Pey held onto her sister’s hand. They peered down at the water.
This morning, their mother opened her eyes and said she was too cold to get out of bed, so their father said they would spend the afternoon at the hot springs.
A Forest Grew
by LiAnn Yim
It is five a.m. and all across town the shops are finally closing.
When we step outside the pub, there are a lot of police on the
streets, milling around, seemingly without purpose, moving the way
that big fish do in a shallow pond. They warn us that foot traffic
through the town is no longer allowed at this time, and then they
follow us to make sure we get off the streets. Now what? None of us
want to return to our bedsit. Here, gathered under a streetlamp, Yas
shares something she heard on the train from the previous leg of our
expedition: Nearby, there is an unmapped, unofficial forest.
We decide to cab part of the way and then hike the rest of the
distance. We have to try three different cabs before the fourth agrees
to take us. “Too far,” we were told twice. The third shook his head
and drove off without unlocking the doors. The fourth driver will take
us because Eben promises a hefty tip upfront.
The forest, Yas tells us, is unofficial because it used to be a tree
farm…then the owners abandoned it when they moved away. That was over
five years ago. Everything has been left to grow on its own since then. It has not been reclaimed by the state and because it was private property, there are no clear details about it on any map, no contour lines, no hints at scale or topography. We wonder what sort of trees the farm was rearing. In this country, larches, fir, alders and oak thrive. If he knows, the cab driver does not volunteer any information, nor offer any conversation.
The cab driver lets us out sooner than we expected. Moorland on either
side of the road, and an uncertain light lengthening across a streaky
sky. He says we can get out here and walk, or he’ll drive us back, if
we want. We get out; Eben pays him. He locks the doors and turns off
the cab lights and leaves without looking back.
It is six a.m., and a light mist has started to fall. This has
happened every morning since we arrived; it will stop anywhere from
fifteen minutes to an hour. It renews us. We feel as through we are
peeling back sheets of mist to access the forest, and we are
determined to explore. We plan to walk to the forest, take
photographs, then hike back to the main road. By then it will be full
morning and we can hitch a ride.
We strike off the road into the brush. The trees here, normal wild
ones, are spread thinly, stretching up like stripped fence posts.
Drifts of cloud or maybe smoke are snared in the top branches, like
cotton candy wound around a spire.
We have between the four of us only two water bottles held in
“Maybe we should try collecting water drew,” Eben says. “I did that as
a scout in training.”
But it’s impossible—there are no leaves, nothing bracken. The ground
is soft, dark. Bare. Our footsteps crater the dirt.
The trees are gathering closer. We pass through a graveyard of
mechanical things: engines, a thresher, sheets of beaten metal, a
machine for digging bottomless holes, surely. The wood has swallowed
the metal heap, iron rusting into thick moss. We tread carefully, for
the ground is littered with broken metal and glass shards. In one
place, four cars are stacked on top of one another, their weight
having driven them deep into the earth. Whether they are sunken or if
the earth has risen is unclear. We snap photos. Yas climbs to the top
of one heap and crosses her legs to the side, posing like a mermaid on
These plain trees crowd now. Through their meager cover, we watch
something huge and antlered—we are not quite sure what it is,
exactly—taken down by two wolves. Are they wolves? Something lean and
furred. Fifty meters away. Maybe even nearer than that. This close we
ought to be able to hear them, but their frenzied feasting is silent
and savage. Fortunately Eben spotted them and stopped us from
We pass a house with barred windows, an attachment to an old water
mill that has collapsed on its side. The front door is gone and the
house gapes open.
“Don’t go in,” Cary-Ann begs. “Oh, just don’t.”
She almost has one of her hysterics about it, so we don’t because it’s
not worth enduring one of her episodes. We peep into the windows
instead, but there isn’t much to see, just wooden furniture chewed up
and worried by dust and wind. In the corner of what must have been a
nursery—a crib, some toys—there is a pile of leaves and twigs
willfully arranged in some kind of nest, or burrow. Whatever made its
home there is not present. We back away and continue on.
Finally we reach the tree farm. No—so much more than that: A forest.
Incredibly, it is still contained behind a three-meter high fence all
around it. Wind must stir the trees because the army of them seems to
be quivering in place against their fencing.
We find a section where the fencing has been knocked down and enter
the tree farm. Eben takes a picture of the broken fence.
We take three steps inside and had we looked back, the fencing would
have already been lost to us. Roots are soldered into the black
beneath our shoes. The trees make the inside of the forest appear
green and murky, as if we’re at the bottom of the sea. The flash from
Eben’s camera wavers like its underwater, too. We are awash in this
sea of trees, where the moving leaves seem to swim, barely tethered by
The tree trunks are not huge, not like the redwoods we visited years
ago. They are not so gigantic as that, but they are endless. They are
all evenly divided and lined, all of them even-aged. Their immensity
comes from their innumerable duplication, their startling sameness.
“This was probably a Christmas tree farm,” Yas says.
None of us have seen Christmas trees like this before.
“Well they haven’t been taken care of, have they,” Carrie-Ann replies. “They haven’t been properly cultivated.”
“They don’t need caring for,” says Eben. “Trust me.”
He implies that perhaps the owners hadn’t been taking care of the
trees, but containing them. Checking their growth.
The trees smell ashy, like luck blood oranges and unmelted snow. Their
bark is warm and shivering, intricately patterned like overlapping
scales. We think we can hear something coursing inside them, though
what we do not know.
Cary-Ann believes the trees are secreting something. “What?” Eben asks
her. “What is it? Don’t just make things up.”
At last she says, “I don’t know. Something mournful.”
Occasionally we glimpse something dangling in the trees, like a
special fruit. They gleam like the hard enamel of teeth and wink out
when we turn our heads, so we can’t be sure, but they are always there
in the corners of our eyes.
Eben says something is breathing honeyed breath down his neck, and has
been for the last mile or two.
Time drips, limpid and feeble. Occasionally something damp strikes the
very center of the tops of our heads. Twice Cary-Ann has to pause to
wipe her glasses on her shirt. Soon the glass is irreparably smudged.
She has trouble seeing out of them and trails far behind us.
When we take a rest, taste our dwindling water and chew on fruit that
has turned soft and black after only a day, Yas states in a marbled
voice, “These trees live on meat.” She won’t say more, no matter how
the three of us prod her. Do we walk across a ladder of bones? What
have these roots steeped in for so long? As we walk, we dream the same
dream: The grooves left by the plow are narrow but deep. Father and
daughter lower strangers in the hollows, and the bodies are laid to
rest in the rifts. Soil covers them like snowfall. Roots plait between
the limbs. Worms dine for centuries, while in the between years,
cicadas sip the sugaring sap and become bloated.
The forest has closed and the trees spied upon us. Hard to say if
we’re walking in rings. Cary-Ann sits down and refuses to go on.
“Send someone back for me,” she keeps saying. “I want to rest. Come
back for me.”
While we try threatening and enticing her to get up, Yas walks away.
Only a small distance, but she is gone in this plantation. Eben swears
he saw her vanish into the sleeve of a tree. No—she just disappeared
behind it, of course he is mistaken. We leave Cary-Ann and go to the
tree. We press our ears to it, feel it trembling roughly back at us,
and mixed in with the sound of streaming, there’s a thin, high voice
that has been fermenting. We listen for a long time, trying to make
by LiAnn Yim
The fish were restless. They spun the water mossy dark until the pond
was the color of crushed bottles.
Pey held onto her sister’s hand. They peered down at the water.
This morning, their mother opened her eyes and said she was too cold
to get out of bed, so their father said they would spend the afternoon
at the hot springs.
The rain brushed the mountains into a silky, jewel-bright green, and
when their father rolled down the windows, the car was filled with the
smell of eggs. It rained the entire drive into the mountains to the
bathhouse. There were two buildings, darkened by rain, continuously
breathing steam: the bathhouse built over the hot springs, and a
restaurant, where many sleek spotted cats were always twining around
the table legs.
Whenever the weather turned unexpectedly cold, the bathhouses were
flooded with guests. Families crowded under the narrow overhang. There
was no room for Pey and Ivy there, so they walked away while their
parents their place in the swelling line.
Behind the bathhouse, there was a pond. Water lilies and
hundred-petaled lotuses covered the dark water in a dense colony. Some
of the leaves were large as extravagant cakes.
The pond held some of the biggest fish they had ever seen. Whiskered,
orange, yellow and white. Some had patches of different colors, like
swimming flowers, in perpetual bloom. Looking at them, Pey started to
A bathhouse attendant sauntered over to them from his post, chewing betelnut.
“Like them? We call them the giants.”
“What kind of fish are these?” Ivy asked.
The porter replied, but nearby in the banyan tree cicadas put up a
crescendoing, thunderous drone just as a motorbike rushed by on the
street, and also someone from the restaurant kitchen dropped
something, sounded like an entire tray of china plates. A stray dog
put up a howling, dancing song. They felt it would be impolite to ask
him to repeat himself, so they didn’t.
The giants were broad and fat, generously whiskered. They cut across
one another and occasionally the water churned. The pond glittered.
The attendant told them, “The owner brought them over from abroad and
had this whole pond build special for them.”
They watched as the attendant retrieved a small plastic shaker. He
thumbed the top flap and rained fish food over the pond. The water
heaved and broke open. In no time at all, the food was gone, the
surface picked bare.
“You know why their food floats?”
“To make them come up to the surface,” Pey guessed.
“Right, so we can inspect them, see if they’ve got injuries or
sickness or something.”
“Do fish get sick?”
“Not these fish. They can live up to 200 years. The longer they live,
the longer the wish ripens in the belly.”
Pey and Ivy looked at one another.
“Sure,” said the attendant. “The older the fish, the bigger the wish.
You catch one in three minutes or less, the wish is all yours. Not
everyone can catch them. In fact, most people don’t. People used to
come all the way across the country to get them here. This is the only
place that does it. They don’t so much anymore, since we stopped
“So these are magic fish, huh? So what can we wish for?”
“Anything. Look, I can see you’re interested. The rules are, you can
only have your hand and you only have three minutes.” He pointed at an
ornate clock on the wall with a brass face.
Pey stepped out of her sandals and rolled up the cuffs of her pants.
She stepped into the water. The water was deep, and the fish curved
around her ankles. One of them kissed her ankle.
When she was ready, she slipped both hands in the water. Now the fish
scattered to the far corners of the pond. She took her hands out and
slowly they drove close again, wheeling around her, fins fluttering.
The water churned uneasily from their movement.
Pey plunged her hands in like a dropped knife. Water slapped her limbs
as the fish dodged. She clawed at their bodies, scales slipping off
onto her fingers, coating them in silver that grayed once she brought
her hands out of the water.
The fish sliced this way, that way. Their whiskers whipped long trails
through the water.
Her sister called, “You can do it, Pey! Get him!”
Pey tried. She grasped scales. Her hands gleamed with metallic sheen;
they were shedding their skins on her. A heavy body turned under her
hand, and she grabbed at it. She clamped her hands on the wet, sloppy
weight of its body.
“Don’t let go,” her sister said, and then she screamed it.
“It’s okay to choke it,” said the attendant. “You need to kill it one
way or another.”
Pey dug her fingers into its sides, squeezing. Somehow she heaved the
giant onto land. It was still alive. She wished it were a little less
alive. The fish thrashed, its eye unblinking and limpid. She could
never eat fish eyes again.
She thought it made a keening noise. Ivy was there too, kneeling on
the floor, pinning it as flat as she could by the delicate fins. Then
the attendant was on hand with a knife; he had several, for this
Pey’s hands were trembling. She took the knife and slipped it through
the soft belly. A mess spilled forth.
The wish lay there like a seed. A kernel. Smaller than their mother’s
wedding ring. Not one of the big ones, the attendant said. The fish
had been too young.
The fish was all around them. Pey’s hands strung from a thousand
invisible cuts. Ivy cradled the wish in her cupped palm.
“What do we do now?” she asked. “What do we do?”
But the attendant did not reply. He had taken up a mop and was pushing
it at the remains of the fish.