It is five a.m. and all across town the shops are finally closing. When we step outside the pub, there are a lot of police on the streets, milling around, seemingly without purpose, moving the way that big fish do in a shallow pond. They warn us that foot traffic through the town is no longer allowed at this time, and then they follow us to make sure we get off the streets. Now what? None of us want to return to our bedsit. Here, gathered under a streetlamp, Yas shares something she heard on the train from the previous leg of our expedition: nearby, there is an unmapped, unofficial forest.
We decide to cab part of the way and then hike the rest of the distance. We have to try three different cabs before the fourth agrees to take us. “Too far,” we were told twice. The third shook his head and drove off without unlocking the doors. The fourth driver will take us because Eben promises a hefty tip upfront.
The forest, Yas tells us, is unofficial because it used to be a tree farm…then the owners abandoned it when they moved away. That was over five years ago. Everything has been left to grow on its own. It has not been reclaimed by the state and because it was private property, there are no clear details about it on any map, no contour lines, no hints at scale or topography. We wonder what sort of trees the farm was rearing. In this country, larches, fir, alders and oak thrive. If he knows, the cab driver does not volunteer any information, nor offer any conversation.
The cab driver lets us out sooner than we expected. Moorland on either side of the road, and an uncertain light lengthening across a streaky sky. He says we can get out here and walk, or he’ll drive us back, if we want. We get out; Eben pays him. He locks the doors and turns off the cab lights and leaves without looking back.
It is six a.m., and a light mist has started to fall. This has happened every morning since we arrived; it will stop anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour. It renews us. We feel as through we are peeling back sheets of mist to access the forest, and we are determined to explore. We plan to walk to the forest, take photographs, then hike back to the main road. By then it will be full morning and we can hitch a ride.
We strike off the road into the brush. The trees here, normal wild ones, are spread thinly, stretching up like stripped fence posts. Drifts of cloud or maybe smoke are snared in the top branches, like cotton candy wound around a spire.
We have between the four of us only two water bottles held in Cary-Ann’s backpack.
“Maybe we should try collecting water,” Eben says. “I did that as a scout in training.” But it’s impossible—there are no leaves, nothing bracken. The ground is soft, dark. Bare. Our footsteps crater the dirt.
The trees are gathering closer. We pass through a graveyard of mechanical things: engines, a thresher, sheets of beaten metal, a machine for digging bottomless holes, surely. The wood has swallowed the metal heap, iron rusting into thick moss. We tread carefully, for the ground is littered with broken metal and glass shards. In one place, four cars are stacked on top of one another, their weight having driven them deep into the earth. Whether they are sunken or if the earth has risen is unclear. We snap photos. Yas climbs to the top of one heap and crosses her legs to the side, posing like a mermaid on a bow.
These plain trees crowd now. Through their meager cover, we watch something huge and antlered—we are not quite sure what it is, exactly—taken down by two wolves. Are they wolves? Something lean and furred. Fifty meters away. Maybe even nearer than that. This close we ought to be able to hear them, but their frenzied feasting is silent and savage. Fortunately Eben spotted them and stopped us from venturing closer.
We pass a house with barred windows, an attachment to an old water mill that has collapsed on its side. The front door is gone and the house gapes open.
“Don’t go in,” Cary-Ann begs. “Oh, just don’t.”
She almost has one of her hysterics about it, so we don’t because it’s not worth enduring one of her episodes. We peep into the windows instead, but there isn’t much to see, just wooden furniture chewed up and worried by dust and wind. In the corner of what must have been a nursery—a crib, some toys—there is a pile of leaves and twigs willfully arranged in some kind of nest, or burrow. Whatever made its home there is not present. We back away and continue on.
Finally we reach the tree farm. No—so much more than that: a forest. Incredibly, it is still contained behind a three-meter high fence all around it. Wind must stir the trees because the army of them seems to be quivering in place against their fencing.
We find a section where the fencing has been knocked down and enter the tree farm. Eben takes a picture of the broken fence.
We take three steps inside and had we looked back, the fencing would have already been lost to us. Roots are soldered into the black beneath our shoes. The trees make the inside of the forest appear green and murky, as if we’re at the bottom of the sea. The flash from Eben’s camera wavers like it’s underwater, too. We are awash in this sea of trees, where the moving leaves seem to swim, barely tethered by their stems.
The tree trunks are not huge, not like the redwoods we visited years ago. They are not so gigantic as that, but they are endless. They are all evenly divided and lined, all of them even-aged. Their immensity comes from their innumerable duplication, their startling sameness.
“This was probably a Christmas tree farm,” Yas says.
None of us have seen Christmas trees like this before.
“Well they haven’t been taken care of, have they,” Yas replies. “They haven’t been properly cultivated.”
“They don’t need caring for,” says Eben. “Trust me.”
He implies that perhaps the owners hadn’t been taking care of the trees, but containing them. Checking their growth.
The trees smell ashy, like luck blood oranges and unmelted snow. Their bark is warm and shivering, intricately patterned like overlapping scales. We think we can hear something coursing inside them, though what we do not know.
Cary-Ann believes the trees are secreting something. “What?” Eben asks her. “What is it? Don’t just make things up.”
At last she says, “I don’t know. Something mournful.”
Occasionally we glimpse something dangling in the trees, like a special fruit. They gleam like the hard enamel of teeth and wink out when we turn our heads, so we can’t be sure, but they are always there in the corners of our eyes.
Eben says something is breathing honeyed breath down his neck, and has been for the last mile or two.
Time drips, limpid and feeble. Occasionally something damp strikes the very center of the tops of our heads. Twice Cary-Ann has to pause to wipe her glasses on her shirt. Soon the glass is irreparably smudged. She has trouble seeing out of them and trails far behind us.
When we take a rest, taste our dwindling water and chew on fruit that has turned soft and black after only a day, Yas states in a marbled voice, “These trees live on meat.” She won’t say more, no matter how the three of us prod her. Do we walk across a ladder of bones? What have these roots steeped in for so long? As we walk, we dream the same dream: The grooves left by the plow are narrow but deep. Father and daughter lower strangers in the hollows, and the bodies are laid to rest in the rifts. Soil covers them like snowfall. Roots plait between the limbs. Worms dine for centuries, while in the between years, cicadas sip the sugaring sap and become bloated.
The forest has closed and the trees spied upon us. Hard to say if we’re walking in rings. Cary-Ann sits down and refuses to go on.
“Send someone back for me,” she keeps saying. “I want to rest. Come back for me.”
While we try threatening and enticing her to get up, Yas walks away. Only a small distance, but she is gone in this plantation. Eben swears he saw her vanish into the sleeve of a tree. No—she just disappeared behind it, of course he is mistaken. We leave Cary-Ann and go to the tree. We press our ears to it, feel it trembling roughly back at us, and mixed in with the sound of streaming, there’s a thin, high voice that has been fermenting. We listen for a long time, trying to make out words.