The White Wood by Carlos Ruiz Santiago
Corpses make an odd sound when you step on them. Wet, crunchy. Funny, if you are really twisted. Not the case of Ronel, of course; for him, corpses weren’t more interesting than a piece of dogshit. He knew how that sounded but he didn’t care about it either.
Truths are something twisted themselves, they emphasize pragmatic facts that could crash against feelings. That was why soldiers like him needed to be practical. If your country needed or wanted, something, you bought it. And, if the inhabitants didn’t want to sell, you killed them. As simple as that, anything more complex is philosophical gibberish that makes you miss the opportunity of getting things.
He looked at the horizon, appreciating the orangish sun falling in the cloak of dead savages and their saurian mounts. That nameless island in the middle of the nameless ocean was full of them, like sewer rats, like infection in a wound and prejudices in women. He tidied up his bushy mustache. Yes, like a woman, he giggled. The inhabitants were a tribe of warrior women and emasculated men. Pretty pathetic if you asked Ronel. In the deep soggy jungle, they hid, fought and died. When you fight with bone swords and axes against muskets and blunderbusses it’s what tends to happen. They charged, and men shot and the beasts screamed and men shot again and they howled in terror, mount indistinguishable from rider. A beautiful symphony, monsters dying by the power of the civilization.
Later, men had raided their tribe. Just small children, cowardly males, crowns of fruit, rock and wooden temples full of plants, weird and smelly shit you could expect from savages. If Ronel didn’t burn them it was just because of fear that fire will eat the whole island before they got their reward. Maybe before leaving.
A savage made a hiss from the ground. She had a long scarlet wound all over her side, getting dirty her dark-green skin, almost amphibian. Her eyes were deep orange, shining, and certainly beautiful. Her legs were trapped by the head of an enormous bipedal feathery monster, with the sharp-teeth mouth wide open and the eyes looking at the rotting sky. The lips of the warrior were thin, almost nonexistent. She whispered words in a forgotten language. A soldier sunk his bayonet in her chest, ending her life.
They had killed them all. That was pretty impressive, especially considering women. They didn’t capture anyone, all dead, fighting until their black rotten souls fell to the hells. Just monsters, bloody stinky monsters all of them, but pretty tough ones. Ronel looked for his pipe. Just slimy irrational savages in a forgotten place. There were also dead from his side. Ronel was equidistant: he didn’t care about them either. Why should he? Soldiers die, that’s part of their job. Axes had removed parts of their skulls, impaled by spears of long reptilian bones, the guts out by an irregular cut. A bloody sacrifice. However, it had its rewards, he though, looking in front of him.
The white wood.
There was an immense tree over there, really tall and, especially, wide. The branches were like a hundred hands imploring the demons in the sky, the roots like a thousand tentacles of gods- who knew what kind of pelagic deity. Quite impressive. The amphibian whores adored it like a god. In front of him, all of them had died. A pretty worthless god, if you asked Ronel. They had been looking for that wood for ages, only sparse remains until now. That was, apparently, the only living one. A good reward for the blood spilled. The white wood was harsh to burn, both hard and flexible. His king will have the best warships in the world. And all thanks to him, to people like him. That’s how progress is achieved because blood is the favourite drink of the welfare god.
Then, someone interrupted his peace, smoking from his pipe after the glorious battle. A young one, surprisingly alive, claiming that the tree was hollow. Ronel raised an eyebrow. Nevertheless, and despite the desire of some public punishment to relax the troops after a won battle, the soldier was right. An enormous crack in the tree and, inside of it, only roots and blank spaces, like maggots in a corpse.
Ronel entered the first one through that natural tunnel, two soldiers behind him. It was a straight path, not too regular or wide, but a path nonetheless. Soon, gloom was around them. The walls felt like they were made of insects, of moving and mushy parts, things that crawled through you. Things that fed on your corpse. Or maybe they were too impatient for that. Maybe they could begin now and he will become a corpse, eventually.
Or maybe not, maybe that’s the destiny that Ronel couldn’t stop thinking of now. Dying without dying. Eternal life of the soul, jail of flesh and bone, eternal suffering. Like going through a hole in a tree, not alive or dead. It was the throat of a monster, something wet and hellish, warm and hungry.
They ended up in a wider space. Ronel did all he could to normalize his breath, so no one noticed his rising dread. In the center of the structure there was an irregular rock where the roots came from. He got closer.
Impossible. Senseless. Demented.
Then, from one of the many cracks, an eye looked back at him. Like a cosmic sentence from a monstrous trial. Like the end. Inhuman, immortal, unbearable eyes. Fathomless abyss from the stars.
Not a tree, just like a tree. A parasite. A monster. Something worse. A herald. A newborn god. He tried to shout, to warn that the savages weren’t praising him, but guarding it, that they shouldn’t touch it, shouldn’t move it.
His words were nothing more than the growling of a frothy mouth of a crazy man in the ground, killed for the respect of his figure.
Carlos Ruiz Santiago is a Spanish fantasy and horror writer with two published novels ( Salvación condenada and Peregrinos de Kataik) and a participation in the anthologies Dentro de un agujero de gusano, Mitos y Leyendas and Devoradoras. He is an editor of the website Dentro del Monolito. He has written for magazines, such as Morningside and Exocerebros. He also has content around cinema, with the podcast Pistoleros de Gilead and the blog La Horroteca de Darko. He also organize talks and workshops around cinema and literature in various libraries.