“What is it?”
“Well, clearly, it’s a book, dummy!”
“Hey! Don’t call me that!”
“Or what? You’re just a dummy.” Hayden picked up the book, the cover a faded brown and the pages dusty with dulled colored pictures.
“Can you read it?”
Hayden squinted his eyes as he scanned the pages. “Uh… there’s too many big words…”
Penelope stuck her tongue out at him. “Bleh! Now who’s a dummy?”
“Shut up! We’ll just get Zach to read it.”
“He’s on the playground with the other big kids.”
“Alright, come on!”
The two children ran up the hill away from the small forest, kicking up dust as their little legs went. Coming over the hill, they spied their brother. He swung on the swings while he chatted to a blonde-haired boy leaning against the swing structure, sipping juice.
“Zach!” Penelope shouted.
Zach turned – a boorish-eyed boy with a freckled face, raven hair, and tanner skin than his siblings – with a frown on his face. “Don’t yell at me! What do you want?”
“I don’t think I like his attitude,” Hayden mumbled. “We need you to read this to us!”
Zach smirked. “What’s wrong, smarty-pants? Too little to read it yourself?”
Hayden glared at him. “At least I’m not too old to be wetting the bed.”
Hearing this, the boy sipping juice spat in derisive laughter, coughing in his fit. “What?! You still pee your bed?!”
“Shut up! I’m only eleven!”
“I’m eleven too, but I don’t pee in the freakin’ bed!” His voice cracked as he rocked the chains on the swings. Red-faced, Zach stalked over to a smug Hayden and grabbed him by his collar, dragging him back over the hill near the woods.
“Alright, damn!” Zach exclaimed. “What’s the stupid book?” Penelope handed it to him. Zach examined it, flipping it over in his hand. “This… looks old as shit. Where did you guys find this?”
“Don’t know,” Hayden said with a shrug. “Found it in the forest somewhere.”
“Alright, fine. Sit around, boys and girls! Storytime!”
“Yay!” Penelope clapped, sitting next to Hayden, who laid his cheek on his hand with one eye open.
“One day,” Zach began, “Kore was walking on the path to the berry grove. Usually, she walked through open fields, allowing her to enjoy the soft breeze and the simple colors of the grass. But the clouds looked dark, so she detoured through the forest instead. It was shadowy yet peaceful – a shorter path to endure.
“As she walked, though, Kore heard a mild groan somewhere behind a line of tall trees. She went to ignore it, thinking little of it, but then she heard the groan again, this time a bit stronger. Curious, she ventured through the bushes and saw, behind this wall, a smaller but wider tree with the face of an old man. The face was anguished, a rusty-colored bark and graying leaves for food.
‘Who goes there?!’ he asked.
‘Only me,’ she said.
‘And who are you?’
‘The girl of a village not far. My name is Kore.’
‘O, Kore! Though my eyes nearly blind and cannot see, your kindness shines in darkness. Though my ears nearly deaf and cannot hear, your voice softens. Though my touch nearly numbs and cannot feel, your presence warms. Why are you here?’
‘I heard you groan in pain. I was taught never to turn away those in need. Is there anything I can do that may help?’
‘O, blessings to you, yes. Those trees in front of me and around me all block my sunlight. I need them cut! Please, dear, help me.’
“Kore returned to the forest with an ax and, in a few hours, had cut down all of the trees. The tree cried in happiness, surrounded by stumps.
‘Thank you! Oh, thank you, wonderful soul!’
‘It was nothing. Is there anything else?’
‘Oh, I don’t mean to be trouble.’
‘No trouble, please.’
‘Water! It never rains here, I’d need some way for that small river nearby to come under my roots. Could you dig a canal that will let it?’
“Returning to the forest, Kore used a hollow log to burrow into the dirt and create a wide canal that flowed to the tree’s roots. Covered in grime and dirt, hands bleeding and nails chipped, she smiled before him.
‘Yes!’ the tree exclaimed. ‘Yes, ah! I feel refreshed! Truly, refreshed! Look now as my leaves grow greener and my bark lightens.’
‘Is there anything else you’d like me to do for you?’
‘Now, I’d like to rest. Please, sing me a lullaby.’
“So, Kore sang him to sleep, a lullaby that needed to be sung through the night, thus preventing her own rest. When awakened, the tree would request favors anew from Kore. And with a smile, she would perform them. Men came one day to cut down the forest for the winter and the tree, terrified, implored Kore to defend him. One by one, she killed the men with arrows and stabbed those who survived, cleaning the blood where they died to prevent them falling in the river she built.
When winter came, the tree feared the cold and thus Kore kept the snow from accumulating around him. When spring came, he wanted to beautify faster than the other trees, so she gave him her beauty.
The nighttime would come, and the tree would cry for fear of the darkness and being away from the sun. Kore took the darkness and sheltered it within herself, remaining always in it for his stead. And when the day came the tree would wither and die, through tear and sniffles and whimpers, he implored Kore for her youth. And so, she died in his place in the umbrella of darkness. All with a smile.”
“That’s so scary!” Penelope exclaimed, hugging her knees. “I don’t think I like that…”
“Jesus, that was a stupid story,” Zach said. “How’d she do that stuff? Why’d she even, for that stupid tree?”
Penelope turned to Hayden. “What did you think, Hayden?”
Hayden was sitting upright, eyes wide and breath sprinting. His gaze, in a dream, was on the grass.
“Huh?” He snapped up, glancing between his brother and sister.
“What did you think of the book?”
“It was… really… uh…”
“This thing is awful,” said Zach. “I’m going to throw it ou-”
“NO!” Hayden leaped up and snatched it from Zach’s hands. “I’ll-I’ll keep it… I’ll keep it.”
Zach held up his hands and rolled his eyes, his face bewildered. “Alright, whatever. Let’s go find the babysitter. She’s probably done with her pot break.”
“What’s pot?” Penelope asked as the siblings walked down the hill. Hayden lingered a second, gazing down at the page where Kore stabbed a man on the ground. His lips slightly agape, he caressed her face with his finger.
“Hayden!” Zach called. “Let’s go!”
Clearing his throat, he stuffed it in his back pocket and ran after his family.
Back in their house now – two stories and several bedrooms, adorned with soulless paintings with unrecognizable names and smooth beige walls – Hayden stood in the hall with his sister, their bare feet rubbing against the smooth red-carpeted floors. Her room and his were adjacent, a bathroom across from hers. Hayden’s room was just before the stairs that spiraled to the floor below.
“Can you do something for me?” he asked.
“What is it?”
Hayden led her by the hand to his room and sat her on his bed before closing the door. He pulled a camera off his dresser and wrapped the strap around his neck.
“I want to do something fun. You ever… um… Okay, you know all those fancy models you see on the internet? We’re going to do something like that.”
“That sounds fun!”
“Yeah, it is, or i-it will be… So, here.” He handed her a thick, sharp knife.
She smiled at her reflection in the steel, running her finger against the flat side of the blade. Hayden sat a pillow in front of her.
“Okay, now just stab the pillow for me.”
“Stab it? Why?”
Zach peeked inside the room, Hayden jumping from his entrance.
“What the hell is going on?!” he exclaimed, barging in and snatching the knife from Penelope. “What do you have her doing, you weirdo?”
Hayden frowned and looked off to the side.
“Go to your room,” he said, and Penelope scurried away. He then pushed Hayden against the dresser and tapped the tip of the blade against his shoulder. “Don’t. Be. Weird.”
Zach then stormed out, leaving Hayden alone in his room. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the book, opening it to the same page as before. He caressed her face again, his breath hitching up as his fingers smoothed over her body.
9 Years Later
“Alright, come on, we don’t got all day. We got reports, we got calls, we got fucking newscasts but we don’t have the true story. We know you did it and we can see that you’re not even trying to deny it.”
“I mean, you practically handed yourself over to the cops. You have the look of a man who’s just done with everything. Is that it, Hayden? Are you just done?”
“Explain it to me then.”
“You won’t understand.”