Mother Tree: Paul DesCombaz
Donna Glee Williams, ZiN-writier-in-residence for May of 2017 as our guest-editor presents to the readers of ZiN Daily strong new writing by Paul DesCombaz:
When Natalija and Ognjen invited me to present a writer that I admire to ZIN Daily, my mind immediately jumped to Paul DesCombaz, a young speculative fiction writer from the US Midwest, now living in Washington State.
This deeply creepy piece from Paul is an example of the kind of horror-writing that takes one of the everyday horrors of what we laughingly refer to as "The Real World" and unmoors it from all boundaries and contexts to highlight its terrors. There is an old hymn that goes "Oh, Love that wilt not let me go..."--It sounds sweet, but Paul's dark imagination shows where THAT kind of love can go.
I should perhaps mention that, in case you are worried about him, Paul is, overall, a pretty sane guy who loves dogs and children and works professionally as a teacher of autistic kids.
by Paul DesCombaz
Elizabeth rubbed her wrist and waited on Moth’s front porch. She scanned the trees for bobbing lanterns, listened for barking dogs through the wash of crickets and nightbirds. She jerked to attention when the wooden floors inside the slanted shack began to creak.
The front door opened with a whine. Moth stood in the dark rectangle, a drab green shawl clasped around her sturdy shoulders. She wiped the sleep from her sagging eyes and waved Elizabeth inside with a puckered stump. Elizabeth left behind a dead son and a dead husband. Only one of them meant a thing to her, ever made her life worth a damn. Now, soaked to the marrow in cold sweat, she was depending on this hermitic cutter woman’s help. For a price, of course, nothing was free. Elizabeth didn’t care. She’d failed to protect her son. Next time she would do it right. Wind whistled through gaps in the thin walls. The scent of smoke and sweet moldy potatoes filled the cramped room. A straw bed rested against one wall. Next to it, a potbellied stove crackled, a deep orange glowing through the brazier’s grin. In the center of the room, a simple wooden table with two high-back chairs rounded out the scant furnishings. Moth offered Elizabeth a brown bottle rimed with dust. “Sit,” she said. “I don’t drink,” Elizabeth said, sitting. Moth brushed away the greasy grey strands hanging in front of her eyes, eased the half-empty bottle across the table. “Tonight, you should drink.” Sighing her resignation, Elizabeth uncorked the bottle and took a sip, then another. The alcohol warmed the back of her throat. It tasted strong, harsh, like medicine. Moth stood opposite, arms crossed, a look of mild disgust stretching the creases framing the pit of her mouth. Removing a pouch from the inside of her coat, Elizabeth emptied a handful of coins, sent them clinking onto the table. Checking the window, then checking it again, she rolled her right sleeve past the elbow. “I’m far enough out,” Moth said, gesturing toward the window and the wider dangerous world outside. “As long as you were careful, we should be safe for the time being.” “I wasn’t careful. People saw me leaving the village.” Moth sighed, drummed her fingers along the edge of the table. “You could have petitioned the magistrate,” she said, “Sometimes a woman has been allowed to attempt another birth, especially after a death.” Elizabeth bore down into the wood, glaring. Did the dotty old woman take her as a complete imbecile? As if she had not considered every possibility, from every angle. She and her husband had never qualified for a birthing license, never made enough from the harvest. How were they supposed to know the sterilization didn’t take, until it was too late? “Not if the child was illegal to begin with,” Elizabeth said. “Anyway, I don’t want another child. I want my child.” She slid the coins at Moth like they were poisonous. “It’s all there. I’ve counted them dozens of times.” “Right,” With her knotted stump, Moth swept the coins into her good hand, disappeared them up her sleeve. Her jowls twitched. “It didn’t work out for me, you know.” She lifted the stump, waved it over the table. “The tree is unpredictable. More often than not, it disappoints.” Elizabeth changed the subject, uninterested in Moth’s gloomy opinions. “What was your daughter’s name?” “Frances.” “My son’s was William.” “I remember seeing him splashing stones into the river with his father. Big green eyes, like an owl’s. Did you bring something of his?” Elizabeth clenched her jaw at the mention of William’s father. She touched her chest. “I have some of his teeth,” she averted her eyes from Moth’s stare, “and a finger, a pinky.” Moth crossed the room, stopping to hack a phlegmy pearl into a handkerchief. She returned carrying a faded carpet bag, so threadbare it was difficult to discern the original color of floral pattern. She removed a few items: a stubby white candle, a towel, a needle, a pair of scissors, a knobby spool of catgut, a hacksaw, a long wooden spoon and a jar of murky amber liquid. Lining them next to each other on the table, she cocked her head at Elizabeth, slitted her eyes. “Even if things work out your way, even if the tree gives you what you think you want, what comes out of the ground will not be your son.” Elizabeth yanked her dead husband’s hunting knife from the sheath at her hip and slammed it on the table, denting the surface. “Use this. It brought me good luck in the recent past.” Dried blood, gone to brown, dotted the leather hilt. Moth reached for the jar of liquid. “This will help you relax during the—” “No.” “But—” “No.” Moth mumbled something unintelligible, then picked up the knife. She lit the candle and glided the steel over the dancing flame. After a minute or so, she said, “Ready?” Elizabeth nodded. Moth hovered the serrated edge of the blade over Elizabeth’s wrist. “When they come, the law will kill you both without a second thought. Your death will not lose them a single night of sleep. Are you sure you want me to continue when you could better be using this time to run?” Elizabeth downed the remainder of the booze. She bit down on the spoon and closed her eyes. She pushed Moth’s warnings away from her like gossamer webs twining across a garden path. Taking in a deep breath, Moth touched the blade to Elizabeth’s rigid tendon. “Are you su—” “Get on with it.” Elizabeth’s words were muffled by the spoon in her mouth, but the intention was not missed. Moth began to cut. She sawed through flesh and nerve endings, through the thin layer of yellow fat, though banded strips of muscle. Elizabeth screamed through all of it, grinding the spoon with her teeth. Tears streamed down her cheeks and she made shameless animal sounds. The world went to black before Moth nicked bone. Elizabeth dreamt about burning meat and drowning beneath an ice-covered pond, the sound of her husband’s boots walking away, crunching the snow.
The dead tree sprouted from the top of a hill. It reached out of the ground like a claw made of ash. Elizabeth couldn’t see a single living bud anywhere on its crooked limbs. The horizon was a ruddy artery, and a red-orange light limned the naked black branches, outlining the stark lifelessness of the tree. Grief had made her slow-witted and superstitious. How could this desiccated thing conjure life? No wonder it brought so much more misery than joy. What a fool she was, believing in stories of magical trees and unnatural births from the soil. There was life here, though, but not from the tree itself. Huddled in the bough, a pale, long-necked creature flapped its thin, vein-rivered wings. “Why are you here?” it asked, watching Elizabeth’s slow approach, much in the same way a crow might study a tortoise ambling across a dune. The sickly creature reminded Elizabeth of a boiled goose carcass, although one with a better vocabulary. Alone and humiliated, Elizabeth stared, blinking. The tree offered her the only chance to be with William again, and it turned out to be an absurd lie. A charlatan hermit had taken her money and was probably laughing her craggy head off at that very moment. Wavering, Elizabeth closed her eyes, placed her palm against the trunk for balance. Every movement wracked her body with pain, all of it emanating from the freshly cauterized stump. Too tired to conjure any tears, she said, “I’ve failed again.” The creature said, “Ah, the sun is almost gone.” At that moment a bustling thrum filled the air. Gristly, fibrous sounds, joined by a feathery rustling. Elizabeth opened her eyes and gasped. As the sun winked out behind the hillside, the tree came to life. It rippled with movement. “What is this?” Elizabeth asked. The creature said nothing, only grinned down at her. Wide almond-shaped leaves sprouted from every branch, slithering along the limbs and fanning out in thick green clusters. Deep runnels of brown-grey bark, furred with patches of soft heather moss, replaced the fissured scales. Bone-white flowers blossomed, their petals yawning wide, revealing the bristling fawn-yellow stamens hidden inside. Plump, wine-dark fruits swelled between the leaves, growing to the size of a bullfrog’s throat set to burst. The creature hopped up and down on a limb, squeaking like a rodent. It reached out and plucked one of the fat fruits, mashed the entire thing into its mouth. The pearlescent innards dribbled down the creature’s withered narrow chin. Bright pulp, rife with a crescent row of black seeds, fell in shining clumps to the ground. The soil immediately soaked up the jelly until there was nothing left to see. Elizabeth raked a hand though her hair and stared at the tree in giddy disbelief. The air surrounding the tree smelled clean, fresh and fruity, a heady mixture of apples, cut marigolds, and prairie grass. Moth had not lied to her. She wasn’t a fool for trusting another person. Ignited by the strange tree’s nocturnal birth, Elizabeth unwrapped the dismembered hand, fumbling it loose from the blood-stained butcher paper. She laid the hand near the base of the twisting trunk. The tapered fingers curled inward like the legs of a dead garden spider. She began to dig a shallow hole between two winding roots. “What have you got there?” The creature asked in a grandmotherly lilt. Elizabeth had almost forgot it was there. The creature shifted position and the branch groaned from the agitation. “What horrible thing have you done?” Elizabeth screwed up her face at the accusation. Digging faster, she tossed fistfuls of dirt down the slope. She slipped her cauterized stump into a coat pocket, wincing from the pain. “It wasn’t me, it was my husband. He killed my boy. It was an accident.” “And where is your husband now?” the creature asked. It lowered its long neck. Milky breath tousled Elizabeth’s hair and she flinched, swatted. Elizabeth picked up her severed hand and placed it in the hole with gentle care. Then she removed a bit of folded cloth from her pocket. Inside, laid four perfect white baby teeth, like polished agates, and a blue bloodless pinky finger dissected at the first knuckle. She put them in the center of the dismembered palm. “I killed him with his own hunting knife. He should have been more careful. I acted without thinking.” The creature giggled. Filling in the hole, Elizabeth patted it firm, then leaned against the tree. There was nothing left to do but wait util morning. Her eyes bulged as if they were being forced out from the inside. The growing fever leeched the strength from her aching muscles, making it a chore to move her arms. A chill prickled her spine and spread outward in curdled waves. “Is that so?” said the creature. Its skin crackled like brittle parchment as it clambered about, looking out of place among the lush branches. It ate more fruit. The sweet smelling guts pattered down around Elizabeth. The hours slunk by. Elizabeth’s entire body boiled. Her stump pounded in slow rhythm with her heart. She prodded the inside of her mouth with a sluggish tongue. Flashes of William lit up her mind’s eye like an electrical storm. The creature asked, “Did you go see Moth?” “Quiet now.” Elizabeth hugged her knees to her chest. Her thoughts swam. Clammy sweat swamped her lower back. “She wouldn’t take me back home to live with her after she made me,” the creature said. “She left me out here to rot.” Elizabeth could feel the creature boring into her with its rheumy yellow eyes. She felt compelled to say something to the pitiful thing, to comfort it somehow. If for no other reason than her own self-preservation. Because whatever the tree deigned to give back to her, Elizabeth needed to believe it was her own son, her William. To her, that meant accepting that the scrawny creature haranguing her was Moth’s daughter, and not just some sick, scavenging abomination. Elizabeth strained her neck and met the creature’s eyes. “Moth is a cruel woman. Damn her for abandoning you, her own flesh and blood.” The creature whimpered. “I’ll see that you are taken care of,” Elizabeth said, “if you can just give me some peace while I wait.” “You promise?” “I do.” In silence, the Frances-creature climbed to the higher branches, disappearing behind a mass of feathery leaves.
When the first hints of dawn slivered over the hills, Elizabeth crawled over to the buried hand. Feeling weak and lightheaded, she stared at the mound. Had she sussed movement, a flutter in the soil? She grinned. Her dry lips cracked. “Won’t you be surprised?” the Frances-creature said. It stood on the lowest possible branch. The mound of soil pulsated. Then, three scaly fingers broke the surface, grabbing for purchase in the tangled roots. Another withered hand appeared. Elizabeth’s stomach roiled. What was this? Soil frothed and a narrow head followed the hands, glistening with amniotic fluid. Wide green eyes, like an owl’s, blinked away crumbs of soil and stared at Elizabeth. Elizabeth cupped her hand over her mouth. She gawped as the sickly newborn crawled free of the soft dirt and shook itself off like a muddy dog. Its naked body was grub-white, almost translucent. Elizabeth could see the small pink lungs inflate in its chest. The creature stared with animal fear at Elizabeth and licked its nascent wings with a darting black tongue. When it snarled at her, four perfect baby teeth jutted from the gums. “William,” Elizabeth said, focusing on those big bright eyes. Nothing about the scrawny creature remotely resembled William, but she would not let that fact deter her from accepting the newborn as her son. Before the William-creature could escape up the tree, Elizabeth snatched it and shoved it into the inner folds of her coat. It shrieked, scratching and tearing through the fabric of her shirt, sinking its teeth into her stomach. She grimaced. “It’s OK, William. You rest now,” she said. “we have a long walk ahead of us.” Above her, the Frances creature cried out. “Bring me with you. I don’t want to be alone. Take me to my mother.” Holding the struggling William-creature against her stomach with her throbbing stump, Elizabeth unsheathed the hunting knife with her free hand, hiding it behind her back. Wobbling, she smiled at the Frances creature. “I’ll take you to Moth, little one. Climb down onto my shoulder.” “Thank you,” said the Frances creature, as it skittered down the trunk. Elizabeth was quick with the blade. The Frances creature’s throat split as easily as a hardboiled egg. It made final sound like a mewling kitten when it fell from the tree. Elizabeth squinted back tears and wiped the blade across the soiled hem of her coat. “Thank you,” she said to the tree, hugging the thrashing William-creature to her breast. As the sun rose, the tree began to die. The white flowers crumbled and bobbed like dandelion spores. Leaves browned and turned to dust, scattering in the morning breeze. The fruits withered to wrinkled husks and thudded to the ground. By the time Elizabeth reached the bottom of the hill, the tree had reverted to a sooty claw once more.
Elizabeth loomed over Moth’s bed, pressing the tip of the hunting knife to her throat. Moth swallowed hard. “I need your help again,” Elizabeth said. Moth’s eggy eyes glinted in the dark room. “I see.” She rose with a groan, then hobbled across the creaky floor toward the table. Elizabeth followed behind her, poking the knife into the soft valley beneath Moth’s shoulder blade. Elizabeth seated herself opposite Moth and opened her coat, revealing the William-creature. He shook his narrow avian head and snapped at the air with a wrinkled beak, eyes big with fear. Elizabeth rested her stump on the table, the bandage mottled with discharge and reeking of spoiled meat. “I never want to be apart from William again. Do you understand?” Moth’s scratched her psoriatic jaw, breathed through her nose. “What do you have in mind?” Elizabeth scanned the dimly lit room. “We need a sack, something that will last.” She pointed her chin at her stump. “You can’t be serious,” Moth said. The William-creature hissed and writhed in Elizabeth’s grip. She clenched her jaw. “I am.” “You won’t survive. This thing…it’s cruel.” Elizabeth slammed the hilt of the knife against the table hard enough to shake dust from the ceiling. “Very well.” Moth shuffled to her feet and searched in a corner of what looked to be a pile of refuse. “I met Frances,” Elizabeth said. Lifting a burlap feed sack, Moth froze. Elizabeth stared at her until she looked away. “That thing was never my daughter,” Moth said. Elizabeth craned her neck and dodged a bite from the William-creature. “I granted her a kindness. The one you should have given her.” Moth lips curled downward. Elizabeth repositioned the William creature. Gas bloated her stomach. A numbness crept along her arms. How long could she remain conscious before the fever overtook her? “Will this do?” Moth returned, dropped the sack on the table. Elizabeth ran her fingers across it, pinched the rough fabric between her thumb and forefinger. It was thick and frayed at the seams. Stains browned the corners, and it smelled of cat piss. It would have to be cut down and refitted. “You’ll cut the holes for him?” “May God help you.” Moth reached into her satchel and produced the jar of murky amber liquid, dabbed a bit of it onto a cloth square, then reached across the table and pressed it over the William creature’s snout. He struggled briefly, his eyes fluttering like mad. Then his limbs stopped thrashing and he hung limp in Elizabeth’s arm. Moth went to dip the cloth in the liquid once more. Tightening her grip on the knife, Elizabeth said, “I think I’ll stay awake.” Moth waved off the threat. “You still think I’m your enemy?”
Fever abating, Elizabeth curled on Moth’s straw bed. Baby William screamed in her lap, flapping his meager wings inside the burlap. When she tried to calm him, he bit her finger, drawing blood. Understandable. Bonding took time. Moth had adjusted the sack, excising the unnecessary material, fashioning something smaller, more manageable. She had sewn the mouth to Elizabeth’s stump, cutting holes so William would have free use of his head, arms and legs. There was even a slit in the bottom for when nature called. It brought to mind a child wearing a homemade potato costume. As Elizabeth put pressure against the fresh bite with a corner of ratty blanket, William began gnawing at the crusted catgut sutures securing the sack to Elizabeth’s inflamed wrist. The blood had jellied, gone violet-brown. Sallow rings of pus rimmed the punctures wounds. Not a good sign. Elizabeth sucked in a breath. Pain pressed in on her as though she were trapped under six feet of earth. She hated that William had to suffer, feel trapped, but they would both heal and grow together. That was the deal. That’s how mothering worked. Moth sat in a chair by the window, watching, smoking a long-stemmed pipe. She blew a plume of oily gray smoke. It dissipated in the gauzy moonlight. “Anything?” Elizabeth asked. Shaking her head, Moth rested the pipe atop her globular belly. “We’ll go first thing in the morning.” Wrapping an arm around the William-creature’s abdomen, pulling the scratchy sack against her chest, Elizabeth whispered promises about the only thing she had left to give: the strength of her love.
The bark of a distant dog woke her. Elizabeth shot up, gasping. William squeaked at her sudden movement, squirmed inside the burlap straitjacket. She muffled his beak with her palm. “They’ve found you,” Moth said. She stood next to the window, trembling. Her voice pitched higher than her usual somber growl. Sliding from the bed, Elizabeth stumbled to the window. More barks followed, joined by shouting men. The glow from their lanterns flashed between the trees like darting lightning bugs. Moth pointed to the back door. “Swamp land, miles of it. Be harder to track you.” No time for goodbyes or gratitude, Elizabeth rushed past the table, grabbed the hunting knife and sheathed the blade. The move only took seconds, but as soon as she let go off William’s mouth, he began to scream. The men’s shouts were much closer. William continued to screech as Elizabeth bolted out the back door and jumped into the tall marshy grass. Her feet squelched ankle-deep in mud. With her good hand clamped over William’s beak, she plodded through the muck, sweating and gibbering. A few feet ahead, the woods loomed over the crooked logs and wild growth like a black wall. A dizzying cloud of insects fogged her path. She beat at them as she made for the dense cover of the trees. From somewhere behind her, a bear-voiced man shouted, “Leslie Moth, open up.” The splintering crunch of wood followed a moment later. The William-creature beat against his burlap sack like a drowning cat. A glue-thick puddle sucked the boot off Elizabeth’s foot. Hunched and shivering, she crossed over the tree line and was enshrouded in the humid darkness. As she hopped over a log, something hissed in her ear, a sharp shucking sound. To her right, less than a foot from her head, a silvery arrow jutted from the moss-scabbed bark. “Stop!” A man shouted. An animal bit the back of her thigh. Another one sank its fangs into the meat of her left shoulder. Elizabeth’s chest heaved for breath. No, not animals—arrows. Visibility faded. William had grown quiet. Elizabeth couldn’t feel any movement from him. No more raging struggle. Only the weight of his listless body dragging her arm toward the ground. A stark fear erased all other thoughts: please let this version of William still be alive. She lifted his sagging body. The weight of him strained her muscles, flayed her nerves. A short arrow stood stiff as a dog’s tail, pinning the sack to the William-creature’s back. Blood slurried from the wound, dripping down into the mud, splattering the witch-grass. His head lolled on a boneless neck. Elizabeth made no sound. The air rushed out of her, a sucking vortex scraping her insides bare. She fell face first, striking her chin on a hollow log that stunk of rot. A tooth cleaved the tip of her tongue. She tasted salt and dirty copper. Boots splashed in the water, getting closer. Slipping the knife free from its sheath, Elizabeth held on to one thought: they would not get this William. They simply could not have him. Gritting her teeth, she hacked the blade against her wrist, slicing it back and forth through the catgut and unforgiving burlap, sawing into the striated flesh and ripping the gummy scabs from their roots. Gore seeped from the stump as she separated the sack from her wrist and plunged it and the William-creature’s body beneath the muddy water until he disappeared from sight, safe and sound. “She’s here,” A voice said, hoarse and cruel. Elizabeth rolled on her back and faced a group of sweaty pin-eyed men pointing their crossbows at her. Their chests heaved. She held up her stump, blocking her face. “Pick her up.” Hands heaved her from the water, dragged her back toward Moth’s shack. Elizabeth didn’t care. White clouds drifted across her eyes. The world grew smaller. She struggled to breathe, had to focus to fill her lungs. Her pain became a distant, numb thing, almost a memory. As more blood pooled in her mouth, she forged a new plan. When it was all done, after the men and the courts and the judges took their piece of her, Elizabeth would dig up William’s grave and take more pieces of him. She would find her way back to the Mother Tree and try again. She had so much more of herself to give: another hand, arms, legs, breasts, ears, eyes, tongue. Next time, or the time after, or the time after that, somehow, she would be with her William again. In the end, all would be righted.