“Who put Bella in the Wych-Elm? Who put Bella in the Wych-Elm?”
Hagley Woods is silent, except for the skittering of dried leaves across the path and Maggie’s childish ditty—slightly off-tune and too loud in my ears. The tree she’s singing about glares down at us, its knots a multitude of disapproving eyes. Not that I can blame it. We’re sixteen, at that age when everyone assumes the worst about us, even when the only thing we’re doing is taking a bit of a shortcut through the woods.
The wych-elm’s branches are leafless, not just because it’s autumn. I’ve never seen a speck of green on it in all the years we’ve been coming here. It quivers ever so slightly in a stray gust of wind, though the dead leaves below it don’t stir. A chill creeps up my neck, and I wonder if I should have brought the knit hat that mom had bought me, instead of shoving it in the bottom of my locker to languish until the end of May.
Maggie skips along the narrow path, three paces ahead of Stu and me. I should have guessed that she’d lead us this way. The wych-elm’s story was one of her favorites, centering on a murder investigation back around World War II, one that has gone unsolved. I’ve long ago accepted Maggie’s morbid curiosity about the place, but Stu has only recently joined our little group, and his unease is as obvious as the “NO TRESPASSING” signs we ducked under to get here.
“I don’t think we should be here.” His Converses scuffle through the leaves.
“Why? Don’t you want to hear the story of the Wych-Elm?” Maggie asks.
“It’s not even an elm,” I say, trying to sound nonchalant for Stu’s sake. “It’s a wych-hazel.” Stu doesn’t look comforted by this fact.
“I’ve heard the story.” Stu pushes his glasses up the ridge of his nose with one finger. “A bunch of kids discovered a decaying body encased in a hollow tree trunk. There were scratch marks inside the tree, so they know she was alive when she went in, but no one’s ever figured out who she was or why she was put there… whether it was an accident or murder. Then some graffiti began to show up around the town, with the words Who put Bella in the Wych-Elm?“
“Obviously, they were terrible at identifying trees.”
“And you two are terrible at telling stories.” Maggie rolls her eyes.
Stu frowns. “Well, that’s what happened, isn’t it?”
“Come on, Clara.” Maggie rushes over and grabs my arm. “Let’s show him what really happened.”
“Not again. Aren’t we a little old to be playing make-believe?”
“It’s not make-believe. It’s theater. You be Bob Farmer.”
“You be Bob Farmer.” I pull my arm away. “I hate being Bob Farmer. Why do I always have to be Bob Farmer?”
“Who’s Bob Farmer?” Stu asks.
“I can’t be Bob Farmer,” Maggie insists. “I have to be Tommy Willetts. You can’t cry on cue, and Tommy Willetts has to cry as he confesses the discovery to his father. It’s a pivotal scene.”
I scowl, but can’t argue with the facts. I really am terrible at fake-crying. The last time I played the part of Tommy Willetts, Maggie told me that I sounded like a dying whale. “Fine. I’ll be Bob Farmer.”
“Don’t forget your line!” Maggie hollers.
I clear my throat and speak in a deeper-than-usual voice, pointing up to the tree. “Hey, blokes. Bet that there’s a good ol’ place to find a bird’s nest, don’tcha reckon?”
“Climb on up and see!” Maggie takes on the tone of a small boy with eerie precision, and I’m not certain if her bouncing gait is part of her act or if she’s honestly that excited that she’s wrangled me into this. Again.
I stand at the bottom of the tree, looking up. Since the body was removed decades ago, the bark has grown up around the places where the police had chopped it out. Looking closely, I still can see where some of the pieces of wood have melded back together, healing itself like a scarred piece of skin. I shake the image from my head and pull myself up the tree, hand over hand, one limb at a time.
“You’re not really going to climb up there, are you?” Stu’s voice pitches and lilts with emotion.
“Of course she is,” Maggie says, as if climbing a tree that once held a dead body is the most normal thing ever. Though, to us, it is; we’ve been playing the Wych-Elm game since we were old enough to wander off on our own. “Bob Farmer has to climb the tree to make the discovery. Now, hush, Robert Hart.”
I reach the spot where Bob Farmer must have stood when he first saw the skull and balance myself on one of the warped branches. It’s about seven feet off the ground and from here, I can see down into the hollow trunk—a deep, gaping hole of black nothingness that we used to throw poppies into as kids, as a sort of remembrance for the poor, unknown woman who had perished there. Even now, years later, the rotted-out opening is large enough that it’s easy to imagine a body fitting inside… a frightened face staring up, pleading for help.
“Who’s Robert Hart?” Stu asks.
“You are, you moron.”
I laugh despite myself and twist around a branch to catch of glimpse of Stu’s baffled expression. My foot slips on the dew-covered bark, and suddenly I’m falling.
My arms flail, grasping for the limb above me, but my fingertips can’t close on it. Bark scrapes against my knees and elbows, but I can’t get a grip. I can’t slow my fall. I can’t even get out a scream before I descend down, down, down into the trunk of the tree.
Everything goes black.
Curses. Curses on them all, she thought. Curse these cursed English and their cursed trees. What fool allows such a wretched tree like this to grow so large? It ought to have been burned up for firewood ages ago.
She scrambled against the wood inside the tree, but try as she might, she couldn’t wriggle herself upward. The bark was too slick, the hole too narrow for her to maneuver. On the contrary, every kick sank her deeper into its grasp, as if it were attempting to pull her into the depths of this cursed English soil.
How she’d even managed to become stuck in this tree was beyond her understanding, and she hoped that none of the others in her division would hear of it. They’d laugh mercilessly that her first real landing in enemy territory had been so horridly botched. To land in a lake or become tangled in a tree’s branches was common enough. Those stories were mentioned over drinks, chuckled over, and forgotten in a day. But this was simply unprecedented. She would never live this down.
Her parachute, tattered and torn, still clung to the outstretched upper branches where it had gotten snarled on her descent from the B-24 bomber. When she’d cut herself free with her pocketknife, she’d tried to swing herself away from the gaping hole in the tree’s center, but the bark was slick from last night’s rainfall, and all the branches sloped inward. She’d lost her footing and somehow managed not only to lose her knife, but to drop directly down into the hollowed-out trunk. Just her blasted luck.
“Lehrer!” she shouted, not even bothering to disguise her Dutch accent. There was only one person who would hear her all the way out here—they’d chosen this desolate drop spot for just that reason—and he already knew all her secrets.
“Clarabella!” The voice was distant, but distinct. “Where are you?”
“Lehrer! I’m over here! I’m stuck in this vuil tree!”
A few moments passed before she heard the scritch-scratching of someone climbing the tree. Jakob Lehrer’s familiar face appeared above her. She knew that he’d spotted her when a smile burst across his ruddy cheeks.
“There you are, my Clarabella.” He placed his arm on his knee, just as casually as if they’d been sharing a cup of tea.
“Yes, yes, you can have your laugh. Just get me out of this infernal tree first.” She sucked in her breath and tried to make herself as small as possible. Bit by bit, she carefully wriggled one arm up the length of her body, nearly dislocating her shoulder in her attempt to free her hand. Her skin scraped the inside of the bark, carving a jagged red line across her forearm, but she managed to get her hand up. She wriggled it at him, fingers pointed skyward. “Come on, then. I can’t do this alone. Pull me up.”
But Lehrer simply stroked the stubble on his chin and leaned back against a large limb. “No, no. I’m sorry. I can’t do that.”
“What do you mean, no? In case you’ve forgotten, we have a mission to complete, and I certainly can’t uncover the enemy’s plans from in here. Quit the lollygagging and pull me up so we can get to the safe house before dark. We’ve already wasted too much daylight.”
“I don’t think you understand, Bella,” he said, using the diminutive of her name that she despised the most. “You need me to get you out of here, whereas I—well, I need this mission to fail.”
At first, she didn’t understand, couldn’t even fathom the depth of his deceit and treachery. Then it all became sickeningly clear. She recalled with fresh comprehension the sealed letters that he claimed were for his mother; the man on the street who had called him Andrew, though Lehrer had sworn he’d never met him before; the odd look on his face when she’d been assigned as his partner for this mission.
“You’re a double agent.”
“Indeed,” he said. “And you, my dear Bella, were becoming a liability. You know me too well. It was only a matter of time before you found me out, and I simply can’t have that.”
“So you’re going to kill me?” She laughed weakly, trying to pretend she wasn’t afraid, that her heart wasn’t thrumming against her chest, squeezing her more tightly against the hollowed-out tree. All she could think of was Mama and Papa, back at home in Barradeel, clutching the letters she wrote to them about her new secretarial position in Amsterdam. Would someone tell them the truth when she went missing? Or would they go on believing the lies about what she’d been doing all these months?
“Kill you?” Lehrer said, looking quite shocked indeed. “No, I couldn’t live with that on my conscience. I’m merely going to leave you to die. I’ll have to cut your parachute free and burn it so no one will think to search for you here; fortunately, you drifted far enough off course it shouldn’t pose a problem. I’ll tell our commander that I couldn’t find you, that you must have gone AWOL at the first opportunity. It will be months… years perhaps, before anyone finds you here, Bella. I couldn’t have planned it more perfectly myself.”
“You can’t just leave me here. What about Henry?” Her left hand was still tucked tightly by her side, and she ran her thumb around the edge of the plain, gold band. “Even if somehow you manage to fool everyone else, Henry will know that I haven’t deserted. He won’t give up on me.”
Though—she realized with a sinking heart—he wouldn’t have the first idea of where to start looking. She hadn’t even been allowed to tell him that she was leaving, much less why or for where.
“You should never have agreed to marry that fool.” Lehrer shook his head slowly, perhaps a bit sadly. “If only you’d have accepted my proposal instead, we might have sorted this out some other way.”
“You coward! I’ll scream.” She clenched her fists, rubbing her knuckles across the inside of the tree. “I’ll scream and someone will hear me. I’ll tear down this tree bit by bit if I have to, but I will get out of here. You won’t get away with this, Lehrer. You ought to know me well enough by now to realize that I won’t let a silly tree get in my way.”
“Well, I suppose we can’t have that,” Lehrer said. He leaned in and grabbed her wrist. For a moment, she dared to hope that he’d changed his mind, but then she saw the glint of his knife. “I’m truly sorry that you forced me to do this.”
Her scream severed the quiet, country air as the knife severed her wrist.
With a gasp, I emerge into daylight, with Stu and Maggie’s worried faces hovering over me, tugging at my wrist. Panicky, I try to pull away, but they just squeeze tighter.
“Stop wriggling,” Maggie scolds. “We’ve almost got you out.”
I struggle to recall what had happened. Moments earlier, encased in that tree, I hadn’t been myself, and my friends hadn’t been here to rescue me. I’d been someone else, a Dutch woman, sent to spy on the English. The pain of that man—that traitor—slicing off my hand is still fresh in my mind.
When my feet finally emerge from the hole, I dive away, leaning against one of the limbs for support while I catch my breath. Maggie and Stu hold tightly to me to ensure I don’t fall the seven feet to the ground.
Maggie catches her breath first. “Let’s get down from here. You all right to move, Clara?”
“Clara,” I say. That’d been her name, too. She’d screamed and bled and died within that tree, and all the while she’d been me. Or I was her.
“Yeah,” Maggie says, her brow furrowed in concern. “You’re Clara.”
She holds onto me while Stu climbs down and then helps me lower myself into his arms. “Let’s get her back home,” Stu says, glancing over his shoulder at the Wych-Elm. I don’t dare look at it, for fear that I’ll see Lehrer there, cackling as Clara clutches her bloody arm. My bloody arm.
I lean on my friends and hobble out of the wood, trying to shake the strange hallucination. That’s all it was, a product of my imagination. It had to be. All of our years of imagining what had really happened to the woman in the tree finally got to me.
It isn’t until we reach the main road that I feel something on my hand. There, encircling my ring finger as if it belongs there, as if it’s always been there, is a shining gold band.