The car rumbled along the dirt road, in the back John could hear Anna whispering gently to the tree as the stroked its bark. He felt like it was wrong to hear, like he was intruding, but the radio was playing nothing but pop songs and that felt wrong too.
“It’s ok, we’ll be there soon. You’ll be fine then, I promise.”
John stared straight ahead at the road, he didn’t want to be the one to tell her there was no hope, that things could never be the same again. He glanced in the mirror and tried not to shudder, he had seen a few bad ones before but this was the worst. The face of Thomas was twisted in agony and immortalised in the bark of the tree, his clenched and gnarled fingers elongated into branches, his hair turned into a bright shock of green leaves, his legs fused together into one thick trunk, his feet nothing but roots. Despite it obviously being a tree, there was life in Thomas’ eyes, a dreadful, terrible life. He was still in there, and he would be until for eternity.
John stopped the car and got out without saying anything. He grabbed a shovel from the trunk and waited. After a minute Anna stepped out of the car, “Where do you think we should put him?”
“You knew him best, where do you think he would like to go?”
Anna shook her head, “I don’t know. Somewhere nice I guess, maybe with the others? I don’t want him to be lonely”
John nodded, “I know just the place.”
Together they pulled the tree from the car and carefully carried it along the overgrown dirt path.
The path was short but the tree was heavy and soon they were both panting. When they reached the stream they carefully placed the tree on the ground. Anna looked around and shuddered. They were surrounded by trees, each one had a face in the trunk, some looked as though they were screaming, others as though they were crying. John knew there were no normal trees around here, each one of them had been a person. Part of him suspected that even the large trees, with their reaching branches and smooth trunks, had once been people too, but over time their faces were stretched out and smoothed over. Little nubs could be a nose, that odd jagged line could have been a mouth, those little marks could have been eyes.
The sound of the gurgling stream should have been peaceful, but instead it sounded almost mournful. John walked back to the car and grabbed the shovel, he found it was always best to let people have some alone time before the tree was planted. When he returned Anna was gently stroking Thomas’ face. “Did you pick a spot?”
“Yes, over there, it seems like a good place.” She pointed to a clearing in the trees, plenty of room for sunlight and growth, John nodded and got to work.
When the hole was dug they carefully moved the roots into it, John buried it again and when he was done stood back. He wanted them to have some privacy. He could still hear Anna over the sound of the stream, he tried not to listen as she promised to visit him, as she told him that she still loved him. John had heard it all before and he knew how it would go. She would visit every chance she could at first, then slowly the frequency would fade and she would move on.
The drive back was silent, Anna sat beside him in the front, her hands clasped loosely in her lap, with head bowed and her eyes staring at nothing.
“I think he’ll be happy there, it was a good spot. Quiet, peaceful.”
Anna nodded. Finally she straightened up a little, looking straight ahead, glaring at the road in front of her.
John sighed, “I know what you’re thinking. You’re going to go confront her. Don’t. It won’t end well for you, it never does. She’ll do to you what she did to him. That might seem romantic, growing old and ancient together, side by side, but it isn’t an existence. It isn’t a life. Can you imagine how awful it would be? Forcing him to look at you for all time? Seeing what has become of you? He’d blame himself for that. So close but you could never touch, maybe if you’re lucky a strong breeze might cause the branches to glance against each other. At least now you can visit him still, take care of him.”
Anna turned her glare on John, “You don’t understand. You could never understand.”
John shook his head, “I planted my wife here about fifteen years back. I still visit her. I know what you want to do because I wanted to do it myself. My parents are out there too. Did you know that? That’s the deal my family made. Eternal life but no one ever read the fine print. When I’m close to death I’ll be sent out here, just like Thomas, just like my wife. I know the horror of watching your loved one turned to a tree, their agony there for all to see. I also know that being trapped beside the person you love, having to see them like that day after day, unable to help them, save them, unable to even look away, it’s hell.”
“I don’t care. I want to be with him. I can’t live without him.”
“You’ll find a way. You have to.”
“If I do go to her, will you put me beside him?”
John stopped the car, “please don’t ask me to do that to someone. Please.”
“I’m sorry. There’s no other way. I can’t just leave him there.”
John slowly let out a long breath, “Ok. I’ll put you beside him, but you must do something for me first.”
“What? I’ll do anything.”
“Wait one year. If you still feel the same then go to her and I’ll make sure you’re side by side for the rest of your lives. That’s all you have to do. Wait one year.”
Anna sat in silence for a moment, “Ok. Deal.”
John started the car, he had made this deal with almost everyone he brought out here. So far none had gone to the witch after a year. She would see the horror she would be inflicting on herself with every visit. She would see their pain for ever etched into the bark. In time the grief would lesson and she would move on, as she should. John reached out and flicked on the radio, allowing the music to fill the silence.