The oak tree outside my window ate my heart on Monday, and now it’s turning golden even though it’s spring. I think it’s dying.
Fallen leaves pile into treasure overnight. Once, I’d have worn my kicking boots and made short work of the mountain. But I’m older now, past that, so I take my coffee out in the morning and squeeze my toes into the damp litter instead. Bitter steam curls into the mist, dissipating into day. Green and yellow finger-leaves cling to my bare feet like papier-mâché. I am become a simulacrum, a canvas for nature’s whim. I turn my face to the canopy and ask for my heart’s return. The oak laughs in a child’s voice, and showers me with acorns.
I pour my coffee on its roots and retreat inside.
My brother comes by after lunch. He says I look like a pale sprite, and I reply he looks like a paladin, the knight he’s named for. Dating has improved Gawain’s temperament, though he could do better—and saying such things is what younger sisters are for. He leaves me a bottle of red wine, frozen lasagne, and ten quid, because that’s what older brothers are for. I don’t tell him about the tree development, but he glares at it on the way out.
On Thursday, the oak drops all its leaves at once. I walk to the newsagents under clear skies, and when I return all the branches are bare, like a brain with its nervous system exposed, dried out, black. All around it, the earth is stained the red of blood when a cut runs deep. We once kept chickens, and I remember that red seeping from a severed head, and my father’s inflamed cheeks, and the fresher scarlet of the fox he killed. I think it’s buried under the tree, actually.
Maybe that’s when the oak got a taste for flesh.
I can’t see a hole where my heart was before Monday. But I know the branch went right through me, a spear of ice and pain that wakes me up sweating every night. All week, I find splinters in my clothes, and my hair becomes thick, stringy, like tangled ivy. On Saturday, I drink the entire bottle of wine Gawain left and march outside under the swollen moon. The rest of the world sleeps in hushed peace, but the oak tree groans like my mother in labour, a sound I’ve never forgotten. Bats flit overhead, searching for insects with a chitter on the edge of hearing. I turn on the porch light for the moths and the bats and let them battle. Nature is as nature does, my father used to say. Then he’d take his shotgun and cast judgement.
The grass is wet from drizzle. Kneeling in the mulch beneath the oak, I dig my nails into cookie-dough earth and wonder if my baby brother is dying again. He’s watched me from inside the tree all these years. I used to leave him small appeasements, but this time it’s been months since the semester started and I only came back these holidays when I had nowhere else to go. The oak’s trunk holds the story of my childhood: teeth and hair and blood, skin and tears and once, a baby bird. Stuffed inside the hollows he opened for me in the scarred bark. But these days all my gifts are words, most of them forlorn. Maybe that’s why the tree ate my heart. It might as well be useful for something.
I know my baby brother’s mad at me for poisoning our mother with my blood: my antigens and his and hers were incompatible. It’s why our father took a spade to soft dirt, planted the oak in our garden. I don’t believe he knew of the tree’s animosity, of the grief and hate its cells incubated. Of the dead child casting judgement on the living.
The oak grows faster than it should, but it was never just an oak, anyway.
Father lies there with Mother now, wrapped in my baby brother’s roots: my family, our regrets, the bones of life leaching nutrients to create another.
“I love you,” I say, and press my hands to scraggly bark. It scratches like a rough tongue, like those buried teeth have risen to the surface, tempted to bite. The bats swoop for moths as clouds kidnap the moon, and sap runs from the tree onto my fingers like sticky tears. It smells of sour vinegar and expired dreams.
A fox wakes me with a yip at dawn. It assesses me on my bed of broken twigs and fouled earth, its two eyes like burning embers boring into my wounds. My chest becomes a cavern, an icy void. Whatever it sees, the fox turns and runs, leaping over the back fence like a spirit or a demon, and the orange of its fur blends into the sunrise. A bright new leaf buds, unfurls, and detaches from my hair to fall in lazy spirals, buoyed by the breeze.
I call Gawain. Although it’s early on a Sunday morning, he responds. I don’t need to give an excuse. He brings his boyfriend and a borrowed chainsaw, and we say our goodbyes to the oak and the skeletons beneath its wings. Make a pile of firewood that will cure by winter.
An acorn grew in my palm last night. I hid it from Gawain, this secret in my hand. I’m going to feed it blood and bone and grow it in the sun. When my skin turns green like oak leaves in summer, it will be ripe.
Then I’ll dig my toes into the ground and reach my branches up to the infinite sky.