ONE SPRING AFTERNOON, WHILE WIDOWER was gathering lettuce from the garden, his daughter Lew called out from her siblings nearby.
“Dad, I’m tired of playing in the grass.”
“Couldn’t I play in the woods?”
Widower eyed the woods. “You may. But take this head of lettuce.”
“Lay the leaves as you go to mark the way.” Then he told her to be home before sundown.
Lew embraced her father and then skipped past the forest line, laying the lettuce leaves as she went. Soon she grew tired from chasing rabbits and butterflies. A cool air beckoned her a short way deeper into the woods where she found a clearing in which to rest. In the center of the clearing stood a single tree of great width, leafless despite the season. Its branches cast tangled shadows across the ground. She was marveling at the strange shade when she saw something waft into view from the opposite side of the tree trunk. It looked to be a garment, blue paisley on white, like the train of a sundress. She toed up to the tree, rested her hand on its bark, and tried to creep around to see who was there. But her hand became fixed to the spot where she’d placed it. When she tried to cry out, she couldn’t make a sound.
Nonetheless, Widower found her home before sundown. They prepared dinner, he and his five children—Winn, Finn, Fayola, Liam, and Lew. Then they sat and ate and rested from the day. Potatoes and pine nuts, artichoke hearts, and bread pudding for dessert. Lew was quieter than the rest, though she ate that much more. Widower laughed at her healthy appetite.
Before tucking them in he read to them aloud. Then he kissed their foreheads and said goodnight. Coming to Lew, he pushed the hair from her face and looked into her eyes.
“Hazel?” Widower said. “You have grey eyes, not hazel.”
She cocked her head and smiled. “My eyes have always been hazel.”
Next afternoon, Widower was cutting firewood with his son Liam.
“Dad, once we chop enough wood, could I play in the woods?”
Widower eyed the woods. “You may. But take your ax.”
“Cut blazes into the trees to mark the way.”
Liam helped with the last of the wood and then skipped into the forest, marking the trees as he went. When he grew tired, he was beckoned to the same clearing, and found Lew at the trunk in its center, mouthing words in his direction. He ran up to her, wondering how she’d beat him to the spot, and placed his hand on the bark to try to pull her from it. In doing so, he found himself similarly fixed to the tree and unable to speak aloud.
Nonetheless, Widower found him home before sundown. They prepared dinner; then sat and ate and rested from the day. Beans, fennel, leeks with lemon, and bread pudding for dessert. Liam and Lew were quieter than the rest, though they ate heartily.
Before tucking them in Widower read aloud. Then he kissed their foreheads and said goodnight. Coming to Liam, he pushed the hair from his face and looked into his eyes.
“Hazel?” Widower said. “You have brown eyes, not hazel.”
Liam stole a glance at Lew. “My eyes have always been hazel.”
So too did Winn, Finn, and Fayola each play in the woods and find the clearing in the coming afternoons. They were startled to see their siblings, whom they’d left at home, fixed to the tree when they came upon it. One by one they fastened themselves to the trunk in trying to free the others.
Nonetheless, Widower found them home before sundown but soon knew that something was awry. His children now spoke very little, often looked at one another, and their appetites had grown such that he couldn’t cook enough to please them. Their eyes had all turned a matching hazel.
One night, while he lay awake in bed, Widower heard a commotion outside. He rose and followed the sound through the hall to the window, where he saw his children dancing in the yard below. They’d drawn up a mound of dirt and were circling it, hand in hand, chanting together in a strange ensemble as a black hound darted about along with them. He’d never seen this dog, and it was then that he realized that these were not his children. Widower knew those woods were strange. Years ago, his long-lost wife would wander them. He tip-toed back to his bedroom, donned his clothes and coat, and then slipped out the back door and into the woods.
Wet moss. A fog dwelt close to the ground. Widower’s footsteps faded in the vapor behind him as he followed the cuts in the white birch to the clearing. He found the tree and his children, bunched at its base on their knees, with little palms plastered to the wood. Running up, he bade their silent warnings not to touch the stalk and shuddered at the strange magic at play. Then he saw the ax at his feet.
Widower grasped it, nudged Finn and Fayola aside to fit between them, and began to chop at the tree. It was no easy task—the ax was small and the trunk wide—but soon it tottered. Yet as Widower made the final strikes, his children still motioned to him with increasing alarm, and he realized they were trying to stop him.
Then the ax cut through, the tree tipped away from them, and his children were unbound from the bark. But as it hit the ground, Widower heard a woman’s scream snuffed out, and saw the billow of her dress beneath the impact. Then he knelt to the figure, crushed beneath the trunk, as his children wept profoundly for their mother, blue paisley, his wife.
X. Luma is a fiction writer. He lives and works in Virginia.