The Forest Behind the Trees

Life after loss can be daunting, but strength, support and life lessons can be found in wonderful places.

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The city glimmered. Streets were rich with petrichor after a warm April rain. Shadows were sun-mottled and dancing over the heads of pedestrians as they meandered through the market square, umbrellas in hand – just in case.

My hood up, I watched a sunbeam shine through the belly of a canal bridge, its rays splitting and jumping through the water and the clear basin, landing as scattered rainbows on the path beneath. The waterweeds and mosses made the green that little bit brighter. A couple sat beneath it, counting something – probably the koi fish – and giggling. Their iridescent faces were as bright as the morning sky.

Feeling sweet at the thought, I continued my quick walk, taking a small glance up to the belly as I went. Smoothed glass pebbles had made their way onto the bridge, and were being plucked and sucked on by the resident carps. I saw an eel, I swore, and promised to show Tally later.

Eels were startling to look at, or were startled, I could never tell which. Yet they were pretty when they moved through the currents – like ribbons caught in a breeze.

Just beyond the canal bridge, around the bend and up the hill by two weeping willows, I paid respects to my late father, taking a moment to enjoy the smells of the grasses. It was also here where I could find lavender without stepping into people’s gardens or terraces.

Here was best to enjoy the light that shone between the skyscrapers before visiting Tally at the compost site. Fertilisers were popular near the private veggie gardens, a communal area where pensioners spent their retirement growing fresh produce.

“Enjoying the weather?” she asked as I approached. She was knee-deep in muck, but clearly ecstatic about something. “Seen the koi?”

I nodded. “I’m a bit busy though,” I replied, feeling a sudden pulse in my chest and an urge to run.

“Shame,” she said, flicking a red lock from her face. “You’re working too hard, you know that?”

I smiled.

Tally had this way of speaking that warmed the soul. Her accent, thick with the lowlander drawl, had been the first thing I fell in love with, and then the way she made me feel like I was being listened to, even when I wasn’t speaking at all.

“I’ll be by later,” I said, nodding over towards the café that sat on the far side of the river.

Tally seemed excited at the idea, which I hadn’t grown accustomed to. She was the kind of person that fed off the love and energy of other people – it was never a wonder that a rural farm out in the middle of nowhere couldn’t tame her.

She tamed me, though. The thought tickled me with prickling warmth and I looked away. I had other things to dwell on, some quite pressing matters.

“I’m looking for Ludo, have you seen him?” I asked, pressing my hand against my bag. A reflex.

Tally considered it. Her eyes hardened as she scanned the skyline, and I for a moment drank in her beauty. I stifled the thought and bit my lip.

“I heard he moved to Seventh-Eighteenth Street,” she said. “Near the lady that sells the Oxyferns.”

I nodded my thanks and took towards the tail end of the canal. It offered a grassy crossing over the monorail, and from there I could try to clear my head for the monstrous task ahead of me.

* * * * *

“Your old man left a heck of a job,” tutted Ludo as he leant back in his seat. He considered the goods I’d brought, then grunted. “You can put them away. Except the toothbrush, I’ll be keeping that. Mine’s due for the compost bin any day now.”

I’d brought two months’ worth of work, a small typewriter, blinds, bowls, plates, cooking utensils, and even a few small baskets – all made of bamboo. With my father’s passing I was the only bamboo-weaver in this part of the city. It meant I was the only one there for the harvest, and there was no way I was going to do that with a shoddy blunt knife.

“Are you sure?” I asked, feeling a little uneasy about putting the typewriter back in my bag. That one had taken over a month to get together, and I knew a few people willing to trade quite a few essentials for it.

“Yeah, yeah,” he said as he waved dismissively. “The old man gave me this chair.” He stretched and I admired my father’s craftsmanship. Sawdust and mycelium was his magic powder, making furniture from dust and spores, while I threaded shoots and leaves. “As well as the mosquito net, and my kid’s potty… Look, I owe you all a lot. Just take the sickle and go.”

I thumbed the contents of my bag – another one of my father’s creations – and felt rooted to the spot. While I wasn’t particularly keen on doing the harvest on my own, it wasn’t quite what weighed me down.

“Okay, if I give you the kitchen supplies… may I also have one of your, um, cages, please?” I asked slowly, watching his face squeeze out three different emotions at once.

He wrinkled his nose. “What kind of bamboo have you been growing?”

* * * * *

The typewriter traded well for a fish and a bag of veggies. I hadn’t thought how carrying a large metal crate would be both distracting and uncomfortable, but I was fortunate enough to find my journey home was downhill.

I took the cool route, under the waterways, to help stave off the sweat and swearing, but it only got me so far before I started cursing my dirty rotten luck.

The city was new to me. I hadn’t grown up here. This was a part of the world that I’d been told I’d never need to visit. The buildings here were re-used, made from the waste of everyone else – but it looked beautiful; a little alien, but beautiful.

The tallest buildings housed forests on their roofs, with swooping canopies interlinking them. These were bird sanctuaries, I’d heard, but the buildings themselves were made with nesting holes too. Tall, but always looking half-built, as homes would pop up and disappear within a moment’s notice. People were always building, bringing in old freight carts that were no longer used, or vehicles beyond repair. They’d take them apart and build something new, and the result was striking.

The decomposers of society, my father called them. He’d been a mycologist on the northern side of the district, but here he had been a carpenter and I his lovely assistant – or so he said. It was the lack of work brought to him up north that closed his shop, and forced us from our town. Yet here he joked he’d be worked to death after becoming accustomed to the quiet. Here he was loved, valued here like they valued their metalsmiths and plastic-weavers, as we had once valued our doctors and lawyers, teachers and councillors.

Standing in the doorway to our bamboo business, I now felt like the heir to an empire I hadn’t been prepared for. The merchant across the street called out to me, but I could only mumble my greeting as I looked up at the tower block called ‘home’.

The first level housed the shop, swelling with all kinds of products from the bamboo wares to my father’s mycelium goods. There were ‘leathers’, made from mushroom and sawdust, with speckled skin and the most intriguing arrangement of colours. He specialised in furniture mostly, and his work could be found in almost every home in a ten-street radius.

Every shelf was filled with our work, and just in the doorway, right before I entered, I found a bag of sawdust; a payment for a coffee table from last week.

I groaned. I hadn’t the technical skills to create what my father had created. Sure, people enjoyed his work, but it wasn’t long before they’d realise I wasn’t a viable substitute.

By the time I reached the second floor, where the goods were made, I was fighting panic in my chest. Now I was surrounded by my father’s legacy, from the leather books he’d been stitching to the sofa he’d recently covered. I could see over a hundred different bags of sawdust and mycelium cultures ready to be managed and moulded into something new and useful.

Sweat dripped from my forehead, and I set the cage down on the floor.

I knew the basics, I assured myself. It might take a few years. Did I have a few years? My stomach knotted and I felt around for my bag. I had stitched this. I had watched him work and I knew the process.
And on I climbed. Dad got this building for the work he was doing, there was no way they were going to let me keep it when they found me to be a fraud.

I gritted my teeth and kept on walking. Fourth floor was the living quarters, but Dad had filled it with books for studying. Now they were lying across the floor, bellies open from last night’s panic. They told me everything I already knew, but I still felt emptiness as I tried to picture actually doing the work.
On the fifth floor was where Dad had slept, but he didn’t need it anymore, and now it was a vacuum. I’d tried clearing it out but instead felt myself being sucked in. So I avoided it.

It was a short building, all in all, with the height superficially bolstered by the bamboo forest on top. It was here I dragged the heavy cage and here that I grumbled to myself for getting into such a wild predicament.

We’d only one bamboo tree when I was younger. I carried it from post to post, from station to station, as Dad was moved across the district. Eventually we wound up here. The city swallowed us whole, and father jumped straight into the deep end with making trinkets to trade for food.

He only had one stalk and he made this business from the ground up – quite literally.

I had a whole damn forest, and yet I was still fretting and sweating and swearing over things I couldn’t control.

The sunlight shone heavy now, promising a long afternoon of heat and mosquitos. The bamboos offered a refreshing shade, not unlike the one found beneath the clear canals, and I was of half a mind to stop and enjoy the silence – but then I saw it.

Wide eyes, a striped face, and fur the colour of fire. It bared its teeth in surprise, rising up on its hind legs and attempted to take a swipe at me.

Then it fell over.

I pressed myself against the bamboo behind me and clenched my eyes shut.

“You can do this,” I told myself over and over. My hands fiddled numbly with the latch of the cage, but I couldn’t bring myself to open my eyes and actually look. I heard it grunt, too close for comfort and opened my eyes. It was up in the bamboo and glaring at me. “No, no, no, no!”

I grabbed the latch of the cage and wrestled with it. Ludo had said that it was the best lock he’d made, nothing was getting out – yeah, because nothing was getting in.

It started chirping at me, baring its teeth as I finally opened up the cage.

“Please, for the love of all that is good and kind in this world, get in,” I said.

It didn’t respond, and it certainly didn’t get in the cage. I grumbled and found my working gloves. I’d never really handled an animal before. I’d been around when neighbours made a den for a pregnant dog a few years ago, and Dad had let a cat sleep in his room for a week or so until it decided the people next door had better fish. There were birds that nested outside my bedroom window, but I’d never gone and grabbed one.

I’d never had any eating my livelihood before, either.

“You were waiting for this, weren’t you?” I asked it as I tried to get a good look up the stalks it had climbed. “You knew Dad wouldn’t tolerate this and now he’s gone. Poof! Here you are.”

It didn’t reply.

“Look, I have to weave half of this into furniture next week; it’d be great if you didn’t crap on it.” I gestured around to the waste it’d kindly left for me to stand on.

It hissed.

I fought back the urge to sit and cry. I held myself upright, taut and tight as I watched it consider me with its large beady eyes. It wasn’t a rodent, and it wasn’t a cat. It didn’t really matter because, regardless of species, it was eating my father’s hard work.

“How did you even get up here?” I spun around. We were surrounded by buildings, and the canals weren’t anywhere near us. Then again, it didn’t look like it was much of a swimmer, feline or no. Then, as I looked up, I saw the answer as plain as the day was bright.

Stupid bird sanctuaries.

I sat on the bench by the door and buried my head in my hands. I’d run out of ideas before I’d even started that morning. I knew Ludo would have a cage, but I also knew it’d mean grabbing the weird fox-thing.

“Are you even a fox?” I asked as I rose up. It had lowered itself to my chest level now, and it looked to be interested in thieving the groceries I’d gotten with my typewriter.

Scruff of the neck, I’d been told, and that’s just what I did. As fast as I could I had it in the cage, yowling and shrieking in surprise. I slammed the latch shut and caught my breath.

Now what?

“Cripes,” I sighed and rested against the cage. The image of lugging it down the stairs had my knees wobbling, and then…? Where was I supposed to go with a thieving, mutant raccoon? “A raccoon…” That answered one of my hundred questions.

Animals weren’t my business, and it wasn’t as though I knew how many toothbrushes it’d cost to get someone to come over and get rid of this thing.

I was halfway through stifling a scream when Tally popped into my mind, and for once I didn’t fight it. I had the opportunity to tell her earlier but the embarrassment had muted me, but now? Now I didn’t really have a choice.

Leaping to my feet, I grabbed a handful of bamboo leaves and shoved them in the cage before bolting down the stairs.

I shot out onto the street with such speed I almost missed Maple with her jars of homemade jam. She held one out for me to get a good look at it, but I’d glazed over.

“Sure!” I shouted as I twisted and continued my run through the street. Neighbours all called out to me, what I had no idea, and by the time I reached the canals, I realised I had a following of people. There was Tris the fish merchant, and Cori that sold spices and dyes on the corner.

They all looked concerned, and it wasn’t until I reached the compost site did I realise it was probably because I looked a little manic. Yet, I hadn’t the time to stop and explain, and instead rushed straight towards the fertiliser heap, crowd in tow, and dragged Tally out.

“What’s up your socks?” she asked as I pulled.

I was so out of the breath, all I could do was bleat at her. She didn’t argue and followed me with the same bewilderment that everyone else did.

I felt pursued, but I also felt alive.

* * * * *

Tally, and about fifteen others, followed me all the way up to my bamboo forest. They were muttering amongst themselves, but I hadn’t the time or the energy to work out whether it was worth listening to.
Up on the rooftop, and out of the way of the humdrum below, I showed Tally the raccoon.

“That’s not a raccoon,” she said with a laugh.

“Sure it is,” I said. “It’s been stealing my bamboo. And you should see what it did to the apple tree next door.”

“It’s a red panda,” she said.

“Oh!” everyone else gasped in unison. They each leant over and admired it, nodding in agreement as though re-running a joke I hadn’t been told.

“A what?” I asked and raised a brow. “It’s not a panda, it’s red.”

“Yes, a red panda,” she repeated. “You’ve never seen one before?”

“Am I acting like someone who has seen one before?” I asked in return, and she laughed and shook her head.

“Be grateful it weren’t a giant panda,” added one of the others, and I felt my heart drop through my stomach. The one in the cage was the size of a small dog, any bigger and I’d probably have just moved out.

“So, what am I going to do?” I shut the cage up and watched Tally play with a thought. Knowing her, she was considering releasing it in my apartment, but whatever entertainment she had in mind, she shook it out.

“We’ll take it back to the forest.”

“What forest?”

There were a few chuckles here and there, and I felt embarrassment heat my face. Two neighbours grabbed the cage and nodded to me on their way out and, instinctively, I followed them.

The descent didn’t feel as thrilling as the race up, and instead I found myself compelled to ask all the stupid questions I could find.

“Why are you helping me?”

“We’re neighbours,” said Tris, who was struggling with the back end of the cage. “It’s what we do.”

I frowned. “I can’t make his furniture, you know?”

They stopped and looked at me, pained expressions dampening their features. For a moment it felt like I was looking at new people, ones that were grieving too, and I hadn’t noticed.

“It’s not about that,” said Tally with a soft smile. “We’re just here for you.”

Then the questions silenced and I absorbed the feeling. I took the time to take in their faces, and while I felt naked, I didn’t feel so vulnerable.

* * * * *

The walk back to the green was a new experience, though I’d walked through it almost every day since moving to the city. Tally showed me past the canals, and through the two weeping willow trees that guarded the graveyard beyond.

I bit my lip; desperate to not let slip that I hadn’t been here, though I knew this was where they’d taken Dad. It was an odd thought knowing he was scattered around here – that was until I saw the forest.
It spread so far out I couldn’t see the skyline through the bamboo trees. We walked for five minutes and it seemed there was no end in sight. So thick it was that my puny collection paled into weeds at the mere sight of it.

“He knew about this place?” I whispered, wondering why Dad had never mentioned the forest of material just lying beyond the park.

“It’s a place of mourning,” said Tris reverently.

I felt sticky with sweat. Accidentally treading on the nerves of their culture was something I was good at, apparently. Their graves weren’t like everyone else’s in my family, but looking at the forest I couldn’t help but feel like Dad had finally found home.

“What it overgrows we trim it and give it to the bamboo-weaver,” said Tally.

And it clicked, so suddenly, a piece of a puzzle that I hadn’t been looking for. He chose bamboo-weaving because there was a demand for it, and a supply. There was no doubt he spent countless nights with the same anxiety I had, reading the same books I had, with the same exhaustion – with the same people telling him it will be okay.

We reached a small koi pond in the centre, touched by a stream that surely came from the canals outside, and released the creature back into its home.

“Why didn’t you say anything earlier?” Tally asked as we watched it vanish into the foliage.

“I didn’t—”

“You knew,” she said and folded her arms. “That’s why you were looking for Ludo.”

“I’m supposed to handle it myself,” I said as a pang of shame hit me. “It’s my shop now, isn’t it? I can’t really… I can’t really afford to owe anyone anything.”

I saw Tally work her jaw and I looked down at my feet. Then she scoffed. “What do you think is stronger in a storm,” she asked, “a lone bamboo stalk or this forest?”

I met her gaze and she smiled at me.

“You should be impressed with yourself.” She grinned now. “It takes courage to ask for help. And sure you might not know how to make furniture now, but you know what? Your dad didn’t always know either. If it’s something you really want to do, you’ll find a way. And we’ll help you.”

I blinked.

She was right.

So I took the moment to enjoy the sunshine and the heat, and the shadows of the forest around us. I listened to the chirps of the panda denizens and listened to the wind. Just for a second, I swore I could hear my father applauding me, back when I reached out and connected, and I couldn’t help but brim with a little self-satisfaction.

“Tally,” I asked, feeling a buzz around my gut.

“Yeah?”

“Would it be inappropriate of me to ask you if you’d…” I bit my lip, and my confidence slipped back into its shell.

Tally turned to me and gave a coy smile. “I’d love to,” she said.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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