they follow children’s stories, eating the words in crisp cracker bites off the page
they broker deals of death and wanting, laden with the stone-drip of a muddy creek
they spread from tree root caves and break ground with noses high
they search out the mirage of spring, hands tied and hair woven, 
then they die.

crow-bitten leaves anchor autumn to the ground
the great-tailed grackles hide in foolish patterns, their cries clipped
like parrot wings.
when they fly, they fly for no one.
they have heard the tales of migratory birds
their summers kind, their winter words
leather-bound hopes wrapped in skin
make their way to dreamsides.
we do not wait til the sun comes up, they chortle
we do not follow the sun.
we fade into our shadows and watch the sky turn blue
we freeze our hearts in blackened ice 
while we are watching you.

that is not all, says the forest.
there is more.

a girl, no more than twelve
or eleven 
her hair wild with burs and branches
sleeping in the bracken, on a bed of ferns.
a pretty girl, of nine or ten
her lips a wolf’s blood red
her skin faint with freckles.
a darling girl, nearly four
wicked as can be
her face an angel’s clay.
in one hand she holds a spear
broken from a carousel
her boots are ringed with feathers
her bracelets mud and stone.
she climbs the trees like baby bears
one filthy paw above the next
but her mother den is long since woken.
she crawls upon the branch
to a candy cotton swirl,
swinging from a twig.
the swarm, its tender hum, 
to be a part of something
she approaches with a sweetness.
they sense this, the sticky honey bees
fat and fuzzy, fanged
in a dive she sticks her hand inside the hive.
their roar is instant, angry, but 
the warrior girl smiles at the sting
she has found her army.

the forest counts again.
we are missing some, it says.

a mischief entangled in chaparral
a cobweb of tails and claws
the rats like saddled horses racing across the moat.
pinecone castles crumpling, empires laid in dirt
in seconds, dust.
a soldier-knight, his battle cry
to his left, beneath the stars
his caged companion
trapped in shattered wildwood
eyes shining
we are not animals, he thinks.
we take care of our own.
his teeth bleed, armor-bitten
until his companion is free.

moon takes the hill in stepping stones.
the forest breathes.

the night gaze of silent hunters
divides itself in two:
one, the color of coal smoked and dry.
one, the absence of color, of shadow, of light.
together: the watchmen of the woods.
their tongues cry wolf
shredding the fur without breaking the skin.
it's practice, they think.
practice for the real thing. 
they wait on the hillside for blood to run heavy to the creek
like a southern siren’s song,
whisked away in the dusk.
like civil war stories.
the wolves of december howl a christmas carol chorus
they sing the breath of firelight
when morning comes, they’re wide awake
but they don’t open their eyes.

dawn breaks.
we're here, the forest says.

the storm shatters a shaken hill and the sound of quiscalus cries
the timber of a mighty horn, its heart deep within the earth
the warrior girl and her crown tied with flowers in her hair.
the final ride
the last few lines.
these are our stories,
the forest thinks.
not of bloodshed
but of just before
just before we pierce the bone.

on the hilltop her braids come undone.
we will conquer them all, she thinks, the bee-sting girl.
we will conquer them all
and we will never give them back.



copyright © Joanna Truman