He could feel the last piece being pulled from his skin and in its place was now only darkness. It was like a drop of ink spilling onto an empty page, flowing outwards until it had covered every inch of him.
The soul tree stood at the farthest point of the churchyard, hidden behind a forest of thorns, alone, tall and proud. Its leaves were so long that they arched over its roots until completely covered, brushing against the unkempt green blades below. It was a story that many had once known, but as the days, weeks, years went by, its powers turned to legend. The bristles that covered its passageway grew thicker and wilder and a story that had been so well known…was forgotten.
Today, Tomos would ask her. But as she walked beside him, smiling as she always did, the words refused to come. They were there, but they were tangled on his tongue, unable to show themselves.
Beads of sweat gathered in the centre of his palms and he quickly slid them against the sides of his trousers.
Why was this so difficult? Eira always came over to his house…it was just this time, he wanted to touch her. To feel her soft skin. To feel her lips on his. He swallowed. This was it.
Eira yelped, a pile of books falling into an untidy heap on the floor by their feet. “Oh God, I’m so sorry Rhiannon!” She hurried to collect them, her hands quivering.
“Are you ever not a waste of space?” Rhiannon replied, irritated.
“I’m really sorry. I – ”
“Save me your life story,” Rhiannon interrupted. “And do us all a favour, stop wasting our air.” She snatched her books back and barged past them.
Tomos stared helpless at Eira, as the tears pushed over her lashes.
“Are you OK?” It was a silly question. He already knew the answer.
On his way home through the churchyard, Tomos couldn’t help but think about how pathetic he was. He wanted to protect Eira more than anything, but what could he do? He was weedy and useless.
The leaves scattered, lightly kissing his shoes as they passed by. That was when he heard it.
Whispering across the wind.
He looked around, confused, a wall of thorns before him. He’d never seen this part of the churchyard before.
The whisper called to him and his eyes fell upon a small hole amongst the twisted branches. It was tight and the thorns scratched at his skin, but he carried on crawling through the dark tunnel. The whisper grew louder and as he clambered out from the thorns, he was met by the glorious green of its leaves.
“A name.” Its voice was clearer now.
Tomos looked around, but he couldn’t see anyone. “Who’s there?”
“I have many names and I come to those in need. Give me a name and I shall feed,” the voice whispered back. “But be certain about the name you give, for it will not return, and remember for the ones I take, I must take something I yearn.”
“Who is this?” Tomos repeated nervously.
“State the name and that person shall disappear forever and will not be found no matter the endeavour.”
Tomos hesitated. It was obviously a joke, but what if…it worked? “Rhiannon Banks.” He said quickly before he could change his mind.
Several weeks passed and much to Tomos’ disbelief, no one had found Rhiannon. Fueled by his love for Eira, he became obsessed with ridding the world of anyone who spoke cruelly to her. But he paid a great price, for every name he gave; a piece of his own soul was taken. The tree had warned him of something it yearned, but it was not until the very last piece was being prised from his body that he felt something else depart from him. Something very important. His humanity. And as that went, so did his love for Eira and he was left empty and alone. A mere shadow of a person and on that day, the soul tree claimed another whisper.
After Tomos’ disappearance, time seem to lose all meaning for Eira. Seconds melted into minutes, months turned to years and soon such a long time had passed that she had begun to forget the little things. It wasn’t that she couldn’t remember what Tomos looked like, it was just the finer details had become hazy, like a blurry photograph with no focus.
Remorse lingered, but sadness was replaced with fond memories and although she missed him dearly, her mind was no longer consumed by the thoughts of Tomos and what had happened to him.
Not until several years later that was, when Eira found herself walking through the churchyard. It wasn’t her usual route home, but something had led her that way. She wandered down the graveled path, her handbag swinging beside her feet. She was a few inches taller now; shorter hair and caring wrinkles framed her small features. It had been a fine, but fiercely hot summer that year, the sort that dried everything out, even the air felt warm. There was no breeze. Which is why she stopped when a sprinkle of green leaves brushed at her ankles.
She turned, tracing their steps and as she did, she could have sworn she’d heard something. And it sounded so familiar to her, but she couldn’t place it. Curious, she followed the voice off the path and towards an overgrown hedge of thorns that she’d never seen before. She hesitated, a little disconcerted by the sheer height of it, but something urged her forwards. It was almost like there were hands behind her, pushing.
She spotted a small parting between the nettles and using her jacket to cover he hands, drove them apart.
The thorns caught her a little, as she pushed through, but something inside herself told her that she needed to keep going. So she did.
It took a few moments to comprehend what she was looking at, by the time she’d broken through and when she did, it felt like the world had collapsed from beneath her feet.
She stumbled backwards, a hand clasped over her mouth. The vomit wrenched itself up inside her throat and onto the grass in sharp shooting heaves. She fell onto the grass and lay there for a moment, eyes closed, skin pressed against the cool green surface.
The whisper had grown louder now. It was screaming down her ears, telling her to look. She weakly opened her eyes and glanced upwards.
His skin had peeled back, nothing more left than grey, ash bones and a thick rope fixed tightly around his neck.