin to enter the abandoned towers, but their exteriors had never been under such a rule.

So the seven surviving towers acquired names, and superstructures, and held the long, narrow village that ran from the Broken Gate to the Tower Harbor. The towers were part of the stone city, but the houses were the woodkin’s memory of another time and place.

She slipped through the roof of Shrike House, dropping to the floor in a shower of dust and straw.

There was no one there, of course. Shrike House had been empty since Maribel’s mother’s childhood. Seven towers, seven houses, but in every generation more went down to the stone and found lives among the city. None returned.

Maribel drew a toe in the dust. “I shall never touch the streets,” she whispered. “This I swear on the teeth of my grandmother.”

She walked through Shrike House, balancing on her toes in the Step of the Shrike with each pace, circling the Tower Wander as she stopped to clean each ancestor. The ancestors still deserved care, though there were no more Shrikes. At least not here in the stone city.

Whether anyone still lived back among the trees was a subject of intense, and quiet, conversation.

The ancestor’s faces were long gone to slick and sticky leather. Their eyes were sewn shut with thread twisted from the tendons and guts of shrikes. Their mouths were stuffed with the remains of dried fruits and tiny taelsaem scrolls of wisdom both earthly and otherworldly. Each ancestor had a copper plate of pale soil and a wooden plate of tiny stones before them. She had no joss sticks to burn, no feathers to offer, so Maribel could only offer her own small efforts and a wide-armed bow.

They did not answer. Ancestors never did. If there was a response to prayers, Maribel didn’t know where or how it might come. The woodkin had lived in Copper Downs — the stone city — for as many generations as there were towers, or so they said. The number of ancestors in the houses seemed to bear that out, at least to her observation. There were more dead than living, and would have been even if the houses were full.

Maribel stopped before the last ancestor in her round, a particularly broad-faced specimen with silver chasings around her eye sockets and the gap of her missing nose. Maribel liked to think of this ancestor as the first mother of Shrike House. Still here after the last mother had passed, for whatever that might mean. She pressed her hands together, bowed, then reached to brush the dust from the ancestor’s forehead.

That was when she noticed the taelsaem was missing from the ancestor’s mouth.

In the seven years she’d been visiting Shrike House, Maribel had never seen anything move which she had not moved herself. She’d never seen anything removed at all. There was nothing left to salvage, or steal for that matter, save the niches in the wooden walls where the ancestors sat and watched the years unfold. Only bare boards, dust, and her own footprints.

With that thought, Maribel looked down.

No new footprints. Or if there were, they had been made by someone with feet very similar to her own.

She studied the skull. Had it moved? She’d seen this ancestor every week since she was six years old.

Where was the taelsaem?

Very slowly, Maribel reached forward to brush her fingers in front of the slightly opened jaw.

It snapped at her.

#

Before time began there was only one tree. Her leaves were as the fields of the land, her branches as the arches of the sky, her roots as the bones of the world. Her bole was as wide as the circle of night and day, her flowers as bright and numberless as the stars in the winter sky.

When the sunfather and moonmother finally awoke they let the glow of gold and silver flood the twilight of the one tree. Her leaves spun free from her branches, her flowers dropped like birds on the wing, her roots crumbled and dried as do the fingers of the dead. The hills of the world were raised from the curves of her fallen bole, while the rivers flowed with her sap.

The woodkin came awake then, children of time, for we are nothing more than the memories of the one tree made flesh, quickened by the passage of moments and years, so that we live out the fall of the tree over and over in the seasons of our lives.

#

She sprinted across the boards, light and fast as a cat come up from the city below. The Tower Indolence just behind, the Tower Middleward just ahead in Maribel’s rush from Shrike House to her home in Peregrine House.

Maribel knew she would not panic. There was no reason to. Ancestors were there to protect and advise. It was what she’d always been told.

She dropped through the roof of Peregrine House. Her house, where her grandmothers spent their days sitting among the ancestors shrouded in incense and the smell of herbal teas simmering over tiny fires.

All of the woodkin who still kept the old ways lived in the round huts and galleries that clung to the walls like swallow nests, from the tiniest children to the oldest grandmothers. Most spent their time atop the towers netting birds, or scrambling the rooftops of the stone city around them to clean and repair the high places. A few watched after the children, keeping their feet from stone and their heads in the air.

Maribel was alone in tending the high homes of the woodkin and watching after the grandmothers and the houses.

Now she slipped to the floor. No dust here in Peregrine house. Rather, delicate sculptures of bird bones hung from the ceiling in the shadowed, curving hallway, spinning slowly in the air currents. The pelts of birds, feathered and tanned, spread along the walls. The ancestors were well-tended, surrounded by fruits and flowers traded up from the streets below, wrapped in incense, with coins and colored stones in their mouths.

No taelsaems here, though. The grandmothers kept those close, in the houses that yet survived.

Maribel found Grandmother Anya kneeling before one of the Peregrine House ancestors. She dropped to a crouch, briefly bowing her head.

“Grandmother, there is a problem in Shrike House.”

Anya turned to stare at Maribel. One eye was black as polished onyx, the other was milky white, rolling to an unsensed tempo. “There is always a problem at Shrike House,” she said. “Paxiliana is a troublemaker.”

Paxiliana had died long before Maribel was born. Sometimes the grandmothers remembered things which had happened long ago. More rarely they remembered things which hadn’t happened yet.

“Shrike House stands empty, grandmother,” she said with quiet patience. “But someone has taken the taelsaem from first mother.”

Anya nodded. “Oh yes, this is the year that poor Duke fell.”

The Duke of Copper Downs had sat on the throne for centuries, Maribel knew. The stone men were different from the woodkin, and she knew little about how they spoke to their ancestors. Apparently by keeping them alive, in the late Duke’s case.

“The taelsaem is gone,” she repeated. “And the first mother–” Maribel stopped. That an elderly, dusty head had snapped at her sounded foolish now. The misplaced fears of a girl.

“A taelsaem is nothing more than a scrap torn from a leaf of the one tree,” said Anya. “Like time itself, it is filled with power, but also like time, very few have the wisdom to command it.”

“So you are not concerned, grandmother, that the Shrike House has lost the taelsaem of its first mother?”

“Who would use it?”

That seemed so…insufficient. She wanted to ask, Who would take it?, but Grandmother Anya had turned back to contemplation of some inner vista.

#

When the leaves fell upon the land, they carried some of the blood of the tree with them, sap clustering about their torn stems as gems cluster around the dragon’s mouth. The echoes of the tree’s fall still sounded in the valleys and riverbeds of the world. The animals were awakening then, unfolding from their secret nests beneath the hollow hills. The first birds were draggling wet to the hilltops to meet the rising light of the first day.

Mother Yve, of the first generation to rise from the memories of the one tree, tore a corner from the leaf which covered her as she quickened. She used it first to wrap her body, then to shelter her children, then finally as a shroud when she lay herself down to rest. The imprints of her life upon the scrap were the words which counted the spell of the first taelsaem, and the time of her life gave the spell power.

#

Maribel retreated to the top boards again. It seemed strange that Grandmother Anya had not cared for the fate of the Shrike House taelsaem, but then the taelsaems had been in the world for a longer span of years than any but the stars themselves could remember.

Perhaps the spells could take care of themselves.

She stared across Copper Downs to where the sun sparkled on the harbor and the bright, sullen ocean beyond. The great metal-plated domes of the Temple District loomed to the east, many of them tarnished or fallen now. Closer to the wall, many of the compounds in the old city still smoldered from the riots which had erupted after the fall of the Duke. The docks remained half-empty, trade staying away from Copper Downs in the aftermath of the unrest.

None of which was her concern. The woodkin worked the rooftops and were above the worries of the stone city — except for those who had emigrated to the stone and cast off the memory of the forests. Maribel tried to think of them as traitors, but couldn’t.

There was so much below the woodkin — smells of food and colors of cloth, the rivers of people and animals, the brass ape races and temple processionals. Every time a woodkin looked down from their round houses and walkways they saw a wider world than they’d have above.

“We live closer to the sky,” she said, “amid the memory of the one tree.”

It was a blessing the woodkin said for themselves at dawn and at dusk, in the times when day and night mixed in reminder of what had come before.

But the sky was empty and cold, compared to the streets below.

The taelsaem had been taken by one of the migrants, of course.

She started at the street below her, wondering how to get it back. Wondering whether that even mattered.

#

Maribel ran the top boards again, back to Shrike House. She ducked down through the trapdoor and into the swept circle of the interior. She ran to the first mother.

The skull was gone, just as absent as the taelsaem. And still there were no footprints on the floor save her own.

She very nearly burst into tears.

After a few moments of hard, shuddering breathing, Maribel found control of herself once more. She turned back and walked the circle, checking the other ancestors.

They were there, with their dried fruits and shredded remains of flower petals and stubbed out joss sticks and the few taelsaems that remained to Shrike House. Each blackened eye pit, each tight-sewn lid, stared at her in silent accusation.

Where is our sister? they seemed to ask.

Where is the first mother?

Where is our memory of the beginning?

Where is our hope for the end?

Maribel shuddered again, circling slowly, meeting their dead eyes pair by pair, nodding slowly as the ancestors asked their unvoiced questions. Dead for more years than she had been alive, these ancestors took more interest in the loss of the taelsaem and skull that Grandmother Anya had back in Peregrine House.

“I did not take her,” Maribel said aloud. “Nor did I remove her spell.”

Something thumped behind her.

She turned. The first mother sat in the middle of the floor staring at her. A faint glow leaked between tight-sewn eyes. A part of Maribel noted that the taelsaem was still missing.

Maribel knelt and touched her forehead to the dusty floor. The air moved, gusting dry with the scent of greens and warm soil. Not the smells of the stone city at all.

“First mother, welcome back to your home.”

The breeze plucked at Maribel’s hair, worried at the skin of her face, made her shift flutter. She smelled things she didn’t remember but still somehow knew — wood scent and flowers and the calm air under a starry night sky.

Time, too. The dusty scent of time. Like an empty grave, or the long vacant towers around which the woodkin houses had been built.

As she stared at the floor, wishing only to be outside, away, distant from whatever door had opened, the dust moved. It stirred in patterns. A line like the horizon. It peaked, became a mountain, before roughening to the lines of trees. First mother was drawing a forest.

She kept drawing, invisible fingers telling a story. All the trees became a single tree. No, Maribel corrected herself, the one tree. It grew, ramified, acquired the texture of leaf and branch and the nest of birds and monkeys and squirrels and, finally the woodkin.

The tree branches lifted, the trunk split, and there was a body. Still indefinably wood, but human too, arms and legs and hands and breasts and a neck rising to the base of the first mother’s head resting on the floor.

With that, the breeze was gone, only the must and dust of the Shrike House tickling her nose, with the greasy smoke and harbor smell of the stone city somewhere beneath it. Maribel stood from her bow. The dust-drawn woman still spread at her feet, surmounted by the silver-chased skull of the ancestor. There was no glow in first mother’s eyes though, and the taelsaem was still missing.

Somehow that seemed both perfectly clear and mysterious as morning fog.

#

Once we lived high in the trees. The aunties told the kits that we were born of the monkey and the fox, but that was just a cradle story, a lie meant to learn from rather than deceive. For one, the woodkin have no tails, nor silky fur to warm them in the north wind. Anyone, even a kit, can see the falsehood for what it is.

But when we were old enough to run alone in the uppermost branches we found more of the truth. It lay written in the dew beneath the leaves and the tight-curled batlings in the hollows of the high trunks and the circle of the peregrine high in the summer sky.

When we brought the truth home, the aunties laughed and sent us to the mothers for instruction. There we learned that the woodkin were made of wood and leaf and blood, buds of the one tree brought to light by the stars in the sky and raised to speech and skill by Yve, grandmother to us all.

There came a day when some were carried away, out of the high trees, and in our leaving, we lost too much, forgot too much, were turned away from what we were ever meant to be.

#

“Grandmother Anya,” Maribel said. “I know where the taelsaem has gone.”

The old woman grinned, gap-toothed and hollow-cheeked. Maribel realized she was not so far from being an ancestor herself, save for the sparkling onyx eye and its marbled similar both gleaming where very soon there would be tight-stretched stitches. “Was it spirited away by some scoundrel then, girl?”

“No. The first mother of Shrike House…” She paused, wondering about the words. “The first mother took it in herself.”

“Ah.” Grandmother Anya took a long, slow breath. “Eating time again. How is she?”

Maribel was used to the fact that the oldest women didn’t seem to make much distinction between the living and the dead. Woodkin were woodkin, stone people were stone people. They were as different as sun and moon, as sky and soil, for all that men and women could lie with another well enough. But among the woodkin, the living and the dead seemed to share the same world.

Sometimes Maribel thought there were so many dead they had crowded out the living, that was why the houses were emptying.

“She asked me for a body.”

“Then give her one.”

“How?”

Grandmother Anya leaned close. “It was you she asked, girl.”

#

Maribel squatted on the top boards again and watched the evening steal over copper downs. Below her feet families were moving to dinner, to their evening, the herbal stews and smoked bird meat favored by the woodkin watering her mouth with their tempting scents. The murmur of voices, the quiet prayers to leaf and branch, the gentle thump of feet on the boards — these were the music to which she had lived all her life.

Still, it was always counterpointed by the brawl of the stone city. Even now, someone drove a mechanical centipede through the street below her, the clank-clatter of its claws on cobbles echoing upward like prayers for a brassy god. Fire glimmered from the vacant lot where the Lucky Deer Mercantile had burned three years earlier, now a place where people gathered to roast dogs or muntjacs or whatever they had caught or bought that day. Bells clanged in and around the harbor, a song of tide and trade which never fell completely silent.

Those were smells and music she’d always heard, too.

Why had they left the trees and come to live here?, Maribel wondered.

And how would she give a body to the first mother of Shrike House? She was no anatomist to work in sinew and muscle, nor reb to build a golem of clay, nor ordinator designing eelskin rolls to motivate the calculating drums of some brass statue. She was just a girl who swept floors in the silent houses high above the streets.

She was also woodkin, daughter of leaf and branch, and kin to the ancestor who had made a plea of her. No more than she would refuse a child could she refuse this grandmother she had never known.

A thought struck her, tickling her imagination. Command of the taelsaem was not her art, but it was the heart of her people. Like the woodkin, the taelsaem was drawn from the one tree. Surely this would be enough.

There was a difference, though. They lived among the stone city now, dreaming of the past. What if she gave the first mother of Shrike House a body which looked toward the future?

“For you,” Maribel whispered aloud, “I shall break my oath to the teeth of my grandmother.” Anya had few enough of them as it was, she thought irreverently as she began to climb down to the streets.

#

The ground was strange, unyielding and far too close, so that with every step she felt as if she were falling, but no one seemed to care. There were more people than Maribel had ever been close to in her life. They shoved past her, a sea of strange faces changing from one moment to the next. It was an endless current of carts and mules and dogs and people and wild animals led on chains and sedan chairs hoisted high and herds of pigs and a thousand more passersby. What seemed an orderly, distinctive flow from her perch above in the houses of the woodkin was nothing more than mobile chaos down below. The fact that evening had come full-on did nothing to dim the traffic, though the light of day had been replaced with torches and lamps and the diffuse glow of the night sky.

Still, all she needed to do was fight her way across the stream to the lot where the fire burned and some meat or another roasted warm tonight. Progress was painful, so difficult to keep from being touched, slammed, run down. She wanted to scream and run across their heads and shoulders. And the horses were so big.

How did these people stand their crowded lives upon the soil?

Struggling on, she was surprised when she did arrive at the vine-wrapped timbers of the charred storefront. Maribel slipped out of the traffic with a profound sense of relief.

There were stone city folk standing around their fire, dark outlines drinking from skins and bottles as something four-legged turned in the flames. A man with two slim knives, each as long as his arm, carved even as his beast rotated, cutting flesh away in narrow spirals, then catching it before it fell to the wood and coals, flicking them back to land in long, slinky portions on bits of board. People took the boards in ones and twos and bent to their meal.

She carefully approached the cook, stepping between people who nodded slightly, or simply turned away. Maribel wasn’t sure if she was supposed to return the nods.

He glanced at her a moment, then concentrated once more at the flickering blades of his work. “See Idras if you’re wanting some grub.”

“It–” Her voice caught. Maribel had never spoken to a stone man before. Somehow this was even worse than the crowding or the shoving. She nearly lost her nerve, ready to turn and flee back to her towers.

Yet he was little different from a woodkin, truly. His garb was not the same — a greasy leather apron to catch the sparks, boots where a woodkin would go bare or wear sandals, with a different cast to his face and darker hair. Still, a man. “It is not food I seek,” she said in a rush.

The knives danced again, and two coils of meat came free with a lovely scent of roast. “Aye.”

That was permission, she decided. “I come to beg the bones of your beast.”

She earned a long, hard look with that request. Then: “Burnt hot and cracked by fire, what would you do? Make a stew?”

“I– I want something from the stones. For a…devotion of mine.”

He grunted, but he did not run her off.

And so she waited while the stars wheeled slowly overhead. The beast was whittled down. One and another of the gathered folk gave her sip and sup. The generosity surprised her. She’d always thought the stone city folk hard and mean.

Maribel listened to their songs and the stories they told one another, details of people and places and pursuits she knew nothing of, and wondered again why her own folk had left the trees, and what it was they had meant to do in coming to Copper Downs. As the evening wound on, she found herself almost comfortable here. These people meant her no harm. They just wanted a meal and a place near the fire and someone to tell their troubles to.

Eventually there were only coals, and two old women with an ash cart, and the tired cook. He stood before Maribel where she sat on a makeshift couch of bundled lumber and old sacking, his fists balled upon his hips. “And so you’re a patient one. Like all of them what lives above.” His head jerked back toward the towers of the old wall.

“Patient as wood,” she said.

“Wood burns.” He leaned forward, his hands on his knees, perhaps to stretch his back. He came too close to her. For the first time in hours Maribel felt a tinge of fear. “And what will you give me for a sack of bones still hot from the grease?”

“I have nothing to trade.” Maribel had not thought of this. The woodkin did not exchange coin among themselves in their houses above, but of course it was needful down here in the stone city. She wondered just how great a fool she had been.

He laughed, her new found fear evaporating as he did so. “T’ain’t the bones worth so much, though the stew woman will grant me two coppers and a bowl full. But the sack alone is worth three times that.”

“Then I will return your sack clean and mended,” she said, “with a wooden bowl for your stew.”

“You above…” His voice was slow, thoughtful. “Everyone in the New Districts knows about you above. Your lights flicker in the even. When your men come down to work, they’re quiet and peaceful-like. When your women come down to marry, they bring grace.” He stood, stretched, and leaned close. “Whatever your devotion is, don’t bring them houses falling. You’re our luck.”

He stepped back, grabbed a bulging sack and handed it her, then went off to negotiate with the ash cart women.

Maribel walked away, across the cobbled street which had fallen almost quiet, to the ladders which lead up to the tiny, tiny world from which she’d come.

#

Moonmother taught us with lies wrapped inside truth wrapped inside lies. No matter her words, she died and was reborn as surely as winter and summer, in her cycle same as any woman who ever walked the world. From this we learned what it meant to live, to slip away, and return again along the silver paths among the dark leaves of outermost night.

As the full moon is reborn from the dark moon, as the tree is reborn from the seed, so woodkin is reborn from the dust and tears of those who mourn and remember.

#

Maribel laid out the cracked bones where she could make them fit. The beast had not been large as a person, but it was the shape of the thing that mattered, she thought. She hoped, at any rate. She had brought a broom handle, and bloody straw from the bed of a woman who had recently birthed, and three sprigs of mistletoe — woodkin magic, from the Peregrine House and its absent grandmothers.

The old women must have been abed when she went visiting.

She laid out the handle and the straw and the mistletoe — making spine and hair and heart out of them, amid the cracked and burnt bones.

It looked stupid, she realized, a child’s toy in mock of life. The ancestor’s head perched above the pattern of a woman was nothing more than a skull and some bones. Maribel felt a rush of disgust, of foolishness, wondering what the cook down below would have said to see this.

Then the eyes of the ancestor began to glow once more. The forest wind came back, ruffling her hair, carrying the dust of time with it.

You must wrap me, whispered the wind. Close me up and make me whole.

Wrap her how?, thought Maribel. She took up the leather sack the cook had given her and looked at it. She could cut it open, perhaps? But…

The wind spoke again: Wrap me in time and life.

Dust rattled around her.

Time.

Maribel jumped up and ran around the circumference of Shrike House. She tugged the remaining taelsaems from between the teeth of the ancestors. Each was an irregular sheet perhaps the size of a man’s chest. Each glowed the faint color of starlight, even in the dark of the house.

When she found the ancestor again, she tucked the taelsaems around the chest and under the back of the stick-and-bone figure. The wind was stronger now, smelling of forest and mountain and that dry scent of time once more.

The leaves of the one tree were not enough. There were gaps, pooled shadows through which she could faintly see the silvered boards below.

She tugged at her left arm with her right hand, peeling the skin there back. It was like pulling at a fruit, coming away with a faint tearing sound and a salty sting of pin. Maribel placed her own flesh in the gaps, filling in between the taelsaem sheets, covering the blackened bones and the woody spine and the plant heart.

Eventually she was denuded, though strangely bloodless save for a trickle on her thighs. Her only pain was a deep cramp in her groin — the peeling was nothing more than discomfort. Maribel lay down next to the first mother and wrapped her arms around the sticky mess that was the body and tried to lend it her heat, even as the dusty air of time swirled around them both.

#

A young woman with the face of a city dweller woke her in the dawn. Maribel looked into a pair of eyes the waxy green of mistletoe.

Stretching, she was surprised to find herself whole.

“Let us go find someone with a cook fire,” the woman said.

“Are you…?”

“I am Mother Shrike, and I am hungry.” The young woman grinned, and Maribel saw that her teeth were blackened, with a few cracks.

“I’m sorry I–”

“Hush, child.” She placed a finger on Maribel’s lips. The touch made her shiver. “The world is new again. Trees grow in stone, you know, wherever their seeds may fall.”

Together they climbed out into the sunlight, walking the top boards toward a ladder that led down to where the woodkin lived.

#

The one tree was wise. She had many children before she was remade into the world. Each of her children carries a tree within, a secret copy of the one tree. A wise woman can see inside the child to the tree, and inside the tree to the child, each bearing the other in the circle of its arms like the full moon and the dark moon do.

The greatest trick of time is that it has no beginning and no end, and the hours always come round again.

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2009 novels are Green from Tor Books, Madness of Flowers from Night Shade Books, and Death of a Starship from MonkeyBrain Books. His short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. He is represented by Jennifer Jackson of Donald Maass Literary Agency. Author photo by Adrienne Loska, © 2007.

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