A Forest, or A Tree

By Tegan Moore

Four young women go on a camping trip. Things slowly begin to go wrong.

It was just the four of them, four girls alone in the forest.

“Everything is dicks,” Elizabeth said. She gestured at the gnarled gray trunks rising bare-limbed into the shade of their own canopy. “I mean, look around. Dicks, dicks, dicks.”

“You’re so insightful,” said May. She unwedged a water bottle from the side of her pack. “And so foul-mouthed.” Elizabeth had talked most of the way up the mountain. May was pretending she didn’t mind.

Birds muttered in the trees. Piper plodded back from looking over the ravine’s embankment to where the river pounded below. “I’m done walking,” she said. She dropped her bag and flopped to the ground. “This is a stupid hobby. Don’t tell Ailey.”

“Flowers.” Elizabeth pointed to the daisy Piper was tucking into her hair. “Flowers are actually fancy, colorful penises. I mean, how weird is it that we smell them? On purpose?”

Piper scrunched her face and let the flower fall from her hand. “You’re messed up.”

“Nature is evil,” Elizabeth said. “It’s not my fault.”

“Nature is not evil,” May said. She soaked a bandana with her water bottle. “Nature is nature. Evil is just a story.”

“Duck rape,” Elizabeth said. “Ducks rape other ducks all the time. That’s not evil?”

“Oh my god,” Piper said, “this is the worst conversation. I don’t want to know any of this stuff. Can we have the trees and flowers and nature and whatever without the ruining-it-all part? And also no more walking?”

May wrapped the wet bandana around her neck. “We have to sleep in these woods tonight, Elizabeth. Under all your penises.” The other girls were pink with exertion and sun, but May’s skin didn’t pinken adorably. She was dark, unfreckled, and felt slimy with perspiration. She wondered how the white girls stayed looking so pert.

“Don’t even get me started on fruit.”

“Nobody said fruit,” May said. “We aren’t getting you started.”

“Oh my god, don’t,” Piper said.

Ailey traipsed down from a rise, GPS held talismanically before her. “Guys,” she called.

“Here we go,” Piper said. “Anyone else on my side? No more walking?”

May shrugged and sank to the ground next to Piper.

“It’s weird,” Ailey said, trotting down the slope to them. “We aren’t where I thought we were.” She studied the GPS’s minuscule screen, then looked up as though the forest might offer advice.

“It’s pretty here,” Piper said. “I bet it’s a good place to camp.” She raised her eyebrows at May.

“Yeah,” May said obediently. It was pretty. The undergrowth was leafless, sparse, dry twigs and branches hatching together and turning the forest hazy. Ancient cedars pillared into the sky. There was something awful, May thought, awful in the original sense of the word, about looking up. Something about the stature and the patience of the old trees made her feel small, just one story in an endless cycle of nearly identical, pointless stories.

“I thought we’d go upriver,” Ailey said, fiddling with the GPS. “There’s a peak pretty close. Seriously, this thing is being weird.”

Peak, Piper mouthed at May, eyes wide with horror.

Elizabeth approached the ravine’s edge. She held on to a sapling to lean out over the void. Piper squealed, “Don’t, oh my god!”

“We’re not lost, are we?” May asked.

“No,” Ailey said, “it’s . . . wrong. Like, it says we’re . . . well, it doesn’t matter. We’re in the right place. We found the river. We know how to get back.” She gestured at the other girls. “Let’s go.”

Elizabeth scrambled a few steps down toward the river. Piper and May exchanged dubious glances.

“Why not camp here?” Piper said.

Ailey stared. “We’re almost there.” She crossed her arms.

Ailey was in the Mountaineers. Ailey was In Charge.

“Almost where?” Elizabeth called from her perch over the river. “We’re in the middle of nowhere. That part of the middle of nowhere is probably not much different from this part.” Something loosed under her shoe and she slipped, cursed. The sapling bent but held.

Elizabeth was Ailey’s best friend from high school. Elizabeth had provided a running commentary all day of potential disaster, mishap, and urban legend seemingly designed to prevent any possibility of peace.

Piper, Elizabeth’s current roommate, had taken responsibility for  worrying about snakes, worrying about voiding her bowels outdoors, and worrying about potential overlap between the two. Piper had shown up at Ailey’s apartment that morning wearing Converse sneakers. Ailey made her buy boots at a Wal-Mart on the way out of the city.

May wasn’t sure why she’d been invited. She liked Ailey. They’d met at a mutual TA’s awful kegger. The TA was drunk and getting creepy, and May had noticed and dragged Ailey away for a made-up emergency that required both of them to hide in the downstairs bathroom and then leave out the window. They’d been lab partners the following semester. Ailey had told the story about the window escape on the morning’s long drive, and made it seem like something they’d done for fun. Like a joke or something. Maybe only May had noticed the TA’s weird intensity, how he had cornered Ailey in his cheerless, abandoned dining room with a hard, intentional look. Maybe May’s compulsion to push the dining room door all the way open and rescue Ailey had been misguided. Maybe Ailey really did think the two of them had snuck out of the party because why not? Anyway, they hadn’t exactly been besties or anything. Only the shared, strange night, and then a semester sharing a lab bench.

Maybe May was just there for color.

Nobody except Ailey had ever been backpacking before. But probably they’d all be fine.

Eventually Ailey capitulated and they pitched two tents in a ring of enormous cedars. Elizabeth stretched her arms toward their crowns. “Nature’s glorious phalluses.”

“You have dick on the brain,” Ailey said. “Go find firewood.”

Piper spread out on the ground between the two tents. “My tummy hurts,” she said.

May and Elizabeth dragged armloads of sticks into camp and Ailey sorted the pile, snapping branches against her knee. The sun hadn’t begun to set, but their little camp in the trees was dusky and cool. There was plenty of firewood, so they started a fire early. The river noise mortared the empty space between the trees.

“We should tell scary stories,” Elizabeth said.

“No we should not.” Piper lay next to the fire, head on her pack. “We definitely should not do that.”

“You’re right.” Elizabeth eyed the sky. “We’ll wait till dark.”

“Also nope.”

“Okay, what about, like, creepy stories?”

May unlaced her boots. God, it felt good. “Aren’t scary stories a requirement when you’re camping?”

“They are not,” Piper said. “There’s no requirement.”

Ailey patted Piper’s shoulder. “Okay, the rule is: If Piper says stop you have to stop.”

“No means no,” said Elizabeth.

“I already said no,” said Piper. “No clearly does not mean anything to you assholes.”

“Oh come on, Pip,” Elizabeth said. “We’ll be nice.”

“What I do,” Ailey said, “is I figure out why the story can’t happen to me. Like, the Babadook doesn’t live in my basement because both my parents are alive. See? You neutralize it. You can basically always find a reason why you’re okay.”

Piper crossed her arms over her chest, an angry sorority sarcophagus. “I’m covering my ears.” She made no move to do it.

There was a pause to allow Piper’s disapproval to smoke away. A breeze clattered long fingers of underbrush, a quiet tick-tick-ticking over the river’s constant rumble. Overhead, high in the canopy, leaves hissed.

“So, I heard this story,” Elizabeth said, leaning forward. “About some kids out in the woods. They kept hearing—”

May groaned. “I saw that subreddit last week too. It was stupid. Why would a rapist hide in the woods? It doesn’t make any sense. If he’s looking for victims, he’d be better off . . . anywhere, pretty much. The internet is a liar.”

“Just cause it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it’s automatically untrue,” Ailey said. “It must come from somewhere.”

“Yeah,” Elizabeth said, “like the girl who was playing the elevator game in that hotel in LA, and then they found her dead in the water tower. Like the game worked or something.”

“Stupid stories,” May consoled Piper. “They’re just memes.”

“You’re memes,” Piper said. “What does ‘meme’ even mean.”

“Like, cultural ideas.”

Ailey scoffed and leaned back on her palms. “Every idea is a cultural idea.”

“Memes are cat pictures,” Piper said.

“They’re supposed to be an idea that, like, hits something primal. It’s important to people, somehow. Cat pictures or whatever,” said May.

“So they’re basically just good ideas,” Ailey said. “That’s what you mean.”

“Maybe it’s how we do mythology now,” May said.

Piper waved a hand at the canopy. “What is it about cat pictures? What’s the primal idea there? Cute cats?”

May sniffed and rolled her eyes. “I don’t pretend to understand white people.”

“Ooh, reverse racism,” Elizabeth said. “Plus I know for a fact you liked those pictures I posted of my mom’s kitten, so.”

Piper groaned. “I think all the turkey jerky gave me gas.”

“My condolences,” said Ailey to May, who was Piper’s tentmate.

They sat in the quiet, the rhythm of the river holding them.

“So I saw this story,” Elizabeth said, and Piper groaned again. “No, no, it’s not scary. Not really. It’s just some legend. It seemed like it might have been made up, but I couldn’t tell, and I ended up doing a bunch of research.”

“By research,” Ailey said, “do you mean going down a click-hole?”

“That’s not research?”

“I think it’s interesting,” May said, “how stories get changed around on the internet. People making up legends. Like Slender Man—people got obsessed with it, and that made it almost true. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t an old story. People got into it and that made it as real as, I don’t know, Santa or the Virgin Mary. It makes me think all stories are real at some point. There’s something that’s so compelling we have to tell the story over and over again. Like we’re trying to refine it.”

“Right,” Elizabeth said. “Exactly. I wanted to know where this one came from. Have you heard of Stick Indians?”

“That sounds racist,” Ailey said.

“Stick Native Americans,” Piper said. A trace of sunlight flickered over her closed eyes.

“They call it Stick Indians. I didn’t make it up.”

“Repeating things doesn’t make them not racist,” May said. She hadn’t meant to say it so vehemently. She glanced around their circle to see if anyone had flinched, and relaxed her shoulders.

“Okay, so,” Elizabeth said. “Someone posted this story—it was obviously a story, it had characters and a plot and whatever; real stories aren’t that well organized. A bunch of kids were out camping and were hassled by this tree monster. Whatever, it was dumb, but I hadn’t heard about Stick Indians before.”

Now Piper watched Elizabeth, interested. Ailey poked at the fire.

“Anyway. I looked around and there wasn’t much info. A couple old websites with Yakama Indian legends, but all the sites had basically the same story, and you could tell it was copy-pasted. That first site I saw referenced some books I couldn’t find on Amazon, but I later I saw the same titles in a couple different places. Enough to make me think the books might at least be real.”

“You could try a library,” Ailey said. “Like, where actual research is done.”

May snorted. “You’re such a snob. You just said like five minutes ago that the internet isn’t automatically false.”

“I’m a tactile-experience snob,” Ailey said. “I like the real world. I don’t hate the internet.”

“You definitely don’t hate Instagram,” Elizabeth said.

“See? I don’t hate Insta.”

“Aww,” Piper said, “she has a cute nickname for her BFF.”

“My cousin has a dog named Hashtag,” Elizabeth said. “But guys: Stick Indians—that’s what the Yakama people say, apparently, so it’s not racist and don’t yell at me—they’re, like, leprechauns or sasquatches or fairies—”

“Um, vague?” Ailey said.

Read more https://www.tor.com/2019/06/26/a-forest-or-a-tree-tegan-moore/

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