Joshua waited until Owen, the Trunk Steward, was snoring before he got out of bed and tiptoed out of the massive cabin. The floor only creaked slightly, but that wasn’t unusual for such a hastily put-together structure as this one. Within a a few steps, he left the dark dust of the cabin and entered the brilliant moonlight of the late summer midnight.
Joshua entered the center of the campground ‘belonging’ to the Children of the Poor Toth and passed a small copse of quivering aspen. He remembered the tree from his seventh grade biology test—they were actually all one tree, one massive organism underneath the soil. Bit of a creepy symbol, he thought. At the back of the copse of trees he turned left and entered a multicolored archway made of flowers that opened into a circle of archways made of ivy and branches.
The circle was about thirty yards wide, encircled by eight archways made of twisting branches and vines and covered in flowers of a different color. There was the Yellow Garden, the Red Garden, the Blue Garden, the Violent Garden, and so on. The eighth and final garden was the one Joshua had exited—the Every Garden, which is where the main campground was.
Josh entered into the Yellow Garden, which was more a miniature forest than a garden. It was densley packed with aspen trees, their white skin and yellow leaves brilliant in the moonlight. He walked quickly behind a large, wild-looking wall of sunflowers and turned to face the entranceway.
Within a few minutes, a young woman entered. She was barefoot and wearing the same patchwork clothing Owen was wearing—the style of ‘uniform’ for the Children of the Poor Toth. Her oversized shirt was made of patches of leather, cotton of all colors, and countless logos reshaped and reformed into a dishrag of a garment. Her pants were the same.
Her name was Mischa, and Josh feared that he was falling in love with her.
“Mischa! Mischa!” he said as quietly as he could, though he might’ve yelled and still no one would have heard. The dense foliage and distance from the sleeping cabins made this garden virtually eavesdropping-proof. “Over here!”
Mischa traipsed over—she moved like a doe, lightly and effortlessly.
“Did you get the information we needed?”
“Yes and no. We don’t keep records of who shows up here. The Poor Toth says we take on new identities when he brings us in; he doesn’t record our name or anything. That’s why so many of us are ex-cons or felons. There’s no record of your sister showing up at any point in the last year.”
His heart sank. “That’s it then; there’s no trace of her passing through here? Of even stopping for a night?”
“Not of her name…but there’s a chance that we do have a record of her being here. Remember when you gave up your clothing to stay here?”
“You mean when I traded in a $300 backpacking jacket for a bunch of clothing scraps sewn together?”
“When you do that, your clothing gets thrown into a pile for processing—it’s where it sits until we cut it up and remake new clothing with it.” Josh was more than a little annoyed that his jacket was going to be turned into scraps, but he moved on. “To keep track of how much we have, there’s a ledger with every item of clothing we collect, the day we collect it, and its size.”
“That means, if Olivia was here, her clothing was recorded!”
“Exactly! To stay here for a night, she would have had to leave her clothing with the supply cabin, which means it would have been recorded in the ledger.”
“Mischa, oh my god, you’re a genius. Thank you.” Josh hugged her and realized how sheer and worn his clothing and her clothing were. He felt an erection coming on, and immediately ended the hug. Mischa must’ve noticed, because she was chuckling while Josh waved hastily and returned to his cabin.
If they could get that ledger, he could find someone who had seen his sister. Josh’s heart erupted—this was it. He was going to find her.
That night, Josh dreamt that he was one of the quivering aspens in the Every Garden. His feet were stuck in the soil attached to the other trees while his sister walked by, unable to hear him or see him, no matter how much he waved his branches or quivered his leaves. He started screaming as he sank deeper and deeper into the soil, his roots growing more entangled with the trees next to him.
He woke up, frozen in fear for a moment, unsure if his scream was just in his dream. No one else in the cabin stirred, so he turned over and went back to sleep.
The morning sun beat down on Josh and his compatriots in the Red Garden. The Red Garden was hedged on all sides with tall rose bushes, and enclosed a small orchard of apple trees, strawberry plants, and other red fruits. On the edge of the garden, about six yards from the center, they were mulching a root ball from a tree they cleared the week prior. Without any heavy equipment, ‘mulching’ consisted of the three of them taking alternating hacks with their axes. Josh stopped to wipe the sweat off his nose.
“Getting tired, Soft Boy?” said a young man whose name Josh hadn’t bothered to remember. He was tall, lean, and had a cruel face. His eyes were sunk deep into his skull, leaving dark shadows under his brow. He had a patchy beard that surrounded a thin-lipped, wide mouth. His only respectable facial hair was a set of thickly grown mutton chops on either side of his jaw. His cheeks were sharp and his chin small, giving his whole head a sort of fox-like appearance. His hair had not been washed in some time.
But the most noticeable part of his appearance was the color of his skin. Like many of the disciples of the Poor Toth, he had vitiligo, a condition that gave patches of his skin different levels of melanin. It even affected his eye—one of his eyes was significantly bluer than the other, giving him the appearance of someone with two faces. While Josh had yet to see him, he heard that the Poor Toth himself had some kind of skin condition, which he said was evidence of the Universe’s special blessing—an anointment to bring together all of creation. It was certainly attractive to followers with the same condition, as close to 90 percent of his camp seemed to have a version of vitiligo.
Combined with his co-laborer’s patchwork denim jacket, Josh decided to call him Denim Two-Face.
“Yeah, Soft Boy—break time isn’t for another twenty minutes!” The echo was coming from Denim Two-Face’s sidekick, who had a long rat-like face, a permanent sneer, and thinning hair that came down to his shoulders. Josh called him Ratface Thinhair—not imaginative, but descriptive.
“I’m sweaty. Sweaty hands means slippery hands. We’re all swinging axes at each other, so let’s consider taking a minute to dry off.”
“We’re not so sweaty as you, Soft Boy,” Denim Two-Face said.
“Suit yourselves.” Josh sat. Instead of continuing to work, the other two laid their axes in the soil and sat on the barely-chipped root ball.
“You know something, Patrick?” Denim Two-Face said to Ratface Thinhair.
“What’s that, Garrett?”
“I heard someone leave our cabin last night during curfew hours.”
“You don’t say?”
“Floorboards creaked so hard, I thought half the cabin got up. Turns out it was just one soft, fat boy. Or someone carrying a whole sack of potatoes.” Denim Two-Face turned to Josh. “You happen to see anything about that, Soft Boy?”
“I’m a heavy sleeper. Didn’t hear anything.”
“You’re a heavy everything.”
Now Ratface Thinhair took his turn. “I bet he went out there to meet Mischa. Remember Mischa, Gar? I’m sure you do. We’ve all had our time with Mischa in one of the gardens.”
Josh pretended not to hear him. His shoulders tensed, and his left hand clenched. He saw an opportunity.
Ratface pushed his luck. “What about it Soft Boy? Did you get a chance to see one extra flower in the garden?”
Josh cannonballed himself out of his seated position—a gift from a year of rugby in high school—leapt off the root ball, and shot his knee into Ratface’s nose. He heard a satisfying crunch, and Ratface wailed and curled on the ground.
Denim Two-Face looked shocked, then laughed. He wasn’t laughing particularly hard, but there were tears coming from his face. Josh kept his hand close to the axe.
“Alright, Soft Boy—you’ve made your point. But you might want to consider making yourselves some friends,” Denim Two-Face said. “After all, ‘we’re all one here.’” He wiped his nose.
Josh left the Red Garden. Mischa wouldn’t be done choring for at least a couple hours, so he wouldn’t have any company for a while. He walked past several laborers who were wheeling a wheelbarrow filled with fertilizer into the Green Garden, probably the most overgrown of all the gardens. It smelled earthy and pungent, but not entirely unpleasant. A few of them had a form of vitiligo, but at least a couple of them didn’t. Josh supposed that the Poor Toth might have some appeal to the nomads and free spirits of the world, even if they didn’t have a skin affliction.
They were all united in this: all of them were required to do hard physical labor in return for their acceptance into the Children of the Poor Toth. This was their lot as “saplings,” which was the cult’s word for “newbies.” The senior members of the cult were given the title of Steward, based on whatever their role was. There was a Kitchen Steward, who ran the meals; the Trunk Steward, who kept track of all the clothing collected from new saplings; and a Steward for every garden. Josh was assigned to assist the Red Steward, a large, jovial man with an enormous moustage and a concrete gut, like a powerlifter.
Between saplings and stewards were a few other ranks, although as a sapling Josh wasn’t privy to how the cult was structured. Whatever they were, Josh figured that Rathair and Denim Two-Face were likely in the second rank at least—it would explain their cruelty to the saplings at the bottom of the ladder.
As Josh entered the Every Garden to hide in his bunk for a while, the Red Steward, wearing the colorful patchwork cloak of a Steward, approached him, legs frantically pumping underneath his rotund frame. The man held a hand to his nose, which appeared to be bleeding.
“Josh, Josh, waid ub.” Josh stopped, sure that he would be sent back to the Red Garden for more work.
“Hey, listen, I’m just heading to the kitchen for some wat—“
“Waid jusd a momend. Did you ged in a fighd with Padrick just now?” How could he have heard about that already? That was barely a couple minutes ago.
“It…yeah, it was self-defense.” Josh thought about Rathair’s potential seniority and added some humility. “I’m really sorry, I guess I’m just adjusting. Still growing, you know?”
“Of courb, we’re all still growing.” The Steward’s grotesque bloody nose kept pumping—maybe a casualty of the cold, dry air at mountanous elevation. “But you can’d damage any of your fellow Children, Josh. It’s not what the Poor Toth would want.”
“I’m sorry, Red Steward.” The orange-haired giant of a man nodded amiably while pressing one of his nostrils closed. He then snorted out an enormous wad of coagulated blood from his nose.
“I forgive you, Josh. Be on your way.” Josh started walking toward the center of camp, but the Red Steward added something else: “Also, no more sneaking out of the cabin at night. Mischa needs her sleep too, you know.” Josh froze. Did Mischa confess something? Did she tell someone about me? No…she’d be implicated too. She’s told me too much.
Josh rolled the dice. “I beg your pardon, sir, but I don’t know who told you I left my cabin. I slept like a log last night. You can ask Owen—I’m a snorer.”
The Red Steward raised his eyebrow. “Joshua, the sunflowers in the Yellow Garden tell me otherwise.” The Red Steward turned and left Josh to sit with his questions. He knew Mischa hadn’t told them about their meetings…but someone did. He’d been careful—maybe someone had heard him leave his bunk, but no one saw them in the Yellow Garden. He was certain.
The answer struck like lightning: surveillance. The cult had enough resources, enough income—surely they could have hidden a surveillance system out here somewhere. Josh walked away wondering if there was some kind of hidden camera system out here, so far from where electricity or industry could reach.
And he wondered if the same system might have caught a glimpse of his sister.
Josh sat at midday meal with the men. Denim Two-Face was there, laughing with his mouth full with his buddies. Josh was the wall between two groups of men: one group of friends who had been with the Poor Toth since before they founded this camp, and a group of friends who formed after arriving here. He was their buffer, a wall to keep them from mingling.
The men ate at a long wooden table with benches on either side, while the women ate at a parallel table a few yards away. He looked across to Mischa, who glanced back and went back to her conversation. For the first time since arriving, Josh was insecure about not being able to make friends. He wasn’t here for friendship or connection, but Mischa made him realize how much he missed home.
How long had he been looking for Olivia? A year now, maybe more? Backpacking through every visitor’s station, every ranger outpost along the Sierra Nevadas. It had eaten up all of his savings and then some. It probably cost him his relationship with Ellie—she almost surely had given up on him by now. Maybe even went ahead with a memorial for Olivia before letting him go; she was responsible like that. Their last conversation was just before Josh had decided to join the Poor Toth’s camp to look for his sister. Ellie had been trying to convince him to come home, to put Olivia to rest and put it behind them. In retrospect, that was a poor time to unveil his plan to live off-the-grid with a mysterious cult for at least six months. She had hung up; he put his backpack on. There was no one else to call.
The Poor Toth’s camp was his last resort: go undercover, attempt to find his sister, and take her back home. This is the only place she could be, he was sure of it.
“Some animal must’ve gotten into the clothing store, I’m sure of it,” said Owen, the clothing boy, to Denim Two-Face and a rat-faced man with a long, scraggly beard and thinning hair. “The inventory’s been set back for a week at least.”
“T’ain’t nothing but time, friend,” Rat-Face Thinhair said. He drank from his cup, an old plastic thing from a fast food chain promotion twenty years ago. He was drinking the short-fermentation honey mead the camp was known for (and funded by). He wiped his beard of the droplets, which gave his beard a sheen. His nose had a bandage across the bridge—Josh hoped it was broken. “T’ain’t nothing but time. ‘Sides, winter is on her way—ain’t no new disciples comin’ in til March at the earliest, so you’ll have all winter to get your clothing sorted and pretty.”
“Maybe so, maybe so,” said Owen.
“Look at Mr. Bond over here,” Denim Two-Face said. Staring at his plate, it took Josh a moment to realize he was Mr. Bond. He didn’t look up. “Don’t think I didn’t notice you stopped eating when we started talking. Can’t hear for all your chewin’, eh bud?” Josh couldn’t quite place his accent—it sounded like Irish and Canadian at once, like Ontario by way of ancient Gaelic. “Look at me, you fuckin’ rat.”
Josh looked up without blinking. He stared straight at Denim Two-Face’s blue eye. The vitiligo and the different eye colors gave the impression that he had a lazy eye. Josh just held the blue one. After about fifteen seconds, Denim Two-Face was satisfied and guffawed. Josh picked up his plate and left the table. They laughed until he was out of earshot.
He waited until Mischa left her table, and he approached her.
“Mischa, how long have you been here?”
“Uh, about four months, I’d guess? We don’t really track time here.”
“Fair enough. You’ve made a lot of friends though? You’ve seen enough to get a feel for how the camp runs?”
“Yeah, I suppose. Most of the Stewards know me, and I’ve spent time with pretty much all the saplings. They even move me around all the different Gardens so I can get to know them all—they said I’m pretty gifted with ‘Garden-speak,’ which I think is their way of saying I have a green thumb.”
“Hm. Okay. Have you, in all your time here, heard of some kind of surveillance system?”
Mischa looked a little uncomfortable.
“Josh, I told you I’d help you find your sister, but I can’t be your spy. The people here—this is my life now. I gave up everything to be here. I can’t risk that, not even for your sister.”
Josh did his best to keep calm, his desperation staying at a simmer.”Her name is Olivia. She’s been missing for nearly a year now, Mischa. I gave up everything to be here too, and I can’t leave until I’ve figured out what to do next.” He felt burning in his eyes, despite his best efforts. “This is it. If I can’t find anything here, if there’s nothing here for me, then she’s gone—and I can’t do anything else. This is all I have left.”
Mischa kept her gaze on Josh’s eyes while he looked away. She put her hand to his cheek, and he leaned the weight of it in her palm. “Joshua, you’re a good brother.” He stifled a sob.
She took his hand and led him into the Blue Garden, which had a hedge of blue roses taller than the both of them by several feet. She told Joshua to lie on his back, and he did. She pushed her pants to her feet and stepped out of them. What they did lacked joy or passion or longing. All it had was contact—comfort in the warmth of being around and inside another person.
Within a few minutes, they were finished. While Josh laid there, raw and red-eyed and exhausted, she sat up. “If there were a surveillance system here—and I’m not saying there is—it could only be in one place.”
“Where?” Josh said as he sat up.
“It doesn’t matter, Josh. I’m telling you, we probably don’t have one…and if I’m wrong…”
“It doesn’t matter, Mischa. I take responsibility for this. This is on me—I just need to know where.”
Mischa looked away, still hesitating. Her brow furrowed.
“It would be in the Poor Toth’s cabin, Joshua.” Josh started pulling up his pants, but Mischa grabbed his arm. “You can’t. No one sees the Poor Toth without being summoned—not even some of our Stewards have seen him. He never leaves his cabin, not unless—“
“Unless what? What does he leave his cabin for?”
“I can’t, I really can’t. Only people who’ve been here long enough get to know, who’ve proven their loyalty…”
“Stop giving me the marketing material, Mischa! When does the Poor Toth leave his cabin?”
“A ceremony. He does a ceremony once every season called the Mulching—they mulch a tree or something. It happens at the midpoint of every season, and it’s just him, his most trusted advisors, and a few handpicked saplings.”
“When is the next Mulching?”
Mischa looked at him with horror. “Oh no, you can’t. You can’t! It’s our most sacred day—trying to take advantage of it would be like robbing someone’s house while they’re at a funeral. There needs to be another day.”
“There is no other day, Mischa! If there’s even a chance there’s footage of Olivia being here, I need to take it. This is my best shot, and it’s the least likely one to get me caught.” She looked down, reluctant to admit that he was right. “If it’s not this, then I’ll do something else, and it’s almost certainly going to get me caught. When is the next Mulching?”
“Next week. The autumnal equinox is next week.”
“When will I get to see him?” Josh said in as eager a tone as he could muster. The Red Steward had joined his charges in the Red Garden, and Joshua did everything he could to do labor as close as possible to the portly, heavy-breathing redhead. “Does he ever come out to see us? Like, in an orientation?”
“No, never for anything as paltry as an orientation, Joshua.”
“Well, it may be years before you see him, Joshua. He believes in letting all of us grow on our own. Those of us who were with him in the beginning learned from his teachings firsthand, but he’s empowered us, his Stewards, to grow his Children in the way they ought to go,” he said, straining as he stood up from his stool. Josh thought he heard the stool creak in thanks. “What you learn from me—that’s how you ‘see’ the Poor Toth.”
“How does he avoid running into everyone in the camp? Like, he still eats, right?”
“Of course he eats. He’s a man like any of us. And he stays in his private garden, where he can study and meditate at all hours.”
“He has a private garden?”
“Yes, but don’t ask where it is. He is not to be disturbed.”
“Who brings him food?” The Red Steward eyed Josh with a glare, and he knew he had taken it too far.
“Get back to work, Joshua.”
Joshua complied, but had an idea. He walked over to Denim Two-Face and Ratface Thinhair, with the latter immediately stepping away. Joshua ignored it.
“Man, what I wouldn’t give to be doing something easier than this.”
“Speak for yourself, Soft Boy,” Two-Face said. “I’m fine right where I am.”
“Are you? There aren’t any more important jobs around here you’d be qualified for?”
Josh switched gears. “I heard there was a guy around here who delivers food directly to the Poor Toth, but saplings like us wouldn’t get to do something like that.”
“I’m no sapling. I’ve been here two years. I’m due for promotion soon.”
“Oh? They haven’t promoted you yet? I heard the guy who serves the Poor Toth his food has only been here six months.”
“The fuck you hear that from? The Stewards serve the Poor Toth, and they’ve all been here for five years at least.”
The Stewards, of course. “Oh whoops, must’ve been thinking of someone else.” Josh thought about how the Red Steward is gone once a week in the mornings—that must be when he delivers the food and whatever else the Poor Toth needs.
All Josh would have to do is wait near the Steward’s cabin in the morning and follow whichever one took a detour from the rest of them, and follow them all the way to the Poor Toth’s private garden.
Simple enough, he thought.
The next morning, Joshua got up before dawn to wait for the Stewards. He waited in the woods behind the cabin until the sun came up, pink and beckoning to work. The Stewards left the cabin, all men, all dressed in cloaks denoting their particular role. The Kitchen Steward and the Yellow Steward walked off toward the cook fires, and Joshua followed from behind the trees.
Once the Yellow Steward had his shipment—what appeared to be a small loaf of bread, some preserves, and boiled eggs—he walked onto a narrow trail that left the meadow where the center of camp was located into the dense forest. Joshua followed at a safe distance, walking alongside the Yellow Steward in the deep growth. After a mile or so, Joshua saw it: a small cabin much older and more thoughtfully constructed than their own. It was settled in a small clearing encircled by ferns, and it had a stone chimney that smoked humbly.
The Yellow Steward entered the cabin without knocking, and once the door was closed, Joshua turned to leave.
As he turned, thunder struck his jaw and he saw lights dancing in his vision. He fell on his back, and when he looked up, he saw Ratface Thinhair—his greasy skin glistening in the early morning light. He was sweating.
“Whatcha doin’ out here, Soft Boy? Spying? Do we have a spy? Maybe I tell the Poor Toth what’s what, huh?”
Josh tried to get up, but Ratface ran at him and drove his shoulder into him, driving Josh into the dirt. Ratface’s knee landed in his groin, sending pulsing pain through his gut. Ratface was on top of him, swinging his fists sloppily and wildly into Josh’s face like a chimp. Josh felt the blood swirling in his mouth, heard his nose nearly give. Blood spurted out his nose. His face was hot from each impact, from the shame of being caught unawares.
He reached behind himself, clawing for any advantage. He thrust his hips up to interrupt Ratface’s rhythm, but he stayed on. Josh felt something smooth and cylindrical and hard in his hands, clutched it, and swung it as hard and fast into Ratface’s face as he could.
The greasy man yowled in shock, and Josh saw what he had picked up—an old piece of antler, polished by time and the elements. Ratface got up, the antler still in his neck just below his ear. He bled from his neck where the antler point had landed. He clutched at it, making a clucking sound in his throat while he tried to figure out what to do. Ratface turned toward the cabin and took a step.
NO! Josh pulled at the antler, ripping it out and releasing more blood than he had ever seen. He put his arm around Ratface’s neck and dragged him backwards deeper into the woods. Once far enough away from the clearing, he threw the man into the dirt. Ratface kept clucking with his throat, thrashing and arching his back. His eyes looked nowhere, then at Josh, then he stopped looking at all.
Josh put his back against a tree and slid down into a crouch. He stared at Ratface’s body for a few minutes. Once the Yellow Steward walked back to the camp, he buried Ratface’s body and washed his face in a river. There were a few spots of blood on his clothes; he wasn’t sure whose. He tried to keep himself from sobbing too loudly as he walked back to camp.
On the day of the Mulching, the Stewards awoke the sleeping cabins at dawn. There was no labor or oat porridge this morning; instead, the Children of the Poor Toth walked out to a magnificent breakfast spread of wheat cakes, berry preserves, squash and pumpkin, boiled eggs, and a rich, thick syrup that was sweeter than anything Josh had poured out of a bottle.
The men and women weren’t separated for the first feast of the day. Everyone intermingled at both feast tables, and the Kitchen Steward had a few of his saplings serve honey mead to everyone. Winter stores would need to be protected for the season, so this was the last day any of them would enjoy excess until the following spring.
Josh made himself a plate, but he only ate an egg, too nervous to indulge himself. One way or another, he was leaving the camp that night. Not alone, I hope. Josh and Mischa hadn’t spoken much since he snuck out to the Poor Toth’s cabin last week. He had broached the topic of the both of them leaving, but she wouldn’t have any of it. There might still be time to convince her, he thought.
Although he realized, as he looked around, that she wasn’t at the feast.
Josh’s hands tapped on the table. She was supposed to be his lookout for this plan. He kept looking around nervously. Maybe she was at the outhouse. But Josh would have seen her at some point this morning. He pushed himself up from the table and spotted the people Mischa spent her time with.
“Have you seen Mischa this morning?” Josh asked a dark-haired woman with wet-looking eyes. She looked up at him, a bit of syrup on her chin, and shrugged. He looked over to another of Mischa’s companions, and she suggested that Mischa might be in the outhouses. Josh frowned and walked off.
He walked by the outhouses on the way to the women’s cabins. He knocked on the outhouse doors, but no one was there. He went to the women’s cabin and found nothing—everyone was at the feast. I don’t know when the Mulching starts or ends, he thought to himself with growing anxiety. She was supposed to let me know when it was safe to go to the Poor Toth’s cabin. Josh reviewed his choices, and they weren’t good. Either he could walk to the Poor Toth’s cabin, flying blind without knowing if his cabin was empty or not…or he could wait for Mischa.
If she didn’t get back in time though… Josh remembered that the Mulching only happened once every several months, and the Mulching in the middle of winter would mean Josh would need to stay another three months until the snow melted. Olivia’s trail was already getting cold. It would be dead and buried by then, even if he did find something.
It dawned on Josh that Mischa might be in trouble. Whatever surveillance system they had here, it might have caught one of their conversations about planning around the Mulching. Josh’s gut twisted. What if she’s missing because of me? Josh looked back where he had come from—the Stewards were already long gone. He looked out toward the woods where the Poor Toth’s cabin was.
He made his way forward.
He walked extra carefully through the woods, which were still dark, as the low autumn sun hadn’t pierced the dense foliage of the forest. He made a wide arc around his original path, which was a wider arc still around the trail that led to the old cabin in the clearing. The air was cool and smelled richly of soil and decomposing leaves—fall had come early. The walk would have been pleasant under any other circumstances. The birds were quiet; Josh had a feeling that it was going to be an early winter, and many of the birds had left already.
As he made his wide arc back toward the path he took a week prior, his stomach started to clench. He was going to come across Ratface Thinhair’s grave, so he steeled himself in preparation. Thirty yards. He stepped through the ferns with care. It wasn’t out of respect so much as fear; Josh found himself instinctvely moving as though he were going to come upon Rathair Thinface doing his work, laboring in the cool morning where he had buried his corpse only a few days prior. Twenty yards. Josh stopped behind a tree—he was sweating, clammy in the cold air. He could see the patch of trees he had buried Patrick in. It was at least a beautiful spot. Ten yards. There was just a wall of ferns and a small berm of soil between him and the body, and past that, the clearing where the Poor Toth’s cabin was. Josh looked around, unable the shake the feeling that he was being watched.
As Josh stepped over the berm, his guts uncoiled and threatened to come up his throat. The grave had been dug up. Patrick’s body had been taken.
Crack. Josh felt a wet thud on the back of his head, then the soft dirt, then blackness.
Joshua woke up, tied to a tree in a dense thicket of shrubbery and tree trunks. He felt his heartbeat in his head. He looked up and saw Denim Two-Face, Ratface Thinhair, and Mischa standing at the head of four pits. Their hands were covered in dirt, their fingernails raw from digging. They were encircled by the Stewards, who stood motionless around them in their many-colored patchwork cloaks. Standing next to the fourth pit in the circle was someone who turned Joshua’s stomach.
He looked hairless, his skin mottled and dappled with all different shades of skin. He wore a white cloak over most of his body, but his arms and legs were grotesquely misshapen, huge bags of fluid and numerous folds making his hands looking like sagging bags of cement, and his feet looked like tree trunks entering the ground. The worst was the man’s throat—his throat hung low, bulbous and enormous like a frog’s throat just before a croak. The man’s eyes looked directly at Joshua without blinking, waiting for him to finish his assessment.
Joshua knew who this was, somehow. Felt it in his bones—this was the Poor Toth.
“Hello, Joshua.” The Poor Toth lowered himself to sit on a fallen log to Joshua’s left. They were in an extremely small clearing, the sun barely breaching the layers of leaves and branches in the canopy above. Denim Two-Face, Ratface, Owen, and Mischa all stood at attention, looking straight ahead.
“Mischa, are you okay?” Why won’t she look at me?
“Joshua, she won’t answer you until you answer me.” The Poor Toth’s voice sounded like a croak, which made him seem even more like an enormous toad. He had an accent as though he had not truly learned English and only picked it up phonetically.
“What did you do to them? What did you do to Mischa?” Josh tried to sound like an action hero, like he was still calling the shots, but all that came out was begging. “What did you do to my sister?”
“What happens to Olivia is no different than what happens to you, to Owen, to Mischa. It’s all the same.” Josh was looking at the Poor Toth when he said this, but his voice came from the right—from Ratface’s mouth. Then Denim Two-Face’s mouth: “We’re all one here, Joshua.”
Joshua tried to comprehend, tried to understand it like some form of puppetry, of hypnosis and ventriloquism. “What are you?”
“Ah, a much better question. I’m fireflies, Joshua. I’m the logic that drives the fungus, that leads birds to fly south for the winter and north for the summer. I’m what determines when it’s time to mate, when it’s time to hunt, when it’s time to hibernate, when it’s time to sleep. I’m the clock at the center of all life, the brain that drives it all.”
At this, the Poor Toth placed his hand on the tree Josh was tied to, and he saw that the Poor Toth’s hand began to grow ridges in his flesh, and bones lengthened and hardened into a new shape—the Poor Toth had turned his hand into an extension of the tree. Then Joshua felt his arms melt, sag, and sink into the tree itself. He screamed.
“What do you call it? Mother Nature? I suppose I am like a mother—I create life, generate it, nurture it. But I don’t do it for you, out of benevolence. I do it because you are all me. Or you were, once—and will be again.” The Poor Toth smiled, and Josh saw that his mouth had too many teeth, growing in layers out of his gums, in rows like a shark. “Every morning, you’ve been eating me, nurturing yourself on me, preparing yourself for this moment.”
“What happened—what happened to Olivia?” Josh managed to put the sentence together without sobbing. As Josh was pulled into the tree, he understood.
The Poor Toth gestured at the four young acolytes he had hypnotized. “Did you ever wonder why these three, out of the hundreds here, spoke to you? Provoked you? Incited you?” The Poor Toth gestured at them, silently standing with slightly slumped posture, reminiscent of fresh marionettes hung up to dry. “Why them?”
“Let me show you.” The Poor Toth waved his hand, and Josh watched all of them, Mischa included, begin a living time-lapse. While the world around them stayed the same, their skin began to loosen and sag, their bodies hunched ever so slowly, their eyes sinking deeper into the folds of their eyelids. Their hair fell out, their teeth fell out, until they collapsed into a deep pool of wet sludge.
Josh stared at the ground, unable to find his way to dry land from whatever deep ocean he was sinking into.
The Poor Toth gestured again, and the sludge swirled, reformed, and became three people once again—but as Josh looked closer, he realized they weren’t the same four people. None of them had vitiligo. He recognized Denim Two-Face’s eyes separated and reunited with their twins in two different faces. He saw Mischa’s eyes reform in the body of a smaller, wiry young woman. A woman that, to Josh’s horror, he recognized.
“Olivia.” He choked on her name.
The three of them stood motionless, no more present than Mischa was. They were aspens, all a single organism pretending to be a group of living things.
“Yes, Joshua, it’s her.” The Poor Toth’s voice came out of Olivia’s mouth. “It’s me.”
“Why?” Josh sobbed. “Why are you doing this?”
“I’m nature itself, Joshua. I arrived here long before you and your tribes and your wars and your expeditions and notebooks and shelters. I grew this forest, grew the food and the birds and the soil. I tried my hand at making people, but that got much easier when I could absorb a few of you into myself.” Josh reluctantly understood what the Mulching was for. Why Mischa was drawn to him, why Two-Face and Thinhair wouldn’t leave him alone. Olivia was trying to speak to him, translated and re-translated through the alien consciousness of whatever the Poor Toth was. “The raw materials for consciousness can be hard to come by.”
Josh pushed his body forward, and felt his arms and back attach to the tree. He realized he could feel the roots, the leaves, the branches. He felt the wind dozens of feet above his head, like it was wafting through his hair. He pushed forward, pain traveling along his arms and down his spine—if he even had one. He concentrated on pulling one arm away from the tree; in one long, wet stripping sound, like the sound of duct tape coming away from a wall, Josh pulled his arm loose. The blood gushed not from his wound, but from the wound on the tree. He tore savagely at his other arm, clawing away at the blurring line between his body and the tree’s.
With both arms free, he propelled himself forward, his spine coming halfway out his body before his flesh tore away from the trunk. He collapsed in front of the Poor Toth’s feet, sobbing from the pain and the knowledge of what was to come. The Poor Toth leaned down, waved his hand, and Joshua felt the ground come up past his head. The soil entered his mouth, his nostrils, and his eyes.
David Rhoades worked in a production studio as a treatment writer after that. His short stories have been published in Cul De Sac Magazine.