A Warning from the Wood

by Madeleine Ebacher

He came staggering out from the woods. Jeans ripped down his left leg, his sweater wet and red, lips torn. But he was out. He had only tasted one fruit, just one small berry. The winter had been so cruel and his throat so dry. He tried to shout, he tried to wave an exhausted arm, but he fell. I watched him fall. The poor boy. Pine needles and cobwebs in his sun touched brown hair. He didn’t know the damage already done. His eyes gone milky. He’d already been changed. The dirt, the bark was in him. 

He might have left the woods, but the woods had not left him. One small fruit can hold so many seeds. There was an echo of those aching, arching boughs in his groans of pain. Fingers scrabbled against the earth and already they were too long, with more fingers than he remembered, more joints at unexpected intersections. 

No one ran to him. I was not the only witness. We’ve seen it before, and again, we look away. We will wait for the forest to reclaim him. He is no longer a brother, son, friend. We’ll not speak his name, it will be forgotten in time. For several months, food will arrive unattended at the door of one who had been his mother—fresh baked breads, meals for those who are too exhausted from grief to make their own meals. She was blessed with a daughter as well, now twice as precious for the pain. And no meat. It is a rule we all know, not to eat meat for a full fortnight, until he is fully gone. 

He will roam the borders of our community. Gradually, the color will drain away, the speech of our kind will leech from his voice like a stone being ground below ocean waves. All of him longer, till his clothes are tatters. His eyes will close, yet he will see and feel with his new senses, and still, he will wail for the loss. Who can imagine his suffering, this unnatural transformation? We try not to. He cries out but each night the sound is less recognizable. 

One day he shall turn and go in again, willingly. He will have forgotten his name, the name of his mother, the names of all things. Those strange, many jointed limbs will carry him deeply, blindly between ferns and below the watchful wood’s gaze. He has a hunger that only the wood can sate. A tall, strong, old tree. He shall walk the wood till one cries out to him, reaches with bracken-laden branches. My new child, my blessed one, it will say without words. Lovingly, hungrily, this long, thin creature will wrap himself around it. Bend as no human can, more as a vine, bound tight. Sap roots will extend from his bone-white skin and burrow into the old one’s bark. The Wooded One will widen his jaw and bury it into the bark, splinters into his gums, pouring down his throat, sap and blood mingled. And they will be one. He shall drink deeply of that sweet nectar, and walk inner paths that are far stranger and darker than any of our kind could find. The old one will grow strong again with mortal blood coursing through capillaries, up to the bright green trees and the blood-red berries. 

Walk careful in the wood, my child. Keep to the path, and take nothing from that place, for nothing is given without price. You are our beloved, and we know too well the loss of others who were less wary.

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