The Hanging Tree

"Are you, are you, coming to the tree...? *For the HG Competition. Amazing cover by Incandescent Night*

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1. New Moon

“Are you, are you, coming to the tree?”

 

It is quiet. Deathly so.

The cold nips at her bare feet. She decides that she probably should have brought shoes… maybe a coat too. A thin, tattered nightdress is nowhere near suitable for a walk at night. She wasn’t planning on going out, though- it was entirely unprecedented.

She doesn’t know where she is going, either. Her feet are leading her legs and her legs are dragging the rest of her body with it.  Before him, before this, she was something. Now she’s just a shell. A corpse. A walking, breathing, eating corpse.

And she’s seen many corpses, so she knows what she’s talking about.

The hill is steep; the long grass sharp- cutting into the soft, fragile skin of her calves and thighs with a careless, stinging brutality. The gravel sends tiny spikes of pain through her feet to her ankles.

The moon leers down. If she doesn’t know any better, she would say that the giant, glowing orb high up in the sky is laughing; scowling at her foolishness, smirking at her naivety. She can picture it detesting her, abandoning her to the darkness and the nightmares. She doesn’t blame it if it does, because she also hates herself, as does so many other people besides. Everyone, really. The sickly ashen hue from the moon leaks through the branches of the tree, blending into the wind as it whispers through her hair, illuminating the dead man’s face- the peeling skin, the gaping black pit of a mouth, the glaring, empty, accusing eyes.

The corpse- because now she is sure where she is leading herself to- is different to all the others she has seen.

When she stood by and watched three being lowered gingerly into the ground, as if the slightest jolt may wake them from their slumber, their features were still human. Their skin remained. They could almost be sleeping, if it wasn’t for the sickly grey pallor of the skin.

The wind stirs up a breeze, an icy wind which sends glacial spears plunging into her exposed neck. Even the sound it makes, hissing through the branches, clawing through the leaves, sounds dangerous. Seductively so.

She looks up at him; gently swaying from his rope, almost dancing in the winds. “You took everything from me.” she says.

 

***

 

She runs.

The second she speaks, the dream, the daze, the reverie- whatever it’s called- is shattered. The sleepy state smashed to pieces by an iron hammer in a single, merciless, sweeping blow. Suddenly she is screaming a high-pitched, uncontrollable scream which rips itself out of her throat with serrated claws and razor fangs.

She screams.

She is still screaming as she stands on steady legs- when did she even fall? -scrambling to stable feet and turning, running. Still screaming as she flees an unseen foe, a malevolent entity that doesn’t exist. She refuses to pause her shrill howl for a single breath, and it doesn’t take long before the world spins and shakes and blurs as the oxygen is gone and she is on the ground, face pressing into the dirt. And still she screams, until she can’t scream any longer because her throat is burning and her lungs are burning and all she can see is his face. And then she screams silently, lungs empty of any air, because whatever she tries to do, whatever she tries to think, she cannot stop screaming, cannot stop the ocean of terror which consumes her… drowns her… a slow-working acid… a delayed poison… killing her slowly… slowly… slowly…

She cannot feel the pain from the paper-thin gashes on her legs from the grass, nor the tiny cuts on her hands caused by her tumble onto the gravel path. There is nothing to feel except the hollow emptiness that has stalked her, every single day since he died. She can’t even tell if she is screaming any more. She does not care. It’s his face. His face is her madness. It’s a disease- he is a disease. A plague, infecting her, no symptoms… until it’s too late. For her, it was too late. It still is too late. No vaccine, not medication- no herbs, painkillers, no morphine… She is terminally ill. He is still fatal, however dead he himself may be.

When she finally makes it back to the Seam, she isn’t screaming any more. Her legs feel curiously steady, but the madness that was here moments before is gone now, washed away with the icy wind. Instead, she settles for the dumbing fog that smothers her brain, slows her limbs, just as it did earlier. The fog that leaves her with no purpose. It drowns out the pain, though, so she doesn’t really mind it. In fact, she enjoys it. It is a depressant- delaying the messages being delivered to her brain, slowing her reactions to those messages, numbing everything, reducing the world around her to a constant blur, a buzzing, a background noise.
Despite the time, there are still a few people milling around. Miners, mostly, returning home after work.
He worked in the mines. Before he died, of course. Now he’s just dead. Dead dead dead dead dead. She shakes her head- shakes the insanity away. He’s dead. Dead dead dead dead dead dead dead dead.

The people around her- however few there are- glare at her as she stumbles past. They don’t seem to find her appearance- the nightdress and bare footedness- at all strange. They hate her; hate her betrayal, her naivety, and her lies. She is actually surprised that she herself isn’t already dead yet- a sneaky knife in her back… a dropped razor blade in her food… a slip of arsenic into her liquor (because now she drinks so, so much liquor). It’s entirely possible that she’s planned out more ways for someone to kill her than the entire population of the District have.

Her home is a ramshackle little hut at the very edge of the Seam. A crude building created from a few planks of wood and a bucket of tar. A few months back it was vibrant with life and joy- her mother bringing home new and fascinating flowers to decorate the shelves and table every week, her father dragging half of the Seam’s coal back with him under his boots. Her little brother would grin with childish delight the very instant the door opened, leaping into his daddy’s open arms before scuttling away again to find more insects, or dig up more dirt.

There’s the pain again, a knife in her side. The pain that never halts in its assault against her body, constantly sending screams of agony rushing to her nerves… but she can handle it. Most of the time at least. But then something will happen, she’ll see something, remember someone, and the blade with suddenly twist, turning her organs into a vile mess of roughly cut pulp. She staggers, feeling the world spin around her and throwing her to her knees.

Deep breaths. Deep breaths.

The pain is good, though. It is just. She deserves it. She makes herself remember. She repeats the words, over and over again- her dry lips shivering as they form the names, her throat stinging as she forces herself to speak. It is a good pain, a righteous agony. Because she deserves the knife that stabs deep into her heart each time she thinks, every time she remembers. That’s why she does; she remembers them again and again so she knows that she is being punished.

It takes another hour for her just to make her way to her bed, the change from the damp grass to the rough, icy wood beneath her feet an uncomfortable but not unpleasant improvement. Her bed is a specific corner of the floor, cordoned off by a rug, a thin blanket and a pillow filled with leaves. The bed is in the very corner, next to the window.

She staggers to it; the empty bottles clinking and clanking around her feet like wind chimes. Some of the bottles have shattered- the stray glass like tiny daggers to her bare feet. She doesn’t bother checking her most recently acquired wounds- they’ll probably hurt more in the morning anyway. Then she will let her care for a while, before she closes herself away again.

It’s not the first time that she’s gone to see him- she shouldn’t wonder where she’s going anymore, when she slips the torn rag of a blanket from her frail shoulders and leaves her home. She can’t wonder, though; not with the fog drowning her thoughts.

It’s probably the worst place to sleep. From the window, she can see everything. The comforting, yet distant glow of the Seam, the empty Victors’ Village, the cold, hulking shape of the Justice Building far into the distance. But, worst of all, she can see the hill. The hill with a single oak tree perched precariously at the very top, hunched over like an old man, coughing and wheezing with every breath.

She can see him.

She can hear him. She can hear him singing.

He had such a beautiful voice.

It might just be the wind; whispering its way through the floorboards and between the gaps in the walls, but she doesn’t want it to be. She wants it to be him.

She lets him sing her to sleep.  

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