Sunny is a short story from Dan Diehn.
If you're just joining us, you can read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV,
Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII, Part IX, and Part X
to catch up with Kiran and Fish.
Attila and his tree had been inseparable since birth. Everyone who was present in the room of the maternity ward at the time of his birth wrinkled their foreheads in confusion and rubbed their eyes in disbelief. His mother howled in pain and then in grief as her monster child was placed in her arms.
“It’s a boy!” the nurse declared, and then hesitantly, unsure of the words even forming in her throat, “and deciduous from the looks of it.”
The hospital staff shuffled around the room, uncertain whom to call. No one had encountered such an occurrence before. Does one reach out to a disease specialist or an arborist? The question was too ridiculous to ask and so it remained sequestered within their thoughts that slowly drifted away with time. No memory so absurd could possibly be true, a fever dream from years ago, perhaps.
His father had turned away and stormed out of the room at the sight of him, Attila’s branches waving in the air as he cried out. He returned later that night with a plan to discard the hybrid beast somewhere in the forest where it belonged. Let the woods raise their own, goddamnit.
After they had been sent home, he swaddled his newborn baby in a blanket and placed him in an old rucksack with a pair of bolt cutters, carelessly tossing the metal in with the soft bark-skinned child. The moonlight was bright and lit his path as he sneaked around security and cut holes in the wire fence, traipsing across the snow laden ground into the darkness of the forest. He walked until he could no longer see the light of the border, until the only sound was his breath, the heavy beat of his heart, and the crunch of ice beneath his feet.
He removed his son from the bag and held him up to the light, his leaves shimmering in the wind. His father crossed himself and placed the baby next to the biggest and oldest tree he could find. He gazed to the sky, begged for forgiveness, turned, and left without even the slightest glance back.
Once the human was out of earshot, the massive tree reached down its branches and scooped Attila up and close to its foliage. It inhaled as Attila exhaled and exhaled as Attila inhaled. The tree did not understand the cries of the human baby but Attila’s companion did its best to translate.
Attila persisted like this for years. Being raised by the forest, he was taught to forage and to hunt, to read the wind and the electromagnetic shifts that surrounded the planet. As he grew, his companion also grew, requiring Attila to retire for days at a time, allowing it to root and rest, absorbing life out of the earth.
As the fences that kept his parents in containment began to fall and humans began to wander into the woods again, Attila’s companion taught him how to hide it in his body so that he appeared like a normal boy. Attila raided nearby stores and stole clothes and food that tasted wholly different from the fruit the forest bore him, the animals he killed and skinned. Most who managed to stray into the forest this far ended up lost, but a few survived long enough to be swallowed up by the trees themselves, uprooting themselves and cavorting ever closer until they descended upon them. Attila watched wide-eyed as flesh was torn asunder and their bark was stained red.
Attila started to venture beyond the forest more and more frequently as he grew older. He tried to map his routes but no matter which path he followed, the end of the trail would end up somewhere different from the previous hike. He knew that the trees shuffled to obscure the paths that appeared by happenstance, but this was something different; even the stars changed places from night to night.
He asked his companion about it one night as he lay perched amongst its branches, nearly twenty feet tall now. The bark beneath him vibrated and shook. The phrase “dancing forest” drifted into his mind and behind his eyelids the vision of an old mansion rising out of a distant clearing pushed into being. Attila sought it out the next morning.
The forest was of two minds about Attila seeking a home beyond their reach. Some attempted to block his way, but they were too slow. The few that somehow thrust themselves in the midst of his path were swiftly thrown with a simple gesture of his limbs, crashing and toppling over rocks and roots, their bark shattering in the dry heat that had descending upon them over this year’s Summer. Attila now preferred to remain in hybrid form rather than hiding his plant portion. The power was immense and the other trees ate it up with aplomb.
With each step, his roots sank deep and drank from the natural spring placed on this planet eons ago. Attila felt ancient but not old, full of knowledge but not wise. Every surge of energy pressed the thoughts of thousands into his mind. A picture of the universe began to form at the edges of his consciousness. He was one of many, to be sure, but his other was not. It was one of a kind, no sect to call home, no hierarchy to squash it beneath its heel.
Attila pushed ever forward until it appeared before him, first as a hazy object in the dim distance. The building was old, that much he could tell just by the energy emanating from every brick in its structure, but it remained pristine. A wrought iron gate connected by a high fence separated the forest from the yard and Atilla swept over it in one fell swoop, his trunk arcing high in the sky. He could feel the forest detaching from his being and it left him tired and hungry. Two massive wooden doors at the building’s entrance croaked open with no one attending. Attila crept ever forward and entered.
For as long as Attila had spent studying under the trees, he spent at least twice that burrowed in the house. The endless halls called and coaxed him into different rooms where he would find an inexhaustible supply of texts from every era. Their subjects were vast and their powers were immediate. When hungry, he simply stood and walked until he happened upon a massive dining hall filled with meats and vegetables and succulent fruit, seemingly poached from the surrounding forest.
When the twin siblings first approached, Attila knew that they held power within themselves. As far as he knew, no one had made it more than a few miles amongst the trees before being eaten alive, so to slog through the dense flora and actually discover the house would require an incredible, magical keen sense of direction. He welcomed them and offered his assistance in their pursuit. The house was power, but neutral, not discriminating on the sorts of sorcery that one may wish to conjure. This was the first and last time Attila trusted another human being.
“Then why are you telling us this now?” Fish remained skeptical. “You know I grew up at that house, right? Those,” she hesitated to find a word befitting their horror, “people practically raised me until they had their throats slashed.”
Attila was wistful, his eyes distant and welled with memory. “Yes, I know,” he said flatly. “In a way, we all grew up there.”
Fish sighed, tired from not sleeping, tired of all the dodged questions, the phrases forced out like riddles. She uncrossed her legs and stood, stretching as she paced. “All of this is just lovely by the way, but what the hell are we doing here?”
Attila flinched and planted his feet. Roots extended from beneath his toes and he stood. “You of all people should want to know their origin before they die.”
Fish whirled around, her green and purple hair whipping against the air. “Is that a fucking threat?”
Attila cast his gaze downward. “No, of course not. We all die. And we all began. We all began from the same place. This power, our companions, they are not so different. Mine is a god and yours is a,” he squinted, “well, a something nonetheless. Oh if I had had you around in my academic phase we could have made some incredible progress! I have studied so many to unlock their secrets, to understand why some heed the call and why some do not, why they live with us, die with us. I was born with mine and we have lived the best life I can imagine but now my time has come.”
“Because you’re dying,” Fish stated, hoping the stark reality could coax a straightforward answer out of him.
“No, no, dying is secondary. It’s done with me. I did not choose it but it chose me.” Attila sank back into the couch. Duri snored loudly.
“And what of Kiran?” Fish asked, gesturing toward her floating body. “She doesn’t deserve any of your or its bullshit.”
“None of us do,” Attila agreed. “But it’s the only one it said it wanted, the only one capable of holding it after me.” He stopped. He thought the thoughts of the thousands that had come before him, the breadth of emotion and experience that hung in the back of his mind, the timeliness experience of the universe as it has played out from the beginning. “I am just a cog in this great machine and wish to help the next spin in harmony.”
Fish steeled herself against his poetry, “What’re you trying to say, old man?”
Attila adjusted his posture until he sat up as straight as he could. “When I die, I want...” he stopped,”...it wants her to take over.”
by Dan Diehn