Anya had loved everything about getting an actual house. Room to grow in various ways, including a garden to grow flowers and vegetables. The old elm in the front yard had promised stability.
When the wind made the branches of the tree knock against the side of the house at night, keeping her awake, she was not all that sure about that little detail any more.
Trying not to feel envious of Zach’s ability to sleep through the noise undisturbed, she snuck to the spare room earmarked as her home office. The furniture was still only a neat stack of boards, and most of everything else was still boxed, but her laptop was ready. To work sitting cross-legged on the ground, back against the wall, was a habit from student days, anyway, and here she even had a power outlet.
No internet yet, but she could use the sleepless time to tag her photos. Nice, near-mindless routine. Photos from the goodbye-party, a few snapshots from the move, the rooms before and after, the house she was in now.
The pictures of the front of the house caught her attention. She flipped forward, looking for a better angle to confirm that, yes, the tree was too far away from the house for anything but a major storm to possibly make it touch the house.
A pattering sound against the window made her shriek. She scooted away from the wall and set the computer aside. She froze in a crouch staring at the window, and the very tips of the elm’s branches that touched it. The way the buds scraped over the glass and frame, like fingertips seeking an opening, really seemed like it was doing it on purpose. But that couldn’t be. Could it?
What certainly could not be was the tree bending that far out; it was on the other side of the front facade. Thinking she must be either dreaming or imagining things, Anya got up and looked out of the window, careful to touch nothing. It was hard to see in the gloom, but the elm must have been bent at least at a forty-five degrees angle.
I’m still in my bed, and actually sleeping.
It did not feel like a dream, though. For certainty Anya looked for one of the boxes labelled “books” and after a struggle with the sticky tape pulled out the first that came into her hands. Tapping Your Inner Bastard, a self-help book they only had not thrown out because it had been a present. Despite the noise of the tree — it’s not getting louder, that’s just nerves — she forced herself to read a paragraph on a random page twice, slowly. Not only was that possible, the words stayed the same both times. Writing in her dreams tended to be unintelligible, except for very large print like signs or titles, and change every time she looked at it. The hell if it’s stupid. She walked, did not quite run, out of the future office to wake up Zach, and ran into him at the door to the bedroom, bleary-eyed and unfocused.
“Woke you, too, fin — ” Anya flinched at the sound of glass breaking, and reached for Zach’s hand to pull him out of the room. “This is crazy.”
He had not turned around, and was looking through her.
“Come on, you are not sleepwalking, are you? And if you are, doing the walking part right now would be nice, I don’t know what — ”
Zach grabbed her wrist and growled, “I’ll kill you, bitch!”
That’s-not-him-that’s-not-him-that’s-not-him. Wishful thinking or truth, it helped. Anya ducked his other hand going for her neck, twisted her arm so she could pull it out of his grip, and ran.
Panicked she went straight for the door, realising her mistake only when she unlocked it. Zach was already down the stair, and she ran for it. A tree can’t be that fast or reach that far. Gravel bit into her feet and the tree loomed to her right, pulling back, for a strike? Anya ran, a thick branch whipped over her head, and from behind her came a strangled “ooph!”
Trying to look back out of reflex, she lost her footing and fell to her side. Behind her she saw Zach on his back, the branches of the nearly bent-over tree blocking the way between the two of them, but not moving.
It seemed a ready, alert stillness.
He coughed. “Anya?” it sounded weak, but it was his voice, and he recognised her.
“What happened?” both of them said simultaneously.
Anya cast a sideways look at the tree, which started to slowly right itself.
“All right,” Zach rasped, “That’s weird.”
“Yes.” And she wanted to know what was going on. To test a theory she lunged and grabbed one of the twigs passing close to her. The tree froze, neither pulling back nor attacking. Waiting.
“You protected us.”
A shiver went down Anya’s spine when she felt the answer, no word, but a feeling of affirmation.
“Anya, is this actually happening?” Zach had walked up to her, giving the remaining crown of the tree a wide berth.
She wordlessly put her free arm around his waist. From his hitching breath she guessed he could feel the answer, too. Something toxic, bitter.
“Just because there was danger?”
“Is it gone?”
“Can you help us?”
The tree hesitated. There was a mixture Anya was not sure she could decipher. Maybe? There was some kind of uncertainty.
“Are you able to help us against whatever is the danger in this house?” she tried to clarify.
“Then please do,” Zach said.
The feeling emanating from the tree turned into joy, and warmth. It trickled from the hand that was touching the tree up her arm, up to her scalp and down to her toes, and beyond.
The tickling sensation made her want to curl her toes, but she could not. She could barely turn her head to look at Zach. His skin had turned rough, his face, his whole body elongated, yet she could still feel his touch along her side and across her back. We’re both growing.
Anya’s vision faded. Her lungs and heart slowed, and stopped. The silence was strange, but she had enough air. The nightly breeze stirring her leaves was as cool as the moist soil her roots had grown into. As her perception shifted, the impression she got from the old elm became clearer. One concept — a feeling of movement; the loss of limbs; a small, warm hopeful thing Anya associated with 'birth' — she deciphered as 'gardener', and understood: The spook of the house could only affect humans. It was relieved that they were safe now. There was no malice in it.
Zach was hardly a presence in Anya’s mind, and the elm did not react to her distress, not even with calming impulses.
How do you learn to talk like a tree?