Voice crooned in low-throated groans when we buried boy in sterile dirt. And there, between broken stumps where grass won’t grow, us two stood over quenched son with paper-dry skin. Only his face still left all unsoiled, all chipper-tune and wound tight at cheeks, skin taut over young bone frame. This where he die, where he lie without father’s arms for comfort, unhinged, gone. Where we found him like limp fish with no more raging against air, open-mouthed and marble-eyed and rot. I set down sad shovel, one that did somber work of burying. I wiped sweat from brow, scratched hair on my grey face, and looked around.
Surrounding us: scattered tree bones, all grey-dead and withered. Sun hung low and amber on horizon. Pink sky above saw no carrion birds, no flesh to peck on ground save for boy and his tight-wound doll cheeks, all apple and white rose.
I said to Voice, This place once called Forest, my eyes trained in place—turning to ground, I stooped over fresh-dug grave, rubbed dirt between thumb and fingers. Soil once fecund, barren now, I let out from gravel-throat.
Voice said nothing.
I lifted head to find Voice’s jaw open toward sky. He’d bounded past me, wailing impertinent over shallow burial. He had youth forgotten by land, these lowland plains that haven’t seen green springs nor red autumns since before Voice was born. Lot of song since then, Voice now tall and hairy-faced. I called to him, beckoned him return, and like birds in forgotten spring, he returned.
“He go with us, Blue?” Voice moaned. I cast my eyes down, back to boy: shame. Boy just one of lost people now, boy gone. I have no song for gone boys.
Out of my throat came a raspy cough, and I doubled over in my effort to slake my lungs. My throat cleared and I expelled something yolky and yellow, with texture of curdled milk. Voice tugged at my rough arm, eyes wide like spreading roots, and I looked up.
“Blue, where he go now?” Voice’s face: all apple and rose wood, like boy but warm and flush with hot blood boiling beneath his cheeks. All I can do to not weep for him: here he grows where there was nothing else. And loneliness for company. I swallowed. Once a time I thought maybe there somewhere to go after. Then, world still green and bright. Now, world dead as its trees. And this only world Voice knows.
He go nowhere, I said to Voice, picked up shovel from dirt to finish its cold work. He go nowhere, Voice.
Then I covered boy’s face, put shovel back to bag, and we went on our way.
Voice and I walked for long song, until Voice complained of aching feet. I said to voice, Keep walking, we can’t have gone far, boy, with last primal syllable that rang like heartbeat’s hum, or water in rusted bucket.
I’d kept head down whole way, brow furrowed and stony. For first time in long song, I looked up. There had been no life to pass—without tree or person or animal to mark our route, it looked as though we hadn’t left where boy was now buried. Like world turned backwards beneath our worn-shod feet. Were we going right way? Or were we lost in this thorny havoc-ridden bramble?
I gaped up at moon to find song of night. Late, moon high in sky. And Voice, tired and shorn of his day’s ardor, and I with no breath, what else to do but wait for sun to return fresh and newborn?
Here, long after green left land, heat of this dead prairie shrank to cold like blight. Grabbing axe and telling Voice to stay where his feet stood as if rooted, I left to pick dead wood for fire and let it burn to stave off freeze.
Here you stay, I said, and Voice turned his chin down to me.
As I left, he followed close behind.
Stay here, Voice, I demanded, but Voice would not listen. He who crooned low and sorrowful at boy, now swoon and unwound between ribs.
“Where to go without you, Blue?” His eyes filled like Robin’s eggs, and he went all chin-up and sullen and dropped like stone in water, moaning his guttural fears.
This where you belong right now, Voice, I said, kneeling down and squeezing both of his shoulders to comfort him. I’ll be back, you’ll see me whole time in this dead bosk.
I gestured to rotten trunks and uproots, caved in like hollow veins. These dead trees all naked for seeing through.
Dangerous work, cutting of limb and branch, I added with a smile, and this seemed to lull his anxieties. He rooted himself where he stood, this dumbly brave son of staggered world. And in return of my smile, I noticed small twitch of his cheeks.
Alone with these rotted giants hunched around me, I noticed many stumps of fallen wood-brothers. Men and their cruel work left their mark, and what remains is still there until men gone. During the Green, people didn’t worry about pocked face of land as it slowly turned brown, dust-covered. How we took world for granted, and shame in realizing that ground couldn’t be fixed. All left now for rot, us dwelling here until world begins again. We sons of darkest fathers who left us no world, we left to blight this land until drummed out by scorched song.
What I gleaned of skeletal forest: names of trees. Cedar, fir, pine, and hemlock. Their scarce water chanted in low tunes behind bark I could only hear because I stopped and listened. Trees, even dead, always talking, patient for us to listen. Faint smell of citrusy pine still clung to air like moss. I set my sight on what once was hearty pine, with its knots and rust-orange bark. Singing ancient intones of the fathers before me, I gripped my axe in calloused hands and took joy in slicing air until iron head hit trunk of wood.
What happened next was all hollow, all air and bark. Pine was gone, and in its place was molted skin of tree left behind. No sap or heartwood to speak of, only phloem and thin layer of bark. I sliced through like sickle through sheaf. I was felled by momentum, left laying on dry soil.
This awoke some primal sickness inside me, my stomach turned over and lungs churning. I turned to my side and retched out bile and sickly chunks. My nose left on fire, full of rotted sweetness. How easy it would’ve been, to let myself lay there until overcome by cold, to expunge myself of all that was left inside me and flicker out like smallest of flames. But I thought of Voice, of him finding my body crusted with foul sickness, of him, helpless and lonely, in these damned lands, and staggered back to my weary feet.
After vile song, I was astounded by what little bit of tree was left. Axe left sunken groove in bark—like shod foot kicking in rotted gourd. Looking into abandoned husk of tree, core was all turned to soft humus. Returning itself in slow way of trees to earth. This tree was felled by ancient forester and had reclaimed its place in horizon without waiting for body. And same for other trees.
I spent long song taking axe to other pines, to sparse-branched tamaracks, all left only thin-bark without heartwood. Not much to burn, but need wood to warm Voice’s rosy cheeks.
As I did work of felling bark, I remembered stories told by fathers about these false-limb trees, of elder foresters and their toothy misery whips. How they did their work, building home, table, and hearth with knotted lumber—what pride they took in this murderous labor. These woody boreal-beasts, how they toiled for centuries to grow branch and leaf, grew tall to shade sapling and understory and beasts below branches; and now, left all twig and stump, these diminutive sprigs of their proud forebears.
Over longest of songs—several hundred years but two generations for these ancient tree-fathers—bark began to sprout without help of heartwood or phloem, these trees so desperate for their place in sky. Tangled roots beneath held one another, forests becoming single tree of shared water and sun, they all hollow and unwound at the outset, gone blue. They called these Hollow-stumps, called them Trickwood. There was time whole world was one forest, and what joyous din that lush green was. But now earth diseased and rotted, blighted by hubris.
I thought of Voice as I continued—his proud youth, now almost eighteen years, no longer sapling. Taller than me, so much song behind him, so little left ahead. He with stubble on chin, without much wood left to burn. Because of me, of men like me and our selfish ache not to die. Voice has no word for Father, no cradled croon of Mother on his tongue. He’ll grow up not knowing love of parent nor child. Too young to remember my rearing him, of his mother felled by cleaving childbirth, and with somber-soil earth we have, he with no use for parents. Only me, quiet father left to dredge same ancient green-tune for Voice, to sing him warmest song until he joined lost people with me and his mother and Boy. Trees went for rot, but we became lost, too, in branches we broke—it was ourselves we felled in each severed stump.
Wood bark tucked beneath my arms, I looked for Voice in distance. Peering through branch and trunk, tree arms too thick to see through to tree line. If I couldn’t see him, Voice would be humbled and alone, also unable to see me. I tightened my grip upon bark and headed in direction that would lead me back to Voice.
And it was then men made themselves seen. From behind half-limp branches they came, all knife-face and stone-brow, gripping shivs to pierce flesh and make red rain. I leapt with start, trying to circumvent these pain sons. One cut me off in my path and coolly raised his shiv above his head. Look of hunger in his eyes.
I dove and fell to ground. He reached for me and the other drew his sharp object. My hands searched for whatever last glimpse of life they could find on ground, came up with holy stone. And for first time in long song, I felt grateful for earth, for what was left here after all else died. I rolled and rose to weary feet. One man flashed vicious smile, this struggle fun for him. He licked his lips and took closer step.
Inside my guts were on fire, and more than anything I suddenly wanted to give up, to let these horrid men fill me with what little sunlight was left. But then what might happen to Voice?
I rushed man with malicious smile, swiping with stoned hand. As I did, he drug his shiv across my arm. Small red pearls blossomed from cut, giving way to thick threads of blood dripping to ground, covering me in that thing that gives us life.
Man fell to ground, and I straddled over him, bringing heavy stone down on his head. Other man let his shiv bury itself in my shoulder blade as though he was clipping my wings. I shouted out in agony, hoping dearly that Voice was too far to hear my pain. Man with malicious smile lay still, his head turned pale red pumpkin. I drove stone into his concave face again, panting heavy and hard and mewling like lost cat.
Man no longer smiled.
Other man’s blade stung in my back—he twisted it. I swept at his legs, trying to bring him to ground, too.
History is full of these men who want nothing but to take, to dominate. In these men I saw my own father, all fathers who took world and relieved it of life.
Other man staggered over me, grabbing my shoulders and digging his teeth into my neck. He bit down hard. I pulled away and touched spot where he’d bit; soaked in blood. I turned to face him and his teeth were chewing. He looked at me with indulgent swallowing, and he licked his bloody lips.
I let out roar, went all animal and ragged. I ran into him and we both fell to ground. And there we rolled over one another, gritting our teeth and tensing our faces, clawing and scraping at one another like pair of coyotes. He and his bloody mouth nipped at me, wanting always for more flesh and wide-eyed at the thought. But I had no song to cower, to fear other man and his cruel intention. I only had to react, to struggle against him, to get back to Voice.
He was on top of me and pinned my arms to cold ground. I fought to raise my chest and rage against him, my anger so hot as to singe his wretched skin. He came down on me and bit at my shoulder. And in this he untensed in joy, his hunger being slaked.
It was then I overpowered him; I rolled and found myself atop him. For moment blood dripped on his face and he lapped at it with his foul tongue like dog at bowl of water. Out of corner of my eye I saw stone, and in one fluid movement grabbed it and brought it down on his vicious head. He struggled; strove to upturn me and further sup from my flesh.
This couldn’t happen.
Again my stone met his head, and again, and again, until he lay still as trees surrounding us. I wailed and breathed until all of my insides felt outside. Until I, too, was hollow as trees, as these men and their hungering eyes.
My stomach churned, and I upturned what little was left inside me—forest reeked of things meant to be inside us. Coppery blood, sour bile, atavistic fear.
I tore cloth from other man’s shirt and wrapped my wounds, small rubies dotting the dirty bandages. And again I thought of Voice, hoping men had found me first. In way of parents, those child guardians, I had no song to wonder or worry at what may have happened. All I could do was rise.
I strode gape-jawed over to where I’d dropped bark, returned it safely to my grasp, and headed briskly toward tree line where Voice was surely waiting.
When I got back with bark under each arm, Voice still stood tall where I’d left him, singing a somber-throat song. Night made its way over land, and Voice swathed himself with his arms for warmth.
“I-I stayed r-right here, Blue. Didn’t m-move.” His voice stuttered as he spoke, cold settling deep in his bones. I set down hard worked bark.
It was then I felt cold, realized with shiver how sun had left us to wither and freeze.
Good boy, I said, ruffling his dirty hair with my hand, small smile creeping across my face. Blood made its way through my bandages—I tried to hide my pain by covering bandages with my clothes, in not letting it fill my voice.
Voice looked at my toothy smile all curious and wide-eyed, his own lips attempting to do same. So few reasons for my boy to smile, his muscles not made for happiness. After short song of twisting and contorting his face to mimic my own mirth, he gave up. How sorrowful this sad act made me, that Voice, my boy, couldn’t offer grin nor simper, simple twitch of cheeks.
I shook my head, busied myself with work of fire. From my bag I pulled flint and steel, and set to striking one to other. Block of steel almost gone, I knew it wouldn’t be long song until fire making became more arduous, if possible at all. While I worked, Voice toiled with dirt, using thinnest bark to draw lines, last utility of these barren lands. Eventually, I struck steel just right, and sparks latched onto wood, growing until they were flames.
Voice, I called, Voice, come warm your bones.
But Voice wouldn’t listen, content to push dirt in freeze of night. I let him play for now, my boy, and let myself tire and feel weariness of day.
I thought of where we’d go next day. Headed north, where land grows coldest. Where I was told lived others, people to take care of Voice when I finally joined lost people. Short song left for me—I reeked of death down to my marrow. My duty was done once Voice was safe, once I knew his song would be sweet and warm and full of smiles—way mine was with Voice’s mother before she was all lost and cold and limp-bodied. Death couldn’t take me until then; I still had work left undone.
Voice was nestled beneath crook of my arm when I awoke. Over course of night we’d folded and huddled together. I turned my eyes to where fire was, left all coal and ember, still hot beneath ash but dim against early rays of morning light. In greener times, boy his age wouldn’t slumber so tightly with his father, but earth so cold now—few places elsewhere to find warmth but people around you.
Before I rustled him awake, I took in his face: crooked, gaunt, with sharp-angled hook nose like greenest hill slanting up to eyes that were shut, but that I knew were river-blue and bright as my own. He and his boyish innocence seemed out of place in world so void of life, so harsh and bleak, making vagrants and hungry nomads of all of us but Voice, last vestige of what was once pure in this world.
Newborn sun hummed light on our faces, which stirred Voice from his dreaming back to this hellish nightmare of day that awaited him. His youth lifted him to his feet before I noticed he was awake.
“Blue, sun is high, Blue!” He shrieked, his flute-toned voice brighter than new day, slicing air with his finger, pointing to his bright-brother sun. “New day, Blue, where we go now?”
He bounced as he spoke.
I grimaced at light, my aged bones too heavy to force myself up. Slowly, I rose, smelling memories of moist morning air. This scent once called morning dew, once called sweet grass and lilac, now just dirt.
Noting sun’s fixed place in sky before me, I turned left, pointed, said That way, Voice. We go north.
Voice was impatient as he waited for me to ready myself for travel—stretching, packing my bag, putting off leaving. After short song, though, we went north, and Voice sang bright morning tune. I didn’t bother stomping out embers from fire, nothing left around to burn.
What accompanied us then but Voice’s gleeful croons, his joyful growls echoing across plains. Morning that came as unwanted friend left as welcome traveler through thicket, field, and brittle-dry bramble. Following this long and chipper song came solitary bluebird.
Voice, without name for feather-brother, asked what she was called.
Creature called Bird, I let. Listen for her warble, Voice.
And after came sweetest notes from Bird, and like some ancestral stretch, Voice’s lips went corner up, thin smile like curve of axe head, just for shortest song. If only I could freeze this moment, could slow and drone until each tensile chirp was strewn across our lives, to watch forever my son’s timid smile and newfound friend-bird and see it awash with its quiet, colorful vibrance, how green that moment was, and how it held me dying in its very grasp.
But Voice, silly and mercurial, trotted up to Bird, scaring her until she fluttered away.
“Why’d Bird leave, Blue?” Grin was gone, and Voice was left all lonesome and groaning.
And how inconsolable Voice was when I told him he’d scared Bird off.
Bird is delicate thing, I said, and how sorry that made Voice.
He threw himself on ground, moaning his remorse to dirt. Pity of young boy learning how much he can hurt, of his unwanted dominion over smaller things.
He raised his fist like stone and struck his head in anger, in loathing. Something in me turned and I ran over to him with jolt. Men and their faces I’d stoned just one night earlier came into my head. And in that moment I felt same as those fathers who served only death, who fought and murdered and consumed what life there was to dominate. He raised his fist to hit himself again, and I grabbed it from air.
No Voice, I said and shook my head, though he couldn’t see from his place in dirt. My own voice shook with sorrow at seeing Voice hurt himself. Soil soaked up his tears, was perhaps thirsty for nourishment.
I looked to sun for song; it hung high in sky. But Voice still unwound.
We have to go on, I tried to say stern, but what came out was all cracked and woeful. All I wanted was to hold my boy in my arms, to weep with him over his folly, to console him. But I felt sickness in my bones, and there was no song for comfort. I lifted Voice and carried him in my arms until eventually his sorrow tired him out.
I walked for as long as I could, but Voice was larger than me and we only made it short distance before I had to stop, rest. We did this for song after song, me carrying my boy for far stretches, then laying down. For whole song Voice didn’t move, only stared ahead at cruel future that would only continue to hurt him.
Shortly after, I heard thrum of water rushing in river. It was afternoon by then, beads of sweat dripping salty onto my lips. Voice rose to calming sound of water slicking in cascades across wide rocks. I set him down and we slaked our dry throats. River was clear and clean, without filth of alewives and trout to muddy it. Far afield were does teaching their fawn to forage. We washed our faces like our ancestral fathers once did, when earth was greenest. This was first time in long song Voice and I were clean-faced.
To the north were large hills that would prove burdensome, but for that moment, we were blithe and unsullied.
And what else but steep incline that followed—what but largest hill for walking. We toiled uphill for long song—passing rock and dirt and little else—until we reached hill’s crest. Pain in my chest that followed our ascent, like swollen apple between my ribs, thumping dull and harsh until I was left wheezy and heaving.
I bid Voice to wait, to be patient as I stalled death’s slow stroll along shore of my body. I dropped to my knees and allowed myself to purge. And with each retching hack, I hoped to find source of my malady, that my body would reject the malcontent bile inside me and I would be done with it. Death glinted in red lights before my eyes, casting Voice’s shadow on ground against plot of blood.
But that simple release never came.
Voice—young boy too docile for words, who watched me quiet and gloomy as I clawed at dirt for life. Who wept at frightening gentle Bird, this young lad whose only friends were death, sickness, and this ill-father not long for world. Who knew neither mother nor tree, not as either was meant to be. Who seemed to shimmer in this gone world, who looked like boy buried in dirt. He who was hushed melody and whose single smile left me reeling and my chest stumbled. What would he do if I died here?
“It’s okay, Blue,” Voice said as he placed trembling hand on my slumped shoulder, as though he were giving me permission to die and leave him cold and alone. “It’s okay.”
It almost killed me to pull myself back to my feet, but after several agitated moments, I stood with Voice at top of hill.
You’re what’s good here, Voice, I said, here in these infertile plains, and he contorted his face back into his thin half-smile. I turned to find song of day near sung, dark crowding from west. From there, from highest point in sight, we saw these plains ready their slumber.
I was surprised to see death still flashing in red before me. This vicious color surrounded Voice, blackened him until he was all silhouette, until he became light’s blinking negative space. This light I thought was called Death blinked in steady rhythm, mechanical in its promise to return. “Where we go now, Blue?”
Finally, I shook my head, looking up from Voice and winking away fog in my head. Death was nowhere to be seen, and what stood tall to our north were metal trees, dozens, with long, smooth trunks that punctured sky high in air. In place of crown there were spinning blades, birling quiet hum as they did. And nestled at their top like birds’ nests were red lights flickering with each other, some synchronized, ocular chorus. How foreign these machinations, how sweet their sight, like Voice set against sorrowed lands from which we’d come. From where he’d been born and since seen little else.
My boy and I stood slack-jawed for what felt like longest song, like salmon gasping after being hooked. These small beams of mercy were still furlongs away, our work not yet done.
But in distance, longer song even still than metal trees, I noticed fence and fire and small shelters, what I once knew as Home. I formed word with my mouth, how ancestral shape felt, full of breath in its huh that bled into good holy O and soft hum of mmm. There was work of men in field following this steel thicket.
Voice looked to me, bewildered, he who hasn’t seen men other than his sorry father since song he can’t remember. And in that moment, I felt lighter in my shoulders, as though soothing balm came over me.
“That where we go?” Voice’s head hung in disbelief. My throat felt clogged—I cleared it, red-coated mucus coming up for me to spit out.
I nodded to Voice and let to him, Almost there, Voice, little song left to go.
J.R. Allen is a writer currently living in southwest Ohio. He is the editor-in-chief of Ox Mag, as well as the fiction editor of Great Lakes Review. He’s currently working on a collection of stories about the natural world and humanity’s place in it. His work can be found in Ample Remains, Wretched Creations, Daily Drunk Magazine, Chaotic Merge, No Contact Magazine, Dunes Review, and elsewhere.
photo by Dikaseva (via unsplash)