This month’s story is one of the originals in Caroline M. Yoachim’s first short story collection. It takes ecological concepts in a far future context to examine not only the damage of colonialism, but also possible reparations. It looks at the entire lifecycle, including death, and life passing from generation to generation; and it made me cry in public. (The dangers of reading on the bus!) I hope this story will move you as much as it moved me. — Bogi.
Originally published in Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World and Other Stories by Caroline M. Yoachim, Fairwood Press, 2016.
Freet peered out from her den. It was dawn, and the ground was striped with the long shadows of the pillars—enormous sun-bleached trunks that spread their roots into the earth and stretched to the sky. What once had been a forest was now a graveyard of dead trees, but it was still the best place for the ratlings to make their dens.
All around her, ratlings emerged from between the roots of the dead-tree pillars. They whistled and chattered as they crawled to the human city for school. Pups and maters and oldlings, all traveling together. Freet was so old that there wasn’t even a word for her generation. This was her fourth autumn, so she was older than the oldlings. Her hindlegs ached when she crawled, and there was no trace of orange left in her silver-white fur.
Soon she would lie down for the long winter sleep, and this time she would not wake.
The sun was high above the tops of the pillars by the time Freet reached the city. She was the last of the ratlings to arrive, save for a few pups who had overslept. The youngsters darted past her, running with a speed that age had long since stolen from Freet.
Zara waited at the door to the school. “I’m glad to see you’ve decided to show up today.”
Freet knew that her teacher was only teasing her, but the words still stung.
“If you would let me sleep in the city, with you, I could get to school on time.” Freet couldn’t make all the sounds of the human language, so she typed the words with her tongues, and her collar spoke for her.
“I asked permission for you to stay, but the council advised against it,” Zara said.
Freet crawled down the long hallway to her classroom. It was a small room. The classes were arranged by generations, and none but Freet had survived to see a fourth autumn, even with all the food and protection the humans provided. Ratlings simply weren’t meant to live for very long.
“I have something different for you today,” Zara said. “Something important.”
Freet flicked her tongues out in anticipation. Most of Zara’s lessons lately had been survival skills and self-defense, interesting for younger ratlings, perhaps, but of little use to one as old as Freet.
Zara got out the vid-player they sometimes used for lessons. Among other things, it held pictures and vids of Zara’s homeworld. Freet had enjoyed those lessons, especially the ones about an Earth plant called trees. Something about the trees appealed to Freet, alien though they were.
“I have other business to attend to,” Zara said. “I will return when you have watched the first section of the vid.”
These days Zara was always rushing off, any time there was a free moment. Freet hated spending so much time alone, away from the comfort of her teacher. She did not know the workings of the human city, but she sensed that something was happening. All the humans had an energy and a purpose that was new, even compared to her mating year. She wondered, watching her teacher rush out, what the humans were doing.
There were words on the screen of the vid-player.
— Press Play To Watch It Born —
Freet flicked the play button with her longest tongue, and a silver-furred ratling appeared on the screen. The ratling emerged from the base of something that looked a bit like Freet’s own pillar, but instead of being smooth and white, this pillar was covered in rough-textured red bark, and high above the ground there were branches. It did not look quite like the trees Freet had seen in the vids of Earth, and yet somehow it was the most perfect of all possible trees.
The ratling in the vid scurried fearlessly up the trunk and into the high canopy. Here, the branches were covered in broad green leaves and dotted with small purple fruits. There were also a few large black fruits. Freet had never seen fruit like that before, but she found herself drooling at the mere sight of them. The ratling in the vid gorged on purple fruits, eating them whole. When it had consumed its fill, it scurried back down the tree and into its den.
The video skipped forward in time to the next morning.
The ratling climbed the tree again, but this time instead of the purple fruits, it ate one of the black fruits. Only one. Then it climbed down the tree.
It didn’t return to its den. Instead, the ratling ran frantically in widening circles around the base of the tree, until finally it stopped in a patch of bright sunlight.
It used its foreclaws to dig down into the dirt. It dug until it was entirely underground, and then kept digging, not bothering to clear the dirt from the tunnel behind it. Freet waited for the ratling to emerge, but it remained beneath the surface.
— Press Pause —
Zara had returned from whatever business she had. “Tell me what you’ve learned.”
“I am confused,” Freet answered. “The title of the vid suggested that I would see a birth, but the ratling did not produce pups.”
“You weren’t watching a ratling birth, you were watching the birth of a Redbark.”
“A Redbark?” Freet pondered this information. “The vid was about the tree? You could have told me beforehand.”
“But then you wouldn’t have realized how biased you are, as a ratling, to the perspective of your own kind. When you watch the next section, try harder to focus on the Redbarks. I have more work to do while you watch the vid.”
“Why are the humans so busy all of a sudden?” Freet asked.
Zara barred her teeth in the expression that humans usually used for happiness, but her eyes did not match her smile. “I will tell you soon, my Freetling.”
This was troubling. Zara had called her Freetling only once before, and it was when her teacher had been mourning the death of her pup. Freet remembered it clearly, the day not long ago when her usually stoic teacher had cradled Freet and stroked her fur, sobbing and repeating over and over, “My Freetling, my little Freetling, soon I will lose you, too.”
— Press Play To Watch It Sprout —
Freet knew she should pay more attention to the Redbark, but the vid continued to focus on ratlings. She watched a small hoard of pups scurrying about, probably fresh from the nest, eating overripe purple fruits that had fallen to the ground. Unlike the Earth fruits humans sometimes fed Freet, the Redbark fruits had no pits, or if they did, the pups ate them. Was she supposed to be watching the fruits? The pups? What lesson was this section of the vid meant to teach her?
A longbeak fluttered over and landed near the pups. The bird made no move to eat the purple fruits. Instead it nudged aside leaves with its beak and ate the insects and worms underneath. A large predator appeared, one that the humans had named a jagthar because of some vague resemblance to a large earth cat. The pups froze. They were an easy target, there on the ground. Freet could barely force herself to watch, and she, like the pups, held perfectly still, as though the jagthar might leap off the screen and attack her if she moved.
The longbeak took off, and the jagthar shot off after it, running right past the pups. For a long time, the pups remained frozen in place, then they went back to foraging for purple fruit. A tiny two-leafed sapling burst up through the dirt. A Redbark sprout.
— Press Pause —
This time Freet had to wait for her teacher to return. She was tempted to watch the next section of the vid, but she had questions. When Zara finally arrived, Freet nearly forgot about the vid entirely. Her teacher was covered in dirt and bits of scorched plants. Before Freet could ask about it, Zara nodded to the vid-player. “What did you learn?”
“Why didn’t the jagthar eat the pups?” Freet asked.
Zara nodded, and Freet was relieved that she had asked a good question. “There’s a toxin in the purple fruit. Ratlings are immune but the poison builds up in the pups’ system to the point where eating them would be fatal to most predators. Over time, jagthars have learned to avoid anything that smells of purple fruit.”
“I still don’t understand what I’m supposed to be learning. Where were these vids taken?”
“Not where. When. These vids are old, from not long after we humans first arrived.” Zara looked at the clock. “It’s late, and it will take you quite some time to return to your den.”
“You could let me stay with you,” Freet said. She knew better than to argue, but she missed the feeling of being cared for, missed the way her parents had tended her when she was a pup. The humans provided for the ratlings, but they were distant. Something was missing from the relationship, though Freet was not sure quite what.
Zara shook her head and held the classroom door open for Freet. Usually Zara accompanied her to the edge of the city, but today her teacher remained at the classroom door while Freet crawled down the school hallway. Many things about today had been troubling. Tomorrow, perhaps, would be better.
Freet woke and crawled into the city. Zara was not there to greet her. Instead, another teacher, one who usually taught the oldlings, met her at the entrance to the school and walked her to her classroom.
“Zara will be here soon,” he assured Freet. “Go ahead and start watching the vid.”
— Press Play To Watch It Mate —
The beginning of the vid was boring. The Redbark sapling had grown into a tree. It was a distinctive tree, with one stray branch that grew low, well below the canopy. Its other branches blew in the gentle winter breeze. The low branch remained still. This lasted for a long time on the vid. Branches in the wind, nothing else. The ratlings, Freet assumed, were hibernating.
Spring came, the windy season, and finally the ratlings emerged from their dens. The Redbark branches whipped wildly, releasing clouds of orange pollen that blew across the forest and swirled up into the clouds before drifting back down to the ground. Everything, everywhere, was dusted in a fine orange powder, including the ratlings. Orange was the color of mating. Even at her advanced age, the orange powder-coated males in the vid piqued her interest.
— Press Pause —
Zara rushed into the room, slightly out of breath. “I’m sorry I did not come to the door to greet you. I had to be in another part of the city for a meeting.”
“What kind of meeting?” Freet asked. “Where in the city?”
“We must finish your lessons first,” Zara insisted. “These are important lessons. What did you learn this time?”
“The Redbark life cycle is interesting. The pollen is orange, like the color of ratling fur in the mating season.”
“You’re still focusing too much on the ratlings, and not enough on the Redbarks. Did you not hear the mating songs of their branches? Can you not see the conversations they have in the rustling of their leaves?”
“They are trees,” Freet said. “Beautiful trees, but they aren’t even animals.”
“They are the ones who will save you.”
“From what?” Freet asked.
“From all the mistakes we humans made.” Zara pointed to the vid-player. “Keep watching. Soon it will start to make sense.”
— Press Play to Watch It Love —
Freet flicked play with her longest tongue, but before the vid began she flicked her tongue out a second time.
— pause —
She had a question, and Zara hadn’t left yet. “They love after they mate?”
“The winds are in the spring,” Zara said, “and the ratlings nest in the summer.”
“They love the ratlings?”
“Watch the vid.”
— play —
Two ratlings cuddled in a den at the base of a Redbark. Clearly these were mates, and soon the female would bear her pups. In a pinch, a den would do for pups, but nests were better. Safer. A pup couldn’t crawl out as easily from a nest and wander off.
The female ratling climbed the Redbark, and the male ran in widening circles until he came to the next tree, the nearest tree. Carefully, both ratlings climbed high into the trees, letting their weight bend the branches downwards from the sky, sideways, until the tips of the branches were almost touching. Reaching out with their long tongues, they each grasped the tip of their partner’s branch, and pulled the branches together.
The ends of the branches grew delicate tendrils and the branches wound around each other. When the bond was secure, the ratlings scurried back to the trunk and repeated the process with a new set of branches, each of them bringing several branches to the nest. The juncture where the branches came together grew into the shape a deep bowl, almost a complete sphere, exactly the right size for the ratling parents to raise their pups.
The female climbed into the nest and soon after gave birth to a healthy litter of six. She stayed in the nest and nursed them, and her partner brought immature green Redbark fruit for her to eat. In even the lightest breeze, the nest of Redbark branches rocked, lulling the pups to sleep.
— Press Pause —
Freet was starting to understand the lesson, perhaps. “The Redbarks provide for the ratlings.”
“Yes.” Zara said.
“What happens when the nesting is done?”
“The branches grow together, solidifying the bond. The Redbarks begin to pass chemical signals through the branches almost immediately, but as the branches get bigger, the communication is greater, almost as though the pair becomes a single Redbark. It is a more efficient form of communication than the sounds they make on their branches.”
Zara looked at the clock. “It is time for you to go, if you want to return to your den. But there is only one vid left, and time is growing short. Just this once, you may stay in the city.”
“With you?” Freet asked.
Zara nodded. “Yes. Just this once.”
To Freet’s surprise, Zara lifted Freet onto her lap and stroked her fur.
— Press Play To Watch It Die —
The last vid moved at a different speed than all the others. It was a series of still photographs. At first there was a photo for every few minutes, then the pace gradually accelerated to a photograph for day followed by one for night. Seasons passed, and the Redbark forest grew ever more tangled together.
Seedlings sprouted and grew, mated and loved.
In the center of it all was the Redbark that had been the focus of the previous vids, the one with a stray branch that hung lower than the canopy. Far in the distance, the tops of cities became visible above the treeline. Green patches started appearing on the trunks of the Redbarks. Freet recognized it as a foodplant the humans sometimes gave her. Nutritious, but with a stringy texture, and not as tasty as fruit.
The green patches spread over the trees. Humans came and stripped it away, but it grew back. Branches began to rot and fall off the trees. There was less purple fruit, but the ratlings ate the green foodplants instead, and for a time they thrived. Even so, as the seasons turned, there were fewer ratlings. Humans came again, and this time they collected not the green foodplants, but the black fruits of the trees and any ratlings they could find.
Branches fell away from the Redbarks. In the wind, their now brittle branches cracked and the only song they sung was one of pain. Bark peeled away, revealing the wood beneath. The trees became the pillars, and the landscape in the vid matched the world that Freet knew.
— Press Pause —
“It was our plants that destroyed your trees,” Zara said sadly. “We didn’t mean for it to happen.”
“But we don’t need the trees, now that we have you to care for us,” Freet said.
“We cannot stay. Our foodplants would kill the Redbarks again.”
“There aren’t any Redbarks.” Freet wiggled free from Zara’s arms and ran around the room in tight circles of distress. “We will all die. Your survival classes and self defense, they will not be enough. If you go, we will all die.”
“You don’t have to die,” Zara said. “We saved seeds from the Redbarks. We’ve stopped planting our food crops, and yesterday I burned the fields that have already been harvested. We have enough food stored to stay until the Redbark seeds grow and start producing fruit, and to feed ourselves on the journey home. We can’t live here anymore, but you can.”
“You picked Redbarks over ratlings,” Freet said. She bared her teeth and growled softly.
“My father translated the songs the Redbarks sang with their branches, and recorded the chemical messages they sent down their trunks. We didn’t know it at first, but the Redbarks were the most intelligent species on the planet—even after we humans arrived.”
Freet bristled at the insult. “If the Redbarks were so smart, why didn’t they save themselves from your plants?”
“They kept the ecosystem of their forest in balance for tens of thousands of years, but they are slow thinkers, slow speakers, slow as sap in everything they do. Humans are not as smart as Redbarks, but we are far quicker. Besides, they did save themselves, after a fashion. They asked us to make the vids and taught us how to care for you. When they started to die, we collected as many seeds we could.”
Zara opened a small box and held out one of the black fruits, harvested from a Redbark tree. Not a fruit, Freet realized, but a seed pod.
The smell, oh the smell. Freet wanted nothing more than to swallow it. She even reached for it with her tongues.
“Not here, my little Freetling,” Zara said. Her eyes glistened with tears as she put the seed pod back into its box. “And not quite yet. It must be soon, for autumn is almost over, but not today. First you must decide, you and the other oldlings, if this is what you want. They’ve been watching the vids too, but I think they will do whatever you decide.”
Freet flicked out her tongues at the lingering smell of the seed pod.
“If we refuse, will you re-plant your food crops and stay to care for us?”
“Yes. That was the meeting we had. If you refuse to eat the seeds, at least some of us will stay behind when the ship returns to Earth. It will wreak havoc on the ecosystem, but it is your planet and your ecosystem. We will stand by what you choose.”
Freet slept at the foot of Zara’s bed. It was warmer than her den, with soft blankets, like cuddling beside a mate. The first light of dawn angled in through the window.
Images from the vids crowded into Freet’s mind. What was the proper choice? The ratlings in the vid had been dependent on the trees. They did not have lessons and cities. All they had were the Redbarks. But the trees had tended them as carefully as humans ever had, perhaps even more so. Was returning to the old ways a step backward, or sideways, or forward into a better future? Freet didn’t know. She was old. It was almost time for her to sleep the longest sleep.
Zara stirred. “Good morning, little Freetling.”
Freet nestled up to Zara and smelled her human smell. It was neither pleasant nor unpleasant, and while she liked the familiarity of her teacher’s scent, it did not pull at her the way the seed pod had. The Redbarks had tended to ratlings for a long time. They fit together in ways that humans and ratlings did not.
“If we choose the Redbarks, and you leave, what will become of the cities?” Freet asked. “What will become of the school?”
“The cities will be yours, and the school as well,” Zara answered, “The Redbarks believed that after a period of adjustment, the ratlings would regain all the advances you have made. They have promised to do the best they can for you.”
“My pups are oldlings now, but what of their pups? What will happen to them?”
Zara shook her head. “The first few generations will probably run wild. It will take the Redbarks time to grow back into what they once were. But they store knowledge in their seeds. They will remember their promise, even if the ratlings don’t.”
Humans had made no promises, and they did not need the ratlings as the Redbarks did.
“I will swallow the seed,” Freet said. “Take off my collar and walk with me to the proper place.”
— rewind —
— Press Play To Watch It Born —
Freet swallowed the black seedpod. She ran frantically in widening circles around the base of a pillar, the sun-bleached core of a long-dead Redbark, until finally she stopped in a patch of bright sunlight.
She used her foreclaws to dig down into the dirt. She dug until she was entirely underground, and then kept digging, not bothering to clear the dirt from the tunnel behind her.
— pause —
Zara watched the vids in her quarters, over and over again on the long ride home to Earth. The new generation of Redbarks was bearing fruit, and the ratlings had gone wild. She hoped that the forest would recover, that the ratlings would thrive and the Redbarks would sing in the wind. She hoped that the Redbarks would keep their promise, and help the ratlings make use of the cities. Perhaps someday they would send messages to Earth, vids of a healed forest and an even stronger symbiosis.
Caroline M. Yoachim is the author of dozens of short stories, appearing in Lightspeed, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Asimov’s among other places. Her stories have been finalists for the Nebula Award, included in year’s best anthologies, and translated into several languages. Her debut short story collection, Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories, came out with Fairwood Press in 2016. For more about Caroline, check out her website at http://carolineyoachim.com