Like all things, it began as something else entirely.
In the beginning – perhaps even before it knew what it was for itself – it was only a forest. Heavy with low-hanging fog, and thick with the animal memories of those things that escape the tight grip of words. Unknowable, and ancient before anything in the world knew what ancient meant. It had lived, undisturbed, for so many years that even the steady river-flow of time had begun to seem like nothing more than the slight pull of a vaguely-remembered dream.
Yet the thought of it – the very memory of it – had sunk into the dirt like spilled blood, staining it until they pulled it up thirstily through the hard roots of the trees that rose like nightmares. It was certain of its own identity without the need for a mirror; self-assured in the writhing bodies that were born and lived and died and then faded into the bones that turned to dust beneath the dirt. The hard, definite meanings of human words had no place under the rippling green shadows that cast Bacchic figures against the light. The only words that mattered were the springtime birdsong and the cries of deer and the slow groan of trees in the wind.
It was only when the jagged teeth of saws and the hungry bite of axes came and tore that the forest shook itself awake. It did not know, at first, what had happened, still drowsy with the heavy dreams of a hundred thousand lifetimes over a hundred thousand years. It fought like a beast roused, throwing itself blindly against the invaders with teeth and bodies and claws of its own. But its teeth broke against the things that swarmed like beetles, and they dug deep scars into the earth that scabbed over and turned hard. And so, it twisted and turned back into itself – hiding as it died, dying as it hid – and longing to return to the thing it had been. Instead, deep in its own ruined roots, it found itself anew. Yet it mourned the truth of it, because it knew that whatever peace it had lived before would not return.
The relentless bull-charge of modernity had turned it hollow. Had dug into it with greedy fingers and tore up the roots, until all that remained was an empty graveyard. Progress paved its crypt with the dead, blackened tongue of burnt asphalt, and raised mile markers from the dirt like headstones. The only prayers it knew anymore were the hot screams of shrill horns already fading into nothing. No more solemn midnight eulogies from pallbearers that had once lingered at the edges of the forest, crying when the moon was white and full. The only mourners were the bodiless eyes that watched warily from between the shadows of the thinning trees. Death was sudden now, and violent, borne down on the backs of blurs of steel that rushed like bright-eyed nightmares through the darkness. Memories were all that remained now, held tenuously in the rent and torn bodies of the forest that lined the road.
But even memories can be hard to kill.
And they so rarely remain in the places in which they are born. Soon, it followed the black, winding ribbons home like a blind man led to water – like wolves led to blood.
Sometime in the spring, with the heady green smell of the forest sparkling like gold dust in the sunlight, a man spent an afternoon cleaning what remained of the deer-shaped thing he had struck off his truck. That evening, when the sun hung low and insidious through the trees, his wife found him. She could not explain what had gored him in their own home – gored him and thrust him so hard against the wall that it took two men to tear him down. Could not explain how it possibly could have fit in the narrow hallway lined with stuffed heads. Though she recognized the holes it had left in his shattered chest; recognized the pattern and knew that they belonged to the twisted horns that crowned the solemn head that hung above the fireplace. But she did not say a word. Not when the head’s unblinking eyes gazed down at her like the eyes of the forest itself.
Two nights later, a man – still drunk and only vaguely remembering the hard thud of the mountain lion-shaped shadow he had struck that evening – awoke just before dawn to the hot breath of something vengeful over him. The next morning, when the night’s screaming and the smell of blood had brought the police, they could not explain how it had gotten inside without leaving a trace. All the doors and windows had been locked, after all, and there were no tracks. No sign that anything else had been inside except the torn, rent body of the man on the bed.
Later, in the fall, when the withered bodies of leaves lined the roads and choked the gutters, the memory stirred again. This time, it was with the hell-beat of dark wings, and the angry scream of something that struck the window with a sound like cracking ice. The sun had risen low that morning, and through the fog of the cold night before, it was just possible to make out the figure of the man stumbling madly through the streets. Possible to make out the hot red rush of the blood that poured through clawing fingers from a ruined face that had not seen – that would never see again – the suggestion of the winged thing that had ripped through the house like fury itself.
It took many years – drops in the tugging river of time – but slowly, a part of the peace that the forest had known returned. Clawed back with nails that were red and broken at the ends. It was slow at first, and the occasional nightmare would still tear through the quiet, careful now not to strike anything. But gradually, even those stopped, and the forest ran green fingers cautiously over the dead black tongue that lolled lazily in the mouth with broken trees for teeth. It was only when the first ambitious spring flowers cracked the asphalt and poked their colorful heads through in search of the sun that the memory of the forest returned, shaken loose from the dirt of uncounted years that had buried it. But when it did, it did so twisted; the light that shone through the boughs was unchanged, but the shadows that played along the ground were longer now, and crueler.
Itself, but not itself – nor ever again.