By Kate Holden
The Guaia is three and a half feet tall, with arms as long as she is high. The pads of her fingers are as dark and shiny as wet wood, and splayed like a tree-frog’s. Her face is forever young yet strafed, all hollow and crag, sexless.
She sleeps behind a screen of holy trees, away from the tribe. These trees are lacquered black and shiny, even in the lush damp sunlight that strains through the forest canopy above and dusts the groves with golden velvet. The black trees sway in a breeze that no one can feel but she. At night the rancid scent of their leaves breathes from her skin. Her body is tattooed with these leaves, blood-dark against mahogany, tendrils knotting around her skin like veins.
In her hut she keeps wooden bowls of different leaves, crushed, pooling at the bottom with toxins. The walls are plaited branches, woven through with black feathers. There is a sleeping mat of reeds, a hanging tangle of bone charms over the door, and, in a corner, the rusted chainsaw she took from the last wood-chopper she killed.
She takes berries from the trees and pulps them. Leaves are stewed, crushed and infused, softened and steeped. Twigs are sharpened into razor points.
Poison is the nectar of this tribe. They are healed by it; they drink it for visions; the warriors pierce their enemies with it, and let it seep into their dazzled brains before they eat them.
When she delivers a baby the first thing she does is hold it in her long-fingered frog hands and with her thumb run a smear of rusty dark berry-juice down its spine. This marks the trail where the wings of death will emerge at the other end of this child’s life.
At that moment his body will become mere leaf pulp once more, to be ploughed back into the humid earth, while his soul soars on its wings to become the wind.
When the Guaia speaks, her words are slurred and awesome. She will sit with the women as they work, potent in her silence, and abruptly extending a spectrally long arm pinch the nipple of a pregnant woman on the other side of the fire. Her skin doesn’t flinch as she holds it through the flames.
Rub ash on your breasts to soften them, she mumbles, and suddenly in her hand she holds a handful of charcoal, reeking and smoking still.
She is not a woman like them. Her touch is hot, the scalding of holiness. She owns their bodies with her knowledge and her eyes, black and shiny as the trees behind which she dwells. They do not resist her probing hands, the hands that will help their baby seeds to germinate and ripen, the babies that fall like fruit into her waiting tattooed hands.
Drink this, and the gods will come to cradle you, she says to a young man dank with illness in his hut. He breathes in the rich scent of her poisoned skin, and sips the thin bitter liquid, and falls sighing into the milky nothingness of dreams.
Drink this, she says to a sodden woman crouched and moaning, Drink, and the child will come out of you looking for more. He will be strong, with sap in his blood, with hunger.
Drink this, and you will be food for the forest, she says to an intruder who has staggered into their grove. Drink, and be gone, she croons as he dies, unwinged.
In the last thin pressing of moonlight and starlight that reaches the ground through the treetops she fixes talismans to branches, where they rattle and clatter like hung skeletons. In a circle she lopes and crouches, muttering, to keep her children safe on nights when the wind slams through the forest and the trees buckle. She spits incantations at their trunks. Her bone and berry necklaces swing and slither around her wrinkled throat; she carves bloody gashes in her arms and waters the trees.
Now, the tribe falters. A man in hard, pale clothes has come and entreated them to leave. The forest is falling, he says. Go deeper. You will be safe for a time. Then you will go deeper still. Save yourselves.
The tribe rustles and decides. They will fade back and survive. The Guaia spits. She rings the grove with feathers and bloodies the earth all around. She seizes a boy and marks his neck with poison. The gods will take you all by the throat if you leave them, she snarls. Do you not hear them, lashing their warnings? The tribe hears the trees susurrating, their dark whisperings. They tremble and make the sign of obeisance, swaying with arms at their sides, eyes closed, fragile saplings.
They do not leave. Now each day the trees shiver more. The wind comes stronger as the forest thins in the distance. There is a noise like thunder from the horizon, and the gods are falling, one by one. The Guaia crackles with rage and sorrow. She clutches her talismans and strokes the trees, singing softly.
In her hut she takes out a small object, taken once from a helmeted, goggled body. An orange plastic cylinder that fits in her palm, with a small metal wheel at one end. She flicks the wheel with her thumb, and the shadows of her face reverse in the sudden glow of the small flame that flares from the object.
The Guaia, no one knows her age. She has always been with them. Squatting in a bower of dark trees, inhaling and exhaling, mumbling and blind, the outlines of her limbs blurred in the shadows and the flickers, snarling at the air.
What do you want? The tribe asked her in her trance. She raised her possessed head.
I want to die.
She is waiting until the gods give her the sign. They will all be sacrificed: flesh and sap, blood and bark, skin and leaves. A conflagration that will seize all, purify all, raise them ash to the air. When the gods tell her.
Author’s note: the Guaia’s last line of speech is borrowed from the Sibyl’s words in Petronius’ Satyricon.
This story was originally published in The Big Issue fiction edition 2006.