Anoshka and the Demon Tree
The curved edge of her sikwa flashed. She dropped the thick, fibrous limoo stalks into a shallow flat-bottomed basket tied to her ankle and took one muddy step to the left. She grabbed another handful of the hateful crop and swung the sikwa again. Grab, slice, drop, step.
The paddy was silent but for the rhythmic swishing of sikwas and the persistent buzz of giant insects. The coolness of the mud between her toes was shocking against the wet heat of the afternoon.
Grab slice drop step.
Anoshka hated limoo. She hated planting it. She hated flooding it. She hated draining it. Most of all, she hated harvesting it, wasting the glorious late summer days in muddy, squelching paddies.
Grab, slice, drop, step.
All year long the heavy rain had pleased her father. Every morning he clasped his hands together and exclaimed, “The limoo grows well, look! Toru rewards our respect!” Anoshka would say nothing but inwardly prayed for drought.
Anoshka stood straight, pausing to adjust her skullcloth and wipe the humidity from her face. She regarded the edge of the jungle on the far side of the paddy. The green-black mass of vegetation rising a hundred feet in the air seemed to regard her in return. The Children of the Sun and Rain knew better than to venture into the jungle. It was said Toru the Nightstalker hungers for flesh, and prizes the sweetness of children most of all…
Anoshka snorted aloud at the baldness of the lie. Elders are always making up stories to scare foolish children and keep them from wandering into an ant lair like a hungry tigu.
“Hey, dreaming girl! Perhaps you show Toru too much respect and refuse to take of his bounty, eh? Ahah!” Anoshka turned quickly at the insult, jerking her basket and sending harvested limoo stalks rolling into the mud.
Tey the great. Tey the chieftan’s son. Tey, with his burnished skin and gleaming amber eyes, so quick with the sikwa it seemed possessed of its own will. He flashed her a condescending smile, showing his perfect, beautiful teeth.
Anoshka hated Tey even more than limoo stalks.
She turned her back on him and began to collect her scattered harvest. What’s so wrong about dreaming, anyway? The elders say Toru of the Sun and Rain dreamt he had a family of a hundred children, and so taken was he with this dream he gave each of them life, and tribes of their own, and cleared the jungle from the land for them to farm and flourish. And the Children of the Sun and Rain had only to respect Toru’s gifts, to care for the land that was given to them, and their lives would be bountiful. If dreaming was good enough for Toru, why not Anoshka? What’s wrong with wanting something more than harvesting limoo until your fingers blister?
An elder approached leading a giant tigu lizard with dozens of stacks of tightly-wound stalks strapped to its back, heading in the direction of the drying beds. He eyed first Anoshka’s dishevelled basket and then Anoshka herself. She was was about to respond with something impertinent when the ground heaved beneath her and a crackling, concussive thunder blew across the limoo paddy, flattening stalks and knocking people from their feet. Birds erupted from the jungle canopy, shrieking their terror as they swarmed in the air, echoing the cries of the people on the ground.
Anoshka was tossed aside by the roiling earth and collided with the tigu lizard as she fell, knocking loose the bundle straps. The tigu bolted with the speed of the truly terrified, abandoning its minder and the harvest. The elder, whether pushed into the mud by the quake or by his erstwhile pack lizard, simply gawped wide-eyed at Anoshka. Her head felt fuzzy. The mud was cool against her skin. Somewhere close a child was crying.
Anoshka looked from the man to the retreating lizard, her hand somehow still clutching her sikwa. Afterwards she could not recall making the decision; one moment she was laying dazed in the mud, the next she had sliced free of her basket rope and was dashing through the high stalks in pursuit of a terrified lizard the size of a pony.
A lizard running straight for the jungle.
Anoshka was quick, even as a child. “My gleaming daughter,” her mother would say, “always you are in such a rush. You came running from my womb so eager to be in the world!” But as quick as she was, there was no way she was going to catch a stampeding tigu at full speed. The giant lizard crashed into the jungle some two hundred feet ahead of her, its wide, lumbering frame shattering a brittlebark tree as it careened headlong into the undergrowth. She leaped the wreckage and pursued the lizard, yelling “Come back, stupid donkey!” Crossing over under the jungle canopy was like entering a cave; she gasped at the coolness of the air pulling at her skin and the deep, mottled shadows surrounding her. At first the path was obvious and she kept her pace following the giant lizard’s path of destruction. She could no longer see the tigu but the crunching and snapping of its footfalls echoed before her.
Seconds later, the trail was gone completely.
Anoshka stopped, turned about. It was as if there had never been any trail at all: everywhere the jungle was thick with large, drooping plants, gnarled veiny trees snaking between and around the huge trunks of the canopy trees, and hanging vines as thick as her thigh. Flowers of explosive color punctuated the inky greens and browns of the jungle floor, which was spongy with docomposition. The Sun, always mighty and relentless, was powerless here, reduced to shafts of weak, glittery light piercing a dense fog that hung high in the canopy. For the first time in her life, she could not feel its warmth. She gulped lungfuls of peaty, redolent air, dumbfounded. Where was the path? She couldn’t have gone more than… well not far, anyway. And that donkey of a lizard couldn’t have just disappeared. But there was no sign of it and the only sounds the rushing of blood in her ears and the breath in her throat. Was the jungle always this quiet? Shouldn’t it be teaming, or something? The first twinge of uneasiness tickled her stomach. Forget the lizard. Get back to the village.
Moving more slowly now, Anoshka reversed her steps and made for the edge of the jungle. But after two minutes there was still no sign she was going back the way she came. No snapped trees, no broken undergrowth, no telltale muddy tigu footprints going the wrong way in front of her. She brushed absently at her shoulder, only to find a snakey green tendril slowly wrapping around her arm. She pulled away, stumbled, crashed into a sticky, bell-shaped purple and orange flower taller than she was. A petal the size of a harvest basket pulled away with her, its sticky sap clinging to one side of her face. Panicking now she ripped it away, pulling strands of hair along with it. She turned away from the flower and began to run, but tripped on something, wrenching her ankle and landing hard.
Anoshka sat, massaging her ankle, trying to get her breathing under control. She had stumbled into a clearing of sorts, the ground punctuated by several large cones of sandy, dry earth. Near the centre of the clearing was a tree of a kind she had never seen before, its foreshortened trunk splintering into a riot of sinewy, curling branches that spread too wide, creating its own canopy over the clearing. No leaves or flowers were visible on its crimson bark. How did she get here? She couldn’t be more than a few hundred strides from the edge of the jungle. She just had to– Too late, her mind connected the elders’ teachings with the facts of her reality. Clearings. Sandy soil. Cone-shaped mounds four and five feet tall.
The first one erupted from the top of the cone nearest her, it’s bulbous, chitinous body casting an iridescent green glow about the jungle floor. It was followed quickly by four, no, five more. Six. Ten. Twenty. In seconds they were everywhere, each ant the size of a small dog, the chittering, clattering mandibles seeming to taste the air, reacting to her trespass. One of them crawled over her foot and Anoshka shrieked involuntarily. This drew the attention of the swarm and as she struggled to regain her footing the monstrous things rushed towards her. She kicked the closest away with her foot, her bad ankle screaming in pain at the contact. It backed away momentarily before vomiting a stream of green-yellow bile at her. It splattered across the ground next to her, bubbling and hissing, blackening the soil to ash. The clacking of the swarm became louder. They were coming now.
Something slithered over her back then, quickly wrapping around her torso and through her legs, binding an arm to her side. Long, tentacle-like branches reaching down from the tangled mass of the tree wrenched her from the jungle floor. More branches found her as she was jerked upward and in a moment she was enveloped, immobilized. Tiny red-brown branches with sharp-edged thorns moved across her face, gagging her. She was pulled inwards towards the trunk of the tree as the surface of the blood-red bark split and writhed, revealing a single jaundiced eye, its three-body pupil shot through with bloody capillaries and giving it a malevolent cast. Beneath it a horizontal slit widened, curled, opened into a hideous parody of a smile from which spewed dozens, hundreds of fat white grubs dropping to the waiting frenzy of giant ants who, having momentarily been denied a meal fell upon them with relish.
The eye blinked, and in a voice like rot and splitting wood the tree spoke to her, the words garbled by a mouthful of grubs. “You have come where you should not, little child of sun and rain. Have we not given you all that you require? Do we not sustain you? And yet you show us this disrespect? We are disappointed.”
Anosha screamed then, and found the razor vines slicing her lips, her mouth, her tongue. She tasted blood.
Movement then in the corner of Anoshka’s eye, and as she struggled to turn her head she saw the thrashing, desperate form of the giant tigu lizard dangling from a thick branches wrapped around one hindquarter. The creature was pulled between Anoshka and the trunk and with gentle, delicate slowness the tree feasted on the tigu, its screeches of agony giving way to sickening, burbling wet crunching as it was fed inexorably into the waiting maw. She watched, helpless, as blood and viscera mixed with grubs pouring from the mouth, staining them crimson.
The eye closed, and the tree seemed to almost shiver. “Mmm, yes, delightful,” it said. At length the eye opened and regarded Anoshka once more. “It has been so long since we tasted the flesh of your kind. We think we shall savour you. Yes. We shall… enjoy your repentance, your fear.” The branches around Anoshka’s face and mouth retracted. “Tell me, child of disrespect. Do you fear us?”
Anoshka nodded. “Yes.” Her voice sounded bubbly and weak in her ears, and she spat blood.
The smile was too wide. “Good.”
“Aren’t we supposed to call you the Nightstalker?” The question just fell out.
Keep talking. Just keep talking. “Well I mean, you’re a tree.”
“So you’re not stalking anywhere. Trees don’t stalk.” She took a deep breath. “It’s kind of a dumb name.”
There was a silence.
“No it isn’t!”
“The elders’ stories aren’t very specific, I’ll grant you, but with a name like Toru the Nightstalker, you sort of expect some kind of creature stalking you from the shadows. Or something.”
“I have a mouth full of giant maggots! I just tore apart a lizard three times your size! I am a demon tree!”
“Oh, no question, you are terrifying. I am going to need new wraps. I have never been so scared in my life.”
“Good. That is good, small one.”
“I’m just saying, well…”
“Well what? Speak!”
“I’m just saying,” Anoshka gulped. Was she really doing this? “If you’re going to be a demon tree, then probably the Children of the Sun and Rain can learn to live in the jungle. To harvest its resources. Do those maggoty grub things grow anywhere else besides your mouth? Probably they’re good eating; the ants certainly seem to like them and if I can be honest with you frankly anything sounds better than another season of boiled limoo stalk.”
“What? No! To the Children of Sun and Rain were given the fields to toil! This jungle and its temples are not for the likes of you! Your disrespect will be met with pain and terror your tiny mortal mind cannot even imagine!”
“Unless we build a fence around you. Couple of warning signs.”
“No-one will know of this place,” said the tree, “Because I will rend the flesh from your bones and put an end to your impertinence.” And Anoshka felt her self being pulled forward. She had been babbling, her frenzied mind working without thought, buying time, buying seconds of life but with no real plan, just hoping for something, anything to happen. But now as she struggled hopelessly against the branches and the putrid stench of the mouth washed over her as she was pulled closer, the beginnings of a thought took hold. A way out.
She forced herself to relax, and said as casually as she could, “We’ll find the temples.”
The forward movement stopped. “I didn’t say anything about temples.”
“You did, you said, ‘Temples.’ If you eat me, when I don’t return the Children of the Sun and Rain will come looking for me, jungle or no, and they won’t stop looking, and eventually they’ll find the temples. Are they nice? Can I see one? Who built them? How come Toru the Scary Tree–”
“How come he lets other people live in his sacred jungle and build temples but the Children of the Sun and Rain have to live in a flooded mud puddle seven seasons a year? Doesn’t seem fair. Once they see actual jungle temples? I mean, I doubt the elders will even call a vote before we start moving our stuff in.”
“This cannot be permitted!”
The tree’s rage echoed through the clearing, breaking the tide of ants like rock in the surf. They began to retreat back into their hives, pulling a feast of bloodied grubs with them. Anoshka winced inwardly, but forced herself to remain calm. She regarded the wide, hideous eye and asked, “Who’s going to stop us? They’ll be coming for me, and when they don’t find me…”
“Enough! No! This will not be permitted. You will return to the Children of the Sun and Rain. You will leave my jungle and never return, and you will remind your people that they owe their pitiful existence to the generosity of Toru the Sun and the Rain. And you will remind them of the horrible fate that awaits any who transgress my laws! Toru the Nightstalker awaits you!”
As the last ribbon of orange and red sank behind the canopy and twilight fell, Anoshka emerged from the edge of the jungle and walked slowly through the ruined limoo paddies towards the village. So relieved was her father at her return that it wasn’t until the next day that Anoshka learned of the strange tear in the sky that had appeared at the moment of the quake.
For years afterwards the Children would regard her with a weary eye, calling her Anoshka Jungle Walker with as much admiration as admonishment. She married Tek, and he became chief. She would put their daughters to sleep with stories of man-eating flowers and acid ants, of vines alive and dangerous as snakes. Tek would smile quietly to himself at the shrieks of terror and delight from his daughters, and in all their long years never once revealed to Anoshka that he knew of her treks deep into the jungle, or asked what she was looking for, or if she ever found it.