December 31, 2016

New Leaf, By Subhra Bhattacharya


In the mighty forest that lies nestled between the three mountains, the peaks of which have never been seen, there was once a little clearing at the center surrounded by tall trees, so high that they hugged the clouds above, their branches thick and strong. In the clearing was a cottage made of wood, with straws thatched into the roof, and it had one single room in it, and a fireplace in the corner. The cottage had been there forever and no one knew when it had been built. The old man who lived in the cottage had been living there for a long time, all by himself, and he could talk to the trees in the forest.

He walked around alone, stopping by the trees often, and he would gently touch their trunks, his fingers closed together in a straight line, palm resting on the curves of the bark, he would hear them speak. Each one had a different voice, and he got to recognize them all. Some were a deep bass, like the giant maple that shaded his house, its lower leaves brushing his roof when the wind blew, and some were a high crescendo. 

The maple was his closest friend. It was so full of leaves that he didn't know how tall it was. On those hot mornings when the sun was beating down hard, and it would have dried up his water in the cottage, the maple offered its shade. On clear evenings, the tree would sway and let him glance at the stars set in the dark sky through its leaves, and on the frozen nights, when the maple had lost all its leaves, it would still be there, guarding him from the snowfall, and reminding him that New Leaf was soon to come.

One day, a soldier from the king's palace beyond the mountains arrived at door to his cottage. He wore a tunic made of red velvet, with gold stripes across his chest, and he rode on a fine horse. The horse was black, like the midnight sky, and had white mane on the back. The man carried a long spear in his right hand and looked formidable, his helmet made of bronze with several dents in it.
The old man became afraid when he saw the soldier. He had heard of great wars beyond the mountains. Of people slaying one another.

"Do not be afraid, old man," the soldier said. "Our King sends you his regards and wishes you well. He knows of your power with trees, and his wizard has made him aware that you are the last tree-speaker in his kingdom. You do not have an offspring to pass your power on to--he is aware of that too. Tell me, old man, is that true, that you have no apprentice?"

"The wise King is right," the old man replied, "as is his wizard. I have no one to teach, for I have no child, and no human ever enters this forest. I am the last that the trees will speak to."

"Our King cannot let that happen," the soldier responded. "It is known that the trees are our protectors, and as long there is a person to speak to them, they will protect our land from all our enemies. You are too old to have a child, so the King sends you a child of the woods to raise as your own, and to pass on to her the knowledge of the forest."

Having said this the soldier produced a basket with fur lining, dried grass on top of the fur, and then another layer of warm wool covering the grass, on top of which was an infant, a girl with eyes brown like the tree bark, and her hair brown too.

The old man fell to his knees. "I beg your majesty's pardon," he said. "I am too old to feed myself, let alone raise a child. The woods are rough even in summer, and I survive on what I can gather and the fruits the trees offer me. I store them for the months of winter, when it snows so much that I can barely set my foot outside my hut, and everywhere the eye sees is frozen and white. The food I store is hardly enough to feed myself, and often the wood runs out before the New Leaf and my home is cold and dark. Surely, the King knows of this?"

"Alas, old man," the soldier said kindly, "this is the only way. There is no other tree-speaker left in the kingdom, and you cannot leave the forest, or your powers will be lost. You must raise this child, and teach her your secrets. Her name is Auria."

Having said this, he set the basket in front of the cottage and without any more words turned and trotted off.

###

The old man lived for three times four more years, and he raised Auria with all his heart. He shared his fruits with her, and worked twice as hard to gather for the two of them. He lugged in double the amount of wood to keep them warm in winter, and three times the water to make sure the child was never thirsty.

Auria grew up happy. She wandered in the forest, never afraid. She knew of the beasts that roamed the jungle, but the trees were there to protect her. She hugged them and leaned against them, and felt their heart. She heard their whispers when she touched them, and she whispered back, her mouth shut.

She spoke to the maple tree often. On afternoons when the old man was away she would climb the tree and lie on one of its strong branches, high up so that she could see the top of the roof of her cottage, and beyond, over the crowns of other trees into the misty peaks of the mountains, and she would dream of the lands beyond.

"What makes the snow fall so hard, maple?" She would ask. "Why does it have to snow, and everything frozen for months?"

"Because that is when we shed your selfishness," the maple would reply. "All year long, especially in summer, humans take the world for granted, and think only about themselves, and it accumulates, till the trees can't take it any more, it is too heavy a burden, and we shed our leaves, and herald the winter. That reminds the humans that there is a self beyond the self that needs to be cared for. When they shiver in winter, when food is scarce, they come to terms with reality, and start opening their hearts."

"What ends this winter?"

"The New Year."

"Which day is the New Year? How do we know that day?" Auria would press on.

"The day the first New Leaf sprouts on my branch. That is the first day of the New Year. That is when all the snow stops, and the summer begins, and food becomes abundant again."

"How do you decide when it is time to sprout the first leaf after all these months of winter?"

"It takes a single act of selfless courage and kindness in the land to make that happen. When I feel that one such act has been committed, anywhere in this forest or beyond, I sprout my first new leaf, end the winter, and begin the New Year."

"Who commits this act, maple?"

"Anyone. It takes just one human to do one act of selflessness. In the past there were plenty such acts happening all the time, and we hardly had any winter. Nowadays, such acts are becoming rare, and the winter months are growing."

This made Auria feel sad.

###

By Auria's twelfth year, the old man had became so old and feeble he could hardly walk. Neither could he see well. He knew it was time to go, and he wanted to visit the mountains and meet his end. He called her to his side.

"I must go, child" he said, "I must leave you now. I need to welcome my end, alone. That is the destiny of tree-speakers. But, do not think I am leaving you helpless. The trees will protect you. The great maple, the oak and the cherry. Listen to them. They will guide you."

He picked up his stick, and sauntered off into the forest.

It was still summer, and there was plenty of food around, but Auria remembered to store for the coming winter. For every fruit she ate, she kept one, for every nut, she stowed one away. She missed the old man, but she had all the sunlight in the world, and she was happy. She would walk to the stream, sit by it, dip her toes in the water, and watch the colorful Koi wiggle around her feet. She would visit the waterfall, and see the rainbow in the sparkling water.

Sometimes she visited the caves that lay in the foot of the mountains. She wasn't afraid to enter them, even though there were no trees inside. There was moss all over the walls, and some hardy shrubs that grew in the crevices on the floor, and those connected her to the forest. She would touch them, whistle to them, and they whistled back.

Through all of this, though, the only thing that worried her was the coming winter. What if the winter never ends? What if no one commits a selfless act of courage this year and the maple never sprouts the New Leaf? She would wonder.

And yes, soon the nights grew longer and the sunlight dimmer, and the wind became crisp and cold, cutting through the skin. The trees all around started to shed their leaves. They looked like half-eaten carcasses, some of the branches still covered with green while the others were bare. In a few days, they became like skeletons, and every branch looked rickety and old and frail. The great maple was the last to shed, but, one morning Auria woke up to find the last leaf gone from it too.

The howling of the wind began that evening, and then came the snow. First in flurries, then in sheets. The gale was so strong that it shook the cottage, and hurled big pellets of ice on the roof and the wall. Auria shut the door tight, barred it with a thick branch, and prepared for her long stay inside. I have enough food to survive through the winter, she thought as she glanced around at the storage. And maybe the storm will let up, and I'll be able to go out and collect some more.

The storm never let up. It went on for days, then weeks, then months. The bellowing was so constant that Auria barely paid any attention to it any longer. She drank sips from her water reserve, bites from her fruit supply and chewed on the nuts. Every now and then, she would burn a few of the twigs she had collected in the corner fireplace to would warm up the cottage.

The winter seemed tediously long. Maybe it was the longest, maybe it was because she was alone for the first time. She didn't know. She tried to call out to the trees outside, but did not hear a voice responding. She leaned against the wall and visualized the forest when it was green, she remembered every tree and whispered to each individually. "When will this be over?" She asked.

There was only silence around her. And the yellow glow of the lamp that she dared to burn only a few hours each day. Her stack of supplies was almost down to scraps. There were no more branches to light to keep her warm, and she huddled in a corner. There was one last pitcher of water left.
Three more days passed by, and the night that came seemed darker than ever. The screeching of the wind and the snow beating down on the cottage walls were relentless. Auria had used up her last reserve of oil and had no light. It was pitch dark inside save a sliver of moonlight that seeped in under the door.

Just when she was about to fall asleep, she heard heavy footsteps outside. It was as if a creature was dragging its weight on snow. Who would come to visit on such a day? Is it the old man? The old man was frail and light, she thought, and long dead. Is it the soldier? Why did he not knock?

The footsteps stopped right outside the door. And then there was a heavy thud, as if something was banging its head on the door. More thuds, and then a deep snarl. The light coming from under the door was blocked. The snarling grew louder. And then, Auria heard a howl, wolf-like, and a snarl again, then alternating howls and snarls.

She started trembling with fear. This must be the Bear-wolf, she thought. The most fearful of all creatures who lived high up on the mountains. Few people had seen the Bear-wolf, and no one survived to tell stories. Legends had it that it had the body of a bear and the face of a wolf, and it fed on whole sheep for breakfast, the only time it came down from the mountain was when there was nothing more to feed on, and it was hungry and mad.

The thudding was so intense now that the whole cottage was shaking. It's hungry, Auria thought. It has come to eat me. And then she thought of how cold it was outside, and how strongly hunger hurt one. Momentarily, she was thankful for the warmth of the cottage. She knew she still had half an apple left, and a few nuts, even though there was no more water. 

She walked up to the door, lifted the bar across it and threw it wide open.

The creature outside was more hideous than the legends described. It was taller than the door and had thick black fur covered in snow. It was so wide that it seemed to cover the entire opening, but what were most ferocious were its eyes. They were red, two huge pieces of burning charcoal, and they were ringed with white and had black pupils at the center. Below the eyes jutted the long snout of the wolf, its mouth wide open, saliva dripping from the fangs, and foam around the corner of the jaw.

The Bear-wolf was standing upright, forelegs raised, and they were higher than the girl's head. At the end of the paws were long talons that were curved like knives. There was a full moon in the sky, and the silvery light bounced off the creature's teeth and claws, their pale whiteness set against the animal's pitch black body looked grotesque.

The animal gave out a long rasping snarl and lunged inside. Auria backed away instinctively, tripped on a pitcher and fell down to the ground, her head hitting the floor before her body. Darkness enveloped her.

When she woke up the next morning, the Bear-wolf was nowhere to be seen. Bright sunlight flooded in through the open door and all the snow outside had melted away.

There was a single new leaf on the lowest branch of the maple tree.

Bio: Subhra Bhattacharya works with software and math in Manhattan and lives in Jersey City, New Jersey. He is an international writer and has been published in two languages. His most recent works have been accepted for publication inRats Ass Review - Love and Ensuing Madness and in Plum Tree Tavern. He workshops weekly with his local writers' groupand competes in local camera club contests in photography.

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