The Birch

Content warnings: Graphic death

You do not recognize the bodies in the forest.

I implore you to listen to me, just listen.

No one knows when the bodies started appearing, hanging from the gnarled branches of Cog Hollow. Little Janine says she sees the body of her grandmother hanging like a broken chicken wing at the edge of the school. Postman Milton swears he sees the checkered house dress of his sister flapping in the wind like laundry out to dry. They say there is a rule of threes for examples, but I think you get it.

You do not recognize the bodies in the forest.

Sometimes they appear out of the corner of your eye, like a little light flash. Other times they appear in the middle of errands, trips around town, staring directly at you with vacant, lifeless eyes. The time does not matter. People have seen them over their morning eggs and coffee, outside of the window of Pat’s Diner. Dusk makes only the ones wearing darker clothing more difficult to see, but no one usually dies wearing flashy clothing. Most of the bodies wearing lighter clothing are children or little siblings. I’ve always seen them, too, without pattern or prompt.

You do not recognize the bodies in the forest.

The bodies always hang, always sway. No one knows why the bodies appear. No knows why two people can see the same body and Robert from the corner of Bleeker and Rye sees his estranged sister and why Hannah, the bartender at Jacob’s Tavern, sees her father who died of cancer ten years ago. Even more, the bodies will be of loved ones strangled by a rope and hanging like a limp scarecrow, always, regardless how they died. And you will want to save them.

The bodies only sway in the branches, latticed by gnarled, dying leaves. They do not come into town, and everyone from Adam knows not to go into the forest. They won’t hurt you, we tell the children. And they don’t. Until they do.

Last autumn, same time around now, actually, Paul McCoy was taking a walk down the fields, keeping very clear of the forest. Paul has seen the bodies. He has gotten used to seeing Mama McCoy dangling from the rafters, coarse rope cinching her liver spotted neck. He is used to seeing his brothers and sisters bent at odd geometries, sunspots of blood splattered on the clothes they died in, not the ones they were buried in. Paul understands this of the forest, knows this is just a trick, knows its ruses. His constitution is strong, as is everyone’s in Cog Hollow, but once he hears the voice of his estranged son who ran away from home at sixteen and missed every Christmas since, Paul came a-runnin into that dark forest, past the dangling bodies, past the tattered remains of those he recognized but knows isn’t real. Can you imagine that? Ducking underneath boots of your brother, scuffed with grime and fish flecks from the docs, running in between the heels of the semolina dusted shoes of his cake loving mother, fat but weightless, held up by a thin reed of a branch. Paul goes into the forest, into its stomach, finds his boy stuck in time, still at sixteen. The next morning, we all see Paul in the middle of Main Street, his body snapped at all joints, spleen ballooned out of him, entrails coagulating underneath the crisp air. No teeth. No tongue. It is little Janine and her school friends who find him on their way to morning classes. This is not a coincidence. I’m trying to help this make sense for you.

You do not recognize the bodies in the forest.

The FBI came and visited our little town for Mr. McCoy’s murder because even our local law enforcement could not lie about the bodies in the forest. The first wave was simple protocol, invasive because they existed. Black vans parked along the side of the main road, suits and sunglasses taking residences in the Clarence’s Inn right on McGowen. They interviewed everyone, myself included. It was the forest, we said, the forest took Paul McCoy.

“The forest?” They said, as if we were crazy.

“The forest, not the bodies.”

The FBI directed their attention to the forest, their back turned to us. We watched them from our windows, watched the sun set as they waded through the long, browning grass, step over the plants getting ready for the great resurrection of next year. We saw them nudge one another, point at bodies that we all recognized. I saw an agent point a shaking finger to my grandfather who died in ’82 and claim that she was his little sister Samantha. We saw minds begin to break, and it was both fascinating and sad. Pistols drawn as if this could dispel the illusion. Into the brush they went, pulled by the need to save their siblings, their parents, their lovers. Those that remained were shattered afterwards, and yes, it was heartbreaking.

The second wave consisted of chemists, botanists, all the eggheads. They shut down poor Rosie’s Pub and Pat’s Diner for a place to hold their beakers and test tubes. They set up a perimeter around town, long barriers with twenty-four-hour surveillance. Riflemen posted at the corners of all junctions, aimed at the forest. They worked in shifts of two hours, consistently moving up and down the rickety ladders. I get it. Enough exposure to seeing your mama or little sister all twisted and hanging limp is enough to break you emotionally, even though you know it’s fake. When they went into the forest, they wore quarantine outfits. I saw some of the agents returning to town with tears in their eyes, some with splotches of blood from suicides of their colleagues.

Occasionally, one of the hazmatted FBI agents will appear like a crumpled candy wrapper in the middle of Main Street. Tossed aside like trash. No teeth. No tongue.

The third wave overlapped with the second. They brought psychologists to talk to us before they pricked at us with needles and little rods. They thought we were causing the bodies in the forest, that we were playing a giant trick on the FBI. Why? We are plagued with it as much as they, we’ve just learned to live with it. Me, Bill Montgomery, and Anna Beth all think this is what makes them so suspicious of our little town; that we have just learned to live with it. We have no other choice.


The third wave was seances, shamans, people with Ouija Boards and funny incense. Made our little town look like a gypsy carnival. Who knew the FBI had this division, this paranormal sector? It was all so silly. Here is a list of theories that the FBI revealed to us during one of the mandatory town hall meetings where they locked the doors from the outside:

1) Spores in the forest inhibit a neurochemical response that evokes the emotional affect of seeing a loved one hanging from the trees.

2) The townsfolk have all been infected with some invasive bacteria in the water or crops which makes us perceptive to illusions.

3) Communism. Just that. Communism.

It goes without saying that after all these months the FBI has determined nothing. Perhaps it is the separation of church and state. They did not bring in any priests, any holy men of any kind. In all their knowledge, no one noticed that our little town of Cog Hollow has no church, no pews of worship, no sacred spaces. We have our little diners, our watering holes, our corner stores. But no church. We’ve had churches but they’ve all caught flame and you do not recognize the bodies in the forest and not once did they ask us if we are religious. We are. We believe in The Birch because we must. We believe in The Birch because we have no option not to. We do not know where The Birch comes from, or how long it has resided in the forest. All we know is that The Birch needs to feed.

I’ve seen The Birch, once. I was at the edge of the forest on a crisp autumn morning much like this one, much like the one which took Paul McCoy, much like today. I was a boy then, fascinated with the impending doom that I could allow myself if I just stepped forward. A child’s game. My neck hurt from staring at the dangling legs of my grandfather. Behind him was my aunt who was taken by cancer last year, and next to her, dangling from an adjacent tree, was a brother who died in a car accident. I have not seen him in years, but I could tell he died by the bludgeon to the head, the busted cervix. I stood at the edge of the forest, the toes of my sneakers pressing upon the cold and shadowed Earth, the leaves moving like little tendrils. Wind whistled through the trees, moving in the empty spaces of the darkness. The lifeless eyes of my loved ones looked down at me from their bondages, their faces blistered and purple from asphyxiation, eyes bulged. I wanted to save them, I did. It is human nature and The Birch preys on this.

I told myself that I did not recognize the bodies in the forest. I just wanted to stare at the abyss, like a sort of game, a controlled dance with death. A tug of war of wills.

The Birch appeared in the thresh of the woodland, a figure looming behind the trees. A juggernaut of cosmic insult. I swear the trees parted like curtains for it, or else reality warped and twisted and broke as I gazed upon it, waiting, salivating to mangle my body and take my teeth and tongue. Smells of rotted vegetables and moss bombarded the forest and I swear all the trees were in on it.

The Birch is tall and looming and bends at odd angles. A dry and dusty cloak like a moth’s wing wraps around a hollowed, skeletal torso. Gnarled fingers look like roots. It wears a crown that has sprouted naturally from its head and its skin is a white bark, both petrified and flaky. No eyes. It stands with its arms folded behind its back, guarded by the bodies it wants you to see, the bodies you want to see. And it waits. The Birch waits, clicking and clacking, the distant sound of twigs breaking, the knotty creaking of wood bending.

Without moving, I could tell it was beckoning me into the forest, a gravitational pull that blackened out my peripheries. I ran faster than I could that day, and still I woke up with splinters. 

I’ve seen The Birch, yes, and I hope I never see it again. Now all I see are the bodies, some new, some old.

Lately, well, lately they look a little bit like you.

Glenn Dungan is currently based in Brooklyn, NYC. He exists within a Venn-diagram of urban design, sociology, and good stories. When not obsessing about one of those three, he can be found at a park drinking black coffee and listening to podcasts about murder.