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And the Trees Crept In
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THERE IS A REASON FOR EVERYTHING
Three Little Girls in the Wood
1980: Catherine, the tallest and wisest of the girls, had the idea first, but that fact would soon be forgotten. Because the idea was a little like a drop of ink in water, it spread quickly, dissipating into each of the little girls in turn, until none of them could say for certain who had thought it up in the first place.
Anne, the youngest, was the keenest of the three, desperate for their idea to take shape and be made real.
Pamela was a little scared, and didn't want to go into the woods at all, but she would never say so. She followed the eldest and the youngest, like she always did, and was a buffer between the two. She really ought to have stopped the whole palaver, but she was swept along with the tide, a pebble skidding along the bottom of the riverbed.
The three little girls gathered in the wood, knelt down in front of the biggest alder tree, and pulled from their baskets the things they would need to make a protector:
1. The basic materials for a rag doll. Really, it was just a stuffed head and a flap of material for the body. Genderless and featureless. (Anne was easily distracted.)
3. A needle
4. Strips of cloth (The only color left in Mother's old store of material was black, so there was a lot of shadow in the basket.)
5. Buttons (for eyes)
7. Candles and a box of matches
It was Anne who took the lead, even though she was the youngest. She gripped her rag doll between her fingers and then lit the candle very carefully. She lifted the open body of the thing and stuffed it full of clay.
"God made Adam out of clay," she said. "So this will give our protector life."
It was messy work, but Catherine and Pammy were nodding their approval, so she kept stuffing and pushing until the doll was full. Then she sewed him up—rather clumsily, for she really did get bored very quickly in her sewing lessons—and put him down next to the candle. She had managed to sew him two very long, thin legs.
"Now his eyes," Catherine said. "Give him eyes." This seemed important.
Anne groaned, so easily bored of her own project. "I'm sick of sewing. Can't we play hide-and-seek?"
"You have to put clothes on him, at least," Pammy complained. "Otherwise he'll be naked."
"Fine, then. Clothes—quickly—but afterward I'm playing. This is dumb, anyway."
Cath sighed. "You wanted to do it in the first place!"
Anne shrugged, and as she worked, Pammy said, "We summon a protector out of Python Wood. We summon thee! Let him be fiercely terrifying to any who try to harm us. Let him be tall, taller than the tallest tree. We summon thee! We—"
"Oh, shush!" Catherine said, scowling.
Anne gave their protector clothes of a kind, made from strips of black, kissed his head, then dropped him heedlessly in the mud, and dashed off, back to La Baume. Pammy followed.
Catherine was left to gather up the remnants of their half-finished ritual. When she picked up the doll, she was very disturbed, very disturbed indeed, to see that he had no eyes. And also that Anne's clumsy needlework had made him look like he was scowling, and draped all in shadows. She pulled off the excess cloth, leaving only the clumsy black suit behind, but somehow that was even worse!
She peered closer, looking at his legs. His two long, gnarly legs…
They looked like roots.
Two little girls ran away
from the dark and stormy city.
they happened upon a manor one day
and the lady inside took pity.
in they flew and perched quite fine
and ate all but one juicy berry.
the little girls slept and sang and smiled
and the memories: they vowed to bury.
PRETTY LITTLE TRAP
Nori keeps asking me where I'm going, what I'm doing, where Mam is.
It's so dark, Silla.
Do you have a biscuit, Silla?
Where are we, Silla?
Why are you crying, Silla?
I want to tell her to shut that trap hole, but what bloody good would that do? Her words are in her hands and I can't silence those.
I lift my hands and tell her. Quiet like a mouse, remember?
I wasn't crying, I think.
She grins. Mousy, mousy, mouse. Squeak!
We trudge on.
After a while, she gets tired. I lift her onto my back. Her good arm strangles me, trying to hold tight. I grit my teeth and trudge on.
My feet will rot. Clean away, they will. The days of mud have started to waterlog the flesh, swelling it to twice the size it should be, cracking, soggy, raw.
My foot skin will flop off soon.
I can feel it.
I trudge on.
The manor is the color of blood.
I drag Nori by the arm, through the mud, the last few feet. The rain has started hard, but at least we are cleaner. I drop her hand, thinking, I hope you're not dead, and stare up at the manor. It's the kind of big that makes you smell cakes and tea, see sugar lumps and silver tongs to lift them with. But the door is old. Paint flaking and peeling off like pencil shavings, the wood swollen by years of hard winters. The shabbiness of it gives me the backbone to lift the cast-iron knocker.
KNOCK. KNOCK. KNOCK.
It echoes beyond the door.
Seems like a bad idea at first; I want to run away. Hear Mam's voice telling me that Auntie Cath is circling the loom, Silla darling. Only Nori is lying in the mud, rain pounding down with her completely oblivious, so I set my teeth and I pound again.
The door opens a crack. A thin, weathered face with large, sunken eyes peers out.
"No thank you. I don't buy anything—"
Funny how she seems to freeze when she realizes. When she sees.
I nod, once.
The door widens then, like a book opening on the first chapter, and there she is, standing in the gap to a warm, dry place, stunned like she just saw a giraffe doing backflips in a tutu. I can see her wanting to ask all kinds of questions, but her brain short-circuits with all of them rushing at her, and all that comes out is:
"Oh my God. Oh, you poor thing. Why… why are you here?"
I turn away to get Nori and she must think I'm leaving 'cause she reaches out a hand and says, "Wait!" like she's the one desperate for us to come muddying up her carpet and not the other way around. "I didn't mean…" She trails off when she spots the lump that is Nori, in the mud, dead asleep.
"Oh my God! Is that—is it—"
I haul my little sister up and stagger a little. The woman—Cath—gapes at me but lets me pass. I drag Nori through and dump her on the floor just inside. The dark beams of wood that run the length of the entrance hall look older than Cath herself.
Cath shuts the door, leaning her head against it for a good half minute before she turns around. I get that. Needing a moment to gather strength. Though, when she does turn and see us, it's all too much, and she slides down the door onto her bum and stares at us completely bewildered.
"It's Silla now," I tell her. "And Nori, she's called."
"Silla, yes. Nori. Okay."
"Hello, Aunt. We've come to live with you."
warm and whole
to open arms
and healing balms
Cath wore a blue-and-yellow kimono-style dressing gown, wild hair hovering around her shoulders like a mane. She stared at me with horror when Nori's head thumped on the lip of the door as I dragged her inside. She flinched and reached forward like she wanted to lift Nori up into her arms. She didn't, instead standing back, hand over her mouth.
"My goodness, oh dear." She took a breath and straightened her shoulders. "I'll get a blanket." She turned away, and then hurried back. "Oh, dear. She can't come into the house dripping like that." Cath leaned forward and lifted Nori's shirt up to pull it over her head.
I pushed her away. "Leave it."
She blinked at me.
I forced a smile. "I can do it."
"Okay. I'll bring two blankets and we can get you both cleaned up and warm."
She hurried off, her footsteps echoing through a house draped in shadow. I sat down beside Nori and turned her over, resting her head in my lap. She was fast asleep, so I leaned down and kissed the top of her head.
"We found it. We found the jewel."
I stared around me, taking in the entrance hall. So dark. So empty. Safe. We were safe at last.
The tea was good, but that was about it. It was a touch snooty, maybe, with weird flavors and all—no Tetley here—but that was expected in a place like this. A manor like this. That's where my amazement stopped.
This wasn't so much a manor as a skeleton.
Where were all the baroque antiques? The oil paintings of stern, proud old men, and the string of ancestors in suits of armor? Wasn't there supposed to be a plethora of finery and riches? I looked around with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach and took another sip of fancy tea.
I was still wondering about the bloody color of the manor, to be honest. Made Mam's voice pop into my head uninvited. Crazy Cath. Circling the loom.
Nori was dead noisy when she ate, for someone who couldn't talk to save her life.
"Shut your mouth, would you?" I muttered.
Sweary word, mouth's a turd. She made quick work of the signs, despite the jam gooing up her fingers.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah."
I no longer saw questions in her eyes, which was nice. The quiet was nice. But she trusted me when I didn't have a clue or a plan, and that really wasn't.
"So," said Cath, coming into the room with a new pot of tea. "What's happened?"
(Crazy) Aunt Cath poured more tea. "Take it from the beginning. Because, I have to tell you, the Pamela I knew wouldn't have let you come here. Not in a million years. And I would never have…" She laughed like it was a joke, a little game between her and her sister. But I could tell the laugh was covering up something else entirely. "I sent letters asking how you were. We both agreed never to let you… Well. Here you are." She laughed again, shaking her head, and I noticed that her hair, though long and quite wild, was the warm color of wheat at sunset. Just like Nori's. Just like Mam's before it faded into a pale gray. But her face was off somehow. A little too old.
I got my looks from my father (lucky me), which meant I was like the sunspot after you looked too closely at the sun. Black hair, black eyes, too-white skin. A walking cliché.
Cath sat down at the table, her face stilling when she spotted our bag dripping in the corner. "I see. Well. Well, yes. You weren't joking about staying."
"He got bad," I said, and it's all I intended to say.
It was enough. Cath's expression soured, then she nodded. "I'm glad you're here, anyway. I'll have to make arrangements, I suppose. School, clothing…" For a moment, she seemed overwhelmed.
"Leave it to me," I said, even though I wanted to let the silence draw out to infinity so I could see when it imploded.
The lights flickered at the same moment I saw the relief on her face; she didn't know me yet. Nori didn't go to school, and I didn't plan on going back either.
"Nori and I can share a room, too," I added.
"Nonsense! That's one thing I'm not worried about. Have you seen the size of La Baume?"
"The manor," she explained. "That's what it's called. Did Pamela never say?"
I took a sip of tea.
"Hm." Cath put her hands into her lap. "I don't suppose I'm surprised that Pamela didn't tell you what it was called. Neither of us much liked it here growing up."
Now that was a surprise. Mam always said Cath was born to stay in the "blood manor." And now I knew what she meant by blood. I suddenly felt like there was a lot I didn't know. I wasn't sure I really wanted to. Not then.
Cath looked into her tea and frowned. "Why did you come here? He'll never let you leave."
But Cath drank all the steaming tea in her cup and smiled at Nori, who had stopped eating and was watching my face closely. I forced a smile and signed, Not hungry, little bug? I'll have it, then! And I reached for her food.
Her mouth opened gruesomely wide, revealing the gaps in her teeth where Dad had knocked them out, and she grabbed the scone and jam with her good arm. The twisted one, too small, too bent, jiggled rigidly at her side.
Cath and I both watched Nori stuffing jam scones and biscuits into her mouth. With that smile on her face, Cath didn't seem to half mind.
I, on the other hand, thought I might vomit.
He'll never let you leave.
I thought I knew what she meant. My bones shook with the idea of my father staking out the woods, ready to drag us back to the prison he called home.
When Aunt Cath said she would get us cleaned up and warm, she meant it. We entered the only room she had made up, and it smelled of sweet vanilla and roses.
It's so big! Nori signed, rushing up and down to look at one object and then another.
"Yeah, right," I said, lugging our bag onto the bed. "A big fat disappointment."
Nori stuck her tongue out at me and continued her exploration. I busied myself pulling out the remnants of our life:
Three shirts each
One pair of ratty jeans each
Six dresses for Nori
Three dresses for me
A hair dryer
I carried our clothes, which now seemed meager and pitiful, to the chest of drawers in the corner and reached down to open the top drawer. It was stuck, so I tried the next, and the next, and the next.
"Oh for heaven's sake!"
The last, however, gave signs of movement. Putting the clothes on top of the chest, I bent down and tugged on the last drawer, gritting my teeth and muttering my entire range of vehement expletives.
"Come on, you son of a—"
It gave way by three inches, revealing a drawer jam-packed with bric-a-brac. I squinted into the gap and saw feathers, fossils, and Crayola pens, items that had no place in a bedroom.
I kicked the drawer shut with my foot—a little too hard. "Crap! Damn it!"
Nori tugged on my dress.
"Sorry, bug. Just stubbed my toe."
There's something under my bed.
I forced myself not to roll my eyes. Not the monster-waiting-to-get-me bit again. We had played this one out to death.
You're too old for this, I thought. "Let me look," I said.
I bent down and lifted the bed skirt. And there it was. A dusty, flowery chamber pot.
"You have got to be kidding me."
What is it?
"You pee in it."
Nori's nose wrinkled.
"My thoughts exactly."
Let's see! I want to see!
I heaved the pot out from under the bed, and we both jumped back. The entire bowl was a dusty network of tunneled cobwebs, so thick we couldn't see the bottom.
"Hell no," I muttered, pushing the thing away from us with my foot into the corner of the room.
I ran to my side of the bed and found another just like it. Also covered in cobweb tunnels, only mine had torn, revealing the husk of a giant house spider, long dead.
My chamber pot joined Nori's far, far away from us.
I can't sleep if there are spiders in the bed.
"They're gone. Just climb in and sleep, okay? It was a long walk."
I don't remember.
Of course she bloody didn't. She had been sleeping without a care in the world for most of it. I, on the other hand, had felt her full weight, and my body was screaming for rest. Added now to my burning feet: a throbbing toe.
"Go to bed," I muttered, climbing in beside her.
Before I even fell asleep, she was drooling on my chest.
I snapped awake.
I needed to pee.
Damn. I really needed to pee.
Nori had rolled over to her side of the bed. Dead to the world. She would sleep through a tsunami if allowed to.
I squeezed my legs together and shoved my hand in between.
I was too comfy to get out of bed. The air on my face was an arctic blast, and the idea of pulling my duvet back was cringe-worthy. But my bladder constricted, threatening me, and I didn't dare call its bluff.
I left the bedroom on the balls of my feet, leaving the light off for Nori's comfort, but as soon as I was in the hall, my body greeting a glacial wall of frosty air, I felt up and down the walls for a light switch. Nothing.
"Bugger, bugger, bugger."
It was freezing. Even the floor felt like rough ice under my toes.
I knew that the bathroom was at the end of the hall, but there was no toilet in that room. I had no idea if there even was a toilet here. To say the idea of having to go squat outside was both ridiculous and unappealing at this point was an understatement.
I felt the darkness with my hand; it was as thick as blood pudding. Managing to get to the staircase and down without breaking my neck, I wandered blindly, taking slow and tentative steps, more convinced now than ever that I would just have to go in the middle of the floor in some random part of the house. All around me, the manor creaked and expanded, groaned and sighed.
"You and me both," I muttered.
And then a lantern appeared, and Cath's face behind it.
"Oh, Silla! What are you doing up at a time like this?"
"I… I needed to go to the bathroom. Couldn't find it."
Cath laughed. "Oh, dear, you poor girl! I didn't even think—come, let me show you."
And she chuckled the whole way there. We went into the kitchen, to a room off to the side. A tiny room, the size of a wash-closet, with a sink outside on the left-hand wall, oval shaped and more like a small fountain than a faucet.
"Here you go," Cath said, smiling. She left me with the lantern and closed the door.
The room was big enough for the toilet and nothing else. The wallpaper gave me chills: a repeated pattern of a boy drawing water out of a well in a sunny pasture. He was like a cherub with a lamb in his arms—and he looked like he was going to glance up at me and grin at any moment.
I was on the toilet, midstream, when I felt movement in the bowl. At first, I ignored it, but then I felt smoothness, tickling between my legs. I jolted with fright and looked down.
Scales, shining under the lamp, two territorial eyes—cold-blooded and cunning—and a forked tongue, darting out from between my legs.
I screamed and screamed, launching myself off the toilet and slipping in my own urine, which was still coming, and scuttling back on my butt like a terrified spider.
The snake just sat there on the rim of the bowl, its head resting. Tongue tasting the air. Eyes watching me. It looked bored.
"What is it?" Cath cried, pulling the door open onto the scene. "Oh, my goodness!" She breathed heavily for a moment, and then smiled. "Look at that! My mother used to tell stories about snakes in the toilets in this place. I never believed her." She laughed and took up the lantern. "Maybe we could keep him, huh? Name him Henry—or Peek-a-Boo!" She chortled some more. "We could let him live in this toilet, and have him as a party joke for guests." Her laugh was intense—hawhawhawhaw!—while I lay in pee and stared at the thing and then at her.
"Oh, Silla—are you all right?"
I nodded, unable to speak, for the adrenaline draining from my body.
"He's gone," she said, and he was. "Here," she added, and kicked the lid down. "You finish up."
"I… I'm done."
"All right." She stared at the toilet and shook her head. "Incredible. Do you think we dreamed him up?"
"I hope so," I muttered.
"Well, don't forget to flush." And she turned to leave.
I couldn't find the cistern or the flusher. "I don't…"
Cath popped her head back in. "Oopsy! I forgot." She climbed onto the toilet seat and reached up to the cistern mounted near the ceiling. "It's an old one. Have to flush by pulling the chain."
"This one." And she grasped a single link in what used to be a full length of chain and pulled down on it. "The only one left," she added with a smile.
As the water drained from the bowl, I could hear the entire house grumbling with the plumbing. It sounded like the manor was eating my waste.
"Time for bed," Cath said, pushing me gently on my lower back, not saying a word about how I was soaking wet—or about the smell.
"Here," she said, holding out the blanket that had been wrapped around her own shoulders. "This is no time to be awake. Straight to bed."
I nodded vaguely, flinching back when she leaned forward. She kept coming, until she had planted a little kiss on my cheek.
"It's so wonderful," she whispered, "to have you here."
She wiped away the kiss in a caress and then turned toward the parlor.
"Good night," she called over her shoulder.
I still had her lantern.
I went up to bed and crawled straight in, not caring for a second that I was sleeping in my own pee or that the lantern was still burning. It was dark, I was freezing, there were snakes, and I didn't feel safe.
But the ghost of her kiss lingered on my cheek, and I closed my eyes with a smile.
In the morning, Aunt Cath came upstairs with toothbrushes, toothpaste, pads (which she handed to me discreetly, and which I took with a burning face), one of her dresses (for me), and one of her shirts (for Nori). Plus a sash from some other garment for a belt.
"Do you want me to cut it?" Cath asked later, when she saw me in the bathroom, looking in the mirror and tugging on my matted hair.
I looked at her through the reflection and nodded. Somehow, I felt like we had gone through something together last night. Something weird, but something, together.
"How short?" she asked.
I indicated a line by the side of my cheek.
"Lovely." She gave me a warm smile. "You would look lovely like that. Just like Clara Bow."
"I love her," I said, without thinking.
Cath smiled. "Me too." She heaved a sigh and lifted up the majority of the dreadlock my hair had become over the years. "They don't make actresses like that anymore."
"I liked her in Wings and It."
"Two of her best."
She raised the scissors so I could see them in the reflection. "Ready?"
When she was done, my hair was cut into a very short bob, the way I had always wanted—à la Clara Bow—and Nori's tangle of curls actually looked like curls, rather than a bird's nest.
"Come down when you like," Cath said, putting my dreadlocked hair into her pocket. "I'll have some breakfast ready."
I wiped Nori's face, trying to clear some of the more hard-worn dirt and marker stains, and then turned to look at myself again.
Who is this?
I looked like a girl. I hadn't looked like much of anything in so long.
Cath had just put three teacups onto the kitchen table, along with warm tea cakes, jam, and butter, when we came in. When she turned to us, her face lit up. "Oh, my dears! Oh, my goodness. You look just like her," she said to Nori, cupping her smile in her hands. She looked at me. "Presilla…"
Praise for And the Trees Crept In:* "Kurtagich's horror imagery is satisfying and affecting--her descriptions of the day-to-day decay the girls face are as rich and scary as the monstrous man who scuttles around on all fours and the teeming mud pits that are waiting in the woods. A great next read for teens who enjoy being scared."—School Library Journal (starred review)
*"Kurtagich evokes an all-pervading atmosphere of horror with dark imagery and language evoking rot, decay, and death....This unique novel is for teens who enjoy being immersed in a dark, complex horror story."—VOYA, starred review
"Will haunt readers with its raw emotions, palpable pain, and consistent character voices... Frightening and compelling, this gothic will easily sweep fans up into its creeping sense of hysteria."—Kirkus Reviews
"A thought-provoking exploration of familial legacy and the sibling bond... Readers will find it hard to look away from this genuinely frightening story, as the sisters' sanctuary becomes a nightmare."—Publishers Weekly
"And the Trees Crept In should come with a warning label: Best read in the light of day, with lots of smiling people around, and candy canes and unicorns and cute babies. A beautifully written, gorgeous nightmare of a novel."—David Arnold, author of Mosquitoland and Kids of Appetite
"An enthralling, unsettling fairy tale that will have you turning pages long into the night."—Michelle Zink, author of This Wicked Game and Lies I Told
"Dark, twisted, and terrifying, And the Trees Crept In will keep your stomach in knots from page one. A must-read for horror fans everywhere!"—Susan Dennard, author of Truthwitch
"Dawn Kurtagich lulls her readers into a world of nightmares in this brilliant follow-up to The Dead House. And the Trees Crept In is a terrifying, lyrical journey into the darkest abyss, and one that will haunt me for a long time."—Kat Ellis, author of Blackfin Sky
"A fight for survival, an encroaching forest, a cursed manor, and dark secrets... Kurtagich's terrifying take wrapped my heart up and squeezed until I was as cold as the dead things haunting its pages."—Alexandra Sirowy, author of The Creeping
"Horror fans will delight in the grotesque poetry of this historical-feeling contemporary spine-chiller featuring a monumental twist ending. Not for the squeamish."—Booklist
"Horror fans will be caught by the gripping cover image, and there's plenty to scare them here, even during the second reading that the surprise ending might encourage them to undertake."—The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
Praise for The Dead House:"What an evil and original story. You can't stop reading Kaitlyn's diary. But is she real? It's a mystery inside a mystery--and the shocks keep coming. Scary stuff!"—R.L. Stine, author of the Goosebumps and Fear Street series
"The Dead House is a seamless blend of the supernatural and the psychological. Creepy, compelling, and compulsively readable."—Victoria Schwab, author of The Archived and Vicious
"Full of twists, buried secrets, and enough disturbing corpses to please the most discerning horror lover, The Dead House is a thoroughly engrossing read. Diary entries, psychiatrist records, and transcripts from the investigation keep the pages turning late into the night. This is a harrowing tale, cleverly told."—Kendare Blake, author of Anna Dressed in Blood
"All I could think when I finished The Dead House was that the author, Dawn Kurtagich, has an amazing mind. Creepy, but amazing. I loved it."—Christopher Pike, bestselling author of Thirst
"Kurtagich weaves a terrifying and mind-bending tale reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft. This is one of the best horror debuts I've read in a long time!"—J.R. Johansson, author of Cut Me Free and The Night Walker series
"Not for the faint of heart, this is a gory and grimly compelling story, made more so by the novel's visual elements."—Booklist
"This creepy boarding school novel meshes real world issues with a paranormal mystery in a fun but scary debut... Fans of horror novels will appreciate the creepy photographs scattered throughout, and the multiple perspectives are smoothly integrated... A worthy addition to high school horror collections."—School Library Connection
"Told through a retrospective collection of found evidence surrounding the deaths of several students in a boarding school fire, Kurtagich's debut novel is deeply disturbing and fraught with emotion."—Publishers Weekly
"Kurtagich maintains the creepy and dark tone through to the end, where readers are not given a neat, tidy ending--the ghosts still haunt, pieces of the story remain missing, and life goes on despite the terrible tragedy at the prestigious Elmbridge High School."—VOYA
- On Sale
- Aug 29, 2017
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers