This week, a story of an obsessed dead twin and a magical tree from Tonya Liburd.
Originally published in Chiral Mad 5, out summer 2021.
Transcript available below.
Narrated by Tonia Ransom.
Produced by Davis Walden of the Viridian Wild Podcast
Executive Producer and Host: Tonia Ransom
Hi. I’m Tonia Ransom, creator and executive producer of NIGHTLIGHT, a horror podcast featuring creepy tales written and performed by Black creatives from all over the world.
This week we have a story originally published in Chiral Mad 5 about a creepy tree and a dead twin.
But before we get to a twin that just won’t let go, just a reminder that all episodes are brought to you by the NIGHTLIGHT Legion. Thanks to our newest members klynch, Heather, and Spencer. Thanks also to Asiyah and Melissa for increasing their pledges. You all have my eternal gratitude. We’re working toward our goal of bringing you new episodes every week, but we need your help. Just go to patreon.com/nightlightpod to join the NIGHTLIGHT Legion and get a shoutout on the podcast.
One warning: this episode contains scenes of self-harm.
Now sit back, turn out the lights, and enjoy The Drunken Tree, by Tonya Liburd, narrated by me, Tonia Ransom.
The lore went that someone, an adolescent most likely, whose magic was chaotic, unmanaged, read A Poison Tree by William Blake on the sidewalk across from where the parking lot used to be on College Park, while rain fell like knives.
That’s what started the tree growing. Only it didn’t sprout poisonous fruit, as per that famous poem.
A facility had to be built around the tree, of course. Glass ceiling, white-grey concrete walls, a brown-tinted glass door with a pushbar off to the back. No one seemed to mind that, in that particular spot between College and Gerrard, along Yonge Street, there was no sidewalk anymore. Red tape had to be maneuvered to allow such a thing, after it was assessed that the tree wasn’t harmful.
It was called The Drunken Tree because a child, in the first days, had said that the tree didn’t know what it wanted to grow, since it grew all sorts of fruit: “It’s drunk!” and the name stuck.
People ate the random kinds of fruit that sprouted from it, and something akin to some sort of religious experience seemed to happen to whoever ate any of them. They also transformed temporarily into either a random thing, or something symbolically meaningful to the person, after eating. There was no way to tell which would happen.
Hence why everything possible on the person, clothes included, would have to be removed beforehand. All of the effects of transformation were either beneficial or neutral.
A security detail was needed because things could get ornery around the tree. The tree only bore one fruit per day, and a lottery had to be done to determine who would get the opportunity to eat it, once it appeared. People had to arrive by a certain time of day to be able to participate in the lottery.
Security was present to keep order. And make sure no one got creative.
Nicole was part of the security detail. She stood at her post in the tree’s vicinity in the courtyard. It had a night-black hollow in its base. Roots tangled at the bottom. A shallow moat surrounded the circle of grass where the tree stood. The water of the moat neither froze in the winter, nor got hot in the summer. From what they could understand, the moat was magical, but did not possess any magical properties that affected people when its water was imbibed.
Nicole snuck a look at the Drunken Tree. She eyed it warily. She wasn’t as readily accepting as others, a fact which she kept to herself.
Every so often, resin could be seen oozing through the bark. It hardened into random colours and the visitors called them ‘jewels’; it was the only other thing from the tree that affected people. Nicole could not see any jewels on the bark of the tree from where she stood. She doubted Elias, a fellow guard on her shift, could see any, either, on the tree’s other side.
A lady slipper orchid grew on the lower portion of the top half of the tree; a wasp of unusual size circled the flower. Someone was actually able to fit a lady slipper flower onto a premature baby’s foot, once when the flower bloomed unusually large. How they managed to get permission to have the baby leave the hospital to get there, was anyone’s guess. Not only was no one allowed to take any objects from the tree outside, but also people around the age of puberty–especially if they hadn’t yet manifested their Gift–were not allowed to eat of the fruit or resin. There was no word on whether there was any effect on the baby.
Today the fruit that had appeared on The Drunken Tree resembled a calabash.
Nicole stood at the back of the sixty or so gathered while Errol, the supervisor, called out the lottery draw. A woman in a black shirt and pants yelped in surprise, then started crying loudly. Nicole could call this display “ugly crying”.
Never mind the fact that they weren’t identical twins, so if one wasn’t ugly, the other could be – Natasha said it because Nicole failed to see her own beauty in the mirror. “You ugly, ungrateful bitch!” she yelled at Nicole now, eyes roaring like hot stars, destructive magic pulsing at her fingertips, lightning from her splayed fingers bleaching the sky…
Nicole shook her head wildly to bring herself back to the moment. Elias across the courtyard raised an eyebrow at her. She made a dismissive gesture with one brown hand; he nodded, and looked elsewhere, his expression going blank.
You’re alive, she told herself. She’s not.
Recently, Natasha had planned her death, and didn’t want to come back, so she had made arrangements with people Nicole couldn’t even guess at. But Natasha did not count on her own Gift – which everyone manifested at puberty. Now Natasha was stuck. Not alive, not dead, in between everything… she wanted Nicole to come to the other side with her.
But Nicole had always counted on her own Gift. Physical prowess, resilience and healing. It’s why she was a security guard. Which was ironic, considering her mother had said, back when she was a kid, that she was worried about Nicole because she was too soft. When Nicole started getting sports trophies and became a security guard her mother said, “Nothing’s changed, you’re now your sister’s bodyguard.”
Her lips pursed with the remaining angry hurt she could still feel for her mother discounting her.
The tearful woman who’d won the daily lottery draw was being led to the wooden plank crossing the moat to the grass. She couldn’t make out the woman’s ancestry. Probably a hodgepodge of things, evocative of her own background, only Nicole just had two ancestries in her, her father black, her mother East Indian. She herself and her twin were born here, in Toronto.
Nicole looked at her watch. Time seemed to stretch thin until the end of her shift.
When the beautiful and miraculous became mundane, lackluster and everyday…
It always seemed to start out harmlessly.
Nicole saw a small blackhead on her nose.
Leaning in, she squeezed her brown-tan coloured skin, and the blackhead slid out rapidly, piercing the air, the top black, the rest of it white.
She swiped it away, looking for another.
There weren’t any more. She looked at a shin, balancing it over one knee without thinking.
There were some pores on her shin that looked like they needed to have hairs released.
She put one short fingernail on one side, and one on the other. She squeezed. The sheath of dry skin over the pore broke, and some clear liquid came out. Nicole squeezed again. Out came a black hair, distorted and curled from the ingrowth.
She pulled the hair all the way out. Looked for another pore. Did it again.
But, eventually, one would run out of pores on the reachable side of a shin.
Leaning on a desk, she went for the skin above the elbow on the outside of her arm.
She found more. There was a scab on the inside of the knee on her other leg that was distracting her. She moved to the outside skin on the other elbow.
The scab was itching.
Nicole yielded to the temptation to touch, to interfere, was it starting to separate from the skin, it’d still be pink under there, if not white… she pulled off the scab. Red.
Not all of the scab had come off. Yellow liquid rose from the parts not bleeding, eager to bond with what blood had escaped and form another scab so the wound could heal.
She picked up a nail clipper and cut off a part that had separated from the skin but not come off, thinking to herself it’d guarantee the scab wouldn’t pull off easily… bending her arm, she went back to her skin.
She used the tool in the nailclipper to push out anything that might be in the pores. She ended up marring her skin and drawing more blood.
Her skin was dry, “ashy”. Having a Gift didn’t mean your skin was perfect. And Nicole was just dark enough for her ashy skin to show, so she could score lines onto her skin.
She tried making hash patterns from straight lines, made more than one tick tack toe mark on her thigh.
She put down the nailclippers and went for a small knife.
Sitting down again, she made better, deeper marks.
While drawing a line, she drew blood.
Nicole tapped the tip of the knife with nervous energy. She drew blood on her fingertip.
Pushing the tip onto her thigh, she drew a bright red dot.
She used the knife’s edge to cut off layers of unfeeling surface skin off the tip of the injured finger. Closer and closer to living flesh she went.
Nicole sliced off some flesh. Blood came out more urgently this time.
She threw the knife away from her.
Tried to slow down her breathing.
She scowled. “You wanna play, eh? Why don’t ya just go all the way? Why don’t you…” She stormed off the chair and went back to the knife.
Walked to the bathroom mirror.
Looked at her reflection.
“Why don’t ya… just do this and get it over with?”
She skimmed flesh off of her lower arms.
Cut lines into her face.
“Or this, huh?!” She lopped surface flesh off her cheekbones. The white of deep skin, then the filling in with the red of escaping blood.
She sliced the skin off the top of one kneecap. Burning pain. She ignored it.
Nicole was still sating it no matter what she did.
If she dug in with a knife this time, would nothing dribble out of her but dead air and shadows…?
She heard the plaintive moan of her dead twin, caught on the other side. Willing her to join. Pressuring the still-existing connection between them. Feeding her actions in her attempts to fight.
Everything stayed the same.
Redness dribbled down her leg. Dripped off her face.
Nicole threw the knife onto the black and white tiled floor and undressed to take a shower.
Afterwards, numbly, she cleaned up the pooled blood on the bathroom floor and about the apartment.
She stood for long moments before the mirror, staring at the sink, after she wrung out the bloody cleaning cloth.
She burst into tears.
She should just disappear like vapour into the air.
Her life was meaningless.
This was a debilitating struggle.
Nicole rose, like she did every morning; she looked at her reflection in the mirror.
Healed skin. No cuts. No scars. No small missing bits of flesh.
Disappointment burst black through her veins. She let out her breath.
Each morning as part of her routine, Nicole had breakfast, brushed her teeth, applied light makeup, then put on her uniform: a navy blue long-sleeved cotton shirt, a similarly coloured jacket with the company logo, black pants, pressed to show every sharp crease. Communication devices. Her cell phone.
At work, Nicole could become somebody else, pretend to be a healthy, functioning woman during the day. Sometimes she almost believed it herself.
The grass around the Drunken Tree began to breathe, the green blades heaved, pulsed. The walls of the courtyard felt brighter, closer. Something appeared on one of the branches, close to the trunk.
Today it resembled a peach.
It wouldn’t be a true peach, however.
Elias caught her eye and lifted his chin in greeting across the courtyard. She did the same back at him.
Right now she preferred solitude and some isolation at work; she didn’t want any inadvertent revelation of what was going on with her. But Elias seemed intent on being there, at the very least as a comforting, reassuring presence. She suspected he figured something was up. Staying as far away from him as possible was the only way of avoiding things coming out into the open; he’d urge her to talk, she knew it.
And she couldn’t.
At lunch, Nicole sat at the lunchroom table, jacket over the back of the chair, alone.
That was until Elias entered.
He nodded at her. “Nicole.”
He walked over to the microwave, stuffed a sandwich in. “Need to get that cheese melted just right.” He leaned into the counter as he waited, his keys jingling.
Nicole nodded as the microwave hummed. Elias retrieved his nuked sandwich.
Elias peered at her. He slid his sandwich between his lips, took a bite, then spoke. “How was your day so far?”
He proceeded to make what was, to her, painful small talk.
Elias was simply trying to reach out, and she was rebuffing him at every turn.
“See you later,” he said at the end of their conversation. He left.
Nicole stared down into her bottle of sorrel.
Later on in the afternoon, Errol announced, “Ok, folks. It’s time.”
A silence descended on the gathering.
He spun the raffle drum, and withdrew a ticket.
The lucky winner of the draw turned, interestingly, into a Scarlet Ibis, the national bird of Trinidad and Tobago, where her parents were from, had met.
The man cried copious tears when his form returned. Elias put out an arm, offering gentle comfort. “Maybe it’s time you visited home and pay a visit to her resting place. It might be good for your soul.” The two black men stood together, commiserating.
Back at her post in the courtyard, Nicole watched the visitors mill about. People still came, and went, even after the lottery for the day had been drawn.
Her phone buzzed.
Her mother. Because her mother’s Gift was that she could tell people’s pasts when she touched them, Nicole had been avoiding being in her presence, too, which meant not seeing her; her mother kept asking why Nicole won’t visit, and…
Nicole looked up and resumed her watch. She wasn’t going to answer the phone.
The ceiling above throbbed and streamed with color, an effect of the lighting and design of the glass. She could feel herself almost warming up to the view…
You cut yourself last night.
Apprehension rose up from her belly and seized her heart.
The memory of what she did the night before kept screaming in the background, behind her eyes.
Nicole opened her cupboard door to get some soup to go with the salad for dinner.
All the cans were lined up in neat rows.
If one looked around the apartment, one would find all the items in her cupboards, the bags, the boxes, even the bathroom towels, were lined up in precise order.
It worked so well throughout her place.
Maybe one day, it would work just as well within her.
She sighed, took out a Campbell’s Jerk Chicken Soup with Vegetables, and closed the door.
After she’d had her dinner, she found herself looking at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. And beyond.
Nicole stared through the mirror into her twin’s dead eyes, the cloudy brown of which reflected the otherworld she was stuck in.
Her twin’s organs spilled out of her torso: constricting pink intestines wending around a rended liver and disfigured stomach, soft squishy insides going through the motions on the hard, black asphalt, not realizing that its function and use was at an end.
Nicole was going through the motions at work. Did she have an unanticipated, sudden end?
She didn’t have to memorize her twin’s insides, the blood on the road where the vehicle hit her, and in one staring eye. The image was burnt to the inside of Nicole’s eyelids. Every so often her twin haunted her with the view of the scene of her death, Natasha’s dead grey lips strained into a grey smile over grey teeth.
Nicole turned away.
She closed her eyes, pressed her fingers into them.
She felt her twin’s eyes on her back; they felt like the points of knives.
She walked away, Natasha’s sob a fist clenching Nicole’s heart.
She made sure she didn’t cut herself that night.
She tried so hard that she stayed still, still as a body in a grave, in her bed under her sheets, until there was nothing, just a blank mind, her body almost a corpse.
Outside, in the night, the rain hissed its way through the trees in the apartment building’s parking lot.
Worn, she finally curled into herself, and fell asleep.
At her post at work, Nicole’s phone vibrated in her pocket. She looked down to see who it was. Her mother was calling again.
She straightened back up, looking ahead, eyeing the visitors.
She caught a glimpse of Elias down the way. He was looking intensely at her. Contemplating something. He was going to come over, wasn’t he?
He started walking in her direction.
Yes, he was.
He stopped before her. He was taller and slightly higher in rank, so she had to pay some attention to him, even though their dealings were informal.
He looked down at her. “Hey, Nicole.”
She smiled up simply at him, not warm, not cold. Maybe he might retreat. “Hey.” She went back to looking around.
“You got a minute? We need to talk.”
She sighed inwardly. Outwardly, she beamed a bright smile and said, “Sure, what did you want to talk about?”
“Come with me to the moat.”
She followed him, and they both sat on the edge. Sunlight licked the water. The cool black current, laced with stars, moved around easily. One couldn’t see the bottom, although it wasn’t as deep as it appeared.
He wore a benign smile, almost the same kind of expression he used with the public. The internal lighting of the courtyard reflected off his shaved head.
“How have you been doing? It’s been a while since we’ve had a chat.” He held her gaze.
Trepidation wrapped itself around her throat. Looking into his eyes, she sat straighter. “I’m… I’m managing…”
His expression became conflicted. “I’ve heard that… your sister died. I’m really sorry.”
Nicole looked down into her hands, nodding silently.
“We’ve been talking about the possibility… of making an exception for you so you can get to eat the fruit once sometime. We’ve made special accommodations for you to get it; it makes sense, since as part of your job you’re so involved in the well-being and safety of the public of the Drunken Tree, that you’d get some exceptions, and a chance without having to go through the lottery…” He went silent, waiting for a response.
“That… that’s nice of you all, I’m flattered…”
“Look, Nicole, I have no idea what you’re going through. But I’ve seen some warning signs… you’re probably not aware that there are things that hint at the… darkness you’re navigating. And sometimes it looks exactly like that. Darkness. Well, to me, anyway.”
Shit, shit, shit, he can see… he can see through me…
He leaned closer. “I’m not saying that it’ll cure all your ills, but it may give you some well-needed insight. Or even some strength.”
Slowly, he stood, indicating the conversation was at an end. “Let me know what you think.”
She sat still for many moments, then she herself stood slowly, returning to her post.
Nicole was afraid of magic interacting – look what happened to her sister…
Her mom didn’t know that Natasha’s fatal vehicle accident was deliberate. Nicole had hid the depths of what Natasha had become, the things she had gotten into, was doing… her mom didn’t know. It would break her.
If Natasha wanted to go, who was she to intervene? Natasha had had a plan. She was being methodical. She’d find a way. She’d be a good girl and be compliant and get discharged from the hospital, and then go and do it anyhow.
Lots of people bungled their suicide attempts, usually at the first try.
This wasn’t Natasha’s first.
When she’d failed at her first attempt, she’d made Nicole promise not to tell when they were adolescents, some years after their Gifts had manifested at puberty.
“I can’t do it for myself”, Natasha told her when she approached Nicole later on.
“I’m not gonna kill you.”
“If you won’t do it, then I’ll find someone who will…”
The best laid plans…
Was this Nicole’s story to tell, anyway?
It all felt to Nicole like a veil pulled over the world, that she herself wasn’t really there, that somehow, somewhere, this wasn’t happening.
She went through the motions every day, waking up before the sun rose.
She let the shower run hot, to blast away the sleep grime, the bathroom filling with steam and diluting the early light.
Her life was filled with motions she went through by rote: eating, doing her hair, putting on her uniform, standing at wherever her post was in the courtyard that day… her days like unvisited graves. Always, she stood outside herself while she watched her other self go through her functions.
Tonight, like it happened so often, as she ate her Campbell’s Butter Chicken Soup and a salad, the food was tasteless in her mouth.
She washed her bowl in the sink, put it in the drainer, put the empty can in the blue recycling bin. Her feet walked her to the unlit bathroom, and she stared at her reflection, not having the want to turn the lights on.
Natasha had arranged her death with persons unknown. The vehicle accident did not go as planned. Selfishly, without any thought to what Nicole wanted, she demanded, willed, Nicole to join her in her pain. All so she wouldn’t be alone in her mistakes, her misdeeds.
Natasha had always been the more dominant one.
Nicole had felt the catastrophe when it happened, the maligned magic, during the daytime when she was on her shift, continuing on with her post in the courtyard, the knowledge between her ribs. Natasha had appeared to her that night. Ever since then, Nicole’s days had gotten stranger.
She saw Natasha in the depths of her mirror.
I want to move like you do. This from Natasha.
Nicole knew the ‘flattery’ wouldn’t last; it was just a matter of time ’till Natasha’s mood turned, because she expected Nicole to toe the line.
Her twin’s smile faded, like a flower dying over time, withering away to nothingness.
I want to slice you open with a knife. I want to hide myself inside of you.
Her words were an arrow through the lungs.
She radiated malice. Nicole could feel it coming for her.
Nicole imagined her twin walking into her through her skin.
She clenched her hands into fists until her fingernails cut into her palms.
Cut… blood… no… she could do it…
She needed to cut.
Her teeth clamped around the insides of her cheeks, as if she could gnaw and bleed away the pain, the need to relieve the pressure….
Her palm struck hard against her cheek. Pain, heat.
With a cry, she lashed out and broke the bathroom mirror.
No, no! Now she’ll haunt me another way! Mirrors were the least painful…
A shard of glass had cut the meaty part of her palm, the incision like a smile.
More cuts shone, on her face, her arm, from where blood glittered like black water in the unlit bathroom.
Nicole slumped to her knees, to the floor. A mournful note escaped her lips.
She reached over for the knife–never far away–that had fallen out of the broken medicine cabinet onto the floor.
In, out. Her breathing quickened, her arm shivering holding the knife.
She cut into the flesh of her leg, screaming and sobbing against the red, until the blood ran into the tiled grooves of the black and white floor.
Pain numbed her soul, her world. She became a void, an empty shell. No feeling.
The blood turned black beneath her fingernails, her healing abilities already kicking in.
Nicole climbed up to the sink, clinging to the white porcelain, hunching over it. She washed up. Stood still when she was done.
She turned abruptly on her heel and headed to her bed. Buried herself beneath the sheets. Howled into her pillow. Her whole room rang hollowly, like a dark, cracked bell. She screamed for so long her voice fell away.
She couldn’t go without maiming herself for one more night…
Then the silence, always the silence. Coming for her.
Nicole had a question to answer: am I more afraid of the fear and Elias offering hope? Or am I more afraid of what would happen if I give in to my sister?
She’d decided on the latter.
A few days ago, she’d approached Elias, her heart in her throat, and had said what had made a beatific smile spread across his face, and made him grab her shoulders in joy: yes, she’d like to partake of the fruit of the Drunken Tree.
And now the day was here…
“Hello EVERYONE,” Errol said, gesturing to get people’s attention, “We have an announcement. There will be no fruit today for the public. You are still welcome to stay and visit. But for right now, you have to clear out. You can come back later. Ok? We’ll be putting up signs.”
Most of the people nodded and started to head out. A few complained; Elias and Errol stepped aside to talk to them to reassure them that everything would be open tomorrow.
One by one, the visitors cleared out.
Jim, a security guard, closed the door to the courtyard behind the last departing figure. Elias turned to her.
“How do you feel?” he asked her, putting a gentle hand on her shoulder.
Nicole’s mouth opened, and then closed silently.
She didn’t know.
She shook her head rapidly, closing her eyes.
She opened her eyes. Elias looked concerned.
“I’m… fine. I’m… not sure how I feel… but I’m ready. I think.”
“Take a moment.” He gestured across the courtyard to the edge of the moat by the tree.
Nicole sat down. She closed her eyes again, trying to look to her center.
She felt Elias sit down near her.
“I’m… scared. And excited.”
Nicole took a deep breath. And another. In, out…
And something popped, and she was present. In the moment.
It was then that she noticed her hands were shaking, palms sweating, in her anticipation of eating the fruit.
She opened her eyes.
Elias, Errol, Jim, other security guards and staff were all there.
Silent encouragement settled in the air like a welcoming hug from an old friend, as she was surrounded by a ring of cloths held high, to allow privacy as she removed her clothing.
Nicole stood ready as a makeshift covering was wrapped loosely around her.
A prickling feeling intruded on her awareness, like the way air felt right before a thunderstorm.
Errol took the day’s fruit off the tree.
He brought it over, and presented it to her, tenderly.
“Here you go, Nicole,” he said.
She took the fruit from Errol’s hands into her own.
The fruit today resembled a large bitter orange.
The skin of it looked a rough yellow-orange tinted with the faintest hints of green.
The gathered security guards and staff uttered syllables of tenderness; she saw their mouths move.
She peeled the skin back, and sank her teeth into the fruit, her tastebuds registering first bitter, then sweet, juicy flesh. This was not how bitter oranges tasted; this was unique, uncanny.
Her fear, the dread, the trepidation – they all disappeared.
In her mouth, the sweet juice diffused with joy, melted into her bloodstream and coursed throughout her body. With every bite it felt as though the notes, colours of the fruit were invading her. The colours that she tasted played beneath her eyelids in patterns of bright pigments and brushed, batik textures. Her eyes rolled back. Small moans crested out of her mouth, wave-like.
Nicole could not decide if there was a greater pleasure in gulping all of that flavour in one go, or in extending the pleasure, not wanting it to end, chewing sometimes slowly, sometimes greedily. Her mouth and surrounding area were wet with pulp and juice. Extending an eager tongue, she licked the last of it off her face, then sucked her fingers. She took her time.
She looked about. Everyone looked like they were waiting.
Of course. It wasn’t over yet.
What will happen to her now…?
The feeling of vulnerability made her throat clench.
She felt it slide throughout her body, the pain; it contorted her form, rending her insides from one side of her body to the other.
The urge to move was like an ache; but she couldn’t.
That’s when she opened her eyes. Her feet; they were rooted to the spot.
Her eyes widened in alarm, and she bucked and tried to move, but she could feel it already; roots growing below the floor, deeper, deeper…
She began to hyperventilate. This was one of her worst fears, becoming like the Drunken Tree; she could feel branches stretching out from her chest, above her head; she became more solid as the moments went by and she saw, before she couldn’t move her head anymore, that her shape was that of her mother – why? She felt her mind stretching, slipping, down and down and down…
She wasn’t herself anymore, she wasn’t in her body any more… her roots gravitated towards those of the Drunken Tree… they connected, intertwined, and…
She thought she saw a figure somewhere in the darkness of the tree’s roots. An arm pointed.
She looked over at herself. She was cocooned in a light whose colour could only be described as… black.
A shadow of an arm reached out, touching her fingers.
To stay trapped, or to move beyond?
She held onto the hand. It pulled.
She moved beyond the cocoon of darkness, and looked back to see it. It collapsed in upon itself, but never disappeared; she saw the vague shadow of an arm gesture dismissively, and it moved away; further, and further…
Then everything went black.
The world seemed to warp around her, the walls bulging and receding, the ground swelling and pulling back in waves.
The ground welcomed her with open arms.
She came to on the ground, parting her eyelids, letting the world in. Elias was silently moving his mouth. Then sound. “Are you okay?” The lights of the courtyard and ceiling above him were dazzling, disorienting her. Her body was trembling. She stood up too fast. For a moment, everything went fuzzy and the floor heaved beneath her. She had to put her hand on Elias to steady herself. He moved her to the edge of the moat to sit. The scent of earth and leaves filled her nose, her mouth…
She looked at the pool in the courtyard, only it was full of moonlight instead of water, so bright she could almost not bear to look directly at it.
The after-effects of the tree’s magic lingered. Warily, Jim pointed to an object on the floor; a blackened, almost dried-up apple.
“We saw that sprout from one of your branches; it fell off by itself.” Jim’s pale blue eyes looked as if he’d found a viper’s nest.
“The Poison Tree!” Nicole gasped. “The poison apple. So that’s where the darkness went.”
“What do we do with it?”
“I’ll deal with it.” Nicole stood up, and stepped towards it. “Anyone have a lighter?” A security guard stepped forward, holding one.
She kneeled and flicked the flame on, applying it to the blackened poison apple. It lit, bright blue flames spreading throughout.
Everyone peered down at the ashes left behind.
“Well, that’s that,” Elias said. “Back to business.” People began to leave.
“How are you feeling?” Elias asked as the gathering split up.
“How am I-” Nicole stopped. The darkness she constantly felt in the pit of her stomach – gone. Her mind wasn’t crouching in fear in a corner. She wasn’t unsettled at her core anymore; she felt… at ease.
“Something’s different,” she replied.
Elias nodded slowly, thinking. “Looks like it might work for you…”
“Yes.” Nicole sat at the edge of the moat, and turned to face the tree. She dipped her fingers in the water.
The water felt… strange. She didn’t know how to describe it. It was a refreshing coolness. The coolness reached to her bones.
She could feel the drops land on her other palm, cool, individual, unearthly.
She watched her reflection in the moat – her black hair brushed into flat waves, partly obscuring one eye.
“I think things are moving.”
Nicole was before her bathroom mirror, replaced and repaired. She looked through it, beyond.
She could see her dead sister just fine, in the mirror. She could see her, she could hear her… she just didn’t care. She wasn’t in awe of her. She wasn’t afraid of her. Right now, she just didn’t feel afraid of anything.
The… bond had been severed.
Her dead twin was ripping out her hair.
Nicole turned and walked away, out of the bathroom.
Nicole knocked at the front door to her parents’ house.
“Who there?” she heard her mother call out.
She heard raised, frantic voices, and the door unlocked.
“Oh my God! I was starting to wonder…” Her mother stepped forward in an orange and red sari. She must have caught her mother going somewhere. She didn’t really wear saris in Canada.
Nicole joined in her mother’s embrace, seeing her father, in tan knee-length pants and a white undershirt, watching thoughtfully from a small distance.
“How you doing, dou-dou?” her mother asked. “You all right? You…”
With a quick shake of his head and a sharp gesture, her father said, “Gitanjali, don’t be bothering the woman. She grown, yuh know…”
Nicole let the knowledge literally sink into her mother from her touch.
Her mother’s lips started to tremble.
A silence fell.
Her father stayed quiet; it wasn’t like Nicole’s mother to not retort to someone saying anything about her mother-henning habits.
Finally, her mother let go. Turning slowly to face her father, her mother said quietly, “Nigel, you know nothing.”
Now her father was concerned. He scratched his beard, eyebrows raised. “What goin’ on, Gitanjali…?”
Her mother turned to face her with a swish of her sari. “Yuh goin’ to tell yuh father…?”
“Yes, I am. That was the plan.”
The three of them went to the living room, and sat, her parents sharing a couch, Nicole across from them in a single chair. With a calm like the bottom of the sea, she began to talk.
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Audio production for this week’s episode by Davis Walden of the Viridian Wild Podcast.
And to thank you for listening until the very end, we have a creepy fact for you.
Many of Grimm’s Fairy Tales are set in a German forest called The Black Forest. Legend has it that the woods contain a headless horseman, a king who kidnaps women and brings them to his underwater lair, and werewolves.
We’ll be back next week with an interview with Tonya, and we’ll have a new story for you the following week.