Warm, soft earth shifted and rose as if the earth itself were taking a deep breath. The mound fell away as Taeda pushed thin fingers through the crust, and cleared the way for the rest of him. He took deep, gasping breaths of the cool morning air. The sun was nearly blinding compared to the darkness he’d slept in before. It shone through the leaves, making the forest glow. Glorious
Taeda shivered. Warm as the sun was rumored to be, it hadn’t yet heated the air. He considered going back to the shelter of the earth. It was warm, there, and protected. He could start again on a warmer day- No, once started, we can’t go back. We must rise, rise as far and as high as we can before the Sleep comes. They’d been warned of that, and Taeda chose his starting time carefully. It was warm enough to survive the elements, but with enough time before the next Sleep for him to prepare.
It wasn’t long before he saw others pushing their way out of the soil, slender fingers clawing their way to freedom. Some of them had a harder time than others, they were forced to crawl around boulders, were trapped in the darkness by some fallen giant, or were sick and wounded before they even saw the sun. Taeda pitied them, in a way, but this was a race, and their imminent failing would give him an edge. Taeda, and his people, were ruthless in the race for the sun. Even now, he could feel the poisons left behind by others of his kind seeping around his feet. He was immune, of course, but others weren’t. Taeda could spot them by their blackened, rotting husks.
Taeda turned his attention back to the sun. The air was warmer, now, and there was no time to waste. He’d risen from the underworld first, and while the others still crawled and scraped desperately toward the sunlight, he would drink of its warmth. Even the air here was rich with food, and in the wake of a Poplar tree’s collapse, the sun found a path directly toward him. His mother had done well in choosing this spot for him to rise.
Taeda grew quickly, those first few months. He towered above the other, slower races who were choking and stunted by the poison his kind scattered throughout the forest. Even the others of his kind couldn’t keep up with him. Some would try to steal his spot in the light, but he held them constantly at bay with spindly, needle arms and fingers until they withered away. The one exception was a stunted female who came up months after him, far too late into the spring. Taeda was certain she wouldn’t make it through her first Sleep. She was too short for him to reach down to hold off, unless he grew new arms. That would be a waste of energy, just to push away so small a threat. She was too short even to take any of his sunlight, save those patchy rays that made it past his reaching fingers. She would patiently soak up what little light she could with fingers much broader than Taeda’s own.
The summer months came before long, and with them, the worry of drought. Even a day in the heat left Taeda feeling parched and desperate for water. The morning dew gave some relief, and cooled his skin, but it wasn’t enough without the rain; rain that, in the summer, brought its own risks. Wind, floods, hail. Even falling branches threatened to end Taeda’s race before it even began. There was nowhere to take cover. To move would be to lose all hope of reaching the sun, or even of making it through the next summer. Light was life, no matter the risks.
* * *
During the worst of the summer’s storms, Taeda bent and swayed with the wind, using it to help him avoid the worst of the debris flying through the air. Several times, a branch nearly landed on him or knocked him over. He could feel his footing becoming less steady with every moment of the pounding rain, and every time a gust hit him, he swayed farther. Above him, ancient trees groaned with the stress. Some even seemed to bend double for what felt like hours at a time.
A crack echoed through the forest, followed quickly by cries of alarm. More cracks, like breaking bones, followed, growing closer with every snap. The wind grew stronger, driving twigs and leaves into and past Taeda. Some got tangled in his arms, weighing him down. A shadow loomed behind the wind, bringing with it the now deafening cracks.
Taeda stood paralyzed as the giant fell within inches of him. The forest shook with the thundering crash of its fall. Even the ground shifted.
Only when all was still again, did Taeda notice the screaming pain in his arm. It had been pinned by the giant. Cold rivulets of mud slipped around his arm, coating it in a thick layer of slime. The wind pushed at him, straining even more at his arm.
Finally, the mud helped him to pull free, though the arm and fingers still ached with pain. He leaned toward the fallen giant, wondering at the quiet groans he could still hear groans from the dying wood. “I… touched... the sun.”
Taeda pulled away and looked to the female beside him. Her shorter, stockier form looked unaffected by the storm and the giant's fell. Even his declaration of having reached the sun didn't impress her. Taeda sometimes wondered if she was actually a bush.
© Sarah Tigges 2016
© Sarah Tigges 2016