By Myk Pilgram
People often inject morality into old folk tales to serve a purpose, to reinforce a taboo, or just to stuff Jesus into a place he has no right being stuffed. This tale, however, has none of that nonsense, it serves but one purpose, and that purpose little one is to remind you to never let your guard down, not even while celebrating Yule.
Winter is as ravenous as any beast, and like all beasts, it too must be fed.
There is a tree, as there always is, in a clearing which is not so well hidden in the woods that surround Riverside. They say that it was put there by god, which is true, though between you and me dear child, you don’t want to know which god.
In the time before memory, a molten shard of rage cut through the sky and came down in the middle of the snow sodden woods. The story goes that the impact made no mark on the hillside as it planted the rancid seed deep beneath the earth. However, any warm-blooded creature who saw it land was unmade in that instant. Within days, all the plants and trees surrounding it had disintegrated to heaps of septic ash.
Then, nothing happened, nothing above the surface at least. But as the months spread out into years, and the years piled atop one another like nameless corpses, the grass never quite found the courage to retake the clearing. Impossible rains wore the earth away until that hillside was nothing but serrated stones.
A village germinated nearby, it grew, thrived, and then as is the way of all things it decayed to nothing. Another rose and fell, and another. All the while, the clearing remained empty, empty but for the rocks which with every passing night seemed to become more jagged.
Then one day, without fanfare, the tree was there. As if the hateful thing had sprouted overnight. It stood proud, as black as pitch, as fully formed as if it had indeed been there since the beginning of the world and would be there long after all else had crumbled. Its leafless branches twisting upwards in an obscene gesture to the sky that had birthed it.
All the children in the village knew to stay away from the black tree or receive a beating that their grandchildren’s grandchildren would still be weeping about. So, naturally, the clearing drew younglings in the way honey draws flies. They would come in droves, picking their way across the sharp stones until they could almost touch the bark, but only the most stupid would dare to climb the gnarled branches.
Then one winter it happened.
When the snow was thickest on the ground, they came. The moment after the dark had eaten the sun like a spiteful god, they crawled from their nests far beneath the jagged rocks and up into the night. The enormous beetles were stained glass shards scattered across the fresh snow. Humming cheerily in unison and fanning their wings as they shrugged off sleep. When the queen arrived, she was brilliant, she was the glowing North star that guided her hive into the branches of the black tree. Then the beetles joined together into festive strands, trimming the bare branches. Finally, the largest of them all, the queen took her place of honour at the top.
Then they began. Abdomens glowing brightly with a rainbow of improbable colours that are visible from miles and miles around. The beetles sung a deep wordless song that echoed through the forest and could lift any heavy heart. The wind was only too happy to carry the melody out into the distant night to all that might like to hear it.
It wasn’t long before people came to the clearing. Curiosity and excitement rousing them from warm beds. Giggling children bundled up in their warmest furs climbed the hill, some accompanied by adults, whose common sense had been tarnished by a surplus of festive wine. They took in the wonder that was the shimmering tree and sang along as best they could, for although the song was sweet as honey, there were no words to it that they knew. The crowd laughed and shared drink and food, some lit fires to keep the others warm. It was as joyous a time as one could imagine, but still, no one dared venture beyond the edge of the trees and into the clearing. More bodies joined the throng on the hillside bringing mead and dried fruit with them that they shared with all and the revelry went on.
A child, a boy because it is always a boy who breaks things, slipped free from his mother’s arms and stepped into the clearing of virgin snow. In an instant, everything became dark. In the impossible shadows, the previously jovial song transformed into a ravenous guttural hum that surrounded the panicking folk. Shrouded by the night that had spawned them, the beetles descended on every man, woman, and child eating their fill.
The next day, a handful of concerned woodsmen and their dogs followed the tracks up the hill. They found the entire clearing turned crimson with the damp iron reek of blood. Of their foolish kinsfolk who had snuck out, only crumbled bones, discarded kneecaps, and masticated gristle remained.
From that day forward they cut down trees and decorated them within the safety of their homes, lest their idiot relatives venture out to where the humbugs might find them in a dark clearing one cold winter’s night.
Myk Pilgrim is partially bald by genetic mishap but totally bald by choice.
He lives with his wife in a tiny cottage, in an even littler Scottish town where he spends every free moment consuming stories and watching films.
He writes supernatural horror fiction with a sense of humour and an unapologetic cathartic streak – but only when he runs out of excuses not to.
Myk’s work has appeared on the Wicked Library, 13 Wicked Tales, Dark Faces Evil Place 2, and in Bite-sized Horror collections Poisoned Candy, Bloody Stockings, Rancid Eggs, and Devil’s Night.