Fantasy Strange

Of Water and Wood

By Emily McCosh
Dec 22, 2017 · 2,012 words · 8 minutes

When Easton is in the ground, you burn the unfinished wood. It looks like a stump, rough and unhewn; a soft color of brown like sparrow’s feathers, with black streaks where leftover sap appears. Here and there, you think you might recognize the beginnings of a feature, a limb or an expression. Easton never liked his creations unfinished, and so you roll it to a dirt patch behind your garden, sweating and puffing against the weight. It’s wet with recent rain, slippery and hinting at decay. You douse it with kerosene and let the flames rage, your face burning in the orange glow.

By nightfall it’s finished, a pile of ashes grey as the darkening sky. You take them in your hands, fistfuls at a time, and spread them over your husband’s grave.

Sometime deep in the night, the trees murmur. You slip from the bed to the window, touch the glass through the curtains. It’s wet, cold and smooth. Like a stone from the river. Darkness obscures all but the shadows of the woods. Trees ring your house, your garden, the little section of earth you and Easton cleared for yourselves. Their branches intermingle, hug one another, pull and fumble in an unsteady dance. Birds’ nests holding together among them. Not Easton’s birds, you don’t think. The ones that would come sit on his shoulders, sleep in his hands and pick the seeds from his fingers. Those birds, you haven’t seen since you last saw him. A weeping willow guards the grave now. It seems so close to the ground – its long branches brushing the dirt like fingers.

You shudder. The cold from the floor, from the window and the unheated house, sinks into your skin. You think about going back to the bed, where the carvings of foxes and forest creatures – more of Easton’s handiwork – would guard you from the bedpost. But it feels foreign without him, insubstantial and unsafe. Exhaustion tugs at your bones. You watch the woods dance, watch them sing with rising passion.

The quilt from the bed still smells of him: like wood varnish and soap. Flung around your shoulders, you feel weighed down and safe. You take it with you, and sleep by the grave, curled within the roots of the willow.

The preacher comes when you are chopping wood, his rusty wagon of a truck bouncing up the dirt road. The song the trees had hummed is now an uproar. Branches wail and collide, sending waves of leaves spiraling to the ground. Instead of withering grass, the earth is a patchwork of fire. Black crows’ feathers stand out like strings unraveling from a sweater. You would rake them up – leaves and plumage all together – but it’s a losing battle against the woods. The numbing breeze is too lethargic to cause such chaos. The preacher cranks his window down and leans out, one arm resting over the edge. His eyes trail the tangled branches behind you, but he waves nonetheless.

“Brooke.” He smiles, even when his eyes flicker to the grave hidden in the tree line. He had spoken over the upturned earth when Easton was laid under, but the trees had been quiet things then.

You shove the last of the firewood against the side of the house, wiping your hands together. They’re splintered and calloused, aching from the work. You feel strange facing another person, with your hair a mass of snarls, your face smudged and your hands raw. But you feel safe, at least, in the clothes you wear. Easton’s. Sweat pants, bunched up around your hips from the drawstring, and a long-sleeved shirt that falls to your thighs and off your shoulder.

“Hello Father,” you say. Hands buried in your pockets, you walk to his truck. The old man’s storm-cloud-blue eyes are all soft and concerned, crinkly around the edges. When you were younger, his hair was straw colored. It’s papery now, with a texture like grass, all rough and thick. The calm in his demeanor is soothing, but he doesn’t move to leave the safety of his truck.

“Whole forest’s like this,” he says, pointing to two trees whose trunks have collided with a sound like buckshot. You put your hands on the truck’s window ledge, feeling the cold seep into your fingers, watching the birds scattering from the woods with something akin to longing. “There’s hardly no wind. Just ruckus. It’s downright eerie.”

“Old woods get odd like that,” you say, and wince. Easton would say things like that, but he loved his trees. And he was good at his magic. It wasn’t something you understood; still can’t understand. The townsfolk used to think him odd. They were wary of his ways, until he was kind to every one of them. Still, suspicion was a hard habit to break.

“Big ol’ oak came down on Mrs. Mavis’ barn last night. Nothing got hurt. Scared the daylights out of some chickens though.” He chuckles. “Radio says big storm’s rolling in. I’m headed to town for groceries. Don’t suppose I can pick up anything for you?”

You glance back at the house, untouched by the forest’s fallen branches, with all its firewood stacked under the eve. Under the cabinets, there’s enough canned food for a week. More in the fridge. You can smell the storm in the breeze, electric and stirring. It fills your lungs, clears your head. The trees, in their frenzied mourning, put you on edge more than any approaching thunder. How they can grieve so loudly, for the neighbors and the wolves and the birds to hear, is beyond you. Maybe your body wasn’t born for that kind of grief. You feel soft and heavy, like if you slept it would be for ages.

“I’m fine,” you say. “Have everything I need.”

He nods, touching your hand before giving the woods a last squint, and driving away.

At night, you dream you’re under the earth beside Easton. Soil constricts you on all sides. You taste it in your mouth, under your tongue, sharp and mossy, full of earthworms. The pointed ends of feathers and bird bones twist your hair. Your toes and fingers become roots, sinking further down, anchoring you to the willow roots. Your skin is buried leaves. Your lips sprout flowers, pushing through the topsoil. Easton is all barky tree roots. They wrap around your ribs. Through the cavern of your heart.

When you wake, an old maple tree has thrown itself across your garden. The storm is here, rain lashing the window. Even inside it smells of water. Water, and mud, and damp wood. For a moment, you think you see something pulling itself free from the shadows of the gnarled roots. But you wipe the tears from your eyes, and can’t find it again.

No matter how many quilts you pull over your head, you can’t recreate the feeling of all that earth.

Under the sun, the storm breaks for a few precious hours. Clouds hang in the distance, ominous and heavy with water. The power went out, sometime in the night. You build the fire warm and crackling, hang the laundry outside to dry. Walk around the fallen maple, around the grave. The creek just inside the trees is clogged, swollen with water and fallen leaves. The trees sway, a chorus of restless noise. Wind snatches at your hair, twining it around your neck, down the back of your coat. Your husband’s hands are in the wind, around your fingers, against your waist, holding you tight. A kiss against the neck. The lips.

But that’s not quite true. Easton was something other than this. He was alive. Warm.

The sheets snap on the clothesline, coiling and tugging at their restraints. Great, white beasts. When the clouds hang lower, the storm returning, you gather the clothes from the line. The sheets you come for last, and there is a shadow behind them that was not there before.

It doesn’t flicker with the wind, doesn’t move within the fabric. You think of the fallen maple, laying in your garden like a beached whale. Whatever nightmare your half-dreaming mind thought it saw tangled in the roots. You touch the sheet, twirl it around your wrist. The shadow moves, wraps around itself, and you draw the sheet away, clutching it tightly.

Child’s eyes blink up at you. Green, brightly so, like fresh spring leaves. They’re too large for the thin face, with lips out of proportion. It should be a child, with its tiny body and willowy limbs, but it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. Its body—all naked, neither a boy nor a girl, for all you can tell—is river-stone, grey and smooth, flecked with bits of black and silver, like a robin’s egg. Ribs and bones are still there, just underneath, jutting out everywhere. So thin and shivering.

“Who…?” you breathe, trying to raise your voice over the wind. It feels odd from disuse. “What are you?”

Such words sound cruel, coming from your lips. This little thing is trembling, hands fisting in front of its stomach, trying to cover up its nakedness. Outlines of feathers press into its skin, and you think of Easton’s birds, watching from the wild branches, or sheading their down to make parts of this creature. The child shakes its head, licks its lips, like it can’t figure out the words trying to break free.

It whispers, with a voice as tumbling and unsteady as water, “Eas…Easton.”

A hollow ache starts in the place your heart should be. Your hand covers your mouth. Something like anger burns your throat. You think you should feel ashamed of the venom in your words, but it spills out still. “You’re not Easton. You’re not… You’re just the wood’s. Go back.”

It whines, a slow, animal-like whimper of pain that chills your bones. “I c-can’t.”

You step back, hugging the sheet to your chest. This is what the forest offers you. It grieves your husband with noise and crashing trees. And it leaves some half-living thing for you. Quivering amongst your sheets.

“Go. You’re not Easton’s and you’re not mine. Go back.

You hide in the house, for hiding is all it can be called. Cowering against the door, face pressed into the sheet. The house is so warm, leftovers of love in the walls. What would Easton think of you now, leaving a child for a storm to drive away? Even the little forest thing that it is. Back to the cold, loud woods. All alone. You wonder what the neighbors will say, the others in the town. What rumors will haunt your home. But you only think on it a moment.

You take the big quilt from the bed. Hold it tight around your shoulders. Already, the smell of him is beginning to fade.

When you return, the child is hunched over itself. Crying. Its tears don’t catch the way they would on human cheeks. They slip down, leaving darker trails like water on wet stone. You touch its hair, all ropey and thick, more like the smallest roots of grass than the fine stuff around your shoulders. Its skin is cold, but thrumming with life. Some type of forest magic.  

It looks up at you while it weeps; gazing, pleading. “I’m l-lonely.”

“I know. So am I.”

You wrap it in the quilt. Pull it against your chest. Its hands tighten in your hair, its body light as dry wood when you lift it into your arms. The rains begin again, showering you both, until you take it inside. Kneeling by the fire, humming a lullaby you can’t remember the words or story to.

You think you hear bird-song outside, chattering like the woods. The child is no longer crying, curling against you, whispering words like the murmur of leaves. You smile, and hide the sweetness in the child’s hair. Kiss its stony neck. Sing, until the trees outside calm, and there is its heartbeat, against your chest. Alive and warm.

This story originally appeared in Galaxy's Edge.