The Mothers will walk with you to the edge of Morana Street, where the pavement ends and the woods begin, but no further. Thank them for taking care of you these past few months, and for taking care of your sister. They will want to pray over you. Let them, even if you do not believe anyone is listening. When Mother Oxa gives you your sister’s heart, still wrapped in the remains of her old denim jacket, press it to your forehead and close your eyes, just for a moment.
Now you are ready. Now you may enter.
There is no need to rush your journey. Walk slowly, taking time to observe the trees around you, to listen to their gentle pulsing. In the thickest part of the forest, you will be able to feel them beating in the pit of your chest, as if the trees’ pulsing were your own heartbeat. The trunks of the trees will glow crimson in the night, like molten glass, and you will be able to see their blue-black veins through the bark, expanding and contracting as they draw nutrients from the soil. Their bone-white leaves will cushion your footfalls as you walk. They have a certain smell, these leaves, when crushed underfoot. Earthy, almost metallic, like hot asphalt after a summer storm. Sometimes, when I open the window of my room on particularly hot nights, the wind carries the scent to me, and the memories with it.
You will not find these trees beautiful now, but you will never forget them as long as you live. That is a promise.
The chattering will begin softly at first. If this were an ordinary forest, perhaps you would mistake it for crickets. Then they will appear, rotting faces emerging from behind the trees, one by one.
My hope is that the Lost Ones who come to watch you will be decayed beyond recognition, but perhaps you will still be able to recognize some of them. Perhaps you will see Esther, Doctor Lawal’s youngest daughter, whose own mother could not bring herself to complete her planting. Or maybe you will see Mr. Kirk, the old mechanic who used to fix your mother’s truck, the torn, empty flesh of his throat now curled and brittle as autumn leaves. Poor, poor Mr. Kirk, who could not resist embracing his beloved dead wife one last time, and paid dearly for his mistake. Do not be afraid; the power of the trees will prevent the Lost Ones from touching you, so long as you do not touch them first. They will reach out their fleshless limbs towards you, rattle their loose teeth and naked jawbones, but that is all they will do.
When you reach the newest part of the forest, where the trees are still slender and short, you will see your sister. She will be seven days dead and still standing, the loam still clinging to her burial dress and encrusting the gaping hole where Oxa plunged her knife and carved her heart away.
Oh, how I wish I could carry this burden for you. I was every day of twenty when I planted my mother’s heart, and even then I barely succeeded.
But there is nothing to be done.
Your sister’s skin will still be pewter-gray from the sickness, the white veins still splintered across it like cracks in the ice of a melting stream. Her fingernails will be splintered from clawing her way out of the grave, if there are any of them left at all.
She will be hungry.
Her voice will still be her own, as familiar to you as a lullaby. She will smile at you with her broken teeth and hold out her arms, asking if you have come for your poor sister at last. She will tell you that the Mothers have lied to you, that she will find no peace until you join her. She will tell you how lonely she has been without you.
Pay her no mind. Her soul depends on it.
Take the spade from your belt and dig a hole before her feet, just large enough for the heart to fit. Cover it with dirt, gently, as if you were tucking a child into bed. She will beg you to stop. When that fails, she will become as a wild animal, gnashing her teeth and clawing at the air above your head.
You know the planting prayer, my love. It is the first thing your mother whispered into your ear when the midwife handed you to her. It is the final thing your sister will say to you, when the Mothers allow you to visit her bedside for the very last time.
Sing. Or don’t. Speak the words, if that is all you can do. Scream them, if you must. Grit the prayer out between tears and clenched teeth, as I once did. When your sister falls to the ground, when she tears at the dead flesh of her face and shrieks as if you are flaying her alive, you will know that it is working. When at last she lies still, say the prayer one last time and press your ear to the earth.
You will hear it there, just beneath your fingertips: a heartbeat.
Run home, my precious one. Run back to Morana Street, back to town, into the arms of the Mothers who wait and watch for you. Run as fast as your legs will carry you, and do not look back.
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