When the two people come into the woods, they bring their noise with them. They crackle old leaves in new hiking boots, snap pictures and laugh as they point at birds and flowers. But, as they move deeper into the forest, they begin to turn quiet. They begin to tread softly. They no longer touch but, instead, keep a small distance between them. They look small and bright and strange set against the dark roots and the deep green ferns. The trees watch as the couple clears out a space for themselves, as they shoo away leaves and needles and twigs, baring the dirt, before placing their tent. The trees listen when they drive their plastic spikes into the ground.
Susan and John set up their tent by the creek in the small deserted clearing, too deep in the woods, too lacking in SUV hookups and close convenient car parking to be attractive to the families that clutter the more accessible parts of the forest half a day’s hike back. This part of the woods is pristine: no broken bottles, not one forgotten children’s toy in sight.
John breathes, gathering the scents of the needles and the dirt and the leaves and the water and sky, as if, Susan thinks, he could bottle them up deep in the dark of his lungs and keep them there forever.
“Perfect,” he says, breathing out.
Susan tries a smile, feeling the tightness in the corners of her mouth as she glances out at the spaces between the trees that surround their campsite, spaces filled up with thick moss and saplings and shadow.
Months ago, Susan watched from the window as the old elm tree vanished: first the branches swaying outside the living room, leaves rustling in the breezes to make music with the street sounds and pictures with the sky. Then, bit by bit, they took the trunk.
Diseased trees, the notice had said when the city slipped it under the apartment door after tagging all the neighborhood trunks with yellow bands, traffic slowed Friday through Saturday…no parking…apologies for inconvenience…
Susan watched the cars drift by on the street below the apartment, slowing as they came through the neighborhood, as if they were trying to tread lightly with heavy tires. The drivers craned their necks to watch the men in orange vests load the pieced trees into yellow trucks, watched the trucks chipping the elms one slice at a time.
Susan put a hand on her stomach, checking for swelling. Still flat, but soon.
Soon, she whispered to herself, and wondered if a baby’s kicking felt anything like branches tapping on a windowpane. She’d never gotten that far—to the kicking part. This time. Soon.
“Soon,” John says when she asks him when they’ll have a fire going.
He is trying to remember how to arrange the logs.
“There’s a particular way,” he says. “We learned it back in Boy Scouts.”
He taps at his phone, scrolling through pictures and diagrams while Susan sits on a fallen tree and scratches at fallen leaves with her foot. Digging down through the dry top layer to the wet decomposition beneath, she tries to reach the solid dirt below, the hard-packed certain ground.
“Found it!” John says, holding his phone out to show her the neatly stacked kindling.
In the city, the trees were held by tight concrete circles, surrounded by sidewalks and road. But their street was bare now, leafless and shadeless, exposed. In the apartment, Susan placed a bonsai tree on the kitchen windowsill between the aloe plant and the lucky bamboo. The bonsai was just like the lost elm in miniature. It even had moss at its base, moss that crept up the trunk just a little. Its tiny leaves spread out wide from its branches. When she opened the window, they made little rustling sounds.
Susan kept the tree for three weeks, carefully watering it once a day as the instruction card said, making sure it got at least five hours of sunlight and never experienced temperatures below forty degrees or above eighty-five. When the tiny leaves first started falling, she thought the little tree had confused the seasons. She started singing summer songs while she watered it each morning.
Summertime, she’d croon, warbling uncertain, And the living is easy…?
On the banks of the stream they strip naked, bashful at first, then daring as the chill of the water sets into their ankles. They follow the current, John picking his way across boulders, Susan curling her toes over rocks.
They stop beneath a tree on the bank. They lie on a bright patch of moss. They lie with their eyes closed and Susan makes lists in her head of everything she has to do at the end of the weekend while John tries to reach for the phone nestled snug in the bottom of his shoe. He catches himself and reaches for Susan’s breasts instead. She stiffens at the feeling of his hands, cold against her cold skin. Then she remembers why they are here in the first place.
They make awkward love beneath the tree, the exhilaration of it settling in only afterwards as they wade back to the tent, as they watch the water ripple around their ankles.
Susan glances down at her face staring up from underwater. It looks shadowy, tangled in her damp hair, and wild. She wonders if there is another her somewhere, a her that fits here, a her without a list or a car or a job, a her who doesn’t flinch when her husband touches her breasts.
When, one week after they first began to fall, the leaves were still drooping, Susan went to the store for fertilizer. By the end of the second week, when all but a few leaves were gone, she began to talk to it.
Come on, little tree, she’d say, don’t be sad. Don’t you like it in here?
The leaves no longer rustled when she opened the window. Instead they hung, wilted and silent.
Don’t die, she whispered to it every morning before going to bed.
One night she woke with a familiar cramped feeling, the familiar spots of blood, so small and so soon. So normal that, for a moment, she thought it was just her period. Half asleep, the familiar wave of relief that she’d felt each month all through college and all through her twenties and half of her thirties washed over her. Not pregnant. Not pregnant. Thank god. Then she remembered.
In the morning, the tree’s last leaf had fallen.
Three years before, vacationing, they’d driven down through the California summer. Dead trees lined the highways in rows, casting long leafless shadows over the naked cracked dirt: orchards parched white in the drought.
Susan could feel their dead eyes on her as she stared out the window, could feel the ghosts of them whispering as the car passed them by. They were angry in death, she thought; how could they not be?
John had just suggested that they try for a family. At age thirty-six after four years of marriage and six years of dating, with two good jobs between them and almost enough saved for a down payment on a house, it was not, Susan thought, an unreasonable suggestion. But, watching the trees whir past the window, Susan thought that they looked like bleached bones. They had the same languid quality as those Georgia O’Keefe skulls, like deeply dreaming creatures. But when they woke, she thought, they’d be treacherous. They’d have their revenge.
In the car, Susan gazed at John’s profile, imagining a baby with a nose just like his, all crooked and bony and big. The thought made her laugh. John frowned at her, keeping his eyes on the road.
“What’s so funny?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she said. “Okay. Let’s have a baby.”
The smile he gave her was like looking at sunlight through deep green summer leaves.
John pressed his foot down on the gas, speeding up, putting the terrible dead stretch behind them.
She’d watched John’s face shift when she told him, turning suddenly tired, turning suddenly old. She watched it wrinkle up, wilting into itself.
“Maybe this just isn’t going to work for us,” he said quietly, and beneath the words, Susan could hear the thought he wouldn’t ever say: Maybe you just don’t want it enough.
They’d always talked of wanting two, a boy and a girl—not a greedy amount, just enough to replace them. They’d name the girl Ellen for John’s mother. They’d name the boy Fred for Susan’s father. They’d raise them without Barbies or G.I. Joes or pink or blue or plastic or gender expectations. They’d give them toys made of natural materials—wood and wool and cotton and vegetable dye—so that they’d know what the real world felt like. They’d take them to the park and teach them how to push their swings higher and higher by pumping their legs. They’d teach them how to ride the bus, how to keep a vegetable garden, how to like gluten-free sugar-free cookies and dairy-less milk. They’d take them camping so they wouldn’t be afraid, so they wouldn’t feel the need to reach for cell phones, so they wouldn’t worry about going a day without showers, so they’d know how to be in the woods. Their kids would be stronger than they were, and braver and wiser—more good.
As a child, Susan believed that babies grew out of the ground like daffodils. They waited, she thought, curled up like bulbs in the dark underground, until spring when the light woke them and they dug their way out. She’d never been sure where she’d gotten the idea. From a children’s cartoon? From her mother? She held onto it as long as she could, longer than she should have, until fifth grade Sex Ed. shocked her out of it with its cold Latin terms and tidy black and white maps of her insides.
She thought of those black and white maps, all the parts neatly labeled, leaving no room for error, no space for incompetence. She imagined rows and rows of little fetuses curled up bulb-like in the dark, a flowerbed of fetuses shriveling and dying, never alive, never waking up, abnormal, incompetent, victims of toxins and diseases and bodily failure.
John stopped holding her while they slept. She’d wake in the morning from dreams of infants growing up from cracked soil, scratching their ways through dead leaves. She’d wake in the morning facing the curve of his back as he cuddled the wall.
When evening comes, they build a fire and cook beans in a metal pan. John pares sticks, scraping bark down to wood flesh. Susan fumbles with the graham cracker wrappers, trying not to crumble the cookies while she frees them.
They laugh when their marshmallows catch on the flames, glowing and black on the outside. Susan blows her marshmallow out and traps it between crackers, watches it squishing, its charred brittle surface giving way to gooey insides.
John lays his head on her shoulder.
“This is nice,” he says.
Susan thinks of the bonsai tree with its last fallen leaf, its tiny roots cut to perfect shape and size.
They’d left the dead tree on the windowsill for weeks. She stopped watering it, stopped singing to it, stopped looking at it. She didn’t look at the space of sky in the window where the elm had been either.
One day, she came home and the little tree was gone. The aloe and the lucky bamboo had been moved one inch each to take up the bit of extra space again, as if the third tiny plant had never been there at all. John sat at the table with a bottle of wine and two plates of pasta.
“Let’s get out of town,” he said. “Let’s go camping.”
The night empties the world of its light as John and Susan sit by their shrinking fire, full and drowsy. Susan can still just distinguish the sky from the tree branches tangling above them. She feels enclosed, as if the world has shrunk to nothing but their fire and her eyes. The trees make noises in the breeze, their little creaks and rustles echoing through the eerie nighttime quiet.
The giant fir trees frighten her. The oaks and the maples loom. They seem intent, aware, alive in a more than passive tree-like way. The fire, sinking into embers, pops within a burning piece of wood.
Soon there’ll be no light at all, she thinks. She feels observed. There in the dark, a something watches them, waiting for the firelight to die. It sounds like a breath beside her ear. And it grows, surrounding.
At first, she thinks she is just imagining it. It seems not-quite-real. Then she feels John grip her hand and she knows that if she is imagining, then so is he.
They sit together, silent, waiting, as the breath grows nearer, circling their campsite, making no footsteps, cracking no branches, rustling no leaves. The breathing sounds through the trees. It seems to come from all around them.
She feels a piece of metal in her palm.
“Take it,” John says.
She moves her hand around the tiny blade. It glints in the embers’ light, making her feel small, as well, and helpless—utterly unprepared for all these trees and all the creatures in them.
“What do we do?” she whispers.
“I don’t know,” John says, his voice sounding as tense as a string pulled too tight.
“Are we supposed to be quiet and wait for it to go or make noise and scare it?”
“I don’t know,” John says.
He rummages for his flashlight, finds it, flips it on. He creeps around the edge of their campsite, lighting the woods as he goes.
The breath continues, but louder now, almost breaking to a cry.
She sees the eyes across the fire, two bits of black, as blank and smooth as underwater stones, glinting.
She feels a scuttling inside her head, a momentary madness as she tries to read the eyes’ intent. Do they want to eat her? Scare her? Are they just curious? She can’t tell. They only glint and stare in their strange stony ways, giving her nothing she can understand. John doesn’t see them as he sweeps his flashlight through the woods. Susan can’t seem to move.
A wind rattles through the branches above them, sending needles falling. She can hear their pit-pats in the air. They fall in the embers and pop into flame, small and quick to burn.
She hears the something shuffling, the shifting of dead leaves. The breath moves closer. It smells of daffodils.
She is standing, the pan from dinner in her hand. She hits the pan with the knife, making a hard metallic clang. She hits the pan again, again, and kicks the dying fire, sending sparks into the empty space where the empty eyes had been.
By the time she stops, the breath is gone, the trees are silent. John stares at her, surprised.
They don’t speak as they douse the fire and retreat to their tent. Inside the nylon flap, they sit with their flashlight on.
“Do you think it will come back?” Susan asks, surprised at the hope that it will mixing in with the hope that it won’t.
“I don’t know,” John says.
Susan listens for the sound of breath outside. She can still hear it, almost, as if it has lodged itself inside her ear.
Inside the tent, the woods feel far away. But for the rush of wind in the trees, they could imagine themselves back in their apartment.
“We should get some sleep,” John says.
So they turn off the light and burrow deep into their sleeping bags.
In the woods, the little limbs creep, tiny feet rustling through the undergrowth, soft hands clutching at the ground, breathing and kicking the rhythms of branches on a windowpane. The trees whisper over the couple as they sleep and dream their people dreams. The last leaves dangle in their branches, sheltering the starlight, shadowing the moon.
Miranda Schmidt’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Collagist, Driftwood Press, Gingerbread House, and other journals. Miranda grew up in the Midwest and now lives with her partner and two cats in Portland, Oregon where she edits the Sun Star Review, teaches at Portland Community College and occasionally blogs about books at mirandaschmidt.com. A graduate of the University of Washington’s MFA program, Miranda recently completed a novel about haunting and is currently at work on a project inspired by shapeshifting fairy tales.