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Born from the Drowning Forest, illustration ©2022 by Kaylee Rowena

The Drowning Forest, illustration ©2022 by Kaylee Rowena

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Everything had changed. I shouldn’t have been surprised. The whole reason we had moved to the Isle of Lewis was because everything everywhere was changing. Here seemed like the best place to face that. Like a dream in the morning sun, I had some vague sense of happiness from childhood memories. Lewis was a magical spot. It was a haven. It was also further north, the temperature at least tolerable, especially if you avoided going out in the middle of the day. It wasn’t the island of my childhood vacations, though. The coastal villages had migrated inland. The sea gave chase. When we bought the cottage, the estate agent rubbed his teeth so much with his finger that he looked more like a toothbrush than a man. We understood. He wanted to tell us not to buy it, that we were wasting our money, that it was daylight robbery and he was the robber. He didn’t tell us, though. A thief still has kids to feed. He just rubbed at his teeth as we signed the papers.

In all honesty, it wasn’t a robbery but just an elaborate game of roulette. We looked at reports. We poured over projections. We would probably be dead by the time the sea arrived at our doorstep. It was enough for me to talk Nathan into buying the cottage of my childhood memories. No one back in Manchester told us not to. The hourglass was flipped, opinions flowing in a new direction. Isolation sounded splendid. Scottish weather was a gift. Work would be more difficult, but that was a small price to pay for not having to change a sweat-drenched top two or three times a day. We didn’t need to worry about schools now either. A month of long, hard conversations meant we would never need to worry about schools or daycare. The only question was whether others would follow our lead, retreating north. I hoped they wouldn’t.

Nowhere was the change to Lewis more obvious than in the forest. It was fitting, I supposed. The forests here were always in a state of flux. Martha, as she rang up my groceries each Saturday, told me that Lewis was once covered in trees. A healthy lung sat off the coast of the mainland. Then the Vikings came, and the farmers followed, and the forests felled for wood and empty expanses. I never knew the island like this, a bare and naked place. Before my childhood visits, a group of people had ventured together to try and right the wrongs of generations in the past. They planted trees across the island, aspens and birch, willow and rowans on every spare patch of land they could find.

“Bless them,” Martha said, dropping half a dozen potatoes into a paper bag. “It was the type of thing people did back then. They thought it would help.”

It had taken me a couple of weeks to amble down to the rowan trees that fascinated me as a kid. I knew then that they weren’t tall trees, even though everything was tall to me. The red fruit always made me laugh. They were a magic trick. From a distance, they looked like flowers, roses nestled in between the leaves of the trees, but as I ran toward them, they transformed, shifting, becoming the berries hiding in plain sight, just out of reach. This was why I hadn’t gone to the rowan forest straight away. The purity of those memories, where so many others had cracked and crumbled, was worth saving. The pull grew too strong, though. One day, I left Nathan to his video conferencing—he had so quickly given up his office and co-workers to make my island dream a reality—and I made the brief walk down the field to the trees. The sun was only just beginning its new assault, driving forward into the sky, but I knew that shorts had been a smart choice. It was only a twenty-minute walk, but I was slumping by the time the trees came into view.

A different magic trick was happening now. Looking up, the leafy green trees adorned with berries, and the makeshift red roses from this distance, stood like they always did. I smiled, feeling something dislodged from my chest, a weight I didn’t know I was carrying. Then my eyes dropped and everything went wrong. The pleasant field of my childhood had vanished under a carpet of blue-green water. The sea lapped gently against the trunks of the trees; the roots of the rowans submerged. I stood for far too long, where the grass slipped into the water. It didn’t make any sense how the trees still looked so healthy in their new home of seawater, but the berries looked tempting, and the leaves as green as an ancient lawn. Somehow in this spot where land was changing to sea, the forest survived. It was wrong, but I supposed that made sense.

Everything had changed.

 


 

I first saw Maya the following month. The pilgrimage down to the forest was a common occurrence now. Setting out while it was still dark, an illusion of a chill in the air, I’d kick off my shoes and paddle through the forest, running my fingers along the wood of the trees. Even they felt warm now. The sea was a tepid bath, a mug of tea that had been forgotten about for slightly too long. I reached out for the berries, not because I wanted to eat them, but because I could finally touch them. They no longer danced outside of a child’s reach. I’d pocket them all to turn to jam; no one would dare waste anything now, but I always dropped one into the water, a sacrifice to the sea. Maybe, it would stop rising.

It was during one of these outings that I heard the splashing of footsteps. I tensed, my body bracing for some unseen impact, but turning, all I saw was a small girl in between the trees. She was drenched in a red raincoat, her legs consumed by yellow wellies. I froze as I watched her jumping up and down, splashing and sending the sea hurtling above her waist. I looked around for some parent, some responsible adult, but we were alone in the forest. My fists unclenched, but my fear was now transformed into anxiety for the little girl. I called out to her, asking if she was okay.

She looked at me, falling still for the first time. “Mama!”

As she ran toward me, I stared, frozen to the spot. We looked so alike. It was as if I was staring back into my own childhood. There was the long dark hair that started to curl once it reached past her jaw. There were the large ears, which seemed intent on sticking out through her hair. As she came closer, though, I noticed that parts of her face were wrong. She didn’t have my eyes, the woody brown replaced by an aquamarine. Her nose, too, was thick and wide, the type of nose you could rely on. Nathan’s nose, to be precise. I tried to grab my heart.

The girl came to a similar realization as I, faltering mid-step as she recognized that I wasn’t her mother. She tried to change direction, to take herself away from the uncanny woman in front of her. There was nothing I could do as she tripped and fell forward, disappearing in a wave of water as she vanished beneath the surface. One second there was a child, a bundle of joy tearing through the water, and the next, there was nothing but the ripple of the sea as it reformed around her. I rushed forward, wanting to be there for her when she pulled herself back up. She never did. The water stayed still, only moving as I grew closer. I yelled out. I screamed. There was nothing. My arms plunged into the water, feeling only the earth beneath me, not even sand reaching this far forward yet.

For ten minutes, I desperately crawled around in the sea, my clothing soaked, the tepid water promising some relief from the rising sun. My throat grew raw. What was saltwater and what was tears became hard to distinguish. Eventually, I dragged myself out of the forest and ran for help. Nathan barely understood me, but he rang for the police and wrapped his arms around me until they came. I wouldn’t have remained upright without him. But as he and two politely confused officers joined me in the rowan forest, my stomach, empty yet heavy, told me we wouldn’t find anything. There was nothing on the ground. No body to be fished up. The officers had a quiet word with Nathan while I stood against a tree, trying to rediscover my natural breathing. I didn’t eavesdrop. I didn’t have to. I knew what they were saying. But even after the police had left and the heat of the late morning pushed down harder and harder on our shoulders, Nathan searched the forest with me, his feet soaked, his face sweating. He stayed with me until I could search no more, the sun pushing me back inside.

After lunch, with the dark, heavy curtains drawn across the windows, Nathan kneeled beside my chair. His eyes, those blue-green eyes, stared up at me. “Richa,” he said, stroking my hand. “The girl you thought you saw? You said she looked like us? You don’t think … I mean to say, it couldn’t be anything to do with what we decided, could it? And look, if you want to talk about it again … whatever you want to do … if you feel differently now.”

I looked away, my eyes finding the curtains instead. On the other side of that strip of fabric, a star was trying to kill us with the help of the planet we lived on. “No. How could we bring someone into this place?”

 


 

I’d learnt my lesson from that first experience. I never called the police again when I saw Maya. I didn’t even tell Nathan, although the secret bubbled and boiled inside me. I wanted to share this with him. I wanted to share everything with him. But it didn’t seem fair to Maya. Everything I did then was centred on Maya’s best interests. Even in those early meetings, when she was so young that I could have picked her right up and carried her out of the forest. I thought about it every time. It would have been so easy. That was how I knew it was wrong.

There were several times in that first year where I saw her in the forest. I stood in the sea, collecting berries, listening to my sweat drop into the water, and I would catch sight of a flash of a colourful jacket, a small girl running between the trees. I didn’t call out to her. I didn’t want her to grow startled again but instead to grow used to my presence, a familiar outline in the distance that could be trusted and investigated safely. I understood that something was happening, even if I couldn’t explain it. Ghosts, time travel, every possibility floated through my mind. I spent several weeks searching my memories, trying to discover some forgotten moment where I had stumbled into a drowned forest. It made as much sense as anything else did.

It took nearly an entire year for her to speak to me. I didn’t even realize she was there, her footsteps swallowed up by the sounds of the waves crashing into the trees that morning. “You know,” a small voice said behind me, curious but confident. “You look just like my mummy.”

I didn’t know there was anything left in my chest to shatter, but something was there to break at those words said so sweetly. I turned and looked down at the girl, seeing all the same familiar features I had spied a year ago. The only difference was she was taller now, maybe six years old, and yet the sea still reached toward her waist, soaking her trousers. She stared up at me, her nose wrinkled as she closely inspected my face. My arms twitched, wanting to pull her into a hug even as I didn’t know what I was meant to say in reply.

“Well, I’m sure your mummy is much prettier than me.”

The girl shook her head like an old man realizing he’d never play football again. “No. You’re prettier. My mummy’s always sad.”

“Oh, I’m sure she’s not with you around.” That seemed like the sort of thing I was meant to say in this situation.

The girl was unperturbed, though. She introduced herself as Maya, and a chill passed through me at grandmother’s name. I could barely find the words to reply, but it didn’t matter. Maya carried on as my world collapsed, all the defenses I thought I had built up crumbling. She told me about her dog, her new school, which wasn’t a big school, but she still liked it, and a hundred other different things that popped into her head. Then as quick as she arrived, she gave my legs a hug.

“I need to go now. Thank you for listening to me. See you later!”

We met often then. Almost daily, I made my way down to the rowan forest. Maya and I would talk, or play games, running in between the trees, a trail of water rearing up in our wake. In those early years, she questioned nothing. It was left to me to piece together what I could from her conversations. Maya came from some other world. Oh, I struggled with that conclusion, but it was the only thing left that made sense. She came from a world where you could still go out at midday, where London was more than a collection of skyscrapers sticking out of the sea. I left early the day I realized that, needing to be away from this walking reminder of another way, another life. As our meetings continued, though, I found that we both carried our own pain.

“Daddy died,” an eight-year-old Maya told me one day when I asked her about her father. “It’s okay. People pull funny faces when I say that and go all quiet, but it’s okay. I don’t remember him. I was a little baby. Mummy says he was driving home to give me a cuddle and he got hit by a bus. I don’t really like buses.”

It explained the other-me’s alcoholism. It felt impossible that there was some other version of me, letting this child wander around without supervision, without making sure she was safe. This woman’s life had broken, though. Her life was reflected in the twisted scrap metal after the accident. Maya didn’t need to explain to me then how they ended up in Scotland. I understood perfectly well. She had done the same thing as me, escaping a world that was intent on hurting her and going to the one place she had ever felt truly happy. It didn’t seem to be working for either of us, but in that moment, it didn’t matter. I reached down and wrapped my arms around Maya, pulling her out of the water and into a hug. We stayed like that for a long time.

Only when Maya turned thirteen years old, spots dotted across her chin, did she come to understand the strange reality of our shared forest. She understood that for a few hours a day, she slipped into another world where the fate of her parents was different. I asked then if she wanted to meet Nathan. I knew it would hurt, but she should have the choice, and I still wanted to share this wonder with him. She was much taller then, up to my shoulders. For a while, she had outgrown the sea, but its rise was relentless, and now it sat around her stomach like a pair of high-waisted jeans. She said nothing for a long time, just skipping the berries across the water. I stood behind her, watching, not wanting to say anything more.

“No,” she said once her hand was empty. “It doesn’t hurt because I don’t remember him. I don’t want to have memories of him unless I were to stay.”

It was the first time either of us ever made mention of her staying. No matter what direction I walked into or out of the forest, I could never escape my world. Only Maya could step into the trees and emerge here in this strange space. The idea she’d want to stay, that she would walk out of the forest with me and head home, made me giddy and sick all at once. Every trudging step back up to the house, weighed down by my wet shorts and cooked by the sun above, I thought about Maya joining me. We would surprise Nathan, we would all cry, and then we would sit down over a meal and talk. My chest was so tight around my heart. But it was the same selfism I had banished once before. I couldn’t ask Maya to come here, to this place, where I sometimes fell to the living room floor, pale and shaking from the heat. I couldn’t.

Neither of us said anything about her staying again for a long time after that morning.

Our lives carried on for another half a decade, frozen, unable to move on to somewhere new or pull back to how it used to be. The more the distance grew between Maya and her mother, the other-me fading away like old, cheap wallpaper, the closer we grew in that forest. She asked me about school subjects, and hairstyles, and boys. I did my best to answer fairly without too much disapproval. We bickered, but still, the next day, we would be there among the trees, slogging through the water now up to our armpits, a fresh conversation wiping away any lingering hurt. On birthdays, we exchanged gifts. And on the days where one of us was hurting, we exchanged the presence of another person in this large world who was unreservedly on your side.

 


 

I had rowed a little inflatable boat over from the shoreline to the forest, struggling to climb into it without it upturning even as I only stood in water up to my knees. Fortunately, no one was there to see me topple over. Maya, though, got in so effortlessly. In the deep waters of the forest, she had reached out for a tree, her hands wrapping around a branch to pull herself up and out of the water. It was the prerogative of a fit eighteen-year-old, and when she swung down into the dinghy, she looked over at me with the delighted, smug smile of a teenager. I couldn’t help but grin back. She had grown up so strong.

We sat there together on the boat, our clothes dripping wet, our necks coated with a layer of briny seawater. As we floated through the forest, we had to duck and weave between branches and leaves. Berries nestled in our hair. It was nearly time for the rowan trees to depart. Our little haven was about to make its final change, to no longer be the space between land and sea. We both understood what this meant and we floated in silence for several minutes.

“Why did you never have kids?”

Maya had never asked me that question, even when she was little and full of curiosity. I stared at her from across the dinghy, trying to place the look now on her face. Whatever was inside her was hidden well. “Nathan and I, we talked about it. A lot. We wanted to, but Maya, you don’t understand. You’ve never been outside of this forest. It’s terrible out there. How could we bring a child into this? How could that child not hate us for doing so?”

“No one could hate you,” Maya shrugged. I laughed. “No, really. Every day you came here to see me. Even when I was stupid or selfish, you still waited for me. You’ve always been here, the only one. Without you, I wouldn’t have gotten this far. I don’t see how anyone could hate you. Even if the world was burning or not. It doesn’t change the moments you gave me. It doesn’t change our memories. Or who we love.”

The heat of the morning felt so much hotter. It wrapped its fingers around my throat and started to squeeze as I understood what hid behind Maya’s words, what she was now thinking of doing as our forest retreat was about to vanish from the world. It was everything I ever wanted and feared compressed into a single moment. I shook my head. “Oh, Maya. You can’t come here. I would so love you to. I really, really would. But you can’t leave your home behind. It’s much better than here. And you can’t leave your Mum behind either.”

“I left a note, an explanation that will please her, a story that will lessen her guilt. But we haven’t talked in years. Not properly. Not like with you. You’ve been my mum, Richa. And I don’t want to be stuck never seeing you again. I’m eighteen now, and really there’s nothing you can do to stop me.”

“But … ”

“But the world is burning, but the sea is rising, but everything is shit,” Maya said, and the pressure around my throat loosened as I saw somehow this beautiful young woman was grinning at me. “I. Don’t. Care. Look, you didn’t have kids because you were afraid they’d hate you, that it wouldn’t be fair to bring them into this world. Well, I’m asking you to do so. I’m telling you that knowing everything, eyes wide open, no buyer’s remorse, I want to live in this world. Even as we all die. Even as everything is shit. Because I love you, Mum.”

There were a hundred different things I wanted to say. I wanted to thank her. I wanted to say that I loved her too. I wanted to tell her no. I wanted to tell her she’d have a room all set up, and I wanted to say that she should go home and live a long and happy life. I couldn’t say a single thing. The weight of the last two decades pressed down on my head, forcing it into my hands. Gasping for breath, tears spilling down my face, I tried to feel some sense of regret or shame. I couldn’t do it. The elation kept coming as Maya pulled me into a bear hug, so much like Nathan’s, and I sank into her arms. By the time I was able to see through my tears, we had drifted out from under the forest, and our little dinghy was bobbing against the new coastline twenty metres inland.

“So, what now?” Maya said, grinning even as she wiped her own cheek.

That question stretched out in front of me. I had no idea how we could make this work; of the challenges the world would throw at an impossible young woman from another reality. I knew, though, that Maya and I would deal with it. More, I knew that we wouldn’t have to do so alone. Nathan was waiting for us in our home. It could go so wrong to present him with a stranger, so nearly his daughter, and yet I knew this man, I loved him, and I knew that, like me, he would embrace Maya as his own. We would handle this world together.

“Come on, let’s get home,” I said, taking Maya’s hand. “There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”



James Rowland is a New Zealand-based, British-born writer. When he's not moonlighting as a writer of magical, strange or futuristic stories, he works as an intellectual property lawyer. Beyond writing (fictitious or legal), he enjoys travel, photography, reading, and the most inexplicable and greatest of all the sports: cricket. You can find more of his work at: https://www.jamesrowland.net/.
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