There were three Campbell sisters when Martine Crawley came through Hiram the first time. Martine Crawley with his white teeth and beautiful mouth that curved liquid and fluid over those foreign words the girls had never heard before. Words that lay on their tongues humid as the Georgia night. He always smiled when they tried the words on, like a coat too big for their delicate frames, and kissed those strands of dark, curling hair. All three of them.
They all loved him in their own ways, but it was the youngest girl—Vera—who found the trouble.
After Martine crept away from the little town in the night, there were only two sisters left and a little boy with skin the color of pale milk.
“It don’t make sense,” the ladies in town whispered when they got together with their quilting squares and their cups of tea in the community room of Unity Baptist.
“They couldn’t have been hiding a baby. Not all this time. Not long enough for him to get that big. Those poor things. Up there all by themselves ever since their daddy passed. It’s no wonder. There was something bad about that man. Something ungodly. I heard tell that he took them girls into the forest when it got dark. That they joined hands and prayed,” one of them—could have been any of them—said.
They clucked their tongues and threaded their needles and tucked away the burning heat that dropped heavy and thick between their thighs when they thought of Martine Crawley and the way he would have moved over and inside of those three girls.
People stared and people whispered, but every Sunday the girls filed into the old family pew, that little boy in tow with his face scrubbed pink and clean, and no one dared to ask anything. Not after Martine disappeared in the night. Not after Vera’s body turned up the next day.
Three weeks after Sherriff Wehunt found her body—unmarked and perfect but completely hollowed out—he found himself on the wrong end of a bottle of bourbon. Over at The Station one night he broke down crying. “She didn’t weigh anything at all. Like a doll,” he said and then he went out to his cruiser and sat there the rest of the night just staring into nothing.
On Sundays the boy stood in between the sisters, and they rose for the hymns and the prayers and sat for the sermon, but they didn’t speak to anyone other than each other, and they didn’t go down to the altar when Pastor Boden called “Little lamb, won’t you come?”
It was Sherriff Wehunt who found himself in front of the two remaining sisters, his hands clenching and unclenching against the stiff fabric of his slacks.
“Where’s Martine?” he asked them, but the sisters wouldn’t talk. They served him tea in chipped porcelain cups and sat in front of him with stiff backs and still hands.
“She was your sister,” he said. Tears slid smooth and beautiful along their cheeks and stained the pale dresses they wore, but still, they did not speak, and silence hung thick in the room.
Eventually, he went away. He and some of the men in the town spent two months looking for Martine Crawley, but the woods turned up nothing more than empty holes.
The sisters buried the youngest in the forest, and there wasn’t no one there to tell them that they couldn’t. They put goldenrod and thistledown over her grave. On the day of the funeral that only they and the boy attended, their keening floated through the town, and the old women turned away and tried not to listen.
The kids were the ones who started the rumors, but of course, stories like that spread lightning quick, and soon enough, the adults told them, too. Whispered among themselves that in the night, you could see something moving out there in the dark. That sometimes the sisters crept along the ground like spiders.
Other people had different stories. That they’d seen the sisters out walking in the woods in the middle of the night, their arms wrapped around each other’s waists. That they’d woken in the dark and gone to the window to see eyes glinting in the trees, and bare arms and legs tangled up with leaves and branches as they scrambled up and up and up.
In some of the stories the boy would be with them, but most of the time, it was only the sisters, those dark heads bent together and their whispers leaking into the dark.
“Praying. For their lost sister,” Pastor Boden said whenever his congregation spoke their stories about the sisters, but his hands twitched even as he spoke.
When he was a younger man, he’d read of books and groups that existed in secret corners of the world. Books filled with strange, occult symbols. People who spoke languages long buried and forgotten. How they gathered together under a canopy of leaves and prayed to beings that came only in nightmare. Listening to the hushed conversations of his congregation, he couldn’t help but think of those old stories, and a cold fear crawled through his gut.
It was December when the eldest sister walked out of the little house she shared with her sisters—her feet bare against the frozen earth—and let herself into the church. In the morning, Pastor Boden found her body curled against the altar, her breath coming fast and shallow.
When he touched her, she screamed and screamed and didn’t stop until her sister and the boy came.
“Emmaline,” the middle girl said and held out her hands.
“Why did he leave us, Beth?” Emmaline said.
“Mother,” the boy said. Still, Emmaline writhed against the floor, her forehead slick with sweat, and she pulled her lips back from her teeth.
“He showed me the trees. He showed you, too, sister. Peeled back the bark until all we could see was white flesh under dark skin. Showed us that quiet womb, and we drank of it. Gobbled it all down until there was nothing left,” Emmaline said, but then her sister’s hand cracked against her jaw. The boy looked on.
“Come away, sister. Now,” Beth said.
“Where do we pray? Why don’t they hear us when we pray? There’s nothing to hear us.”
“Please, Emmaline,” Beth said and reached out her hand. “Come with us.”
Pastor Boden watched from the doorway as the sisters embraced, watched as they drew the boy close to them, their fingers stroking the fine, tawny hair that lay in thick strands over his neck.
When they went away, the door closing quietly behind them, he moved through the sanctuary like a man possessed and laid his body on the warm spot where the sisters had knelt. He wasn’t sure what he expected to feel, what he expected to understand, but the emptiness of the space surged through him, and he bit down on his disappointment, bitter as an herb.
That night, Pastor Boden slept uneasy and fitful under the hard sweat of nightmares. Three sisters with dark hair pulled at the arms of his coat with fingers long and delicate as twigs. Leaves twined through their hair, and they carried with them the dark smells of earth or of wood burning as they lead him deeper into the forest.
“Here,” the eldest said.
“Here,” the middle sister said.
“Here,” the youngest said, and her voice was the voice of dead things. A voice of cold earth brought into silvered moonlight. Something that should not be.
“He gave him to us. Our boy. Our son. Pulled him from the tree and told us to help him grow. We have been so patient.”
Two ash trees grew together, their trunks twining like the legs of a woman, the secret cleft between. They brought his hands against the spot, and he went hard as the sisters touched him, as they guided his fingers up, and the wood was soft as flesh under his touch.
When he woke, his arms and legs prickled with the phantom touch of many leaves, and his mouth tasted of blood.
That Sunday, the sisters and the boy did not darken the church door, and Pastor Boden stumbled through the prayers and cut his sermon short. The final hymn died on his lips, and the congregation filed out quietly and into a sky gone dark with clouds.
Husbands went home and locked their doors. Mothers gathered their children close to their breasts. They kissed little cheeks and dropped tears against silken hair. The children grew quiet under the weight of that darkening sky, and everyone turned their eyes to the little house where the sisters lived. They held their breath. They waited.
When the grass turned brown and the trees shriveled and dropped their leaves, Pastor Boden locked the church door.
“There is an evil come among us,” he whispered into the dim sanctuary, but there was no one to hear him.
Outside, the wind tapped against the many doors of the believers, and those who huddled behind the thin wood heard whispers carried on the cold air.
“Close your eyes, little ones. Don’t listen,” the mothers told their children. “Don’t listen.”
Behind their mother’s skirts, the children obeyed, squeezed their eyes shut and cupped their hands over their ears, but still the voices came. Soft, delicate voices filled with longing; filled with the edges of a question.
Alone in the dark, the two remaining sisters and the boy watched the wind.
It was Emmaline who opened the door. Emmaline who stripped off her dress and opened her arms to the terrible, beautiful thing come among them.
“Martine,” she said. The air was heavy with his presence, rippled over her skin like static, but she could not see him.
Beth came behind her and then the boy—his face pale and serious—and they joined hands and together they walked into the trees.
“He won’t come back, Mother. Not anymore,” the boy said, but the sisters kept walking. Stones pressed against their feet, cut the tender flesh, and their blood flowed back into the dirt, but it did not revive all of the dead things that had fallen there.
“What do you know of it, boy?” Emmaline bared her teeth at him, and he looked back at her with eyes the color of the hidden places in the earth. “He will come back.”
“We buried her in the places where the roots drink the deepest, sister. The place where those who move beneath could find her. We prayed to them, and still she did not rise. He did not come back to us,” Beth said.
“He gave us so much. He opened the door on the glittering beyond and then it closed. I cannot bear it if everything he showed us is gone. I cannot,” Emmaline said.
Beth kissed her sister, drew her down into the dirt, and the boy wiped Emmaline’s tears and brought his fingers to his lips to taste the salt.
“Mother,” the boy said, and Emmaline kissed the top of his head.
“My boy. Our darling boy. He gave you to us. It isn’t enough,” she said.
“Our love, born of the trees,” Beth said. “It isn’t enough.”
Around them, the wind howled, but it did not bring them a man with a beautiful mouth; a man who had left the imprint of his teeth on their bodies and taught them of the lovely things that moved beyond this world.
“Help me,” Emmaline said, and the two sisters knelt in the dirt, their fingers scrabbling at the earth as they dug down and down.
“Help us,” they told the boy, but he shook his head.
“It’s no use. He’s not something that can be found underneath the world,” he said.
With dirtied fingers, they smoothed the boy’s hair and sang the songs their father had taught them when they were children. Songs of children lost among the wood and the things that find them there. Things with teeth and claws waiting in the dark places of the forest. Things that tear little children open. Things that hollow them out.
Their father had been the thing that protected them for so long; his strong arms holding back the dark. When it finally came among them, he was gone, his body gone cold—meat for worms—and they had kissed its lips and called it love.
“She should have never,” Beth said, and Emmaline nodded and tucked the boy closer to her. It was their youngest sister who had tried to take the boy away. Little sister Vera with her rosy cheeks and high laugh who wanted everything for herself. Little sister Vera who packed the boy a bag and begged him to go with her; promised him the moon and stars if only he would follow her into the dark wood. Together, they would find Martine. Together, they would eat the secrets of the universe.
But the boy had not listened to her pleas, had burrowed under his bedclothes and stopped up his ears, and then Vera was gone, the wind blowing warm through the room when she went.
“She shouldn’t have,” the boy said.
Above them, the ash tree bent in the wind.
“He will come back,” Emmaline said.
Tangled together, the sisters and the boy slept.
Morning did not come. Inside of the church, Pastor Boden watched the shadows that moved just beyond the church door. He did not think the sun would ever ruse again.
One boy one, the women in the town tucked their children in to sleep. It didn’t matter that it was day.
The children did not complain and closed their eyes and dreamed of trees and three sisters with their mouths open wide, white teeth and red lips yawning around darkness that did not end.
Sherriff Wehunt avoided the windows and remembered the feeling of that dead, papery skin against his palms; remembered the feather lightness of the youngest sister’s body as he cradled her against his chest; remembered how as he carried her, he thought he saw her mouth move and all around him a terrible roaring that sounded like the world come undone, and that he had ran and ran until his lungs burned and the forest lay behind him, a shadowed smear of trees that still screamed when he closed his eyes at night.
Night wore on, and the townspeople slept and did not sleep. They rose only to find the sky still darkened, and so they drowsed and slipped in and out of consciousness while the wind grew colder. The stronger among them tried to pray but the words fell from their lips like stones.
“Joy cometh in the morning,” Pastor Boden said, but he didn’t believe the old Bible verse. Not anymore.
“He’ll come back,” the sisters said together and watched the branches of the trees. Once, the tree had gifted them something, birthed the child who sat between them. They had wanted a piece of Martine, wanted to tuck him deep among them so that he could never leave. They had given their blood for it.
They could do it again. Without Martine. They knew the old words.
Perhaps the things that lived beneath would hear them once more. Perhaps they had already tasted the youngest sister, her skin like honey and milk. Perhaps they saw it as an offering.
Palm to palm they came together, and their blood fell out of them and into the dirt. “Come back to us,” they said and pressed their reddened hands to the bark. “Come back to us.”
When the screaming began, the sisters smiled. They turned from the tree, their palms outstretched.
Beside them, the boy stayed quiet. He did not turn to look. The thing that came was not Martine.
Once, the sisters had climbed the trees—Martine laughing above them—and their eyes shone in the dark as the world peeled open; all that was beautiful and terrible lay shimmering beyond.
But Martine had left them, and then Vera had tried to steal what didn’t belong to her. Vera who had always fancied herself the favorite, who had always wanted more than what she had. Maybe she thought it would bring Martine back. That he would come to reclaim what all of that dark had given them.
When the sisters saw the vast thing that moved among the trees, they did not scream. Martine had taught them better than that.
The boy closed his eyes. No one had to tell him not to look.
“Mother,” he whispered when he heard the creature slip her bones from her skin.
The sisters made no sounds as the thing opened them up. Martine had known. He had known that he had to move on, move past this place with the deep roots of ash trees. Knew that he had looked too long, looked to deep. He had warned the sisters of the things that moved beyond the thin veil of this world and another. Told them not to follow when he left. Told them to care for the boy. To love him.
Three sisters went into the woods. They had not known to run. They had not known to look away.
Now, curled against the feet of those ash trees, they looked again. Two sisters, and the boy they’d come to love.
Together, they drank down their tears.
Together, they stilled their tongues.