Her first memory was the trees. Their wide green arms hovering over her, protecting her, filtering everything – sun, air, water – in perfect portions. The way they moved. The shelter. The rhythm. The whispering that never ended completely, but faded in and out, lulling her to sleep.
Her second memory was of boots. Black boots, large, laced up tight, thudding darkly on the earth, next to her head. And then the voices, harsh and loud. Grating on her, sounding like anger, like violence. She cried out at the sound of them, so different than the whispers she was used to. That’s how they found her. She cursed that memory a thousand thousand times. If she’d been a little older. A little smarter. If she’d known, she would have been quiet, so quiet. Would have stayed hidden. Would not have cried out, and in that one cry, given up years of her life.
For it was years before she found her way back to the trees.
They boxed her in, with their concrete and steel, their rock and their iron. They learned, quick enough, not to bind her to wooden bars, not to close her up in wooden rooms. They locked her in with other, harsher materials. Unresponsive iron and steel. Unyielding, cold stone. And she wilted there, in those rooms, no matter how luxurious they were, no matter how thick and soft the rugs on those stone floors. She stood by the window, hour after hour, in the sun. She soaked in the enormous baths, in cool, clean water. It was never enough. Not without the trees. She could never catch her breath. When she refused to do their work, refused, too weak, too tired to obey or care, they bargained and threatened.
The bargaining was a mistake. From their example, she learned how to bargain, and that was how she found her way out. But the threats. How could she stand against them? Her brother, looking angry and brave, older than she by… how many years? She couldn’t remember. So tall, so angry. Already he was wearing black, like them. Already narrowing his eyes like them. Unaware, unaware of himself. Unaware that his anger was turning him into a copy of what he raged against. And her sister. Her sister, trembling. Her sister, who had cared for her, hidden her, for as long as she could. Her sister, who had run after her, trying to save her, when the boots came thudding into her world.
She tried to get her sister to leave with her when she saw her way out. When the door opened that crack, just wide enough, she saw it, at once, and she ran to tell her sister. Ran to her. But it had been so long, then. Her sister no longer felt like a prisoner. Had forgotten the threats. Had forged her own little place in their world, and was afraid to leave it. She didn’t need the trees as much. She could breathe there.
So she left them both, sobbing, feeling that shattering, a remembered pain erupting out of her soul, the jagged edge of separation cutting her apart. Again. It didn’t ease until she got to the trees, until she plunged deep, deep among them. Until she could breathe again, and each breath eased the pain. She pushed in, as far as she could. She found the wildest places, the deepest forests, and made her home there. She was at home there. And she would have stayed there forever, hidden. Safe. But the whispers became a voice, and the voice had a message, and she had to return. To them. To the world, before it ended.