J.J. DETTMAN - EGRESTTE
J.J. Dettman is a Ph.D. student in the sciences from Toronto, ON, Canada. One of his favourites ways to take a break from science and unwind is with literature. Reading and writing stories is a cherished pastime of time of his.
If only she were less reckless, or had the courage to admit she’d been caught and face the damage she’d caused. The people she’d cheated may have even offered her a second chance—there was time to make things right. But pride presented itself far too strongly in Marcia. Begging for forgiveness was never an option.
At the peak of her disruption that night in that lonely bar that hid beneath the streets, Marcia retreated backwards into the corner, seeking safety. The palms of her hands were pressed against the flaking paint of the wall, and her body was lifted upon its toes as she inched away from the gnawing faces who sought to make her pay. But it was through regular confrontations with this kind of trouble that Marcia had developed deft abilities in persuasion. The barman, looking on from across the room, wanted nothing but for the ruckus to cease, or take place elsewhere, where he would no longer be responsible. Marcia appealed to the man with (feigned) helplessness in her eyes as she made her case to the insatiable assailants. She promised she was more than capable of mending the situation, and that come breakfast tomorrow the entire dilemma will have been rectified and forgotten. Besides, this conversation was best reserved for the morning, so that all involved parties could have the opportunity to sober up, she pleaded. Sensing an easy solution ahead, the barman supported Marcia’s case, and together they convinced the group to postpone her trial.
The delay was as good as an acquittal. Marcia took this gift of faith and disappeared from her hotel bed in the middle of the night, leaving nothing but crumbs and empty bottles behind. With a few phone calls to her friends at the port, a space barely large enough for a young woman was made available in the rear of a cargo ship, and her escape was complete.
The only light in the cold, windowless hull of the ship came from four tempestuous light bulbs. With each footstep the soft pat-pat-pat of her rubber soles connecting with the metal floor echoed off the metal shipping containers packed around her. When she stopped pacing, there was only silence, save for her chattering teeth. This was not a room suitable for human life, but Marcia understood she didn’t deserve much better. Near the right wall, she found the narrow slit between two crates where she was meant to stay. She shimmied into the gap with effort and sat down on the featureless floor. It was a tight squeeze. Her hips were pressed into the shells of steel on either side, the cold of the surface leached into her body through the fabric of her pants. Luckily, her friend loaned her a blanket, which she pulled over top of her knees and shoulders. It was thin, but it made her feel warm again, almost comfortable. Her shivers calmed away, and her breath no longer turned to mist and condensed into droplets on the corrugated wall. By the time the ship lifted off and soared into outer space, the remnants of an alcoholic buzz sent Marcia to a distant dreamland, where she walked through an open field awash with colourful plants that grew from the soft soil which squished beneath her feet as she stepped. A breeze brought fresh air from miles away, and it felt warm.
The ship was taking basic supplies to the outer edge of the galaxy, to worlds largely unknown to the interstellar human endeavour. Marcia had hitched a ride from a popular vacation destination for gamblers and part-time dealers of contraband such as herself—a planet named Getti, the final lamppost of civilization in the northwest quadrant of the Milky Way galaxy. Only untamed wilderness lay beyond.
Marcia was due back to her work on Earth in two weeks, so she got off the cargo ship at the first stop: the planet Egrestte, a small, mostly unpopulated world covered in plants. That’s about all the information her galactic map could give her. After the ship landed, the crew emerged, commercial shipping business commenced, and Marcia sneaked out through the front door and melded with the crowd. Many men and women were hurrying in and out of the now-open cargo hold, removing boxes and placing them in the back of a truck that waited opposite a grassy, muddy clearing. Marcia traced a wide berth from the yard to avoid being roped into the labour. In the cab of the truck, she found a young man with a beard down to his sternum. He greeted her with a friendly smile, and, with effort, she returned one.
“When is the next flight to Getti?” she asked.
“Not for a week I’m afraid, miss,” he answered, with a low, bouncing tone.
Marcia cursed under her breath, then asked where he was going.
“Oh, just back to town. Not like we got a choice, the road only goes that way.”
“Can I hitch a ride? I’ll sit in the bed, I don’t mind.”
But she didn’t have to. One of the other young gentlemen kindly offered the lady his spot in the middle of the cab, so Marcia sat squished between the driver and an equally large man in the passenger seat, both of her shoulders pressed against walls of unforgiving mass. She much preferred the company of the shipping containers, which weren’t slick with sweat, and, like the thugs on Getti—with whom she had much more in common, apparently—didn’t demand that Marcia converse with them about vacuous nonsense regarding life on Earth.
At the first gap in the conversation, Marcia broke free from her role as the centrepiece and leaned forward to look through the windshield. The truck had suddenly slipped behind a curtain of shade. A scattered forest of thick tree trunks surrounded the road on both sides. Marcia craned her neck to follow the trunks upwards as they stretched into the sky, disappearing into a mat of interweaving foliage spotted with sunlight.
“They’re something, aren’t they,” the man in the passenger seat said in the same slow, melodic voice as the driver.
“I’ve never seen them so tall,” Marcia said.
He chuckled. “You’ll like it here.”
Each of the men offered Marcia a place to stay, and it was only after she deflected the entire series one-by-one that they escorted her to the inn, the only establishment in town—and by extension, the planet—where she could purchase accommodations. Like every other building she saw, the inn was built out of amber-brown coloured timber, the same hue of the tree trunks of the forest. Marcia’s heart fluttered when the old man behind the desk provided his quote for a week's stay. She paid four times that for rent back home.
After dropping her belongings in her room, Marcia went out to inspect the trees up close. The forest surrounded the inn and the road, and stretched to the farthest distance she could see. The ground beneath the canopy was covered by mounds of green-turquoise coloured moss and decaying matter in which Marcia's boots sank a half-inch without much pressure. She approached one of the immense towers—with timidity, as a toddler meets a new grown up—inching closer and closer, eyes locked on the thick wall of bark that revealed more detail with every step—more gnarled knots and ridges and canyons—until, at touching distance, the tree and the miniature world upon it was all she could see, or think about. There at the base of the trunk, with her gaze pointed upward, the full might of the Egresttian forest revealed itself to the tiny creature who rested her toes on its bark. The great tower was but one of many—a stick among the horde that covered the entirety of this planet, for all Marcia knew. The forest was the true ruler of this domain. The space-faring primates who scurried among its roots were no more significant than the ants beneath their boots.
A patch of light slipped through the leaves, glanced off a rock, and caught the corner of Marcia’s eye, and she turned. In a clearing, a boulder no bigger than her fist jutted through the moss and dirt. As she turned it over in her hands, spots of light dancing on the surface revealed the stone’s silvery lustre—peculiarly metallic for a surface rock. A peculiar but particular sheen, that, after hurrying the chunk up to her face, Marcia believed she recognized... but it couldn’t be! There was no way.
She dashed back to the inn for her pocket-sized mass spectrometer and vaporized a pebble in the sample chamber. She tried another, just to be sure. The mass spec. was never wrong twice, and it confirmed her hunch, as unbelievable as it was. The rock was made of pure platinum—one of the most essential commodities in the galaxy. She brought the hunk of metal before her eyes again, close enough for it to consume her thoughts.
Marcia returned the stone to the clearing and bounded through the overgrowth of the forest floor, taking no notice of the trees that watched over her. Surely it was a fluke, somehow. Some crazy fluke of foreign geology. But what if it wasn’t? Her eyes searched for glints of treasure piercing the canvas of green and turquoise. Before long she found another, slightly smaller than the first. Within a minute, she had one more, and Marcia began to hyperventilate then collapsed, her knees sinking into a patch of moss. Her company spent buckets of money and whole months digging hundreds of metres into the Earth to find deposits like this. The forest must be covered in it, just sitting there, on the surface. Who knows what lay just beneath the dirt. She forced herself to breathe, to calm her heart’s racing, and looked around. The inn had disappeared from sight. She spun in place a few times, peered behind the enormous, scattered trunks, and then, with relief, found the small, wooden building which blended into the forest. She placed the pieces of platinum in her pocket. She needed to sit. She needed to think.
Marcia ate the innkeeper’s dinner while enduring an excruciating conversation about her first impressions of Egrestte. The friendly old man continued through his stories about the history of his humble home planet, despite the fact Marcia’s mind was clearly nowhere near the dining table, or the inn, or Egrestte, for that matter. Instead, she thought of colonial excavation permits, business loans, and coastal mansions in Central America.
At dawn, Marcia returned to the forest. Numbers raced across the screen of her gravimeter, confirming her wildest dreams. Monolithic deposits of heavy metals had been waiting beneath the soil since time immemorial for some lucky soul who possessed the perfect mix of ambition and knowledge to retrieve them, and claim their fortune. With these riches Marcia could quit, immediately—leave the company she was bound to on Earth, and perhaps never work again in her life. Forget the faceless name stitched into her work uniform. Her turn to be the lucky soul had finally come.
Marcia rejoined the road, headed to the inn for a break. “You must be the visitor from Earth,” a voice called out.
Behind her, a woman of middle age sat on a bench. Her hair bounced in thick locks to just below her shoulders, and shone a shade of orange-brown reminiscent of the trees, the inn, and the exquisitely carved wooden bench she rested on.
“That I am,” Marcia replied, her hands stuffed into her pocket, a palm pressed over a nugget of platinum. “News travels quick.”
“When there is not much news to tell and fewer ears to tell it to, yes, indeed it does.” The woman rose from the bench, then extended a hand. “I’m Tara.”
Marcia returned the greeting and introduced herself, but had difficulty detaching from the woman’s gaze. Her face was spattered by light which descended from the canopy and flitted across her eyes, inciting a brilliant display of turquoise sparkles that would transfix even the most stolid observer.
“I just wanted to say hello, and, if you’re up to it, invite you to my place for lunch and tea,” the woman said. “We rarely host travellers all the way from Earth.”
Marcia coughed, finally breaking free from Tara’s face. “Now?”
“If you’d like. I can wait, too—I’m not a busy person.”
Marcia had no immediate plans, and hence no viable excuse with which to defend herself from the woman’s offer.
“Okay, sure, I’ll come by in an hour,” Marcia said.
The innkeeper offered Marcia lunch when she came in. She relayed her plans with the woman with auburn hair.
“Ah, you’ve arranged a date with the witch,” he informed her.
“Witch?” she said, quickly, in a fright. “What’s that mean?”
“You’ll know soon enough, I suppose,” he said, stoking the confusion in her eyes with the same, low melody of the men from the truck. “I only joke. No reason to be afraid, Tara has a big heart.”
Marcia followed Tara’s directions to her cabin in the woods, double-checked by the innkeeper. As she stepped through the beaten, dusty path shaded by the leafy canopy, her mind drifted to dreams of her platinum mine—of wealth and liberation. It was still unclear how she could have been the first to come up with the idea, given chunks of platinum were strewn about the surface of the planet in plain sight. Curious that this woman with the mystical eyes appeared at the precise moment of her discovery, Marcia thought. Had she been watching her in the forest? Was she aware of the platinum, too, but had no means of extracting it? Perhaps Tara wished to wedge herself in on a deal. So be it, let her try. In the realm of business, Marcia feared no one, not even a witch.
Through the thick trunks of the forest Marcia spotted a house fitting Tara’s description: a flat home with flowers tall and short blooming at the base of each wall, hiding the auburn of the timber behind a veil of bright, pastel colours reminiscent of the sunset and the baby blue of the sky. At the end of the path which sprouted from the road there was a door, to which no response came after a couple rounds of knocks. Marcia spotted smoke billowing from the centre of the dome-shaped roof, and was about to try the doorknob when a quiet growl emanated from the ground behind her feet.
Marcia turned, and a furry, six-legged creature shorter than her knees looked up at her, before bounding away towards the forest and growling again, and again, until Marcia moved closer. At which point, it continued on further into the forest, periodically checking over its shoulder to ensure Marcia was still in pursuit. At the top of a hill, Marcia caught sight of Tara, who was bent down at the base of a distant tree.
Tara heard Marcia’s footsteps as she approached, but first locked eyes with the furry creature, who curled beneath her fingertips as she scratched the line of its chin.
“This is Calvan. He’s a close friend of mine,” Tara said, then waved Marcia over to ask if she knew the name of the plant she was inspecting at the base of the tree. Marcia shook her head. She knew of three varieties of flora: flowers, trees, and grass.
“It’s a powerful herb called yarrow. It grows on Earth but I think it would like this forest too. So long as it plays nice with the other plants, and the insects, and gains a little courage.” Tara slid her fingers through the stem of the herb, and touched the bark of the tree in front of her. “This tree will watch over this one for me, try to keep her from harm, make sure she fits in.”
Tara looked to Marcia for the first time. “Are you hungry?”
Beside her house, Tara tended to an assortment of vegetables, some of which Marcia recognized—tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage—though their leaves were not coloured in the rich, emerald green familiar to Earth, but a dull green-blue, which matched the local ferns, moss, and leaves. Tara had left a stew to bubble before the hearth of her fireplace, filling her cabin with the savoury aroma of tomatoes melting and melding with the bitterness of herbs and spices. There was a pungent, sweet, delicious smell too, like a cross between a mango and a squash, which Marcia identified with a slice of yellow-green fruit floating in her bowl. She balanced the food in her wooden spoon, and drank a lungful of the scent. The fruit was native to Egrestte, Tara told her, and the townsfolk were crazy for them. They ate them raw, boiled, grilled, by themselves, in a sandwich, in a stew. As Marcia squished the slice between her teeth, juices ruptured from the fruit and dribbled out the corners of her mouth. It tasted sweet like pineapple but thick and hearty like lentils, and Marcia was instantly an admirer of this fruit the Egresttians called a pram.
Throughout lunch Tara spoke very little, and then only to offer brief tidbits of Egresttian peculiarities, or observations about the weather, or friendly greetings to Calvan, who slinked in and out through the windows as he pleased. To follow the stew, she offered Marcia a cup of her homemade tea. Tara was proud of the fact she concocted her own blends from the dried leaves of the Egresttian forest, to wide acclaim from her neighbours. She picked a bunch of fresh leaves from a potted plant in the kitchen window, and packed these leaves inside a closed fist and gently massaged them. After a moment they began to hiss, like a pursed exhale, and a light mist escaped between Tara’s fingers. She unfurled her hand, revealing a dried, crumbled pile of foliage in her palm, which she sprinkled into a jar of other dried leaves. Then, with a metal kettle, Tara collected water from the pump in the corner of the kitchen, and with a few, swift, circular motions of her hand across the bottom of the kettle, steam began to fly from the spout in a shrill whistle, and she poured the boiled water into a teapot.
“That’s incredible,” Marcia said, as Tara presented her with a mug. “How did you do that?”
“An old friend taught me how, along with the importance of practice, and patience, and an open heart,” she said. “There’s no magic. All people carry this ability inside them, somewhere.”
Marcia accepted Tara’s offer for a late afternoon stroll through the woods. She wanted to know what other feats this strange woman was capable of, and it’s not like she had any activities planned for the evening. The sun had begun its descent towards the horizon but remained high in the sky. They walked through a path that Tara seemed to know well, and Marcia couldn’t help but watch the trees, which towered over her like the skyscrapers of her home city. Sounds of animals and birds echoed from the leafy canopy, but Marcia could hardly make out the individual specks of the wildlife that scampered far above in the sea of blue-green.
At the top of a hill, the forest of trunks thinned until suddenly they stood before an enormous cliff face, overlooking a valley of rolling turquoise hills thrumming with the distant tweeting and chirping of thousands of creatures. The sun was pitched high above, tinging the wide river of black water which carved through the base of the hills in shimmering gold. To their right, the cliff cut out towards the valley, exposing a rock face spotted with patches of lustrous metal that scattered the sunlight in all directions.
“This is one of my favourite places in the world,” Tara told her. “I like to lie here on sunny days and try to count all the different voices of the birds. Most times, I fall asleep first.”
Marcia followed Tara’s lead and laid down on a soft patch of moss back from the cliff, resting her eyes. She tried to count the voices herself but had trouble distinguishing them from each other. Before long she was asleep, dreaming that she was flying over the canopy and the valley, whistling a song of her own.
No week passes on Egrestte without the bonfire—a grand party in the forest that takes over the town every seventh night. Tara insisted Marcia attend the next one, which was in a couple of days. “No pressure, of course,” she said. “But the people here are very kind, welcoming folk. I think you would enjoy yourself.”
Marcia didn’t immediately say yes. The only party scenarios where she ever felt comfortable were those with a predefined activity, such as card games or a show of some kind. She relied on this structure as a limitless source of excuses to be used when conversations inevitably dried and lilted, and a quick, forceful ejection was necessary. Gatherings where the sole intention was to socialize with friend and kin—or strangers, worst of all—frightened her. She told Tara she would think about it.
Until then, Marcia spent her daylight hours in the forest. The innkeeper—whose name was Dion, she learned, after asking—told her of a few more local sights in response to her fond recollection of Tara’s cliff.
Out in the forest, in the opposite direction of the cliff, there was a creek, which eventually flowed into the enormous river she met in the valley. Marcia followed the creek for hours, staring into the fluid that was clear as glass, offering a bubbling window into the bed of sand where twinkling rocks and pebbles of pure platinum slept. At one point she bent down to cup a portion of the invisible liquid in her hands. It smelled of nothing, and tasted like nothing, too. Several kilometres upstream, Marcia found the lake Dion had described.
No sound travelled across the surface of the water, save for the hollow whooshing of the wind, and a few wayward chirps and tweets. On all sides of the lake, trees with thick trunks lined the shore. There were no great plains on the tiny planet of Egrestte. Tara had told Marcia as much, but now she understood what she meant. The forest was ever-present. There was one clearing, at the spaceport, but that area was not large—only just wide enough to accommodate the vertical take-off and landing of the smallest frigates. The ground at this clearing was muddy, and only sparsely covered by grass. She had seen no terrain like it since she’d landed. Likely the workers at the port had to continuously fight off encroachment from the trees. Unlikely the forest appreciated that battle much.
Marcia had never considered the landscape that preceded the gouged craters she worked in. The world she knew on Earth was primarily barren, dusty plains. There were some trees, and birds, but no forests. Back home, nothing was lost by digging through tonnes of rock with the hope of finding thin veins of platinum or gold within them. No one—nothing at all—had been living there before. Or so she thought.
As Marcia retired to the inn a couple of days later for dinner, Dion asked if she knew of the bonfire tradition, and offered her a second invitation to take part. She’d completely forgotten. Usually, she would spend the afternoon mentally preparing herself for such events. Oddly enough, now that the time had come, she wanted to go, or at least check it out for a bit, much to Dion’s delight. She surveyed her wardrobe, uncertain about what the proper attire for a party in the woods should be. She landed on an outfit that was a common companion at dinner parties on Earth, accompanied by a thin sweater in case the night air was cold.
“Just follow the sound,” Dion answered when Marcia asked for directions. Indeed, the Egresttian forest was so still at night that the hum of music and celebration carried across the length of the town. Marcia followed her ears to the outskirts, in an area off the road, where laughing echoed upwards from a crowd of bodies and into the canopy. Behind the shoulders and heads of the crowd, a light of brilliant, dancing orange illuminated the trunks of the nearby trees.
Marcia circled the crowd, not wishing to take anybody head-on, and found a quiet spot against a tree where she could observe the party and orient herself. Her shadow from the central fire stretched out into the blackness of the forest behind her. The ridges and crevices in the thick bark beside her shoulder were also darker, and deeper, in the firelight.
There were enough people (some hundreds) that Marcia believed the entire population of the town had come together. Tables made of the reddish wood were laid about, lit by oil lamps at their centre, crammed full of folk young and old engaged in spirited debate, storytelling, jokes and laughter. Marcia had never seen a party where words were listened to so carefully. Conversation crashed about the tables, all eyes and ears swerving to focus on the voice and face that was currently in charge. She wondered what they were talking about. Not strongly enough to sit down and ask, though.
Groups of children sat together on the moss, playing games on handheld screens, or with figurines. Others ran around, trading roles of pursuer and pursued. To aid their adventures, they wielded sticks and stones (shiny chunks of platinum) close to their body, which were no longer ordinary scrap of the forest but powerful, magical items: wands, pistols, and enchanted gems, plausibly. Marcia watched their games for a while, attempting to discern the plots of their adventures. She yearned to join them, too.
Across the crowd, Marcia locked eyes with a familiar face. The woman smiled, gleefully, and left her group, taking a bottle and a cup from the table with her.
“Marcia, I’m so glad you came,” Tara said, her cheeks rosy, the sparkling blue-green of her eyes barely visible in the dim light.
“Me too. Everyone seems to be having such a great time.”
“Yes, it’s almost magical, isn’t it?” Tara said. The alcoholic steam in her breath slid across Marcia’s face. “Would you care for some brandy?”
Marcia nodded, and sipped. “This is fantastic,” she declared, honestly, in response to her friend’s inquisitive stare. She had tasted many liquors in her life, most of which was cheap, bootlegger swill, but she had on rare occasions enjoyed humanity’s finer spirits. This Egresttian brandy surrounded its soft, alcoholic burn with warmth and a thick sweetness. Naturally—Marcia could tell—prams had been involved at some point.
“Thank you, I make it myself, up at the house. They call it ‘The Witch’s Brew’,” Tara said, followed by a hearty laugh. A cackle, almost.
With a wandering gaze, Marcia spotted a game of cards unfolding at another table nearby—a game she recognized as a popular pastime among the galaxy’s gamblers. She watched a few rounds pass, and concluded there wasn’t much skill at the table. None of those folk would have lasted very long in the dens on Getti. With or without cheating.
“Do you want to join? I could introduce you,” Tara asked.
A desire to play—to do something with her mind other than watch, or talk, or listen—had been itching inside her mind, but she shook her head. These were decent, unassuming folk. That night, she wasn’t interested in playing the ruffian—the outsider who trounces the hospitable locals and cleans them of their earnings.
“They don’t play for money, you know. Just for fun,” Tara informed her, causing Marcia to ponder—with horror—whether mind-reading was included in Tara’s witchery, or if she simply had strong, humanly skills in face-reading. She found no answer in Tara’s face. “Here, take this with you,” Tara said, giving Marcia the bottle of brandy before shoving her along, in encouragement.
As Tara approached the card table, all eyes looked up to her, and smiled—a common greeting for Tara among the townsfolk, Marcia had noticed. She introduced Marcia, without mentioning her Earthly origins, as had been requested, but there was no fooling the table of folk who’d been born and raised on this forested planet. Clearly, this quiet, secretive woman who attended their forest party in a button-up shirt was far from her home.
When asked if she needed a briefing on the rules, Marcia shook her head, silently, but returned a firm “thank-you” when the dealer cut her a stack of chips. Winning this game took both luck and skill. Players were dealt a random set of cards every round, but the best knew how to play their cards right, when to utilize their strongest moves, or save them for later. After letting the first few rounds pass uneventfully, Marcia was dealt a particularly strong hand and she engaged, with full force, claiming the round swiftly, and the next few rounds came just as easily. No one at the table saw this coming. This game was primarily enjoyed by the little folk: labourers, bottom feeders, and sometimes indecent criminals—not by people who dressed like Marcia.
A chord of music cut across the murmurs and laughter, silencing the crowd. A whoop of cheers erupted in its place, as every person left their post—their table, their circle of conversation, their collection of figurines, their game of cat and mouse—and pranced towards a wide space behind the campfire, lit brightly by rows of lights and lamps dangling above their heads, strung up by nearby branches. A drum set the pace--thump-thada-thump-thada-thump-thada-thump—and a violin began a jumping jig, pursued by a chorus of flutes, whistles, and guitars. The bouncing melodies soared into the clearing, rippling through every set of arms and legs. Everyone knew this dance and its patterns of steps, twirls, arm-hooks and claps—except for Marcia, who had never witnessed such a spectacle in her life.
Tara appeared from behind and offered to lead her through the dance, which seemed to be enjoyed best in groups of two or three, but Marcia declined, politely. Tara smiled respectfully and spun to latch onto the arms of a man standing at a tree by himself. The pair joined the crowd in a twirling circling of their own.
From the table, Marcia watched a few more songs and dances unfold, and then the crowd slowly fragmented as people split off to rest and recover their energy with a snack or a drink. A man and his daughter returned to a grill beside the fire, where thick chunks of fruit had been left to sweat above a pile of smouldering embers. Drops of juice slipped through the grates to the pulsing heat below and then burst in a series of fizzles, releasing the delicious aroma of grilled pram into the breeze. Some table groups were reformed, and some kid’s games resumed, though a dedicated patch of musicians and dancers seemed happy to spend the rest of their night with the jigs and slow twirls.
A pair from Marcia’s card table returned, and after sharing a short, uncomfortable silence, the man leaned over to Marcia, with a question.
“Say, where did you learn to play cards like that?”
The woman added, “You’re very good, much better ‘an any of us.” They both spoke in the low, bouncing tone that was ubiquitous in Egrestte.
Marcia attempted a smile, then said, “I’ve played a lot, with people from all kinds of places. I guess I’ve picked up a few tricks on the way.”
The man and woman looked thoughtfully at Marcia, then at each other. They hadn’t moved through the galaxy much. They pondered the litany of questions they could ask someone as well travelled as Marcia.
“Do you think you could teach us?” The man asked. “I’ve never won before, not once.” The woman nodded in agreement.
Marcia chuckled, and grabbed the cards from the table and started shuffling. “Of course. Come close, though, let’s keep this between us,” she said.
The man and woman squished around Marcia and the glow of the lamp, produced a fresh bottle of brandy, and poured a round for the table. Marcia explained the complex intricacies of the game—how to think beyond the cards in your hand, and towards the cards that may be in your opponents’ hands too, and the ways they might use those cards in the future, to get you. The man and woman listened to Marcia’s words with wide ears, and wider eyes, as if she were a sage wielding infinite wisdom. Tara looked on from across the clearing, with a happy tingling in her heart.
The next morning Marcia headed to Tara’s cabin. At the bonfire, she’d claimed to have devised a hangover cure—or, at least, a moderate remedy to the lethargy and throbbing headache that proceeded a night with her brandy. When Marcia arrived Tara was sitting in a rocking chair holding a mug, watching the sun split the sky through the trees. She passed her guest a mug, after warming up the beverage in her hands, as she had done with the kettle. Marcia wondered how long she needed to wait to be rid of her headache.
“Did you have fun last night?” Tara asked, after the pair swivelled back and forth in their chairs for a few moments.
“Very much,” Marcia replied, not afraid to show the surprise in those words. She had learned something new from the community on Egrestte, where people took the time to get to know their neighbours. Marcia felt more comfortable with the man and woman from the card table last night than any of the one thousand people in her apartment building, whom she’d seen day-after-day for several years. She’d been pondering why this was true, and what was stopping her neighbourhood from hosting bonfires of their own.
“I suppose you’re leaving on the flight to Getti tomorrow, then?” Tara asked.
“Suppose so. Back to work,” Marcia replied. That was the plan she had devised about a week ago, after all. To go back to Earth, quit her job, and gather belongings from her apartment. She owned few items with sentimental value and would likely sell most of her clothes and furniture, or give it away before she left. Then she would return to this forested planet with saws, diggers, and smelters, and make herself a fortune.
What would become of Egrestte? She pictured the mining outposts that she hopped between on Earth, from project to project. People flocked to these outposts to work for the mines because they made good money there—enough to buy all the ale and powder their hearts could manage. Then, when the money ran out, everyone fled, all at once, leaving ghost towns in their wake.
“I work as a miner, back on Earth,” Marcia said, revealing this fact to Tara for the first time. “I drive machines that dig metals out of the ground.”
“Wouldn’t have to dig very far here, would you?” Tara replied, staring directly into Marcia’s eyes. “This planet is full of platinum. Sits right there on the surface. But you know that already.”
Marcia nodded. “I’ve been wondering why nobody has dug it up yet.”
“We have all we need right here,” Tara said, with a shrug. A silence passed. She stood up from her chair and placed her mug on the table. “I want to go check on a few plants in the forest, care to join me?”
Marcia agreed. Miraculously, her headache had nearly fully retreated.
Calvan the six-legged, furry creature slinked alongside Tara’s footsteps, growling softly and affectionately as they walked through the forest. Tara stopped when she found the yarrow plant from earlier. At the end of the stems, white petals had bloomed, and the once sharp, emerald green had taken on a turquoise colour, approaching the dull hue of the other flora in the forest. Tara squatted close to the moss and the soil, rubbed her fingers through the stem of the yarrow plant and along the roots of the great tree towering above them. She waved Marcia over to squat beside her, smiling.
“Touch the stem, right where the flowers fork,” Tara instructed her. “Now try to relax a bit. Take some big, slow breaths. Empty your mind. Focus on the feel of the stem, in your fingertips.”
Marcia closed her eyes, and pushed out what surprisingly few thoughts were circling her mind, and replaced them with an awareness of the wind through her hair, the slight dampness of the remnant morning dew on the leaves of the stem in her fingers. Then, Tara gently clasped her hand over Marcia’s, and connected the two women to the yarrow, the roots of the great tree, and the moss beneath their feet.
The image was faint at first, but Marcia chased it, and willed it forward until the details were suddenly clear, as if her eyes were open. In her mind, a physical map of the space around her appeared, not just visually, but in touch too. She felt the squishy embrace of the mud around her feet, and around the roots of the trees, as well as the ticklish skittering of insects traversing the moss. Attached to the end of her fingers was Tara’s own hand—bone embedded in flesh, fed by the slow, steady trickle of blood, wrapped in skin—and at the end of their hands was the taut stem of the yarrow, covered in beads of dew which she could feel sliding between the fibrous tracks of the stem as if the cool water slid across her own skin. She felt the pull of the roots that anchored the young, thin plant—and herself—to the forest floor. The fibrous roots slithered through the soil to the base of the great tree, which appeared before her now not simply as an ancient, unmoving tower but a conscious being with a will of his own. Marcia could feel it’s gaze upon her, from way above the forest floor, in the leafy canopy, and in the back of her mind words appeared—or, at least, foreign thoughts shaped into words, spelling out a greeting in a low, melodic, and echoing tone.
With a frightened gasp Marcia released the yarrow and fell backwards into the moss. The real world returned to her vision. She clawed at her face to ensure she was back in her human skin. Looking up the tree she felt no gaze and heard no voice, and saw only the still pillar of bark from before.
Tara clambered over to her fallen friend and took her hand. “Thrilling, isn’t it?”
Marcia was still collecting herself. “What was that?”
“The tree, he spoke to you. Perfectly normal to be a little frightened the first time.”
Tara sat beside Marcia for a few moments, until her normal breathing returned, then pulled her off the forest floor. “Let’s walk a bit, get some fresh air going in your lungs.”
Ever since she arrived, Marcia sensed a mysterious, omniscient might coming from the forest, guarding some precious secret. She had assumed this secret was the troves of platinum covered by moss and soil, but the forest cared not for this metal, not in the way most of humanity did, at least. Its true power came not from its material riches, nor the height of its canopy, nor the thickness of its trunks, but the length of its roots, which united the lives of every tree, herb, grass, moss, insect, bird, and human on the planet.
“I was thinking of staying, actually,” Marcia called out. “Not taking tomorrow’s flight, but a later one.”
Tara stopped walking. Her auburn hair shone most brilliantly in the daylight of the forest, among the trees. “What about your job?”
“I want to try something new.”
“Here?” Tara asked. “On Egrestte?”
“Huh. Well, if you’re handy, I think they could always use help with the machines at the port,” Tara said.
“What about you?” Marcia responded.
“Me?” Tara said, smirking, as she reached down to scrub behind Calvan’s ear, “I have plenty of company already.” She paused, offering Marcia an opportunity to retreat. She didn’t budge. “But, if you’re serious, I do feel short-handed in the forest from time to time. If you wanted something really different, I could certainly cover more ground with a partner.”
Marcia played with the tips of her fingers, and didn’t meet Tara’s turquoise eyes as she said, “I’d be happy to help, if you wouldn’t mind teaching me how.”