The tree towered over fifty feet tall in the square, and on paper, it was the town’s pride and joy. Twenty-five thousand ornaments, eight hundred feet of christmas lights, and seven hundred fifty feet of red gold-trim ribbon, that was the exact amount, stamped in black ink on hot printer paper. Ornaments flung into the hungry branches, sparking lights pulled into the needles, gold-trim ribbon drawn and rippled between the layers.
Everyone was terrified of it.
Something about it was off, the way it smelled, something about the way the branches spread in soft black tentacles, like some eldritch horror. People had said they’d seen eyes between the boughs, glittering like christmas lights. Ornaments went missing and lights broke. When you stood at the bottom, you had to break your neck to see the top, and as you sunk into the needles a dark ocean swallowed you like the cold depths of space. It felt like you could let yourself drown in those needles, and let them blot out the light until the whites of your eyes were black.
It was the seventh day of the winter festival. The winter festival was held in the square, around the very-obviously-beloved tree. The square was accordingly decked, with mossy swaths of green tinsel hanging from street lamps and colored lights budding from black tree branches. Porcelain plates of christmas cookies clinked onto folding tables, hot chestnuts turned over fire pits, ladles swam in bubbling cauldrons of hot chocolate. Footsteps crunched on the snow, the air bubbled with laughter, hearts glowed with christmas cheer-at least that was the idea.
Of course, it didn’t account for the crawlers.
No one knew why they were called that, but everyone knew a crawler when they saw one. Their faces were as pale as death, and you could count their ribs through the rags that hung over them. Their fingers were spindly and their eyes were shrunken. The only generous thing throughout them were the huge scarves that spilled over their shoulders. Some people said they’d seen seams of red between the folds, and the more aged members of the township said that in the past, there’d been even more of them, and they’d been even skinnier and paler and altogether more unpleasant.
They were there for the winter festival, and for the winter festival only. They had no trouble ladling out cups of free hot chocolate and taking handfuls of christmas cookies or helping themselves to their twentieth shortbread star. As everyone else mumbled about the size of their fridges, the crawlers were busy shoveling the leftovers into flagrant tote bags.
The strange thing was though every bowl was licked clean, there was never an ounce more of flesh on their bones, and nobody had seen them take a single sip from their mugs. They never even found the bones of the christmas duck.
It was the seventh day of the winter festival.
I reclined on the varnished wooden slats of a bench, letting the needles prick my hair and breathing the piney scent. I’d always been strangely drawn to the tree since I was a child. I’d used to lean back so far trying to see the top I’d fall over, and even tried to talk to a crawler, until I knew better. Not that much better though. That was why I wasn’t at all bothered when a young crawler girl sat next to me, a wobbling cup of hot chocolate clasped in her fingers.
“You’re not afraid of it?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “Why would I be?”
The girl didn’t laugh. She shifted in her rags and pushed up her scarf. Strange. Though the scarf, the thick scarf the crawlers wore, her voice didn’t seem muffled at all.
“Where do you come from?” I asked. “I mean, all of you? Your kind?”
“The tree.” she said. She set down her mug and started picking needles of the branches with her fingers.
“You don’t believe me,” she said.
“What do you mean?” I said innocently.
“You know icebergs?” she said.
“The tree’s like that. This is only the tip. The rest is below the surface.”
I looked up at it. It flashed with bulbs and lights.
“It’s true.” she said. She pulled down the folds of her scarf. A large, gleaming bauble was swaddled in the cloth, running with cracks from an open face where wind whistled through. She let the pine needles in her fingers sprinkle inside.
“What’s that for?” I asked.
“It’s to help me stay up here longer,” she said. “like an oxygen mask. I can’t stay up here for very long.”
“You know mountains?” she said absentmindedly. “You know how if you’re really high, you get dizzy because the air is so thin? But if you live in the mountains for a long time, you don’t get dizzy? That’s you. It’s like that.”
There was a pause, filled with chatter of the other festival-goers.
“How do you live down there?” I asked.
“The tree gives a lot of what we need,” she said, “We eat the pine needles, we dig up rocks and pick pine cones.” She re-swaddled the ornament in her scarf. “But we get a lot from up here as well.”
“During the festival?”
“During winter. You only see us during the festival though.” She took the mug back into her hands. “We collect food and pass it inside the tree from hand to hand. That’s when you see us. You don’t see us when we pull half-empty packages of candy canes from trash bins or pluck the gold-trim ribbons from the telephone poles.”
“I see,” I said. “What’s it like under there?”
“It’s nice and cool,” she answered. “Homely. Walls of spruce wood are wallpapered with faded christmas card and the floors are varnished with poured resin. We pick the sprinkles off christmas cookies and sort them by color into chipped cups.” She tapped a finger on her own hot chocolate mug for emphasis.. “I can show you if you like.”
“Oh, sure. Sure. Show me.”
That was all that was heard as the clinking baubles and ribbons swallowed her, and she disappeared. Another pause, longer, still filled with the chatter of the other festival-goers. The christmas lights twinkled.
A thin voice trailed through the layers of needles. “Do you want to come?’
“Oh-right.” I said. “Of course.”
Air. Needles. I swam, through the dark ocean of needles. More Needles. The baubles and rainbow-lit branches flashed by as the thick branches enveloped me, flowing past like soft black tentacles. Thin. They became like a wall. Thick. Thin. Air.
We were inside the tree, an empty space in the branches. A dim, damp cave, with walls that breathed as if with some ancient lung. Mossy needles hung around us like curtains, they hung from sloping branches, that floated above our heads like the ceiling of a cathedral. The air was so thick with oxygen. It felt like a fog I hadn’t even known was there had lifted, and the girl had pulled off her scarf, and taken in a deep, satisfied breath.
“Come on,” she said. She pointed to a hole in the carpet of needles, and slid down. I followed. Grit crackled in the folds of my coat.
It wasn’t a far drop, and I landed on my feet. I hardly had a moment to look around wonderingly before someone pressed a cup into my hands.
The cup was lukewarm in my fingers with a thick, pastel-green smoothie. I looked up. Their clothes were red and green with hems of stitched tinsel. The mother and father of the girl. The way that looked at me was strange, and empty.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It is a traditional drink here,” the mother answered. “Melted candy cane mixed with the juices of pine.”
“Drink it,” said the father. “And then I will escort you so you can see our abode.”
I took a swallow. It was good, smooth and fresh with a strange watery sweet flavor.
“Good,” he said.
I could smell cooking cranberries. A woman was stirring a small pot of bubbling cranberry sauce, with a carved wooden spoon over a small crater of heat in the floor. Some other people were there, and they looked away when they saw me. That was all I could discern, before the mother stepped firmly in front of me like a curtain.
“Come with me,” said the father.
I looked over my shoulder as we went into the next room. As the child had said, the walls were a tapestry of faded christmas cards, drifting with faded reds and greens.
“This is the stockroom. We keep all of the things we glean from the surface dwellers here.”
Small fires like lanterns lit the rooms. as they crackled from spruce twigs in bronze handbells. The ragged garlands of tinsel on the walls beamed sprinkles of light over the many things that were there, the barrels of stacked wreaths and hollow bulbs and porcelain cups. There were a few children that scuttled away like beetles when they saw me.
“Do they not like me?” I asked.
“We are shy around strangers.” he said.
He showed me vats of lukewarm hot chocolate. “The large vessels are pressed from seams of clay beneath the earth,” he said, “and varnished with the resin of the tree, so we may fill them. In return we store it up liquids to nourish ourselves, so that the tree may feed on us.”
tap tap tap tap tap tap
He was moving on to something else. I took a sip of drink. Bubbles popped on my tongue.
He showed me lumpy coils of worn stocking, hemmed with linings of white fur, that looked more gray now. He showed me mugs and ornaments, halved into gleaming bowls. They were filled with the pickings of the festival, lobes of duck, dry and sinewy, flakes of icing scraped from the stacks of bare cookies in the bulbs, sprinkles sorted by color, bare clove apples eaten with holes where the cloves had been until tossed into chipped cups, knobbled peppermint bark, meat bones.
“Nothing is wasted,” he said. “During the winter, we harvest the food, and swallow it when summer scorches the earth. We grind the cloves to season soup made from bones and mix salads of needles with cranberries and orange peel, so that the tree may feed on them from our tissues.”
He turned to the bundles that hung from the ceiling, and showed me those. “Sometimes we are cursed with blights, lining choking the throats, storms swirling in the stomach.”
“You mean sickness?” I said.
“The tree should be fed with healthful bodies.” He continued. “Such blights are eased with juices of the needles, and sharp flavors from the solids. Such as these are here, our medicines. We also store ribbons and resin to seal the holes in the skin, to keep them from leaking juice.”
“You mean blood?” I said.
He showed me rolls of cloth on the other wall, in reds and greens, dusty velvet and stitched tinsel like his clothes were made of, and lattices of woven ribbon.
“Cloth is scarce here. We sew clothes from discarded stockings, and weave it from the fibers of the softer decor. The forgotten clothes of the surface dwellers are only given to those who go above ground so that they might mingle. Now to another room.”
tap tap tap tap tap tap
It was a small, plain room, hung with a garland of tinsel and red velvet cushions. There was a glass window in the wall, a window of tinted glass swirling with all the colors of the rainbow.
“Look through the window,” he said. I looked.
The window peered into another room. Flames billowed from a granite pyre, rippling smoke over shelves of glittering christmas lights and bells, and a few glass baubles. A red-hot hammer pounded over something gold like glowing honey, and sparks rained over the floor.
“The forge,” he said. “We melt the lights into glass, like this window, and the bells into metal. Come now.”
He led me down a hall.. The people walking through it looked at the floor when they saw us, as if we were bad luck.
He led me into a larger room. More handbell lanterns. The walls fluttered with paper like flakes of birchbark, paintings and maps and rows of careful lettering. A lone scrivener hunched over a mess of quilted scrolls that rippled over an old table, picking red-striped brushes with metallic bristles from chipped mugs, in assorted lengths and thicknesses, dipping in pots of colored ink. The letters glittered fresh from his pens.
“Our library.” He said. “and our scribe.”
The scribe’s only greeting as a quick glance, as if he was afraid to look me in the eye, before looking away like the others.
My mouth felt dry. I took a long draught from the mug. The drink tasted smooth.
“We are a cultured society,” he continued. “We indulge in all sorts of artwork and literature, and keep a careful record of our history.” He lifted a finger to one of the maps. “A blueprint of our territories.”
An illustration of the tree was painted in a blue ink. I was struck with a thrill of intense foreboding. The quivering, blue surface line was drawn in near the very top of the tree and placed only the tip of the tree aboveground. A pulsing monster of exponential proportions fanned out below, getting wider with each layer, sprouting with arrows and labels like vines. The living quarters that held us perched in the canopy and tunnels lined the tree’s roots. It looked like they were filled with something, and I leaned closer to try to read the small writing, but I felt a cold hand squeeze around my arm.
“Let us observe our artwork,” he said softly, turning me to the far wall.
It was plastered in layers with quilts of paper and scrolls, fluttering squares and papyrus canvases painted exclusively in reds and greens. Not only those, but a number of lengthy poetry and epics, scrawled over pages stitched together in waterfalls of paper. I looked from piece to piece, from those reds and greens and back again.
“I’m sensing a theme,” I laughed nervously, taking another sip from my cup.
The tree’s presence seemed to leak from the walls into the paper. A painting of a girl had rows of pines behind her, a bowl of fruit had a pinecone mixed in. Borders of tangled roots ringed the historical scenes and the abstract pieces prickled with needles in the corners.
“Our pigment is handmade,” he said. “We ink in the browns of bitter coffee and chocolate drawn from the vats, reds from cranberries and holly. We grind the colors from sprinkles and mix them with the water of melted snow. We make paper from fibers of christmas cards that we stir and leave out to dry.” He brushed his hand over the papers. “We make brushes from tinsel-tipped candy canes.”
“We do these things,” he said, “so our brains may be nourishing to the tree.”
“Um-surely that is not literal,” I said nervously.
He ignored me. “There are not so many of us that our living spaces swallow the world. There is still much to see,” he continued. “It is time for us to dive into the oceans of branches below.”
He beckoned me to a gap in the floor. I walked slowly, slightly stiff, as if my ligaments were frosted over.
Dark needles rose up, catching me in a prickling net. The man slid in behind me.
I looked out. A dark field of pine branches rippled in the drafts, like the surface of a moonlit pond, soft and black like seaweed. The floor of the living chambers nested over our heads, leaking a golden light that looked blue over the green as it whispered over the waxy coating of the needles that reached like fingers. The needles were boundless, infinite, an ocean, under the sky of earth painted black with void, long like grass and pricking at my clothes.
“Follow me,” he said. “There is not much else in the shallows. The depths are where the pine cones grow.”
He began gliding through the needles, and I followed close behind, clasping my mug in one hand and reaching out with the other, to see, because it was very dark, and cold. He must be used to the cold, he was not cloaked, and his fingers were thin and bare, like all the others.
“Ah!” I gasped, as a sudden cold rushed between my fingers. “My mitten!”
I could see it getting smaller and smaller behind us, as we plowed on. The needles swallowed like the sea. It was no use trying to find it.
The branches were getting higher. Barely chest-deep swathes swallowed my neck, and then the top of my head, and it was only the two of us, sailing along in a sort of christmas corn maze, in ever-thickening, ever-lengthening needles that writhed like snakes in the darkness. There was only faint glints of light now for me to see what was around us, and no path behind us. The needles closed around our footsteps like wet sand. I glimpsed a glove hanging from the needles. Seemed my fate wasn’t an unusual one. But the crawlers didn’t wear gloves.
He stopped. The needles whispered around us.
“The place we sunk down was far from the trunk,” He said, “but we are here now.” He pulled away a swath of pine, revealing a wall of smooth, crackling bark. “Come.”
He disappeared into the branches below.
I slid down the trunk and landed in another layer. He was already sliding down to the next.
I landed on a creaking tangle of branches, plucked clean of needles in a nest of pockmarked twigs. Small fires smoldered in bowls carved from pine wood, and planks were tied down with young saplings.
“Rest for a moment,” he said, as he laid down on the planks. “Have a sip of the drink we gave you. This is one of the oldest camps, from when our elders mapped out our tree.”
I sat down on a knot of branches and warmed my shaking fingers on one of the bowl fires. I felt a bit lightheaded from the cold, and there was a strange tightness in my chest. I took a sip of the drink. My cup was only a third-full now.
“From here there are some tunnels,” he continued, “marked with white slashes in the wood. From here we can go to where the pine cones grow.” He sat up and placed a finger on a pair of them. “That’s the tunnel, a thin channel of soft pine needles without branches, that you can slide through.”
“You might need to hold your breath at some parts,” he said, as the branches swallowed him. I followed.
The pine needles were long and slippery, like snakes, and I glided over them with only a little pulling along. I held my cup tightly, careful not to spill what was left. The needles were thick, smothering, and it was hard to breathe. When open air washed over me, I tried to gulp in air in relief, but could not, because of the tightness in my chest, and was resigned to a quiet gasping.
“Look,” he said.
I looked. There was a clearing among the branches, a hollow lined with more fires in carved wooden bowls. The boughs budded with pine cones, spiraling pine cones with wooden scales, that hung from the branches like apples.
“Come over here,” He said. I came, slowly, because of the stiffness in my bones. There was a stack of baskets, woven from browned needles like straw. “We use the sap for much,” he said, “and the branches for much. But the pine cones are only good for decorations when they are empty of seeds.” He turned and looked at me. “They only grow in the depths.”
I nodded, and took another sip.
“Now,” he said, “I will show you the final thing I have to show you-the roots.” He paused. “The roots are where we bury our dead. Please be respectful when you enter there.”
“I-I will.” My head felt a bit cloudy, and my teeth were chattering.
“Come.” He took my hand, and led me to a curtain of needles. They brushed past my hair, and opened up into a long shaft. He lowered himself down on long branches like rope, and I did the same, though hardly able to hold on with my frozen fingers. I landed on a bubbling mass of wood, with split seams and great twisted knots, with giant wooden snakes spiraling off into tunnels.
I followed him as he picked his way over them. The fire bowls hung from the needled canopy above, and embers smoldered in holes in the earthen walls. Mingling with the smell of woodsmoke was the rotten-egg smell of something decaying.
We reached a rolling summit, and I looked down. I could see the bodies, small as insects below, lining the floors of the tunnels, pressed on the roots like fertilizer.
He slid down one of the roots, and I followed, stumbling alongside it on the hard earth, trying not to fall. My forehead felt slick with a cold sweat. The smell was growing stronger.
He stopped, balancing on the root like a log. I tottered beside him. The cadavers were piled on the side, reeking of death. Pale, lifeless, of varying decomposition stages. A few fresh ones in the shallows, bloated with pink foam leaking from the mouth and nose. Older ones with teeth falling out and nails sliding from fingers. Even older ones with ribs poking through, and ancient, stony skeletons with cracked skulls scattered on the floor like a calcium forest.
“Our existence,” he said, looking down at them.
It was very quiet, and he spoke softly.
“Our existence,” he said, “our very existence, is to care for the tree. To water it during dry spells and cut away the diseased branches. To care for ourselves, when we are laid to rest so the roots may feed, and the boughs may multiply.” He slid down onto a bare patch. I slid after him.
“So when someone dies,” he said, “We lay them down to rest here, and commemorate their death by ringing a wreath of bells that echoes throughout the tree. The tree absorbs the nutrients, and in return provides us with its wood and needles, its oxygen and resin, so that the cycle may continue.”
I began coughing uncontrollably. My head swam.
“Long ago,” he continued, slowly walking down the aisles of the graveyard, “There was a plague that ripped through our community. A terrible plague. There would be five, and only two would survive.”
Was it always this cold?
“But to the tree, it was of little consequence,” he said, “so also was it to us. For the sudden influx of deaths, the tree had an abundance of nutrients to be nourished by for many, many years. But the population did not recover fast enough when the bodies ran out.”
I heard a faint jingling sound, as he picked something silver from a knot in the roots.
“Our bondage is to the tree,” he said. “and we will do whatever it takes. So we did what it took.”
There was something strange about the fresh bodies. The older bodies were skinny and pale like the people here. But the most recent ones looked awfully familiar.
“We began to lure surface dwellers underground. We lured them underground, and offered them a complimentary drink-a traditional drink here, candy cane mixed with juices of pine-and diluted seeds of yew: because the seeds are where the poison are. And so now you are shown our graveyard.”
I felt my body hit the ground next to the other bodies, and the empty cup roll out of my hands. As the world dimmed, there was a ringing in my ears. A tinkling ring, the jingle of a hundred little bells.