Katy Michelle Quinn
There is tapping on the window again tonight. I melt into my sheets in an attempt to dispel the dream, but it continues. The tic-tic-ticking of wooden fingers on the glass. It’s the Willow-Witch. Come to beckon me into the woods. I know because we have spoken before. She says she is lonely out there, in the woods by herself. Her weeping leaves quiver as she cries outside.
“Please come visit,” she says, voice like wind on the glass, “only for a minute or two.”
The Willow-Witch has been tapping on my window for weeks. Nearly every night now. The first time I was sure a monster had come to consume me. To make its maw my grave, its teeth my tombstone. I ran to my parents. My mother led me back to my bed with the calm of an usher, shushing me to sleep amid my bubbling protest.
“Sleep,” she said. “It’s only a tree.”
Of course she was right.
But the Willow-Witch is not a tree, not exactly. She is also a woman. A goddess of sorts, the matron spirit of leaves. When men threaten the woods, it is she who calls the aid of her creatures, sending fangs at their throats. It is she who whispers away the superstitious with the voices of ghosts. The trees stand because she stands with them. Or so she tells me.
“I’m so alone in the woods,” she says, hiding her trunk-face in her branches. I cannot tell if the sky rains or she does.
Her constant, sweet sadness traps me like an insect in sap. I open my window to let the Willow-Witch speak.
“Please come visit,” she says, “only for a minute or two.”
“I can’t,” I tell her. “My parents will miss me.”
This is not the truth. If I left, my parents may miss me, but I wouldn’t miss them. It would be a bit of a relief to be gone of them, to be done with their dishonest prayers and rigid strictures.
The truth is that I am afraid of the woods. I am afraid of the night and the cold wet of the rain and animals with teeth so sharp you’d get cut just by looking at them. I am afraid of leaving this place where at least I know I’ll be warm. Of leaving the safety of blankets like shields against uncertainty.
My open window yawns wide and dark like the throat of a toothless monster, the Willow-Witch crying in the middle of it. I shiver at the cold that rushes in to hug me.
The Willow-Witch raises her trunk-face from her branch-hands and looks at me. She has stopped crying now, her leaves shudder with anticipation.
“I can keep you safe,” the Willow-Witch says, “from the night and the cold and the creatures with teeth so sharp you’d get cut just by looking at them.”
I take a step back. How does the Willow-Witch know the real reason I will not visit her? I have never told her. I have only ever spoken of my parents, and how they would miss me if I were to leave.
“I’ll protect you just as I protect the trees. You’ll be safe with me.”
The Willow-Witch extends her branches toward me like one would stretch their arms out to an infant.
“My parents—” I say.
The Willow-Witch shushes me with shuddering leaves.
“Only for a minute or two.”
Her words calm me like a breeze.
Hesitantly, I creep towards her branches. Not once have I done anything I am not supposed to do. All my life, I have been the apple that never falls far. A rush of excitement floods my stomach as I crawl into the Willow-Witch’s branches in only my flannel pajamas. She eases me into her heft with the gentleness of a mother, shushing me with her leaves.
“You will be safe with me,” she says.
Turning from my window, the Willow-Witch walks towards the woods. I look down and gasp at the height. Even in the dark I can tell that I am higher off the ground than a child should be. Willow-Witch’s branches pull me in.
“You are safe,” is all she says.
I begin to believe her. I breath in deeply and smell October, damp leaves spiced by wet wood. I feel the throb of Willow-Witch’s heart beating strong through her bark as we break past the first rank of trees.
“The woods,” the Willow-Witch says, the way you might say home.
The night air is cool and filled with fog, but it freshens me, leaving dew on my skin like the aftertaste of a kiss. All around us, birds burble welcome in voices slick with sleep. Rocked in the sway of the Willow-Witch’s steps, I slip into sleep myself.
I awaken in a clearing surrounding a small lake in the misty light of morning. The trees that fence the lake reflect diligently off its glass-still surface.
A hole near the edge of the lake looks like where a tree has been uprooted.
I turn to see a woman staring at me. She is dressed in shades of earth, her hair tumbles over her shoulders like weeping leaves. She looks beautiful and fresh, though her skin is bark-like and punctuated by gnarls.
“Are you?” I ask.
The Willow-Witch nods and shushes me with all the leaves of the wood rustling as one. A small wooden bucket sits beside her. She reaches into it and produces a sponge made out of bundles of stringy moss. It drips water as clean as the lake’s. Each droplet seems to sparkle with sweetness.
She stretches out her free hand and gestures with her forehead at my arm.
I reach out my hand, and she takes it, running the sponge over my skin. It feels cool and sharp, stinging with a gentle pricking like pine needles that I find unexpectedly pleasant. I close my eyes and drink in the sensation.
A large, wet plop startles them open.
I look to the Willow-Witch, confused. She continues cleansing my skin and smiling. I look to the ground and see a pile of what looks like pale, dirty rubber resting in haphazard folds on the grass. A dark liquid soaks the ground around it.
The Willow-Witch takes the sponge from my arm and dips it again into the bucket. As she does, I see that the skin of my arm has sloughed off where the sponge had cleansed to reveal something bark-like and gnarled. Blood leaks from the tattered edge of what remains.
Instead of feeling pain, I feel the prickly after-tingle of the water-soaked sponge. Like a strong herb overwhelms smell, the pleasant prickling overloads my senses until it is all I can feel. My mind is numbed by it, and I forget any reason to protest.
The Willow-Witch grabs my arm and begins sponging it again. She works her way shoulder to wrist, chunks plopping to the ground like alabaster slugs. She takes my hand and cleans each finger. The skin slides off them in sleeves, then they grow, bowing at odd angles til they look like branches. She sponges the other arm, then my back, and then everything until I am totally clean of soft skin.
She splashes the moss into the bucket and looks at me with satisfaction. “You’ll be safe with me.”
She’s right. She has made me impenetrable. With this new, thick skin, nothing can hurt me.
She grabs my branch-hands and leads me to the lake’s edge.
We look into the reflection it casts back at us. Two trees bend over the water, branches bunched into arms and roots jutting out like many feet. Wind combs our leaves as if it were hair. One of the trees is small, its bark fresh and its moss green. The other is large and knotted, its powerful branches covered in graying moss.
“Come,” the large tree says to the smaller one.
The two trees walk to the hole near the lake’s edge. The large tree plants itself inside, raising its branches to the sky to catch the autumn breeze.
The small tree digs at the dirt with her roots until there is a hole big enough to plant herself in. She looks at her reflection in the water. Her branches are still stained cherry from the blood that used to flow through her body. Now she drinks from the dirt to fortify her horticultural soul. The prickling poison of the water lulls to her sleep.
Maybe they stay like this forever, the two trees standing guard over the woods until the earth crumbles to dust. Maybe during the day they dance through the woods, their movements joyous but subtle, just trees blown by the wind to any passerby, singing in voices that braid the breeze.
Or maybe in the dark of the night they wail in wind-voices, shudder-sobbing a sadness sweet as sap that thickens the woods with fog. Maybe the shush of their shaking leaves lulls the creatures of the forest to sleep, the way all peace is fed first by protest. Maybe there are even nights when the small tree rips herself from the ground, unable to take the quiet and the sweet, sad fog, shaking and sobbing her way to where the trees end and the people start. Maybe she searches for the house that stills holds her bedsheets, the cloth that was a shield to the sounds the dark speaks. Maybe she even finds it, whispering wind at the windows while inside her parents cry for a child that was lost to the woods.
On these nights, maybe she taps the glass of their bedroom window, anything for their attention.
The mother sobs to the sound, remembering times when her child would scramble into their bed, afraid of the tic-tic-ticking on the window glass.
On these nights, the father will put his arm around the mother, talking her as close to sleep as his abilities allow.
“It’s okay,” he’ll say. “It’s just a tree.”
On these nights, the tree will keep ticking on the window, until the forms of both of her parents slump into slumber.
“Please come visit,” she’ll say, “only for a minute or two.”
Katy Michelle Quinn is a queer woman who writes weird, weepy horror fiction about the trials of transformation and the sadness that separates us from those who don’t see us for who we are. She lives in Olympia with her partner and their cats.
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