by Lydia Host
It grew dark. The shouting had stopped. Vines were creeping up opposite walls of the house. In her mind’s eye—she focused now—they were peering over the flat roof. They began to feel their way across, searching blindly for each other in the daylight. A door slammed and she leapt up, her heart racing: they had found each other.
Footsteps, the door beat against the wall, and her dad strode toward her, hideous with anger—and past her, straight outside. He would have slammed the door behind him if the weatherstrip hadn’t dragged so heavily. Vera was on her feet; a heady terror thrilled her senses. The car started outside, and she felt the vines twisting together in a thick, sprouting cord. Their bodies were wood, but their heads were blind worms that climbed over one another, rubbed their long necks together, wrestled and twisted higher, sprouting shoots like millipede legs. Wherever one vine sprouted, the other sent a shoot chasing after it, and in a thousand replications the twin offshoots embraced each other in an undulant dance, competing in their thirst for sunlight.
Two individuals embrace, flesh for flesh— twist, braid, wind their fingers . . and their heads climb higher, one subjugating the other as they stretch their long arms over the neighbors’ houses and over the church; the other snaking round to oppress the first from behind; they spread their shadow over the video store and the grocery store.
Their roots multiplied earthward, snakes streaming down the walls. Vera felt unsteady—she saw their shadows, felt them grip the house and tighten, threatening to crack the tortoiseshell protection around her. Her mom was in the farthest room. Vera burst, staggering, from the house and ran in foot-slapping panic all the way to the woods.
As she flew past her gramma’s house she was aware of the canopy spreading behind her, drawing round her shoulders, ready to seize her throat—she sprinted. The roots ate into the earth, drinking water, cracking stones, snaking around pipes, before plunging deeper in search of a beating heart they could embrace, strangle. She could feel the cords tightening in her chest.
The woods were tall, fifty feet of bare trunk, twenty feet of fluttering canopy. Her dad had said the roots spread out as wide as the canopy, the trees were just as big underground as over. “Look at it fluttering up there!” her mom said. Vera looked: the leaves were fluttering, yes, and swaying. Sunlight skipped across the path and back again.
“Why aren’t there any trees down here?” asked Vera. She wanted to be up among the leaves. They were pretty in the light, but there weren’t any branches to climb.
“Well, I suppose there’s just as many down here as up there,” said her dad. “More, even. We’re in the understory.
“Look over there,” he said, pointing off the path to a twisted mangle of wood with great glossy leaves.
Vera shifted foot to foot. Anything sinister that came searching this way would encounter the splayed roots of the forest. If it resolved to force its way through the narrow openings and into the slow squeeze of growing roots, it would find the going arduous. But nimble force could exploit openings and, with time, pry into the forest’s very heart, and the slothful good roots would have only just begun to turn their heads before— it could at this moment be creeping into the earth beneath Vera’s feet. She jumped up onto a stump and watched the earth for movement. A train of ants marched out of the stump, down into the woods.
‘Everything’s okay,’ she told herself, eyeing the descending path with mistrust. ‘Dad’s out and mom’s home, and in a little while dinner’ll be ready. The day’s normal, just off-balance.’ Yes, she nodded, that was it. You could feel it in the woods, how everything was normal, just a little off-balance. The forest grew darker.
A lizard darted off to report her hesitation. The swaying trees seemed to usher her along, their faces unreadable. She was afraid to continue, but she dreaded going back. She descended into the lower basin.
The forest brightened. On the left, rubbery skunk cabbages covered a swamp. Down to the right, a slope of dandelions nodded at her.
Heads bowed on their feeble stalks, the dandelions clustered like stars, connected along a thought. She looked at the tattered yellow flowers and knew at once that she had stumbled upon a charm. Thinner than a spiderweb, delicate as a spoken word; but a charmed helmet can sustain blows and charmed wicker can weave an indestructible basket, and both reveal themselves by their unadorned simplicity.
She stepped carefully between the dandelion stalks and plucked the head from every third or fourth flower, gathering them in her shirt. When she had collected enough, she crossed over the path to the swampy side, and, doing her best to keep the water from welling above the soles of her shoes, advanced just far enough to lay hold of two enormous skunk cabbages, which she snapped off unevenly, one at midstem and the other much lower. She returned to the path with two great fans in her left hand, and the heads of thirty flowers cradled in her shirt.
When she reached the creek she laid the flowers on a broad flat rock, and, with a smaller rock, pulverized them one by one. She gathered half their pulpy remains and smeared them on herself, everywhere she could reach, down to the soles of her feet.
The second half she mashed into her scalp, working her hair into a pulpy tangle, and pulled the flowers’ tattered bodies down to meet their entanglements at various heights about her shoulders.
Next, she pulled up a cold clump of silty mud from the creekbed and smeared it in thick grey-black lines down her face and neck and to every extremity. She tucked the skunk cabbages into her waistband; and then carefully, so as not to jostle the flowers, she made her way out onto a promontory where the creek turned.
A sharp pyramid of rock had caught her eye: it was just thin enough that she could grasp two sides. She stacked her hands, knuckles around the far edge, and pulled as hard as she could.
The rock strained like a living thing but did not move. She pushed hard, cutting the wedge into the soft bank, and then pulled again as hard as she could. She felt a stiff elasticity, but the rock didn’t budge. She began working in a rhythm, pushing, pulling, until, almost to her surprise, the slightest crack appeared between the rock and the damp earth each time she pushed, and disappeared again each time she pulled, like a loose tooth against the gum. She worked it forward and back, forward and back, in widening circles.
When she had created a little pocket around it she placed her feet on either side of the point and pulled directly upward. Her grip slipped. Again she set about working the tooth; but dissatisfied with her progress, she alternated between rocking and digging around it.
A few turns of digging revealed that just below the spire, the rock widened dramatically. She dug frantically until she found an edge she could catch with her fingertips. Gripping the rock by both spike and edge she wrenched again and this time the rock shifted: a bulge appeared in the bank, gleaming dry as the water fled to the limit of the stone’s circumference. She reasserted her grasp, ready to pull again, but found that the stone moved freely: she had broken the bank’s grip. Squaring herself above the spike again, she pulled up. It came out slowly with a sucking noise as muddy water rushed into the hole.
The weight was almost too much. She swayed once and counted “one.” She swung it a second time and counted “two.” On three, she heaved it to the center of the stream and staggered. It landed with a splash and a thud in shallows, a crooked spike pointing generally to the entrance of the forest. A shockwave splintered the worm-root’s advance, and for a moment Vera thought she had won. But then she thought, ‘No, it’s still alive. Now it’s just a million little slivers. Ten million worm-roots had replaced the unified thrust, and they were engaging every forest root, swarming over the weaker roots while the stronger ones watched in astonishment.
She had very little time.
The muddy puddle glittered with silver flecks of sediment, swirling thick to veil another world. She reached in a little—crayfish the size of lobsters could be crawling around down there. If she felt a glossy back . . . she shuddered. She stretched all the way down, water to her shoulder, eyes squeezed shut, willing away the crawlies, till she felt muddy water graduate into watery mud; and she worked her fingers in until she found a slick loop that seemed secure when she tugged it. She eased it out: it slurped free, and she could see, twisting around her two fingers, the handle of a plastic bag.
She pulled it up, and water sprang out in all directions. The bag was heavy and clattered with crushed cans, some empty, some heavy with mud. She shook out the muddy ones and returned them to the bag, which she tied to a belt-loop. She tested their weight, practiced wrapping them around her thigh with hula-hoop movements. Once she could do it one way and then the other in a single motion, she paused and saw the forest.
It was only a moment, a single word plain across the forest, spoken in the whole but fugitive in every part, like a face full of urgent meaning indiscernible in the eyes or mouth alone. The trees were still, but that meant nothing; the water ran at a set pitch. An extraordinarily long branch, dead and full of insects, proudly extended over the creek as it had for many years, and that was nothing in itself either. But the forest had blazed through a million frames unknowing, to reach this final moment in which it grappled—only now at last aware—with something that would take its life. Eyes wide, astonished at the worm-root’s tightening hold, all at once, the forest said: “Oh.” Vera breathed deep, closed her eyes, and began to sway.
She started slowly. It was some time before she even raised a foot, and then she put it down like she’d made a mistake, gotten the signal wrong. Then she raised it again, and a third and fourth time she raised it as she swayed; but each time she quickly dropped it as if to keep from falling over. She did this for a minute or more; and in her hesitations, there emerged a faltering syncopation.
Her eyes were closed, and as she became sure of the rhythm she took a step, then a step-slide. Now one could see there was no accident: she began to step-step-slide her way around the hole; step-stomp-slide, stomp-stomp-step-slide. Soon, with each stomp she could feel the earth tremble with ecstasy, could feel it bubble and leap as she stomped harder, feel it clap as she leapt high and crash as she landed with a clatter of cans. She began to sing and yelp as she leapt and clattered around the hole, stomping at the edges till they gave way and shallowed the wound. Leaping, yelling bits of music, she sprang as high as she could, several times narrowly avoiding a sprained ankle, higher and higher as the earth convulsed below her. And the forest roots grew, snapping the binding threads, then squeezing the wider tendrils of the horrible tree. The tendrils snapped and recoiled, and the parts that snapped off turned to ash. As her energy washed over each part of the tree, something in its organism petrified and disintegrated, blew away like a cloud of pollen. The tree stood over her house, massive and inert. She smiled, eyes closed, and continued dancing. She did not know how far her dance reached—though she felt that if someone in town was paying attention they would note a joyful tremor—and then she landed with her heel on the edge of the hole, arch and ball over empty space, and pitched headlong into the water.
She sputtered, rolled over, and lay on her back, the current tugging the bag of cans. The forest was quiet except for a pair of birds discussing their domestic affairs. She became aware of them as she was sometimes aware of her parents’ intermittent voices late at night, low, with little inflection, and weary, not wanting to disturb Vera as they spoke of grown-up things. The two birds discussed their own grown-up things and Vera, in awe of the world that grown-ups took care of, wondered drowsily at the still more remote world of grown-up birds.
A woodpecker knocked and the woods answered with rustling life, a broader discussion of songbirds, and a pleasant breeze. Vera rose from the water, wrung out her hair, and walked back, the bag of cans jostling against her leg.
Back at the house it was as though her dad had never left. He was drinking a glass of water. Her mom was drinking Jack Daniels but the liquor was still at the neck of the bottle. Her dad caught sight of Vera and guffawed, showing pink gums where he no longer had any bite.
“What on Earth happened to you?” he said, kneeling down to untie the bag of cans from her waist. “You look like you just crawled outta the swamp. You go diving for treasure?” He smelled faintly of alcohol.
“I don’t know,” said Vera, a little wary. The cans looked sinister, were perhaps playing dead for her parents’ benefit, and once her parents turned their back they would resume their former talismanic character.
But over the next week they showed about as little energy as a bag of cans is capable of showing. And one day they were gone, neither of her parents knew where. And it wasn’t long after that that they had another fight.
Vera’s mom, after a little Jack, had incinerated a dishrag in a small kitchen incident. Vera’s dad smelled it the moment he got home. Her mom didn’t want to be scolded for a little daydrink and decided to blame him for dropping something in the oven the other day, which was now burning up. And her dad, touchy and defensive right after work, and correct by sheer luck, said that made no sense whatsoever ‘cause he’d put a whole chicken in the oven, and what’d the chicken lose, a leg on the way in? And Vera, suddenly aware that she could be called to witness, snuck outside as he called her mom a drunk expletive, and she screamed that he had no right to talk to her like that. From the edge of the driveway Vera watched for danger, tensing to run whenever a shadow crossed the kitchen window. The shouting was hoarse, desperate and bitter, imperious and pleading. There were noises that made Vera flinch. She watched the window, but nothing moved, and the shouting grew until there was a crash, and her mom howled like a forsaken animal. Vera’s panic leapt like the tightened note of an e string. Then her dad’s figure crossed the kitchen window, the string broke, and for an instant she couldn’t see. She rose from the ground shakily, her right side aching, and ran. Darkness assailed her on all sides. The path narrowed, the world was a mile away. She could see through a small circle of light. Her feet fell unevenly, and she stumbled on the grade, all the way to the woods.
There she paused. Slowly her vision pulsed back, the circle of light growing with each beat. The forest was empty. She sat down, relieved and exhausted. She wanted to sink into the soil and feel it cool on her face, neck, arms, body, legs, and sleep, without dreams, for a very long time. But she had to get to the yellow flower bed; so she forced herself back up, a little delirious, and jog-walk-stumbled down the path. Arriving at the diminished bed, she pulled off her shirt and hung it on a branch. Then she set to work scrubbing the flowers everywhere like soap, casting each aside for the next, till the slope was bare. And she almost cried because she wasn’t done, she needed hundreds more, but she was utterly out of flowers.
She gathered up their broken bodies and crushed them against her scalp, but they kept falling out of her hair. And when she put one back, two fell out. Then she did cry, because her hands were shaking and she couldn’t control them and she couldn’t see the flowers in her hair and they would probably all fall out before she got to the creekbed anyway, and she couldn’t know if they were there without touching them, and then they would definitely fall out if she touched them too much. She cried until she was out of tears and sat looking at the forest. She looked at the flowers that had fallen out of her hair. There were only three. She had expected there to be more. She composed herself, wiped her eyes, and with a few sniffs controlled her running nose. And then, with a melancholy steadiness, she worked the remaining three flowers into her hair and set off for the skunk cabbages.
The swamp stank and she nearly lost a shoe in the mud, but she came out with two good cabbage fans. There was no breeze. There didn’t seem to be any life in the forest until she saw a deer obliviously nibbling at something. She stamped to get its attention and even said “hey,” quietly, and then “Hey!” louder. It finally looked up, but seeing nothing worth making a fuss about, watched her pass and resumed grazing. Reaching the creek she sullenly applied the mud and then picked out a good rock, well-embedded, and began the removal process.
By the time she was done she had worked up a little energy. The rock was lighter than the previous one: she hurled it all the way to the middle of the stream, where it disappeared with a sploosh-plunk. She dug around in the hole and found only broken pebbles mixed in with the silt. Gathering as many of these as she could, she dribbled a pebbly handful of silt into her hair and prepared for her dance.
She felt herself shifting about within, felt her energies scatter past the boundaries of her person. They three-fourths gathered and disbanded again, circled round and trickled back in. She wondered if the optimal moment had already passed. Then, sensing an influx, she leapt high into the air.
She tumbled and danced like one careening down a mountainside. She rolled with the rocks, whirled to avoid trees, skipped over boulders and wheeled through narrow passes. Soon there were flowerheads everywhere. Between labored breaths she hummed snatches of a wandering melody, sometimes emphasizing a leap with a “hm-HMM” or punctuating a landing with a short “hm!”
She danced until she was exhausted. She danced until the flowers in her hair were all scattered about or swept downstream. She danced until she started to repeat herself. Then she slowed and stopped.
The world was unsteady. She lay down by the hole she had dug. A patch of light moved nearby, but everything else was still. She was certain that something was hiding from her. But the forest was empty; the trees had drawn apart from her and from each other. And even as she felt that the forest was nothing more than hundreds of trees she knew something had been there before.
“Where did you go?” she asked the space above her, and her voice didn’t quite reach the lower branches. A dry sob broke out. She had danced for no audience. She felt foolish, like a child who has played a game according to a predetermined strategy and, on the cusp of victory, looks up to find that she has already lost.
She stayed out in the woods until dark, and eventually some of the animals came to keep her company. A squirrel, some spiders and roly-polies; a few birds flitted by. One spider sat by her side.
“Sure, now you come,” she mourned. “When it’s all over.” But she was glad for the company.
Eventually she roused herself and began walking back to her house. Gramma’s car was in the driveway. Inside there was little evidence of the fight, just a bottle of Jack on the kitchen table, about two-thirds full, and an empty can of chicken noodle soup by the sink. In the bedroom, her mom sat on the bed in a daze while Gramma tried to get her to sip whiskey. Clothes were everywhere and a drawer lay busted on its side. Her jewelry box was also on the floor and as Vera saw this, she stepped on an earring—first there was pressure and then it broke the callus and slid all the way in, to adorn her heel. She pulled it out. It ached, but hardly bled. Gramma had hung the blinds back up but they weren’t hanging quite right. Having managed to wet her daughter’s lips, Gramma finally turned and saw Vera. “Jesus, child,” she said. “What did you get yourself into?”
Lydia Host works in public health in Philadelphia. IG: @lydiahost1