7. The Buried Knife
When Noah went into the woods again, she went the opposite direction of the giant tree. The golden sun, where it came crashing through the clouds, made everything it touched too bright to look at, especially the glossy white pages of Noah’s book. She had to retreat regularly to the shade of the nearest tree, just to make out the words, but by the time she did the pages were already seared into her eyelids, a bright blue negative.
She was doing her level best to read Great & Small, determined to learn the names of every plant she saw. But it was arduous, and neither as quick nor as rewarding as she’d hoping it would be. Every time she thought she found a plant she could identify, she’d read something that completely changed her mind and made her start all over again.
But eventually she found vine maples growing in the shade of towering firs. Then she found chestnuts with white flowering branches and huge, symmetrical leaves. She identified snowberries, and almost tripped amidst the perfect white crowns of trillium blossoms, clinging to the foot of the white oak.
Everywhere, moss encased the boughs and trunks of trees, softening the touch of the wind and swallowing up the sound of Noah’s steps. Spiderwebs hung sparkling between tree branches; five-fingered ivy climbed relentlessly upward.
It was a foreign world, so strange that it felt alien. There were no cars in the distance, or doors slamming, or bike spokes whirring. Before long, Noah felt as though time itself had ceased to exist. It was as if she’d stepped out of her own world completely, and had entered a forest impossibly far from home.
She stopped walking when she finally found herself standing on the edge of the little stream. Though she’d left the house behind long ago, the narrow current was still lined with stones, as though someone had patiently placed every one gently in its row.
Not someone, Noah thought. Clem Hawking.
She was almost certain of it, though she wasn’t sure how the thought made her feel. Every place she’d ever lived had been lived in before. But something about the house at the end of Woodhill Lane was different. It didn’t have the feeling of being lived in, like her old home—it had the feeling of being someone else’s.
She wondered, as she leapt from one end of the stream to the other, if Clem had built the whole house. Was every creaking step, or the gigantic table in the living room, his handiwork?
As always, she had more questions than answers. She tried not to think about Nico, but continually found his questions rattling around in her head, in the quiet.
Why am I the way that I am?
Why do I hurt, or cry, or see such strange things in my head? For that matter, why doesn’t everyone else? Am I alone?
Why did I have such a strange dream last night, and why am I so afraid to go back to the tree?
Who was Clem Hawking, and who do I live in his house?
Do I really make everything about me?
One thing she knew for sure: she was very tired of crying. No, not just tired of it, done with it. There would be no more tears from Noah Marten, not today, not tonight, not for years, if she had any say in it, which she knew in the back of her mind that she did not.
Nico had meant for his words to sting, but he never liked it when people cried. If someone was crying in front of him, he usually left the room, even if it meant missing the end of a movie. Mama had explained that he wasn’t mature enough to process those kind of emotions yet. Noah just thought that he was a jerk sometimes. But maybe that didn’t mean he was wrong.
She knew all the reasons why they’d moved to this mountain in the middle of Odd Country. And it hadn’t been for her. She hadn’t been asked, but there was no need to ask. They moved to save Mama.
Not because she was sick, but because she was constantly surrounded by sickness and death. And if there was anything that Mama couldn’t endure any more of, it was death.
There were nights in Noah’s memory when Mama came home at four in the morning, hardly able to stand, with some unspeakable pain distorting her face. There were nights when she’d heard Mama sob into Papa’s chest, describing death in gruesome detail not with words, but by its imprint alone. The nearness of it kept Noah awake at night.
What did Mama see when she closed her eyes? What did she see in her dreams?
Noah wondered it so often, that she often dreamed about Mama’s dreams. She dreamed of hospitals and car crashes and patients who’d never recover, burns and lacerations and stitches. She thought of them until she could feel needles in her own skin.
It didn’t matter, Noah told herself, if she wanted to be here or not, or if they were living in the house of a crazy person. The forest was huge and strong and beautiful. And they were saving Mama’s life.
Without intending to, Noah followed the course of the stream, winding where it wound, leaping where it leapt, until she’d reached her own lawn again. She stepped, blinking, into the clear sunlight and shaded her eyes with her book. She could see her own second-story window with her own blue shutters—and right under it, in one stretch of the flowerbed that encircled the whole house, was a moving shape.
Noah’s first thought was not of frogs or squirrels or mountain lions, but of Clem Hawking. For an instant she was sure that the mysterious old hermit, whose house they had taken, was back. Her stomach rocketed up into her throat.
But then the shape in the flowerbed straightened, and she saw a slender body in a gray shirt, and a hat pulled low over a bronze face. Gideon.
Noah crossed the lawn quietly toward him, holding her book to her chest. There was a huge pile of picked weeds behind him, and he had dark dirt-stains all the way up to his elbows.
He turned when he heard Noah come close, his nervous expression giving way to a tight-lipped smile. “Hey,” he said, his voice very small.
“Hey,” said Noah, whose voice wasn’t used to standing out so clearly.
“Don’t mind me,” said Gideon, wiping his nose on his shoulder with a sniff. “I’ll be out of your hair soon.”
“It’s alright,” Noah said. “It’s not like you’re in the way or anything. Do you do this often?”
Gideon smiled and nodded, the shadows on his face extreme. His arms, while not much thicker than hers, were shimmering with sweat, and so dark that they seemed to belong to a much older person. But when Noah took the time to peer underneath the worn brim of his hat, she realized that he couldn’t have been much older than she was. And there were his light blue eyes, almost silver in the shade, like the surface of a pool.
“Every week or so,” he said.
“For how long?” she asked.
He shrugged, sitting against his heels. “Just since my dad got sick. But before that I used to come up here and help out.”
The question crossed Noah’s mind before he’d even finished answering, and she held the book a little tighter. “Do you know the man who used to live here?” she asked.
Gideon looked up at her, his eyebrows hard. His whole face, she realized, had a general hardness to it. There wasn’t a soft edge to be seen. “Why do you ask?”
Noah tried to shrug. “I was just wondering. You know, about the house and everything. I noticed all the rocks along the stream. They seem so intentional, I thought someone must’ve put them there.”
Gideon nodded and stood up, stretching out his legs. His ripped jeans ended a few inches before he’d run out of ankle, giving the impression that his legs were too long for his torso.
“Yeah, they’re intentional,” he said. “And a pain in the butt, too. Rocks just don’t stay put when you need them to.”
The strangeness of the phrase almost made Noah laugh. She had the sudden desire to tell him about the frog she’d seen, but he cleared his throat in a way that made it sound like he had something important to say.
Instead, he just said, “I’m Gideon, by the way.”
“Oh, right—I’m Noah.”
He cleared his throat again, looking down. “I’d shake your hand…but mine are a little dirty.”
“That’s alright,” Noah said, an awkward laugh in her throat. She had the distinct sense that Gideon was avoiding looking her in the eye. It seemed to take some effort for him to look up from his feet.
“I actually already knew your name,” Noah added. “From when you came by the other day and met my parents. I’m not sure if you saw me.”
“No, yeah, I saw you,” he said.
Noah smiled thinly, not sure what to say. Gideon’s eyes glanced up to her chin, then dropped to the book in her hands. He let out a sharp breath through his nose.
“Mm. Reading up on your flora?”
“I’m trying,” she answered, a little indignant. “A lot of them look the same, though, so it’s hard to tell. And none of them look like the pictures.”
Gideon nodded understandingly toward her feet. “It’s not easy stuff to learn from books. You’ve gotta have a good teacher.”
“Did your dad teach you?” she asked.
Gideon nodded soberly, wiping his face with the edge of his shirt. “Yeah, everything.”
“You’ve probably lived on the mountain a long time.”
“My whole life,” he said.
Now Noah was convinced: Gideon must have known Clem, or at least knew of him, and an insatiable curiosity reared its head, demanding that she ask. But somewhere in the woods, a chime rang, its sound bright and interrupting. The question in Noah’s mind changed.
“Are you good at identifying trees?” she asked.
“I guess so. Why?”
Noah flipped through the pages of her book with her thumb as she said, “there’s this tree that I’m looking for and I can’t find it in here. But maybe if I showed you, you’d know what it was.”
She turned back toward the edge of the wooded yard, where she expected to see the soaring top of the tree. But what she saw, instead, was a patch of cloud-strewn blue sky. There was no giant tree.
Noah felt a sudden flash of cold on her temples and under her arms. She had the impulse to run back into the house and up to her bedroom, where she might have a better view. But at that thought, the sudden image of the tree standing right outside her window made her shudder.
She was alarmed by Gideon’s voice, which was low and steady if not stern. “Look, that documentary got everything wrong. Every single thing. But the thing they got the most wrong was the person who used to live in this house.”
Noah looked back at Gideon, aware of the creases in her forehead and the volume of her thoughts. “Clem,” she breathed to Gideon. “Clem Hawking?”
Gideon let out another sharp breath through is nostrils. “Sure. They got that part right, at least. But here’s what they got wrong. Clem’s name wasn’t Clement, it was Clementine. She was Harold’s sister. And just because she was a hermit doesn’t mean she was bad, alright? She wanted her privacy, and those damn documentary people wouldn’t let her have it.”
Her, thought Noah. “But…they said he was Harold’s brother,” she said.
“Yeah, because they were wrong,” Gideon sniffed. “They never actually saw her. And almost nobody in town knew her, but the few folks who did had the decency to keep their mouths shut. It was like a joke to them. They wanted those dumb reporters to get it wrong, and they did.”
“What was she like?” Noah asked, not even sure why she wanted to know.
“She was private,” Gideon said, snuggling from foot to foot. There was no authority in his voice in anymore, only a familiarity. “But she was nice, and friendly. She didn’t like her brother, much. I guess the DVD got that much right.”
“So you’ve seen it,” Noah said.
“I didn’t finish it,” Gideon admitted, rubbing his face with his hand as though he’d forgotten it was so dirty. There were little finger-smudges left beside his mouth when he took his hand away. “I took it outside and shot it.”
Noah frowned. “Like, with a gun?”
“You have a gun?”
“There’s one in my house,” he said, lowering his eyebrows. “It’s my dad’s.”
“Is it, like, for hunting?” Noah asked.
“I guess so,” he said, squinting up at the sky, and then lowering his eyes gradually to meet Noah’s, where they remained for a second before darting away again. He stooped and stuffed all of the weeds into a dirty white bucket, which he picked up, along with a little toolbox that Noah hadn’t noticed until now.
“Another thing about Clem. She was a carpenter. She made all the furniture in there. That’s why it stayed, after she died. She didn’t have any friends or relatives, so everything just sorta…stayed. We cleared out some of it—my dad and me—so that nobody else could do anything to it. I’ve still got all of her books down at the garden. She was a big reader. She was a good person, too.”
He looked like he was ready to leave, and Noah wasn’t sure exactly why, or where he would go if he did. But he spared one more glance over his shoulder and said, “was there something you wanted to show me?”
Noah felt a prickling sensation on her neck, and felt her fingers tighten around the spine of Great & Small. “No, it’s alright,” she said. “We can do it another time.”
Gideon nodded. “Alright.”
“It was nice to meet you,” Noah said as he walked away, and maybe he answered, but his voice was too soft to compete with the breeze. Or maybe he didn’t answer at all.
The moment Gideon disappeared around the corner of the house, Noah turned and ran. She leapt over the stream and shoved her way into the woods, tearing through thorn and fern in a wild hurry.
It only took her a few moments to reach the place where she knew she had buried the knife. But when she came upon the spot where the tree should have been, instead she saw an empty clearing.
Noah held perfectly still, her mind spinning. She knew this was the right place. It had to be. Right here, Nico had carved his initials. Right here, she’d felt that darkness—
Without hesitating, Noah set her book aside and started to dig. The earth was loose and soft, broken up into clumps of grassy roots and rich, clay-like mud. She had to find the knife. That’s the only way she could be sure that this was the right spot.
But she dug for what felt like several minutes, only to ware down her fingertips and find nothing. She sat back on her heels and looked down at her hands. They were almost as dirty as Gideon’s.
So this wasn’t the right place, after all. She just needed to go back up to her room and look out the window, she told herself. She was probably right next to the tree, she just couldn’t see it from the ground.
“I’m losing my mind,” she said to herself, trying to calm down. She hadn’t thrown up, at least. That feeling of dread hadn’t come back.
She tried to clean her hands off on her pants and then picked up her book and made her way back toward the house. The edge of the treeline had just come into view again, when Noah stopped.
At the edge of the trees, hidden almost completely in shadows, someone was standing.
They held as still as if they were a tree themselves. Noah did the same, trying to hold her breath. Her legs shook a little with the sudden stillness.
On the other side of the house, tires crunched and a dust-cloud rose. Noah could hear the quiet rumbling of the van as it crept up the driveway and eased to a stop.
At the edge of the wood, the figure turned and stepped out into the light. Noah could see a gray shirt, dirt-stained arms, and swinging white bucket, as Gideon glanced back over his shoulder and vanished. 8. The Boy in the Garden
The moment Gideon disappeared around the corner of the house, he froze. His knuckles were white from gripping the toolbox and bucket so tightly. She knows, he thought. Maybe not everything, but something. And the only thing worse than somebody knowing was somebody suspecting.
He had to turn back and say something, and yet his feet were frozen in place. She was just a city girl. She might believe anything he told her. Turn around, he tried to command his legs. You have to find out what she knows. Everything depends on it.
What would dad say?
He turned on his heel and rounded the corner again, wondering what he would say, when he spotted only the fleeting shape of Noah as she raced into the trees.
Gideon’s chest tightened painfully, his pulse rising into his ears. No. No, no, no. This was bad. This was terrible.
Without thinking, he took off after her. His feet were noiseless on the grass, and he swept through the shadows of the trees without so much as disrupting a branch, or crushing a leaf. The heavy toolbox tugged at his shoulder, seeming to grow heavier with his dread.
There was no sign of Noah anywhere. She’d vanished among the trunks. But why? Was he just being paranoid? He pressed deeper into the trees, as silent as a hunting cat, until finally he caught sight of her again, and went stiff.
She stopped in the same moment that he did, and Gideon felt his throat go dry. Had she seen him? She held perfectly still, the mottled light on her shoulders. Her hands were caked with dirt that hadn’t been there a moment ago. What had she been doing?
She saw you, idiot, his heart thundered in his ears. Whatever she might’ve suspected, you’ve made it worse.
He tried to decide whether he should turn and run, or whether he should try to wait her out when the sound of tires on gravel rolled up the hill on the breeze. Whatever remained of his stomach, clenched and twisted as it was, dropped down to his knees.
He had to run for it. But there was only one road down the hill. If he ran, she’d see him. If he stayed, he was done for.
You’ve really done it this time.
Grinding his teeth and second guessing even his breaths, he tightened his grip on the bucket, and ran.
Within a moment or two, he was in the yard again, sheltered by the shadow of the house. He took a moment to catch his breath, steadying the tremble in his arms. At least with Mr. and Dr. Marten, he had a chance. He could talk his way through them, like they were any other grown-up. But Noah had seen too much. He’d been clumsy and loud and desperate—three things his dad would have disapproved of.
The red van crept around the final bend in the road just as he stepped out of the house’s shadow. He tried to measure his pace as forced himself to walk, the toolbox swinging at his side.
If one person, just one, asked him what was inside, would he be able to answer? What would he say? Despite all the answers he’d rehearsed to all the questions he’d anticipated, there was always one question he hadn’t thought of. Today, it could be the toolbox.
Dr. Marten was squinting badly, using her arm to shield her eyes, but Mr. Marten waved cheerfully as they climbed out of the car. “Good morning, Gideon! Or afternoon, or whatever.”
“Good afternoon, Mr. Marten,” Gideon managed. His throat had gone completely dry. There was a bottle of water inside his toolbox beside the other things. “Dr. Marten,” he added, nodding.
“What are you up to on this fine day?” asked Mr. Marten.
“Oh, um,” Gideon stammered, and kicked himself for it. This was an easy question. A slow ball. And he’d already bungled it. He tried to get his thoughts straight but they were determined to jumble. He raised the bucket in his left hand. “Just taking care of some weeds in the back flowerbed, sir. I hope that’s alright.”
Dr. Marten held out her hand like she couldn’t quite tell where she was going. “Honey?” she said. “I’m blind over here.”
“Oh, sorry,” said Mr. Marten, hurrying to her side and offering his arm for her to hold. She closed her eyes, still shading them with her free hand. Her steps were small and careful on the gravel.
“Don’t mind me, Gideon,” she said awkwardly. “They just dilated my eyes and I’m blind as a bat.”
“Stepping down onto the grass now, my dear,” said Mr. Marten, guiding his wife gently toward the porch. She said something into her his ear that Gideon couldn’t hear, and then he opened the door and she released his arm to step inside, saying,
“Oh, that’s much better.”
Mr. Marten looked back at Gideon, who felt as tiny and filthy as a bug, baking slowly in the heat. The man smiled from the porch steps. “You know, Gideon,” he began, and Gideon felt an invisible arm winding up to punch him in the stomach. He knew what came next. He’d pictured it a hundred times in the last three days, a thousand before that. Now here it was at last. But to his surprise, Mr. Marten said,
“We talked this morning about wanting to invite you over for dinner sometime. You’re essentially the first person we’ve met in this place, and you know the property better than we do. What do you say?”
This was an eventuality that Gideon had not planned for. The screeching in his mind went silent. One piece at a time, he reassembled a thought and said in his quiet voice, “Umm…thank you very much, sir, but I’ve got to check up on my dad. He doesn’t leave the house much anymore.”
Mr. Marten nodded, smiling amicably. “I completely understand. Well, how about another time? Maybe tomorrow, if you get things squared away with your dad? He’s welcome to join you, of course.”
Gideon felt the tension in his stomach change, but noticed that it didn’t go away. Of all the dangers he’d prepared himself for, this was uncharted territory. Meanness, he’d anticipated. Isolation, estrangement, certainly. He hadn’t planned on anybody being nice. “That’s very kind, sir, thank you. I’ll see if I can get away.”
Mr. Marten smiled again. “We can always send some food home for your old man, too, if he can’t join us.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Mr. Marten shook his head. “Really, no need to call me ‘sir,’ Gideon, I’m not ‘sir’ material. But consider it an open invitation. We do dinner around seven most nights. If you’re hungry, stop by whenever you’d like. We like having neighbors, and I’m sure our kids wouldn’t mind some company other than mine, once in a while.’
Gideon tried to smile. He realized, like a gust of fresh air had just blown on his face, that he’d nearly made it. Another word or two and he’d be free. There would be no questions, no suspicions. And somehow, for at least one more day, nobody had told him that his services were no longer needed, and to go home.
“I’ll keep that in mind, sir, thank you,” Gideon said.
Mr. Marten waved. “Well, it was good to see you again.”
“Likewise, sir,” said Gideon, turning on his heels, trying to remember not to run the moment he was free.
“That’s a great little toolbox you’ve got there,” said Mr. Marten.
Gideon froze mid-step. He’d gotten ahead of himself once more, it seemed. He stared at the ground in front of his feet, not daring to turn around. His face would give him away if he did, would reflect his sweat-soaked terror. What sort of trick was this, he wondered?
“Th…thank you, sir,” he stammered. “it works well for me.”
“It’s a good size. I’ve thought about getting something like that for my painting supplies.”
Gideon nodded. “Thats a great idea.”
“See you around!” said Mr. Marten. “Thanks for making the place look so presentable!”
“Of course, sir.” Gideon nodded a goodbye over his shoulder and tried to smile without looking back. The door closed behind him. Every nerve in his body, every ounce of muscle and blood and bone and good sense told him to run, run for the hills. But he couldn’t run. Not while there was a chance someone could be watching from the windows. He kept his pace steady until he rounded the bend in the road where he knew he would be obscured from sight—but even so, he turned to make sure.
He was safe. Unwatched. Unseen.
He gasped like a fish out of water, exhaling his dread and gulping relief. He took five desperate breaths in quick succession, but by the fifth he had resolved to keep moving. There was always time for people to change their minds.
A moment later, he was racing down the gravel road like he had everything to lose by dawdling. He didn’t stop until he reached the place where the road split off and the garden sprawled. Flowers grew all the way up to the house, surrounding it like a seamless moat. He staggered through the tulip ranks, careening into the creaky door of the house.
His knuckles were white on the handle of the toolbox as he stepped inside and dropped it onto the counter. He wiped the slick coating of dirt and sweat from his face with a musty towel and collapsed onto the creaky couch in the middle of the dark room.
The ceiling fan hummed at high speed. The blinds had all been drawn, and the light came through in bars of sallow light, revealing the grime and disorder of the house.
There was a pain in Gideon’s chest that he could not name. He looked toward the corner of the room and said, “It’s back. It’s been up near Clem’s place. I looked for the signs, just like you said.”
There was no answer.
Gideon nudged the white bucket with his toes and it squeaked against the wood floor. “I think it’s gone right up to the house—recently. All the flowers in the back bed were…”
He swallowed, squirming in his seat. “I think she knows. The girl, I mean—the one living in Clem’s place. She knows. Not everything, but something. And I think she saw me in the woods. Then again, she might not have. I could be imagining it all.”
There was no answer.
He let out a long sigh, shaking his head. “I don’t know what I’m doing anymore, dad. I just don’t. I’m so afraid that I’m going to mess something up, that it’s going to be me who—”
His voice broke with the words, giving way to a grave-like silence that spread over the whole house like a mold. Gideon hid his face in his hands and imagined that somehow, everything would be okay. 9. The Uppermost Branches
Noah couldn’t sleep, no matter how hard she tried or how long she managed to lay still. Despite the fact that these were the same pillows and sheets she’d had back home, she couldn’t shake the sensation of being in someone else’s bed, and therefore she just couldn’t get comfortable.
There was still dirt underneath her fingernails which no amount of scrubbing would get out. So in the end, she wound up clipping them all, and a little too short. But at least the dirt was gone.
Mama and Papa had come home while she was still in the middle of scrubbing the dirt from her arms, but Mama was still half-blind and Papa was too preoccupied telling her that he’d invited the nice groundskeeper boy over for dinner to notice the mud splattered on the sides of the sink. At the mention of Gideon, a lingering horror slithered across Noah’s shoulders, and clung to her throughout the afternoon.
She didn’t breathe a sigh of relief until after dinner was done and the dishes were on the drying rack. Too vividly, she could still see the strange boy standing at the edge of the wood, as though he could disappear into the shadows if he stayed still long enough. The image made her want to run and hide. She wasn’t sure what she would have done if he walked through the door to join them at the table.
When night descended over the trees, earlier than Noah expected, and everyone had gone to sleep, she was left alone with the picture of Gideon and the bare spot in the woods where a tree had stood only a day before. She’d checked the window five times now, but the tree was just gone. Gone as thought it had never existed.
The wind-chimes had disappeared with it. Though Noah couldn’t remember actually seeing them dangling from the enormous branches, the thought of the chimes hanging from the giant tree made sense. Nico had said that they grew louder in the middle of the night, the same time that Noah remembered the tree coming to the window in her dream.
It could have been coincidence, she told herself. But then, where was the tree? It couldn’t have been cut down. There was no stump, no sawdust, no debris, no gaping hole in the ground where the roots had been torn up like an old tooth.
Her conclusion, after hours of thought, was that nothing made sense. And if that was, somehow, the wrong solution, there was always the possibility that she was going crazy. For the hundredth time since crawling into bed, she asked herself: was there ever a tree? And for the hundredth time, she assured herself that there had been.
Nico had carved his initials into the roots. He’d carved her initials into the roots, in the same gouge of the knife. She’d thrown up. She’d buried the knife. And now it was gone, too.
There was one other person who’d be able to confirm that she wasn’t crazy. Only, she knew that if she went to Nico’s room in the middle of the night to ask him whether or not there ever actually had been a tree, he would probably think she was crazier than ever.
I can’t ask him, she thought. But she couldn’t stand laying there, sleeplessly, for another minute.
She finally swung her feet out of bed—and then froze. A breeze as soft as silk drifted into her room, stirring the curtains. For one instant, she could hear the sound of chimes.
She shivered, not daring to move.
She heard them again, the faintest jingle of music, like coins in a pocket.
The curtains moved as though a sudden breath blew against them, but Noah couldn’t feel it. A shadow seemed to obstruct the meager moonlight on the floor. A moving shadow.
On cautious tiptoes, Noah moved toward the window. The floor didn’t creak at all, as though all sounds had been silenced but the beating of her heart and the hum that permeated the air. She could feel the song rising slowly in her ears, or inside her mind, before she’d reached the window, as though she already knew what she would see.
At the edge of the treeline, just across the stream, stood the tree. For a moment, with the moon hidden beneath thin stretches of cloud, it appeared only as an enormous blackness against the stars. But as Noah crept closer to the window, the song changed.
It lifted, as though more voices had joined the first, higher voices, almost like instruments. And among all the different patterns that made up the tapestry of sound, one rose and fell separate from the others.
Noah felt the sound reach across the yard like a hand. It made the curtains move, and the ceiling pop, and inside Noah’s chest, a feeling swelled that she couldn’t explain. She wanted to run, but not to shelter.
The song reached the edge of the window, but the tree didn’t move. It stayed right where it had been, right in the spot from which it had disappeared hours ago. She could hear the burbling of the stream, and the tender ringing of the chimes. In only a moment’s time, the feeling grew too intense to bear.
She crept downstairs as quietly as she could. She unlocked the back door, with one glance over her shoulder, then she was in the lawn. The grass was already soaked with dew, bleeding through her socks. Crickets sang in low tones from the edges of the yard, and as she drew near to the stream and leapt, she thought she could hear the burbling voices of frogs.
When she looked up, she could barely see the top of the tree, its uppermost branches a jagged blot against the sky.
There was no panic in Noah’s stomach—the song had replaced it with another feeling. But fear still existed, unchecked, inside every one of Noah’s cells, building as she grew closer until she was aware that her whole body was trembling. Her legs shook so badly that it was hard to walk in a straight line, and there were alarm bells ringing inside of her head—but the song was clearer. It swept everything else aside and said, “Come.”
Now Noah understood it plainly. She didn’t hear the word, but felt it resonating inside her ribs. She had obeyed before she had known. She was already here.
The roots of the tree were as tall as she was, reaching out into the earth in every direction. She took a step toward them, and then another, her hand outstretched in front of her as though she was trying to find her way through a dark cave. As her fingertips stretched out toward the trunk, she almost leaned away, almost heeded some primordial instinct abandoned in her for generations.
But instead, she touched the tree.
For a moment, even the starlight was gone. A feeling had swallowed her, but the feeling was a thousand things at once.
It began with a depth that Noah had never known. It plunged her down, down, down, so far down that she was sure there was no more down left. She was thrust to the bottom of a darkness which no light had ever seen, which no beam of sun or moon had ever touched.
It was cold, and seemed silent at first, but in a moment’s time, as though a moment was all it took to learn anything, Noah understood that nothing is silent. There are only things that human ears can hear, and things they cannot.
There was a roar from the depth of the earth, a thunderous and perpetual sound, older than mountains. She could feel it in her chest. It was a sound like the cold teeth of time gnawing at the earth, like glaciers grinding and cracking and crashing into icy seas.
But then she was drawn up like water from a well, flying until she burst out into a bleary sky full of dazzling, diamond stars. Each one spiraled in place like a sparkling flame, or opened and closed like a flower, all in the blink of an eye.
She was still going up. Up, towards the hidden sun. Up, towards the cool moon whose touch was like the touch of water.
Water. Noah could feel it everywhere. It was in the clouds above her, as thick and wet as bundles of wool waiting to be wrung. She felt like she had the hands to do it. She could reach up and squeeze the rain down into her gaping mouth. And then she could sink down to find sunless oceans, or hidden rivers twisting their way through mountains. She could use her feet to draw up, up, up, a heart drawing blood up from the earth.
She was still rising. She was soaring upward, into the uppermost branches where, despite the song, and despite everything, Noah still felt a scream rising in her throat. She was too high. At this height, the world twisted and leaned in the wind.
She descended again, slowly, until her feet felt the soft earth again. The song became a sigh, and Noah opened her eyes.
The whole feeling traveled through her in a moment, leaving her breathless and trembling. But she had been given back to herself, her eyes and ears reopening as if for the first time. She could hear the wind move through the grass, and taste the sweetness of the night air in her open mouth.
She whirled around, afraid to see lights on in the house. But the house was dark. It was just another piece of the forest.
When she turned back to the tree, she found that all of the branches were close to the ground, practically touching Noah where they bent. Only yesterday, they had been too high to reach.
Noah swallowed. “Do you want me to climb you?”
The tree did not speak. Noah craned her neck to look up again, as if searching for a face on the trunk. “Is that what you want?”
She looked around for some kind of sign, and to her horror, her eyes landed on the carved initials on the foot of the tree. She reached out and touched the letters with a gentle finger, sorrow welling in her eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. He didn’t mean to hurt you.”
At this, there came a sound from the earth, and the shudder reminded Noah of the tremble in her stomach that sometimes followed a long, hard laugh. She looked up as the feeling traveled through her, her eyebrows creasing. “It didn’t hurt?” she said. “You didn’t even feel it, did you? A tree your size…your age…I was so afraid that we’d hurt you.”
Though it didn’t appear to move, Noah’s attention was inexplicable drawn to a low-hanging branch near her head. Thinking only of the climb, Noah gripped it with both hands, pushing herself up the tree’s roots with her wet, socked feet. The branches seemed to be arranged to make her ascent effortless, and the only real struggle that she faced was when she had to grip a branch that was as thick as she was tall, or which swept away from the trunk at an angle like a bent arm.
There was no longer a song in Noah’s ears, but there was a soft, expectant hum. It reminded her of all the places in the stream where she’d seen the water break over a smooth-worn stone. But there was something else in it, too, that she couldn’t name until she’d reached a point in her climb where the next branch was just slightly higher than she dared to reach.
The ground was already far below her. When she looked down—and she’d tried not to, until then—she could see the tops of shorter trees, and the chimney of her house. Beyond the forest, where the green-clad hills rolled away, the prow of the mountain rose. Until now, she’d believed that the house was near the top of the mountain. But now she saw that the peak was still far away.
That laughter-like tremble ran up the trunk and through her hands again, but now it made her nervous. Suddenly, every move that she made was engraved with peril. She gripped the branch below her with her arms and legs, breathing hard. The hum continued in her ears, and gradually the picture that had drifted at the edges of her mind became clear.
It was a memory of strawberries and cream, and the whirring of bicycle wheels.
The feeling almost choked her with its loveliness. “What are you trying to tell me?” she asked out loud.
There was another shudder in the trunk. Noah closed her eyes like she’d just taken a deep smell of something wonderful. It was the smell of bread straight from the oven. A cramp pinched in her stomach—but then she could hear her own breathless laugh, and feel tears on her face. She was sitting in the dark with Papa, watching black and white movies.
She was happy. She could feel happiness oozing through her body like honey dripping from a spoon.
But where had it come from?
When she opened her eyes, she found that she was smiling a ridiculous smile. “Happy,” she said. “You’re telling me about happiness.”
Another shiver ran through the tree, and with it came the jarring jingling of chimes. They were so nearby that Noah almost jumped, though she still couldn’t see them. She laughed, and the laugh felt like the flight of a bird escaping her throat.
“I don’t know what you are” Noah said, her heart racing along the narrow line between thrill and fear. “I don’t even know if you’re really a tree. You can move, can’t you? You came to my window. I thought it was a dream.”
The hum rose—and, unexpectedly, dove.
The feeling in Noah’s body had changed, as though she’d just fallen in a dream. The sensation changed, and the memories changed with them.
There was grass against her ankles, and a heat in her legs that came from inside. She could feel her heart beating like a hot orange coal. She was sprinting as fast as she could over an endless field. She was racing Nico. She was running because she could, and it felt good. It felt like flying.
The wind rushed against her face. She closed her eyes and felt it in her hair, like the invisible fingers of a soft comb. There was a sweet, longing aliveness in her lungs, and all at once she was racing down a river, leaping cataracts. She was in a frost-covered field, surrounded by deer with tails raised like white flags, floating on long legs through golden grass. She was running with them, not from some unseen threat, but for the feeling of it.
When the vision faded, Noah was left to catch her breath, her legs shaky on the bough as though she’d just finished a long race.
“Running,” she panted, “is that what you’re telling me? Something about running?”
The hum became a deep inhale. Noah felt the trunk sway underneath her, and fell forward with a breathless squeal, holding on for dear life.
The tree leaned like it was going to topple. For a moment she feared that it might, picturing a crash that would shake the whole mountain. But instead, it heaved forward and then rocked back, rolling like the hull of an enormous ship.
An involuntary sound was pulled from Noah’s lips, between a grunt and a scream, as she slipped from the bough, scraping the insides of her arms and legs on the bark. She dangled by her fingertips, fifty feet at least above the churning earth. When the tree rocked again, the branches rose to meet the soles of her feet, and she gasped with relief, holding on to another branch with each arm.
Far below her, the roots moved like an animals clawed hands, breaking and moving the earth, lifting it in swaths the way she might lift the corner of a rug. But somehow, the earth fell back into place behind the tree as though it had never been broken, opening and closing like water. Noah watched with gaping eyes and mouth, listening to the crunch of the sod as a million little roots of grass popped free.
But the tree itself moved like a ghost, silent save for the long, low creaking of wood, and the swinging sound of the chimes.
The tree grew even taller as it uprooted itself. The initials, carved into the base, were now ten feet off the ground, as it drew up arm after arm after arm, from deep within the earth. Now free, it began to crawl. Or crawl was the best word Noah knew for it, because of the way that it moved, the thrashing of a thousand woody tentacles gripping and pulling and drawing forward. But it wasn’t the pace of a crawl.
Noah, with the wind stinging her eyes and the world rocking around her like a lightless carnival ride, Noah realized that they were moving faster than she could have run, faster than the van could drive on the gravel road. The tree couldn’t just walk, it could race.
The forest floor moved the way that frozen shelves crumble before an iron ship, but the smaller trees didn’t fall. In fact, when Noah looked back she saw that they left no wake at all, save here and there where flutters of leaves rained down, or flower petals filled the air, scattered by startled apple, lilac, and magnolia trees.
It took all of Noah’s strength to stay in the tree, clinging to the branches like a terrified squirrel. But there was almost no room in her body to feel fear, she was so full of wonder. The tops of trees passed below her like green clouds, as if she was a bird in the cold night wind. More than once she almost fell, when the tree lurched particularly violently, and each time she let out a panicked sound that did not go unheeded—there was a ripple of concern that moved through the tree, like the branches she was spread between were tightening their grip on her. But it didn’t slow down.
There was a tangible joy in the air. Noah could taste it on her tongue. There was laughter pressed against her back, excitement under her feet, and power at the end of each hand unlike anything she had ever felt or imagined feeling. Life moved through the tree, never holding still. She could feel it rising up from the ground, extending out through every twig and leaf, radiating into the invisible air. For a moment, she was a part of that miraculous circuitry.
The tree crossed acres upon acres. It swept over miles in what felt like the blink of an eye, rising up and up. Before long, Noah could no longer look up and see the crest of the mountain in the distance—now it was coming up to meet them like an enormous wave.
Noah’s body became a little more accustomed to the height and the speed. Now she leaned her face out to catch the full rush of the wind, her hair billowing ant tickling her ears, her eyes stinging. Her heart soared like it had come free of her body, and before she even knew what she was doing, she leaned out over the empty space and yelled.
She didn’t have any words to yell, nor any which might have conveyed the enormity of the feelings inside her, but she had to make a sound. She howled, her voice the only sound in her ears, before the wind whipped it away.
Then, just as suddenly, there was a sound like a thousand voices all taking flight in the same moment, all bellowing out one harmonious, booming whole. It was a sound that seemed like it could undo gravity, like it could lift the whole forest, maybe even the whole mountain, off the ground.
Noah didn’t know if the sound was real—if it actually rolled out into the air, or if it existed only in her own mind. The tree quaked and Noah, forgetting where she was standing, covered her ears with her hands.
The tree lurched forward in another huge step, and Noah’s body followed. Her still-damp socks slipped free from the branch to which they’d clung, and for a long moment, then two, she was attached to nothing. The swing motion of the tree lost its hold on her, which was almost a relief. But she was falling. She was hurtling toward the black maw at the foot of the tree, about to be zipped up into the earth.
She closed her eyes and threw out her hands in the desperate hope that something would catch her. The enormous sound vanished as quickly as it had come, and a moment later, Noah felt her all the air leave her body as a tree-branch bent toward her from nowhere, as if reaching up to grab her. She slammed into it, scrambling with her fingernails for a hold. But this time, the tree held her.
The branch which caught her bent like a cracking elbow and lifted her back toward the trunk, where she regained her footing. It stayed, even after she had something solid under her feet, encircling her with a long, curving beam.
“Thank you,” she panted, rubbing her sore stomach. “Thank you.”
She felt a shiver run through the bark, almost goosebumps, almost a cat’s purr. As though some secret could be imparted to her fingertips, Noah felt the tree’s concern.
“I’m alright,” she said, yelling up into the air. “I just slipped. Thanks for catching me.”
The tree continued its ghostlike gallop until the trees were mostly tall, spindly pines, or wind-warped evergreens with branches growing only on one side. Here, Noah could see huge shelves of bare rock exposed between islands of soil and grass. But the tree didn’t seem to notice a difference between earth and stone, as it raced ever onward toward the edge of the mountain.
Noah felt her anxiety grow the closer that they got. She was high enough, already—the thought of adding the tree’s height to the top of a cliff seemed like more than she could handle, but the tree showed no signs of slowing down. Even as her grip tightened on the branch, a picture entered her mind in between blinks. Warm laundry. Pale blue eggs cradled in a soft nest. Rain on foggy windows.
She felt it before she could name it. “Safe,” she said out loud, letting the blood back into her clenched hands.
How was it possible, she wondered, that the tree could fill her mind with her own memories? Was it thumbing through everything she had ever seen or done, to find the moments that suited its need? Or was Noah finding them for herself, responding to the music that she heard? Then she thought of the deer, of the plunging dark and the soaring height, of frost and sunlight minding, and realized that not all of the memories were hers. Were they the trees’ own memories? Memories of the wood and glade and mountain?
Whatever they were, she did feel safe—or if not safe, trusting.
The tree climbed until there was nothing between Noah and the stars, and only then began to slow. Its roots dug down into the earth like snakes as thick as sofas. Up here, the wind was stronger than Noah had ever known it, and it tasted different. She could feel it not only pulling at her hair and clothes, but pulling against the tree.
But the tree hardly seemed to notice, standing as easily as Noah might’ve stood against a summer breeze.
Now that it held still, Noah began to climb again. She stayed out of the wind and in the shelter of the massive trunk, as she made her way, arm-over-arm, into the higher branches. From there, she looked down into an endless valley of trees. In the faint distance, she could see the feeble lights of Hawking.
Finally, Noah looked back toward Woodhill Lane. There was no sign of her house, or the road. She wondered how far they had come and how long it had taken. Had anyone in her house heard the sound of the tree? Had Nico awoken again to the chimes? Had they heard her screams of surprise, or her joyous howl?
The tree remained motionless. For the first time since she’d set foot in its branches, it seemed utterly still and tree-like. She continued to limb until the branches were too far apart to reach, and growing thinner, and there she finally stopped. There was a hollow curve in the trunk that seemed made for sitting, and so she sat, with her feet dangling over the air, and listened.
The wind-chimes were right above her.
When she looked up, she saw them in the muted starlight. But now that she was close to them, they didn’t seem loud—it was a soft, velvety sound, reminding her of something.
There was a shift in the trunk far below her, a prick of song that neither rose nor fell, but ceased to be before it had fully grown. Then a resounding silence fell, as though the whole world had been covered up by a blanked and held in place. Noah felt as though the world had closed its eyes to feel the wind against its eyelids.
She realized in increments that the tree was resting. It was not asleep, or even sleepy. Only resting. Breathing in, and exhaling into the wind. And seating among its uppermost branches, cradled by the gentle boughs, Noah would have sworn that even though they went unseen, all trees breathed just like this one.