I remember the first time I saw it. He was desperate, you could see he was desperate, that bit wasn’t unusual. It was the stomach that was odd. The branch wrapped around the middle of his body, the bulge above it, distended, hanging over it, his stomach. He was held fast, his feet long since lost and a branch loose around his neck, another coming out of his mouth, sprouting leaves. It looked like he was vomiting foliage.
You could see the desperation in his eyes. He was hungry, but the branch had grown to fill his mouth and so there was no way of feeding him. What point would feeding him serve anyway, it would it only prolong the inevitable. He was being absorbed into the tree and there was nothing that could stop it. You could see his hands had melded into the trunk and didn’t exist anymore and if you came back tomorrow, a little more of his arm would be tree.
If there was an escape, we had not found it. The trees had proven impervious to the axe, they had withstood our flames, we had even tried talking to them, just stood there opening and closing our mouth with words but there was no evidence they heard and it did not stop.
It was mostly men at first, because we needed wood and they got the wood, and the trees had always been so passive, so agreeable to what we did. Or so we thought. It was not all trees, the majority of them just stood mutely, as trees do, but these active attack timbers were new. You couldn’t tell the passive trees from the aggressive ones and worse when you cut into one that had absorbed someone, sometimes there was an outline in the tree, other times blood would pour out, or there were organs just sitting within the trunk and you would wonder if there hadn’t been some semblance of humanity left, some sentience that you had swung your axe against.
Not long after it started, it was alleged they adapted new tactics, letting themselves be cut, became the joists of some house and in the night crept down from their roof top space or their wall and took children. You simply woke up to find your child being absorbed into a beam, of course they were static, the beam couldn’t up and run away but your child was still gone. That was rumour and I never saw any evidence of it.
We were becoming a world of fewer and fewer people. There was nothing we could do, there was no cure, if anything the number of trees doing it was increasing. It was a hard thing to observe, a sort of rapid growth around someone as they went near a tree, a kind of snarling ensnarement that was strong and then a slow absorption over a period of days.
The woods were alive with the howling of victims until the inevitable branch filled the mouth, some trees seemed to revel in the idea of the screaming and the branch to fill the mouth was the last thing they did. Others seemed bothered by the noise and did it quickly.
I had a son of twelve, I did not let him go out often. The house had stood so long and I knew its beams, they would not transform in the night. Still I was careful with the wood for the fire, but I knew it is inevitable. I watched him grow, watched many die and knew the inevitable must happen. There were fewer of us and the trees were taking victims younger and younger. What to do?
Then came the day he simply did not come home and I ran to the road and searched like so many others and there he was and he was so far gone. I could not hold his hand or feed him. I could only see the terror in his eyes and stroke his arm and tell him it would soon be over. It was mercifully short.
The trees began in earnest on the women then and sometimes the animals. It was as if the trees had turned against all forms of life that moved. I had seen so much, so many suffer, I did not want to die that way. At the end I did not even think I could trust the trusses that held up my own house, I could not bring myself to light a fire out of fear. Many simply gave in, just walked up and placed themselves before a tree. It did not always work, the trees were whimsical, they knew they had won.
I could not bring myself to do that, I could not imagine how I could live through the agony of absorption, the slow solidification of my body into something firm and hard, the creeping stillness, the days of hunger until your blood merged into sap, your final taste just wood and leaves, the joy of sound silenced by a think branch on your tongue. I knew I could not bear such things, feet, hands merged into trunk, limbs melted into bark, torso melded into wood, none of it worked for me.
Instead I went to the river. The river is forbidden, was forbidden once. I dipped my toes in the water. I waded out into the depths. I lay down in the water and I let the river dissolve me. I felt myself come apart, each molecule of my body drifting apart from the other, the parts that held me together overwhelmed by the sheer amount of liquid I was drowning in. I felt the water seeping into me and I felt myself merging into it. I was at peace with the world, there was nothing left of me. I became water instead of wood. I joined with the drops of the river and floated out to sea.
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