10 Apr Where the Birches Lean
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"Where the Birches Lean"Written by C.L. McLendon
Estimated reading time — 17 minutes
Jeremy Bascom was perfect. Perfect blond hair, blue eyes, and a pearly-white smile. The kind of boy you wanted your daughter to date. Jeremy would credit this to being perfectly made by his Lord and Savior. His one annoying quality was the need to remind everyone of his faith and the pitfalls of anyone who did not believe in it. Jeremy and his small group of like-minded friends were quick to correct anyone who thought different and enjoyed any opportunity to spread the message of their faith. He was a walking and talking reminder of what it meant to be Christian. Everything about him showed it, all the way down to the golden cross that was permanently pinned to his Polo shirts. So, when given the task of writing about the reason for the season, Jeremy was more than enthused. He did have one question, however.
“What should those of us write about who do not celebrate Christmas?” Jeremy remarked while glaring across the room toward the pale and dark-haired girl in the corner of the room.
Emma Campbell responded with a sneer and a raised middle finger. It was no secret that Emma did not believe in God but teenage rumors had spread that she practiced the dark arts of witchcraft. The truth was, the only thing Emma knew of spells and magic were the stories her grandmother had told her of the old days in Scotland. As a child she would sit, her green eyes wide as her ancestor told of the druids performing rituals to summon the power of their gods. Her favorite was one of justice. A humble servant saved from torture by the power of the gods, having turned their assailant into a simple birch tree. She would beg her grandmother to tell the story and each time her grandmother would assure her that the place full of birches was real.
Emma had never actually witnessed magic though. It was only day-to-day rituals that her mother still performed out of habit. There was always incense burning and a blessing before the day would begin. The type of thing that was hardly any different than lighting a candle or saying a prayer. The only reason Emma even attended a Christian school was the academic benefit it afforded. She contemplated her grandmother’s many stories and began writing. If Mr. W wanted to know about tradition, she would write about the winter solstice as she had been taught.
Mr. Winthrop had to calm the chuckles of his class before answering, “Everyone has traditions, not just Christians and I am interested in reading about all of them. So, please give me your best work.”
When the bell rang to signal the end of the period the room went from silent scribbling noise to a clamor of shuffling seats. Mr. Winthrop raised his voice in an attempt to remind them all that the assignment would be due before each of them left for the holidays. Few of them were paying any attention, however. Emma was the last to exit the room, much like always, and quietly navigated between the hordes of teenagers within the hall. When she approached her locker Jeremy Bascom and his goons had congregated around it. She sighed, knowing that she would have to endure a lecture to gain access to her belongings. Jeremy’s smirk made her sick, despite how perfect his teeth were.
“Please just let me get to my locker,” Emma begged.
Jeremy leaned forward, “First, let me see what you are writing for Mr. W’s class.”
Emma’s eyes rolled as she felt her notebook pull free from her hands. She yelled for it to be returned but the group had quickly surrounded Jeremy. They hovered over the pages and read about a celebration of the Winter Solstice. A joyous time of giving, decoration, and feast. Emma had been taught long ago that many of the Christian traditions had been borrowed from Pagan ones and adapted to form what we know as Christmas. She watched as Jeremy’s face changed from amusement to anger with each passing word. Emma knew that within Jeremy’s mind she was a sinner, a blasphemer, and doomed to the pits of Hell. She could even see it in his eyes when he finally looked at her.
“God does not like it when we spread lies, especially about him,” Jeremy said as he began tearing the pages from Emma’s notebook.
Emma’s voice roared, “They aren’t lies! They are stories my grandmother use to tell me.”
The girl refused to give him the satisfaction of seeing her cry. She held strong to the tears that wished to flow from her eyes as her notebook was shoved back into her hands. This was something Emma had become accustomed to. The group dispersed as the next bell rang and though she should have made her way to class, her heart was no longer in it. Instead, she made her way to the restroom and sat within a stall to release her sorrow drop by drop into her palms. In that tiny space, she found herself beseeching the gods of her grandmother to save her from his pain. Emma hoped that the god of revenge Arawn could come swooping in and teach Jeremy Bascom a lesson.
That night Emma’s sleep was restless. Her mind was still filled with the tortures of the day and wishes of a solution. It took her hours to find peace but once she had, she also found dreams. She found herself walking among stark white birch trees. A pale blue gown of cotton and lace draped over her thin frame and lilies sat like a crown upon her head. The air was warm and sweet, the birds chirped overhead, and the wind played a tune that reminded her of the music her grandmother use to play. Soon, she found herself amidst a clearing and within the center sat two ghostly looking hounds with bright red ears. They sat intent, watching as she approached them and made no movement toward her.
From beyond the trees, a figure appeared in black. A hood covered scattered strands of gray as the person hobbled upon a cane toward the clearing. As the person stopped beside the dogs a frail and withered hand pushed back the hood to reveal the wrinkled and worn face of an old crone. Her eyes were glassy, much like that of the sightless but she stared intently at Emma as if she were peering into her very soul. The woman gave a gentle smile and reached out her hand to brush at Emma’s cheek. The woman’s smell was of fresh grass and the sensation was calming. She felt like a child again, being soothed by her grandmother when she was in pain.
“Young one, do not despair. We see you,” the woman spoke softly.
A tear rolled from one of Emma’s eyes as she spoke, “Who are you?”
“A friend of your family, dearie,” the woman replied. “You may call me Matilda.”
“Is this the place my grandmother told me about?” Emma whispered.
Matilda nodded, “This place is full of magic and if you believe you will witness it.”
And with those words, small specks of light erupted from the flowers beneath Emma’s feet. They danced within the air around her body and a sound like tiny voices singing echoed in her ears. It was soft and soothing like a lullaby. Her eyes began to flutter and her knees became weak. Emma knelt within the soft grass and found herself laying down within the poppies. The sweet smell of the flowers, the calming song, and the comforting ground beneath her lulled her to sleep. Her body lay still while the old crone and her hounds disappeared into the birches beyond the clearing, humming a tune from a time long since passed. Emma did not stir the rest of the night and a smile rested on her lips.
The following day Emma felt rejuvenated. It was almost as if every weight of the world she lived in had been lifted from her shoulders. There was even a sparkle in those emerald eyes. A light that not even the heckling from Jeremy and his friends could dim. Their laughter faded into the distance as she thought about her dream. It left the group confused, especially Jeremy. A seed of curiosity was planted at that moment. Jeremy had to know why Emma seemed so at peace. Before he had completely thought about his actions his feet were moving. He picked up the pace until he was walking in stride with Emma.
“What’s got you in such a good mood?” he quizzed.
Emma smirked, “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
She disappeared into her biology class and when Jeremy followed Mrs. Simmons stopped him and questioned if he might be lost. Jeremy did not share this class with Emma. As she took her seat she gave a slight giggle at the sight of the boy being escorted from the room. Even if Jeremy had not properly received his punishment for being so cruel, it was good enough to improve Emma’s mood. Her notebook was filled with doodles of dancing fairies, flowers, and rows of birch trees. She could not get the image of her dream out of her head and just thinking of Matilda made her smile and something about that upset Jeremy. He could not get Emma out of his head.
Emma’s smile was like an itch Jeremy could not scratch. He was distracted by it for the rest of the day and during his evening meal with his family. Normally, he was enthusiastic about sharing the events of school with his father and mother but tonight he asked to be excused early. Jeremy changed for bed, hoping that a good night’s rest would ease his inner turmoil but as soon as he shut his eyes Emma’s face awaited him. Her wavy brown hair, sparkling green eyes, and supple pink lips haunted him. He tossed and turned, adjusted his pillows, and fought with his own imagination for hours before finally finding sleep. His mind could not let go of the image and it slowly crept its way into his dreams.
Jeremy awoke laying in a bed of grass surrounded by poppies. The cool night air whipped through the birch trees that circled the clearing and the only light was that of the moon above. He brought his body up slightly, resting his weight on his elbows. From the forest beyond a form approached. As the thin figure stepped out into the moonlight he recognized Emma’s face. She slowly approached, grasping hold of the hem of her pale blue gown. She knelt beside him and whispered his name. He stared at her mouth, noticing how red and plump they seemed almost like an apple. She leaned down, pressing those very lips against his and he could not resist pressing back into her loving kiss. He could hear singing echo through the trees around him and specks of light danced around them, shining like tiny stars. It was magical.
He felt her hand trail down his body then come to rest between his legs. His eyes widened as her palm rubbed at the cloth that separated their skin. He knew what he was doing was wrong but it felt so good. His body reacted in kind, his manhood growing firm under her touch. She smiled at the sensation then leaned back, retracting her hand in order to pull gently at the bindings that held her gown in place. The cloth lowered to reveal her naked form beneath. Jeremy’s mouth hung agape as his eyes trailed her perky breasts and smooth skin. He had never witnessed the female body before and his excitement only grew. The beautiful young woman before him pulled down upon his pants, revealing his rigidness before taking him inside her. Her body rocked slowly atop his lap, gasping in pleasure. Jeremy laid back upon the soft grass and moaned with every motion. Within moments he could no longer hold in his ecstasy and released himself inside of her.
Emma came to an abrupt halt as she felt his fluids fill her. Her smile slowly crooked into a smirk as she lifted her pale form off of him. She pulled her gown back up over her shoulders and bound the strapping. She bent slightly, kissing Jeremy on his forehead before pressing her index finger to her lips as if telling him to keep this a secret. Then, just as quickly as she had arrived, she disappeared into the birches. Jeremy was left soaked in his own sweat and juices in the middle of the clearing. He jerked awake to find himself still in his bed. It had all been a dream. He spent the next few moments asking forgiveness for his lustful thoughts and prayed for the strength to ignore them if they were to return.
Emma’s smile failed to leave her as the rest of the week progressed and it tortured Jeremy to no end. Every time his eyes fell upon her, all he could think of was his dream and being inside her. He prayed more in the days that followed than he ever had before. He prayed for relief from the torment but it did not come. When he could stand it no longer, he found his way to Emma’s locker and waited. When she arrived to retrieve her things at the end of the day Jeremy stood tapping his foot impatiently. His hair was a mess, his eyes were dark, and almost resembled an addict that had not had his fix in a few days.
“Rough couple of days?” she quipped.
Jeremy tried to smile, “You could say that.”
“You mind if I get to my locker?” Emma questioned.
Jeremy quickly stepped to the side, “Yeah, sure… so um, the thing is… I was wondering if you might want to-um… you know…”
Emma giggled slightly listening to the stammering of the boy, “Spit it out, I gotta get going.”
Jeremy attempted to steel himself, his eyes getting more serious, “Will you go out with me?”
Emma could hardly contain her laughter, it erupted from her mouth and echoed through the hallway. She had no words to properly respond. Jeremy attempted to laugh as well but he could not find humor in his question. He needed her to say, “yes”. He asked again but she simply ignored the question and closed her locker. Emma made her way down the hall with Jeremy following close behind. Tears formed in his eyes as he began to beg and at one point he even got down on his knees. The sight was truly pathetic and when it only offered another laugh from Emma’s lips he became angry. He stood abruptly and grabbed her by the arm and demanded she go out on a date with him.
“Take your hands off of her right now!” Mr. Winthrop’s voice boomed from down the hall.
Jeremy’s fingers shot open, releasing his hold on her arm in a second. Emma was shocked at Jeremy’s actions but even more frightened of the look in his eyes. She could see madness behind those eyes. She did not hesitate to step back and head toward the door. Within moments she was out the door and on her bus. Jeremy was left defeated in the hallway, wondering how he could have been led to this madness. He only had one answer. Emma must have cast a spell on him and he would have to break it. That was the only way for him to return to sanity and possibly save his soul from damnation. The plot began to form in his head as he exited the building and sat in his car. His tires poured smoke as he peeled out of the parking lot and down the road for home.
The next day Emma had made it a point to avoid Jeremy, which she found to be easy because he had not attended classes that day. She just had to make it until the end of school and they would be out for the holidays. She could not help but wonder what had possessed Jeremy to act the way he had and the thought clouded her mind most of that day. She stared at his empty seat in Mr. Winthrop’s class, which the teacher noticed. When the bell rang, he asked Emma to stay behind to question her about the incident but she had fewer answers than even her teacher. Emma had wanted Jeremy punished for how cruel he had been to her all these years but now she felt as though it had gone too far. Even as much as she had wanted to see him suffer, she still felt pity for Jeremy.
When Emma arrived home her mother was descending the stairs from the attic. Emma flashed her normal smile and asked what her mother had been doing. Normally, cleaning out the house was saved for springtime but something had possessed her to bring down some items that had been stored away. Dust filled the air as Emma’s mother opened a trunk that held the only remaining items that her grandmother had owned. Several of the books that held those stories Emma remembered from her childhood were piled to one side. The rest were tattered garments and tucked beneath them was an old white jewelry box. Emma knelt by the trunk and pulled things from it with her mother. Her eyes widened as she revealed a light blue gown that resembled the one from her dream.
“Your grandmother loved that dress,” Emma’s mother beamed.
Emma held the garment to her body and noticed it was her size, “Do you think I could keep this?”
“I don’t see why not, there is no way I’m fitting into that thing,” her mother laughed as she opened the jewelry box.
Emma went upstairs to try on the dress. She slipped out of the ratty jeans and t-shirt she had become accustomed to wearing to school and slid the soft fabric over her shoulders. She reached behind her and tied the straps in place before stepping over to the full-length mirror by her window. She smiled at the sight, feeling more beautiful than she ever had. At that moment her mother stepped into the doorway and leaned against the doorframe to admire the lovely young woman her daughter had become.
When Emma noticed her mother watching she gave a laugh and twirled in the gown. Her mother wiped a tear from her eye and revealed what she had found within the jewelry box. It was a silver necklace with a star-shaped pendant. Within the center of the star was what her grandmother use to call a “rune”. Her mother told her that it was the one piece of jewelry that her grandmother always wore. She thought it protected her and as Emma’s mother placed it around her neck she hoped it would protect her daughter just the same. The girl took the trinket between her index and thumb, rubbing it gently and thinking of her grandmother’s smiling face.
A car sat idle across the street. Jeremy Bascom stared from the driver’s seat, his eyes intent on the open window of Emma’s bedroom. He had watched as she changed into the dress and it only served to make him angrier. It felt as though he was being tortured little-by-little and he was unsure of how much more he could take. He watched and waited as the light of the moon illuminated the night. His eyes were intent on that window until the light went out and he was sure everyone inside would be asleep. He stepped from his car and quietly approached the front yard. Gathering small pebbles in his hand he prepared to hurl them to Emma’s window to get her attention.
The sound of tapping caused Emma to stir. She had fallen asleep in her grandmother’s gown and felt foolish for still having it on. The tapping came again and caused her to turn to the window. She watched as another small fragment collided with the window pane. She eased from her bed and slowly made her way to the wall. Jeremy was readying another rock when he noticed her face. He smiled and waved from the ground. Emma unlatched the window and eased it open in order to lean out.
“Jeremy, what in the heck are you doing here?” she whispered in an annoyed tone.
“Sorry for coming over so late but I wanted to apologize for the other day,” Jeremy responded, trying to remain quiet as well.
Emma rolled her eyes, “Yeah, well apologize and get out of here.”
“Come on,” Jeremy begged, “at least let me say it face-to-face.”
“You keep it up and my parents are going to wake up,” she scolded, “and trust me you do not want my dad to catch you out here.”
“Just come down and let me say what I need to say and you won’t see me again,” Jeremy pleaded.
“Fine,” Emma huffed, “go around back though, they will hear me open the front door.”
Jeremy almost leaped with excitement as he rounded the house and headed toward the back porch. Emma leaned back in and shut the window. As she headed to her door she looked at herself in the mirror one more time. She grasped her grandmother’s pendant and said a little prayer for protection. She hoped that whatever had been watching out for her would continue to do so. She then crept down the stairs and through the kitchen toward her back door. Her eyes scanned the porch but could not see Jeremy. Her fingers slowly disengaged the lock and turned the knob while easing the door open. She called out quietly into the night but received no response.
“Jeremy,” she hissed, “this isn’t funny!”
As she stepped out onto the porch she noticed how bright the moon was. “If you don’t cut it out I am going back insi-,” her words were cut short as a cloth-covered hand clamped down across her mouth. A scent of strong chemical engulfed her nose and her head began to spin. Her limbs suddenly felt weak as she fell back into Jeremy’s arms. He was speaking to her but the words were distant and muffled. It was followed by a maddening grin just before everything went black. While unconscious her grandmother came to her in a vision, whispering softly for her to be strong and remember the birches.
When Emma came to she found her mouth bound shut with part of her gown. It had been ripped into pieces and tied firmly across her lips. She tried to scream for help but the trees around her were unfamiliar. Jeremy had apparently transported her deep into the wooded area behind her house and at this time of night, no one would hear her. It did not take long for salty specks to stain her cheeks. She had no idea what Jeremy had in store for her but she knew it could not be good. Jeremy let out a flurry of curses as he stopped dead in his tracks. Emma’s eyes scanned the area, hoping that maybe he had seen someone else in the woods. That was when she noticed the stark white rows of birches.
Jeremy walked forward, avoiding the ghostly trees around him. Within moments he found himself in the middle of a clearing that was only lit by that full moon above. Poppies scattered across the ground in front of him and it did not take long for either of them to recognize their location. Emma had never known there to be a place like this in the woods behind her home but she had not ventured far before. She wondered if the old woman would appear again to save her but that thought was dashed when Jeremy slung her body to the ground. She tried to yell for help again but the back of Jeremy’s hand silenced her quickly. He searched the area frantically as if looking for something.
When he did not find what he was looking for he turned back to Emma, “What did you do to me?”
She tried to respond but the gag prevented it. At this point, her eyes were swollen from her constant sobbing. Within her head, she was begging for help from anyone or anything that could save her. Jeremy approached, wild-eyed as he tugged at his belt buckle. It did not take long for Emma to realize his intention. Jeremy pulled down his pants as she tried to crawl away. In moments his body was on top of her and he was pulling at her underwear. She could smell the warm breath bursting from his mouth. Jeremy had been drinking. She wriggled, squirmed, and grasped at Jeremy’s face in an attempt to fight him off but he was simply too strong. She begged for him to stop behind through the gag.
“You have warped my mind and perverted it. You have torn me away from God’s grace,” Jeremy’s saliva scattered across her face as he yelled.
“You are an evil and spiteful witch and it is time you were punished for cursing me with this. You do not deserve to be saved,” his voice growled mere inches from Emma’s nose.
Emma knew that if she did not do something Jeremy would have his way with her and there was no telling what he would do after that. She clawed at his face but received his knuckles in her mouth in return. Her gums spilled crimson liquid across her once pink lips and she screamed in agony. She tried to hold onto her grandmother’s gown as Jeremy began to claw at her breasts. She could feel his hardness press against her and there was little time left. That was when she felt the pendant around her neck. She grasped it tightly in her hand and shoved it forward. The hard edge of the silver cut a gash above Jeremy’s eye. Blood poured from the wound while he cried out in pain.
Jeremy stumbled back, holding his head and cursing Emma’s name. She crawled backward on her elbows a few feet before removing the gag finally and attempted to get to her feet. She stumbled and watched Jeremy fall back against one of the birch trees. He propped himself up with one hand, the blood from his forehead staining the white bark. The look in his eyes had not left him. His intent was still true. In his mind, he would have Emma and there was nothing and no one that would stop him. He lurched forward but was drawn back by the hand that rested on the tree. It was stuck, almost as if glued to the wood.
Small specks of light rose from the grass and began to dance around the clearing. A song drifted through the wind and suddenly Emma felt safe. Jeremy’s blood continued to flow from his cut, across his neck, and down his arm. It almost melded with the bark and began to fade into it. The blood became white and rigid along with his fingers. They both watched as inch by inch his skin turned into wood. When the truth of the situation became clear to Jeremy he looked back toward Emma, his face no longer full of anger but instead replaced with fear. Emma’s mouth opened and her voice emitted words of which she had never spoken and yet she seemed to understand them. It was a dialect that her grandmother would sometimes use when telling her stories, “Le cumhachd Arwyn, cuiridh mi do dhroch fhìtheadh an seo leis na craobhan beithe sin.”
“HELP ME!” he yelled as his arm became one with the tree. Emma simply turned away from the horrible sight and looked toward the path they had taken to enter. The old crone stood at the edge of the birches with her two pale hounds. Her index finger was pressed to her lips as if telling the girl to keep their secret. When Emma looked back all that remained of Jeremy was his other hand. The fingers were still reaching out for help as the white bark engulfed them. Each digit became small branches of the newly formed tree. It leaned outward from the tree beside it, still trying to flee but it was no use. The deed was done.
The tree was unrecognizable from the other split formed birches in the area. Emma turned and witnessed just how many similar birches encircled the area. She wondered if each one had been someone to cross her family. She looked back in hopes of thanking the old woman for her help but she and her pets were gone. The fair-skinned girl who had escaped a fate worse than death slowly made her way back home as the first snowflakes of winter began to coat the ground.
As the months passed the mystery of Jeremy’s disappearance had faded from popular conversation. The authorities assumed he simply ran away. Emma was the only one who knew different. So, when the green sprouts pushed through dead leaves she made her way to the woods. She hummed a tune from long ago, twirling in the repaired fabric of her grandmother’s gown. Fat yellow jackets floated in the warm breeze and the air smelled of poppies while she skipped through the brush. Her bare feet were cushioned by the soft grass and her skin was warmed by the springtime air as she found the clearing. Her lips curled into a smile as she found where the birches lean. She knelt beside the tree and thanked the gods once again.