The Grove

by Aeryn Rudel

When I was a boy the trees grew faster in the old grove behind our house. Faster than they should, faster than what you could call natural. They had a strange look to them, too, those trees. The patterns in the bark took on familiar shapes if you stared at them long enough, almost like faces.

The trees grew fast and took things from the ground, bits of furniture, an old tricycle, the skeletons of small animals. Once I saw the skull of a coyote sticking straight out of a branch ten feet off the ground. Grinning white teeth, eye-sockets empty but still staring down on you like it was watching.

Daddy told us not to go into those woods or listen to the wind whistling through the leaves, rustling the branches like shaking, terrified voices. I didn’t pay any heed to his warnings—too young, too curious. I would stand at the edge of the grove where the trees are still small and imagine the trees were talking to each other. Maybe they were.

My brother Johnny disappeared when I was ten and he twelve, and Daddy said the trees had taken him. I remember Momma telling him to hush with that talk or he’d scare us children. We grieved, and things were quiet for a while.

Then Nancy, my little sister, disappeared six months later. When Momma went into town to arrange the funeral, to buy the empty box we would mourn over, she left me at home with Daddy. He was in a bad way, crying and cursing. I tried to calm him down, and I thought I did, but it wasn’t calm. It was quiet resolve. He got an axe from the tool shed and went into the grove. I followed, begging him to stop and come back.

Daddy went deeper in, raving at the trees, hitting the big ones with the axe, making them bleed sap like black blood. I heard the wind rattling in the branches overhead, scraping and scratching. The trees were talking, and as I hurried after Daddy, they seemed to close in, the canopy of leaves eating the sky like a green shroud.

When I caught up to Daddy, he stood at the base of a big tree, feet planted, swinging the axe with all his strength. Bits of wood chipped and flew, and that old black sap splattered the nice white shirt Momma bought him for the funeral.

I tried to stop him, but he shoved me away. “Look at it, David,” he said. “Look at the thing that ate your sister. Can’t you see her face?”

I didn’t understand that, but it scared me, and I begged him to quit and come back to the house. The rattling in the branches got louder, and it sounded angry. Those trees weren’t talking now, they were screeching their hate down at us.

A branch broke off from one of the boughs, big and heavy, and it fell on Daddy, knocked him down and pinned him to the ground. I tried to push it off, but I wasn’t strong enough. It lay on his stomach, and blood ran out of his mouth. He told me to run, to get Momma and enough kerosene to burn the grove.

I did run, all the way home, the trees scraping and scratching overhead. Sometimes it seemed the branches dipped against the wind, like they were gonna block my path. I pushed on until I reached the boundary of the grove and the grass beyond.

When Momma got home I was in tears, terrified and ranting. She grabbed hold of me and held me until I stopped shaking, until I could tell her what had happened. It was dark then, but she grabbed a flashlight and told me we’d find Daddy, right now. I told her about the kerosene, but she wouldn’t get it. She said it was Daddy’s sadness talking, making him do terrible things.

We ran into the forest and it had grown quiet, the wind nothing but a trickling gust. When we reached the place where the branch had fallen, Daddy was gone. Momma called out for him, running around the spot where I’d left him, her voice echoing off the trunks. I stayed put, remembering what Daddy had said about the tree that had eaten Nancy. I looked up and caught a flash of white. Then I screamed.

Daddy was half inside the tree, twenty feet off the ground. His head and arms dangled, and the rest of his body had been swallowed by the bark, like it had grown up around him, absorbing him into the heartwood. He was still alive, looking down on me, eyes bulging from their sockets, blood dripping from his mouth. I knew that tree was eating him, growing as it sucked the flesh and blood from his body, just like that coyote I’d seen.

Momma found me soon after, grabbed me, and ran. I don’t know if she saw what I saw, but she never spoke about that day, not even on her death bed last year.

We moved away a month later, and I haven’t been back in twenty-five years. I think about the trees often. Do they still take things from the ground to carry off and eat? If I went back to the edge of the grove and listened, would I hear the trees talking with the voices of those they’d taken? Would I hear my father’s voice? My brother’s? My sister’s? Would I want to follow?

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