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Her Bones the Trees

The sleepwalking woman stepped from her dream of the apple and the bear and the rose. She stepped into a seam of light that split her head in two, a beaming noise that siren-circled between her ears, a stutter in the speech of the world. A curtain pulled back. Applause, applause. Their faces were smooth, skin like vinyl. Tiny cheers erupting from their stomachs.

She woke in the passenger seat of David’s car. They were driving through the desert. Moon flood on the highway, soft music, slow and dreamy. David leant over and patted her knee. You really are something else, Laura. You know that? You wanna be in one of my movies? It’s about a ghost. You can be the ghost.

The ghost-walking woman woke from a dream within a dream within a dream. She walked through many doors, one after another, until she opened the door to the room of her body. It was wearing a red gown, curled on a white bed, face slack and broken. She tried to fall back inside herself, she tried to push back in. But no, no, the body wouldn’t yield. Not her body, no, no this body was all dead and wrong. Finger marks on her neck, her face . . . Her red gown was a dress of blood billowing around her, blossoming from the wound between her thighs, and the beauty—the beauty was no longer hers, but had spilled into the waste edges of the dream.

Laura wanted a language for dreaming, one she could speak with her hands. She drove David along a black snake of highway coiling through the woods. She carried a silence as white and coiled as a snake in her heart.

“I mean for dreams,” she said. “I mean the only way you would understand.”

David sat up straighter. “Laura, please. What are you trying to say?”

She glanced at him. He was frowning at her, chewing on a fingernail.

“Nothing. Just a different kind of story. Just a dream.”

“Sounds like a messed-up dream, Laura.”

“I guess it was.”

Silence fell, and night fell, and the woods pressed in around them. Laura drove on with the radio playing softly, the headlights peeling back the night from the road. Through a winding tunnel of shadow, deep and deeper into the mountains and forest. No buildings, no houses anymore. Only the darkness buzzing with needles and sap. Finally she rounded a bend and glimpsed the hotel, standing alone and awkwardly in the looming shadow of a mountain. The car plunged forward through the narrow winding darkness, along the slip road, steeper and darker, until the darkness gave out and the hotel was there, ramshackle fragments of porches and windows and chimneys and lights. Laura parked the car in the otherwise empty lot. She shut the engine and thought she heard men—their laughter, their voices. But no, nothing out there except a chilly silence. Her mind playing tricks on her.

David slapped his knees and said, “Hey, look at this. Look where we are, Laura! This old place.”

That made her smile. “Where else?”

He nodded. “Good to be back. Watch out for bears! Remember that, Laura?”

“Sure I remember. I’ll always remember that girl.”

“Which girl?”

“The watch out for bears girl. The one I played.”

David smiled, indulging her. “Well, you’ve lost me there, Laura. I never seem to know what you’re talking about these days.”

“Oh, don’t worry, no, just crazy actress talk. Getting into character.”

He laughed, but there was a note of caution there too. “You really are something else, Laura.”

She was, she felt it too. She was something else now, something strange, a shape cut out of the night. And as she stepped from the car and breathed in the cold air and the scent of the forest, she felt a physical pull, a tug towards the tangled darkness of the woods. Like before. Like it had always been there, waiting for her to come back.

Movies weren’t real, and neither were dreams. But even her memories were strangely vague, floating free of their context, like dresses hanging in the air, waiting to be plucked.

She’d been standing at the window, her reflection doubling her, the lines of her face wavering, the shade of her lipstick darkened by the glass. Her hair messed up, floating round her face. And her hands . . . a palm pressed against the glass, covering Laura’s reflection. She took it away. Breathed a pool of mist onto the glass, and drew a loveheart with her finger. An arrow through it.

“My heart won’t stop breaking.”

Their reflections overlapped in the glass as Laura approached. Lips crossed and opened. Behind them, in the woods, in the room, shadows moved, branches on the wall, taking shape like the antlers of a great stag. Shapes flickering in the glossy black mirror.

Laura said, “I dreamt I was on stage, somewhere I’d never been before, a grand and enormous theatre. It was a full house, there must have been a thousand, more than a thousand, but all of them were—none of them were real. They were those dolls, you know those Dreemy Peeple, those little plastic girls. And I realised, I saw them all watching me, and I realised, they were waiting. For me. It was the end of the play and I had to say the last line. But I couldn’t remember what play it was and I was looking down at my costume, but it was just a red dress and there was nothing on the stage to help me, no one else, no props, nothing at all. And I just couldn’t remember—and when I opened my mouth to speak, to try—it filled with ashes and soot and dirt.”

“It would have been better if you’d remembered.”

“I know.”

Laura drew her fingers through the mist on the glass. She was tired, so very tired. It felt like she’d been working on this movie for a long time now. Living in this odd empty hotel that filled from time to time with a scene, with a moment, and then filled back up with silence, with noises from underground, noises from the woods . . . and why did she feel so drawn to the woods? But she did, she did. And she lay awake, wondering how she should go there, what she would find.

Laura picked through some dusty leaflets at the front desk. Not much going on around here. Not a lot to do. David rang the bell, ding ding ding! And a girl came out from the back office. She was young, fifteen or sixteen, maybe. Her hair was long and unbrushed, she was wearing a ratty t-shirt and jeans. Cigarette smoke and peppermint gum. She didn’t smile.

“What’s that? Can you help me?” David said. “Sure, that would be great. If it’s not too much trouble, could you please move me to a different room? I need a room overlooking the parking lot, there are too many trees on the other side.”

The girl rolled her eyes. She picked a key from the board behind her and dropped it on the counter. “We cool?”

David turned to Laura, raised his hands in exasperation. “Can you believe this kid? What kind of place is this?”

“Come on,” said Laura. “Let’s get going. You don’t want to lose the light.” She smiled at the girl. “He’s making a movie about something that happens in the woods.”

“Oh yeah, well, watch out for bears,” said the girl. She was smiling as she said it, but not in a friendly way.

“Bears? You get a lot of bears around here?”

She rolled her eyes. “I guess. Just don’t leave food lying around? I dunno, just don’t make them hungry or piss them off. Anything else I can help you with? Okay, have a great day.” She smiled horribly.

Laura put a hand on David’s arm. “Come on,” she said.

But the girl had turned her attention to Laura, and the look on her face was different now. “It’s not just bears. Things happen in the woods here, you have to be careful. But sometimes you shouldn’t be careful. You’ve never been the Woods Queen, have you, Laura? I hope you can this time.”

Laura flinched. Why did she know her name?

“What’s that?” David asked.

The girl sighed and turned her attention back to him. “Hey. I watched one of your movies once. It was so fucking boring I swore if I ever met you I’d punch you in the head.”

Laura stifled a laugh. “David, come on.”

She linked her arm through his and he let himself be led away, out of the hotel, down the steps. As soon as they were outside, he started yelling.

“That jumped-up little . . . ”

“David, she was high as balls. And she’s just a kid. Take no notice.”

“Call that customer service? What the hell’s going on here, Laura? And what did she mean, my movie was terrible? Which movie? She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

“David, come on. It doesn’t matter. You want me to drive? You can meditate in the car. And let’s just go and make this movie, right? Get those ghostseeds fruiting.”

“The ghostseeds . . . Laura, you’re crazy, you know that?”

“Loud and clear.”

At the bend in the path, Laura turned around to look back at the hotel. The girl was standing at the bottom of the steps. She raised her hand shyly, a tentative wave. Laura waved back.

The mirror was full of shadows. That was all she could see now. Dark and darker, moving like smoke. Lately she’d been forgetting her name. She couldn’t remember if she was Laura, or Shelly, or Audrey, or Donna, or Maddy . . . or was she someone else, was she a person at all, or just a memory, a whisper in another’s ear. See how we are indistinct. How we all become nothing. We dissolve into mist, into shadow, we seep into the furniture, we are dust.

How long had she slept in that strange dark pod hanging from a bough. Maybe it was a hundred years. Maybe someone would come after her with a kiss. A kiss, a curse. Waking is the worst. She blinked and smiled at her reflection in the window. There she was. There you are. Laura, come on. She was always drifting off these days.

The telephone rang and she answered it on the first ring, as though she’d been waiting, but she hadn’t, she’d picked it up in surprise, it was right next to her. It was cold against her ear, a cold wind like in a forest clearing, with the trees sighing, creaking, the soft plash of snow falling on snow . . . and David’s voice, counting down four three two one –

He was patting her shoulder. “Laura, honey. You gotta see this.”

She opened her eyes, uncurled in the passenger seat. He was driving them through the mountains, the sun sinking, turning the woods to amber and flame.

“The woods are so beautiful,” she said.

“They’re full of dead girls.”

“That’s a horrible thing to say.”

“Oh no, don’t get me wrong. I’m agreeing with you.”

“Beautiful dead girls. Exquisite misogyny.”

He hadn’t taken his eyes off the road, but now he shot her an angry glance. “I wouldn’t have expected to hear that word from you, Laura. Of all people. You know who I am, the kind of man I am. You make these movies with me, don’t you? If I’m a misogynist, what does that make you?”

Laura sighed. “It doesn’t matter. You don’t know this story.”

What did she see in his eyes, in that moment? Only what she’d always seen there but never named. Contempt. Anger. He thought she was crazy. She didn’t make sense at all. He said: you talk a lot, but you’re not saying anything.

She wanted to tell him to stop the car, more than anything she wanted him to stop the car. She wanted to be alone, to run alone through the trees. Lose herself in the woods. The tightening of her core, that pull, that heat. She didn’t care what happened to her. She pressed her forehead to the car window, watched the sun burn down the world.

Thinking of the Woods King, thinking of his name—that was all she knew of him, just that, his name and what he was. It was enough for her to bring herself to bed and in the darkness imagine the sweet bite of his kiss . . . but in the midst of slipping swelling unpetalling—some thing breathed. She froze. Listened. No, she’d imagined it. Her own breath, caught in unfamiliar quiet. This remote place. Wet fingers, her thoughts running away with her.

It breathed again. A soft snort.

David. His adolescent fantasy. Creeping on a girl. Hiding in the wardrobe. No, he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t. Watching her through the slatted doors. Sick. Why would she think that?

She flung out her hand, hit the light switch.

Fucking hell, Laura! She was being ridiculous. Nothing there. Just a draft, under the curtain. The scratch of heavy fabric over the floorboards.

Strange how her thoughts had gone straight to David . . . but he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t do that. That was a strange and puerile fantasy, something he’d worked through long ago. Not something he would actually do. He wouldn’t smuggle himself into her room and watch her, like a scene in one of his movies. Close up on her face as she brought herself off. No. The sound of his breath from behind the wardrobe door . . . he wouldn’t do that. How horrible she was, to think that of him.

Nevertheless, she got out of bed and went to the wardrobe. It was empty, only some spare bedding and towels. She went to the window next and pushed aside the curtain. Looked out on the gravel path that led to the front of the hotel. Two figures were walking there. Their shadows fell behind them, long and dark, reaching into the forest all around. The couple walked, but their shadows moved differently. They fell together, wrestled and tore at each other’s heads. Laura closed the curtains.

Watch out for bears, the girl had said. She’d known Laura’s name. But did she also know that Laura didn’t care about the bears. Did she know that Laura still wanted to walk alone in the woods at night? She did, she did. She felt a pull in the core of her body, a physical tug. How strange, how sexual it was, this need and desire. She was afraid of it, afraid of being led away from herself, into the mysteries of the forest. Afraid of her own body. She took two sleeping pills and let them eat her dreams until the morning came.

Fragile white cloud caught among the trees. And the trees crossing spiky fingers against the sky. She was shivering, her bones cold and numb. She was to unfold herself from a shadow hanging like fruit from a tree. She was the first ghost and her revenge was something she carried in her bare hands like a fragile egg. Transparent and teeming with tiny sharp splinters of bone.

David wanted to shoot in the dawn light, to catch the crackle of frost before it softened under the winter sun. The transparency of her dress, her skin translucent, a beam of orange sunlight firing between her legs . . . that was the beauty, right there. She was barefoot, a ghost. Thin as a ghost. Naked now, always. Because her body didn’t matter, after all. They had dragged her into the creek, a gang of them, laughing and roaring. They didn’t even stop after she was dead. “The world is a terrible place,” David said. “But you see my movies, they are strange but they are also beautiful.”

She would unfold from the fruit of the tree, a dark shadow-flower blooming into shade. What would she be, when she crept from her cocoon? A terror, a fierce unloving child. An aching monster. A terrible thing.

David’s face next to her face. “Eyes like this. Don’t move at all. You’re completely dead and no one knows or cares.” He moved her arm a little higher, twisted it a little outwards. She was sprawled on the dirt and there was a man on top of her. And there were men all around her. She didn’t know any of their names. In the script they were numbers. It could be Rapist 1 or Rapist 21, they all took turns with her. This one rested his weight between her legs for a moment. He was heavy, stacked with muscles.

“Hey,” she said.

“You’re dead, babe. Be grateful for whatever you get.”

They went again. There was blood over his white shirt. The others were cheering him on and then someone said the line.

Oh shit she’s dead.

A moment of silence. The guy kept ramming away on top of her. Then laughter. It didn’t matter if she was dead or not. It was funnier, now she was dead.

“That’s going to get them,” David said. “Oh yes it is. That’s a real nightmare, right there.”

Laura nodded. Okay. She couldn’t speak to David at all in that moment. She was disgusted with him, with herself. But it was just a movie, she was being crazy. It was good he was doing this. Drawing attention to this . . . to . . . ah she didn’t know the right lines anymore. How this was all justified, what to say so that everyone could keep pretending it was okay.

At last she was allowed to get up off the ground. She pushed the men, the actors, away from her. They were laughing, excited. David was watching the footage back, smiling, nodding his head. Someone—a woman—handed Laura a red coat and she wrapped it around herself. They’d been filming for hours. Over and over, playing the scene out from every possible angle. Now someone was touching her hair, dabbing something on her lip. She put her hand up to her face.

“Stop, please.”

“You need to take a break, hun?”

No. She needed it all to stop. She looked around her. They were in a part of the woods that led down from the road, where the trees were sparse and a thin trickle of a creek ran through. But beyond that, the woods grew thick and dark and tangled. She wanted to go there, and lose herself inside the forest. But David was calling her again, they were going to go again: he wanted everything to be perfect.

They finished and wandered back to their beers and their fire. They went away, they all left. She took a deep, ragged breath. And felt it breeze through her, cold air whistling through her broken insides. She got to her feet and felt her body fall away from her, like stepping out of a dress. It fell in pieces, slumped face down in the creek. She saw it was a body carved open and emptied. Defiled. Annihilated. Shameful. She felt so ashamed. She’d always been a nothing person, a no one, and now even that was over. It didn’t matter now. It had never mattered. Had her body ever been touched with love? No, never. Or with desire? No. Tenderness? Not even a glancing blow. They kissed her with broken glass. Caressed her with knives. That body—worthless. She left it spilling its jewels into the cold creek.

But without her body, she was lost. She didn’t know how to move, how to breathe. She was ghost . . . without form or substance. She felt she could drift, she could disperse. That was the impulse she felt most keenly. But she understood she was tied to her flesh by a gleaming strand of silver that rippled into her empty shape and dragged her to the trees. And the body still cried to her: come back, come back. But no, she couldn’t, she never would. And so the silver strand wove the empty space around her, wrapping her into a seed.

She woke in the night, the covers fallen from her. Suddenly, without warning. He was in the room, she was sure. She heard his breathing, the sound of him rubbing himself wetly, quickly, a stifled breath—she reached out and slammed on the light.

Nothing. Silence. The room was empty.

The little light glimmered into the shadows. There really was no one here. But she could smell his cologne, his suede shoes.

She grabbed a shirt and jeans from the floor and went to the window. The full moon washed the woods in an eerie pale light. The trees stood out, glittering and frosted, and from the trees hung clusters of blood-dark seeds, opaque and writhing, each one full to bursting with something moving, pushing against the tough membrane of shadow.

One of the ghostseeds pulsed with light, and split its seam with a jagged scrape. From the tight pod unfurled a long stretch of soft fur and claws and teeth. Velvety silky fur, tumbling to the ground. A creature of some kind . . . a bear. They were bears! All of them. Bears about to be born from their hanging shells. Little girls with big bear heads and bear jaws and bear bellies and bear paws. They bore themselves out of the seedpods and stretched and limbered and tumbled around the trees.

Laura wanted to get closer, to touch their silky fur and maybe have one curl up in her arms . . . but they were moving away, into the woods, beyond her sight. She wanted to go into the woods, too. She felt no fear. Not of the bears, not of the stories. She didn’t care what happened to her. She just wanted to follow that pull, that call of the darkness.

She would go. Now. No more waiting. She went to her door and pulled it open. Something was moving at the end of the corridor. There was the sound of running, something growling low. A thrumming of blood in her ears. And then she was there, the girl, huge and feral now, taking all the space in the corridor and filling it with her silky fur, her claws, her teeth. There was blood on the white ivory in her mouth. She spat David’s watch onto the carpet at Laura’s feet. All bloody and covered in chips of bone and scraps of skin.

She ran, her red coat flashing through the woods. Wet leaves and soil under her shoes. The woods are full of dead girls. She heard voices calling her back, men trailing her, hunting her. She wouldn’t go back. She was pulled onwards, that tugging at her core growing stronger, more insistent. She kept moving, running into the dark dense forest, her heart thundering in her ears and her chest burning and her muscles aching—and she tripped on a tree root and fell, sprawled over leaves and mud.

Her heart thumped in her chest. She felt her pulse in her throat, in her fingers, digging into the dirt. She’d fallen into a natural clearing. She clambered to her feet and raised her head, and he was suddenly there, a shadow in the darkness between two trees. He wasn’t what she expected him to be, not really. He was wearing a mask but it was a mask of dreaming. She didn’t know him, only from stories. They’d buried the stories so deep, she wouldn’t have known him at all if it hadn’t been for the apple he held in his hand.

“It’s just an apple,” he said. “Take it, if you want.” His eyes were hidden behind the mask, or she wouldn’t have been able to look at him, so fierce, so upright was his bearing. The proud antlers that crested around his head seemed to tangle and weave in and out with tree limbs and branches. As though he wore the whole forest for his crown. The Woods King, his hands full of gifts. “Apples want to be bitten,” said he, and held out the fruit. She took it from him, their fingers touching, sliding together and apart. The apple tumbled glossy into her palm. She snapped the skin, bit into the pale heart. Juice flooded her tongue, shone on her mouth. He reached out and slid his thumb over the flesh of her lip, then his own lip, licking off the trembling droplet. An almost kiss. A teasing glance. Nothing more. But it was the same as if he’d pressed his whole mouth against her and tugged at her quivering heart.

This was the forest, too. Not only the bare haunted pines with their ghostfruit hanging like seeds, pulsing with dark blood. But this lush place of deep moss and rough bark, green shadow on green shape, and him—he knelt at her parted knees, his hair falling softly over her thighs. And then his mouth was at her ear, and he told her a story. A girl wandered in this forest, he whispered. And do you want to know what happened, when she met the Woods King? We made her Queen, he said.

His palm pressed upon her. The bone of his thumb slid against her. A long ribbon of flame rose within her, a burning rose unpetaled her from below. The stars were dreaming, silver dreaming scattered in the black silken sky. And they rushed back to her, the stars, the dreams, her blood—and she came, back to her body, crying, weeping for all she had been, all she had lost. Not just her losses, no, but all of them, all—but here was the other side of the story and she was glad and grateful she had made it to the end, to say the last line. She sank into his mouth and he spoke her body back to her with the language of dreaming, until she was under the ground in the rich dark soil, growing roses from her fingers, pushing green shoots up into new life.

Originally published as “Her Blood the Apples, Her Bones the Trees” in The Silent Garden: A Journal of Esoteric Fabulism, edited by The Silent Garden Collective.

About the Author

Georgina Bruce is a writer and teacher living in Edinburgh. Her short stories have been widely published in magazines and anthologies, and have been longlisted for the Bridport and Mslexia short story prizes. In 2017, her story “White Rabbit” won the British Fantasy Award for Short Fiction. This House of Wounds is her debut collection from Undertow Books.