Kindling [Monstrous May 06: Monster in the Woods]

A month into spring, Falk wakes to a new tree standing in the center of his yard. It’s young, the gray-green wood barely speckled with bark, its infant leaves shimmering like polished jade.

After breakfast, Falk inspects the tree—thumbs up the sides of its trunk, the wood soft beneath his fingers. He’s familiar with the flora of the surrounding forest and he’s never seen a tree like this. While he can’t identify it, he decides it looks lonely, surrounded only by patchy grass and cracked dirt.

He goes into town and heads to the garden section of the hardware store. He reads the labels for all the different flowers set out in plastic pots, dripping from a recent watering. He touches soft lamb’s ear and marvels at the bold hues of larkspur, trying to picture how to arrange them around the base of the supple tree.

When he returns home at dusk, he finds the tree still hasn’t moved and it brings a smile to his face. He leaves the plants in his truck bed overnight, and in the morning after a shower and coffee, he heads to his shed to dig out a trowel, a speared shovel, and a watering can.

Falk takes care to dig around the tree’s roots, to not nick them with the shovel’s sharp edge. He plants the lamb’s ear first, spaced evenly around the tree to give it room to spread out. Then the larkspur, hoping they’ll eventually grow tall and proud among the soft bedding. Impatiens are last, vibrant flecks of orange and pink that beam up at him.

He works in the sun all morning, his shirt drenched with sweat by lunchtime. He leaves his tools behind and heads inside his cottage to change shirts.

He carries a bowl of nuts and dried fruit back to the tree for a light lunch, sitting cross-legged on the grass as he admires his work. He wonders why he’d never thought to plant flowers in his yard before, and he’s already eyeing other empty spaces for possibility. Maybe hydrangeas along the front porch. Perhaps a few hanging pots to line the awning, something to sway in the breeze.

The next morning Falk steps outside and almost drops his mug of fresh coffee. The tree is gone, leaving the flowers he’d planted to circle disturbed dirt. His mind throbs with worry, with guilt, with something he can’t name.

A soft sound calls his attention to the swing at the end of his porch. There sits a man, the swing rocking gently without wind. The man watches Falk with curious eyes, one of his knees bent underneath his chin.

But he’s not a man, exactly. There’s a rich chartreuse pallor to his skin, his nude limbs long and lean; his hair is thicket-wild and the color of emeralds.

Falk backs away, his shoulders hitting one of the outlying columns of his porch. “Are—are you lost?” he manages to say, setting his mug on the flat railing. He doesn’t get visitors this far out, and he wonders for a moment if the man has been wounded in the forest.

The man smiles and shakes his head, his hair shifting like a rustled bush.

After a tense silence, Falk’s shoulders sag. “It’s you, isn’t it?” he whispers.

The man unfolds his legs and stands. Falk spots tiny leaves sprouting up the stranger’s calves and coating his thighs. His toes are long, his steps silent as he crosses the porch.

“Do you not speak?” Falk asks.

The man shakes his head again, and the corner of his mouth ticks up in amusement. He can certainly understand Falk, so at least there’s that.

“Did you not like the flowers?” Falk asks, feeling ridiculous at his battered self-esteem.

The man stops mere feet away, but he nods vigorously.

“You did, then?” Falk says with a sigh. “That’s good.” He smiles. “You looked so lonely in the yard, I wanted—I wanted to make it nice for you.”

The man’s eyes go wide, and if he had brows Falk imagines they’d have shot up. The man takes a slow step closer, then another. Up close they’re nearly the same height.

“What’s your name?” Falk asks, then shakes his head. “Sorry, I guess you can’t tell me.”

The man’s mouth opens as if to laugh, then he closes his eyes. The wind picks up around them; a faint whisper rustles the trees, ending in Falk’s ears in a single syllable.

“Tal,” Falk says, then gives the man a curious look. “Your name is Tal?”

The man nods and takes the last step that nearly brings them chest to chest. He points at Falk’s hand, then holds out his own.

Falk unsteadily places his palm against Tal’s, feeling the same sinewy softness as the tree. “Ah,” he says as Tal closes his other hand over Falk’s. Vines writhe between his knuckles, tickling the back of his hand.

“I’m Falk,” he says. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Tal smiles, then gently drags Falk’s hand to his waist, his eyes wide and pleading.

“Oh,” Falk breathes. “I suppose I didn’t ask when I touched you before.” His fingers flex, but he doesn’t move his hand. “Then again, I didn’t know you were… well, I suppose you were alive, but—” He closes his mouth abruptly when Tal guides Falk’s hand up his side, then back down, his eyelids sliding down to half-mast.

“Oh,” Falk says. “You… liked it?”

Tal nods, slinking into Falk’s space to press their chests together, delicate white flowers sprouting from his hair. Falk closes his other hand around Tal’s waist, and the man seems to vibrate beneath him. “Are you—” Falk tries. “Is this…”

Tal raises the ridged skin of his brow, his mouth twitching to one side.

Falk laughs. “I’ve lived in these woods for quite a while and I’ve never met someone like you.”

Tal closes both hands over Falk’s, but draws only one with him as he walks toward the sagging stairs of the porch. He tosses his head, beckoning Falk to follow him.

“Are we going somewhere?” Falk asks, foregoing the rest of his coffee as he follows.

With a coy smile, Tal leads Falk to the ring of flowers, pointing to the churned dirt in the center, where his tree-self had stood the day before.

Falk steps over the floral boundary, careful not to trample anything beneath his boots. “Here?” he asks.

Tal points to the ground again.

“You want me to sit, do you?”

Pleased to be understood, Tal nods vigorously. Falk eases onto his rump and crosses his legs, peering quizzically up at Tal. His unasked question is answered when the other man drops into his lap, pale green legs situated on either side of his thighs.

“Oh,” Falk says as Tal’s hands slide up his chest. “I, erm. That is.” A blush whips his cheeks as steady as the breeze. Tal’s lips curl, sultry and knowing, and he presses his nose to Falk’s ear. What Falk had assumed was hair feels like soft vines against his cheek, and up close Tal smells like sage and honeysuckle—sharp and sweet.

Tal pauses, then fans both hands out, gesturing at the circle of freshly planted blooms around them.

Falk chuckles. “You liked the flowers, then?”

Tal nods quickly, and before Falk can react, the dryad leans forward to kiss him. The skin of Tal’s lips is more supple than his bare wood beneath Falk’s fingers but has a strange texture—like woodgrain, Falk thinks, easing his thumbs up Tal’s thighs. He traces the small saplings growing from Tal’s skin and sends the other man into shivers, his tongue darting out and passing over Falk’s lips.

The sprouts between Falk’s fingers bloom with the same white flowers in Tal’s hair, and Falk hums. “I’m glad you like them,” he says softly, his hand rising up Tal’s arm. “But you don’t have to do this, I didn’t expect—”

Tal silences Falk with a slender finger against his lips, as if to say I want to. He replaces his finger with his mouth, hungrier now as he nudges Falk onto his back. The ground is warm through Falk’s shirt as Tal nibbles and sucks on his ear. Falk moans softly as he caresses Tal’s hips, his cock stirring in his loose pants.

Tal cants his hips, grinding against Falk as he nuzzles into Falk’s beard and pecks a path down his scruffy neck. His fingers slip beneath Falk’s shirt, catching it in the bends of his wrists as he drags it up.

The sun warms Falk’s exposed belly and Tal skips over the gathered wrinkles of his shirt to rake his nails through wiry chest hair. Tal’s stare is ravenous, green eyes glinting in the sunlight as he rubs his face against Tal’s chest.

Falk laughs, squirming as he mumbles, “That tickles a bit.”

Tal opens his mouth, another muted laugh, and tugs at the waistband of Falk’s trousers.

“Off?” Falk confirms, and Tal nods before he lifts up. Falk shoves his pants to his ankles, unable to kick them off without unlacing his boots. Tal seems too impatient to let him, lowering himself in the dip of Falk’s hips as soon as the space is clear. He rocks his body, Falk’s cock rubbing between his legs, and after a moment Falk feels something wet and sticky between their skin.

Falk grows bolder, his hand following Tal’s thigh to the juncture of his hips. Tal catches the question in his eyes and Tal smiles, dipping a finger between his legs to collect the stickiness on his fingers. He sucks on the tips, holding Falk’s eyes as he grinds slowly against him. Falk mimics the action, sliding his thumb through the slit between Tal’s legs and pressing it to his tongue, groaning at the honeyed taste.

Tal falls on his palms, his eyes begging for another kiss—at least that’s what Falk decides as he cups Tal’s face and licks the sweetness from his lips. He jerks when Tal’s fingers suddenly close around his cock, lining him up with a devious smile on his face.

Falk sucks in a breath as his cock slides into wet warmth, like a root delving into damp, sun-soaked soil. His hands find Tal’s hips, not sure if he wants to hold him still or guide him—but Tal doesn’t hesitate, rocking on Falk’s cock as his mouth falls open.

Something moves through the dirt around them—and what starts as a tickle around Falk’s ankles and wrists turns to tension. Vines slither around his arms, around his legs and feet. Tal watches Falk as he rides him, as if waiting for a reaction.

Falk smiles, knowing he could break the vines with an easy tug. “Is this what you want, then?”

Tal grins as he sinks down, each movement accentuated by a heavy sucking sound. A vine thick as rope circles Falk’s arms and tugs. A nervous laugh bubbles out when he finds both arms are secured to the ground.

He finds his legs are in a similar situation, and the vines continue covering him as if they mean to smother, to drag him straight into the dirt and bury him alive.

But cruelty isn’t what he sees in the dryad’s eyes when he looks up—Tal’s mouth hangs open, his eyes lidded, as he bounces on Falk’s cock, his pace furious and punishing. Falk tilts his head back and moans as more vines cross over his chest.

The wind kicks up like a violent storm threatening to roll in, even though the sky is clear and bright. Falk watches Tal’s face break into a silent, open-mouthed cry. He folds his arms over his head and Falk watches in horror as they split into branches. He opens his mouth to scream, but the vines curl into the new opening, flat leaves pressing against his tongue.

He struggles long enough to realize it’s futile, the vines still binding him to the earth, his lower half pinned beneath the dryad’s rooted weight. He takes one last look as Tal’s face melts into the trunk, finding a sad wooden smile and two wet lines beneath his shut eyes.