Trading Voices

I never knew what silent meant until that day. The day that only the trees and I had voices.

* * * * *

It was a slow, rhythmic world, equal parts sprawling verdant forest and endless golden fields. I could hear the wind, the movement of grass blades sliding together, the laughing babble of birds all day long.

In the evenings, when the shadows stretched long and purple across the fields, the trees sang. Songs that I’d never heard before, voices that still made my eyes tear up. Here in this land where time was irrelevant, I understood why I’d always wanted something more. Because now, every night, when the bats squeaked and the sun sang its way below the tattered buildings of a ruined civilization, I had that something more in my eyes and my ears.

* * * * *

One night, the trees asked me if I would play my harp with their singing. I had not played my harp beneath the trees since the day all sound had disappeared. I cried when they asked me. From shame, maybe, at my humble playing.

“It would please me to hear you play,” Rowan told me, and our parellel shadows stretched out across fields and countries and time, inches apart, but never touching. Once, I had asked him what it was like to be a tree, and he had told me that he was no more a tree than I was a bungalow. Then he sang me another song I’d never heard before, and it made the ground tremble beneath my feet and something vibrate in my chest. Rowan was the first to share the secrets of the tire e’lintes – the tree lights – with me.

“I would play for you,” I replied. It had been days since I’d spoken aloud, and my voice sounded strange to me.

* * * * *

One day, when Rowan and I were walking, we came across an old supermarket. From the other end of the parking lot, I could see that the letters WALMART were still red. Even after all these years, no seeds had taken hold in the parking spaces, and no vines had made their way up the front of the store. It sat as before, waiting for the abandoned cars in the parking lot to retrieve their owners and return to business as usual.

I stepped onto the asphalt of the lot, but Rowan lingered at the edge. None of the trees liked to venture where they couldn’t feel the earth beneath them.

“Do you miss it?” he asked.

“What?” I looked at the automatic doors; they were half-open, locked in a vice grip around a cart that had been traveling through them.

“The noise. You were always so quiet, but perhaps you miss it.”

I didn’t miss the hum of airplanes overhead, the roar of cars, the almost imperceptible hiss of electronics and electricity that the world had become inured to. I said, “I’m a quiet girl.”

“That’s not an answer,” Rowan said. “Are you happy?”

I looked at him where he grew at the edge of the lot, older and younger than me, wiser and more magical. “Right now.”

* * * * *

I played for the trees every evening, and their voices pitched high and low around my harp’s. They loved me, the trees, and if they wondered at my survival, they didn’t say it aloud. I’d known them and loved them before that day they got their voices back, and they remembered that.

Across the copse, Rowan watched me, but he didn’t say anything.

* * * * *

In the graveyard, I parted the ivy to run my fingers over the names carved in the stone. The stone felt cool and rough beneath my skin, a faint tickle on my calloused fingertips. Around me on this sloping hill, hundreds of monuments stretched out in either direction. These were those who had died before. When deaths were few enough to warrant recording them.

With the graves around me, the fact of my species’ silence seemed weightier, darker. Here, I remembered that each trees’ voice meant a human silent in the grave.

“You do not have to say that you’re unhappy,” Rowan said. I hadn’t heard his approach. “You speak it without opening your mouth. Tell me the thoughts of your mind.”

I didn’t move; I felt him behind me but he didn’t touch me. “Tell me the thoughts of yours.”

“I wonder if you miss them.”

“You always wonder if I miss what I had then,” I said, and turned, angry for the first time in – years. Decades. Centuries. The space between us was epic. “You never ask me if I miss what I can’t have now.”

Rowan’s attention was on my face and my hands and everything in between. “I don’t understand.”

I had never heard one of the tire e’lintes lie before.

* * * * *

That evening when the light dappled through the oak and ash and thorn branches to the forest floor, Rowan didn’t join the others in singing.

I sought him out, my voice pugnacious despite myself. “I missed your singing tonight.”

Rowan said, “I was trying to remember how much it hurt to be silent.”

* * * * *

Before that day, when the trees grew silently and fell silently, I had despised the buzz of human noise. Every afternoon I’d escaped to the security of the forest behind my parents’ house and I’d played my harp and fallen asleep on top of the roots of the rowan tree.

I’d first heard the whisper of their voices the afternoon that the power grid went down and the human world was hushed. My fingers in the bark, my ear against the trunk, I’d heard the faintest melody. I’d wished for them to sing again.

I hadn’t realized the price.

I didn’t know if I felt guilty or not.

* * * * *

The morning was quiet, still, heavy with gray mist that clung to the tree trunks and got tangled in the tops of the long grasses. Its moisture beaded on my hands and wrists. I couldn’t find my way in this hidden world; I turned and turned in the trees until I found myself in the graveyard again. And beside one of the graves was a body.

He had a young face, handsome except for the scars left from the day everything had gone silent. I’d seen many bodies with the scars, slouched in cars, sprawled across sidewalks, propped against carts, but not for years. And not out in the open like this.

And before, they’d never been breathing.

“Who are you?” His voice was uglier – rougher – than any I’d heard in a long time. The trees’ voices were flawless and many. The timbre pricked something in me.

I didn’t say anything. By the young man’s head, trunk twisted around the grave, a rowan tree grew, rooted into dark, freshly turned earth.

It was silent.

Author’s Note: There is a beech tree behind my parents’ house with so much gravitas and presence that I’m just waiting for it to say something one of these days. Of course, it probably already says plenty, just not when I’m around.

photograph courtesy: Chris_nze

22 thoughts on “Trading Voices

  1. One word: wow.

    Okay, more words: this story is so moody and compelling! I ended up reading it a second time, and the impact was even stronger.

  2. Thanks! Tessa and I were talking about the length of our fiction here and discovered that I’d been getting shorter and shorter and shorter and . . . yeah, anyway, I’m liking the longer length for playing with mood.

  3. Lovely, Maggie. (I was fighting tears there at the end. Really. I love it.) Atmosphere and language are gorgeous.

    Also, I don’t know if you ended up changing anything, but this really works, regarding the subtlety stuff we were discussing yesterday. I’m so glad to have finally gotten to read it.

    ps. I declare this whole week a WIN for Merry Fates Fiction.

  4. I did end up changing some stuff — the line in the graveyard that starts “with the graves around me” and the entire second to last section are new.

    Thanks, and I agree with the WIN.

  5. Beautiful! I love your way of showing the narrator’s changed world, the atmosphere, the personalities of the narrator and Rowan and the surprise ending made my jaw drop. The last line made me feel so sad. Yeah, so I can’t really describe all that well what I like about this short story, but I like it very much.

  6. Thank you. 🙂 I read a YA, HOW WE LIVE NOW, by Meg Rosoff, and I really liked the way she used a close 1st person narrator to only trickle out details of a post-invasion world (though hers was not a fantastical invastion, just military).

  7. I third the wow. Because…wow. Very interesting core concept—I love the idea that the trees learn to speak (REVENGE OF THE TREES! Some days, I like to turn everything into a B movie concept.) and the sacrifice, life for life and it’s just something I haven’t seen before…very cool. The right amount of slow details to get the point across but also still leave you curious.
    Plus, just wow.

    I use my appropriate icon—a picture I took in an old graveyard that’s very well-populated with gnarled trees.

  8. Oh hey! Your icon IS very appropriate.

    And thanks. This one used more of my brain wattage to come up with so it makes me warm/fuzzy to think that it paid off.

    And yes, I can totally see it as a really bad B movie, with like . . . Christian Slater as Rowan *shudders*

  9. I love this. In silence and harmorny, the secret place of day dreaming, there’s pain, longing, and loss. Wow.

    “You never ask me if I miss what I can’t have now.”

    Do I miss what I can’t have now? This story has disturbed me more than any other. I hear trees talk, and my world is forever altered, but “I hadn’t realized the price.”

    This is the best yet. Subtle. Heart. Soul. That something in her eyes and ears, I’ve found it. *love*

    Talk to the beech tree. Stand beside it, close your eyes and with your mind say hello. You will get a response, in your mind. Imagine a glowing orb in the palm of your hand and turn your palm toward the tree. Ask politely for some energy, love, and your hand will become warmer. Say thank you.

  10. This is so my kind of story. I’m often a very quiet person, and I love being outdoors, especially in places where nature has barely been altered by people at all (e.g., Hocking Hills State Park – it’s like stepping into a whole different world there). If people disappeared and trees began to speak, this could almost be a story about me. Oftentimes all I wish for is a day or two of being away from all the distractions of civilization just so I can write and be in the moment, but I don’t think I’d like it to always be like that.

    I hadn’t realized the price.

    I didn’t know if I felt guilty or not.

    This would be something I’d realize maybe after a few years, but realize it I would.

    Also, One day, when Rowan and I were walking, we came across an old supermarket. From the other end of the parking lot, I could see that the letters WALMART were still red. Even after all these years, no seeds had taken hold in the parking spaces, and no vines had made their way up the front of the store. It sat as before, waiting for the abandoned cars in the parking lot to retrieve their owners and return to business as usual.

    Having once worked there, it came as no surprise that the first thought that came to me when I read that was, “of course its inherent evil would keep anything natural and good in the world from drawing it back into the earth after humanity was gone.”

  11. This is me, too: I prefer things to be quiet and isolated . . . except for when I don’t. Taking things to their logical extreme is one of the things I love to do with my stories.

    And yes, Wal-mart. Nothing grows at Wal-mart. It’s all razed by the rolling back of prices!

  12. I read it a second time to be sure. I can’t believe Rowan… *sniff* yes I can. Yes I can.
    That was the most heart-felt story i have read in a very, very, long time. Thank you Maggie.

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