The One Who Listened

by N. R. M. Roshak in Issue Fifteen, May 2024

There is a language that I know, but my tongue cannot form the words. Even if it could, the sentences are too long for you to listen to. They stretch across hours, or days. You are like the small fast ones of the forest—the birds, the lightning sparks of minnows in the creeks—words pour off your tongue, your hands flutter in the air. I can move quickly, too, but language is meant to be slow.

You were trying to save me, I know. But it is very lonely here.

You showed me a mirror and looked so thrilled when I marvelled at its silvered surface. My image was so much clearer, brighter, than in the forest's stillest pools. It was as though I'd only seen the moon, and you'd shown me the sun. I tried to thank you, but you turned away before I was done.

It was only much later that I realized you mistook my wonder. You thought I'd never seen my face before. You weren't showing me a marvel—to you, the mirror is no such thing—you were showing me my face. Before I'd finished thanking you, the mirror was gone and your hands were full of something else. Leaves whiter than birch bark, square as your dens, painted with the squiggles that are somehow also your language, when it holds still and silent instead of being fast. You shuffled the leaves to show me a picture of three strangers. Two women and a small child. One woman's face was so much like mine, yet not me. She could be my reflection in a rippled pool.

You pointed at the child, and then me, the child, and me, over and over. You bared your teeth and pointed. Yes, I understood. You believed I was that child.

I stilled myself to show you I was listening. I breathed in and out and closed my eyes. In the forest, I would have tried to find its rhythm. In your den—if that's what this is—the rhythm eludes me. Your rhythm eludes me. Before I'd found it, you had left and closed the door.

In the forest, I was the quiet listener. The forest spoke to itself, I think. Or spoke within itself, and I was inside its mind, like a beetle nestled under pine bark. My role was to listen. It was only very late in my forest's life that I truly tried to speak back.

After you closed the door, I wondered if you wanted me to tell you whether I was that child. I could not. I don't remember my own child-face, nor how I came to be in the forest. It seems that I was always there.

My earliest memory is of remembering. As a tiny child I had slept curled in the moss-lined hollow of a willow's bole. When I outgrew that home, like a baby squirrel outgrowing the drey, I vowed always to remember how it had cradled me. I don't, but I remember the vow. I laid my hand on the willow's furrowed bark and swore I'd always remember her embrace.

I thought she understood me, then. I was small, and needed to believe that the trees heard me. That they loved me, as I loved them. But as I grew up, I became painfully aware that the trees weren't listening to me. Not the way the animals of the forest did. To the great trees, I was just another small fast one.

But I was not. I grew up in that forest. As pups and kits learn the language of their mothers, as chicks learn the songs of their fathers—I learned the language of the trees.

My tongue cannot form its words. Some are slow, still, subterranean flows. Others are scents that whisper brightly out of the leaves. I was the one who listened, mute. I sat for days and nights and heard maple talk to birch. Tall birches passed their gathered sweetness to little understory pines. On dry days, rain-bringing scents sang out of the warmest leaves, while Mother Willow sipped water from the creek to share with the rest of the wood.

I learned the acrid warning scent that meant gypsy moths had arrived, and followed the slow messages to their source to beat the caterpillars off with hands and sticks. For the trees, not for myself; those caterpillars aren't good to eat. I wanted the trees to notice my help. They didn't.

Once, some of you came, set up a soft, thin home, and started a fire. The small fast ones chittered warnings. I watched over the fire; I smothered the embers when you left. The smoke stung my nose. I kept the forest safe.

If I thought the trees would notice, they didn't.

I tried drumming on their roots. I drilled into trunks, like a woodpecker. I delved into the soil and bit into bitter roots. I pulled dark fungal clots from the earth and reburied them far away. I hacked patterns into bark.

Nothing I did made a difference. The forest's slow conversation continued without a hitch. I was like a fly in the summer, brief and irrelevant.

And I accepted this. I was the one who listened, while the forest spoke to itself. Before me, no one heard. Now I was there, and I listened. That was enough.

Until the spring day that you came in your numbers. You mounted an assault, with yellow behemoths and saws that roared and screamed. You scarred a path through the forest, like a trail but wide, wider than a dozen moose. You gathered up the corpses of the trees in their dozens, and left.

This, the forest noticed. But it did not understand.

I listened. Chaos, slow dirges, and confusion. When you cut down a tree, the roots don't die. They mourn.

I bore witness. But I did not understand. I understood the trees; I didn't understand you. What you had done. Why.

So I followed the trail down.

You believe that I wanted to leave the forest but couldn't. That's why you think you rescued me. That belief is hard for me to understand. I have both legs: of course I could leave. I did not want to. I was the one who listened.

I came to the end of the trail, and it was the end of the forest. What I saw before me was desolation. A wasteland of stumps. Ground churned to mud. The fine brush, that shelters the small fast ones and the very youngest trees, gone. A yellow behemoth sat in the devastation and stank.

I backed into the forest. The trees around me were in shock. They didn't understand. But I did. Not why, but what.

You were here for the trees. All of them. The trail scarred through my forest—for the behemoths. So you could bring them by their dozens, to carry away my forest.

The scent of pine resin filled the air, sharp and urgent. The roots, still trying to heal their wounds. Uncomprehending. They had no idea what had hit them.

My forest is used to small disasters. A storm that takes down twenty trees. A fire burning out the brush. My forest would treat the trail you cut as just another small disaster to mourn and move past.

And that would be a deadly mistake.

My forest had no idea what was coming. Mother Willow, the maples, the chuckling aspen, the paper-barked birch and the pines. It was no longer enough to be the one who listened. I had to warn them. I had no idea what we could do to stop you. But they had to know.

I don't understand your language but imagine a fly who could. Imagine it flitting around you, listening. One fly in a swarm of hundreds. Do you even notice it?

Imagine that fly has something it absolutely must communicate. What can it do to get your attention, but bite?

I stole an axe from you.

I chopped down a tree.

This fly knew where to bite. I chopped down Mother Willow.

Her roots touched dozens, hundreds of others. She watered them in the dry times. They passed her water through the woods. The whole forest knew her. She cradled me as a babe. I chopped her down. It took three days.

I hoped that she would remember me. I hoped that she would tell the forest, This is a message from the small fast one who loved me so. The one who listens.

I listened to the news of her fall spread through the forest. If she mentioned me, I never heard it.

I chopped down another, and another. Far apart, far from water, close together in time.

The forest is used to small disasters. I had to cut many trees. Every day, another tree, until I finally felt the forest listening.

Death is coming, I told the forest with my axe. Death is coming, and you will not be able to escape. Prepare yourself.

Trees reined in their growth. The maples stopped stretching their leaves and pushed their energy into their seeds. The basswood bloomed early. Oaks rushed their acorns. Apples and walnuts gave up on fruit and withdrew into their roots, hoping their stores would nourish their seedlings when they were gone.

Tree by tree, the forest understood. And hated me for it. Branches cracked when I passed beneath, narrowly missing my head. I was not the one who listened. I was the one who kills.

Spring is a lean time. I was hungry every day. My winter stash was nearly gone. I exhausted myself chopping when I should have been finding food. I realize, now, that I was slowly starving. It didn't matter. If I stopped, the forest would judge the danger gone.

I chopped until I heard your behemoths grinding their way up the trail. Then I laid down the axe and watched.

You didn't see me, then. I sat as still as if I was listening to the forest, though I couldn't hear it. You made every kind of noise. Smells, sounds, vibrations through the ground. Even the trees must have heard you, though by then it was too late.

I watched you grind the brush to powder, fell the trees, strip their branches. Some trees you reduced to chips and splinters; some you took in great bunches. A behemoth bundled them up like a giant hand gathering twigs. I watched you take my forest, and I hoped that I had warned it well enough.

Then I left.

My forest would not regrow quickly. I was a small fast one. I would be gone before it returned. But I was the one who listened to the trees. I knew that the forest extended up. That there was more forest that was not my forest. I wanted to go there and become, again, the one who listened.

And that's when I found that you had extended your trail.

You know the rest of the story, I think.

Once, I smashed gypsy moth caterpillars so their infestation wouldn't spread. Your behemoths were too large to smash. But I thought they would burn. It had been a dry spring, and Mother Willow was no longer watering the woods. I followed your trail to your camp and stole your fire. I waited till you slept and set my forest on fire.

I didn't know you had more behemoths, everywhere, hundreds of them. I didn't know you would come with water from the air. I didn't know you would catch me.

You haven't stopped plying me with food since you took me. Mounds and mounds of food. Sweeter than the nectar that hides at the base of clover blossoms, softer than overripe summer raspberries, richer than grubs or butternuts. You're as plump as groundhogs in the fall. You want me to be plump too, fat and happy.

But I am not happy. I wish you had left me with the forest to die.

You thought you were rescuing me from a life lived in solitude.

I wasn't alone there. I was never alone.

But I would rather be alone than with you.

© 2024 N. R. M. Roshak

N. R. M. Roshak

N. R. M. Roshak is an award-winning Canadian author and translator. Their fiction has been published in four languages, and has appeared in various anthologies and magazines, including Flash Fiction Online, Galaxies, Daily Science Fiction, and Future Science Fiction Digest. They live in Ontario, Canada, with a small family and a loud cat. You can find more of their work at

Fiction by N. R. M. Roshak
  • The One Who Listened