Twisted Roots


Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.

It started with the animals. Back then it was the natural order of things and I didn’t interfere. They came to me often in shredded ribbons, gnashed and bloody, torn apart by predators of the woods. Sometimes it was more peaceful than that; the lucky ones got to die old and take a relieved final breath. Their bodies nourished me; they fertilized the soil, fed the worms and beetles and scavengers, and made the plants grow tall and thick. My hunger was very well satisfied.

It was more than just their flesh though; their spirits would join me too, once the life was finally gone from their bodies. The creatures would flit around for awhile as ethereal beings of light and grace before softly flickering out to somewhere I could not follow. It was a temporary joy, but a much needed one. My favorites had always been the rabbits. They were my pets. They were my friends—the only ones I’d had since my own flesh and bone joined this quiet little corner of the world.

I don’t know how time works anymore. I can only make a guess about how long I’ve been here based on the way my old physical body has changed. It’s a soft sort of decay. I too fed the roots of trees and plants, blood and tissue seeping into the earth. Now I’m merely bones. Years must have passed, I guess. Someday that old skeleton will simply be dust, indistinguishable from the hungry earth around it. But I’ll still be here in every tree, every branch, every blade of grass.

I had resigned myself to this somewhat lonely if not entirely unpleasant existence. That is, until the day I met her. That was when everything changed.

She was young. Human. Maybe nine or ten years old, and she was alone. She was crying because she was lost, having stumbled away from her family’s campsite and landing under my dark canopy of trees.

Her sorrow felt like my own. She was scared they would never find her. I remembered what that was like.

“It’ll be okay,” I whispered. I didn’t expect her to hear me. No one ever had before.

But she lifted her head and looked around. “Is someone there?”

I was shocked at first. And then I was thrilled. This girl was special! I should have noticed it before. “I’m here,” I told her. “You are not alone.”

“I can’t see you,” she thought to herself. “But I can hear you in my head. I can feel you. How old are you?”

It was such an innocent question. She wasn’t afraid of me. She didn’t care that she couldn’t see me or that I was communicating with her in her mind. Maybe she was still young enough to believe in some type of magic. She just wanted to know how old I was.

I considered the question for a moment. I felt ageless, but that didn’t seem like the right thing to say. I wanted this girl to like me for reasons I couldn’t really understand. I decided to answer truthfully, or at least answer with how old I was when I had died.

“Fourteen,” I said.

She smiled at that. “That’s cool. Will you be my friend?”

There are no words for how that felt. “Yes,” I answered. “Of course.”

For the next half hour, she kept me company. I told her my name was Alice, since that was what it used to be. Her name was Kayla. I reassured her that her family would soon find her. It was true; I could feel their trampling feet upon the soil, coming ever closer. To pass the time, I showed Kayla several of my tricks. How I could make the trees bend and sway even without a breeze. I could make leaves flutter, or stick a tree root up in a little wave. If she wanted, I could lead her to the sweetest berry bushes, or the secret little lake that was nearby. Perhaps we would see some fish or frogs there. I felt like Kayla would probably enjoy that. I wished she could stay forever and keep me company.

But all too soon her parents found her, as I knew they would. They were so relieved to see her. They hugged and cried. I watched it all with deep sorrow and jealousy. Before she left with them, I whispered to her, a desperate plea: “Come visit me again someday?”

“I promise,” she answered silently, then walked away hand in hand with her father.

Soon enough, the little family went too far beyond my reach. I couldn’t feel Kayla anymore. They must have made it back out of the woods. It would be minutes and hours and years before I would see her again.

In that time, I grew sadder and impatient and hungry. I needed sustenance, but the local predator population had dwindled. It took longer for me to get new rabbits and deer to sustain me. I had to make do with lesser creatures: beetles, spiders, ants. I was lonelier than ever before too, and there was never enough to nourish neither my appetite nor my spirit.

One day, a pure white bunny hopped along the forest floor. It was not very old and I knew it was not yet time for it to die. But I wanted it, oh how I wanted it.

I used the weeds and brambles in the surrounding area to ensnare it first. The rabbit struggled to break free, panting heavily. I wished I could calm it, but there was no point. It would be over soon enough. My energy flowed through the nearest tree roots, choosing some of the thick and sturdy ones. With my guidance, they snaked through the earth and punched their way past the surface. They wrapped the sweet rabbit around the middle and tugged it into the soil, which was soft and collapsing in on itself. The poor thing shrieked in a way you wouldn’t think a rabbit capable, but then its mouth and eyes were covered in dirt and it went quiet. After a long minute or so, it was done. The rabbit had suffocated in my tender grasp.

I felt a pang of regret. I had interfered with nature. I was not merely a recipient of death’s gifts; I had taken what I wanted. The rabbit’s flesh fed the earth and the worms and the tree roots themselves. It fed me. Was this really so much worse than letting the rabbit be caught in the teeth of a wolf or the talons of an owl? The death I gave it was fairly quick and it was purposeful enough to reduce suffering. I could feel the spirit of the new rabbit, light and free now that I’d helped it along. It was almost enough to convince me that I’d done the right thing.

The bunny was a comfort to me for quite a while, but eventually it too faded away. Once it disappeared, my regret became more palpable. I shouldn’t have taken it. I shouldn’t have hurt the poor thing. My hunger was still there, reminding me why I had done it in the first place, but I resisted the urge to take other creatures before their time. It wasn’t right. I had survived for decades on the scraps of nature—how it was meant to be. I promised myself I wouldn’t take what wasn’t mine again.

I was shocked the day Kayla finally came back. There was a part of me that really didn’t believe she would ever return. It had been lot to ask for back then and now felt too good to be true. I felt her footsteps wander tentatively through the forest. She was older, a teenager. Her long blond hair caught the scraps of sunlight until the canopy of trees threw her into total shade. I thought she was very beautiful.

“Alice?” She asked.

My emotions soared. It really was her and she really had remembered me! It had been years for her, but she remembered! It made me feel so real, so valued.

“I’m here,” I said, and I made the tree trunks bend almost in a cordial bow as proof.

The look on her face was equal parts relief and joy. “I’m so glad I found you again,” she said. Kayla spent the next while talking to me, telling me how her life had been going since we last were together. She’d wanted to come sooner, she said, but hadn’t been able to convince her parents without telling them what was going on. And they would have thought she was crazy if she had. She half thought she was crazy herself, most days, but she still wanted to come back, to be sure. “But now I have a car of my own and a driver’s license, and freedom. I can visit you now, almost whenever I want,” she said.

I was amazed by her words. It meant so much to me, to have a willing friend like Kayla.

“Alice, I wanted to ask you something. Are you like…a fairy?”

This girl, this lovely girl. She was sixteen years old and had driven herself into the woods to ask about fairies. Kayla was certainly strange. I didn’t want to lie to her, though. I knew it wouldn’t be right.

“Actually,” I said. “I’m more of a spirit, I guess. I was human once.”

Kayla’s eyes widened. “Why are you here now?” she asked, gesturing to the woods around her.

“I was killed here,” I told her sadly. “There was…a man. I thought we were friends. I thought I could trust him. That was a mistake. He was nothing more than a monster. He buried me here when he was done. No one ever found me.”

Kayla looked horrified and upset. This was not the kind of reunion I might have hoped for, being caught up in my own bitter memories. “That’s awful. I’m so sorry,” she said. Then she asked, “Will you show me where?”

It was an odd request. I couldn’t imagine beautiful and kind Kayla having to see the ugliness of it all. I preferred to be the trees, and the earth, and the plants that I had become. Not just the rotting bones of my past.

But still, I could deny Kayla nothing. “Okay,” I said.

I swept some of the grass and weeds down with a flourish, creating a path for Kayla to follow and clearing back brambles as she went. She walked with steady determination. I would have thought she might be scared, but she wasn’t. I admired her for that bravery and her willingness to see the truth of me.

Finally, after a bit of a trek deeper into the woods, she reached the patch of earth where I lay beneath several feet of dirt at the base of an old, gnarled tree. Some weeds had grown over the area, but much of the soil was still loose from recent rain.

“Here,” I said.

Kayla kneeled down and began to dig with her hands. I marveled at the way she didn’t care about getting dirty. It took a long time for her to reach the first bone, even longer to find what once had been my skull. It was broken in a couple places.

She touched it with a delicate finger. Her lips quivered slightly. “I’m so sorry, Alice,” she said again. “Is there anything you want me to do?”

I didn’t think it would matter if she told someone or not. I was as much at rest as I felt I ever would be, and mortal justice was a concept that had long since left me. I was also afraid. What if I was moved and I ended up flickering out, like the animals I had known? What if there was nothing beyond, nothing waiting for me?

“No,” I said. “Please don’t tell anyone.”

Kayla nodded. She spent the next while tenderly re-covering the body with dirt. I assisted by sinking some of the soil here and there. After it was done, Kayla wiped her hands on her jeans and sat down at the base of a nearby tree, opposite of my body. She would glance at the patch of earth occasionally, but when she spoke to me her head was lifted towards the treetops. I appreciated that she still thought of me as the beautiful nature around her, and not the decayed skeleton she had found.

“You know,” she said sadly, “someone hurt me once too.”

And suddenly I got flashes of her memories. The violence of a young man. Kayla’s struggle, her pain, her fear. The horror she went through was all too familiar. The suffocating feeling, the violation of it. Rage swelled up inside me.

“No one would believe me,” she said softly. “He still goes to my school. I have to see him every day.”

The world had not changed so much, I realized. Brutality still ruled over the innocent. Evil men still did evil things. Kayla had not deserved what had happened to her. Neither had I. If I had the ability to weep, I might have then. But I was not as powerless as I was when I had died. I had strength now, and even though I had promised myself that I wouldn’t use it that way…Kayla was my friend. I could make an exception for her, and my hunger was whispering its agreement.

“Could you get him here somehow?” I asked her.

Kayla’s eyes went wide with fear. “What? Why?”

I hesitated, but then said, “I could make sure he never hurts anyone again.”

Kayla continued to look shocked and nervous. Then she glanced at the patch where she had replaced the dirt over my old body. I once again saw flashes of the violence she had faced. I felt the fear, and now this time, the hatred to accompany it, for her attacker and even for mine.

“I could get him to meet me here,” she said, suddenly confident.

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll take care of it.”

Kayla gave a tiny nod. Then, after a long moment, she changed the subject completely. She spent awhile longer with me. This time I finally did show her the secret little lake that was just through the forest. It had shrunk a bit since she was last here, but it was still very serene and pretty. Kayla delighted in watching the sun set over the water. It was the happiest I’d felt in a very, very long time.

After Kayla left, I missed her terribly. I knew that the next time she came, it would not be anywhere near as pleasant. She’d bring the man here, and I’d do what needed to be done. I’d snuff out the life of someone who deserved it and worse. It would be the right thing to do, and my hunger would finally be abated. It was becoming harder to focus on anything but the desire for nourishment. I forced myself to wait though. Kayla would bring me what I needed, even if I knew it would be an ugly, twisted deed.

I was also worried about it all. I feared that something would go wrong. That we might be playing with fire, and that Kayla might get hurt by someone with a history of violence against her. But I would do everything in my power to protect her, that much I promised myself. I couldn’t wait for it all to be over and done with.

Sometime later, weeks perhaps, Kayla returned. The man was with her. He was about her age, and there was nothing special about him at all. He had dark brown hair and cold eyes that watched Kayla with a greedy expression that I didn’t like.

I could tell that Kayla herself was doing a balancing act. It was equal parts trying to lure him in playfully while never getting too close. I could imagine the promises she might have made to get him out to the woods, past the campsites and hiking trails. I felt sickened at the idea.

This is where you wanna show me a good time, huh?” the man said to Kayla. “Knew you were a freak.”

He stepped closer to her, and she backed away nervously. I readied myself. This would be harder than the rabbit. He was bigger; he’d fight more, but I knew I could do it.

“Kayla,” I whispered to her, “Don’t look. Don’t hang around. Just run.”

Then I struck. The soil beneath the man’s feet started to sink. My roots broke through the surface from all directions to tangle around his ankles. “What the—?” he yelled out. “Kayla! Help me, there’s something—!”

The sheer audacity he had to ask her for help, after everything he’d done! I pulled harder. The roots spread up his legs, around his waist. Kayla watched with wide eyes for just a moment before she finally took my advice. She ran away from the scene, hair flying as she went. The man screamed, but I would fix that soon enough. The soil kept sinking beneath him, quicksand of my own making until he was neck deep, then more. He choked on dirt, trying to keep his head above the surface. Even after he was completely under, he struggled and struggled, desperately and in vain. He coughed and tried to swim through the earth but eventually he lay limp in the ground.

I hoped Kayla had made it away safely, that she wouldn’t regret this choice. Surprisingly, I didn’t regret it all. I needed the nourishment of this man’s body and so did the earth. Nature ran its course over time and took everything. Skin and flesh and muscle consumed. Bugs and scavengers feasting, me at the center of it all, finally fulfilled.

I had not, however, anticipated what it would do to me to have his spirit around. It was not the company I desired. His energy was dark and shadowy. I could not speak to him but still I felt his anger and resentment. It siphoned my morale. The animals had all been sweet, light, and comforting. This man felt monstrous to me.

He stayed longer than I liked to the point where I worried that he would never disappear. I was afraid he would linger and make my own world more grim than it had ever been before. It was a terrible thought, that I had caused my own unhappiness. Perhaps even my own destruction.

But then finally, finally, he flickered out. To somewhere else, or maybe nowhere, but I couldn’t feel him anymore. It was a relief.

Until it wasn’t.

After he departed, I was left with the bitter aftertaste of him. The hunger and loneliness returned, stronger than ever. The man had only made it worse, bringing darkness to this place of nature. My existence felt painful.

Kayla was the one bright light in my thoughts. I knew she would return and bring with her comfort and solidarity. We could have another beautiful day under the sunlight, appreciating the wonder of the woods.

When she finally did come back, I didn’t know how much time had passed, but her appearance had not changed much. I guessed it was less than a year. Kayla told me about things regarding the man I had killed. There was an investigation, but police were stumped. He had told no one who he was meeting that evening, so no one looked at her twice. I was very glad for that. It was our little secret, and it always would be. I felt bonded to her like I hadn’t with anyone ever before. She was so, so special.

“You know, I thought I’d feel guilty,” Kayla said eventually. “But I really, really don’t. I’m glad he’s gone. And you were right. This way he can’t hurt anyone again.”

I was happy to hear that. She was strong in her convictions and brave enough to see them through. I admired her more than ever.

“I’m so glad I helped you,” I told her.

 She smiled softly. Something stirred in my spirit at the sight of her joy, fierce and impossible to ignore. Something like hunger. Something like love.

I suddenly understood the world and my—our—place in it.

“Kayla, I’d like to help you again,” I said.

“Oh yeah? How so?”

“I’m going to keep you safe from now on. And we’re going to stay together.”

Kayla straightened up from where she had been leaning against the tree. She seemed confused, and a little nervous now. “Alice, what do you mean—?”

I reached for her. Unbeknownst to Kayla, the roots had already been writhing under her feet, and now they punched through the soil’s surface to wrap around her shins. I sunk the earth, trapping her to her knees. “I’ll make it much quicker than I did for him, I promise. It’ll be okay soon.”

“No!” shouted Kayla, and that almost broke my heart. She tried to kick away at me, but my grip was tight and firm. “Alice, no, I can’t! Don’t! My family—!”

“You don’t need them anymore.” It was true, I knew that it was true. All she needed was me.

Kayla struggled harder, but the roots had already made it around her shoulders in a warm embrace. “No, Alice, no! Let me go!”  She screamed out, begging for me to stop, or for someone to come saver her. But I was saving her! She would see soon enough. I hated that she had to suffer first. It hurt me terribly—I resolved to work harder, for her sake and mine. I tugged her under the surface with all the force I could muster, pulling and pulling until even her beautiful blonde head was hidden beneath the dirt.

Her cries were muffled and then extinguished to nothing. I banished my sorrow and pain for what I had done. It would be worth it. It had to be worth it.

After a long moment, Kayla’s spirit appeared to me, bright as any rabbit, stronger and warmer than anything I’d ever felt. She was angry with me, I knew, but that would pass. We would have forever to get through it. Kayla, my dear friend, she would stay with me—she was special after all. She wouldn’t flicker out like the rest.

Kayla hadn’t regretted what we had done to the man that day, and I wouldn’t regret this. We needed each other, and the forest needed us to grow, to survive. We could do anything now—we would take whatever we wanted from now on. Together.

Twisted tree with a skull in the roots.

Created by Danny Ingrassia