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Child of Thorns

The cabin’s single room was small but three people in it made it smaller still and Jessie’s screaming made it worse, filling the room—what was left of it to fill—with a jagged howling that just about tore the world apart.

“You gotta push harder, Jessie-Belle, come on, girl.”

“It hurts—”

“I know.”

“It hurts like . . . Worse than . . . ”

“Seems that way, but lots of women gone done this before.”

Danny kept thinking there should’ve been something erotic about the way Nessa crouched at his wife’s crotch, her face between his woman’s thighs. She had her hands on his woman’s knees to keep them spread. “Should I boil some water?” he asked her.

“What for, Daniel, you making tea?”

Jessie wailed, clutching at the edges of the table beneath her, head back, and that should’ve been erotic too, or could have been, but it weren’t.

“Okay, here it comes.”

Danny went in close to see—didn’t need to take no more than a step or two—but moved away again with his wife’s next scream. He put his hands to his ears and looked at Nessa but she was suddenly too busy to spare him a glance. She grabbed at the nearby cloths but not before Danny had seen the gush of blood spreading from between Jessie’s thighs. He was glad she was up on the table—their bed was too low, just a mattress on boards on the dirt floor, and it was mattress they couldn’t afford to ruin. The blood ran to the table edges and kept running. It weren’t so much dripping as pouring. The sound was like their porch in the rain, the broken guttering dropping vertical streams to pound the ground into muddy holes by the front door. Here, in the kitchen, bloody puddles soaked into a soil floor pressed firm by a thousand thousand footsteps. Jessie was still screaming but she was trying to cry, too. She looked wretched, like a dog Danny had once that he had to shoot when it got sick.

“She gonna die, Nessa?”

Nessa looked at him and he almost smiled at her. His face didn’t want to quite hold it there, but she saw it. He had stripped down to his jeans. His chest heaved with nervous breath but she couldn’t tell what kind. She looked at the woman spread before her, knees up and legs open, belly round as a pumpkin, and said, “No, she ain’t gonna die.”

“I just thought—”

“You shut your mouth on those thoughts, Daniel Erlson.”

Jessie wailed again, but strained, and pushed, and pushed, and Danny came in again to see. He put a hand on Nessa’s shoulder. She didn’t shrug it off.

He couldn’t make sense of what he was seeing. He’d never seen birth before except with animals but this didn’t look right. Maybe because he’d never looked so long at Jessie’s nethers, never seen them open and unfold, but he could tell it didn’t look right to Nessa either because she’d stopped doing anything but watch, blood soaking the rags in her hands as something brown and gnarly emerged from an opening too small for it, too . . . tight for it. It weren’t so much expelled from there as torn free, a knotted ball of briars shredding Jessie in its exit.

“What?” said Danny. “What?”

Nessa crossed herself, though Danny never knew her to be a religious woman, then she put her hands to either side of whatever the hell it was that twisted its way out of—

“Jessie, that’s it, come on, girl, nearly, it’s nearly ou—oww!” Nessa snatched her hands back. She almost put the thumb of one to her mouth but it was wet with blood that weren’t hers so she didn’t.

Another heave from Jessie and more skin split, tore, unseamed, as something with barbed shoulders emerged from her. Its chest was spiked with thorns, body a wrapped tangle of brambles. Nessa tried to find a place to hold it, tried another, but Jessie pushed again before Nessa found anywhere clear. Withdrawing her hands, it was like she drew the baby out with magics, summoning it without touching. It slid in the blood it had made, this baby of briars, and was suddenly free. Nearly. A spiked vine like a limp rose stem curled from its navel into Jessie’s ruined crotch. Nessa cut it like she had so many other cords.

“What is it?” Jessie asked. Her voice weren’t no more than a whimper.

“I don’t know,” Nessa said.

It lay trembling, a tough brown lump with points that scratched at the table as it tried to move. Nessa dropped bloody cloths over it. Danny thought it was dead or dying and that she meant to hide it but she only padded the thorns of its torso so she could hold it safely. She picked it up and offered it to the new mother but Jessie had collapsed, her eyes fluttering too much to see anything even right in front of her. Nessa held it to Daniel but he backed up a step. Would’ve taken more if there’d been room.

“Take your child, Daniel, I gotta see to your woman.” She pressed the ragged thing to his chest.

Danny felt it prickle through the wrapping. He felt the bumps and hard ridges of its padded thorns.

“It don’t weigh no more than kindling,” he said.

Nessa said nothing. She was too busy doing something with Jessie as Daniel looked at the wood-whorled face of his . . . whatever he had.

“Is it a boy or a girl?” Daniel asked, too dumb to realise the answer was no. He unwrapped it, tugging at rags that pulled on hooks and sharp-tipped triangles. One wicked curve of thorn tore the swaddling into frayed threads and Danny picked these away, dropping them to the floor as the little thing turned its head left and right. It waved its bramble-bound arms with a sound like foliage passed through, and it kicked its legs with the sound of dried twigs stepped on. Between them Danny saw wood grain, a knot curl, the nub of something that might sprout, and knew nothing of what it meant. “It don’t matter,” he said.

“What did you say?”

Nessa had the look of someone who’d asked a question Daniel’d answered wrong.

“Nothin’.”

“Good. Because she’s gonna need to rest now.” Nessa wiped her own brow with the cleanest part of her forearm. It still left a streak of blood across her forehead. “She’s torn up pretty good, but it ain’t nothin’ Doc can’t fix.”

“Do we need Doc?”

Nessa looked like she had an answer right away but she kept it in.

“Only, he’ll cost us some. And, you know. He’s from the town.”

Nessa stepped closer to Danny and the bundle of briars she’d delivered. Looked at how it rasped in his arms. “No,” she said. “I don’t suppose we gotta tell no one.”

She looked at Danny like she had a question for him but he looked away before she could ask it. She said, “Congratulations.”

Danny swore and looked at new lines scratched in his arm. They turned pink and welled with dots of blood.

“I’d wrap that one in sack cloth, I were you,” Nessa said, then set about fixing up Jessie-Belle as best she could, cooing and swabbing and sewing where she had to. Danny tried to talk but she ignored all that and when she left she left without cleaning herself or gathering her things.

Danny saw as she went that it was nearly morning. The door opened on the sort of grey light you could smell as well as look at, but he couldn’t remember what day it was. Not that it mattered any. It was today, and there’d be others after, all of them different to the ones he’d known before.

The baby voiced its first cry. The sound was a series of broken sticks, like a small tree falling.

The wood split right down the middle and fell away in two parts, toppling into twins either side of the stump Danny used for cutting. He wrenched the axe free, bent for another block, and set it upright. Swung the axe back-around-up and down, splitting another piece with a sharp crack and the double thud of fallen pieces.

That would do.

He’d gathered an armful when Nessa appeared out of the trees. She was wearing her good cotton dress but with a shawl wrapped tight around her shoulders and over her hair. She didn’t smile, only nodded.

“Cold to be out,” she said.

“Had to,” Danny said. He tipped his arms to show her why.

“Got a name for it yet?”

He was surprised by the abrupt question, “Not yet,” and then by the way Nessa looked right after. She’d made a mistake, he realised. “Firewood,” he said, tipping his arms to her again so she could properly see what he cradled there. What he didn’t. “Little one’s inside,” he said.

Nessa strode past him, letting the hand he put on her shoulder fall away again, not shrugging it off or nothing but not waiting or letting him hold her there neither. She knocked on the cabin door, “Jessie?” and went inside.

Danny’d hung a sheet up at the door because it didn’t reach right down to the ground and the untreated wood was split. Nessa gathered the cloth aside with her arm and stepped into a snug room warm in the way that stifled breath and made a person drowsy.

Sure enough, mother and child dozed by the fire. Jessie-Belle was breathing deep, the bundle in her arms still and quiet. She sat with her breasts exposed, fat and heavy and wetting the bib of her dress with a seep of milk that made Nessa think of tree sap. She had pale breasts and dusky nipples and even in the room’s soft light Nessa could see they were pricked and scratched with welts, crusty with the raised ridges of tiny scabs. Around her nipples especially, bleeding dimples like pock marks, punctures of flesh given no time to heal.

Jessie stirred and covered herself as she woke, refastening her dress as if she’d felt Nessa’s looking. She blinked, saw her nurse, and blinked a few times more. “Got coffee if you want,” she said.

“I’ll do it.”

Nessa checked the pot on the stove. A bitter smell had been burnt into the metal. She added water to the dark silt at the bottom and stirred before setting it back on the stove. “How’s the little one?”

“Sleepin’.”

From outside came the irregular crack and thump of split wood. Nessa’d thought Danny had finished that particular chore but apparently he needed something to keep him busy awhile. Keep him outside.

“And how are you? Are you sleeping all right?”

Jessie smiled. “Like a baby.”

Like a log, Nessa thought. She eyed the bramble-bundle bunched in the crook of its mamma’s arm. Jessie pulled it to her scratched chest. “You’ve not told Doc, have you Ness?”

“I’ve not said nothin’ to no one.”

Jessie rocked slowly, quietly, and glanced down at the gathered thorns in her arms. “What about Stray Dog?”

“Not told Merrin nothin’ for years.” Nessa smiled, forced one, but Jessie was still looking down at her bracken-born and cooing quietly. “How are you feeling, Jessie-Belle?”

There was nothing forced about Jessie’s smile. She raised her face to share it. “I’m fine. Better than.”

Nessa pointed vaguely to the woman’s lap. “I mean . . . ”

“Oh, I’m torn up plenty. Hurts to move much, and it burns when I pee.” To the child of thorns she said, “Worth it, though.”

“You’ve gotta keep yourself clean and—”

“I know.”

“To avoid infection.”

“I know. It’s fine.”

Nessa had seen this plenty. The transformation from scared little girl to all-wise woman, the mother of a child. It rankled, sometimes, like they was gloating or something, preening a sense of having surpassed Nessa in some crucial way. Maybe because she had none herself and couldn’t ever, even if she wanted to. Merrin didn’t mind any, though. Stray Dog that he was, or used to be, he might have plenty anyways, and most of the time Nessa didn’t mind that neither.

The child reached for its mother with clumps of fist that spread open like vicious flowers but closed again before Nessa could see anything more than the terrible curves of hook. The same thorns pointed this way and that from its body. For the most part it was a thatch of bramble and briar but occasionally it took the shape of something limbed. Nessa saw pips for eyes. They opened and closed, split seeds blinking.

“Hungry again? Hmm? You hungry?”

Jessie unfastened the top of her smock dress. Nessa turned to make the coffee. She heard the woman hiss, sucking up her pain as the little one fastened on to suckle.

“I’ll take a cup to Daniel,” Nessa said. At the blanketed door she glanced back and saw the thorn child fixed to its mother with spread limbs, spider-like against her body. The sharp face had pierced its place at a large swollen breast. “Does it hurt?” Nessa asked. “Much, I mean.”

“It hurts,” Jessie said. “Hurts plenty. But love does, don’t it?”

Nessa had no thoughts on that topic anyone could consider new. She took the coffee into the yard, blinking at how bright it seemed in comparison and relishing the sudden bitter chill.

Daniel chopped another log into twin pieces of firewood.

“Expectin’ a storm?” Nessa asked him.

He looked at the sky. “Should I? You got one coming your way?”

“You’ve got the shutters on.” Nessa gestured at the cabin. “It’s real gloomy inside.”

Danny left the axe buried in the stump and wiped his brow. “Don’t want no neighbours pryin’.”

All the property Danny and Jessie-Belle owned was the outside kind, save for their tiny cabin, with miles between them and any neighbours. Even so, those neighbours were Nessa and Merrin.

Danny said, “Got something for me?”

Nessa thought yes, and no, and don’t know, and maybe, and in that time Danny pointed to the coffee warming her hands. She nodded and Danny wiped his sweaty palms on his overalls before reaching for the hot cup. It reminded her of the grasping baby.

“There’s no milk,” she said.

“Don’t need none.” He sipped and winced. Could’ve been the heat, could’ve been the taste.

“How’s family life suit?”

Danny winced again. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Daddy’s everywhere say the same thing.”

“I ain’t sure I am the daddy,” he said. “I mean, how could I be?”

“You take that back, Daniel Erlson. Jessie don’t give her honey to no one else. No one. Clint named her wrong in more ways than one regarding that. She’s been yours since she first bled.”

Danny looked into his coffee. He stared like the cup was great-lake deep and he was waiting for something to surface there and swallow him.

“Maybe some devil came in from the woods,” he said.

“Danny . . . ”

“It came in from the woods and—”

Daniel.

He scowled at her but that was all right. Let him scowl.

“You’re all cock and swagger and not much else besides, Daniel Erlson, and I should have known. Of course you’re going to give it to Jessie. Who wouldn’t?”

“Ness—”

“And sometimes those miles must’ve seemed like long ones. Too far, even for neighbours.”

A silence stretched between them as wide as the barren yard until Danny said, “There is devils in the woods, though.”

“There’s devils everywhere. Never bothered you none before.”

“I can still come see you, Ness. I still want to.”

“No. You can’t.”

“We can still leave.”

“Can’t do that, neither.”

Danny set the cup down on the tree stump beside his axe and when he turned back he was smiling that crooked-tooth smile of his. “Don’t you want me no more?” He went to her, all cock and swagger, just like she said. “Nessa? Don’t you want to?”

Nessa glanced at the shut up cabin. Danny took her hand and she let him. His were warm, but only from the coffee. She let him take her into the woods with only one more glance back at the cabin and chose to say nothing else.

Nessa walked a track back that had been pressed into shape only by the tramping of feet. Mostly those feet had been hers and Danny’s. Long grasses grew close around, yellowed in places and dry and swishing against her long skirts in a constant rasp as she brushed it down in passing. A rapid dry breath that matched her steps, rasp-gasp, rasp-gasp. Occasionally a stand of nettles tangled across her route and she would clutch her skirts at the groin, bunching the material in her fist, to step over. Danny used to say he’d cut them down but he never did.

She regretted visiting, and she looked forward to next time, and she hated herself for one of those thoughts.

“You said you never went to her no more,” Nessa’d said when they were done. “You said she don’t let you no more.”

“Sometimes she let me.”

He was looking at her pale thighs and between them. “You’re pretty.”

She’d let herself smile because she knew he wouldn’t see then fussed her skirts back into place, shuffling back from where Danny had spilled on the ground. She didn’t let him finish, not inside. Not this time. A small pool glistened on crushed leaves and hard scraped soil. She thought again of sap and adjusted the rest of her clothing, brushed twigs and dirt from her hair as Danny tucked himself away. He wiped his hands on his knees.

Jessie’s voice, “Danny!” had startled both of them.

Daniel had looked back towards the cabin yard. “I gotta go.”

“I ain’t stopping you.”

And she hadn’t. Danny’d nodded and hurried away. Maybe he’d grab more firewood on his way, or maybe he’d tell Jessie it was the call of nature, which had a bit of truth to it, but Nessa didn’t care what he said. She knew he could be charming if a woman wanted him to be. So she waited, still breathing a little quick and staring at where the leaves glistened with Danny’s seed. She’d scrunched up a handful of dirt and grasses to cover the spot and made for home.

Now the woods were thickening with cool shadows. The soft path held a smell like old well water. The woods did not scare Nessa, though she knew they earned being scared of. Mr Splitfoot lived in the woods. Devils burrowed up from the sour soil to take them that paid no mind to what they did. There were things with teeth and things with claws. There were poisons and there were magics in the naked woods, and there were men.

It was getting dark. Merrin would be home. His Stray Dog days were over now, or so rare nobody cared, not Nessa anyways, and he’d be filling the cabin with his musky bulk or draping the yard trestles with fresh skins for scraping. Used to be he made her feel that way, stretched taut and roughed into something smooth and pliable, and it weren’t a bad way to feel a lot of the time. Now’days, thoughts he never shared darkened his mind and only the fire he stared at put a light in his eyes. It was a depth she used to crave in a man but there weren’t much use for it when it only ever stayed his.

She was nearly home. The trees leaned, drunk or weary. Weak light slanted through the branches and crossed her path. Swollen blackberries drooped on withered bushes that looked to Nessa, now, like a tangled crowd of children. She expected the dark fruit to blink at her, to pucker open with a spill of juice. She saw the twisted shapes of thorn-hearted things.

“Damn you, Danny.”

She wouldn’t cry for him, though. Stray Dog was a far better man and there’d been few tears for him so she’d not spare water for Danny. Jessie-Belle had earned a few maybe, but then she was the type who’d shed plenty on her own. Clint had been a tough father and cause enough for crying, and marrying Danny wouldn’t help her none down the track, but what was a little sorrow when you were young and beautiful? Jessie would be fine.

“Damn you.”

She said it several times on the path that took her back, letting the curse follow her or find its way elsewhere without caring much what it chose to do. She thought of lies and wishes and promises and how they tangled together and soon, too soon or soon enough, she was home.

There’d been an old swing frame outside Merrin’s place since before Ness ever lived there. Never a swing seat for as long as she’d known, but Merrin used the rusting metal to hang corpses for butchering. There was one there now, a hulk of red flesh stripped of skin, sweetening. Meat and muscle, veined with thin white strings left behind, dangled over a bucket. The head was propped in place by its own antlers. The throat was open and dry. Nessa took up the bucket as she passed so nothing would come sniffing for the blood.

A truck rusted at the side of the house, sitting on bricks, hood open. It had been there almost as long as the swing frame. Nessa glanced inside as she always did and saw it empty, just as she always did. Saw all the way through to black, oil-stained ground. It made her sad, that absence. Like it’d had a heart once. There’d been nights that engine’s heat had warmed her back. Nights when Stray Dog still had some straying in him, picking up town girls until eventually the girl was only ever Nessa.

He was asleep at the table, head resting on his forearms. There was some money crumpled by his elbow. Nessa counted without touching. Weren’t much. She set the bucket down on the table.

He stirred when she lit the stove.

“What time is it?”

“Late enough.”

He grunted something and wiped his face more awake. He saw the bucket. “I’ll cut it down after supper,” he said.

Nessa nodded. She lifted the lid from yesterday’s pan and saw plenty left for warming.

“Where you been?”

“Jessie-Belle’s. Check on her and . . . ”

“Danny?”

“The baby.”

He stood from the hard chair and leaned to crack his back. “The baby,” he said. “Ain’t much more than babies themselves.” He came to the stove to look at what she stirred around. “How’d we get so old, Ness?”

“Day by day.”

She flinched when he put his arm around her waist. Surprised was all, but he pulled away after.

“Merrin—”

“I’ll go finish up outside.”

He closed the door quietly behind him as if they had a newborn themselves he might wake.

“Motherin’ suits you,” Nessa said.

Jessie was in the yard, standing but leaning over to hold the outstretched hands of her russet child. It had bulked out some with nest-like weaves of thicket and thatch stiff as a broom head. “Yeah,” Jessie said, but not to Nessa. “That’s it. Come on.” The child was stumbling forward with a fireplace crackle and snap. It had grown a lot and done it fast and already it staggered like a toddler. Jessie, standing close over it, shuffled tiny awkward steps behind.

“Healing all right?”

Jessie glanced at Nessa. “Still a mess down there,” she said. “But I’m doing most things all right again.” To the child she said, “Yeah, that’s it.”

Nessa listened for Daniel, looked about for him, but was brought back to Jessie when she asked, “How long before I can . . . ”

“Before you can . . . ?”

Jessie laughed. It was forced, or sounded that way to Nessa. The false friendly only girls ever bothered with. “Danny’s behavin’ like he wants another one already.”

“Really?”

That laugh again, shrill as a strangled bird. “Keeps me up at night more than this one.”

Jessie looked at Nessa and held it so long that she missed her kindling-child wobble and fall. “Whoops!” She pulled it up by its barky arms and set it back on leafy feet. “Whoops-a-daisy!”

“Where is he, anyway?” Nessa asked. “Left you on your own, has he?”

“He does his share. I know folk called me foolish for pickin’ him, prob’ly said all sorts about getting away from daddy, but they was wrong to say so and now everything’s good again.”

“Didn’t know it was bad before.”

“Come on, Ness. You know it was.”

Only men called her Ness. Men, and women older than this one.

Jessie raised her child with another “whoops-a-daisy” and gathered the bundle of branches into her arms. “Not now, though, eh? They’re good now. Yes they are.” She brushed at tufts of sprouting green and the thing made a keening wind-blown sound, the sigh of treetops in a breeze. Laughing, seemed like. Jessie was tickling a baby born of bark and it laughed.

“Danny’s people’s not got much learning,” Jessie said. “Some, but not much. And mine’ve got no better, maybe less.” She looked at Nessa, smoothing the foliage hair on her young’s knot-head. “We got country-magics, though. We know who to ask and how when we want something.”

“Jessie-Belle, what did you do?”

“I ain’t losing Danny,” she said. “Not to no one. Even if I like her. He ain’t much but he’s mine and I need him even more now.”

The gnarly bole bundle of leaf and branch broke away from its mother for a short staggering run. Jessie clapped, delighted, “That’s it!” and then again when she saw, “It’s daddy!” He had a beaten box of store goods and he looked tired but he grinned and called hello to his sprig of a child. He set the box down and stayed crouched after, opening his arms to the stumbling bark-skinned thing. Daniel winced with the hug but he drew it close and held it. Did it with affection Nessa knew he had but hadn’t seen.

“Hello, Ness.”

“Daniel.”

He glanced at his wife and made a wary but obvious assessment—a man like Danny had a face you could read better than books—but Jessie was too busy smiling her love to notice.

“Ness just came to see how we’re doing,” Jessie said. “We’re doing fine, aren’t we Danny-baby?” She squatted near them and Nessa felt some horrible joy at the pain she saw, the girl’s grimace of cunt-stitches, then felt pain of her own at what she saw after. The bracken-sapling thing of thorns and acorns pulled them both together with ivy-vine arms. It was a sturdy tree trunk with buds that flowered as Nessa watched, roots that thickened and thorns that spiked to hold Danny and Jessie together, pinning them, draping them with fruiting tendrils and unfurled leaves. It brambled them in a fierce sharp hug of bark and bough until that was all Nessa could see.

Nessa lay in bed staring at cobwebbed rafters, listening to Merrin’s heavy breathing and the quiet of the night outside. When she was a girl, her mother told her the best way to catch a man was to not want him but her problem growing up had been deciding which ones she wanted and which she didn’t. She often got it wrong. When Merrin was Stray Dog, he told her they were similar that way. He’d taken her out to one of the great-lakes, fucked her on the truck the way she liked back then, then wrapped them both in a blanket to watch stars fall from the sky. “Make a wish,” he’d said, and “I never know what to wish for,” she’d said back, and that was how the conversation started. He’d told her love was something you couldn’t hunt, but when you found it you had to trap it quick. She’d moved into his cabin shortly after that, as natural as seasons changing.

Nessa rolled over to look at him. His back was bunched with muscle and thick with hair she used to run her fingers through. She used to say of all the pelts he could ever sell his would be the best of them. The hair had silvered now and there were bald lines, wounds he’d earned and scars he didn’t deserve. The back of his head was balding too but the hair there held its colour.

“Merrin?”

He didn’t stir any, but then she’d only whispered his name in a hush he’d barely hear awake, so it wasn’t any wonder.

Outside, something moved quietly on the porch. The wood was weather-warped and it creaked beneath the slightest weight. Nessa wondered what animal it might be and what it was looking for. Food and warmth if it was wild. If it were a stray, well then it would want those things too but someone to love it as well, most like.

Nessa shifted onto her back to hear it better. The noise was scratchy. Used to be there were trees growing right up to the cabin and when there was a wind the branches would move against the walls and roof, scratching at the wood with naked spindles of twig in winter, brushing leaf-sweeps of hush in the summer months. What she heard now reminded her of that. An uprooted bush, tumbling back and forth across the boards.

Danny’s child, she thought. Jessie’s knot of brambles.

Nessa leaned away from Merrin and slowly left the bed. She put on the fur slippers he’d made for her and gathered a tatty blanket around her shoulders and went to the window.

The yard was silver with moonlight. It frosted the metal of the empty swing set and the rusting hulk of truck. Nothing moved out there but for clouds, darkening the stars away and back again.

Merrin slept.

Nessa left the bedroom, easing the door open, closing it slowly, treading her way across rugs of fur and spread pelts, stepping where the boards wouldn’t creak. She peered again at the vacant yard from a near window but that didn’t ease her mind any so she opened the front door and stepped out onto the porch.

The night air was cool but not overly cold. It carried inside it the scent of sap and dew-damp soil.

The rustle came again, nearer some, right beside her, and Nessa was startled into turning and stepping back from what she saw. A thing of broken sticks and autumn leaves and hand-pulled grass. A sulphurous yellow crop, damp and rank. This was not the child of thorns she had delivered on Jessie’s kitchen table. This was some coarse child of her own. It reached for her with hands of mulch. When its tiny fists unfurled, flowers opened in the palms.

“No,” Nessa said. “Back to the woods with you.” She pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders. “Go on.”

Fronds of fern and spiky foliage, the bundle tumbled at her and clutched her naked legs with limbs that prickled. Nessa couldn’t shake it free. When she bent to lift the thing away it clutched her arms and peppered her skin with tiny punctures, scratched lines that swelled pink and beaded blood, and held her firm. Its bark-skin chest was weak with rot and nettles grew in a stinging thatch between its legs. It bulged all over with the nubs of clipped branches, swirled with open knots, and looked at her with eyes like chestnut husks, soft-spiked and sickly green. It smiled with a mouth of seedling teeth and when the mouth opened, a cavernous oak-hollow too large for its broken bough face, it spoke. Its voice had the plump softness of windfall fruit. It dropped over-ripe syllables like tiny pine cones onto compost.

Mama.”

Nessa scooped it up and ran. It scratched beneath the blanket, tried to suckle as she fled with it into the woods. She didn’t want this, this was Danny’s work. He could have it back, a sibling thing for his other shrub.

The child scratched at her, rubbing against her skin, scraping her raw, and she tried to pull it free. She snapped what she could find of it, tore clumps and chunks from it and tossed them to the track as she ran. The nubs on its bark skin sprouted and fattened into berries. Clusters of blue and purple and black plumped and burst in her fingers, sour tumours sticky with poisoned juice. She ran. She tore. Leaves browned, blackened, and fell away like paper ash; brambles that tried to wrap her legs and snare her feet turned brittle and tugged apart with her strides. Soon all she carried was a wild but weed-strewn brake that broke, crumbled, scattered, and she only held fragments of forest floor. She cast these to the wind, panting, and dusted pieces from her naked skin, allowing herself a single sob and telling herself it was relief, though she only ever believed lies men told her.

She returned home.

The figure that waited for her on the porch this time was Merrin. His bulk was a bear’s shadow blocking the door. He wore blankets and pelts and his breath was frosty, a puffed cloud around his nose and mouth.

“Can’t you leave him be awhile?”

Nessa said nothing. She fidgeted her blanket tight.

“Fire’s going,” Merrin said. “Warm yourself up, if you’re still needin’.” He turned away from her but stopped short before going inside. Stepped back. When he turned around again his face was darker than Nessa’d ever seen a night sky.

“What’s this?” he said.

She’d never be rid of it, looked like. There’d always be something of the woodland life to bind her to the mistakes she’d made, tie her like a creeper vine to a man who sowed his seed in another furrow, a fertile furrow. But when the child moved, Nessa saw a face freckled with mould and a moist crop of fungus. It sagged, limp and autumn-coloured, withered eyes weeping long lines of lichen down its split shape to a soft-bark chest scooped almost hollow. Almost. The moss-furred stump of a tree felled long ago but still ripe with life.

“Merrin,” Nessa said, “I think it’s ours.”

The clod of vegetation smiled or grimaced, and the flower of its mouth blossomed, drooped, and wilted. Petals fell in a slow sequence of loves-me, loves-me not.

Nessa chanted each one down and wondered who the words were for.

Originally published in Black Static, Issue 50, January/February 2016.

About the Author

Ray Cluley’s work has been published in various magazines and anthologies. It has also been reprinted in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year (volumes 3, 6, and 8), Steve Berman’s Wilde Stories: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction, and in Benoît Domis’s Ténèbres series. He has been translated into French, Polish, and Hungarian, with a German translation of “Water For Drowning” due soon. His story “Shark! Shark!” won the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Story, while “Water For Drowning” was short-listed for Best Novella and his collection, Probably Monsters, for Best Collection. You can find out more at probablymonsters.wordpress.com