by Jess Koch
The twins were born on a humid January night, uprooted from their young mother’s womb through a cesarean incision opened across gossamer skin, exactly seventeen years and ninety-eight days before they would eat her down to her bones.
Leeches—that’s what their mother thought of them—leeches covered in her own blood: two girls with identical green-blue eyes (like their father’s) and conjoined at the shoulder. Born holding hands as though they already knew they’d come to a place where everyone would try to take them apart.
The nurses wiped sweat from the mother’s collarbones and temples as the doctor sewed her back together. He was barely out of his residency, but he was alone that night after the doctor on call drove off a flooded bridge. No one in town knew whether it was an accident or not, but speculation leaned in a way that tilted his hand over the steering wheel himself.
The new doctor hummed nervously as he fished the needle in and out of the sea of flayed skin and blood. The stitching was clumsy and left the mother with an ugly scar that would make every bathroom mirror, every glance down at her naked body in a cold bath remind her of her disfigured daughters.
Their father—though no one knew this at the time—was dead. Like many others in that time, he would be found months later, skin replaced by lichen and flora at the base of an oak tree not far from his home. He would never know that a mediocre hookup from nearly a year before had resulted in anything more than the realization that he needed a break from dating.
“They’re beautiful,” one of the nurses said in the mother’s ear. Hot breath on hot skin. But the mother could see them on the metal table under the surgical lights, gray skin wet with fluids, arms fused together, mouths gaping like swallows waiting for regurgitated worms and thought to herself no, they were not.
• • •
The mother named the girls Elea and Nora. Two halves of the same name. Some people thought it was cute. Others thought it was an odd choice for two girls who would have a hard enough time being seen as individuals and not as parts of a whole. The mother hadn’t given it much thought at all.
The twin on the left was Elea and the one on the right was Nora. Without their static configuration, their mother had no way of telling them apart. They seemed to function as a unit. Crying, feeding, sleeping, and waking together as if they shared a mind instead of just some shoulder muscle and skin.
She brought them home to a trailer at the edge of a state forest that, though no one could yet tell, was already changing.
• • •
When Elea and Nora were old enough, they were surgically separated. While the surgeons were able to give the girls full use of their arms, they both were left with ugly, jagged scars from the top of the shoulders down to their elbows.
Even so, the mother was content to bring home two separate children in two separate car seats and put them to bed that night in two separate cribs. And with scars on opposite shoulders, she could still tell the girls apart.
That first night, the girls cried and reached through the crib bars with stubby fingers, trying to grab hold of one another. The wailing continued into the small hours of the morning until the mother dragged Elea’s crib to the far end of the living room and closed the bedroom door between them.
The crying never improved. Each night, the mother drank and listened until it became just another noise of the house like the chug of the window fan pumping humid air into her bedroom while she thought if she could drown out their sounds, maybe they would no longer exist.
She had dreams of taking them deep into the woods.
It wasn’t until they outgrew their cribs that her efforts to keep them apart were abandoned. And though they were tucked into their own beds each night, every morning the two would be found with their arms wrapped around each other in the same bed.
But at least the house was quiet.
• • •
Before she had the words to explain it, Nora was beginning to sense that she could manipulate weeds growing in the garden, bloom and shrivel flowers from buds, cause fungi to spread faster on trees. She felt the forest growing; it was hungry, just as Nora was growing and hungry.
But she also sensed that her sister did not understand the forest like she did. As though the nerves that tied Nora to the woods were severed from her sister when they were separated; a gift that couldn’t be split in half.
Elea knew nothing about the connection her sister had with the woods. But she did know of her sister’s hunger. Nora licked sap from tree bark and ate dead leaves crushed to paper-thin flakes in her small hands. Sometimes she chewed on the ends of sticks, ripping the bark off with her teeth until her mouth bled and Elea made her stop.
More than once, Elea found her licking clean the bones of a dead squirrel.
The mother saw the scrapes and dirt on her daughter’s skin and clothes, but never mentioned it. She spent most of the time she was at home behind her bedroom door, drinking.
Sometimes she came out in a haze and threw empty bottles at the walls near Nora’s head, the colored glass shattering and falling into the girl’s hair and down the back of her shirt, leaving tiny cuts all over her skin. The mother hated Nora. Something about the way the girl moved about the trailer and the backyard at night when the lights went out. Like a ghost, like an animal.
On one of those nights when Nora sat with broken glass in her hands, Elea reached out and took a large slice. She sunk the edge of it into her unmarred shoulder and followed the shape of her sister’s scar. When she was done and blood flowed freely from her new wound, staining the gray carpet, then she traced the shape of her own scar on Nora’s shoulder. And once those new wounds healed, leaving raised edges across once perfect skin, their mother was no longer able to tell them apart.
After that, Elea was Elea, but she was also sometimes Nora. Each morning when they woke up, they decided which of them would take which name, which version of themselves. Sometimes they would stick with one configuration for weeks, even months, and sometimes they would switch every day. Though it didn’t diminish their mother’s outbursts, the girls were at least able to share the burden of her violence.
• • •
The girls were wild in those early years. Feral and impulsive, roving the woods during the day while their mother worked as a waitress at the last open diner by the freeway. A neighbor, an elderly woman half-blind from cataracts, was meant to watch them. But she often fell asleep on the couch by mid-morning with a sticky wine glass clutched in swollen fingers and the TV left on too loud.
The girls would come back to the trailer at dusk with new scrapes, bruises, and dead leaves in their hair and sit on either side of the sleeping woman while a pastor on TV preached about the mutating forests. A sign of the end, the old man would say with a glint in his eye and a yellow toll-free phone number for donations covering half the screen.
All the while, Nora sensed the woods creeping closer.
• • •
The summer the girls turned fifteen, they met Isaac, who moved into a cabin with his uncle down the road and had his own car: a beat-up Honda that still ran on gas when he could afford it or siphon it. He and Nora started dating. Though he thought it was strange that her sister was always hanging around, he never brought it up.
On the last day of that summer, he drove the girls to the coast, where the water line rose halfway up the tree trunks of a now flooded forest.
“The trees don’t do well in salt water,” he told them. “They’ll all be dead soon.”
But at least on that day, they were shielded from the sweltering sun by lush green leaves. They swam naked in the warm water, diving deep to touch the roots of the trees. They dug up beer bottles in all colors, their labels long lost to the rising tide and stacked them in a pile that reflected rainbow light onto the rocks.
In the shallows, Isaac pressed his warm body against Nora. She explored his wet skin with her fingers, felt him harden at her touch. His fingers reached through her dripping hair, his chapped lips graze her neck, his tongue circled her breasts. His breath was so hot against her cheek until he gasped, exhaled, and softened once again.
Elea watched from behind the trees, treading water.
Though that day, Elea was really Nora, and she felt her cheeks flush with warmth as her sister’s hands moved across Isaac like he was an instrument she’d always played. Graceful and practiced. It seemed wrong to see her twin wrapped in another’s arms with sea grass and this boy’s fingers tangled in her dark hair. Their dark hair.
Nora swam alone out to the edge of the forest, where it met with the open ocean, where only the tips of the trees were visible above the water, where the sea was cold and dark. Out there she could feel the trees dying, their roots drowning in the salt-soaked earth.
On her way back, she saw a shadow in a thick gathering of pines and when she got close enough, hunger gnawed at her empty stomach.
When Elea and Isaac found Nora, she was almost lost in the branches with her mouth around the neck of a body decomposing on a frayed rope. It hung limp and dark; skin discolored from days—maybe weeks—out in the hot sun. The birds had gotten to the man’s body, pecked out his eyes, and filled his sockets with nesting material. Dead grass. Dead leaves. Dead.
And Nora ate. Her mouth black with the decay of his flesh, her fingers clawing at the dry skin, aching to reach softer meat. But there was nothing much left of him. He had already been eaten by whoever dragged him up the tree.
Without a word, Isaac swam back to shore and called the police. Elea coaxed Nora away from the corpse and out of the tree. She washed her sister’s lips with the salt water and took her hand, leading her to the shore where Isaac sat on a rock wrapped in a stained American flag towel, head buried in his hands. Elea stroked his back, convinced him he hadn’t seen what he thought he saw. Nora’s teeth were not tearing rotting flesh away from splintered bones. None of that was real. Still, he said nothing.
Sirens wailed in the distance, slowly creeping toward the flooded woods as the afternoon grew late and the sunlight faded to a deep orange on the horizon. Isaac pointed out toward the trees when the police arrived.
Elea and Nora floated on their backs nearby as a boat hummed and swept little waves under them. They linked arms, looked up at the burning sky through the dying trees and their thoughts swam together, both thinking of the impermanence of this place, of men. Of everything.
• • •
The girls thought of the drowned forest often. About the rising shoreline and the dead man in the trees. They watched the news every night for months as more were found dead in the woods, half-eaten or with another’s teeth around their flesh. A cult, some said, cannibals, said others, always in such wary voices, as though the words themselves were a curse. But Nora knew that wasn’t quite right, Nora knew their hunger.
One evening, when the mother got home from work and saw the girl’s faces aglow with television light, she walked across the living room and unplugged it. The picture flashed and then went black, the ghostly image of skeletons stuck in tree bark faded into the dark. She lifted the small box off its stand and left the room without saying a word.
Elea and Nora followed her down the hall, through the kitchen, and out the back door and across the yard. She tossed the television into the woods and went back into the house, not even looking at the girls as she passed them. The back door slammed and the outdoor lights came on, casting their long shadows on the grass.
• • •
Even without the news reminding them every day, it was impossible to escape the changing forests. In their own backyard, the trees were thicker, and the edge of the forest had swallowed most of their lawn as another warm season passed. Stuck in a perpetual summer.
They slept with the blankets and sheets kicked down by their ankles, their skin barely touching. On particularly hot nights, the twins would wake on a damp mattress that was soaked in sweat, strip naked, and lie on the floor until even the wood felt like it was burning under their skin. While Elea slept, Nora felt the agitations of roots stretching under the house as she mimicked their movement with her fingers. Willing them to grow.
One of those hot nights, they woke not to warmth of the sun through the window, but to the smell of woodsmoke and a different kind of heat on their skin. Elea woke and nudged Nora until her eyes slid open. Her nostrils flared; her fists curled.
Gray smoke swept into their room.
Still naked, the girls ran down the hall but found their mother’s door open and the room beyond empty.
Outside, the forest burned. A red can of gasoline was knocked sideways in the overgrown grass, but their mother was gone.
No one had to call the fire department. The smoke could be seen for miles. Just after sunrise, when everything was bathed in a fiery glow, the firefighters arrived. It was only one truck—all they could spare—and a couple of men, but they were able to put out the flames before the fire consumed the back of the house.
Late the next day, the mother returned. She swept into the house like the smoke: silent, smelling of burning hair and burning skin, and closed herself away in her bedroom.
• • •
The fire their mother started didn’t slow the growth of the forest. If anything, it invigorated it. Angered it. Soon new growth crept from the ashen skeleton trees, closing in on the trailer. Many who lived near the woods moved away. To the arid deserts, to the overburdened cities, to the flooded coasts.
Isaac took his car south and never came back. Before he left, he gave Nora a note, asking her to come with him, confessing his affection for her. But she refused and buried the note between the roots of the burned trees.
Elea and Nora listened to the radio at night. A little speaker pressed close to their ears. The hosts described what the bodies were like after the forest people ate them away. Flesh and muscle and organs consumed by rot and fungus until only bones were left, sprouting wild mushrooms. They spoke of the cannibals hiding in the trees. Mutated beyond human familiarity and of the forests growing, moving, eating.
• • •
Seasons passed slowly and in heat. The roof of their home grew a blanket of moss, like the abandoned houses in already abandoned towns. The diner closed. The roads that once passed by too overgrown to drive on.
The mother, lost in an alcoholic haze, barely left her bed.
They could leave, they could, like so many did. But they had nowhere to go, no money to buy a new life. what little they did have fed them, kept their mother’s gin bottles full, and the fans running in their windows, for the time being at least. But they all knew it couldn’t last much longer.
The television outside grew ferns like antennae. Nora had dreams of turning it on, of the preacher with fungi growing out of his eye sockets howling about the end of the world.
Their scars started to itch. The old ones, the real ones. Swelling, red, and hot to the touch like a fire burning under their skin.
• • •
On the last night, yellow and white spores sprouted from the old wounds. Elea scratched at her arm, trying to dig them out by thin roots. But Nora grasped her sister’s bloody hands and held them. The warm breeze blew in the decomposition smell of the dead trees being eaten by the growing fungus. Crickets chirped in the long grass outside their open window. Nora felt the forest’s hunger and yearning.
Something was dead nearby.
It made her hungry, too.
Nora slipped out of her nightgown and then undressed her sister, slipping thin straps from thin shoulders, revealing naked skin, slick with sweat and exposing the rings of orange fungi growing up their legs.
Their mother, for once, was quiet. When the girls opened the door, they saw that she was splayed out across her bed under the only window in the room. The fan tossed tendrils of her dark hair across her face. Her tank top was pulled up revealing the deep gash across her stomach. An empty bottle. A ring of dried vomit around her mouth. They watched from the doorway, waiting for the rise and fall of her chest. But she remained still.
Nora bent down and slid her tongue across her mother’s lips, tasting the bile and alcohol and salt on her skin. Still, she did not wake. In fact, their mother would never wake again. Her body would feed the forest. Nora touched her mother’s wrist and lichen spread down her arm; she kissed her feet and weeds broke through her skin.
And finally, Nora parted her lips and sank her teeth into her mother’s neck.
Elea cried out and tried to pull Nora away, but Nora turned and kissed Elea, placing soft meat on her tongue. Elea closed her teeth around the tender warmth and chewed. And when she swallowed, she felt the forest alive inside her.
• • •
The sun was a barely visible glow outside the dirty window. On the bed, the mother’s skeleton held the same position they found her in so many hours before but now her ivory bones were wrapped in green, a vessel for new growth like the others, like everyone, eventually.
She was now as much a part of the forest as her daughters.
The spores on the twin’s shoulders had grown together in the night, roots and stems tangled as one. A shared ecosystem once more.
They left the house wrapped around each other’s warm bodies, moving together, as they were always meant to.
Once outside, they felt the forest all around them. Part of them as they were part of it, part of everything. Growing, hungering, and making their way south where there would be more to eat.
Copyright © 2022 by Jess Koch