When winter comes to Vakning Forest, nothing changes. The evergreens, packed tightly together, don’t wilt or become bare. Nor does the smell fade. As the winter deepens, the snow covers the canopy like a blanket, and the scent of pine needles and pine cones follows the only path worn out of the darkness.
Outside the forest, where the path begins, is the cottage of Abi and Odo Tremord. It has a red roof, brown walls, and a whitewashed, waist-high fence. In the yard stands a pine tree, a sapling, half as tall as the forest.
While the kitchen looks out over the pine tree, Odo’s wood chopping block looks towards the forest. So it is that Odo is the first to notice any man exiting the forest.
It was always an adult, stumbling along the path on legs with newly formed muscles. The Tremords would take the man in, feed him, clothe him, and set him to bed. Then they’d teach him: wood chopping, speaking, etiquette. And when the season changed next, they’d see the colour on the horizon as the Bastler came trundling along, his wagon painted that garish orange. They would dress up the man in the finest clothes Abi had made, and all three would wait at the path’s end for the Bastler to arrive.
When he did, the Bastler would get off the wagon. He would wave his black cloak around for show, with its purple inner trim and the wolf fur on the cuffs, and he would flash a smile which showed off his pointy canines, stark against the perfection of his other teeth. He would inspect the man.
“The forest made you mighty,” the Bastler would say after checking the man’s teeth with his eyes and a finger. Then he would push the man into the back of his wagon and get back in front of the horses, and prepare to leave. “Does he know when to run and when to walk? I can’t set him to work if he can’t show common sense.”
“Yes, Sir.” Odo would reply, every time. And then, “Sir Bastler, please.”
And the Bastler would stop and look at the pine tree, the area around it always perfectly cared for by Abi and Odo, and he would look back into his wagon at the new man he had just been given, and he would say: “Look after the pine. Make it mightier, taller, until it can catch the snow.”
“Please, Sir,” Abi would say, gripping Odo’s arm so tightly he would bruise. “Our daughter.”
The Bastler would sigh and take the reins. “It’s not enough yet to tip the scales. What is worth your daughter’s life? This person? Any one person?”
Abi and Odo would slink back into the house and Odo would sink into a mood while Abi moved without feeling the things she did. And this was how it went, Odo chopping wood until he felt himself return to normal, and Abi preparing for the next new person to arrive.
At the end of the night, Abi and Odo would go out and clean and tend to the pine; rake the needles and cones out from beneath it, check it for rot and bugs, and measure it on the sunset shadow.
“It’s getting taller,” Odo would say.
And Abi would nod and force a smile, and wonder when she stopped believing him. Abi would glance towards the path to the forest and wonder what happened to the ones that went with the Bastler.
And so, that night, it was Abi who first noticed the person that stumbled out of the forest along a moonlit path.
It was a girl.
Abi covered her mouth with a hand.
“No, really. I honestly think it’s taller now,” Odo said, admiring their work.
Abi was shocked, too much to move. Odo watched her face and moved to hug her before he too noticed the teenager stumbling out of the forest.
Odo grabbed one of the blankets they piled by the door and ran out to meet her, draping the blanket over her and helping her into the house. Abi had moved into the kitchen and was working on dinner.
“Soup tonight?” Abi asked, her face blank. Odo could see the numbness painted on her face.
“I could eat,” he replied. He walked the girl to the spare bedroom and laid her upon the bed. She didn’t move, watching the wall. Occasionally her eyes would drift to the window that was just above the bed, as if she were watching the sunset.
“You’re brand new,” Odo said. “We’re here to help you. Some of you can understand us and some of you cannot. But we are here to help, and if you have any questions, we will answer them. You get to be lazy for the next few days while your body learns to be, but then we will begin teaching you to be human; the appropriate times for laughter, when to run and when to walk.
“My wife is going to be very quiet when you meet her. She’s going to have trouble with this,” Odo smiled and used the end of the blanket to wipe some dirt off the girl’s nose.
The girl reacted as a child, intrigued that something was reaching for her face. At no point did she flinch or move away. Odo did this every time, to teach them he was safe. Let them work for Abi’s affection, for his he gave freely.
“Can you understand me?” Odo asked.
The girl looked him in the eye and Odo realised that her eyes were green, like the forest pines. And then the girl nodded and curled up in the blanket more tightly.
Odo slapped his knees slightly and then moved out into the kitchen. He shut the door quietly and walked over to the table where Abi had placed dinner, two bowls. Odo watched Abi’s face and smiled when she caught his eyes.
“She’s too tired to eat now. But she’ll be hungry later,” Odo said.
Abi sighed, picking up one of the bowls. “I don’t want any.”
“Then why would you…? Alright,” Odo said.
“A part of me wishes to send you after the Bastler right now.”
“We are not doing that, Abi.”
“As soon as we can, she’s going,” Abi said.
“I meant that I won’t go after the Bastler. We treat her the way we treated the men. Maybe this will tip the scale.” There was a light in Odo’s eyes that Abi hadn’t seen in a long time. It filled the room a little, and made her believe, for just a second.
“We do it right this time,” Abi said, glancing at the part of the pine illuminated out the kitchen window.
Odo reached over and grabbed Abi’s other hand. He squeezed it tight.
“Will you come meet her with me?”
Odo didn’t wait for an answer; he stood up and pulled his wife up with him until they were nearly hugging and then he guided her to the door.
“What did you name her?” Abi asked.
“I didn’t name her. I want her to choose her own name,” Odo said.
“Why?” Abi asked.
Odo opened the door. “I can’t save her, but she can own herself this way.”
“Can she?” Abi asked.
The door had opened on an empty bed, with a blanket thrown across it. The window above the bed was open.
“Did she run away?” Odo asked.
“Obviously,” Abi said.
“None of them have ever done that before.”
“Maybe she’s different,” Abi said, sarcastically.
Odo climbed on the bed and looked out the window. There was nothing, just the darkness past the light that shone out from the window.
“Do you think she went back into the forest?” Odo asked.
“None of the others have done that, Odo. I think she’s still here, just around the house somewhere.”
“Should we look for her?”
“No, let her freeze to death,” Abi said.
Odo bit the inside of his lip and nodded. He didn’t want to say it, but he could barely contain himself.
“Better she freezes to death than goes with the Bastler? Is that what you’re thinking?” Abi said, with a loud scoff.
“I mean… Yes,” Odo said, with a shiver. “But we need to find her.”
“We do. Remember the time you tried to hide one from him?” Abi asked.
The Bastler had not believed them when they’d said there was no one. He had walked through the house silently. Then he’d raised his hands so that his thumbs entwined and his fingers made wings. He had aimed his hands through every door in the house until he stopped on the cupboard under the sink and their current trainee had crawled out voluntarily without the Bastler so much as saying a word.
The Bastler had left, just flashing them a forced smile. Abi had sworn that there was one extra tooth that was sharp in that smile. And after he had gone, the pine shed almost all its bark and they’d found black skinned insects they’d never seen before crawling on its skin for weeks.
“What did we call those insects?” Odo asked.
“Barkles,” Abi said. She covered her mouth quickly with her eyes wide.
“Did you just giggle?”
“No. No!” Abi said. “I have no mirth.”
Odo looked at her with loving disbelief but let it go. “We’ll find her.”
They searched the house for hours. Every nook and every cranny. They even lifted up the trapdoor to the basement.
“It took both of us to lift it,” Abi said.
“What?” Odo asked. His fear of the basement reached his voice, so that he squeaked.
“How could this new girl with her brand new arms pull up the trapdoor when it took both of us?”
Odo breathed out so quickly he set off some dust, and began to cough. Abi pulled Odo from the entrance of the basement and let the trapdoor slam. As the trapdoor hit the ground, the room shook. And then, above them, they heard a shuffle.
Odo and Abi looked up together, at the roof that neither of them had even noticed for years. They rushed outside, Odo still coughing slightly. And there was the girl, her arms wrapped around the chimney so tightly that they were almost bloodless.
“Please come down,” Odo said.
The girl shook her head.
“You could freeze,” Abi said, flippantly, before whispering, “If she freezes up there we can just pretend we didn’t see her, and then the Bastler won’t blame us.”
“If you let go, I’ll catch you,” Odo said.
Abi covered her mouth and her eyes widened again at this comment.
“You’ll catch her? You?”
“Yes, I will. I am dexterous like a fox.”
“You’re stubborn, like a badger.”
“You’re the badger,” Odo said, before turning back to the roof. “Please, just let go. I will catch you. And we will help you warm back up. There’s a fire in the kitchen.”
The girl looked at Odo and Abi. Abi finally turned away from Odo and looked at the girl, determined. “Let go,” Abi said.
And the girl did, and she tumbled down the roof and Odo caught her comfortably. She wrapped her arms around Odo’s neck and hugged him for warmth. Odo walked inside and laid her before the fire, and covered her in blankets. Then he sat in the chair before her and watched her. And Abi walked over and kissed his forehead.
“You were a good father,” Abi said.
Odo said nothing, just leaned his head back on the chair. He let his head sit in the nook that he’d created over so many years.
“How long ago did he take Aroha?” Odo asked.
“I do not know if numbers exist that high,” Abi said. “Since the sun could touch all sides of the forest at sunset. Since before the forest had an understory. Since the forest floor was clean. How long have the Apteryx been at war?”
Odo nodded and stared at the fire before placing another piece of wood on top. He watched the light spread, and saw how it bounced off the ceiling and threw shadows from the crossbeams.
“The Bastler didn’t check the roof last time,” Odo said.
Abi raised an eyebrow, and spoke. “No, he didn’t.”
“It’s just an idea. And I only mention it because I didn’t realise you were so sure Aroha wouldn’t come back. I thought it was a game we played, that I said she would and you said she wouldn’t, and we tempered each other to the middle that it was just a matter of time. But if you want this to end, I do too,” Odo said.
“You made a promise for both of us, and I’ve accepted it. You keep wanting it to end. I just want us to be happy,” Abi said, as she reached over to touch him.
Odo stood up to avoid her hand, picked up the girl, and carried her to her bed. When he returned he spoke quietly. “I’m going to bed.”
Abi watched the flames, the way they reached out to her when she breathed in. And pushed back when she breathed out. Because in this place, at this time, she was the only thing affecting the air.
It had started when Aroha was three. Odo would wake up at midnight, sweat-glistened and scared, and run to Aroha’s room and confirm she was okay. Sleeping, window open, with her sheets wrapped around her torso like a bandage. Odo would breathe again, fix the sheets over her and then walk back out into the kitchen.
He would check the newest forest man sleeping on the bedroll they’d laid out for him, warmed by the fire, and then crawl back into bed.
“Is there wood rot in your brain?” Abi whispered when he crawled back into bed. “She’s fine.”
“I know. I… What’s happening to me?” Odo would ask, clinging to her for comfort.
“Your brain is noticing something. But only you are noticing it, Aroha and I are fine. So maybe you’re just strange?” Abi muttered through her sleep haze.
Odo would laugh quickly and then press his chin into Abi’s shoulder in a way that she loved, that made her wriggle against him.
“That’s how we got Aroha; cut it out.”
But Odo couldn’t shake the feeling of danger that inched towards them. Odo would plan in his downtime, plan for the future, for teaching Aroha. For getting her a life away from the Bastler. Aroha wasn’t part of the deal.
“Can you speak?” he asked.
The girl tried and failed, her voice a croak.
“If you can climb a roof, you can start training.”
She followed him out to the front yard and they began by sweeping the snow off the path to the door. The girl followed after Odo’s actions. She learned quickly. Then they cleaned up around the pine, removing the needles and any cones that had fallen and setting them aside in a storage closet.
“Every day for the next few months, you and I will do these actions to get your arms and legs stronger. And then, afterwards, we will do exercise. And you will be able to outrun me, and out-jump me, and out-everything me. And then you will begin to chop wood with me and we will be ready,” Odo smiled. And the girl followed Odo’s actions and smiled back.
Odo realised that her smiling at him made him happy. So much so that he wasn’t faking his own smile anymore.
“Also, when you are ready and able, you may pick your name. Whatever you wish. And we will call you that. Until then, think about the fact that a name is yours. It is the sound that people make to call you. If they can call you, they can get your attention. If they have your attention, they have your focus, and to have someone’s focus is to hold magic in your hands. While you are here, you have mine. Just… mine.”
“End of speech,” Odo said and he began working through stretches and exercises he taught to all of the forest people. And as he did, he heard Abi begin moving around the kitchen making breakfast. They hadn’t spoken since last night. They had fallen asleep facing away.
The girl nodded.
“You are going to hate this work. It will be very hard as your body learns how to make small movements rather than big ones. But it will become easier.”
The girl opened her mouth and then closed it again.
“When you agree or want to show confirmation of understanding, you can say, ‘Yes.’ ” Abi sat down beside her and picked up the spoon. Abi grabbed the girl’s arm and put the spoon in the girl’s hand.
Abi showed her how to leverage the spoon between her fingers and thumb webbing. How she should hold it still and move her mouth towards it so that any spills fell back into the bowl. The girl tasted the soup, left over from yesterday, and moved her head over the bowl, learning very quickly that it was the easiest way to get the food into her mouth.
The girl licked her lips and smiled very wide, tiny bits of soup dripping out the sides of her mouth.
“Yes,” the girl said.
Abi laughed, and smiled, and then she nodded to herself. She reached up to pat the girl’s hair. Then she stopped her hand and stared at it.
“Will you be okay without help?” Abi asked.
“Yes,” the girl said, pride coming out along with more soup.
“Never speak with your mouth full,” Abi said.
The girl closed her mouth and tried to say yes at the same time.
Abi became wooden as she stood and walked to the door. She walked to Odo, who was outside looking after the pine, raking its needles and the cones.
“Alright. What’s your plan?”
Odo continued to clean as he spoke. He’d had the idea after the girl had climbed the roof. Then it had grown inside him and he didn’t want to let it go.
“She stays up on the roof, and she can get the jump on him. Then we’ll be able to kill him, and take his wagon and maybe… find her,” Odo said.
Abi was quiet. She was studying his face, noticing lines on his face that she’d either forgotten or never really seen before.
“We’ll need to tie her to the chimney, at the least hook her in with rope. Remember the bird sign?” Abi hooked her thumbs and held her hands out like wings. “The other guy came out of the closet on his own. And then there was the basement… What if she crawls off the roof?”
“That’s a good point. What else?” Odo asked, shivering at his memory of the basement.
“Are we trying to kill him?” Abi asked.
“I am,” Odo said.
Abi grew quiet, she walked over to the tree and leaned against it, feeling the bark scratch her back and trying to savour it.
“If we fail, he’ll kill us.”
“Feign ignorance. We had no idea she was up there or that she’d stolen the axe. How could we? No one came out of the forest since he was here last,” he said.
Abi shook her head slightly and closed her eyes. “That’s really weak. He’ll see through it.”
“No, he won’t. Not if we believe it ourselves.”
Abi opened her eyes and Odo was right in front of her. He kissed her softly, their lips touching for the first time in years. Their lips were both cracked yet, when touched, they sprang to life. They filled quickly, the pressure turning them red with blood and excitement.
Abi pushed him away slightly.
“Promise me you’re not trying to get yourself killed,” she said, the kiss still singing across her skin.
“I promise,” he said, his lips pulsing along with his heart. He leaned in and held her. He rested his head on the pine tree behind her. There was resin in his eyebrow but he didn’t care. He breathed her in, and she did the same, affecting the air together.
From the kitchen there was the clatter of a bowl.
Then the girl’s head popped out of the kitchen window, right in front of them. A mess of black hair and smiles.
“Yes,” she said, showing them her empty bowl. “Yes, yes, yes. More.”
Abi was tending the garden, not even looking up as the Bastler arrived. “Not yet, Sir Bastler.”
The Bastler walked over and studied the tomatoes, potatoes. And the carrots, with their heads poking out the top of the earth. “You’ve done quite well to survive here. These are for the new people?”
“Some, sure. We keep the rest ourselves, for when I cook.”
“Do you cook every meal?” The Bastler seemed incredulous.
“Of course,” Abi said. “However dull monotony is, why wouldn’t we cook?”
The Bastler gripped the crook of Abi’s neck in a pinch as he laughed, loudly. “I’ll be sure to bring you a cooking book next time. Maybe one from the Apteryx?”
Abi shrugged him off and stood up. She shouted into the house, “Odo. Hurry up.” She cleaned her hands on her apron while affixing the Bastler with a look of contempt.
“You two really keep to your old ways, don’t you? I’m sure Aroha is the proof of that. However, didn’t you want a quiet life? A quiet, safe life? That’s what Odo asked of me.”
“Maybe Aroha doesn’t want that?” Abi said as Odo emerged with a man so white he reflected the whole spectrum of the sun.
“Wow. The Apteryx have expanded, haven’t they?” the Bastler said.
“We don’t understand how it works, Sir Bastler,” Odo said.
“Scales and balances, Odo. You press down on one side, and the other side changes. If the Apteryx make a tree, we get a person.” The Bastler laughed.
“You know a lot about them, Sir,” Abi said.
“I lived with them a time,” the Bastler said.
Odo walked the man to the back of the wagon and then together, Odo and Abi walked the Bastler to the gate.
“As a favour, would you please save Aroha’s teeth for me when they fall out?”
“That would make me uncomfortable, Sir Bastler,” Odo said.
“I’ll pay you,” the Bastler said.
“With what?” Abi asked.
“Seeds. And cookbooks. Enough seeds for a season or one book per tooth.”
“No, Sir Bastler,” Odo said.
“I’ll bring a book and some aubergine for next time. Aubergine,” the Bastler said. He winked at Abi when he said aubergine.
“I love aubergine,” Abi said, her mouth beginning to water at the thought.
Odo watched her face, and felt the fear rising in him again.
“No, Sir Bastler,” Odo repeated, and he felt again the fear that kept waking him up at night.
“It’s fine, I’ll bring it with me next time anyway and we’ll see what happens, shall we?” and then the Bastler left, as quickly as he had arrived.
Odo walked in the door and cleaned his hands, dirty and sweaty from cutting more wood. The fire roared day and night during winter, at Abi’s request. Despite the relative warmth, she enjoyed the fire. And it gave Odo something to do, with all the wood they went through.
“Do it again,” Abi said to the girl.
The girl licked her thumb, grabbed the end of a piece of thread and twisted it against her wet thumb. Then, tongue hanging out the side of her mouth, she threaded a needle and tied it off.
“Wow…” Odo said. “It’s been ten days.”
“Yes, it has,” Abi said. “Damn, I’m good.”
Odo leaned against the back of Abi’s chair and his hand brushed against her back. Abi shivered when she felt it flash through her nerves like a wildfire.
“Yes,” the girl said. She smiled widely and often.
“That smile could melt the snow. Be careful now, I enjoy winter, I want it to stay a little longer,” Odo said.
“Cutting your wood all day,” Abi said, grinning at the girl with a wink.
The girl put down the thread and sat like Abi, hands on her knees leaning forward.
“We have more sewing to do. What are you doing?” Abi asked.
“I have chosen a name,” the girl said.
Abi and Odo slowly faced each other as Odo came back to the table and sat down as well.
“What name have you chosen?” Odo asked.
“Aroha,” the girl said.
“No,” Abi said, quickly. “You cannot have that name.”
Odo reached out and grabbed Abi’s hand and got no response. He took his hand back.
“That name means a lot to us. Choosing that name is impolite. It’s like speaking with a mouth full,” Odo said.
“It is important to me,” the girl said. “I remember.”
The girl who called herself Aroha spoke softly and forcefully, as if each word were chosen for more than one reason. She was learning so quickly that Abi and Odo were worried she would be speaking and understanding well enough to learn the plan before they told her.
“I remember,” the girl said, “bark, resin, and bird song, there was yelling and calling for a word. It echoed off the branches, ‘Aroha.’ Only thing voice wanted in the world was Aroha. Being wanted is good. It stuck in the resin, ‘Aroha.’ It will be my name.”
Abi didn’t say anything, but Odo saw her sink into herself. She was remembering all the times they had both done that when Aroha had been taken. How many times had she and Odo walked through the forest calling, hoping that she would appear? As if the Bastler had just taught her hide and seek.
“When did you hear this?” Odo asked.
“I don’t understand,” Aroha said.
“How long ago?” Abi said.
“You have been with us for ten days. How many of this length of time was it before now?” Odo asked.
“Forever. Forever and then more,” Aroha said.
“How long were you in the forest?” Odo asked.
Aroha tilted her head and looked at Odo. She stayed still, looking at him like an owl.
Abi wiped her eyes and smiled. “You want to be wanted.”
“Yes,” Aroha said, smiling widely and gripping the table.
“Then it is your name, and Aroha you shall be. And you are wanted.” Abi turned to Odo. “Aroha can thread a needle, which means she’s deft, and not once did she prick herself. You know what that means?”
“Axe time,” Odo said, with a wide open mouth and fire in his eyes. Once he saw that Abi was smiling, he smiled too.
“Axe time?” Aroha asked.
“Axe time,” he said.
“Come on,” Odo said as he filled a bowl with water, and then dragged the newly-named Aroha outside. “You own yourself now. So I’m going to tell you a little something about me.”
Odo walked out towards the wood block and picked up the axe he chopped the wood with, and the whetstone he used to keep it sharp. “There are two things that matter to keep yourself happy: someone who understands you, and a good whetstone.”
Odo put the whetstone in the water bowl and then went over to the woodpile. He began rifling through the woodpile for anything that was useful, something easy but stable. Already split a little was best. When he found the perfect log, he took it back to the wood block and placed it so that the split was facing him.
Odo picked up the axe and sized it up, swung once and stopped short. He nodded to himself and knelt down beside the block and waved for Aroha to come over.
“All this wood has a grain. It’s the easiest part to find. Some of it has cracks like this that are easier to split. We’ll be aiming for this spot here. It’s the mid-point between the crack and the edge, so once it breaks there, the rest will come apart easily. Aha,” Odo said as he saw the whetstone.
“Once your whetstone has stopped releasing air, you take it out and you can sharpen your axe.”
Odo took the whetstone and laid it upon his lap.
“When you sharpen an axe, it’s not like a knife. You have to do it in circles. You place three fingers over the cheek of the blade and rest your palm on the beard, here. Then you take the bit, named so because it is the sharp bit, and you move it in a circle: toe, top of the bit, heel, bottom of the bit. You do this until you’re happy with it, and then you flip it over and do the same again.”
As Odo did it, he showed Aroha. Once he’d done one side, he handed it over and Aroha did the other. While Aroha worked on it, trying to get her circle right, Odo realised what his wife had done by sending her out with him.
“Aroha. We do these things because the axe is like a person, it can’t always look after itself. Like you, when you arrived at our door, it needs training and help to be sharper and do its job. Do you understand?”
Aroha looked up from the axe and nodded, “Yes.”
“When people you care about ask for your help, you need to do it. Sometimes it’s not always clear. The axe won’t tell you when it needs to be sharpened, but Abi and I will tell you. And we need your help. Will you help us?”
Aroha smiled and handed the axe to Odo, it was keen. As was Aroha.
“Yes. Yes, yes, yes.”
“Even if it’s scary?” Odo asked.
“What is scary?” Aroha asked.
And so Odo showed her how to hold the axe and cut the wood. And he thought of the Bastler splitting in half. And then quarters. And then eighths.
Aroha ran around the white-wash fence as fast as she could. Odo tried to keep up, and he did a respectable job. It took ten laps before Odo’s pace was such that Aroha lapped him. She was laughing, her voice cutting through the silence and bouncing off the remnants of the snow.
Odo stopped and rested on the fence, watching the tree and looking into the kitchen to find Abi staring back at him. She smiled as Aroha lapped Odo again and slapped him on the back. Abi caught his eye and for a second they shared a genuine smile. Abi nodded inside. Lunch was ready.
“Enough, Aroha. It is lunch time.” Odo walked towards the gate and held it open.
Aroha was still running, and ignored the gate. She vaulted the fence, using one hand as a guide. And then her foot caught on a post and her arm was pulled into a strange position. Her newly formed bones met the ground in a way they weren’t prepared for and there was a sound, a branch cracking in a storm, and Aroha felt pain for the first time in her life.
Abi was out the front door faster than Odo could react. She was by Aroha’s side, holding the arm.
“Can you see the bone?” Odo asked, quietly.
“No,” Abi said, lifting Aroha to stand up. Aroha was crying now, replacing the laughter with something darker. The snow ate the sound and seemed to strengthen against its imminent melting. Abi spoke softly to Aroha, “We’re going to splint this; it will be okay. The pain will pass, you don’t have to cry unless it helps.”
“What is cry?” Aroha asked.
“That is a wonderful question,” Abi replied.
Odo shut the gate and opened the front door for them, his lips pursed.
“You should’ve been watching her,” Abi said as they passed.
“This argument. Again?” Odo asked, trying to smile his way through it.
“Now? That joke is a good idea right now?” Abi asked.
“She will be okay. I’ll grab some pine resin, find a splint.”
“Hurry,” Abi said.
When Odo returned with the resin and the splint, he found Abi bustling around Aroha and speaking to her calmly.
“Aroha, it’s okay. You’re going to be all right. There is nothing to be afraid of.”
And the new person didn’t cry or scream or yell.
She didn’t move at all.
“You made a promise.” Aroha had been nine, and the Bastler had been yelling. “As long as the Apteryx fight each other, you will be here. In this cottage. Bringing me the people that leave this forest. You will help me protect them and keep them safe. And now you wish to renege? You asked for the perfect life, and I gave it to you. And now you wish to change that?”
“Sir Bastler —” Odo started.
“No, quit it, Odo. You wanted a quiet life with your wife and I gave it to you. Why should we change that contract?”
“We do not want that life anymore.”
“Because of Aroha?” the Bastler asked. He flung his arms around, his cloak trailing behind him. His rage quelled the forest around. It was spring, but there was silence. Despite the breeze, not even the pines moved.
Abi walked outside, drying her hands on her apron. Odo swallowed the fear in his throat and spoke firmly.
“We decided upon this together, you and I. We came to this agreement. But I no longer agree. We wish to take Aroha and leave. That is what we wish to trade,” Odo said.
“Twenty teeth to break your promise? Are you insane? Or, do you think I am an idiot?’ The Bastler asked. He walked towards Odo and through the gate without breaking eye contact. Odo stumbled backwards. The bottle he held contained all of Aroha’s baby teeth. “More to the point, you lied to me. You hid the teeth, and you lied to me. You said they weren’t falling out yet, and instead you’d been stockpiling them? To bargain with me?”
“I am sorry —”
“I don’t care what you are, Odo. But the trees of this forest will know you as a coward.” The Bastler spoke, and then called out to the house, “Aroha?”
“No. Just between us,” Odo said.
“Did you try and bargain with him?” Abi asked, moving forward and shutting the door behind her.
“He did, Abi,” the Bastler said.
“I said no. We spoke about this. We decided against it. How could you?” Abi asked. The hurt in her eyes wasn’t fake, but it was quickly covered in fear. “Please, Sir Bastler.”
“Bring me the girl,” the Baster said to Odo.
“No, Sir Bastler. I’m sorry. Please, just take the bottle,” Odo said, he held the teeth out but he was watching Abi, his heart breaking.
The Bastler knocked the bottle of teeth out of Odo’s hand and it bounced on the grass. The Bastler walked up until Odo could feel the heat from his body. The Bastler, a full foot taller than Odo, leaned down on him. “People I cared about far more than you have made far more compelling arguments. And they didn’t get their way either, Odo. Bring me the girl.”
“Please, Sir Ba—” Abi started.
“Abi. He wishes to change the rules of this agreement. An agreement he and I have made. I wish to do the same. Bring me the girl.”
“You have always been kind to us, Sir Bastler,” Abi said, pleading.
The Bastler took a step back and scratched at his chin.
“You’re right. Completely right. You have no reason to fear me,” the Bastler said, as he licked his sharp canine teeth. “Aroha. Come here.”
Aroha didn’t come outside. She was nowhere to be seen.
“You didn’t send her into the forest, did you?” the Bastler asked.
The Bastler made wings with his hands, his thumbs intertwined and his fingers spread outward. As he did, Abi saw one of his teeth sharpen, as his face twisted in what appeared to be pain. The Bastler shook himself off and began walking towards the house. Abi and Odo followed behind, slowly, unsure. The Bastler found nothing until he reached the trapdoor to the basement. There was a banging, as if someone inside were trying to get out.
The Bastler went over and lifted the trapdoor.
“Hello, Aroha. I haven’t seen you in so long. You’ve grown big,” he said. He held his hand out and Aroha grabbed it and climbed out. The Bastler lifted her up and held her against his side. “Did your parents put you in there?”
Aroha nodded and played with the cuff of the Bastler’s coat, the wolf fur. “What colour is this?” she asked.
“It’s purple. Have you ever seen that colour before?” he asked.
“Would you like to see a lot of it? I can take you on a trip and you’ll be able to see a lot of it.”
Aroha nodded. She was smiling at the shimmering cloak with its strange cuffs worn by the sharp-toothed man.
“That’s not part of the agreement,” Odo said.
“I want it to be,” the Bastler said.
“No, please,” Abi said.
“Aroha, go sit on my wagon, I’ll be over in a minute,” the Bastler said. “Say goodbye to your mother and father. You’ll see them soon.”
“Please, Bastler. We won’t leave.” Abi said.
The Bastler grabbed Odo by the back of the neck. “If twenty teeth is worth so much, how about you keep the bottle, and I take your daughter?”
Aroha hugged Abi tightly around the middle.
“Go wait by my wagon, Aroha,” the Bastler smiled, pinching Odo’s neck. “Tell her, Odo.”
“Go wait by the wagon, honey,” Odo said, his neck hurting too much for him to argue. He’d forgotten pain, it had been so long since he’d felt it.
Abi wouldn’t let go, holding Aroha so tightly. The Bastler took Odo and dragged him to the trapdoor and threw him inside while Abi hugged Aroha’s face against her apron, hiding the sight.
“Wait there,” the Bastler said to Odo before turning to Abi. “Let her go.”
“No,” Abi said.
The Bastler walked up and grabbed her hand, pulling Aroha free. He grabbed Abi with his other hand, at the nape of her neck. He threw Abi into the basement and slammed the trapdoor shut. His face twisted in pain again. Then he picked up Aroha and carried her to the wagon, whistling through four sharp teeth.
“I know,” Odo said. They were in their chairs. They’d splinted Aroha’s arm and then put her to bed. She hadn’t moved or spoken since they’d gotten her inside.
“She’s not moving or crying at all. She doesn’t want either of us in there?” Abi asked. She was so mad that it soaked her through. She could feel her clothes clinging to her with it.
“No, no reaction at all. Maybe she doesn’t know how? Maybe it doesn’t hurt her like that? Maybe they’re not as normal as we thought,” Odo rested his head in the worn nook. He stared at the ceiling. The roof beams that had given him an idea before now just danced to tease him. An idea that couldn’t possibly be used.
“It’s not happening. Stop trying to come up with another plan.”
“I’m not.” Odo sighed and rubbed his eyes.
“Because, I swear, Odo, I’m out. You made a damn promise about what our lives would be, and it was what we wanted, and now we run it to the end. Because that’s what you’re meant to do when you make a promise. I refuse. Look what happened when you tried to change your promise with the Bastler.”
“I get it, Abi. I understand.”
“Sure you do. That’s why you keep coming up with these plans that get us hurt, or get Aroha taken. Instead of just completing the promise like a damned adult,” Abi said. She was ramping up and Odo could feel it building in him like a tension, all the years of them making it work, all the hundreds of people that had come out of the forest. All of it making him want to snap.
There was a click behind them, a door opening. Aroha walked out, silent, her arm splinted and slung.
“What does this mean for the plan?” Aroha asked, softly. She looked at the floor.
“It means we’re not going to do it, we’re going to make you all better and then keep going,” Odo said, walking over to her and checking her arm. He cupped her face in his hands and smiled at her, she didn’t reciprocate.
“When you told me what you wanted to do, it was because the Bastler is bad. He is wood rot and wildfire. And we have to stop him. I want to help, still.”
“No, Aroha,” Abi said. “We’re going to keep you safe.”
“I don’t want to be safe. I want to be good. I want to be an axe, the sharp bit,” Aroha said, looking Odo in the eye as she spoke.
Odo smiled widely. “You can stay on the roof, and jump on him and then I’ll kill him. Wood rot and wildfire.” He chuckled.
“No. I said no,” Abi stood up. “This is it. I’ve had enough of trying to change the rules. Why can you not just let this continue to happen the way you originally said?”
“How can you hide, when this idea can work? I couldn’t have watched her. And look at how fast this new girl is learning, she’ll try something soon, too. There is no option here. This isn’t just a plan: it is the plan. You are barely alive. Live a little harder.” Odo said, holding Aroha’s good hand. Aroha wasn’t smiling, her face was drawn.
Abi didn’t move, just watched as Odo stood holding the hand of a girl that looked so much like both of them. What were the chances? Was it a sign?
“I feel pain,” Aroha said.
“It’s your arm, yes,” Abi replied, still watching Odo.
“No, here,” Aroha said. Dropping Odo’s hand, she pressed at her chest, near her heart.
“Guilt,” Odo said, trying to keep the smile out of his voice. “You feel guilt.”
“Because I want to help, and I made everything worse.”
“I know that feeling,” Odo said. “A promise doesn’t always mean what it seems, does it?”
Odo looked at Abi as he spoke, hoping the words would sink in, find purchase in a wife that he had started to thaw just like the weather outside. He hoped, breathed, and wished, that it would work. And then he remembered, and spoke. “Live a little harder.”
Abi went to bed, but before she did, she nodded.
The Bastler’s orange wagon arrived on the horizon with the sun a few weeks later. They’d removed Aroha’s splint and moved her up to the roof as soon as they noticed the wagon in front of the sun. The Bastler arrived and disembarked, his coat with its purple inner lining seemed to shimmer and float behind him. He smiled and his sharpened top canine teeth seemed to threaten them.
Abi squeezed Odo’s hand and whispered to herself, “Live a little harder.”
“All this time and you two still hold hands? I am impressed. I had believed you both too… lost,” the Bastler said.
Odo swallowed and squeezed back. “No one has left the forest since your last visit.”
“Your arms are getting bigger,” the Bastler said, walking over and squeezing Odo’s left arm. “But your lies are just as bad as last time.”
The Bastler pushed them aside and walked towards the cottage. Behind him, Odo and Abi stared at the chimney. Aroha wasn’t well hidden, too tall for the chimney by far. But the Bastler’s eyes were set on the door and he charged in, his hands out like last time, thumbs crossing with his fingers out like wings.
Abi and Odo moved to their spot, just outside the front door, so that the axe was within reach and the lip of the roof was where the Bastler would have to stop to speak to them. When they looked up, they saw her being pulled towards the Bastler whenever his hands aimed towards her. The rope tied between her and the chimney kept her in place.
And then the Bastler stormed out and stopped right in front of them. When he smiled his vicious smile, even more chilling now that his anger was oozing out, they saw that a third tooth was sharp.
“Where is he? I know there is one. Do you know what it costs me to keep spies among the Apteryx and to receive their missives? Sending letters across the world takes months. I shall not wait any longer. If you cannot provide the man, I will…”
The Bastler searched for words. While he searched, Aroha unhooked the rope and began moving silently towards him so that she could jump.
“If you cannot provide him, I will take… you instead.” The Bastler pointed at Abi.
And then his arm slammed into the ground as Aroha landed on top of him. Odo grabbed the axe and swung it with both hands at the Bastler’s head as Aroha scrambled away. The Bastler’s eyes widened as he saw the axe moving towards his face. Abi couldn’t watch, turning to hide.
Someone snapped their fingers, as if a twig had snapped underfoot, and the axe never landed. Abi, Odo, and Aroha were frozen, unable to move anything but their eyes.
“Ouch,” the Bastler said as he stood up and shook his arm. “That was unexpected.”
Then he looked and saw Aroha on her knees, trying to push herself to her feet with one arm, and he smiled. And Aroha noticed that three of his top front teeth were sharpened, as well as the canines. One for each person now frozen in place.
She tried to recoil at the way it made her skin crawl, but she could not move. The Bastler pulled her up until she was standing.
“A broken arm?” he said, looking at Aroha’s arm. “I’m just… I’m so furious.”
The Bastler unhid Abi’s eyes and stood her up straight. He took the axe from Odo and did the same to him. Then he faced them towards Aroha. All three of them were staring wildly, the whites of their eyes showing just as much as their irises.
The Bastler reached up and opened Aroha’s mouth and did the check he normally did on the new people.
Then he grabbed a tooth and pulled. The tooth came out smoothly, roots and all. A burst of air escaped from Aroha as the gum began to bleed and, for the first time in her life, she began to cry.
The Bastler sighed to himself and did the same thing to the first of his sharpened teeth. He yelled quickly before replacing the space in his teeth with Aroha’s tooth. His bleeding stopped and he threw his sharpened tooth into the woodpile. He repeated it for all his sharpened teeth, even his canines. By the second tooth, Aroha began to choke as the blood filled her mouth, and the Bastler leaned her forward until the blood was rolling down her chin and pooling on the ground before her.
The Bastler yelled once more as he fitted the final tooth. He looked at Aroha’s face after shaking himself slightly. He moved down so that she could look him in the eye.
“That was unpleasant, wasn’t it? I wonder how many of you have ever cried before. Abi and Odo are wonderful; I bet you didn’t even know what crying was when you hurt yourself. You are so new. You are the product of consequences. Of scales and balances, of the Apteryx making trees out of their enemies.”
The Bastler took Aroha and carried her to the back of the wagon. He placed her inside, surrounding her in orange walls and locking the door before turning back to Odo and Abi.
“We need to get out soon,” Abi said.
“I hope we die,” Odo said.
Abi hit him, hard, in the shoulder.
“What was that for?” Odo asked.
“He’s going to keep her safe, and we’re going to get her back. Even if we have to beg.”
“He said it himself, we don’t dictate terms. We don’t have a chance here.”
Abi hit him again. “This is your fault. You were supposed to be watching her, and you were supposed to be saving her.”
“I wasn’t watching her. She was with you,” Odo said.
“I don’t mean physically watching her. You’re a father, you’re meant to keep her safe. Look what you did,” Abi said.
“Well, you failed,” Abi said.
They were in darkness. Their last candle had died three days ago.
“I swear,” Abi said. “You need to stop this. We do things properly now, no more changing the rules. We’re here until the war is over.”
Odo nodded in the darkness.
“Promise me,” Abi said, hitting her husband in the shoulder again.
“I promise,” Odo said.
And then the trapdoor creaked, and clicked open. And Odo heaved and pushed it open so that they could both climb up. They could see quite clearly that the dust had literally settled since the Bastler had left. Their vegetable garden was in trouble, weeds and over-ripe fruit rotting. And there, in the middle of their yard was a sapling pine tree.
“Where did that come from?” Abi asked.
“I don’t know…” Odo said. They stared at the tree, not touching, until the sun began to hit the horizon. Odo reached out to touch Abi’s shoulder, and then let his hand drop. Then he went outside and began clearing up under the tree. “I can’t find the bottle.”
“What?” Abi asked.
“The teeth, Aroha’s teeth. They’re gone.”
“I don’t care,” Abi said. “Tend the garden.”
“I do not know what to do with you two. That’s twice you’ve… Should I send bark-beetles after the pine tree again? Should I hurt your daughter?” The Bastler ran his tongue over his teeth, spending longer on his canines, as if he were wondering why they weren’t sharp.
“The Apteryx taught me about consequences. They didn’t intend to. It’s their magic. I don’t believe they themselves know how they do it. They talk about it as weight scales, with the tooth on one side and the person on the other. The cost of turning a man into a tree is your tooth. The scale balances. They’re happy with that.
“It felt wrong to me, the idea never settled in my brain. Every time I tried to shut the door on it, it kicked up dust and swirled around. I couldn’t shut the door on it until I knew. As it turns out, they were equating the wrong things. Cost and consequence aren’t the same. Like with you. You promised to stay here because you wanted to be with your wife. The consequence is that you lost your daughter. But the cost? Your autonomy, your love, your happiness. All because one of the Apteryx took a liking to me and showed me a secret. Poor man, I haven’t thought about him in a long time.”
As the Bastler spoke, he arranged both Odo and Abi as if they were waving him goodbye. As he moved them, his breath, hot and warm, hit them on their necks and faces. It was fresh, and gummy, as if he had chewed pine resin. When he was happy with how they looked in their farewells he smiled and clapped his hands slightly. Then he got back into his wagon and snapped his fingers again.
Odo fell to his knees. Abi stayed standing, stoic. She didn’t drop her hand, leaving it raised as if waving.
“Come now, traditions and all,” The Bastler said. Holding the reins casually and staring out the corner of his eyes at Odo to prompt him.
“Sir Bastler, please. Return our daughter,” Odo said, all hope and faith gone from his voice.
“No,” the Bastler said. And he raised the reins.
“Please, Sir,” Abi said. “Take me instead.”
The Bastler stopped and his horses did, too.
“Repeat yourself,” the Bastler said.
“I said, take me instead,” Abi said. She hadn’t moved, her hand still raised as if to wave goodbye.
“Why would I do that when I can punish you like this?” he smiled with two sharp canine teeth. There was no sound from Aroha in the wagon, still frozen.
“I can’t do this anymore, please. Take me and return our daughter.” Abi turned to Odo and lowered her hand to his shoulder. “He is a good father.”
The Bastler watched and sucked on his new teeth.
“On one condition,” the Bastler said.
“Anything,” Abi and Odo said together.
“I don’t want you, Abi,” the Bastler said. “I want Odo.”
“Yes, Sir,” Odo said, standing up.
“No, Odo. Please, don’t,” Abi started but Odo quieted her with his hands on her shoulders.
“You two will be okay. You will have Aroha back, and you can get me back too. It is a trade, I am not disappearing forever,” Odo said. He didn’t cry or fight.
“You promised me,” Abi said.
Odo ignored her and turned to the Bastler.
“What do I need to do?” Odo asked.
“Go stand by the pine and raise your hands above your head,” the Bastler said.
And so Odo did, and Abi tried to follow him.
“You stay here, Abi,” the Bastler said, lifting up his hand to snap, as a threat. He got off the wagon, and walked over to Abi until they were staring eye to eye. He raised his hand until Abi could feel the wolf fur brushing her cheek, and while she stared into his eyes, the Bastler clicked his fingers. And then he stepped back and smiled, four sharp teeth smiling in Abi’s face.
The Bastler got back onto his wagon and started the horses and Abi watched, afraid to turn around and look behind her.
“Please Sir Bastler. Aroha?” Abi called.
“Keep tending to the people. Until the Apteryx war is over. Then I will return them both.”
“Their war with whom?” Abi asked.
The Bastler left, whistling softly to himself.
“It will be a girl. Congratulations.”
Odo was putting the forest’s newest man into the back of the Bastler’s orange wagon, with smiles and helping hands.
“I don’t think they’re boys or girls, Sir Bastler,” Abi laughed.
The Bastler clicked his tongue in annoyance. His hands spread wide, his cloak showing its purple internal stitching behind him.
“My dear Abi, you are pregnant,” he smiled, his pointed canines caressing his lips as they peeked out.
“Excuse me? How?” Odo asked as he shut the wagon door.
“Probably the same way it happens to everyone else,” the Bastler said. He was holding back from clicking his tongue again. He did like these two; they were carefree and just happy. Happy with the trade.
“No, I mean, I didn’t realise that was possible.”
“Time hasn’t stopped, my friends. You will still age, but as long as the forest keeps providing, you will keep breathing.”
The Bastler had climbed onto his wagon and tipped a hat that had appeared out of nowhere, a pheasant feather stuffed into it.
“What will you name her?” The Bastler asked.
“We don’t know, we’ll have to talk about it,” Abi said as Odo joined her, his hand around her waist. Odo was beside himself, hiding his excitement as best he could until the Bastler was gone. Abi was scared, but she didn’t know why.
“The Apteryx have a word in their language: ‘Aroha.’ It means ‘beloved.’” The Bastler dipped his hat and watched the couple hold each other.
“It’s a pretty name,” Odo said.
“It’s a very pretty name,” Abi said.
Two sharp teeth peeked out through the Bastler’s lips as he smiled.
When summer comes to Vakning Forest it doesn’t bring a heat wave. The air is humid but manageable and the animals that were silent for so long bring a quiet version of their music to the forest. As the summer extends itself, it grips the pine trees and pulls them towards the sun, ever higher over the path that leads out of the forest.
Outside the forest, where a path begins, is a cottage. Abi Tremord lives in this cottage. It has a red roof and brown walls, and a whitewashed fence. In the yard stand two pine trees. One is a sapling, the other is as tall as the forest.