Stephen cradled Mara in his arms. She was light, but awkward to carry because of her trees. A blood willow grew from her shoulder and hid her face behind a curtain of crimson leaves. Its trunk was pale and gnarled.
They’d taken this path to visit her father’s grove, back when Mara could walk. Now a cottonbone tree grew from her thigh and locked her knee perpetually straight. The roots extended down her leg and dangled from the tips of her toes.
Natasha and Evan toddled along behind him with Grandma Angie between them.
“See the cottonbone trees?” Angie pointed at a grove. “Grew a long time to get that big.”
The bleached-white cottonbones stretched up into the clouds. Scattered among them were the smaller blood willows, with branches sagging down to the ground instead of reaching to the sky. Bright red blossoms dotted the branches like a troupe of ladybugs.
“Will Mommy bloom too?” Natasha asked, noticing the flowers.
“We’ll see,” he answered.
“Stephen,” Mara called, “come look at this.”
She stood in front of the bathroom mirror with her shirt knotted up above her rounded belly. He smiled. “Are the twins playing soccer in there?”
“No, this.” She pointed to a red bump on her hip.
“It’s been like this for three days. I’ve been nauseous, but I thought it was the twins.” She picked at the bump with her fingernail and winced.
“Well that’s why it hasn’t gone away. You’re picking at it,” he scolded, laughing and grabbing her hand.
There was a dot of blood on her fingernail. He wiped it away and opened the medicine cabinet to look for a bandage. When he turned around, Mara was crying.
A blood willow sapling had sprouted from her hip.
Mara’s clearing was covered with moss. Stephen set Mara down on the blanket of green. Her breath came in gasps.
“The other way,” she said.
He turned her to face her father’s grove. Stephen had never met him. Mara insisted he was there in the grove — that the curve of his pelvic bone formed the base of a cottonbone tree and his heart hid inside the trunk of a blood willow.
Grandma Angie took the twins to his grove, and Evan hoisted himself up into the cottonbone branches. Stephen turned to call him down, but Mara whispered, “Let him. Papa so rarely gets to play with his grandchildren.”
“He’s not there,” Stephen said. He pulled the blood willow branches aside so he could see Mara’s face. Her eyes were clear blue, but unfocused.
“He’ll be so happy that I’m here.”
Already her roots dug into the ground around her. Natasha ran up, nearly slipping on the slick moss. “Mommy, Grandpa is blooming! I picked you flowers.”
One corner of Mara’s mouth curled into a smile. “Hang them where I can see them, okay?”
Natasha draped the bright red blossoms over the cottonwood on Mara’s leg.
“Give Mommy a kiss.”
Natasha obliged, then wandered back to her grandpa’s grove.
“I don’t want to be alone,” Mara said.
Stephen stroked the side of her neck. He could feel the bulge of the roots beneath her skin.
“And after?” Mara asked.
“We’ll stay.” He didn’t know what else to say.
“Hold still,” Stephen said.
Mara lay face down on the bed. A cottonbone sapling poked out from her shoulder blade. It was as thin as hair, and silver-gray. He gripped it with the tweezers.
“Ow, ow, ow.”
“I haven’t started yet.”
“We can’t. The doctor said to pull them early.”
He yanked. Mara buried her face in the pillows. The sapling dangled from the tweezers, three inches of roots stained red with her blood. He chucked it in the trash. Mara rolled over, revealing a blood willow on her stomach.
“It’s getting worse.” He ran his fingers over the stretch marks the twins left behind.
“The seeds are in my blood,” she said. “We’ll never keep up. Pull this one, then let them be.”
He grabbed the willow with the tweezers and tore it out. She cried from the pain, and he hurled the offending tree against the window. The sapling left a trail of Mara’s blood as it slid down.
The sun set, and the air turned crisp and cool. “Should I take the twins home?” Angie asked.
“I don’t want to be alone,” Mara whispered through the roots in her throat.
“I’ll stay,” Stephen said.
Mara didn’t answer. Natasha and Evan pushed in under her branches.
“Time to go home, Mommy,” Natasha told her.
Mara strained against her roots to bring one arm up and stroke Natasha’s cheek. “Go with Grandma, and be good, okay?”
She reached for Evan, but he was too far away. Stephen nudged him forward.
“That goes double for you young man. You be good for Angie and Daddy.”
“Bye, Mommy,” he said. He put his head against her cheek. “I’ll come climb you tomorrow.”
Angie hugged Mara, then led the twins away.
Stephen leaned against the trunk of Mara’s willow and cradled her head in his lap. They talked about the twins, about Angie, about anything that wasn’t trees. When she got tired, he talked for both of them, a constant chatter so she’d know she wasn’t alone.
“Stephen,” Mara whispered. He stopped talking for the first time in hours. She coughed and gasped. Stephen brushed his fingers over her hip, her stomach, her neck. He remembered the trees they’d pulled, small victories before this final, crushing defeat.
Silence filled the clearing. There was no wind to shake the leaves, and no breath to rasp and rattle in Mara’s chest.
Stephen stayed and talked to her trees. The sun rose, and in the warmth of morning, Mara’s willow smelled faintly of flowers. He pulled her branches closer and squinted in the morning light. Scattered among her leaves were tightly curled red buds, flowers beginning to bloom.
Caroline M. Yoachim is a writer and photographer living in Austin, Texas. She is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop, and her fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Fantasy Magazine, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Her other stories in Flash Fiction Online are here and here. For more about Caroline, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com
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