At The Edge of the Old Forest was a Spirit
“Got a cracker?” asked the parrot that wasn’t there, hanging upside-down from a branch that wasn’t there.
“Whoever taught you that has no imagination,” said Keli, packing up her supplies for the day.
“I like it,” said the parrot, letting go of the memory of a branch and flying onto Keli’s shoulder, mist trailing in the wake of its wings.
“What did you like when you were alive?” asked Keli, rubbing under the ghostly parrot’s chin. She glanced around the tent. Looked like she had everything she needed. The trees for today’s replanting should be delivered soon.
“Fruit. What are crackers?” asked the parrot, nuzzling Keli’s hair like the mysterious “cracker” was inside her black curly locks.
“Dry bread. Nothing like fruit.”
Keli walked outside. The slashed and burned erstwhile forest was filled with creatures like the parrot. Transparent animals trailing mist, wandering what had been their habitat before their lives came to a very sudden end.
At the edge of the still-living forest stood the spirit. Huge, thin, and silent. A jaw like a warthog, antlers like some long-gone deer. Fur like a cloak. It was the most real thing Keli had ever seen.
She wondered what would happen when the replanting was completed and the forest swallowed the Forest Spirit again.
The parrot, who had no name because it didn’t care to share one, had taken to her immediately after she arrived with her people. They had received a grant to work on the deforested areas and had expected normal project, just there to plant sproutlings. Not several acres worth of misplaced ghosts.
The ones that hurt the most were the forest-dwelling people who’d received the same courtesy of the animals: a painful, but quick death. Sometimes a ghostly child would run past her, playing, and she’d have to look away.
After six straight weeks of work, she could see the Forest Spirit’s silhouette from the edge of the replanting. Another six weeks of planting at their pace (they had planned for months, but they couldn’t seem to slow down), and the new trees should join the edge of the old forest and the feet of the Forest Spirit. And she’d have the parrot’s running commentary for every step of the work.
It had a lot of observations. It didn’t like her clothes, it thought her hair was delightfully chewy, and any girl or boy that flirted with her had to be fought off.
“Typical parrot,” her friend Taylor told her.
“Little bastard,” said Keli, and got a sharp beaky nip.
The Forest Spirit never moved from its spot. Just stood and stared. It didn’t look like a living thing.
They had thought it was just a creepy statue, at first. Then one of the soldiers guarding them had touched it.
All the time she was trying to stop the soldier’s bleeding, Keli prayed and gave eternal thanks she’d taken all those first aid courses. The soldier survived. No one else touched the Forest Spirit.
All the animals liked Keli, not just the parrot. She’d become her group’s de facto medium, because the animals would complain to her first.
They advised when a particular spot was just wrong for a tree, or when it really needed a tree. And other landscaping tips. None of the human ghosts spoke to her. It seemed they’d had enough of people outside their tribes while they were alive. Or because they’d stopped being alive.
Keli wanted to apologize to them. She knew it wouldn’t help, but she wanted to.
After another week of planting, she could make out details of the Forest Spirit when she reached the edge of the new trees. Still they hadn’t reached it with the new growth. It didn’t move. But each time a new row got closer, Keli could swear it looked more… alive.
The next week was disrupted by agitators from the companies that caused the destruction in the first place. They’d come in with guns. Might makes right attitude.
The Forest Spirit moved then. Keli didn’t know where the gunmen went. Her people reported the incident and… kept planting.
Keli didn’t think they could stop if they wanted to. It was a compulsion now. Get up, place the trees, sleep, wake, plant.
Another week. She could see the hollows of the skull making up the Forest Spirit’s face. It had no eyes.
Another week, and the line of little trees looked good and healthy. Animals walked among them. Sloths climbed where branches would be one day. Birds perched. Jaguars stalked.
“So what’s going to happen to you when we’re done?” she asked the parrot that night, drinking some tea that had been almost too much effort to brew.
“I’ll be reborn. Maybe this time I’ll be a snake! Or a butterfly!” said the parrot.
“What about a human?” asked Keli.
“Don’t be rude,” said the parrot.
Another week, and she swore she actually could see eyes now on the Forest Spirit. Its cloak looked less like fur now, and more like long feathers. She wondered how she missed that detail before.
The last week, she was the only one brave enough to plant the last tree at the Forest Spirit’s feet.
It now truly was wearing a cloak of long feathers. Its skull had grown fur. It had kind eyes.
It nodded to her and walked into the forest, followed by the ghosts.
“So long!” said the parrot, and flew off her shoulder.
Keli and her people went home.
The forest grew. The animals came back.