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The sun was ashamed, as well it might be – not a half hour into its working day, and already its face was hidden behind a pall of wet morning cloud. Little black birds flitted across a sky of bruised lilac as below, in the valley, the town lay in darkness and confusion.
A man sat on the stone steps of his back porch; his jaws blue with stubble, his eyes still crusted with sleep. With cold, clumsy fingers, he threaded laces into his stiff leather boots. Left over right, under. Right over left, under. Before he stood, he placed a hand on the bulky sports holdall beside him, as though checking that its contents had not left him of their own volition. With a thumbnail, he levered the muck from the corner of his eye and spat and hauled himself to his feet.
But for the birds, the terraces were quiet. Needles of icy rain pricked the puddles in their gutters. The man walked down the middle of the road, his feet beating a percussive rhythm against the wet tarmacadam. Slap, slap, slap. Every door was closed to him: double-bolted, the windows blanked with sheets of old newspaper. He kept the holdall close to his body, its strap hooked over his neck. As he walked, its pendulous weight thumped against his belly. He crossed his arms so as to steady the bag’s swing, cradling it like an expectant mother. Slap, slap, slap.
On and on he went, toward the frayed edges of town, never stopping for rest. Despite the morning chill, sweat rolled down the neck of his raincoat and pasted the shirt to his lower back. Slowly, the houses began to thin out, giving way to country lanes with their drystone walls and their tinpot cowsheds. Leaving the road, heclambered over a wooden stile, landing on the other side in brown bog water that rose over the tops of his boots and soaked through his woollen socks. He set off uphill, attacking the incline with long, purposeful strides. The grass was wild and slick with dew: by the time he’d summited the hillock, his jeans were sodden past the knees. Wet denim chaffed against the soft skin of his calves. Still, he beat on through the brush – forwards, forwards – the holdall clutched to his trunk all the while.
Finally, he made it to a row of tatty allotments at the top of the hill. The bag’s strap bit into his neck and his lungs burned for air. Hands on hips, he squinted back the way he had come to the wet, brown smudge of town in the distance. He dug a ring of keys from the pocket of his jeans and jammed it into the discoloured padlock of the endmost plot. He opened the gate with his foot, then kicked it shut behind him.
The plot was near-derelict. Hidden somewhere amid the tangled knotweed and nettles was a doorless fridge, a sack of hardened cement, the rusted A-frame of a child’s bicycle. The man cleared a space and tested the ground with the steel toe of his boot. The sod was dense and heavy with clay – unlikely to be turned over by foxes or the weather. He unhooked the holdall’s strap from around his neck and eased its weight gently onto the compacted dirt. Kneeling beside it, he put his hands together and began raking the soil towards his body.
It was slow work: he was without a shovel, and the earth was thick with stones and litter. He continued, undaunted, gouging away a thin layer with each action. By the time his labour was complete, his hands were caked with mud and blood, with crescents of black filth pushed deep under nine of his ten fingernails. The final one he lost, buried somewhere beneath the mounded dirt. He spat thickly and breathed steam and rested his forehead on the cool ground. At his knees gaped a shallow-sided hole, a small pool of brown water at its base.
The sun, growing bolder, raised its head above his shoulder. It burned the colour from the clouds as before it the little black birds swarmed like midges. The man reached and pulled the holdall towards him. Its thick zip came apart with a low, metallic rrribbet.
Inside the bag, crouched in the foetal position, lay a small, naked body – its knees to its chest, its arms round its knees. The skin was white, so white as to be almost translucent, with nary so much as a freckle to blemish it. The delicate bones of its spine stood out clear and defined under the weak midmorning sun. The man put his hands inside the bag and, with care, lifted the body by the armpits, then planted it – face down – into the salty ground.
Standing up, he pushed the loose earth over the body with the instep of his boot, before pressing the grooved pattern of its sole into the mud. He clapped the dirt from his hands and wiped them on the fronts of his jeans.
“There,” he said with finality. “And that’s the last I’ll think of it.”
That night, as the man tossed in knotted bedsheets, the corpse took root.
It began slowly – a slender white tendril split the skin on the underside of the body and pushed its way into the cold, dark earth. The fleshy appendage was furred with fine blond hairs which grew and groped at moisture, sucking thirstily at the soil. This first root was followed by a second, the second by a third, then another and another. Each root split in two, the two into four, four to eight: until, beneath the soil, the small, white body was haloed by an intertwining cloud of microscopic veins and capillaries, as complex as cotton wool. Next, a spiny, flesh-coloured stem – about the width of a finger, and topped with a single white nail – erupted from the lower back. It pushed and stretched and split the skin, forcing its way up, up, up. As the body was buried only a few inches deep, it wasn’t long before the stem had cracked the soil’s crust and broken through into the cool night air.
The following morning at the allotment, the man stood over the anaemic plant, hands on hips. By this time, the stem had thickened to the width of a child’s arm – albeit a grotesquely extended one, with no less than three separate elbows jointing its length. Not only that: now, instead of a white fingernail, it was topped by a bulging growth that looked very much like a fist, except that the skin between the “fingers” had fused to form a single fleshy bulb.
The man tutted, kicked dirt around its base. He disappeared into the allotment’s ramshackle shed, before emerging – after several minutes of banging and swearing – with a roll of blue tarpaulin tucked beneath his arm. He stood above the growth, grasped the tarp by its corners and with a flick sent it billowing out like a picnic blanket. It settled daintily on top of the plant. After some trying, he managed to manoeuvre the doorless fridge onto one side of the tarp, while the other he weighted down with the sack of hardened cement. The growth was less apparent, covered like this. Any passer-by might well have overlooked it entirely. The man wiped the sweat from his brow and congratulated himself on a job well done.
“Finished,” he said. “I can forget all about it.”
And he tried to forget. Really he did.
He decided he would take a walk. Keep busy, he thought. That was the right idea. A dose of fresh air can do wonders for the soul! He prepared a packed lunch: triangular crisp butties, with a tartan flask of vegetable soup to go alongside. He parcelled them up in clingfilm and looked about the kitchen for a bag in which to carry them. His eyes fell on the sports holdall, lying forlorn and empty on the linoleum by the backdoor. He looked away. In the cupboard under the sink he found a reusable shopping bag – the handles had seen better days, but it would do the job. He dropped the food inside, and sealed it with a twisting flourish.
Walking, walking, walking. He drew a squiggly circuit around the town’s back streets – past the junior school, the gasworks, the mill, the madhouse – unsure exactly of where he was headed. Not to the hills, that was for certain! He ate his sandwiches on a memorial bench by the dual carriageway. The metal rafters of the railway bridge shielded him from the worst of the rain, if not the wind. Iron rivets, as fat as babies’ fists, held the girders in place above him; a trail of rusty water bled from each and streamed down the crumbling brickwork. Across the bridge, some wag had spray-painted the word GOURANGA.
The man finished his lunch and was about to toss his crusts for the birds, when suddenly it occurred to him – they were entirely absent from the sky above. In fact, from the time he’d left the house till now, he hadn’t heard so much as a cheep out of them. Before he had a chance to wonder exactly where they’d got to, a diesel freighter rocketed noisily overhead: the railway bridge shook with such violence he thought the whole edifice would come crashing down on top of him. He set off walking again.
And he wasn’t thinking about the plant. Not really. Passing thoughts, was all. Until, that is, he came to the reservoir, and looked out across the body of lifeless black water. He stood at the outlet weir, watching the overflow drain away beneath him. Wet leaves, litter, a fine layer of scum – the colossal plughole dragged everything down. He put his hands on the railings.
NO DIVING, read the sign. HIDDEN DANGERS BELOW.
Taking a deep breath, he turned his eyes toward the horizon – that was when he saw it, doubled there on the water’s surface. The reservoir stretched out before him like an obsidian mirror: in its wavering reflection, he traced the line of muddy hillock. At its peak, he could just about make out the allotments, and in the endmost plot… What was that, towering there, surrounded by little black birds in frenzied flight?
He dropped his tartan flask and took off at a run: out of the town, over the stile, up the hill, until – there it was.
That is, if it could indeed be called a plant – for it was closer now in size and shape to a tree; twice the height of the shed, with a trunk he’d have struggled to reach around with both arms! Milky white skin covered it in loose folds that rippled down the shaft. Queerest of all, the fleshy bulb of fist that the day before had sat atop it had now swelled and bloomed and spread open wide. Each of yesterday’s fingers was as thick as an arm. In fact, each of yesterday’s fingers was an arm! Yes, the man saw it now – at the end of each bony branch, a knuckled hand clawed, as though dragging its nails across the clouds themselves. And at the top, in the clutches of the very highest hand, a flag of blue tarpaulin snapped in the wind. The little black birds flitted from branch to branch, whistling down at the man as they pecked at loose pieces of flesh.
The man was disgusted, indignant. There was only one thing for it. Once again, he disappeared into the allotment’s shed. Banging, swearing and then: he emerged, a rusty green bow saw clasped at his side.
He stood at the foot of the tree and pressed the saw’s gnarled teeth against the trunk’s flesh. Tiny crimson droplets blossomed where the blade met the skin. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and – with the full force of his weight – jerked the saw towards his body.
The little black birds skittered into the air. The sun averted its gaze.
There was… an odour. And a single, ear-splitting shriek: ten dozen knives scraped over ten dozen plates; the whistle of the dentist’s drill as it bores through enamel; a thousand feral pigs cooked alive in boiling chip fat; the death rattle of the bunny rabbit. A jet of hot blood shot from the tree and gushed into the man’s open mouth. He fell to his knees in the nettles, gagging and retching, his hands over his ears. When finally there was nothing left to expel, he crawled blindly in the direction of home – a meniscus of mud and vomit trailing in his wake.
The tree had barely a scratch.
What followed might charitably be described as a “slump”.
The man moved about his little house – from the kitchen to the front room, from the front room to the bedroom. He checked the levels on his picture frames, alphabetised the spice jars, filled the kettle to the top and timed how long it took to boil. He near enough wore the floral pattern from his stair-carpet pacing up and down and up again. He tried to work; he was too tired to work. He tried to sleep; he was too restless to sleep. He tried to eat, to read, to go outside. The breadth of choice exhausted him and, in the end, he did nothing. Just sat there, vegetating in the armchair.
Day turned to night turned to day turned to night. He grew tired of the sight of the sun, rising at his window in haughty judgment of the peculiar hours he kept.
Have you really nothing better to do? it seemed to say. Something you ought to be tending to?
He began opening the curtains later and later in the day, until eventually they stayed closed for good. That did for the sun, but the birdsong was another thing entirely. The little black birds tortured him with their morning choir. He put his fingers in his ears, turned the television up loud. Its cool light coloured his face: liver yellow, stone green, a shade of blue to match the bags under his eyes.
He began filling his face just to break up the monotony – slice after slice of processed white bread, straight from the packet. The armchair’s cushions sagged beneath his weight, and his trousers pinched him at the hips. His stretch-marked belly ballooned over their waistband like a decomposing pumpkin.
And all the while, his tree continued to grow.
A month went by.
Finally, after four weeks delaying the inevitable, the man came to a decision. He would tarry no longer. He packed what he would need into the sports holdall and stood at the window, waiting for the sun to go down (no need to give the smug-faced bastard the satisfaction of seeing him go). A minute after it set, he slipped out the backdoor, picking his way toward the edge of town in darkness and silence. He kept his eyes to the ground as he climbed the hill to the allotments, breathing through his nose. His nostrils flared like a bull’s with each blast of hot air. Nguh, nguh, nguh.
At last, he reached the endmost plot. He unfastened the discoloured padlock and let it fall to the mud. Pushing open the gate, he dropped the holdall by his feet, then turned his eyes toward heaven.
The tree was more magnificent than he had dared to imagine. He leant back and took it in: a mighty trunk that rose like Jacob’s Ladder through the clouds, gigantic boughs of brawn and bone, and at their ends – arms and arms and arms, snaking out in every conceivable direction, infinitely tangling, infinitely clutching, each capped with a bony hand that plucked a star from the night sky. The man couldn’t help but feel a little proud.
He secured the holdall on his shoulder, took a firm grip of a low-hanging limb and, with one foot wedged against the trunk, hoisted himself into the tree. Slowly but surely, he began to climb. Higher and higher he went – past the sheds and the terraces, the junior school and the railway bridge, the mill and the madhouse. The incessant pecking of the birds had left the tree covered in bloody sores that scabbed or wept. As the man climbed ever upward, he encountered more and more of the little black creatures – although now, they weren’t so little. Sprawled across the boughs, they dozed with their bellies in the air: full of flesh, and too fat to fly.
On and on he climbed, until he was too old and knackered to go an inch further. He rested his head on the trunk. A sickle of moon broke through the cloud cover and – just for a second – cast its spectral light on the town below.
From up here, the man thought, everything looks pretty.
He had hoped to reach the top, but he supposed that this would have to do. He set the holdall down on his lap, pulled apart the metal zipper and removed a coil of orange nylon rope. He shuffled on his bottom to the end of the limb, letting the rope spool out into the cool evening breeze. He tied it around the branch in a sturdy double bow. Left over right, under. Right over left, under. He made a loop at the other end and placed it over his head. He said a quick prayer, crossed himself, then jumped from the tree.
And as his neck broke, and his body swung from the bough – the tree, at last, bore its fruit. And the tree was fruitful.
About John Steciuk
John Steciuk is a British-Ukrainian writer from Manchester, UK. In 2017, he received an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. His work has subsequently been shortlisted for the Galley Beggar Short Story Prize and Penguin Random House's Write Now program. John currently lives in Norwich, where he is studying for a Ph.D. in Creative and Critical Writing. His Ph.D. project, a collection of linked stories titled The Reservoirs Are Colder And Deeper Than You Think, explores themes of mental illness and masculinity in the post-industrial north of England.