Vaijin never accepted the renaming of things. When she ventured from her people to the outer borders of the human town, remnants of trees that once pullulated there had been hacked and named in new ways. She recognized the humans’ disregard for the sacredness of being, but still, the splintered stumps and visible life rings longed for repose. Signs and buildings lined the woodland edge. A woman positioned herself in the corridor to talk to a man, tempting him with offers of fourteen dollars. Then they haggled a few strange, crumpled leaves for some vessel Vaijin had never beheld: brown but transparent like the starlight pools. Something sloshed around inside, and the woman assured the man she only sold the best—best—some word Vaijin could not interpret. Her tongue got caught up when she attempted to repeat it, but the man sounded eager to rush home.
When her mother Relva demanded to know where she had heard such words, she charged Vaijin to the highest tree to reflect on her disobedience. Vaijin, perched among the branches, tired of singing to the leaves all the time. Often, her people sang to the world for peace, but mostly, they sang to request forgiveness. Every cycle, Vaijin confessed to escaping the border of their land to steal river stones for her collection, or to prodding around the town outskirts for entrainment. Thankfully, her mother only caught her sneaking around on a few occasions. She would have restrained her had she counted the footprints.
Few of the djala dared to gamble their lives outside the forest. The ones with the guile often disappeared. Though gossip of butchers cleaving away their limbs spread among the other children, Vaijin’s mother had warned her of the water without life, where men sacrificed the djala to their god for bounty. Her mother had once escaped, decades ago, or so she preached. She spoke of the men with rifles who refused to let her bathe in the sun as every young djala required. Her brother had fallen to the sting of that steel when they attempted to flee. Unlike most of the djala, her flowers produced no vibration. The vines curled along the brown and wove into her auburn hair. Her leaves degraded into dour. One outside of their people would count her among the first seeds, though she bore the age of thirty-four rings.
Vaijin rejected her mother’s tall tales. She perceived the distinctions of nature and the way the trees stirred in rain. Dehydration or excessive sun could stain the leaves, and her mother rarely abandoned the thicket of the great canopy.
The humans’ lack of flowers and leaves genuinely worry her though. The woman at the store wore skin like the bark of the canopy tree, hair grayed out in morning mist. But no flora sprouted from the body. No trails of tender green. Vaijin estimated her waning by the next moonrise; however, she appreciated her confusion with human life cycles, hypothesizing with information gathered from observing them from behind the line of pines. The children screamed as they raced into town, and she could never distinguish their rage from their humor. She envied their freedom to dash through those streets. She yearned to splash her feet in the small stone fountain. So, she decided that one way or she would explore those cresting ripples.
At the starlight pools, she joined the other children in singing to the small stone lagoon. Moonlight rippled on the surface while they stirred the silts with their hands. Normally, Vaijin relished in glimpsing the glistening shell fragments as they breached the surface and sank again, but tonight even the stars could not ground her thoughts.
The forest had always cradled her: the lush, emerald foliage and draping vines, clear crystal pool by the ancient caves, wildlife drinking sap from her hands. She imagined what wildlife scurried through the human town and what skins they wore. Furs, scales, or wings. Drinking strange tonics and singing praises, figures gamboled under the moonlight in her head, and she imagined people roaring at some bizarre human thing.
For a moment, the butcher invaded my mind. She once discovered a carcass hanging outside one of the huts to dry. She conjected for a moment that it could have been a djala thigh, perhaps the upper part of a bicep. As Vaijin winded through the darker branches of her thoughts, roots crawled from the dirt beneath her hands, clambered down the rocks, and settled themselves in a pool bed. Violet wolfsbane budded in an instant.
A young girl jabbed her hard in the side, “What are you doing? You’re going to get in trouble.”
Vaijin snapped out of daydreaming, and the vines quickly dissolved. Black ash striped the ground and down the shore. She spread it among the grass and flora so no one else would unearth what she had conjured. She decided.
She would settle her suspicions one way or another. Tonight, she would escape.
The air quieted as the djala returned to their respective resting areas. Her mother slept in the ragweed shrubbery. The heavy pollen livened her mother’s hair with tiny flecks of gold as she dreamed. Her mother rooted herself deep, so Vaijin calculated that could sneak off and beat the morning sun home.
Vaijin snaked through the twisted willow path and when certainty hit that no one could catch her, she ducked off. Just between the arched stones, the dirt path ended. A human would never notice, but with distance from home, the dirt’s voice faded.
The night sky lit up like crystal shards when the sunlight hit. She had never snuck out at night, but the djala’s reputation with men made her think. Humans labeled them ghosts in their language, some too-simplistic understanding of nature. If only they witnessed the power of a real ghost, humans would care for the world around them. Ghosts, or yayisho, were the voices of the forgotten, life forces who commune with one another in silence. The dirt was yayisho, the water was yayisho, the wind. But Vaijin could infer why the djala’s viriscent eyes spooked them. Humans could not detect the true colors of life. They could not perceive beyond the invisible walls they dreamed, like the tree line.
The bumpy overbite of the road converged with the line of broken stumps. Even in darkness, their lifeless truncated stocks communicated clearly that Vaijin left her world behind. She eased herself onto the walkway, uncertain what stories the stones would tell. But to her disappointment, the stones spoke like everything else in the human world. Quiet.
Vaijin crossed between two small buildings. Yellowish light poured from the windows and drew her eyes inside like night moths to the starlight cave waters. The light burned with an unnatural heat, but somehow wild pygmies could not pull her away. Inside, a human woman tucked a young girl about Vaijin’s size into bed. She had burgeoned for many seasons but only peaked as tall as ligustrum about three and a half hoof track sets. The girl’s mother kissed her and switched out the light.
Vaijin recalled the way her mother swaddled her into sleep. She pondered what it must feel like to sleep without the large catalpa leaves. Their true name hummed too much for human tongues. In her language, soja clung to the lips—something like heart in the human language—for soja never sang dirges. They breathe with you. You can feel it in their veins. But something about the fur draped over the girl intrigued her, so Vaijin pulled herself up for a better view.
She slipped, tumbling over into some trash cans. Their crashing metal echoed off the foundation of the building.
Light spilled out into the darkness, framing a tall silhouette of a man. Eyes hid in shadows, shoulders wide like a bear. Vaijin laid in the stillness. If she were caught, the man might sell her to the butcher. She would be strung up, beaten, and presented to some deity unknown to her people. No longer would the trees console her during punishment high in their branches. No longer would she touch the starlight pools or embrace her mother again. She memorized the path on her way in. She mentally navigated each crevice and crack from here to the tree stumps, but the outline of the rifle in the man’s hands paralyzed her. Vaijin lived up to her namesake. One of lightning. Her feet outpaced all the other djala children, but even she could admit her limitations. She lacked timing and would need to stir up a distraction. Or fight.
Vaijin pressed her hand hard against the irregular terrain and prepared to uproot a nearby tree, so she could flee. Yayisho whispered to her faintly, but her fingers could sense the hushed voices of the land. The man stepped toward her. She beckoned the roots with every fiber of her being. Suddenly, a cat vaulted from its perch in the crags of the roof next door.
The man raised his rifle and shot.
The cat fled from the gunfire in the opposite direction.
Vaijin fled her body, or at least she convinced herself she had shed it. The cat clipped the siding of the house before disappearing into the shadows.
“It’s just a damn animal,” the man hollered back into the house to his wife. “Can’t a hunter get one peaceful night without some pest?”
Vaijin stilled herself under the cover of an unnatural, uneven strangeness. The large, slippery pouches settled on her. Smooth. Cold. Putrid scents penetrated her senses as she gathered oxygen and contemplated if she could breathe. She counted the stars barely visible from the ground. dja, feru, po.
“What you doing?” Above, the young girl stretched her head out the window to look down at her. Her words foreign, but they were ones Vajin remembered.
She pulled herself up from the satchels of muck and stepped away from the window to preserve distance. The girl inside was no man, but Vaijin had once witnessed the cruelty of human children from a distance a full moon ago. She remembered the battered body of a dog they had abandoned for dead because she would not return the stick they had thrown. The children grew frustrated. Thankfully, an older woman scared them off.
“Do you have no words?” the girl asked with a smile, but Vaijin did not understand it all.
“Words?” she questioned.
“Like talking.” She squeezed her cheeks and began mouthing sounds, but the noises were stifled by the pinching of her skin.
Vaijin could not help but to smile at the comedy of it all. Humans had never spoken to her before. The lips contorted themselves into strange and interesting sounds, but not in an unpleasant way. The girl’s words resonated similarly to Vaijin’s own language, but in a cacophonous rhythm. She wondered if humans were broken.
“Name Vaijin wei joo.” She enunciated, practicing a human word, having witnessed how humans greeted one another. She paused for a response, but the girl just stared at her.
“Name Vaijin wei joo,” she repeated.
The girl laughed at her. “Vaijin, huh? I’m Tabbi.” She drew the letters in the air to demonstrate to her how to spell it, but Vaijin only glared in confusion. “My mom’s in bed now. I’m not supposed to go out, but I never listen.”
The girl threw her leg over the window ledge and climbed out. She felt for the cracks in the wall like she had performed this escape a hundred times. Shoes swung from the laces in her hand as she pulled them out of the window. She slipped them on before stepping onto the dirt.
“They never catch me. Let’s head to the square. It’s just a few streets this way.” Her finger pointed in the direction.
Four trees away, amber light lit the distant walkways. When Vaijin hesitated to budge, the girl tugged her by the wrist until she obeyed.
The streets radiated with an energy unlike any blaze in the forest. It buzzed and crackled in the metal frames the humans had imprisoned it in. Dozens of slim metal poles bordered the town square when they arrived. The fountain she had gazed at from the forest sat in the middle. The basin lit up pale as the moon under the unnatural light. It resembled the white stone of cavern walls, but the voice had been silenced long before she arrived. Large vessels circled the stone. Plants she had never encountered thrived, contained in spaces abnormally cramped.
“Sometimes, I like to come out and play. Pa says the ghosts will get me, but like I told my friend Andrew, ‘I’m not scared of no ghost.’ No one I know has ever faced a wild ghost. Sure, Mr. Hammen has a few, but they never come out while people are out. Heck, I doubt even he has them.” The girl leaped into the water and skipped in a circle.
The word ghost struck the djala hard, but the girl did not act at all afraid or angry like her mother believed. She danced around and sloshed water outside the stone and onto her.
The water was cool, but Vaijin absorbed the free moment. She propelled the water with her hand. Short fluid shapes. No deposit, shell, or flakes. She was mesmerized by the clarity of it. And the whispers. For the first time in this human world, she could hear the whispers as translucent as the water itself. She listened to its story, its long eternal tale. For water tasted the beginning.
When the girl pushed her away from the fountain, Vaijin came to when the ripples left her sight. Wild vines climbed the center tiers and spiraled around the base. White honeysuckle erupted from buds, their tentacular stamen straining to touch the sky. This time the vines did not disintegrate. How long had she been standing there?
The girl’s eyes widened in amazement. “How’d you do that?” She poked at the leaves as if testing their tangible nature. They sprang back up each time she removed the pressure from her hand.
The girl’s happy face comforted Vaijin, confirming that she would not hurt her. Her mother had misjudged human people. Her stories scared the djala children just to ensure they would not leave the village. There were no butchers or hungry gods, simply different people.
The girl stared into her eyes. She extended her hand toward Vaijin’s face and touched the thin vine braided through her hair. A pink orchid bloomed from the wavy locks. Her first blossoming.
The petals drooped far enough that one could see the new shades of amaranth contrasting her dark hair. The girl touched the flower. “It’s pretty,” she said and tucked strands of hair under the sepal. “How do you make flowers like that?”
For the first time, the light shone on her earthen eyes. Dark like the river soil. Vaijin had never seen eyes that color, like something unknown would sprout from them. Tabbi’s hand climbed the vine down her arm. Her skin felt warm like Vaijin’s but lacked the tangling life force of leaves. The pallid moon rested high in the sky, but the golden illuminated everything: ardent and visible.
A woman screamed from her open door. Lights flickered on all at once, and the street lit up like fire. Hunters stepped out of their homes with rifles within minutes. The streetlights spotlighted the two children. Everyone fixated on the two of them.
Vaijin fled. The crack of the first shot woke the whole town. As she darted through the buildings, lights switched on one after another. A second cap echoed off the ground, and fever kicked in. More humans poured out of their homes. Some with guns, while others bolted their children inside. Vaijin swiveled between two women before they noticed her. They screamed at her touch and pelted her with stones.
Her skin burned with each hit. Then someone hit her hard to the ground.
“Catch it. Don’t let it get away.”
Suddenly, the earth cracked, and the ground pushed upward. Wooden tendrils pushed the crowd back. Vaijin could not decipher the words, but her body reacted to the danger. Kudzu effused from its workings and enveloped everything in the street. Every fiber screamed at Vaijin to rise to her feet, but she could not gather the will. Something sliced into her skin and thorns rushed from the dirt and crawled up walls. One man yelled as they snared him.
Men hacked at the overgrowth with hunting knives and machetes. “I can’t get a good shot.” Someone grabbed her leg and pulled. She flailed to fight free.
“Come. This way.”
The voice was whispered but familiar. She paused and let the hands pull her through the other side.
“Hurry.” Tabbi tugged on her hand and guided her through the maze of houses and shops. The crowd’s calls diminished to murmurs until the girls hurried past the tree line and they fell silent. Tabbi let go, and Vaijin still ran until she could hear the soil and dew, hear yayisho. Even then, she refused to halt until the starlight pool.
She never told her mother. She carried those memories long after confiding in the trees. Still, she would travel the edge of both worlds where no one could see. Tabbi would leave a small flower on the largest stump. Vaijin would carry it to pools and plant it. Her face reflected in the water. The moon reflected in the water. She brushed her hand through ripples. Visions danced with silt on the surface. Not of the butcher with his cleaver or hanged bloody body. Not of crowds of gunfire or fear. But a series of short moments splashed in amber and starlight.
Matthew Gilbert is a co-founder and poetry editor of Black Moon Magazine. He enjoys writing that crackles with emotion, works that push the boundaries between writing and lived experience.