Editor's note: the power and magic of nature made this story a standout among the many submissions I receive each month.
I was the only one who saw him. Everyone else, even my mother, it seems, only saw the tree. I lay in the long grass playing with my soldiers who were using the lawn as a jungle. Sunlight fell thick and heavy through the strands of grass, darkness falling briefly as my mother passed. I glanced up to see where she was going – saw her reach the tree, climb the trunk and disappear into the leaves. I gazed, amazed. My mother had never climbed a tree in my life, that I knew of. I stared at the old oak, then heard a rustling, a sharp gasp, and my mother fell. By the time she hit the ground, my father was halfway down the lawn, running full tilt. Yet only I saw the man in the branches, his skin the color and texture of bark, eyes like two bright spaces between the leaves where light leached through.
|"Asleep in the Moonlight," Richard Doyle, artmagick.com|
The next day my mother gave birth to my brother Edwin, which would have been less alarming if anyone had known she was pregnant. Edwin was a slight, mostly silent child. If he cried out at all it was with a thin gust like the wind. His only passion was for being outside, for lying in the long grass where my soldiers fought. When the battles had been won or lost, I’d fling myself down beside him, feel the air rushing over my skin, hearing the leaves shifting above us. He never grew cold as I did. Whenever my skin prickled with goosebumps, his was smooth, warm. I watched him spread his nubbly baby fingers above him so the light showed crimson through his palms. When the soil was damp from an earlier rainfall, he’d plunge his fingers deep into it, an expression of bliss on his pinched little face. When it finally grew his pale hair was like the veins of a leaf; his fingernails as strong and satiny as acorn shells.
My father tried to love him, bounced him on his knee, talked baby-talk to him, pulled faces in an attempt to make him smile, but Edwin would just look at him, wide-eyed and somehow patient, like he was humoring him.
He wore that expression often, as my mother tried to suckle him, and he kept his lips firmly closed, as the health visitor weighed and prodded him, marveling at his ever increasing weight and height despite his apparent abstinence, and as I stared over his cot, wondering what, exactly, my new little brother was. Not flesh and blood like me, or at least not only.
His father watched from the branches, and I watched him watching, eyes hot enough to burn through the daylight, make it seem dull. He watched my mother as she drifted through our house, stepped barefoot over the grass to pick up her younger son, hold him to her bosom, try to lull him into feeding as his lips remained as pursed as a knot in a tree trunk.
“The acorn tree is dangerous,” I told my dad. “Please cut it down.”
But he could only see me as a four-year-old, could not see what I had seen.
“It’s an oak, not an acorn tree,” he said, ruffling my hair, and going back to his crossword.
The tree-man waited patiently, watching his offspring grow strong and tall on rainfall and sunlight, sprouting ever upwards till, at the age of two, he was taller than me, aged six. He still did not speak, did not smile, did not laugh, though he would murmur occasionally with a sound like the wind through leaves. And he could stand, lean and erect as a sapling, arms reaching towards the sun.
“Why don’t we move to somewhere else?” I asked my dad. “Somewhere with no trees?” I could sense what was coming while everyone else was oblivious.
Dad chuckled at my precociousness, but was distracted by my mother swirling past like dandelion seeds on a breeze, running to retrieve my brother who was attempting to scale the trunk of his father’s tree. She and my dad brought him inside to the nursery, stood him in a corner, reprimanded him, while he looked through them to the windows, to his own father’s waving branches, clear against the sky for anyone who bothered to look.
I devised a new defense plan, insisting on the four of us going out on excursions, to museums, beaches, to parks where metal slides and swings had precedence over nature. My father approved of my suggestions, but wherever we went, Edwin found something I had failed to preempt – sculptures carved from petrified wood to rest his cheek against, driftwood worn smooth by the waves, wood chips at the base of climbing frames that he ran through his fingers and chattered to with a sound like birdsong. It seems impossible that they replied, but I recognized the look on his face – he was learning, gleaning, preparing for his escape.
The night he left us the very air fought against itself. Lightening shot through the sky and the earth shook with thunder. Edwin was four years old and as tall as a 12-year-old. We shared a room at that point and neither of us were sleeping, so when he slipped out of bed and went to the window, I went with him. We watched the clouds broiling overhead, the screaming of the wind through branches, and I saw him nod solemnly as though in response to some call.
In morning, the garden, and all the gardens about, were devastated. Our old oak was fallen, split asunder by a stray lightening bolt, almost as though it had thrown itself in front of the blast to prevent it striking the house.
And my brother was gone, taking his murmurings and silences with him, but leaving behind a grief my mother wore like a veil.
I did not grieve for him, though. I recognized that I’d failed in my self-imposed task of keeping him with us, but realized that had been for the best. My failing had set him free.
And besides, I saw him occasionally, still do: in the branches of trees that shadow shelters where I await for my Omnibus to work, in forest canopies beneath which I stroll with my own growing family. And in his eyes like two bright spaces where light leaches through I can see he’s watching over us, guarding us from harm.
Judy Darley is a British fiction writer and journalist who has previously had short stories published by literary magazines and anthologies including Litro Magazine, Fiction 365, Riptide Journal, and The View From Here. She blogs at SkyLightRain.com.