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Only Unity Saves the Damned
by Nadia Bulkin
“Dude, are you getting this?”
Rosslyn Taro, 25, and Clark Dunkin, 25, are standing in the woods. It’s evening—the bald-cypresses behind them are shadowed and the light between the needles is the somber blue that follows sunsets—and they are wearing sweatshirts and holding stones.
“It’s on,” says the voice behind the camera. “To the winner go the spoils!”
They whip their arms back and start throwing stones. The camera pans to the right as the stones skip into the heart of Goose Lake. After a dozen rounds the camera pans back to Rosslyn Taro and Clark Dunkin arguing over whose stone made the most skips, and then slowly returns to the right. Its focus settles on a large bur oak looming around the bend of the lake, forty yards away.
“Hey, isn’t that the Witching Tree?”
Off-camera, Clark Dunkin says, “What?” and Rosslyn Taro says,
“Come on, seriously?”
“You know, Raggedy Annie’s Witching Tree.”
The girl sounds too shaky to be truly skeptical. “How do you know?”
“Remember the song? ‘We hung her over water, from the mighty oak tree.’ Well, there aren’t any other lakes around here.
And First Plymouth is on the other side of the lake.” The camera zooms, searches for a white steeple across the still water, but the light is bad. “‘We hung her looking over at the cemetery.’”
The camera swings to Rosslyn Taro, because she is suddenly upset. She is walking to the camera, and when she reaches it, shoves the cameraman. “Bay, shut up! I hate that stupid song. Let’s just go, I’m getting cold. Come on, please.” But Clark Dunkin is still staring at the tree. His hands are shaking. Rosslyn Taro calls his name: “Lark!”
The camera follows Clark Dunkin’s gaze to the tree. There is a figure standing in front of it, dressed in a soiled white shift and a black execution hood. The figure reaches two pale, thin hands to the edge of the hood as if to reveal its face. And then the camera enters a topspin, all dirt and branches and violet sky, as the cameraman begins to run. Rosslyn Taro is heard screaming. Someone—the cameraman, or possibly Clark Dunkin—is whimpering, as if from very far away, “oh, shit, oh, shit.”
And then the video abruptly cuts to black.
They called themselves the LunaTicks. Like everything else, it was Bay’s idea: he named them after an old British secret society, supposedly “the smartest men in Birmingham.” There were ground rules not only for their operations, but for life as a whole: if one got caught, the rest would confess or expect to be ratted out; where one goes, the others must follow. Only unity saves the damned, Bay said.
Roz’s father thought the boys were a terrible influence on her.
These slouching undead fools had metastasized at his front door one day when Roz was in sixth grade, with their uncombed hair and unwashed skin and vulgar black Tshirts. He’d made the mistake of letting the vampires in. Under their watch, his daughter’s mood swings escalated from mild distemper to a full-blown madness. The charcoal rings around her eyes got deeper; her silver skull necklaces got bigger. She was vandalizing the elementary school; she was shoplifting lipstick. He’d tell her he was locking the doors at midnight and in the morning he would find her sleeping, nearly frozen, on the porch—or worse, he wouldn’t find her at all. So he excavated her room, vowing to take the Baileys and the Dunkins to court if he found a single pipe, a single syringe. He gave up when she failed to apply to community college. The screen door swung shut behind her and he thanked God that he also had a son.
He was not alone. Bay’s parents hated Roz and Lark as well; their hatred of the two losers who hung like stones around Bay’s neck was the only thing the former Mr. and Mrs. Bailey still shared. They tried, separately, to introduce Bay to different crowds: the jocks, the computer geeks, the 4-H club. Bay said he hated them all (too dumb too weird too Christian), but the truth was that they had all rejected him. Eventually Bay’s parents gave him an ultimatum: get rid of your friends, or we get rid of the car. So the responsibility of driving down bedraggled county roads—and all roads lead to Goose Lake, the old folks said—fell to Roz and Lark.
Lark’s parents couldn’t have named Roz or Bay if they had tried. “There’s that raccoon girl,” they’d say, or “it’s that damn scarecrow boy again,” before drifting back into a dreamless sleep.
None of the LunaTicks would have graduated high school without the other two.
The Goose Lake video went viral, and life started to change just like Bay predicted. They sent the video from Bay’s phone to the local news and suddenly they weren’t the LunaTicks or the “dumb-ass emo kids” anymore—they were crisp and poignant, three local youths who had captured shocking footage of their hometown spook. People on the street gave them second looks of fear and fascination. A couple reporters came out from Lincoln and Omaha, though their arrogance forbade them from understanding what this video meant to Whippoorwill. They were interviewed on a paranormal radio show, Unheard Of, based in Minneapolis. For the first time in their lives, they came with the warning label they’d always wanted. “The footage that you are about to see,” dramatic pause, “may disturb you.”
Bay had to keep from laughing whenever he watched the Goose Lake video, because of the absurdity of his perky little girlfriend pretending to be a dead witch—for Halloween last fall, Jessica had been a sexy strawberry. He was proud of her moxie, even though she’d whined afterwards that she smelled like a dead rat.
“When we make the real movie, I want a better costume,” she said.
“We ought to hire a real actress for the real movie, babe,” he replied.
The movie was his big plan for getting out of Whippoorwill.
It was all that time spent working at the theater, selling tickets to the “sheeple.” Said “sheeple” couldn’t get enough of those found footage mockumentaries. But really, they had a lot of ways out of Whippoorwill. There was working on a Dream America Cruise, or hitch-hiking, or Greenpeace. There were communes and oil rigs. The LunaTicks would lie on the asphalt watching jets pass overhead and dream up these exit ramps out of car exhaust. I can’t wait to get out of here, they’d say, smiling wistfully—they’d been saying it for years.
Lark couldn’t stop watching the Goose Lake video. He got the file on his own phone and then showed it off like a newborn baby to his retired neighbors, the gas station clerk, the town drunk who sat outside the grocery store with a whiskey bottle in a paper bag. Lark always asked what they saw, as if even he didn’t know the answer. No matter what they said, he’d shake his head and mutter, “That’s not it.” Bay said he was taking the method acting thing too seriously.
Roz couldn’t watch the video at all. This played well during interviews because she seemed traumatized, but after the microphones were off she was angry all the time. She wasn’t getting enough sleep, she said. The silver maple outside scratched at her window, as if asking to be let in.
The town bent around them like a car wrapping around a tree during a tornado. Suddenly all these Raggedy Annies— Raggedy Annie in my yard, Raggedy Annie in my attic, Raggedy Annie in the hospital when my husband passed away—came crawling out into the sunlight. The entire town had grown up with the same story about a witch who aborted babies back when the town was still being sculpted raw out of the rolling prairie, and they all knew the matching nursery rhyme as sure as they knew Happy Birthday— we hung her over water, from the mighty oak tree/ we hung her looking over at the cemetery.
A girl from high school, an ex-cheerleader, chatted Lark up in the express lane at the grocery store where he worked. She was buying diapers, but she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. “Aren’t you freaked out? God, I think I might have died if I had seen her.” Lark said that wasn’t part of the story. Raggedy Annie didn’t kill on sight. The ex-cheerleader made a mock screaming sound and hissed, “Don’t say her name!” She also said to meet her at The Pale Horse on Friday night, but she didn’t show.
So Lark sat at the bar with Bay and Roz. The bartender said he’d always known that bitch Raggedy Annie was real. “Shit, man, every time I drive by Goose Lake I get this weird feeling. I thought it was a magnetic field or something, like Mystery Quadrant up in South Dakota. But nah, man. Our fucking parents were right! She’s our demon. She’s our cross to bear, if you don’t mind me saying. And the bitch can’t let go of a grudge. There’s just this one thing I don’t get though… but why did she show herself to you? Of all the people who’ve been boating and camping out at Goose Lake, why you guys?”
What they knew he meant was why, out of all the great little people in this great little town, would Raggedy Annie choose these losers? Or was it like attracts like: yesterday’s demon for today’s devils?
On Monday Lark showed the video to a pack of shabby children in the candy aisle. Tears were shed; one kid pissed himself.
As a furious mother hoisted her away, one girl pointed at Lark and shrieked, “Mommy, the tree!” Lark’s co-workers would later say that they had never seen him look so freaked out, so cracked up. He started shouting—in desperation, everyone told the manager, not anger—“I know, it’s the Witching Tree!”
The day after, Lark neither showed up for work nor answered his phone. He probably would have been fired anyway, given the children-in-the-candy-aisle incident, but Roz and Bay had to make certain he hadn’t somehow died—a freak electrocution, carbon monoxide, anything seemed possible if Lark wasn’t answering his phone—because where one goes, the others must follow. So Roz drove them to the Dunkins’ house on the scraggly edge of town. No luck, no Lark. “I have no idea where he is,” said Mrs. Dunkin, from the couch. It smelled more foul than usual. “But he isn’t here, raccoon girl.”
His parents had really let the yard go—the branches of a grotesque hackberry tree were grasping the roof of the little tin house, like the tentacles of a mummified octopus. They always kept the shades drawn, so maybe they hadn’t noticed it. “Nice tree, Mrs. Dunkin,” Bay said as they left, but she didn’t respond.
Bay had the big ideas, but Lark was the smartest LunaTick. He slouched in the back of classrooms, mumbling answers only when forced. Most of his teachers dismissed his potential—as the twig’s bent, so’s the tree inclined, they said. But there was no arguing with test scores. When the time came to shuffle the seventeen-year-olds out of gymnasiums and into the real world, Lark got the Four-Year-Colleges handout instead of Two-Year-Colleges or The U.S. Armed Forces. He stared at it for a week before quietly applying to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
If he stayed he knew he would end up like Roger Malkin. Bay would eventually get a job at the Toyota dealership and Roz would marry some tool with bad hair, but he’d take up the mantle of town drunk. He had the genes for it. Roger would slur, “You’s a good kid,” and that meant they understood each other, damn it.
He told the other LunaTicks that he’d gotten into UNL while Bay was driving them to Dairy Queen. Bay was so upset that he nearly drove the car off Dead Man’s Bridge, and that moment of gut-flattening fear was the most alive any of them had felt in months. “Come with me,” Lark begged, but Roz just chewed her hair while Bay ground his teeth. They looked like scared rats, backing into their holes.
After the university paperwork started coming in—Get Involved! See What’s New!—Lark realized that his life in Whippoorwill was a mere shadow of real human experience. He saw himself in an inspirational poster: teetering alone on a cliff, muslin wings outstretched, DARE TO DREAM emblazoned across the bottom. In what should have been his final summer in his hometown, Whippoorwill shrank and withered until just driving down Jefferson Street made him itchy, claustrophobic.
He’d stand in the shower stall with the centipedes for hours, drowning out the coughs of his narcoleptic parents, willing the water to wash off his mildewed skin. All this is ending, he would think. All this is dead to me.
When he loaded up his car in August his parents pried themselves off the couch to see him off. “You won’t get far,” his mother whispered in his ear as she hugged him, bones digging into his back, and from the doorway his father said, “He’ll come crawling back. They always do.”
And he was right. After Lark came home for winter break, he never made the drive back east. Classes were hard. Dorm rooms were small. People were brusque, shallow, vulgar. Everyone had more money than he did. The jocks who’d made high school miserable were now living in frat houses behind the quad. He hadn’t made any real friends—not friends like Roz and Bay, anyway. They were waiting for him at Dead Man’s Bridge after the big December snow, smiling with outstretched wool gloves.
“We know you couldn’t stay away,” Roz said. For a moment Lark considered grabbing both their hands and jumping into the river of ice below.
Raggedy Annie stood at the end of the bed. It’s Jessica, Roz thought. Jessica broke into my room and she’s trying to scare me and she and Bay are going to laugh about this tomorrow. She tried to open her mouth and couldn’t. She tried to pry her jaw open with her hand and couldn’t lift her arm.
The thing at the end of the bed— Jessica, Jessica, Jessica—stretched two bone-white arms to the black hood. Roz tried to close her eyes but before she could, the hood was gone and the face of the ghoul was revealed. She didn’t know what to expect, since Raggedy Annie never had a face in the story—but it was her mother. She was glowing blue-green, like foxfire in the woods, and if not for that glow her face was so flat and her movements so jerky that she could have been an old film reel. Her mother—who should have been a mile away and six feet deep in First Plymouth—opened and closed her mouth as if trying to speak, though only a hoarse, coffin-cramped gasp escaped.
She was a mess the next day. She forgot about make-up and coffee and straightening her hair. She forgot to call the landscaping company about getting the silver maple tree, the one that knocked on her window every night, under control. It was almost as tall as the chimney now; it was overwhelming the house.
The one thing I tell you to do, as her father would later say. You’re just like your mother. Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, I guess.
She also forgot about the performance review that would have determined whether she’d be made Accessories Sales Supervisor at Clipmann’s, and ended up spending most of the review trying to save her job. “Are you on drugs?” her manager asked, disappointed. He’d made it clear how important it was for women to look put-together on the sales floor. “You look terrible.”
Old Lady Marigold, who had nothing to do now that her husband was dead except rifle through clearance racks, found her listlessly hanging hats upon the hat tree. They looked like a headhunter’s tower. “You shouldn’t have messed with Raggedy Annie, Rosslyn Taro.”
Roz squeezed the cloche in her hand and took a deep breath that was meant to be calming. “We didn’t do anything to her, we just…” The calming breath hitched in her throat—memories of smearing the white shift in damp dirt, saying hell no she wouldn’t wear it, watching Jessica slip it on instead—“We were just hanging out at Goose Lake and happened to…”
“You must have done something!” Old Lady Marigold squinted as if to see through a curtain. “You must have been trying something, you must have invited…”
“You care so much about her now, but the town elders killed Raggedy Annie, didn’t they? Isn’t that the whole point of the stupid story? This town will literally kill you if you step out of line?”
Old Lady Marigold pursed her wrinkled, wine-stained lips but held her tongue for fifteen seconds longer than normal, so Roz knew that she was right. Not that anyone needed Raggedy Annie to teach them that lesson—just live in Whippoorwill long enough for the walls to build up, either behind or beyond you.
“It is not a stupid story. Good Lord, what did your mother teach you?”
She shoved the cloche into place. “My mother’s dead.”
“And you don’t want to let her down, do you? Now Raggedy Annie was an evil woman, but her story is part of our story, Rosslyn Taro, and for that alone you ought to have some respect. You shouldn’t have showed that tape to anyone. You shouldn’t have paraded her around like a damn pageant queen.”
Roz willed herself to say nothing. Bay had warned them about keeping quiet regarding Goose Lake, to make sure their stories matched. He was getting calls from famous television shows, Paranormal Detectives type stuff. He kept saying this is it, but Roz couldn’t help thinking that more publicity—more pageantry—would only make the haunting worse. Bay wasn’t getting visits from anything pretending to be Raggedy Annie, so he probably didn’t care. She’d asked him how they would explain Lark’s absence and he said, “Say he went insane, it’ll sound creepier.” She had never so much wanted to hit him.
“That friend of yours has been hanging out in Roger Malkin’s trailer. What’s his name, Lark?” Before he gave up the ghost several weeks ago, Mr. Malkin used to sit outside the grocery store next to the mechanical horses, drinking whiskey from a paper bag. Lark would be sent to shoo him away, but never had the heart to do it. “My hairdresser lives out in Gaslight Village and she says you gotta get him out of there. The debt collectors are coming to get the trailer any day now.”
She called Bay on her lunch break, to tell him that Lark had not in fact run off to Mexico, and ask him if Jessica still had the costume—her tongue no longer wanted to voice the hallowed, damned name of Raggedy Annie. “Because I think we should burn it.”
Bay was in an awful mood, supposedly due to a severe toothache. “Don’t flake out on me like Lark.”
“I’m not flaking, I just think we fucked up! I think we shouldn’t have done this!” She pulled back her hair, sunk into herself, felt the rapid beating of her heart. She thought she saw Raggedy Annie— Mom? —at the other end of the parking lot but then a car passed and it was just a stop sign. Talk about this and she’d sound crazy. Forget sounding crazy, she’d be crazy. Another loony. Just like Lark. She had to use language Bay understood.
“We should get rid of the evidence before anybody ever finds it.”
“Well, I have no idea where it is. I haven’t talked to Jessica since Tuesday. She’s being a bitch.”
If Lark was here, he’d say “no!” all sarcastic and wry, and she’d let out her horse-laugh and Bay would get pissed because he was the only one allowed to diss Jessica, and she’d say, “What do you expect with some nineteen-year-old Hot Topic wannabe?”
“She’s never got the time anymore. She’s always working on her damn terrariums.” She heard him scoff through the phone.
“Here I thought she hated science.”
The next day Roz called KLNW news and said she wanted to come clean about the Goose Lake video. “Our first mistake was making the film at all,” she said on the six o’clock news. “Our second mistake was showing it to other people. I just want to say to the entire community that I’m so sorry for lying, and I’m so sorry for any disrespect we may have caused.” To the nameless, unseen power behind the visitations, she added a silent prayer: Please forgive me. Please let me go.
The Bailey family tree lived in Aunt Vivian’s upstairs closet.
Once upon a time when Bay was young and bored and his parents were having it out at home, Aunt Vivian had unrolled it and presented it to him on her kitchen table. It was his inheritance, she said. Just like his father’s Smith & Wesson and his mother’s bad teeth. Aunt Vivian’s lacquered fingernails ran from name to name, jumping back and forth in time. “That’s your great-great grandpa Johnny, he enlisted after getting married and then went and died in the War,” she said. “And that’s Laura Jean, she’s your cousin-twice-removed. She wanted to be a movie star, but she only sang back-up in commercials.”
“Why is it called a tree,” little Bay asked.
“Because we all grew from the same roots. Lots of people draw their family trees starting from their great-grandpas at the top, as if all your ancestors lived and died just so you could be born, you special little cupcake. But that doesn’t make a damn bit of sense. You start with the roots—that’s Herman and Sarah Bailey, when they moved here from Ohio. The rest of us are their twigs. We grew out of them.”
The chart indeed looked like everyone since Herman and Sarah had grown out of their subterranean bones, children sprouting from their parents like spores.
“Does that mean we’re stuck here.”
Aunt Vivian cocked her head. “And just what is wrong with ‘here’?”
His parents had met in elementary school; they grew into a big-haired, Stairway to Heaven couple with matching letterman jackets. Whippoorwill born and bred, they cooed, as if that was anything to be proud of. They’d disproved their own manifesto by the time Bay was old enough to dial Child Services. For a while he was the only one who heard the plastic plates ricocheting off the dining room wall, the “fuck you”s and the “just get out”s, the stationwagon scurrying out of the driveway and jumping the curb. He wondered how to put that shit in the family tree. Attention, the tree is currently on fire. After the divorce severed his parents’ bond, he imagined his own name gliding away as if it had never been rooted to this gnarled monstrosity that began with Herman and Sarah. Yet nothing changed. He stayed tethered to the crown of the Bailey tree: a struggling, captive bird.
His father never liked it when he talked about New York, Vegas, Mexico. He would point a beer can at him and say, “You think you’re better than this town? We’re not good enough for you anymore?”
It seemed easier to say he was sick of “you fucking hillbillies” than to tell the truth. He knew that would get a response, probably a box in the ear for pissing on his surroundings. But what he really wanted to say was You were never good enough for me.
You were never good enough for anyone.
Rumor had it that the weirdo living in Roger “Alkie” Malkin’s trailer in Gaslight Village was an escaped convict. Tweaked-out gremlins in neon-shirts sometimes snuck peeks through the windows, standing on their tiptoes in the muddy swamp-grass that had swallowed most of the trailer’s tires. The weirdo was usually sitting in the dark with a flashlight, watching something terrifying on his phone. The glow on his face was lunar. When he noticed them he’d growl and scurry to the window and pull the curtains. The rumor adjusted—now he was a scientist from Area 51, on the run from the Feds.
But he was just a man—a boy, really—who had the misfortune of stumbling upon some hidden fold in the world that he couldn’t explain, and knew of no other recourse than retreat.
He was just Lark. When Roz knocked on the door of the trailer, distressed because she’d seen feet descend from the silver maple tree in her backyard, he opened the door. And when Bay banged upon the door an hour later, yelling that he knew they were in there, Lark again relented.
“The gang’s back together,” Lark whispered, trembling and huddling on the piss-stained carpet. He looked like death by then—he’d lost so much weight, so much color. But Roz and Bay were red-eyed too. They hadn’t spoken to each other since her confession to KLNW news. He had tried to contact her at first—called twenty-three times and sent seven text messages, including “Fuck you you fucking bitch” —but within forty-eight hours he was the one on KLNW, and Roz was the unstable nut-job with the ax to grind. He swore to the town of Whippoorwill that the video was one hundred percent authentic. “Only unity saves the damned.”
“I just got fired,” Bay said in the trailer. “My manager says she lost trust in me since my friend Rosslyn went on TV and said we faked the entire Goose Lake video.” Roz was clenching her stomach, refusing to look at him. “So thank you, Rosslyn. Thank you so much.”
“I was desperate!” she shouted. “You don’t know what it’s like! You turn every corner and you wonder—is she gonna be there? Is she watching me? Will anybody else see her? And even after I said sorry, she still didn’t stop!” She knelt down beside Lark and cautiously tugged on the hems of the blanket he wore like a shawl around his head. “Lark, I know you’ve been seeing her too.”
Lark stared blankly at her, and Bay clapped his hands over his head. “You’re unbelievable. It’s not Raggedy Annie, fuckwit, Raggedy Annie isn’t real! Remember? We made her! She’s Jessica!”
“Yeah? And where is your little girlfriend anyway? She’s a part of this mess, she ought to be here too.”
Bay nervously chewed on his fingernail as he stalked around Alkie’s trailer. It was empty save for plastic bags and cigarette butts and half-eaten meals: evidence of a life undone. “Jessica’s gone.”
The other LunaTicks were silent, but Bay slammed his fist into a plastic cabinet and snapped an answer to a question he’d heard only in his head, “I don’t know where! She’s just gone, she hasn’t been to work, her parents haven’t seen her… they think she got mad at me and ran off. When they looked in her room all they found were those… damn terrariums.” Suddenly exhausted, Bay slid to the carpet and pulled off his black beanie.
“They’re all the same too. Just one tiny tree in every one. Looks like a little oak tree.” The tiniest sliver of a bittersweet smile cracked Bay’s face. “Like a tiny Witching Tree.”
“Bay’s right,” Lark mumbled. “It’s not Raggedy Annie. It’s the trees. Here, look at the video again.” He held up his phone and their no-budget home movie began to play. Roz and Bay were so hollowed out by then that they didn’t have the strength to object to watching their little experimental film another, final time. They watched themselves skip stones across Goose Lake, watched the camera find the Witching Tree. They watched themselves act out the script they’d written at Jessica’s house the night before— “Let’s just go, I’m getting cold” —and watched Jessica stand ominous and hooded in front of the Witching Tree.
And finally, they watched the branches of the Witching Tree curl, like the fingers of some enormous dryad, toward Jessica.
“Do you see the tree?” Lark whispered, like he was coaching a baby to speak. The leaves of the tree stood on end, fluttering as if swept by a celestial wind, trembling as if awakening. “See it move?”
“I don’t understand,” Roz whined. “It’s the breeze…”
“No, no, no! Listen, I’ve looked this up, and these beings exist across the world, in dozens of civilizations across time… there’s Yggdrasil, there’s Ashvattha, there’s Világfa, there’s Kalpavrish-ka, and now there’s… there’s the Witching Tree.” Bay was about to punch Lark in the face, and they all knew it, so he spoke faster. “These trees, they connect… all the planes of existence, the world of the living with the world of the dead. The Witching Tree is our Cosmic Tree.”
Those words— Cosmic Tree—hung like smoke circles in Alkie’s musty trailer. Jessica’s terrariums. The trees that grew manic and hungry over their houses. The Witching Tree itself, eternal long-limbed sentinel of Goose Lake. And all roads led to Goose Lake…
Bay was the first to break the trance and grapple to his feet.
He claimed not to understand what Lark was trying to say. He said he couldn’t waste his time on this bullshit about trees, because what could a tree do to him? All he knew was that Lark and Roz had gone completely bat-shit, and now none of them were ever getting out of Whippoorwill, and was that what they wanted all along? Did they want to be stuck in this inbred town forever, maybe open a tree nursery if they were so obsessed with greenery?
“…dude, what are you doing to your teeth?”
Bay was picking at one of his bottom canine teeth, digging into the gum, trying to rip it out. “It’s the root!” he shouted through his bloody fingers. “It’s fucking killing me!”
Bay waited until he’d returned home to extract the tooth. He was so distracted by the electric pain that he failed to see that the dead cottonwood outside his mother’s house, the one that had broken his arm as a child, was growing green again. He used a pair of pliers and the bathroom mirror—the pain was nothing compared to the horror of enduring another moment with the tooth’s ruined root in his skull. Yet even as he stared at the ugly disembodied thing lying at the bottom of the sink, he could feel the roots of his other teeth rotting. He didn’t know what had happened to them—his bad teeth, his mother’s teeth—but he could feel their decay spreading into his jaws, his sinuses.
The thought of those sick roots growing into his bones—he saw them jutting out of his chin like saber-teeth, drilling down in search of soil—made him want to die…
They all had to go. By the time his mother came in, he was lying delirious on the tiles, his teeth lay scattered around him like bloody seeds.
The day after Bay was committed to Teller Psychiatric, Roz drove alone to Jessica Grauner’s house in the half-light. She went because only unity saves the damned, though she’d hated Jessica when she’d tagged along on the LunaTicks’ vandalism operations and petty larceny sprees. Where one goes, the others must follow, and she neither wanted to follow Bay to Teller Psychiatric nor knew how to follow Lark into his rabbit hole. And she had the squirmy feeling that Jessica was still hanging around—like Raggedy Annie hung from the Witching Tree? —somewhere on the property.
Roz had been to this house twice—once for a grotesque house party while Jessica’s parents were out of town, and once to prepare for the Goose Lake stunt. On neither occasion had there been a linden tree in the front yard, but now a full-grown specimen had broken through the earth to stand in proud, terrifying splendor before Jessica’s window. Its roots bubbled across the lawn, disrupting her parents’ carefully-manicured ornamental ferns. A large, discolored knot peeked out from the linden’s trunk—a malformed branch, right, a sleeping bud? But when Roz got close enough to touch it, she saw that it was a face: Jessica’s face, her eyes clenched shut and her mouth stretched open in an anguished forever-scream. Roz ran her finger down one wooden eye, heard Jessica’s nasal whine— I smell like a dead rat! —and quickly stuffed her hand back in her pocket, running back to her car.
Roz’s mother died during the Great Storm. She died at home, of cancer, while the world raged around them. Electric lines sparked, cars slid off roads, walls fell in, and smaller trees were torn out of the earth, but their older, larger counterparts miraculously survived. It seemed like a condolence card from God: the world is filled with death, but Life endures.
There were strange things said at the funeral. “She’s waiting for you, in heaven.” “We will all meet again, by-and-by.” Roz hated to admit it—because who wouldn’t want to see their mother again?—but when these words floated up on desolate roads at midnight, she was frightened. She wanted to hear that her mother was at peace, in a better place, had moved on—not that she was waiting, lingering, hovering, skeletal hands outstretched to receive her daughter as soon as death delivered her—no. That was ugly.
Her mother loved trees. They were her favorite thing about Whippoorwill. Don’t you love how tall they are, how old they are?
These trees are older than all of us. She was a native, so she had grown up with them—climbed them, slept in their nooks, taken their shelter, carved her initials into their skin with the neighbor boy. Roz’s father had agreed to move to Whippoorwill before they got married because it was supposedly a good place to raise a family—what with the safe streets and heritage fairs and seasonal festivals—but when he wanted to move to Lincoln for the sake of a higher salary, her mother had refused on account of the trees. But there are trees everywhere, he said. It’s not the same, she said. These trees are my inheritance. They’re the kids’ inheritance.
She had a special bedtime story about the Witching Tree. It had nothing at all to do with Raggedy Annie. It was about the men and women who first built Whippoorwill, back when America was young. They built the jail and they built the church, they built the courthouse and they built the school. And then they planted the Witching Tree, so after their human bodies died they would stay close to their children, and live forever.
Her father listened in once, and got so upset that her mother never told it again, and Roz never heard it again from anyone else. At middle school sleepovers—before the other girls decided she was just too weird—they only ever whispered about Raggedy Annie, the abortionist-witch. When she asked about “that Witching Tree story” they would indignantly snap, “That is the Witching Tree story, dummy!”
But one time in high school when they were all smoking pot in Bay’s basement, Roz tried to re-tell her mother’s version of the Witching Tree story, what little she could remember of it. It turned out Bay and Lark had heard similar shit from their parents, once or twice. Bay and Lark were, first and last and always, the only people she could count on not to lie to her. Lark said,
“It’s a creation myth. And an apocalypse myth, too. The end and the beginning, the beginning and the end.”
Dawn came, and they never spoke of it again. The Witching Tree story—the real one, the one submerged beneath the arsenic-and-old-lace of Raggedy Annie—was only whispered in the ears of Whippoorwill babies, so the truth would soften like sugar cubes right into their unfinished brains. These babies grew up and forgot except when they were sleeping, usually, but sometimes when they looked at the massive, infallible trees of Whippoorwill for too long, that primordial story writhed like a worm and they would shiver, listening to the leaves rustling like ocean waves, wondering who was waiting for them.
Raggedy Annie stood, again, at the end of Roz’s bed. Roz could almost hear her breathing.
“No,” Roz mumbled to herself. “She’s not real. Raggedy Annie is not real.” And maybe she wasn’t, but something stood there.
Something had turned Bay into a pile of dirt in Teller Psychiatric. Oh, that wasn’t in the official hospital report—the hospital said he somehow escaped, from the restraints and the room and the asylum, and the forest-fresh soil that had replaced him in the cot was—what—a practical joke? The LunaTicks knew all about those, but this was something else, something beyond.
Roz closed her eyes, telling herself that once she opened them, it would be morning and Raggedy Annie would be gone.
When she opened her eyes the figure was leaning over her, twitching. This time it wasn’t her mother beneath the hood.
This was the face that looked back at her in the mirror every morning, bleary-eyed and bloodless, sapped of life. It was her.
Her doppelganger cocked its head to the side like a bird and stared at her with her own big black eyes—black, then blacker, in the face of the ghost. It was death looking down; she could feel that in her veins, because that wasn’t blood roiling inside her anymore. It was sap. Slow like honey. Death leaned in and Roz screamed herself awake.
It was midnight. Roz drove to Gaslight Village in a fugue, but Lark wasn’t there. Alkie’s trailer looked like it had been spat out by a tornado—it had been smashed nearly in half by a fallen tree. Branches had broken through the windows and now grew inside the trailer, as if they’d been searching for him. Her first thought was that the trailer had become his coffin, but after she scrambled to reach a broken window, cutting her hands on glass shards, she didn’t see a body in the dark. No soil, either. There was only one place, unhappily, that he would have gone.
She could see the woods around Goose Lake stirring before she even got out of the car. For a second she sat behind the wheel, trying to delay the inevitable, hypnotized by the razor-sharp static that had overcome the radio, until she saw again the figure that she’d been running from since they made the video. Raggedy Annie was standing where the trees parted to make way for a little human path. The hooded ghost turned and disappeared down the trail, and Roz knew this would not end if she did not pursue. Where one goes the others must follow, and Raggedy Annie was one of them. The truth was she always had been. Raggedy Annie and her mother and father and brother and Lark’s parents and Bay’s parents and Jessica and Old Lady Marigold and Roger Malkin and everybody, everybody in this town: they were all in this together.
She willed her legs to move into the rippling chaos. As soon as she stepped foot on the dirt path the air pressure dropped, and her bones felt calcified in pain. She’d been hoping not to return to Goose Lake. She’d been hoping to leave Whippoorwill. She’d been hoping… well. Hope was just delusion that hadn’t ripened yet. The forest didn’t smell like pine or cedar or Christmas or anything else they could pack into an air freshener—it smelled like rot. A fleet of dead were howling overhead, and there was nowhere left to go but forward. Just like all roads led to Goose Lake, all of Goose Lake’s dirt paths led to the Witching Tree, the oak to seed and end the world.
The Tree had grown since she last saw it. She felt the urge to kneel under its swaying, groaning shadow. Even as worms crawled out of cavities in its trunk, new twigs and leaves sprouted on its boughs. Lark was a dwarf beneath it, wildly swinging a rusty ax. Every strike was true, but he wasn’t getting anywhere—not only was the oak enormous, but its bone-like bark yielded nothing except for a few brittle chips of wood. She could see this, even though she could not see stars through the foliage.
What stars? The Witching Tree was everything in this world.
Lark looked up and tried to smile when he saw her through his sweat. He looked so weak and mortal, a mere weed next to the Witching Tree. “We can make it, Roz! You and me. Just you and me. You just gotta help me. Help me end this thing.”
She shook her head. She could feel the Tree’s roots moving like great pythons beneath the fertile earth. “I don’t think we can, Lark… I don’t think we’re getting away.”
Lark frowned and paused his work, catching the blade with his hand. “But if we cut it down, it ends,” he said, and then cried out and dropped the ax. He was squeezing his left palm—he’d nicked it. Or it had nicked him, it was hard to tell. So the blade was sharp after all—just not sharp enough to slay the tower of space-time that was the Tree. He moaned and pressed his right hand into the wound. “Something’s wrong,” his voice warbled, holding out his hand. By the Tree’s light Roz could barely see it: dark amber where red should have been. It was sap. He was bleeding sap.
“Roz,” Lark whimpered. He sounded like the eleven-year-old Clark Dunkin that she had happened to sit next to in sixth grade: sniveling and sullen but still, full of a future. The years of dishevelment sloughed off in seconds, revealing the baby-face below. Was this how the Tree could promise endless life, like her mother said? “Help me.”
She blinked, and became faintly aware that she was crying.
“Don’t fight it.”
Now roots were bursting out of his storm-worn sneakers, running wildly toward moist earth—they were trying to find some place to settle, to never let go. Lark was trying to shamble forward but he could only heave his chest, retching until he couldn’t breathe. Tree bark tore through his jeans and his arms finally straightened and seized and were destroyed—no, trans-formed. Only the human skin died. Lark arched his back and would have broken his vertebrae had they not turned to pliable wood; his mouth tore open and a dozen branches leapt from his wooden throat, sprouting blood blossoms. It was almost beautiful.
Roz was kneeling by then, in deference and fear. When Lark’s screams finally stopped, she knew that it was her turn. Where others go, one must follow. She lifted her head and saw the great and gnarled Tree, glowing blue-green with something far stronger and far more alien than foxfire, achingly reach its branches toward her and then shrivel back. It was so jealous, so unsure of her loyalty. “Roz-zz-lyn,” her mother said, from somewhere in the rush of leaves, “why d’ you want to lee-eave us?”
Roz picked up the ax. A wail swept through the branches, but Roz only threw the weapon into the murky green waters of Goose Lake. “I’ll never leave,” she said, and began trudging homeward. “I promise.”
It was not a warm embrace. The Tree’s branches bit deep into her back as it entwined her, and she soon lost the ability to see anything but heartwood. Still, she melted into the Tree as easily and completely as if she had never been parted from it. Little by little, the walls came down: the walls of Whippoorwill, the walls of her skin. I’m scared, she thought as the flesh of her tongue dissolved into sap, and though the only response she heard was a deep and ancient drumbeat pulsing from far within the Witching Tree, she finally understood.
About the Author
Nadia Bulkin writes scary stories about the scary world we live in, thirteen of which appear in her debut collection, She Said Destroy (Word Horde, 2017). Her short stories have been included in editions of The Year’s Best Weird Fiction, The Year’s Best Horror, and The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror. She has been nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award five times. She grew up in Jakarta, Indonesia, with her Javanese father and American mother, before relocating to Lincoln, Nebraska. She has a B.A. in Political Science, an M.A. in International Affairs, and lives in Washington, D.C.
About the Narrator
Karen Bovenmyer is the Assistant Editor of PseudoPod. She is an academic, writer, and teacher at Iowa State University.