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Sugared Heat

They’s building the bonfire in a field on the forest’s southern fringe, a two minute trudge from camp. They’s piling fuel high—if there’s one thing they got in abundance ’round these parts, it’s wood—close enough to the tree-line to make a point, far enough not to set the whole woodland ablaze.

Huffing and cursing, cousins Bren and Gerta, skirts hitched high, roll fat logs with crooked feet, their arms too stunted for lifting. Cousin Willem’s reach is longer’n both twins combined, but his legs is useless stumps that flop below the hip; he’s parked on a wheeled crate next to the kindling, baling fagots. Soon as Wil’s knotted the twine, a herd of young ’uns runs the parcels over to a large stone-ringed pit, tosses ’em in, darts back for more. On a trail off to the right, Clint and six or seven other cousins is approaching, each hauling bigger, thrashing bundles across the dry grass. Dark boys, the lot of ’em, fit-bodied from working the slaughterhouse—but, far as Mert can tell, somewhat lacking inside the noggin.

“Vicious fucks,” he whispers, watching the butcher-boys sneer and drag broken dryads behind ’em. When the ladies trip or fall, tangled in the ropes binding their branches, the cousins turn ’round and stomp on ’em with glee. Soon the trail is littered with busted twigs and leaves. Streams of glistening sap.

Pastor says these tough fellas ain’t never used the good sense God gave ’em, Mert thinks, but who’s he to judge? No doubt Kaintuck’s holyman is off in the icebox, drowning his disgust with cold gin, leaving Mert’s own ma to take charge of the burning.

Not that she’s unsuited for the task, mind. Dirra’s wider than she is tall, but every round inch of her is plumped with know-how. To be seen, she has to climb atop one of the benches planted ’round the fire pit—but even hidden in green shadows a hundred yards away, Mert can hear her short, sharp commands.

“We oughter go,” he whispers, cuddled up to a trembling sugar maple. Gently he tugs at her straight waist. “C’mon, Sammie.”

Around ’em the forest shivers. Birch, alder, oak, slender beech—all manner of gorgeous dryads copsed together, all crowned autumn red, all reaching for the sky. All open-mawed, gaping. All shaking like his own sweet gal.

Mert rubs a scaly palm against the maple’s rough bark, then scratches the back of his blistered hand. It takes all his willpower not to chafe the sores on his forearms against her coarse trunk. There’s no time to peel off overalls and flannel, nor grind cracked, weeping skin against the incredible balm of the dryad’s syrup. Later, Mert promises hisself, when Sammie’s safe.

When no-one else can harm her.

‘C’mon, darlin. Let’s git.’

Sammie’s gnarled locks twist in the wind, leaves flailing. Grackles and nuthatches chatter in her auburn canopy; the birds hop and flap, snipping ’copter-keys with their beaks. Mert presses close, wriggles. Looking way up, gazing on the dryad’s mottled features, he catches a falling seed in the eye. Vision blurred, he thinks for one crazy second that his gal is dead. That her slack face—so hollow now, so skinny—her blank stare, her immovable trunk, means she’s fixed to this spot. That she’s up and lost her soul, traded it for permanent roots.

It was the boars and goats what led Mert’s kin to the dryads.

With those tusks and that pungent meat, them hairy pigs was a good supplement to Kaintuck trade. Them beady-eyed buggers made a person work for their hides, mind. Faster than the nannies folk raised for milk and wool, and they was daredevils in the scrub to boot. Snouts down, hoofs trotting, they led gun-toting hunters on a wild chase through the trees. Even with rifles primed, Bren and Gerta was lanky enough to slink through the hogs’ narrow tunnels; legless Wil was low and right quick, powering through the undergrowth on his wheel-board, spear rigged and ready. Wielding pistol and lasso, Mert hisself had a go—though he was much happier crawling directionless through the scritch-scratchy bush than he was killing. Still, him and the cousins bagged a fair amount of bacon before Dirra ever joined the party, and showed folk what true bounty was in them woods.

All summer, hogs nosed truffles and mushrooms ’round the base of poplars, hornbeams and hazels—but Mert’s ma raised everyone’s sights, lifted it from the scrub ’round fleet dryad ankles, focused instead on the rich moss of their clefts. While folk craned their necks, awestruck at the timber-gals’ beauty—their firm curves and placid whorls, their impenetrable calm—Dirra squinted, taking stock. Acres and acres spread green ’round ’em. Near and far, saplings sprang up fierce, regardless of season. Never mind how quick some folk were with an axe.

“These chicks is damn fertile, ain’t they?” she said.

The others grunted and nodded, reaching to pat dryad thighs and papery rumps. But with sacks full of warm hog, their attention again drooped to the path, and turned campwards.

Next day, in no mood for shearing, a randy buck bolted from Dirra’s goat pen. It skittered between tents, dodging cook-fires and guywires, clip-clopping across the wide field, long gone fallow, and into the woods.

Mert’s ma belted him into fetching the dirt bikes; soon the two of ’em was revving through the gloom after their best cashmere, worried he’d be gored by oinkers. As they churned grooves through the brush, pigs squealed away from their tyres. Crows screeched blue murder overhead while boughs creaked and thwapped up a storm of leaves. Dryads never was fond of the hunt: the flying knives and zinging bullets, the engines fuming, the dogs pissing on territory what ain’t theirs to claim.

Turns out, though, the gals was fond of dairy.

Sure enough, upon riding into a clearing Mert and Dirra found their rascal goat rutting hisself empty on a sweet little pine yearling. The dryad was splayed on the grass, calm as a pail of water while the buck had its way on her. From the looks of things, she were lulled senseless by the stench of nanny-milk on its coat, the gentle tickle of its pointed beard.

Before winter had full-melted into spring, the young pine creaked and moaned her way out of the drowsy woods. Gait thrown off-kilter, due to the lopsided bulge at her middle, she shuffled a path through the snow, into the circle of trailers and tents. Stinking of panic, the dryad lumbered up to Dirra—who were busy fixing porridge over the communal hearth—and squatted.

As she pleated her limbs, needles showered from the gal’s lofty head. Squirrels clung to her quaking shoulders, but she paid ’em no mind. The owl-hole of her mouth sucked in air, expelled gusts of feathered breath. Grunting like a spooked hog, she bore down once, hard, conjuring up an almighty crack.

“Give her some room,” Dirra said needlessly. Folk were none too keen on approaching the pine madly swishing her nethers, scraping the distended gash, flicking sap. All stood, unblinking, or sat well back.

A minute later, a steaming wet bundle plopped on cold earth.

It had took Mert’s ma nigh on three days to push her own bub out, nearly losing him with half her life’s blood, but this gal made birthin look easy. There were no cord to sever, no placenta, just a coating of amber goo to wipe clean. The kid was small, sure, but well formed. Goat from nipples to cloven toes, everything upper were made of the most darlin brown-skinned girl Dirra ever seen. She had a set of lungs on her, no doubt about it, and a kick with plenty of spring. One strike of her tiny hoof took a chunk of pine from her ma’s shin, which slowed the dryad not one iota as she rose to her full height, raised her arms to the clouds, and returned to her grove. Pulp still sludging from her split. Sap slicking her inner thighs.

“What kind of mamma would do such a thing,” Dirra cooed. “Leaving a teeny babe afore it’s even dry.”

Bending, she scooped the grizzling child. Lightly bopped its upturned nose. Kissed its matted hair. Holding it at arm’s length, Dirra took a solid gander at the little doe’s condition, and nodded. ‘With teats like yers, kid, bet you’ll make the sweetest cream for miles.’

The dryads spook as flints strike steel.

“Git a move on,” one slaughterhouse cousin snarls, veins in his thick neck bulging. A lithe oaken gal struggles against the leash knotted ’round his right hand. From afar, Mert can’t tell if the guy’s talking to the writhing tree or to Gerta and Bren, who’s both kneeling by the pit a few feet away, shooting sparks into dry tinder. The twins is usually skilled fire-starters—they both cook a mean hot-stone bannock—but with the butcher-boys stomping close, the girls fumble. The lighting-kits slip from their stubby fingers, forcing ’em to belly on the dirt like salamanders to gather ’em up again.

Meantime, the timber-ladies is giving their wranglers a hard workout. The beech and aspen thrash like they’s caught in a cyclone, near tearing the arms off the tattooed men holding their restraints. The poplar trots to and fro like a penned billy goat. Nostrils flared, she tips her crown and attempts a head-butt; her mate dodges, weasel-slick, hooks an ankle ’round a loose root, and throws her down.

“Hang onto this bitch,” says Clint, hair black as sump oil, passing the hazel’s lead to his brother, before running back to camp. Already burdened with the beech—a fine pale lady like Mert’s never saw— the younger cousin sets his feet wide, digs in his heels. Holding the two ropes like reins, he whips the dryads ’til both he and they’s frothing, only stopping when Clint returns. Over his shoulder, a canvas tarp is slung like a hobo’s sack.

“Take a couple.” He opens the satchel, holds it out like it’s filled with autumn candies. Moving from butcher to butcher, he doles out iron tent stakes, their points still mucked with dark soil. “Use one to hammer in the other—got it?”

At the forest’s edge, Mert dances from foot to foot like he gots to piss. “Sammie,” he mewls, clutching the bole above her hip. “Sammie, please . . . ”

His gal blinks with each clank of iron against iron. She leans forward as the cousins crouch to drive the long pegs into the ground, as they try to tether the dryads’ ropes to ’em, as they fail. The leash-twine is too thick for such slender rods; the loops keep sliding up over the nails’ heads, threatening to loose the frenzied dames.

“Fer fucks sakes,” says Clint, snatching a picket from his pal. Quick as, he kneecaps the closest dryad—the youngest, gentlest birch—and when she buckles, he clomps on her shin, whacks her leg ’til she timbers. Soon as she’s down, he drives the stake through her mashed limb. Hammers it home.

“Got it?” he asks again, chest heaving.

The clamour of nails being pounded through wood echoes across the field.

“Babe,” Mert says, pulling and pulling on his sweet maple. “Jesus Christ.”

At last, Sammie rouses, takes an unsteady step forward.

“You still climbing atop that Lellie-girl every other day?”

Dirra tipped a barrow next to the stock pen, spilling a great pile of brambles and blackberry greens she’d trimmed from the forest that morning. On a three-legged stool nearby, Mert flushed, half-dropping the kid feeding on his lap. The tree-goat was a healthy little eater; she slurped, sucking back the bottle jammed ’tween her gums.

“Not so much,” he managed, hot to the very tips of his bristles. Felt like months since he’d last had blind Lellie Horner flat on her back, bruised legs spread, calico dress unbuttoned to the waist. Last time he’d gone calling at her Winnebago, the goat-sprout had only just dropped. Proper riled from the kid’s birth—the opportunity it promised, the possibilities—Mert had gone to Lellie’s to unwind. Once he got there, it’d been hard to relax. What with the girl singing stupid songs and gabbling rot while he was in her, biding the minutes ’til he spurted. What with the image of that pine’s sap-dripping nethers clear as new ice in his mind.

The bub had plumped from infant to toddler since Mert and Lellie’d quit their wriggling sessions.

“Good,” Dirra said, a grin in her tone. “Save yer juices. Reckon you’ll need ’em, my boy.”

Whatever plan she’d cooked couldn’t of been worse than the jellied red blob he and Lellie’d once made together, so Mert listened to her thinkings, listened close.

Took no longer’n burping the kid to convince him.

“Worth a go,” he said.

Mert followed his ma a-knocking from trailer door to tent flap to hammock. He watched her honey ears with talk of propagatin the future—that’s what Dirra called it, fancying up her lingo to impress—and proliferatin our root stock. He seen the clever hook of her idea pierce she-folks’ hearts, and tug at he-cousins’ loins.

Mass-milkings started that same afternoon.

Shallow bowls and tins was filled to sloshing with the goats’ whitest and brightest, then gently laid, one by one, on the grass. By the dinner bell’s clang, a dotted line of saucers connected camp and woods. By dusk, the first dryads had took the bait.

Aspen and beech, birch and hornbeam. A robust, budding maple.

“That gal there’s for my Mert,” said Dirra, watching the ladies wake, and walk. Foliage rustling, sun-licked orange and red, they emerged from thickets of dozing relatives. Slowly, like as though they was caught in a dream. Heads tilted, they come on over the field with a crunching, creaking tread. Nostrils twitching, sniffing cream on the air. “Reckon he’ll take a fancy to them samaras her boughs is wearing—shaped like perky arses, ain’t they just.”

“More like cock ’n’ balls,” muttered Bren.

“More like Bren’s jugs,” said an acne-scarred cousin, cupping invisible tits to snorts of laughter.

“Dumb as deer, every last one of ’em,” Willem said when the ruckus died. Whistling through his teeth, he squinted as dryads knelt to drain each dish. “But twice as pretty.”

After a moment, he wheeled hisself over to a timid sprig of an oak. Dipping a callused hand into the milk, Wil paddled his fingers to catch her focus, then flicked. Pale droplets splashed the gal’s face, dribbled down grooves in her cheeks. She giggled, drunk on musk and butterfat. “She’s a real looker, this one is.”

Dirra smiled. “Take her, then. She’s all yers.”

At last Bren and Gerta’s got the sparks flaring. All the logs is coned like a grand teepee, fattest boles angled ’round stacks of kindling, slenderest sticks poking at heaven. It’s last year’s timber, mostly dry, laced with hunks of fresh spruce. Perfect flame-swiller. Plenty of heat and crackle and pop.

While Dirra circles the fire—checking for what, Mert can’t rightly tell, but she’s intent as a spaniel sniffing out a shot duck—Pastor staggers on up the road. Smirched with mud or shit, the old man’s cassock is unbuttoned and slung on crooked, his whale-gut bulging over wide-waisted jeans. Heedless of thorns, gravel or embers, he goes barefoot. He heads straight for the clearing, a puckered-arse look on his face.

Sammie lurches, pulling Mert forward.

“C’mon, darlin,” he says, yanking one of her many elbows. “This way. Follow me.”

The dryad shakes him off.

Pit-side, the twins is doing their utmost to haul Pastor off a quivering birch. The rector’s holding firm, though, hugging the tree’s mashed thighs, blubbering into her crotch. His prayers is muffled and whiskey-slurred; the only word Mert can make out is Sin! Sin! Sin!

“Enough is enough,” Mert says, more growl than anything. Ain’t no great Almighty looking down on Kaintuck folk, he thinks, digging into Sammie’s ridges. Tugging and jerking, he grinds the raw rash on his palms into the maple’s trunk. The scratch of her rough bark is so fucking good, he can’t help but stiffen. Ain’t no one fit to judge or save no one else, he thinks, rubbing and rubbing, while Pastor grovels on the far away ground like a hog. No sense getting worked up about it now.

Soon the bonfire is roaring, smoke seething upwards, oily grey streaks untroubled by wind.

“Let’s go, Sammie-girl.” For one stupid second, Mert thinks of cartoon injuns. Shirtless red men in buckskins, hunkering beside the fire. Flapping wool blankets over the flames. Sending signals ain’t no one can read.

“Let’s go.”

“Reckon she’s excited to meet you proper,” Dirra said, ushering Mert into the goat run behind their shack. The enclosure were chicken wire roofed in places with corrugated tin, the walls so tall even the springiest billy couldn’t over-leap ’em. Not quite high enough, though, for Sammie. Pacing the narrow pen, the maple bent like there were a fierce wind a-blowing, head bowed so’s Mert could scarce see her face. Her canopy were squashed, new buds and unfurled foliage alike jutting in all directions, snapped branches scraping metal with a god-awful screech. Dirra clicked her tongue, shooed miniature angoras away from the dryad’s wandering feet. “She near tore my arm out the socket, what with her eagerness to get going.”

With a thick-knuckled hand, Mert’s ma massaged shoulder, bicep, forearm, then paid special mind to her rope-burnt wrist. Frowning, she tried slackening the twine tying her to the maple; but with the gal’s fussing, the cord was soon stretched taut and chafing once more.

“Maybe this ain’t the best time,” Mert said, turning to go. Dirra hushed him with a smirk. From all ’round camp came a chorus of belly-laughing and grunting and hurried, first-time friction. Half-strangled moans, storm-lashed leaves. Proud whoops. Applause.

“No one likes a tease, boy. Samara here’s been waiting all morning for ye to come—haven’t ye, girl? Go on now, Almert. Fetch that pail, and give the lady a drink.”

Mert reckoned the goats’d churned the dirt to rat shit; that’s why he wobbled so, crossing the pen. In the far corner, he crouched to collect the full bucket, gulping air to slow his jackalope heart. No use. Chest heaving, he stood too quick, slopped milk on his best flannel, felt it soak through to his inflamed skin. Spots jigged in his vision as he about-faced. When he spoke, his voice sounded distant, like it were someone else altogether scuffling there in the muck, working up the grit to graft with a goddess.

“Ye thirsty, Sammie?”

He didn’t look to see the dryad’s expression. Head down, he held out the offering, and heard the keys rattling in her crown. Whether she were shaking her noggin, whether she were saying Yes, sir, or whether it were the breeze stroking her noisy, Mert couldn’t say.

Focused on Sammie’s trunk, the scabrous bark of it, the soft patches of moss, he inched close, closer, ’til there were nothing between ’em but the springtime music of her trembling, the sugared heat of her breath.

“She’s ready, kid,” Dirra said, stepping as far back as the space allowed. “Feed her good.”

Mert blinked. Now the pail were empty, now it were rolling on the ground. The milk must’ve hit the dryad’s veins instantly; one second she fidgeted and twitched like she were flea-bitten, the next she laid stiff as driftwood, tense and silent as Mert climbed on.

At first, he felt modest—shy, even. What with his ma right there, clucking happily. The herd bleating, snuffling his boots, chewing his cuffs. Mert unbuckled his overalls and shoved ’em down only far enough to free his cock. Ashamed of the vivid red blotches on his backside, the weeping sores on his hips. He groped the dryad’s main cleft, fingered blindly for the right slot. Found a likely hollow and pushed hisself hard into it.

No sooner than the humping started, Mert’s awkwardness fled. Between thrusts, he stript shirt and pants, jocks and even socks. Gusts of late-spring air played across his rash, soothing cool, but it were the gal’s touch that got him going, the harsh of her timber, the bucking scratch of bark against bad skin.

Screwing Lellie Horton never felt like this.

A minute, tops, and Mert were moaning and groaning louder than any other tree-climber in camp. The burn in his blisters, in his flaking cracks, in his chapped creases, felt good, oh so good, hot spreading along his every part, oh mamma, he never wanted to stop, but oh the hot, the hot, the hot spurting, hot fit to set the maple alight . . .

Dripping, Mert exhaled and slunk up Sammie’s length. Belly to belly, he scraped and sighed ’til his head were aligned with hers. Sparrows tittered in her branches. Striped chipmunks clung to her twigs, staring. Nanny goats cackled below while billies rammed their horns into Sammie’s side. Hinges squealed, then the gate slammed behind a whistling Dirra.

Finally alone with his girl, Mert wanted to say something, something powerful and pure as that moment, but he never was no poet. Instead he stretched to his fullest. Kissed the white smudge blurring the dryad’s closed lips.

“Ma ain’t stupid, Sammie. See how she’s grilling Pastor? Snapping Bren’s head off? Needling Gerta ’til she bawls? Won’t be long ’til she adds up one and one, figures us two ain’t coming. And the cousins ain’t got no reason to protect us, now do they? No sirree. They seen us leaving, sure enough. Greasy-Clint were overly keen on our doings—he always did have a hard-on for you, darlin. The second Ma turns on ’em, them fuckers is gonna give us up. No doubt.”

Despite the day’s warmth, Mert’s palms is sweaty. Muscles spasm, making claws of his fingers; he doubles the chain ’round his hand, grips tight as he can. The fetters is cold and slippery, the iron rough-hewn. With hanks of wool, he’s padded the links circling Sammie’s neck, hoping they won’t shave her smooth. Her wood splinters regardless. Fragments chip away as she presses forward, the leash buffing even as it gouges. The maple pulls Mert toward the field, the staked ladies, the ravenous fire. She breaks cover, poised to run.

“Wrong way,” Mert hisses. “You trying to get us caught?”

Sammie shoots him a brief, indecipherable glance. Keeps pulling.

Same as always, pigging season hitched into Kaintuck on summer’s tailgate. The forest were crawling with the beasts, promising sausage-filled winter larders; but with ready flesh snared in their lassos, the boys ain’t had much mind for extra hunting. What hoglets wandered into camp would suffice, they reckoned, the troupe of ’em smug as emperors, spearing boars and babes in their very own backyards.

For a spell, weren’t no one happier than Mert and his ma. Sure, Dirra and them she-cousins had one hell of a time keeping the dryads in milk. The gals was damn thirsty creatures—what’s worse, seemed the goats was addicted to the trees’ wild stink. Gone right feral, prized cashmeres hardly stood still; they played mule when the milking stool come out, refusing the pail. Even so, Dirra sheared the beasts’ matted hair and spun it into decent skeins while Mert was off courting his Sammie-girl. Needles clicking to the rhythm of the boy’s exertions, she knitted tiny blankets and bonnets and booties for the half-and-half child that would, she believed, join the family any day.

Once she’d knitted the goats bare, Dirra whacked a cradle together, using straw and sheets of old gyprock. Truth be told, it was a lopsided thing, but seeing how Mert goggled at his gal, she thought better of building a bed for his sprout from bits and pieces of Sammie’s dead relatives.

From forest to highway, other folk hammered and glued basinets, crocheted and stitched dainties, tilled special gardens for the timber-mammas’ rest. Dairy was scarce, and bacon rashers were flimsy, but any day now, any day, they believed—they knew—they’d all be richer than ever.

Any day now.

Any day.

Any week.

“Reckon these sticks ain’t got the guts to bear us no bubs, my boy,” Dirra said over a dinner of jerky and biscuits. She pushed away from the card table they shared for meals, climbed a footstool to peer out the shack window. Outside, autumn had nearly bled summer’s corpse dry. Lost in thought, she stood there awhile, arms crossed, fingers drumming, while Mert finished his grub. After licking the plate clean, he carried it to the washtub. Itching fit to burst, he were eager to see Sammie, but something in his ma’s stance gave him pause. The tilt of her black brow, maybe. The dark angle of her squint.

He sidled up next to her, followed her gaze. Evening’s curtain were falling on the smallhold; in the gloaming, weren’t nothing out of the ordinary. Oil lamps glowed on tent-poles, flashlights bobbed back and forth from the shitter. A cigarette cherry flared, floating at knee height, as Wil rolled from yard to yard, checking locks and rattling cages. Embers winked in the central hearth, the cook-fire banked until morning. Beyond, the forest were a jagged silhouette, blacking out the rest of the world.

Dirra reached over and scratched Mert’s shoulders, drawing circles down his lean back. This, too, weren’t nothing new. For seventeen years his ma’d eased the itch with hook and claw—but that night, he went rigid at her touch.

Immediately, she snatched back her hand. The glaze in her eyes sharpened, turned scowl.

Mert cleared his throat. “Best I pay our gal a visit, I suppose.”

“She’s playing us for fools,” Dirra said, glaring. As if it were his idea to lure the dryads out their groves. As if it were him what wanted a whole new brand of young’uns. “And not just Sammie, God help us. That first one flat tricked us with her pine-kid, the sneaky bitch. And the rest followed suit, pretending to y’all they was something they ain’t. Fuck ’em. Better yet, don’t. Let the whole frigid lot of ’em burn in Hell.”

“Never pegged you for a quitter, Ma,” Mert said, though he knew snarking were useless. From the stubborn clench of her jaw, Dirra’s mind were already set. “Think what you like, but I won’t abide no talk of burning, ye hear? Keep that sick shit to yerself.”

Out in the goat run, Mert peeled off layer upon layer of tension, and stood naked before his gal. Sammie needed a good hosing; curled in her own filth, the shine were all but gone from her leaves, the dirt littered with molted maple keys. At his approach, she scootched herself into a corner.

“It’s okay, darlin,” he said, lying down, pressing his backside into her coarse front. “I’m here.”

Flexing and relaxing, Mert shuddered against Sammie’s body. He jerked up and down, almost the same as when they was humping, but without it being over so damn fast. Spooning like this, he could be with her for hours, the pleasure of her skin raking his a thousand times better than blowing his load. Quietly, so’s Dirra wouldn’t come out with torch blazing, he scrubbed hisself to groaning-point, thinking, Baby, oh baby.

The fire’s roaring white, hotter and more devastating than love.

Upping-stakes, Bren and Gerta and all them cousins haul the gals one by one to the blaze. The boys is walking funny; there’s a hitch in their giddy-up from so much humping, from the day’s struggles, from fey gashes torn into their gams.

“You can’t stop nothing,” Mert says, grasping tangled twigs, failing to get a solid hold. The chain is cutting off his circulation; blue fingers throbbing, he yanks. Sammie tows him beyond the wood’s thinnest edge, their passage so far gone unnoticed only on account of the commotion pit-side.

Mert’s stomach turns as the flames catch. The aspen goes up first, whoosh!, just like that, then the lovely hazel, the spitting young pine. What a racket the dryads make, with hair and sap sizzling, when once upon a time they scarcely uttered a sound!

Mert falters, wanting—but afraid—to close his eyes. He can’t bear the thought of his Sammie on that there pyre. Amber and ruby licking all the places he’s claimed for hisself. Greed scorching her black.

In his gut, buried deep, he knows that’s the end she wants. The fire. The agony. The nothingness.

Sammie wants to be a fucking martyr.

Oh, what an almighty ruckus.

Half-shadowed, Mert looks at his gal’s profile, the beloved bumps and crags outlined with flickering gold.

“You can’t stop nothing,” he says, sobbing. “Not unless there’s a egg in that nest of yers what’s ready to hatch. A bub to call our own.”

No answer.

She’s playing us for fools, Dirra had said, and might be she’s right. Ain’t no mixed kids come from none of Kaintuck’s dryads. Last Vinesday, Clint’s pet laid one shrivelled nut, tough as a peach pit, human hair whiskering its only bone.

Only one.

That’s it, sum and total.

It weren’t enough.

“Git ’em,” Dirra had hollered—No, Mert realises, she’s hollering. His ma’s perched atop her step-stool, one eye on the burning, the other fixed on him.

“She seen us, darlin.”

Huffing, she clambers down the rungs. Sprawled on the ground, Pastor’s bawling nonsense, catching flurries of ash. Taking up a flaming brand, Dirra yells and kicks the holyman out the way so’s he don’t catch fire when she runs past.

“Won’t be but a few minutes ’til she’s here,” Mert whines. “Hoof it, love. Now.”

No chance. All sudden-like, Sammie’s got herself a bronco-rider’s expression, his cocksure posture, and more than his fare share of balls. Bracing herself against Dirra’s attack, the dryad plants her feet wide, raises her boughs. Smiles.

For a second, Mert admires his lady’s tenacity. Despite the slightness of her frame, the tonnes of weight she’s lost since they first met, Sammie still reckons she’s a heavyweight. That she’s bigger than she truly is. That she’s midsummer fireworks, set to go off.

What a mamma she’ll make.

In Mert’s grip, the chain is gone slack, the tug-o-war with his gal nearly over. With no other option, he fossicks through the ferns and thistles until he finds a stone with just the right heft, just the right jag, then clobbers his gal good and hard. A swift, sure blow to the burled skull.

Crackling farewells follow as Mert drags his withered gal into the deep, safe dark of the woods. Huffing, cursing. Minding he don’t trample Sammie’s twigs.

Shouting louder than the dryad’s sisters, brandishing death, Dirra trails after the retreating pair—but she’s too late to catch us, Mert tells hisself. Too slow.

Fallen, Sammie’s limp body whispers through the scrub, roots sighing along the ground behind ’em, nibbled by pigs.

Originally published in Spectral Book of Horror Stories 2, edited by Mark Morris.

About the Author

Lisa L. Hannett has had over sixty-five short stories appear in venues including Clarkesworld, Fantasy, Weird Tales, Apex, The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror, and Imaginarium: Best Canadian Speculative Writing. She has won four Aurealis Awards, including Best Collection for her first book, Bluegrass Symphony, which was also nominated for a World Fantasy Award. Her first novel, Lament for the Afterlife, was published in 2015. You can find her online at lisahannett.com and on Twitter @LisaLHannett.