The first and only chapter
The first time I ever saw the heart tree, I was twelve years old. I was on my way home, when I decided to take a shortcut through the woods across to the main road, and from there to the village. Those were more innocent times, when kids were trusted to come home on their own and strangers in grubby transit vans were not the first concern on every parent's mind. The problem was that my shortcuts home were less than obvious, and I didn't know them at that stage as well as I would come to in later years.
So yes, I got lost. I was annoyed and tired, I pulled my way through straggling thickets and stumbled down steep banks of stones and soil overgrown with weeds and trees. It was summer, and a gloriously warm one at that. I still remember the smell of the cowslip that grew in great clumps deep in the woods, and the musk of my own sweat soaking my shirt. I had been with my friend Harvey that day. We'd been doing outdoor stuff, climbing trees and playing at being army men. We spent hours at a time diving into piles of leaves, stubby and handily shaped branches becoming death-spitting Sten guns in our imaginations. Oh, we'd enjoy an ice cold glass of Coke and play on Harvey's computer afterward, but we were bruised and grass-stained as any kid should be. I had turned down a lift so I could walk home. At that stage in the early evening, navigating my way through thick greenery snagging my clothes on twisting, tangling branches like barbed wire, I was beginning to regret that choice. It was then, just as I was about to panic and start calling out for help that I stumbled across the cottage for the first time; this I did almost literally, as I practically fell out of the woods and into a rough wooden fence.
As extraordinary as it sounds, I had never come across this place before, not once. The things I had inadvertently collided with proved to be a thick barrier in the shape of a square, skirting the boundaries of the cottage and the grassy borders of a large, colourful garden. I stood open mouthed. I'd never seen a garden so vivid and lush, with virgin grass and flowers bursting with colour. It was Eden. It crept up the white walls of the cottage, lightly brushing a thatched roof that surrounded a smoking chimney pot. As if on an impulse, I then hauled myself over the fence, touching down on the soft grass. I knew I was trespassing, but so what? I wanted to take a look. And if the owner asked, I would just tell him the truth - that I was lost.
I still was not totally sure why I was looking around that garden. I gingerly went forwards, pass an exotic-looking spiky bush with bright pink flowers to find myself in the middle of the garden. That is when I saw it. It had been disguised by the trees at the fence, but suddenly I saw it in plain view. Twenty feet from me was the most extraordinary tree I had ever seen. It was a large hard-wood tree, with bark as black as Obsidian. Even more astonishing was the white blossom delicately covering its many branches. No tree like that grew anywhere near where I lived. Looking at it, I lost all track of time, and didn't notice the old man approaching me from behind.
'You, boy! What are you doing in my garden?'
The spell was broken, and I made to run – except the old codger whipped a stout wooden walking stick just in front of me, blocking my path. I stammered an apology, babbled a few explanations, I cannot find my parents etcetera… But then he smiled, and lowered his stick
'So not here of a purpose? Heh. Still, you wouldn't be the first who saw my heart tree.'
'Rather lovely isn't it?'
Even then I couldn't exactly agree. Striking, yes. Beautiful? Absolutely. Lovely however is not a word I would use to describe it.
'Not that I get many visitors' he harrumphed 'But that's fine by me. You lost?'
I nodded, explaining how I'd lost my bearings.
'Heh. The main road is in that direction.'
He just in the direction of his cottage, beyond which I assumed was a road. In a burst of curiosity I found myself asking why is called a heart tree. Again the old man smiled.
'Ah, well. That's the thing you see. Come with me.' He hobbled forward, beckoning me to follow him. Dumbly, I did so.
'It's the bark, you see'
He took me close to the back of the tree, oil-slick black and with a similar sticky sheen. The old man ran his hand up and down the tree, to a group of knots that stood out prominently in the rough shape of a heart.
'The tree grows like none other' the old man sighed, 'She is beautiful, but beauty does come at a price. It always does.'
I found myself drawn to the tree, reaching out to touch its strange, unreal surface.
'No! Don't touch it!'
His warning came so sharply and with such force that I jerked my hand back. The man stepped in front of me, thick eyebrows knotting angrily.
'Do not ever touch the tree. Ever. The heart tree will know you, and you cannot let it! Do you understand?'
Of course I didn't, who would? Nevertheless I realised I was edging backwards away from him. The grass closest to the tree I noticed, was grey and desiccated in a dreary grey ring at the base of the trunk.
The old man gestured with a tremulous finger in the direction of the road. Oh, but it was hard looking away from a snow white leaves that seem to glow in the evening sun. It was hard to resist the urge to walk back, and touch that beautiful extraordinary tree. It was the old man who broke my reverie.
'Go boy! Please leave this place, forget it, forget all of this.'
His desperate pleading tone was what broke the spell; I turned and ran. I found the road, and soon enough my way home. My parents were less than pleased my lateness and the state of my clothes, but by dinnertime all was forgotten and mostly forgiven. I have been grounded before; they could've been worse. That night in bed I stayed up at the ceiling, restless and unable to sleep. An old man's words came back to want me.
It will know you…
How could I have known? I was a kid. I saw the tree in my minds eye. A knotted, black trunk and shimmering, ethereal blossoms. It looked extraordinary in my mind, but the more I thought of it, the more sinister it became. The light became a low sickly colour, the branches skeletal as I recalled its strange grasping branches. It was uncomfortable, scary even; awe had very rapidly turned to fear. As I then tried to erase my mental image, I caught sight of an eerie glow just outside my window. It was pale and effervescent, like the luminosity of the moon but much, much closer. I wanted to look out of my window if only briefly, but something held me fast. I lay there still, and although I knew I was alone, I felt a shadow move over me. A rush of cold that was like a kiss from the darkness, then fading in the blink of an eye. The glow outside slowly faded. I shivered, and pulled the sheet over me trying to forget what I'd seen. I try to ignore this grossly overextended shadow of the tree outside my window projected in a pool of light on the ceiling. I tried not to imagine it growing, and hearing its roots burrowing through the earth.
You may think it odd perhaps, but I never connected that strange night with the disappearances. When you're a kid, a vanished face from the playground means they've left with their mum and dad to go to a new town and see new exciting places. So what if the teachers looked a little ashen faced, somewhat sad? You didn't know the kid, except across the lunch hall playing with their own mates.
Then Harvey disappeared. My best friend, snatched from his own bed in the night they said. A jogger swore blind they saw him walking into the darkness of the woods late at night, alone and staring straight ahead. The jogger insisted the kid they saw was following someone, though he couldn't see who. The police trod the whole area for days at a time, but they found nothing. It was threatening to tear my family apart. I remember sitting in my room, trying desperately to distract myself with a new Lego set while my parents argued downstairs. It was that incident I think that convinced my parents to move house and escape from that place. They sat me down in the living room, and they told me that we were moving away.
Since this was a few years later, I reacted as any teenager would at the prospect of being pulled out of their comfort zone and away from their friends. Looking back now, it was one of the best decisions they ever made. The new house was bigger, better. The town had more life, didn't feel as stagnant or sick as the last one. I had more or less forgotten the tree by that stage, and as time went on, I went to university, graduated and moved to the city. I found a job in publishing, met a gorgeous girl. Life continued apace. I never forgot Harvey, though. The boy who had been my best friend and had left such a hole in my life. No, not a hole. A sinister shadow that reached me even all those years later. Then, one summer, I paid a visit back to my parent's house for the long weekend. It was a balmy summer evening in late August, the air smelling ripe with the promise of rain. It was only the second day of my visit on a warm afternoon as we sat out in the garden enjoying the sun, breathing in the smells of mimosa and honeysuckle that filled the warm air. My parents were making tea when my mother, apropos of nothing at all, said
'Oh by the way, do you remember Pat and Duncan? You know, nice couple, they used to live near us in Flatfield?'
I faintly remembered a permanently smiling pair who would sometimes frequent dinner parties, and acknowledged that I did.
'They're moving away, now. Apparently the town has lost its homeliness, although in my view it did that long ago after the dreadful business with your friend Harvey.'
I remembered only a few things about Pat and Duncan, and they had always asserted with depressing belligerence that Flatfield was their home – and they would never leave.
'It's odd, but now she's had that baby – quite late to be having one if I'm honest – she wanted it to have a different home.'
I hadn't been back in years but I've heard a few things – the occasional news story about a missing child popped up in the mainstream media, about its failing local economy and how it was no longer a good place for families to stay. I had tried not to think about my home town, as it brought back too many painful memories for me. However, at that moment, I had a compulsion then to go back to Flatfield and look at the town of my youth.
That night I lay in my old room, now a spare room, and looked up at the window. On a summer night like this, I thought again of the Heart Tree. I thought of its black branches, stretching crookedly across time to burrow into my memories once more. I remembered my own search for Harvey, how I ran around those woods from dawn till dusk calling out his name, but never finding him. The next day, I decided to go and have a look. It was less than an hour's drive and I'd be back before dinner time. So off I went, on a sultry summer afternoon, off to rediscover my youth.
It was a hot afternoon, as I approached the welcome sign of Flatfield, overgrown with ivy but still visible. I passed through the village centre, and was incredibly disappointed. The video rental shop that I visited off and when I was young was long closed. There was a supermarket, but one of those ghastly modern franchises with little to no charm at all. I was beginning to write off my visit, and wondering why had wasted so much time getting over to Flatfield. There was nothing here for me. Then I felt it. I felt the Heart Tree. My old mental map of Flatfield was somewhat dusty and cobwebbed, but I was able to find my way back to my old house. I waded through knee-high cowslips, and huge overgrown thickets of nettles as I arrived on the street where I lived for the first time in maybe fifteen years. Nobody lived there any more, it was boarded up as well most of the houses on the road. The first oddity I noticed was the difference between the plant life on one side of the road when compared to the other. On my side, it was lush and verdant. The flowers were lush with pastoral colour, and summer was most certainly in full unashamed bloom on this side of the road. The opposite side was another story; the difference staggering. The grass was grey and brown, stunted and patchy. The skeletal frames of wall climbing plants covered the walls of long abandoned houses, and beyond it the tree seems lost in a gloomy grey shadow. It was as if somebody had tried purging it with fire but had not quite succeeded. The few people I did see hurried by with barely a glance in my direction. Beyond those trees, I knew I would find a cottage. In the garden of that cottage, there was a tree with blossoms white as snow and bark as black as infinity. I crossed the road, and ventured over the ravaged earth into the trees.
There was the powdery smell of decay in the air as I ventured cautiously through the maze of trees. The trees of grey columns cast eerie shadows in the glare of the setting sun, and I will say with no hesitation that I have rarely disliked a place, but I truly despised this mockery of the forest. I had once known this area, the hillocks and fallen stones is familiar to me is my own home. He's dead places will once playgrounds, battlegrounds, anything hardly only wanted them to be. To see them so drained and lifeless was disheartening indeed. The trees became more dense, and then suddenly I was on a familiar stony bank and at the bottom of it, defence partially hidden by bushes. I noticed with a certain chill, that thick black tendril-like roots led from every direction like spreading cancer. They all wound through the fence, over and under, bloated and corpulent without feeding. I tried to see if the previous way I had gone into the garden was still present, but the tangle of grey thorns on the bulging black roots said otherwise.
As the sun was sinking lower, I could see the glow shimmering through the leaves. The heart tree had grown hungry over the years it seemed. I picked my way along the rotten fence boundary, and emerged around the shabby and unkempt facade of the cottage I had stumbled across so many years ago. I doubted whether anybody still lived in there, but I approached the flaking door and knocked. I heard the faintest shuffle behind the door, and the door opened. I stepped back with start. It was the old man, the same one I had encountered in that strange summer that seems so long ago. He was aged, astoundingly so; he was gaunt and ancient-looking, his skin liver-spotted and pale. He had been old when I seen him before, but now… You can probably see why I was startled.
'Yes?' he asked roughly.
I tried to explain in a faltering voice who I was, and why I was there – the latter being a fact I will readily admit I was not too clear on either. My bumbling explanation however sufficed. The man nodded, and smiled a cracked smile.
'Oh yes, I remember you.' He beckoned at me with a claw like hand. 'Come on in. You don't need to be afraid of me anymore. I can barely hold my cane these days, let alone hit you with it, boy.'
He called me 'boy', as if I was still that frightened child from our last meeting. He had clearly not waited for me to accept his invite; he shuffled off into the doorway and was gone, leaving the door open. I followed him inside despite my better judgement. I found myself in a house that had long since seen better days. Dust covered every surface, the carpet was scuffed and the furniture threadbare. It was curiously empty though, and I found myself surprised that a man so old apparently owned so little. The living room especially was just a rather barren stretch of old carpet, with a few dust-caked paintings hanging askew on the flaking walls. How he lived with so little, I could not say. A set of red drapes hung slightly askew over what seemed to be patio doors, though I could not tell.
'So, sit down' he said, easing himself into an armchair, 'Came back to see the tree, did you?'
I reluctantly acknowledged that I had.
'It does that' the old man mused, 'Nobody can ever get just one look. They have to come back.'
Reluctant to press him with any rudeness, I nevertheless tried to get him to elaborate on what he meant, and why the tree was occupying so singular a role in my imagination. Wearily, the old man waved at the drapes.
'Open the curtains for me.'
I looked at them. They were large velvet drapes; thick and not totally fitting into the rest of what little décor the room still possessed. As I took hold of them, I hesitated. I knew I would see the tree of course, but could not say if I was totally prepared for that monstrous thing standing in the garden. My mind had morphed the tree many times into a creature when I was a child; nightmares of that tree's barbed claws taking hold of me and squeezing the life out of me had plagued me for months after Harvey disappeared.
After a few deep breaths, I tugged them open with shaking hands. They were not curtains as I had thought they might be, but heavy cloths bunched up and shoved through a wooden rail. They fell as soon as I placed the slightest force on them, collapsing in a great dusty pile and releasing a massive cloud of dust particles into the air. To describe the garden as dead would give it too much credit. The grey, dessicated mess out there resembled in no way the blooming eden I had remembered it to be. Of course, there was one exception. The heart tree stood, grown even larger and thicker. It had outgrown the garden, great intertwined roots bursting out of the ground like great black tentacles. Its bloom still glowed; white iridescent leaves in huge bunches moving slowly in sinister unison. The tree had taken the garden, strangled the life out of the flowers and greedily sucked the life and vigour out of what had once been a beautiful sight to see.
'It probably is not quite as you remember it' the old man chuckled bitterly, 'The past is a deceptive thing.'
Still somewhat transfixed by the sight in front of me, I asked him to tell me about the tree and why he still lived in its foul shadow. When I turned back to look at him, his mischievous air had gone. All I saw now was a very tired and frail man, who seemed to have lived with a great burden his entire life.
'Sometimes they don't ever come back..' he said, quietly 'I was worried that maybe it had gotten into your head, made you do things.'
He raised his eyes to mine.
I shrugged and said I had only felt the need to come back, not to do anything specifically.
'They see it' he continued, lowering his eyes again 'And then they touch it. Then they come back, again and again. The heart tree has a way of getting to you, showing you either what you want or that of which you are most afraid. Either way...it draws people.'
I asked why he remained here. He sighed, a long and heavy sound.
'It is my load which I must carry. I stay here to watch over this thing, for which I have committed crimes that few men could live with.'
The room seemed to darken. I knew we could both feel the chill that passed through the room.
'It's listening. It is always listening.'
He hung his head, as if defeated. I then formed three words into a question I had been meaning to ask for years: what is it?
'What do you think it is?' he asked me abruptly.
Speaking from the gut, I told him exactly what I thought. It was a tree that absorbed life. It drew people to it, consumed their life force, although how it did that exactly I could not begin to say. He stared at me for a few moments before the hint of a smile crossed his lips.
'It is infinitely worse than you could imagine.'
The room was now in the middle of the dusky twilight that existed when the sun had set but night had not quite stolen upon us.
'Did you know of the Sibyl of Ancient Rome?' I had heard of her, I said, but did not know the details. 'The Sibyl was a beautiful woman who lay with Ares, the god of war. He asked her for any single wish, and he would grant it. She took a fistful of sand, and told him she wanted to live for as many years as there were grains of sand in her palm. He granted her wish of course, but....'
He laughed darkly. I shuddered. You have to realise that he was telling a story about legend, but at the same time seemed to be recounting something awful. '...she came to understand the truth. That although her wish was granted, she had neglected to mention that she did not want to age. Gods are tricky like that you see. She grew ancient and yet she could not die.'
My eyes turned with an almost dreamy motion across to the tree, again transfixed by its dreadful presence.
'I acquired that tree a very long time ago. I made my own bargain, at the expense of my soul.' he said grimly, 'It gave me life. It forced me to give it life also.'
The clear role that the old man had played in the tree's existence as its long standing guardian made me want to be sick. This man in front of me had done awful things, terrible things to keep himself alive. Children. Harvey. I needed to know what had happened to Harvey. I asked about my childhood friend, and he sighed again.
'If you want to see your friend...go into the garden and call out his name.'
I immediately stood and headed into the grey, emaciated garden. I stared at the tree which I now noticed was, though only barely noticeably, pulsing very gently. Its bark rose and fell as if it was the wooden diaphragm of some great black monster. My lips and throat were dry from fear, but with a trembling voice, I said Harvey's name out loud. Nothing appeared to happen, so in annoyance I said it again, this time louder. Nothing seemed to-
No. No, there was something. From beneath an enormous tangle of black roots, I saw the faintest of amber glimmers. I looked back at the house to scan for any useful tools. I saw only one, a viciously sharp looking machete that had clearly once been used to tear away at troublesome roots but now simply sat there waiting to be picked up again. I retrieved it, and climbed down the unsettled earth to the clump of roots that wound in and over itself. The glow was now red in hue, but I could not see it.
Without a moment's hesitation, I swung the machete down with all my might onto the evil black root. It broke the bark, I felt soft fleshy wood under. I shouted Harvey's name again, the glow grew brighter. Suddenly I was possessed by a madness, an obsession to punish this unnatural thing and to find Harvey under these roots – if that was where he lay, in the earth under the tree. I didn't know what I thought I would find, a corpse maybe, a skeleton. I had to know. I called his name one last time and I brought the machete down like a machine, tearing through roots to get to what I sought.
As the last root fell under my blows, I finally saw what had produced the strange red glow. My stomach twisted in horror, and nausea overcame me. I stumbled up and out of the strange pit in which I found myself, and emptied my stomach's contents onto the grass. How I wish I could forget that filthy sight. That of a black root curled around a beating human heart. I crawled back towards the hole, watching in horrified fascination as the root curled ever tighter around the heart. It was not the sole source of corpulent light down there. I saw other hearts; some large and bloated, others shrivelled like a rotten fruit. So many hearts, all pulsing with different degrees of life...but I knew which one belonged to my friend.
I had only briefly lost my nerve. For then I had the machete in my hands once more, and smashed away at the claw-like root. I remember now that I was screaming as I decapitated root after root, the winding tendrils slithering under my blows to block my progress. Eventually, after five minutes furious work, I had torn open a hole large enough in which to put my hand and take back what remained of Harvey.
I grasped the heart, supple and bloody, and pulled it out of the tree's grasp. Instantly, the organ in my hand shrivelled and crumpled, as if it had aged in only a few moments. Through that simple act, I had freed Harvey. However, I soon saw I had failed to take into account the trees’ sudden sentience. A root wound around my leg, and began to crush it painfully in a vice-like grip. I stumbled for the edge of the pit, but another root snapped around my ankle. Clawing at the edge of the pit, I saw the roots I had cut to get to the heart. They wept blood, thick red trails of it welling from splintered holes in the bark as the torn off digits of the tree's roots spasmed like a freshly beheaded corpse. I desperately clawed at chunks of soil to try and find something, anything to stop me from being dragged down and crushed by the roots.
Groping blindly, my hand found once again the comforting weight of the machete, and I swept it behind me at the roots trying to double their grip on my legs. I felt an impact, and another as I chopped, and then I screamed as the blade struck my inner calf – but at least the root had severed. Grimacing in pain, I pulled myself to the lip of the hole, the wizened organ still clutched in my hand, now using the machete to lever myself up the now shuddering bank of earth.
I was getting close to my goal, when there was a blast of intense heat at my back and the straggling root clinging to my ankle whipped back suddenly. Turning my head, I saw flames billowing from the trunk of the great black tree, its glowing white blossoms shrivelling and burning in the intense heat. Then I saw the old man, dropping a canister of kerosene with a deep sense of satisfaction across his weary old face.
'That's it! Burn you infernal thing!' he roared as flames raced up the body of the tree. He saw me, and hobbled over, and though the extended hand was wizened and papery, it had surprising strength as the old man hauled me out of my grave. All I wanted to do was lie there and sleep, but the tree's guardian - and now executioner - gave me no choice in the matter.
'Get up!' he snapped, grasping my elbow 'Go! Run! Just as I told you before! And do not whatever you do look back!'
I nodded dumbly, and staggered to my feet. I limped on my bleeding leg, and made it as far as the house before I foolishly disobeyed the old man's instructions. I did look back. The image stayed in my mind as I limped as fast as I could up the road, and then back to where I had parked my car. Hauling myself inside, I slammed the door closed and sat in my car, caked in dirt and blood but alive at least. Over the trees, I caught the sight of rising flames and smoke giving the woods a strange unearthly mandala. I looked down at my hand. The heart was still there. Carefully I placed it down upon the passenger seat, and then drove away. The burning of the heart tree seemed to coincide with a return of life to Flatfield. Families began to move back, although I read with some amusement, that this was only after an extensive programme of regeneration of the local ecosystem which had suffered at the hands of a mysterious plague that seemed to have blighted the trees and plants there for some years. Less well reported was the burnt clearing and husk of a house at the epicentre of all this, and what was found underneath the blackened remains of an old tree.
There must have been fifty-two human hearts at least, the police said, all of them belonging to children. The scandal of this I knew would be drawn out in the tabloids for years to come. I had made my own peace. Harvey's heart was now buried at his gravestone, just as the rest of him should have been. Yet despite the peace I now felt, I was still troubled by that last horrible image I had seen as I turned around. That of the old man on his knees in supplication, and as the fire burned hotly around him, a dark figure wreathed in flame emerging from inside the trunk to clasp him in its arms, and pull the old man into the inferno that had once been the Heart Tree.