They left kill-devil country behind in the morning, preacher still blessing himself in a room full of burnt Bibles, rolled north into a belt another kind. Old mines. Trees.
Been running, Sam thinks, foundry to forge to fire; possession to possession, ghost to ghost like some spirit telegraph. His head drops forward almost to the dash. It’s been hinting at rain since the state line.
You OK, Dean says.
Yeah, Sam says, and he's worrying at a nail, worrying because they’re running, and who knows from what anymore, monsters or their own.
Darkness in their mother’s eyes.
Don’t look it, Dean says.
Trees along the highwayside, a dark river of them running and running.
Missouri, Minnesota. Iowa, Ohio, Manitoba. Pennsylvania; Kentucky, now. Down south, up north, east and west and in the middle. Never been settled. Sometimes Sam is sick with it.
Waverly (not so long ago) was full of souls. The foundry was full of ghosts, labor town lost in the upgrades of the 20th; the funeral for Fox was demons and doubt; witches. Just not sure where he ends, sometimes, or begins--and that’s being a vessel forever. That’s being a memory.
Sam? Dean’s looking at him again, at him and the road and him again; said they had a case here, said something was eating folks in these trees, somewhere in these hardwoods along the Ohio.
Yeah. Irritable, he knows. But forests eat people and Winchesters perk and run, never mind the ghosts, the souls; dead hunters or torture or the devil.
(North of here they rebelled over whiskey, land running with it; south of here knobs; creeks, bourbon-brown and full of cottonmouths.)
Something in the woods, and nothing left behind.
North and west of the old timber town, Catlettsburg; a refinery, then trees.
People here talk, rolling, riverine; a little coal-dusty: mutant meth hogs, amphibious lizards, wood boogers, Licking River, mothmen. Further west, in some dark hollow, a bluetick howling on the end of a chain. Stills smoking off in the woods.
Twenty years ago, not far from here, a man walked into the trees along the Ohio, and never came out. Had blood on his hands.
They rejected a Ramada off 64, went old-school: grotty ceiling, trunks painted on the walls, strange enough.
Gotta eat, Dean says, slaps a sandwich down on the table. It looks like ham. It is ham, Sam reckons, or maybe just the cheese, because sometimes Dean sees him as vegetarian, and sometimes he is.
He takes a bite.
Been awhile since Dean fed him up. Dean looks a little shaky himself, gives Sam the eye:
Seriously--you feeling OK?
Yeah, Sam says, just—
(the past feels a little close, is all, like, nipping right there are at your heels, and you don’t even know exactly where those are. That’s hunting to escape.)
Dean seems to get it, because he pushes a cold Coke across the table, opens the laptop, says--
Sam drifts, reads about bluegrass and timberkill, Yggdrasil, autosomal recessives and tree-man disease, Buddha under the banyan; remembers the old orchard, so many years ago when they were children, when his brother almost broke up with apple pie. Then: coalfields, Laborer’s Local, feuds, rank firetrees in hell, whispering oaks and lotus, the tree of forgetting. Disappearance. This: places in Japan where trees grow long-armed and hungry, sucked-out bones stone-stacked at their bases.
Dean, he says, watches his brother three-point an empty can--
look at this.
Six missing, past six weeks. Long before that, on the land close by the river, a disappearance; two. Prichard Hayes and his cousin, Ladd.
They eat again, ditch the naps, strip and suit up and let Baby out, Dean jonesing for whiskey and good gas and innuendo. (“Moist county, so where’s it wet?” “Ashland,” Sam said, smirked, “liquor store on Winchester Ave.”)
The road rattles them a little, country not county; the house is a gray-white frame on a humped hill, scraped haint-blue door; oaks close.
A woman with Jessica Moore's face is in the doorway, one boot cocked on a porch-sag--
help you boys?
Her name is Pearl, or Leta, depending on who you believe. Pearl or Leta Hayes, that is—and she doesn’t crack a smile at aliases, side-eye the suits.
Second look and Jess is gone, grown older and gone, but she was there, and maybe Mary, and while Sam’s at it another kind of flashback, shadow-longrifle with a stock made from a hunk of maple: woodswoman, or great-granddaughter of.
Yeah, Dean says, and Sam tries a deeper kind of smile.
Sheriff Jack know you’re here, she asks. She smokes, wears it in her hair.
My brother went missing back in ‘97, she says, my cousin too; case couldn’t be colder.
You’d be surprised, Dean says, and she smiles then, way that gives Sam the memory of burnt blood, of post-telekinesis like quakes, tremors under limes and shales, monadnock and oils; whatever’s under this dug-up earth.
Leta-Pearl is looking at him.
I’m sure you know they were both in trouble, she says, that they were—
That they had problems with, um, addiction, Sam says, hope you don’t mind that we know that. And we know about the--
Hatfield and McCoy thing, Dean says, and she rolls her eyes at that.
Little family land dispute, says Leta, or Pearl, I don’t think there’s much to that anymore.
But she holds open the door.
Leta-Pearl’s kitchen smells burnt. Not just smokes, Sam thinks, not tea. Tar and darker saps, catnip and bloodroot. Makes him buzz, old-school. Dean’s hackles are straight up.
She offers them water, minerally, cool—that they don’t drink. Little bunch of white-belled blooms, pitchered on the table.
You know about the recent disappearances, Sam tries, watches her light up, listens to her tell them: her brother, her cousin, some history of the eastern coalfields, some history of barefoot running through woods; her daughter, skinny pigtails in an old photo, now living halfway across the county, her daughter’s father across town; old sorrows worn with time. Old trees.
The house is close, on the dim side, chairs and sepiatone; something piney.
I don’t know what more I can tell you, Leta-Pearl says, but she wants to, is what Sam thinks, or no—she’d want to if she could.
Walk the land, you want to, she says; we don’t let hunters on our part of it.
She means the other kind.
The hell is going on here, Dean says, on the downhill back to the car, she give you a witchy vibe?
Oh yeah, Sam says, but---
I don’t think that’s all of it.
The road rolls them homewards, or no, to the room with beds, where Dean needs a drink and Sam drifts again, reads:
Celt and Cherokee; copper, divination, dowsing and cup-scrying and spiderwebs. Breath and wounds and warts; practical magic. Bee tenders. Black goats. Hillfolk hoodoo lost to- –
Dean is dealing beers into the old minifridge, a straight flush of cheap not-local.
So what ate Hayes and his cousin, Dean says, and what’s she got to do with it?
Sam shuts the laptop, hears something like wind outside, looks at his brother, the shade under his eyes.
Tomorrow: to the woods.
Sam dreams of a blue door and a starveling girl and a miner’s ghost.
And as far as the eye can see—
Old trees. Orchards, all those years ago, brothers and sisters holding hands; woods with Bobby chiding them about Bambi.
Caves. They were children then.
Sam dreams about things he doesn’t want to remember.
Sam wakes up and finds his brother passed out at the table, breathing noisily, unquiet earth, through his open mouth.
They’ve never talked about the soul bomb, or much after, about the borders they’ve crossed, had crossed, about Sam trembling at night and Dean rolling it up and drinking it down; they don’t like to think about souls much, these days--
Damn, but these trees.
Oh, dude, Sam says. He covers his brother up, he covers up his brother; he covers.
These are the names of the missing: Alley, Barnard, Robinette, Bryant, Clay, Burns.
They all had records, Sam says; they all had trouble. Secrets, probably. Mothers and sisters and brothers and sons.
Coffee. Blue Kentucky sunrise. Suit up and roll out to talk to Leta-Pearl’s ex, Ray, because it makes some sense.
Ray wears a Stetson, cowboy boots, works a grullo on a lead like it’s two degrees of Western separation, tells them he comes from out west and means: the other coal country, Muhlenberg, McLean.
Oh, yeah, Ray says, Prichard Hayes and his cousin. Pearl used to dote on her brother until--
Oh, Leta, Ray’s wife says, we don’t see her much anymore, been ten years since Ray and I got together.
Ray clucks to the horse, spits over the paddock rail.
Look, he says, people go missing in these woods more than you all would know, but--her brother killed her cousin and buried him under the oldest pine on that property. Didn’t she tell you?
Uh, Sam says, meets his brother’s eyebrow-arch , no.
Guess you see Leta more than I thought, says Ray’s wife.
Regroup: dry bar called the Rusty Bell, Shirley Temples named for guns and birds instead; long-lost bird dogs. Sandwiches, nod-wink camo ice cream.
Sam overhears: “your brother’s got creek-cut dimples,” sees Dean swivel from the tattooed owner in his direction.
Yeah, he gets that a lot, Dean says.
People are talking about: troglofauna, mines and caves, politics and fences; bridges, trolls.
Of course there’s a troll around here, Dean says, bites into a fry, troll-ghost-wendigo-witch hybrid? Man-eating tree?
Old ghost-business, probably, Dean says. Not like they haven’t seen that recently. All of the above.
“Ghosts don’t take folk, folks take folk,” Bobby says, from somewhere in the past. It’s nonsensical. Sam’s got a buzz between the eyes and a revisionist Cobb on the table and a jittery, sodajerk knee.
Well, it’s like this, a dude in professor specs and a trucker hat says, off to his right:
You think people are country and they ain’t; you think people aren’t country anymore, and they are.
Aw, shit, someone says from the kitchen, it looks like a field full of Wednesdays, if that’s woe-
or the day before, Sam thinks, which definitely is.
Dean’s knee knocks his under the table.
We gotta go to the woods, Sam says.
Breadcrumbs. For real. Someone’s sandwich, croweaten and strewn, Sam guesses, but yeah, fairytale in a way you’d find hamhanded if you weren’t a Winchester.
They walk into woods and don’t know who they are. Oak hickory maple poplar ash. Honeysuckle and privet. Dogwood, sassafras, hop hornbeam.
Winchesters in the wild are something different. They’re always in the wild but not always like this, creak of this and that, and bramble, darkness by day.
Bones gnawed on, tracks and trackless, old shells, not filled with salt. Hunters have been here anyway, not their kind.
But they’ve got guns and boots and shovels and scars and souls and the hawkeye for an old tree.
Sam? Dean says, jerks a thumb, over here.
Pinus virginianus, only Virginia pine in a sea of deciduous. Lean and tall with age; grasping.
They drop and dig, dark disturbed earth.
There are bones at the base of the tree alright, but it’s been a long time. Almost merged with the roots. Two skeletons sucked clean as fresh heartwood.
Whaddya think, Dean says, these look like they’ve been uncovered before, and --
Either way, Sam says.
Yeah, Dean says, Prichard and Ladd; light ‘em up.
There’s a wild-turkey sort of sound in the wood when he says it, and a tremor Sam’s not sure’s on this plane.
They set fire to the bones but, thing is—
that’s the thing about blood-soaked ground.
Dean turns into a tree. No: Sam does. Dean’s arms go first, barking up heavy as oak. Greenwood hair, rib-twigs, root-feet. Sam’s eyes go fibrous, strange.
Dean turns into tree, and Sam turns into a tree and--
something snaps out of him, like a punch. An axe. Something that breaks the bark wide, shouts quakes at the rings, xylem, at the hard skin of himself, and Dean.
Says no to nature, Dean would say. Drops them stripped to the ground, skin again.
What the fuck, Dean coughs, grabs a handful of Sam’s ripped flannel, what the—
Sam rolls up, coughs a dead bud right into his palm.
Twenty years ago a man walked into these woods with blood on his hands.
He never meant to come out.
What is it with Kentucky cemeteries, these family plots; atlas obscura of mossed-up graves.
They walked some, lines like broken molars, before they got to the ones they wanted, the empty ones, looked at them awhile, brothers at cousins, at brothers.
Like Leta-Pearl looking at them now over her kitchen boards:
Found something, she says, a couple of months ago, note my brother wrote before he walked into the woods, stuck up under a drawer in an old dresser. He and Ladd were fighting about the land thing, and high, and--
He went there to bury his cousin, Sam says, under the pine tree.
Been on this land so long, Leta-Pearl says, I just—when I found that note I tried to wake it up, tried to get the blood out of it, purge the place of violence, but something else woke up instead.
Yeah, Dean says, got that.
Sam looks at his brother, and Leta shifts her pitcher of kitchen blooms, lights up a smoke.
When I found out, she says, I went out there, asked the woods to do something about it.
Wait, Dean says, you asked the land to—you’re saying that your brother killed your cousin, went out there, planted him, and then—
That old pine was hungry, back then, Leta-Pearl says.
And now, Sam asks. She looks at him like—
maybe he’s grown something. Another limb.
The whole wood’s hungry now, she says, all of it.
Six missing all had records, Sam says, did they--
Only people with blood on their hands, says Leta-Pearl, they just--
Turned into trees, Dean says, or something.
I was just figuring that, Leta-Pearl says, when you showed up.
Backfired, Dean muses, made yourself kind of a suicide forest.
Term’s misused a lot, Leta says, blows out smoke, and woods-magic’s a lot harder to control, these days. I was—I wasn’t even sure it was mine.
The kitchen smells like an old fire. Juniper maybe, and psi.
So, Sam says, and sets his palms, flat as a map, on the table, how do we get it to stop. Or get them to stop. The trees.
Leta pushes an old book across, points out some hen-scratch and page-tears and sign--
Maybe this. Maybe--
We could bring some firepower to the party, Dean says, not that I’m into workin’ with witches.
You think I didn’t see it right off, Leta-Pearl says, gives him a look, I may be in the granny-magic league, but I know spellworkers when I see ‘em. Suits don’t cover that up. Figured you two could handle yourselves.
Sam’s buzzing between the brows, reaching for the white bells in their little pitcher.
Shortia galacifolia, acony bell, Leta-Pearl says, rare, doesn’t even grow around here.
Further south, she says, winks at him-
and maybe in Japan.
She was no Rowena, Dean grouses, driving, never thought I’d say that.
You think that hillbilly hoodoo worked, Dean asks, or—
Sam says maybe it did, and trees roll past, brighter afternoon.
Did you, Dean says, break us out of that tree-spell with some sort of—
I don’t know what it was, Sam says, I thought all of that psychic crap was gone. That’s what I told Magda, anyway.
Dean looks at him, back at the road.
Dean'd take his hand, Sam thinks, he almost would, were it years ago, were it—
He’s little shaky. You think you know yourself but you don’t.
These woods I think know.
I don’t know how to feel about it, Sam says, sudden. Maybe he’s thinking of pines, empty-gutted; cousins with blood on their hands; blood on their own hands. Or Waverly, souls; or their mother; or possession and transgression and that’s not all of it.
Yeah, Dean says, but not cranky, not amped, just himself, bark still on his flannel, red troll- blood plaid, not needing to say what it is, I know.
This is what Kentucky is:
Fallen grace in an oak. Souls.
Towns. Rugless, Carter, Wolf, Hopewell, Prichard, Rush, Grayson, Bolts Fork; West Liberty, ghost-path of a tornado, wreckage; haunt-harmonies on the country music highway. Blue Heron, abandoned; Mine 18. All the shells of trees. That rare hemlock maple, Catlettsburg center--magic but harmful to none. Forest: outcrop, rock, bridge, stream, waterfall, wildflower, ginseng, spring, berry, trillium, mushroom, clearcut, deer, snake, gun, rock, lime. Open-armed, open-mouthed, bloody woods.
On the way home the state westers through hardwoods, reddens. Glow all the way, setting far away over Kansas.
Grab a burger in Rabbit Hash, Dean asks, faux-gallant, dismisses it with a what-kinda-meat-is-that brow waggle.
They have a dog for mayor there, Sam says, because it’s true, or it was, or it might have been.
Scuffletown, Dean muses, and that’s another ghost-hamlet with guts on its doors; Cherokee tears.
So much pain in the land. Can practically hear the earth screaming, is what Sam thinks-- and he's shared a mineshaft with the devil.
Thought I'd call Mom again, see how she's doing, Dean says, more to himself.
Sam? Dean says.
Sam says he’s OK, so Dean writes an elegy for the dry counties, pulls them in for donuts and a distillery tour. Dean eats, drinks. Sam gets a red velvet donut and chokes on sugar. Dean looks queasy but happy. Dean sneezes at the distillery cat. Sam claps him on the back.
The highway again, bending towards Muhlenberg, tells him to-
get it together, boy, heels and all. All of yourself, your memories, your injured parts, places where you’re burnt, your beetle-kill and blowdown, all of it.
There’s a bump in the road and Sam blinks and goes black and there they are, he and his brother, a vision, he and his brother running scared and hollow through woods, muddied and bloodied and gray-suited as jailbirds. His head drops forward almost to the dash.
Sam? Dean says.
I’m OK, Sam says, and maybe he is.
The road rivers under them and the trees, running and running, pour one out for what might have been, what still could be.