In the Middle of the Empty Woods

9 December 2020

A small cloaked figure hurried across the barren earth as the last of the sun’s light leaked from the sky. The only thing between him and the horizon was a lonely little house, nestled in the shadow of the last starving tree. The tips of its leafless branches split and splintered like a hundred bony fingers, their shadows reaching out for the traveller across the empty landscape. But as he drew closer and closer, they retreated with the sinking of the sun—as though beckoning him to hurry home before nightfall. 

Once safely inside, he placed the sack he’d been carrying carefully upon the floor and hung his hooded cloak on the hook by the door. He then turned to find his sister in much the same way he’d left her. On the other side of the cluttered space that was both kitchen and living room, she lay curled up on a badly scratched and half-collapsed couch. Too engrossed in her reading to look up, she made him a small verbal greeting that was somewhere between a “hello” and a “hmm”. The book in her hands was one she’d fashioned herself. When they’d first happened upon the abandoned little house, page fragments had littered the cracked and peeling floors like impossible leaves. She’d bound them together into clumps of stories and would often rearrange them still when she wanted something new.

What other lost treasures might’ve lingered in that house were now almost entirely lost to the human eye; for crammed tightly in the space between brother and sister was a jungle of pot plants. They covered the floor and filled every available shelf—some even dangled from the ceiling by gleaming silver chains. The otherwise unused kitchen table was all but consumed by them. The largest of the plants towered over their fellow inhabitants and bore stone fruits; the smallest sprouted sweetly from teacups along the windowpane. It was this great wave of green that truly welcomed the brother home. Well, that and the eyes of over a dozen hungry cats as they crept from their shadowy hiding places. 

He tilted his head thoughtfully. “Witt?” he asked.

“Yes, Sage?” his sister replied without looking up from her book.

“Has there been an increase in the number of cats since this morning’s count?”

“I shouldn’t think so.”

Sage’s eyes scanned over the cats once more. “I was quite certain there were twelve this morning,” he said. “Now I detect thirteen.”

“Well, that is odd,” Witt agreed. “But still, twelve, thirteen … who can keep track? They are only very small.”

“Well yes, but I believe that one beside you is rather new,” Sage said, pointing to the cat in question.

“I don’t see how you could be so sure,” replied Witt, her eyes still carefully fixed upon her book. “Cats do look very similar.” 

“Indeed, but that one is noticeably different.”

“Oh? How so?”

“It’s smiling.”

The cat at Witt’s side was almost bald, save for a few tufts of messy grey fur. Its tail wiggled enthusiastically and its tongue hung from its open mouth. Its breathing was heavy, yet it did not seem distressed. And when Witt looked down at it, it bounded up onto her lap and licked her face. The eyes of the twelve other cats peered out from their places, perplexed and perhaps just a little disapproving. 

“Oh, alright,” Witt confessed, finally meeting Sage’s eyes. “People came by the house looking for food, and I told them we had none—just like you said to—but that we could sell them some plants, only they didn’t have much to trade, except for this cat and… well, I made an executive decision!”

“But Witt,” said Sage, just about at his wit’s end, “we have no need for so many cats.” 

“You did say animals might become the primary currency within the next five years,” Witt reminded him. 

“And will you be parting with any of them when that time comes?” Sage asked.

“… But the cultural capital—” 

“—That’s what I thought.” 

Sage weaved gracefully through the pot plants and knelt before the bouncy cat. “I suppose it is rather endearing,” he admitted. “Does it have a name?” 

“They called it Terrence the Dog.”

“What’s a dog?”

“A type of cat, I assumed. I didn’t ask.”

“Probably wise.” Sage nodded.

“Here, sit and become better acquainted,” Witt insisted. “I’ll put away the harvest.” 

In her forgetful enthusiasm, Witt leapt up onto her new shaky legs and almost went tumbling to the floor.  

“Witt!” Sage exclaimed as he caught and steadied her. “You must be more gentle.”

“I do try to be. I just forget sometimes.”

“Well you must remember better,” he warned her. 

Her face downcast, Witt trudged uneasily through the sea of cats and plants. The soft tickling sensation of fur rubbing against the skin of her legs was nice. But different. She wanted to kneel down and touch them with her hands, but she knew her legs would struggle too much to get back up. 

“Things were much easier before,” she told her brother.

“Physically, perhaps,” said Sage as he watched Terrence the Dog lick at his red-stained hands. “But if we don’t change, we’ll never belong. We’ll never stop running.” 

Witt’s old reliable arms quite easily lifted the heavy sack Sage had left by the door. 

“I like running,” Witt said wistfully as she carried the sack over to their modestly-sized chest freezer. “I miss being able to run. And being able to be outside. And being able to run around outside. I miss being… I miss the feeling of being free.” 

“But you weren’t free,” Sage reminded her. “We’ll be free when all the operations are completed, when they think we’re one of them.”

“I suppose,” Witt conceded. She lifted the lid of the freezer with a small heave and emptied the sack of newly acquired limbs and organs into the frozen collection below. 

“I just wish being human didn’t have to be so tricky.”

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