When Jacob was a little boy, he would make up stories in his head, all of which centred around a large oak tree at the bottom of the garden. He used to say there was a beautiful woman who lived deep inside the tree’s hollow trunk, and that she would come out and play when nobody else was looking.
I remember the first time he told me about her. He ran back into the house, tugging at my skirt as I washed the dishes and burst into an excited ramble about his new friend in the tree.
Children are always making up imaginary friends, and he was only four at the time, so it didn’t seem like a big deal.
He would write her letters with his crayons, and take her food from the kitchen cupboards every few days. As time went on, his gestures of devotion to his friend began to concern me. He would steal my jewellery and leave it in the trunk for her. He would throw tantrums when bedtime came and he could no longer play in the garden. He even told me once that the woman would “punish” me for not letting him play.
I took him to doctors and to therapists and all of them told me that he’d grow out of it. They all seemed to have the same, weary, withering look, as if I was being ridiculous.
In a sense, they were right. He did grow out of it, for the most part. As time went on, he stopped taking her gifts and once he hit his teens, he stopped mentioning her altogether. He was always fond of the tree, but we were sure that as he grew up, he’d stopped believing in his friend.
As time went on, I forgot the strangeness of it all and it just became silly, childish stories but I think, perhaps, I want to cut down that tree. It peers at me through the window, knowing the part that it played in all this, and I can’t bear it.
Sometimes it seems that the tree grows, towering over the house and waving its branches in my direction, mocking me. The leaves flourish and flex over the endless, empty space, and sometimes, it seems the other plants shrink back into the shadows to avoid it. All except the roses that surround the tree, they stare up at me too, with an almost knowing smirk.
I know that I sound crazy. You don’t need to tell me that, I already know, and I’m not sure how much of this is real, and how much is grief, but I just know that nothing has ever been right with my boy. I couldn’t see it before. I didn’t want to, but now, I have no choice.
I waited around for the girls from The Garden to arrive at the campus, but they never came. It was like they knew I was waiting and so decided not to risk a run in with me. I can understand that, but I can’t forgive them for the part they’ve played.
It turns out, it’s all much bigger than I thought.
My Son was taken by this cult. I know that. That is bad enough, but it’s all so much worse than I feared. It’s all been going on, right under my nose and I didn’t notice it at all.
What kind of a Mother am I? How could I never see the way that this fate followed my boy? This has been hiding, just out of sight for his whole life and I never truly understood it until now.
Last night, I saw my Son for the first time in weeks.
I was in the kitchen, fixing my seventh coffee of the day as the clock struck midnight. I couldn’t sleep, so I was settling in for a long night of trawling the web for any sign of my Son. It was often unsuccessful but I had to try something. I’d search his name on social media, or look at photos in our local area that were posted online to see if I could spot him somewhere in the background. It was long, and fruitless, but it felt better than going to bed.
As I filled the kettle, my eyes were drawn out the window, to the tree that Jacob spent his childhood fascinated with, and that’s when I saw him. Jacob was perched on a branch, smiling and talking, seemingly to the empty garden. He looked healthy and happy, but something about the image unsettled me. He chatted away to himself, with a big grin, rocking back and forth on the branch all alone in the quiet night.
I went out through the back door and slowly approached the tree, seemingly unnoticed by him as I got closer. I pulled my dressing gown a little tighter around my body as a cool wind swept through the garden and called out to him.
I reached my hand up to him as I got closer to the tree, and he stared down at me. He looked puzzled, as if he didn’t expect me to be there, a bizarre, almost lost look was on his face, and he just stared back as I kept my hand out to him.
“Come inside Jacob.” I whispered, shivering from the cold and motioning with my eyes for him to get down from the tree. “Baby, it’s too cold to be outside without your coat.” He shook his head with a wide smile, and there was a rustle in the bushes behind him.
We were not alone.
An arm peeked out from behind the leaves of the bushes, followed by another as a young boy crawled out onto the grass, his body low to the ground and his eyes, dark, soulless and frantic. He glanced at me and then up at Jacob with a snarl. The almost feral nature of his behaviour set me on edge but I just focused my eyes on my Son, holding my hand out and pleading for him to come down to safety.
“Come inside now, Jacob.” He didn’t look at me as I spoke, he just seemed to look past me, his eyes lost in a faraway, fanciful stare, almost like he was dreaming.
The strange boy on the ground slinked around the tree on his hands and knees, hissing over at me and then looking to Jacob for approval. The boy looked between us again, growling as his eyes fell upon me and Jacob nodded.
“She chose me, Mother.” He whispered, his eyes suddenly turning to me, the smile on his face falling from view as he glared down from the tree in my direction. “It was always me.” There was another rustle in the bushes as a second small boy crawled from behind the leaves, his head low to the ground, twitching slightly with every move he made. “She was always waiting for me.” There was more rustling, now coming from all sides as arms and legs burst from the bushes all around the garden.
“Jacob, you have to come inside now.” I couldn’t hide the fear from my voice as I watched strangers gather beneath the tree my Son stared down from.
Part of me, a very small part felt like I should run. Under the tree was a crowd of crouched people, the young boys, hissing and staring, and then four or five more people who looked a little older, their faces shrouded by darkness.
“I have to be with her Mother.” His voice was so cold, and even though I could see clearly that he was my Son, as the seconds slipped by, it felt like he was slipping away from me. “There was never any other way.” As he spoke, my eyes were drawn to hands that slowly slinked across his shoulders. The gathered crowd began to drone, a long, collective, chilling moan into the air as they raised their heads. “I’ll be safe in the higher garden.” The crowd began to advance on me, and I stumbled back, falling down onto the soft grass as they stepped closer, the drone continuing to fill the otherwise quiet night.
“I’ll take care of Jacob now, Mrs Hopkins.” A lone female voice soared above the constant drone of the crowd, seeming to come from everywhere, all at once. “He’ll be safe with me.” I gaped in horror up at the tree, past the crowd to my Son, and the woman that was now snaked around him. She wore a smile that made me certain that she was pure evil, her arms wrapped tightly around his shoulders and chest as she looked back at me. “Get her.”
The crowd launched themselves at me, holding me down against the ground, their faces a blur, except for the same sinister smile of their leader. I tried to push them away, desperate to reach my Son, but they overpowered me, forcing me back down to the grass.
“Please don’t hurt my Son.” I cried, tears springing from my eyes as they pinned me down, one of them holding my head still as the woman kept her eyes on me.
She shook her head, laughing a little as she flicked one of her wrists lazily in my direction. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Roses began springing from the ground, from shoots to buds to full bloom in an instant. The crowd continued to moan and hiss as she gripped Jacob tightly. He seemed so calm, gazing down at me with a serene smile.
“He’s just helping the flowers to grow.” Her voice was soft but seemed to echo around the garden as she tenderly stroked his shoulders, her wicked smile spread wide across her face.
I’d always imagined that his stories about the woman in the tree were just stories, but now, I know that they were true. She had always been there, at the bottom of the back garden, hiding in plain sight and hunting my Son.
The crowd held me down but turned their heads to her, falling silent as she placed her head gently on Jacob’s shoulder. He still smiled, so peaceful in her arms, the way he used to be as a child, when I’d hold him and read him bedtime stories. I stared up, helpless, as I watched her.
“Now he’ll grow forever with us.” Her head moved, quick as a flash and her jaws opened wide, revealing rows and rows of sharp, glittering teeth that sank into his neck. He let out a fearful, panicked scream, beginning to struggle against her grasp as his eyes searched desperately for me.
I thrashed against my captors, reaching for him but always being pulled back down to the ground. Blood began pouring past her lips and down onto the dark bark of the tree as the sickening sound of chewing and slurping filled the air.
“Mum!” I sobbed as he called out, his pain piercing my soul as she constricted his body with her own until he fell silent. She tossed his lifeless frame down to the freshly bloomed roses and stared down at me, crouched on the branch, wiping her lips of his blood.
“Thank you for the boy.” She said, with a smile and a click of her fingers. The crowd released me, rushing to the tree and lifting her from the branches. “He will make a wonderful guardian for our flowers.” They carried her towards the bushes, and as I watched them disappear into the leaves, I wanted to follow them, but I was frozen. Perhaps by fear, perhaps by grief. I don’t think I’ll ever know.
My heart ached as I looked over at the roses. I knew what lay among them, but I was too afraid to look, too broken by the nightmare I was trapped in.
I crawled until I could stand, backing slowly away from the tree and the roses and then I ran for the kitchen, bolting the back door behind me and collapsing into a seat at the dining table.
I just stayed awake for the rest of the night, silently watching the tree and the roses. I wanted to wake up, but I hadn’t slept in days. I wanted to forget, but they stared back at me, every moment, every second, reminding me of what they’d done. I just watched them, as the sun rose and the world woke to a brand new day.
My husband offered me a coffee, but I just stared out at the garden, listening as he made his own and watching out the window. I watched him walking up the garden path onto the grass, with a coffee in one hand and the morning paper in the other.
I watched him fall to his knees, wailing and screaming as he reached the newly bloomed roses and saw what they were hiding.