Chuck Wendig: The Wind That Wasn’t

The Chuck Wendig Flash Fiction Challenge for this week is Behold The Magic Realism Bot.  The instructions are simple: go to Twitter and check out @MagicRealismBot.  Pick a tweet from their feed, and have it.  1,500 words.  I used this tweet:

tweet

and I used 1,496 words.  Please to enjoy “The Wind That Wasn’t” and feel free to comment or otherwise feed me back.

THE WIND THAT WASN’T

 

“Why?”

The voice was deep, breathy, sounding almost like a gentle breeze blowing through a forest.  Abel sat up and looked around.  There wasn’t anyone there.  He lay back down, the cold, rough-hewn wood of the bench giving no support to his pounding head.

“Why?”

The voice came again, harsher, more insistent.  Abel screwed his eyes shut and tried to block it out.  Please, just let me sleep, he thought.

“Why?”

It was almost a shout.  Abel groaned, and sat up again, looking around.  There still wasn’t anyone there.  “All right,” he muttered.  “What the hell.  Is that you, Butters?”  A thought occurred to him and he leaned forward, trying to look underneath the bench for the speaker.  His center of balance shifted and he fell forward, planting face-first on the grassy sward of the pathway.

Major Abel Sinclair was drunk.  He and his squad had been working for three days straight, clearing land as an encampment for the army that would arrive sometime tomorrow.  They had finally reached the end of their labors and Abel had decided to celebrate by emptying the bottles he had brought with him in his pack.

The others had gone back to town, but Abel hadn’t wanted to go.  He wanted to be alone.  To commune with the trees, he had said, gesturing broadly at the newly bare hills around them, and the triangular stacks of hewn trunks alongside the path.  “What trees?” Private Wrangle had asked.  His blade didn’t have the keenest edge.  The corporal had clouted him a good one, and they had all straggled off for the hour walk back down the road to the small town that sat on the western bank of the Ertnes River.

“Be back by midnight, and be sober by morning!” Abel had called after them.  “The army is arriving tomorrow, and I’ll be damned if I’ll present a squad of hung-over slackers to His Lordship!”  They waved as they tramped away, showing they had heard him.

Of course, Abel didn’t heed his own order, and less than an hour after he had been left alone, both bottles of whiskey were empty.  He had taken a seat on one of the benches that they had made, and sat for a while, forlornly sucking on the end of one of the bottles, occasionally tipping it up, trying to draw out every drop of liquid.  This had been a hard job in more ways than one, and he wanted to forget it for a while.

 

He came to, crumpled on the ground in front of the bench.  His head still hurt, and now his back did as well, as he had been laying on his face for an indeterminate amount of time.  He rolled over onto his back and looked up at the sky.  It was still night.  Fairly early, as far as he could tell by the positions of the stars.  He didn’t know all the constellations when sober, and as drunk as he was, very few of them were coming back to him.  He could hear the sound of the wind rustling the grass around him.

“Why?”

The voice came again.  Quieter than he remembered from before, but full now of pain and hurt and regret.

He sucked on the empty bottle one more time then sighed and tossed it away from him.  “Why what?”

“Why did you cut down all these trees?”

Abel looked around.  He still didn’t see anybody and had no idea who was talking to him.  He was having some sort of dream, then or perhaps a hallucination.  He decided to go with it.  “We had to,” he said, and he leaned back, resting his head against the seat of the bench.  “More soldiers are coming and they needed a place to set up camp.”

“Why not stay amongst the trees?  Men do so all the time.”

“There are going to be too many here to do that.  It is an army on the march, not a group of friends on a weekend camping trip.”

“Still,” the voice was sad, thick with emotion, “to think of all those lives lost.”

Abel snorted, trying to sound unconcerned.  “They were just trees,” he said.

The voice was suddenly furious.  “Just trees?  Trees are alive just as you are!  You are not the only living things in these woods!”

“We’ll use the wood,” Abel heard the whining, defensive tone in his voice, and he hated it.  “We’ll use it for arrows, we’ll make boats, and carts, and barrels.  It won’t be wasted, I promise.”

“’It won’t be wasted.’”  Abel could hear the mockery in the voice, could almost see the sneer on the speaker’s face.  “And what of the animals that lived in the trees—the squirrels, the birds, the larger animals that lived on the forest floor and sheltered beneath their branches.  Where will they go?”

“This forest goes on for hundreds of miles,” said Abel.  “They’ll find other places to live.”

“Where?” asked the voice.  “They go west, into those woods, and you will come behind them and clear it away too.  Where do they go then?  When does it stop?  Your people lay waste to the land to find more places to live.  As you need more room, what does it mean for the forests, and for those who live in them?”  As the voice went silent, Abel thought he could hear other voices in the background, angry mutters that were audible but just beyond the range of his comprehension.

“We’re just passing through here,” he said, knowing it was a lame excuse, “We’ll camp here a while, then be gone.”

“So you destroy the forest here and you aren’t even going to stay?”  Incredulous, with dark undertones in the background.  “How far will you go then, until your next stop?  Where will your next clearing be?  Which forest will you kill next?”

Abel stood up.  This was getting out of hand.  He was either drunker than he thought, or he was having regrets about this job that he hadn’t even known of.  He called out to the night.  “I love the forest!  My own house sits among beautiful pine trees that my children climb in and that give us branches that we burn for warmth, and boughs that decorate our home during the winter.  They remind me of home and of my family.  I don’t want to see the forests destroyed.”

“Yet here you are, destroying them.”

He held out his hands pleadingly.  “I am a soldier.  I do what I am told.”

“Even if it is wrong?”

The background noise swelled, then it all faded away.  Abel stood a moment, but the voices were gone.  He had no answer.  Shaken, he went to his blankets and laid down.  His head still throbbing, he drifted off and was asleep when the others arrived later that night.

 

Morning came and they awoke to a scene none of them could believe:  the trees they had cleared away over the previous three days seemed to have grown back up overnight.  They awoke in a copse of pine trees, and more pines surrounded them beyond that.  There was no open space left for the army’s tents and bedrolls.  Even the tree trunks that had been stacked beside the path were gone.

“What the hell?”  Abel wasn’t sure who said it, but it didn’t matter.  He was thinking it too.  He had no idea what was going on, and his headache that remained from last night was strong enough that he had to squint in the sunlight.

There was a call from one of the others, from outside the copse.  Abel and the others trotted over and gaped.  All of their baggage, their packs, their weapons, even their tree-cutting gear, was neatly stacked up.  There was a stout pine stick leaning up against each bundle, and a pine bough decorating the top of each one.

Abel looked at the pine trees all around him.  He could hear their branches rustling in the wind, but there was no wind blowing.

“We give you this chance,” came the voice again.  “But only this one.  Go now, or you will not go at all.”

The others in the squad looked at each other in confusion as the sound of the wind increased.  There was still no wind blowing.  “We need to leave,” said Abel.  He knelt, and gently placed the pine bough atop his pack inside it.  He put the pack on his back and took up the pine stick.  It was tall enough and sturdy enough to work as a walking staff.  He left his axes and cutting saw laying on the ground.  He wouldn’t need them again.  “Are you coming?” he asked the others.

“Where are we going?” the corporal asked him.  He sounded bewildered.

“Home.”

In the end, two of them stayed to meet the army when it arrived.  Neither they, nor the army, were heard from again.  The forest remained uncleared.

 

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