Kelah picked herself off the ground, her skin still tingling. No burns affected her. The feeling was once of intense anger and a deeper feeling–the feeling that she was alive. She looked at Dender, curiously—as if she wasn’t quite sure what had happened but also wasn’t surprised by it either–and then decided to run.
She splashed through the water, knowing she could outrun him if she could just make it beyond the stream, her legs churning as fast as she could make them go. The river was deep here but she knew the waters well and found a shallow trail to the other side. The water never went past her knees, but it was deep enough to slow her down. Dender picked himself up off the riverbed floor and lurched his body forward just as she was about to step onto the other embankment. His outstretched hand tipped her heel with enough force to knock her off balance and she fell to one knee in the water, no more than a foot from firm ground. Dender reached out and grabbed her by the ankle.
Kelah’s body was still burning, and Dender screamed again, but he didn’t let go. He dragged her legs into the water, submerging his hands. Kelah screamed as Dender dragged the rest of her body into the water and pushed his knees into her back, her face smashed against the murky bottom. She channeled the heat, not knowing exactly how she did it–never knowing how she did it–forcing the fire upward into the being that threatened her. She heard a muffled scream through the mud and a release of the pressure on her back. She began pushing upward and out of the water, gasping in air, hoping that the fire had consumed Dender.
She turned her head to see where Dender was, only to see him launch his body toward her again, his body black and smoldering as water licked at the flames. His eyes were white with fear and anger. She crouched down, her shoulder pushed into the mud, hoping to bring forth the fire one last time while she still had the strength, but it was too late. His body smashed upon her head and neck and the darkness came.
Kelah’s death was met with fear. Dender told the elders that she’d slipped and fallen while they were playing in the water. Nobody believed him. Nobody cared what happened either. They waited for the next Harvest, though, to see if Gata’s wrath would visit them.
The village sacrificed all the female babies that year. Dender rounded them up and hung them himself. He dragged Kelah’s friend Lora and her mother to the cottonwood tree as well and hung them from their neck. Anyone associated with Kelah went up the tree. And the rains came.
The village saw this as proof that Kelah was part of a plague and should have been sacrificed a long time ago. They rejoiced in the rains and the crops that grew that spring and summer. Dender joined the Council of Elders that spring.
Winters and summers turned, and the village prospered enough that they allowed more girls to live so that they could produce children of their own when ready. The population had dwindled down dangerously low during the long drought; ten years after Kelah’s death, however, and a new group of girls were almost ready to produce. Dender had wed two of them already, but they hadn’t produced offspring yet. He continued to try.
The willow tree grew next to the bank of the stream that became a river. It was forgotten by the villagers. It wasn’t until the twelfth year after Dedra’s death that a villager finally took notice of the tree. It had grown unusually large–so large that the branches now bowed out over the river and flowed onto the other side, snaking along the riverbank. The elders, except for Dender, who wouldn’t be bothered to get dressed or get out of bed with his wives just to look at a tree, ventured out to the river. They gathered around the tree with curious gazes, each of them remembering who it was that planted the tree, none of them saying her name. They left, deciding that the tree was thriving because of the proximity to the water-further evidence that Mata was happy.
But the tree continued to grow. The branches began to slouch lower to the ground, forming a thick but delicate green bridge over the water, as they grew outward into the forest and closer toward the village. The cottonwood tree on the other side of the creek was covered by the branches of the willow tree, its giant trunk turned into a green monster. The branches behaved like a vine, covering every surface with purpose.
The elders took ax and cutters to the tree and cleared the branches back across the river. They burned the scraps and preyed and sacrificed to Gata. The village numbers dwindled the following year.
The summer, though, saw the tree’s branches grow back across the river, over the trunk of the cottonwood and covering its wide, thick branches. The willow tree began encroaching on the outskirts of the village, the branches snaking around the huts. And as the village cut and hacked away the branches, they grew faster. The elders burned and chanted and prayed and sacrificed. In the end, they decided that any child, no matter boy or girl or age, should be sacrificed. They used brute strength to overtake the people, Dender leading the way. The women had no say, never a say, never as they always did.
By the fifteenth year after Kelah’s death, the willow tree covered many of the households, the branches penetrating through every hole and crack, breaking through the roofs and doors. Villagers reported going to sleep with the branches outside their door, only to wake up with branches sliding up their legs and arms, green leaves fluttering against their skin. The sawing and hacking had no effect on the tree anymore; the branches becoming impossibly tough to cut through.
Dender and the rest of the elders decided to take the tree out by the roots. They took their tools and their anger and they began digging into the earth one winter day as the sun hung red in the sky. When the liquid first appeared, they thought it was mud until the villagers noticed it seemed to be leaking out of the tree branches. It was a dark reddish color, thick, oozing.
The elders followed Dender out to the tree, using with unease the thick branched bridge to cross the river. Dender put his hand to the trunk of the tree, felt the pulsing heart of the tree. It was warm and he snatched his hand away in fear. The elders screamed in horror, certain that Kelah had returned for revenge. They began hacking at the tree, slashing and biting, but nothing they did would penetrate the bark.
Dender threw his body against the tree, as he had to so many women before, hoping to knock it down with his weight. The tree swayed and shook, but never broke. He took his biggest ax to the tree and hacked away but nothing worked. They tried to burn the tree but it would not light. They prayed to Gata.
It was late afternoon, as they sat on top of the branches, exhausted, when the tree began to shudder. It was subtle at first, and Dender wasn’t sure he believed what he was seeing. He sat at the base of the tree, exhausted by his efforts, fuming with anger at his inability to break the roots. But then a branch wrapped itself around his leg, and then his other leg, and he began to scream. The tree worked on the other elders as well, sitting under the billowing branches of the tree, and the more they struggled the more they were consumed by the branches, green leaves crawling over their skin, then penetrating, tiny ants rummaging through a forest of human flesh.
The rest of the village watched, some out of fear and some out of hate, as the elders were pushed and dragged along the creek bed and over to the cottonwood tree. They watched as the branches of the willow tree covered their entire bodies, save their mouth and eyes and, one by one, inched them up the trunk of the cottonwood. The villagers watched as the elders were pushed out onto the broad and strong branches of the cottonwood and suspended by their necks. They watched as the life began to choke out of the elders, all of them slowly losing their breath, their eyes bulging, their screams dying in their throats. Finally…
They watched in horror as Dender was the last lifted into the air, his fat body wrapped in green, his cries and screams going unheard, as he was hauled upward to the lowest branch, his feet barely touching the ground. They watched as he gasped for his life, hung by his neck, his eyes big and dark, his mouth wide.
When the life began to go out of Dender, the villagers began to turn away, except then they heard a strange gasping sound. They looked back to see the branches lower Dender to the ground and loosen around his neck, breath flowing back into his lungs. He gasped for the sweet breath of his life, panting, his face slowly fading from a deep purple into its more natural pinkish hue. He looked to them for help as he struggled in the branches. Nobody moved to help him. They just stared, curious as to why the tree was showing him, of all people, mercy. The tree answered their unspoken questions, though, when it began to tighten its branches around Dender’s neck again, lifting him up off the ground, his face quickly turning purple again, his eyes giant within his skull. The villagers walked back to their homes, understanding, submissive.
The branches around the village died swiftly, leaving the people alone, fading back beyond the river. The people went back to their lives, attempting to replace what had been lost over the years, the council of elders dissolved, the village ruined by the dying. They knew they could never go back, that they would spend their days with sorrow. And every night as long as the village remained, they heard the screams of Dender coming through the forest, echoing off the walls of their homes, as the willow tree’s branches lifted him up and down, suspending him from the cottonwood tree, feeding him its lifeblood through a branch forced down his throat.
Some villagers left, unable to endure the nightly reminder of their crimes. It was rumored that the screams followed them no matter where they found themselves. Many went insane, starving for nourishment, receiving torment.
Eventually, the village died. The Harvest ritual was ended. The few women of childbearing years remaining refused the advancements of men, moved away to their own lives, free of the oppression. The elders’ bodies remained wrapped in the branches of the willow tree, hung where they died on the branches of the nearby Cottonwood, now so many years ago. The Harvest was forgotten because nobody was alive to remember it.
Except for Dender, who continued to scream into the bloody night.
About The Author
Jonathan Peters is a writer and visual artist with an MFA Studio background from the University of New Mexico.
His short story fiction centers on genres of horror, crime noir, and cyberpunk.
He completed his first novel in 2019, a crime fiction book about three sex workers searching for their missing friend in the swamps of southeast Texas, and is currently seeking representation. You can read more of his stories at www.jonathanpetersmfa.com and follow him on twitter @JonPeters1976.