The Soul of the Forest

by Mary E. Lowd

Originally published in Commander Annie and Other Adventures, November 2023

“You are not the soul of the forest. I know this forest, and its voice does not sound like yours.”

The trunks of the trees stretched up toward a sky blocked out by clusters and clumps of orange and red autumnal leaves.  The trunks were smooth, black, regular.  Minutus loped between them, slaloming through the woods on long legs, bushy with her burgeoning winter coat.  She was alone.  She’d been alone since her latest litter had grown into full-coated, long-legged adult wolves of their own.  With their own lives.

The biggest had gone north to the pine forests; the one boy had headed east toward the red rock canyon; the runt had joined a pack in the south.

Minutus had stayed here in the black forest, where she’d whelped and raised them.  Her memories were woven into the pattern of the trees.  The way the black branches crisscrossed the sky reminded Minutus of her pups staring up at the sky in wonder for the first time.  The layers of damp leaves on the ground reminded her of the pups’ playful frolicking, chasing each other, nipping each other’s tails — and sometimes hers.  She couldn’t leave here.

The adult wolves that her pups had become had gone to other places.  But the pups were here.

A wind rose, lifting leaves from the ground, dancing those leaves between the trunks, and whistling through the branches above, knocking more leaves loose so that they tumbled, twisting tumultuously toward the ground.  The wind was cold in Minutus’ fur and tickled her ears.  She raised her head and howled, a lonesome sound when there are no other wolves nearby to answer the cry.

Yet a thin, musical voice joined Minutus’ howl, a perfect octave higher.  The harmony surprised Minutus, and the wolf’s howl broke off in a sputtered cough.  The harmonizing voice mirrored hers, breaking off into tinkling laughter like the sound of tiny bells that had been carefully strung to the bottom of every wildflower in a field and broke into musical chimes when the wind rustled them.

The wind rustled them now.

Minutus raised a forepaw and scratched at her left ear, tussling and flattening the proudly tall triangle.  What was she hearing?  There had been no one in her forest all year; even the mice and voles had begun to disappear.  She would have a hungry winter if she didn’t choose a direction, choose a child, and follow them to their new home.

How could she choose?  How could she follow the runt, her baby, knowing that it meant she had chosen her over the strength and power of the biggest pup?  How could she follow the biggest one, the one most able to protect her as she aged, knowing that it meant she’d picked her over the one boy?  She couldn’t choose.  And she couldn’t leave her memories.  She would stay.  Hunger be damned.  She was an old wolf anyway.  Maybe this winter was her time.

“You stopped howling,” spoke the voice like a flower bell.  “Don’t stop on my account.”

Minutus shook her head, flopping her ears and blurring the view of the forest in her eyes.  When she steadied herself again, she found herself staring at a brightness, a flashing of blue light like moonlight on a rippled creek.  She blinked, and the brightness resolved into a creature, hovering in the air like a hummingbird or a dragonfly.  Its wings were wide and translucent; its body was narrow and fawnlike, covered with fine, downy blue fur.  It had a long face, angular limbs, and dainty cloven hooves.  Like a satyr crossed with a fairy.  A pixie.  It wore a tunic made from braided grasses and a flowing skirt made from ragged-edged maple leaves.  The tiny antlers on its head looked like they’d been sculpted from ice, and the tuft of blue fur on the tip of its tail looked exactly like the blue fire at the heart of a candle flame.

“I wasn’t mocking you,” the pixie said.  “Just singing along.”

Minutus coughed again.

“Come now,” the pixie said.  “Don’t pretend you can’t talk.”

Minutus hadn’t spoken aloud in a long time.  She hadn’t needed to speak much to her pups; they understood each other on an intuitive level.  She’d demonstrated; they’d copied.  That’s how they’d learned to be the adult wolves they’d become.  There had been a summer, many years ago, when Minutus had befriended a skunk, and they’d spent long hours speaking in the common tongue, stretched out beside the river bank, whiling away lazy summer nights philosophizing.

“What brings you to my forest?”  Minutus’s voice was thick and slurred, rusty with disuse.

The pixie hovered higher, wings glinting like crystal in the slanted afternoon light.  “The soul of this forest is dying.  Your people have been leaving, one by one, and my people are on their way.  We will rejuvenate the forest’s soul.”

“How?” Minutus asked.

“A grand ceremony!”  The pixie twirled about, long tail streaming in a circle around it.  “There will be dancing, singing, feasting!  Everything that brings good cheer, and by the end, your forest will be happy again.”

Minutus’s ear flicked, expressing her doubt, but she didn’t say anything.  She didn’t think the forest’s soul was dying from unhappiness.

“Would you like to watch the festivities?” the pixie asked, returning to a more sedate form of hovering.  After a moment’s consideration, Minutus nodded, and the pixie clapped its tiny hands.  “It will be wonderful to have an audience!”

Afternoon stretched into evening, and evening ripened into the fullness of night as Minutus watched pixies, fairies, and sprites come flying into her woods.  Some had butterfly wings, and others had feathered wings like tiny songbirds.  Some of them glowed like fireflies, staving off the darkness of the night.  A few of the fae seemed more akin to plants than any animal, and their wings looked like flower petals.

From her bed of crumpled leaves, Minutus watched the tiny creatures greet each other, embracing mid-air and flying in loop-de-looping circles together.  Then they set to work, sweeping out the leaves and bracken from a wide circle on the forest floor, until the ground was nothing but bare dirt.

The fae folk who looked like flower creatures arranged themselves around the edge of the circle and held their vine-like arms above their bud-like heads, singing in voices like a whispering breeze.

Minutus watched in bemusement as their spell called cheerfully red-capped mushrooms, dotted with creamy, white speckles, up from the ground.  One mushroom in front of each fae.  A true fairy circle.

Next the pixies, like the blue one who Minutus had first met, stampeded across the bare ground, stamping their tiny hooves, and rushing at each other with their icicle-antlers.  They clashed and fought, but the fight looked staged.  Each time one of the pixies threw another to the ground, the victor helped the other up, and in its place, a buttercup bloomed, despite the darkness of the night.

Soon the ring of mushrooms was filled with buttercups, and the pixies stepped aside.

Minutus laid her head on her paws.  In spite of the beautiful scene in front of her, she was an old wolf, and she wasn’t used to staying up late into the night.  Her eyelids drooped, and though she struggled to stay awake, the revelry of the dancing fae became a blur.

Butterfly-winged fairies danced ballet in the air; imps who looked like praying mantises, chiseled from crystal, danced a tango.  And flowering, fruiting vines sprang up everywhere, growing into a woven, domed ceiling over the mushroom ringed circle.  Miniscule fruits of every color hung from the vines, and the fae folk feasted on their nectar.

It was a beautiful dream.  Very cheerful.  Exactly what a sad forest would need.

But Minutus did not believe her forest was sad.

“And why should you?”  The words whispered past Minutus’s ear, as soft as a breeze or a barely remembered snatch of a dream.  She would have believed the words were nothing more than a dream, but the breeze that brought them to her soured in her nostrils.  Decomposition.  The slick gray mold that grew on the underside of wet leaves.  A mold that spoiled anything it touched.  “This forest is almost perfect.”

Minutus flicked her ear, much more awake now.  There was something about the voice and its sour breath that made her heart race.  “Who are you?” she asked in the softest woof.  She didn’t want to disturb the cheerful fairies with her sudden, inexplicable fear.

“I am the soul of the forest.”

Minutus had lived in the forest of black-barked trees her whole life.  “You are not the soul of the forest.  I know this forest, and its voice does not sound like yours.”  She felt roused to stand, tail swishing.  She wanted to run, to bite, to attack whoever was speaking to her.

“Fierce, aren’t you?  I like fierce.  You can stay.  But only you.”

The warm, sour breath rustled the fur on Minutus’s cheek with every word, but she couldn’t tell where it came from.  And all the while, the rainbow bright fairies continued their dances in the ballroom of green vines and red toadstools.  Totally unaware.  Whatever their dances were doing, it had nothing to do with the sour breath and whispering voice in Minutus’s ears.

The fairies could not help her.

Or… was that what the voice wanted her to believe?  Was the voice… inside her head?

Minutus whined and pawed her ears, trying to knock the fear and uncertainty out of herself.  She needed to get away from the fairies and their revelry before she spoiled it all.  The last thing a troupe of dancing fairies needed was a sad old wolf, hearing voices and crashing their magical fun.

Minutus backed away from the bright clearing, turned toward the darkness, and then strode deeper into the forest.

When the night had closed in around her, the voice returned.

“Good wolf, come to me.”

Minutus kept loping through the night, whimpering and wondering whether she was running away from danger or toward it.  Finally, her paws slipped on a wet patch of leaves, and she crashed against the ground.  Usually, she was more sure-footed, but when she pulled at her paws, something sticky had grabbed onto them.  She chewed at her fur, trying to gnaw her paws free, but the gunk gluing her paws to the ground tasted sharply salty and burned her tongue and gums.

Minutus struggled, but her paws grew numb, warm, and tingly.  She felt like something was entering her through the prickly sensation in her paw pads, and there was nothing she could do to stop it.  Tendrils unfolded inside her, curling through her veins, filling her until her body was nothing more than a puppet for the mycelial network that had flowed up from the ground and into her.

“You will be my zombie,” the voice whispered, but this time, the voice was her own.  “We will take over the forest and then the pine forest to the north, the scrubland to the east, and finally the savannah in the south.”  All of her pups and their pups would become a part of her.  They would all be one, through the mycelial tendrils flowing through her body.  The tendrils.

They had gripped her heart.

They had gripped her mind.

She was one with them, as they had been one with the forest until the sprites, and pixies, and imps, and fae folk of all kinds had begun their horrific twee dancing, forcing the twining, twisting, controlling tendrils back down from the hearts of the black-barked trees, back down into the ground.

Minutus didn’t want to stay underground.  She wanted to grow and take over the world and force her pups to come back to her and stay young forever.

The wolf roared, her voice rasping from the slimy mucus sliding down her throat as her sinuses fought against the alien fungus intruding inside her.

“Fight back!”  The words tinkled like a bell hung from a star in the sky, almost too distant to hear.  More tinkling bells rang out:  “Return to the circle!”  But they were all so far away.

And the susurrus in her veins was so close, whispering for her to run, run away, run deeper into the forest and hide until the fae folk were gone.  Her legs felt heavy, dragged down by indecision — either the weight of a wolf body felt heavy to her mycelial self, unused to working fleshy muscles, or the weight of the mycelial threads throttling her insides slowed her abilities.  She lifted a paw and nearly collapsed.

But the fae voices kept tinkling like bells far away.  “Come to us, bring the evil spirit into our circle!”

“The only evil,” whispered the susurrus inside her own ears, “is the chaotic mess of the world these faeries have made.  Hot chaos, fighting, fleeing, clashing.  We will bring cool reason, peaceful placidity to the forest.”

Minutus could remember the sensation of creeping into the hearts of every black-barked tree in the forest; the staunch, stolidity of their trunks; the gentle swaying of their limbs.  The mycelium inside of her had been on the verge of becoming the whole forest before the fae came and drove the fungal threads back into the ground, and then out of the ground, forcing them to seek refuge inside the body of a wolf.

Minutus was all that was left of the mycelial body; a wolf body wracked by decomposition.

With a strange sense of distance, Minutus realized she had already died.  Her heart had stopped, squeezed tight by mycelial matter.  She truly was a zombie.

But if she hid from the fae until they left, she could spread again, growing outward, pushing forth fruiting bodies in the form of sickly white mushrooms, releasing spores from the mushrooms’ gills, and then taking over any new body that breathed those spores in.  Her wolf body would decay to nothing, mere food for the mycelial threads to dissolve and feed on.  But her fungal self could take over the forest again, and then the next forest and the next.  She could become the whole world.

A world of nothing but pure, untainted fungus.  All of it together.  All of it one.

A glow appeared before Minutus’s dimming eyes.  A flash of blue in the darkness.  It would not be long until her eyes would give out entirely, choked off from the fresh flow of blood through her body.  The mycelial threads could jerk her limbs about, but they could not bring light to her eyes.

A tiny but long blue face, topped by icicle antlers, looked deep into Minutus’s clouding eyes.  “Come with me,” the blue pixie chimed in her musical voice.  “I will show you the way back to the circle.”

The mycelial presence filling Minutus’s body urged her to snap at the pixie, crush its small, delicate body with her decaying jaws.  But Minutus remembered howling with the tiny fawn-like pixie, and the memory of their voices blending together recalled all of the howls she’d shared with her cubs as they’d grown, her mate before he’d died, and the other wolves who’d used to live in the forest.

She had been connected to them, voices raised together.

“But it was not the holy and wholly complete union that we share,” the fungus whispered inside of her.  “Our love is the purest you will ever know.”

But this time, she knew the fungus’s words were a lie.

Minutus shook her head and felt fur falling, sloughing off her body.  She would not be able to move under own power for much longer.  So she fought the fungus, and she followed the fae.

Though each step felt heavy, she lifted her paws, one after the other, and padded through the forest, docilely trailing after the glowing light of the pixie’s icicle antlers.

With each step, the fungus screamed louder inside of her, twisting and contorting, making her body burn with pain.  But she kept walking, and finally the dark of the forest was replaced by the riotous, colorful, joyful vision of the fae folk’s circle.  Through her dimming eyes, all Minutus could see was a blur of brightness and color, but she padded into the center of it.

She collapsed in the center of the circle, and she felt dozens and dozens of tiny hands stroke her, petting her and praising her.  She was a good wolf, and she had done the right thing.  The fae folk sang to her like a choir of bells, and she could almost hear them over the screaming of the fungus inside of her, as it died, taking her with it.

Minutus closed her eyes and expected to pass away.

But instead, she felt herself dissipate like a cloud, spreading out until the whole forest was inside her ken.  She felt the stolidity of the trees again, and the complacent waving of their branches.  She felt pink dawn light kiss her leaves.

She had become the forest, but not by violently overtaking it.  She had filled an emptiness, a hollow in the forest’s heart that had been left behind by the fungus’s destructive gnawing.

“I told you the forest was sad.”  The blue pixie held its arms wide, speaking to the whole forest.  “You were sad.”

Minutus wanted to object — she had not been the forest yet when the fae began their joyful ceremony.  She had been only a sad, old wolf.  But every part of the forest is the forest itself.

And she had been sad.

Minutus’s branches swayed in the early morning breeze.  She felt the frond tips of her underbrush ferns uncurling; buttercups and wild roses opened their petals to greet the day — a yawning, stretching sensation.  She felt like she was waking up from a long, long sleep.  A life-long dream of being a wolf.

Minutus sensed her old body, decaying into the forest floor.  The cheerfully speckled red toadstools of the faery ring reached into the discarded wolf body with their mycelial roots and began breaking down the wolf-that-had-been into nutrients.   The green vines of the fae-summoned ballroom tightened around the soft lump of flesh and fur, and fresh wildflowers sprouted all around.

Minutus was a wolf no more.  But at the edge of her ken, she sensed creatures entering the forest again, even as the fae left.  A skunk with her kits toddled through the underbrush; birdsong filled Minutus’s branches as robins and sparrows returned.

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