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Low Hanging Fruit by Aviva Treger - Twist in Time Literary Magazine
Long ago, in the woods by the glen, a dead body was found. In a yew tree hollow, a girl was unearthed; had kids not glimpsed her hair whilst goblin hunting, she might have sunk, embedded in deadwood. She wore a crown of nightshade flowers and in her hands dark berries decomposed. ‘Be careful’, Aunt Lilac said, retelling the tale. ’Be careful of wild or unripe fruit. It can be toxic.’ As a grocer’s daughter, this worried me. ‘But what killed her?’ I asked. ‘Did she mistake bilberry for nightshade? Or get tricked? Or have a death wish?’ Lilac shrugged. ‘Perhaps all three’, she said. The girl was found before the war, before the time of evacuees. She remained unidentified. She just slipped and fell into legend, curled in the heart of a living tree, resurrecting as a cautionary myth about the glen. We when arrived, Lilac showed us the chalybeate spring, and spun yarns about trees in the grove. By the yew was a wych elm whose bark cured toothache and a birch whose sap made wine. But about the splintered ash she told some curious lore – that it had the power to heal the sick; that if they were hauled through the split before it was tied, as the tree healed so would they. On hearing this, my sister’s mouth fell open. She touched the broken trunk with enthralled fingertips and, on that day, an aim hatched in her mind and took flight, like the flying ants which chose that moment to rise up from the earth and swarm. One evening, against an amber sunset, she escaped through the back door and vanished in shadows among the faded fields. I followed her pale swinging plait, and her limping gait – a remnant from polio, as she negotiated tall crowds of pink willowherb. The air through the meadow was hazy and breathless, floating with thistledown. She turned by the crossroads, south to the glen, and by the grove I grabbed her. ‘Laura’, I said, ‘you’re not allowed to wander out this late alone’. Her expression was flat, unreadable like a pebble smoothed by the sea. She blinked in my direction then around at the woodland, at the monstrous cables of roots and fallen trunks rotting under liverwort and lichens. ‘This place is old’, she said, ‘so old that druids sacrificed here’. My laughter chimed in the canopy of leaves. ‘Who on earth told you that?’ I said. ‘Lilac?’. ‘A boy’, she replied. ‘And he told me a secret – that goblins trade here at night’. I exhaled a long sigh. ‘Don’t tell fairy stories’, I said. ‘Act your age’. She winced. I felt a stab of remorse so I rearranged my face. ‘Alright then,’ I said, grinning, ‘what would you buy or sell to goblins?’. Her brow creased with earnest thoughts. ‘I’d buy healing’, she said. ‘For me and for us all’. A hush descended. The gurgling brook at the edge of the glade swelled in a hypnotic lull and I saw blue damselflies dart from the rushes and skim the surface. ‘Once upon a time’, I said, ‘the iron spring here was a wishing well. Just drinking from it grants any kind of wish’. We trod the few paces to cup our palms and taste the rusty water. Into its depths she beamed a rare smile. ‘Lizzie,’ she said, ‘you can only hear goblins if they call your name.’ I cocked my ear in pantomime, with a finger pressed against my lips. ‘They don’t want me’, I said. ‘But how about you? Is your name being called?’ There was a pause; then by way of reply, her features clicked back into a doll-like mask. She pivoted abruptly, her plait flailing like a rope at sea, and ambled home in a faraway absence, so I found myself following her shadow again. The next day, an incident occurred. Aunt Lilac was spraying infested fruit trees – she’d left her Victory Garden too late that first summer of the war. Mulberries had shrivelled and plums mummified on the stem and all were dusted in a patina of disease which meant there’d be no harvest. Laura crumpled in a fit of sobs. Her eyelids fluttered in despair. ‘But I need fruit,’ she said, ‘or I’ll suffer more illness’. From the end of the garden, Lilac (who wasn’t our real aunt) huffed and muttered that we should all just soldier on, however fragile we were. So before things turned sour, I leapt into a practiced repertoire of distraction. ‘Here’s a funny story’, I said, flinging out my arms like a comedian we once saw in a music hall. Among the garden gnomes, I strutted a song and dance. ‘Laura’, I warbled, ‘I say, Laura – did you know that too much fruit can actually be bad?’ She swabbed her wet lashes, frowning. ‘It’s true’, I crooned. ‘Did you ever hear of the girl who ate so much fruit that seeds hatched inside her? She grew blossom out of her ears, and leafy branches for limbs…’ I clowned, aped and winked, and the tantrum diffused. But later, when we were darning, Laura asked if it could really be true, because some old trees have eyes in the bark, or teeth embedded, so could it mean someone was trapped inside? ‘Just because there’s a daft story’, I said, tutting, ‘it doesn’t make it real’. She suspended her needle mid-air, caught between stitches as she considered this. ‘But I’ve seen faces in trees’, she said, ‘faces which spoke’. The afternoon was overcast: a low fog crept uphill from the sea and the sky turned pewter. It was only when daylight failed that I noticed Laura was gone, so I strode across the meadow and down towards the glen, knowing where she might be. The track through the woods smelt of pungent night, like the dank sly scent of foxes. Glancing above, boughs loomed huge against the oncoming dusk. As I passed, overgrown gorse and brambles snatched. Undergrowth rustled and snuffled; shadows expanded. Something, probably a glow-worm, glimmered in my peripheral vision. I sung Laura’s name just to hear my own voice. I planned to wield a stern upbraiding – that we should show more respect. But when I reached the brook, she wasn’t there wandering the bank. I bit my lip then yelled her name. I listened to secretive replies from deep in the woods – chirping, squalling, flapping wings. I bellowed again, hearing my voice absorb and dissipate. I sharpened my ear for an answer but there was a sudden, profound silence. But then I heard it – a swishing and splintering of twigs. I veered off the path to the grove, stumbling and huffing. Silhouettes reared up in the gloom. Arms outstretched, feeling for clues, I collided with her. She was hanging from a low branch, struggling and thrashing, cracking the wood. Seed heads and insects showered down as I seized her arms, trying to ascertain what was wrong, where she was tethered, and why. ‘My hair’, she said, ‘something’s grabbed my hair’. Reaching above, I felt her plait knotted with twigs. I tugged. Due to the blackout, I had a pocket torch for emergencies so I flipped it on. In the spectral light, I saw her hair had been tied to the branch using bindweed and honeysuckle. ‘Who did this?’ I said, feeling my cheeks flame and my voice rise. ’I’ll kill them’. I illuminated her face. Her lower lip was smeared crimson; there were blood spatters over her cheek. Her eyes were glazed. Flicking my penknife, I sawed at the tangles. I finally freed her, leaving strands on the twigs fluttering like ghostly pagan offerings. As night closed in, I dragged her back to the path but she begged me to slow down. ‘Something incredible happened’, she said. She chattered, as though recalling a lost dream, and as we neared the open field, under a luminous moonrise, with rare fluency she told the strangest tale. As she’d sat by the tinkling brook, Laura heard a voice call her name. It sang out from the grove, from the yew’s hollow. As she’d approached in the twilight, foliage had glimmered. In the underbrush by the tree’s base, tall stalks of ferns and horsetail rippled in the windless air. And as she’d watched, they’d unfurled their fronds, back and forth in a hypnotic whorl, forming faces which opened their eyes and blinked. More jostled out from inside the hole. Green slinking figures hid within the vegetation. They wore masks of leaves, snail shells and feathers, each like an animal – she saw weasels, hares, badgers and little owls, all grinning. Around them was an uncanny light: a green aura which illuminated what they were carrying. When they spoke, it was together in a chorus of silvery chanting. Their voice purred like a breeze through wild grasses gone to seed. They asked if she wanted to buy from them. She replied she had no money. They seemed to ponder, leering; then they suggested that she could pay with a lock of hair, which was fair currency because it was fair hair. She agreed and they shimmered their leaves. ‘We heard your wish’, they said in sad reverence, and with a dramatic flourish, they revealed a platter of fresh fruit. All of her favourites were there, all impossibly ripe. The fragrance was exquisite. It stabbed her with searing nostalgia for Spitalfield’s market: for her childhood home, now forever lost. She tasted and swooned, and ached from remembrance. Her lifeforce rose up and yearned. She savoured mouthful after mouthful of sweetness until she slumped; then she’d woken up tangled in vines. Laura finished her story as I unlatched the garden gate. My attempt to sound calm bordered on frenzy. ‘Nightshade’. I said, ‘It has shiny berries: they taste bitter then sweet but they’re deadly poisonous. Laura, I must know what you’ve eaten.’ ‘Are you not listening?’ she said. ‘I ate figs, dates, greengages, melon…’. She reeled off a list of produce as I fumed. I argued that there was little chance they’d be available in wartime Sussex; that no-one could’ve walked up from the glen out of uniform because the area was strictly out of bounds – the pathways from the beach were being mined in case of invasion. But she claimed that none of these caveats applied to goblins. ‘Tomorrow’, she said, ‘you’ll believe me tomorrow because I’ll show you’. I bristled in silence. There was no point disagreeing with her logic. Laura wasn’t hungry at supper. Again and again, she’d assured me her stomach felt normal, as was her temperature when I checked it. But she was tired and fell asleep early. For a long time, I sat in our room wondering what to do. Aunt Lilac was out at a meeting. With the light off, I peered through the blackout curtains into blue midnight. I saw a shooting star – probably artillery fire at sea; and when I finally got into bed, I lay awake listening to the tap of a Death Watch beetle deep in the rafters. Knuckling salt tears, I wished us away – I wished us home again and in the past: an impossible wish. At sunrise, Laura seemed fine. We busied ourselves in the house and garden – weeding the allotment, feeding the chickens. If anything, she seemed more animated than usual: brighter. But countless times I caught her glaring at the clock and biting her lip, impatiently waiting for sunset, unable to focus on anything else. Anxiety buzzed in my ribs like a hive of bees. I sharpened my penknife, as I just didn’t know what to expect in the glade. If it was local kids bullying evacuees, I intended to fight them. When evening finally came, we set off across the hill. The air was sultry and the meadow billowed with umbrels of yarrow and ragwort. As we trod, nightjars swooped over the field. We turned down to...