Steve Toase

Illustration by Dante Luiz

By the year we became homeless the forests were planted out across the oceans to try and keep up with demand. Vast floating mats of knotted roots anchored in place by thin tendrils aching for the water below. We watched them buckle and rise on the tides as the evictors threw our possessions into the street.

Even as we tried to pick everything up, the arborists were already embedding seeds in the rooms and walls. We had to abandon most of our belongings. Behind us they dropped childhood books and clothes into the mulcher. Leaves unfurled, the rate of growth accelerating as each one grasped sunlight from the cloudless sky. Within days the stone would be soil, the pages fertiliser. It didn’t matter to us. We were already homeless. My mother told me not to look back, but I did anyway.

That was a long time ago now, and I still remember the feel of carpet under my feet. The texture of wallpaper under my hand, tracing the faces I found there. Now the only faces I find are in the bark of trees. Scars in the wood that echo the scars in us. In me. I haven’t seen my own face in so long, but when I run my fingers across my cheek I can feel the dirt that never washes away.

That first summer we stayed on the streets of the logging towns, the compression mills pumping the stench of lignin as they concentrated cellulose to make tools and weapons.

My parents thought if we were near civilisation we would be safe, but no-one is civil when you’re homeless. Waking up in the morning with blankets soaked through with beer and other people’s piss. More than once the humidity in the air stopped our drunken tormentors setting fire to the cardboard that hid us from no-one.

Now I move often, trying to stay ahead of the logging crews, and away from their villages. I watched my parents whither. Half a decade ago I left them in the dirt. I wanted to burn them so no part would nourish the trees, but the smoke detectors amongst the branches would bring the fire squads and would bring death to me as well. I remember the feel of my father’s skin against mine as I lifted him into the hollow soil, the weight of each stone I placed on his body, watching them compress the bloodless meat that was no longer him.

Five years ago now, and still I’m alone between the trees.

Only when my parents were dead, only when I was by myself, did I sense something was hunting me.

For the first three years I stayed on the solid, in the parts of the forest anchored in rock and soil, but those were the most valuable, the most precious, where the wood was of the highest quality. After too many near misses I moved out into the waterborne forests.

Even though the ground is thick enough to support the vast pines rising into the sky, the soil is thin, rising and falling at the whims of the tide and the moon I can no longer see through the branches above. Something else other than water moves beneath my feet and every night when I sleep in a new place I hear its scarred hide scrape against the roots dangling into the seawater.

After that first year my parents took us to the shelters set up for the homeless by the arborists. A way of appearing to care about those they evicted. Each place had its own rules. What time you had to leave in the morning. What time you had to be waiting by the locked door in the evening to stand a chance of getting a bed. There were never enough beds. The first time the shelter couldn’t take us all, my parents insisted I go in alone. Afterwards I couldn’t tell them what happened in that vast room filled with camp beds and threats. I never let them send me in alone again.

I try not to dream anymore, those nighttime stories soundtracked by boots against bone, and my dad’s broken arm that never quite healed because no clinic would treat rough-sleepers. Sometimes I hear them when I’m awake too, in the rattle of the leaves on the branches, and the rain cascading down the bark to rivulet across my skin like so many scars no-one else can see. Sometimes I barely hear them over the sound of my Hunter.

When I smell salt on the air, I know the Hunter is close, and I break camp heading further and further into the forest. I dare not return to solid ground. I know how vast my pursuer is. I know as they stretch to devour me, they leave muscle and bone beneath the ground. To retreat is to walk above them. To return is to sacrifice myself. I keep on running.

I wonder if the Hunter lays claim to all the dead below the forest floor. If it compresses their flesh into its own to stretch further. If the sodden corpses of my dad and my mother have been fused into the Hunter’s muscle. If their knowledge of me remained within their mould covered skulls, and even now the Hunter is learning how to corner me in the vast forests that never end.

I sleep and see the Hunter below me, oaks and lime trees anchored into its muscle, their roots nerves that extend the Hunter’s senses into the canopy itself. When I wake I avoid brushing against the bark in case it senses my presence. I envy that anchorage I dream for my pursuer.

I feel the forest floor undulate beneath my feet. Some places are thinner, eroded by the constant ebb and flow of the hidden tide. If I put my face to the rotting leaves I hear the water churn, and in the distance the Hunter’s constant approach that will eventually overtake me.

Maybe the ocean itself conjured this unseen vengeance for the disrespect of having trees embedded above, hiding the shimmer and glisten of the waves. Yet seas change throughout the history of the world, drying up to turn their populations to stone. Maybe I will fall through the thin places to turn to stone in a stomach too vast for me to comprehend. For now the threat is easy to stay in front of if I keep moving,

The forest is silent. The wind clatters the leaves but nothing lives here, apart from the homeless. Apart from people like me. There are no badgers churning the soil. The timber is too valuable, the soil too thin and precious. I learn to hide well.

When I find the bird fallen on the forest path, I am unsure what to do. I think it a ghost, a memory of mine or a memory carried by the forests. The creature is black feathered, with grey and white below the wings. I do not know the species, and, at least to start with, I do not know if it is alive or dead.

The next day I find another, this one hollowed out, skull emptied by death. I think about carrying it with me. Instead I scoop out soil to place the bones in the ground in the same way I did with my mum and dad. This world has killed the bird. Surely it deserves the same respect? The same pointless ritual that means nothing to anyone but me.

Later that night I wake to the sound of the water below me trying to find sight of the moon, and I wonder if the Hunter is not a creation of the depths, but a blessing I have called to myself. Maybe when I covered my parents with forest dirt, the land accepted the sacrifice and manifested as my pursuer. Maybe the Hunter is not seeking me to render me into paste, but grace me for leaving offerings to its greatness.

My food is running low. The arborists keep the forests sterile of anything but trees, any nutrients not used to grow timber considered wasted. I circle around, following a path I know will lead to a camp, stocked with food in case an arborist crew find themselves unable to return to their town.

The boundary fence is high, an alarm cord running around the top, but I see no lights within and hear no activity. The arborists are never quiet. They have no need to be. Within the woods they are the only predators, though they still fear the forest as if the woods will turn on them and the roots will crush them to dust in their sleep. I know the alarm will only be armed if they are within and scale the wall easily. Inside, the door is open and I go inside, opening the foodstore at the back of the single room. What little I find inside has already rotted, softened and sprouting forests of its own. I trim and trim to try and leave something edible, but when I am finished there is nothing. I consider eating the mould covered crusts anyway, but I have seen the dancing and madness that is hidden within the spored bread and have no wish to jig myself to starvation.

On the wall is a map showing how far to the nearest logging town. I tear it free and tell myself I will go and find food there. I only need to beg on the streets long enough to fill my stomach. Still, the fear is hardbaked into my bones and I know that my life is more at risk surrounded by houses than by trees.

The path is marked with bodies slumped against bark, their skin slack, the cut marks across their throats dulled by the humidity. Signs hang around their necks, ink too smeared to read. I start to walk away then turn back and dig three holes in the leaf litter. One for each body. Maybe if I dedicate these deaths to the Hunter then it will accept my offering and turn from me for other quarry. Maybe its appetites will be too vast and I will be too small for the Hunter to notice anymore. I search their clothes for anything worth salvaging. There is nothing and I lower them into the dirt.

The logging town is not one I have visited before, the buildings constructed on a vast raft so they are not torn apart by the ebb and flow of the sea. On the streets all is noise and scent, the sawmills dividing and dividing and dividing. I see other homeless on the streets, not too emaciated. Maybe the arborists in this town are generous. I do not get my hopes up. I have passed through other settlements where the homeless are well fed and when I find out how they earn their food I have left. Below the sound of the compression plants I hear the Hunter. When I rest, it rests. I wonder why it is in no rush to devour me. Maybe in its pursuit the Hunter has become wary of people, but this does not make sense. Every day it grows stronger on the bodies it finds amongst the roots. I feel it buck against the land above its vast spine. The Hunter fears no-one. The work day is ending. I find a shop doorway and nest myself against the smeared glass. Tomorrow I will find food.

I do not know what time they attack me. I sleep light but do not wake before the first baton hits me. There is no way to escape the violence. Each percussion knocks me from my feet, but I continue to drag myself upright. They wear masks. Not to hide their faces, because who will censor them? They see me as infectious. As a human plague. As if homelessness was contagious.

As the blows continue I go inside myself. Listen to the stories my dad once told me as he sat on the edge of my bed, turning the pages. I play songs to myself, though the tunes are vague, because I love the words more. As the blows knock me to the floor for the final time, I recite the litany that keeps fear distant, but it is hard to make it work as the bruises bloom.

In the morning they come back and leave me a packet of food as if paying me for my entertainment. I recognise them by their boots. By the smears of blood on the toecaps. I take the bag and leave, speaking to no-one.

That night I see the Hunter for the first time, its skeleton outside its flesh, the bone infested with coral and limpets. When the Hunter twists to feast, it tears away from the roots embedded into its muscle, collapsing the canopy above. When I wake I am surrounded by fallen trees. The Hunter is showing its disgust for the land above. I do not know if it will withdraw to the depths of the sea or tear the world apart.

The arborists shackle me, reluctant to slit my throat in front of the camera crew that accompany them. Damaging the forest is a capital crime. Most found guilty never make it to a courtroom and die in the silence of the forests. I will not have that anonymous relief. I will be tried and recorded and feel the friction of the rope against my neck instead of the rust of a blade against my throat. They carry me back to their vehicle and load me into the back, and there, far from the gaze of the cameras, they show me once more I am not human.

The cell is small, little bigger than the space I occupy in the world. I remember the graves I dug for my parents, hugged close by the soil until the Hunter found them, blending them together into its scarred hide. I want to be part of something bigger. I want to be beyond myself. I want to be lost within that muscle and flesh that stretches beneath the forest. In my cell, I sing to the Hunter and call it to me.

The trial is held in an arborist office on the edge of the town. I notice the cameras and wonder who is watching on the other side. Whether those glass lenses are the eyes of the Hunter, waiting for the right moment to intervene.

There is no jury, and when I speak my words are dismissed. When I sing to the still hidden Hunter, they gag me. Beneath our feet the floor buckles and despite the cloth against my tongue, I smile. Outside the smeared windows I see the rope swing. I wonder if it will swing so freely when my weight is added to it.

They tell me a day must pass until they kill me. A day for appeals. A day for new evidence. They know as well as I do, none will appear.

Back in the cell they cut the cloth from my mouth, and I call to the Hunter once more. I know it has found me. The scent of salt in the air. The way the cell floor twists and turns. There is a full moon. I add my voice to the light. I stamp my feet to call the Hunter to the surface.

Daylight comes and I am still alone. The arborists come for me with that first light. They do not bother to dress me or ease my wounds. With my hands tied, they lead me into the square. I wonder if they will turn my body to mulch. As we walk I start to sing to the Hunter once more. They do not stop me, thinking it is the madness of grieving my own death. I hear the Hunter close, calling to me in the voices of mum and dad. I sing louder and stamp my feet as I walk. Beneath the gallows they slip the rope around my neck. The loose fibres tickle my neck and I laugh. I might as well laugh now before I cannot. There is no drop and snap. Instead I will be hauled into the air and slowly blink myself away. They start to lift me into the air and my throat rests forward on the rope. I whisper my plea once because I have no voice left to do more.

The Hunter erupts through the gathered crowd, vast head scattering them aside. Its teeth are calcified dead, bodies encased in yellowed mineral. I see faces in the enamel as it gnaws through the arborists, swallowing the severed parts. Buildings become caught on its exoskeleton and when it twists houses collapse, sawmills falling into the hole left by its ascension.

Blind and vast, it feasts, enveloping prey in muscle and grinding them along the forest floor beyond the town. I do not expect salvation, and as I choke I watch the Hunter turn toward me. I wonder if it knows I called it forth. I wonder if it knows that I worshipped it even as I feared its arrival. I wonder what it will feel like to be digested.

With the side of its vast head, the Hunter nudges me to the floor. Slow and precise it hooks the severed rope between broken teeth. I know I will not survive the day, but I will die in the stomach of my god. It opens its mouth wide and, hands still bound behind my back, I walk across its tongue and down into the stomach toward an afterlife embedded in the salt soaked flesh of the one who has hunted me for so long. ∎

Portrait courtesy of the author

Steve Toase was born in North Yorkshire, England, and now lives in the Frankenwald, Germany. His fiction has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Shadows & Tall Trees 8, Analog, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, and Shimmer, amongst others. Five of his stories have been selected for Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year series, and one for Paula Guran’s Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror Volume 3

From 2014 he worked with Becky Cherriman and Imove on Haunt, the Saboteur Award shortlisted project inspired by his own teenage experiences, about Harrogate’s haunting presence in the lives of people experiencing homelessness in the town.

He also likes bonsai forests, old motorbikes. and vintage cocktails. His debut short story collection To Drown in Dark Water is now out from Undertow Publications. You can keep up to date with his work via his Patreon , his newsletter, Facebook, and @stevetoase on Twitter.

Portrait courtesy of the artist

Dante Luiz is an illustrator, art director for Strange Horizons, and occasional writer from southern Brazil. He is the interior artist for Crema (comiXology/Dark Horse), and his work with comics has also appeared in anthologies, like Wayward Kindred, Mañana, and Shout Out, among others. Find him on Twitter or his website.

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