Thieliz and Troon had arrived at the hidden pond some hours ago and promptly fallen asleep on the reedy, cool bank, sheltered by the forest of willows from the Known World where their countless nosy cousins, siblings, and elders frittered away their day. They knew the narrow path through the dolorous green limbs and greying trunks of this tree-nest and came here when everyone became too much. But they also came here to fashion tools for their private annual mission.
Once they had shaken themselves alive from their torpid shells and gently brushed off the few insects friends who were visiting, they looked about and each chose a firm, tawny reed from among the pussy willows that danced slowly about the limpid pond, still and deep beyond measure. The reeds were easily broken into hollow bits as long as their forearms and had a sweet taste that was fun to sip but left them dozy, unsteady on their feet, and they couldn’t enjoy the nectar today.
Instead of sipping the sweetness from the reeds, they stuck them in the pond, just beneath the scattered lily pads that skirted the edge and inhaled cautiously, letting the darkness slide up the straw until it had nearly reached their lips, then the blew out the contents, repeating this several times until all the deliciousness was gone and no water had reached their lips. They flipped the thin tubes and did this again, one more set of flirting with the honeyed dew and the depthless pond, then they were done with that and ready for their quest into the woods. The reeds were then stowed in thin leaf pouches that they wore on a tendril twine sash around their waists.
While they had come through the fields and forest to get through the narrow break in the willow realm around the pond, finding their quarry would take them through a burrow that beckoned on the far bank. Thieliz thought it had belonged to a badger at some time in the distant past, while Troon imagined it was the work of a bumbleworm, although Thieliz always reminded Troon that she had invented the bumbleworm herself and the furry serpent didn’t exist outside of her own fanciful head. But it didn’t matter. However it had come into being, there the burrow was yawning widely, waiting for them to crawl down into its temperate chambers and branching tunnels.
Once they had gone far enough, the mosses and lichens lit up with the soft teal chemistry of a trillion tiny lights, oozing into brightness, then dimming to a soft glow. The rooms were large enough for them to stand, for neither of them were very tall by the standards of trees and reeds, and the glow lit their path without casting shadows forward or behind. They strolled along, taking only left turns for the longest time until the reached the root room, where the trees above all united and drank from a subterranean spring that leaked up through the ground in just the right measure to sustain the ancient friends blowing in the noonday winds.
Eight paths led out of the room but only one took them to their destination and it was always a little different depending on the time. As it was a little after the sun sat highest and six ticks beyond dawn, it was a simple matter; the passage directly in front of them took them onward and, after a bit more slow, steady progress, upward to where they had to crawl again.
The burrow opening popped them out in a shaded patch of meadow grass, yellowing in the heat of mid-day and waving at the clouds overhead. It smelled of suckle, which must have been close by but none was to be seen here.
The twins kept to the tree shade and slipped away to their right and into a sliver of black that separated a single oak into two towering, forked trunks that dissolved in a head of big dark leaves pendant from uncountable branches rising up and gone. Just beyond this oaken crevice lay a small clearing among the trees, dark as night but with a cluster of ancient arboreal skeletons at the center, spiraling out to a single remnant of the great oak that had passed most recently in all-time.
It was hollow at its core, green bits of moss encasing the crust of bark, algae spilling off into the tiny pool of dew that had collected inside. Thieliz smiled at Troon, who smiled back. There was a single brown leaf afloat on the surface of the dew, which Troon removed gently, placing it on the ground and making a note to herself to return it after they were done.
“I wonder what we’ll learn this year, T.” Troon spoke first as Thieliz had promised not to be so pushy this year.
“We will see what we see, just like always, T.” Thieliz couldn’t help but be bossy and Troon knew that she would find some way to claim her place in their twindom, being slightly older by a minute from when Troon hatched.
Each twin took their reeds from their pouches and held them gently in their left hands, important for doing what they were about to do. They sat at the edge of the oaken memory, one on each side and opposite of each other, arranged in what their inner selves told them was to the star and to the moon, and inserted the clean, dry tubes between their lips, then bent over and placed just the tiniest bit of the tip into the shallow reservoir collected from the morning’s fog. One sip, the least amount possible, as the oaks in their numbers would punish them severely if they demonstrated greed or thirst. This was not the place for that kind of silliness.
They both dropped onto their backs, their legs still crossed before them, knees, calves, shins, and feet still touching the bark. And they saw what they had come to see, what the oaks had to say to them this year.
The world beyond their world was too hot. Grasses and trees burnt everywhere there was land, sending thunderclouds of black smoke into the air, clotting the sun’s rays with motes burned from the living souls of all the beauty that was devoured in the flames. The sun disappeared and became night in the day. No moon peered through the ever-present gloom. There was no cycle, no renewing, no change. Darkness overcame it all and all the green was gone. All the brown was gone and became sooty blackness all around.
And that was all there was.
A day passed with the twins lying completely still in the clearing. Then they awoke and slowly climbed out of what they had seen. Neither said a word. No words could be said. No one would believe them this year and no one could stand to hear what they had to say even if they could.
The darkness of the depthless pool waited for them in the sunlit space among the willow forest and pussy willows, with their catkins fluffing out in their time. They went to join the others who had seen the bad before them. And their time had come for them as well.