I know your dreams. A thin, calloused hand reaches out to you from the wood on the edge of the village—the trees, we are told by the Elders, that stand as beacons of hope in a time of darkness and thirst. As you sleep, this hand, gnarled like the bark it tends, floats through the village and stops before your house. It doesn’t need to knock, and it knows exactly who it seeks. Once inside the house, it finds your room and enters. When the hour is right, it taps your shoulder. And you, unsure if you are awake or still dreaming, watch as its long index finger curls and uncurls, slowly, three times. Beckoning you. But to what, you cannot imagine.
That hand is mine, little one, and it writes these words on its last sheets of paper.
You see my hand in your dreams because it was bred into your bones. It was a part of your flesh even before birth, a legend made real the moment your family’s name was drawn at Selection. When you arrived, the entire village knew you would one day take my place. None were supposed to speak of this to you. Our Elders, I’ve recently come to realize, enjoy keeping hard truths well-hidden. But still, there may have been hints. Your older sister, perhaps, sang snippets of a forbidden tune called the Song of Sacrifice while you bounced on her lap? Maybe your grandmother or an uncle dared to call you “special” or even “noble.” Then they gripped your hand tightly, winked at you, and gave you an extra sip of water. Lucky, lucky you.
But as you got older, there were no more winks and no extra water. Instead, your family and friends stared right through you, their faces lined with a sadness you couldn’t quite fathom. Dread began to sit, quietly, like a stone in your belly. For the first time, you knew thirst and fear. You began to notice the disappearances. Friends from the village school gone missing for months, their absences silently glossed over by all those around you. Then, suddenly, they would return to the village and their lives with haunted looks. All but one.
You now mourn for Arden, the most recent to vanish forever.
Perhaps you think me a mind reader?
Hardly, little one. I know these things because I’ve been watching you from the wood since you were born, waiting for this day. But do not be afraid. My job as a teacher is to know my student, to figure out how best to bond with a kindred spirit. For I, too, have lost many who were close to me. I was once Chosen, like you, and saw the hand come from the wood while I slept. On the night of my fifteenth birthday—the one you yourself celebrate today—that hand became flesh. It woke me, as I dreamed it would, in the dead hours of the night and beckoned me to follow. It led me away from everything I’d ever known. My family and my friends, the village. That hand took me to the sacred wood and stopped at its edge. It was then I realized a human being was attached to that hand, a man unknown to me from all my years in the village. His face was lined with weather and worry.
“But we’re told only the Keeper may enter the sacred wood,” I said to this stranger.
“I am the Keeper,” he said. “And you are my Initiate.” His mouth broadened into a sad, toothless smile. “Welcome, little one, to what I call The Living Copse.”
“Are you the one who keeps the trees alive?” I asked.
“Among other things,” he sighed. Then we entered the wood together.
Tradition, protocol, fate. Call it what you will. This was to be your destiny, too. I was meant to wake you this night. You were to become my Initiate and spend the next ten years in my tutelage, learning to care for the trees. And then, upon my death, you would assume the role of Keeper. It is considered by some to be the most important job in the village. A calling, quite literally, built not so much on soil and water, but upon those most human, and therefore most fickle, of qualities: hope and faith.
It is a job that requires tremendous sacrifice. Too much, I have decided.
So, yes, I will steal into your room tonight as planned, but instead of tapping your shoulder, my hand shall leave these pages on your bedside table and let you sleep until morning, unburdened by what lies in these pages for a few more precious hours.
You’ve never heard it called The Living Copse. It is a secret name for the wood known only to us. Like so many titles, it is riddled with a sad sort of humor. The Keepers of old called it The Living Forest. At some point, it became merely a grove. And now, it is nothing more than a copse, a beloved, but sickly stand of trees that dwindles each year despite the sweat—and blood—of many. I have watched some of my favorites perish over the course of my tenure. Elm and pine. Maple and birch.
It won’t be long, little one, until all of them are gone. Lost, even to memory.
Our future, which we believe is tied to the fate of the wood, didn’t always look so bleak. Long ago, the Elders, in their infinite wisdom, decided that the village needed to keep these trees alive as symbols of hope, as living reminders of a time when the Old Comforts still existed—tobacco, persimmons, paper. Now smoked away, eaten up, and, apart from the pages you hold in your hand, defiled with half-truths and lies. The Elders once believed that the damaged land was resilient. So resilient that it would correct itself, as if by magic. The clouds would return, bringing rain. The heat would fade. The Elders spoke of the day when the entire village would once again sit in the shade of mighty oaks, sharing cup after cup of cool water. It was a powerful vision of hope, and it sustained us for many years.
But hope alone, the Elders soon realized, cannot make the trees grow. So, they demanded sacrifices. Each family in the village was to give up a portion of its water to feed the wood, as a community-wide gesture of faith. And in each generation, one family would be asked to give up more—a son or a daughter, picked by lot, who would be stolen away in the dead of night by a stranger, taken to the wood, and trained to be the next Keeper.
This was your path.
But as honorable and noble as it may sound, this path demands a life of unbearable solitude. Once we Keepers enter the wood, we are rarely seen again by the living. Our job is to breathe life into the trees, to care for them so that the rest of the village doesn’t have to. The wood, in truth, rarely impinges on their everyday lives. The Elders would have you believe that’s down to your skills as a Keeper. The truth, however, is that the villagers don’t want to be reminded of you, or why you are needed, at all.
So, for years you must watch, alone and forgotten by those you serve, as the trees around you—the very things that define your purpose and are supposed to sustain your faith—wither and die despite your hard work. The stream through the wood slows, becoming nothing but a trickle. For a time, of course, you can share these burdens with the Initiate. But it is always tinged with the knowledge that the work, and belief itself, is ultimately for naught. What you pass to the next Keeper is a legacy of failure. And perhaps much worse.
Belief. Sacrifice. Hope. I am so tired of these words, little one.
In the beginning, each family would come once a week to the edge of the wood and leave their water ration. When they were gone, the Keeper would gather and use it. Judiciously, of course, as we had been trained. But in time, even the blindest grandmother could see this wasn’t enough to keep the trees alive. The Keepers told the Elders the truth, but they did not want to hear their strategy had failed. The Elders knew they couldn’t ask the villagers, already desperately thirsty, to give up more of their water. Not without serious questions being raised about their infinite wisdom, not without fear of riots and rebellion.
Unwilling to accept blame or defeat, the Elders came up with a new plan. The trees, they told the village, needed more nourishment. Water, they said, wasn’t enough. Strong roots and thick leaves required more of us—our own flesh and blood. To justify their thinking, the Elders turned to the legends told before the Slow Burn. One tale that once held sway over many villages caught their attention, a tale so remote and poorly remembered that only its vaguest outlines were still known. It was the story of a man believed to be the son of a god. And for the good of all those around him, this man agreed to be a sacrifice. The way the Elders remembered it, he allowed himself to be nailed to a tree, to be bled slowly and deliberately in order to nourish the roots of all living things on earth. Through this man’s prolonged pain, the world was made strong again. And so will it be, the Elders said, if we agree to sacrifice one villager a year—someone young, strong, and potent—to the wood.
You ask why anyone would agree to something so barbarous.
Desperation, little one. The wood, withering away at the edge of the village, was a reminder that they were slowly dying as well. No amount of water, they understood, was ever going to reverse this shared path to oblivion. But in this darkness, the Elders offered them a path to salvation, wrapping the horror of human sacrifice in language so entangled that the death of a loved one was accepted without question. Little one, desperate people can be made to believe that even heinous acts, if done for the right reasons, are worth the price. And in their ignorance, the young can easily be tricked into becoming heroes and martyrs.
So we came to take refuge in the image, the myth, of what the Elders called “The Man of the Tree,” and began what is called the Summoning some ten generations ago. Since that time, the Keepers have become tenders of blood and bone, instead of root and leaf. Wielders of hammer and nails, instead of rake and shears. A long string of murderers cloaking their vile deeds in the meaningless words of fools.
Last week, I found your beloved Arden standing at the edge of the wood. He’d been left there by his proud but grieving parents. I approached him and spoke the words that tradition tells me to: “Summoned, prepare to give yourself to the sacred wood.”
But he would not bow his head, either in reverence or acceptance.
Like all who are summoned by the Elders, Arden had been through the three-month ritual known as the Test. Each year, all villagers aged sixteen to eighteen are required to undergo it. It is a grueling series of exercises meant to test their physical, mental, and spiritual discipline. At the end of the Test, the Elders choose the person they think displays the greatest strength and purity of spirit. “The wood will be blessed to have you,” they tell the Summoned. The other participants in the Test return to their homes, many of them aware they will have to undergo it again the following year. The Summoned gets one week with his or her family to prepare for the ceremony and then is brought to me in the wood.
You cannot underestimate the enormity of the Keeper’s task, little one.
I was to lead Arden to a tree of my choice. I had chosen an oak, one of my favorites and in desperate need of nourishment. Without a word, Arden was to strip naked before me and offer me his hands. I was to drive nails through his flesh and into the oak, coaxing and channeling his blood towards the base of the tree. Then, I was to wrap his body in with wire, ensuring that his skin becomes one with the bark of the tree. Arden was to endure this without a sound as I sang the Song of Sacrifice. He would listen, slowly dying, while I read out “What the Trees Whisper,” a poem written by one of the Elders in which the wood itself describes its thirst for atonement, its demand that the village continues to pay for the careless and selfish actions of our ancestors.
For a Keeper, tending dying trees is hard. Tending a dying person is always harder. Under no circumstances may we comfort the Summoned, or in any way hasten the process of feeding the trees. The Elders have always insisted that the extension of the pain intensifies the efficacy of the sacrifice. But how would they know, little one? They stopped attending the ceremony three generations ago. They then forbade the villagers from participating, after so many of them remarked on how poorly the trees looked despite all the years of sacrifices. What was once a public reckoning with a community’s decision to sanction murder in the name of saving the unsavable has become nothing more now than a private death ceremony between Keeper and Summoned.
It was Arden who fully opened my eyes to this. It was he who convinced me that everything I’ve ever been told to believe is a lie. Breaking tradition, he dared to speak as I approached slowly with the hammer and nails in my hand.
“Keeper,” he said with a smile. “My grandmother told me something just after I was Summoned.” His eyes glinted in the sunlight filtering down through the ragged leaves above.
“What did she say?” I asked.
The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them.
“That the Elders tell us lies about the Man of the Tree.”
I nodded, silently willing him to continue.
“She said that it wasn’t a tree at all, but rather two crossed pieces of cut wood made by those who believed that the Man of the Tree was a criminal. Gran said he was nailed to these as a punishment for violating the laws of that time.”
I placed the hammer on the ground, and he continued.
“Here, you can read it yourself if you’d like. Before I came to the wood, she gave me an old copy of the story of the Man of the Tree. She told me she’s kept hidden in her bedroom since she was a child.”
He waved a small volume with the words “New Testament” written on the front.
“She also says the Man didn’t want to die and that he never understood how and why he had to suffer so much for so little.”
“Well, Keeper, look around. The wood is nearly dead. My grandmother, who still dares to walk near here despite the Elders’ warnings, says that all the trees are sick. She listens as you talk out loud to yourself, and to your trees. She knows you call it The Living Copse, and that you know the wood is dying.”
I looked at my beloved trees, willing my eyes up toward what’s left of the canopy. But they steadfastly remained focused on the trunks, where the bodies of those poor souls that I and every other Keeper for hundreds of years had sacrificed lay tied and rotting.
Arden went on. “Our land still burns under the heat of a relentless sun. There’s been no rain in months. All of us who have been Summoned? I see you looking at them now. It doesn’t seem like our suffering makes much of a difference. Gran says that you, Keeper, are complicit in all this. She called you ‘the Elders’ willing executioner.’”
“Perhaps she is not wrong,” I said, picking up the hammer once again.
“She wanted me to tell you that the wood should be called ‘The Living Corpse,’ instead.”
And for the first time in many years, I laughed.
Your Arden lives. He helped me bury my hammer, and whatever nails and wire I had left. As I write these words to you, he sits near me in my cabin, reading aloud from the book he brought with him. We have been through it numerous times now. We agree it is entirely unclear what this Man, named Jesus, really wanted. Neither of us has a clear idea of what he did right or what he did wrong. And there’s nothing at all definitive about what his death on a cross of wood means for those, like us, who live in an irreparable world. None of this, it is clear, can justify our decision to ask others to die for us, or this wood.
I know that writing these pages doesn’t absolve me of my crimes. It is far too late to confess my sins. This is what Arden’s book calls the things that I have done. Year after year, decade upon decade, I willingly fulfilled my duty to the village and the Elders. I am not only covered in the blood I helped shed, but also that shed by the Keepers before me.
I cannot and will not pass this legacy along to you.
Arden waits for you here in the wood. Go to him. Untie the bodies of the Summoned from the trees and release them from their burdens. Use the matches in my cabin to burn what’s left of the wood. Let fire scour the earth clean here. Then take Arden’s hand and run from this village and from the Elders. Get as far away as you can from anyone who would enslave you with lies. Try to enjoy whatever time you have left on this dying Earth. It wants us gone, and we should oblige it.
Do not look for me.
By the time you’ve read this and found Arden, I will be gone, wandering beneath the blistering sun with nothing but a pocket full of seeds. I doubt I shall live long enough to find a new place to plant them. But I am determined to live out my days with a hope that I’ve created, instead of one thrust upon me by false prophets.
Little one, consider these pages to be my Testament. They are a true record of the horrors I so willingly took part in for so many years. Share them with the villagers, for all the good it will do. The Elders, I fear, will only find new ways to distort the truth and keep their hold on power.
Or perhaps you and Arden could burn these pages with the rest of the sacred wood, and make your own story instead.