There is magic in the late summer days when the cracks of baseball bats and the laughter of children echo across hills and valleys. When the air is thick like hot honey and the trees and flowers bend and wilt beneath the weight of it. When the world becomes dense and fills with the smell of searing meat, but in the woods, shadowed beneath thick branches and undergrowth, there lingers the scents of dampness and decay.
These are the dog days, when Sirius trails Orion into the sky and scorches the heavens and the world is laid heavily with heat, fever, and malaise. There is indeed magic in those late summer days, but magic is a complicated and dangerous thing, and the burden is heavy on those who dare to wield it. Amidst the heat and whimsy, the edges of the world bristle with power and consequence. The light of the dog star can be a grievous thing, and bring ill-tidings to men.
It was on one of these sorts of days that Roland first found the tree. The sort of day when skin feels like scorched paper and heat rests on your bones like a hot towel, and you feel heavy and burned all the way through.
He’d always known it was there, of course. The tree sat about 100 yards from the house in the thick and marshy woods. He could see it from his guest room window in the colder months when limbs of the surrounding oaks and maples were bare. But he’d never given it more thought than any other tree.
But today was a different sort of day. Roland wandered the woods on the periphery of his house in jeans and boots in the afternoon heat. He was sweating through the thick fabric as he stepped over rivulets and patches of skunk cabbage. His clothes were unseasonable, but he wore them to avoid the ticks that swarmed the woods and the grasping thorns of barberry bushes. He found the dense and smoldering air of the woods less suffocating than being in his house.
He’d had a fight with his wife, Lindsey, about not putting his cups in the dishwasher. But it wasn’t really a fight about the dishwasher, and it wasn’t even really a fight. He knew that. They’d been trying to get pregnant for the better part of two years with no luck. They’d done everything they were advised. They at an appropriate diet, cut out drinking, and tried regularly at the correct times of the month until the sex had become a scheduled, mechanical, passionless thing. The doctors said the only step left was IVF, but Roland worked as a shift manager in a mailroom and Lindsey was a teacher. The previous doctor bills and therapies had bled them to the point of insolvency. They could never afford that sort of thing.
So instead they fought about the dishwasher, and Roland trekked through the woods in jeans and flannel when the heat index was 108.
Two years ago, when they’d first decided to start trying for a family, they were still poor, but at least then they were happy. Roland remembered walking the halls of a local mall, arm in arm, bandying about names for the young one that would soon be on the way. In the window of a child’s clothing store, they saw a small stuffed lion, and Lindsey dashed into the store.
She emerged moments later with her hands behind her back and a huge grin on her face. “This is his…” she started as she theatrically revealed the lion.
“Or hers…” Roland interrupted.
“Or herrrrs…” She stretched the words sarcastically, “first ever toy!
And the lion became a symbol of all the joy to come.
First it sat on the mantle in a place of honor. But eventually it was moved to the room they hoped would become the nursery, which for now was mostly storage. Eventually it made them sad to look at and it ended up on the top shelf of the laundry room closet. And there it sat until Roland grabbed it that day on his way into the woods.
He didn’t know why he’d taken it. But he stared at it with tear-filled eyes while he tripped through the dense undergrowth, until he came to a stop by a downed tree and sat, sobbing quietly, with his head in his hands. The lion was supposed to be a happy thing. But he resented it so much now. He felt it taunting him every time he saw it, with broken promises of what the future was supposed to be.
He sat there for a moment in the silence, broken only by his sobs, but then something happened. He felt the air grow dense and the heat settle on him like a heavy blanket, as if there had been a small breeze and it suddenly stopped. He lifted his head and wiped his brow with his sleeve, and that’s when he saw the tree.
It stood in a small clearing mostly apart from the undergrowth. It was some kind of aspen or birch, and looked like it could be long dead, but it was still standing strong and its crown was open and unimpeded. Something about it beckoned to him and the woods around him hummed with a cadence and force he couldn’t understand. He stood and stumbled to the tree, suddenly feeling buzzed or in a kind of stupor.
He stood in front of it, staring up at its height stretching into the blistering sky, and something strange began to happen. He just felt angry. He thought of everything in his life he wished was different, and everything he’d lost, even though he never had it to begin with. He just wanted to start his young family and now he was wandering the woods with the tiny stuffed lion feeling adrift in a sea of fathomless rage.
“Fuck this,” he muttered under his breath, trying to quiet the storm, “won’t be needing this anyway,” and he shoved the lion into an knotty hole about shoulder height on the tree. Then he turned and stormed away.
Whatever spell the tree had over him dissipated as he wandered out of the woods and he felt ashamed. Now he’d have to go inside and find Lindsey and explain the mud all over his pants and what had happened to the lion, which he most certainly did not want to do, especially after the morning they’d had.
He found her in the kitchen, but when he saw her, everything changed. The light came through the window above the sink and made her hair shine with a soft, golden, radiance. He watched her from the doorway and admired the elegant curve of her jaw and her shoulder, and her hands and arms, graceful, strong and confident, while she did the dishes. He never told her about the mud, or the lion. She didn’t bring it up. He just walked over and took her hand and turned her towards him. She stared up into his eyes, and without saying a word, he led her upstairs. There was nothing mechanical or passionless about it.
That March, Lindsey was sitting on the floor of the nursery sorting piles of tiny baby socks and onesies humming happily to herself while Roland was installing an accent mirror on a paneled wall, painted green and gold, with a frame covered in all sorts of adorable, forest creatures. The room would finally be the nursery it was meant to be, and life was good again. The world had turned and things were looking okay. The baby was healthy, and Lindsey was the happiest she’d been in years.
As Roland leveled the mirror into place, Lindsey asked, “Hey, whatever happened to that lion toy? I’d love to have it ready when he gets here.”
“I don’t know, babe, we’ve been moving a lot of boxes, it could have ended up anywhere. Last I saw we’d had it in the top of the closet…” and he trailed off, immediately remembering the tree. “I’ll keep an eye out for it,” he recovered.
Lindsey shrugged and stood up, “It’s not a huge deal, I’m just happy we’re here at all.” And she gave him a kiss on the cheek as she left the room.
Roland pulled on his snow gear a little later and stumbled out to the tree. There was no river and undergrowth now to navigate, but there was a little more than a foot of snow, so it was slow going.
When he got there, the tree held none of its magic now over him. It was just a tree, and a rather pathetic looking one in the gray winter. He walked up and reached a gloved hand into the knotty hole and found nothing. He shrugged, and headed back to the house.
Years passed. They’d had another child, and Lindsey was pregnant again. Many winters came and went. There were many summers and blistering hot days. And whatever troubles haunted those early days seemed gone forever. Doctors couldn’t explain it, but the proof couldn’t be denied, and Roland didn’t ask questions.
And through it all the tree stood at the edge of the woods. The tree waited. In the winters, it stood silent and still amidst the glistening snow. In the summers it menaced and cast long shadows, and the dark places of the woods under leaves and inside fallen logs bent and writhed with foul and hidden things. There stood the tree through it all, in its clearing in the woods. The tree waited.
Roland was still working his same job in the mailroom, but they had done the math, and day care even for two kids was enough to almost completely consume one of their meager salaries. With Lindsey’s benefits, it would have made more sense for her to keep working, but Roland would never admit that and Lindsey would never have wanted to be away from the kids that much. Besides, that’s not how things were done.
So Lindsey had become a stay-at-home mom while Roland picked up extra shifts and cobbled together what he could. It wasn’t a lot, but they were making it work, and they were happy.
But one day at work, Roland was called into one of the first floor multipurpose rooms that the firm would often use for conferences or large group talks. There was lukewarm coffee and a grotesque array of bagels and pastries spread along folding tables that nonetheless all seemed to taste exactly the same.
He was there with about 100 or so other staff from around the firm, and the suit at the front of the room broke the news that there would be a round of layoffs in 90 days and everyone in the room was losing their job.
“Who the hell fires people while serving refreshments!?” someone shouted across the room. The suit ignored this and muttered platitudes about giving as much warning as possible, and how this hurts everyone, and how the firm is here to help.
Roland drove home in a daze with the layoff notice burning a whole in his back pocket. When he walked in the door he could tell that Lindsey had quite the day with the kids. He sent her up to sleep and took over dinner. He didn’t tell her about the notice.
He didn’t tell her the next day either. He thought he had plenty of time to find another job. He would spend his lunch break on applications and call in sick to go to interviews but had no luck, and a sense of dread and long buried rage inside of him began to grow and grow. He still hadn’t told Lindsey, and the time he had left narrowed to a few weeks. He didn’t know how they would make it work without his income, however meager it was. He cried a lot in the shower. Men don’t let their families see them cry.
But things got harder. A pipe leaked in the basement and the water heater failed. Their oldest, Xavier, needed a routine procedure but there would still be a deductible. Diapers weren’t getting any cheaper. Lindsey knew they could manage, but she didn’t know how close they were to disaster.
The day before he was to be laid off, Roland went for a walk to clear his head. He marched over the skunk cabbage and fallen logs and into the suffocating heat where no one could see him break down. He felt like he walked through a huge spider web and pushed sticky strands out of his face. He felt briefly surrounded by the smell of decay and old earth. And when he regained his bearings, he was at the base of the tree.
The tree. It seemed taller than before. There was something cruel about its smooth, featureless gray bark and its lifeless, leafless branches. But something beautiful too. Roland swayed with the rhythm of the woods and felt that familiar fury boil inside. But he didn’t hate the tree. Part of him remembered. He remembered the heat and the lion, and all that had happened since that first day. He remembered the tree. And he felt the burning of the layoff notice still in his jacket pocket.
“Oh what the hell, she’ll find out soon enough anyway ” he muttered, and he stuffed the layoff notice into the hole in the tree’s trunk. Again, whatever held him in thrall seemed to recede, and he stumbled out of the woods. He only had to put on a strong face until he got the kids to bed, then at least he could numb it all with a bottle of vodka.
The next day at work, Roland was called into his supervisor’s office, and informed that they no longer planned to lay him off. His work was exemplary, and the company needed more people like him. They’d found a way to make it work.
He again drove home that day in a daze, but this time he didn’t go inside. He wandered straight out into the woods to find the tree. Wispy webs hung from its branches, occasionally crawling with spiders and mites. The ground around the tree was damp and as he approached he could hear flies buzzing, at least dozens of them. The smell of decay was stronger now. But Roland didn’t care.
He did a couple of laps around the tree and gently touched its smooth trunk. His mind raced with possibilities that he logically knew weren’t really possible at all. But, the tree…
He fumbled through his wallet and took out his business card and looked it over. “Roland St. James,” it said, “Manager, Mail Room.” He shoved the business card into the knot in the tree’s trunk.
The first thing Roland did with the first paycheck after his promotion was hire a contractor to put an extension on the house. It would be a special wing for the kids with new bedrooms and a playroom. Lindsey was thrilled for his new job but thought that wasn’t necessary. She found their house cozy and comfortable. Sure, as the kids grew they might need more space, but there were other bills to pay, and a lot of debt to pay down already. She would have preferred to tackle that first.
But Roland didn’t seem to worry too much about the money, at least not anymore. And why would he when had the tree?
Lindsey, for her part, found she had mixed feelings about it all, far more than she would have expected. The first time she went to the grocery store and could actually buy a full pack of the kind of diapers she liked for the kids (not the knockoff brand she had been forced to use) without worrying about whether or not they were on sale, she thought she might cry tears of joy.
But one night in the kitchen, as she sauteed vegetables for dinner while her youngest daughter cried in the high chair behind her, she felt a gnawing doubt and the very beginning of something that she could only describe as grief. When Roland was in the mail room, he was always bursting back into the house by 5:30, ready to take over dinner and brimming with excitement. He would pour her an iced tea and she would sometimes sit quietly and smile as she watched him play with the kids or feed peas to their daughter, pretending the spoon was an airplane.
Now she finished cooking alone. Dinner was chaos, but over time, they all learned to navigate it together, and she would put all the kids to bed. She would be exhausted by the time Roland got home at 8:30 or 9:00. She could buy anything she wanted at the grocery store now, and that was a treat, but she knew something was missing. She felt a twist, mean and cold in the back of her mind, that this wasn’t right, and the trade wasn’t fair.
Roland felt a pang of regret when Lindsey told him that the kids asked where daddy was every day at dinner, and another pain, far more savage, when he learned they stopped asking. But he had big plans. The house extension was just the beginning. His career was now growing by enormous strides. He missed the time with his kids of course, but now he could give them anything. And there was no end in sight, thanks to the tree.
He paid down the debt, like Lindsey wanted. Next was a new deck, another extension with a master suite for Lindsey, a guest house where they would stay while the house underwent a larger renovation with additional rooms and new floor to ceiling windows to bring in more natural light. He thought about adding an in-ground pool. Lindsey thought this was crazy. If Roland wanted all these things, why not just move to a new house? Surely they could have all of the amenities without all the pain of the constant construction.
But Roland knew none of this was for him, but his family deserved the best. And of course they could never leave this property. He didn’t tell Lindsey why. She would never understand the tree.
Roland knew he should make more time for his family, but because of his longer hours at the office, and all the attendant responsibility and power, he missed ball games and cookouts, school plays and recitals. He tried to make them when he could, but he was a busy man. But he did always make sure he was home on those blazing summer afternoons, when the magic was the strongest. When the air glistened with laughter and broke with the staccato snaps of firecrackers and hummed with a rumble few could hear, reverberations and echoes of things ancient and potent that rolled behind the sky, full of omen.
Dog days, when the tree writhed and seethed in its bed of mud and worms, miasmic, leeching power into the woods, dark and dank, and into the hearts of men.
Roland always made time for the tree, and the tree was gracious. The tree could, and did, give him anything he needed. He could trust in the tree. He could rely on it. The tree brought him this far. He would always have time for the tree.
But it was different than it was before, though Roland couldn’t bring himself to admit it. The tree would still hold him in thrall, as it always had, and pluck the strings of grief, and doubt, and rage that lay hidden in his heart. That subtle violence remained unchanged, though Roland would tell himself that he didn’t mind. It was a small price to pay for the gifts of the tree.
Worse was the smell, and the flies, and the layer of putrefaction he had to wade through to reach the tree. Was it getting worse each time? That wasn’t possible. But this was the woods of summer, seething with life and death and decay in the moisture and heat. Animals died in the woods and flies and their maggots feasted on the carcasses. Such was and would always be the way of nature. That wasn’t the tree’s fault.
There were the spiders now and their webs, thick and cloying. No matter how careful he was clearing the webs the spiders would always find their way into his hair and dance down the nape of his neck. He probably hated that part the most. There were so many of them. If he was being honest with himself, he didn’t remember so many spiders being there before. But he would say he didn’t remember them not being there either.
One time he had to pull the mutilated and festering carcass of a badger out of the hole in the tree to deposit his offering. That was disgusting, but that’s just the circle of life, things like that happen in the woods.
And besides, no one else ever commented on the smell, or noticed anything else was wrong. And if no one else ever noticed, it couldn’t be as bad as he thought.
He would tell himself this was all fine. The tree was good. The tree gave and the tree was gracious. The tree had to be good. If the tree wasn’t good that would mean… well, there was no sense dwelling on what that would mean.
As long as he had the tree, he could do or be anything. Everything would always be okay. And his family would understand. After all, he did it all for them. And even if they didn’t, he comforted himself in knowing that the tree could make them understand, if it really came to that. But he would never say that part out loud.
Roland sat watching his family eat dinner and enjoy a lively conversation around the broad farmhouse style table in the freshly remodeled kitchen. It was light and airy with tall windows and new paint.
The kids laughed with Lindsey. Xavier threw a dinner roll at Louisa who swatted him with a scarf. There was another round of roiling laughter.
Roland couldn’t really follow the conversation. He had just been out with the tree. He worried they could smell the rot from the woods on him, but no one seemed to notice, so he sat back and watched. They mostly left him alone, and that was fine with him right now. He had given them all of this. He could give them anything to make them happy now. He could give them so many things and he reveled in it.
He enjoyed their laughter and their banter until they finished up dinner and cleaned their plates and dispersed throughout the house. Lindsey gave him a sweet smile and rubbed his shoulder as she walked by, but it was a little weird that none of the kids said anything to him at all.
One day Roland tried to sneak back to the tree. He wasn’t even supposed to be home, and he didn’t want to alarm anyone, to start a whole thing with trying to explain why he wasn’t on his business trip and get roped into a family dinner, or to have to reveal what he was doing creeping around in his own woods.
So he parked up the road and stayed to the edge of the property, avoiding the manicured lawns and gardens and trekking through the undergrowth and grasping, thorny, plants. It’s not like he wasn’t used to that though.
But as he crossed a small sliver of grass to get to the side yard where he could sneak behind the house and get to the paths that led to the tree, he saw his two eldest daughters sitting on a picnic blanket in front of the house.
Before he could react, the younger one glanced up and saw him. She pointed and said something to her sister who jumped to her feet. Roland immediately dove behind a nearby maple tree and slowly peeked out, just enough to observe. The older girl was on her feet and took a few bounding steps towards the front door, then stopped and looked back over at the treeline. She cocked her head slightly, and then walked back to the blanket and sat down by her sister who was pretending to fill tea cups and seemed to have forgotten the entire thing. She took one more look towards the treeline, then shook her head and went back to her play.
Roland thought this was weird, maybe worth following up on later. But first, he had to get to the tree. He made a stop in the guest house garage to wrap his head in a rag doused in camphor and menthol. He told himself he liked the smell of it, that’s why he did it. He told himself he wasn’t trying to mask the smell of the tree.
Xavier watched the pitch sail high and outside, ball two. The silent shuffling of the ump behind the plate confirmed it. He settled back in at the plate and looked over at the pitcher, then waved him off and stepped back.
The park was pretty full today for a high school game. He caught the wafting scents of popcorn, grilled meat, and powdered sugar. The park lights blazed overhead, drowning out the stars, but he could see a line of inky blackness on the horizon. He loved baseball, and sometimes just wanted a moment to take it all in. The park was a jubilant island in a sea of darkness and trouble.
He especially loved moments like this. It was the bottom of the ninth, two runners in scoring position, down by one. These were the moments on the edge, where anything could happen. People tend to like certainty, Xavier thought, they don’t give those moments of infinite possibility the credit they deserve.
He glanced across the stands. His mom had said his dad might be here tonight, but he didn’t see him. Not a surprise though, it had been forever since his dad had been to a game. “Oh well,” he thought, “let’s not let that ruin the fun.” He walked back to the plate and waved to the pitcher that the game was back on.
His mom ran up to him immediately upon his leaving the locker room. “Honey, that was incredible!” She wrapped both arms around him in a huge hug.
“MOM!” he shouted, “the whole team is here!” But he secretly loved it, all boys do. And she didn’t let up.
“Let’s go for pizza,” she looped her arm through his and started dragging him towards the car. His sisters fell in behind them like a gaggle of geese, chatting amongst themselves.
He thought about asking her if she’d seen or heard from dad, but didn’t. He wasn’t sure why. But pizza sounded good. His dad had often missed games, but one of his favorite traditions was going out to pizza where his dad would want him to walk through the entire game from his perspective. He would listen so intently.
Or would he? Maybe it was mom that did that? Why couldn’t he remember? No, it had to have been mom. If it was dad, he would have remembered that. He didn’t see his dad that often, so he would remember if it was him. He thought about this as they all piled into the car.
Roland saw his family reunite outside the locker room, but he couldn’t get to them through the crowd. He tried to call out to them, but no one could hear. This was his fault, he had to be late again, and he couldn’t get a seat close to them. But it was okay, he knew where they were going. He rushed back to his car and pulled into the line of outgoing traffic to follow them.
They would be heading to Roman’s Pizza on 2nd Street, where he always used to take Xavier to get a recounting of the game. It had become something of a tradition, back when Roland made it to more games, but he would admit he hadn’t been around as much lately. But he felt his heart sink as he inched towards the exit. There was the problem with the Bangkok deal. He was going to lose it, he was sure. Unless he got to the tree.
But… maybe that was okay. Maybe he’d turn right out of the park and meet his family at Roman’s. He’d listen to Xavier reenact every out of the game. Maybe he’d make them laugh by pretending the pizza was an airplane, just like when they were babies. Would they still think that was funny? Maybe they’d all go home then and he wouldn’t go back to the airport. They’d all set up blankets in the family room and put on a movie. The deal might fall through, but didn’t they have enough? Maybe it was time to go be with his family. Xavier would be heading to college in a few years anyway, and he was missing it all.
But college… yes, that was it. He would need a lot of things for college, of course. Maybe a new car, a place to live. Money for expenses, he wouldn’t want Xavier to have to work in college so he could maximize his focus. School was expensive these days and he didn’t want his kids starting their lives with debt. The other kids would need all of that as well. Xavier had five sisters. And money aside, they might need jobs and internships and powerful connections. Roland could provide those things. He would love to abandon it all and go to dinner and be with his family, but that would be irresponsible. It would be selfish. He’d be doing it for him. He needed to provide for the family. He needed the Bangkok deal. He needed the tree.
He watched Lindsey’s Navigator turn right toward 2nd Street, a family dinner, and happiness. Roland turned left.
Lindsey St. James remembered hearing stories of the Winchester House. The story was that Sarah Winchester fled west to California, haunted by the ghosts of all those butchered by Winchester rifles. Her only hope of peace was to construct a house for the spirits to dwell in, and to never stop building. For 38 years the house was under construction in a haphazard and senseless way, complete with interior rooms with no doors, and stairways to nowhere.
Lindsey could sympathize. She finally sent the workers home. They’d been hammering away for what felt like months in the new construction off of the west wing. They said it was supposed to be an entertainment extension. It would have a movie theater and a half-sized basketball court. God knows why. Lindsey didn’t want that, and the kids wouldn’t care. She hadn’t even been in the west wing in ages. She wasn’t even sure why these workers kept coming around, but she didn’t care much for the affairs of the estate these days. She left that to the caretaker and the accountants.
“Can I get you anything else, ma’am?” The stern and proper housekeeper set an espresso on the table in front of Lindsey, complete with a china dish and a folded, linen napkin.
“Not for me, Marla, thank you. Can you check on the kids? Make sure they don’t need anything? I’m going to take this in the drawing room.”
“Very well, ma’am.” The housekeeper turned and marched, stiff as a board, toward the front gardens where the younger kids were playing.
Lindsey glanced out the window to the gardens as she walked towards the drawing room and slowed for a moment as she watched the youngest girls playing some game with jump ropes and ribbons.
“Maybe I should go sit with them,” she thought to herself, “I don’t think I’ve been spending enough time with them recently. And they won’t be young forever…” But then she shook her head and carried on, telling herself, “they like the governess better anyway.”
She entered the drawing room and made her way to the plush chairs by the fireplace, but as she walked, her hand traced phantom patterns in the air. Somewhere, her body remembered things Lindsey had forgotten, everywhere except for in her dreams, the kind of dreams you forget upon waking but that fill you with poignancy and regret, and an ache deep inside of beauty that can’t be retrieved, no matter how hard your waking mind tries to grasp it. Her hand traced where, before all the reconstruction and renovation, there had once been a wood paneled wall of a cherished room freshly painted in green and gold. Her fingers danced over the long forgotten frame of an accent mirror adorned with forest creatures, hung with care and joy.
Lindsey felt a tear in her eye she didn’t understand as she sank into the cushioned armchair. She took a bottle of irish cream liqueur from the cabinet next to the fireplace and topped off her espresso, and stared silently, into the cold logs, in the dark firebox surrounded by ornately carved wood and highlighted with elegant copper filigree.
Roland watched the kids playing. They kicked the ball back and forth on the lawn. Their shouts and laughter reverberated across the ornate lawn. It was quiet where Roland was. He couldn’t make out the words. But they seemed happy. It was one of those hot days, when your skin feels like scorched paper and the air is thick like honey. But Roland didn’t feel it. He was in the shade.
“I should go play with them,” he thought. But he didn’t. It was hot out there. It was cool where he was. The tree knew. It would protect him. The tree thought of everything.
Out there he knew the air would smell like firecrackers and grilling meats. Roland only smelled dampness and rot, but that was okay. He liked it. He told himself he liked it. He had to like it.
“They’re probably happier without me interfering anyway,” he thought. “Yes,” he agreed with himself. “Happier anyway. I’ll just watch.” And so he watched.
And the edges of the world bristled with power and consequence.
The kids noticed it first. Xavier was off at college, and Kathryn had been watching the younger girls in the front gardens when she came inside complaining of a bad smell, and more flies than usual.
Lindsey stepped outside and could smell it immediately, nauseating and the worst kind of sweet. She knew right away the smell of rot and death and called for the caretaker. This wasn’t a fit labor for a woman of her social position.
The caretaker followed the stench and the flies with a rag covered in menthol over his nose and mouth, and it was he that called the police.
The police found the tree in the woods surrounding the house, about 100 yards back but with a clean view of the front yard. It was a monstrous old thing, barren, smooth and gray. Flies were swarming by the hundreds, maybe thousands, around its base. At least part of the tree was hollow, and the police managed to rip a slab of wood off of the base of the tree, revealing the festering corpse of a man in his late forties, partially eaten by maggots and beetles but saved from the larger predators of the forest, because there was no way for them to get him. No one was sure how exactly he’d gotten inside the tree.
As far as the inspectors could tell, he’d been looking out of holes in the trunk, watching the front yard of the house. Lindsey wished she could unhear that, since that’s the kind of thing that makes you feel like you’ll never be safe again.
She sent the kids off with the governess while she answered the requisite questions. No, she had never seen that man before in her life (though how would she possibly know at this point after what the maggots had done). No, she didn’t know of anyone who would want to harm her or the kids. Yes, it was just her and the kids in the house, and the staff of course (the police were welcome to talk to all of them, and Lindsey encouraged it. Maybe it was one of those construction workers). No, she’d never been married (the kids were adopted) and had no boyfriend, so there was no one out there with any loose ends to be snooping around.
The police would investigate thoroughly, but they believed her. Lady St. James had always been an upstanding pillar of the community. It was odd though, and they would try to keep it under wraps. But it would eventually make the rounds in coffee shops and be whispered at book clubs between glasses of Pinot Grigio. These things have a way of becoming urban legends. And the town loved gossip about the huge house on Cherry Brook Road and the family that lived there.
As for Lindsey, this was the last straw. She’d had enough with this strange house, far too big and elaborate for the land it was on, and she could never look at the woods the same way again. She broke the news that the St. James family would be moving on and she had her lawyers secure a new property in Connecticut, smaller than the current house (the kids would be leaving eventually, and who needed 14 bedrooms?) but no less opulent and still with plenty of space. Lindsey was accustomed to creature comforts after all, and there would be fundraisers to host, and that sort of thing.
The kids thought this was fine, It was strange living in such an extravagant way that was so different from their neighbors.
Lindsey told the staff any that wished were welcome to come to Connecticut. The rest could stay on until the house sold, which she knew could be a while. No one in this area was looking for such a mansion. No one in this area could afford it. Everyone agreed it didn’t make a lot of sense to build that house there in the first place, but no one could quite remember how or why it had happened. Maybe eventually she would sell it to a developer who would knock it down and replace it with condos or something. Lindsey didn’t care, that was again a matter for the accountants. She had more money than she and the kids would ever need.
And the new property in Connecticut was beautiful, with green lawns and gardens spreading down to the sea. It was surrounded by similar mansions and it fit right in. Its construction and floor plan made sense to her. “We were doing it all wrong, Mrs. Winchester,” Lindsey smirked as she sipped her espresso and irish cream watching the mist from the waves crashing on the shore sparkle in the morning sun. “This is how it’s done.”
But then come those hot days. The dog days. Lindsey hates them still. When the air is thick and placid, and the edges of the world bend and sag. The kids stay inside. They say it’s for the heat, and it is, but they feel something else too. There’s a heaviness to the world, and a potency that hums in the woods across the road, and in the dark, damp places. It’s like magic burns at the horizon, waiting for a chance. And magic is a grievous thing.
Lindsey stays inside too. And sometimes she daydreams. She daydreams of a small, stuffed lion, and the strong hands of a handsome man, holding her close. His jeans are muddy and his sweaty hair steams in the air conditioned kitchen. She can’t quite make out his face, but he shines in the dazzling midday light. She thinks she loves him, or she could in another life. And sometimes she cries. She so desperately wants to reach out and pull close that wonderful dream that eludes her waking mind, so radiant and pure, there at the edge of memory.
She wishes the man hiding in that poignant and vanishing dream would hold her for real. She wishes she could see his face.
In the Dark
I was in the dark and I couldn't see a thing. I fumbled around with one hand, searching for a flashlight. I finally found it laying on the floor where I had dropped it when the scream had startled me. Holding it aimed towards where I thought the door was, I flipped the switch. Nothing happened.
"The batteries must be dead," I muttered, "It would happen right now."
I took a few cautious steps towards the light switch, and stumbling over a cord, fell. I decided to crawl the rest of the way. Soon my head bumped against the wall, and I stood up. In the pitch black darkness, the feel of the wall against me was comforting. I grabbed the light switch and flipped it to the 'on' position. But instead of the room lighting up, it remained just as dark. Had the power gone out? Perhaps. It had gone dark right after that hair-raising scream I heard. I leaned against the wall and thought my situation over. If I remained in the dark much longer, I was going to go crazy! I needed some light, and I needed it NOW. As I stood there, I felt the door next to me open. No light came through it though, so I supposed that there was no light out there either.
"Frank?" a quiet voice, whispered.
"I'm right here!" I answered.
"Oh good!" there was relief in the voice, "Why aren't you coming back down? We need to get out of here."
As I took a deep breath to start explaining about the power going out, etc., my friend spoke again, "And what on earth are you doing with all the lights on? It's the middle of the night and we're not supposed to be here!"
I froze in bewilderment.
"The flashlight didn't work, so I was going to turn on the lights." I mumbled, my brain still trying to understand that line about the lights being on.
"Frank? The flashlight is working just fine. It's bright enough to light this room up by itself!"
"It's on?!? Wait, you're telling me that the lights in this room are on, and the flashlight is working?!?" I repeated with a frantic note in my voice.
I began flipping the light switch back and forth in a frenzy.
"Frank?!? What is the matter?"
A hand closed around and stopped my frantic flipping.
I pulled my hand free and sank to the floor. Staring out into the inky blackness, I whispered, "I can't see a thing..."
The rain fell fast on the rose glass. In between the window tracery it broke like a patter of tiny feet. Wetness cast a spell on the civilized world, and panic ran through the streets. The church surged in the cobble square, catching gothic waters on its vaulted back, joining the downpour with obsidian torrents that ran along its slopes. Underneath the skyward judgement, a throng of humanity rushed aside in stirs, with bleating groups dispersed all agog, clinging to building walls or sheltering under caffe overhangs. Shrieks and hands clutching at children collected along peripheral architectures, as gypsies and street urchins rushed out from shadows to fill the space, selling devilish wares. Families tarried in the deluge, waiting for the knell. Fathers intent upon the doors, unfolded their morning papers with a disaffected twirl and lifted them above to finish their unshakable stare. Frangible mothers, more profound of sentiment, languished under sopped parasols, their spirits as versicolored by the rain as the white of their dresses. Pushcarts wheeled out of frame and store owners shut up their doors. Passerby’s cut an expert path out of view, while street vendors miraculously packaged up their shops into a lumbering conveyance... and everywhere noise and men alike clambered for refuge in the scene.
At last, the bell rang brass and the doors opened in a wooden yawn. Sounds from the organ issued in the entrance, and the guests tunneled in, all in agreement: what a perfect day for damnation.
The Man Who Couldn’t Kill Himself
I’ve learned I can technically survive with only 65% of my blood. After about 40%, I’ll go into hypovolemic shock and all of the fluid I’ve lost will impede my heart's ability to pump blood throughout the rest of my body. I may have a limited knowledge regarding the human anatomy, sure, but that should’ve been more than enough information to kill myself.
It sure as hell felt like more than half as the cold that rushed over my body was indiscernible with the river's current. Red and gray shadows danced erratically under the steady current I was half submerged in. I wonder why I’ve chosen this place. Anywhere along Howard Road would have been fine, close enough my parents would know what happened and would not waste their precious time looking for me.
“What.. What was that Morgan? You’re so fuckin’ lucky your mother’s at bingo.” Roberts' eyes met the incessant beep on the hospital machine behind me as he sighed, “Well? Have you got all the attention you need?”
I’d accepted my miscalculations as serendipitous when Laura-Lee’s hand lingered a little too long on my forearm the following week at Burkes Pub. The quiet I sat in the rest of the night proved otherwise, though. I watched as she laughed with a blonde girl I didn’t know. It had to be at my expense. They were laughing at my stupidity.
I discovered next that you can survive up to 24 hours after hanging yourself by the neck. The human body is frustratingly resilient for how trivial life really is. The bruises and boredom forming quickly around my neck trapped me within my own thoughts. I’m sick of hearing myself think. The brunette dressed in black at Shoppers says yellow undertones cover bruises best. I wonder if she knows from personal experience, but I don’t ask. I also wonder what undertones are, but I buy the compact case she hands me and later agree with her aloud in the mirror.
When the brunette who became Tanya turned into the lady who rejected me, I shot myself in the face. Did you know that you can survive a bullet to the face? I educated myself and the inexperienced nurses with shock ridden faces that day. I thought about how the call to inform my parents I’d attempted suicide would ruin their trip this weekend. I have 12 teeth now. 42 surgeries later, I have the right half of my face along with a third of my tongue. I hope they never close the whole in my throat.
There’s thunderous silence in slaughtering. The solitude of my newfound career lets my disfigurements be. I don’t mind Mr. Rideout’s judging eyes, he hired me after all. He doesn’t let his daughter come in the freezer anymore.
The lines of dead carcass full of so much potential reignites my existential crisis. I’m fixated on the tip of the large hook I grip in my left hand, I shift it into my right hand and my only eye follows. I read a magazine article on suicide once. To my own amusement, I found it stashed behind a toilet in my suicide treament facility. ‘Seppuku’ is considered an honorable death among samurai. One by disembowelment, restorative and surefire. The red of my blood in this dark cold freezer is almost black and I feel fear for the first time. Oh god, Mr. Rideout.. Jesus.. No god .. I scramble to hold my stomach in and watch as the blood from my guts bubbles on the icey floor below. My vision blurs and I desperately crawl to the door unable to yell for help. Close enough to strain for the door handle, finally grabbing hold, I realize Mr.Rideout has locked the door to the freezer from the outside. I wonder if Mom has bingo tonight.
The Sand and The Blade
Of all people, why her?
“Ready,” Kayne said, and I pulled my knives as she pulled her daggers.
I barely had time to bring my left knife up before she was on me, and the world sharpened into focus. I blocked a backhanded swing and knocked aside a feint, feeling the touch of her breath on my cheek as I ducked into a kick to her knee.
But she was quicker than I anticipated, moving easily out of the way and under my guard, her dagger rising toward my throat and barely being avoided by my yank to the side, feeling the tip slice past an inch from my jaw, her other coming hilt first toward my side.
I pressed forward, tipping my shoulder into hers to knock her back and swinging my leg around to catch the back of her leg. She went down, the breath huffing from her lungs, but was back on her feet and coming toward me in seconds.
Our blades screamed as they met, her strokes collected and furious, and I knew that I was going to lose.
She had years of practice, I could feel it in the way she moved, and I. . . I had a few months.
But I couldn’t lose, not in front of the king, who’s champion would I be?
I stepped back, then back again, her swings getting faster and sharper, my reflexes all that kept my blood from being spilled as her daggers glinted and sliced.
I tried to advance, but she swept her right dagger at my side, and I forted with my left knife, retreating when she flipped to a reverse grip and lunged in a sweeping thrust.
I forted her knife and blocked her second cut, barely able to keep up with her whip fast strikes.
Then she moved too fast for me to follow, the hilt of her dagger snapping against my wrist and sending my left blade flying.
Her left dagger landed against the throat, slicing a trail before it stopped.
Blood dripped down my neck.
The pit was silent, her golden eyes glinting in the light as she held me at checkmate.
Then Kayne was there, hardly a foot away, snarling in my face with fury, “Stop going easy on her, fool!”
I threw my other knife aside to free my hands, grabbing her wrist with my right hand and twisting her arm off my throat and out of the way to punch her in the sternum.
She choked, her knees buckling, but I was already twisting the dagger out of her hand and bringing the hilt down on her opposite wrist, barely tempering myself in time to keep from breaking the delicate bones, and she dropped the blade into my waiting hand.
I retreated, and she glared at me with focused intensity, struggling back to her feet.
I glanced down at the beautiful daggers, the golden hilts smooth in my palms from years of use, the blades nicked and sharpened, little threads of fabric caught between the blade and the guard from the wrapping used for sparring.
They were beautiful, light and balanced and true.
I tossed them aside.
In a way, Kayne had been right; I’d been going easy on her, not wanting to embarrass a beautiful girl if she lost and not wanting to hurt her.
But beautiful or not, she would hurt me just the same, kill me if she could, all because I was a human that dared to stand against the highest of species.
This time, I moved before she could, knocking aside her weak barrier, unpracticed as she was at unarmed combat and elbowing her in the rib, feeling her breath rush from her lungs for the third time as I slid around behind her, pulling her against my body and curling my leg around her ankle.
She fell, and I flipped us so I landed on my back, arms encircling her neck, her body flush against mine as I pinned her there.
“Yield,” I snapped in her ear.
She grunted, trying to elbow me, but I freed one hand to slam hers against the sand, feeling the bones bend and cringing at her cry of pain.
“Yield!” Please, I wanted to say, I don’t like hurting you.
I didn’t like hurting anyone.
“I yield,” she choked, bucking her hips against my hold, and I released her.
She rolled off and to all fours, coughing and choking the air back into her lungs.
I felt a rush of panic as I heard the breath rattle in and out of her chest, suddenly terrified that I’d really, truly hurt her, and when she clutched at the rib I’d elbowed, I knew I had.
sobriety in terminal velocity
the Aloe plant had his own ideas how things should go down and he did not miss a chance to tell me. by that time the freight train was not only hurtling down the bridge, but it was actually showing signs that even at train wrecks, it was not the best approach. can't even get a derailment right, it taunted, hurtling down. i could listen to both succulant plant and the freefalling vehicle because my grip on time, allowed me to slow it down subhectively. if you saw it, you would see an immobile plant and a horrible accident, which shall have only one victim. but through the powers of concentration, i can talk to plant and vehicle as they groan and criticize.
that's the thing about inanimate ovjects. they have much to say, but only if you can slow space-time. and then they never shut up.
but i do deserve it. even though the diamond heist was dave's idea. i should've known better than to trust an empty amazon box for advice.
The Vessel: chapter 1.
As the vessel, his thoughts were trivial. He knew this. Yes, it was the first teaching. The most important.
Water created life. He knew. All life is the vessel for its travels. Life was only possible because of its flow. When the water ends its journey, it leaves the vessel.
He knew that everything he did was either because of Water or because of his resistance to the flow.
Resistance and critical thinking were an affront to the flows of life. He had been taught thus in school and every week the sermons proclaimed it.
It was his duty to seek out the resistance and flow over and around it. He had gotten quite good at redirecting the flow of his thoughts towards peace and tranquility. He focused the flow on his daily ritual of keeping his body clean and hydrated. He said his prayers. He tilled the gardens and reverently watched the irrigators when they came to the farms.
As a vessel for the water he had been asked to tend to his plants. But alone, he dreamed and drew.
His art plagued him.
It was never about the holiness of flowing or the great waves that had brought humans back to land after the destruction of the water systems caused a global catastrophe.
His art was always about his feelings. To his shame, he couldn't bring himself to draw the first irrigators or the pump houses at sunset. He drew feverish planes of joy and decadence, full of forbidden flowers. He drew sad winter days and their long evenings.
Each time he filled a page, his heart was full and his conscience was guilty.
He agonized over the details of a blooming rose. Grown only for its pleasing scent and highly frowned upon by the minimalist priests. What was the point of something that didn't carry any purpose for the water? The priests would say. Of course it was one of the water's creations, and was therfore holy, but flowers were treated as lowly and garish. Such a luxury was not dedicated to the betterment of the vessel itself, and was therefore regarded as tacky and impractical.
Xenon loved his flowers the most. Even though they gave him such pain. His heart would weep with joy upon seeing a tree in full bloom.
Aside from his daily duties growing food for the community, he also grew a riot of wild flowers around his house. He used his own water allotment for the day to sustain them and often resorted to illegal rain collection to water them.
The priests had bigger fish to fry. He was seen as a minor heretic. But his neighbors noticed the eccentricities and he was often unaware of barbecues or block parties until the day of each event. Requests for help with the fields during harvest were met with eye rolls and grudgingly slow work days.
Everyone knew Xenon's food was the most nutritious and tasty (even though taste was irrelevant to the water and was therefore decadent). His berries were fatter and tasted better than anyone's. The water had picked a sublime farmer. And so his differences were tolerated out of doors. For a time.
On my fourteenth birthday, my father took me to a prostitute. When we left, he slapped me on the back and said, now, my son, you are a man. He didn’t ask any questions. So, I didn’t tell him how the woman failed in her attempts to excite me. How she got frustrated then angry then contemptuous. I didn’t tell him how she called me all the same things the boys at school did – the reason he brought me there in the first place, I suspect. I didn’t tell him how I begged her to stop. How I covered my ears as tears threatened to fall. How my hurt and sadness turned to anger when she went to open the door so she could go tell everyone, my father, about my…difficulty. How I jumped from the bed, grabbed her and covered her mouth with my hand to make her stop. How she bit me, so I threw her to the floor, and she hit her head. How I pounced on her, my hands around her neck, while she struggled to free herself. How, as I saw her terror, her weakness to my strength, I was able to do exactly as she'd wanted. He'd wanted. No, I didn’t tell him any of that. I just thanked him for his gift.
A fire in her eyes
I’ve seen a butterfly burn in fire.
When I was a small child, Mamma and I went to the woods all the time. My main objective would always be to catch as many butterflies as I could. Later, I displayed their dead bodies on my study; looked at them in admiration as I caressed the little textures and wondrous colors of nature, coming into life in the wings of the peculiar insect.
To some extent, I was jealous of them, for they had wings to fly away while I didn’t.
Mamma had a library, where she sat all day trying to decipher every word of the science books that she bought from the bookstore every month. No one noticed me sitting in my study, ever. They didn’t hear the cackling of the flames or the scent of smoke in the air as the wings burnt in all their glory; the colors slowly fading as I dozed off to the magnificent scent of the smoke.
If I could not have their wings, nor would they.
I might sound selfish. I sound selfish to a lot of people. Many have turned themselves away, labelling me as crazy. But what would even be life without my crazy? What is life without the intoxicating flavor of burning flesh, the scent which fills the room when the spark goes on in flames?
Have you ever experienced the drug of death? You may call me crazy- even my own people do. I don’t really care what they think of me, but there is one diamond in my life who’d turn away if by any chance, my darkness was brought to the light. And this time, I would care. So, I always had to act like I was okay. Like I was just a normal human being- hurried, confused. But I’d gotten what I ever could’ve had.
The taste of desire.
I never excelled in academics, nor was I interested in anything else. You know how it goes in Indian households; a girl is just only a burden on her family. The only people she’d known since the time she opened her eyes to the first light of the world are the people who are determined to cast her away. They have to be married off as early as possible, and what their dream was never holds any significance in others’ lives.
Mama’s other daughter, Nimmi, was married off young. I had to watch on, as her world came crumbling down. I could see the fire burn, but for once, I did not relish it. I could’ve saved her life. Maybe, if I tried – well, not that I cared to, anyway.
I never gave her the chance to ruin my life though. She was like an eagle, constantly in the lookout for the slightest implication of smoke. But I was the vulture, and I hid them well. Every piece of flesh or trail of blood was covered up; shrouded as if it never even existed.
But she knew, and I knew that she knew, although she had no means to prove it. The pages of the calendar were turning, and I knew that the closer I remained to her, the stronger was the possibility of my life turning out like my sister’s. For even though she had no proof, she had contacts. She had the power. She had everything that I feared the most.
The plan was set. And it was executed. I eloped with him just one night before her birthday. I can still hear the clatter of the jewels as I rampaged them on my bedroom floor. Then suddenly, something struck me, and I was led into my Mamma’s bedroom by a force quite unknown to me. I looked at her sleeping face, mumbling my name as she breathed out soft silent snores. I couldn’t let her win. I jumped out of the balcony in my wedding lehenga, devoid of any jewelry. The crimson lehenga held onto every fragment of my emotions as I ran. I ran out of her den. I ran out of my conscience.
That was possibly the best birthday gift I’d ever given her since I was born.
But life, even if you have achieved whatever you’ve ever wanted, can get pretty boring sometimes. I never wanted a job. I just needed some pleasure my in life, like the pleasure I used to have. But there was nothing here. Nothing except, sitting around at home doing absolutely nothing. My routine might seem relaxing from afar, but then, the field always seems greener on the other side.
I’d never felt lonely before. But now I was, and it was quite strange. It was not the first time that I was living on my own with a house full of objects both inanimate, and dead. Yet, the seclusion was killing me. The honking of the vehicles, the sound of the marketplace, the gawking of the street hawkers used to dig into my heart like a dagger and I would burn like the butterflies in my own fire, trying in vain to contain myself from seeing their blood on my skin.
Mamma never loved me, so I always had the habit of creating my pleasures since childhood. It had been a long time since a butterfly had entered my trap. Nostalgia hit me like a truck, as the scent from so long ago that I’d almost forgotten how to relish the joy, hit my senses.
So, I created my pleasure again.
No one really knew when my baby brother started to float.
My mom swears it was the time she was feeding him peas. He had knocked them on the floor, and after going to get a paper towel to clean it up, she returned to see him floating a few inches above his highchair, giggling gleefully.
Dad says that it happened first in the middle of the night. He went to check on my brother only to find him suspended above his crib, still sleeping peacefully as he revolved in slow circles.
I remember it as the time we were playing in the sandbox. I had just built the perfect sand castle, complete with four walls and a moat that wrapped around the entire thing. All of the sudden he started to rise above the sand, bobbing and tipping until he crashed down right in the middle of my creation.
The funny thing is, none of us thought of it as odd. It was just something that he did. He couldn't float more than a few inches off of whatever surface he was on, so there was no reason to tell anyone else. They would just make a big deal about it and "whisk him away to perform experiments" as my mom always said.
This is the way it has been for the last 8 years. He couldn't really control it and it doesn't happen very often anymore so we all just kind of pushed it to the backs of our minds. But now things have changed.
It was the night before school started and I was fast asleep, dreaming of seeing all of my friends and starting my first year of middle school. All of the sudden there was an agonizing scream and I awoke to my brother pinned to the ceiling above me.
His eyes were rolled into the back of his head and he was flailing around helplessly. Saliva flew from his mouth and he was breathing in huge rattling gasps. I had never seen him float so high and I was terrified, unable to comprehend what was happening.
He screamed once more and then his eyes snapped into focus, locking onto mine.
"He has a hold of me Max", my brother breathed in a terrified whisper. "He said he has blessed me with a gift and now it is time to come and show him my gratitude."
His eyes were wide with fear and I could tell he was struggling, trying to move his arms and legs but they remained splayed out on my ceiling.
Hundreds of questions were racing through my mind but before I could ask any of them, he jerked violently to the right and slammed against my wall. We were both screaming now as he skidded across the ceiling and crashed into the other wall.
He continued to be whipped around my room, as if he was a puppet attached to terrible, invisible strings. His eyes had rolled into the back of his head again, but his screams were still coming nonstop. His shirt had torn in the back and blood streaked my ceiling.
Finally he was returned to his original position above my bed.
His breathing was ragged and his arms and legs were dangling down towards me.
I reached up to try and grab him but stopped when he opened his eyes.
"Don't let him take me" he pleaded weakly, and started to sink into the ceiling as if it was a pool of liquid. He reached out to me, but before I could do anything he was pulled fully under and disappeared from sight.