Over a year ago I submitted this story to a flash fiction writing contest that asked entrants to imagine the relationship between nature and cities in the year 2099. I did not make it far in the competition, but there were thousands of stories entered that I’m sure were much more deserving and I’m honestly just happy that it marked a more official start to my journey into writing fiction.
This story was written to the contest’s specific parameters so I don’t really see myself trying to get it published elsewhere, but I wanted to put it up somewhere for people to read it. It has not been revised in any way from how it was when I submitted it. I hope you enjoy it.
The Warden Returns
By Ryan Carter
My grandfather loved to talk to me about trees. When he was young people still cleared them away and used them up without much care. There were protests, he would tell me—sometimes huge demonstrations—but a few battles won could not stop “progress.” Cities just kept expanding, and while pockets of nature remained that one might call vast, the loss of forests was taking its toll. We were using too much of everything, really, and the bill was coming due. People were dying. He felt like the world was crumbling around him.
It was a few days after his funeral that I climbed Warden Woods. I had been listless at home. We’d thought he’d get to at least glimpse the 22nd century. It wasn’t fair. I decided to go for an afternoon walk to clear my head.
Warden Woods was the largest vertical forest in the neighbourhood; not simply balconies adorned with vegetation as usual, but a continuous woodland atop a building. One end was over ten stories tall. From there the structure descended gradually like giant steps, until a fenced-in courtyard at the foot of it all.
In his day most people saw trees as something to be harvested, or scenery to move around or remove like window dressing. My grandfather always found them bewitching. Massive organisms, rooted in place yet living active, complicated lives in ways that most of us never even noticed. He’d often tell me one big thing we do have in common with them: if enough of us grow in one place we change the landscape for miles around. Forests were mystical places, though. Sometimes scary, but they gave life to other things. People just covered everything in concrete.
I beelined for the courtyard, taking no notice of the establishments within the building itself. As I mounted the short steps I was met with a fairly distant area of grass marked with groves of trees, patches of wildflowers, and shrubberies. This was cut by a dirt and gravel path. The stalks of the grass were long, but not too thick, so I did not keep to the path too rigidly.
Vertical forests were the first step toward change, though far from the last. They allowed nature back into the city; helped clear the air and gave insects and other creatures a home in ours. Many of the first were acts of guilt funded by the well-off few who could pay for them. There were a lot of people left, but still so many had died. A troubling happenstance of overpopulation. Grandfather liked to say that grief builds gardens. Instead of arranging flowers, we planted forests in the sky.
We’d visit some like this when I was a kid, but I hadn’t set foot in one for many years. They were nothing special to me—I mean, I wasn’t really sentimental. I knew they served their purpose. Maybe not as much as solar grids or hydroponics farms, but even those I took for granted.
For a while I just breathed deeply, enjoying the earthy smells and sunshine as I meandered along. Bees, butterflies, and other flying insects danced among the wildflowers. Up ahead I saw the path turn around a cluster of trees. Squirrels jumped between branches and birds flew to and fro. As I rounded the bend the path continued up another level of the structure. I hesitated for a moment, deciding that I would hike as far as my legs would take me. My thoughts still lingered on my grandfather, though more fondly in that place.
As I ascended, the path winding up level upon level, the woods started to seem peculiar. The insects and small birds were normal, but there were more creatures than I’d thought possible. An owl peaked at me from the branches of an oak, rabbits foraged, and more than once a lively garter snake darted across the path. I even saw a fat toad sitting lazily on a stump, which I thought needed water to spawn.
I lost track of my ascent. I could only see that at least a few more levels lay ahead. I stopped to rest for a few moments, taking a seat upon a stone bench. The path was clear, but the groves had become thicker, closing in on me more and more.
Despite knowing that I was on something entirely human-made, I could not shake the silence. The forest had its noises; it was the city I could no longer hear. Not people talking, foot traffic, nor tramways speeding along. It was as if all of that had dissolved away and I was in the belly of a vast and ancient forest, untouched by any person save me.
Dusk was setting in, the twilight of the evening encroaching upon everything. I did not know how long I’d been walking. Suddenly, I heard a loud rustling, making my heart skip a beat. Taking no heed of my presence, a stag emerged from a nearby thicket.
It may have been a trick of the light, but I swear its antlers were translucent—like cloudy glass—and gave off an unearthly glow. Its fur was an iridescent grey. As I quietly watched, stock still, I wondered if it really was a stag at all. Something about its movements were uncanny. It grazed lightly, before turning to look at me with a trio of piercing eyes. They were not unkind. It broke its gaze after an eternal moment and disappeared just as suddenly into another grove.
Come dark some solar lamps came on along the path and I followed it back down to the courtyard. Everything was still and quiet. I didn’t come across any other living creature along the way, though I felt watched. Oddly serene too. I felt I’d experienced something nobody had in a long time. Something else that might have found a home in the forest once again.