My hair was becoming shaggy and untamed when I finally decided it was time to get a cut. I take after my mother; dark, wavy, thick, and wild when it's left alone, especially with comb resistant bed head. I put off the hair cut mainly because of the prices these days.
I left the barbers, passing abandoned shop fronts on the dying Main Street, debating with myself whether to buy some food from the Aldi built where an old pub used to be or if I should just cook what I have at home, when I heard a cough, weak and wheezy, behind me. I turned around, finding Shepard, though it took me a moment to recognise him. Without a crowd around him, he appeared less expansive and commanding, almost unhealthily thin. His starved figure was only further accentuated by the nervous way he pulled his coat in around himself, as though embarrassed he was in public. He even looked around the quiet road, as if worried someone would see him. I compensated for his seeming insecurity by informally asking how was he doing. He darted a glance at me.
May we talk?
The question only furthered the surreality here. This is a man who forced his way into my life, bringing a whole community into his quasi-religious obsession, bombarding us with made up verses (I checked), and has thrown people to whatever mind-bending madness exists in the paddock behind those piled stones, and here he is, formally asking if we may speak. I asked what did he want to speak about.
Are you busy, Witness? Are you heading home?
The internal debate abruptly resolved itself. Yes, I was heading home to cook what I call “Elevated Beans on Toast” (baked beans cooked with Mexican hot sauce a top toasted bread spread with English mustard, with a gooey sunny-side-up fried egg capping everything, littered with grated cheddar). Shepard seemed enthused by this, as though he was hoping to come in. He can forget that; I'm not cooking for two.
I'll walk with you. We can talk, if you don't mind.
It was strange to see, really, for the first time, just how normal Shepard was when he had no audience. He was boring, in fact. A good two or three heads taller than myself, though not exactly difficult, he was brought closer to my height by a prominent slouch, his gangly arms squirrelling away into his coat pockets. His aged good looks were drastically at odds with this adolescent level of awkwardness. It must have looked funny to see us so mismatched. I was unusually chatty, trying to fill up the silence, goading Shepard into speaking, remarking that I could tell something was wrong. This must have cut his ego slightly because he tried to return to form.
Those called to serve are never untested. The instruments of deeds can not be left to rust nor go blunt... but I confess...
Shepard's efforts deflated beneath their own loftiness, unable to fully commit to the bit.
I am growing... worried. I- We, that is, were called to be part of wonders, bringing forth a New Eden. It seemed so simple in the beginning. We would thank the trees. We would pray to them. Love them. But then I was called to do more. To recruit. To teach. To feed. To cook. To present. And then there was you.
I pretended, as we walked up the steep Captains Hill, to not notice the harshness forcing out that last sentence.
I did not know it then why would the trees favour you. Our members who are guards told me how you were the one the trees showed themselves to, how you were “The Tree Guy”. They came for you in your garden. They wished for you to join them. And I must admit I was... perhaps... a little jealous.
My sarcastic exclamation of shock was lost on Shepard, who answered sincerely.
Oh yes! It is true! I knew what I was meant to do. I was to bring another piece of the New Eden into place, ensuring our future paradise would be solidified. But now I am tested once more. I tell you this because I know you will not tell anyone.
Who the Hell do I have to tell? Diva?
I have remained faithful. I have continued to feed them, but I have noticed they hunger still. They are still going into people's houses. I have heard they have even travelled as far as Maynooth. Imagine; they may reach the midlands or the border within a year. I have noticed there is one, in the very centre, growing.
Now my joyful savouring for Shepard's discomfort morphed into genuine concern as I asked him what did he mean by growing. He reiterated.
Growing. Tabitha noticed it first. I scolded her for what I believe was deceit and a lack of faith. She was sick for a fortnight after we made her sleep outside, but then I noticed it too. What's more, while the surrounding trees are seasonal, still without their spring buds, this central tree is strangely a lone evergreen. Stranger still is how it's... it looks like it's leaning, as though growing at an arc.
The further along the route home we took, the further into this confessional we continued, the more concerned I was becoming with these new details, but also the more I became aware that Shepard would be getting to his point that would concern me soon.
I have a confession to make to you. I came to you before, wishing you to name a sacrifice. And you did so. I must compliment you. But, as with the all-seeing eye of our trees, I have sight to observe. No one savours in toiling, of course, but I couldn't help but notice you were drained of the experience. It is exhaustive work, as I can attest. So I decided to choose the next person. I intended to return to you, but I was worried you would refuse. I can appreciate your lack of constitution.
Did he just call me a pussy?
But I couldn't take that risk. Contrary to our limited interactions, I do like you. While my flock are loyal, they are compared to sheep for a reason. Before I was called, I believed the religious were ungifted in critical thought. Perhaps a sinner like I was has some wisdom. You, however, are astute. Patiently stoic. A lesser man would have left months ago.
A lesser man in that case would have the money to do so.
Shepard burst into a bark of laughter, startling me. I didn't realise I had said that out loud.
Yes! Man and his money, eh? A beggar asks for your money; a rich man simply takes it. Well, my point is I didn't wish to force myself upon our relationship. But there was little point even if I did, for the trees called for more. And then more. And more after that. Even if you were willing, you would have been out-paced by them. I took it upon myself to choose. Even now, my flock is persuading others to go in, by insistent methods if required. We made a unique discovery in the process. In between some sacrifices, there were longer periods of time where the trees were quiet. These satiated periods always came after a sacrifice where the person involved was deeply mourned. Parents, children, partners. So my- excuse me, our theory is that, though it sounds flowery and sentimental, love can be tasted, like it would be in a meal or in a gift. This sense of emotion, of human feeling, is what we believe the trees actually feed on, what they need to be appeased. Which brings us to your dog, Diva.
I halted in place immediately, my legs stalling rigidly. The full weight of realisation reverberated throughout my body. It wasn't of fear, however. I felt overcome by insulted fury and disgusted anger that Shepard, who too froze, realising his mistake, would even dare to put forward the idea that I would let anyone harm my Diva, my baby. I spoke as restrained as I could.
If you ever come near my dog, I will beat your face in so badly your cracked teeth will shred the inside of your throat as you choke on them. I will cave in your skull to protect Diva, even if I have to do it with the worn away stubs of my broken wrists. I will leave you in the dirt soiling yourself, bleeding out, and gurgling for the release of death. Do we understand each other?
Shepard took his time to answer.
I left him there, heading on home without another word, making sure that night to double check all the doors and windows were locked, the alarm was set, and to cuddle Diva extra tight in bed as we fell asleep. I would, and did, murder for Diva.