The early frost promised a harsh winter. The villagers prepared—houses were proofed, stores were shielded and saplings were taken in.
In his first winter, fifteen long years ago, the outsider didn’t understand this. In his homeland, there was no frost to kill plants. But after the withering glares and muttered curses, he learnt. Even though it made no sense, he sought out a fresh new growth as the weather turned each year. He asked the oak’s pardon and permission, and he made his promise to the spirits of the woods. And in return, so the villagers said, the spirits would grant him safe, fruitful hunting and foraging throughout the year.
Sometimes, he was convinced that the villagers believed this nonsense. They talked of the gods of the harvest, and the jealous spirits hiding in the shadows. They waved to ward off the foul sprites of illness, and they warned of the vengeance wrought upon those who didn’t live by these ridiculous superstitions.
And so, before the sun broke its feeble light across the land, he swaddled himself and made his way into the tangle of twigs and branches they called the wood. It took his two hours to find a suitable specimen, one that looked so pathetic it was a wonder it still held life. He sealed it, with a ball of the black clumpy soil, into his bag, and returned to his house.
He set the sapling on a wooden stand, where it might lean to the meagre sunlight that filtered through the winter clouds and the age-frosted window to the right of his fire. He patted down the soil and watered the weed. He talked to it, because that was what you were supposed to do, and none of the villagers glancing through his window would hear how he mocked their childish ways.
There was still work to do in the village. The sun’s short reign might make each working day shorter, but the cold left him drained each evening. He’d make his supper, care for the stupid twig, and then spend a fitful night as sleep evaded him. He’d wake with fresh aches, mumble to the plant, break his fast, and head out into the icy dawn once more.
The nights creaked by. Two days became four, four became eight, and the days grew longer, and the dark-night festivities came and went. Two weeks became a month, which became a season.
The soil became workable, and the outsider knew others had reunited their saplings with the woods. His own was larger, already on the second, deeper pot, and the upper leaves almost reached the beams across his ceiling. He really should replant it, but whenever he thought of dragging that thing back to where he’d found it, something else—anything else—would turn up. Maybe he’d do it tomorrow, or the day after.
Old Man Rocket said warmer weather was soon to break, and conditions were ideal for returning the spirits’ gift. He looked straight at the outsider when he said that, and then he muttered something about the spirits being quick to anger when they were not appeased.
But the warm weather didn’t arrive for weeks. Wind blew and rain fell, stinging the outsider’s cheeks, and the plant curled its way along his ceiling, to the stairs. Its leaves pressed against the window, cutting out light to the room, and he was forced to burn a lamp even during the day.
When the villagers asked, he told them that of course he’d replanted his sapling, while trying to work out a way to remove the infestation from his house. Tendrils of green forced their way into his bedroom now, and he could no longer shut the door. Often he’d wake with the impression that a hand—or worse—had been caressing him as he slept.
The villagers didn’t visit his house, although they did watch from afar. And they saw the green-covered windows, and the subtle bulge of the walls. None were surprised when, one morning, branches appeared through broken thatch. Nobody commented on the stranger’s absence from the work of the village. There was no need to discuss what they all knew was happening.
But one boy did enter the house, maybe on a dare, or to prove himself to some beau. He forced his way between the branches and climbed the gnarled trunk that pushed up the stairwell. He made his way along a thick branch, coated in rich lichen, and later he spoke of the bed that hung there, entwined tightly in the branches. He spoke of the shape under these covers, and of how green fronds pinned it down. And of the ones that forced their way into the still-living man’s mouth.
He never spoke of the way the man’s eyes were wide with terror and anguish, but that part of the story still reached the villagers. It became a part of Old Man Racket’s newest parable, a warning of the manner in which the spirits redressed any imbalance in the natural order of things.
As the years passed, and as winter approached, the children would beg for the terrifying tale once more. And Old Man Racket, now half-blind but still with his full sight, would tell of the crimson-stained oak that grew through a house, and the tree that devoured a living man.
And the children would rush off to find a sapling that they could care for over the winter months, and that they could give back to the wood when the time was right.
And the villagers’ hearts and minds were lifted by the way their offspring continued such a fine, important tradition.
Running The Gauntlet
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