The sun drifted out of sight of the village of Dolonton behind the grassy mountains which bounded its western and southern edges. As the last rays of light trickled like burnt gold from the leaves of dense forest in which Dolonton was nestled, the warm peace of a summer evening settled over the cluster of buildings and the residents wended their way indoors. All, save one.
Michael Kenley was approaching his fourteenth birthday come the end of this coming August, and already felt like a man. Already he had spurned his mother’s imperatives that he be inside by nightfall, and already he was intending to venture to the one place all of Dolonton’s children were told to avoid.
“Just never go near those trees on the south end of town, Mikey, that’s all I’m saying,” his mother had told him nearly four years ago, using the pet name he was growing to hate as he got older. She wasn’t even looking at him as she said it, not looking up from her sewing. “I’m not opening this for discussion, I’m telling you.”
“Mom, I just want to know why!” he protested. “The older guys go there to hang out all the time!”
“I’m your mother, not your friend,” she said. “And I don’t much care what the, ‘older guys,’ like to do. Don’t go there, that’s final.”
“You listen to your mother, Michael.” It was his grandmother, creaking slowly into the room, leaning heavily on her cane for support. “Those trees are the Stitch-Elm grove, no good’s coming from anyone your age being anywhere near there.”
His mother looked up for the first time at this, brandishing the needle with which she’d been refastening a button to his father’s work shirt. “They drop these. They don’t grow the same seed pods as other elms, these needles.” The spine was bone white, long and thin and came to an apparently devilish tip. Michael had seen these needles before, but never wondered. He’d often heard his mother murmur quiet oaths as she jabbed herself during a complicated repair.
“Liz, how many times do I have to tell you to stop bringing those damn things into the house!” his grandmother yelled, startling Michael. “Nothing wholesome comes from those trees, not a single thing!”
“What do you want me to do, Barbara?” his mother said, dropping the shirt to her lap in exasperation. “There’s not a single store that stocks steel needles in this whole town, not with these lying on the ground free to take, and the next general store over is hours away! I can hardly just let my Jeremy’s shirts fall apart, Lord knows carpentry isn’t easy on clothes.”
“Well, fine,” his grandmother allowed, “but it’s not good to have such things in the home with children. I’ll just trust you to keep them out of reach.”
“Sure, Barb.” Michael thought he caught a roll of her eyes, but couldn’t be certain.
“And you, child,” Grandma continued, rounding on Michael. “You listen to your mother, and stay out of that grove. Even adults shouldn’t be in there, someone your age has no business there.”
Well, Michael wasn’t that age anymore, and no longer considered himself beholden to the injunction. His friends Chris and James had told him to meet them in the grove just past nightfall this evening, and he wasn’t about to seem yellow to them.
Carefully he made his way along the dim main road, lit only by what light seeped through the curtain of those few houses which lined it. As he made his way south, the sounds of nature grew louder and more insistent, the familiar dull fuzz as the dry July air rustled about, drowned out by chirruping crickets, the croak of a frog, the buzz and flutter of thousands of mosquitos and gnats and no-see-ums.
The grove loomed suddenly as Michael came to the southern end of the road, where the land began to lift and roll in foothills and then slowly to climb into a mountain, whose peak still reflected the embers of a sun no longer visible. Here the Stitch-Elms stood, rising nearly twenty feet before erupting in a tumult of shaggy branches dense with leaves. Despite their great size, the trees clustered dense, blotting out the light even of the full-moon which just now had begun to yield its glow over the town. Michael found he could scarcely see for more than a few yards before the grove had swallowed the light, but swallowing his own fear he set off tenderly into the copse, certain his eyes would adjust.
By the time they had adjusted, Michael was deep within the forest, the moonlight reflecting off the road no longer visible behind him. The night was true and deep now, closing around him like a warm, heavy blanket. Though he had called several times already, he had neither heard nor seen anything of his friends, and so he slumped against the nearest tree and sank to sit and wait.
With a yelp he sprang up again, snatching beneath him to find what he had sitten on. He pricked his finger before closing his hand around the culprit: A single needle, fallen from the tree above him. Realizing again from what the grove took its name, he found the ground littered with the needles, strewn this way and that, somehow reflecting moonlight with a glimmer although none found its way to the forest floor around them.
Fascinated, he began to turn the needle over in his hands, holding it close to his face to better see it in the paltry light. His grandmother had always forbidden him from holding them, and so for the first time he was able to feel the smoothness of the barb, the warmth it seemed to carry within it. The light glimmered off this needle as well, and as soon as it sparked Michael swore and nearly dropped it as he brought his hand to his eye. Furiously he rubbed to attempt to dislodge whatever had settled there, to no avail. But with time, the pain died away, and he dropped his hand to his side.
Once more he looked and called for his friends, and once more receiving no response he swept away a few needles from the base of the tree, being careful not to prick himself again, and settled down.
Idly, he found himself fingering the point of the needle, surprised that he had at no point dropped it. He ran his fingertip over the sharp end, feeling its precise spike catch in each groove of his fingerprint. He stroked the point, flicked it with his nail, fondled it.
In his idling, he noticed suddenly that something felt different. Glancing down, he noted with less horror than he would have expected that he had run the needle directly through the pad of his fingertip, the chalky white emerging cleanly from both flesh and nail. Casually he withdrew the needle, and found it left only the tiniest pinprick, from which a single drop of blood spilled and ran down the length of the needle.
But reaching the needle’s base, it failed to fall to his lap. Instead, it continued its slide, as though hanging on something in the thin air. Intrigued, Michael held the needle close to his eyes, to find the most delicate thread hanging down. Nearly invisible, it shimmered with the same blue light as the needles which covered the ground, and he found his eye itching again ever so slightly in remembrance. He grasped gently for the thread, finding it smooth and cool, silken, sliding through his fingers softly and pleasantly. He stood to test his length, treading gently on it to hold it down, and finding it at least longer than he could reach high, and stronger than he could have imagined a thread as light as it was. He wondered that he hadn’t noticed it before, as it seemed so apparent now.
No wonder people scorned steel needles here, he thought, when we have an entire grove of trees that drop needles that come with their own thread! He felt a sudden and powerful urge to find something to sew, and he grabbed at the hem of his shorts. The needle slid through easily, but the string caught and resisted. Although it did not snap, Michael couldn’t get it to move through the fabric, as though something in the grains rejected each other.
This frustrated him more than he understood, and withdrawing the needle he cast about for something else to stitch. The ground was entirely barren of leaves, and the only branches were far above his head. Somewhere in him, he realized his only other option, and as he leaned against the tree he found himself stitching through the skin of his left upper arm.
Both needle and thread passed through with no pain, no struggle, the thread sliding through as though it wasn’t there. He paused for a moment, before again, without thought he looped the thread around and pierced his skin again, just below the first stitch.
The thread pulled tight and cool in the tight spiral, and soon he found himself sewing faster and faster, binding his skin in little coils to itself with no understanding of why. He came to the outer edge of his hand and continued around to his fingers, stitching down the sides and around the tips and through the webbing between them. Up he went on the inside of his arm, and when he reached his sleeve he quickly tore his shirt from his body.
Up around the armpit, down the side, and the pants and underwear came off. Down his thigh, around the foot and between each toe. The needle flew, piercing and stitching, and though he hadn’t noticed at first the smallest trickles of blood began to run around the thread, in and out of his skin, tracing his seam. Up the inside of his leg, not slowly but in fact moving faster as he stitched between his legs, and down the other leg and foot and around back up the side.
Now he switched hands, slowing from the unfamiliarity before picking his speed up again. He was without thought now, stabbing and pulling and mending an imaginary line all around his body. His arm was finished, and up around his head he thrust the needle, digging into his scalp with its barb, brushing hair aside to ensure a true line. He switched hands again, finishing the seam around his neck and down his shoulder. With no action from him, he felt the thread detach from the needle, and he dropped it.
He was breathing heavily, standing naked in the forest, alone, as the darkness swelled and roiled around him. Blood ran stronger now, dense drips of life seeping from the hundreds of tiny holes in his skin, his flesh pulsing around the string which coiled its way in and out and in and out and in and out of him.
He fell back heavily against the tree, and felt it shift strangely at its touch. He felt the thread pulled towards the tree at all points, as though each coil was hooked gently and drawn in. With dawning horror, his head cleared, and he discovered a revulsion within him. He vomited, his mother’s dinner spilling down his chest and over his grown, streaming down his legs to puddle at his feet.
He needed to leave. He had to move, to get dressed and run from the grove and never return. He was certain of what he needed to do, certain he could do it. He could break from the gentle tug of the tree, break the line and rip the thread from his skin and escape.
No, he couldn’t. Something in his mind wouldn’t let him. He couldn’t move. He wanted to move. He never wanted to move. His eye itched furiously and he wanted to scratch it, didn’t want to scratch it, could move his arm if he wanted, couldn’t move his arm. His mind burned and struggled and fought itself.
He went to scream and found his mouth bound by the same thread and the same compulsion, and his breath catching in his throat. Each tiny hole in his flesh began to sting, to burn and ache, and still he could not make himself break the soft embrace of the tree. He blinked and couldn’t open his eyes anymore, the thread running from his lids to his cheeks and back again. He was blind, he was mute. The buzz of insects in the forest was deafening him, and the echoing terror in his brain drowned out all reason.
A scraping began at his back, soft at first and then rougher, rougher, painful, rubbing him raw, like a cat’s coarse tongue scraping against him, like his father’s sandpaper stroked again, and again, harder and harder, in a single insistent rhythm. Still he could not scream, still he could not see, still the pinpricks screamed with pain and oozed blood down his sides.
He felt the skin of his back give way to the flesh underneath, and still he could not scream. It was gouging now, the scraping, tearing and pulverizing and consuming. He felt what might have been blood or might have been saliva drip down the backs of his thighs. The scraping began on the back of his head, on his legs, on his arms. He was frozen in silent agony, and still he could not bring himself to break free from those hundreds of delicate hooks which secured him to the sturdy trunk of the tree.
His skull gave way at the same time he felt the first rasps on the bare bone of his spine, and still he found no relief from consciousness, still he endured. His thoughts grew clouded and confused as the rasping became tender, scraping away at the delicate folds of his hindbrain, but still he felt his terror, and no resolution came to the conflict within him. Run, don’t run, scream, don’t scream, fight, don’t fight, don’t fight, don’t fight, let it take you, let it consume you, let it erase you.
He wanted to die, he didn’t want to die. He couldn’t die. It wouldn’t let him die. Bone grated against the abrading of the Stitch-Elm and crumbled into dust, swept away by the hounding, rasping, scraping, grinding. Slowly Michael was taken apart, eroded from the back forward.
As soon as it reached the silver line of the thread, the tree stopped. The hooks released their hold on the delicate coils of thread and Michael’s forward half fell on its face to the forest floor, a dozen or so needles piercing his chest, legs, his eyes, both eyes, God his eyes.
Had he kept his eyes he could have seen the first golden drops of sun filter down through the leaves, dappling the floor and glinting off the needles that lay there. Had he still been able to hear, he could have heard the crickets cease their deafening chirrup and first birds tweet a greeting to the day.
As his mind finally eased its way into darkness, still the battle continued within him. Move, don’t move, move, don’t move, move, don’t move, don’t move, don’t move, never move, can’t move, won’t move.
And in the Stitch-Elm grove, nothing moved.