The house of her mother – and her mother’s mother – sat upon a dusty plot that stole their blood and sweat, fields that were marked only by the presence of a flourishing hawthorn tree grown so arrogantly in the barren earth that even taking shade from it felt like a violation. It was here in the fruitless soil that her own roots dug deep into the ground, keeping her starved for even a speck of color among the rot.
“Just a dream, Kate,” her mother said impatiently while at the sink. Dorothea’s hands were pink in the heat of the water, her skin cracked from lye. Kate, sixteen, leaned idly against the kitchen island and drew imaginary patterns on the freckled Formica.
“It was so vivid,” Kate said. “And the Man -,”
“The Dark Eyed Man?”
She was surprised when the perpetually stern brow of her mother softened a moment. Dorothea’s face, sun punched and rough from the wind off the withered Ohio plains, relaxed into recollection.
“Your grandmother used to dream like that,” she said. “Such beautiful illusions.” She pulled her hands from the dishwater, the soapy drops dripping into the sink with a plink plink plunk. The August breeze danced among the wind chimes on the porch and found its way through the screen door, settling to join them in the kitchen.
“All useless, of course,” Dorothea said, dunking her stinging hands back to meet the iron pot. “She was so caught up in her own fantasy that she just wilted away. Here,” she nodded at the stack of pots sprouting upward like a beanstalk. “Make yourself useful and dry.”
That night Kate cocooned herself into a rosebud of cotton and linen, and stared at her blank, peeling walls. She counted the popcorn sprouts on the ceiling. She listened to the shh shh of the lurking hawthorn at her window. She measured the seconds between creaks in floorboards just beyond her plywood, hollow-core door.
And then – there she was, unfolding herself from a bed of meadowsweet and gazing up at a glimmering, watercolor sky.
“You returned,” said the Dark Eyed Man.
“I didn’t mean to,” she apologized as she stood. “This is your home.”
“It could be yours,” he said, gliding closer. Kate’s eyes hungrily devoured the jeweled colors of the lush oasis. Ripe apples hung heavily from silver branches, and the nearby stream promised waters as sweet as nectar.
“An offering,” he said. “A gift- from your garden, perhaps – then you can join me here.” He lifted her hand, turning it over to press a kiss against her palm.
“Forever?” she asked.
Sharp pearlescent teeth glinted in the starlight as he smiled and pulled her closer.
Kate’s eyes flew open. His whispers of promised abundance still fluttered across her skin and she staggered from her bed. The scent of honey pollen trailed behind her as her nightgown shed drops of dew with each step she took towards the last riches their land could provide.
Kate grasped the hawthorn tree. She climbed upward, ignoring the prick of thorns that tore at her flesh. She reached for a branch but paused as a breeze swept the perfumed dream from her mind. Her eyes drifted past the healthy white blossoms – and looked beyond the tip of the bough to the horizon, to the acres of starvation and decay.
And suddenly she thought perhaps she’d offered him too much already – as had her mother and grandmother.
Kate dropped back to the ground. She dug her fingers into the dry earth, nails breaking as she stabbed the ground and peeled back the layers to expose the roots.
Rotting peaches and pomegranates oozed their pulpy crushed innards beneath her fingers. Beetles and cockroaches surged upwards across her palms, but then – a glimpse of off-white bone glinting in the moonlight. The skull was grotesque, the twisted mouth still dotted with pointed teeth.
The roots spooled and slithered about her legs and crushed her against the trunk. Liquid seeped from the bark and her skin became slick with putrefaction.
Kate screamed as her ribs cracked. Thrashing violently, she snatched the skull to her breast, and the roots recoiled to let her collapse to the ground. She pulled herself across the dead earth, out of their twisting reach, and struggled to her feet. Kate brought the skull down against her knee – once, twice, three times, before it split and released hundreds of fat, wriggling maggots. Her hands grew hot, and she flung the fractured bone towards the tree. It sizzled as it met the bark, smoke curling from the eye sockets, and soon flames licked their way up the hawthorn.
She slid to her knees and at the edge of her exhaustion she saw him appear, the world around her warping and shifting in the light of the hot embers.
He was accompanied by the stench of rotted fruit and the low buzzing of bloated flies. He loomed before her, lips snarled and wet with ichor, eyes like yellow pinpricks in empty hollows. With a guttural moan he pitched forward and his face twisted with rage. But before his outstretched claws could reach her, his body tore apart like stitching along a seam, pouring out rot that disintegrated in the wind.
Early sunlight pierced the curls of smoke that lingered in the air.
Dorothea stood in the doorway of the cottage. Kate lurched to her feet and took staggered, shuddering steps toward the edge of their prairie. Her mother joined her at her side and reached a trembling hand to Kate’s head. A crown of flowers now twisted through her hair, and they fell in a shower of petals at Dorothea’s touch. Kate watched them fall, and there where they came to rest she spotted the brightest slash of green she’d ever seen. A single sprout burst upward from the soil, leaves twisting and unfurling in the soft radiance of daybreak.
Carter Brighton studied Religion and Sociology at Central Washington University, and holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University. Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, she spent her formative years crawling in the lava tunnels of Mt. St Helens, getting lost in the woods of the Hoh National Rainforest, and learning to fly fish along the looping bends of the Yakima river. She is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Grim & Gilded, a small online literary journal dedicated to dark fiction and poetry, and is currently working on her first novel. Carter currently resides in Portland, Oregon, with her two cats and a tall bearded man. When not writing, she can be found drinking too many cups of coffee and scratching off her nail polish.