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.”
Josh waited for an explanation, but none was offered. The boys still stared at the oak as though afraid it would attack them as soon as they turned their backs on it. He was now more convinced that he was being tested by these two, some rite of acceptance he had to pass before they would play with him. He looked up at the tree again and decided to play along.
“Why’s it called that?”
The older brother gave him a sideways glance and then his eyes darted back to the oak. “Back in the old days, after the Civil War, they used to hang folks from this tree. Blacks, whites, anyone who needed hangin’, this is where they done it.”
Josh continued to study the tree. He had studied plants in school and knew that the massive oak could easily be old enough to have been around a century and a half before. It was one of the tallest trees he could remember seeing, dwarfing even those found in his favorite park in the city. Still, that didn’t mean that these two boys were not just trying to scare him.
The younger boy looked at his brother. “Should we tell him about Davis and the others?”
The older brother seemed to consider for a moment. “Your folks not tell you about this place?”
“Tell me what?”
The older boy looked up at the house. “Aaron Davis used to live here.” He nodded in the direction of Josh’s house. “Older boy. Fifteen. Folks came home a couple of months ago and found him hangin’ in that tree.”
Josh had heard of people killing themselves, but had never seen any place where such an event had actually taken place. He looked up at the tree with growing wonder, now beginning to see it through the eyes of the two brothers who lived so close to it. Death is most fascinating to those too young to understand it, and Josh had not learned everything living in the city.
Looking at the younger brother, Josh asked, “What did you mean about others?”
Again, the older brother answered while the younger continued to watch the tree as though expecting it to uproot itself and make its way toward them. “My dad says a bunch of people have hung themselves in this tree. Says he knows at least a half a dozen just since he’s been livin’ here.”
Now, Josh felt sure the boys were pranking him. He fought back a grin and looked back up at the oak towering overhead. “Well, I guess I ought to hide the rope we brought.”
Both brothers looked at him now, shock evident on their tanned and dirty faces.
“You don’t believe us?” the older brother asked, there was a note of anger in his voice that caught Josh by surprise. He expected them to let up on their joke once he showed them that he was on to them, but they continued to play, so he backed off and let them have their fun.
“No, I do,” he answered, turning back to the tree so they wouldn’t see him smile. “I just don’t want it to get me.”
He heard movement beside him and when he turned, the two boys were walking away.
“Hey,” Josh called to them, “what’s your names?”
The brothers did not answer. Josh watched as they disappeared around the kudzu-covered fence marking the edge of his parents’ property.
“Hey, come back!”
The brothers did not come back. Left alone in the shadow of the oak, Josh felt a sliver of fear slide up his spine, making the hairs on the back of his neck stand up from his skin. Without looking back up at the tree, he spun on his heel, churning up the gravel dust, and hurried back to the house.
Retaking his seat on the porch steps, Josh stared out at the end of the gravel drive for nearly an hour. Every minute that passed increased his anger. The brothers had come to play a trick on him and, found out, had gone away to sulk. He wondered if they would come back and play with him, even though he had figured out their little game, then decided that he didn’t care if they did. Why would he want to play with stupid rednecks anyway? So what if they had a four-wheeler? Josh could find his own entertainment. Maybe his parents would, in their guilt over moving him to the country, buy him his own four-wheeler.
The anger grew too large to allow Josh to remain seated. He stood up and paced on the porch, his footsteps pounding the planks as though each one was one of the brothers who had left him. He picked up his baseball glove, lying on a wicker chair, and threw it to the opposite end of the porch, retrieved it, repeated the process. With one disgusted lob, he threw the glove over the whitewashed railing and heard it land in the mud beside the water hose.
Feeling a bit of remorse, he rushed down from the porch to retrieve his glove. It was one of the few reminders he had of how great things were in the city and he didn’t want it ruined. Rushing around the corner of the porch, he plucked it from the muddy puddle and wiped it on the small patch of green grass that grew around the tap. Only when he had inspected the leather and saw that it was unharmed did he notice the swath of yellow caught beneath one of the bushes next to the house.
Dropping to his knees, Josh reached into the prickly leaves and pulled out a weathered yellow flag, one that might be used for decoration on the front of a house in place of the usual American flag. On both sides, a cartoon bee was shown sniffing a bouquet of flowers. To Josh, the thing looked ridiculous and he was about to throw it back to the ground when an idea struck him, an idea that would make those boys respect him. He tucked the flag into his pocket and ran out into the yard, tossing his baseball glove onto the porch as he sped off.
He reached the tree and stopped to look up at the swaying leaves. They seemed to be calling him, beckoning him. The feeling of discomfort struck him again, but before it could take hold and change his mind, he stepped forward fully into the shadow of the huge oak. The bright sunlight, offering oppressive heat only a few feet away, held no authority here. Twilight ruled beneath the spreading branches and the air felt cool on Josh’s sweaty skin. Even sound–the cicadas and the wind and the distant traffic–was muted beneath the tree’s canopy.
Josh ignored the creeping sensation moving up and down his back and plotted his course. He stretched his hand up and grabbed a low-hanging branch. His sneakers scrabbled for traction, then he was up, standing at what had been eye level for him only a moment before. He stretched again, finding the second branch easier to reach than the first, and continued to ascend through the limbs, laid out as though meant for him to climb. He paused only to make sure the yellow flag remained in his pocket or to catch his breath. Finally, he reached the highest branch that would support his weight and pulled the flag from his pocket. Stretching as high as he could, he pulled one of the top branches down and tied the flag to it, allowing it to spring back up when he finished.
Satisfied, he looked down and mapped out his route back to the ground. A few feet down, the going became more and more difficult until he could see no limb within reach of his outstretched legs. He sat on a branch, considering what to do next, until a sudden movement to his right drew his attention.
A length of rope hung a short distance away from him. The cords woven to make it were nearly black with age, but sturdy and thick. The end of the rope, barely a foot from his face, was tied into a noose. Josh could not remember seeing it on the way up the tree and was sure that he would not have missed it, was sure he had climbed up through the very place were the noose hung, although it seemed as though there were several more branches on his climb up than what he was finding on the descent.
Josh gave the noose a wary glance, tried to swallowed his fear, then forced his attention back to finding a way out of the tree. He looked all around for some branch that he could reach, even if he swung down by his hands. He studied the tree around him, wondering if he had somehow tried to climb down on the opposite side than he had climbed up, but he recognized several marks along the trunk, gouges in the bark, that told him that he was on the same side. Then why was he having so much trouble getting down?
He was about to stand up and attempt to find some alternate route down when something landed on his head. It was soft and light and he brushed at it frantically, thinking that a large spider had dropped upon him. Instead, his hand met coarse rope, rope that slid down over his head and to his shoulders. He grabbed the rope, meaning to pull it off of him, but the branch he was sitting on moved and he fell.
Josh clutched at the rope around his neck and pulled hard on it just before it snapped taut from his falling weight. The noose tightened, cutting off his breath and driving his fingers into the skin of his throat. He tried to cough, but only a weak wheeze came out of his mouth as the rope dug into his larynx. Panicking, Josh fought against the rope, pulling on it with both hands, but without success. He dangled in the air, unable to find a branch, unable to breath. He could hear his pulse pounding in his ears, growing louder and louder as his lungs cried for air and his neck burned. He pulled his legs up, hoping that he could find purchase anywhere that would allow him to loosen the noose. His feet found nothing, but in drawing them up, Josh felt a hard lump in his front pocket that gave him an idea.
He pried one hand loose from the rope around his neck and, rather than reveling in the small space he opened, Josh felt the noose tighten more, digging deeper into his flesh. He felt warmth oozing down from beneath the constriction and knew he was bleeding.
With his free hand, he reached into the pocket of his jeans and pulled out the pocket knife his father had given him. He raised it to eye level, flicking it open with his thumb, but just as he was about to use it against the noose, it slid loose in his sweaty hand and fell free.
Josh reacted without thinking, drawing his legs up and straight out. He felt the knife land on his thigh, then come to rest in between his trembling knees. Wiping his hand on his jeans, he reached out and took the knife again. Black haze was seeping into the perimeter of his vision as he raised the blade again, reaching overhead and attacking the rope with a vigorous sawing motion.
The noose seemed to sense it was being resisted and tightened again. The rough cords dug deeper and the hand still bound between the rope and his neck went numb. His other hand was growing numb as well, but he continued to hack away, desperate for escape, for air.
A creaking sound overhead was followed by a snap. Josh fell again, this time only a few inches before the rope recovered and tightened again. He had managed a small breath, holding back the creeping black consuming his vision for another moment while he repositioned the knife and began sawing again. The rope creaked and snapped again, then again, and Josh was falling.
The branches that had disappeared when Josh was climbing down, returned to their posts as he fell. Toppling end over end, he struck limb after limb, feeling pain explode in several parts of his body. He tried to reach out and catch hold of a branch, but everything seemed just out of reach as his fingers only brushed the rough bark.
As he watched, the ground appeared among the branches and rushed upward as though to catch him. He landed on the pavement of the highway, rather than on the grass, and felt his arm shatter beneath him. Lying on his side, howling in pain, he tried to roll over and free the arm, but more bursts of agony flared in anything he thought of moving, so he tried to lie still and see if the pain subsided.
His blackness had cleared from his vision, allowing him to see in detail the large truck hurtling toward him. The sunlight, back in full effect, glinted off the grill as though winking at him, mocking him for so nearly escaping certain death. Above the malicious winking, Josh could see the driver, too absorbed in his cell phone conversation to see the injured boy lying in the road before him.
Fresh pain erupted in him and it was several moments before Josh realized he was moving. Strong arms raised him into the air, spun him around, and carried him back into the yard, just as the truck, horn blaring, roared past.
“Oh, God, Josh,” his father said, carrying him back across the yard, “we’ve got to get you to the hospital. What the hell were you doing?” There was no anger in his voice, only trembling fear and concern.
“Dad,” Josh said through the haze of his pain, “will you cut down that tree?”
“You bet I will,” his father replied. “Thing’s too close to the road anyway.”
Josh’s father carried him to the garage and placed his son in the passenger seat. Then, he hurried around the front, got in, and started the engine. The car backed out of the garage and down the gravel drive. Josh watched the plumes of white dust rising from beneath them, trying to keep his mind off his hurts, and then something else appeared outside the window, something that, for a moment, made him forget his pain altogether.
Falling from the sky, fluttering in the breeze, was the yellow flag. The fabric, cartoon bee and all, had been ripped in half.