Friday, September 30, 2016

Among the Aspens

By the time he became aware I was watching him, he was already in trouble. They always are. It seems that my help remains beyond their reach until they approach their most desperate hour, and often by that time there is precious little I can do.

I knew how this day had started, long before I found him wandering frantically among the aspens. He had come here, hoping for a reprieve from the rigors of everyday life; to escape the hum-drum monotony of toiling hour after hour, day after day, just to avoid death. For isn't that why they work? Because this fallen world demands it. Since Adam and Eve left the garden, it's been a battle to the death between man and the world: there are thorns and thistles that grow wild and unruly, forcing man to eke out a scant existence by the sweat of his brow. Yes man, you'd better sweat, for you walk the edge of a knife and death is nearer than you think. There are forces more powerful and malevolent working against you than you perceive.

So he had come to the mountains. He had left the comforts of hearth and home. He had exited the bubble of security that modern technology offers. And he had done it on purpose. Now here he was, lost in a place beyond the warmth of his artificially-heated home, beyond the softness of his manufactured carpets, beyond the reach of the phone signals that served as a tenuous tether to civilization and help--a tether that he voluntarily severed.

Though he knew it not, he walked unwittingly into a perfectly-laid trap. You see, the weather can be a great accomplice. It is an experienced deceiver; all too often it persuades a man to walk to his doom, though he hums in the sunshine all along the way. Today was such a day in the mountains. Starting out with a bright, sunlit morning, the rushed hurry of billowing clouds overhead had offered inadequate portent of the tumultuous changes the afternoon would bring.

I watched him at a distance for hours, as he progressed along the trail, breathing deeply the sharp autumn air. With relish he drank in the sweet fragrance of decaying leaves as he followed the meandering path, delving ever deeper into the aspens. In high summer the trail was easy to follow, being relatively well-worn and carefully maintained by the forest service. But this late in the season it grew nearly imperceptible at times, with no markings on the trees, and having deep drifts of fallen leaves that had accumulated between the breaks in the tall grass and foliage that flanked it. Aspen leaves covered the bare earth and weighed down the dry plants all around, until it was sometimes hard to distinguish the difference between the trail and countless other channels created by something as simple as a minor depression in the landscape, a dry ravine, the bedding place of a deer, or a path made by any of the many other moving things that dwelt among the trees.

Like so many before him, he was oblivious to the danger these conditions presented. Instead, he was merrily content; whistling a tune; thoroughly intoxicated with the gentle fluttering of the remaining gold and brown leaves on the otherwise stark aspen branches. It truly was a mesmerizing sight: everywhere he looked the woods were in motion, from the swaying saplings that crowded each other in the clearings, to the ebb and flow of the high, pale branches of the old, mature trees. Even the mottled trunks themselves created a moving kaleidoscope of black and white as he walked. So densely populated were the trees that their white trunks created an ever-shifting pattern of parallel vertical stripes, broken only by the hundreds of circular black pock-marks that scarred their spans. As he moved among them, the pocks would disappear behind a closer trunk, and then reappear in succession, giving them the appearance of great, winking eyes and adding further motion to the scenery. It was almost enough to give the impression that the forest itself was conscious, watching warily the steps of a trespasser.

Of course, the trees are very much alive--there is no spectacle on earth I've ever seen as impressive as a grove of aspens. I learned from the conversation of two botanists that passed through here years ago, that these high mountain groves, which sometimes stretch for unbroken miles, are not individual trees, but instead are a vast network of clones, connected at the roots. Genetic testing has proved this out; a single genetic pattern will be repeated tens of thousands of times in different trunks, found miles apart. What appear to us above the ground to be distinct organisms are in fact, more than just relatives--they are the many fingers of a vast, single creature, which have aggressively clawed their way up out of the ground, moving earth and stone and stretching around any barrier in their way. The aspen forest truly possesses a formidable will, made all the more potent by its ability to sacrifice individuals for the strength of the whole organism.

And like any other strong-willed creature, there is fire in their eyes. Even in the sultry summer sun, the traveler will note the distinct look of those great, black pocks on their bleached trunks, though wrapped in a sleepy haze they may be, lying dormant in the heat. But there are other seasons when the heaviness in the air dissipates and they awake fully to a keen consciousness of their surroundings. It is then that their true temperament is exposed, as they seem to almost burn with malevolence toward any living thing bold enough to intrude.  I have spent years among them and know their seasons and moods. Today, those thousands of dark, unblinking eyes were full of hunger; and like mine, they were fixed solely upon the lone hiker.

* * *

The storm arrived suddenly, with a furious blast of wind that penetrated to the lower levels of the forest, swirling the fallen leaves and entirely erasing any trace the hiker had left behind on his journey into the depths of the aspens. The blinding snow followed close behind.

Such a display it was! The man clutched at his inadequate jacket in vain, pulling the hood tightly over his head, as the frozen flakes churned about him. He was woefully unprepared for a storm of this severity, having dressed optimistically for a late autumn stroll. Gusting wind blew against his meager defenses, his wet clothes serving as a sticky surface for accumulation of the horizontally-blowing ice.  His core temperature was dropping fast, and his walking slowed to a clumsy stagger as his energy was swept away into the aspens by the storm. All they while they looked on him, unblinking in the furious storm.

He began his retreat in generally the right direction. But with the rapid accumulation of drifting snow atop the leaf cover, the trail was quickly lost and he wandered deeper and deeper away from safety, into the depths of the greedy aspens. Their trunks, now half covered in snow themselves, became an almost uniform sheet of white on white. The sun was completely obscured in the heavy, gray atmosphere, and the growing shadow served to further reduce the contrast between ground and sky and bleached trunk. Only the sting of his frozen feet could help him discern which way was down.

He had reached a state of full despair, drawing breath in great, irregular gulps of panic, when he finally saw my form, a dark shadow among the dizzying white.

"H-h-h-help!" he gasped in a shivering, stuttering cry. "H-h-help me!"  He waved his arms frantically.

I watched him silently as he staggered nearer, struggling with each step to put one foot in front of the other.

"H-h-help me! I'm s-s-s-oo c-c-cold!"

"Who are you, friend?" I queried as he approached me, arms-length away.

"W-w-w-what?  M-m-my n-n-n-name?"

"Yes, man, what is your name?" I repeated, a tone of light amusement coloring my voice.

"J-Jacob S-S-Sorensen." He managed to get it out with some effort.

"And what in the world are you doing in these woods on a day like today, Jacob Sorensen?" I pressed him.

He stopped and blinked at me stupidly, and rubbed the snow out of his eyes.  I took a few steps back, prompting him to keep moving forward.

"I c-came up-p-p-here for a walk," he stammered. "I d-d-d-didn't know it w-w-would snow. B-but why d-do y-y-you c-care w-why I'm here? I need your help! H-h-help me g-g-get out!"

Ah, good, we're sharpening our focus. I continued slowly walking backwards. "I've spent a lot of years in these mountains, in these woods," I replied.

"C-c-can you help m-me?"

"Yes, Jacob Sorensen, I can help." I turned and quickened my pace. I knew he would struggle to keep up. "Hurry!" I called back to him. "You've got to move quickly!"

Ten more yards. Twenty, thirty. He was making progress, but was slowing again.

"Have you noticed the aspens, how they're watching you?"


"The aspens. Their eyes are following your every move. You came here willingly, remember? They called to you, and you came."

"I d-d-d-don't underst-t-tand." He clutched his sides and shivered violently. We needed to keep moving.

"They want you, Jacob. They want to claim you. You're a stranger, an alien here. But you mustn't let them get you. You've got to fight, Jacob Sorensen."

He didn't understand. But he quickened his pace, though he stumbled over the tangled twigs and logs that lay beneath the several inches of accumulation. Good, I thought, the more resistance, the more he'll have to work. And that's exactly what I needed him to do.

"Who are you?" he suddenly blurted out. Good. This would normally have been a natural first thought upon meeting me, but when survival becomes paramount, curiosity takes a back seat. But this meant I had his mind working. Gotta keep the horses harnessed or the carriage won't move.

"Someone who can help," I replied, hastening my steps. I easily outdistanced him as we delved further into the forest, though his stride seemed to be growing stronger by the minute as his body warmed through the exertion. "I was once called Wounded Wolf, by some," I continued.

"W-wounded Wolf?" he repeated.

"Yes, that was my mountain-man name, a long time ago. It was actually an honor given to me by one of the local chiefs. He gave me that name, and gave me this talisman." I stopped and held out an amulet I wore on an old chain around my neck.  With interest, he approached and held out his shivering hand, but I snatched the jewel away before he could reach me, turned back again, and led him further into the woods.

"W-where are you taking me? This isn't the trail," he queried. Ah, a good question. A question that a thinking man would wonder about. Indeed, this was nowhere near the trail. I had led him into a denser section of the woods, where the trees clustered more closely and shielded us a little from the howling wind and flying ice.

"No, we're not following the trail. I'm taking you the quicker way around. We can save over a mile by taking this route, though the walking is a little harder."

He seemed satisfied by that answer, and was silent for quite some time. The storm did not let up, but did not intensify further. Snow piled into deep drifts wherever an obstacle dared block the path of the furious wind. After a while I noticed him starting to lag behind. Eventually our progress slowed to nearly a halt, though I tried to keep pushing the pace.

"Jacob!" I called out to his form, just a gray silhouette in the gathering darkness. "Jacob!"

He did not respond. He was staggering again. The aspens looked on with malevolent interest as we slowly passed through their hundreds upon hundreds of hungry eyes. It would soon be dusk and he would be ripe for the taking.

The late afternoon waned as he made his stumbling progress through knee-deep snow. It was painfully slow work, but we eventually reached it: the ravine. I stopped for a moment as I arrived, and when he caught up I took a sharp turn to the right. I led him for a slow quarter mile, nearly running perpendicular to our previous direction. Though we were now travelling uphill, the walking was easier in the ditch, where water had cleared some of the undergrowth away, leaving only ever-deepening snow to contend with.

"Come, this way!" I called out to him as he slowed further. He was stumbling along as if in a daze. His time was growing very near now. "There is a place up here where you can find shelter!"

At last we reached a large boulder at the end of the ravine, protruding perhaps thirty feet from the ground. Aspens crowded heavily around the face, clawing their way towards it from both sides, as if attempting to close off the gash this ravine had cut through their domain. The snow had drifted into a mighty pile at its base as the wind blasted it severely.

"Here, you dig!" I decreed. He blinked at me stupidly. "Dig here, Jacob Sorensen, or you won't live out the night!"

"D-d-d-dig?" he repeated.

"Yes, dig. In there." I pointed into the grasping branches of the trees, right to where they touched the boulder. "Dig NOW!"

Slowly he fought his way into the tangle of branches and began scooping snow. He looked at me reproachfully, though he obeyed my command. For a long while, he seemed to only be uncovering more of the white aspen branches.

"You never asked me where I am from, Jacob Sorensen," I chided him. He was huffing now. "I came from back east, from the woods of Kentucky. So I am very familiar with woods. But there are none to match these infernal aspens!" He dug deeper and deeper, all the while getting more and more tangled in the white array of aspen branches.

"Where am I digging to? These branches never end!" he complained to me.

"Deeper!" I commanded, a fiery light in my eyes. He looked up at my face, gazing at me intently, and for a second I thought I saw understanding dawn in his mind. He gave a mighty shudder and resumed his work.

The branches of mature trees and saplings became entwined with the twigs of bushy undergrowth. Still deeper he delved. He began adding great clumps of moldy leaves to the pile of snow and broken twigs behind him. Then at last he reached earth.

"There's no space for a shelter here! There's nothing there! What have you had me doing, you old fool!" He rounded on me, but the look on my face stopped him short.

"Keep digging, and you will see, Jacob Sorensen," I answered in a quiet, firm voice. Something about my demeanor made him turn back and resume. First one handful of dirt, then another. Then he found something. He pulled it out, long and white and slender.

"It's a twig!" he shouted! These cursed trees never stop! There's no end to their branches, their wretched branches!

"Keep going!" I shouted, my face just inches behind him, my eyes ablaze in a half-crazed stare as he progressed in his work. He pulled out another long, white, curved object, then another and another.

"Are they twigs, Jacob?" I pressed him. "Are they?" He delved deeper and began pulling out several small, stone-shaped white objects. Then a larger, straight one with knobby ends.

"These--" he stammered, "These are BONES!"

I threw my head back in uproarious laughter. "Yes, Jacob Sorensen, they're bones! They're YOU, Jacob Sorensen! They're what will become of you if you stay here this night! They are all that's left of poor old, stupid Wounded Wolf, who, like yourself, let himself get caught in the aspens! They took hold of him and never let him go!

"You never asked me when I came here!" I continued, my voice elevated to a feverish pitch. "It was 1883. I've been wandering these mountains for over one hundred and thirty years, Jacob Sorensen! I've seen thousands of hikers. I've heard them speak, learned from them--learned about the goings on of the world outside this black and white prison. Careless and carefree they were; most of them never knew I was here. But the aspens--they've watched them all. They're hungry, Jacob. Hungry for flesh. The world has changed, powers have risen and fallen, but here, in this place, in this domain, the aspens remain the same. They're full of hate, full of fire. It's as the old chief warned me, from a tale spoken by the Elders centuries before, passed down faithfully by mouth to each generation, but too little heeded:

"And the day that comes shall burn like an oven, consuming both root and branch; for they that come shall burn them...

"The prophecy was spoken long, long ago--but it came true! They came, and they've been burning, burning the flesh off my bones. Claiming a life each time they could. Their eyes--those haunted, burning eyes--they watch, and when the conditions are right, they take! And you'd better believe they'll take you before this night is through!"

Jacob Sorensen gaped at me in horror, his eyes wide in the dwindling twilight. He did not utter any more, but turned from his pointless chore and ran headlong into the blasting snow--yes, he ran!

"Follow the ravine, Jacob! Follow it down the mountain and it will lead you to the road! Turn left and within a half mile you will reach the trailhead! Do not slow! Do not stop! They're watching you! They covet you with a burning hate you do not understand! Go, you fool! Go!"  His loping figure disappeared into the swirling storm. Live or die, I hoped that he would escape my fate--that he might be delivered from this terrible place, from the grasping clutch of the aspens.

* * *

It was during the height of the spring runoff when they found him, washed down to the bottom of the ravine. Whether some accident had befallen him or the aspens finally took him in the cold, I knew not until that day.

A pair of early-season bikers saw him, face down, not far from the road. Not sure of what they had found, they approached him slowly. The woman screamed when she realized that it was a body. The hands were curled and black, the jacket torn across the back. And when the man turned the corpse over, he let it drop with a cry of horror.

Jacob Sorensen's body was bleached white, as white as the bark of an aspen. And where his face should have been, there was only a charred, circular black mark--a mark that bore an uncanny resemblance to the fiery, unblinking eyes of the aspens.