"Author's comment: This was a strange short story to write. It's very experimental, and the type of storytelling is not one I've used before. I'm putting it here to hopefully learn how it sounds to a reader, for I have less clue than an ant attempting to learn about European borders. Apologies if the formatting is hard to read through. The story is 4,500 words long. It's a weird fantasy/horror/mystery/speculative fiction."
The village was getting smaller. The forest beside it was getting bigger. Some would claim that this wasn't a problem, and that a forest reclaiming more land than what people stole from it was a lucky sight, but the people of this village never stole from this forest. They never so much as borrowed from it. That was not the way of the village. And the way of the village had been decided for as long as young Jacob had been alive, and for uncountable generations prior to that as well. None in the village can remember who created the way - that truth is lost in time, no longer the knowledge of the villagers. Some say it was the trees themselves.
Jacob crouched down as a child does and planted his sapling. His tiny hands dug away at the rich, dense ground as best they could. The forest in front of him seemed to observe him expectantly - especially the oldest, thick, white-barked trees that he could see a few meters into the forest. There was a layer of snow on the ground, just as there always was at this time of year, but the soil of this forest underneath that layer was as deep and healthy as it had been in spring. It was almost as if it had recently been treated with an abundance of nutrients. Jacob did not have to dig down very far before the hole seemed sufficient enough to take the sapling. He placed it down, and pushed the dark soil back with child-like effort. It wasn't skilful; it certainly wasn't efficient. But it never was, of course. No-one expected a child to be graceful, not even the forest. The whole village had gathered to watch him, and Jacob felt a little nervous, but extremely important. The population wasn't massive, but it had plenty of people that Jacob had never met, or did not remember meeting because a child as young as he did not have a great memory for faces. He'd known that this would be how they celebrated his fifth birthday, of course. He'd always known, and he'd been anticipating it. He'd come to watch the boys and girls who were infuriatingly older than him by a mere matter of weeks, or even days, carry out this ritual recently, and he'd been looking forward to his turn. He even spotted the children who were ever so slightly younger than him in the crowd, eyeing him with the same jealousy that any child who wishes they were older shares.
Every child in this village was born at around the same time, as were the generation of children before them, and those before them still. They were born only during winter. It had always been so. Curiously, however, no two children were ever born on the exact same day. Their birthdays were spread out by no more than two months, but no birthday was ever shared. Twins were simply unheard of. In any case, winter was the season of this village. It marked the start of their new year; it symbolised new beginnings and happy endings. And the forest was always ever so beautiful during winter. Every winter, the five-year olds would plant their own tree for their birthday. The seed would be picked from their father's tree, and would erupt into a sapling far quicker than any other plant's seed would. From the moment it became a sapling, the child would be the only person to ever touch it. This is why, even though Jacob planted his sapling on the very edge of the forest, he was still told to be careful to not touch the other trees.
The child stepped back and admired his handiwork. He wholeheartedly believed that he could not have done a better job. He already felt a connection to this plant, just as everyone in the village over the age of five felt a connection to their respective trees. It was as if the villagers lived two lives: one in the village, and one in the forest. Jacob turned around and looked up expectantly at his mother, who smiled proudly and picked him up. The other villagers offered polite congratulations to his mother and father as they all made their way to retire to their homes. As his mother carried him back, she also congratulated another husband and wife, who had borne their own baby this winter.
Jacob was a little older now, and because he was a boy, he was put to work, but never too harshly, so he learned to enjoy it. His father not only taught him to work, but worked with him, so the experience was quite alright as far as Jacob was concerned. Because he was the only child, his mother had made a small fuss about working him too hard and keeping him away from her for too long, but this had eventually calmed down.
They grew wheat, prepared the harvest, and even chopped wood. But never wood from their forest. The wood would be taken from other forests, with far less important trees, and the trees from the important forest did not mind. In fact, no villager would so much as go near that forest for any reason other than to visit their tree.
The fourteen-year-old Jacob worked responsibly enough for a boy his age, so whenever he did get into mischief, he would often be let off easy. He and his gang of the other teenage boys of the village were only mild trouble-makers. They played pranks and games that would simply cause the villagers to shake their heads with a vaguely-hidden smile, and then force the boys to undo whatever mild inconvenience they had created this time. But they would always keep their antics away from the forest. A few of the boys of a certain age would always suggest some foray into the forest to carry out some defiling prank on the trees, but they were merely bluffing in order to seem tough, and would back away from the idea quickly. Their own trees were in the forest, after all. It was the single strongest common-ground between all the villagers - even if they had no other shared interests, they were united in their respect for the forest.
One day, while Jacob and his father were threshing wheat, he casually asked Jacob whether he had visited his tree lately. Jacob instinctively lied and said no, for no reason other than that he was of the age when lying to his parents was the most natural way to converse with them. Jacob's father, who seemed to have understood this, smiled and left it at that. In actuality, Jacob had been visiting his tree every few weeks, following that deep longing that everyone here shared, and had even been planning on going today, after his work was finished. He'd walk through the edge of the forest, which was now multiple layers of trees closer to the village than it had been when he was five, because more children had planted their trees on the edge over the years, while being careful to not touch any of the other trees during his trek. It would not take him long to come to the tree that he knew, on a instinctual level, was his. His tree, while not quite a tree yet, was certainly more than a sapling. In the nearly ten years since Jacob had planted it, it had grown healthily. It now stood strong on it's own support, as opposed to the slightly wilting stem it had stood on as a sapling. The stem, which was gradually turning into what could be called a trunk, had now begun to adopt the white bark that these trees all shared. The tree seemed to react to Jacob's presence, as if it wanted to grow towards him. He shared a moment with the tree, and then, satisfied, he went back to the village, still being ever so careful as to not touch the other trees. He'd never actually been told what would happen if he touched them; in fact, he'd couldn't even recall being told not to touch them since he had been a child. But it was simply understood that he should not. It was as obvious as anything. It was the way of the village; it was the way of the trees. He couldn't help but notice how the trees had been planted in a way that allowed a person to travel between them comfortably, without touching them.
A few more years pass and Jacob's life in the village does not change much. His visits to his tree begin to get less frequent, because just as his life had stopped changing so much, so had his tree. It still grew of course, both upwards and outwards, but did not undergo any drastic changes in appearance. When he did visit, he noticed that the forest's edge had been pushed further out still. Saplings had been planted every winter, so every winter, the forest donned a new layer, and the layers immediately behind it had grown. He had come to watch the new saplings be planted every winter, of course, just as every villager did. Even though there were many planting ceremonies to watch during the season, it had never been boring. There was always a sense of achievement in the village that came from adding to the forest, and during winter, when the other crops didn't grow and there was far less work to do, it was always welcome entertainment. Jacob had learned almost everything there was to know about plants by now. His father had taught him exactly how to get the best growth out of their crops, and it was not a short list of requirements. It was because of this that Jacob was constantly amazed with how the white forest seemed to grow stronger every winter, unlike other plants that would shrivel at the harsh conditions.
Jacob grew older still, and he could no longer be called a boy, but a man - and a hard-working man at that. His work ethic as a boy had carried on with him into manhood, and he soon had a reputation for being the intelligent and robust worker that his father had once been known for. Because of this, it came at no surprise that he was married off quickly. The girl in question, Jesse, was a handful of years younger than Jacob, and had actually been the baby whose family had been congratulated by Jacob's mother on the day that he had planted his sapling, although he did not remember this. Even though all the girls of the village had been invisible to him and his friends growing up, Jesse had soon become the idol of her generation, and Jacob was the cause of envy for having married her. But he was as loving a husband as he was hard a worker.
The two soon took off to live on their own, away from their respective families - not that there was any bad blood between them; they got along perfectly well, which was very common in the villagers' tightly-knit community. They built a new house for themselves, but not near the forest. In fact, they built it further out to the other side of the village, to allow room for the growth that the forest would no doubt continue to do over the years. They lived their lives just as routinely and contently as the rest of village did.
Jacob had once again taken to visiting his tree regularly. It was sturdy and strong now, and Jacob was proud to see how well it was growing. The white trunk and branches were complimented by it's dazzling emerald-green foliage, which would look even better during winter, when the snow would leave white highlights atop it. The strange bark almost seemed to smile at Jacob with its wooden contortions, and Jacob smiled back. It did not have the power or permanence of the old trees yet, whose trunks were wider than a man and seemed to support the ground instead of the other way around, but he knew that it would grow more in time.
Jesse also had her tree, of course. It was a few layers closer to the village than Jacob's, because she was younger and had planted it later, and had also become a visibly mature tree, though a little less than Jacob's. But they never saw each other’s tree; visiting one's tree was a private matter. Each did not even know for sure which tree was the other's.
One winter, a few years later, Jesse bore a child. Their two families came to congratulate them, and then continued to make frequent visits to help the two take care of the baby boy. The boy would soon prove to take after Jacob's looks.
Life continued like this, with Jacob and Jesse taking care of their baby, whom they had named Lou, whilst their respective families offered immense help. All the while, every winter, more children were born to the village, and more trees were planted in the forest. The time went by very quickly for Jacob and Jesse; so much so that they almost forgot to visit their trees, and certainly didn't do it as often as they'd used to. However, it was apparent that the years would continue to pass whether they bothered to notice or not, because Lou had soon turned four-years-old, and was threatening to turn five very soon.
It was because of this that Jacob had to make a very important visit to his tree. His father had told him what he needed to do, but he'd always known anyway. He found his tree where it had always been, although he now had to walk through more of the forest to reach it, looking ever so slightly more grown. However, the most noticeable change, and one that was almost serendipitously timed, was the fact that his tree now had acorns growing from its white branches. One branch swayed forward, as if it was offering itself to Jacob, and on the branch was a single, healthy acorn. Jacob gently picked the acorn off the branch, thanked the tree, and left.
Inside the acorn was, of course, a seed. A seed that would one day grow into the mighty, white tree. But not for a long time. For now, it was a seed - a seed that Jacob planted into a small container which held soil from the forest, and very quickly grew into the green streaks of a sapling. From the moment the first green was visible, Jacob was careful to not touch it directly. Lou would be the first and last person to ever do so.
Lou's fifth winter soon came, and the child had been anticipating the planting of his sapling for weeks. He had been born at the very beginning of his winter, so he did not have to endure the sight of many other children getting to plant their saplings weeks before he could. Nonetheless, he was as excited as Jacob had been when he was five, and surely, as excited as every five-year-old in the village was during the winter. Lou's birthday fell on an exceptionally cold day, but this did not bother him, for he was warmed by anticipation. His parents led him to forest with the sapling in his hands, and the entire village followed behind in support. At the edge of the forest, which was now well into the village territory, Lou knelt down and dug out a hole - first in the layer of snow on the ground, and then in the soft soil of the forest. He scooped his sapling out of its container, and potted it into the hole before filling it back up. He knew when he was done - it was as if the plant told him so.
Jacob carried Lou home on his shoulders, with Jesse beside him, while the other villagers smiled at them. Lou was officially a part of the village now, and his tree was officially a part of the forest.
Jacob wasted no time in teaching Lou the same values that his father had taught him, and by the time Lou was thirteen, he was already a diligent worker, although not quite as much as Jacob or his father had been.
Jacob's father, who had been toying with age for a long time, had recently passed away. It was not surprising in the slightest, for the people of this village never lived beyond the age of sixty. A funeral was held, but of course, there was no body. There was never a body; not in this village. The fact that a person's body must remain behind after their soul has passed on was not the knowledge of these villagers, and they would not believe you if you told them so. The bodies of the deceased go into their trees. That was their belief. That was their way.
It was because of this that Jacob was not overly sad at the death of his father. Death was simply a part of the routine, and it was a cause for respect, but never sadness. They asked his mother whether she would be alright living by herself now, but she insisted that she did not mind. The old women of this village always seemed to spend their last few years alone, but they always spent them contently.
Jacob devoted his time to shaping Lou into an even harder worker. He asked Lou whether he had been visiting his tree, and also made sure to visit his own. The tree was now almost forty years old, and was a sight worthy of beholding. For the first time in his life, his tree was wider than he, and stood far taller. Its branches were thick; its trunk was thicker. The dusty white of its body and the perfect green of its leaves were an unmatched pair of colours. It had a prowess unlike anything else. It moved at Jacob's presence, much like one would greet an old friend. It was hard to believe that it would still grow more powerful, even though Jacob would only grow weaker as he continued to age.
Every winter, the forest grew. Every winter, each tree also grew stronger. It was a miracle of nature how these trees faced winter with unmatched indifference, as if they dared the snow to hinder their growth in any way. It was a miracle that the villagers were proud to have devoted their lives to.
Sadly, Jacob's mother only outlived his father by a few years. They had been close to each other in age. Once again, her passing was only made apparent by the fact that she was nowhere to be found. There was no body, but it was still obvious to the villagers that she had gone - it was as obvious as the fact that one should not touch another's tree. The funeral was swift and bittersweet.
As the forest had grown closer to the village every winter, it had now intruded so far that Jacob's old house, the one that his mother and father had lived in, would have to be demolished to make way for the trees. The house being empty just in time for this felt as if it was almost coordinated by some divine force. In any case, Jacob worked with Lou, who was now on the cusp of manhood, to tear it down, and let the majestic white forest carry on its path.
Lou would often disappear, no doubt to visit his tree, but when he returned to the village, he'd carry out any work swiftly yet carefully. Jacob's attempts at turning Lou into the third hard-worker in their line had been an evident success. A few winters later, Lou was married off at the same age Jacob had been. This allowed Jacob and Jesse to spend their days together, comfortably alone, only separating to venture into the forest when the desire hit them.
It was a fine winter's day when Lou and his wife had their own child - a daughter. Jacob and Jesse did not hesitate to take a break from their time together to offer assistance. Jacob, knowing that he would not get to talk to his son as much in the future, took the chance to explain to Lou what he must do nearing his daughter's fifth winter. It was at this moment that Jacob truly realised he had become an old man. He reminisced about his life. One of the earliest memories he could recall was planting his tree. That tree had been with him throughout all of this time - it was a representation of his life; it was a fixture of his existence. He'd watched it grow alongside himself, from green sapling to white giant, getting stronger every winter along with the other trees. He had no doubt that his tree felt just as strongly about him.
Lou's daughter had grown. She'd planted her tree, and the forest had watched her. Jacob felt extremely content in his old age, knowing that Lou was doing so well. He and Jesse had once again retired to themselves, and left the young family alone. The years he'd now spend with Jesse would be some of the happiest years of his life, and this even appeared to reflect itself in his tree. The gentle goliath was practically at the heart of the forest now, and it shone with the importance of a God. The sprawl of the forest into the village had happened so gradually and incrementally that Jacob hadn't paid it much mind through his life, but looking back at it now, it was titanic. It was fifty trees deeper. What had once been a mild walk to meet his tree was now a small trek. The change was immense. Gradual, but immense. The great forest was teaching him a metaphor for life.
He and Jesse spent many winters in eachother's arms. The forest did not care about the harshness of winter, and the villagers had adopted this outlook as well. Winter was merely a time for additional joy, and for planting trees. It was an adamant taunt to nature that the trees were planted when no other plant would be. It may have also been an adamant taunt to nature that the children of the village were born during winter. Jacob only wished he truly understood how the great, white trees thrived so.
The last few years of Jacob's life had little unnecessary excitement. Life in the village continued; children planted their trees. It was a wonderful sight for Jacob, who knew the beauty of life alongside a tree. They lived contentedly. He grew old; Jesse grew old; their trees grew old. Jacob's was now surely the mightiest in the forest. But it had been a while since he had visited. Perhaps deep down, he'd know. that the terminal visit had been coming, and had been saving himself for a final trek.
On his sixtieth winter, a day came when he felt the strongest urge he had ever felt in his life. He knew the urge - it was the urge to visit his tree - but it was a hundred times stronger. And in that moment, he knew everything. He told Jesse. He would never have left her without saying goodbye, so he told her everything. She took it all without a word of argument - in fact, she smiled. She would remain happy, she promised, for a few years, and then join him.
On the evening of that day, he left. He took nothing with him. He trekked through the forest, unbeknownst to anyone in the village except Jesse. The old muscles in his legs began to hurt partway though, but not so much so that he could not go on. In fact, he was still relatively healthy. His body was old, but not ancient. He had much life still in him - but it would not be for him.
This was, of course, the longest trek he'd ever had to make. It was not helped by the fact that the snow was fierce - but that was good, because it covered his footprints quickly. The snow on the ground was soft and comforting to walk on, so it was not so grueling. He shivered, but knew he would be warm soon.
He found his tree. The instinct in him was strong, and looking at the tree made him shudder with love. It was tectonic. The snow on its many leaves christened it magnificently, and he found that he had to look up to the sky to appreciate this sufficiently. The white trunk was massive, but gentle. The giant glowed.
Jacob said hello to his oldest friend. The tree shook its branches, causing green foliage to float down gently, and returned the sentiment. The rest of the great snow-covered forest seemed to look away in that moment, to give Jacob and his tree privacy.
The tree beckoned towards its trunk. It was a welcoming place. Jacob did not hesitate to comfortably sit down at the tree, his back hugging the bark. He leaned back, breathed deeply, and took in the sensation of feeling the tree so vividly. He thought about Jesse and Lou, but put the thoughts aside, because he knew they would join him when their time in the routine came along. It was the way.
He stroked his hand on the white bark, and leaned back even more comfortably. He smiled once again at the tree, and closed his eyes. The tree's great roots crawled out of the ground. They were slow, but in the way that something powerful and enormous is slow. They wrapped around Jacob's outstretched legs as he lay, and around his waist at the foot of the tree. They wrapped around his chest, and his arms. Gradually, and gently, they pulled his body down, through the snow; through everything. It was simply absorbed. He went into the tree; into the soil. Soon, his body proved to be temporary. His very essence was spread into the forest. He would nourish his tree, and every tree. He would help them survive the winter.