The first chapter|
Ma had six sons. The eldest boy was big like his father, the middle boys were middling. By the time Razo was born, all the family's largeness must have been used up. The brothers called him runt and made him feel that word. He spent winter nights longing for a younger sibling, someone he could call runt, someone he could push and pinch.
Ma was longing too, but for a girl to share thoughts with, a daughter cut and sewn from her own soul.
When Razo was almost five, he and Ma both got their wish. The baby girl was born on a night so hot the wind panted and the summer moon blazed like the sun.
"Rinna," Ma named her.
"A girl," said the father.
"Rinna-girl," said Razo, peering over the side of the cot.
The baby blinked huge, dark eyes and opened her mouth into a tiny circle. All desire to push and pinch hushed right out of Razo.
He bent closer to her ear and whispered, "I'm going to teach you to climb trees."
Ma did not allow her baby girl into any timber, though Razo, with a trembling kind of impatience, looked her over each day to gauge if she'd grown big enough. The dark-haired baby cried if Ma put her down, so Ma did not put her down. She did chores with her daughter strapped to her side.
One spring morning when Rinna was two, her father went hunting in the deep Forest. Three days later, Ma sent her older boys to look for him. They found his pack and some bear prints, a reminder not to wander far.
That night in the one-room house built of pine, the brothers stared stiff-eyed at the darkness, the unfamiliar sound of their mother's sobs spooking them to wakeful silence. No one moved, except Rinna.
"Ma," she said. "Ma sad."
She crawled off her mat at the foot of her parents' cot and lay down by Ma, fitting into the curve of her body.
"My peaceful girl," Ma whispered. "My tender Rin." She kissed the top of her daughter's head and sighed before falling asleep.
Rin sighed too. She slept with her nose touching her mother's shirt, her dreams laced with the scent of the juniper berries Ma loved to chew.
Rin learned to crawl on moss and walk on pine needles, and by the age of four could climb a fir as easily as fall into bed. That was thanks to Razo, who never had worked up a reason to push his little sister. When Rin was not clinging to her ma, she was running after her brother. She talked some and laughed some, but mostly she watched--the faces of her brothers, the sway of the trees. She watched the world the way most people breathed air.
"That girl sees the bones inside birds," her ma would say. "That girl can see your soul."
It was early autumn after Rin's seventh birthday when Razo, who was almost twelve and old enough to earn real coin, announced he was going to the city. Rin had never insisted much of her nearest brother--she'd never had need. But now she flushed with indignation. Why should he go some place so distant and horrible that he could not take his baby sister along on his shoulders? She would ask him that, she would demand he stay. But she did not have the chance. Razo left during the soft side of day while Rin still slept. He did not said goodbye.
Four days had clomped by, pulling a knot of anger tighter in Rin's belly, when Ma left too, called off to help a neighbor deliver a baby.
Rin stood by her ma's house, her arms dangling at her sides. Never had she been without both Ma and Razo, and she felt like a fledgling perched on the rim of its nest. She stared first into the deep Forest, then back toward the city where Razo had gone--both directions frightened her.
Her niece Nordra was sitting on a log, her long black hair tied at the back of her neck. She was eight, one of several nieces and nephews who were older than their young aunt. Nordra hummed a tune, and Rin's heart cringed. Why was she just fine there, playing alone with no Ma or Razo, and why couldn't Rin be fine too? It was not fair. Rin hated how she felt, weak and forgotten and so scared. Her blood flashed hot in her face and insisted drum beats at the insides of her ears.
"I want that," Rin said, pointing to the stick Nordra was using to twist holes into the dirt.
Nordra shook her head. "I'm using it. Go get another."
Rin's cheeks blazed. With Ma and Razo, Rin rarely had to ask for anything. She looked hard at Nordra, her thoughts skipping toward an idea of what she could say to make her niece relent.
"If you don't give me that stick, I'll tell Ma you took it from me, and she always believes me." Nordra startled, and Rin could see that she knew it was true. "She loves me best, and she'll wallop you with her wooden spoon. So you better give me the stick."
Nordra gave up the stick, though her chin trembled.
Rin felt amazing, big as her brother Brun and powerful as Ma. So she demanded the doe-skin boots Nordra's da had made, and the bright red cloth she used to hold her hair, and her doll of wrapped sticks. Nordra gave each thing over, crying pitifully all the while, and with each new treasure Rin felt bigger, stronger, better--
"Rin! Rinna-girl, what're you doing to make Nordra cry?" Ma bustled through the clearing, her white-shot black hair frizzing free from her blue headscarf. She pulled Rin to her feet by the back of her tunic.
"I just asked her for the things and she gave them to me," Rin said, though the doll and boots felt treacherous in her hands, like a pet snake with a hissing mouth.
"Then stop asking for things that aren't yours. You just shut that mouth and keep it shut unless you have something nice to say. I'd never guessed you had such a bad core to you! I'm ashamed of my own daughter, making little Nordra cry. I'm right ashamed."
Rin had seen Ma's face red with anger, but never when she was looking at her daughter. Rin's bones shook. She wanted to flee from her body and claw her way into the sky to hide in the clouds where no one ever went. But Ma's stare pinned her, a bug under the point of a twig. At Ma's order, Rin gave everything back and asked pardon.
Ma looked at Rin once more, shook her head, and walked away.
That was when Rin ran. She ran because she hurt as if red coals glowed inside her chest, she ran until the trees swallowed sight of her mother's house. Always before when there was pain or sadness, Ma hugged or hummed it out of her--but this time Ma had walked away.
Rin stopped in a mess of unfamiliar trees, turning around, hurting so much, shaking and confused and not knowing where to go. She was bad. Her ma thought so. Home was lost somewhere in the trees, Razo was gone, Ma had turned her back. The coals in her chest blazed, the pain fierce and white hot. Desperate, Rin stumbled into a fir tree and hugged it as she would have hugged Ma.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm sorry I'm bad. I'm sorry."
She listened, wishing with a childish hope that her mother's voice would find her there lost in the Forest and say it was all right, that she was not really bad, that she was forgiven and to come home. She listened harder, trembling with a desire to hear. A space inside her opened.
No mother's voice. But something else.
Not a sound, not a smell, not even a feeling. If it had been a color, it might have been green. If it had touched her ears, it might have sounded rhythmic, like the creak of a rocking chair or drone of a bee. If it had a scent, it might have been sweet and drowsy, like fresh pine on the fire.
The place in her chest that had ached with panic now felt warbley and sweet, drowsy and green. Her heart cooled, her breathing slowed, her jumbled thoughts sorted themselves. Calmed now, she understood that Ma would not be angry forever. And Rin worked out her own fault--telling Nordra what to do, demanding what was not hers. It was true what she'd told Nordra--Ma did love her best. But she'd spoken those words not because they were true, but because it would hurt Nordra. And Ma's love was sure to change if Rin became for good that insistent girl who took Nordra's stick.
In the future, she would not demand anything, she would keep the harsh words inside. She felt sure she could do this, a peaceful confidence shushing the tremble from her limbs.
And suddenly she knew which way was home, as if the trees themselves had pointed the way.
Ma scowled at Rin over supper, but that night she made room on the cot. Ma's warmth stilled her fears, and Rin found she could sleep. But that night she had a dream that would stick to her in years to come--a huge worm curled inside her middle, and when Rin opened her mouth, dozens of tiny worms crawled free, dripping from her lips, covering Razo and Ma and her entire family in wriggling slime.
The next morning, the dream clutching at her head, Rin crawled out of her shared cot and tripped away from the house to the nearest grouping of aspens. Her cheek against the papery bark, her small hands gripping the slender trunks, she closed her eyes and listened again for that calming green. It was not really listening, not with her ears, but she did not know how to explain it to herself. Peace sluiced through her, and again she made the promise to keep in the hard words, to demand nothing, to be her Ma's peaceful Rin.
She returned to Ma working over the morning stew, unsure how to be or what to say. It had been so easy to hurt Nordra and almost lose Ma's love. What if she did that again?
Ma is good, Rin thought. Ma always knows what to do.
Rin had always watched her mother, so it was not hard to try to be like her. She felt her body take on Ma's sturdy stance, her hands always ready to work, her eyes watchful for who needed a hand.
"I can finish the bread," Rin said, working the dough Ma left on the table.
"There's my girl."
When Razo visited from the city a few months later, Rin trembled anew. She had not been Rin-with-Razo for so long, she could not remember what that girl did, and how to keep that girl from being bad.
Razo's good, like Ma, she thought. So she mimicked him, finding herself more talkative, eager to explore and wonder, always moving, always near to grinning. He did not seem to notice any change in her--rather, he seemed delighted. But when they were with the rest of family, she felt overwhelmed by all the voices and ways of being, and curled up quiet.
Trying to be like Razo or Ma helped some, but that unpleasant agitation only released her when she was alone listening to the trees. She never thought to ask Razo if he too made a habit of relaxing against a tree's bark and drawing in its calm. When the disquiet began to roar, it just felt natural to turn to the trees.
Soon the trees affected not only her mood but her understanding. Each year a trunk put on a new ring of growth, and within those rings she found the tree's own story. She listened to the scent of it, the feel, the sound, and her mind gave it words--soil, water, sap, light...And before, night and rain, dry and sun, wind and night...the drowsy stillness of leaves in a rainfall, the sparkling eagerness of leaves in the sun, and always the pulling up of the branches, the tugging down of the roots, the forever growing in two directions, joining sky and soil, and a center to keep it strong...
There were times when the trees' lives felt more real than her own.
Razo left again for the city, and Rin felt his distance every day. Ma seemed farther off too, since Rin no longer fit on her lap. Ma's family kept growing with five sons married, and Rin stayed busy. She was the most helpful girl, the children's best caretaker, and Ma's shadow. Her mother discovered Rin had a talent for reading the lie in a person's face and called her anytime one of the young ones made questionable claims.
When Rin was thirteen, her brother Deet's wife died birthing their first child. Deet had no end of family to comfort him, but he sought out Rin. For weeks they took slow walks or sat peeling roots together, Deet talking, Rin listening. She never said much, but in a couple of months he began to smile, and the following year he married again.
And Rin kept on listening, never asking, never demanding. Until Wilem.
Wilem only had one brother, who preferred sleeping to anything else. But Wilem liked to dirt wrestle with the Agget-kin, as Ma's children and grandchildren were known, and so made the twenty minute walk to visit several times a week. Once he wrestled Rin when she would not say no to a challenge, and after, victorious though sweating hard, he said, "Sisters might not be so bad if they're like Rin." His teeth showed their points when he smiled, reminding Rin of a fox.
The idea of Wilem entered her like a pleasant sliver she did not want to pluck. She considered him quietly until the day she spotted him climbing a tree alone. She shirked the wash duty to follow and pretended surprise at finding him up there, but stayed, and they threw pine cones at the nephews and laughed into their elbows. She felt a peculiar freedom in the top of that tree, hiding from work and becoming giddy from the scent of his skin. They were straddled between two branches, forced to lean together. The spring breezes were still salted with the chill of winter, and Wilem's warmth felt wonderful. She was fifteen years old, but it was the first time she'd been alone with a boy outside her family.
"You're wild, Rin," he said.
No one had called her wild before. She was Ma's shadow. But she wanted to be wild now, for him. Wild seemed more enticing than a bowl of berries.
She relished how she felt when she was imitating his careless, confident manner, falling into his quick pattern of speech, jumping from silence to silliness. He seemed to enjoy living. Wilem was someone she could stay with for a long time and not get weary.
Ever since she'd made Nordra cry, words of appeal or demand were thick wool in her mouth. But she was intoxicated by Wild, she was tipsy with living that brief life as a new Rin. So when Wilem climbed down the tree to go find her nephews, she felt as if her last chance to be wild Rin, to be desirable Rin, would run away with him.
She asked him to stay. She dared him to kiss her. She felt his warm, trembling lips against hers, and she wanted more, felt the want like a grumble in her belly, a sharpness in her chest. He was not going to kiss her again, so she spoke, saying anything she could think of to keep him close. And he did stay, for a while. They held each other awkwardly there under the tall pine while she talked to him and he clung to her. He kissed her again when she asked, and though his lips were soft and her middle thrilled, she could feel he did not mean the kiss.
They were not laughing anymore. The thrill cooled, and Rin was exhausted from trying to keep him. It was late when he left for home, his head bowed and shoulders stooped, and she was certain he'd never kiss her again.
The next morning, she felt wrong, as if day had dawned only partly-made, as if Wilem had taken half of her away with the kiss. She touched her lips. What had she said? She shuddered, an ache and a twisted stomach suggesting she had said too much. Something was wrong. She'd spied her older nieces share kisses with neighbor boys, and the next day they were full of sly smiles and giggles, not aches and shudders.
Coals burned inside Rin, hotter and hotter while she dressed and helped Ma with the morning chores. She did not understand why she burned, but she wanted to cry for the pain.
As soon as she could get away, she ran, falling into the arms of a fir tree.
Take it away, she demanded silently. Take whatever's wrong, cure me, make it right.
She tried to throw herself in the soothing thoughts of the tree and seize its peace, but she could not forget Wilem. What had she said? She did not want to remember. The harder she worked to shut that out, the more twisted and dark her feelings. Had she simply outgrown her connection to trees? Or was it possible the trees were shunning her for what she'd done? After making Nordra cry, her mother had thought Rin bad and turned her back. After kissing Wilem, it seemed the trees did the same.
Rin ran to another tree, leaned against it to listen, and was accosted by a greasy darkness. She fled to the aspens, and in place of green calm, she felt clutched and pulled down. She sat on the Forest floor with her arms over her head, too lost and confused to cry. If the voice of the Forest was simply silent to her, then she should feel nothing at all, not this loathing as if all the trees in the Forest spat hate and disgust at her. Her stomach turned, her head felt hot, her arms too weak to lift. She wished she could die.
When evening came and she still had not died, Rin stood up, brushed off her skirt, and went home. It would not be too hard to hide her misery. Lately, no one took much notice of Ma's shadow.
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