The tree’s question started with a clear plastic bottle. One of those liter containers of “mountain spring water” people buy from a gas station cooler for $1.99.
The brown-haired girl poured two bottles of Aquafina into the hole she’d dug at the base of its trunk.
“But, Molly, Poppa Chris isn’t leaving. He’s not like—” the boy said, hesitating nearby.
“The water’s for the faeries,” Molly cut in. “Just like Poppa Chris, sometimes they need help keeping their promises … even if they swear and cross their hearts.” She lifted a pendant from around her neck, a cluster of blood-red berries hanging from a silver chain, and dropped it into the hole.
The tree could sense the children’s mother just a few yards distant, near the line that divided forest from bog. The woman had long wavery-gray hair and frowning lips.
“I mean it,” the mother called. “I’m not waiting.”
“For the faeries,” the boy repeated and knelt down beside his sister. Soon both children were pressing rough handfuls of peat between the tree’s roots, sealing both the necklace and the spring water inside.
“Molly? Matthew?” The mother’s voice was fainter now. “What’s gotten into you? Chris will be waiting for us.”
Molly glanced around as though just noticing the dim light and the mass of stunted evergreens. “Mom, wait!” Soon both children were hurrying away into the gloom of the forest.
The little tree held itself still. A low breeze, cool in the fading twilight, pushed its branches out across the bog and then back toward the stand of pines. Something felt different. The water in the peat bog was plentiful, but also full of acids that seeped up into its branches. Almost worse was the lack of soil. The tree had to survive on nutrients from the rotting remains that had settled near its trunk.
From the outside, one hundred and fifty-three years of bog life had hardly changed the little pine. But, inside, the two liters of spring water carried with it something new. The tree found itself suddenly concerned with one particular question: the matter of its name.
Concern was something it hadn’t felt in over a century and a half.
Some things the once-girl found easier to remember, like Gran’s Scottish brogue and the smell of their log house, a mixture of wood smoke and fresh pine sap. When Gran wasn’t showing the girl how to use a needle or separate the weeds from the garden seedlings, she talked about the faeries. The “fey folk” Gran called them.
“Rowan berries are good at keeping them away, almost as good as iron,” she said while they planted one of the bushes near their front door. “Milk can make them happy enough to leave you in peace, but it has to be fresh and unskimmed,” she said as they left the cream to settle to the top of a muslin-covered jug. “The fey don’t take to any sign of stinginess.”
Despite her warnings of woodland dangers, Gran often dragged the girl into the forest. Gran and the girl collected reddish rocks from the base of the coastal cliffs, lining their kitchen garden and doorway with the iron-tinged stones. They carefully marked the trees at the edge of the bog where the stunted trunks grew unhindered by a single red berry.
“These old trees are all the same,” Gran said, when the girl commented on the tiny size of the bog pines. “Just like the fey folk. They can be small as well. Don’t let that fool you. They still have the waspish sting of a shriveled old woman.”
The girl thought that funny coming from someone as old as Gran, as though Gran could ever sting. Faeries, though, were something else entirely. They channeled the power of water and stone. Some faeries, Gran said, enjoyed smashing through bone and flesh.
That must mean some didn’t, the girl considered, though she didn’t say the words out loud.
All those notches she and Gran made in the moss-coated fur and spruce trunks, marking the edges of the fey, peat-bound woods. And all that red she and Gran kept near them: the iron-laced rocks, the rowan berries, even the blood that had started to flow from between her legs. It felt like they were preparing for a faerie battle, just the two of them, the girl and Gran, trying to keep the entire New Brunswick coast and all its monsters at bay.
The girl knew her history. Monsters were everywhere. The coast of New Brunswick had always been a place where people thrived and then inexplicably disappeared. The First Nation peoples, the Mi’kmaq, hunted and fished along the region’s coastal forests, built their homes from its trees. Then the Mi’kmaq faded—or were felled—and the Acadians arrived, farming the rich, silty soil, holding back the sea with their earthen dams. But, in the end, the Acadians vanished too, and the British Planters arrived, taking over the now empty lands.
Of course, some in the colony still disappeared, like the girl’s own Momma, and the girl supposed, her Dad, though Gran never talked about him.
The British soldiers liked to take credit for the lost Acadians. The girl, though, wasn’t so sure. The forests near Gran’s faerie bogs were crammed with small-trunked pines, so many they fell atop each other like a crowd of sloppy drunks. Hundreds, even thousands of small trees. Enough to fill a coastline of villages and settlements.
“Hidden faces, child,” Gran said. “Never forget the world is drowning in them.”
The fey folk hid in the small stretches of peat-bound forest between New Brunswick’s ironish cliffs and the inland woods with their undergrowth of rowan bushes and red rowan berries.
Women, young women, when the phase of the moon was just right, carried their own protections; the girl knew that as well. Maybe that’s why Gran said the faeries, like all strangers, disliked young women most of all. Maybe Gran just meant the faeries felt slighted by all that womanly red, keeping them at bay.
And still they wandered the cliffs along the shoreline, collecting yet another basket of iron-tinged rocks.
“Careful, love,” Gran said as she and the girl watched the new minister dig for clams in the nearby mud flats. “Not everyone is who they seem.” The man waved to them and doffed his hat before turning back to his rake and bucket.
But the girl had not been careful enough. That was her second thought as the Aquafina started to flow up from her peat-bound roots. All Gran’s warnings, and still she’d somehow fallen to the other side. Forgetting so much—Why couldn’t she remember her name?
If Gran had been nearby, she would have frowned and pinched the girl hard, warning her “to mind” next time. But, over a century later, Gran wasn’t anywhere near the little tree’s peat-bog home. Instead, the girl and her small gnarled branches were surrounded on one side by a length of slowly flowing water and on the other side by a stretch of peat-bound woods full of desperate little trees just like herself, still sleeping after tens and hundreds of years.
Had they forgotten, as well? Or was she the only one? The only nameless tree awake in the New Brunswick forest.
One hundred and fifty-three years of sleep had emptied the girl of many things: the feel of her wool blankets on a cold, foggy New Brunswick morning, the name of their closet neighbor, their new minister, their town. Some changes happened quickly; her roots began to straighten, revealing soft, wrinkled toes, the nails encrusted with dirt. And still the question remained. Who exactly was she?
The girl stood naked in the woods, the hair between her legs a tangle of earth-colored lichen. Fingerprint bruises ran along her hips and across both shoulders. Her lips ached as though someone’s scratchy beard had pressed too hard against the flesh. There was a flash of that nameless minister’s smile and rough hands capturing her own, the smell of the saltmarsh and an almost-full bucket of sand-covered shells. Certain memories, the girl heard a fey voice whisper, along with their makers, deserved to be left behind in the bog’s acid-filled peat.
She could hear other voices, as well. Human voices. Moving closer.
“I bet Molly dropped it along here somewhere.”
“Damn it. It was my grandmother’s.”
“Chris, she’s just worried you’ll take that job.”
“Jesus.” He sighed. “Joan, they were just words. Stupid, stupid words. I’m not going anywhere.”
The woman with long silver hair suddenly appeared round a bend in the trail, the man, Chris, at her side. Joan wore trousers, despite the breasts the girl could clearly see pressing up from her shirt. The man had a weathered, plump face and sad eyes. Both of the strangers’ footwear was colored in ways the girl had never seen, some mixture of bees and butterfly wings.
“Oh,” Joan said, reaching up to touch the silver pendant at her throat. The man, meanwhile, was blushing.
The girl raised one hand to the red berries hanging below her neck, while she lowered the other to cover that second secret place. No, the girl said, thought anyway, words still hard to voice. She felt her legs turning, ready to run. But the woman’s hand was on her arm, holding her in place.
“Wait! Please. We won’t hurt you.” The woman’s voice sounded funny, trembly and not at all like Gran’s brogue, not like that nameless minister’s voice either, the one who said he liked to go clamming at low tide.
Meanwhile, the man, Chris, stood a few feet away, holding some sort of shiny rectangle to his ear. “No signal.” he said.
“Chris, honey, pass me your jacket.”
Such strange clothing.
“You’re just a baby,” the woman murmured, as she held out the coat. Her voice was so low the girl almost didn’t catch her words. The woman didn’t seem like one of Gran’s strangers at all.
Come here, he had said, holding out a length of pretty, red cloth. I thought you might like this, he’d said, smiling in a way that didn’t seem frightening at all. It was his smile that had tricked her. Or perhaps he would have tricked her either way.
Now, this sad-eyed man’s coat sleeves hung below the girl’s hands, the coat itself reaching well past her knees.
“What’s your name, sweetheart?” the woman asked, slipping her arms around the girl’s shoulders, making sure not to hold on too tight. “You can tell me.”
Names were important, the girl knew that much. Gran had made sure the girl could name both the wildflowers that edged the nearby saltwater marsh and the birds that wheeled just inches above the ground. Sandpipers. Cormorants. Pigeon hawks. Each name a one-word explanation. Sandpipers with their long, sharp beaks and wandering ways, only stopping in one place for a month or two. Cormorants the ocean’s fisherfolk. And then there were the hunting pigeon hawks, working together to bring down their prey.
The girl’s own name was lost long ago, along with that pretty red cloth and the sense of peace the woods used to offer as she checked the notches that marked the boundary between the real and the fey.
It was that man who had dragged them both across the line. His bones consumed long ago somewhere beneath the peat.
The fey folk were careful in their craft. They planted their trees in the peat-bog’s almost barren soil. Left them to topple or stand as they chose. Leave it long enough, the faeries knew, and sometimes a broken thing finds its way. Nothing, though, is guaranteed.
The girl could feel the heat of the woman’s arm across her shoulders.
Chris’s eyes looked so sad. “My daughter, Molly, is about your age,” he said. “You’d like her.”
The girl could feel the woman start slightly. “Yes, yes that’s true.”
“Let’s get you back to the car,” the woman, Joan, continued, looking straight into the girl’s eyes. She smelled of lemons and lavender, exotic things. She smelled of new. “We’ll sort this out at home. It’s warm there, and Molly and Matthew are waiting. They’ll be glad to see us.”
“Of course, they will,” the man agreed. His face seemed genuinely kind.
The girl stepped forward for what felt like the first time, crossing the line between forest and peat-bound bog. She wasn’t sure about much, but a home, their home, sounded exactly right.
“Rowan,” the girl said. “My name is Rowan.”