Armand watched the writhing figure in front of him morph from the gigantic furry legs and feet of the fabled Bigfoot to the front half of a deer to a partial tree woman, to a grotesque looking centipede and back again. A few hours ago he didn’t even believe in fairies and now he was watching a forest spirit die.
Armand had been beyond terrified when he was pulled out of the ground. He thought some big animal had him in its mouth, but then he was released. A match flame flickered to life which in turn lit a lantern and revealed that the big animal was in fact an old man only a few inches taller than Armand. He didn’t know what to make of the wizened man in his brightly colored poncho and matching tasseled hat. The man had said his name was Miguel and he needed his help.
Armand struggled to get his bearings. He was prepared to be eaten alive and then two seconds later he was being asked a favor? Miguel handed Armand the lantern and motioned for him to follow. “Wait, don’t you need the light? You’re in front,” Armand said.
“It’s for you. I know the way,” Miguel replied.
Even with the lantern, Armand tripped several times on the way to a clearing at the base of a rocky outcrop with what looked like a small cave mouth amongst the boulders. Telltale pulsing lights danced in a circle around the clearing.
“The fairies!” He jogged ahead to catch them, but Miguel held him back with an outstretched arm. The dude was really strong for his size.
Looking closer at the area the fairies were dancing around, Armand saw an unnerving, undulating mass of fur and bark twisting together. When it stopped moving, it was a pair of gigantic hairy legs. The legs spasmed and twisted, transforming into the tree woman with no left side. Armand jumped back, but Miguel held him fast.
“It told me about you,” Miguel said gesturing to the woman whose eye rolled to Armand. “You were the last thing it tried to save before it went to take its final rest.”
“It tried to save me?” Armand objected.
“It thought you were uprooted. It planted you,” Miguel said smiling.
“Wh-what is it?”
“This is the spirit of the forest. It does not have much time before it is gone.”
“It’s dying?” Armand asked sadly.
Miguel tilted his head with its pointed cap to the side. “Humans don’t have the word, but yes, it is ending.”
“But what can I do about it? I’m not a doctor. Do you need a vet?” Armand asked because now the spirit had taken the form of a deer.
Miguel removed a pipe from his poncho and lit the bowl with a match. The smoke curled around the two of them and smelled sweet. Miguel then squatted down and sat on a stool sized rock near the rippling mass of forest spirit. “I will stay with the spirit and sing it the special song. You must go and gather starflowers. The pink ones.” Miguel settled back onto his rock.
“I’m supposed to go off in the forest alone in the dark to pick flowers? I don’t even know what they look like!”
“You have a lantern, and I know you will have help. Pull the roots too.” Miguel puffed repeatedly on his pipe and blew out a long stream of smoke. The forest spirit stopped changing form for a moment and the tree woman breathed laboriously.
Bringing their dance to a halt, one of the fairies touched a nearby mushroom and it began to glow with a blueish green light. The light spread to the mushrooms encircling the spirit and to the moss that clung to the rocks nearby until the entire clearing was luminous with a magical blue glow. The other fairy flew slowly toward Armand, but stopped a few feet away from his face. She held her prickly hands behind her back timidly.
“Anise,” Armand said, recognizing the star-shaped seed pod she wore in her cottony hair. The fairy’s glow brightened. All those reluctant lessons in the garden with Mama Nette had paid off a little. “That’s your name isn’t it? You’re the one that pulled my hair.” He rubbed his head at the spot.
A groan came from the tree woman in the circle, like a creaking tree branch.
“The spirit says the fairies were coming to its aid, and you were trying to stop them. They did what they must.”
Anise flew closer and patted his head where she pulled his hair. “Yeah, yeah, I’ll forgive you.” The fairy brightened again before she zipped away into the darkness. After a moment she came whizzing back and tugged on Armand’s shirt sleeve, beckoning him to follow her. “Oh! Yeah.” He took one last glance back at the small man puffing his pipe amidst the mushroom glow, pointed his lantern toward the darkness and trotted after Anise.
Armand tailed Anise’s lightning-bug glow through the darkness of the forest. They zigged and zagged their way around in the dark. Sometimes they turned right only to immediately turn a sharp left, walking through places he thought they had just been through, though he couldn’t be sure. He would have tripped over more than a few roots and stones had he not had the lantern. With all the wild wandering, Armand also couldn’t be sure Anise knew exactly what she was looking for. Just when he was about to suggest they start heading back to the outcropping, her fairy light brightened again, and she hovered closely to a plant near the forest floor.
“This is it? This is the star flower?” Armand asked. Anise nodded quickly in assent. He lowered the lantern close to a plant with large leaves in sets of five like the shape of a star. Out of the center of each star rose a delicate stalk which held one petite, pink flower.
Miguel had said to pull up the roots. Having no trowel like he used in Mama Nette’s garden, Armand set his lantern down and dug into the ground with his fingers. It was damp and squishy and it was getting into the grooves of his com-ring. It was probably ruined now, and his mother wouldn’t buy him one for another decade, she’d be so mad. But that wasn’t important right now. If these flowers could end the forest spirit’s suffering, then he’d get them in whatever way he could. Besides, his com-ring was probably ruined when the spirit had planted him anyway.
“Is Miguel going to make some kind of medicine with these plants?” Armand asked Anise.
To his surprise, she spoke.
“No. Forest is empty.” Her small voice sounded like wind whispering through the trees. “We remind how lovely it is.”
Mama Nette had always said that fairies didn’t speak, but he had heard Anise’s voice.
The fairy made an impatient gesture to the star flowers with both hands.
“Yes. Yeah, I’m on it,” Armand said, folding up the bottom of his t-shirt and gently wrapping the flowers in it, muddy roots and all.
They made a less circuitous route back to where the forest spirit was laying silent within the blue glow of the mushrooms and still in its tree woman form. Miguel sat puffing his pipe and humming softly, while Cassia, the fairy that remained behind, danced in slow circles.
Armand approached on tip toe so he wouldn’t disturb the scene, but the old man stuck his pipe between his teeth and said, “Bring them here.” Armand unwrapped the flowers from the hem of his t-shirt and handed them to Miguel. “It is good she chose flowers that had not bloomed yet. Go and plant them around the circle.”
Starting near the woman’s head, Armand attempted to dig in the earth with his hands again like he did to uproot the flowers. But the ground here was much rockier, and he scraped up his fingers trying. Anise flew around and touched the ground where he was digging. It glowed faintly for just a second.
“Dig,” she said. This time, when he pushed his fingers into the earth he felt soft soil rather than sharp rocks. Armand smiled and planted the first flower as Anise touched the ground at intervals all the way around the circle. Then she joined Cassia in her dance as the flowers blossomed in the dim light.
A fleeting smile came across the tree woman’s face.
“They can be helpful, can’t they?” Miguel asked.
“Yeah, that was cool. You’re the only other person who can see the fairies besides my Mama Nette.”
Miguel shook his head. “I cannot see them, but I know they are there. These flowers are a favorite of the forest. The beauty should ease the pain some, just like the song.” He began to hum again, a haunting melody that rose slowly and hovered over the area like the smoke from his pipe.
Armand planted the last of the flowers and wiped the dirt off on his pants. He sat cross legged on the ground not knowing what else to do began to hum along with Miguel’s tune. The forest spirit rolled its wooden eye his way and smiled peacefully before seeming to fall asleep.
As the spirit closed its eye, the ground about Armand came alive with movement. What he had thought were fallen branches strewn about the place began to wriggle. He soon realized they were roots, moving through the ground like a sea serpent diving in and out of the water. They moved in a seemingly endless flow toward the forest spirit and disappeared underneath it. Amazed, Armand wondered just how long these roots were as he continued to hum along with Miguel.
He watched the roots flow in from the dark forest, and into the blue light given off by the mushrooms until he heard footsteps approach with them. Before he knew what was happening, he was swept up in a constricting embrace that was even more frightening than being half-buried by a spirit.
“Armand, my boy! I thought I’d never find you!” Mama Nette said, squeezing him tight.
Armand tapped frantically on the part of her arm he could reach and squeaked out,” I can’t breathe!”
Mama Nette released him and held him at arm’s length. “Where have you been? Why did you not answer your calls?!!?” She looked as angry as he’d ever seen her.
“I-I’m sorry Mama Nette. I went to close the gate and the fairies flew away. I knew you’d be mad at me if I lost them so I chased after them. But then I got a lost. My com-ring is probably broken now,” he said lowering his head in shame. “I found two of the fairies though!” He hoped that would lessen the punishment coming his way.
“You better believe I’m mad at you, running off like that without a word!” Then recognition shone in her eyes. “Wait, you said you saw them. You saw the fae folk?”
“Yeah, I know! I didn’t believe it at first either. But, hey! There are the other three, sitting on that root there.” The fairies rode in a side saddle fashion as the root glided past man Armand had never met before who had a shirt tied around his waist.
A wide smile spread across Mama Nette’s face, and she wrapped Armand up tightly once more. “This makes me so happy, my boy. And I am so, so grateful you are safe. This is Eric,” she said, letting him go and gesturing to the unknown man who waved meekly at him. Then Mama Nette’s face hardened. “But what are you doing here? What is going on?” she asked, addressing Miguel on his rock.
Miguel had stopped his humming and now raised his chin defiantly. “Anette Treme, are you still imprisoning plants for your own benefit?”
Mama Nette crossed her arms. “It is a garden, not a prison, Miguel. Not all of us want to forage and live in the wilderness like animals.” Armand stood back, wide-eyed, wondering if he’d have to break up an old people fight. Ginger, Bissy, and Nettle seemed unperturbed by the hostility in the air and joined the other fairies around the spirit’s circle, dancing to cricket song.
Eric was examining the roots withdrawing into the ground underneath the circle. “I don’t mean to interrupt this, uh happy reunion, but you live out here?” Eric asked, studying the tail ends of the roots as they withdrew completely underneath the figure at the center of the circle.
Miguel crossed his knees and took another puff from his pipe. “Yes, I live in the forest, though I was about to leave. It cannot sustain me anymore.”
“I’ll say,” Mama Nette scoffed.
Miguel ignored her. “I used to make potions for people who didn’t care where their healing came from, so long as they were cured. I left Newburg and the ways of people behind me, and came to this place. I tuned into the forest’s dreaming. It was restless and troubled. Then, a few months ago, the trash fell from the sky. Chemicals leached into the roots and woke the spirit. I knew it was distressed.”
The air seemed heavy around them and thunder rolled light and low in the distance. Anise broke away from the fairy dance and came to rest on Armand’s shoulder. Mama Nette smiled at them.
Eric approached the tree woman encircled by glowing blue mushrooms and star flowers. “This IS the forest isn’t it?”
Miguel nodded, his wrinkled mouth puckered around his pipe.
Eric shook his head. “I don’t understand. If you knew something was wrong, why didn’t you say something? People were hurt, they could have been killed.”
“Would the words of an old, wild man have been more convincing than huge, furry legs walking around town? Anyhow, this is beyond Newburg’s knowledge to heal.”
Eric sighed and knelt beside the circle. “I’m sorry. I thought I would be able to help you, but I don’t know how.” The tree woman’s eye remained closed.
It thundered again, closer this time, and Armand felt rain sprinkle his face and arms.
Eric stood and tapped his com-ring, but received no response. “I checked the weather before I left this morning, and there was no rain predicted for days.”
Mama Nette chuckled. “Meteorologists and fortunetellers. Do they ever get it right?”
It began to rain harder, snuffing out the lantern’s flame. Eric looked confused. “The weather has been right since I moved here at least.”
By the blue light of the mushrooms, Armand could see the forest spirit changing once again. This time, instead of changing shape, it seemed to shrink and wither. Miguel leaned close to it and said, “The forest is losing control.”
“Losing control of what?” Mama Nette asked, putting an arm around Armand.
Eric pulled a leaf from a nearby tree and rubbed it between his fingers. “No, you’re right. I think it’s starving. It’s opening the stomata on all the leaves to get as much CO2 as it can, but it’s dumping water in the process. Have you noticed the air getting muggy the past few hours?”
“What does this mean?” Mama Nette demanded.
“If every tree in the forest is transpiring all its water at the same time, it means we’re about to get rain. And a lot of it.”
As if to add more weight to Eric’s words, lightning struck nearby, and Armand fought back a flinch. Anise patted his shoulder in comfort.
“It’s cool, I’m cool,” he said to everyone.
“It is not cool. That was very close,” said Mama Nette.
“Into the cave,” Miguel said, gesturing behind him to the opening in the base of the boulder mound. Eric helped the old man to his feet and together the group trudged through the surging rain toward the dark mouth of the cave.
Armand shook the water from is shirt after entering the cave. It was dry but dark and cold. There was a notable absence of light from his left shoulder.
“Anise?” His voice bounced off the cave walls, but he couldn’t find her glow in the darkness. “Anise! She’s out in the storm!” he said as Mama Nette grasped his shoulders, preventing him from running into the rain again.
Peering out from the cave opening, he could see five flame-like fairy lights darting to and fro in the pouring rain, the intermittent lightning drowning their warm glow in its intensity.
Mama Nette’s voice reached out to him from the darkness. “My heart is glad to know you care for them, but fairies aren’t like us. They live beyond the physical, and the storm can’t harm them. The only way to kill them is to take away the land where they live, and even then they don’t really die. They just become something else.”
Armand heard a whoosh and a campfire was lit several feet behind him.
“Sorry. I couldn’t find my fire powder. I had everything packed away to leave, but it seems the forest does not want me to go yet,” Miguel said, sprinkling a red powder over dry logs.
“And what about the forest spirit? It’s all alone out there in the lightning.” The campfire smoke stung Armand’s eyes, but he blinked it away.
Miguel roosted on another squat stone near the fire. “The spirit welcomes the storm. Heavy rains tear down dead tree limbs, and wash good soil over the roots. You see your fairies there, so it is not alone. They will sing the song and help the animals find safe places.”
Turning away from the ever-increasing downpour, Eric sat back along the cave wall near the fire. “I guess we’ll have to wait it out here. I’m glad for shelter. I didn’t pack any of my rain gear.”
Armand helped Mama Nette ease into a sit on the ground where she massaged her knees. He sat down next to her and watched Eric rummage through his rucksack.
“Did the fairies take my specimen containers too?” he asked Mama Nette.
“Probably,” she chuckled.
Eric tsked in disappointment. “I was going to take a sample of the mushrooms out there.”
“You can see the fairies too?” Armand asked.
“No, I don’t see any fairies,” Eric said, glancing around him nervously.
“But you see the blue mushrooms. I thought they were just like, fairy lights or something.”
“No! It’s interesting. There are several species of mushrooms that create a chemical reaction that leads to bioluminescence. We call it foxfire or fairy fire. It’s typically just green though. I’ve never seen it this blue. Anyways, we don’t really know why they do it. Some scientists think it’s to attract bugs to spread spores.”
“Or the fairies are just messing around,” Armand said.
Eric raised his eyebrows in consideration. “That could be one explanation.
Another thunderclap boomed above them. The ground shook and the cave wall in front of Armand began to radiate a circle of golden light. He scrambled to his feet and pulled his Mama Nette along with him. She clutched him to her as the circle of light faded outward to form a ring. Jeff the Watcher and Mz. Bliss stepped through the ring along with a tall man whom Eric called Akua. The cave was becoming cramped. Akua settled himself by Miguel and the fire while Jeff and Mz. Bliss remained standing.
“Dr. Jimenez, I’m pleased we were able to locate you,” Mz. Bliss said, though she didn’t look pleased. She looked sopping wet. Her normally gravity-defying, blunt bob lay slick against her head and dripped water into her eyes.
Eric stood and hastily tucked in his shirt. “Wait, how exactly did you find me?”
Jeff, pushed his black sunglasses farther up his nose. “As I mentioned before, your magic appears quite brightly.”
Mz. Bliss removed a damp lock of hair from her forehead. “Do you have any notion of what the forest is doing now? The roots embedded in Mercury Street withdrew earlier. We thought it was a good sign that you had found the solution to our problem. However, shortly afterward, chaos erupted all over Newburg. Fires sprouted spontaneously, numerous hover craft collisions were reported, and an immense storm developed out of clear skies. The town has been evacuated to the shelter below what used to be City Hall. We’ve lost several important buildings and one neighborhood to the flames.”
“Louisa!” cried Mama Nette.
Mz. Bliss turned to her sharply. “Louisa is in the shelter. It took some time removing her from her home because she thought you might come back, Armand. But I am pleased to find you are well.” Again, Armand did not think she looked pleased, but he attempted a smile. “Your daughters were evacuated safely also, Dr. Jimenez, but please tell me you know what is going on. I have an officer who claims fairies are to blame. Before I declare him unfit for his duties, I thought I should find you first. I hope you can advise me further because this all seems connected to your area of expertise.”
Eric cleared his throat. “I don’t know how to advise you because what I’ve found leads me to believe there is nothing we can do.” Mz. Bliss folded her arms, awaiting an explanation. Eric continued. “There is no Mother tree here. The spirit of the forest went haywire searching for it and trying to keep itself alive, but it’s run out of time. The forest is-“
“Dying,” said Miguel.
“Empty,” said Armand simultaneously. A bolt of lightning struck outside and lit up the cave for a moment. All eyes turned to him. “Anise said the forest was empty.” Mz Bliss knit her brow in confusion.
“He’s not wrong,” Eric said. “Being cut off from the Mother tree would be like being cut off from your own heart. No wonder it was so angry.”
“Cut off, you say. What do you mean cut off?” Mz. Bliss asked shifting her weight to her other high heeled foot.
“The roots I thought would lead to the Mother tree ended at the Edge Line. I couldn’t go any farther.”
“The Edge Line…” Mz. Bliss said to herself. “Mr. Igwe, I need to go to the Liaison’s Office, please.” Akua nodded and stood before touching the cave wall with his right hand and snapping with his left.
“Take Armand with you! Louisa will be so worried,” Mama Nette said desperately.
“We’re not going to town. From what I’ve seen, he might be safer here, Mrs. Treme.”
The portal opened, and the shimmering circle gave way to a white walled room lit by bright sunlight. Armand caught a glimpse of blue carpet and a gold chair before the watcher, Mz. Bliss, and finally Akua stepped through. The portal then vanished with a flash of light.
Immediately after the portal closed, Armand felt rain on his face. Soft at first and then hard stinging pellets. Wind whipped all around him, tugging at his clothes. The campfire sputtered and went out. Then, just as abruptly, the wind and rain stopped, and the cave was quiet again.
“What. Was that.” Eric insisted from the darkness.
A match blazed as Miguel puffed his pipe back to life. “It is as I feared. This cave is here only because I asked the forest for shelter. It will not be here for much longer.”
“That woman! I told her to take Armand away from here. Now we are in even more danger!” Mama Nette growled.
A colossal bolt of lightning struck outside, illuminating the frightened faces of the cave dwellers. Thunder clapped low and fierce, making the ground quake so much that Armand felt his teeth chatter. He pulled his knees into his chest as the rain fell so hard he could no longer see the fairy or mushroom glow. The cave wavered once more before disappearing altogether, and they were all doused with water. Wind lashed at Armand’s skin as he watched lightning trace the low hanging clouds above them.
Mama Nette buried his face in her shoulder, and he thought he heard her sobs being carried away on the wind. The electric smell of ozone reached his nostrils, and the hair on his arms stood on end. Lightning was about to strike, and close. Armand clenched his eyes shut and clawed his fingers into Mama Nette’s shawl, steeling himself for the shock. Thunder hammered all around him, making his ears ring in its aftermath.
But the fateful lightning strike never hit. After a moment, Armand opened one eye. The wind and rain had quieted. The cave was back in place. He carefully untangled himself from Mama Nette’s shawl, and saw the rain outside had diminished to a sprinkle. Anise floated with a tranquil air into the cave, and Mama Nette released Armand from her iron-clad grip.
“Come,” Anise whispered. The fairy flew from the cave and Armand followed closely. Through the misty drizzle, he could see a dim light was forming beneath the crowns of the trees.
“It’s morning,” he said as his companions exited the cave, bleary-eyed and stiff. They gathered around the waning light of the foxfire mushrooms, and at last, even the drizzle finally subsided. The five fairies flew toward the center of the circle which was now empty. Armand hung his head in sadness; the tree woman was gone.
Dawn breached the forest canopy and shafts of gilded light beamed between green leaves. Anise lit on Armand’s shoulder and gave him a sweet smile. To his right, Miguel gave a surprising and hearty laugh. An emerald colored hummingbird darted about his head.
“Oho! My friends! Hummingbird always brings a happy message.” The diminutive, green bird flew circles around the group and then zipped away, following the sun beams to the west. Miguel’s brown eyes widened and he reached to grip Mama Nette’s hand. She seemed disturbed, but didn’t pull away. “Do you know what this means?” He shook her hand in his excitement. Mama Nette was at a loss. “Did you see which way it flew?” He asked with a twinkle in his eye.
“Through the Edge Line,” said Eric. At once, he climbed the boulders to the top of the cave where he balanced on his tip toes and gazed west.
Armand had to see what all the fuss was about and, with a little boost from Anise, scaled the rocks after Eric. The world looked different from on top of the mound.
“Haha! There she is!” Eric pointed to a great pine tree in the distance towering at least twenty feet over all the others.
“The Mother tree. But how in the world...” he trailed off scratching his head.
Armand looked to Anise. “Did you do that?” The fairy shook her head no and shrugged her twiggy shoulders.
Eric was eager to explore the newfound forest which had always seemed to be there but never was. Until now that is. However, he felt a more urgent desire to ensure his daughters were safe and sound in Newburg. He shook Miguel’s weathered hand, and Armand did the same.
“Thanks for pulling me out the mud.”
“Eh. You were meant to grow free.”
With that, they watched him walk steadily past where the invisible barrier of the Edge Line should have been, the green hummingbird darting playfully around him.
The walk back to Newburg was more of a slog, and all the while Armand wished he had on a dry outfit. What was wearing was still rain-soaked and caked in mud. Eric and Mama Nette didn’t look much better. At least she couldn’t get onto him for staining his clothes.
The five fairies hovered around Mamma Nette who was leaning heavily on her walking stick. Armand could tell her knees were hurting her. He couldn’t believe she had walked all this way just for him. He bit his lip as a twinge of guilt hit his chest.
At the tree line, where the forest gave way to meadow, they were met by a cloud of fairies retreating from Newburg. Eric was baffled, by the looks of awe on his cohort’s faces. There must have been hundreds of them. “I’ve never seen so many at once,” Mama Nette said in wonder. As the fairies settled back into the forest, Armand could still see their glow like the sunlight glinting on the tree leaves.
Hungry and exhausted, they arrived in Newburg to find it nearly obliterated. There were deep gashes in Mercury Street and in the theater where the forest roots had torn concrete and cobblestones away. Several buildings were still smoking from recently snuffed fires. The school, and the hospital still stood, but City Hall, and –ironically- the fire department were burned to the ground. Levitation crews were already at work removing large debris, and emergency teams had created an orderly system of managing the lines of people leaving the evacuation center.
“Are there rebuilding fairies?” Eric asked, trying to take in the staggering amount of damage around him.
“Yes. They’re called humans,” Mama Nette answered with a sigh. “Though, the distribution center will reconstitute
what is broken and repairs will go quickly.” But Eric didn’t hear her. He saw his daughters emerging from a stairwell below the street. He ran to them and wrapped them in a painful looking hug.
“Armand?” he heard his name screamed from behind him, and before he knew it, he was nearly knocked over by the forceful embrace of his mother. She pulled away to look at his face. Her eyes were wild with fear and disbelief, and they streamed with tears. She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Instead, she squeezed him again. He leaned into her this time as Mama Nette hugged them both.
“I’m sorry I left the gate open,” Armand managed to say through squashed lips.
Mama Nette let go of them and said, “We won’t worry bout that no more. The gate will stay open. The fairies have a safe home in my garden, and they can come and go freely. As long as we don’t go digging holes in the forest, I think we’ll be ok. Come on, let’s go home.”
Sargent Marcus watched them walk away together. “I’m glad I can at least cross one child off my list. Another one was reported missing though, and I don’t think we can blame it on last night’s storm.”
Mz. Bliss took his note pad and surveyed the list of names. Her hair was dry now, but her curls a bit less controlled than usual.
“You’re certain your teams have searched everywhere.”
Sargent Marcus nodded. “Yes, Ma’am. We even also sent the rangers out. They’re reporting that Newburg’s forest has doubled in size by the way. Anyhow, with them, we’ve searched everywhere we can legally go without a warrant. Besides Armand, we haven’t found anything.”
“It’s time for a different tactic.” Mz. Bliss tapped and turned her com-ring. “Angelica? Get me Jacqueline Thurgood.”