Dirt and wood splinters sprayed up with the axe.
"We shouldn't be doing this," whispered Francesca. "We'll get caught."
The full moon shone from her dark eyes. Vanessa smirked at her as she readied the axe for another blow against the coffin lid. The wood came apart easily, which was not a surprise since the coffin was the cheapest available. The sisters were poor and took the least expense in burying their father. They worked another half hour to drag his body up to the surface. Both women filled in the grave, then they started their long walk with their father curled up in a wheelbarrow.
"Someone's going to see us," fretted Francesca as they passed through the cobbled streets of their tiny town.
"If you keep talking, that's exactly what will happen," said Vanessa.
"Oh, the forest is dark and dangerous at night," said Francesca as they approached the dirt path into the trees.
"Only a little more so than the day, sister. Now hush."
They walked for three hours, past the blood owls and their saucer eyes, past the moss wolves that lurked in pools of fetid water alongside the path watching with their snouts and eyes just above the surface, and past the arboreal panthers that looked down at them from above. Nothing attacked because the creatures knew that the sisters were protected by their offering.
Finally they arrived at the black tree at the heart of the forest. It was once an oak, charred by fire yet still growing. It was restless, swaying and cracking even though there was no wind. Its charcoal bark crawled with shiny, segmented, black centipedes as thick in girth as a baby's arm. The branches were decked not with leaves but with purple veined black flowers. The petals were thick and waxy, with edges frilled with velvety hairs. The stigmas of the flowers were large and red, and were surrounded by a coterie of dusty white anthers. The flowers smelled of decay and methane and a heady spice that was somewhere between fresh tobacco and nutmeg. Francesca covered her mouth with her scarf but Vanessa breathed in the aroma with pleasure.
"What do we do now?" asked Francesca, cowering slightly, with the branches of the tree inching closer to their heads.
"What have you brought me," bellowed the tree in a voice that sounded of steel guitar strings scraped across slate.
Francesca immediately prostrated herself and quivered. Vanessa straightened her hair and smoothed down the front of her dress. She put on her most alluring smile.
"We have brought...you...an offering," she said, gracefully gesturing towards the body in the wheelbarrow.
"He is your father," said the tree.
"He was," said Vanessa. "He is dead now."
"Did you kill him?" asked the tree.
"He died of cancer--"
"Cancer! Cancer you say?" asked the tree eagerly.
"Yes," said Vanessa expanding her smile.
"Was it removed?"
"No. It could not be."
"Ah, you have brought me a treasure!" exclaimed the tree.
Several branches reached down and caressed the edges of the wheelbarrow.
"Not yet," Vanessa cautioned.
She moved herself between the tree and the body. The tree withdrew it's branches.
"I suppose you want something," said the tree slowly.
"I do," said Vanessa.
"The things one two legs always want something."
"That's true," said Vanessa. "People spend a lot of time wanting things. Few make the effort to get them."
"What you think you want, you might not."
"That's for me to decide," said Vanessa.
"What are you doing?" whispered Francesca. "Let's get this over with!"
"As payment for our offering, we would like a flower for each of us," said Vanessa.
The tree was silent and motionless for a moment.
"My flowers are very potent. Very dangerous. What will you use them for?"
"I want to be young and beautiful forever," said Vanessa.
"Ah. Such a preparation can be made from the juice of the petals that will grant you enduring long life."
"And I, uh, want a house of my own," said Francesca, peeking up at the tree. "With servants."
"What?" asked the tree.
"We are poor you see," said Vanessa. "Our father left us with nothing but debts. We do not blame him for leaving us this burden, but he led his life in an unfortunate way."
"That is of the vaguest interest to me," said the tree. "What I am curious about is how you will use my flower as a house."
Francesca snorted into the leaf litter.
"I will sell it of course," she said.
"I see," said the tree. "And you do not want immortality for yourself?"
"What good is it if you are poor? Besides, life is misery. Who wants more than there fair portion of it?"
"Ah, I love misery...it invigorates my roots," said the tree wistfully.
"So...do we have a deal?" asked Vanessa.
"Your offering is delectable," said the tree, poking a branch against Vanessa's shoulder to push her away from the wheelbarrow. "It is a deal."
The tree bowed down a branch that was thickly laden with flowers. The sisters each plucked a flower, then they dumped the body of their father out onto the loam in front of the tree's trunks. The roots of the tree creaked and moved up through the soil, then snatched the body, pulling it down into the dark earth by the face and chest. His bare feet were the last of him to disappear.
"Be gone now, and leave me in peace," croaked the tree.
"Thank you," said Vanessa. Francesca bowed low. They turned and ran back down the path, hand in hand and laughing, past the arboreal panthers, the moss wolves, and the blood owls that were all now sleepy from the dawning day.