You hear them. Mainly on clear evenings when their sounds can carry through the night, unimpeded by thick fog or the savage noise of whipping winds. Screeching. Creaking. Cracking. Clawing. Ready to devour. Ready to feed. The things in the tree.
Every month, on the twenty-eighth day, another is brought before them. These poor, chosen wretches are left at the foot of the great, twisted oak; blackened with their filth and stripped of God-given colour by their caustic presence.
Orphans. The abandoned. The homeless. The loveless. All forgotten and disqualified pockets of the township eventually become their prey. It is what we do. It is the path we have chosen to follow. And it keeps them – those gruesome, snarling, flapping things – at relative peace.
For we know that if they are not appeased with a sacrifice they scatter and spread into the night. To take, kill, eat. It’s as if their burned-out hearts are set upon misery; they always know who among us are the most cherished, the most loved. Long ago it was decided that it should never be their decision; who goes and who stays among us.
And so a gift, brought every month on the twenty-eight day, is a necessity of our collective survival. The greater good.
I once overheard an old man, when I went obediently to fetch my foster brother a bag of chestnuts from Mrs Atkinson, giving an account of the things:
“Such is their frenzied, bloody hunger, grown men are grabbed, dragged and then flung, as if weightless, up into the darkness of the jagged branches of their black habitat. A whole body, torn to ribbons, emerging at speed atop the uppermost twig of the oak as scraps of flesh and splinters of bloodied bone!”
I recoiled at the thought. Whole human bodies! Unpicked by the winged monsters that roost there; that have always roosted there; at the very darkest edge of Hope Wood.
Today, November 28th, is my twelfth birthday and a surprise is looming for me. A promise I’ve been given. Something wonderful awaits me today! And even as I have let these thoughts swill around in my mind, a creeping, cold realisation has started to take hold of me. Even as I stand here, waiting, my eyes covered with a blindfold, I know.
I think of my foster parents. Of their stilted kindness and chilly distance. Their strained, unexplained tears yesterday eve. And I know where I am; where I have been led and left. And I know, now, why I am here.
I reach up and loosen my blindfold but I cannot – I dare not – open my eyes. They remain squeezed together, those cursed lids. I take a step forward as the blindfold drops to the ground.
And all hell deafens me.