The town was small, a close-knit community of people who hadn’t seen a visitor in years. The newest people to come to the town came only weeks apart, the first to move to the area in five years, the first to disturb the town’s routine, a routine in which one of the newcomers, an elderly veteran named Lars, had taken interest in.
He was looking out of his window, down over the town. Most people were in the streets, doing their business, walking, talking, buying, or relaxing. Lars watched them, combed through the small pool of heads for the men and women he had been watching for days now. He knew where they went almost daily, he was fairly sure he knew where they worked, but he had never met any of them before. None of them had ever seemed to want to talk to him. It was strange, but Lars didn’t mind. He liked it that way.
There was Work-shirt, a man who Lars assumed worked at the town’s construction firm, who spent copious amounts of time at the bar during the day, too often for him to simply have been on break. He had just walked onto Lars’s street, and was walking towards the bar, only thirty seconds different in time from yesterday. Businessman walked out of the bank only five minutes after Work-shirt disappeared inside of the bar, looking as stressed as normal, a face he never seemed to shed. He walked across the street to what Lars had figured out to be his apartment. Again, within an incredibly small margin of when he had done so yesterday. As normal, Lars thought. He was still combing the streets for the final person, a woman who he
hadn’t yet named.
She was the strangest among the three Lars had chosen to watch, a newcomer like himself. She was a tall, thin, sallow skinned woman who had almost no daily routine except to stand or occasionally sit by the tree in the village square, almost as if she were inspecting the tree itself. An anomaly, one who was treated like one by the villagers. Figuring her out was something Lars doubted he could ever do, even if he wanted to interact with her in person. Her irregular scheduling both irritated Lars with its general nature, and likewise seemed to irritate the villagers, though they didn’t seem to notice her either, at least most of the time. In a strange way, it comforted him when he couldn’t find her in the streets like he could with the others, as in away, her irregularity became what Lars considered normal for her. He combed the village squarefor her, pausing briefly on the thick, twiggy mass that was the tree, a cluster of thick knot-like bulbs on its side. It seemed to be dying. She was nowhere to be found for the entire day, and Lars resented that fact for the remaining hours that he stayed at the window. Finally, at sundown, Lars stepped away from the window, irritated and hungry. He made himself dinner, and began to get ready to go to sleep, but the woman’s strange deviation in schedule kept popping back into his thoughts. He had always seen her in days past, but this was, even for her, irregular. Lars had been thinking it over, and decided to visit the tree. It was night now, and Lars was fairly sure that he would be able to find out more about who she was, what she was doing by visiting the tree at least once a day. It was now more curiosity in what was going on more so than irritation at someone else’s schedule deviation. He donned a coat and left the house, for the second time this week, the first being to
The wind was bitter, and it stung Lars’s skin even through the thick layer of jacket that he was wearing. It was certainly a bad night to be doing this. The tree was only down the street,
though the poorly illuminated ground in front of him made the short walk seem like more of a trek than it was. The night was quiet, though the further he walked, the voice of a woman singing became more and more audible, if only by a bit. He could now see the silhouette of the tree, the thin, spidery, leafless branches poking up from the woody trunk. The roots seemed larger, the thick tendrils poking up from the ground at irregular intervals. The singing was at its loudest when Lars got within three feet of the tree itself, the voice appearing to come from inside the bark itself. Lars flicked open a lighter, illuminating some of the tree. The surface seemed
healthier than when Lars had seen it during the day, and the knots seemed all the more prominent. Lars looked up. The knots became more thick, almost seeming to mimic a human
chest. The singing came from further up, a repetition of a simple folk song.
(Insert chorus here)
The verse was less reminiscent of a song, more a melodic chant. Lars moved the lighter up, illuminating what seemed to be a wooden face. A gust of wind extinguished the light, and
Lars flipped the lighter closed. He brushed his fingers over the area where he thought he saw a face. The singing didn’t stop. Through the knots of tree bark, he could feel what seemed to be a nose, and the beginning of what seemed to be moving lips, appearing to be synchronized with the song. Lars brought up the lighter next to his hand and struck the flint with his thumb. The fire blossomed, bringing light to one of the most horrifying sights Lars had seen. A woman’s face was trapped in the bark, more than half of it only barely poking out of the tree’s surface. The nose, right eye and mouth were entirely surfaced, surrounded by bark and barely surfaced joints.
The voice was almost certainly coming from the body in the tree. Lars stumbled away in horror, and the woman’s hand grasped out towards him, breaking through the bark with a woody snap, though she did not stop singing. Her eyes glinted with an insane light, and it took all of what Lars had not to scream. He knew the face now. It was the woman he had come out to search for.
He stopped for a moment. None of this made sense. How could it? He stepped forwards, and noted the mechanical movements of the figure’s mouth, the repeated and jerky motions of the arm. A tree carving. Lars thought, with some amount of relief. A horrifying, oddly disturbing
one, especially in its likeness to the woman. Lars walked backwards, and slowly began to make his way back to his apartment. All the way there, something nagged at him, a thought he couldn’t
seem to pinpoint for more than a split second. Something was off, and it kept Lars up the entire night.
After a night of fruitless attempts at sleep, Lars checked the clock. 6:45, two hours past dawn. He went over to his pantry and grabbed a loaf of bread and a jar of raspberry jam. His toaster was unreliable, but Lars couldn’t care less. He stood there as his bread toasted, waiting
for people to wake up. He waited for them to begin their daily routines, so that he in turn could begin his own. But as Lars ate his bread, brushed his teeth and shaved, that moment didn’t come.
Come 7:30, when the human tide rose and the thin floodplains of the streets were filled with dozens of tiny heads going about their daily lives, nothing happened. Lars barely noticed. Even a Saturday morning was never this quiet. Lars lived for his routine, and at 7:45, when he usually opened his curtains and watched the people bustling below him, he walked over, deathly afraid of what he would find.
Lars drew his curtains and looked down. The vague sounds of shuffling feet initially reassured him, and the river of people flowing about was a surefire sign that maybe things were in fact, going normally. Hell, Lars thought, even the village finally waking up would be a reassurance.
But they never did.
Lars waited for minutes, and the flow of heads seemed to dry out, the number of people in the streets waxing, then waning as everyone who passed through all followed each other to the same direction. Lars stood up slowly from his chair and went over to his dusty coat rack. He put on his jacket and shoes before opening the door. He walked out of his small apartment, not knowing if the building had always been this quiet, but suspecting that it hadn’t been. Lars stepped out onto the street, immediately noticing the dusty footprints of people in boots, shoes, occasionally bare feet that coated the mossy brick road. He looked towards the direction he had seen the people going, and noticed a lone straggler limping over to where Lars assumed the rest of the crowd must be. He followed. It took Lars all of thirty seconds to realize where he was going was the town square, and for a moment, Lars was legitimately excited. Maybe they saw the tree? Yes, that must be it. He picked up the pace of his walking, now with a new sense of energy, partially from elation, partially from fear. The town was entirely quiet, and Lars steeled himself to see the crowd surrounding the grotesque sight in the town square.
He couldn’t have possibly prepared himself for what he would see.
Lars rounded the corner, and immediately stopped in his tracks. The town square was flooded with the largest gathering of people in a single area Lars had ever seen. Suddenly, he wanted very much to leave, to observe the procession from a distance. But though morbid curiosity, he stepped slowly forwards. No one was moving, except for a small number of people in the front who seemed to be shuffling slowly forwards. The tree seemed larger, somehow. Lars looked down slightly. Surely someone somewhere had to be moving. The roads had never looked this overgrown before, and as Lars scanned through people’s feet for movement, he noticed something. All of them appeared to have thin cords attached to the exposed skin of their ankles, some of them had the vines snaking up a pant leg. The cords seemed to be coming from below the street, in the cracks between the bricks. Or were they coming from the people? He couldn’t
tell. Lars walked forwards, nervously pushing through the flood of bodies, occasionally squeezing through a smaller cluster of two or three. Only the tree’s top was visible from where
Lars stood, though a noisy cluster of overlapping voices got louder and louder the closer he got to the tree. At last, he could see through the groups of people, enough to get a glance at the tree.
And for just a moment, his heart stopped.
The tree had grown in size, not by virtue of bark or height, but by the bodies pressed against its trunk, secured in with vines. They were all entirely naked, and entirely still, save for what seemed like a never-ending cacophony of disturbed yelling. Another man stood in front of the tree, and had begun to strip down. Lars could only watch in horror as the man turned around and walked into the bark of the tree, his shoulders positioned under another man’s head. The bark
began to grow around his legs and neck, and almost at once, he began to talk, repeating a phrase that Lars couldn’t pick out of the hundreds of voices, even if he tried. He took a moment to break his eyes away from the man, and looked up. For almost twenty feet upwards, there were bodies pressed against the tree. There was very little open bark, excluding the top of the tree and the spidery branches coming out of its top. It seemed like an even half of the village had been swallowed, leaving what Lars estimated to be between 50 and 75 people still left in the town, their voices to become a part of the never ending stream of noise espoused by the amalgamate around the tree. Three more people walked up to the tree to be absorbed by it, and by the third, Lars could feel a small vine snaking up his ankle. He jerked his leg, but by then, it was too late. There was a sharp pain in Lars’s leg, and then nothing.
Move. A voice in his head said.
Move towards it. It repeated.
No, I won’t.
This can be a better life for you.
His legs had already begun to move.
This can make you happy.
No, no, nononononono.
Lars had begun to strip down, to prepare himself to be absorbed by the tree.
GET THE HELL OUT OF MY HEAD.
Lars had now stripped down entirely, and had turned his back to the tree. He stepped back, felt the soft, moldy bark against his flesh. It seemed to slough away from his flesh, almost
welcoming him. Lars sunk deeper into the flesh of the tree, letting the rotting wood cover him, embrace him. A tear ran down his cheek.
You will learn to accept this.
You will learn to accept us.
We will accept you.
You are us.
We are us.
Lars hadn’t closed his eyes in days. He almost felt like he couldn’t. The drone of voices from the rotting people surrounding him kept him awake constantly. He couldn’t feel his limbs, save for his right arm, which poked out of the rotting tree. Lars seriously doubted that he had most of his limbs anymore. They had likely been absorbed into the tree. They were all being absorbed into the tree, still yet to become what the drone in Lars’ head referred to as ‘us’. Lars had not yet opened his mouth to talk, not once. The others around him had begun days ago, almost directly after their absorption into the tree. Even those that didn’t begin talking immediately began to do so in the days that followed their first introduction to Lars’ personal hell. They all did, and those who still didn’t would break eventually. They all would. Lars tried to
move his head in vain, only pulling at a cluster of vine-like roots that seemed to be burrowed in his head. He pulled back, the noises, screams and ramblings of the tree’s disturbed appendages boring into his ears. He needed to get out. Now.
Lars struggled, brushing away deep, warbling voice of the tree’s heart away with less and less strength with each passing second. And then suddenly, Lars simply stopped. His mind blank, except for his last thought, now repeated, over, and over, and over and over and over and over and over and over.
And then, finally, Lars began to scream.