In the Callicum Valley, deep in the forests of western Vancouver Island there is a tree the Nootka believe is the final resting place of Malahas, the Woman of the Wood. They say that long ago Malahas spirited away the village’s children, but their mothers cried so bitterly that the hero Andaokut was born from their tears. They say he rescued the children, and trapped the malicious forest goddess in the tree forever.
In small local bars and around blue-flamed cook stoves lumbermen also tell tales of the great tree, a tree that no axe can mark and no saw can cut. Many believe Malahas still guards the valley. My father believed the stories. I did not.
He was a legendary logger, my father. People said that he could fell a tree in two strokes of his mighty axe. He worked camps from Prince Rupert down to Portland, and knew the forests intimately. But that was before the environmentalists and the regulations and the layoffs. Before my mother died. After that, he moved us kids back up to Vancouver Island where her people came from, and worked for a short while driving the big logging trucks down to Campbell River. Then he spent a much longer while drinking and swapping stories at Frank’s Pub, while we were shuffled around between our mother’s relatives. It was there he became obsessed with the old stories about Malahas’ tree—the tree that no man alive could fell. He was feverish with the idea of conquering it. He packed up his gear, and left for Callicum to find it and bring it down singlehandedly.
He never came back.
Long after the search teams gave up, my brother kept looking. He combed over every inch of Nootka Island, every map, every obscure journal he could get his hands on. It consumed him for years. I thought he had finally given up, but a week ago, he called me.
“I found it!” His voice crackled over the line, breathless.
I put down the basket I was inventorying. “Found what?”
I sighed audibly. The discredited nineteenth century explorer, Captain John Bell, died in obscurity at Northern State Hospital over one hundred years ago, insanely gibbering about malicious spirits and possessed totems. I knew his story intimately: I was almost finished my doctoral thesis outlining, in excruciating detail, precisely how insane the man was.
“I thought you had given that up. Where are you? This connection is horrible,” I said.
“I’m in Sequim, at the Museum and Arts center. Rogers found some stuff at an estate sale, thought I’d be interested. Bell wasn’t insane. He was right. This proves it.”
“Sean, I don’t—”
“Listen, just come out here, and see it for yourself.”
I held the phone away from my ear and took a long, deep breath. I’d spent years trying to move on. This was not helping.
“We’re getting ready for the new exhibit, I can’t just drop everything and leave,” I said.
“You need to see this.”
“I don’t want to see it. I want to put the past behind us. I want to forget. I want to move on. Dad is gone. Why can’t you accept that?”
“Because he’s not gone. He’s trapped. And we need to go get him. Together.”
“I have work to do,” I said, “I’m hanging up now—”
“Wait—I’m sending you a picture, from a page of Bell’s notebook. Hang on. Just look at it, and then tell me I’m crazy.”
I toyed with the idea of smashing my phone against the wall. I considered telling Sean just how crazy, specifically, I thought he was. I mulled over what backwater country I could move to where he’d never, ever find me. But then the message came through, and the picture of a page, yellowed with age, popped up on my phone. I stared at it for several moments, unable to comprehend at first what I was seeing. And then it hit me.
“I’ll be on the next ferry,” I said.
Two days later, I was sitting in a cramped floatplane with my brother, hovering over Bell’s notebook. The small, leather-bound journal was badly damaged, half-burnt and stained with water and mildew, but the page Sean had sent me was legible enough. It was crammed with small flowing script and strange symbols, arranged around a detailed drawing of a colossal Western cedar. From deep within its gnarled, knotted trunk, dripping with moss, the face of an old woman stared back at us, frozen in an eternal scream.
“It’s the tree from your nightmares, isn’t it?” Sean asked.
I nodded, biting my lip. “We must have seen it before, somewhere.”
Sean looked at me disapprovingly. “This notebook was lost for over a hundred years. Bell was the last person alive to see it.”
“I don’t know. There has to be a rational—”
“Then why are you here?” he asked, cutting me off. “If you have a rational explanation and you don’t think this is going to work—that it’s all a bunch of hooey—why did you come?”
Sean had a point. I looked out the small window and watched the rugged, misty coastline play out below us. I told myself I was doing this to humor my little brother, to keep an eye on him, but the truth was I couldn’t stop thinking about the drawing of the tree. The tree from my dreams. The dreams that started after father disappeared. My mind wrestled with the absurdity of it all, but somewhere, deep down, I felt Sean was right.
The pilot landed roughly in the choppy waters of Nuchatlitz Inlet. As he turned the plane around and sailed it backwards up onto the beach, Sean carefully wrapped the notebook in an old oilskin and wedged it deep inside his bag.
We gathered our gear and hopped off the pontoon, waving to the pilot as we crunched up the windswept beach. Sean shouldered his rucksack and grinned at me.
I watched the plane sputter back to life and taxi out on the open water. It gained speed and lifted off into the low fog. How can I possibly be ready for this? I thought. Shrugging under the weight of my pack, I sighed and waved him on.
“Lead the way.”
The hike into the heart of the island was strenuous, but pleasant enough for the first two days. We camped on the beach the first night, and hiked down worn, well-marked trails. The second night we spent in an old logger’s shack that Sean had used regularly during his countless trips to the island.
Late in the morning of the third day, Sean suddenly veered off the trail and plunged into the overgrown forest. He pointed to a squat totem pole, rotting and nearly buried in the thick ferns. It reeked of ancient evil.
“We follow these now,” he said.
“That doesn’t look like a trail marker,” I said, shuddering as the ancient faces grinned wickedly back at me. “It looks more like—a warning.”
“You’ve been poking around here for years—I’m surprised you never found it before.”
“I did.” Sean’s voice was flat as he plowed through the undergrowth. “But I didn’t know what it meant until I found the notebook.”
We hiked for hours, slowly climbing the steep slope of a ridgeline before descending into a mist-shrouded valley. Rainwater dripped from boughs suspended hundreds of feet above us in the forest canopy. I had spent my life around big Pacific Northwest trees, but as we walked deeper into gathering darkness, the primeval giants took on a scale that was almost impossible to comprehend.
Sean held up a hand and looked around. “Do you hear that?”
I strained my ears, but all I could hear at first was the incessant patter of rain. A cold wind picked up, carrying a mournful howl.
Sean shook his head. “Not wolves. We’re close.”
He unslung his pack and took off his jacket. “Here, help me with this.” He handed me his jacket and motioned for me to hold it over him.
He dug the notebook out of his pack and gingerly flipped through the brittle pages as I shielded him from the rain. Squinting against the quickly fading light, he pointed at a stand of enormous cedars. “That way.”
I frowned. “It’ll be dark soon. We should make camp.”
“No,” Sean said. “We’re too close. Trust me.”
“We’re going to get lost if we keep going,” I protested.
Sean looked at me for a moment. “We can’t stay in this forest. Not after dark. Not until we’re finished.”
I wrapped my arms around me for warmth, but the chill I felt wasn’t from the wind. I fought to keep my teeth from chattering. “Okay—okay, we go.”
He repacked the notebook and put on his jacket. Carrying his rucksack with one hand, he fished out a flashlight and played it over the trees. He moved forward cautiously. After a few hundred feet he pointed out a totem, and then another. We walked through the stand of giant cedars and entered a large clearing. The ground was cracked, dead, and impossibly dry. In the middle of the barren clearing, ringed by dozens of enormous totem poles, was the biggest tree I had ever seen in my life. It towered hundreds of feet above us like a Lovecraftian nightmare, its highest branches lost in the twilight and mist, its twisted roots churning and drilling into the earth. I knew it at once. From my dreams. From Bell’s drawing. From the feeling of pure hatred and dread that leaked out of its contorted branches.
We picked our way through rusted axe heads that littered the ground around the tree. As we grew closer, Sean stopped and reached down. He picked up a large felling axe and handed it to me. I shrugged, confused.
“Look here, at the handle,” he whispered.
I squinted at the shaft and my eyes grew wide. Carved carefully into the wood were our father’s initials.
“We need to hurry,” he said.
In response, the wind picked up and the tree shuddered. Sean put his rucksack down and began to unpack it. I shifted off my own pack and knelt down to help him.
In a few minutes, we had all the components assembled. I looked up at my brother. “You know that this goes against everything I believe, right?”
“This is storybook stuff. Nonsense. It’s crazy,” I said. “Why are you so certain this will work?”
“Because I am. I have to be.”
“Dad wouldn’t want this. He wouldn’t want you to do this for him.”
Sean looked me in the eye and smiled sadly. “It’s not his choice to make. This is what I want.” He put the final piece, our father’s axe, in place and began to sketch symbols from the notebook into the dusty soil. The wind howled and torrential rain pelted the forest around us. Lightning flared in the sky, curling through the distant canopy.
He leaned over and hugged me tightly. Then he stood up and walked determinedly toward the tree. It screeched in protest, the wind whipping his face with desiccated, bonelike branches. He reached the base of the enormous trunk and stretched out his arms, embracing it. In the flashes of lightning, I watched, horrified, as the verrucose bark enveloped him slowly, pouring like thick molten lead over his slender frame, drawing him into the living wood.
The wind died and the storm passed. I waited…for something, anything. I waited for hours, on my knees, clutching the dirt and staring at the scar in the bark where the tree had consumed my brother. I knelt there, motionless, until my limbs stopped burning and the numbness overtook me. Numbness that coursed through my entire body; an inescapable, unbearable emptiness.
And when the predawn light slowly began to filter down through the high branches, I wept. I wept with a bitterness I had never known. Shuddering uncontrollably, I fell face first into the dirt and cried through every pore in my body. My tears pooled in the dry, cracked ground and flowed in rivulets away from me, snaking toward the tree. Where they flowed, ferns burst out of the dead earth. The tree strained and groaned. A soft rain began to fall in the barren glade.
I raised my eyes. Where the scar in the bark had been there was now a large opening, an impossible doorway, leading deep into the bowels of the tree. I heard voices, shouts of exclamation and disbelief, and men—lost and forgotten lumbermen from across the centuries—began to stumble out of the cavernous trunk. They greeted the drizzling dawn with dazed eyes, tears of joy streaming down their faces. And in their midst, beaming at me with the unquenchable hope that only he could possess, stood my little brother, and my father at his side.
The notebook had implied, and we assumed, that an ultimate sacrifice would be required. It outlined how, where, and when. It spelled out the price. And my brother had accepted it unquestionably.
But many pages were missing.