She finds herself at the edge of the forest, alone, and she starts walking.
Her heels are soft and caked in dirt, every twig hard and snapping under her foot. A sharp thing — a small rock, dark and thin-edged, when she remembers how these four limbs work and turns her sole up to find it — pinches deep and it can't hurt her, of course, but she flicks it out with her short, blunt nails and feels a longing for rough pads and hard claws.
The sun prickles, without the shade of branches to screen her. She keeps walking until the dry dirt becomes pebbles, cracks and hardens and becomes asphalt, and she slips through a gate and keeps going as the trees lining the road shrink and disappear. Scrub fields and squat houses start blooming either side of her, distant and empty.
Every sound seems muffled and useless and vague, just noise without meaning, just bird song and the skittering wind that she can't read at all. She holds her arm straight out and for a moment she can feel wind through her feathers, feel the pull of the earth stretching from pole to pole, hear every small crunchy thing burrowing under the earth — but then she breathes in and it's just her arm extended in front of her, her skin smooth and finely haired and the colour of bark in sunlight.
There's an answer there, somewhere, but even as every heartbeat is a call home she knows she must keep walking, before her feet grow roots and anchor her down.
The road splits and tilts, eventually, stretching out either side of her. Something must have changed because the shadows are shorter, the sky hot and cloudless, and her feet just dip into the pools of shade set by the tall separate trees that are blocking her way forward. There's a short fence and a field beyond, and a single horse that sniffs once in her direction then lazily turns away.
She splays her fingers. On one side she can see the forest rising beyond the valley and she sniffs the air hopefully, for a moment, but she can't smell beyond a few feet and a few minutes, just sun-baked road and a hint of gas, dry grass and pine trees. She shifts her weight from foot to foot, pressing her toes to the unyielding ground, and turns one way with the breeze.
Uphill, her back to the forest, and she pads through stripes of shade. She still has all the strength of the forest flowing through her like sap, but with every step this body feels all the more unchangeable.
As the road unfurls in front of her she keeps walking with slow, steady steps, until there's a hot rumble above the wind and the insects and the sound of her own feet — something mechanical, not natural, rushing closer. She tilts her jaw and tries to listen to the distance with the soles of her feet, but they're thick and useless and even these dulled ears with an instinct for echoes and space are better than that. She curls her toes against the asphalt, and turns.
The rest of the road is obscured by a shallow hill. For a breath, something deep and forgotten expects the clipped trot of horses and the rattle of a carriage — but then a flash of silver curves into view and it's just a car, hurtling down the road towards her.
She steps to the side, and holds out her wing.
Her memories come like wedges cut out of tree trunks; stirred only by force. The car slows as soon as it's in sight and rolls to a stop a few paces away, and the first thing she sees is a smile, and a jawline that kicks at the gate of an ancient instinct.
"Hi," the driver says, his arm resting on the open window. His hand is flattened against the car door, pale over silver. "D'ya need a lift?"
There's a bone-deep urge to take him by the hand and lead him into the trees, to make a meal of his humanity and weave nourishment through the roots of her sisters. She remembers what she is, other than a vessel of instincts.
"Please," she says, and for a second she doesn't know if it was with a bark or a chirp or a scent on the breeze, but he smiles all the wider and yes, of course — it's always the first man whose gaze lingers on them, who smiles and can only see all the beauty of the forest as she stands there with her hair loose and bushy, her arms and legs bare, wearing only the ancient tunic she wore however many heartbeats ago as she walked to meet her sisters by the fire.
(She has sisters.)
"Jump in," he says, eyes soft and mouth bright, and she does. The mechanism is familiar, but it's the language that falls as easy as autumn leaves on her tongue as she settles into the seat.
"Where are you going?" she asks first, and when he names a city that rings familiar she finds a kind of laugh in her throat, a delighted sort of surprise. "Me too," she says, of course, and the engine roars louder than the dawn chorus as it rolls on.
"What's your name?" he asks, and, ah — she has a name that's blossomed and pruned through the ages, but it's not for him.
She rests her head against the seat, loose and happy, and smiles with ancient ease. "I'll give you three guesses," she says. He tries Alice, and Jasmine, and on the third try she laughs, and for an in-breath watches the trees flash past the window.
"Yes," she says, grinning with bright teeth. "Claire. That's it."
They survive as long as the forest survives.
It is the humanity that's hard to hold onto; the shapes and the memory, the tongues to speak the languages that have been uttered under their canopy. Feelings beyond instincts and twitch-tail reactions.
The men stopped coming to the forest for the rumours of them, and so they went to the city.
"Stay," he says, fingertips trailing down her wrist as she slides out of bed, and Claire smiles over her shoulder and keeps walking away. The carpet gives under her feet. The birds sound different here, in the middle of the city as the dawn rises blue and gold beyond the window, but a week in and she still has to bite her lip to stop herself joining them.
He's still watching her when the sun is a brilliant dot above the horizon, and she turns back to look at him. His hand is stretched out across the covers towards her, eyes soft and mouth bright as he aches to be near her.
It's always perfect, at first. She remembers that.
She walks through avenues of lemon trees and flourishes in the summer. Their balcony faces north, and she presses her thighs against the glass, digs her toes into the hot concrete and turns her face to the sun, spreading out her arms as she lets the light sink through her.
The skyline is taller than she remembers, glittering and tight. The air tastes thick and greasy but she's getting used to that, now; she forgets to even listen for the meaning in the bird song. When she wanders the city she brushes shoulders and forearms with everyone she can and finds memories striking like lightning bolts — seeing a street where she used to catch the tram everyday, the road long since broken up and smoothed over, and hearing the laugh of a girl in the crowd that somehow hits low on her spine.
She can barely see the stars at night but the city lights sparkle bright and closer, and although the towers of concrete and glass are nothing at all like a forest — everything jarring and unconnected, everything planned with sharp angles — she feels herself putting down roots.
"I want to go dancing," she says, as her legs stretch long and brown across the bed covers.
"Okay," he says, voice easy with laughter, still half-asleep, his face half-buried in the pillow. He rolls onto his back and grins at her. "I'll find somewhere to take you tonight."
"Now," Claire says, and it's with a smile but his eyes brighten, somehow, as he looks at her, like a mirror reflecting the sun.
"I - okay. Gimme a sec," he says, and rolls to the edge of the mattress to pick his laptop up off the floor. "What kind of music d'you want?" he asks as he taps at the keys.
She has remembered dancing. Waltzing, even; masquerade balls and midnight parties, her feet in perfectly-fitted shoes that still ached as the night tipped towards dawn.
"Whatever you like," she says, and after a held breath the tiny speakers start vibrating with a song that's mostly bass. He kicks his legs out of the covers, setting the laptop down as he gets up, and bounces around to her side of the bed to hold out his hand to her.
"Dance with me," he says, with that smile he hasn't yet lost.
"I don't know the steps to this one," Claire admits.
He laughs, and draws in his arms to do a kind of wiggle that changes direction on the beat. It's absurd. She immediately stands up and copies him, and laughs her way through learning how this body can move.
It's hers entirely, new and familiar and strange but she relearns it every day, in muscle memory and snatches of music she finds her fingers tapping. One breast is fractionally larger than the other, and the same with her feet. She shudders horribly if she finds salt on her tongue, but the taste of honey is enough to make her momentarily lose time. She can find pleasure in the oddest patches of skin, but laughter spreads into every happy corner.
She does it as much as she can, of course.
He drives her out to Narrabeen Beach one lazy Sunday morning, and she bites her lip as they pass the forest and doesn't step one foot into the sea — the sand is too barren, the water too salty. She stays near the green dunes and waves as he fights laughing against the surf.
For over a year he brings her presents constantly, little things that he found or bought, a necklace or a stone or a tiny figurine of a fish. He writes songs about her and dedicates every one when he plays them in front of crowd, grinning at her from the spotlight.
She doesn't keep any plants in their apartment. He brought her one, once; huge red gerberas in a pot the same colour as the petals, and she held it carefully between her fingers for as long as she could bear before she had to put it down or drop it. It sat in front of the balcony door for half a day, until he was asleep and the city was lit only by itself, and then she took a metal spoon and the flowers to the nearest park and and buried the roots in the ground.
It might survive, or not, but at least now it has a chance.
Fog rolls in with the winter, and as much she just wants to draw in every extremity and bury herself in blankets, she has things to do. It seems colder this year, somehow, her fourth winter in the city.
He's writing songs that aren't about her and thinking about a holiday he might take with just the boys, but he still whispers declarations of perfection against her mouth. Claire finds herself a job — she rustles through newspapers like she recalls doing a dozen times before, drawing stars next to possibilities as she taps her fingers down the paper and tries not to consider if she would prefer to be surviving only on caches hidden in trees or berries that might rot long before spring,
She knows every language ever uttered under her canopy or whispered into her bark (there are ones buried deep, tangled in her roots and out of reach, but no one speaks those any more), and even as her link to home feels as brittle as a cobweb those things are woven into her spine. She chooses to be a translator. She writes about the forest in other people's words, and never goes there.
Her walk to work takes her past a dull, squat apartment block, and there's nothing special about it at all except the taste of a memory; a makeshift music hall, sawdust and a space without tables as a stage. She would sing limericks that landed like lullabies, and it was only when she had every sleepy-eyed man transfixed that she realised she had nowhere to lure them, no sisters to help.
Something lands heavily next to her, and she flinches awake. For a moment all Claire can see is the clock, shining 2:13 at her in a bright green that slides straight off her memory, and then she rolls over, and sees him sprawled face down beside her in the darkness.
She swallows, and then stretches her jaw through a yawn.
"Where have you been?" Claire whispers, loud in the quiet.
He groans, and then, "Out," he says, and turns his head away.
Claire stares at the back of his head for a long moment. She rolls over, and goes back to sleep.
She catches one of the men from Accounts watching her when she lingers in the staff kitchen, looking away quickly when she glances his way, and suddenly she thinks of her sister. She would know her in any form but she hasn't the faintest idea what she's looked like for the past five years; Claire knows she would have run as fast and far as she could, always eager to get back to the city, always eager to shed her skin and find something new.
There are memories that sit a little left of her own, that don't belong to her. Her sister's name doesn't work with this tongue but Claire knows every life she has lived, never allowing herself to be stuck.
Claire always leaves reluctantly, settles for the first man whose smile lingers and stays for as long as she must. She goes to work and buys groceries and wonders if she should make more of a mark in the apartment they've shared for so long. Every fleeting thought of finding someone else gets shut down in sickly terror. She becomes human.
She's lost the luminescence of the forest, and he's stopped looking at her like she's the all the stars in the sky.
Seven years pass, and —
"You look exactly the same as when we first met," he beams, proud of himself to say something so flattering so truthfully, and Claire feels her heart beat like the first call to the fire.
She resists; her roots stuck, caught in this dull apartment and the water-carved rock of her routine. She packs a bag with nothing but the ancient tunic she stumbled away from the forest in and still she doesn't go, even as the call of her family cleaves through her with every beat.
She imagines her sister is already on her way, eager to run at the first hint of the flames, and doesn't sleep.
That's their problem, she supposes; a tendency to stay still until a hurricane comes along.
They run back to the forest, and become to the world as the world must become to them; a dream, a half-forgotten story. A long time ago they retreated to the hills as new people came and those who first believed in them disappeared, and slowly they learnt the limits of the forest as it was cut back all round them.
She's intimately familiar with bush fires but it was humans who brought the first fire that could be contained, flickering and dancing in its own light but only tickling their branches, only burnishing their leaves. Her sisters call and that's how they find their way back to the heart of forest, how these human bodies can find the tendrils that link them to the earth.
They dance. Their bodies become branches, roots, leaves; they twist and grow and grind themselves into the dirt, the night endless and beautiful above them as the fire burns on and they dance until the forest begins to blur, until these bodies grow dizzy and strung apart and they drop.
Waking comes with a cacophony of bird song, and she joins in with a laugh that rings through the trees.
With a flash of her wings she's up between the branches, the forest sharp and rustling all around her, and then she drops the ground on four paws and relearns the shape of it through her claws and her whiskers, tasting the trails and the stories and home, home, home.
Her sisters are nearby, above and below and all around her, and she can feel the life in the roots under her paws and the pulse of sap in the tree trunks, hear water rushing a hundred wingbeats away and she can be everything that calls the forest home. She basks in the sun and catches insects under the stars, her wings huge and thin or thickly feathered, her claws sharp enough to scurry through the earth or on the underside of branches.
Humans pass by occasionally, on the tracks set out for them, loud and out of place and holding up things that aren't food. She watches them for a few rapid heartbeats before she washes her face with a paw, and hurries off.
She forgets her name, but she doesn't need it. She loses herself to the seasons and she can change and change and change —
She finds herself at the edge of the forest, alone, and she starts walking.