So he stood there and saw the mark and at once had a feeling there was something more. The texture around the design was different but the grain was too familiar to dismiss. His hands had roved there before, and many times at that. But something else whispered for him to look on and next his eyes moved inside the hole. That was when two things happened. First, he remembered what had occurred that day, and second, he at last understood what it meant.
It was one of those days that were caught on the cusp of winter and spring. The nights could be cold or they could be mild, so they dressed light and brought heavy jackets and extra blankets. They made plans to sleep at the base of a rather ugly looking foothill where a peculiar copse of elms grew in a ragged star formation.
They had visited the copse several times on other hikes. It was a secret place for the two lovers and they always dined hungrily on its mystery. They would count the myriad of items which had found their way to the highest points of the branches, and they would stare for hours at the oddity. In the clutching fingers of wood were purses, hats, toy tractors, women’s and men’s underwear, backpacks and hundreds of pairs of shoes. The sight of these stranded items alarmed the two lovers but also fascinated them.
He remembered then, before they made love that night, stretching out on their plaid blanket and staring into the confusion high overhead. She had spooned herself beside him and said nothing. The sound of her happily chewing on wild berries was joined only by the hastening wind through the leaves. He wondered if this would be their last time here. She had been unfaithful to him, of this he was positive, but somehow in the moment that didn’t matter.
She reached around him and held out a handful of berries. He shook his head. There was no way he was eating something growing out here. He wasn’t that adventurous, nor did he love the possibility of the most outstanding diarrhea it might give him. But he let her enjoy them. And why not? Every time they had come to the copse she wanted to try the purple berries and every time he had told her no. Today he didn’t have that command of her; not any longer; it was unsaid between them but this time in the copse they were different people. This time, the only thing left between them was a brief physical encounter, and he would enjoy it as much as possible.
“I do have something to tell you,” she said.
They were both lying on their sides, staring at each other. He could smell the berry sweetness emanating from the dark velvet hollow of her opened mouth.
“I know after I tell you, we won’t be together anymore.” Her eyes became placid. He thought of all the men he’d ever seen her speak to and tried to guess who it might be. Who else had been inside her besides him?
“How do you know for sure?” he asked.
“I know,” she replied. “But I also know that I want you, even if it’s for this last time. All I ask is you clear your head and not think about it. Just take me and have me, for as long as you can. We’ll be together for tonight and then in the morning, I’ll tell you.”
“I don’t know if I can wait that long.”
“Do it for me,” she said and took his hand. “Please.”
He let his arousal get the better of him and he answered her by unbuttoning his jeans. She pulled down her pink satin panties and in the rush, left them hanging from an ankle. Her skirt went up—his pants went down. He glanced down at the heart tattoo on the slope of her pelvis and sadness gripped him; this would be the last time he saw the tattoo (it would be his no longer). No matter, no matter anymore.
Within a few burning kisses they were making love for the first and last time in the copse of elms that had caught their imagination. They rolled off their blanket into the coarse flooring of bark, dried leaves and dirt. He wanted it to last forever but the feeling was too superb. He was getting closer. Almost there. Peaking.
But the punctuation of his joy was different than he anticipated. There was a shot of pain and every particle of pleasure left him in a riot-like fashion. He gasped and withdrew, a hand going down between his legs.
“What’s the matter?” Fear was paramount in her dark eyes.
“Something stabbed me,” he said, felt there again and cried. “Damnit, it stings! Must have been something on the ground.”
“What was it?”
He shook his head and probed his genitals in a manner that was scholarly and desperate. His finger caught the corner of something sharp and he grimaced.
“A splinter.” He slid the spike of wood out.
“Really?” she remarked.
He looked at it for a moment but it was pretty normal looking as splinters went, so he flicked it aside.
“Can you still go?” she asked with a needy look.
Reality had seized him and he couldn’t understand why he’d given in to her in the first place. “No, it hurts.”
She looked at him in disbelief and sighed. “Maybe in the morning.” Her head fell back against the ground.
In subtle layers of time, they both dressed themselves and watched as night fell. Gradually they returned to the plaid blanket and looked up through the mysteriously decorated trees, him silent in thought and her devouring more berries. The pools of sky between the branches were overflowing with silver stars.
He went in and out of sleep. The first time he awoke, he noticed she was gone. He looked around and saw her standing over him.
“What’s going on?”
“My back hurt. I’m just stretching it out.”
He went back to sleep…
…and awoke again, hours later. She was still standing there.
“Your back’s not better?”
“No,” she replied from the bowels of the dark wilderness. “And my skin’s getting dry. Do you have any of that vanilla lotion in your pack?”
“Nope,” he said, a little sadistically. After all, she was screwing around on him. Let that not be forgotten. “Are you going to lie back down?”
“In a little bit,” she answered.
He rested his head back on the blanket and closed his eyes. This time he was completely drowned by exhaustion and didn’t awaken until the morning chill got the best of him.
He glanced over at his side, but she was absent. He looked around their little campsite, but she was nowhere. He looked manically outside the copse, but she was still missing. He went back to their blanket and saw only the leaning giants above.
Trees. That was all he could see. Trees.
The elm nearest to where they lay ruffled its branches through the morning gale. He shuddered when he saw what hung there at the top, too high for human hands to grope. Spiked through one branch, torn several ways and completely desecrated, were her pink satin panties. Below this her skirt was snug around the base of a great branch. The skirt fit around as though its circumference had been made especially for this arm of wood. Behind the tree, shreds of other fabric littered the ground like some kind of celebration had taken place.
He backed away, horrified, and then, without another thought, left everything behind and ran. Later he would recall the inquisitive police and the subtle detectives that geared their case toward him. But they knew little less than he did and it would remain that way.
None of what happened after made a difference anyway. It was a year later and he found himself back in the copse. He had come for closure but hadn’t really anticipated getting any. Especially not like this.
He gravitated to the tree where her clothes had curiously ended up. The police had taken all the items out of the trees, but he knew which elm was hers.
This was how he found the large knothole in the back of the tree and just above it, the blurred image of a heart blended into the wooden skin. The tattoo was clear and apparent. This was no cruel joke or false hope. There was no human forgery that could mimic the bends and swoops of a design he’d cherished for so long. It wasn’t a copy. Though it was part of the tree, it was the same tattoo he’d caressed for countless nights.
And so that meant that this tree…
He touched the tattoo once more and put his head against the trunk. The branches rustled overhead and several crisp leaves pendulumed down. Tears rolled into his eyes. He traced his fingers from the design, which had once been on her pelvis, and found the rim of the knothole directly beneath. Something sparkled inside the knothole and his tears dried up immediately. He peered within and felt nausea crash down.
It was only the size of a softball and its human face was turned as though to look out. From its navel in the bulb-shaped stomach was a thin vine that snaked around and ultimately disappeared into the darkness of the hole. The face was malformed and wooden, a marionette creature that looked partly like him and partly like she once had. The two retinas of glossy amber sap stared into him with a glittery hatred he’d never known possible.
There was no sound in the copse at that moment. But a word did play on the wind and it filled his mind with doubt and terror and abomination. He was not going mad. He would wager anything that he heard it loud and clear. His ears crackled at its sound, for it was assuredly on the ghostly tongue of every tree that had gathered there to watch him and enjoy.