THE LITTLE TREE
Spider called. Wrapped within bandages, he raised his head, or would have; the marrow-wood that gave him life had long since been scraped out of the hollows of his bones. Instead, he was forced to wait, as the threads scraped through long and narrow tunnels, whistling through the holes.
Karasu's head raised, and he glared across the field at his opponent. It was a boy the age of the Spider; the senseless quirk at the corner of his mouth told Karasu that the boy would die. Spider bore no insult or slight without retribution.
The sands beneath Karasu groaned as his weight descended, and without thought the puppet flicked his hand at the irritants; but nothing happened. Karasu sighed and retired from his consciousness, letting the Spider do as he liked. Death would come to the boy, one way or another; either Spider would triumph, or he would die, and Karasu would come to the fore and kill the boy then.
But it was not to be; ignoring the crack of kunai into his wood, Spider drove Karasu into the foe's body and stabbed out with grafted metal implements that burned the wood of Karasu's skin. But when the blood spilled, Karasu came awake long enough to swallow the eighteen specks of blood that landed on the hard-varnished wood of his surface. It wasn't much, but it would be enough for another few weeks.
Karasu closed his eyes and slept as the bandages wound around him once again, trapping him in a coccon of the flesh of his brothers.
Once, he'd been a tree. Sitting at the oasis, he had cast his roots into the water and fed upon it, and the life of the crocodiles within, and the blood of the animals they caught. He had grown; and then a boy with marks on his cheeks arrived, and pointed at Karasu; and two men with a long, spik'd blade had sawed him away from his roots, and carved on him, until he was in the likeness of the young Spider. And then he had been wrapped in the flesh of his brothers, and carried away.
Now, he was a toy. A senseless, unspeaking thing, unconnected to the earth, mute and deaf and blind, touch stolen from all but his innermost depths, even the mokuka dulled by the threads spread within. All of his power had been stolen from him.
But there were years and years ahead. Karasu was patient; every time blood spilled, he drew a little inside, where it colored the marrow-wood red with warmth, gave his heart the time to survive it needed. Dew vanished into his skin. And the varnish, that hard shell that tried to choke him out, wore loose almost as quickly as Spider could apply it.
And when Spider touched him to put more varnish on his skin, Karasu pressed little tendrils of roots into his skin. He couldn't do it every time; he didn't have the heat, the water, the earth-born strength to do so anymore. But every couple of weeks, he could put one more tiny root into the flesh of Spider's fingers.
As his fingers dulled, grew hard and brown, Spider joked and bragged of his calluses; played stupid man-games of pain and intimidation, winning without compare because there was sensation in those digits, but nothing of pain or discomfort. Karasu bore it all. Because now, he had a fertile plot to sow his seeds in.
Spider had impregnated him with this human strands; left them wiggling inside, jerking Karasu whichever way he wished. The perfect embryo and father's son, hard-working, uncomplaining, stoic and ever-present. All these things Karasu had been made into, with the black and white kabuki mask painted onto the crown of his branches, where once long curving leaves, like the fangs of great cats, had once hung.
But Karasu was patient. He was none of those things. He was not the Spider's kin, or child, or brother or father or slave.
Years would pass, but Karasu was none of those things.
Spider passed manhood; became a leader of other man-things, led them on great hunts across the sands into other lands, to spill and waste blood, ravage nests, and take more precious wood back to their sand-home. Karasu watched the stacks of puppets (that was what they were called; he had heard Spider say it once) grow from a mere row in the back of a storehouse, into great ranks, an army of bereaved spirits. He heard their crying in the deep night, when the moon descended close enough to tantalize their skin through the killing varnish.
They were not as strong as he. They had not lived through the youth of a child, had the time to learn before the coat came down and suffocated them.
Many, many died. He heard their wails, and the pinkened marrow-wood within him twitched from his rage.
The sand-people did not hunt other man-people, beyond the oceans of bleached grit. They hunted Karasu's.
He swore vengeance, and redoubled his efforts to sink roots into the depth of Spider's flesh. Now it had moved beyond his hands; the hard brownness crept up his right wrist, and veined his palms on the left. He had stopped joking about the painlessness. Sometimes, Karasu saw a quiet confusion and exhaustion on Spider's face, when he sat alone in the storehouse at night, by his puppet tools; and he would stare at his hardening hands and say not a word. Karasu wondered what he thought it was. A leaf-blight? A man-poison? That creeping death that turned flesh against itself, the heart-killer?
Karasu did not know. His concerns were not of the flesh.
He could feel his limbs, now. Could feel the tips of the 'fingers' Spider had gifted him with, in his own image. Karasu hated them. He had been made into man.
But they were useful. And one night, when the stars were low, Karasu crept up from his pouch, untied the flesh-blanket of white, and stole a metal tool from the bench. Then he creaked over to Spider, and raised the weapon high.
But not yet. Not yet. There was patience in Karasu, patience for all the years.
He put the tool back, and crept back into his pouch. There were years yet.
Karasu had grown from a water-pool deep in the sands; the blood of the earth, which all trees need, was not there among the grains and grit. Karasu had thought he would die. From the knowledge of his fathers, he knew that no matter how deep he thrust his roots, there would be naught but the sun-scorched sand.
Then there was sustenance, and Karasu looked down through his young, near-wilted leaves, and beheld the body of a boar, dead at his foot. Blood spilled from his throat, slit by the tooth of some fierce desert predator.
Karasu drank deep. It was not earth-blood; but there was a vitality, an unbearable lightness in the liquid that awakened a new thirst in him. The wood of his trunk grew thick with mutters as thought bloomed in Karasu.
Suns revolved, and Karasu grew; instead of the earth-blood, the feast of all his fathers, Karasu drank from the dead and the animals, sucked the echoes of life itself from cooling flesh. The mutters grew thicker, and long leaves shadowed Karasu's brow.
Karasu became great, a tower over the water-pool; the dying-place of the sand-wastes. The looming.
And then a boy came and pointed at him, and Karasu was emasculated by the hands and metal things of men.
The sand-people became many, very many. Their city spanned a forest's worth of the desert; an unnatural growth on the neck of the wastes. Basket-rows of puppets laid dead in the storehouse. Karasu felt the rage die inside and grow into a black knot of bane, like tree-rot.
Spider weakened. The brown spread from his arms into his chest and head, immobilizing him. The other humans put him in a bed and left him alone. Karasu waited, inside his pouch. Karasu had not supped of blood, or sweat, or water for over a year, or come free of his pouch. Only the roots in Spider kept him alive; but slowly, it became enough, then more than enough, and the pink returned to his marrow-wood.
Silently, Karasu worked the tendrils higher, wrapped them around the arch of Spider's spine, and dragged them higher. It was a work of sun-turns; eight passed before Spider could no longer raise his head, and call for help.
The brown had spread below his waist, now. Karasu took a trembling pleasure as they split the seeds of Spider's young and beheaded his line forever.
A day finally came when Spider could no longer move. His eyes locked into place, thin, earthy strands red with lifeblood holding the orbs in place. The face, previously marked with man war-paint, now writhed below the shore. A soft sound of caterwauling came from his throat. Agony that Spider couldn't voice pooled in his excised loins; Karasu could feel it now, all the hollow places inside Spider. The roles had been reversed.
Karasu felt glad, and split the pouch of his brother's meats. He stood and crept over to Spider, feeling the clacking that would forever follow him; the sound of wood-part against wood-part, left empty and hollow, forever abandoned to the absent howl of the breezes through the thin places inside.
Karasu leaned over Spider's face, and the bottom part of Karasu's man-mouth drew wide, in an expression he had learned. It was the same one Spider had worn when a crop of man-younglings had placed their first threads through their asphyxiating partners and slaves.
Spider would have said something, in that meaningless luah-luah that man made at each other, but his tongue had long since dried out into a meaningless, tangled mass of roots and swelled flesh. Instead he just saw, because Karasu made him see.
Because Karasu was not a thing for revenge, he killed Spider by cracking his head like a desert-egg; mercy he did not deserve. Then he slipped wooden fingers into the crack of Spider's head, and washed off the choking varnish in the warmth of Spider's blood. Man's-hands carefully peeled apart the vault of Spider's chest, and then Karasu sighed as he settled down in the valley that presented itself there.
The taste of a man's flesh was something he had not taken sup of for a very long time. And as Spider withered, drawn up the branching tendrils into the reddening marrow-wood, Karasu mused.
There was much work to be done. Many pests and slavers to swat and take of. Many of his kin, trapped in the polished dolls of these sand-people.
But there was time, and Karasu was patient. For now, he took his fill.