I remember when all of the trees died and their dryads with them. The death, like many things, came from below.
“The humans brought this,” some dryads whispered, their voices cracking with fear. Horror stories were carried to us on the wind, whispering of gnawing vermin. At night, I slipped inside my sapling and shivered beneath its too-thin bark. I dreamed the earth turning black and dry, of our roots shriveling as fungus ate us from the inside. I woke writhing to an itch that made my slender branches tremble.
We tried killing the humans. We stepped from our trees, wrapped our bark-brown hands around their throats, and strangled them. When they wandered into our forest we severed our branches to break their heads and snap their spines. We bartered with the fire spirits to burn their villages, convinced the creek sirens to drown their children. Our trees were watered with their blood and still we died.
“If not the humans, then what?” the dryads wailed.
“The birds, they carry disease in their feathers,” suggested a slippery dryad residing in a bent fir. “It’s the birds.”
So we killed the birds. We shook their nests from our branches and dropped our leaves so they would not have shelter. The birds fled and did not return. Still we died.
Some of the older dryads mourned us saplings. “You’re too young,” they told us as they rotted. “Such a waste,” they bemoaned as their own needles shriveled and fell to the earth as tiny comets. The forest floor grew thick in a carpet of spongy orange, a tapestry of dead skin and hair.
I remember when Maka, my sproutmate, came to me with sap streaming from her eyes. “My needles have turned brown,” she said. “My roots choke. I’m scared, Aiyana.”
I wrapped my arms around her and held her close. “You’ll be okay,” I lied. Although her cheeks were still colored a soft green I could smell the rot on her, damp and heavy.
At the end, she was too weak to leave her tree. I waited outside and begged her to try.
“There is snow, Maka,” I told her. “It’s so beautiful this year. You should see how the foxes hunt, pouncing to catch mice.”
“There are no foxes,” she whispered from inside her tree.
She was right. There were no foxes, and the deer had left long before them. I think they left before the birds. I forget much of what happened after Maka died. I do not remember the other pines falling, one by one, their trunks toppling and shattering the earth. I do not remember the dirt shriveling up. Even the worms fled.
In the end, I was left with Sicheli, an old white pine of nearly three hundred years. Sicheli weathered droughts, fires, and even the days when the humans came with their long metal saws to cut down his brothers. But he could not last against the death that came from the earth.
“Please don’t leave me,” I begged, my hands pressed against his withered trunk. Like Maka, in his last days Sicheli would not leave his tree. He spoke so softly that I had to press my face against the trunk to hear his words.
“All dryads must die, Aiyana. But new trees will grow.”
Dying, I thought, is much worse when you are alone.
When Sicheli died, I climbed inside my wilting tree, and I did not leave.
There is movement somewhere. I do not know how long I’ve slept—I remember my roots choking. I remember Maka and Sicheli, and so many others whose names are burned inside my rings. I hurt and I can feel that my tree is still hurting too, but it is growing, growing. How?
I hear a voice.
“Specimen shows sign of new growth and root recovery. Pesticide seems to have finally cleared the soil.” There is a click and a beep.
I crawl out. The sun blinds me and when my hands hit the earth it is soft and wet. The layer of dry, dead pine needles is gone. I hear footsteps, and then I see her.
She stands in the middle of what was once my forest, looking everything and nothing like the humans we killed. She is made of soft brown skin and wiry hair and she wears dirty glasses pushed up against her face.
I remember being small and watching the humans toddle through the world, but this human does not toddle. She’s striding across the churned earth in shiny white boots that reach up to her knees. She walks with her eyes down, swinging her head back and forth, searching the way a dog latches onto the scent of blood. She’s holding some kind of hose, and she’s spraying everything, spraying the air, the dirt, even my tree.
My tree! It looks so alive—crooked and lopsided, but the needles are green. The roots shiver with joy, reaching fingers through clean soil. The bark stretches and sings.
The human makes a strangled noise. Her eyes widen and bits of color leap to her cheeks. Her mouth stretches wide, wider, revealing rows of the shiny white teeth that I always envied. She sinks to her knees.
“It worked!” she tells the beeping thing in her hand. “Seeds harvested from the parent tree are finally germinating.”
I drift closer. The sun is bright in the clean air and I kneel beside the human, hidden but staying with her. I cannot weep, but I wish I could.
There are birds somewhere, their voices sharp and raspy as they chase each other through the clouds. Under the earth the worms are dancing. Before the human’s trembling hands are two small seedlings, just poking through the soil, the greenest things I have ever seen, greener than Maka’s cheeks or Sicheli’s old needles. I hear their voices crying out together, alive and a little afraid. And I chant back, singing with them, hello, hello, hello.