The most frightening part is when the bark grows over your mouth. I remember that. I’ve forgotten so many things — it’s been a long, long time, and I’m not all here — but I remember that. The moment of suffocation, not for air, but for speech. I remember.
I’ve forgotten who I was. I’ve forgotten what happened. Probably I was fleeing from a god. That’s what it usually was, in the stories. But maybe not. Maybe I took root from grief. Maybe I picked the wrong flower, shed one of my sisters’ blood. Maybe I was the one committed a crime. But I remember the bark closing my lips.
After they cut me down, when I was no longer rooted, I was luck for a long, long time. I was luck. Did they think I was benign somehow, a goddess? Did they think I cared to save their lives, that that was why I kept their ships whole? At least they never prayed to me, just brought me along. Maybe they knew I just wanted to live, just like them. Waterlogged on some seabed, dissolving, rotting; of course I didn’t want that. A lot of luck is just the blind will to survive.
So I kept the ships whole. I could do that. It’s hard to explain. It’s as if I can give some of the life in me, the instinct to stay whole, to the frame of the ship, take its shape to myself in return. It’s a kind of transference.
They always named the ships. Dryope, Lotis, Daphne, Myrrha, Baucis. One of them might have been my name. They might have been named for my sisters. I don’t remember.
I changed hands and changed climates and crossed seas. And so in time I came to the terrible old man, the one who carved me. He carved two wooden hearts with his wooden hand. Two wooden hearts. One is back with me now, taken back, given back. Only one.
He didn’t want luck, the terrible old man. He wanted life.
Becoming an archivist is one of those things people do because they’re young and romantic. I did it because I was middle-aged and bored. Lizzie was off at college, being Lee’s spouse got me free tuition, and I’d always liked history. I guess I did fall for the romance, dead voices speaking out of scraps of paper. Papier maché, I thought of it as, as though I could rebuild people out of the detritus of their lives.
I’m digitizing the collection here. Overkill, for what’s really a hobby job — I pretty much hired myself on at the historical society when I came back to my grandparents’ old place after Lee died. And a small, faded fishing town won’t star in the historical record. But it’s worth doing. It gives the scraps of paper more chances to survive, to make papier maché down the line, soaked in other people’s minds. So I’m going ahead with it. But there are a few things I won’t be scanning, now, when I get to Old Josiah’s papers, a few things I’ll leave out of the finding aids. And I’ve been writing this out the old-fashioned way, in longhand on paper. It’s my compromise with myself. Chances are no one will ever look back at the actual papers, once they’re online, so no one will find this. But I’m an archivist. I want there to be some kind of record.
I’d heard the FBI was in town, of course. Everyone knows everyone in a place like this. Boyd, Dr. Manning, that is, he was the one who had charge of the bones over at the hospital morgue. He told his wife all about it, and she told Jenny’s teacher when she picked the kids up from school, and she told Mrs. Bartlow at the library. Mrs. Bartlow told me. We’re as close to colleagues as either of us gets in this town, after all, librarian and archivist, though you might say we’re neither of us much of either.
The bones were at least a hundred years old. That’s what Boyd said the medical examiner said. It was weird, creepy maybe, that someone dressed an old skeleton in a suit of period clothes and left it on the beach. It was weirder and creepier, the carved wooden heart rattling round under the sternum. Boyd said it freaked the medical examiner out, and those guys are hard to freak out. There was another piece of wood stuck through it, Boyd said, like a knife driven through the ribs. Creepy, all right. But not really something you’d think the FBI would be into.
So it was odd when the agents arrived, and odder when they impounded the stick and the wood heart for evidence (so Bertha at the police station told me) and came here, to the historical society, with a photograph.
“Was this the one that was in the suit pocket?” I asked. Of course I’d heard about that, too.
“I’m afraid we can’t discuss that, ma’am,” said the taller one. They’d showed me badges and introduced themselves when they came in. I guess, given what I learned later, it doesn’t matter that I didn’t catch the names. I thought of them as Agent Bad Cop and Agent Good Manners. Good Manners was the tall one. The other, well, he’d just kind of grunted at me and gone to sit down, leaving his partner to do the talking.
As it happened, I recognized the photograph right off. It was old, from the 1860s or thereabouts, and it had been water damaged at some point. But Old Josiah Stoddard was one of the town bigwigs in the nineteenth century. Even if I hadn’t known him from the collection, I’d know about him. My grandparents told stories: the woodcarver with the wooden hand.
I brought the agents the boxes they wanted, old Josiah’s notebooks, his letters and accounts, other records that touched on his family. The tall one sat right down and started to go through them, careful and methodical, like he knew what he was doing. Agent Bad Cop couldn’t seem to settle. I thought that maybe he was the one who went in with guns blazing when they got the bad guy, and his partner did more of the investigating, because Bad Cop seemed bored with shuffling paper, kicking the table leg like a kid, drumming his fingers, scratching his arm.
“Dean,” Agent Manners would say, sharp, irritated, most likely. Who’d want to try working next to that? Agent Bad Cop was driving me crazy, that’s for sure. He’d go still for, like, thirty seconds before he’d start up again. It was a relief to me, at least, when he slapped his folder closed, less than an hour in, scraped his chair back and slammed out. Though fuck all this isn’t the most professional way to let your partner know you’re leaving.
Agent Good Manners looked after his partner like he was worried, but he stayed all that afternoon.
The thing about history — the small, personal histories of a place like this, and I suspect World Wars and revolutions aren’t much different — is that you only ever know pieces, and they don’t fit together. Papier maché was a dangerous image. You really shouldn’t do that, if you’re an archivist, though your mind tries to. It wants to mush it all together and make something of it. But you can’t. You can only put the fragments of what you find in some sort of order.
So I can give you some of the fragments Agent Good Manners (and Agent Bad Cop, the whole hour or so he was there) could have found, the fragments you can find, dear reader (hiding a manuscript is Victorian novelish enough; I can call you dear reader, dear reader):
There’s a note in the local paper of Josiah’s accident, “One of our foremost citizens suffered a grave misfortune Thursday last.” No record of how he got himself that clever wooden hand.
Doctor Edlicott went out to Old Josiah’s place the night of November 30th, 1864. A little snow that day, not much wind. He kept a diary, the doctor did. You go to old diaries hoping for deep thoughts and high drama, but often what you get is the weather. The doctor was called out because Old Josiah’s wife was in labor. The boy was stillborn. The mother died.
Josiah’s son Jeremy was baptized December 2nd. The old man always said he brought him back from the dead. You could argue the baby could have just revived with the warmth, when the grieving father held him. That makes a poignant picture, doesn’t it? Anyway, the doctor’s hand staggers across the pages of his diary, especially in winter. Parkinson’s? Liquor? A lot of them drank when the nights got long. And he’d be in a hurry to get home, in the dark morning, in the snow. He was sure himself, afterwards, that he’d been mistaken, thinking the baby stillborn. He examined the boy that same day he was baptized, the 2nd. A healthy child and likely to do well, he said then.
Old Josiah hired a wet nurse. He paid her a pitiful wage. Maybe she ate well, though, that year, because the old man’s butcher’s bills did go up. Only slightly, but up.
Jeremy Stoddard was healthy and did do well, as far as one can tell. There’s not much of him in the record. His father’s notebooks aren’t about his son. What’s in them is something quite different.
Old Josiah kept the letter Jeremy left. Just a few lines. “Father — Now I understand your meaning, when all my life you reproached me with what you have done for me, and what I have not done for you. I judge now that I have rather to reproach you, for this life, this unlife, that you gave me, that you put into me. I should have died then, I did die, with my poor mother, God rest her soul. At least she was well quit of you, of what you might have brought her to, had you ever cared to do so. Goodbye. I hope to go now where I may be some use to myself and my fellow men, somewhere far from here, until such time as I find means to destroy myself. I will not say, God bless you. His blessing is on none of this. It shames me to sign myself, Your son, Jeremy Stoddard.”
I can give you those pieces. And I can tell you what Agent Good Manners — Sam, he told me to call him Sam, then — what he and I talked about the one time we talked, that night at The Lobstertrap. I can tell you some of it, at least. And I can tell you what I saw afterwards. But that won’t be everything, and it won’t all fit together. And it’s not always clear what’s important. It’s not always what you think it is.
Take my talk with Sam. I went to The Lobstertrap that night because I wanted to gossip about the agents. Of course I did. So did everyone else there, but we couldn’t, because the agents were there, too. It’s not that they were surrounded by a sea of embarrassed silence or anything, except that it did kind of feel that way. I resolved to have one glass of wine and head home. I was halfway through it when Agent Good Manners came over. He didn’t sit down, just stood there and loomed.
“Sorry about my partner, earlier. He’s, uh, dealing with some personal issues.” He looked back at where his partner was still sitting, but whatever Agent Bad Cop’s personal issues were, he was taking them out right then on a big steak and a mountain of mashed potatoes. He gave Agent Good Manners a little wave. Agent Good Manners seemed to take it for permission to carry on.
“That’s OK,” I said. “I hope you found your visit useful.” I still couldn’t ask why they weren’t off investigating some actual murders or something.
“I think we’re making progress,” he said, which was comfortably vague. “You have an unusually well-catalogued collection here.”
“Why don’t you sit down, Agent . . .,” I almost said Agent Good Manners aloud, but he saved me.
“Just call me Sam. My partner’s Dean.” He sat down and Nina brought over another of whatever beer he’d been drinking.
“Have you lived around here all your life?” he asked.
“Less than two years, year round,” I said. “My grandparents were from here. I spent summers at their place when I was a little girl. They left me their house. But I only came here to settle when my husband died. My daughter and her family are out in California, but the west coast never feels like home to me.”
“I’m sorry about your husband,” said Sam.
“It happens,” I said. “I’m getting used to it, being on my own. I like it, in some ways, living alone. And it feels, I don’t know, companionable, being back here, where I was happy as a girl.”
“So I guess you’d know stories, coming from a local family. About the history of the place, I mean. Is Josiah Stoddard a local legend? He seems to have been pretty well known, from his papers. Any colorful anecdotes passed down through the generations?”
“Well, he did keep a log in his lobster boat,” I said. “Not a ship’s log, I mean, a literal piece of wood, a worn lump of a thing. They said he talked to it, right out of Twin Peaks. Well, Twin Peaks a hundred and fifty years or so ahead of time. There’s a picture of it, even. It’s shaped kind of like a woman, which might be how he got some of his crazy ideas. I’m sure there were plenty of crude jokes about it. Funny how you think they’d never make jokes, those old folks in black and white photographs, looking so solemn. But of course they did.”
“So he had a bit of a reputation as an eccentric?” Sam’s eyes were a lot sharper than you’d think, for someone chatting about local history. But of course it was clear all along that whatever he and his partner were doing here, they were after something.
“Well, one among many, maybe. He’s not the only one went a bit strange about the company he kept in a lobster boat. There’s Frank Darling, later, round the turn of the century, who went out with his pig. His pet pig. Never without it. Funny thing, you’re not even supposed to say pig on a lobster boat, like saying Macbeth in the theater. But he said it brought him luck.”
“Not in the end. He went overboard one day, tangled in the line. I guess it wasn’t Lassie the rescue pig, because it didn’t save him. They didn’t learn to swim, a lot of them, you know, those old lobstermen. They figured it was no use. Water’s so cold in these parts they’d go quick anyway, hypothermia. So he didn’t have a chance, really.”
“What happened to the pig?” asked Sam, like he was genuinely curious.
“It was still in his dory when they found it drifting, but I never heard what became of it after that. Likely wound up as bacon.”
“Pig stories, Sammy? Really?” Agent Bad Cop — Dean — must’ve finished his steak, because he’d come up some time while we were talking about Frank Darling and his pig. He looked pretty relaxed, now. “You think a hundred-year-old pig is our, uh,” he glanced at me, “is our, uh, perp?”
Sam rolled his eyes. I was thinking that every team has the one who makes the bad jokes as well as the one who skives off on the work. Often it’s the same one.
“Yeah, Dean,” he said, “I’m working on the theory that Hen Wen did it. You heading back to the motel?” Sam made like he was standing up, but Agent Bad Cop waved him down, abrupt, more like an order than a polite gesture.
“I’m fine, Sam, Jesus,” he said. Back to his charming self. “You stay and finish your pig stories. Knock yourself out. I know how you love boring trivia.” And he was out the door again with a slam. Sam settled back.
Lizzie and Tim seem to have some fight every time they visit me. It’s like they save it up for me special, Lizzie still bringing her dirty laundry home with her, though she’s twenty-eight. I’ve learned to ignore it and just plough on with the conversation. Some great social skills you learn, being a mother-in-law.
“So I was telling you about Old Josiah and his log,” I said. Sam was at least polite enough to stop staring after his rude partner and pretend to listen.
“Right,” he says, “before we segued into pigs. Did Old Josiah drown, too, in the end, despite Lassie the rescue log?”
“No,” I said, “not that I know of, at least. His son lit off out West the moment he turned eighteen — left a pretty bitter letter, too — and no wonder, really, because Old Josiah was pretty, well, eccentric by then. His wife died when the boy was born — the baby almost died, too, the doctor thought it was stillborn at first — and Josiah sort of went off the deep end, though he’d been peculiar even before, since he lost his hand. But it just trails off, what we have on him. A lot of mystical theories about wood-carving and lobsters. Not that that’s gone out of style. There’s still these faux facts going around online about how lobsters are immortal and maybe they have the key to eternal life.”
“If they stay away from boiling water, at least. Immortal but boilable is pretty much the worst of both worlds,” said Agent Good Manners. Sam, I should say. He spoke with feeling. A lot of people don’t like the boiling part when it comes to lobsters. I’d noticed he’d had a salad for his dinner.
“Neither indestructible nor inedible, just not subject to old age. But even that’s not really true,” I said, “they do die. Everything does, whatever the Old Josiahs and new agey people of the world want to think. I wouldn’t want that anyway, never dying.”
I don’t know what made me say that to this guy I didn’t know, except it’s something I do think about. Even right after Lee went, when I kept dreaming he was there and waking up and he wasn’t, it had seemed kind of natural to me, that he’d died, that one day I’d die. I don’t believe in heaven or anything like that, not like Lee and me being reunited on the beach where we had our honeymoon, but it seems right that one day I’ll be gone like he’s gone. That’s a kind of being together.
Sam was frowning down at the table. “So lobsters do get to die,” he said, “No giant Ur Lobster from the dawn of time lurking in some ocean trench somewhere?”
“They don’t senesce like we do, that much is true,” I said. “They keep growing all their lives, shedding their exoskeletons. But it’s a load on their systems, molting. Eventually they just can’t anymore, they don’t have the reserves. Then they start getting infections in their shells and shell rot and things, because they can’t grow new ones. Stuck in an exoskeleton they can’t get rid of or renew. Just like the rest of us, really.”
The conversation was getting kind of morbid. Sam seemed to think so, too.
“That sounds sort of horrible,” he said. “Maybe I’d rather boil alive and be done with it. Or be immortal after all.” He put his empty glass down on the table. “So much for principles, I guess.”
“I guess a lot of people let go of their principles when it comes to dying,” I said. “Or when it comes to staying alive past a certain point. Anyway, old Josiah certainly got strange on the subject.”
Sam frowned, like he was checking back, flicking papers in his mind. He’d make a good archivist, I thought.
“Yeah, we saw some of that, I think,” he said. “A notebook with a lot of notes on lobsters. And other stuff I didn’t really follow. Like, lignum vitae? What is that, wood of life?”
Sam and I left The Lobsterpot around nine. By that time I’d told Sam what I remembered of what I’d deciphered in Old Josiah’s notebook. I’m not going to write it down here. Lignum vitae’s a tropical hardwood, and there are stories about it, too, but that wasn’t what Old Josiah meant. I don’t suppose anyone will come across this who has what he had to work with, but I won’t risk it, even in a hidden manuscript, what I can piece together of how he did what he did. So I’m not writing it down.
Here’s the thing, though. Sam must have known that it was the wood stuff that was relevant. They must have been looking for it from the beginning. They must have had some idea what they’d find, right from when they flashed their fake badges and impounded the wooden heart and the stake. The lobsters were a red herring. But Sam wasn’t just passing the time, getting the information he wanted. There was something important in there.
I think about that, writing down what I saw. Because I didn’t understand it all, and you won’t, either. We have to put together the pieces. And we don’t always know what’s important.
Ever since Lee went I have these nightmares. Not often, and they’re never about what you’d think they’d be about, seeing him clutch his chest, not even like a guy on a medical drama, more like a guy in a comedy sketch, or about standing in the hallway in the ER watching the doctor coming towards me to tell me Lee was dead. They’re never remotely about that. They’re not even about putting up his sister and nephew the week of the funeral, and Doris is nightmare fuel, let me tell you. No. I’ll be pushing through bamboo, uphill, so dense I can’t see ahead or breathe, and god knows where that comes from, I’ve never seen a bamboo forest in my life. Or a girl with an ax in her forehead, lying down, sitting up, lying down, sitting up, ramrod straight like a mannequin, not a one of her dark, smooth hairs out of place, only the ax neatly centered in her forehead and her dead, surprised eyes. I don’t think they’d be as nightmarish if I knew better what they were about.
Anyway, this time — don’t laugh — it was a giant lobster. Not like Sam and I had been talking about, at the bottom of the sea floor, but lying along the horizon above the town like a ridge of hills. It was that huge. I could see the fine, black lines of its antennae and the stalks of its eyes, silhouetted the way branches are against the sky just after the sun has gone down, and sloping down towards me the huge, shelled muscle of its claw. And there was blue light shining through every crack on its shell. I don’t know why it should be so terrifying, but I woke the way I do when I have those dreams, feeling like it was all real, somewhere in the back of my mind, real and heavy and pinning me to my bed so I couldn’t move.
So then I had to move. I went out right in pajamas and sneakers — no one can tell under my coat anyway — and I walked down by the beach. It was just getting light, not the stroke of midnight like it should be when you see a ghost, or whatever it was I saw. More like six-thirty AM.
He was sitting on the beach in a circle of driftwood, calm as anything, away in the little cove a mile or so out of town. Sitting on a log, whittling away at a piece of wood with his wooden hand. Old Josiah. Looking just like in the picture, the one Sam and Dean had brought when they first came up to my desk. Sixty-something, maybe. Not wispy or see-through like a ghost. He looked tough and solid as the wood he was working.
Sam and Dean — no, they weren’t any kind of agents, the FBI don’t go about their work with knives and a wooden stake — Sam and Dean were just outside the circle of wood. I stopped. No one had heard me, on the sand, in my sneakers. But I didn’t think I could back away, not now when I’d be trying to be quiet.
“That was your son, wasn’t it?” Sam was saying. Not to me, to Old Josiah. He spoke almost gently, like he wasn’t talking to some dead old man with a wooden hand, like he was talking to a father. “Jeremy. He found a way, didn’t he? A way to take his own life.”
Old Josiah laughed, a creaky, humorless chuckle.
“Oh, he found a way, all right,” he said. “He found a way. Couldn’t just come quietly, could he, take what he needed and be gone? No. That didn’t suit him. He had to bear witness against me, like one of those ranting preachers. The young have to be righteous.”
Dean was moving all this time, kind of prowling the perimeter of where Old Josiah was, taking no interest in the conversation. I saw Sam’s eyes flick to him, then back to Josiah. Josiah spat on the ground.
“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is,” he — it — he said. “That’s what the Bible says. That’s what Holy Writ tells us on the subject, in’t it? On the subject of a man having a thankless child. Jeremy was thankless.”
“That’s King Lear, not the Bible,” said Sam, like he couldn’t help himself. “Look, maybe your son was trying to be helpful. Maybe he was angry — I know I would be — but maybe there was more to it than that. Maybe he came back, maybe he made sure you’d know what he’d done, because he wanted to show you there was a way out. A way back.”
Old Josiah snarled, started forward towards Sam. I saw Dean go tense, like a cat crouching. I could almost a tail lashing. But Josiah settled back and Dean went back to his prowling.
“I see what you’re about,” said Old Josiah, “Clear as day, I see it. You want what he wanted. You want me to follow him. You want me to stab myself like he did, take a stake of wood to my wooden heart. But he’s not worth it, is he? He was never worth it. I gave him life, when his bitch of a mother couldn’t. I did one better. I gave him eternal life. And he ran away, and came back and spat in my face. He threw away the life I gave him, just to spite me. And you think I want to follow him? You’ll have to send me after him, if that’s what you want. And I’d like to see you try. I’d like to see you try that.”
“Oh, we can,” said Dean. I think Old Josiah had almost forgotten he was there. “There’s no trying about it, what me and Sam can do to you. Better take the easy way, like Sam says, cause it won’t be pretty if you don’t.”
“Dean,” said Sam.
“You’re wasting your time, Sammy,” said Dean. “Not like it makes a damn difference if we gank him or talk him into ganking himself. Might as well get it over with.”
Old Josiah was watching them like they were funny.
“We don’t want to hurt you,” said Sam to him. “And we’re sorry for your loss. But the life you’re living on isn’t yours. I think you know that. It wasn’t yours to give your son. You need to give it back. I’m sorry. I think, I think at the beginning, at least, you didn’t know what you were doing. I think when you carved that hand you just thought you were using some lucky piece of wood that came down in your family. And you just needed the one piece. But you didn’t stop. You wanted to live. You wanted to make your son live. You can still make up for it. You can give it back. It can be your choice. It makes a difference, having a choice.”
Old Josiah stroked the piece of wood he was holding. It was, I don’t know how to convey it, it was gross, like an obscene gesture. I’d been frozen against the rocks all along, scared to death, but watching, too, because it was gripping, and because it didn’t seem real, like it was just more of my dream. But then I felt cold and sick and I knew I was there on the beach, that this was really happening.
Old Josiah chuckled that awful, creaky chuckle again.
“So that’s what you’re on about,” he said. “You lose sleep over that, if you want. I haven’t, not in all my years. It was her job. She was a woman, for all she was a log of wood. It’s a woman’s job to give a man life, even if it kills her. That’s God’s law. Just like it was a wife’s job to die stillbirthing the brat. I did right by my wife. I gave her a house, good as any. I earned her bread, didn’t I? But she couldn’t give me a son. I had to do that myself. And he grew up thankless.”
Sam looked away, checking where his partner had got to, and that’s when he saw me. His eyes went wide a bit, and Old Josiah must have seen it, because he looked my way.
“You’re no hunter,” he said. “And no dear, long-lost kin come to reproach me. If you’re another lady of the wood, you’re too withered to be of use.”
Sam moved between me and him.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he said to me. “Innocent bystander’s not a good role around us. Dean, get her out. I’ll take care of Josiah.”
But Dean wasn’t listening. The moment Sam and Josiah were focused on me he sprang forward. I thought he’d stab Josiah with the stake he held, and believe me, I was in favor. But he didn’t do that. He was snarling and snapping like a dog in a fight, something that fights with tooth and nails. Josiah reached for him, kind of contemptuous, with his wooden hand. But Dean just tore it off. Josiah screamed, a horrible sound, and he went on screaming. I may have screamed, too. I couldn’t look away. Dean just . . . he tore Josiah. Tore his ribs open with his bare hands and reached in. God help me, I heard the sucking sound when he reached in and pulled out his heart.
The whole thing had taken maybe five seconds. At least it was quick. Dean put the heart down on a rock and I heard the hollow sound, wood, not flesh. Old Josiah was still moving, still impossibly screaming, but when Dean drove a stake into the heart the noise shut off like flipping a switch. And there was Old Josiah, a yellow skull grinning at the sky, like he’d been dead a hundred years, like he should have been.
Sam had had an arm across me this whole time, holding me against the rock. I must have made a move to start forward, or something. Now he said “Dean.” And Dean just kind of froze. He didn’t turn his head or stand up or anything, just let his hands drop all shiny with blood and kind of slumped there. Sam let go of me and went over and dropped on his knees beside him. “Hey,” he said, “It’s OK, Dean. Come back. You can come back.” And then he was rocking him like a baby, kissing his head, holding his bloody hands that had just been digging through that thing’s chest, cradling them like a lover.
It’s not like I cared if they were partners as well as partners or whatever. It was none of my business. But that, Dean all soaked in blood, his eyes like the sea when it’s black and no moon, and Sam holding him like he was a child who’d had a meltdown at the supermarket, not a man who’d just killed the way he had — well. I was rooted to the ground, and I was thinking that Old Josiah might be just the beginning of things here that I didn’t want to see.
Eventually Dean said, “I killed him, Sammy. I . . .,” and he pulled his hands away from Sam’s and looked at them.
Sam let go of him and sat back.
“He was a monster, Dean,” he said, “And a fucking misogynist asshole, anyway. He wasn’t going to be saved. We were going to have to do it. I would have done it.”
“Not like that, you wouldn’t,” said Dean. His tone was like a lock snicking shut. He stood up. “Come on,” he said. “We need to burn the bones. And the dryad wood or whatever.” He glanced over at me. “You OK to get home?” he said, “Sam’ll walk you back.”
“We can’t burn the wood,” said Sam. “You heard him. You saw the notes. Maybe it is dryad wood. Maybe it’s something else and Old Josiah was just crazy. But if there’s some kind of person in there, we can’t burn it. All those myths, people turning into trees, or trees that bleed or scream when you cut them, it’s not so unlikely, is it, that that’s how it worked? It worked as a medium of life, a transfer, for Old Josiah because it’s alive.”
“That’s just the point, Sam,” said Dean. “It worked. If we don’t want more Old Josiahs carving more wood hearts to stick in people’s chests, we’ve got to end this.”
“I want to try planting it,” said Sam. “I want to see if she can get her own life back. If there’s something for her that isn’t a choice of dead or cut in pieces and used.”
“You don’t know it will work,” said Dean.
“I don’t know it won’t.”
Dean shook his head, like he couldn’t quite deal with the conversation, and came over to me, though he didn’t look like he wanted to deal with me, either. The feeling was mutual. I may have backed away a bit. I was up against a big, wet, seaweedy boulder, though. I couldn’t back far.
“I’m sorry you saw that,” Dean said. His hands were still smeared and sticky with blood, his cuffs all soaked in it. He looked embarrassed. That didn’t really seem an adequate reaction, but then, how would he be expected to look in the circumstances? And my reactions weren’t exactly adequate, either.
“I guess everyone has a ghost story,” I said. My voice was wobbling, and that hadn’t really been a ghost, had it? “Now I’ll have mine. Or a, a . . .”
“Evil proto-steampunk cyber lobster fisherman story,” suggested Dean. Suddenly he grinned. The light was getting stronger, ordinary winter morning light. Dean’s face in it was good-looking and human, eyes crinkling at the corner when he smiled. I could see why someone could care about him, though I still didn’t like to think about Sam with his arms around him in a pool of blood, kissing his head. I leaned back against the rock, sharp and slimy though it was.
“That’s how I’ll tell it,” I said, “Really, Agent, it’s OK. It’s like your partner said. Proto-steampunk cyber lobster fisherman Josiah was a nasty piece of work. I’m glad you got rid of him.” And that much was true.
Dean wasn’t smiling any more.
“Brother,” he said, “Sam’s my brother. We’re not agents. And it’s not OK.” Brothers. Well, that didn’t make it less weird.
Dean walked back to Sam. “Go ahead and see the librarian lady home,” he said, “and do your crazy gardening trick or whatever. I’ll take care of the bones.” Sam gave him a long, probing, sober look, but then he dropped a hand on his shoulder and nodded.
“I need the wood,” he said. “The heart and the hand, whatever he was carving, I think the bits he had around him in that circle, too.”
Dean sort of poked among the bones, and said, “Huh.” I came a little closer, not too much, to see. There weren’t separate bits of wood anymore. They’d kind of fused together, grain running and knitting into a rough, twisty log. I was glad I didn’t have to see that wooden hand again, or the wooden heart I’d only glimpsed as a bloody lump in Dean’s hand.
“I wonder why the other bits didn’t do that, before,” Dean said to Sam, “the heart and the stake from Jeremy’s bones.” Brothers or whatever they were, right now they sounded like colleagues, talking shop.
“I think they need some kind of critical mass. Old Josiah knew enough to lop her up. But the stake’s certainly part of this now. You stabbed Josiah’s heart with it.” Sam looked interested, excited. “I think this might actually work. They always kept her on ships, you know, keeping them whole. Always part of a built thing. I think if we give her a chance in the ground she can grow her tree again.”
Dean picked up the log and handed it to Sam.
“Plant it, then,” he said. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe it will work. Maybe you can do something good here.”
We didn’t say much of anything, Sam and me, as we walked back into town. You’d think I’d have had questions, that I’d have found out Sam’s real name, at least. But all I said was, “The old maple in my backyard blew down last winter. You can plant it there, if you want. It’s the wrong time of year, though. The ground’s not frozen yet, but it will be hard.”
“I don’t think that will matter, for her,” said Sam. “I mean, it’s not like planting logs is how you grow trees in the first place. If it works it works. And I’m used to digging.” He borrowed my spade and we planted the log and he went off. He didn’t seem so happy any more, so sure it would work out. He was distracted when he said goodbye, fiddling with something in his pocket.
I came in and made coffee. Then I felt like bacon and eggs. I’m not usually a big breakfast person, but it was Saturday, and close on ten. Call it brunch. Lee and I used to go out to brunch sometimes on the weekend, when we felt like it. Then I sat down at the table and started to write this.
The lignum vitae notes are missing from their folder. I guess Sam and Dean took care of that. I’ve gathered all the other relevant bits, even Dr. Edlicott’s diary, which doesn’t belong with Josiah’s papers at all. I’m putting them with this in the dustiest of the old boxes, at the back of the dustiest shelf. Like I said, once the rest is up on our site, chances are no one will ever check back, and no one will read this. It will last, though. Paper does. I have a lot of faith in the survival instincts of wood pulp.
I dream in the ground. Knitting together, nudging the earth with a new rootlet, I dream of spring, of my first leaves in the sun. I dream of branching, thickening, of rooting deep, of seasons and growth rings and sap. I dream of breaking like a chrysalis. I’ll step out, naked, shrunken thickets on my head, under my arms, between my legs. I’ll have legs. Legs and brain and womb, teeth, spine, liver, thighs. I can hardly remember the words. Parts of a whole. I’ll take in breath and taste the cold, salty fog.
Parts of a whole. But I won’t be. I won’t be whole. I’ve been betrayed. I probably was before, probably by a god. This time I remember it.
This part of me is far away. The air is dry, and there’s no salt in it here. Funny. All this long, long time, there’s always been salt in the air. There was salt where this one interceded for me, where he put me together and planted me, gave me a chance of life. We aren’t near the sea now. I’ve always lived near the sea.
I can feel the shape he’s carving me into, in this dry place. A crude human figure, bow-legged.
“Sorry,” he says, talking to me while he works, like the terrible old man, “I’m sorry,” and I’m sure he is. He’s merciful, this one, like a god. But he goes on carving, tiny curled shavings of me falling away like the leaves that I’m going to have.
“I really am sorry,” he says. “I mean, not that it means much. But I do know what it’s like, living with something missing, having someone take pieces of you. I don’t want to do this. But I have to try. I have to get it off him.”
I can’t answer, of course. He’s laboring over the figure’s arm, carving a symbol. Its shape burns into me, corrosive as acid. It’s old, I know that. I think it’s older than I am.
There’s a fire in the room. I can hear it crackling. Whatever he’s trying, I know what it entails. He’s going to burn me after all. Or part of me, at least. Who knows which part? Maybe when I step out of the shattered chrysalis of my trunk my voicebox will be gone.
It’s not that I don’t understand. Whatever grief or violation or crime I’d been fleeing, way back when I’d taken root, when the bark closed over my mouth, I understand desperation. It’s deep in my grain. And I know my loss, my attritions, aren’t this one’s fault. Most of me was scattered long before he was born. That terrible old man cut out more of me for less. But this one knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s hoping it’s the vital piece of me he’s got, the one that will make it work. Two hearts, the terrible old man carved, and only one went into the kindly earth. He carried away the other, to this dry place.
I hope it will fail, what he’s trying. I hope whatever he tries fails.