The Forest of Death and Life

Written for NYC Midnight‘s Short Story Challenge 2017, round 3

Prompt: Open / sunset / an undertaker

Summary: In a cemetery full of trees, rather than headstones, the mysterious caretaker seeks to learn about the human experience.

Cora played idly with her bracelet, spinning the crimson beads round and round. She was waiting for her latest customer, a young woman named Emily whose sister had just passed, to finish walking through the forest. The steps Emily took were well known to Cora, as was each tree and story she passed. The two large red maples were in memory of the Browns – their daughter was to be married in the shadow of the trees, with their dryads in attendance, the closest thing to having her parents be part of the ceremony. Across from them was an oak, planted by a man to remember his wife, taken from him too soon. And just beside it a young sapling grew out of the ashes of a beloved border collie, the first tree memorializing an animal. Cora was very curious about the appearance of that dryad, once it finally made its appearance.

Finally Emily walked back. Her eyes were dry now but their redness gave her grief away, though in this place it was expected. Cora smiled and waited for her to speak.

“So what are you exactly,” she asked Cora. “The undertaker?”

Cora smiled. “I prefer to call myself caretaker but yes, that is correct. I make sure all the trees planted here grow strong and tall. I also welcome the new dryads into this world, once they are ready to emerge.”

Emily nodded slowly. “I think Trish would like it here.”

“I would be honoured to care for her tree as well. Have you decided on a species?”

“Dogwood. She loved flowers.”

“A popular choice. Now, you know that it will be many years until the dryad is grown, probably five or more.”

“Yes. I’m willing to wait that long to see Trish again.”

Cora reached out, placed a hand on Emily’s shoulder. “While the dryad will have a piece of your sister within them, it is vital that you understand that Patricia is not coming back to life. In fact, it is not uncommon for family and friends to have a hard time accepting the parts of their loved one that they see in the dryad, because they expect a perfect copy. Do you understand?”

Emily nodded but Cora did not believe it. She had seen enough human grief now to realize that promises made now could not be fully trusted. But she would have five years to help Emily prepare for what was coming.

Cora only hoped that it would be enough.

6 months later

Emily had visited once a month since her sister’s burial but this visit was special. Cora followed at a distance as the young woman walked down the path to where Patricia’s ashes had been planted under a dogwood seed. It was always one of her favourite moments, to be there at the first sight of the sapling breaking through the ground. When Emily saw the little shoot of green, she fell to her knees. Cora had expected tears but they did not come. Emily just knelt by the young plant, staring and smiling.

“I’d almost given up hope,” Emily admitted when she passed Cora on her way out. “But Trish is in that plant, I can feel it.”

“Of course she is,” Cora replied serenely. She still hadn’t figured out if the mourners could really sense old life in the new, or if they just made themselves think that they did.

One Year Later

The day of Jasmine Brown’s wedding had finally arrived and Cora was on hand for the festivities. It was the first time a wedding had been held in the forest, though she hoped it would not be the last. The bride looked lovely in her gown and the dryads of her parents’ trees walked down the aisle with her, holding her train. Cora knew it was not the same as having a loved one present but as she tucked the dryads back into their trees that night, she knew they had done well.

As the guests were leaving, Cora noticed Emily standing in the background. This time, she was crying. “Trish will never get married,” she said, her voice shaking. “Even after she’s reborn, there’s so many things she’ll never get to do now.”

Cora wrapped an arm around Emily’s shoulders and slowly helped her toward the forest entrance, while trying to gently remind her the difference between her sister and the dryad, growing now inside the dogwood tree.

Five Years Later

This day always made Cora both nervous and excited. Today, the dryad in Trish’s tree would awaken and emerge. Cora had called Emily a few days before, to make sure she’d be here. Whether or not this would prove to be a good idea, only time could tell.

Emily arrived with a box in her hand – not uncommon but also not promising. “I was going to give this to Trish on her birthday,” she told Cora. “I’ve been holding onto it all this time.

Cora nodded and felt the muscles across her back tighten slightly with worry. But there was nothing to do except move forward.

The dogwood had grown quite tall by this point and it was covered in buds, just ready to open. Cora walked up and laid a hand on its slim trunk, before whispering the ancient words: “Awaken, child of Gaia.”

The tree shivered underneath her touch, then began to glow. The light moved away from the tree and slowly turned into the form of a young woman.

Emily took a step forward. “Trish?”

The glowing subsided and a young dryad stood before them. She had pale green skin and wild brown hair. She looked at Emily curiously. “I know you,” the dryad whispered.

But Emily didn’t – couldn’t – hear those words. She stared at the dryad, her face growing pale. “No,” she whispered. “No. You’re not …” She stopped speaking, then turned and ran in the opposite direction.

The dryad turned to Cora. The creature’s eyes were bright blue – the eyes of a human, not a forest sprite. Cora understood then what Emily had seen and it pained her, to know that glimpse into her sister’s eyes, sitting on another’s face, had destroyed all that Cora had worked for in these last five years.

One Day Later

Emily came to the forest the next morning, so early it was still dark.

“I’m sorry,” she told Cora, who could only look on in amazement. “I freaked. You tried to warn me, over and over again, but I kept thinking what I wanted to, believing that this was a way for Trish to cheat death. And then, when I saw those eyes, her eyes … I just couldn’t. I told myself that I would never come back but then I woke up early this morning and just knew I had to come back. Can I start over and try again?”

After spending an hour the previous night trying to calm the young dryad, Cora was hesitant. But no one had ever come back after rejecting a dryad before and she wanted to see what would happen.

In the darkness, they walked to the tree. Surprisingly, the dryad was awake and waiting. “I love to watch the sun rise,” she said as Emily drew near.
“I know,” Emily replied. “May I watch it with you?”

The dryad reached out and took Emily’s hand, leading her to the best spot to watch the rosy fingers of dawn bring a new day to this world. Cora watched them and wondered. After all these years of tending the garden, and the many years in the Underworld before them, the only thing she could say with certainty was that human grief took many forms. And while that grief may not change the world, as her mother’s had so many millennia before, it was powerful and beautiful in its own way.

Cora stood there, watching the sun come up with them, until she knew it was time to wake the others in the garden. As she turned towards Trish’s tree, she saw that all the buds had opened, covering the dogwood in lacy white flowers.

Cora smiled.

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