‘Elm’, Jamie Killen

Illustrations © 2012 Lisa Grabenstetter

 [ Her hair hung long and dark down her back, © 2012 Lisa Grabenstetter ] Alice was seven when she met Elm for the first time. She had wandered into the woods where her house’s back yard ended; her mother always told her not to go too far, but she had never said exactly what that meant and Alice had never asked. Today she went all the way to the little gully with the stream running along the bottom, well beyond the view of the house. She found a puddle and squatted down to watch tadpoles swarming through the murky water. Scooping some of it up in her hands, she closed her eyes and tried to hold perfectly still as the tadpoles’ soft bodies brushed against her palms. When her eyes opened again, she saw the woman.

She stood across the stream, calmly watching Alice. Her hair hung long and dark down her back. She was naked, but seemed unaware of it, slim body held tall and poised. Alice stared, fascinated, at the woman’s skin; at first glance it was a light brown, but there was also a green tinge to it. It was hairless, and slightly shiny, and covered with pale lines like the veins of leaves. That’s what it looked like, Alice realized. Leaves.

“Why aren’t you wearing clothes?” Alice asked.

The woman glanced down at herself before returning her gaze to Alice. “Because I don’t need them.”

Alice let the water and the tadpoles trickle through her fingers. “What about when it snows? Don’t you get cold?”

She shook her head. “I sleep when it snows.”

Alice stood and wiped her wet hands on her dress, remembering too late that her mother would be angry when she returned with muddy clothes. “My name’s Alice.”

“I know,” the woman replied.

Alice waited. “Well,” she said at last, “what’s your name?”

The woman smiled for the first time. “We don’t have names people can say. They’re more like... Smells, and tastes.”

Alice studied her for a moment. “Are you a fairy?”


“Then what are you?”

“We live in the trees.” The woman frowned and shook her head, as if that wasn’t quite right.

“Is that why your skin looks like that?”

“Yes.” The woman stepped across the stream and held out a hand to Alice. “Go on.”

Alice reached out timidly and stroked the woman’s palm. It felt smooth like a leaf, but stronger and warmer. Now that she was closer, Alice could smell sap and earth. “What kind of tree do you live in?”

The woman turned and pointed to the tall, stately tree across the stream. “That’s it. You’d call it an elm.”

“Elm.” Alice tasted the word. “Ok, that’s what I’ll call you. Elm.”

Elm’s smile broadened. “That’s fine.”

Alice looked back toward the house. “I have to go, or Mama’s gonna yell. But I can come back and play some more tomorrow.”

“I’d like that.”

Alice set off for the house. “Bye, Elm,” she called over her shoulder.

“Goodbye, Alice.”

Alice returned the next day. She stood in the same spot next to the stream and turned a complete circle. “Elm?” she called.

“I’m here.” The voice drifted down from above.

Alice looked up and smiled with relief. “Hi.” Elm sat on one of her tree’s wide branches, feet dangling in the air. “I didn’t tell Mama you were here. I thought maybe...”

Elm cocked her head. “Maybe I wasn’t really here? Maybe you’re a little girl with a big imagination?”

Alice felt her cheeks redden. “I guess.”

Elm dropped from the branch; she seemed to fall slower than she should have, landing easily on her feet. “Well, I am here. Still, it’s wise not to mention me. They wouldn’t believe you, and even if you brought them here I wouldn’t show myself.”

“Why not?”

Elm lifted one shoulder in a tiny shrug. “I choose my friends carefully. Come.” She held out a hand to Alice.

“Where are we going?” Alice asked, taking Elm’s hand.

“To meet someone.”

Elm led her through the trees. They didn’t follow the little trail next to the stream, moving instead through the dense brush. Elm found small gaps in the branches just big enough for Alice to pass through. As they moved farther from the stream, the shadows became darker and cooler. Alice smelled moss and blackberry bushes, and underneath that the clear green scent of Elm’s skin. Around her she heard quick movements in the bushes, birds and squirrels darting into hiding.

They stopped next to a fallen tree. The bark was silver with age and half-covered with creeping vines. Elm knelt and held a hand out to a hollow under the log. Alice crouched beside her. “Be still,” Elm murmured.

As Alice watched, a sharp nose poked out of the hollow, sniffing Elm’s hand. It was followed by a fox. He emerged cautiously from his burrow, freezing and baring his teeth when he saw Alice. She held her breath, willing herself into complete stillness. Elm let out a little hiss and ran her fingertips over the fox’s head; his body relaxed and he came farther into the light.

“This is another of my friends,” Elm said.

“Can he talk, too?”

“Of course. But you wouldn’t be able to understand him, nor he you. Here,” she took Alice’s hand in her own and ran it gently down the fox’s spine. Alice let out a little gasp as the fox arched his back into her palm like a cat.

After a few minutes the fox turned and scurried back into his burrow. “Come,” Elm said again. “I have other friends for you to meet.”

“Careful, now. Show her you’re not to be feared.”

Alice took a deep breath and slowly extended her hand to the little cardinal perched on the branch before her. A small pile of seeds rested on her palm; wild seeds, gathered with Elm, not the uniform little ones her mother bought for their birdfeeders. In the year since she had befriended Elm, Alice had learned to call some animals. Foxes and badgers were simple enough, but birds remained skittish. This one cocked his head and watched her, but didn’t fly away. She got close enough that her fingertips just grazed his chest feathers. He hesitated for a moment, finally stepping onto her hand and pecking at the seed.

“Good.” Elm swung onto a higher branch and stretched out on her side.

“Elm, did you ever have parents?” Alice asked, still watching the bird.

Elm’s lips curved up in a little smile. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I?”

Alice shrugged. “Well... You’re a tree. You’re from a tree.”

“I wasn’t always.” The smile remained, but her eyes turned distant.

The cardinal took one last bite of seed and flew away. Alice turned and looked up at Elm. “So what happened?”

Elm stared at her for a long time. Just as Alice was beginning to wonder if she’d made her angry, Elm spoke. “My family came from somewhere else. I remember being in a ship. Not much about it, just the smell. My father brought us into the forest, saying we’d make a living out of the land, but then he and my mother died of some sickness. I ran into the woods, and my tree...” Elm frowned, her arm reaching out as though to pluck the right words from the air. “Recognized me. Opened for me. It changed me into what I am now.”

“So people can turn into one of you?”

“Some people.”

Alice tipped her head back and watched the patches of blue sky visible through the tree’s leaves. She thought about what it would be like if Mama and Daddy died and left her alone in the forest. “So there’s more like you?” she asked after a while.

“Yes,” Elm replied. “I’ve met some. But they aren’t near here and we don’t like to be away from our trees for long.”

Alice nodded, realizing she had somehow already known this. “Do you miss your Mama and Daddy?”

Elm hooked one knee over a branch and slid off the side, letting herself dangle upside down. “Not anymore. I don’t remember them well enough. My father was a big man, strong. He always sang while he worked.”

Alice laughed. “That’s weird.”


“My daddy never sings while he’s working.”

Elm flipped backwards and landed softly on Alice’s branch, as always not fully subject to gravity. She crouched and took one of Alice’s hands in her own. “Is he happy?”

“Who?” Alice frowned.

“Your father. Is he happy?”

Alice started to answer, but something in Elm’s eyes stopped her, something sad.

“He doesn’t sing,” Alice began carefully, “and sometimes he and Mama don’t talk to each other. They don’t yell or anything, but I can tell they’re mad. They think I don’t know, but I do.”

“Do you know what they’re angry about?”

“No.” Alice thought about her parents’ downcast eyes at the dinner table. She thought about the times she heard their low voices in the kitchen, and then the back door closing just a little too loud, the clatter of pots on the stove a bit too heavy. She wondered why she hadn’t stopped to think about these things before, why it worried her so much now.

Elm’s hands stayed wrapped around Alice’s, but her gaze turned away. “So is he never happy?”

“He is! He’s happy lots of times. Like whenever he’s working on machines in the garage, and I go to keep him company. He always wants to hear about my day. He smiles a lot then.”

Elm stayed silent for a moment. “Well, there’s that at least.” She stood and quickly turned away. “I think I’ll rest now.”

“Oh. Ok. Um... Bye.”

“Goodbye, Alice.”

Alice walked home slowly, running through the conversation in her head. Something had been revealed, something she’d never been quite aware of even while seeing it every day, and even now couldn’t quite articulate.

She didn’t want to go home.

Alice kicked her shoes off next to the stream and began climbing Elm’s tree. She was eleven now, so adept at climbing that it took no conscious effort. She swung her legs over a low branch, arranging herself with her back to the trunk. Elm dropped from nowhere to a nearby bough; it was a trick that had startled Alice the first few times but now didn’t even make her blink. “I came to see you yesterday, but you weren’t here.”

Elm sat on her perch. “I was. But you were followed, so I hid myself.”

“Followed?” Alice frowned.

“A boy. One about your age.”

Alice kicked at a stone and scowled. “That must have been Davey Jenson. He’s always following me around.”

Elm smiled. “He’s smitten with you.”

Ewww. No. I don’t like Davey.”

“Why not?”

Alice shrugged. “I don’t know. He’s nice, I guess. I just don’t like how he’s always staring at me.”

“You might, one day.”

“No,” Alice replied with careless certainty. “He doesn’t like the woods. I mean, he’s scared of them. How could I like a boy who’s scared of the woods?”

Elm’s laughter rang out through the trees; when Alice asked why, she only grinned and ran into a stand of birches, daring Alice to chase her.

Alice wrapped her coat more tightly around herself and shivered as she made her way through the trees. The moon was bright and full, but the blue light only seemed to intensify the cold. There was no snow yet, just a layer of frost crunching under Alice’s boots. It would come soon, though. Alice never bothered with weather reports; she had learned to taste the air, to smell the first snow coming a week or more before it arrived. That taste was there now, and she felt a little pang at the thought of Elm disappearing into her tree until the snow melted. Each winter seemed longer than the last, and Alice knew this one would seem longest of all.

She found Elm by the stream, now just a trickle of icy slush. “You’ve come to say goodbye for the winter,” she said with a sad smile.

Alice swallowed. “Yeah.” She busied herself with unpacking the small bag she had snuck out of the house, willing herself not to remember last night’s dream.

It hadn’t been the first time she’d dreamt about Elm, but it was the most vivid. The first had been two or three months earlier, just days before her fourteenth birthday. That one had been just indistinct images, impressions: Elm’s breath on her face, leaflike skin under her hands, the weight of her body. Alice had woken flushed and shaken, but had managed to quickly push the memory aside. She had been able to avoid thinking of it too much. But last night’s...

“I brought that chocolate you like. Oh, and I stole some gin from my folks’ liquor cabinet,” she said.

Elm snatched up the chocolate and climbed her tree. “They won’t notice it’s gone? The gin?”

Alice shrugged. “My parents both drink it, but not together. I think each one will think the other finished it off.” She followed Elm up the tree, gin bottle tucked into her coat pocket. “Does alcohol even work on trees?”

“Yes. It came as quite a shock when I found out. Come, there’s enough room in the nest for us both.”

Where the trunk of the tree split into two large boughs, smaller branches had grown together to form a spherical shelter like a woven basket. Alice settled next to Elm, leaning back slowly and listening for the sound of breaking branches. “You sure it can hold us both? I’m bigger than I used to be.”

“Of course.”

“How do you make this thing?” Alice tried to find a place where branches had been broken and woven together, but could find none.

“I don’t. I just tell my tree winter’s coming, and it knows what needs to be done. Now,” she said with a grin, “let’s have some of that chocolate.”

Alice handed over the package of candy and uncapped the gin. She felt the pressure of Elm’s body along her left side, the tickle of her hair where it brushed the back of Alice’s hand. Her immediate impulse was to pull away, put some distance between them, but she stopped herself. Be normal, she thought. Be like you’ve always been. Tipping back the bottle, she took a long swig.

“Here,” she said with a grimace, passing the bottle to Elm. “Ugh, tastes awful.”

“But it’s not about the taste, is it?” Elm took a sip of her own, not showing the slightest distaste at the flavor. Alice felt a flash of envy as she thought about how graceful the other woman was even when guzzling gin, how graceful she always was. She silently watched Elm’s body and pictured her own, comparing the two. They were both tall and thin, true, but she was all stretched out, bony angles where Elm had subtle curves. Like Elm, she had hair hanging to her waist, but hers was an unruly straw-colored mane next to the other woman’s black silk. She wondered why she suddenly felt so inadequate, and if Elm noticed these flaws as well.

“What’s wrong?” Elm asked.

“Nothing,” Alice said, looking hastily away. “Just... Winter, you know.”


They talked about the forest, the animals, Alice’s school. These were the things they had always talked about, but there seemed now to Alice to be a level of artifice to her words. Like she was holding herself back from something, not sure of what.

She willed herself to relax. “What’s it like? Sleeping all winter?”

Elm reached for the gin. “It’s not really sleep. I’m aware, but not truly conscious.” She turned and stared silently at Alice for a moment. “I just... Melt into the land. I feel what the trees feel. It’s what I always do when I communicate with the ground and the plants, but more. There’s no time, there’s no thought. In a way, there’s no me. There’s just existence.”

Alice kissed her. It was clumsy and unplanned, a rush of need become motion. Their lips pressed together, and Alice tasted sap and earth. Elm stayed still, neither reciprocating nor pushing her away.

Alice pulled back, pulse hammering in her throat. She tried to read Elm’s expression and couldn’t. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re still a child, Alice.”

Even spoken calmly, the words felt like a slap. “I am not.

Elm turned to gaze out over the forest. “Yes, you are. You haven’t the faintest idea of what it would mean to love me.”

“I’m sorry,” Alice said again.

“I’m not angry. But you need to go now.”

Alice tried to think of something else to say, but couldn’t. Elm didn’t move as she climbed past her out of the nest. When she reached the ground, Alice turned back and watched Elm’s nest slowly close and disappear within the tree’s tangle of branches. She waited, hoping Elm would reemerge and tell her she had changed her mind, knowing she wouldn’t. Then she walked home with the numb shock of an injury that has not yet begun to hurt.

Alice knew the moment she woke that winter had ended. For months, it had been one achingly cold day after another. At times it had seemed as though the winter was punishing her transgression, deliberately delaying the day she would see Elm again. But now she could taste the thaw in the air. She flung aside the covers and scrambled to find her clothes.

As Alice came down the stairs, her mother looked up from the newspaper spread out over the kitchen table. “What are you doing up so early?”

“Going for a walk.”

“In the woods? Thought you’d grown out of that.”

Alice said nothing in reply, just retrieved the bread and peanut butter from the pantry. She wondered if she should bring a better peace offering than a peanut butter sandwich, but could think of nothing that would be appropriate.

Her father opened the back door, stamping the slush off his boots as he came inside. “What’s going on?” he asked.

“She’s in a mood. Like always, these days.”

Alice bit back a retort and settled for a glare. Most days she would have taken the bait without hesitation, but didn’t want to risk being sent to her room. Not today.

“See ya, Dad,” she said, smiling pointedly in her father’s direction. He said nothing, just gave her the same weary expression he always wore when she and her mother were arguing. Lately, it was present whenever all three of them shared the same room.

Elm’s nest was still closed when Alice reached the tree. She thought about coming back later, but no. All of her senses told her that Elm would awaken today, soon.

She sat on a fallen log to wait, trying to ignore the cold seeping through her jeans. At first she fidgeted and tapped, but it occurred to her that Elm would disapprove if she had been watching. Stillness, Alice. Most people don’t have the stillness to understand this place.

Closing her eyes, Alice reached out a hand and began to hum, even and quiet like Elm had taught her. She kept her volume low, but projected the sound out into the woods until she could feel what she was looking for.

A twig cracked as the fox slid into the clearing. Alice kept her eyes closed as he circled her, waited for him to drop his guard. She could hear the little sounds of his movements, picture exactly where he was. A puff of breeze brought the musky scent of his pelt, strong enough that she knew he must be nearly within reach. Finally, she felt hot breath and fur nudging against her open palm.

She stopped humming and opened her eyes. The fox sat on his haunches, face turned up toward hers. She quietly stroked his back and scratched behind his ears. When he stood and ran off, Alice saw Elm watching her from the tree’s upper bough.

They said nothing for a minute, just watching each other. Then Elm jumped to the ground. “Come. I want to see the river.”

Alice swallowed the lump in her throat and forced herself to smile. “Ok.”

It wasn’t the resolution she wanted, but at least it was a kind of truce. At least she hadn’t lost her.

“Just be patient. Figure out what’s wrong with them.”

Alice rubbed a leaf from the blackberry bush between her fingers. She smelled the berries, dug her fingers into the ground. “There’s something in the soil, something they don’t have enough of.” She felt the roots straining, driven by need.

“Yes,” Elm said. “Now, what is it?”

Alice closed her eyes and tried to be still. “Iron,” she said at last.

Elm nodded. “Good. We’ll fix it tomorrow.” She picked up a wide patch of fallen tree bark and began piling it with plucked berries. “Would you like to come to the nest?”

“Sure.” Alice followed her back to the tree and watched her climb, balancing the berries on one hand like a waiter with a dinner plate. She followed Elm, settling against the wall of the nest. For a fleeting moment, Alice was reminded of that night over three years ago, that night they had never discussed. Then, as always, she shoved the memory aside.

They ate in silence. “I’ll be done with high school soon,” Alice said when she was done. “Just one more year.”

“What does that mean?” Elm asked, licking blackberry juice from her fingers.

“I don’t know. College, I guess.”

“You don’t sound like you want to.” Elm’s skin was translucent in the moonlight, dark veins spidering up her arms. She sat in the nest’s opening, face hidden by shadow.

Alice let out a hollow laugh. “No. But, then, I don’t want any of the things I’m supposed to want. You know Davey Jensen asked me to the junior prom?”


“Well, he did.” Alice leaned back against the wall of the nest and swigged from the bottle of cheap wine she had talked an older cousin into buying for her. “I told him I wasn’t going to the prom. Why the fuck would I? My friend Sarah said I was nuts, most girls at that school would kill to go with Davey Jensen. Oh, sorry, it’s supposed to be Dave Jensen now. Well, far as I’m concerned, they can have at him. God knows I’m not interested. In him or any other guy at that school.” Her blood thrummed with the warmth of the wine, letting her hint at things she never quite spoke aloud.

“What are you interested in?” Elm’s voice was a quiet whisper from behind her curtain of hair.

God, are you really going to make me say it? “This,” Alice said after a moment. “Honestly, there’s nothing I like more than this. Just... Being part of this, being in the forest. Calling the animals. Listening. Out there nothing feels as, as real. It doesn’t feel as alive.” She laughed softly. “I think I was supposed to grow out of this, but I’m starting to think I won’t.”

Elm turned and looked at her for a long time, expression unreadable. She climbed from her perch and crossed to where Alice sat, deep in the nest. In one smooth motion, she straddled Alice’s lap and took her face in her hands.

Alice’s breath quickened. She let her hands rest against the cool, alien skin of Elm’s thighs. “Does this mean I’m not still a child?”

“No,” Elm murmured. “You’re not a child anymore.” And she kissed her.

When Alice woke, the sky had lightened to lavender. Elm’s hair trailed along Alice’s side as she kissed her neck, the base of her throat, her breasts. I have to go soon, Alice knew she should say. I have to be back before Mom and Dad find out I was out all night. Instead, she arched her back and wrapped her arms around Elm’s waist.

The night before had been a frenzy, each of them touching and moving too eagerly to find the right rhythm. This morning they took their time, exploring each other with care. Alice lost herself in Elm’s smell and taste and the coolness of her body, lost track of all time until Elm came, shuddering and gasping under her.

They lay tangled in the nest, unable to do anything more than breathe. Alice saw sunlight creeping through the leaves and knew that there would be trouble later. There would be shrill questions and lies and punishment, but that could wait. All of it could wait until she’d had a little more time here.

“Why’d you change your mind?” Alice whispered.

Elm stroked her cheek. “You know yourself now.”

Alice was quiet for a time. “Maybe you did the right thing, back then,” she said, running her fingertips along Elm’s side, “but I’m so fucking glad the wait’s over.”

Alice went to the woods nearly every night now. Sometimes she and Elm would walk the forest, tending to the trees, calling the animals, as they always had. Sometimes Elm ripped her clothes off the moment she reached the clearing and had her on the open ground. Always, though, they ended the night wrapped around each other in Elm’s nest. Each morning, Alice woke before sunrise and was back to the house before her parents were out of bed.

One lazy Sunday, they lay intertwined in a heap of orange leaves beneath an ancient oak. Alice kissed Elm’s neck, trying not to think of the long winter that was fast approaching. “I got a job at the nursery. Plants, not babies,” she said after a comfortable lull in the conversation. “It’s just a few hours each day after school.”

“Oh?” Elm murmured, running her hand slowly up Alice’s thigh.

Alice tried to keep her voice casual. “And the guy who owns it, Donald, he said I could start working full time in May, after I graduate.”

Elm’s gaze flicked toward her. “I thought you said after graduation was college.”

“Yeah, well... Maybe I’m taking a year off first. That’s what I’m telling my folks, anyway. Really I just don’t want to go. I’d miss this. And... I realized, it’s not just you. I mean it is you, I love you, but it’s also this place. I don’t think I can leave it.” She sighed. “It’s scary, knowing that.”

Elm looked away. “I’ve been dreading the day you’d leave,” she said, almost too quiet for Alice to hear. “I’m glad you’re not.”

Alice watched her. It occurred to her that she had never seen Elm show need before. She said nothing, afraid of breaking something fragile. Instead she just stroked Elm’s hair and held her close.

Alice was pulling on her left boot when her father walked into the kitchen. “Where you off to?” he asked.

“Just a walk. In the woods,” Alice replied, concealing her eagerness under a tone of boredom. Winter had ended only weeks before, and she and Elm hadn’t been able to get enough of each other.

“What is it you’re always doing there? Always in those damn woods...” There was that look in his eye, that odd squint Alice had seen once or twice when he mentioned her frequent trips to the forest. Nervousness, maybe. A hint of suspicion.

“Oh, nothing.” Alice grinned as she stood. “I just have a friend who’s tree spirit.”

She was expecting an eye roll, a laugh, a little thrill from having casually spilled the truth without him even knowing. Instead his features froze in naked shock and pain. “You...” The word seemed to squeeze its way through his lips. Then, for the first time, Alice’s father slapped her. The impact rocked her head to one side, made her stagger. She clutched her cheek and gasped.

They stared at each other in silence, mute and pale with the knowledge they shared. He opened his mouth as if to say something, but at that moment they heard the sound of the truck’s tires on the gravel of the drive. Both of them glanced at the door, then at each other.

“Mom’s gonna need help with the groceries,” Alice muttered, astonished at the calm in her own voice.

“Alice...” He reached for her, but she pulled back.

Don’t. Just go help Mom,” she said, shouldering past him and moving for the back door. The tears began as she stumbled down the porch steps. Her feet carried her onto the forest path and toward Elm’s tree.

She spotted Elm by the stream, standing with her back to the path. She turned and Alice saw that smile she so loved before it was replaced by worry. “Alice?” Elm whispered, moving toward her, “What happened?”

Alice pushed her, clumsily, and Elm took a step back. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she cried.

Elm’s eyes closed and she took a slow, deep breath. “About your father.”

“What the hell did you do to him?”

Elm flinched. “I didn’t do anything to him. I loved him and he loved me. When he was young, before you were born.”

Alice felt something in her chest crumple. “You lied to me,” she whispered.

“No, I didn’t.” A spark of anger flashed in Elm’s eyes. “I never said I didn’t know him. I never said you were the first. I’ve been alive for over a century. ‘Elm’ isn’t the first human name I’ve had, and you weren’t the first I made love to. And you knew that, even if you never asked.”

Alice turned away, unable to stop the sobs now. Elm moved up behind her, and she felt those slender hands touch her shoulders. “Alice. You need to listen to me.”

“What?” She didn’t turn around.

“It was when he was a young man, just a little older than you are now. I chose to show myself to him, and we grew close. We loved each other, for a time.

“But he wasn’t like you. He wanted me to leave the forest. He wanted me to be a human woman, and that was something I could never be. Not the way he wanted me to. And he wasn’t... He wasn’t right, he wasn’t a fit to become one of my kind. The forest wouldn’t have taken him. When he met your mother, he made a choice. He wanted children, and a family, and that’s what he chose.”

“He... He did that?” Alice asked, turning to face Elm. Her eyes held pain Alice had never seen there.

“Yes. He left the forest and he came back just once. He came back with you, when you were a baby. Just days old. He said your name was Alice, and he wanted me to meet you. He was so proud.”

“That’s how you knew who I was,” Alice breathed. “The day we met.”

“Yes.” Elm reached tentatively for Alice’s cheekbone, already beginning to bruise where her father’s ring had struck. “I didn’t tell you because I could see from the first day that you were someone new, someone different. You weren’t just his daughter.”

Elm kissed her then; Alice stayed still for a moment before returning the kiss. Pulling back slightly, Elm asked, “Will you come with me?”

“Yes,” Alice whispered.

Much later, they lay together in Elm’s nest, catching their breath. Alice rested her head against Elm’s shoulder and closed her eyes, inhaling the otherworldly scent of her lover’s skin. She could feel Elm’s fingers slowly stroking through her hair. “You said the forest wouldn’t have taken him,” she said.

“Yes,” Elm replied, kissing the top of her head.

Alice took a deep breath. “What about me? Would it take me?”

Elm was silent for a long time. “Yes. It would.”

Alice’s pulse quickened. “I could be like you?” She felt Elm nod.

She pushed herself up so she could see Elm’s face. “Is... Is that something you would want?”

Time stopped as she waited for an answer. Elm stared back, sadness in her eyes. “Of course,” she sighed. “But it’s not something I’d ever ask of you. You’d be giving up so much, Alice.”

“I never thought I could,” Alice murmured. “I never thought I could be like you. But if I can--”

Elm covered her lips with cool fingers. “Don’t choose now. Think. Be sure.”

Alice froze mid-step. Down the path to Elm’s tree, she heard voices. Shouting. She broke into a run, slowing only when she came in sight of the clearing.

Elm stood in the center. Alice’s father paced along the edge, right arm cutting through the air as he shouted. His face was flecked with salt-and-pepper stubble, his hair greasy and uncombed. Alice recognized the bloodshot squint he got when he’d been at the whiskey. He’d been drinking more and more since the day he had slapped her, since their conversations had been replaced by thick, toxic silence.

“You had no right, no right--”

Elm’s reply was level and calm. “You don’t own her, Douglas.”

“I’m her father, goddammit. How could you, you... Slept with her? How could you?” His voice broke on the last word.

“That’s enough, Dad.” Alice moved to stand next to Elm.

“Go back to the house, Alice. I don’t want you coming out here anymore.” But there was defeat in his voice, and none of them pretended he could enforce the edict.

“Dad, why are you angry, huh?” Alice demanded.

“Don’t play dumb, Alice.”

She stepped forward until they stood eye to eye. “No, really I want to know. Is it because she’s a woman? Because she’s also not human, so the fact that she’s a woman should be the least of your problems.” He winced and looked away.

“Or is it because she used to be yours? Is that really what this is about?” Alice spat the words out, some corner of her mind astonished at the scorn in her own voice; it was like a boil had been lanced, poison pouring out of her.

Rage flared in her father’s eyes. “Shut up,” he growled.

“Alice...” Elm cautioned.

Alice ignored her. “Well, I’m sorry, Dad, I really am, but you gave her up. You made that choice.”

“Shut your fucking mouth.”

“And maybe marrying Mom and having me was a big fucking mistake, but it’s not my fault, or hers.”

I said be quiet!” His arm pulled back, fist closed this time, and Alice braced herself to be hit again. Then Elm was there, holding back his arm with one slender hand.

“No.” Her voice stayed tranquil, but her eyes shone with danger. None of them moved for a few seconds; even the birds had gone silent. Then Alice’s father let out a shuddering sigh and fell to his knees, sobbing.

Elm knelt and wrapped her arms around him, murmuring something too soft for Alice to hear. Alice started toward them, but Elm shook her head once. “It’s ok, Alice. Give us some time.”

Alice’s mother was at the table when she came inside. She gazed out the kitchen window, absently tapping her fingers in a dull rhythm against the wood. A half empty glass, vodka tonic, Alice thought, sweated beads of moisture onto one of the frayed placemats. “He’s out there again, isn’t he?” she asked without looking at Alice.

Alice froze. “What?”

“He’s out there. With her.”

Almost against her will, Alice sank into a chair across from where her mother sat. “Yeah.”

Her mother nodded and sipped her drink. “He doesn’t know I know.”

Alice stared down at her folded hands, red and callused as any workman’s, crescents of black potting soil under ragged nails. “How did you find out?”

Her mother lifted her left shoulder in a careless shrug. “Followed him, simple as that. It was back before we were married. He was always taking these walks in the woods, and I started to wonder what he could be doing out here. So one day I visited and pretended to leave, and then I followed him to see where he went.

“I only saw her for a few seconds, just a little peek, before she spooked and disappeared. I don’t think she realized I got a look at her. I did, though. Not much, but it was enough. That’s the clearest memory of my whole life, seeing that thing out in the woods.”

“Why didn’t you ever say anything?”

She let out a tired sigh and shook her head. “I don’t know, Alice. Didn’t know how, I guess. After a while it felt like too much time had gone by to talk about it. Then he asked me to marry him, and I thought, well, maybe that doesn’t matter anymore. Or maybe it didn’t really happen. It’s the kind of thing crazy people see, right? So I tried to forget it, but your grandparents left us this damned house and your father made us stay. Never went into the woods again, not once past the yard, but he had to stay right on the edge of it. Like he was just torturing himself. I never could decide if it was because he couldn’t stand to go too far away or if it was to prove to himself that he could do it.”

Alice followed her mother’s gaze out the window, to that little patch of clipped grass leading up to the trees. “Did you know I was going to see her, too?”

“Yeah, I knew,” she snapped. “I’m not stupid, Alice. But how was I gonna stop you? Your father kept us here right near her, like he fucking meant for it to happen.”

“I love her, Mom.”

Alice’s mother turned away from the window for the first time since they began to speak. She studied her daughter’s face in silence. “Of course,” she snorted after a moment. “Jesus, that figures.”

There was movement on the path leading out of the woods. Alice caught a glimpse of her father’s red flannel shirt between the trees. He made his way into the yard slowly, almost dazed, stopping to stare at the flower beds as though he had never seen them before.

Alice’s mother stood and watched him through the window. Picking up her drink, she moved around the table. “Alice, go spend the night in the woods. Your father and I need to talk.” As she went to the kitchen door, she stopped to squeeze Alice’s shoulder. Alice covered her mother’s hand with her own for a few seconds; then the older woman swept out of the room and was gone.

“Hey, Alice.”

She set down the potted grape vine she had been carrying and brushed the soil off her hands. “Hi, Davey.”

His eyes scanned the nursery. “This is a good job for you. Working with the plants.” He had grown into a tall, broad shouldered young man with only traces of baby fat remaining in his cheeks. Alice remembered sophomore year, when many of the other girls at the school had started paying attention to him. She had thought then that he would forget about her. But, while she knew he had dated some of the other girls, she still caught him staring. He still had that nervous grin when they spoke.

“Ah, well, you know me,” Alice said, keeping her voice light. “Ain’t happy unless my hands are dirty.”

Davey laughed a little too hard. “Yeah, I guess. Um, it’s my mom’s birthday, and my sister thought she’d like something for her garden, so...”

“Gotcha. Right this way.”

After taking Alice’s suggestion of a snapdragon and paying at the register, Davey lingered near the front counter. “So I was thinking,” he began, “you want to go get some pizza later? For old times sake? Cause I’m going off to college soon, and I--”

“Sure, Davey,” she interrupted, seeing that he would continue to ramble if she didn’t stop him. “That’ll be fun.”

He gave her a relieved smile. “Great.”

“I’ll see you after work.”

“So, if you don’t mind me asking, why’d you take a year off before college?”

Alice chewed slowly, setting aside the remains of her pizza crust. “I guess I needed more time to figure out how my life is going to go.”

“Isn’t that what college is for?” Davey asked, just a hint of teasing in his voice.

“Maybe.” She cleared her throat. “So, do you know what you’ll major in?”

“I don’t know. I was thinking engineering at first, and then maybe chemistry. My folks want me to go premed, but I don’t know...”

As Davy spoke, Alice saw the choices before her. She saw the way the next few minutes, days, years could go if she wanted it. If she acted.

She could leave the pizza parlor with Davey, walk to his car, catch his eye, give him a kiss. Tell him she had always wanted him. She could go to college, to State with Davey; maybe start a semester behind, they’d graduate practically the same time. They’d stay close, and he’d finally be able to love her. And she might love him, in a way. Everything else would follow from there. Marriage, children, friends she’d yet to meet. She could travel, see the world. At the end of her life, she would look back and know she had seen more good than bad.

But always, she knew, there would be that hunger, that yearning to return to the forest. There would always be the danger that she would walk into the trees and never come back. She would, like her father, have to make that vow never to step into the woods again. She might have to go farther, move away, into the desert, some place like Arizona or New Mexico where she wouldn’t be reminded of it every waking moment. And still, no matter where she went or how much time passed, her dreams would be full of Elm.

Sitting in the pizza parlor, a calm came over Alice. She smiled and nodded at something Davey had said, not knowing what it was. She knew that she had made her decision, but was in no hurry to put it in motion. Instead, she savored the details of her surroundings. The taste of red pepper. The slick linoleum under her fingertips. Davey’s laugh.

Later, as they walked to his car, she said, “I had fun with you tonight, Davey. It was a good sendoff.”

“Yeah, I thought so, too.” He turned to face her, features alight with uncertain happiness.

Stepping forward, Alice took his face in her hands. “You’re a good person, Davey. You’re gonna have a good life. And I’m glad I knew you.”

Standing up on tiptoes, she kissed his forehead. “Bye, Davey.”

His brow furrowed in confusion, but she just turned and walked toward the edge of town.

“Wait, Alice, where are you going?” he called out as she moved away.

“Into the woods.”

The moon was full and clearly illuminated the path to Elm’s tree. Alice didn’t need it, of course, could navigate these woods in a thunderstorm at midnight. Still, she thought. It’s nice to have.

She had brought nothing with her. Her only stop after leaving Davey had been to the house. She had thought to leave a note, something brief, but her father had been awake and sitting in the living room. They had stared at each other, not knowing what to say.

“I’m going to the woods. I won’t be back,” Alice had said at last.

“I know.” Her father had gathered her in his arms then, holding her like he had when she was a child. “Be happy, Alice.”

And, with that blessing, she left the house for the last time.

Elm stood and watched her approach from the center of the clearing. When she reached her lover, Alice stopped and undressed. Not brazenly, as she did for sex, but with slow and deliberate care. She folded her clothes, knelt, and dug a hole in the loamy soil. Even as Alice buried her clothes and shoes, Elm watched without a word.

When Alice stood, she saw tears in Elm’s eyes.

 [ But you won't be alone, © 2012 Lisa Grabenstetter ] Elm took Alice’s hand and led her to a tree on the other side of the clearing, in sight of her own nest. “I’m going to leave you here now,” Elm murmured. “But you won’t be alone. I’ll be here, I’ll be with you.”

Alice kissed her lightly on the lips. “I know. I’m ready.”

She watched Elm make her way back to her own tree, climb, and vanish into the nest. Then Alice turned to face her own.

It was smaller than Elm’s tree, but of the same species. The branches were broad and strong, the leaves lush. It would make a good home. Alice stepped forward and rested her palms against the bark.

For a moment, the tree remained motionless. Alice made herself still, willed her heartbeat to slow. There was a cracking sound, and the tree began to open. The opening wasn’t ugly and splintered, like a wound; it looked like a natural hollow, worn by time. Alice knew it was supposed to be there, and that it was for her. Taking one last human breath, she stepped inside and let it close around her.

© 2012 Jamie Killen

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