Maisie rested her head against the car window. They had been driving for ages and she was beyond bored and more than a little uncomfortable. It was an unusually chilly April and her cheek was growing numb from where it was pressed against the glass; not even her father’s enthusiasm could warm up the cramped little space.
‘You alright back there, madam?’ Dad said for about the umpteenth time. She hmm’d and kept her eyes on the increasingly pot-holey road. ‘Nearly there.’
They lapsed into silence again. Dad had put the radio on for a bit at the start of the journey, but Mum had turned it off when her head started to hurt. She was laying back in her seat now, not sleeping, with her thick black sunglasses shutting everything out. Maisie and Dad knew not to disturb her.
It was so different out here. Maisie had watched with a knot in her stomach as the streets and houses slowly shrank from the sides of the road and were replaced with empty fields and empty trees. They had set off in the early morning, so there was still a faint mist hovering above the hedgerows and partly shrouding the low sun like a hazy spotlight.
After a while the car slowed right down and turned into a narrow lane. ‘Oh look! There’s some horses up here,’ said Dad in a stage whisper.
The lane was half taken up by the two horses; one black, one grey and both very old and haggard, lumbering along as if every step took all their effort. An old woman in a dirty green hat was with them, riding the old grey and leading the black with a rope. She turned her head to look back at their car and Maisie could only see dark gaps where her eyes should have been. Mum was sitting up now with her sunglasses off. She liked horses. Eventually, the old woman signalled them with a wave of her arm and Dad slowly overtook her. Maisie looked up at the woman as they passed, but her head was bowed and she seemed to be paying no attention to them.
‘Andrea, would you just check the map again?’ Dad asked Mum. She sighed and reached down into her footwell.
Losing interest, Maisie’s focus on the line of trees blurred and she daydreamed herself back to her house in the city. Ava and Emily had come around and the three of them were in the garden and soaking up the sun, chatting with excitement about going to Big School soon. Perhaps later they would go to the newsagents for a bottle of pop and then wander over to the park…
‘Here we are!’
The warm garden and smiling faces were gone in a turn of the ignition key. Maisie hadn’t noticed when they pulled into the driveway and the shock of the silent engine and finally seeing the house before them left her stunned.
Although it was mid-afternoon, there was still a little mist left behind from the morning curling around the windows. They were new windows, Maisie could tell, because the rest of the house wasn’t. It was an ugly grey-brown brick building and looked like one of those lazy pencil-drawings from primary school. None of the walls looked straight, the black slate roof was crooked and stuck out too far at one end and the windows were so disorganised it was as if the builder just shoved them in last. Though perhaps it only looked lopsided because of the thick green ivy smothering one whole side of the house all the way across to the front door.
‘Are you coming, Maisie?’
With a jolt, Maisie realised that Mum and Dad were already out of the car and up the garden path. She quickly clambered out and ran up to join them. Her feet crunched against the gravel as she ran up the path, under a bare flower trellis and up to the front door. It had the same brand-new, slightly wonky look as the windows.
‘How old is this house?’ she asked.
‘Pretty old,’ said Dad. ‘It used to be a coaching station.’ He tapped a white ceramic sign above the post-box that read The Coach House.
‘A bit like petrol stations, but for horses and carriages,’ explained Mum. ‘They still have the old stables in the back garden.’
‘Can I go and have a look?’
‘Don’t you want to see your room first?’ asked Dad as he opened the door.
It was dark inside. The walls were bleached white, like the walls of a doctor’s office and the furniture had an emptiness that made the whole house seem strangely uninviting. It seemed more like a house to be looked at than lived in. Her bedroom was not much better. At least it was a little brighter, but that only emphasised how bare the room was. A bed and a wardrobe; both made of some dark, ornately carved wood. Setting her little case down at the foot of the bed, she sat down on the mattress and almost stood right back up again in annoyance. It was harder than a park bench. And instead of a thick fluffy duvet like on her bed at home, there was a thin, scratchy, sickly pink blanket that might have been taken off her granny’s wheelchair. But as much as she hated it, she forced herself to sit and be quiet and listen to her parents quietly unpacking across the corridor.
It’s only for two weeks, she told herself. Things might be better.
The window was right next to her bed and it looked out over the back garden. A small row of sheds ran alongside the house (the old stables Mum was talking about, Maisie thought) and over the dark roof a wide-open field and thick knot of distant trees looked ever so inviting.
“I’ll be in the back garden!” she called to Mum and Dad as she hurried past their room.
At the back of the dining room a pair of new glass doors overlooked the garden. They weren’t locked and for some reason that made Maisie feeler a little calmer. She could come and go whenever she liked and go off exploring on her own. The ivy that covered the front of the house had reached the back too and she noticed that it curled around her bedroom window. In the time it took her to turn and look at the rest of the garden, she had already formed one escape plan in her head and was busy on another when she reached the sheds. One of the four stables still had the remains of a rusty number bolted above the door: ‘36’. The garden was neat, the grass had been recently cut and a few dandelions were beginning to pop up around the wooden gate that stood slightly ajar at the far end.
Halfway through strolling towards it, she stopped. There was something wrong with the scene, something different that Maisie hadn’t noticed from her bedroom window.
In the middle of the open field stood a huge, empty tree. An old tree, from the size of it. Unlike the smaller saplings around the house, there was no hint of green on or even around this one. Long, spindly branches twisted around each other like veins, and stretched out in every direction; towards the ground, the sky, the distant forest….
Maisie was mesmerised, surprised she hadn’t seen it from her bedroom window, and a little uneasy; it was like looking at a familiar photo and seeing for the first time the creepy face in the corner staring back at you. It was almost perfectly central to the open gate, like it was inviting her to come closer.
“Maisie!” She spun round to see her Dad leaning out of the back doors. “We need to get some food in, and I could do with a hand carrying the shopping.”
She stood still for a moment, letting the shock pass, and then walked stiffly back to her smiling father.
Mum had another headache, so they left her in the quiet of the old house while they drove to the nearby village. She was still in the bedroom when they got back with armfuls of shopping bags, but there was a glass of water, a pack of painkillers and her black and white neck scarf on the dining table. Mum loved that scarf; she said it made her feel glamorous, like Grace Kelly.
Once the shopping was away, Dad went upstairs to check on her. He was up there a lot longer than he should have been and after a while, Maisie sighed and grabbed her coat.
This time, she didn’t stop at the gate. Its hinges creaked as she opened it and walked across the field. She tried to aim for the dense wood, but really, she knew where she wanted to go.
The closer she got to the tree, the more frightening it became, its long branches stretching out over her head as though they were trying to trap her. Now she was seeing it close up, she was able to see what was wrong with it. It looked as though the ashy grey wood had never sprouted a single green leaf. There were no animals nearby, no birds and there weren’t even any tell-tale clumps of old nests among the branches. The ground around it was bare, the grass receding under her feet, and gnarled roots jutted out of the earth.
Maisie stopped a few feet from the trunk. It was rough except for a single patch in the middle It was perfectly round, smooth looking and exactly at her eye level. Before she could stop herself, she reached out her hand to touch it.
A loud barking by her foot made her jerk back.
She looked around in a panic and saw a short, black Scottie dog with a bright red collar standing tense beside her. Even though he barely reached her knee, she had never seen a dog so vicious. He barked and snarled, baring his teeth at her with eyes so wide she could see the whites. Maisie tried to step back, stumbled over her own feet and fell down. She pulled herself up and kept her eyes on the dog, but he wasn’t moving. He just barked at her.
An old man in a flat cap was climbing the hill leading up to the tree. For a moment, she thought he was shouting at the dog, but then she realised his eyes were glaring at her.
“Get the hell away from here! What are you doing? You shouldn’t be anywhere near here! Who are you?”
He didn’t give her a chance to answer, shouting loudly with flecks of spittle flying from his mouth. The dog was still snarling at his feet, but now it was turning its head towards the tree.
“What’s going on here?”
Maisie turned to see her dad storming towards them, his face like thunder. She quickly jumped to her feet.
“I just went for a walk…” she said. Dad put his hands on her shoulders and moved her behind him.
“Who the hell are you? Why are you shouting at my daughter?”
“Tell her to stay away from here!”
“She’s a young girl, you’re a complete stranger! You have no right to come screaming up here with a mad dog –”
“I don’t care!” The man’s eyes were wide and crazed. “Keep her away from these trees!”
Dad straightened and spoke a little quieter. “Are you the landowner?”
The man was taken aback for a moment. “No.”
“Then you don’t have a say in where we go. We’ve rented the cottage for the next couple of weeks and if my daughter wants to go for a walk, she’s well within her rights to do so. And if I see you anywhere near her again, I will break your damn legs! Do you understand me?”
With that, he grabbed Maisie’s arm and dragged her back towards the house. She looked back at the old man, at the angry and scared look in his eyes, and at the little dog who continued to bark at the tree.
Dad told Mum all about it that evening as they sat down for dinner. Maisie sat quietly as he stammered through his retelling. The angry indignation he’d felt earlier had seeped out of him and he looked up at Mum every now and then as if he wanted to see what she felt about it all, but she kept her eyes on her dinner plate.
“Well, maybe you should just stay clear of those trees if it’s going to upset the locals,” she said to Maisie.
“I don’t see why she should,” said Dad. “I checked and that field is part of a public trail, so there was no reason for that guy to lose it the way he did. And his dog was completely out of control, I should report it.” He sighed and was silent for a while before his adventurous smile returned to his face. “Maybe we could walk that trail tomorrow and see where it leads.”
For the first time in a while, Maisie felt a little stirring of enthusiasm, something she almost never felt with one of Dad’s plans. “We might see some more horses,” she said and her eyes flicked to Mum, who smiled at her.
“Well, let’s make sure to get a good night’s sleep tonight then,” she said. “Sounds like we’re going to be on our feet all day tomorrow.”
Once the dishes were washed and put away, Maisie sat for a while on the sofa and made a start on one of her holiday reading books. Mum and Dad sat at the kitchen table with a cup of tea and occasionally, Maisie could hear a little murmur of talk, but mostly it was quiet.
It was still quiet when she went to bed – too quiet. The night-time silence of her bedroom in the city may as well have been a dance party compared to what she wasn’t hearing now. No rumble of cars passing by, no distant sirens, no dogs barking or cats yowling… And it was much darker. Without streetlights filtering through her curtains, her room in this house was pitch dark. A few times, while she was waiting to go to sleep, she waved her hand in front of her face closer and closer to her nose, but she still couldn’t see it. It was like being trapped in window-less box.
There was no way to tell what time it was. There was no clock in her room, no moonlight moving across the sky and she couldn’t even see her wrist, let alone her watch. Once, the tiniest sliver of light appeared through the crack under the door and she heard her mum give a small sigh, probably going to get some water for her tablets. But after a moment, the light disappeared and she was once again alone in complete darkness. Hour after hour seemed to creep by until finally, she began to doze.
Then the whispers began.
They should have been frightening to Maisie, but they weren’t. She was still in that in-between place of sleep and awake, the place where you can’t tell what’s a dream and what isn’t. It was a place where, if she tried hard enough, she could make her dreams do whatever she wanted. Right now, she could make the whispers louder, quieter, say funny words or sing like a bird. They got too loud and she pushed them down, forcing them to be quiet.
Instead, they grew louder, higher. They were whistling, then crying, then screaming.
Maisie’s eyes flew open, but she was still stuck in that terrible darkness while hundreds of voices whispered and shrieked. She clapped her hands over her ears, but the whispers grew louder until she could make out something of what they were saying.
She pressed her hands harder over her ears until all she could hear was the thumping inside her own head and somehow later opened her eyes to find that the sun was up.
Their planned walk the next day didn’t last as long as Mum had thought it would. Maisie was tired, Mum was pale and didn’t say much and they both stared sullenly at the ground. Only Dad seemed to be eager to explore the countryside. Eventually, he seemed to pick up on their mood and after an hour or so suggested they spend the day ‘relaxing at home.’ When they got back to the cottage, Mum went upstairs to bed without a word and, although Maisie wanted to do the same, Dad insisted she go out and get some fresh air as he poured a glass of water and went up after Mum.
Maisie tried her hardest to avoid it, she walked down to the road at the far side of the field and followed the stone wall. But it was still there, in the corner of her eye like a black spot. Its branches were stretching into her vision as if they were waving to her, beckoning to her.
Eventually she found herself standing at the foot of the tree again.
As she stood there silently, she wondered if the old man shouting at her had compelled her to come here. No, she decided. Even without his warning, in spite of it, she would have come to the tree. There was just something irresistibly strange about it… strange and wrong. She stared at the smooth spot and realised that it had a couple of faint dark spots in the pale wood. Two. Like a pair of eyes.
A glimpse of red caught her eye as she tried to turn away. There was something on the ground, tucked between the thick roots. She slowly stepped towards it, twigs snapping far too loudly under her shoes. She felt like a mouse creeping towards a sleeping lion. Her eyes flicked between the red thing, half hidden beneath a root, and the silent tree as she edged closer. Finally, she was close and with one last look up at the trunk, she quickly reached out, grabbed the thing and turned to run as fast as she could.
There was a swooping sensation in her stomach before she hit the ground hard, knocking all the air out of her lungs. Dizzy and panicked, she tried to catch her breath, dimly aware of something wrapped around her ankle. She looked back and saw that her foot had been caught in a root. Her chest was still burning, refusing to pull in the air that she desperately needed. Get away, get away! A voice inside her head was screaming. She tried to pull her foot free of the root, but it wouldn’t budge. Why did it feel like it was getting tighter? Her hands clawed frantically at the earth as she tried to crawl away, but the root around her ankle pulled her back, twisting tighter and tighter until it hurt…
With a loud gasp, she suddenly remembered how to breathe and yanked her foot free. Immediately, she rolled over and scurried backwards on her hands and bum, too scared to take her eyes from the tree. It was still and quiet. The root she had tripped on lay innocently in the grass, like a snake with its belly close to the ground. There was no room for her foot to have gotten stuck.
Maisie leapt to her feet and ran. A hot pain shot up and down her ankle, but she didn’t stop until she reached the garden gate, ripped it open and was safely inside. It was only then that she remembered the thing she had picked up and looked down at her hand. It was an old, red dog collar.
Dad was upset for some reason. Though he didn’t think her ankle was broken, it was still covered with angry red marks and it hurt to put any weight on it. He sat next to her on the old sofa, holding an ice pack wrapped in a tea towel against her foot, and his mouth was a thin line stretched humourlessly across his face.
“Well, we won’t be able to go to Featherstone Castle tomorrow,” he sighed. “You’re not going to be walking around all day on that.”
“Wonderful,” said Mum. “Another day trip cancelled. Another day stuck indoors with nowhere to go and nothing to do, looking after the kid –”
“Oh, here we go,” said Dad, his voice rising as he stood to face her. “It wasn’t Maisie’s fault that she got hurt, anymore than it’s your fault for being ill.” His face was calm, but there was something in his eye as he said those last few words.
“It was your brilliant idea to come out here, David. I told you it wouldn’t agree with me. I’d have been much happier just to – ”
“To what exactly?”
Mum’s face flushed red and she started to shout. “If all we were going to do was just sit around and talk about things we ‘might’ do, we may as well have just stayed home! Or you could have taken Maisie and the two of you sat around and been bored if you were so keen to have your country getaway.”
“The getaway was meant to be for US, Andrea! To finally sort this shit out! But all you’ve done is mope and gripe, give me the silent treatment or lie in bed –”
Maisie slowly got up from the sofa, which creaked loudly, drawing both of their eyes back to her.
“Oh, Maisie, darling,” said Dad. “I’m sorry. Look, why don’t we…”
“I need the toilet,” she mumbled and hobbled up the stairs as quickly as she could. She knew full well she wasn’t planning on going back downstairs.
That night, the whispers came back.
Just like last time, they waited until it was pitch dark before they started. The low shushing sound rose louder and louder, demanding Maisie’s attention.
Maisie pulled the thin blanket over her head and bunched them up in her ears, but that still didn’t drown out the whispers.
With a loud click, the whispers suddenly stopped, as if someone had flipped the off switch. Then she saw the line of light under the door and realised that someone was out in the hall.
It was Mum, she told herself. Mum or Dad popping up to use the loo. She stared at the yellow line of light and waited for footsteps, the creak of a floorboard, a cough… but there was nothing.
She was listening, so hard it felt as if her whole body was straining for a single sound. The time passed when the light should have gone out again, but it didn’t. Slowly, scared to make any noise herself, she sat up, pushed the blanket off and crossed to the door.
The hallway was blinding after the pitch dark of her room and she opened the door slowly as her eyes adjusted. On the other side, Mum and Dad’s bedroom door was neatly shut, but the bathroom door further down was slightly ajar and dark inside. Her foot still ached a little as tried to tip-toe down the hall towards the stairs and down into the kitchen. She ran her hand along the smooth wall until she found the light switch and flicked it on.
Her mother was standing at the back door. She was wearing a pair of jeans under her nightie and looked as if she was going for a walk. For a moment they stared at each other before Mum let out a noise like air rushing from a balloon.
“What are you doing up?” she whispered.
Maisie shrugged. “I thought I heard something.”
Mum smiled and gestured for her to sit at the table. She pulled a glass out of the cupboard.
“How’s your foot?”
“Still hurts a bit.”
“Bit more rest, that’s all it needs.” Mum held the glass under the cold tap and gently turned it on to the quietest trickle. “Do you want a drink of water too?”
Maisie looked over at the door. Mum still hadn’t shut it. “Why were you outside?”
“Oh, I had another headache,” Mum said into the sink. “I thought a bit of a walk might clear it.”
“In the middle of the night?”
“Yes, it’s beautiful out there! You can see the stars.”
Maisie looked down at her lap. She took a breath, then another, then finally found her nerve. “I thought you didn’t like it here.”
There was a small clink as Mum put the glass on the table and sat down next to her. “I thought I should give it a chance. And you know, it’s starting to grow on me.” Mum smiled at her for a few moments. “What about you? I’ve not heard your opinion on this place.”
“It’s… a bit scary.”
“Scary?” Mum’s incredulous tone almost made her break her whisper. “Why?”
Maisie looked at her Mum and then back down at her lap. Her thoughts were filled with unexplained whispers, tree roots that tried to break her leg and the frantic warnings of the old man. But Mum was smiling. She seemed so much more cheerful than she did this afternoon. And Maisie wasn’t supposed to be scared of these stupid kid things anymore. She was going to be in Big School soon.
“I think it’s that tree…” she finally admitted.
“What, that beautiful old tree out there?” Maisie looked up sharply. “The one in the middle of the field?”
“Yes. The one that looks like it’s dead.”
“Oh,” Mum shook her head, smiling. “But it’s not dead.”
Maisie shivered as Mum’s gaze drifted past her to the open doors.
“No, even when something looks dead and empty on the outside, it’s actually full of life on the inside.”
The low rush of the whispers reached Maisie’s ears. They were a little quieter, as though coming from further away. But as she turned her head towards the door and stared into the darkness, she heard a new noise. A deep groaning, creaking sound – the sound of stretching wood.
“Well, you should get back up to bed. Don’t want Dad finding out you’ve been up this late.”
Maisie got up from the table. “Aren’t you coming.”
“Not yet,” she answered, looking out of the door again.
It was amazing how quickly the pain in her ankle vanished as she ran back upstairs. The whispers were quieter now and she was suddenly so tired, her eyelids pulling themselves closed.
Almost immediately, like a film in her head that was ready to play the second she closed her eyes, she saw the tree in front of her. The night was completely black, but she could clearly see the outlines of the branches, the trunk and the face smiling at her with wide dark eyes from the smooth spot.
Something tightened around her foot and pulled her to the ground. White roots burst from the ground and wrapped themselves tightly around her legs and arms and she felt her whole body being dragged downwards.
Mum smiled at her serenely. “It’s not really dead…”
As the tree swallowed her whole, she sat bolt upright in bed. She sat shivering for a moment before she realised what had woken her up.
There was a light outside the window. It was small to start with, but it grew brighter and brighter until her whole bedroom was illuminated. Then, just as quickly as it had come, the light vanished.
Maisie sat stunned on her bed, blinking out the colourful spots that the light had left in her eyes. The whispers still rolled around the room, but they seemed less urgent now. The dream was still clear in her head and she could hear the blood pounding in her ears, her heart beating faster than it had ever done in her life.
For the next few days when Maisie went downstairs in the mornings, Dad would be sitting on the sofa with a paper in his hands and there would be no sign of Mum. When Maisie said “good morning” to him, he would either grunt without taking his eyes away from the news or give a hearty “good morning!” back with a smile that didn’t seem to change the rest of his face. The air in the house was still and heavy with something that Maisie couldn’t understand, so to get away from it she would spend most of the day trying to find ways to not be bored. The front garden was beginning to bloom and she discovered a way to climb over the low roof of the stables to get from the back of the house to the front. Sometimes she would venture out to walk around the field, keeping close to the stone wall and her eyes off the tree.
Today was one of those days. It was nearing the end of their first week in The Coach House, but things hadn’t gotten much better. Unlike Mum, Maisie was struggling to find things to like. As she walked, she deliberately stared over the wall to the road, but she still felt it at her back – the feeling of being watched.
A series of short sharp whistles made her look up. On the far side of the field, over the wall, stood the old man in his flat cap. He was looking all around and occasionally pursing his lips to give a calling whistle. Maisie watched him, her hand reaching into her pocket for the dog collar she found, and walked towards him.
The old man didn’t see her until she was right next to the wall. He regarded her with watery eyes, but didn’t say anything.
“Hello,” she said, marvelling at how calm her voice sounded.
The old man grunted and then looked over to the cottage. “Didn’t your dad say he was going to break my legs if I come near you?”
“Well I came to talk to you, so it’s fine. And anyway, Dad’s having a nap.”
A smirk played across the old man’s lips.
“Where’s your dog?”
He sighed. “God only knows…”
Maisie pulled her hand out of her pocket, bringing the red collar with it. “Was his name Robbie?”
He frowned at her and then noticed the collar in her hand. She held it out to him and he took it gently in his weathered hand, his fingers rubbing at the frayed edges where the collar had broken.
“Where was this, then?” he asked, his voice breaking a little.
Maisie swallowed. “Up by the tree.”
She knew she didn’t need to explain which tree when the man looked up at her with the same glaring eyes she had seen that day. “I told you to stay away from there.”
“Why? What’s wrong with it?”
She hadn’t said this to be annoying and she was afraid he would take it that way. She couldn’t tell him about the things she had seen and heard, but perhaps he heard it in her voice anyway as his gaze suddenly softened.
“I don’t want to scare you,” he said. “But then I think you’ve already been a bit scared, haven’t you?” Maisie nodded. He looked over her head, across the field to the old tree.
“It’s an ash tree, you know. A long time ago, ash had all sorts of uses: they made doors, furniture … But this tree was used for something else.”
The old man looked down at her, his mouth moving as he tried to form the words. He was still trying not to be scary.
“A long, long time ago, England was ruled by a wicked, greedy king. All he cared about was making himself happy, even if it made others unhappy. The people suffered every day, but they still loved their king and thought that if they just talked to him and explained, they could make him understand how miserable they were. They thought they could change his mind. So, a big group of them got together and went on a very long walk to the king’s palace. The king was scared because he thought they were an army who were coming to attack him, but that’s not what they wanted. They were peaceful. They just wanted him to listen.
“So, the king pretended to be kind and he invited their leaders to come to his palace to talk to him. Only it wasn’t the king welcoming them with open arms, but his soldiers that met them. They were hacked to bits and hung from the trees all along the road.”
The old man sighed. He was leaning on the wall now with his hands clasped and his shoulders sagging.
Maisie cleared her throat. “Was that one of the trees the soldiers…?”
“It saw so much death and tasted so much blood. It started to like it. I don’t know how many of those trees are still left in the country… but I know there’s at least one.” They both stared at the bone white tree. “It’s rotten all the way down to the roots. Lots of strange things have happened around that tree over the years. Everyone who lives here knows to stay away from it.” He looked down at the collar in his hand. “You say you found this up there?”
“Yeah. Caught in a root.”
He nodded. “How much longer you here for?”
Maisie thought a moment. “About a week, I think.”
“Stay in your garden. Stay to the paths. Don’t leave your mum or your dad.” He sighed and looked sadly at the collar. “Thanks for this,” he muttered and then walked away down the road, his shoulders stooped.
Mum wasn’t in when Maisie got home. Dad told her that she had gone for a walk and she could tell from the way he clattered cups and slammed cupboard doors that they’d had another fight. With the vague feeling of something heavy in her stomach, she looked out the back door to the field, but she couldn’t see the tree from here – couldn’t see if Mum was anywhere nearby.
The day wore on and the weather grew finer. The dismal grey clouds of the past week blew away on a warm breeze, leaving only a few picture-perfect white clouds. Eager to get out in this rare spot of sunshine, she asked Dad if they could go out for a walk too. “Maybe we’ll catch up with Mum,” she had said. But Dad hadn’t wanted to leave the house empty in case Mum got back before them.
Not wanting to look out at the back field, Maisie grabbed a towel and went to sit in the sun in the front garden. The formerly bare trellis was beginning to sprout green buds and Maisie imagined it in full bloom, maybe with bright red flowers. She eyed the diamond gaps in the trellis and wondered what they would look like against a castle wall, thick with greenery and perfect for climbing. All at once her mind was there, scaling the castle walls beneath the eye of an oblivious knight, her feet finding safe places among the branches –
Branches that twisted around her ankles.
Maisie couldn’t block the images that rushed into her head. She felt the tightness against her ankle again and it spread to the arms, her throat and the green leaves turned bony white…
She jumped to her feet, shaking off her daydream. The sunny garden felt strangely cold as she gathered up her towel and went inside.
“You get enough sunshine, Maisie?” said Dad as she passed him on the sofa.
“It got cold,” she said.
“Really? I thought it was lovely out there.”
Maisie stopped. Mum was sitting at the kitchen table holding a glass of water, her chequered scarf wrapped like a choker around her neck. Her cheeks were flushed, but there was still something sickly about her complexion. Behind her, the back doors were open.
From then on, Maisie watched her mother closely. Every night she waited in the darkness of her bedroom, her eyes trained on the crack under the door, waiting for the chink of light. She knew Mum was getting up in the night and she thought she knew where she was going.
All the while the whispers were getting worse. They grew louder and now they were joined by the groaning, creaking sound she had heard that night at the kitchen table.
Then one night, Maisie finally had enough.
Half terrified, half frustrated, she threw off the blanket and huddled against the wooden backboard, the old carvings digging into her back.
“What is it?” she whispered back. “What do you want?”
So she listened. She sat alone, shivering as the whispers roared in her ears. Finally, after what felt like hours, she heard something new.
It’s lovely isn’t it?
Maisie felt a swoop in her stomach. “No! Don’t go out!” She jumped out of bed and yanked the door open. It was dark, but she knew where she needed to go. She ran down the hall, her feet barely touching the floor, down the stairs, out the back door until she was standing before the tree.
Jagged branches stretched across the full moon. The creaking and the whispers were louder than they’d ever been and, echoing somewhere within the chaos, she heard the barking of a dog.
It only looks dead. It’s full of life…
There was Mum. Lying face down at the foot of the tree, as if she’d tripped, outstretched hands clawing at the ground. The moonlight shone in her eyes and Maisie saw pure panic there.
The roots were slithering up her legs, coiling around her arms, pulling her back towards the trunk and into the earth…
Maisie was frozen as she watched Mum being sucked into the ground. A thick, painful lump formed in her throat as a root slapped over Mum’s face.
Light flashed across her eyelids and they flew open. She was in her bedroom, panting, drenched in sweat and tangled in the blanket as white light filled the room. She could hear someone shouting outside, a low roaring sound and the whispers of the tree.
Jumping up, she wrenched open the door while she could still see it. The hallway light was on this time and Mum and Dad’s bedroom door stood ajar, the light shining on an empty bed.
Dad was outside. The back doors were wide open and she could hear him shouting somewhere near the wall separating the field from the road. He sounded angrier than she had ever heard him, but she couldn’t make out what he was saying over the wind.
There was the tree. She could barely see it in the faint moonlight and she sprinted across the field, her burning lungs stopping her from crying out. The tree groaned and whispered. The wind whipped her hair around her face. The branches swayed and in the darkness it seemed as though a hundred somethings were dangling from them like Christmas baubles.
Maisie fell to her knees and groped at the roots, but there was nothing. Then her hand touched something silky soft.
Dad was charging towards her. “What are you doing? Get back inside!”
“Mum! Mum, she –”
“Mum’s gone. Come on!” He grabbed her arm and dragged her back to the house. “God almighty! I do not need this right now!”
When they were back in the kitchen, Dad slammed the door, shutting out the wind and the whispers. He looked at Maisie, seemed to hesitate and then stormed off upstairs, leaving her alone, shivering and crying, Mum’s chequered scarf clutched in her hand.
They left the next morning. None of Mum’s stuff was in the car and Dad was still in a furious mood, so Maisie hadn’t asked about last night. As they turned off towards the main road, she thought she caught a glimpse of the old man and heard a faint whistle.
When they got home, Dad spent most of the day on the phone, sometimes shouting and pacing up and down. That evening he opened the door to a pair of uniformed police officers. Maisie had gotten scared and run up to her room.
Dad’s bad mood continued in the days that followed and he only spoke to Maisie to call her to dinner. Only once was she brave enough to ask about Mum. “She’s gone,” was all he said in a tone that made it clear she was never to ask again. She’s gone.
Maisie knew that. She didn’t know how, she didn’t know whether she could trust the dream she had, but she knew that that dismal bit of countryside had taken her mother from her. Every night she clutched Mum’s scarf under her pillow and imagined she could hear the whispering tree. Only now, mixed into the chaotic swarm of noise, was her mother’s voice. Sometimes whispering… sometimes screaming…