My twin cousins and I were breaking my mother’s cardinal rule–to never go so far back into the woods that we couldn’t hear her ring the dinner bell. But the thick boredom of too-long summer days and the four walls of the house had suffocated us for too long.
“Maybe we’ll find some fairies,” I said, plucking one of each type of wildflower as I tramped through the woods.
“Or forest pixies,” said Orpha.
Ophelia picked up rocks and bounced them off trees as she walked. “I’d prefer dragons or trolls.”
We hiked several miles through the deep forest, tree roots grabbing at our feet and branches lashing our skin as we wove among the dense trees. Overhead, the leafy canopy grew so thick it felt like nightfall even though it was only mid-afternoon.Orpha had pilfered granola bars from the kitchen before we left, and she handed them to us. We decided to rest in the small clearing ahead where a humongous tree loomed, each branch more gnarly and distorted than the next. This tree, with its curious angles, stood separate from the rest of the forest. Its leaves were darker than the ones on surrounding trees. On the front of the tree, eye-level to the three of us, an oval-shaped knothole squatted in the hulking trunk. Orpha and Ophelia sat down on the craggy roots that protruded from the ground to finish their snack, but I circled the expanse of the tree. The bark of the tree drew me in with its intricate patterns carved and shaped by wind and rain. When I trailed my fingers along the bark, I swore I felt the tree pull away, and when I rested my palm against it, I was sure I could feel the tree expand and contract as if breathing.
Empty granola bar wrapper in one hand, bouquet of mismatched wildflowers in the other, I stared into the dark recess of the knothole. I could smell dank earth and the odor of something rotten. I curled my nose in disgust and discarded my wrinkled granola wrapper inside the knothole. Then I stuck my bouquet into the knothole so that it filled up most of the oval. Immediately, all of the bright blues, greens, and yellows of the flowers began to fade into grays and whites, their color drained away. The petals wilted and began falling to the ground below. The edges of the leaves turned brown and curled in on themselves.
Ophelia, wide-eyed, walked closer to peer at their sudden death.
“You made the forest pixies mad,” Orpha said, storming over to my side. “You put your trash in their tree. Get it out!”
Under my cousin’s impatient glare, I reached out to grab the flowers. At my touch, they crumbled into dust and scattered on the slight breeze.
“I’m not sticking my hand in there,” I said.
Ophelia, always the bravest, said, “I’ll do it,” and shoved me aside. She stuck her arm in the knotty hole up to her shoulder. “I don’t feel anything. Wait. Oh! There’s something.”
“Ophelia, get your arm out!” I begged. “You’ll get bit or stung or…”
“It’s soft and fluffy, and…I got it!” She pulled her arm out. At its end was a dead baby bird, its twisted wing pinched between her fingers. Ophelia screamed and dropped it to the ground atop the withered remains of the flowers. Pasty white maggots fell off of the creature and writhed on the ground next to it. Its small beak sat askew on its tiny face, and blood leaked onto its delicate brown feathers.Cracked and mangled, its skull was open, and bits of brain leaked through the crevices. Orpha turned her back on the bird.
“What happened to it?” I asked.
“I don’t care,” said Orpha, a tear leaking down her cheek. “I want to go home. It’s getting dark.”
“I want to bury it first,” said Ophelia, kicking dirt onto a group of squirming maggots.
Orpha’s face grew red, and a second tear dropped. “We can’t just leave it.”
Ophelia found a small branch just above her head and snapped it off the trunk of the mighty tree. She tried to scoop up the little bird with it, but the mangled creature thumped to the ground time and again.
“You’re hurting it,” said Orpha.
Ophelia shot her a dirty look. “It’s already dead!”
“Just leave it. Let’s go home before we can’t see,” I added, worried that soon the dark would swallow us and the forest whole.
Ophelia rolled her eyes and dropped the branch next to the bird.
“You’re bleeding,” said Orpha. Smears of deep red covered Ophelia’s palm and the front of her shirt.
I pointed to the growing pile of dead things on the ground. “It’s not her, it’s the branch.”
A stream of crimson oozed from the base of the branch, and in the fading light, a stream of scarlet dripped down to the hushed forest floor from the spot where the branch had been rent, and a pool of bubbly blood sat among dark leaves and mosses.
“It’s bleeding to death. It’s dying,” Orpha whispered.
Ophelia clung to her logic. “Trees don’t bleed when they die.”
“And forest pixies don’t do this,” I added.
Ophelia grabbed a second branch, pulled, and snapped it off the trunk. Within seconds, the same thing happened; the branch and the tree began to bleed. Seconds later, the mouth of the knothole bled, too, and soon, the greens and browns around our feet stood starkly against a red tide as a constant stream of blood exuded from the tree and pooled around the baby bird and the maggots. The three of us held hands and backed away towards the path we’d carved through the undergrowth. None of us dared turn away from the tree, whose body now bled from all the branches. Leaves browned and plummeted to the ground, and the grass, once half-green, now withered and lost the remainder of its color. The tree canopy snuffed out the last light of the day, and the tree, bathed in red, faded from sight.