The smell of her was strong, but it was no longer merely sensuous. Now, it was dangerous and dark, secretive. Jack accepted her soothing words and gentle rocking, because in truth he needed some form of comfort. But as night bled away and dawn pushed into the cabin, he could not find sleep. He stared at the sliver of bark he had pried from the wall, and the flesh of living wood beneath. He felt Lesya’s own fears transmitted through her voice and touch.
And he knew he had to escape.
That morning, Lesya cooked bacon and eggs, and they had a feast for breakfast.
I’ve never seen a pig around here, Jack thought, though he supposed there might be wild boar. I’ve never seen chickens. But these eggs could have been from any bird. Ducks were everywhere, and she only had to know where they nested.
“I’m sorry about my father,” she said. “It’s the first time I’ve seen him manifest like that in a long time. I thought he was far weaker, much more distant.”
“Is that why you’re afraid?”
Lesya stared at him, a soft smile on her beautiful, almost flawless face. “I’m not afraid, Jack.”
He nodded and continued eating.
“If he comes again—”
“Thank you,” Jack said, and he smiled back. “He did scare me, and if you hadn’t woken when you did…”
“He might have killed you.”
“Yes. So thank you, Lesya. I accept your protection, and I’ll do whatever you think is best.” He looked through the window and did not have to feign his fear. I’m still not certain about any of this.
Lesya leaned across the table and stroked his cheek. “I do love you, Jack.”
He smiled at her and touched her hand but did not reply. Her eyes flickered away, and for a moment he felt a flush of sorrow for her. I could love her, he thought, even after everything. “You’re very special,” he said. She sighed and set about clearing the dishes.
“I’m going to the spring to wash,” Jack said.
“I’ll heat some water in here, if you wish.”
“The cold will do me good!” He rubbed his eyes, shook his head. “Help wake me up, chase away the bad dreams.”
Lesya nodded. “Very well. And later, I can show you how to track snakes and stinging things.”
Jack pulled on his boots and went to the door, and there he had to pause. This is my escape, he thought. And if I succeed beyond all my hopes…
He turned around to look at Lesya for the final time. She was standing by the stove, watching a pot of warming water and running her finger around her plate, collecting bacon juice and egg yolk. Her simple dress hung just right, and her hair, still tangled from sleep, framed her face. She was quite beautiful, the most gorgeous woman Jack had ever seen and would ever likely see again, and this was exactly how he wished to remember her.
She looks so normal, he thought, though he knew she was far from that.
“Something wrong?” she asked, suddenly aware of his observation.
“No,” Jack said. “Just thinking that I love you.”
Her smile was wondrous.
And with everything he intended to do, still Jack could find no lie in what he had said.
He walked across the clearing toward the spring. It was close to the looming line of trees, but not too close. His heart was thumping; his legs quivered with anticipation of what was to come.
At the spring, he started unbuttoning his shirt. He glanced back at the cabin. Lesya was just visible behind one window, her pale face gleaming with sunlight reflecting from the glass. He waved, she waved back, and then she retreated farther into the cabin.
Jack ran for the trees.
Everything changed suddenly. The potential of what he’d been planning was now an actuality, and the danger was real and pressing. With every pounding footstep, he expected to hear Lesya’s warning screech from behind him: Jack, beware my father.
Jack had already chosen to ignore that, if and when it came. It was a gamble that held his life and future in the balance, but since Leshii’s appearance the night before, things had become clear to him. He had family waiting for him in California, and that was where his real life lay. This, everything he had seen and done here…this was make-believe.
The air around him remained silent but for Jack’s steady breathing. A few birds took off from the clearing somewhere to his right, and he resisted the temptation to reach for them. He was on his own flight.
It was only as he passed between the first of the trees that he heard Lesya’s voice. She did not shout or rage but screamed, a high, incredibly loud sound that chilled Jack to the marrow and set him running faster than ever before. Tree branches lashed at his face, he ran through a spider-web that felt as strong as string, and his heart seemed to double its beat. Sweat broke out all over his body.
The scream came again, even louder than before, and at its end he heard, “Jack!”
He was committed now. He dodged between trees, looking and feeling for anything abnormal in the forest around him. What will she do? he thought. How will she punish me if she catches me? By running, he was denying her love and making a lie of trust he had placed in her this morning. At first she had seemed a sweet woman, but now Jack no longer knew. Someone with such power…
A tree ahead and to his right started to fall. He heard the cannonlike crack of its trunk rupturing close to the ground, and then the entire canopy above him was in tumult as the huge tree came crashing down. He dodged left, darted right, and then realized that whichever way he went, he would not escape its reach. In a hopeless gesture he brought up both arms before his face…
…and the tree stopped falling.
Another had grown beneath the shattered trunk, uppermost branches splayed in order to catch the falling tree. This new tree had two trunks and a thick bole, and its upright limbs seemed almost to ripple in the sunlight streaming through the forest.
Jack ran on. A powerful breeze suddenly roared through the forest, picking up leaves, whistling past his ears, filling his senses with violent movement. Lesya! he thought, but then a strong hand seemed to close around his right arm, and he felt the callused skin of an old man.
He looked down. Nothing was holding Jack, but still he felt compelled to follow.
There was another scream from behind him—much closer now—and he heard the sounds of pursuit. Heavy footfalls in the forest, the crack of trees snapping aside beneath the onslaught of whatever pursued him, and then he reached the edge of a ravine, teetering, just gaining his balance…before being pushed over the edge by another strong wind.
You must see, a voice seemed to whisper as he fell. Jack tumbled, wrapping his arms around his head and denying the voice, because it had sounded so old and inhuman that he could not accept it, could not acknowledge that he could ever hear something so beyond his ken. He came to a stop at the bottom of the ravine, sitting up slowly as the sounds of his chaotic descent faded, and then the voice came in again.
You must see.
Jack scurried back from the voice, though when he looked, there was no one and nothing around him. Nothing but trees.
And then he saw, and realized why he had to see.
Because these trees bore unnatural fruit.
While he was down in that ravine, desperate to leave, to unsee what he was seeing, Jack London heard two great powers fighting for him. In the forest above, trees fell and were shattered, the ground shook, and occasionally he heard Lesya’s terrible screams echoing through the battleground. Leshii, her spirit father, held her back while Jack saw. And with every heartbeat, greater understanding emerged.
Where there had been magic, now there was horror.
Where Jack had felt the strange stirrings of love, now there was disgust, terror…and pity. For everything that Lesya had done, he still felt sorry for her, because she was something not meant to be. A creature of spirit and flesh, she was unnatural, an aberration from the natural order of these wild places. All she was doing was trying to survive, just like him. And she must have been so lonely.
He counted fifteen trees in the ravine that had not grown here naturally. Each tree held a body within its grasp, growing around the body as if it had been there when the seed was planted. In some, faces pressed out of the bark. In others, the shapes were barely visible: a limb here, a foot there. These were Lesya’s previous companions, men who had found and become bewitched by this beautiful woman and her impossible cabin. Some of their clothes he thought might be Russian, others French. A couple were Indians, a couple black, and he thought that they were all dead and somehow preserved from rot by Lesya’s magic.
Until one of them blinked.
Jack cried out. He had been numbed to the horror up to now, but those blinking eyes saw through his defensive shield and lit the terror within. He backed away from the trapped man—only a face and the left arm still outside the tree trunk—and another tree halted his retreat.
He turned around and stared into the green eyes of a changed man. The man opened his mouth slowly, though no noise escaped, and grubs rooted among his few remaining teeth. There were terrible sores and lesions inside his mouth, and though the flesh was open, the blood was not red. It was a viscous, thick sap.
There was no sign of recognition or awareness in this man’s eyes.
Like the Wendigo’s eyes when it faced me in my own guise…unnatural and wretched!
Jack ran again, blind panic driving him now. He clawed his way up the side of the ravine, his fingers digging into the soft bank and his feet pushing. All sense of direction was gone—he could have easily been climbing toward the raging Lesya, not away from her.
Plenty more trees in the forest, came a whisper in his mind, and he could not identify the voice. Perhaps it was fear taking on a life of its own. But wherever the voice came from, it made something very clear to Jack: What he had just seen would be his fate if Lesya caught him.
Because she would never trust him again. And though she possessed an outward veneer of civility that the Wendigo never had, at least that monster was honest in its raging hunger. Lesya lied, and beneath that lie she, too, consumed.
Clearing the top of the ravine, Jack turned to look back down. The canopies of those monstrous trees were natural and lush, and from up here he could barely see the grotesque realities merged with their trunks. Panic had him, but he looked around quickly, panting, listening to the sounds of chaos. Judging that he had climbed the correct side of the ravine, he turned and started running once more.
The forest was still thick here, but it was a place he had never wandered with Lesya. She had kept him away from that dreadful ravine, of course, so now he was running almost blind…and around him, the forest was coming to life. Animals large and small ran with Jack, and for a second he was confused. Am I scaring them into flight? But then he realized that was not the case, and that their direction would provide a good indication of the route he should take.
The whole forest was afraid.
Rabbits and foxes ran, birds and insects flew, and in the distance he heard the heavy rumble of what could have been a bear hurrying through the trees.
More horrific sounds erupted behind him. A wicked groan, like a tree being uprooted with all its roots intact; the thunderous crack of a thick trunk breaking in two; a loud scream, ending with a sob that could have only been Lesya.
“I’m sorry for this,” Jack whispered, and he wondered whether she heard. She could have been that bird, that insect, that loping lynx that he’d just glimpsed to his left. If she was a lynx, she could run him down. If she was a bear, she could savage him. Through his panic, Jack suddenly realized that he did not have to be alone.
As he ran, leaping fallen trees and amazed at the creatures fleeing with him, he tried to cast his mind forward. At first he felt nothing, and he wondered whether his treachery would strip him of the abilities taught him by Lesya. But then he felt things slowly changing, even as he fled. Concentrating on the wooded landscape around him, he also sensed the breeze and smells and sights of an open grass plain.
He heard a wolf’s growl, and Jack sent his own voice back.
And also as he ran, it seemed as though a trance was being lifted from him. The forest stripped it away, and his exertion, and the distance he was putting between himself and the cabin—the place that had been his haven, and had become his prison. His sister Eliza smiled at him from memory, Shepard grabbed his hand and extracted promises Jack had not kept, and even his mother was there, not quite smiling but no longer cursing him. For them, if for nothing else, he thought. For them—
A writhing creeper tripped him. He struck the ground hard, winding himself, rolling until he crunched hard against a tree trunk. Terrified, he looked up at the looming growth, expecting it to uproot itself and bring its earthy underside down on him. But while he considered danger from the tree that did not come, the creeper twirled intimately around his leg…and then pulled tight.
Jack shouted out in pain. He clawed at the creeper, tugging, scratching, but the more he touched it, the tighter it coiled.
He noticed only then that the sounds in the distance had stopped. No more roars or screams, no more echoing noises of unimaginable combat. All the animals had fled, leaving him behind, and the forest became quieter than he had ever heard it.
Quieter than the grave, he thought, and he wondered what it would feel like to be part of a tree, having his blood drawn to make way for the living plant’s sap, and how time would seem so painful as it ticked away infinitely slowly….
A shape moved far away between the trees, a pale blue.
More creepers snaked across the ground and enveloped him. A breeze came, shifting leaves and windblown seeds that should not have taken flight until autumn. He smelled cinnamon, and soil; the fresh odor of Lesya’s breath, and the familiar rot of old leaves. He tried to cast his senses outward again, but he was small, he was nothing, little more than an echo on this landscape of incredible things.
“Help me!” he shouted, but the forest stole his voice.
And then Lesya was there before him, emerging from the trees—changing from the spirit of the forest she had been—and she was transformed. Still beautiful, but terrifyingly so. Still smooth skinned, but possessed of a radiance that honored no natural law. Her eyes shone with fury, her mouth was downturned in a grim parody of the smile she had always worn in his presence. She no longer carried her beauty like a gift, but rather as a natural consequence of what she was. It was her rage, however, that marred her with the only shadow of ugliness.