Happy Halloween! With all the attention, time, and fiction I devote to Christmas, I feel like I’ve been neglecting my second favorite holiday. So, even though I haven’t composed something new for today, I hope to start a new tradition by posting one of my earlier short stories on here. It’s not great writing–I wrote this almost a decade ago when I was first starting out with this writing thing–but I liked the premise, particularly since it’s based on a real-life incident from my childhood.
So, warts and all, here’s “The Hangin’ Tree”.
(WARNING: This story is not suitable for young audiences, people with weak constitutions, people who are easily offended, or members of the Arbor Day Foundation.)
The boy sat on the covered porch and stared out at the expanse of nothingness that was his family’s new farm. Past a large tree at the far end of the yard, heat rose from the road in waves, giving the corn field beyond a surreal appearance like a landscape in a dream. Every few minutes, a pickup or a tractor trailer with a cargo of logs would roar by, trailing a cloud of dust that swirled within the heat sheen before it settled back to earth.
He thought about their old home in town, the one his father had decided they should leave in order to live a “cleaner” life. He missed that house. He missed his friends. He missed everything about his old life.
Life was cleaner in the country, to be sure. He marveled the first morning he woke and could see the sun, plain and clear and not surrounded by the brownish haze of factory smoke he had accepted since birth as the natural order. The air around him smelled of honeysuckle rather than car exhaust and buzzed with life. Cicadas whirred. Bees hummed in the clover. Crickets filled the night with their rhythmic chorus. All of it was maddening.
More than anything, the boy missed his friends. He had seen evidence of other children living down the road–a swing set, a pair of bicycles, a small, mud-splattered four-wheeler–but in the two weeks since arriving in the middle of nowhere, he had seen no one near his own age. New neighbors came with food, following the accepted protocol of Southern hospitality, and they all spoke of children or grandchildren that the boy should meet, spoke in the same tone they had used in inviting his parents to the local Baptist church where they could meet Jesus. The boy wondered which he would meet first.
He had tried to occupy himself by studying his new surroundings. His parents had purchased several acres, much of which was wooded and wild, overrun by bugs and kudzu. He treaded lightly through the underbrush, fearful of stepping on a snake or disturbing a skunk. He stretched his imagination, calling up all manner of monstrous beasts to fight with the new pocket knife his father had bought him, or long, knotted sticks he picked up among the trees. His fictitious battles grew more and more epic, then more and more tiresome until he no longer cared to enter the woods at all. The sticks had been cast aside and the knife lay abandoned in his pocket. The whole process–exploration, fascination, and indifference–had taken three days.
Retreating to the house, he tried watching television, but soon grew bored with the two channels they could pick up with the rabbit ears atop the set. The satellite installers came a few days later, but more channels did nothing to distract him from his restlessness. In a fit of exasperation, his father had ordered him to spend time outside, away from his parents’ efforts at repairing what needed it in the old house.
“When I was your age,” his father had said, brandishing an adjustable wrench like an accusatory finger, “your grandmother had to threaten to beat me to get me to come inside at dark. I was never bored. Made my own fun.”
The boy sighed and walked outside to sit on the porch. Perhaps his father had used up all the raw materials required to make fun.
He had been staring at the two figures by the road for a long while before he realized they were there. At first, he wondered if they were real. The two boys, one a head taller than the other, appeared from nowhere as though they had materialized out of the shimmering land that lay beyond the road.
The boy sat upright and squinted to get a better look. He could see that both of the newcomers wore overalls, the denim straps reaching up over bare tanned chests. The pant legs of both were rolled up so as not to drag beneath their bare feet. Their identical blonde hair told the boy they must be brothers, likely the owners of the bicycles and the muddy four-wheeler he had seen at the house down the road. He wondered if they would give him a ride on the four-wheeler, or, perhaps, let him drive it himself. His parents would not approve of such a venture, he knew, but he wouldn’t have approved of moving to the country if they had asked him. What they didn’t know, they didn’t know.
He rose slowly, thinking that any sudden movement on his part might scare the visitors off, and walked through the yard, the dry, brown grass crackling beneath his feet. When he reached the gravel drive, his feet stirred up little puffs of white dust, infant cousins to the plumes created by the passing trucks. The gravel crackled more than the grass and he winced at the sound, still sure that the two boys would flee from his approach.
They did not flee. As the boy drew closer, he saw that they did not seem to notice him at all. Instead, their eyes gazed upward at the large oak tree that dominated the front of the yard. Their skyward stares and slack jaws gave the boy the impression of reverence, as though they stood in awe of some celestial being perched among the upper branches of the tree. He had seen similar expressions, though, on the special education students at school–his old school, perhaps they were all special education here–and decided to ease into conversation.
“Hey,” he said.
It was a moment before the boys turned and looked at him. When they did, their faces shifted into a look of cautious curiosity. They were sizing him up, the boy knew, although he could not say why.
“You just move here?” the older boy asked. His voice had a strong drawl that would have made him an instant target in a city school.
“Yeah, my name’s Josh.” He extended his hand. Neither of the boys shook it. Instead, they both turned their gazes back upon the tree.
“You two live down the road, right?” Josh asked. “I saw your bike and your four-wheeler.”
The younger boy kept his eyes fixed on the oak, but the older boy turned back to Josh long enough to answer. “You know what this is?” He turned back to the tree.
Josh turned and studied the oak. He could see nothing through the thick coat of leaves, nothing that would indicate anything other than the obvious.
“Looks like an oak tree,” he answered at last. “Is that right?” He thought that perhaps the two brothers had learned of his coming from the city and meant this meeting as some sort of test or as a means of teasing him by making him feel out of place. If so, he didn’t plan on giving them the satisfaction.
The younger brother, eyes still cast upward, whispered, “That’s the hangin’ tree.”