The award-winning author of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and 84K returns with her most powerful and imaginative novel yet. This captivating tale puts an utterly original new spin on dystopian fiction.
Yue was twelve when she saw the kakuy of the forest, but later she lied and said she saw only flame.
“Keep an eye on Vae!” hollered her aunty from her workshop door. “Are you listening to me?”
It was the long, hot summer when children paddled barefoot in the river through the centre of Tinics, a time for chasing butterflies and sleeping beneath the stars. School was out, and every class had found the thing that was demonstrably the best, most impressive thing to do. For the tenth grades about to take their aptitudes, it was cycling down the path from the wind farm head first, until they either lost their courage or their bikes flipped and they cartwheeled with bloody knees and grazed elbows. For the seventh, it was preparing their kites for the fighting season; the ninth were learning how to kiss in the hidden grove behind the compression batteries, and to survive the first heartbreak of a sixty-second romance betrayed.
Yue should have been sitting on grassy roofs with her class, making important pronouncements about grown- up things, now that she was twelve and thus basically a philosopher-queen. Instead, on that day, she was tucked beneath the spider tree reading on her inkstone. She had made it at school out of parts pulled from the recycling tubs, painted it orange and doodled relentlessly on the back. It was slower than most and struggled to do much more than plain text, but she refused to use any other. Sometimes she pretended that the stories she read on it were tracts on meaningful matters that younger children could not possibly comprehend, but mostly she read apocalyptic adventures, tales of teenagers who conquered all through grit, inventive use of grappling hooks and the power of love.
In a world on fire, Kendra and Winn must journey across the bitter European desert to find the last fresh water for their tribe . . .
. . . but all is not as it seems . . .
. . . only friendship can save them!
When we recount the stories of ourselves, we gloss over the acne and hormonal angst, the sloppy first steps into sexuality, the wild pouts and pompous self- declarations. Yue was coming into all these things, but that day even puberty could not disperse the universal cheer brought by sun and wind through velvet leaves.
Aunty Ram, however, could.
“Don’t let Vae climb the kakuy tree! And be back in time for supper!”
Like a sleepy lion roused by the cackling of hyenas, Yue lifted her eyes from the inkstone in her lap to behold the sight of her displeasure – her sister. Three years younger, and therefore, in childhood terms, a squalling babe to Yue’s majestic maturity, Vae was the perfect age for her wild enthusiasm to charm a naive stranger and infuriate anyone who knew her for more than fifteen minutes. Though they shared the same blue- black hair, squished nose and thumb-pinched chin, the same peanut skin and disturbingly triple-jointed thumbs, they had taken upon themselves the respective roles of older and younger sister with varying glee and earnestness. Whether her hearth- kin had intended to spend so much time congratulating Yue on how mature she was, I do not know. Whether they had meant to encourage Vae’s giddy disobedience, I’m not sure either, for I was merely a guest. But the outcome was predictable – a reserved older child who felt constantly underappreciated, and a younger who cried petulantly whenever she was not indulged.
Did they love each other?
Of course they did.
But learning what that truly means would take time, and though that summer felt as broad as the sky, time was running away like leaves in the river.
“And don’t let her eat all the apples!”
Vae already stood in the little wooden gate, hopping from one foot to the other, ready to run. She wore beige shorts that hung a little lower than the knees, hand- me- downs from Yue handed down a little too soon, and her favourite t- shirt, faded green with pale blue zig-zags around the sleeves. She had stuffed her pockets with apples and tied her hair so loosely it was already starting to fall around her ears. What was worse, she had brought a friend – a boy, only a few months older than she, in russet shorts and a plain grey shirt, who shuffled and swayed, uneasy in the porch, as confused by Vae’s energy as the snail by the swift.
The boy’s name was Ven.
He was me, though I struggle now to remember ever being anything other than an observer to childhood, rather than a participant.
From the soft grass beneath the tree, Yue eyed her sister and myself, imparting, I felt, a clear declaration in her gaze that if we so much as sneezed out of place she would snitch to the first adult we saw, and that should Vae make herself sick gorging on fruit or spinning so fast she became herself dizzy, it was no one’s problem but her own. I understood this; Vae was studied in the art of selective ignorance.
“Come on, Yue, we’ll miss everything!” Vae shrilled, though quite what “everything” was, no one could fathom. Then she was running up the rubber road towards the server office on the corner, swinging past the egg-like kakuy stone that guarded the forest path without so much as a bow to its guardian form, and shrilling up the muddy track towards the ridge above. I followed, checking over my shoulder to see that our escort was coming, and reluctantly, at last, with studied slowness, Yue folded her inkstone down, slipped it into her pocket, shuffled bare feet into brown sandals and followed at a determinedly sluggish pace.
Yue’s hearth was near the top of the hill, with a view down the zig-zag street to the town below. The cables that ran to the server office came straight in across the valley, draped like a giant’s clothes line above the river, too high for vines to tangle but the perfect height for flocks of fat wood pigeons and white-headed crows to congregate at dawn and dusk. When the wind blew right, the sound of running water and bicycle bells swept up the slopes into the forest above, along with every argument, shriek of laughter, out- of- tune melody and yap of barking dog. On second and fifth days, the electric truck came with supplies for the general store; on first, fourth and sixth, the postman came with packages and datasticks loaded with the latest books, newspapers, articles, magazines, animations and games, deposited at the server office to the delight of every bored child in winter. In the bathhouse at the upstream end of town, people gossiped about the price of resin, the quality of the newest strains of mycelium, the latest soap opera downloaded to inkstone and what the neighbours said. Always what the neighbours said. Tinics was too small a town for any drama except our own.
Our temple straddled the river, raised up above a little waterfall of hollowed pools and smoothly etched rocks. Away from the spinning of the wind farms and the tick-tick-tick of the town’s compression batteries, the priests offered up incense to the kakuy of wind and water, the living heart of the mountain and the blessed voices of the trees. They also frequently bored the children by talking about truth, love, harmony and awe, and occasionally delighted them by talking about fire, tornado, famine and fury – all the good stuff we actually wanted to hear.
The kakuy had blessed us, the Medj of the temple intoned. In autumn, the west wind powered inkstone, stove and bulb, and in spring the ice melted and the river flowed strong enough to keep the sewage plant pumping and the biowells bubbling. Life was a circle, in which all things served each other. The people of Tinics took this to heart, and the path through the forest to the wind farm was guarded by stone lanterns lit by bowing devotees with muttered thanks to the kakuy of leaf and soil for sheltering us within their bounds.
Up this same pebble-pocked track Vae now bounded, followed by myself and, behind, Yue. Vae had no time for ritual ablations before sacred stone or carved sign, for there was a destination she had to reach immediately, urgently, just in case the whole universe were to shift and dissolve in this instant, taking it away from her.
“Come on!” she hollered at her trailing entourage. “Come on!”
At the top of the carefully cut steps through the trees, the path forked, right to the batteries gently cranking up to capacity as the wind and sun charged them for the night, and left down a narrower, goat- cut wiggle through ever thicker shadow into the forest.
“Vae, you . . . ” Yue began to gasp, but all too late, for down the narrower path her sister plunged without pause. Oak and pine, spruce and beech, the smell of wet, fresh bark in spring, hot sap seeping in summer, and mulching scarlet in autumn. In some places you could swing from the soft silver trunk of the alder as if you were dancing between prayer-wheels at the temple; in others the poplar had bent to create the perfect ladder to the sky. But Vae was interested in none of these – not when the best tree in the forest was waiting just down the path.
I followed as the way curled tight round the strict black stone of the hill, caught my grip on flaking branches that protruded from the rock itself, life jutting out to catch the afternoon sunlight drifting through the leaves. Streams trickled and danced below, heading for the river that fed the town, while above twigs brushed and chattered against each other in the breeze. Soon even the hissing of the batteries and the wind farm had faded, and though I knew Tinics was just a few hundred metres away, any stranger walking through the wood would have been astonished to stumble on humanity hidden behind so much green. The path faded to almost nothing, but this didn’t stop Vae, who started scrambling up a fern- crowned slope of iron- flecked stone and daffodil lichen, moving like a spider, limb pushing limb.
“Heaven and earth, Vae!” Yue fumed, but Vae pretended she couldn’t hear, because if she could hear she would have to admit that she was being naughty. Better by far to have missed her sister’s complaints and apologise later, one foot twisting coyly in the dirt, hands behind her back, chin down, eyes up, a puppy in a muddy skirt.
Crows were cawing above, the busy, bickering racket that they usually reserved for evening squabbles, and for a moment I wondered if the hour was later than I thought and sunset was coming, and realised I’d come without a torch; but glancing at the watch on my wrist I saw it was far too early in the day for the crows to be complaining. Perhaps they too were disturbed by Vae’s squealing delight and now bickered to make their displeasure known.
At the top of the highest ridge of the tallest hill, Vae finally stopped before the best tree in the wood. The kakuy tree was a hornbeam, older, the priests said, than even the great burning. As the old countries perished when the seas rose and the desert grew, as the peoples of the world mingled and fought for fresh water and fertile land, the hornbeam had grown, spinning towards the sun above and soil below, its roots entangling with its neighbour like children holding hands. Where humans walked, each tree seemed a separate, swaying thing; but below the forest their roots were one, perfect symbiosis. Truly a great spirit lived in the hornbeam, the people said, a mighty kakuy, so at its base they left their offerings and prayers, and every night before lighting the stone lanterns the Medj of the temple would come to give thanks to leaf and branch.
Vae had no interest in such things, though she was at least well trained enough to sprint round the four-metre girth of the trunk and bow once before the mossy base. Then, like the gleeful heretic she was, she was climbing, scurrying up, one foot in the first V- split of the trunk, a hand swinging for a snowy-lichen-crowned branch, off which she briefly dangled like a monkey.
Yue sighed and tutted, but was far too mature to argue with infants. Instead she circled the tree once, fingers brushing the valleys and peaks of moss- softened bark, bowed, pulled her inkstone from her pocket and settled in against the base of the nearest non-theological tree to read. Above, Vae had already made it into the spluttering crown of the low trunk, where dozens of thick branches shot up like the frightened hair of a porcupine, and was bracing her feet for another push higher.
I performed my prayers without thinking, distracted, then picked around the base of the tree to see what offerings had been left here by priest and wanderer. The Temple liked to keep things neat, even in the heart of coiling nature, and someone had ordered the items around the trunk to create a pleasing palette of old and new, large and small. Here, a few links of ancient bicycle chain were welded into a bracelet, carefully framing a bunch of wilted lilac flowers. Next to that, the classical offering of grain, fading and spiky on the stem. A flask of home-brewed wine pressed in blood-red clay, probably toxic if more than sipped; a collection of the blackest stones pulled from the river bed; some shards of chitin scraped from the bottom of the resin well; and a little woven hat in blue, spun from the same bio-engineered silk that Mama Taaq grew on her spider tree. I circled the hornbeam, wondered if I should leave an offering and what I might ask for in return, when a glimmer of metal caught my eye. It was a tiny thing that I could pinch between thumb and forefinger like the wing of a butterfly. Someone had polished it up, the track marks of their effort still glistening in oily white. Any ink or pigments on the surface had long since flaked away, but characters were still visible, embossed by a great machine a long time ago. I recognised an archaic script, long since fallen out of use, but taught tediously in school by Uncle Mue through songs and games. Much of the lettering was unreadable, flattened by whatever force had carved out this tiny piece of history and offered it up to the forest gods. A few words I could just about read, picking them out from months of study. I mouthed them silently to myself as I shaped the syllables, dancing over some of the stranger shapes until I had the sound: Product of China.
Then Vae called out: “Are you coming?” and she was already halfway to the sky, dangling over a branch with one leg swinging back and forth under its own weight for the mere joy of feeling like she might fall. I returned my shard carefully to the bed of moss where I had found it, gave an awkward, quick half-bow to the tree, then started to climb. I was slower than Vae, but confident. The forest was my home, and my hearth did not teach its children how to dread the world that nourished us. Halfway up, I paused, drooping over a branch, stomach pressed to timber and arms flopping free.
“If you scratch your knees, Mama will be so angry,” warned Yue from below, not looking up from her reading.
Vae stuck her tongue out; familiar with the habit, Yue returned the expression, still not lifting her gaze, above and below all such things.
“Yue’s boring,” Vae hissed. She was disappointed to realise that even in her most dramatic voice her elder sister either hadn’t heard her or didn’t care. With a haughty twist of her chin skywards, she turned away from the argument that she had most clearly won and resumed climbing. I paused a moment below her as a red- bellied beetle head-butted my curled hand, considered this obstruction to its journey, then climbed onto my skin and resumed its ambling, king of the world.
If you listen for the legs of a beetle over a child’s skin, you will not hear it. But listen – now listen. And as well as hearing nothing from my crimson friend, I heard a greater nothing too. The crows had fallen silent. So had the songbirds and white-bellied thrushes, the leg- scratching insects and the little cooing creatures of the underbrush. Only the sound of Vae calling, “Ven! Higher!” broke through the hissing of the leaves.
The beetle reached the other end of my hand and wobbled for a moment on the edge, surprised, it seemed, by a steepness which on the way up had caused it no difficulty.
Close your eyes and listen.
Leaf on leaf is the brush of something leathery, dry, living and dying. Below, Yue reads, one finger tapping against her elbow as she cradles the inkstone in her arms, eyes tracking across the words on its screen.
And here it is. The crackling snap- snap- snap through the forest. Gases, popping apart, breaking something solid into pieces. A groaning of fibres under pressure and then giving way in a single tear, gushing out smoke and steam. The slow grinding creak of the oldest, weakest trunks finally giving way, the smack as they slash into a neighbour while they fall, the sudden updraught of ash and spark into the sky as the impact throws more flames out, caught in the wind.
The beetle, which had been searching for a way down and found none, reared up, opened a pair of bloody wings and buzzed away, bouncing under its own ungainly airborne weight.
And here it is, the tickle at the end of your nose, the taste of it on the tip of your tongue, the taste of black, a stinging in your eyes, and I realised what it was just as Vae shrilled: “Fire!”
The great forest was burning.
Vae was already halfway down the tree before I started moving, not a child any more but a creature entirely of the wood, of speed and limb slithering from foot to hand to foot. I tried to peer through the leaves, to see how close or how far it was, but Yue was on her feet shouting, gesturing furiously at us to get down, and how quickly the world changed! The sunlight, which had been pools of gold and silver pushing through the trees, was now a million broken shafts in the air, given form and dimensionality by the smoke drifting in with the wind. The noise of flame, which began in bits and pieces, was already an all-consuming roar, a sucking in of wind and an exhalation of fire that left no room to pick out the details of trees falling and earth turning to soot.
I reached the ground a few moments after Vae and immediately regretted it, the smoke now tumbling in thick and black, biting my eyes and prickling my throat. Yue pulled her shirt up across her face, and we copied her, scrambling, blinking, tears running down our cheeks, towards the path. Now I could look back, and see the orange glow beginning to drown out the day, and look below, and see it there too, pushing along the banks of the stream beneath the waterfall, moving so fast, like deer before the wolf.
“Stay close to me,” Yue commanded, and for almost thefirst time since Vae was old enough to say “sister”, she nodded and obeyed.
The path down, so easy to climb, familiar to us, was now slow, agonising anguish, every step unsteady, every breath a minute’s tick on a spinning clock. Vae slipped and got back up without complaint; Yue grunted as her footing gave way and she caught herself on a root, her face curled in a snarl as if to dare the forest to betray her one more time, and she kept on going. I tumbled after them, on my bum as often as my feet, nettles prickling my fingers and stabbing through my shorts, until we reached the path above the river. Here the smoke was a broiling fog, and I blinked and could barely keep my eyes open, put my hands over my face to try and block it out, peered through splayed fingers and could hardly see a foot ahead of me. The noise of the fire was deafening, and I could feel its heat at my back, moving so fast, a warmth that began as the pleasant glow of the stove on an autumn day and now rose and blistered into a relentless, inescapable grapple that squeezed the life from my skin and the breath from my lungs. I called out for Vae, and thought I heard her answer; called out for Yue and couldn’t see her, began to panic, then felt a hand catch mine and pull me along.
I don’t know when we got turned around, when we lost our footing. I heard the compression batteries explode on the ridge overhead, a thunder as the overheated gas inside finally ruptured the buried tanks to shower what little of the forest wasn’t blazing with mud and torn fibre and metal.
We briefly outran the flames into a little gully, a bowl of untouched elder thorns and purple flowers into which the smoke hadn’t seeped. Then we crouched low, our faces crimson smeared with ash, and knew that we were lost. Vae started to cry, silently, and I knew I was mere moments behind, when Yue shook her head and hissed, “Down!”
I thought she meant down deeper into this gully, perhaps burying ourselves in soil and hoping the fire would pass by, but she rose to her feet and instead followed the land down, no path, no easy route, just swinging from tree to tree like a drunken squirrel, propelled by her own headlong momentum towards the bottom of the valley. If we had done this dance by daylight, it would have been ridiculously dangerous; by the light of the fire it felt entirely natural, and we flung ourselves after her, tripping on our own feet and tumbling for the darkness below.
I didn’t hear the river over the fire, which now domed above us. Looking up for the first time, I could see actual flames withering the edges of the leaves on the trees in orange worms, spitting and spilling up the branches in fluorescent crimson. Then my feet hit water and sank almost immediately into the grit below. I caught myself for a second, lost my balance, fell onto my hands and knees and crawled after Yue, who was already knee-deep and wading deeper. I followed, catching at rocks and feet slipping, banging on stone as I slithered into the stream. The current caught sudden and hard a little before halfway, flowing freely round grey mottled boulders that had obscured its path. It pushed me to the side, and I pushed back, submerged my face briefly to wash away the burning around my eyes, looked up and for a second through the smoke saw Yue, now up to her waist, reaching out for Vae to my left and behind me. I was halfwalking, half-swimming, arms flapping against the current as my feet buckled and slipped on stone, coughing black spit with every breath, ducking my head below as long as I dared only to surface and cough some more in the toxic blackness that raged through the valley. All around was ablaze, too bright to look at, my hair starting to curl from the heat of it pressing down against the river. When I was shoulder-deep, I turned my whole body against the current like a kite against the wind, straining as it tried to snatch me away. I reached for Yue, hoping to steady myself on her, and for an instant our fingers caught before the weight of water pushed us apart. Then she looked past me and her eyes went wide.
And there, on the edge of the water, was the kakuy of the forest.
I had seen in temple many different depictions of the kakuy who guarded this valley. In some he was a great wolf; in others a woman shrouded in a cloak of leaves. In some she was a great crow, the same size as the tree he perched on. In others they were little more than an oval stone, with one eye open as if to say, “Who disturbs my rest?” The Medj, when questioned about the true form of the kakuy, always shrugged and said: “How do you describe the colour green, or the taste of water?” The Medj have always had a good line in saying very little the nicest way.
The day the forest burned, he was eight feet tall, with a white belly of warm, wet fur and a back of crimson feathers that billowed and moulted from him as he bent towards the river’s edge. His eyes were the yellow of the eagle, his snout was a ginger fox, his teeth were sharp, the claws on his hands and feet were black and curled. He rose up on two legs like a bucking horse, then fell down onto all fours and raised his huge head above a flabby neck as if he would howl at the flames; perhaps he did, but I could not hear him.
At his movement, the whole forest seemed to shudder and shake, and for the briefest moment the flames spun backwards as if the wind would change. The kakuy raised his head and howled again, and I felt the river turn icy cold where it held me and a roar of water surge momentarily higher than my head, pushing me under in breathless thunder before I gasped and thrust upwards and surfaced again.
The kakuy looked at us and seemed to see us for the very first time, and though I know very little of gods and the great spirits of the earth that holds us, I thought I saw in his eyes a sadness deeper than any I had ever known.
Then he too caught ablaze. First a feather, then a tuft of fur. He didn’t move, didn’t lurch into the water, but his mouth opened and closed as if he were screaming. His eyes rolled huge in his skull, and he spat and foamed and rippled from his hind legs to the tip of his nose as if about to vomit up black smoke from the internal fire of his roasting organs. Like the crisp edge of an autumn leaf, he curled in on himself as the fire boiled from his toes to his top, front legs buckling first, then rear, snout hitting the ground last as he flopped down to his belly, then rolled to his side, black tongue out and lolling, lungs heaving and panting with burning breath until, at last, his eyes settled again on us. They stayed wide as the kakuy died.
Temple histories are judiciously vague as to which came first. Were the kakuy earth’s punishment for man’s disobedience? Did they wake when the sky rained acid and the forests were blasted pits, to punish humanity for its arrogance, to wipe away the men who had sullied this world? Or did the kakuy wake as the world burned by man’s own design, to heal and salve what little remained, rolling back the desert and the salty sea? Ambiguity is often an ally to theology, as Old Lah would say.
I saw the kakuy fall, and when his blackened face hit the ground the whole forest groaned. Even through the fire and the burning, I heard it; the deep- timbered roaring of the trees bending against their roots, the cracking of stone and the rattling of the white-scarred branches, an earthquake that made the fire itself twist and recoil as if in shame at what it had done. Or perhaps I didn’t. Perhaps in the delirium of heat and smoke and fear, I imagined it all. I saw the kakuy fall, and when the last breath left his lungs, the wind whipped across the water as if blasted from the hurricane, and the river lurched and buckled as though the spirits of the deep were wailing for the death of their beloved kin, and I screamed and held Yue’s hand tight, and she held mine and we slipped and slid together backwards against the turning of the current.
I saw the kakuy fall, and in that moment my flailing left hand caught another’s. Vae’s fingers brushed the palm of my hand, scrambling like the dancing feet of the spider for purchase. I snatched after her, caught her wrist, don’t let go, don’t let go, but the river was stronger than a child’s grasp.
Her fingers slipped a little further down my hand.
Her fingers have always been slipping down my hand. Caught, in a final hook, joint-to-joint.
Don’t let go, I begged, or maybe she did, it was hard to tell.
Then the river snatched her away.
I saw her go under, feet tipping up as her head fell back. I did not see her hands claw at the burning air. I did not hear her scream. I did not see her rise again to breathe, as the great forest burned.