Digging Where the Trees Are

Authors note: This story is mostly posted at the request of my brother. (I can already hear him saying “finally!”with an exasperated sigh, as this is his favorite of my written stories. So… you’re welcome big bro) For everyone else, this is just a story I wrote a few years ago for a writing contest at my local library. I didn’t win, but I enjoyed the story, and so hope you will as well. Someday, once I have finished a few (more pressing) projects, I plan to extend this into a full novel. But for now, I hope you enjoy my simple tale about a girl, who meets a fairy Queen, and some trees.


 

Steam poured out of the HTU, distorting the white atmosphere. The smooth voice of the operator flowed from the speakers:

   “We are experiencing some technical difficulties. Please exit through the door when the light turns green. Then wait at the nearest transport stop until the next HTU arrives. On behalf of the United Transport Union, we thank you for your cooperation.”

 The speaker cut off, and a light above the exit door flashed green. Keshet linked elbows with her best friend Helenia, and together they mingled into the crowd of passengers filing out of the sliding door. As they moved to where the emergency crew was handing out oxygen puffs,     Keshet chanced a glace around at the scene. The HTU had broken down in one of those rare waste lands that separated one city from another; neither buildings nor homes were in sight, only the white expanse of the ground in every direction.

     In the crook of Keshet’s neck, her Firefly vibrated nervously. She knew he didn’t like crowds; there were too many warm bodies interfering with his sensors.

 She reached up to stroke the animated computer bug and whispered reassuringly, “Stand down soldier. We’ll be out of this soon.” The frantic buzzing calmed to a low hum. Helenia leaned over from where she was hanging onto Keshet’s elbow.

 “I guess this means we’ll miss the graduation,” she said. Keshet nodded. They had been on their way to her brother’s graduation and acceptance ceremony into the S.T.H. (Science Technology Hall). It was a big day for him, and she had promised to be there.

   “Maybe we can make it before the ceremony ends,” Keshet said hopefully. Helenia just shook her head, “My mom was once in a situation much like this, and she said it took nearly an hour for any trans-vec to arrive.”

   Keshet balked, “A whole hour?!  In that case I’d better call…” Keshet reached a hand up for the Firefly to jump on, “Feff, call…. wait, I’d better message. Feff, message mother as follows: HTU broke down, don’t know how long it will take, we’ll try to get there ASAP. Tell Chris I send him my best wishes.” As she talked, a 5 by 5 inch green screen appeared from the bug and started typing out what she said. It would have been impossible to use voice commands in such a large crowd with an older version like the Dunebug. Fortunately, Feff was programed to Keshet’s voice patterns and could single her out even in the nosiest of places.

   Keshet said, “Send,” and the screen disappeared, leaving her beloved Feff still shaking with anxiety. Tutting over her frightened pet, Keshet started to move away from the crowd. She had only taken three steps, when a sudden bump from the side caused Keshet to stumble. Her Firefly flew from the palm of her hand. She watched, stunned, as her beloved Feff fell away from her; then in horror as he started up his wings and jetted away from the crowd at full speed.

      “Feff! Return!” Keshet hiked up the skirt of the silver and gold crinkle dress she had chosen to wear at the graduation, and ran after him. By the time Keshet made it out of the crowd, Feff was already a fair distance away and rapidly disappearing from sight.

       She kicked off her uncomfortable dress shoes and sprinted. Slowing just enough to hold a breath, Keshet tried to whistle the shutdown command. It didn’t work. And worse yet, Feff had completely vanished.

      Keshet let out a little gasp and ran faster in the direction of where she’d last seen her frightened Firefly.

Behind her, Helenia called out to Keshet, wanting her to return. Keshet hated to ignore her friend, but she couldn’t spare Helenia so much as a glace.

      It was not familiar terrain. The perfectly flat, white ground she was accustomed to became bumpy, then began slanting up, then down, and then up again. It was as if large bowls had been placed face down under the surface of the ground. Going up made her lose her breath, but on the down side she could accelerate. Keshet found this was rather exhilarating, but she couldn’t understand why the ground would be doing such a strange thing. A couple of times Keshet thought she saw Feff, but it was only for a moment. Exhausted and frustrated, she wondered why he kept on flying; surely by now he’d had time to stabilize himself from the over stimulation.

 So why was he still running away?

      When at last Keshet could run no more, and there seemed no hope of ever finding Feff again, she struggled to the top of a bowl and sat down. Panting, she rested her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands. Judging from her shaking legs and burning lungs, there was no doubt that she had used up more calories in the last twenty minutes then she had ever used in an entire day. Never in her life had she endured so much physical activity. Not even in the body maintenance class at school she was required to take.

Taking in ragged breaths of the unusually thick air, Keshet looked around for any sight of her lost Feff. Alas, she could not see him.

But she could see something else.

    Struggling to her feet, Keshet stood on her toes trying to get a better view. She stared in puzzlement at the strange green…. thing, visible just over the next rise.

As Keshet stared, an argument broke out inside her head. Her aching legs and body demanded to lie down and rest, but her curiosity itched to go see, well, what-ever-it-was over the rise.

It didn’t take long; the argument was over before it had really even begun.

     As Keshet crested the rise that the greenness was hiding behind, she had to watch her step. For now there were many odd, and very hard, lumps on and the ground, and odd brown stuff covering its surface in an unusual way. She stared at the things around her feet, then her gaze traveled up, and her breath caught in her throat.

Before her was the most beautiful sight Keshet had ever beheld.

No, beautiful did not do it justice. She tried glorious and magnificent, but all fell just short of the unspeakable wonder that this strange new place possessed.

      In a dazed awe, Keshet slowly walked forward. Her eyes grew wide, and her lips parted in overwhelming delight. She did not know what it was or how to explain it; her rational thought seemed to have shut down, and all that was left was an overload of her senses. 

Her eyes took in the tall, brown giants; slim and still, their long green fingers reaching high into the sky and their feet sinking deep into the soft ground.

  She inhaled the sweet, dense air lanced with perfume and listened to the giants whisper while rippling their fingers. Somewhere in the distance, an unearthly, beautiful calling could be heard.

   In a daze, Keshet walked into the gathering of giants. Her head tilted back so far she wondered if she’d break her neck, just to follow the upward reach of the giants. With trembling hands, she ran her fingers over the rough surface of their brown bases, feeling the divots and edges move beneath her palm. Mesmerized by the strangeness of it all, Keshet grew in confidence and reach out to rub one of the long green fingers between hers. It was smooth, flat and cool.

   Keshet smiled, and then knelt to the floor to examine the many things that lay there. Suddenly, she heard a familiar chirping sound.

   “Feff!” Keshet cried in disbelief, scanning the ground for her thought-to-be-lost friend. Feff chirped again, blinked his light, calling her. Keshet crawled on her hands and knees, without regard for her special ceremony dress, to where the Firefly was desperately trying to dig its way into the ground at the base of one of the giants.

    Keshet shook her head slightly, “Feff come here, and it’s useless to do that. You can’t break the surface of the ground, it’s impossible…” No sooner had the words left her mouth, he disappeared beneath the ground, doing the very thing she’d just said was impossible.

   Keshet gawked at the spot where, for the second time that day, her dear Feff had disappeared. With a sudden jerk, she came back to herself and started digging. Her long, pale fingers became stained by the brown stuff as it wedged itself under her fingernails and clung to her skin. She didn’t know what it was – she didn’t know what any of it was – or whether in was toxic, but she had to risk it. She had to get her Feff back!

Keshet kept digging. Both elbows were well past the surface when her fingers finally brushed against something. With a cry of joy, Keshet pulled out what she thought to be her Firefly. But when her hands came into view, it was not a buzzing computer pet. Instead, it was something unthinkable to the imagination.

   Keshet shrieked and flung herself backwards. She watched in amazement as the little creature tumbled from her hands, then spread its delicate wings and landed lightly on the ground.

      She stared at the little creature standing before her, measuring only the height of a hand. The girl, clothed in a colorful and oddly delicate material, looked up at Keshet with grateful brown eyes that matched her silky hair.

   Keshet gawked. Her mouth work but no sound came forth; she blinked, but the vision stayed the same. How can this be? She wondered, what is this place that I’ve stumbled into? Am I dreaming?

     The strange little creature was the first to break the silence.

  “I am Queen Nymira, Guardian of the forest. Great is the deed you have done today. Every year, this day will be celebrated, and we shall sing hymns of your praise. Cold were the days of our imprisonment, but now all sorrow and shame are melted away, like winter before the sun.” The creature curtsied gracefully and stood with her hands folded in front her, waiting for Keshet’s response.

   Keshet’s jaw dropped so low it could have snapped off her face. It was a solid minute before she could stutter out a complete sentence.

  “Wha…what are you?!”

  The Queen smiled sweetly. “I am a Forest Folk. In days past we have held many names: fairy….pixie….elf. We are the ones who keep and protect the forests and woods of the world.”

      “And this….” Keshet made a gesture to the giants around them, without averting her gaze. “What is this?”

    The Queen’s smile saddened. “Ah, I see how it is now. Very well. Yes, this is a forest. The last of its kind, I’m afraid.”

  Keshet tucked her legs underneath herself and leaned forward on her hands, eager to hear more.

  “Fascinating… and what are they?” she pointed at the towering giants around them. As she did, Keshet caught sight of something flashing nearby.

   “Feff!” She nearly flew across to where the firefly was dancing with….. more Forest Folk!   At his name, Feff shot into Keshet outstretched hand. Keshet laughed as her dear friend rubbed against her ear affectionately, his idea of a hug, and a single tear drop trailed down her cheek.

  “Don’t every do that again!” she scolded. Then Keshet glanced over to where the extraordinary Forest Folk bowed and curtsied before their Queen – surrounded by the glorious forest. 

   “On second thought, maybe it wasn’t so bad,” Keshet smiled.

The Queen and her people began to retreat deeper into the forest. As she went, the Queen touched each giant. They trembled beneath her hand, then grew taller, stronger, and more radiant in color and beauty.

  “Queen Nymira! Wait, I have more questions!” Keshet called out, hurrying after the fairy. The Queen turned her elegant head and regarded the girl. Around the Queen, the others whispered amongst themselves and cast nervous glances at Keshet.

   “Come walk with me child, and I will explain all I can,” the Queen extended her hand to Keshet

 

“KESHET!! KESHET ARE YOU THERE?!”

Keshet froze.

 It was Helenia. Her voice sounded worried and hoarse, probably from exhaustion and having her best friend run out on her. Keshet frowned a little, realizing she had better go apologize. But then she remembered the Queen. Indecision started to rise up inside her, but it was quickly banished but Nymira’s regal nod and smooth words.

  “You will always be welcome here. But if you chose to leave and later wish to return, he will guide you,” Queen Nymira pointed to Feff who bowed before her.

  “Thank you,” Keshet said with a curtsy of her own, and she walked off to find Helenia.

    Helenia was just starting to climb the rise leading to the forest, when Keshet come sliding down to her. Helenia ran and threw her arms around her friend, tears streaming down her face.

  “Oh, Keshet! You’re alive!”

   “Of course I’m alive,” Keshet rolled her eyes. But she was a little touched by her friend’s concern for her. “Why wouldn’t I be? Now can you please release me for your death grip? I think I just heard a rib crack.”

  “Oh! I’m sorry,” Helenia jerked back but remained holding Keshet’s hands. “I was so worried! Y..you ran off and…. Oh! Jezz I was so freighted! What if you got lost? Or worse!” Helenia’s expression changed, and she looked a little hurt. “Why DID you run away?”

  “I’m sorry about that. Feff got really scared and bolted. He wouldn’t come back, so I had to chase after him. I didn’t mean to ditch you.” Keshet looked up and found herself in another bear hug.

  “Oh, it’s okay! I forgive you. But we have to get back. What if they leave without us?!” Helenia tugged on Keshet’s arm, then she turned and started walking in the relative direction of the HTU. Keshet watch for a moment, torn.

“Helenia, wait!”                         

Helenia came back and tried to drag Keshet after her, “What is it? We have to keep going if we’re going to make it in time.” Keshet hesitated, not sure what to say. How could she express in words all that had happened to her without sounding crazy?

 “Helenia…. I…. you see I can’t…. there’s a…” Keshet took a deep breath and blurted,

“I met someone.”

 Helenia froze. Turning around… very slowly… she gave Keshet an odd look.

  “Met someone….?”  She repeated.

 “I mean, I met Queen Nymira. She’s a fairy! They’re the ones who watch over the forest, and they have wings and are only about this tall!” Keshet held her hands apart, showing how small the little Queen was. Helenia first looked amazed, and then worried again.

  “Keshet…. um, are you sure you’re not… seeing things? I mean, someone can’t be that tall, and no one can have wings, and there’s no such thing as a forest.” Helenia finished disapprovingly. Keshet took an involuntary step backwards at Helenia’s harsh retort.

  “You don’t believe me?” Keshet asked, trying to keep the hurt out of her voice, “I know we’ve been told none of those things are around anymore, but I’m telling you, they still are!”

Helenia sighed and laid a hand on Keshet’s shoulder. “Look, I don’t want to fight, but we have to leave. What will our families, the people who love us, think if we just disappear? I bet some of the people at the HTU are wondering where we went.”

   Helenia had her there. Keshet glanced back towards where the forest was, so beautiful and magical, and then back at her friend. How could she leave her like this? Keshet knew if she went back to the Queen, Helenia wouldn’t follow. It would be too cruel to leave her again. She was right, if she stayed here, people would probably look for her. Keshet hung her head, deflated.

  “You’re right. Of course we can’t stay here. That would be insane.” Even as Keshet said this, she wished it weren’t so; she wished she could stay there and never leave. But duty to her family weighed heavy on her conscious. Keshet thought to herself, for now, must go home. I can always return later.

But as they walked away, she couldn’t help but glance over her shoulder toward the forest. The barest top of the – what were they? Trees? – showed over the top of a rise. She turned away again, and they began their trek back to civilization.

 

  

It was not as far as Keshet had expected, but by the time they reached the HTU her feet had blistered and she felt like she would pass out. Surprisingly, everyone was still there. Even more surprising, as Keshet and Helenia mingled back into the crowd, no one seemed to notice their stained dresses or sweat streaked faces.

   The ride back was made in silence, and that silence followed Keshet through the rest of her day.

She and Helenia made it in time for the end of her brother’s ceremony, and she did her best to put on a smile… even of it didn’t reach her eyes. It wasn’t that she was unhappy; she loved her brother and was very happy for him. But she just couldn’t keep her mind from drifting back to the Queen in her forest, or from noticing how flat and colorless the world she had grown up in was. Everyone was congratulating Chris, so no attention was paid to her. Keshet was fine this, because that meant she had more time to plan her return trip to the forest.

 

That night as Keshet was preparing her nutrition pills and drink, her mother walked in.

  “So how was your day?” she asked casually.  Keshet looked up, a little surprised at her mother’s sudden intrusion upon her thoughts.

“It was fine.”

“And….”

Keshet quirked an eyebrow, “And what?” What was her mother getting at? Keshet shifted her weight nervously.

 “And…. the HTU broke down. What happened?” her mother persisted.

   Oh that.  Keshet let out an inward breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. “Not much; we stood around with oxygen puffs for a long time, until a spare trans-vec arrived. How did all of Chris’s gradation go?” Keshet asked, changing the subject quickly, trying to hide her guilt. She felt uncomfortable lying to her mom, but she couldn’t bring herself to say what really happened. It was too unbelievable. Plus, there was a little voice inside her head that warned her against it.    

  They chatted for a few more minutes about frivolous matters. Then just as her mom was about to leave, Keshet got up enough courage to ask, “Um, Mother, I was just wondering, what’s a forest?”

  Mrs. Haggerty gave her daughter a long look. Then in lighter tones than her look suggested, she inquired, “And why would you be wondering that?”

Keshet shrugged, trying to act casual, “I’d just heard it around.” Keshet’s mom nodded thoughtfully.

“Well… not much is known about them… just that a forest is a large group of trees,” she pronounced trees like it was a poison. “But they are deadly, that’s why all forests were destroyed.”

 “Oh, okay. Thanks,” Keshet said with false satisfaction, because inside her head was screaming for more, but she was afraid to make her mom suspicious by asking more.

 

   By the next day, Keshet had a plan. She got up early and fixed herself the morning nutrition pills and drink, grabbed Feff, and headed out.

As Keshet stepped onto the moving sidewalk that led to the Research Hall, she looked around the city – the only place she had ever known – with fresh eyes. It was flat and blank, with no curves or twists to spice up the endless rows of plain houses and buildings. Even the tallest structure was only a tenth of the height of one of the towering giants from the forest: the ones the Queen had call trees. The ground, covered in the specially made metallic footing, looked lifeless and flat compared to the lush forest floor. Keshet tried to imagine the forest and the city together, but she just could not see it. This did not stop her from wishing it were so.

Presently, Keshet arrived at the Research Hall. Her plan was to look up every file having to do with forests she could get her fingertips on.

She learned a great deal, but not all of it was good. Keshet read in fascination about how in centuries past, trees were a main living source: providing wood, shelter, and food. Not only were trees EVERYWHERE, but they – along with all other plant matter – took the carbon dioxide humans breathed out and turned it into oxygen.

Well that explains why the air was so rich in the forest, Keshet thought to herself. But her delight changed to surprise and then horror as she read on. A dangerous virus arose in the trees. The virus was harmless to trees, but once exposed to the human nervous system, it began to break it down within twelve hours.  

Keshet quickly looked up the symptoms of the virus and had Feff checked her thoroughly. She was surprised to find herself healthy, perfectly healthy. Her research had said that all who touched trees were doomed. Keshet continued her search, but still puzzled over it.

“So that’s why there are no more trees, or anything like them, anymore. Or at least there aren’t supposed to be….” Keshet sat back and began rubbing her temples.

“But if it was such a significant event in history, why was it never taught in class? And there’s no mention of Forest Folk or the like, even in these books. Does anyone, other than myself, even know there is at least one forest still alive? What else do we not know? But also, why am I not infected?”

Keshet continued to pour over file after file, reading everything she could, and having Feff take notes. Unaware of the world around her, Keshet was engrossed in her work until she had gone through every file, (and then some) and felt her head might explode.

By the time Keshet looked at the clock, almost three quarters of the day had gone by. She quickly caught up on some school work and headed home.

  “Time to prepare for phase two,” she said to herself.

 

   The night was chilly as Keshet jogged after Feff, over the lumps in the ground that she now knew as hills. It had been quite a trick to sneak out without anyone’s notice. Now she plodded along at a steady pace, with a bag thumping at her back and some extra energy pills nestled in her belly.

As every step drew her closer, so did the battle of excitement and anxiety mount inside her. On the one hand, she couldn’t wait to see Queen Nymira again and see what other wonders the forest held that could not be captured in writing. But she was also worried about what she had read earlier concerning the tree-borne diseases.

   It was not terribly long before she and Feff reach the forest, and all the troubles slipped from her mind.

A feeling of such expectation crept over Keshet, like she had never felt before, as they entered into the shadowy trees.

   “Queen Nymira?” Keshet called out. But nothing happened. Insects hummed, a wind rustled the leaves, and Keshet and Feff walked further in. Keshet cleared her throat, and with a little more gusto and strength, she called out again.

  “Majestic Queen Nymira! It is I, Keshet Haggerty!” For a moment, nothing happened. Then from the trees, hundreds of fireflies burst forth, lighting up the night. They were not the man-made ones like Feff, but living and breathing beings of their own. Keshet had never seen anything like it. They danced and flashed their lights around Keshet, keeping beat to the odd music that filled the night with buzzes, hums, calls, whistles, and perhaps even singing.

Keshet’s knees buckled as she stared in perfect awe. As if time, and the whole world, seemed to stand still. She followed them, in a hypnotized kind of way, as they danced and led her deeper into the forest.

   They led her to a glade where Queen Nymira sat on her throne. She wore royal robes and a tall crown of twisted willows on her head.

  The fireflies dispersed and settled into their places. Their steadily blinking lights still illuminated the glade. As all settled, the Queen rose. A sweet smile on her lips greeted Keshet.

  “Welcome back, my friend. I hope your journey was well. It is most joyous that you have returned. Come, there will be a banquet in your honor. And after that, we will have a dance, as a token of our gratitude.”

 Keshet curtsied low, “Thank you, your Majesty. But first, I have one question….” Keshet hesitated, suddenly not sure if she wanted to know the answer. What if it was something she did not want to hear? Around the glade, more fairies gathered, pointing at Keshet and whispering to one another. Awe and fear showed clearly in their faces.

 Keshet gathered up her courage.

   “Why did the trees have the virus? And why were you and your people imprisoned?”

The Queen lowered her head, “Ah that is a sad story indeed. But I will relay the short version for you and not dwell on the woeful details, as to not dampen the festivities.”

 “The virus was the result of an experiment gone astray by the humans. Out of their anger, all the forests, and those who dwell in them, were destroyed. And in the process, we became imprisoned. But let us not talk about such unhappy things anymore.” Now the Queen raised her voice,

“Let the festivities begin!”

A cheer went up, and the music started. Keshet danced and feasted on the fruits and berries. It was like nothing she had ever experienced before. The berries exploded with flavor on her tongue, like sweet goodness.  The dance was wild and care-free, so much unlike the formal dances that were occasionally held.

  She danced, twirled, feasted, and was praised everywhere she went. The Queen walked and talked with her, answering all of Keshet’s questions and asking nothing in return.

It was undoubtedly the best night of her life.

 

  But when at last the music faded away, and the long pale finger of the dawn began to poke through the trees, Keshet was only slightly dismayed. She’d had a lovely night and a trove-full of wonderful memories; besides, she could always come back.

   The glorious finale of the night was a grand escort for Keshet to the edge of the forest. There was much sentimental fare-welling and thank-yous, then Queen Nymira stepped out from the crowd.

   “Lady Keshet, your kindness and bravery exceed words, and so I pray that you will accept our gift to you.” A lady-in-waiting held up a young sapling in a clay pot.

  Keshet accepted the gift graciously. She tried to summon up something great to say in return, and mimicking their strange way of speaking, she said to all who were gathered there, “Thank you, all of you. My happiness goes beyond what I have ever thought possible. Two days ago, I did not know such wonders existed. But now I do, and my life will never be the same again. My soul sings with joy and dreams of a great hope that one day, with help from you, we can resolve any bitterness still left and reunite the forest and my people!”

A cheer arose from the fairies. It grew louder as Keshet, with Feff by her side, bowed, waved goodbye, and set off.

With her tree under her arm.

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