Where the Pine Trees Grow
I open my eyes and am instantly blinded by the sun. Clear blue sky stretches out above, its color deep and rich and the flaming ball of fire that lights the sky floats directly above. The ground beneath me seems to sway and bob gently, like it is being carried by a person. For a moment, I lay staring at the sky, unable to recall what happened or where I am. Then, I sit up and pause, a smile slowly spreading across my lips.
Wiggling my toes and fingers, rolling my neck, I move every part of my body. Everything works, just like it had before I become ill. I breathe a huge sigh of relief, laughing to myself. I’m well! Father was right! Whatever he gave me made me well! I breathe deeply again, filling my lungs completely and exhaling fully; that was a miracle itself. Hardly able to believe this, I pause to look around.
I am still on the raft in the river. The water is calm now though, gently pulling the boat downstream. The glossy surface reflects the sky of a bluebird day. The shore surprises me; it’s so different from the prairie. Tall, lush grass edges the river, going in for a few dozen paces. Bright flowers and shrubs mingle with the greenness. Where the grass ends, aspens grow closely together. Beyond them, pines rise into the sky with mountains far away in the distance. It’s slightly cooler here as well, the air thicker and fresher, the water and grass hinted with sweet pine and leaves.
Looking back at the raft, I breathe another sigh of relief when I see that my sisters are still on it. I shudder in sad, pain-filled remembrance of Hazel disappearing into the rapids. The last thing I recall is that we’d gone off the waterfall, and I’m thankful that the three of us are still together.
Our raft is like box lid with sides five hands high. Jasmine lies against one of these, her head resting on the wood and an arm trailing in the water. Her long black hair falls down with it, the only other part of her that is wet. Saffron is curled up in a ball on the floor of our raft. Her dark brown hair covers her face completely. I can tell from the gentle rise and fall of their shoulders that they’re alright.
My stomach suddenly rumbles. Hungry! I haven’t been hungry in years! It be another sign that I’m all better.
I glance around again. It’s midday, I have no clue where we are, and I am starving. There is nothing I can do until my sisters are awake, and there is no reason why they need to still be asleep.
Crawling on the floor of the raft, I go over to Jasmine and gently shake her shoulder. “Jasmine,” I say in a hushed voice. “Wake up. I don’t know where we are and I’m starving.”
Jasmine, always a light sleeper, immediately startles at the sound of my voice. She stares at me, shock flaring in her blue-violet eyes. “Camellia!” she exclaims. “You should be resting!”
“No, I’m hungry,” I repeat. “And I’ve been resting for the past four years. I’m fine now.” To prove it, I kick my legs a little.
Jasmine stares more, dumbfound. I roll my eyes and kneel, then move my arms. One hits something soft.
“Let me at ’em!” Saffron shouts, jumping up only to fall down again because of how the raft rocked. She gasps when she sees me. “Camellia! What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, besides the fact that I’m starved,” I say crossly.
“How did you get better?” Jasmine asks, still shocked.
“Father gave me medicine,” I explain. “I had it just before we went off the waterfall. It does seem quite magical, but I really feel perfectly fine now. I’m just starving!”
“O – okay,” Jasmine stammers. “But take it easy. You look better, but you’re still thin.”
“Where are we?” Saffron suddenly asks. Jasmine looks up sharply, then gazes around. My older sisters’ eyes grow wide. Jasmine is the first to snap out of the trance.
“We should get to shore,” she says matter of factually. “There’s no telling where the river will take us and we should get something to eat too.”
Saffron frowns. “What about the tree? Father told us to stop when we came to a really big tree. None of these are larger than the others. We should keep going until we find the right one.”
Jasmine shakes her head. “We need to go to shore first. Let’s get some food, figure out where we are, then we’ll continue.”
“But we lost the oars,” Saffron argues. “We’ll have to swim. Camellia can’t do that. We should stay in the boat.”
“We’ll help her swim. Now come on.”
“Father said to stop when we get to the tree. Going ashore now would be going against his orders.”
I look from one sister to another. They are arguing, and I am getting more upset and hungry by the moment. “Please, let’s just swim to shore,” I cut in. “I remember how and we can get some food. I think we’re all too hungry to think straight right now.”
Jasmine casts Saffron a triumphant glance. Saffron glowers, muttering mutinously under her breath. “I’ll try and tow the boat,” she says, taking back up her position. “You can help Camellia, Jasmine.”
Jasmine sighs, but says, “Let’s jump on the count of three so we don’t upset it. One. Two. Three!”
The three of us jump off the boat, landing with a splash in the river. The water is icy cold, and I can’t feel the bottom. I kick with my legs to keep my head from going under, frantically at first, but slower after a moment as my body remembers how to stay afloat. Soon, I am calmly treading water while Saffron swims around the raft, trying to find a good place to grab on to it. Jasmine floats near me, alternating between watching Saffron and watching me.
Saffron swims back around to us. “It’s no use,” she says, letting go of the boat. “There’s no way I can tow it, even if both of you helped. We’ll have to let it go.”
My throat catches at the thought, and Saffron is frowning, but Jasmine doesn’t react. “Let it go,” she says. “We know how to make another. Now let’s hurry up and get to shore before we freeze in here.”
With my sisters on either side of me, we start to swim to shore. Saffron keeps glancing back, and I can’t help but do the same. Watching our reminder of home float away downstream is painful. I remember the day the raft was made so vividly. Paul was the master designer of it, though we all knew that Father gave him instructions. Everything was so perfect back then, before I got sick, before the flood came….
Saffron finds the bottom first, suddenly lurching upwards into a standing position. Jasmine is standing a moment after her, and they both pull me up out of the mud that sucks my feet back down. Jasmine squeezes the water out of her hair while Saffron picks up a stick and starts off into the grass. It nearly goes up to her hips, and is well above mine. Saffron takes the stick and whacks the tall stalks out of the way, and I follow the trail she made while Jasmine brings up the rear.
We head toward the trees. The tall grass rubs against us on all sides, weaving around our legs like a friendly cat and the flowers seemed to bob their heads in greeting. A cool breeze blows down from the mountains, making me shiver slightly, and I can hear the buzz of busy bees and the cheery chirping of hidden birds. The sun shines warming rays down, and the shade created by the boughs of the green-leaved aspens beckon us onward. There is something welcoming about this place that I like.
After a moment, we stop at the edge of the forest of aspens. Thick grass, now only up to our ankles, covers the ground, and small flowers and weeds are scattered among it. The trunks of the trees are thin, and the bark peels in a few places. Above, the delicate branches gently wave their leaves that grew on the tiniest of stems. We sit down in the grass with our backs against a larger tree, halfway in the sun and halfway in the shade.
“Here,” Jasmine says, handing me a large piece of dried meat. She, Saffron, and Paul all keep food on them at all times. Though this piece is a little wet and tough, it’s better than nothing.
“What about you?” I ask, taking a bite.
She shakes her head. “I’m fine. I have extra. You need it more.”
“But –.” Before I can say anymore, she puts a hand on my forehead and feel it. I can feel it trembling a little as she pulls away. Jasmine smiles at me, tears in her eyes, then gives me a tight hug for a moment.
“This place is bizarre,” Saffron declares, jogging back over to us. She points at the forest. “I just went a couple dozen paces in there. I can hear a stream. I climbed one of the sturdier trees as high as I could, but I couldn’t spot the prairie or any large tree. There’s just forest like this for a little while, then pines and mountains. That’s it. I could go back and look again –.”
“Don’t,” Jasmine cuts in quickly, even though Saffron can probably swim a mile upstream and back in ten minutes. My oldest sister seems stressed enough right now though to have to worry about Saffron running off into the unknown again.
Saffron sits down and pulls out her food, tearing into it like she’s famished. “So what do we do now?” she asks. “We have no clue where we are.”
Jasmine glances up at the sky, then back at us. “We wait,” she says simply.
Me and Saffron stare at her. “Wait?” Saffron asks. “Wait for what? The tree to show up? For Mother and Father or Paul to come and find us?”
Jasmine shakes her head. “No, we just have to wait. There’s no point in going anywhere if we don’t know where we are. We’ll get some rest first. Then, tomorrow, we’ll start searching along the riverbank, but not too far from this point. We need to mark this place so we can work around it.”
Saffron raises her eyebrows. “And if that doesn’t work?”
“We’ll take it one step at a time.”
I look up from all of the sudden. Something flashes at the edge of my vision and catches my eye. Movement. I hear something too. Footsteps. I glance around, but don’t see anything. Am I imaging things? Hopefully I’m not going crazy now that I just got better. This must just be an after affect or something.
I start to look down again, trying to block out the sounds, but now something completely catches my eye. I gaze into the distance, to the forest opposite of the tree we’re under. There’s a figure there, walking. It can’t be a bear. Too slim. Deer? Wait, no. It’s a man, I think. I squint, and my vision seems to zoom in until it looks like I’m just standing a few dozen paces from him, not half a mile. The sounds become amplified too, and it’s suddenly like I’m standing right next to him.
The man is medium height and stocky, very muscular. He has brown hair like Father does, only his is more trimmed and his beard is much shorter. He’s wearing a hat with a brim and a brown jacket. There’s a gun on his shoulder – a riffle, I think. Father has one of those. The man is tromping through the meadow with his bulky boots, breathing hard from the effort of yanking them out of the mud every few moments. He’s stopping. I think he’s seen us. My blood freezes at the thought.
I fly back to the tree I’m sitting under, feeling as though I’ve blacked out for hours. The man had seemed so close a moment ago. He is small enough to fit on my pinkie nail now. But he is definitely there.
I look back at my sisters, still arguing over what to do. “Ah… Jasmine? Saffron?” My voice shakes a little; I can’t help it. I’ve never seen a stranger before. They take no notice. I speak a little louder and more urgently. “Jasmine? Saffron?”
They stop and look at me. “Yes, Camellia?” Jasmine says.
I point out across the meadow. “I see someone. It’s a man.”
Saffron’s face pales and her mouth drops open. Jasmine gives a startled little gasp. They both turn and stare at the man, who hasn’t moved. For a moment, the four of us are frozen. Saffron snaps out of it first. She picks up her stick. “I’ll scare him off,” she declares bravely, standing up.
“Saffron!” Jasmine cries, horrified, pulling her back down. “That’s a man, not an animal.” She stands up and starts waving at him.
I gape and it’s Saffron’s turn to pull our sister back down. “Are you crazy?” she demands. “That’s a stranger!”
Jasmine shakes her off. “I know what I’m doing. He can help us. Father put me in charge, remember?” Saffron glowers again, gripping her stick until her knuckles turn white. The man starts to walk toward us, faster now. Saffron grips tighter. For some reason, I can’t breathe. Even Jasmine looks slightly nervous.
The man comes closer. Jasmine puts her shoulders back and walks forward to greet him. Saffron and I stay right where we are.
The man looks exactly like he did when the weird thing happened to me. Only now I can see his face more clearly. He looks in his forties, and his eyes are gray. And he’s looking at us like he doesn’t quite know what to make of us. Jasmine stops a safe distance from him, polite but wary.
The man blinks. He glances around as if expecting to see a parent or some other adult nearby. Finally, he looks back at Jasmine. “What are you girls doing out here alone?” he asks.
“None of your business,” Saffron hisses in a barely audible voice.
“We’re lost,” Jasmine explains, and Saffron throws her hands in the air, but our older sister carries on. “We’re looking for a usually large tree. It should be along the shore, but we can’t find it. Would you be so kind to point us in the right direction?”
He looks even more perturbed. “Goliath’s Oak? You’re not in luck, young lady. It’s nearly a hundred miles upstream.”
Jasmine’s mouth drops open. I can’t breathe again, and my heart skips a beat. “A hundred miles!” Saffron blurts out, forgetting to be caution and striding up to the man. “It – it can’t be!” She looks at Jasmine. “It’s impossible to go a hundred miles in one day!”
Jasmine seems lost for words. Finally, she looks back at the stranger. “Um… how far away is the nearest grassland? I mean, a prairie.”
He raises his eyebrows. “The nearest prairie is over three hundred miles away.”
Saffron sits down hard. Jasmine’s hand flies to her mouth. I stand up and sprint over to them, gripping my eldest sister’s arm in despair. Mother. Father. Paul. The house. Over three hundred miles away. I am almost eleven. Crying wouldn’t be right. But I can’t keep a wail out of my voice. “What are we going to do, Jasmine?”
Saffron is the one who answers. “We walk,” she says gruffly, standing up and retrieving her stick.
Jasmine gapes at her. “You can’t walk three hundred miles!”
“Watch me!” Saffron calls over her shoulder, striding toward the river.
“Why, you don’t even know where you going!” Jasmine shouts after her. She releases me and runs after Saffron, grabbing her arm and pulling her back.
I shift nervously on my feet, wincing as I watch them fight in the meadow. I glance at the man. He looks utterly lost, perplexed and disturbed. He’s muttering something, but I can’t understand it. Finally, he looks at me and asks, “Is something wrong?”
I shy away at the sound of his voice and the full concentration he has on me. I can’t help it. When I’d retreated a safe distance, I look back at him, terrified at my first encounter with a person I don’t know. His eyes soften. His voice is more gentle now. “I won’t hurt you, little one. I just want to know what’s wrong.” When I hesitate, he adds, “I just want to help.”
Still uncertain, I take a few steps back to him. “We’re from the prairie,” I said, my voice pitching a little. “We got washed downstream by a flood. Our family is waiting for us at the big tree. That’s why we need to find it.”
He gasps. “So the three of you are out here alone? In the middle of nowhere, a hundred miles away from your parents?” Hearing that aloud hurt. I nod, biting my lip. My voice cracks as I go on.
“And we don’t even know where we are. We had to leave our boat, and we don’t know where to go or how we’ll get here. We’re lost.”
The man looks at me with pity and holds out his hand. I’m feeling so miserable that I take it. His grip is strong and his eyes are friendly, so I feel a little better. “Let me help you and your sisters,” he says gently, drawing my closer. “My wife and I can give you food and shelter until you figure out where you want to go.”
I smile weakly. He reminds me so much of Father. The thought is painful. “I’d like that,” I say softly. “But I need Jasmine’s permission.”
He looks out into the meadow. My sisters are still shouting at each other, and Saffron is braced to run. “Which one is Jasmine?” he asks.
I point. “The taller one with the black hair. She’s my oldest sister. The other one is Saffron.”
“And what’s your name?” he asks kindly.
“Camellia,” I answer.
“Ah, Camellia. A beautiful flower. It’s my wife’s favorite.”
“What’s your wife’s name?” I ask as we start to walk hand and hand into the field. Something about this man makes me know that I can trust him completely.
He smiles. “Mrs. John Burnett, but everyone calls her Margret. My name is John Burnett. I live in –.”
Before he can finish, Saffron and Jasmine suddenly come running up. Saffron looks ready to attack the man, but Jasmine pulls her back just in time, crying, “Really, Saffron? Get a hold of yourself!” She pushes Saffron back, then puts on a stiff smile and looks at the man. “Sorry. We’re lost and tired. It’s been a long day.”
“I can offer you food and shelter,” he says. “I don’t live very far away. My wife and I would be pleased to have you until you go on your way. Camellia here told me what’s going on.”
Jasmine gives me a look that makes my face burn with shame. Then she pauses, contemplating. Saffron snorts. Finally, Jasmine looks back at him. “That would be wonderful. Thank you.” She holds out her hand. “I’m Jasmine.”
“John Burnett,” he says, shaking it once.
“This is Saffron,” Jasmine goes on, gesturing to our sister, who merely grunts. “And it seems that you have already met Camellia. I really can’t thank you enough for your offer, Mr. Burnett.”
He smiles. “John is fine. And nice to meet you girls. Now if you’re not too tired, we can start back right now and make it there in time for dinner.”
Jasmine’s smile is still a bit stiff. Saffron is sulking. I’m slightly nervous. John gestures toward the way he came. “Shall we?”
“Of course,” Jasmine says in a voice that is friendly, but obviously forced. She takes my hand, then brushes the hair off of it. It’s an excuse to feel my forehead, I know, but I let her do it. The only thing that’s making me feel bad right now is how much my sisters are fighting.
John starts off back toward the forest, high stepping over tall stalks that we just push right through. Jasmine has her arm around my shoulder and walks a little behind and to the side of him. Saffron brings up the rear.
“How far is it to your home?” Jasmine asks as we near the trees.
“Ten miles,” John answers. “Should take us about two hours, give or take one if we stop for a rest.” He pauses. “Is that alright?”
“As long as we go slow,” Jasmine says. “Camellia just got well from a bad illness that she had.”
He looks surprised. “Oh. I’m sorry to hear about that. She looks fine to me though.”
My sister’s smile is still stiff, now more from worry than uneasiness. “She wasn’t a few days ago. I don’t want to exhaust her and bring it back.”
I look up at her. “I’ll be fine, Jasmine. I feel great. It will be nice once we get into the shade though.”
We enter the trees. All the leaves of the trees and the bushes are small, and the patches of grass aren’t too tall yet. It still must be early summer. There’s a fresh smell in the air, too. I can hear the sweet birdsong of tiny sparrows and chickadees. Somewhere in a patch of budding flowers, the leaves rustle as a small rodent digs in the ground for food. There must be a stream around that connects to the river we came here in, because I can hear the quiet murmur of it.
The ground slopes up a little bit and the aspens give way to pine trees. I’ve never seen pine trees before until now. They’re much taller than the willows that grow by our house, towering up into the sky. The trunks are thin, but not as much as aspen or willow. There are a bunch of nubs and grooves in the thick bark, and the branches are small. Prickly green needles grow out from them, giving off a smell I’ve never breathed before. A layer of dead pine needles coats the ground with some pine cones. A squirrel quickly drags one out of the way as we walk by and on into more trees.
This terrain is very random. One moment, we’re in aspens with lush green bushes. Then we’re in a full pine forest and the ground is covered in dead, tan needles. The next moment, both are smashed together into one, thin aspens and tall pines growing up from the earth which is covered in grass and bushes and pine needles and pine cones. Slowly though, it starts to stick to the third type of terrain.
We go along in complete silence for a while. Almost. There’s our footsteps – the soft step of Jasmine, the cautious step of Saffron, the soundless step of me, and the not so quiet tramping of John. He has a gun though, so safety isn’t a worry. There’s a lot of birdsong and rustling from animals anyway. I try to figure out what might be causing each sound, and my mind wanders in that. It’s so wonderful to be able to hear like this again.
In fact, all of this is unbelievably wonderful. Seeing. Smelling. Hearing. Walking. That’s the best part. Along with the fact that I’m outside. I’m feeling as giddy as Saffron gets when Father and Paul used to take us on an overnight camping trip.
“I’m assuming that there is a settlement out here,” Jasmine says, finally breaking the silence. I look at her, then back at John, curious. Settlements. Never been to one. I’ve heard a bit from Father though. It’s where a lot of people live together. That’s a strange concept to grasp. Why not live only with your family?
John nods. “There is. Pinelake. My house is right outside of it. Population four hundred, which is smaller than most. It’s nice to have a town this far West though.”
I blink as Jasmine asks, “Self-supporting then, I assume.” Where did she learn all this stuff about settlements?
He nods again. “There’s fields and meadows close by. We grow food there and by our homes. Plenty of supplies to gather from the land around as well. Recently, a mining company has started, besides the trapping and lumber companies that have been around for a few decades.”
Jasmine pauses for a moment. I hear a stick crack behind us, and I turn. Saffron just tripped. She never does that. She regains her balance, and she looks even more like a storm cloud than she did a few minutes ago. Why? I reply the words in my mind. Mining. That was digging in the earth for minerals. Trapping. That was catching animals in snares. Lumber. I think it has something to do with trees. Company. A business that sells thing for money. People can make money for trapping and lumber? That has to be the problem.
There’s a little twinge in my stomach. That always happen when I think of living things dying. Honestly, I can hardly stand the sight of a dead fish washed up by the house. I run and hide when I see things like that, and bury my head under the covers whenever Father brings in a dead bird for Mother to pluck. Jasmine will cringe, like she just did now. Paul will just shake his head. Hazel would cry. And Saffron…. Bold, strong, fiery Saffron of all people won’t react to a dead animal, but will be sick at the sight of one in pain or the remains of one. Mostly the remains. Wherever we’re going, I hope it doesn’t involve seeing stuff like that.
Animals. We love them. Me. My sisters. Paul. My parents. My whole family. We had pets that we let in the house. They used to be wounded, but Jasmine and Mother made them well again, and they would come back from time to time to visit us. Then there was our horse, Paintball. He was Saffron’s best friend. We treat animals like friends, not like random creatures. They have thoughts and feelings, just like we do. Same with plants. Father once told me that plants have more wisdom than a hundred year old man would. I believe that. One day, I’m going to have a conversation with a plant. It will be amazing to hear about all he has seen.
The ground slopes down steeply, and we backpedal to avoid slipping on the slick pine needles.
“Where did you girls live out on the prairie?” John asks.
“Just a little house by the river,” answers Jasmine. “It was just our family. No one else was around.”
John stops, surprised. “No other homesteaders? No town? No settlement?”
Jasmine shakes her head, repeating, “Just our family. It’s been that way for generations.”
He frowns. “Surely that can’t work.”
“Oh, but it does. Our mother was raised in the same house we were. We aren’t sure where our Father came from though. He never told us. He just said that it was far, far away.”
“Hmm.” John lets out a little, confused grunt. He doesn’t seem to understand.
The sun starts to sink and the ground levels out. We leave the pine forest and are walking across an expanse of sagebrush, its sweet smell filling our nostrils. There is a mountain in front of us. It’s tall, and has pines on it. There’s another, closer one on the right and farther away. About a mile in front of us, the trees start up again, another forest. I can tell that that’s where we’re going.
I pause to take in the scenery, looking for signs of life. Oh. Maybe that field of tall grass. It looks like the wheat Father grew. I think I see some figures around it. And a break in the sagebrush, a road, perhaps, which is like a wide path, I think. I look up. The sun is at the point of about five o’clock. I’m tired. I’m hungry. I’m thirsty. And I miss home really, really bad. Mostly Mother and Father and Paul… and Hazel.
I look up at Jasmine. She smiles and squeezes my hand. “It will be alright, Camellia,” she whispers softly. “We’ll find them and be home in no time. Just stay close to me in here. We need to stick together.”
I nod, catching the serious mood. But I’m also immensely curious. What will a settlement be like? The people? The homes? I have to listen to Jasmine though and stay close. And Saffron, too.
John catches my wandering eyes and smiles at me. “Ready to see Pinelake, Camellia?” he asks me.
Something about his manner and voice spark excitement, and build trust in him. I smile back. “I think so.”
“Then let’s go,” he says, and we walk forward to the settlement of Pinelake.