Green, How I love You
by Zoe Gilbert
“Verde, que te quiero verde”
(Federico Garcia Lorca, Romance Sonambulo)
The cold was sharp as light that day, casting chills in place of shadows in the brown, branching wood. There was no wind, but Carlos traced flurries in dead leaves and thought of mice, a furry undercurrent in the fungus-spotted mulch. His beard prickled, his toes ached in his hardening boots, and the numbing peace he sought was starting to seep, familiar, when the song wisped through his head.
Green, how I love you, Green, it sang. It was neither his voice, nor his thought.
Green skin, green hair, oh how I love you, Green. Carlos circled a bare beech tree and tried to smirk. There’s no green to be seen anywhere, and what is this? He shook his head, to shake out the voice, and let the cold sink back in. There is succour in cold, one pain replacing another.
He trudged in the still brown air, stale for want of a tree’s breath, towards a place where the brambles churned and a slight slope made for a view.
Not green but grim, he thought. Grim was his goal in these deadening walks and he knew how to become as numb as a stump, rigid right through, to forget for a time what was lost.
He made for the dint in a long-fallen trunk, his favoured seat, and in the final strides of his approach there seemed to unfurl, right there in the bark’s old crease, a fungus. He stopped, and bent over it. Had he not noticed it, his steps automatic, his eyes tired? A velvet brown ear glistened, so new, so soft, it looked warm.
There was a scurrying away beyond the trunk, a quivering through the brambles. Carlos bent closer, caught a scent of something like truffle, like chestnuts sweetly charred, and he whispered into the ear.
Green, how I love you.
He started back. In the windless wood, impossible leaves long flown from the trees whispered in return so that he seemed caught amidst a chorus. Green skin, green hair. Carlos stumbled further up the slope, stamping down curls of thorn, shaking his head again to chill his cheeks and sluice himself back to his senses.
The hill crested soon, he knew, and would show him a bank of sky, but the trees reared up with the heaving ground, confusing his path, and their bodies were rich with dark ringlet moss. His palms as he grasped were stroked by it. As his hands slid down it licked at his wrists and he was maddened by the thrum he felt in response.
There is no green, he said in his head. No green, no love, now breathe in this cold and take it down and hold it. Cold is comfort now.
He bent over, breathing, so far down that he saw the wood between his legs. But the warmth of his breath made him furious, the heat of his folded belly and his hot hands on his knees and he let out a groan backwards down the slope. His head hurt and his ears began to ring. The familiar beat of blood, he thought, at least that is how it should be, but the ringing was tinged with a high-strung note that was not red but green, the fine green of grass tips, of saplings, sap, the green blood of trees.
He saw her then, the singing thing. Or he saw through his legs a waver like heat in the air, and the dead leaves rising in it. Green, how I love you. It rang in his ears, and the hum of it purled through his veins and then she was gone. The wood faded back to sepia but for a tint, the hint of sap that glowed now from deep within each tree.
Carlos righted himself and turned and ran down the slope. He felt the last threads of her wavering heat in the air and his mouth watered at the scent of chestnut, of smoke.
He followed it like a bloodhound, but as he crouched down, nose to the ground, the shiver ahead would slide up and shake old man’s beard in a taunting cloud or leave tumbling specks of lichen. Then up he would gaze, running hands-out, with the chaos of canopy crazing his eyes only to hear her whisk through the leaf litter, marking his path up ahead with heel dints that he probed with muddy fingers.
How far he went or for how long, no tree in the wood or thought in his head made measure, and what did it matter? For he found the place – her place – and how perfect, how secret it was.
The song curled through his mind but Carlos did not know how to sing. He was all breath, after the chase, and he smelled his own sweat and the blood in his pulse disgusted him. The shirt that clung to his sticky flesh, the wool that protected his beating skin, he threw off, and he rubbed himself with leaves. They were dry, paper brown, and he shuddered at their lifelessness but breathed in deep all the same.
He knew what to do. Naked, speckled with leaf fragment, he crawled between leaning slender lengths of birch and beech. They made a tunnel that funnelled him down into a gully, where the musk overwhelmed him and the ground grew soft with mulch. Every chestnut breath was a draught to his veins; every close of his eyes brought her nearer, and when he thought he murmured her song it was her voice that thrilled him.
Green, how I love you, Green. Carlos rolled in the bed of leaves strewn in the gully’s depth, green and red and rustling brown, and when she finally crept upon him, he sang too.
It was not like birds, like the cries of love, or like a ballad that worships the woods. He became a chord that would play with no tune but her, and had no resonance except for her response.Green skin, green hair, his limbs seemed to say, and those were the only words he wanted now, all he would ever want.
He learned more quickly than ever he had, as if woodland ways are given. How to bury into the ground and borrow the soily sleep of earthworms; how to follow mud to water and lap with his tongue. But best of all, how to tap the sap that rose all around him, the sign of it in the air growing so clear that it pierced his head and made an orchestra of it with its sweet high notes and throbbing drone, whether at leaf or root. Green’s own hard tongue, made so much stronger than his own by life, would turn for hours against a wrinkle of birch bark, until the juice found course and poured down her chin. Then she fed him, and he bit at her lips, so hard to feel between his own that had barely lived at all.
It hurt him at first, the sense of what had been wasted, his mind cramped all these years by thoughts that came in such limited shapes, hardening out the wild world beyond. Whatever he had left, whatever had been lost, shrank to a small red stone, hard and silent. Then, in his bliss, he forgot even this.
Carlos grew slender and so his limbs seemed to lengthen, their pale angles dotted with leaf shred, so that he felt a kinship with the silver birches that lent stripes of moonlight to the wood at night, and that yielded so gracefully to Green’s sweet, hard tongue. So attuned did he become to Green, the colour of her song and her mischievous quiver, that her form became more and more distinct to him. In bright beetle backs he discovered her eyes; in the old pollards he traced the sharp line of her shoulders, until sometimes he glimpsed the whole of her as she swept through a clearing, or wound her way up the trunk of an oak to send down showers of acorns.
Without speech, without time, it was no surprise now to watch a trumpet of fungus bloom from a stump, and always before he teased it away with tender fingers, he would sing first to its sensuous ear, Green, how I love you, Green, and he knew she would hear.
Their gully, under its stripling roof, grew musty with Carlos’s scents, the pungency of his shrinking flesh a note that soured her aura of truffle and chestnut. When the wood began to change, dressing itself with a shy, verdant growth, he scattered these tiny dapple-leaves into fresh beds for them, and rubbed himself raw with what was left. Still, the freshly excited air vibrated, and foxes came, drawn through the warming, prickling wood. He felt the damp nose of a vixen dotting his thighs one night, and she carried away the smell of him like a secret while Green pulsed against his side, invisible in her veil of sap. He felt himself betrayed and betrayer, and was shocked to find these words in his head.
With the spring came other disturbing sounds that froze Carlos still in his leaf-litter bed. One was a crunch, that brought back to his mind that small red stone. The next was a sting, a call that was not a bird but had the same joyous thrall about it, and made pain weave through his head. The air was shot with sun in that moment, and heat on his skin made him shudder for something, a feeling he could not grasp. Green trailed away like smoke through the undergrowth and his hard white limbs could not follow.
Far up from the gully the earth shook. Trees tensed their roots, and Carlos tensed too. Green, where are you, Green? he gasped, and it was no song at all, but a terrible wheeze that tore at his unused throat. The tumult of tones grew too much to bear, and his thoughts made another word: voices. But the word was so strange that he let it dissolve in his mouth. Bury, he thought in its place; burrow down, and he wriggled his elbows, his wasted hips, and felt the leaves scrape the dirt from his withered skin.
Plump pink hands dragged at his roof, tearing away rich shadow. Shrieks as foreign as parrots burst above Carlos.
“This is the place! Let’s make a castle, with dungeons!” The voices cut shapes in his head then, hard and angled and irresistible. Carlos groaned with new remembered pain, the spikes of words pricking him so that he longed to roll instead in coils of brambles, have his sap speared from him but not blood, not red.
Green, he wheezed, but the sound, love cramped into a mere word, was all that was left.
A pink face peered, small and round. Carlos turned away, pressed leaves into the creases of his own numbed cheeks.
“Go back to the car, right now,” said the words. “God, the smell. What the hell do we do?”
He heard someone start to cry. Only human beings cry, he thought, only flesh and blood. Is it me? Is it me, crying?
“Can’t we call someone? Do they even have wardens out here? God, I can’t breathe, it’s foul. I don’t care if he can hear me. Did the kids see? Give me the phone, we should call the police. Don’t touch him. I said don’t touch him.”
Carlos searched in his limbs for the sense of tightening tree roots, the swallow of silent birds, and it was all gone. There was only a faint thud, thud, thud, that came from his red human heart.
Zoe Gilbert lives in London where she curdles together a full-time job and a creative writing PhD. She is fascinated by folklore and the fantastic in short fiction, and is working on a collection of interwoven folkloric stories set not quite in this world. Her fiction has won prizes from the British Fantasy Society amongst others, and appeared in journals including Luna Station Quarterly, Glint, Fringe Magazine and Vine Leaves. She also has stories published in UK and Irish anthologies from Labello Press, Cinnamon Press, Earlyworks and Duality, and she blogs about writing and creativity at www.mindandlanguage.blogspot.com. Most of all, she would like to live in the woods.