The men were already in the newsagent’s when Alder woke. She’d been dreaming of eating soil, her mouth packed with dirt, her stomach working itself into thorny knots. She’d woken up with a shudder, her body straining to be sick. But the noise of windows breaking convinced her to force the nausea back. She clamped a hand over her mouth and curled up into a ball. Hidden in the high branches of her tree, the men couldn’t see her, but she could see them.
Big men. Big shoulders. They hadn’t gone hungry.
Alder listened to the men rip apart the shop. She turned her wrist over, holding her watch to the light. She counted the minutes. She heard the scuffle of feet, a muffled noise, and carefully peered down.
A young man sat under the shade of her tree, crying. While the rest of the men continued to smash shelves in the newsagent’s, he crouched in the dirt sobbing with his fist between his teeth so they wouldn’t hear him. His shoulders were shaking with the force of it.
Alder watched him from up in the branches and weighed up the risks of trying to take his hammer from him. He’d left it on the ground by his right foot. If she jumped down she’d have half a second, at most, to pick the hammer up and smash in his skull. If she miscalculated–if he had a chance to shout for help, or grab the hammer before she could–she would be the one to die.
Alder didn’t like the odds. Bodies were so fragile, after all. She decided to stay where she was. After ten minutes passed the man got to his feet and wiped his face on the back of his sleeve. He pulled his sleeve down over his hand to hide the teeth marks. Then he kneeled down, picked up his hammer, and walked away.
She heard one of the men shout. Then she heard the meaty slap of a fist. She placed her hands over her ears and waited for silence.
She waited another hour in the end, timing herself using the tick of her wristwatch. Then she climbed down and went in the newsagent’s. The desk was broken and the metal shelves were on the floor, ripped off of their hinges. The elderly man who owned the shop lay dead behind the broken countertop, his head soft and blown wide. The beer was all gone, the packets of crisps and the bottles of water too. But the men hadn’t taken all the chocolate bars, so Alder took one for herself and ripped open the packaging with her teeth.
When she turned to leave she saw the spider plant that usually sat in the window lying on the floor in a pool of its own dirt and broken glass, its roots exposed to the air. Alder picked it up and tucked it in the crook of her arm like a baby, lifting her jacket and her shirt so it could feel her bare skin. “You can stay with me for now,” she told it. It burrowed against her, slowly worming its way under her dermis. The green susurrated softly in greeting.
Alder wondered if anyone would come and bury the man, and then decided it was unlikely. He should have left a long time ago, when everyone else in the city had left. But he’d
been old and alone and he’d loved his shop. He’d liked Alder. He’d given her watch and had showed her to wind the tiny hands to the right time. These are better than digital, he’d told her. They don’t wear out.
Alder thought about burying him. But she couldn’t. All the good soil left belonged to the tree, and the rest of it was parched and hard, impossible to shift with the few tools she had available to her. She supposed she could cremate him, but she didn’t like fire. He would have to remain where he was.
She took another chocolate bar and chewed on it slowly as she climbed back into her tree to wait. She watched the sun fall, and the fires start on the distant edges of the city, very far from home. She slept and this time she was careful not to dream.
When Alder woke it was night, deep black night, and it was too dark for her to see her wristwatch. But she could see the bright flame of a lit matchstick down below her. When she leaned forward she saw the young man’s face haloed in the light. His left eye was swollen shut.
“Come down,” he said.
Alder shook her head. Then, realising he could barely see her, she said, “No.”
“You can’t stay here,” the man said. “They’re going to come back. They’ll find you.”
“You killed the old man in the shop,” said Alder. Talking made her throat hurt. She wasn’t used to it. “You used your hammer.”
“I didn’t hurt him,” he said. “They hurt him. The others.” His voice wobbled. “It was horrible.”
When Alder said nothing, the man swore and blew the matchstick out before it could burn his fingers. Fumbling in his pockets, he lit another and held it up so he could see her.
“I’ve run away,” he said. “I’m trying to get to the Castle. You could come with me. We might make it together.”
“I want to stay here,” said Alder.
“You can’t. They’re following me. They’ll find you.”
“They may not find me,” Alder pointed out.
“If you stay here, someone will find you in the end,” he said desperately.
“I’m waiting for someone to find me,” said Alder. “So that seems reasonable.”
“You might be found by– someone bad. Not someone you want to be found by. And I… I can take you somewhere safe.” His voice grew smaller. “Please don’t make me go alone.”
Alder leaned forward and looked at him hard. His one good eye was very big in the dark. She’d been fooled by his height, but now she looked closer she could see his hands and feet were too big for him, his skin soft, his face an open carapace.
“You’re not a man, are you?” said Alder. “You’re just a boy.”
He didn’t protest. “Please,” he said.
Alder considered her options. The spider plant rustled against her ribs thoughtfully. The green began to whisper all at once, sending a susurration through her whole body, head to toe. She shivered, and decided.
“I don’t like fire.”
The matchstick had almost burned down to his fingers again. “Fine,” he said, and blew it out. “Will you come down now?” he said into the dark.
Alder nodded, then remembered–again–that he couldn’t see her. “Yes,” she said. She kissed the branch of her tree. Be safe, she thought. A little kernel bloomed under her sternum in response, and Alder took it on gladly. She jumped down.
The boy was shivering. She thought of the spider plant lying on its side with its roots exposed, and took his hand.
“Show me the way to the Castle,” she said.
The Castle and Hound was an old pub set at the top of a hill. There were still flower baskets hanging from the eaves and a sign announcing the pub’s name, but the sign had split down the middle and the baskets were empty. It was a dump. Apart from the addition of a figure standing on the roof pointing a hunting rifle down at them, it looked like every other abandoned building Alder had ever seen.
Alder stopped dead in her tracks when she saw the rifle, but the boy gave a gasp and let go of her, running through gaping fence to the pub door.
“It’s me!” he yelled. “It’s me! Let me in!”
The gun lowered and the figure vanished. A moment later the door opened. Alder raced after the boy, tumbling with him through the door. A woman with a hunting rifle still slung over her shoulder slammed the door shut and barred it behind them.
“Were you followed?” the woman asked urgently.
“I don’t know,” the boy gasped, but the woman was no longer listening. She hugged him tight and said, “Matthew, oh Matthew, I thought you were dead. You foolish boy. How could you leave me?”
“I thought they’d teach me how to be strong,” the boy said, crying again.
“I told you,” she said. “I told you the world can’t be trusted anymore. I told you but you never listen! And who on earth have you brought with you?”
The woman was still talking, asking questions, but Alder was no longer listening to her. She looked around the pub, at the tables and chairs stacked against the walls, at the carpet and rolled back to leave the floorboards bare. She got down onto her hands and knees and smelled the dust and resin and blood that had settled there. Her heart began to hammer. Her mouth dried up.
“Someone is a witch,” said Alder. The boy and the woman fell silent. “Someone has put blood and dreams into the floor.” She pressed her cheek to the floorboards and looked up at the two humans still clutching each other. “Where can I find the witch?” she asked urgently. “You must tell me. I have to know.”
“Who are you?” asked the woman.
“I saved her,” the boy said proudly, and Alder didn’t bother to correct him.
“The witch,” she said again. “I need to speak to her. Please.”
The woman carefully untangled herself from the boy and moved to stand in front of him, protecting him from Alder’s sight. She hadn’t reached for her rifle yet, but probably only because she was too close to Alder to put it to its intended use. Her eyes were as dark and deep as earth after rain.
“I’m the witch,” the woman said. “Now, tell me who you are.”
“I’m the one you summoned,” said Alder. “I was waiting for you. Why didn’t you come for me?”
The witch stared at her for a very long moment. Then she said, “Oh. Oh my God.”
The witch told Alder to call her by her name. Her name was Laura.
Laura brewed a pot of tea over a camper stove and poured out two mugs. She gave one of them to Alder and warned her not to drink it until it cooled.
“Do you need to drink?” the boy asked. “And eat?”
“Don’t ask questions like that, Matthew,” said the witch. “It’s rude.”
“I don’t have to,” said Alder. “But I like to. I like chocolate especially.”
“Me too,” the boy said, pleased.
“You need to go to away now, Matthew,” said the witch. “Before I remember how angry I am at you.”
Matthew scuttled off, and Laura propped her arms on the bar and looked at Alder steadily. “Tell me everything you remember. I need to know.”
“I remember waking up underground,” Alder said. That was her first memory: the soil in her mouth, loamy and wet. The terror of it pressing down on her new body, so fragile and full of bones. “I remember not wanting to wake up. I was somewhere else, and then I was flesh, and there was a witch calling to me. Live, she told me. So I decided I would.”
She could have chosen not to. She could have chosen to remain in her tree, dreaming sap and root and water dreams, bloodless and sweet. But the terror in the witch’s voice had made her curious. Live. Please. Live.
So she had.
“I dug myself out from under the roots of my tree. It was night and the world was burning. I was very afraid.” She swallowed. “But I waited for you. I thought you would come and get me. I waited a long time.”
“And there was only you? No one else arrived with you?” asked Laura. “Nothing—grew?”
“Well,” Laura said. She pressed her fingertips hard to her forehead and squeezed her eyes briefly shut “Well. I’ve dragged you into a mess, and I’m sorry for it.”
The witch explained then, that she had tried to perform a spell to bring the plants back to life. But the plants hadn’t returned. All over the city they had kept on burning and rotting and dying in their droves just like everything else, and the witch had thought her spell had failed. Then Matthew had run away, and run back, and brought Alder with him.
“My mum always told me to be careful with new spells. ‘They go wrong’ she said. ‘They never work like you expect them to.’” Laura shook her head. “I should have listened to her.”
“Yes,” Alder agreed. “But I’m here now, and I suppose I don’t mind being alive.” The bar was old mahogany, covered in grooves. Alder reached across it and covered the witch’s hand with her own. “You’re warm,” Alder said. “Did you know how wonderful it is, how warm you are, how flesh feels?”
Laura stared at her for a long time. Then she drew her hand back.
“You should sleep,” she said. “I’ll be on the roof if you need me.”
Alder lay on the floor for two hours. She couldn’t sleep.
She went in search of the witch. It didn’t take her long to find a hatch that led to the roof. She climbed up and found Laura crouched on the shingles, holding her rifle.
The moon was out. In its faint light, Laura’s dark skin looked grey.
“I saw one of the men,” Laura said grimly. “I knew they’d come.”
Alder sat down next to her. She propped her chin up on her knees.
“You can shoot one,” she said.
“If I have to.”
“You can’t shoot all of them.”
“No,” Laura said. “No, I can’t. You’re right.”
“Can you use your magic to get rid of them?”
“I don’t have much left in me,” Laura admitted. “I should never have tried to bring back the trees. I used myself up. It’ll come back in time, but we don’t have much of that, I think.”
“No,” Alder agreed. She looked down at her watch. Time was ticking away.
The witch swallowed. “I was trying to wake the world back up,” she whispered, looking down at the rifle in her hands. “But there was nothing left to wake up, I suppose. Just you.” She looked up at Alder again then with bleak eyes. “The world is dead, isn’t it? It’s too late.”
Alder shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“It doesn’t matter anyway.” The witch’s shoulders slumped. “The men Matthew ran off will be here soon, and I won’t be able to fight them off for long. Fool boy. I should never have taken him in.”
“You could send him away again.”
Laura shook her head. “It’s too late for that. And besides, I love him. It can’t be helped.” She exhaled slowly, straightening her spine with visible effort. “You should go before they come. Those men are dangerous. You won’t want to face them. You’ll want to be somewhere safe.”
Alder looked at Laura’s solemn face, her straight eyebrows and the hard set to her jaw. Alder thought of the men with their hammers, the men with their fists who didn’t like it when boys cried. She thought of the old man who’d given her the watch on her wrist, his head soft and pulverised, all its redness spilled. She stood up.
“Come down to the garden with me,” she said. “I want to show you something.”
“The old man who owned the shop by my tree loved plants,” said Alder. She shrugged off her oversized jacket. “When they started to die, he asked me to save them. So I did.”
She took off her shirt and her trousers, which had fit her just as badly as the jacket. She toed off her shoes. Naked apart from her watch, she stepped out under the bare sky where the moonlight could touch her. Laura watched her from the Castle’s doorstep, rifle steady in her hands. The witch sucked in a sharp breath when Alder turned to face her, naked and bristling with life.
“This was the first one I took from him,” Alder said, pointing to her thigh. “A rose. And here…” she gestured to her stomach. “These were nettles. I chose to save those.”
She described each inch of her body, each green thing she’d kept and saved on her own skin. She pointed to the fronds etched against the flesh of her ribcage. “This was the last plant I took from him, when the men killed him.” She moved her fingers to her sternum, and touched the small seed centred there, pulsing with new life. “And this is a gift from my tree. My last gift.”
“Look at you.” The witch sounded dazed. She didn’t move as Alder curled her toes into the ground and looked out at the city, which was still dark and poisonous with burning.
“The soil isn’t so bad here,” said Alder, as the green fluttered and shifted under her skin. “Your magic protected it a little. This is as good a place as any to give them a home, I think.” She looked back at the witch. “I could grow my new tree here,” said Alder thoughtfully. “I could grow a whole forest. The men wouldn’t be able to reach you through that.”
“Oh please,” said the witch. There were tears running from her eyes. “Oh please, do. Do.”
Alder kneeled down. The green shivered, terrified and delighted as she set her fingers against earth.
It’s time, she told it. Don’t be afraid now. You need to wake up. I can’t be your home any longer.
She learned forward and kissed the ground. Life sprang from every inch of her skin, burrowing into the earth, bursting its way through clods of soil. The witch had poured magic into every inch of the Castle: spells for protection, incantations for invisibility, curses to keep her enemies at bay. Her magic had been made of love and blood and dreaming, and the green fed on it as all life feeds on such things.
Alder’s skin was stretched thin. Suddenly exhausted, she tried to stand up and found herself stumbling. The witch caught her before she collapsed entirely. Laura helped her gently down to the ground. She lay Alder’s head in her lap.
“My God,” Laura said, over and over again. She was still weeping. “My God, just look at that.”
Alder felt as if they stayed there for a very long time, watching plants sprout to fierce life, watching the kernel of her tree grow larger and larger still, until it threatened to blot the moonlight from the sky. She wanted to look at her watch and count the passing minutes, but her wrist felt too heavy to lift. So she counted in her head instead, and pressed her cheek against Laura’s thigh.
“It looks like your spell worked after all,” Alder observed.
“Yes,” Laura said. Her voice was thick. “I suppose it has.” She touched Alder’s hair with trembling fingers. “Don’t fall asleep,” she said. “I’m afraid…” the witch’s voice trailed off.
“Afraid?” Alder prompted, confused.
“Afraid that you won’t wake up.”
“Oh,” Alder said. “Don’t be afraid of that.”
She closed her eyes, let out a breath, and died.
The witch dug a hole under Alder’s tree. It was a good tree. Deep roots, generously soft soil. The witch wrapped Alder in sheets studded with sunflowers and whispered prayers against her ear. She kissed Alder on the forehead, tucked the sheet over her face, and began to bury her.
It was a good death.
Under the soil, Alder stretched out her roots. She felt the good soil, the sweetness of it. If she’d had the lungs for it, she would have laughed with joy.
She’d told the witch not to be afraid, and she’d meant it. Alder had never felt more alive or more awake. The green was all around her, blooming into hungry, childish new life. She could feel the pulse of it as if they were still one body, one lovely symbiotic creature again.
The green had begun dreaming restless dreams. Not good green-dreams of cold sap and sun like it had dreamt before she had been its soil, but flesh dreams, red and wet. It was dreaming her rage and her anger; dreaming the tick of a watch, the sound of a hammer breaking bone. It dreamt Laura’s face, wet with tears. The green was wrathful, hungry, confused.
This is how humans dream, she told it, by way of apology. That’s why they make everything burn.
They’d lived too long together, she and the green. Neither of them were really quite human or quite green any longer. When Laura had turned over the soil, it had been red and wonderfully warm. The roots of Alder’s tree had been sinewy with muscle. And Alder, for all her flesh was dead and she was tree and root and leaf again, could still feel the softness of Laura’s lips on her forehead and the corresponding winged swoop of her own stomach like the ghost of her flesh remained with her still.
The green was shaking off its dreams. It was waking up. She felt its gnarled roots settle, deep and strong with fury; shivered as thorns bristled viciously to the surface of vines and flower stems, as the earth softly gave away, shaping itself into ready traps. It was knew what the men had done. It wouldn’t fail her.
Laura had not climbed back up onto the roof. She kneeled on Alder’s new grave, her rifle on the ground beside her. The trees of Alder’s red-green forest towered above her, dark and austere, great branches lifting their leaves up to the sky in a jewelled halo. She was murmuring the sort of prayers humans pray when someone had died for them. Then she leaned forward, pressing her lips to the soil, praying to it the way witches pray.
“Kill them,” she whispered. “Holding them at bay isn’t enough. You feel it, don’t you? Oh please, if you can hear me, kill them.”
When she raised her head, her lips were red.
Deep in forest, under the dappled light of a pale moon, the first of the men began to scream.