This Week’s Prompt:97. Blind fear of a certain woodland hollow where streams writhe among crooked roots, and where on a buried altar terrible sacrifices have occur’d—Phosphorescence of dead trees. Ground bubbles.
The Prior Research: Growing On Trees
The river had turned bright. The three farmers it touched stared in disbelief as the flickering water ran along its way, occasionally lurching to a halt. Grass around it had started dying.
“So. This. This is it right?” Johnson said, looking at everyone. “This is proof that God hates us, right?”
“Johnson!” George said.
“Bad harvest, bunch of rats break into the granary, and now there’s glowing star water killing everything.” Johnson said, waving at the water. “I want you to tell me, in the short time I still have land to stand on, how this is not proof positive this year is cursed.”
“Strings of bad luck happen.” George said, scratching his head. “I mean, long string but…”
“Maybe it will pass?” Gwyn said, stroking his considerable beard. “Came sudden, might be gone suddenly too. Things work like that sometimes.”
“I’m going to get what I can stored up.” Johnson said, shaking his head. “Water like that—that’s fairy nonsense or worse. Give it a week, and everything’s gonna be sludge and rot.”
So the three parted. Gwyn put old nets down from his time by the coast, hoping to catch the muck and keep it from his fields. Johnson went to accounting their belonings, in case the worst happened. He sent a letter down the road, to his brother in Alberdam. But George. George followed the river.
The river had its roots in the woods. Most things do. George knew pigs once lived in the woods, he figured cattle did too. So he followed the river back, through rotted roots and muddy land. He walked ahead, seeing what he might find among shivering trees and bald pines. For as the river wound its way down, the trees turned pale. The ground became soft and pallid. And animals made such dreadful sounds.
At the end of the river, George found it. Over the spring, a great tree with a glimmering brass trunk. No fruit sprang from the tree. No leaves. It’s roots, manifold and black, dripped luminescent sap into the river. Each drop sizzled as it touched the spring.
George was not a terribly wise man. But he knew clearly something about this was wrong. He rushed home and returned to that shuddering, sickly tree with an axe. Raising it high, he struck it hard—and it rang out like a bell in protest.
“Stop, stop, what are you doing?” A voice came down from the empty branches. “What are you doing, cutting me down with crude tool of yours?”
George was startled by the voice, but persisted. It again rang out like a bell, higher pitched this time. His axe blade looked a tad worse for the strike, but the bark had bent in.
“Stop that, stop that what are you—”
“You are spreading poison into our lands.” George said, reading a third swing. “I cannot lose it.”
“Wait wait! How much is it worth, this land?” The tree said, vibrating and shifting its bark about. George stopped his axe just before it. “Perhaps we could trade.”
“And what could you offer, tree?” George said, resting his ax for a moment. “While I catch my breath.”
“Oh many things, many wondrous things. But perhaps most simply gold.” And as it spoke, an apple of shining gold grew from it’s branch, bending down in front of George. “Leave me be, and gold I can give every day.”
George took the gold, a small snap as it broke from the brass branch.
“Every day, gold like this?”
“Every day.” The tree’s voice said. George was a simple man. And while speaking trees were strange, far stranger existed in the wood. So he returned home without another blow.
And so he continued for sometime—about two months, coming to collect the gold, and letting his fields fall fallow. He never revealed the source of the apples he brought—in fact, when possible, he hid his travels down to the town to buy goods and food from distant farms. George was a simple man, but even he knew not to flaunt his gold.
Still he paused when he saw the carts outside Johnsons farm, the children swining legs from the seat.
“Nothing to be done. Lands cursed.” Johnson said, shaking his head when George asked leaning on the fence. “I mean, the grain that lived was inedible. But we’ll manage, we’ll manage. Probably won’t get much for the acres, but it’ll be something before the bank gets it.”
George nodded solemnly, and went for his axe. He hadn’t meant to ruin Johnson too. So out into the forest he went again, passed the twisting trees and mewling animals. The woods was quieter, the trees all had left shed broken coats of bark on the ground. The exposed insides were full of holes. Some times sap bubbled out of these, as the ground became muddy near the great tree. Its roots now dug deep into the ground.
“What now, little one? I gave you your gold for the—” the tree spoke, before George’s axe struck. A dull groan resonated through out the woods, the dying noises growing low and loud. The tree shrieked in it’s crown of twisting branches.
“What in the sweet—what do you want? More gold, is that it?” The tree shrieked. George saw his blow had left a large dent in the side. “I can provide more gold! Stop with that ax!”
“Gold will not help now.” George said, striking again and leaving a heavy cut. “Johnson already lost his farm. Gwyn will lose his. Gold can’t help that.”
“Are you—” A scream cut off the tree as the third blow struck, sluggish glowing sap leaking from its side. “Buy the farm yourself, you ingrate!” It bellowed. “You have piles of gold! Give some and buy his land, if you care so much! Its not like you need to worry about farming while I’m here!”
George paused, resting his axe on his shoulder, and stroking his chin. He had not considered that. Hiding his wealth had seemed so…vital. But it wouldn’t matter if Johnson and Gwyn were driven out already. The farms were just land then. He shrugged and left the tree with it’s new wound, heading back to his farm.
And so it came to past that George and his family were alone in the farmlands. The fields did not grow properly there—they grew in small tufts and strange colors that year. Johnson and Gwyn had both long gone—George made no effort to maintain their fields. There was little to maintain, as the ground turned gray and then pale yellow. It was swampish and bubbling, the forest slowly sinking from George’s view.
“Its not natural.” His wife said as she looked out. “Its getting closer to town now—that poor boy, he drank some of it and…”
George nodded, staring out into the woods. The river was like moonlight now—cracks and springs up sprang up on the farmland. It wasn’t natural. But few things were in he woods now.
He had gone hunting once, and found not a single living thing. No birds sang, no deer ran. He saw a pale shape moving in the trees. He thought it was a cat, but it had too many eyes. Too many legs. Or he thought as much.
The shivering trees—the ones that were pale and tall and thin like grain, but stung to touch—had grown where grain once rain. The land was sick. Perhaps it was always sick, George thought as he walked through the silent and shivering woods. There was no wind, but the trees still bowed and swayed as he passed. And at last, he found the tree.
He had seen it daily, growing bigger and bigger. It’s roots were as wide around as a saucer. Its branches were knotted like a boat’s strings, and thicker then rope. A web of shimmering shapes made up its top. Two great cuts were on its side.
“Have you come again with your ax, George?” The voice said solemenly. “Have I not been true and good to you?”
“The land is dying.” George said. A bit of regret remained on his voice. “You have been true and kind, but the land is dying.”
“It has always been dying.” The tree said. “It was dying a year past when we first met. What has changed? Have I not given you gifts, to stay your ax?”
“The land is dying faster now. Down in the town people are dying.”
“People are always dying, George. Dying is the way of things.” The tree said, unmoved.
George shook his head, having no more of the trees words. He took his ax and struck the tree’s trunk—and again it resounded like a gong. But the bark did not budge.
The ax swung again. The tree was unmoved.
The ax swung. The tree shook with laughter.
“George, I have been good to you.” The tree spoke. “And you have been good to me—so I tell you this. If you wish to quarrel with me, leave now. For I have grown too deep to be overturned by an ax or flame. The time for such has passed. Run now, and I will not pursue you for scaring me so.”
George stared as the tree’s branches unfolded—revealing glimmering fruit, brilliant like stars. He dropped the ax into the gray mud. And soon he too left the land by the river. So the rotting tree came to consume the land along the great river. Nothing wholesome remains in that woods.
While this might need one or two more editing passes–and could certainly be improved by more character interaction–I’m actually rather proud of this one. I think the basic idea of a parasitic but wealth producing tree growing monstrous and uncontrollable when allowed to flourish by human greed is a decent enough idea. Giving more character to George would be the first addition–at the moment he’s rather blank as a person, except a bit greedy and a bit simple.
Next time we return to a particular haunted house and the cold touch of the dead!
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