Molly Lazer

[FICTION] The Juniper Tree: A Love Story


I. The Juniper Tree

My roots spread to the far-away riverbed.

It is dry. Parched.

Bent like a broken mother’s back, my trunk strains toward the ground.

There are too many children to feed.

I sacrifice a grown limb, too big, too heavy, and pour my life into the young, green

branch that brushes brittle grass.

I send down a new root.

Then, there is singing and a rustle on the ground, and I gasp open.

It is only a trickle, but I breathe it in deeply.

The girl has placed a litter of bones at the base of my trunk. A head, still dripping

the life that now flows through my veins.

I suck it up greedily, and

I am



II. The Bones

We were alone in the dark;

boiling over flame,

surprised and disjointed,

we were thirsty.


We were sheep, and she pulled the wolf over our eyes.


She came in the long-ago time when we were whole.

A new mother to replace the old, fangs shrouded in silver fur.

Marlene, our beautiful, kind Marlene, hid behind our new Stepmother’s grey satin

skirt. She was frightened, so far from her home.

Her eyes lit on us, and she brightened.

Stepmother watched from the window as we played with Marlene, children’s

games spread in the grass.

Two mouths to feed, when before there was only one.

Marlene needed us, her big brother, to protect her from wolves at the edge of the


The wolves close by were trickier.


We were thirsty.

Moisture disappeared from the soil as we played beneath the juniper tree with Marlene, flitting from branch to branch, running our hands over the tree’s dead-

alive bones and scraping our shins on its alive-dead skin.

We stayed away from the corpse of trees in the forest.

We showed Marlene the juniper’s two living branches, covered in emerald needle-

leaves and taught her how the tree cares for its branches so that even when

the rest of it has died, part of the tree will remain.

Marlene taught us songs from her old home in the Fall. The world quieted as she


Mother-bird pushed me out of the nest,

Father-bird said I tasted the best;

Sister-bird, with her robin’s red breast,

Put me in the tree to lie in rest.

Tweet, tweet, tweet, what a beautiful bird am I.


She was the little bird under our wing. Someday, we would have to let her fly.


We grew thinner. Hungrier.

It hadn’t rained in months.

The water was gone. Nature shriveled, dying and returning to the soil.

Stepmother waited at the window for Father and the meager purchases he made

at the Market. At night, her eyes reflected the yellow moon. She gazed at the

dried-up garden and howled.

She divided portions carefully at supper, giving Marlene the odd piece.

Her pupils waxed and waned, becoming large with love as she gazed at Marlene

and narrowing to a hungry crescent in which we could see our reflection. In

her eyes, we were then as we are now. Not a boy, but bones. Her gaze

stripped us of meat until we were bare.

In the morning, Stepmother kept us inside when Marlene went out to play.

Silence thickened the air.

She asked us to fetch an apple from the chest in the pantry.

There won’t be fresh apples until autumn, we said.

She asked again.

But, Stepmother, we said, the apples are rotten.

She asked a third time, and we went.

The lid of the chest was heavy, made of juniper, and edged in gold. Stepmother

brought it from her home in the Fall. She said the junipers there weren’t like

ours; they were green and stood straight and proud. Hers had berries, blue

beads that littered the ground. She called our juniper a tangle of bones. She

didn’t see the two branches fighting for life, still verdant even when

everything else was dry and wilted.

We opened the chest. A large fly stared at us from its perch on a moldy apple


We told Stepmother there was nothing left.

Scrape out the muck, she said.

We felt her presence hot on our neck as we leaned over. Decomposition in our

nostrils. Our eyes watered.

We heard the rust of hinges, felt a swoop of air. The shock of the slice.

We saw only dark.


Surprised and disjointed, we smelled cadaverous fruit mixed with something new,

warm, and wet.

Splinters bored into our skin as our body was dragged out of the room.

We thought we might be dead.


Our head in the chest, our body gone to the kitchen.

In the chest, our cheek pressed against the apple muck, part of the decaying


Outside, cold, sharp, smooth blades, we became us us us.

Pinpricks as the fly climbed the side of our nose and stared into our unseeing


Outside, we cooked hot, wet, then bubbling, melting, firming.

We heard Marlene shouting

outside: Father!

We boiled over flames.

Smooth, sharp, warm, we were divided down and down, filling hungry bellies.

Father: Where is my boy?

Stepmother: Gone to the neighbors for water.

We heard Father laughing, the tinkle of knives and forks against the table, and

soft footfalls into the pantry. Marlene saying something about dessert.

She hummed as she lifted the latch.

Her shriek echoed down the hall. Stepmother, suddenly behind her, clapped a

hand over Marlene’s mouth.

The boy lost his balance, Stepmother whispered, It was a terrible thing. We must

not tell Father or he will be stricken.

Tears trickled down Marlene’s face. When Stepmother let her go, she reached into

the chest and gently pulled us out.

The fly that had been in the bin flew out, angrily knocking against the window,

looking for an escape.

I didn’t eat dinner, Marlene whispered urgently in our unhearing ear. I didn’t eat.

She put her scarf over our face, covering us with a swath of bright red silk, and

carried us away.

Father, seated at the kitchen table, asked Marlene what she held.

A pretty little bird, she told him. His mother pushed him out of the nest and he is

hurt and scared.  But I will put him outside by the juniper tree and care for


Through the scarf, we watched Father, red and bloated with meat, call for more


Marlene reached into the pot and picked out our bones.

She sang:

Mother-bird pushed me out of the nest,

Father-bird said I tasted the best;

Sister-bird, with her robin’s red breast,

Put me in the tree to lie in rest.

Tweet, tweet, tweet, what a beautiful bird am I.

Marlene put us long and thin into her apron pocket.

She lay us down beneath the juniper tree outside with a kiss on our forehead.

Little Marlene, now standing so tall above, covered us with grass and dried


She would survive.

Night fell.


We were alone in the dark.


III. The Juniper Tree

I come back to myself, infused with something new and life-giving,

something for which I have no name.

The sun rises, bringing the kaleidoscopic dawn.

The moon rises, more full-bellied with each revolution.

A wolf howls in the forest.

For six days, the girl sits under my branches, talking to the bones. She has a hard-

set face; she gathers strength.

Each day, she pours a small cup of water on the ground.

I stretch the tips of my roots to find her source but encounter only dryness and

hard-packed earth.

On the seventh day, the girl brings the woman with her.  The woman’s grey skirts are dulled from wear and time.

The new feeling rushes through me, and I name it.


This woman and I are two saplings cut from the same mother-tree.

We know what it is to sacrifice.

She is strong, and I am weak. I can draw from her.

The girl points at the ground, where the wind has blown the grass off the bones.

A fly stares up from the head, gazing at the woman with glassy lenses.

The woman is haunted by what she has done. I have been haunted, too.

My children, my branches, are twisted and bent, no longer alive but still clinging


They twist around those that live, envious but accepting.

Sacrifices had to be made.

The woman grabs my trunk as she wavers.

I am overwhelmed by my love for her.

With a surge of energy, I resurrect long-dead arms and hug the woman to me.

I open my trunk and draw her inside.

Her screams quiet as we come together.

I feel her strength within me and know now that I will survive.

My living arms brush the hair on the top of the girl’s head.

Her face twitches upwards, and she walks away.

I send down a new root.


Molly Lazer holds an MFA in creative writing from Rosemont College. A former editor at Marvel Comics, she now teaches high school outside Philadelphia. Her work has been featured in journals including LIT, Gone Lawn, Silver Blade, and scissors & spackle. Find out more at

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