See, told you I’d come up with something. 😉 This one also seems to want to be part of a larger story. We’ll just have to see.
“The woods are calling to me,” Berta remembered her mother saying to her father, all those years before, when he’d protested her leaving one night. “I’m going.”
It was the last time she’d ever seen her mother. She’d been very small, barely more than a toddler, but she remembered the police coming, remembered them talking to her father about where her mother might have gone. The police had gone into the woods, and come back out with funny looks on their faces to talk to her father again – but this time one of them had asked Berta to show him her room while they talked. He’d wanted to know which toys were her favorites – she didn’t have many – and asked her which of her clothes she liked best to wear and if she’d ever heard her mother and father being very loud. “Mama bees loud,” she remembered telling him while putting her very most favorite nightgown into a bag, and her favorite clothes for playing and the only non-wooden toy she had, because he’d asked her to. “Mama bees mad a lot.”
“And what about your daddy?” he’d asked. “Does he get mad too?”
She’d shaken her little head. “Dada bees sad and cries, and then Mama laughs.”
When Berta got older, she learned that those words had most likely saved her father from a long stay in prison followed by a date with ten thousand volts of electricity. They hadn’t saved her from being removed from the house and her father’s care, but her father had kissed her goodbye and seemed happy in a sad way which she’d later come to realize had been relief. He’d been relieved they were taking her. He’d even promised to come for her once he’d sold the house, he’d said they were going to have a new house just for them…but he’d never come. It had taken Berta years to get someone to tell her that he’d died, and years more than that before someone had snapped out that he’d committed suicide and was burning in Hell. She’d been eight at the time, and horrified into hysterical tears by the harsh revelation, and her foster mother had sent for someone to come take her to a new house with new people the next morning. “It’s not good for her to be here,” the woman had said in a kind but still somehow hard voice, stroking Berta’s hair one last time. “Not good for her, not good for us – she’s fruit of a poison tree, poor little thing.”
The caseworker had been more than a little tight-lipped about that all the way into the city while Berta sniffled and cried in the back seat, but once they were at the old, cold building where she worked she’d taken Berta into a comfortable warm room with a soft couch and cocoa and cookies and toys and just held her, stroking her hair and explaining about Berta’s father and how her mother had been mean to he and Berta both, and how they thought that one night he’d chased her into the woods and something bad had happened but nobody knew what. And how after Berta had been taken away he’d gotten very, very sad and taken his own life in those same woods. “He loved you so much,” the woman told her. “But your mother was…sick, and she’d made him sick too.”
“Am I sick?” Berta had wanted to know. “Mrs. Minor said I was poison.”
“Mrs. Minor’s religion makes she and her husband think mean, wrong things sometimes,” was the woman’s answer. “You’re not poison, Roberta, and you’re not sick. And it wasn’t your father’s fault that he got sick and no, he’s not somewhere being punished for it.”
Berta had felt better after that, and after a little more hugging and crying she’d finished the cocoa and eaten a cookie and they’d even started putting together a puzzle. The caseworker had left the room when someone tapped on the back of the mirror-window, but she hadn’t fully closed the door so Berta had heard very clearly when a man’s voice had said, “Sandra, you’re not supposed to…”
“John, Mr. Minor told her her father was burning in Hell because he’d committed suicide,” the caseworker had snapped, albeit quietly. “And then when that upset her they tried to explain to her how God punishes sinners like her parents, and when that only made her more upset they called me. Mrs. Minor said she was ‘fruit of a poison tree’, right in front of her! Rules be damned, we can’t let people plant ideas like that in a vulnerable child’s mind and then just ‘let it go’.”
The man called John had audibly sighed. “I know. And I know we shouldn’t be sending kids to the Minors’, but the people who clear families for fostering love the religious ones and they won’t listen when I report incidents like this.”
“You’re going to report it?”
“You know I will. And I’ll make sure they don’t mark her down as having ‘behavior problems’ like they did the last few. Mrs. Grace damn near screamed at me over that last kid.”
“I don’t suppose she has a free bed?”
“I’m going to call and ask her as soon as you’re done here. You just had to pull out one of the hard puzzles, didn’t you?”
The caseworker had laughed. “Yes, I did – Roberta’s too smart for the simple ones to provide much of a challenge.”
Berta didn’t realize until a few years after that – because one of the other kids had told her – that the two social workers had left the door open on purpose so she could hear what was going on. “The smart, nice ones do that,” he’d confided with all the authority of someone who’s secure in the knowledge that they’ve figured out the system. “They aren’t allowed to tell us that stuff, but if we ‘overhear’ it they won’t get in trouble if someone finds out. And that’s also how they get you to believe stuff, by getting you to hear them say it to someone else. Don’t mean you’re not smart or talented or whatever,” he’d tacked on quickly. “But it’s psy-chol-o-gy – you’ll believe it better if they don’t say it right to you.”
His name had been Joaquin and he’d been her very first friend and Berta still thought about him sometimes. She’d never known what had happened to him, because the system didn’t encourage or really allow kids to keep in touch with each other, but Joaquin had been, as Mrs. Grace had always put it, ‘quick’ – quick to learn, quick to remember, and quick to figure out how to use the information he had. She’d been proud of him for that, and had told Joaquin it was something he should be proud of too. Mrs. Grace had never used the psychology trick on any of them. “I don’t lie to you, you don’t lie to me,” she would frequently say. “If I tell you something, that means I believe it.”
Berta had loved Mrs. Grace, they all had. But Mrs. Grace had been old, and getting older, and one day she’d gone out into the garden to pick some apples and fallen over and just never gotten back up, and all of the kids had been scattered out to different homes. Something Joaquin had also warned Berta about early on, that being sent from home to home was normal and not your fault. “Part of it’s just the system,” he’d said. But the other part…you know, you’re not gonna fit everywhere. Nobody does, not even grownups.”
She’d taken that advice to heart, and it had kept her heart from being broken more than once. Through homes where she did fit but couldn’t stay and homes where she didn’t but had to, through good social workers and bad and later on through relationships that went from good to bad too. Berta knew that it was okay not to fit, and that even if you did it might not last. She turned twenty-one and requested her entire file, which the system reluctantly coughed up for her, and she pored over it looking for all the clues and hints someone hadn’t been able to pass on through a door left ajar or an illicit but reassuring conversation over cocoa.
Her father’s name had been Jason, Jason Graham, and her mother’s had been Bea Sylva – Bea for Beatrice, although she’d insisted it was short for Beech. Law enforcement had considered that a red-flag after the fact, but at first they’d only suspected her mother had been mentally ill – ‘sick’ – because of Berta’s testimony and her father’s. That had been an eye-opener. His statements were all there, with copious notes from investigators and social workers alike in the margins. He’d been relieved they were taking his daughter because he’d been afraid Bea would come back for her and hurt her. According to him, he and Bea had had three other children, all of whom she’d taken out of the house within a day of their birth and never brought back. He hadn’t dared to say anything, because she’d told him that if he did she would tell the police he’d killed their babies in front of her and forced her to bury them in the woods – and she’d show them the graves. He’d managed to save Berta after she was born by never letting her out of his sight…and by locking her mother out of the house until she’d finally said the baby was ‘too old now’ and had promised that Berta wouldn’t be taken away like the others. He still hadn’t been able to let Berta out of his sight, though. Her mother had alternated between neglectful and abusive, and she’d been odd about things like only wanting Berta to have wooden toys, or like swaying off into the woods on some nights and not coming back until the next morning, or even the next night. The day her father had finally called the police, Berta’s mother had been gone for almost thirty-six hours. He’d been afraid to go into the woods looking for her, he’d said, because he’d have had to take Berta with him and he hadn’t been sure what he was going to find.
The police had found blood splashed on a tree trunk deep in the woods, and they’d immediately jumped to the conclusion that Berta’s father must have killed her mother. Even after her unwitting baby testimony had let them know that Jason Graham had been the abused in the situation and not the abuser, they’d still suspected him. And when he’d missed a court date and they’d found him dead in the woods with his throat slashed, they’d written it off as suicide due to a guilty conscience for killing his wife and closed the case. Berta might have been tempted to write it off that way too, but she’d learned from Joaquin that most of life was like a puzzle; it wasn’t enough that a piece looked like it should go somewhere, it also had to fit. And the details in her own family story…didn’t fit. Three supposedly dead babies, no trace of which had ever been found. One missing mother, whose body had also never been found. One dead father, who had promised he was going to come back for Berta…but who instead had wound up dead in the woods, covered with cuts and tears from branches and his neck sliced nearly in half. No knife or other sharp item had been found near him, although a little hatchet which didn’t have any trace of blood on it had been found some distance away in the woods. And they’d found traces of wood in the fatal wound, leading to speculation that he might have used a wooden knife even though no such object had ever been found anywhere.
So, puzzle pieces were missing. Berta sent for more documents, this time from the police department in the county where she’d been born. Police reports said much the same as the papers she already had, the full coroner’s report only added to the mystery with observations about the weapon used having been ‘rough edged’ and a note about there having been hardly any blood on the deceased’s hands. The case had still been open then, but a different medical examiner had added notes saying it was ‘obviously’ a suicide and closed it a few months later. That might have been a dead end…but in the attached copies of files, buried at the bottom of them no less, she found the puzzle piece she’d been looking for. Three unfiled birth certificates from ‘home births’…and hers, which her father must have filed himself. Her first name on the certificate had been crossed out, and ‘Roberta’ had been written over it by a different hand. And that was when she knew. The unbelievable secret he hadn’t told either her or the police – he hadn’t dared. And that was also why he’d died.
The first weekend she had free from work and other obligations, Berta got in her car and drove to the address that had been on the original police report. Nobody had ever bought the little house, which was now a falling-down wreck near a surprisingly small stand of even more surprisingly young woods – Berta had vague memories of tall, tall trees and deep, dark, scary shadows. She moved the car around so it was facing back up the road the way she’d come, and then she stood and looked at the little house for a long moment before turning and walking into the tiny young wood. Green leaves rustled overhead, dry ones crackled under her feet, and the sun splattered down from above in irregular patches.
It didn’t take her long to find it. It wasn’t the tallest tree, and it had a dark stain on the trunk, still. And all around it on the ground were little white stones laid out in pretty patterns, like decorations in a garden or a park. Berta took a picture with her phone, looked at it, and then took a few seconds of video to capture as much of the scene as possible without getting too close. The ‘stones’ were the tips of tiny, buried bones, and the three larger, rounder ones…well, it was obvious what those were. And there were inexplicably some adult teeth in the design as well. She looked up into the branches of the tree, which were starting to sway and shake against the light breeze. One of those branches, she knew, probably still bore dark stains from her father’s blood, where it had slashed his throat. “Mama,” she said. “I’m here.” Nothing. She swallowed. “Mama…‘Birch’ is here.”
Leaves rustled, and branches rubbing together formed whispery words: Birch…Birch. My baby…
“It’s me.” There were no eyes to look at, no face, so Berta looked up at the branches instead. “Why, Mama?”
“You killed the babies that came before me. You hurt my father and then you killed him too.” A whispery laughing sound from the rubbing branches. “They said he committed suicide, even though it didn’t make sense.” The laughter got louder. “Why, Mama? Why is it funny that you murdered your other babies and my father?”
The rustling and rubbing stopped for a moment, and then the tree shook itself and the ‘voice’ came back startlingly loud. I AM SYLVAN.
“But you weren’t, at least not all the way,” Berta corrected. “I found your family, Mama. They haven’t been trees for a long, long time. But you wanted to be so badly that you sacrificed my brother and sisters to make it happen. And you killed my father when he came after you with an axe. He was going to cut you down, wasn’t he? He was going to kill you to protect me.”
Mine…my child…my blood…
“You were going to sacrifice me too, but he kept me away from you until I was too old. He changed my name on my birth certificate, he gave me a real name. I found the certificates you filled out for the others, Mama. Hazel, Ash, Willow – and me, Birch. You named us all after trees, but we were only born to be sacrificed.”
“His too,” Berta reminded her. “We were his babies too. And he couldn’t tell anyone, because nobody would have believed.”
“I figured it out. I didn’t want to believe it. I didn’t want to find out my mother was an inhuman monster.”
I AM SYLVAN!
“No, you were a monster before you changed into a tree. You needed the blood from my brother and my sisters and I to give you more tree essence, to give you enough to change over. We had to be newborns for that, pure of blood and nursed only from your milk. That was why I was too old. He locked you out of the house, fed me baby formula, and your milk dried up. I checked, at the library. I found the books he found. He kept you away until he knew my blood couldn’t help you anymore.”
Stupid man… More laughing. Thought he could stop me…
Berta considered the branches, thought she spotted one that had dark streaks on it. “The coroner figured it out, but he disappeared and the person who took over just blew the whole thing off as him having been crazy. Are those his teeth? Did you use your roots to pull his body apart and drag it down, so you could eat him? He had a family.”
Laughter. I AM SYLVAN.
“That’s not an excuse!”
A pause, then, Blood calls.
“It doesn’t call to me.”
Calls me…to take…MY BLOOD!
Luckily, Berta had been watching the branches and had seen the dark-stained one starting to whip back and forth. She was out of range, but she backed up a few steps anyway. And held up the knapsack she’d been carrying so that the swipe snagged it by one tough strap. Branches tore at the fabric, and she held her ground even though she wanted to be sick; this was how her father had died, and the coroner too. And when the ripping branches finally broke the bag and liquid showered down from the bladder within – it had been meant to hold water for long hikes – she calmly took a gaudily-papered firecracker out of her back pocket, lit it, and aimed the end up into the branches. Balls of colored fire began to shoot out, the second one igniting the paraffin oil that now coated the branches and part of the tree’s upper trunk and the third and fourth helping the fire to spread. Two more finished the job and the contents of the firecracker, and Berta tucked the spent cardboard tube back into her pocket. “Burn in Hell, Mama,” she said, her voice barely carrying over the sound of screeching, protesting, burning branches. The smoke that drifted down to her smelled like burning blood. “Someone told me once that that’s the punishment for sinners like you. I guess they were right after all.”
And then she turned and walked back to her car, got in, and drove away. In the passenger seat, Joaquin patted his own camera. “I got it all, and the stream from your phone and the mic you’re wearing uploaded to the cloud just fine. The one uncle of hers we gave access to texted me less than two minutes in. He’s convinced, and he offered to help us find the rest of them.”
Berta smiled. Tracking Joaquin down and asking him to help her make sense of things had been the best decision she’d ever made. “Blood calls, I guess. Even if it’s just to the fruit of a poison tree.”