Come and sit, says the tree, its long branches swaying in the breeze.
Rachel’s breath is raw in her throat, each inhale a jagged tear in her skinny chest. She doesn’t remember running this far but now here she is, bent double in front of the willow at the end of the road. She has never been out this late before, not on her own, and bed-time was a long time ago. She doesn’t know if that’s a good thing.
Come closer, Rachel. Show us the bruises he has left on you.
Rachel is ashamed. Even through the dark, the tree can see what has been done. She raises a small white hand to her cheek, fingers like ice, a balm against the raised welt below her eye. Her skin is tacky with salt – blood and tears – and her face is tight under the caress of the cold wind. She scrubs at her eyes, fracturing the streetlight and setting off quiet fireworks behind her eyelids.
Give us your tears, Rachel. Don’t waste them.
She steps closer to the tree, whose branches tumble down like tangled hair. The leaves shudder gently as another gust of wind pushes through, and Rachel wonders what it must be like to be so light, so free. She is cold now – properly cold – bare arms blue-white in the dark, feet numb against the bite of gravel. The curved trunk of the tree coaxes her in like the welcoming embrace of a mother.
We know what he does, Rachel. We hear you cry at night when he comes to your room.
The branches shiver angrily, each of the leaves rustling its agreement.
We know. We know.
Grass soft between her toes now. The bark of the willow is like a fingerprint, each ridge and crevice vivid in the streetlight and shadow. Rachel’s eyes follow the pattern for a while, looking for sense, but she is tired now, her mind suddenly, quietly filled with a comforting fog that softens the lines, the cold, the pain. Each fluttering leaf is a kiss on her ears, which – like her fingers – sing silently with shocking, merciful cold.
We know you’re tired, Rachel. We know you’re afraid. Lay your head on our roots and let us sing you a song.
Without knowing why, she begins to cry. For as long as she can remember in her short years, tears have been a reflex, a surprise that blossoms from her eyes with every slap, bite, kick. What’s inside, though, that stays there, hidden in the dangerous, warm dark. She is afraid to cry but relieved, and even as she stands there, arms limp, mind chittering over all these thoughts, water creeps down over her cheeks, a gentle string on her bruised face. A fat tear, then another, falls from her chin.
Come and sleep, Rachel. Stay with us here, and we’ll hold you as long as you like.
“Can I go home afterwards?” Rachel’s voice a lonely thunderclap in the quiet night, and she wonders whether the tree has really spoken at all.
Of course you can. You can always go home, but only if you want to.
“Do I have to?”
She steps closer to the tree and wraps a tentative arm around the trunk, numb and clumsy. She presses her cheek against the bark and feels the rough kiss on her skin. The branches sway behind her now, shielding her from the brightness of the streetlights and the sound of the traffic in the distance. It is dark now, but a fresh, winter dark – not the hot, suffocating, dark of her bedroom. The leaves caress her with a thousand icy shadows, and she hears – feels – somewhere in her roots
Never again, Rachel.