Edition 27: Splinter by Patrick Freivald
Brutally stripped from her place in the forest, the oak remembers. As she feels the call of new life, she takes steps to return her life. Patrick Freivald strips back our love of wood and shows us the horror of our consumption, and the consequences. SY
She remembered the men, the saws and the smoke and screaming agony and bleeding sap. She remembered the darkness, when they took her and stripped her and killed her and shaved her down to cruel planks. She remembered the darkness, the tepid warehouse harsher than any winter, and the brief kiss of sunlight before her imprisonment.
But she didn’t remember before. The dappled sunlight through the forest, squirrels scrambling through her boughs, the deer resting in her shade, the rabbit warren under her roots. She knew these things, but she couldn’t recall them.
Brutal geometry stole her form, a giant kiln her essence, mankind her purpose. Jagged steel screws bound her to dead sisters, gave her a form both alien and hostile. Wrapped in cold vinyl and fiberglass and sheetrock, she hardened, stiffened, became as bone to this new thing, this monstrosity, this structure. Eyes of glass saw nothing but her sisters’ torture, and concrete roots drew no water to slake her thirst.
She woke to the sound of fawns, human fawns, playing and squabbling and scratching her hardwood floors with their toys. She ached to touch them and feel their warmth, to shelter them beneath her boughs. But she had no shade, no boughs to share, only stone and tar and plaster-covered darkness and the pain of the mill.
They filled her halls with laughter, but she felt only longing. Their plastic games and digital toys left her starved and wanting. Asphalt shingles kept her from the sun, and PVC pipes wouldn’t share their water. But as the maples pumped sap into their boughs and buds formed on the willows, she drew upon a hidden strength.
A branch, devoid of leaves or bark, shuddered free from the floorboard. Another followed, and another. She drew the wood into herself, shaping it into a mockery of the fawns bickering in the house below.
She opened new eyes, neither glass nor wood. A splinter of what she once had been, a shard split from a remembered limb, she pried herself from the plank and stood on two wobbly legs. The house sighed in commiseration as she shivered in the dusty, flat, unmoving wilderness of dry cold and old cardboard boxes.
She crept to the half-door and ran gnarled, jagged fingers over a plastic Christmas tree half-stuffed into a tattered box, its nylon needles bright green in defiance of the arid darkness. She jerked back and bared jagged, wooden teeth that sliced her long, purple tongue. The tang of blood—not sap—mingled with the musty, dusty, forgotten smell of the half-full attic. Her elbow brushed against something, and she turned.
She commanded the box fan not to fall, but the plastic rectangle defied her will as no acorn would have dared.
Bob looked up from his newspaper as Nancy dumped scrambled eggs from the pan onto the plate. He loved her “Bitchin’ Kitchen” apron even though too much time spent in it had allowed her ass to grow too big for her “comfortable” jeans. She stopped mid-scoop, the gelatinous, yellow-orange protein poised to leap from the green, silicon-coated spatula.
She scrunched her forehead, prompting a question.
“Well?” The newspaper drooped in the absence of his attention. “What is it, dear?”
“Did you just hear something?”
Between the Saturday morning cartoons and the boys arguing over their toys, he wouldn’t have heard a shotgun blast to his head. So he shrugged. “Nope.”
“You didn’t hear something crash upstairs?”
He shook his head and looked back at the paper.
“Bob.” Her exasperated sigh grated through his mind and strangled his contentment.
“Probably another squirrel in the attic.” His restful morning over, he set down the paper and dragged himself to his feet. Once standing, he couldn’t escape the honey-do list. “I’ll check it out.”
Catching a squirrel is impossible, especially in an attic full of eight years of accumulated family junk they hadn’t and would likely never unpack. Maybe he could terrorize the rodent into leaving and seal up whatever hole it had found. He loved their new home, but they didn’t build them like they used to.
Light washed in from the hallway as the half-door opened, and motes of dust danced above the fallen box fan. She crouched back into the shadows as the male crawled inside the attic, a bristled stick in one hand. She sneered as he called out in sing-songy human sounds unlike anything in the forest. Blood dribbled through her lips.
The man froze, head cocked, like a deer spooked by a rustle in the autumn leaves. He turned toward the door as a gobbet of blood fell from her chin to patter on the floor. He whipped his head toward her and crept forward, knees pounding on the naked plywood.
Desperate to hide, she touched the beam next to her and melded into it. The house absorbed her, silencing her shriek before it left her dry, chemically-impregnated lungs. She struggled and cried out in silence, but it wouldn’t let her go, so she wept.
Bob reached down and ran a finger over the red spot on the floor. He held it up and sniffed. The stupid rodent had hurt itself.
Twenty minutes of fruitless searching later, he left the attic. Covered in dust, he walked to the hardware store for advice on squirrel-proofing the attic.
Spring turned to summer’s heat, fought off by the unfeeling machinery in her stone roots. Fall turned to winter, and the warmth of flame on air kept her semi-conscious throughout the snows. She dreamed of leaves swaying in the summer breeze, of squirrels and chirping birds, but she felt only the cold darkness that wasn’t cold enough.
The fawns, larger now, filled her halls with laughter and squabbles, and as the maples outside pumped sap into their boughs and buds formed on the willows, she woke again. She wouldn’t make the same mistake. This time she’d grow.
She stroked the tiny bump on the side of her head, cooed to it, enticed it toward its inevitable potential. It responded to her voice, a whisper of the promise of spring.
As she stepped through the attic door, the wood tried to take her back, where the domineering human spirit demanded that she belonged. Careful to touch only the metal handle, she pushed it closed. The hinges creaked, but she bore them no mind. The adults worked outside to impose human order on grass and shrubs, while the fawns sat enraptured by the electronic sounds and pictures of their game.
She crept into the younger fawn’s closet and waited. The passing of a day meant nothing to the passage of long years she knew but couldn’t remember, nothing to the passage of the past year, where she burned with the knowledge that she could and would grow again. She shuddered in anticipation, and clutched the tiny acorn growing at her temple. It needed sunlight, and water, but it also needed rich humus and potent soil to grow strong and tall. It needed life.
It took all her will not to coo and sing to the acorn. It needed her voice, but the plan required her silence. If she could wait, so, too, could it. At last the day ended and the fawn slept in its bed, cocooned under cloth-wrapped plastic tendrils and the shredded, entangled remains of her cotton sisters.
The boy gasped as she leapt on him, long black thorns piercing his lungs and throat and limbs. He shuddered and gasped out a last, gargling breath, hot and wet. When he lay still, she wrapped the body in blankets and carried it outside, past endless rows of homes and paved dirt and electric lights, into the starving remains of the forest.
Her glade had disappeared, replaced by tortured bones and oil and stone. She would create a new one.
Singing under the susurrus of a bright moon, she scraped leaves from the ground and dug into the soil beneath. Deep enough, she unwrapped the body, stripped it, and stuffed it into the hole. First leaves, then a little soil.
With trembling hands she plucked the acorn from her temple, cooed and sang to it, breathed herself into that beautiful potential, and placed it into the bloody mass. The fawn’s life would meld with the remnants of hers and produce a new beginning, a sapling. The rest of the soil went on top, then a scattering of leaves.
She couldn’t let them find the acorn, so she carried the blankets deep into the woods and stuffed them into a crevasse in the ravine. Unable to contain herself, she scampered back to sing to her spirit, to infuse it with life so that she might grow again. As darkness turned to dawn, she crept back to the house to wait.
Men dressed in blue came in white steeds with angry red, flashing eyes. They banged through her halls and stone roots, they searched the forest. They brought dogs, but she sang to them and told them of her sorrow and pain, and they defied their masters and found nothing.
The days within filled with weeping and rage, with somber gatherings of humans she did not know. She cared nothing for them, only for the acorn and what it would become. Each night she crept to the glade and sang and cooed and cajoled, and its tiny voice joined with hers in the sweetest harmony.
A month passed. Two. Spring turned to summer as they sang together. Summer became fall. The humans left, and took their boxes and furniture and scent with them. The house fell dark with no one to light it, and worry crept into her songs. As the first chill of frost bit the air, she dug in the glade.
She lifted the crumbling, rotten acorn in her hand, disbelief and loneliness her only thoughts, and the forest quaked with her despair. Had she not sung? Did it not have rain and sun and rich soil? Had she imagined its tiny voice, calling to her as she sang, entwining with hers in the harmony of new life?
She fled to the house, cold and unfeeling and empty, and ran to the attic. She found the beam and dove into it, melding and becoming one with her prison. Her loss consumed her through the frigid winter months, cold but not cold enough.
In the darkness of February, humans visited. A few at a time, always with the same woman, with hair the color of beech bark. They talked, a cacophony of goose sounds, and toured the empty home. A family moved in, a man and a woman with a small boy fawn, and filled her with noise and life.
As maples pumped sap into their boughs and the willows budded, she realized the truth. She stood in the attic and fingered the acorn on her elbow, tiny and green and full of promise and joy. No longer a tree, she didn’t have the strength to breathe into it, couldn’t give it what it needed.
One hadn’t been enough. Not enough life, not enough blood. She’d need them all.
In the attic darkness she sat and cooed and whispered, and waited for night.
Patrick Freivald is an author, high school teacher (physics, robotics, American Sign Language), and beekeeper. He lives in Western New York with his beautiful wife, two birds, three dogs, too many cats, and several million stinging insects. A member of the HWA and ITW, he’s always had a soft spot for slavering monsters of all kinds.
He is the author of Twice Shy, Bram Stoker Award®-nominated Special Dead, Blood List (with his twin brother Phil), the Matt Rowley novels including Bram Stoker Award®-nominated Jade Sky and Black Tide as well as Jade Gods, a growing legion of short stories, and the Jade Sky graphic novella (with Joe McKinney) in Dark Discoveries magazine. There will be more.