Part I


Vanessa loved summers at Big Mama’s. It took her sixteen hours on the Greyhound to get to the tiny town of Union Point, Georgia from Brooklyn where she lived with her father Samuel. She was her mama’s mama, so she’d taken to calling her Big Mama, but around her New York friends, she just called her mama. Some of them knew that she really wasn’t and they were cool about it and the ones who don’t, well they don’t need to bother, she thought. Vanessa curled up in her snug seat on the bus. She’d managed to position her bags just so no one would ask to sit next to her. Using her bookbag as a pillow, she propped her fuzzy head down in her lap. Her daddy made sure to take her to the beauty shop before her trip. 

“We gotta make sure you look good ‘round them folks.” he said, behind her in the mirror. He looked nervous for some reason. He always was around this time. Like he was getting ready for some kind of job interview. “Make sure your grandmama knows I take real good care of you,” he finished. Vanessa didn’t know what all the fuss was for, she could feel her hair shrink and coil as the humidity increased as they inched down each southern mile. Didn’t matter, Big Mama was gonna cornrow her hair anyway. 

“Hey city girl, gon’ and wash ya hair. I’ma roll it,” she’d bellow from the kitchen. Row, she meant, as in cornrow, but Vanessa knew what she meant and wouldn’t dare correct her. She’d stop being called “city girl” once Big Mama stitched the 6 straight back braids onto her scalp, and went on to being Nessa. “I don’t know why your daddy insists on straightenin’’ ya hair. Makin’ you look so grown up. Don’t he know you ain’t nothin’ but a little girl?” she’d say. “I didn’t use the pressin’ comb on ya mama’s hair until she was getting ready for her cotillion, but I guess this just how y’all up North folk do.” 

When she arrived, she’d walked down the long narrow path that led to her Big Mama’s house where she could always hear the birds. Inside there were shelves upon shelves of aged books with canaries, finches and other small fowls nestled among them. No cages. Just a free perches with yesterday’s newspapers underneath to catch the shit. Big Mama was always somewhere in the back either bent low, nearly trapped in that jungle she called a garden or standing over the stove adding to the many fragrances wafting through her house. Today she was frying fish and Vanessa watched as she placed them neatly in the pan. Finger tips almost kissing the grease as it popped violently, licking her already weathered hands. Teeming with life every inch of that house told a story and that is where Vanessa first gained an appreciation for all things tiny and hidden beneath all the busyness. A force invisible but powerful. 

* * * *

The warm August heat woke Vanessa in her mother’s old room, all of her belongings lay there frozen in time: wine colored lipstick she liked to try on, her jacket that she loved to snuggle up to because it smelled like her, her class ring which fit loosely around her finger. It’s been 12 years since she died and has taken up residence as a ghost in the corner of her mind that was so infrequently visited that it was left untidy. She couldn’t discern which of those memories actually happened and which were dreams. When people talked about her, Vanessa felt less like her daughter and more like a fan who’d never met their idol in person. She spent hours gazing down at pictures, smelling all of her old perfumes trying to summon the ghost but as she aged, the memory, even if made up, grew fainter.  But her fascination was not like Daddy, who deified her. His praises, an offering to her to relieve him of his guilt. Maybe because he couldn’t save her. Maybe because Big Mama couldn’t forgive him. Her mama tried to warn him is what Big Mama says. She’s said this on the phone to her girlfriends or in her nightly prayers, but never to Vanessa directly. There wasn’t much grown folk’s business to get into, hell there weren’t that many grown folks period, at the Point. It was the kind of silence that could drive you mad. Especially for Vanessa who grew up in the city. It’s no wonder Vanessa found out. Big Mama’s voice so big even a deaf man could hear her clear across a field. To Big Mama, her daughter was a spirit hovering over her. She spoke to her often. Vanessa would catch her when she was fiddling around in her garden or feeding her birds. But for Vanessa she’d only just met her, since she was only 3 when it happened. So staying in her mother’s old room felt more like sleeping in a museum than a mausoleum.   

Since she couldn’t get back to sleep, Vanessa came out onto the front porch, still in her nightgown–something she’d never do back home. The sun had yet pierced the horizon so there the town slept, enveloped in the eerie haze of early morning dew. She could barely make out the squat buildings that made up the town center in the distance. A town usually bustling with activity was muted by the fog, but mornings in the Point were not quiet. Every animal in the woods was singing this morning. Vanessa was just wiping the sleep from her eyes when a bird landed right in front of her on the porch railing. At first she thought it was one of Big Mama’s birds stretching its wings, but she hadn’t seen this one before. It had a tiny orange beak, and a blaze of fiery red feathers. Vanessa was more inclined to intrigue than fear, so she leaned in to inspect the creature. The bird began to chirp her song and the hairs on her arms stood up and she was suddenly warmed by the sound. What most startled Vanessa was the familiarity of it. The tune hung right there on the edge of the cobwebbed corner of her mind and just when she thought she had retrieved the right song, the bird took flight. 

That evening as Vanessa was snapping green beans on the porch while Big Mama rolled her evening cigarette, she saw a man coming up the road, just up the street past the Washington’s. He was whistling the same tune she heard that morning and it gave her goosebumps. He was tall and skinny and wore an ill fitting suit. He had a wide brimmed hat and a long white beard. He tipped his hat towards Big Mama who nodded in return. No smile, no frown, just a nod. Vanessa hadn’t known her grandmother to not greet a stranger with a big warm smile which was usually followed by an invitation to her porch where she would carry on until they weren’t strangers anymore. But there were few strangers in Union Point. “Who was this mysterious guy?” she wondered. 

“Big Mama, do you know him?” Vanessa asked. 

Big Mama finally released the smoke from her cig making her annoyance apparent and said “He comes around every now and again.” Vanessa could tell by the way she answered, not to ask anymore questions for it must’ve been grown folk business and she was just a child, so she returned to her obedient silence. 

At the fish market the next day, it was bustling with the market ladies carrying their heavy loads on their heads, with money hanging from the sagging satchels around their waists. The fish mogers hocking their day’s catch. Vanessa saw the strange man again walking near the harbor. He had crouched down and gently dipped his hands, stirring them in the water. “What was he doing?” she thought. That section was closed to swimmers. She used to swim there all the time when she was a little girl, but when the occasional algae bloom became more consistent and its green sludge and foul odor stuck around long after early spring, they closed it off to swimmers permanently.  A commotion at Henry’s stand pulled her attention away from the water. A blue heron had swooped down and grabbed the biggest fish on the stack. In all the years of the fish market, this had never happened. The herons could fend for themselves. They were never known to scavenge. By the time she looked back, he’d disappeared. Suddenly, Vanessa felt a sharp jab just below her belly button. She lurched forward and vomited into the water. 

* * *

There was a menace in the air. The humidity was so suffocating Big Mama decided to forgo her nightly cigarette. Vanessa hadn’t known it to be so hot. Sure, it was more muggy than Brooklyn, but it was bearable. This was the kind of heat that made it impossible to leave the house–even to retreat to the cool shade of the forest to hunt for mushrooms as she and Big Mama often did. That night Vanessa couldn’t hardly sleep as the feverish heat only made the knots and twists she was experiencing in her stomach worse. She barely made it to the toilet to vomit and in her half-sleep exhaustion was startled by the bright red puke in the bowl. Then she remembered she’d had at least 7 thrills to cool her from the heat and blamed the sugar. 

“Run down to the sto and fetch us some cold drinks. Now don’t you be standing ‘round in that heat too long, Nessa. I got heat rash and I wasn’t out dere five minutes” Big Mama warned. Usually Big Mama did her own running and refused to admit that she was too old or too tired to run her errands, but Vanessa saw her using the cane that usually lived in a dusty corner of her house, so she knew she had to get there and get back, ”no lollygagging,” as Big Mama used to say. As she was walking out the door, Big Mama was talking to Ms. French who may as well have been the town crier she carried so much of everybody’s business and goings-on. 

“Don’t send Nessa down there by the water tho. Chile it’s about as bloody as the Nile river,” she announced. 

“Well shoot, I was just sending her down to get some cold drinks. It’s that bad?” Big Mama asked. 

“It ain’t just the red tide, it’s as funky as the devil’s armpit down there,” she answered.  

“Fo real? That’s probably what got her stomach turning,” Big Mama disclosed. “Nessa go down to the other store on Freemont!” she yelled from the porch. Of course this only made Vanessa want to go down by the water even more. So she just nodded her head and ignored Big Mama’s directions. Vanessa could smell the putrid odor long before she could see the cause. Once she got down there, the water looked bloody as Ms. French said, but not the drip drop of diluted blood that she’d saw when she took an open cut to the sink, instead it was thick and slimy. The sight made Vanessa gag again. “How could it have possibly gone from the impenetrable green muck that floated there just yesterday?” she thought. But then she recalled the strange man sinking his hands into the water yesterday and couldn’t help but wonder if he had something to do with it. 

That evening Vanessa was getting her hair braided on the front porch, and the strange man appeared once again down the road. Whistling the same tune, the one Vanessa just couldn’t put her finger on. He stopped right in front of the front walk and decided he’s going to introduce himself. “Well, good evening there ladies, y’all hear about the harbor?” Well of course they did, but Vanessa just stared down at him suspiciously. Big Mama answered, 

“Yeah, it’s a shame. How dem men gon’ feed their families now?” 

“I’m sure they’ll manage ma’am,” he said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”

“That’s because I didn’t give it to you,” Big Mama retorted.

“Well, I’m William Edwin Bankolé. Just stopping through town for a little while. “ 

Big Mama went to light her rolled cigarette and the wind kept blowing out her lit match. 

“Here, let me help you with that,” he says, and holding his hand near enough to block the 

wind. “You really should give up smoking. It’s such a nasty habit for a woman your age and it could cause a house fire,” he continued.

“Well, maybe you’ll come over here and help put it out since you helped light it.” Big

Mama retorted. Something about her response made Vanessa wonder if she was talking about more than the cigarette. She sat back in her worn chair and said, “It’s getting dark; I guess you best be on your way.” 

Vanessa couldn’t help but roll her eyes. Something about that man just made her so

upset. “How dare he talk to Big Mama like that?” she thought. But there was something else there. Despite Big Mama’s sharp tongue, there was a softness in her demeanor whenever this mysterious man came around. Vanessa suspected that she knew way more than she was letting on about this man, but she kept that to herself. And though Vanessa knew to stay out of grown folk’s business, she was getting to the age where she couldn’t be deceived as easily. Whatever this tension was hung low like a rain cloud threatening to break open revealing whatever the secret was between them. 

“He needs to mind his business” Vanessa said half herself, half to Big Mama. 

“Ah, he’s just an old man stirring the pot. Nothing else to do,” Big Mama replied. And Vanessa thought she heard the tiniest bit of excitement in her voice. Despite how Big Mama felt about him, she didn’t trust him and with that, she retreated to the house. 

Big Mama said her knee was bothering her which only meant one thing: a storm was coming. And that it did. That night the wind howled and the house shook like it never had before. As the wind battered the house, she didn’t know if it was her fear that the more than hundred-year-old house would collapse on them, or something else, but her stomach lurched and turned. She writhed in pain and the storm raging outside seemed to match how she felt. The rain didn’t fall as hard but the thunder rumbled through the town and again shook the house so. Just as she began to fall asleep, Big Mama burst into the room, her eyes wild and full of fear.  “Grab a bucket and fill it by the stream!” “What? What’s going on?” Vanessa said, still half asleep and wondering if this was a dream. 

“The forest is on fire!” Big Mama said as she hurried out of the door.  

At least a quarter mile from the woods, they could feel the heat and the smoke stung their eyes. The fire seemed to take on a life of its own, its boiling hands wrapping itself around their throats. It leapt away from them and kept up the chase all night into the early morning. Vanessa was tired, but she was worried about Big Mama who had gotten so close the the flames that it singed her clothes. Even the big men out there couldn’t convince her to pull back. Big Mama, wild-eyed and frantic kept shouting, “Not again! Not again!” Vanessa had never seen her like this before and wondered just what she meant by again. There had never been a forest fire that she’d heard of, and even Ms. big-mouthed French hadn’t said anything about if there ever was one. However, seeing her Big Mama out there with bucket after bucket of water desperately beating the invincible flames, it looked like she was battling more than the fire. Late the next morning the fire marshal confirmed that it was lightning that caused the fire, but Vanessa wasn’t too sure she believed that. 

* * * *

“Hand me some of those nettles, baby girl.” Big Mama hummed from her room. “Be

careful how you hold them now.” 

Big Mama’s blood sugar was high today. She’d been in bed all day, her usually youthful face, now aged with dark circles etched under her eyes marking time like tree rings. The bed looked cavernous with her small frame creating a dimple right in the middle. It was rare, but every once and a while, Vanessa was reminded that her grandmother was an old lady. Big Mama was all of 5’2” with her scrawny limbs so often hidden under her overalls that one could forget. Especially Vanessa who had witnessed Big Mama haul more than her weight out of her pickup truck and out pace her whenever they went anywhere. She had always been her babygirl who she treated like a babybird, but here Big Mama was weakened and confined to her nest. 

“Nessa, I’m gonna need something stronger than this. ‘Member those mushrooms we found last time we went foraging?” Big Mama asked, her voice just above a whisper. 

“The ones by the mother tree?” Vanessa answered. 

“Yes, I need you to go and bring some back for me. You can manage on your own, right?” Big Mama asked. 

“Yes, I know the way. The big orange ones right?” Vanessa asked and Big Mama nodded in response. 

“I’ll be back before you know it, just hang tight,” Vanessa replied. And for the first time she ventured into the forest without the shelter of Big Mama’s wings. 

Part II


Vanessa was no little red riding hood, she knew these woods and was not afraid of being alone as she traveled deeper into the forest as it grew as dark as dusk. Something was off. The woods were eerily quiet. No birds, no small critters scampering about, just silence. Except the crunch of leaves behind her. She froze. Someone had to be following her. Who would be this deep in the woods? Even the hunters stayed closer to the perimeter. They need to be able to see their prey. Then she heard his voice. 

“Little girls shouldn’t be walking around in the woods by themselves,” William said, 

edging closer to her.

“Why are you following me everywhere?” she asked, half irritated, half afraid. 

“I’m not following you,” William said, coming even closer, “The woods don’t belong to you. I can go wherever I please.”

Vanessa didn’t want to stick around to figure out just what he was doing out there or why everywhere she turned, he seemed to be there. She had her paring knife in her pocket for trimming the mushrooms, but they were a good enough stand-in as a weapon should she need to defend herself, she thought. 

“What are you looking for out here by yourself? There’s nothing in this part of the 

woods,” William asked. 

“Listen, I don’t have time to chat. If you don’t mind, I’ll just be on my way,” Vanessa 

replied, turning to return to her mission. 

“Everybody’s afraid of the woods–afraid of the big bad wolf and hungry bears, but it’s the tiny things that are the most dangerous. Watch out for spiders,” he hissed as she continued to walk away. 

Vanessa was in such a rush, she hardly saw it, but she ran right into a spider’s web. Tangled, she threw up her hands waving them violently in the air. She had no idea which direction she had turned and couldn’t get her bearings. That’s when she heard William snap his fingers. The snap echoed through the silent forest and suddenly, Vanessa’s feet gave out from under her and she fell to the cold forest floor. After all the debris settled, she looked up and up, and up. Everything was much larger than she remembered, mammoth even. The dead leaves that covered the ground were no longer beneath her feet but covered her like a blanket. She could hardly move. The trees were like skyscrapers, their height dizzying, anchoring her closer to the ground. She tried to move and couldn’t find her hands. She looked down and couldn’t see her body. Then she heard William say, 

“Spiders weave their webs silently, quickly, invisibly. Next thing you know, you’re tangled waiting to be devoured because what else can you do? There’s always a way out, but are you clever enough to find it?” William said in a haunting voice.  

“What have you done to me?” Vanessa screamed as loud as she could only her voice didn’t reach very far. It seemed smaller somehow. 

“Where are you?” She knew he was still around somewhere. Again, there was a crunch behind her only it sounded like several pattering feet. She turned to find an enormous spider coming towards her. Vanessa was terrified, but she still couldn’t move. It was impossible to find her feet though she felt the ground beneath her it was like she was learning how to walk again. All she could do was wobble backwards. The spider said, “Now you can stay and listen.” It was William. 

“What…how…what are you?” Vanessa managed through her trembling voice. 

“More importantly, what are you?” he replied.  

She looked down once more and could not respond. She couldn’t move and could not see what she had been transformed into. She couldn’t be a spider, for she saw how he had stretched his eight appendages to walk and point, something her body refused to do. 

“Change me back! I want to go home. Are you going to hurt me?” 

“No, my dear, far from it. I am going to help build you up. When you leave this forest, you’ll emerge a new person,” he promised, “There are just a few things you’ll need to do.”

“What, what is it? I really need to get back to Big Mama, she’s sick!”

“Aw, she’ll be alright. How do you think she fairs when you’re not around?” he responded, his mouth pouring into a toothless grin. 

Vanessa then remembered that spiders had no teeth and instead used venom to liquify their prey. What scared her more was what he might do to Big Mama should she not get to her before he did. 

“Well, what is it that I have to do, and what am I anyway? What kind of game is this?”

“The reason you can’t see your body is because your poor little feet, though there are many, are tucked under your swollen body. That’s also why you’re finding it a challenge to move.” 

“You didn’t answer my question,” she probed once more. 

“You should be nicer to the person who is only here to help you,”

“Are you going to tell me or not?”

“Listen, you’re going to have to find the Mother Tree soon,”


“Because you’ll need to cocoon there to transform back to your former self,” 

“What? You mean, I’m a…I’m a caterpillar?” she stammered. She couldn’t believe it, but 

how could she not, there was no mirror and of course she had sunken to the ground and was talking to a spider so she really could believe anything at this point. 

“If you don’t find the tree in time, you will remain a caterpillar and spend the rest of your 

days trapped on the forest floor.” 

“Enough time? How much time do I have?”

“You have 24 hours my dear.” 

“What the…well, where is the Mother Tree? How will I find it?”

“Now that, my dear, is something you’ll need to discover on your own. I’ve helped you 


“You put me here, at least point me in the right direction, how am I supposed to navigate 

the woods like this? ” She said, panicking. 

“You’re a resourceful girl. I’m sure you’ll make friends and find your way,” he said, and in a flash, he was gone. 

Vanessa knew the woods better than the geography of her neighborhood, but she may as well have been a grain of sand on a beach. All the time she’d spent in these woods by herself, so deep she felt like she was worlds away, but she never felt this kind of isolation. Despite being surrounded by creatures near and far for a while she felt like the sole inhabitant of this strange and unfamiliar world. Barely any light reached this part of the woods, but this low to the ground there was almost none. Perpetual night, where predators thrived. “I’ll never make it out of here alive,” she thought. Just then she heard some voices in the distance.. Vanessa decided to hide under a pile of leaves for as grateful as she was to hear another voice, something to push away the loathsomeness of being marooned in this dark corner of the forest, she was also completely terrified of who that voice belonged to.   

“I know what I felt. You guys know you felt it too. We have to let the queen know the colony is in danger,” one squeaky voice reasoned.

“Where are we going to go, Rook? We’re just workers. That’s a job for the soldiers to protect the colony,” a deeper voice replied. “Besides, we’re not supposed to leave our stations.” 

“We must tell her. The survival of the kingdom is up to us!” the one named Rook declared. 

“Look, we have work to attend to. You can go and save the world by yourself,” another baritone voice responded. 

“Fine, cowards. Somebody has to tell her,” Rook said, their frustration growing. “I mean, do you want to see the colony collapse under the weight of this secret?” they asked. 

“Oh you’re so brave, huh? Do you even know how far the kingdom is from here?” one the deep voices asked. “And then when you get there, do you really think they’re going to let you in?” the other deep voice chimed in.  

“With this kind of intel, maybe. I have to at least try,” Rook replied.  

“You’re not to break away from the colony. Travel on your own if you must, but you’ll never make it.” 

“I know my way,” Rook replied.

“Fool,” one said delivering the last word and away they went.  

Vanessa had been holding her breath the entire time. Struggling to hold it any longer, she let all the air rush out of her body with an audible sigh. 

“Who’s there?” Rook called out. 

She caught her breath again. Sure the voices sounded harmless enough, but she couldn’t see them. “What if they were rodents or worse yet, birds?” she thought. The footsteps came closer and closer and with her many feet and blundering body, all she could do was wait. Luckily, she saw them before they spotted her. It was an ant. But this one had a flat little head and trosol. They looked friendly, but she wasn’t going to take any chances. Ants had been known to disremember their own if they sense danger. She tried to back away and fell backwards, wedging herself between two tiny branches. 

“Help!” she shouted, figuring that she could either take her chances with this ant or remain lodged there, making her easy prey to opportunistic predators. 

“I’m coming, keep calling out so I can find you,” Rook called out. 

“I’m over here!”  Vanessa called back.

Rook made their way over to Vanessa and seeing such a spectacle, couldn’t help but laugh. 

“How did you? Ha, ha!,” Rook asked, holding their side. They couldn’t stop laughing. “How did you end up like that?” 

“Are you going to help me or not?” Vanessa asked, annoyed but also growing more and more afraid the longer she was left there. 

“Okay, okay, give me a second,” Rook said, moving over to her side. “I’m gonna have to 

roll you back over.”


Rook pushed and pushed and was surprisingly strong. Such a tiny thing in comparison, but had Vanessa listened to her Grandmother when she lectured her on the importance of ants when they were foraging she would know that ants can carry twenty times their body weight. Rook took a long look and finally asked, 

“Why are you on the ground?” giving a puzzled look, “Caterpillars don’t hang out on the 

ground this deep in the woods. Are you lost or something?”

“Listen, it’s a long story, but I don’t have much time. I need to get to the Mother Tree.” 

Vanessa replied. 

“Oh, Gaia?” Rook answered. “I know where She is, but why do you need to see her?”  

“It’s very important that I cocoon there.” Vanessa said, exasperated. 

“Butterflies don’t hang out this deep in the wildwood, how did you end up here?” Rook inquired.

“Look, it’s just very important that I get there. I won’t be able to complete the cycle 

anywhere else. Will you help me?” 

“Okay, sure, I was headed there already. I could really use your company anyway. I’m

not supposed to be out here by myself, but my pals abandoned me.”

“Yeah I know. What’s this about the mother tree dying?”

“Were you spying on me?” 

“Of course I was, now is this like an immediate thing, or what? Do we have time?”

“I don’t know, that’s why I’ve got to tell the queen.” 

“Why do you have to cocoon on Gaia anyway?”

“It’s a long story.”

“Well, I got time”

“You’re not going to believe me.”

“Try me.”

“Fine, well, Rook, first of all my name is Vanessa. People call me Nessa. I was in the

forest foraging for a mushroom for my grandmother, this guy who’s been following me around came and turned me into a caterpillar and in order for me to turn back into a human, I need to cocoon on the Mother Tree.”

“Yeah, that is a lot.” “Mushrooms, eh? Are you sure you haven’t eaten any by mistake?” 

“Hey! C’mon, just help me out–you’ll see.” 

“My name isn’t Rook by the way,” they said, correcting her. 

“Well, what is it, and why were those guys calling you Rook?”

“It’s Rory. Rook is short for Rookie…but it’s kinda grown on me. It used to bother me, but

now I actually prefer it,” they replied. “Anyway, it seems neither of us really have time to waste, so follow me I know the way.” 

* * * *

After they had passed the same moss covered rock for the eleventh time, Vanessa finally asked,

“Do you even know which way to go?”

“I do, I just…this isn’t the way I normally go.” 

“You’ve never been to the Mother Tree have you?” 

“Not using the surface route.”

“Look, I really need to get to the Mother Tree before it’s too late.”

“Hey, I need to get to the queen!”….”Be glad that I’m even helping you.”

“I”ll just find it on my own.” Vanessa said as she started to walk away.

“Ahhh!!” Rook screamed. 

Suddenly a squirrel slammed its paw down nearest to Vanessa. After hours of walking, she’d gotten the hang of how to use her many tiny feet to move her round swollen body. Instead of running away, she rolled round and round as fast as she could away from the furry menace. Rook screamed,

 “Come, come this way!” Rook yelling standing near a tiny hole in the ground. 

“How am I supposed to fit through that?” Vanessa asked as she again dodged the most terrifying creature she’d ever encountered. 

“Don’t worry, you will. We have to get underground!” 

Vanessa tucked as much of her bulbous body in, closing her eyes thinking somehow that would make her small enough to fit as she slid into the antsize portal. Then everything went silent. 

“Am I dead?” Vanessa said aloud.

“Nope, still stuck with me.” Rook replied. 

Vanessa let out a huge sigh, “Oh thank God.” 

“That was horrid! Why haven’t we been going this way the whole time?”

“Shh, you are absolutely determined to get us killed.”

“What are you talking about?” Vanessa whispered. 

“I didn’t take this way because I didn’t want us to get caught. I’m not supposed to break 

away from the colony. I could get in real trouble. 

“Oh, so what are we gonna do?”

“We’ll just have to be careful and hide…which is nearly impossible at your size.” 

“Well if anybody comes to bother us, I’ll just smash em’ I mean you guys are like a 1/10 

my size.”

“Yeah, if you do that, they will come back with an army. You can’t smash an army.” 


“Let’s go, it’s not too far.”

* * * *

“What do you mean you saw Rook with a caterpillar? Rook is out there by themself?”

the queen probed the two shivering workers. One of the soldiers had brought them in for interrogation since they couldn’t tell him where their teammate had gone. 

“Answer her!” one the soldiers shouted, poking the petrified pair. 

“They..they..well, they said they were coming to warn you about something. We were tending to our work, and we didn’t have time to stop them,” one answered. 

“They’re coming here?” the queen asked incredulously, “You let them come here?” 

“I mean, we figured they wouldn’t get very far, your majesty,” the other stammered.

“How could you be so stupid? And you saw them with an outsider…an intruder?!” 

“We just…”


“Get these two out of my sight,” the queen said, directing the soldiers to collect them. 

“Assemble an army. We need to be ready for whatever may come our way.”…”Get me intel on this Rook character. I need to know what kind of threat we’re dealing with.” 

* * * *

Before Vanessa’s eyes adjusted to the blinding darkness, she could feel the pulse and the heat of the underground world she’d entered. Nothing fascinated her about the earth beneath her feet. She’d always assumed it was dark and dead. Unmoving, unchanging–just a mooring post anchoring the life that thrived above it. But now she was hypnotized by the labyrinth of roots that seemed to glow between tangles of luminescent mycelium. A universe unto itself. It moved and it quaked. Not enough to make her fall, but she could feel the vitality tremble all around her. Like stars that seemed glued to the sky yet moved at dizzying speeds one couldn’t perceive they were so far away. And in the distance she could see bolts of electricity spring here and there illuminating the web of branches that seemed to stretch on forever. 

“Hey, why are you just standing there?” Rook inquired. “Let’s go!”

“I..just..have..never…seen, oh my God it’s beautiful,” Vanessa replied in awe. 

“Do you need to get to Gaia or not?” 

Remembering that they were on the run and that she needed to find the Mother Tree in time, she moved along. Vanessa tried to keep her eye out for ants from the colony, but there was so much activity she found herself mesmerized by this underground aurora. She couldn’t help but ask. 

“What is all of this? I mean, how does it all work? I didn’t even know this existed.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t expect you sky dwellers to pay much attention to this, but that “mother 

tree”–Gaia, that you keep talking about well this is her. She is everything around us and within us.” Rook said with reverence. “That’s why I have to tell the queen about Gaia. We must prepare for her transition. We are her protectors.” 

“How do you know that She’s dying anyway?” Vanessa probed.

“I just know. I got the signal, which means that the other workers got it too….You felt the

pulses. It’s slowing,” Rook said. “She is life. She gives us, all the animals and the plants here, all. When she transitions, we must find a new Sol.” 

Vanessa felt the respiration quiver at an erratic pace seeming to moan and groan in

pain. “I understand. I need to get to Gaia too. It’s not like I know what to do when I get there,

or even what’s going to happen, but I must get there.” 

A tiny bit of daylight pierced the dark matter around them. 

“We’re close, but the closer we get we’re gonna have to be on the lookout for the royal 


They emerged from their tunnel and the blinding light cloaked the immense army of ants that awaited them. They were surrounded on all sides. 

“Seize them!” the queen shouted from her pedestal at the base of the tree. 

Neither of them could see anything, but they heard the thousands of feet marching toward them, felt the swirling dust kick up from all sides. There was no escaping this. 

Then there was a great shadow that blocked the sun and a rush of wind to accompany it. 

“AWW! AWW!” It was a bird and it took Vanessa in its bright orange claws. All the army scrambled about toppling all over each other creating tiny swirling hills. Rook couldn’t believe their eyes. The bird was so close to stomping them, they just froze and waited to be taken, but it had flown high into the canopy. Away with Vanessa clenched in its claws.

Part III


Dizzy, Vanessa was finally dropped into its nest. Certain death was near, she closed her eyes half-praying, half-willing herself to wake up. Then the bird started singing the song that morning on the porch. “Where had she heard that song before?” she wondered. It was so soothing. Then she heard her mother’s voice. Well, at least what she remembered it sounded like. It had been so long. 

“Do you remember that song, baby girl?” 

She did, it was the song her parents used to sing to her when she woke up from whatever nightmare she was having and came to their room. So she opened her eyes and there stood the bird with its fiery red feathers and not her mother. She was sure she heard her or was sure that when she did open her eyes she would be safe in her bed. 

“It’s me, Nessa. Don’t be afraid,” the bird said in her mother’s voice. 

Vanessa could hardly believe it, but many strange things had happened today and she wanted so badly to believe. 

“Mama, is it really you?” Vanessa said, finally catching her breath. 

“Yes, it’s me. I’ve missed you so much,” her mother answered.

“Wait, am I dead? Am I dreaming? Why are you a bird? You didn’t die–you became a 

bird? What happened?” Vanessa queried. 

“I know it’s a lot to take in all at once, but I can assure you that you are not dead and this 

 is not a dream.”

“Then what is going on? Who was that man-spider who turned me into a caterpillar? Did 

you have him do that? 

“No, babygirl, let me explain,” her mother started. “You know how you can smell the rain 

before it comes?


“Well, you and I, well we can forecast much further than that,” she continued. “You see, 

those aches and pains you’ve been getting are not the cause of bad weather, it’s an effect of the weather. You can feel a storm brewing and its hard to really explain to anybody lest they think you’re crazy.” 

“Is that what happened with daddy?” Vanessa asked. “Is that why Big Mama is so upset 

with him?” 

“Not entirely, you see I did try to warn your daddy in so many ways and when it was time 

to go, I tried once more to convince him and he finally listened, but it was too late. It’s not his fault. He listened to what the weather man said and boarded up the house and all. He just thought I was panicking. I hadn’t given him a reason to believe me. It wasn’t him who failed me, I failed him thinking I could save us both. You see, you will know a storm is coming, but you can’t stop it. Nature is a force that does not choose favorites, love. Remember that.” 

“But why are you a bird? And who was that man and why did he turn me into a


“Well, in times of great transformation, you’ll find that you are more attuned to the force

of Gaia,” she clarified. “That’s why Big Mama can tell when it’s going to be a bad season for the crops.” 

“Big Mama can turn into an animal too?”

“No baby, Big Mama picked some things up along the way, but she doesn’t have the


“She picked it up from who?” 

“That man who turned you into a caterpillar…well, that’s your grandaddy, babygirl,” she 

said. “We inherited this gift from him.”

“Wait, a minute, that’s my granddaddy? But he was so mean, and how come Big Mama

never told me about him?”

“I didn’t get to know him myself until I passed. You see, he used his gift to try to save

folks too and one day he told the fieldhands to get on out of them fields because a bad lightning storm was coming and he knew it was gonna be violent. Well, he got them out of there, against the boss’s wishes. Didn’t help that they already thought he was uppity. Well, the storm came rolling in and a lightning bolt set the field on fire. You can probably guess who they blamed and in those days, wasn’t no judge and jury. Your granddaddy was hung right on that tree in the front of the house. The saddest part was Big Mama was carryin’ me and didn’t know it. He never got to know he had a daughter until I transitioned,” she paused. “So you see, he’s a mean ol’ thing because he knows just how mean the world can be.” 

Vanessa’s head was aching. It was so much to take in. All she wanted to do was lie down and rest, but she wouldn’t waste a minute of her time with her mama. 

“Why didn’t Big Mama ever say anything about granddaddy and this gift?” she asked. 

“She didn’t want us to ever use it. She figured this is what killed him. It didn’t help that I, too, died using my gift,” she said looking away, “she didn’t want you to find out because she doesn’t see it as a gift. She thinks it’s a curse, but there’s no getting away from it baby, and she knew it was your time as soon as granddaddy showed up.” 

“So you said that we are attuned to Gaia. What did you mean?” 

“Gaia is a force that governs all life. Deep underground balancing the scales and making 

sure we have food, water, and shelter. 

“Wait, so she’s not the Mother Tree?”

“Oh my poor little concrete denizen,” she said with a grin, “Think of the Mother Tree as the Empire State building. She is a symbol connected to something much bigger than herself. She is the taxi cabs snaking through the city, the lights casting out the night, the grid holding all the tenement buildings, brownstones, and skyscrapers in place.” 

“So how will I know when it’s going to happen? Why did this happen now?” 

“That is for you to discover, baby. I am only here to help complete your cycle.” 

“Wait a minute, I won’t get to see you again?”

“I am always with you babygirl. You will see me again.”

“Mama, I am very tired. I need to rest, but I’m afraid when I wake up, you won’t be here.” 

“Don’t worry, you know how Big Mama talks to granddaddy? I mean, you saw him too.

We will be around, don’t you worry.” 

“I don’t want to fall asleep, but I’m so tired,” Vanessa said between yawns. 

“It must be time. You’re already on the Mother Tree. It’s time to cocoon.” 

As she began to drift off to sleep, she took one last look at her mama/bird and said, 

“I love you mama.” 

And her mama took her delicately in her claw and balanced her onto a twig to begin her process and replied, “I love you too, babygirl.”

* * *

Rook was being held by two strong guards in the palace adjacent to the queen, who was perched on her throne with a pensive look on her face. Rook hardly cared about what was going to happen to them. They still couldn’t believe that Vanessa was gone. “What a mess I’ve made,” Rook thought. 

“Explain yourself!” the queen demanded. 

“Gaia is dying. We were working near the left vein under the great oak and she called out. I just had to get to you! I didn’t mean any harm. The caterpillar was only looking for a place to cocoon. We have to do something, your majesty,” they said pleading. 

The queen looked up at her guards and Rook was sure they were going to be beheaded, but she gave a wave of her hand and said, “Leave us.” Then the queen gave them a somber look and said, 

“I know,” she paused. “I know Gaia is dying, but she’s not going anywhere anytime soon, Rory.” 

“If you already knew this then why are we building more tunnels leading to Gaia?”

“Don’t you understand Gaia is not leaving us. Even after She loses all of her leaves.

Even after she falls, Gaia will still nurture us. In her roots, in the fungi that will spring from the folds of her dying bark, in the last of her leaves seeding the forest floor–she will still be here.” she looked away, “But she must pick a successor, and that was the call you heard.” 

“I’m sorry, I just thought…”

“Well, you’re not fed and sheltered in this colony to think. You put the colony in danger

and threatened the whole structure that we built. Don’t you know your place? I can’t believe you had the audacity.” 

She grabbed her sword and brought it right above Rook’s head and they closed their eyes for they knew what came next. Then the queen let out a laugh that echoed through the throne room and said, 

 “I can’t believe you had the audacity to go against the other workers and go through all 

of this, just to make sure that I knew.” 

“Your majesty?”

“I need that kind of honesty around me and the colony needs that kind of integrity.  No

one else thought to warn me, but you did. You deserve a place in the palace.”  And then  she took the sword and dropped it to their shoulders making them a knight. 

Part IV


Vanessa jolted awake. She felt something moist in her hands and looked down to find the mushrooms that Big Mama sent her out to get. There were tiny bit marks on them, but they were much too small to have been hers.  I must’ve fallen asleep under the tree afterwards,” she assumed. “What a weird dream,” she thought. But as she was getting up she noticed, laying next to her, there was a tiny empty cocoon. Her stomach flipped and she jumped up and looked around. Then she remembered, “Big Mama!” 

Vanessa ran as fast as she could and burst through the kitchen door only to find Big Mama sitting at the table with William, well according to her dream, her granddaddy. Big Mama’s back was to her when she entered, but William saw her right away and a smile spread across his face. “You did it, I’m so proud of you.” 

“Why didn’t you just tell me who you were?” she asked.

“Would you have believed me?” he retorted. 

Vanessa thought about it and knew the answer. She hardly believed what she saw in the forest, and was still expecting to wake up from this strange dream any minute, but she was glad to be home. 

“This gift, this gift is important,” he began, “ Everything in the kingdom can communicate 

with each other except for humans. We’re left out. But maybe that’s why we feel so superior. So lonely. And maybe it’s the fact that we can’t control nature that we’re so hell bent on destroying Her. Everyone won’t listen to you when you try to warn them, but you have to try. So when you’re feeling those aches and pains that’s just Mother Nature telling you to listen.”  Then he took his big weathered hands and held her face for a moment, his eyes at the edge of tears, and said, 

“You look just like your mother,” And then he disappeared out of the door.

Vanessa walked over to Big Mama whose back was still to her. She walked around to her side and saw that she had been crying. Vanessa hugged her and said, 

“It’s okay Big Mama, I’m alright.” 

Then Big Mama, turned around,  her face wet and full of relief, pain and wonder, and asked, 

“So how is she, Nessa?” 

And Vanessa smiled and said, “She sends her love.” 

Vanessa looked out the window at the rose bush. There a few dead blooms were still clinging to its thorny branches, but there hung a solitary scarlet rose, its petals unfolding from the infinite spiral pushing defiantly against the incoming autumn wind.