This story is by AJ Steen and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Slowing, she approached the tree, an elongated shadow, her only companion, drinking in the kaleidoscope of colors about her. The pale gray bled into midnight blues to her east while orange faded into pinks and purples to her west. She inhaled deeply, her breath shaking.
“Seems to me, you may have missed this place,” he observed, his words carried by the soft breezes rustling her hair.
“Don’t you miss your home?” she shot back in a sharper tone than she intended.
His low chuckle engulfed her, reminding her she was not alone.
Time passed between them. It wasn’t until the stars lit the cloudless sky that he spoke again. “You are . . . conflicted?”
She frowned. “I’m not,” she denied. “Did you bring it?”
The air trailed across her flawless skin, a lover’s caress over her face, arms, and down to her fingertips. Her eyes followed the shimmering air and settled on the object resting in her palm.
The axe was smaller than she had imagined. The handle was no bigger than her thumb.
Outraged, she screamed into the balmy night air. “You mock me, devil?! This . . . thing is supposed to splinter whatever it strikes?”
“I warned you. The Axe of Perdition only works when your will is steadfast. You are conflicted.”
She guffawed and kicked the trunk of a nearby tree. “Will,” she spat, unmoved by the pain. “Don’t you dare spout your pseudo-pious piss at me!”
He tsked. The sound reminded her of a snake’s hiss. “You are the one that is uncertain, the one considering what will be lost.“
“I have already lost everything. And, everyone.” She swallowed, tasting the salt and bitterness of her tears. “Every single one of my children . . . ,” her words caught in her throat. She clenched her fist, which could barely enclose the handle of the axe. She tipped her head to the sky, gazing past the underside of the leaves and into the night. In a low guttural tone, she whispered to the heavens, “How I have grown to hate you.”
“Surely, some good came of your curiosity that day. Come on, don’t you want to brag now to me, your oldest friend, why you did the nasty deed in the first place?”
“Completely irrelevant. You try to distract me. It won’t work. I will end this.” She shook her head and added her other hand to support the axe’s weight. The handle had elongated to the length of her forearm.
“Last chance to monologue,” he taunted.
She circled the trunk of the tree, measuring and evaluating. “This is proving to be more difficult than I had imagined,” she confessed.
“Contemplating the end of all of God’s creation should give one pause. I suppose it is a good thing you are giving this consideration. Are you sure you have the right tree?”
She hesitated. She backed up a few steps to re-examine the area surrounding the tree. She ran her hand along the arm of a low-hanging branch.
“It would be a terrible shame if you went through all of this trouble of sneaking back in only to be caught hacking at a persimmon tree.”
The axe shrank a little in her hands. “Do shut up,” she muttered. She spun on her heel and stomped towards another grove of trees. Again, she examined the tree, took its measure, and rebuilt her gumption. When her confidence reached its zenith, and she readied her strike, he would interject with a question, casting doubt. He taunted her for hours until the chatter of birds warned her of dawn’s rapid approach.
She clenched the axe in her fist, fingers curling around the blade. She used her other hand to rub her eyes, smudging dirt across her nose. Exasperated, she sighed. “Fine. Tell me. Where is it?”
“Sorry? What was that, dear?”
Through clenched teeth, she forced, “Tell me where the Tree of Life is.”
The air around her bristled. “But, you already know where it is. Can’t you remember?”
She gripped the handle of the axe with both hands and swung heartily at the air, bellowing his name.
He laughed. “Sorry, not sorry. That axe won’t work on me.”
Muttering to herself, she stomped towards the center of the orchard, her breath laboring with each step. Ahead, there, The Tree of Life stood: tall, simple, and alive, exuding its power in palpable pulses. She tightened her grip on the axe. With fierce determination, she marched forward.
“Wait. Please,” the word sounded foreign from him.
Her steps faltered. She had never ignored him before. It felt strange that she should start now. She crept closer to The Tree until she stood under its canopy. Her fingertips traced the vein of a leaf. Warm energy passed through the leaves and into her fingers.
“So much beauty will be lost . . . the art . . . the music . . . Snapchat filters!”
“If pain is the well from which artists draw,” she countered, “his next universe should be magnificent.” A steady flow of tears fell from her face. She raised the axe high above her head and, in a swift, graceful motion, slammed it into the trunk. Thwack! Splinters of bark flew into her face. Slivers of silvery-white light instantly filled the splintered bark.
“Oh no,” he protested in a monotone. “There goes all of creation.”
“Rape,” she screamed, swinging the axe again. Thwack! The force of the blow vibrated through her bones. More splinters appeared, branching from her first strike and instantly filling with light.
“Think of the widdle wabbits.”
“Fa-” Thwack! “mine!” Thwack!
“What did butterflies ever do to you?”
“They. Can. Only. Hate. Each. Other!” she screeched, the axe punctuating her words. Her chest heaved with the efforts of breathing. “War! Murder! Disease! A flood! When they weren’t destroying themselves fast enough, He sent a . . . He drowned my chil-” she dropped to her knees, sobbing. The axe slipped unnoticed from her fingers. She clawed at the surrounding dirt and roots until her fingernails were broken and bloodied.
“Come, now. Big girls don’t cry,” he cajoled.
An unexpected short shrill sound erupted between her sobs. “This eternal punishment isn’t fair,” she wailed.
“Fair?” he scoffed.
She nodded, a tiny hiccup escaping her sobs.
“You poor thing.”
She jutted her chin out. In that moment, she hated him too, she decided. For ages, she believed he was her ally. Perhaps she was just a toy to him? She narrowed her eyes. Understanding swept through her mind. She was a fool to think he would aid her. He had nothing to gain.
For the first time, she understood. She was truly alone. No one else could help her. No one else understood what it was like to be cursed with eternal failure, forced to play a rigged game.
She rose to her feet and reached for the axe. With all of her might, she swung. Thwack! Blinding white light pierced her eyes, propelling her backward. She struck the ground. As the earth swallowed her body, she slipped into darkness.
Laughter jolted her awake. “Oh, my dear child,” he cooed. “Look at what you managed to do.”
Heart pounding, she took her own measure. Everything seemed intact. Why was she still alive? Did the axe even work? Was this the end? She stumbled over her words. “Did I . . . is it gone?”
He tsked. “The only thing you accomplished this time is ruining your pretty manicure. A pity, really. Passion Paradise 23 suited you so well, wouldn’t you agree?”
The air shifted about her. Dirt drifted down upon her face. When her coughing fit subsided, she rolled to a sit and took in her surroundings.
The silvery glow of exposed roots dangled above her head, her only source of light. She used the roots to pull herself to a stand. Intense heat radiated from them, and the silvery light glowed around her hands. She recognized the Tree of Life as the ceiling to her eternal cage.
“No! ” she exploded. “How many times must I destroy you!” With all her might, she pulled on The Tree’s roots, screaming her personal mantra until hoarse, “Just die!” Exhausted, she slumped to the ground, ignoring the loose dirt showering her head and shoulders.
“This is excruciating, watching the same episode on a loop,” he quipped.
“You don’t think I can do it? I have escaped before. I will do it again!” she vowed.
“Did you now?” he inquired, his tone shrewd.
She blinked, considering his words. Hadn’t she?
“It’s inevitable,” her own voice interrupted her thoughts.
“Who’s there?” she cried.
The voice murmured, “What is a name, but a purpose?” A horde of faces, identical to hers, surrounded her inside the pit.
One of the faces answered, “I’m Flaming Sword.”
One by one, the women introduced themselves by their chosen weapon. The last woman spoke, “Spear of Destiny. Who are you?”
Through her gulping sobs, she managed, “Per..di…tion. The Axe of Perdition.”
“I see you have chosen to embrace your insanity now,” he laughed, a mocking sound that faded into darkness.