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The Yoke of the Aspens

It’s autumn again, or at least the aspens are dropping their leaves as if it is. You will soon be saying that we must get warm for winter. You will ask me, again, the question that I am still too afraid to answer. Beyond the copse of aspens, I still think of myself as the girl I was formerly, lonely and locked securely inside herself, even though these days I am not that girl even when I wander far from you. Miles away, I bend to investigate a wild mushroom and you are the one that clutches the mushroom hat through my fingers; I feel you curl my fingers, feel you make a fist of my hand, see the shredded mushroom flesh in heaps on the forest floor even though I did not want to break it. The same goes for the sparrow that lands unluckily on my shoulder one night. Only my eyes are still entirely mine, and even still I can feel you flitting in certain moments at the back of my vision, pressing on the thin membrane that separates me from only being us.

I don’t tell you that I go wandering to be alone for a while; I only say, truthfully, that I can’t be fed by the forest like you. The forest nourishes me more haltingly. I collect wild currants and huckleberries, dig for parsnips. But food is getting scarcer as the forest starves, and soon I will have no choice. I will answer your question. I will climb, alongside you, into the yoke of the aspens. I am only waiting for the first snowfall. For a sign, definite and irrefutable, that you are the only thing left to me now. In the meantime, everything before our shared existence is getting blurrier. I have to try, like a wanderer through dense undergrowth, to thread my way back to before it was only you and me.

You would not remember Father’s stories. He would not have told them to you. They encompassed a whole world of characters, but at the heart of that world was The Angry One, who commanded all Father’s fear and half-sacred loathing. Father told me that our home was on the border of The Angry One’s territory, that The Angry One could use the entwined roots of the aspens to see me from its hiding place in the very bowels of the forest.

The very bowels, he would say, his voice low and roiling.

The Angry One was seemingly younger than me, because Father never mentioned the name before the summer of my eleventh birthday. The birth of The Angry One coincided with the births of all the many other fears that began roaming the dark landscape of his imagination. As I outgrew all my clothes and scrubbed blood out of my underwear, Father threw out the television and the radio, nailed boards over the windows, covered all the mirrors in the house and then finally ripped those mirrors from the walls and carried them outside and smashed them one after another. He never said, but seemed to believe, that hiding would protect us, and writing too. He spent hour after hour filling cardboard sketchbooks with dense columns of his neat square-looking handwriting, although for what reason I couldn’t know. He only buried the books in piles underneath his bed when he was finished.

I was not interested in what he was writing, not then. I was distantly afraid of The Angry One the way that children in old books are afraid of the Devil. I wouldn’t have said so to Father, but I thought I was too small and obscure to be seen through the roots of the aspens. What I was afraid of was Father, who could at any moment, if he chose, abandon me in a windowless and mirrorless house that I did not even know how to imagine leaving.

That same summer, Father had begun vanishing at night. He would come home after midnight smelling of ash and vinegar, stories spilling from his mouth as if they couldn’t be contained inside of him. I knew without being told that I was supposed to stay awake until he returned, although it was long past my usual bedtime. Those were the nights when he explained how The Angry One tore open the belly of the forest and poisoned the trees with its own blood. As he spoke, I would curl up as small as I could, knees to my chin, chest tight behind my thighs, toes curled inward. I would feel the fervor in his voice like an icicle sliding down every knob of my spine, an almost-hurt that was too fleeting and too light to be worth complaining over.

I hated his stories then, but I hated them less when I did not know that most of them were stories about you. I hated his absences too, not less when I did not know that those were also, mostly, about you.

When I first found you, you were buried so deeply that my waking mind didn’t know you existed. If we close our eyes now, you can retrace my steps: through the forbidding oaks at the border of the homestead where I lived with Father, down into the dark curve of a ravine where I waded waist-deep through sword ferns, beyond to a lonely bare hillside exposed in the glow of the moon, and finally into the copse of aspens that belonged to you. I was sleepwalking; as I took my stiff barefoot way through the forest, my eyelids twitched and shadows crossed my dreamy gaze, showing me branches and fallen logs and those depressed patches of soil that can drown someone if they are not cautious, in this part of the forest. But this part, you know: it was you that maneuvered me, walking with my feet.

I only woke when I was already in front of you. I remember how cold my feet became as my toes returned to me and I found them submerged in a carpet of dying leaves. The trees that surrounded me were huddled intimately, shoulder-to-shoulder. Only your trees were holding one another: like us, they were yoked, split at the neck. There at the apex of the two slender trunks you were, and I knew at once that you were not a ghost and not a dream and not a part of the forest, but a part of me that had for very long been lost.

“Elinor,” you said, so easily that I was almost unafraid.

I did not know your name. You said, “Matilda,” and I repeated the word. It was like an incantation; it recalled you to life. You were, I thought, my phantom limb: the remainder of my half-formed left arm, the rounded bit of flesh missing from my dented shoulder.

“He never said I had a sister,” I said.

Scorn or grief or something that I could not name crossed your face then, but only for a moment. When you smiled at me, you were like a mirror that corrected all my faults. I was half-infatuated. “He always told me everything about you,” you said carelessly, and I lowered myself on a fallen log to hear Father’s account of me secondhand, feeling the dampness of the wood soak through my clothes into my skin but not yet minding it.

After that night, the need to come back to you was like a current flowing inside me, one that never exhausted itself no matter how I thrashed and struggled. Many times, I woke in the middle of the night with the residue of my dreams still hanging cloudily in front of me, leading me into the forest before I ever moved. I rose hours before the autumn dawn and dressed not warmly enough, shivered through the oaks and the ferns and the barren hillside on my way to you. You were always awake. I thought you never slept, although I know now that you do.

“Tell me a story,” you would say sometimes, pouting little-sister-like, even though we could only have emerged from the womb at exactly the same time. “Listen,” you would say other times, head cocked as you observed the distant mating cry of a fox or the footfalls of a doe shuffling near-silently through the undergrowth. I learned to hear through you, and you learned to hear through me too. I do not remember when first I realized that you were eavesdropping on my conversations. I only know that the sensation was a faint prickly one, like a limb that had fallen asleep returning to life. An almost-hurt. Cooking pinto beans and venison for Father as he reported on his wanderings one night, I felt you hearing through my ears and did not yet know why, listening, I felt a pinprick of rage inside of myself.

“The maples are rotting from the inside out,” he was saying.

“It’s The Angry One’s doing,” he was saying.

“It’s not ordinary decay, but starvation. In the middle of fall. The ground soaking wet. The sun still high for nine hours. Impossible.”

My hands were unsteady as I lifted the pot from the stove burner. Was that you, for the first time trying to command me, trying to reach beyond the copse of aspens? We had no windows or mirrors, but still you heard and almost saw. Trembling, I burnt myself. Father tore a scrap of cloth from a dishtowel and told me to bind it, even though you’re supposed to leave burns exposed. He knew better. He was distracted, thinking of the hunger of maples.

Later, you laughed, saying that Father didn’t know anything and he was always going to be a stranger in the forest. “Not like you and me,” you said.

I had always thought of myself as much more of a stranger to the forest than Father, who had taught me the names of every tree and flower that I knew and who sometimes sheltered inside the forest for days on hunting or foraging expeditions. I had never gone even as far as the aspens before I met you. “I’m a stranger too,” I said to you.

You were stern. Your lips whitened, your eyes narrowed. The dark leaves of the surrounding aspens curled and rattled. “You are not,” you said to me. “Even if he tore you out. Even if he took you from where you belong.”

You asked me then, for the first time and not in so many words, if I would climb into the yoke of the aspens alongside you. I thought you were asking for the impossible. I had a trunk and limbs; I was almost my own tree.

“I wouldn’t fit,” I said to you.

“You won’t be how you are now,” you said solemnly. I said I didn’t know what you meant. You hesitated, only a little, and then said, “Go to the animal graveyard.” I didn’t know what that meant, either. You directed me. “Through the oaks, through the ferns, follow the tree line until you come to the cairns and the odor of dying,” you said.

I said I would go, but I was too afraid: of Father finding out, of what I might find out, of The Angry One and the possibility of being seen through the roots of the aspens. You did not insist. But one night in late autumn, you half-roused me and sleepwalked me barefoot through the forest, leading me thorn-stuck and nearly frostbitten to the piles of stones and the scent of vinegar, waking me only on the threshold of the animal graveyard.

There, among a copse of aspens that was not yours, I realized that really you had been grafted very delicately into the yoke of the trees, your body ending seamlessly where the aspens began so they could carry the milk of life through their cells and into yours. The inhabitants of the misnamed graveyard were unluckier creatures, only half-grafted: a possum drawing final gasps that did not conclude in death but only more long and labored breaths, a field mouse whose eyes bulged from a skeletal head. Those eyes followed me as I moved, terrified and still half-somnambulant, through the grove. The worst was a faun that had seemingly been born with a shrunken second head, a creature so much like you and me that I at once recognized the entire thing as Father’s handiwork, his desperate efforts to practice before he stitched you into the fabric of the aspens.

You did not see through my eyes then. You did not hear through me. You left me as soon as I stepped foot there.

I did not ever tell Father that I had gone to the animal graveyard. Less hurtful, less frightening, if I only tiptoed past the truth of him. I still did not want him to abandon me. But no matter what I did, he was disappearing for longer and longer intervals, not saying when he would come home or where he was going. I fell asleep one night before a dying fire and woke shivering at noon to a room as dark as night, realizing that Father had still not come home. When he did return, three hours later, he had no dressed-out game or foraged vegetables to excuse his absence. Empty-handed, he threw the door open and stood a dark outline framed by the winter sun, saying, “You shouldn’t have gone there.”

I didn’t know if he meant to you or to the animal graveyard. I said I was sorry but not for what. “I’ll tie you down,” he said. “I’ll lock up these doors and hide the key.” But instead he buried himself in his bedroom and his scribbling.

I reported to you what he’d said and you acted like you hadn’t already heard. “You could stay here,” you said, wheedlingly, almost shy as you watched me contemplate the idea.

It was too cold; I would go hungry; I would have nowhere to sleep; Father would miss me. You had remedies for every problem but the last. “You saw what he did,” you said. I thought, he did that for you.

“Does he still come to see you?” I said.

Again that wrathful look passed across your face for only a moment. “Not in three winters,” you said. “I’ve been so lonely, Elinor.”

I was almost pleased that Father’s nighttime disappearances were not to see you. On the long evenings that I spent alone, in half-dreamt visions before the dying coals of the fire, I had imagined him spreading a blanket on the forest floor and staying here for many hours: teaching you to read, braiding your hair with his clumsy and unassured fingers, feeding you raspberries even though they were out of season and I knew, anyway, you did not eat like that.

“I’m lonely too,” I said to you.

“I’ll show you how not to be alone,” you said. “Come here, put your hand on that aspen’s trunk. Not my aspen; any of them will do. Close your eyes. Try to see through me. With a little practice, you will be able to do it without even touching the aspens.”

I learned to see through your eyes and hear through your ears, but I have never been able to feel through the rest of you, the branches and roots of your surrogate body. That would mean communion with something older, deeper, more fearsome, you warned me once, intoning the words solemnly like you were repeating something you’d been told.

“But you do it,” I said.

“It makes you strange. It makes you always hungry.” You bit your lip as if holding yourself back. “It makes you angry,” you said, and that was the moment that I understood what already I should have known, which is that the thing Father was afraid of, The Angry One who could see through the roots of the aspens from inside the very bowels of the forest, was you.

Father vanished sometime in midwinter, as the forest became bleak-colored and emaciated, cavities showing between the branches of the leafless aspens. On the third day of his absence, when I wasn’t yet sure that it was permanent, I opened the door to his bedroom and found that he had gone to the walls when he exhausted his supply of sketchbooks, consuming the plaster with narrow columns of penciled writing that trailed from the ceiling almost to the floor. I stood in the middle of his stories for a moment, trying to find him somewhere among all those words, and then I shut the door. It was only another animal graveyard.

Through the winter, I chopped weak and crooked planks of firewood; I emptied the freezer of last year’s meat and then ate the pickled vegetables arranged in rows beneath the floorboards; I learned how to make coffee and sat in the mornings with a cup throbbing warmly in my hands, swallowing the grounds that swirled in my mouth, wondering if I could tame some animal that would produce milk to sweeten it. And at night, as if you could only be seen after dark, I went to you.

“You could come in the day,” you told me.

“Soon I’ll be planting a new garden,” I said, as if I could make the words true by saying them aloud to you. “I’m going to learn to shoot. To hunt.”

“I see you,” you said, as if I didn’t know when you saw through my eyes, when I became, really, for a moment, more like us. “All alone there. It seems terribly sad to me.”

To appease you, I stayed once for most of a day; while I laid bundled in Father’s comforter as well as my own, swaddled among the frost-silvered undergrowth, you looked after me as if you were the mother neither of us could remember losing, your gaze protective and benignant. I woke as the air chilled at dusk and said I had to go. You cried then, no longer motherly but infantile. You pleaded, then reasoned, then threatened, but I could not be persuaded. When you refused all my no’s and excuses, I gathered my many layers across my shoulders and fled home, dragging a rustling tail of loose twigs and leaves after me. I felt for the first time, then, that you could really see me through the roots of the aspens. Their lidless black eyes gazed unblinking as I ran from the copse and back across the barren hillside. I could rest only after I got inside the house and bolted the door, feeling that with no windows and no mirrors the only watchful eyes in the house belonged to me.

You wanted to see through my eyes that night, but I wouldn’t let you. I shut them, stubborn; I even blindfolded myself. I did not go to see you for weeks after that. You made your anger known in rude intrusions: the axe that I nearly dropped on my foot, the cleaver that nearly split my finger, the nightmare from which I woke screaming. Despite these pleading torments, I stayed as far from you as I could. For a while I thought we could stay apart, you in your copse with your rage and me in the homestead with no mirrors and no windows. But I got lonely, and I began to understand that Father was never going to reappear, and as you know already, at last I did not stay away; I came back—in your words, came home.

Father used to say that The Angry One could see and hear beyond the bowels of the forest, but could not go there. Such a creature needed darkness and obscurity. It was not safe for The Angry One to be seen, he said.

All night, he scribbled in his sketchbooks and on the walls, writing over and over again a confession that I would only read months after his disappearance, after I had already stopped considering the homestead to be my home. That he had known we were coming, two-headed and impracticable, but he had refused to acknowledge what our birth might do to us or our mother. That he had buried his wife, secretly and alone, but he could not bear to bury his daughters; that among the aspens, he had called on ancient remedies and made demands of something old and deep and fearsome, at last decapitating the smaller of his twin daughters and sewing her to the yoke of twin aspen trees. And from all that wreckage what he salvaged was you and me, and what he lost was us, and he could never be at peace and neither could we.

I imagine our childhood sometimes, if you had stayed grafted to me. Our heads bent over a dollhouse or a puzzle or a novel by Dickens, sounding out troublesome words in two voices. Our shared wardrobe of clothes: the coats and dresses that would have slid across the broad rack of our shoulders. Our just-alike cups of cocoa, sipped through two mouths and drained into one shared stomach. I think I could have borne you more comfortably if you had only been part of me, instead of becoming something all your own. When I say that to you, you say, “I feel like that too,” and you bite back the question that you are always asking.

If snow does not fall tonight, it will fall soon. The air is tight and woolen; the clouds huddle low in the horizon. The eyes of the aspens follow me out of the grove, across the tree line, to the cairns that remain among the clotted remnants of fallen trees and dead undergrowth. You are here with me even now, and you don’t disappear even once you realize where I’m going.

The scent of vinegar is weaker here now, but the animals have gone unchanged. The possum gasps and fixes me with a black unrelenting look; the mouse’s eyes twitch in their sockets. I feel your protest as I look at them. They are your brothers and sisters, your progenitors.

I close all the animals’ eyes with the palm of my hand, the pulse of eyelashes soft against my palm. They are, I concede, our brothers and sisters. Then I chop down the aspen trees, one after another. The trunks are thin and brittle, half-starved. A few blows of the axe and they splinter. Among all the animals in the graveyard, only the two-headed faun cries, a sharp and desperate keen from both mouths that echoes only once before it is absorbed by the forest.

The soil has become dry and unforgiving, but still I bury them. The field mouse alongside the possum, the faun last. I do not mark their graves. I want this place to disappear, buried beneath a swell of new life, the remains of the animals nourishing the roots of the aspens. In some months, we will be hungry and they will feed us. But first, we must tolerate a little hurt: I can’t swing my shovel without striking them and I know you feel every blow, as if all the forest is your own nervous system.

I quiet your protests only until I am finished burying the animals. We need one another now. Slowly, I amble back to our own copse of aspens through the malnourished glow of midwinter. You see what I see; you hear what I hear; we are almost perfectly together. The seams between us are so slight and so delicately drawn as to be invisible. When we ask the question of us, we will say yes, and climb into the yoke of the aspens.

About the Author

Kay Chronister is the author of the collection Thin Places (2020) and the forthcoming novel Desert Creatures (2022). Her stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, The Dark, and elsewhere, and her work has been nominated for the Shirley Jackson and World Fantasy Awards. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.