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A Guest Quarters story
By noon on that summer day, they were looking for something new to do, something more exciting than sipping lemonades and watching the parade of cars in the road from the apartment balconies, or finishing the year's first lawn mowing.
"We could go up into the scrub woods," Martin suggested from his balcony next to Cara's. "Go sit under a big old tree, have a picnic. Pick wild plums—there's still trees up there."
"I don't think that's a good idea," Cara answered. The sun was shining, and she shivered. She couldn't mistake the sound of branches whispering back to the wind.
Emily was the brave one; she made Cara love the woods, even though Cara feared them, too. Their friendship began as girls, when they watched the summer parades from adjacent balconies of the apartment building. Emily's parents lived next to Cara's grandmother, and a trip to Gran's almost always became a visit with Emily, who knew the woods much better than Cara ever could.
Emily began by making one path through the brush and the sumac trees, pulling herself up to the cliff-face beginnings of the woods by the bowed and berried branches; Emily had set up the signs and the directions, had transformed deer-trails into fairy-paths of her own devising. Emily knew the way. It wasn't safe to go back up without Emily into her forest kingdom; everyone knew it. But every time, the girls would be warned, "Don't go alone back into those woods—it's not safe to go so far." Every time they would swear their agreements, and break the vow the moment they'd climbed up the rocky barrier to the path into the forest.
"Don't be poky," Emily told Cara, just as Cara sidestepped the old bees' haven. Two years previous, Emily had stepped on one of their nests, and been stung repeatedly—not her only blood tithe to the wild things in their years of exploration. "We've got a long way to go, but this will be worth it, won't it?"
"Are there really wild plums?" Cara wanted to know, pushing branches out of her way as she tried to keep up.
"Too many trees to count," Emily promised. "A thicket full of them. And ripe and sweet now—they must be. I didn't taste them yet. I waited since I knew you were coming." The path upwards grew steeper once the little crooked sumac gave way to the grander trees that grew on the hill beneath the sharper cliff-face up ahead, and in the valleys between the deeper hills in the forest. Emily scanned for markers, and pointed towards where a rope hung from a branch, and boards had been nailed onto one of the sturdiest trees. "There's the dollhouse," she said to Cara, ushering her forward towards the tree in question.
When last they'd been scolded for going too far, they'd taken the nails and boards for their own devices. They had resolved when they were younger that someday they would simply live in the woods, rather than merely paying them visit. The dollhouse, as Emily had taken to call it in their particular code, was no house at all, but their makeshift shelter within the trees on the farthest edge of what they knew of the forest.
"Because we belong," Emily had said. They'd constructed it on their own, to no blueprint other than approximation. It kept out the rain, and was the last nail in the coffin of the hollowed tree they'd chosen; the forest elder was dying when they'd used it to fashion their wood-house, and dead once they'd finished. Sometimes Cara liked to run her fingers over the dried bark as it started to fall away, with a secret sense of guilt. Like running your fingers through corpse-hair, if you thought about it.
"Climb," urged Emily, placing her knotted hands in front of her to boost her friend up. "As high as you can go. I'll show you where we're going so you can put it on the maps and records." The maps and records were a notebook with a black and white cover, hard cardboard; they'd combined their money to buy it not long before, and Cara's neat writing and small scrawls had been an explorer's diary to their adventures. Cara climbed, shouldering the pack that had the notebook more securely once she had been boosted up past the hardest part of the tree to climb. She turned to grab Emily's hand, bracing herself as Emily used her as they had both once used the dangling rope. The tree creaked unhappily beneath them, still more dying protest to their activities.
Cara had paused after scrambling up a few branches, but Emily had boosted herself higher yet, as if the topmost branch she could reach was a crow's nest of sorts; one arm outstretched, she braced herself outward like a small and mortal flag, the wind blowing against her and causing her hair to flutter, one hand shielding from the blast to scan the horizon, then pointing. "There, Cara. There's where we're going." She pointed to one shadow down in the valley below them, a patch made dark where the trees had a guilty, supplicating look to their knotty, too-bare branches. "The plum thicket."
"You see any animals there when you went to look?" Cara asked.
"Didn't see. Heard some," Emily confirmed. "It's not a bear. It was smaller than a bear." It was always Cara's private conviction that someday, they might encounter something carnivorous. When they had been much smaller, Emily had had to assure her regularly that there were no bears waiting. "It was probably squirrels. They're all over lately. Two of them almost ran up on top of me, the last time I came out by myself."
"I'm not afraid of squirrels," Cara said, though she was not at all sure that her brave words were true.
"Then let's go get some plums," Emily said, and with a careless swing forward, she threw herself at the ground, arms outstretched. Cara had to climb down, always, but Emily had faith. So Emily leapt.
The path dwindled away and disappeared under thicker brush, and the route to their destination only got harder to navigate past the next marker—the old streambed. Water still trickled here and there, small rills and rivulets running towards their destination, away from both girls as they forded the lowest part of the valley. Their feet stuck in the mud, as they pulled one another along, and Cara made faces. "It's sucking my shoes off," she complained.
"Mine, too," Emily said, trying to shake what stuck to her off with each step through the marsh-like ground. "It's not long now. She wasn't wrong. It was only a little farther than they had ever gone before.
The plums looked like little glowing hearts, dangling ripe and full on the branches of the orchard-run-wild before the girls. They were the color of sunsets and bruises, fiery oranges and reds mingling with deeper bluish crimson. Some had fallen underfoot, their bloody, squashed bodies staining the grass and brush that grew up to the girls' knees. Emily crowed, "They're riper now!" She darted for the thicket, giving another little leap into the air.
Cara saw the movement inside the thicket first because she'd hung back, but the warm little globes, succulent before her, were too much temptation. The two girls fell to picking, to eating them off the tree in bites that darkened their palms and lips with juice. It was the flicker of what might have been a bird, seen out of the corner of Cara's eye. She didn't bother to track it, absorbed in sucking sweetness from her fingers.
But then Emily saw it, too. "What's that there? It looks as if it's wearing branches," she told Cara.
"A deer? I don't know." Deer were only marginally less frightening than the bears to Cara, if she were being honest. A buck deer was massive; she'd seen one closer than she'd liked in autumn, when the butchering after hunting season had taken place.
"I bet it is," Emily whispered. Without waiting for further reply, she crawled forward, edging into the trees, and darting under a curtain of branches that hid her from Cara's eyes before Cara could protest or follow.
"Emily," she whispered, anxiously. There was a laugh behind the curtain, and a clucking sound. The wind lifted, and the veil that separated her from Emily with it. She could see two sets of feet—mud-covered shoes, and the others bare, too-large, almost human. Not quite.
Cara tried to find her voice again, but it was caught at the whisper. "Emily." She stepped forward, and one of the blowing branches struck her, hitting her near the eye; she stumbled back again as if that had been reproof enough.
No sound, no sign of any animal, no answer from the trees. The plums in her hands were mashed, red viscera between Cara's fingers. There was no sign of Emily. She waited, and waited, trembling harder, and finally, she heard something.
Emily laughed, and laughed, wilder and wilder, and farther away. And then, a whisper: "Go home now, Cara. Now." It was the last she had of Emily; what remained of Emily was slipping away even from those words, and becoming something else.
Cara fled, as frightened as any prey before the hunt.
Cara's boyfriend tried again a little later, this time after lunch. "I could go back and find you some fruit, if you didn't want to come with me," Martin offered. "Have a stretch of the legs, and bring you back dessert."
"That's all right. I don't like wild fruits," Cara lied, trying to sound cool and diffident, managing only awkward and uncomfortable.
The first sign that things were not as they ought to have been was that when she next returned to her grandmother's apartment near the wood, it was as if Emily had never been there at all. Her parents' apartment was dark, and its balcony doors, always open in summertime before, stood closed fast. There was no one home. Cara could not bring herself to ask her grandmother where they had gone, and what word she might have of Emily.
Emily's paths were already growing over in her absence; though the path upwards into the woods near the sumac trees on the fringes remained, the deer-trails they had captured once were being retaken by weeds and brush. Cara stood on the sandy bank before the woods, staring up into their kingdom as she broke bits of sandstone between her fingers, trying to decide what to do.
While she was waiting, she heard the sound of whispered laughter. She looked up, rabbit-eyed, and shivered again, as if feeling eyes on her in turn.
There was a face in a tree, she saw. It almost looked human. Almost. It laughed at her again, and its arms swayed in beckoning. The word it whispered was: Come.
Instead, Cara went away. From her grandmother's back porch, she watched the woods—but she went no farther. All her grandmother said was: "I'm glad you've given up wandering."
The thought made Cara feel sick and cowardly. She pushed it from her mind whenever possible.
"I dare you."
"Dare all you want." Cara folded her arms. "I don't like the woods."
"Are you scared?" Martin was smirking, as if the very thought was ridiculous.
She was. Emily was laughing at her again. Cara heard the voice in the trees. Come.
Emily had heard the call before her, and had gone to join, always so sure she belonged to those woods.
She wouldn't follow it, nor stupid dares.
You promised. This, in Emily's voice, childlike but no longer a child at all, either one of them.
Cara stood and looked at the swaying trees, as if searching the eyes in a face. When she saw what she was looking for, she took off at a run towards them, leaving the startled Martin behind.
She'd seen the face regularly; she knew the woods better once she became the watcher outside them than ever she had when the woods had welcomed her in and lured Emily closer. Some things could no longer be unseen once you'd spotted them from the correct distance. Cara had maintained this distance a long time, despite hearing the call. It was getting harder to ignore.
The summer before, it had been music. There was a certain summer festival not far from the apartment, back towards the town and civilization; she had sat to watch the parade go by when she had heard the music, fading at the end of the parade as the horses went by. They whinnied; they could hear it, as well, and it shook them to their domesticated souls. Their riders had had to urge them forward, tried with less success to keep the otherwise-gentle animals on course. Cara might have sworn she saw terror in the horses' eyes. She knew the feeling; she felt it with them. Someone laughed over the sound of that piping flute playing very far off in the distance, its frequency too high, too sharp to be drowned out by parade noise.
That night, she'd slept in her grandmother's balcony room, and Emily had come to visit her. Her branched fingers pressed against the netting and glass of the windows, and her laughing-skeleton wooden face studied Cara, who found she could not close her eyes as she watched what had become of her friend, in turn. She opened the window, leaving only its screen between them, and pressed one soft hand to the leaves there.
You promised. Someday. It was no accusation, only fact.
The next morning, a woven basket full of wild plums sat on Cara's grandmother's doorstep as Cara opened the back door to fetch the paper.
She lifted one, the color of a beating heart, and took a bite, then another, swallowed it all. The rest went down the garbage disposal as fast as she could get rid of them.
Martin was singing somewhere behind her, that enormous fool, and had decided to follow her, though she was still in the lead. That was all right, Cara thought. She knew these woods better than he did. She could lose him. Martin was no part of this. He'd never tasted that fruit.
The dollhouse stood in front of her. She reached up to climb it, to hoist herself within its branches for a moment's orientation, and also, she admitted, for a moment of safety there.
She should have known better. The bark broke away under her hands, the wooden braces into their house with it, and the tree creaked above her. It inched towards her, tipping, its skeleton fingers reaching for her; she fell backwards and away from it, tearing its hollows open with a shuddering crack as she lost her grip. Dust rose, soot-colored, and she could hear two kinds of laughter. Martin was closer. He wasn't the only one.
Cara tried to crawl away, keeping low, looking for shelter to hide her. Running footsteps were almost on top of her, as much a threat as the trees. He was fast.
Martin stared at her in fond amusement, an innocent in truth. "You came all this way to—what? Avoid me? Beat up a tree?"
Come. Cara slid backwards, a crab-walk, away from Martin. "Go home," she answered. She didn't know if she was instructing him, or answering his question.
He leaned down, hands outstretched; he smiled, hearing nothing that Cara heard. "After I get my plums. Come with me?" She shook her head, started to protest. Then she thought: you can't stop some things. Some promises have to be followed, whatever damage is dealt.
"I know the way," Cara told him.
The thicket had grown over with time; it was a solid wall of trees and branches and dangling, overripe fruit, and what she might have traversed and picked through as a younger girl, Cara now found daunting. She was going to have to crawl, and hope she would be found in time to meet whatever ends were waiting. She crossed her arms, watching Martin. "Get what you want," she said to him. "I'll wait."
"Looks pretty thick, but these things usually grow with space between if you can find it," Martin said. He started along the edges of the thing, hands outstretched, pushing branches aside as recklessly as ever Emily had been to try to peer inside the brambles.
Cara saw something move first. She waited; she watched.
She took her eyes off Martin. When she looked back, when she remembered she needed to keep an eye on him, he was gone. There was no laughter, but whatever moved, was moving towards her.
Thorny fingers and mossy feet made their way towards Cara; leaves brushed her cheek, drank a frightened tear that was threatening to spill over on her face. Cara felt her hands pulled forward, cupped by twigs, then filled with plums as dark and rich as gold.
She stood staring, confused, looking at the fruit in her cupped hands. One moment, then two, as the receding, almost-female figure wove through the thicket away from her once again. And then, somewhere behind those branches, there was a sound.
"You promised," Cara shrieked, over the sounds of Martin's cries, the sound of another frightened animal. "I came. I came to stay. I came." She flung her fruits, her hands once more bloodied with juice and the cuts the broken wood had made against her palm.
On the wind, one whisper: Someday you. Someday. But not today.
Cara's parents moved into the apartment that Martin and Emily had lived in before them, seizing the opportunity after Martin's family moved away. "To be closer to Gran," said Cara's mother.
There was an old branch leaned against the door when they came with their moving van. In its knots and broken-bark surface was a face. Pressed against the wood in a rictus, Martin's face was screaming silently.
Come, said the wood.
"Someday," said Cara, knowing it would be soon.
Mars Hage. Some people have a moment when they know they have a calling to work with words and writing. For Mars, that moment came when her elementary-school teachers allowed her to edit a budding literary magazine for the first time, and was quickly taken aback as this one-time effort turned into a multi-issue extravaganza that tweaked the noses of her teachers. Today Mars sits on the other side of the fence as library media center assistant and writing club advisor at Holmen High School in Wisconsin. She is as delighted to be published here today as she was to work on that magazine twenty years ago, but hopes now to be seen slightly more as role model than scribbling juvenile delinquent.
Story by Mars Hage, Copyright 2011
Image by Amber Clark, Stopped Motion Photography, Copyright 2011