We didn’t know.
We didn’t stop to think what ramifications the theft of St. Aureline’s arboreal collection would bring forth. How could we—life burrows muscular roots deep into our flesh so all we can do is follow down, down as we’re buried alive. We should be forgiven for the sin of birth, this evil of caring after our own skin. Then again it were only pollen cones and spore cones and seed-pods and nuts and pits stored in the Womb. We have all read about the womb of trees in the papers. Cork oaks and fire trees, sequoias and kapoks, copper beeches and silver firs, bird cherry trees and Japanese larch, bald cypresses and black poplars, dragon’s blood trees and monkey’s puzzle trees. The wealth of the living world in pebbles of brown. Worthless to us.
And what of St. Aureline? This queer woman, all alone in that big house lost in the skirts of the forest. Perched on top our town like a crown of red bricks, privy only to the shadows cast from the dark woods. Such a crown should belong to everyone, but as disregarded as we are—the menial and the ordinary, pebbles of another brown, of no consideration ever—any trouble that befalls the paradise above has no relation to us.
We talked about it, chewed on the news as you’d chew on a scrap of leather at times of hunger. We talked loud about the theft, rancid laughter rolling with tobacco grit over our swollen tongues. We strung together rhymes for our little ones. We gossiped in low voices over steam-sung stoves. We flicked watermelon seeds at St. Aureline’s driver—ey, we found a piece of your mistress’s great treasure!
We told our children all the seeds had been brought to her from the four corners of the world by birds, big and small. They’d perch on her window-sills, a feathered ass at every window, and shit on her carpets. Then she’d run her fingers through the diarrhea in search of a new specimen. We love nothing better than a witch to pull and quarter in each cardinal direction. Time and time again. There’s so seldom justice in the world where we knead our bread with red-weeping hands; we crave it for imagined crimes. Some of us secretly wish to give into whatever unholy magicks and rites. To have our clothes spirited away under the moon, and the deceiver’s equally red hands turn our tired genitals to kindling. But of this we don’t even whisper. Only think of it after dark in bed when calloused hands prospect tired bodies for a vein of pleasure.
When a few of our long-legged youths decided to sew the carcass of a hen full of maize kernels and throw it through an open window of her house, we stopped telling such tales. We are not monsters after all. When St. Aureline was murdered shortly after the theft, we mourned. We donned black and we wept—gave it a good try at the very least, though no tears ran down our cheeks. A murder is a terrible thing, but then St. Aureline was never one of us. In the days after the funeral, we watched each other for a murderer. Our fangs bared and saliva-slick, starved for retribution. Soon, we cooed under breath, we’ll have justice!
That is when the disappearances began. Again, we didn’t know. We didn’t think anything of it!
An old biddy one day. An incontinent drunk the other. We could spare those. We hold ourselves to a higher standard as a town, and we have a murderer to hunt rather than nurse and cradle those useful perhaps at one time once. Don’t think us unkind—those parts of our joint body will be gone soon anyway either way. Don’t blame us for what life does. It doesn’t matter how they leave.
Or so we thought until summer raised a scythe and began to reap. Once the mayor’s mother and the baker and the constable and the medicine woman vanished all in one week, we cared. But that was just the beginning of our accursed fate. More of us disappear by the day, and we are terrified.
As the herd thins, the forest moves into the empty houses. We wake up and witness another tree where our neighbours used to live. Shingles are now layered over by leaves in green, orange, silver and red. Branches swing windows open to air out the dusty room. Firm tree roots turn over stones in the road so it appears their owners’ slim trunks are taking a stroll where we ought to be. When we do venture inside these occupied houses, we see saplings in circles around play-pens, their thin roots visible on carpeting and inching abandoned toys in their grasp slowly against each other. We see young trees bending over sinks with dishes, pots and cutlery in their branches or leaning close to bookshelves, small crowns buried into opened books in front of their faces. We dare not disturb the readers. In bedrooms, we discover great trees prostrate on mattresses with sheets and blankets carefully draped over their thick trunks. The sleeping ones’ leaves are strangely startled as if we’ve caught them at the moment of waking. What an embarrassing scenario! We avert our eyes! Shy away. Every day our new neighbours appear and take over what we have left neglected.
A broad-branched chestnut tree raises all the hammers in the smithy and next to its hulk the anvil is so small, curled up in anticipation of the hammers’ fall. We wrestle with birches for the undelivered mail, and honeysuckle trees drape their fragrant curls over beauty salon chairs. In the newspaper headquarters, stout umbrella-like trees with flat tops of green and hats stand behind the typewriters. A graceful willow has poised herself on a bicycle and experiences the speed of going downhill, the rush of wind through her hair.
We don’t take such offence lightly. It’s an invasion and we respond in kind. We spray gasoline and throw matches, but the trees refuse to burn. We sink our axes in their chests, but shatter their metal heads and our hands. When that doesn’t work, we pour poison on their roots to no effect and our shears break once we close them around a branch. We are outnumbered and pushed inward as the forest sends us more settlers. Amidst this waking horror, we do recognize the beauty of our extinction. We understand St. Aureline’s Womb now—the wealth of the living world in great flowering trees; their petals are brighter than any coat of paint we’ve thrown at our walls. For all the hustle and bustle seizing the town anew, the trees are incredibly quiet.
Finally, we pray in church, taking any free spots on the pews where trees don’t sit, and we beg for salvation. Deliver us! O, Lord! Deliver your blameless children! What is this punishment? Who has inflicted it upon us? Then her name comes to our mouths like sacramental bread.
Yes, St. Aureline, we holler beneath stained-glass windows!
It’s St. Aureline cursing us from the grave because we haven’t brought her murderer to justice, we say amongst ourselves. So we comb through the few who remain and we accuse and we convict and we kill. The Tilcott boy. The one responsible for the hen carcass incident. The one we know has always been a bad seed. A rotten fruit—the one to spoil the rest of us in the eyes of St. Aureline. In the eyes of the angels above! God himself! We can’t have that. We are Christianly folk.
We—are good people.
So we cut him from the vine and hang him from the walnut tree in the cemetery—the one that stood there before the tree migration began. Look, St. Aureline! We have killed the one who murdered you! We have dispensed justice! Now stop, please! To help her see, we dig her up and hoist the great oak casket from the ground, which itself has sprung roots in all directions. The lid has grown shut so we take what instruments we have left to release her. Have her dead eyes witness our penance. See how we have made this wrong right.
The bark gives in after we work our hands raw and we recoil to see what has become of St. Aureline. We know death. We know what should happen to a body and this isn’t it. To bear what lies in the coffin is to glimpse into hell, beyond what we know of the living world. The only way we know how to stop seeing it is to drive our shovels into the casket until there is nothing but the odd, colourless mulch and what looks so like and unlike seeds. We wonder, are our souls all right? In the reflection we see in the mess we’ve made in the casket we can’t tell.
We run and we run and we run, and the trees that have once been so quiet are now so loud. A heavy crackling thunders underneath our feet. It grows so loud we have to stop in our tracks.
We don’t know.
We can’t stop to think what has happened in our town or where we have gone. How can we—life burrows muscular roots deep, deep, deeper than what we have imagined until all we can do is reach down, down into the soil so we stay alive.
Story copyright © 2021 by Haralambi Markov
Artwork copyright © 2021 by Carrion House
Haralambi Markov is a Bulgarian fiction writer, reviewer, and editor with a background in content creation who currently works as a freelance writer. He was the first-ever Bulgarian to be accepted to attend the Clarion Writers’ Workshop in 2014. His short story “The Language of Knives” was long-listed for the Nebula award for Best Short Story. His work has appeared in TOR.com, Uncanny Magazine, and Evil in Technicolor. He helped organize BonFIYAH 2021.
Carrion House a.k.a. Luke Spooner currently lives and works in the south of England. Having graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first-class degree, he is now a full-time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence.