Forest for the Trees

by Pithirat Horvichien

The first time you saw the painting, you thought it beautiful. Set in dark-painted wooden frame, a slice of reality had been suspended in the form of the trunk of a lone white aspen, layered onto canvas with acrylic and propped up on a steel easel; behind it, the blackened, dead remnants of where a tree had presumably once stood, all jagged and rotting wood and glimpses of what insects inhabited the corpse. All of this atop the crest of a hill located absolutely nowhere, surrounded by its more material siblings that made up the rest of the forest around you. The artist, whoever that was, surely deserved more credit than they were vying for with a piece such a distance from civilisation?

 

Had it not been so memorable, perhaps you would have been safe.

 

The damned thing didn’t start until three weeks in, and by then, the painting had been reduced to a mere figment in the deepest part of your hippocampus. Yet when you locked the door of your home and turned to leave, there it was, casting a long, ominous shade over the road. A quaking aspen, as you would later discover, grew out of the front of your neighboUr’s yard, present like a sore thumb among the neatly curated bushes and flowers that bordered the rest of the area. In that instant, the image had dredged itself up from the depths of your memory, burning the painting into your mind's eye in the way that a glowing brand would on flesh.

 

Was it the same tree? It certainly couldn’t be. Having only seen the trunk, you could only be so sure...except you were sure. Somehow, it simply seemed right, in the way that frogs came from tadpoles and the planet held you down by means of a gravitational field. It was factual, despite what you knew.

 

And of course, you simply went on with your day, shoving the thoughts aside and chalking them up to coincidence. There was no way it was the exact same tree from the hike three weeks ago. The idea was simply absurd.

 

The moment its absence glared at you that very same evening as you returned was the moment your heart caught in your throat, and deep down, you knew something was truly very wrong. You stood in the driveway, gazing across the street at the now immaculate garden, with not a trace of a stump to indicate the aspen had been removed nor a bald patch in the grass where it had towered. Neither of the adjacent houses had even possessed any shrubbery in front of them to begin with, and the harder you thought about it, the harder the pressure in the base of your skull grew.

 

And so did your troubles.

 

Sometimes it would just be there, out of the edges of your vision, but disappearing as soon as you made an effort to turn your head. Sometimes it was in the distance, as if taunting you, only to evaporate from existence in the split-second it took you to blink. But it was always there: the same tree, every single time. The tree from the painting, the tree from the forest, the tree from your imagination. It burned at the centre of every dream, and followed you each hour of the waking day.

 

As you run past ghostly white trunks, twigs and leaves crunching underfoot, you almost chuckle to yourself. Even now escape seemed unlikely, but at least you could end it once and for all. The painting has to go, even as the headache pulses so hard it drives tears from your eyes, as the pain in the palms of your hands approaches the unbearable. A ten-hour drive and a barbed wire fence didn’t stop you and perhaps, nothing would. Was it not noble to eradicate evil? And it was evil. There were no other descriptors for something that punished you for your curiosity, that turned your human nature into an opportunity to infect. Infect. The word sounds strange, being voiced in your head as if you’re referring to a living thing. Paintings were not alive, and neither was the tree in question, but it had been the idea-

 

The first crack of a rifle sounded, and you instinctively turn yourself around a tree, back pressed against it. Through the veneer of tears over your eyes, you spot the beam of a flashlight cleaving its way through the dark woods, guiding the barrel of the soldier’s assault rifle. There had been no warnings, no efforts to merely subdue you. Just gunshots, and the equally deafening silence that separated them.

 

The beam swings a little bit away from your position and you break into a sprint, slipping between two of the white trees just as the bright light swings back around. Another shot hammers through the trees, and you feel the rain of splintered bark on the back of your exposed neck from the impact of the bullet. A couple more metres and you duck behind another tree - almost catching a foot on a root and tripping - holding your breath and keeping your shape behind the silhouette of its trunk as you squeeze your eyes shut and open them again.

 

Not thirty metres away the painting stood, its steel easel glinting under the light of a waxing moon that filtered its way down through the canopy. Finally, within reach. Your hand slips into the pocket of your jacket-

 

A chill runs up your spine, and you glance down at the forest floor beside you, spotting the shiny grey steel of the lighter among the leaves. You curse mentally, and slowly, lean out from behind the tree.

 

The flashlight is gone. Doesn’t mean they aren't watching. You reach for it anyway, slowly creeping your numbing hand along the ground, out of cover and to hover over the lighter. Your fingers wrap around the cold metal, the sensation of which was replaced by a dull ache as it reaches your palm, you slowly draw it back into the protection of the tree.

 

There is only one thing left to do.

 

The lighter is slick with all the blood coming out of your hands, but you grip it tight as you begin to walk the last leg towards the easel. Not even they would get this close, if they were smart enough as to fence it off. Your path is clear, with the exception of the irregular thumping in your skull, echoing louder and louder with every step that you take towards the painting.

 

Wiping the overflow of tears from your face, you finally stand before the grotesque work of art, and aware of the unknowable, flick your thumb across the wheel of the lighter. A soft orange glow permeates you, partly offering solace from black night and partially painting a target. But even as you raise it towards the canvas, the world is flickering. Darkening. Pain becomes nausea, and your knees hit the ground, breaking twigs and crush leaves as the lighter falls unceremoniously from your hand, the flame dissipating even before impact.

 

There isn’t as much as a last thought as you keel over in some direction or other, and the darkness envelops you.

 

***

 

“How many?”

 

“Just over two hundred, ma’am.”

 

Eleanor Parval crossed her arms as she looked through the stark white-coloured trees, her back to the tall fence that went around the entire forest. Two hundred trees wouldn’t be that many, if not for...

 

“I need to see it,” she said firmly.

 

“T-The painting, ma’am?” the aide asked, his expression shifting into one of concern.

 

“Not the painting. The body.”

 

“Very well.” He started up the slope, clutching the paper-thin computer tablet under one arm.

 

Parval closed her eyes, and inhaled deeply, using the sound of air to drown out the other thoughts. This isn’t real. None of this is real. She exhaled slowly, and opened her eyes. Not that it would help in any significant way if she got infected. Still, it was protocol, even if said protocol had been written by a talking cow.

 

She followed her adjudant up the sun-drenched hill, placing her boots carefully as to not slip. 

 

The steep incline made every few metres a chore, but it was only testament to the perpetrator’s determination. Eventually, the rise levelled out into a rather flat area, and before Parval was the cordoned-off site; just past the bright red tape that had been strung from tree to tree was the painting. Or it would have been, had an opaque black tarp not been draped over the entire construct, as per her instruction. Two armed guards in all black body armour and face-concealing helmets stood by it, their rifles at their sides and their eyes turned towards her.

 

Parval ignored their gaze, ducking under the tape after the aide and kneeling beside the black body bag laid out atop the soil. “Open it.”

 

Somewhat hesItantly, the aide took the zipper in one hand and pulled down, opening the bag from the direction of the head.

 

Except there wasn’t one. Parval squinted at the stump of the neck, with smoothened cuts evidencing the use of one of their hatchets. “And the rest of the body is intact?”

 

The aide paused, and let go of the zipper. “Yes.”

 

Parval stood up. “Get me an autopsy - I don’t care if you use a local. I want it by tomorrow latest.”

 

“Yes, ma’am.” He too, got to his feet before folding his tablet open.

 

Parval stepped towards the covered easel, and held a hand out at one of the guards.

 

“Hatchet.”

 

The man reached behind his back, withdrew a small metal axe, flipping it and passing it to her handle-first.

 

She stepped over to the tree off to the right side of the painting, and swung the hatchet straight towards it, burying it in the bark at a diagonal. Wrenching it free, she swung it again, chopping into the same line, deepening the crack, this time slicing all the way through the outside. Parval removed the hatchet and swung one last time, this time connecting with a wet squish.

 

She took a step back, and tossed the stained hatchet at her feet with a grimace across her lips. The idea of a tree, she thought.

 

Through the opening in the bark was red, muscular flesh, pulsating ever so slightly, the capillaries she had cut through spitting a little stream of dark, deoxygenated crimson with every convulsion.

 

Two hundred trees.

 

Parval turned back to face the aide. “How fast can you get someone from Crowley’s team here?”

 

“A day or two.” The aide’s gaze snapped to the wound in the tree, and then immediately away. “Is it urgent?”

 

“The faster they get here, the faster they can figure out the mechanics of this thing.” Parval pushed past him,

 

“And then…?”

 

“Then we burn this,” she said flatly, stopping to look over her shoulder. “All of it.”

 

The aide nodded quickly, and turned back to his tablet.