Ylva once held the last child of the forest in her arms as he cried and cried and cried in smoke filled air, tiny lungs breathing in the ashes of his people and screaming out his loss and defiance. She sits cradled in the roots of one of the surviving trees, feels its poison-warm bark too hot against her back, knows that she must, in time, save the forest as well as the boy.
Save the forest in order to save the boy?
He is a fragile child in a fragile world, and she will open her house to him but the forest will always be his home. She won't let them take that too, she who has already failed to stop them from taking so much.
Muns cries himself out on a bed of leaves and she brushes his hair from his damp forehead. Child, she thinks, you may be the last, but you will last, and last, and last until the stars fall.
It is all she can hope for, now.
She raises a boy who never calls her mother but who looks at her with a love so strange and whole it leaves her breathless.
She teaches a boy who looks something she would call sad when he leaves her again for the forest.
Eva wins, in the end. Silly, reckless girl and her sad, reckless heart. Ylva is proud of her, despite everything, despite her stubborn insistence on choosing the longest road.
I too know what it means to love someone who the trees have called home, Ylva tells her over tea, a week after Josefine returns to the forest.
Eva sighs, runs her fingers around the lip of her flask. It means they're never really gone, she says softly.
What neither of them say is: and it's hard, it's so hard, but Eva rests her head on Ylva's shoulder and Ylva covers Eva's hands with her own and thinks that it's a little bit easier like this, to be two outside and two in, to have someone else who understands the blurred lines between home and heart.
Ylva's body wears down more quickly, after, set free by Eva's decision to stay. She protects the forest now, brows furrowed and eyes bright as Ylva teaches her how to love in the way the forest and its kind do.
(Part of Eva had always known. This is just a reminder, a reassurance to an old woman who smiles as she feels the world growing a little less fragile.)
Ylva knows which day is to be the last and she stands among the trees, feels the creak and whisper of their branches as they reach out to her, hears the answering groan and stretch of her own bones. A thousand voices echo in her mind, a hundred pinprick sensations scatter across her skin: here is the earth, here is the water, here is the sky, and she had dreamed —
— she had never trusted to hope —
— the one voice that rises above the others says welcome, mother, I missed you and her laughter shakes leaves free of her branches.
Until the stars fall, she had promised a child she never got to call her own.
She hadn't known, then, how much longer they would last.