The trees are talking.
Beneath my feet the ground thrums as whispers slither from one to another. No-one knows how they do it. No-one knows how they move.
We came here in search of space; sky between branches and the scent of wet earth. Ground that fermented with the movement of insects, creaked with the growing of plants.
Rory’s idea. We lay in his sour sheets, staring out at the view of curry house walls.
‘Fresh fucking air,’ he said, blowing his morning cigarette smoke away from me. ‘That’s what we need. Bastarding leaves above our heads and the sound of twatting birdsong.’
‘Eloquent,’ I said, dashing for the bathroom. ‘You’ve talked me round.’
‘Christ.’ He stubbed the cigarette out in the ashtray he’d stolen from the Red Lion years ago. ‘You throwing up again?’
Ella’s imminent arrival made the dream more appealing, made it solidify into a plan. Rory waxed lyrical profanities about our child running through fields, feeding lambs and breathing air that was not laced with toxins. He scrolled through pictures of dilapidated farm houses and came home with armfuls of random baby equipment.
‘Look,’ he said, waving a potty with a picture of a yellow elephant on it and a pair of pyjamas at me.
‘You’re getting ahead of yourself,’ I said.
‘They’re huge. They’d fit a toddler.’
He shrugged. ‘They’ve got rockets on.’
The house was collapsing into the ground, nestling into the hillside, cracked windows looking out onto trees bent to the will of the wind and ground dusted with heather. The air smelled of wet earth. It was bare, and beautiful. It was all we could afford.
Rory filled its crumbling walls with any creature that blinked baleful eyes at him and appeared in need of rescuing; kittens, a scruffy mongrel with wiry hair and overzealous tail. Chickens in the garden. I built the hen house myself.
Ella slept in a second-hand cot in our room, growing from tiny red-faced bundle to fat-limbed toddler wearing rocket pyjamas. Rory picked her up, their two ginger heads touching.
‘Told you they’d fit,’ he said.
‘Two years later.’
He bounced her up and down. ‘And they’re your favourites aren’t they, the ones Daddy chose? Yes, they are. You love those rockets. So you can fly the fuck away from this shithole planet.’
She laughed and reached for his nose. ‘Shithole.’
‘Don’t say that,’ I said, taking her from him. ‘Naughty Daddy.’
‘Daddy,’ she said, clapping her hands.
‘Naughty Daddy has to go to work.’ He kissed Ella and blew a raspberry on my cheek. ‘Bollocks, wrong way round,’ he said, and left.
‘Bollocks,’ Ella called after him.
Dressed in shorts and wellies, she and I fed chickens and collected eggs, weeded vegetables, walked the dog. He scampered far and wide while we meandered at toddler pace, rescuing a grit-crusted worm and watching the slow, droning toil of bumble bees amongst the clover.
We saw them when we reached the hilltop. Down in the valley below, where the trees grew straight and the stream quivered, a bustle of activity so unexpected we both stopped short. Dog cowered behind my legs, half-yelp, half-growl bubbling in the back of his throat.
We had never seen another person on our walks before.
They wore white, head to toe, a bustling body of insects planting saplings. It should have felt benign. One stopped, looked in our direction, brought a white-gloved hand up to shade eyes, and I imagined us silhouetted against the skyline. Woman, child and scared, scruffy dog.
‘Time to go,’ I said, taking Ella’s pudgy hand.
‘Fuckinell,’ she said.
‘Don’t say that.’
The people disappeared but the trees remained. Day after day we watched; woman, child and scruffy dog. Still he growled and barked, bounding forwards and then returning to circle us, though nothing moved down there.
They were spindly at first, branches supple and leaves pale, a translucent green sea, wafting gently, filling the air with a soft swish and rasp. As though you could hear them growing.
Every day they were taller, broader, more widely spread.
Though that wasn’t possible.
But they were. Reaching now to the bottom of the hillside, obscuring the stream. They were like no tree I had ever seen, beautiful branches stretching skyward, leaves shimmering in the sun.
I could not let a day pass without seeing them, drawn to feel their ridges and welts under my palm.
The dog snarled and barked, whimpered and wagged, ran towards them and away again.
Ella remained unperturbed, sitting with sturdy legs out on the scrubby grass, watching silently as branches performed a slow, exquisite dance.
‘What the fuck are they?’ Rory asked, arm around my shoulder, ginger hairs glinting in the sun.
He whistled, moved forward. They were half way up the hillside.
‘They’ve moved,’ I said.
He shook his head. ‘You’re off your shagging box.’
He wasn’t listening. Hand outstretched, he stumbled forwards until he stood beneath the sprawling branches, face tipped up to see sunlight flicker between them.
I lifted Ella and held her to me as he touched a pale leaf and examined it. The dog, hackles raised, howled and barked and ran to the tree, to Rory, to me.
‘They’re so fucking beautiful,’ he said. Shuddered. ‘So fucking unnatural. Let’s get out of here.’
That night he lay still but breathed fast and shallow, and I know he didn’t sleep. The scent of sap hung in the air around us, the whisper of branches. When I closed my eyes the imprint of leaves threaded across the darkness.
At last Ella stood and rattled the bars of her cot.
‘Mama. Out,’ she said.
I rose, grateful to give up pretence of sleep. Pressing her against me I longed not for her soft, warm flesh but the scrape of bark against skin, the scent of soil and sap.
Rory sat up, hair spiked like a ginger hedgehog. ‘Where’s the dog?’
We walked without need to voice the plan, without questioning it. They had reached the top of the hill.
‘They’ve shitting moved,’ Rory said.
The air chimed with the sound of leaves stroking one another, branches reaching out, roots gliding under our feet. Sunlight speckled the ground.
Ella flopped onto the ground with a sigh. ‘Shitting.’
‘Don’t say that.’ The sound of them so sweet. As though they whispered my name.
I heard the breath flow from my lips, watched my own fingers reach out until the nearest trunk lay coarse beneath them. It moved. Just a little – a throb of recognition. Leaves reached down to stroke my face and I looked up, gazed through slender branches to the glimpses of blue sky, and knew this was where I belonged.
The nearest leaf shivered in the corner of my eye, and I caught it, held it. Examined it.
They were like nothing I had ever seen, broad like an Oak, smooth like an Ash, pale as though newly unfurled. Except on this tree. These were edged with a dark red.
‘Look at this.’
Slowly Rory tore his gaze from the trunk, nodded. Eyes large, face pale. He pointed at the trunk, licked his lips.
There was a patch of bark, just above my hand, that was discoloured; grey and damp. The texture dense and rough, different from the rest of the trunk.
My heart crashed. ‘What is it?’
Rory pulled me away. ‘Hair,’ he said.
* * *
I must have slept that night. Dreams still scarred my mind; the whisper of roots, call of breeze in branches.
Dawn spilled down the hill and Ella yawned, stood and rattled the bars of her cot.
I glanced at her, fat fingers waving, hair spiked like a ginger hedgehog, rocket pyjamas rumpled to reveal a chubby belly.
I felt his absence, the cold, the quiet. He had been gone hours.
Ella looked at me, sighed and sat down with a thud. ‘Shite.’
‘Don’t say that.’ I lifted her, breathing in the warm scent of her morning skin.
‘Daddy,’ she said.
I fed and dressed her, held her to me before placing her in the cot. All the while I imagined the shift of green against sky, the snarl of bark beneath my hand. Her accusatory gaze was tearful, bottom lip sucked in and I knew the wailing was about to start.
‘Mama?’ she said. Crack in her voice breaking my heart.
I kissed the top of her head. ‘You’ll be all right. Safer here.’
She stood and lifted her arms to me. ‘Fuckinell?’
I stroked her face. ‘Don’t say that.’
The trees are talking. Beneath my feet the ground thrums as whispers slither from one to another. They have reached the hilltop.
Even now they call to me, my arms reaching to touch them. Straining to hear them whisper.
I struggle to hold onto the image of Rory, ginger hedgehog hair and cheerful barrage of obscenity.
I look for red-tipped leaves.
Enveloped by the trunk, he can still be seen. Face visible, tipped back, eyes closed. Hair spread and absorbed into the tree. What can be seen of his body is twisted, limbs swallowed, just tangled swellings of bark and cloth.
The whisper is strong now and I know, if I were to just reach out, let myself be taken, I would be part of them forever. With Rory forever. Taste the salt of my own tears.
The skin on his face is mottled, crusted and split as the tree invades. I trace his lips, still his own, with my finger. I can barely see through the vision of roots and branches and leaves.
‘Rory.’ Voice thin, dry.
His mouth quivers under my touch. Breath sticks in my throat.
His eyes open. A gossamer of fine green lines.
‘Get away,’ he says. ‘Stay away.’
Sap wells in his eyes, tracks slowly down his face.
I nod. Remember him. Laughing, swearing. Smoking. Rescuing stray animals, holding new-born Ella with his face masked in wonder.
‘Fucking love you,’ he says.
I press my lips to his. He tastes of soil.
By the end of the day the car is packed. Cats and chickens freed to take their chances. Ella fed and dressed in rocket pyjamas for the journey.
I don’t know where we’re going. Just away.
She is in my arms and I am about to take her to the car, strap her in. We are ready.
I open the door. Evening sunlight pours in, and Ella reaches for the golden specks dancing in the air, laughs. I can smell sap, hear the melody of branch upon branch. My hands twitch for the feel of bark under them.
Hesitating, I lean against the door frame, glance towards the hilltop. Close my eyes, and a bright, beautiful filigree pattern sprawls across the darkness.
My breath comes slow and deep.
Too late to leave now anyway. Dark soon.
One more night.
Sleep is filled with dreams so enticing that Ella struggles to call me from them.
I am rooted to the ground, reaching deep under the earth, one with the creatures that writhe there. I stretch to the sky, fingertips grazing clouds.
The bars on the cot rattle.
My skin thickens, stiffens and cracks. Hair rustles in the breeze, gaze shows the world through a web of green.
‘Mama,’ she says. ‘Out.’
I am once again in the room with her, groggy from a sleep I do not wish to leave. Still dark.
‘It’s not morning.’
‘Out,’ she says. ‘Mama. Out.’
I glance at her ginger head. Remember Rory. Hold her to me and chase away the night.
She points to the window. ‘Out.’
‘It’s still dark,’ I say. ‘Look.’
I pull back the curtain.
Darkness, but not night. The view from the window is obscured, completely covered with branches, crowding in, scratching the glass.
‘Fuckinell,’ she says.
Green leaves tipped red.
Liz Xifaras is a member of Writing West Midlands’ Room 204 Writer Development Programme. Her work has been selected for Penguin’s WriteNow Live, placed in a number of competitions and appeared in Idle Ink and The Sunlight Press. Find her on Twitter @LizXifaras