Taking Root by Dave Ring

A silver fruit. A worm. A brown hand, pale palm upturned, fingers curled into an unmoving claw.   

Morine rocked back and forth on her heels, knees pulled up against her chest, and stared at Marcus’s too still body. She didn’t register the constant motion in her own. All she could think about was what their father would say. His questions, naive and inevitable. What had they been thinking? Why had they been so deep in the forest?  

Their father had told them time and time again that it was dangerous in the wood. Morine wasn’t sure when it was that they’d gone from heeding his warnings to flaunting them. But she remembered clearly the afternoon that, upon hearing a man’s approach, Marcus had turned to her and asked, “Do you want to play a game?” Her response had been an affronted affirmative; he shouldn’t have had to ask. She’d stolen the man’s purse while Marcus dallied with him amidst the earth and fallen leaves.  

In the forest they were wild things. There were countless travellers they’d chanced upon and charmed into congress over the years. Countless pockets they’d helped themselves to before disappearing into the night with dirty knees and twigs caught in their hair. Teeth like knives in their grinning mouths.

She’d always wondered how she would tell their father that his children were one of the reasons the wood was so dangerous. But today, the woods had taken Marcus from her forever.  

How would she go back to town alone?

The two had wagered, sometimes, which of them a given stranger might be drawn to. The strangers were nearly all men, seeing as most women seemed to have the good sense to avoid the wood, but in practice both Morine and Marcus were indiscriminate. And though they were very different in looks–Marcus as dark as their late mother and Morine fair like their father–they each had an easy beauty about them. In town, Marcus wore his with a greater care than Morine; it could be dangerous for men to carry beauty without being faulted for it. To allay this, with the townsfolk he was gruff and solid, the quintessential woodcutter’s son. Not that it had endeared him any with their father. Marcus was, by all accounts, the image of their mother. And their father took personal offense to the resemblance. There was no amount of firewood that Marcus could carry, or praise he might earn from a neighbor, that could make their father look fondly at him.  

Even then, beneath Morine’s distraught inspection, Marcus’s beauty did not have the grace to lie fallow. Marcus was naked, but Morine hardly noticed. She’d seen him undressed often enough. Sweat hung on his face like dew. A single glass leaf graced the muscles of his chest like a talisman, a sign from the wood of its favor. That worm, now wriggling away, was an accordioning band of hyacinth and bright sunbeam that served only to offset this cruel mise-en-scène Morine had been cast in.  

A comforting hand pressed at Morine’s shoulder. “He knew the risk,” Olu said. His voice was hesitant, as if Morine might start crying at any moment. Her resentment swelled to the surface.  

“I don’t care what he knew,” she said.  

Morine pulled away from him to lay down beside her brother. She rested her head on the meat of Marcus’s shoulder, where she’d spent countless nights whispering plans for the next day, voice low so their father wouldn’t hear. It hadn’t always been talk of tricking strangers from their wealth; they’d always dreamed of freedom. Tomorrow, they’d be braver, they always said.  

When had that changed, she wondered. And why hadn’t she noticed? The weight of Morine’s hair did not quite cushion her from the coldness of Marcus’s body.  

“He couldn’t be happy the way things were,” Olu said, as if he heard her thoughts.

When the twins were younger, a small portrait of their mother had hung above the fire. It hadn’t been expertly painted, but the artist had captured enough of the woman depicted there for her children to be seized with yearning and wonder. Perhaps her strong nose had meant that she was stubborn? And the curly, unstraightened black hair meant that she’d been strong? And the look in her warm brown eyes, well. That could only be love, surely? The summer her father had thrown the portrait into the fire was when he’d stopped looking Marcus in the eye.  

Maybe she did know when they’d started flaunting their father’s rules.

Morine realized she was crying.  

Olu sighed and turned his back to give her some privacy. As much as he was willing. Were the nymphs of trees that weren’t made from glass less vain? Or more modest? She had never met another to compare him to.  

Olu had been Morine’s lover first. She’s befriended him after a night spent in his branches avoiding the Queen of the Wolves. Morine coaxed Olu from his tree in that first winter when he’d rather be dormant. Morine taught him to eat human food and drink moonshine when there wasn’t sunlight for him to feed on. Morine told Olu stories from the town and made him laugh, despite himself, when he was in one of his otherwise endless moods. She’d also shown Olu how to pleasure her with his mouth until she couldn’t keep silent. Until she couldn’t feel her legs.

He’d taught Morine things too. How to smell rain on the wind, and to call a bold finch to her finger. How to hold her palm to a tree’s bark and breathe until she knew its name.

But, like seasons, their love didn’t last. The previous summer, they’d grown cross with each other. Unkind words were said, by both of them. She wiped her tears on the back of her arm. Was it strange, she wondered, that she’d never hated Marcus for starting something with Olu? Not the mere fact of it. Not in the beginning. When she’d first learned the news, Morine’s mouth had been red and sore from the renewed attentions of the Wolf Queen. It hadn’t seemed polite to rage and spit false brimstone. And after that, it was hard for her to deny the truth of their feelings. She’d seen it for herself. More and more, when Morine sought Marcus’s companionship to stalk the paths and roads of the wood, he would demure. She didn’t ask, but she knew he was with Olu. When she asked him about leaving, Marcus began evading her. So she stalked the wood’s paths alone, or with the Wolf Queen, but Morine wanted more.  

The note Marcus had left her that morning was crumpled in her pocket. “I’m ready,” it said. “You need to decide what comes next.” The note asked her to come to Olu’s tree. She had been a fool for thinking he’d finally been ready to leave with her. She’d even packed a bag.

Olu chanced a look over his shoulder to check on her. He still seemed embarrassed, as if she must think poorly of him. Morine sighed and rubbed the heel of her palm against her closed eyes until they were dry. She retrieved the silver apple from where it had fallen on the ground and Olu’s breath caught, like he thought she might take a bite to join him, or something equally dramatic. Morine snorted. She placed the apple in Marcus’s hand. It made the scene less maudlin.  

“Do you love him?” she asked, then snorted again. “Never mind. I know you do. You’re the one who’s going to be stuck with him. What do we do now?”

He looked from her to Marcus and back.  

“Do you have a shovel?” he asked.

They both laughed. It hurt, but they laughed.

It took hours to dig a hole like that with your bare hands. But the blood and pain was a price Morine was willing to pay. Better than tears. She wasn’t ready to shed more tears over him, not yet. Tears would be selfish. It was hard work. She thought there might be something she’d say aloud before they started pushing dirt over his face, but she was so tired. And it wasn’t a funeral, despite all the trappings. When it was over, she and Olu reeked of loam. Morine sat down with her back against Olu’s tree. He retreated inside the glass bark.  

She breathed deep and let the autumn air cool the sweat from her brow.

“What will you do?” came Olu’s voice from the tree, unable to keep silent.

Morine wasn’t sure. She’d always made these decisions with Marcus. Or in spite of him. She sat with her uncertainty, let it settle into her like a seed. She thought about her brother, alone under the ground, taking root. What would she do, now that she only had herself to live for? Where would she go tomorrow?

“He can never leave, now,” she said. It was nearly a question.

“No,” Olu said. “He won’t be able to leave his tree.”

“When will he wake up?” she asked.

“In the spring. If everything goes well.”

Time enough to find her own way. She looked up at the tree’s thick branches overhead. “Can I stay here tonight? I don’t want to go back to the town.”

“Of course,” Olu said. “Where will you go tomorrow?”

“I’ll go east,” she said.

“What’s east?” Olu asked.

“The sunrise,” Morine said. She’d do this thing on her own, she decided. Tomorrow, she’d be braver.