The Taking Tree

This probably isn’t the most original idea in the world. Still, there actually is a tree visible from my apartment, and in the summer it truly does look like the leaves form a fairly sinister looking face. Really. When I was a kid, there also really was a neighbor with a dog named Lightning. A Westie I think it was. And she really did talk to it like Mrs. Cratoville below. Oh, and I always hated The Giving Tree.

 

The Taking Tree

Mrs. Cratoville took a hose to children’s sidewalk chalk drawings, criticized neighbors’ lawns, and loved having city codes enforced. Concerning the incessant yapping of her evil white poodle, Lightning, however, Mrs. Cratoville was apparently deaf. Vernon, her neighbor, called the police about this. They said unless he kept a record tracking frequency and duration of the barking, there was little they could do.

Worse than the dog was Mrs. Cratoville talking to the brute. “Lightning!” she’d cry from her back door, “Go shooshie!” Then she’d go inside, and the barking would start, often near the tree just outside Mrs. Cratoville’s fence. The tree was two feet thick with smooth, gray bark. Its uppermost branches reached past the tops of the nearby houses. The leaves on the lowest drooped a few feet above the ground where no sunlight reached.

Vernon noticed the face one late spring day. It leered like a demonic Pan. He could not, however, see this face with his reading glasses on, convincing him it was merely some random arrangement of foliage. Still, Vernon would drift into a reverie of summery childhood images—his old Aunt Sylvanya at her oven, the round cakes she baked that nobody was allowed to eat, bundles of herbs in her window, and strange beeswax figures on the sill.

One afternoon he drifted into what seemed more like a vision than a bizarre dream. People joined hands forming a ring around an old-growth tree, its base piled with wreaths, pastries, and small dolls made of bundled twigs wrapped in bits of multicolored cloth. From afar a white shape approached. The tree’s leaves and branches formed a face Vernon recognized. He jolted awake.

That evening, Vernon watched goldfinches dart into the tree. Not thinking, he removed his glasses and reached for the newspaper. He saw the face instantly and remembered the figure in white. He realized he saw no birds fly back out of the branches. Squirrels often ran up the trunk but he never saw them again either. Then came the usual, “Go shooshie!” followed by yapping which, surprisingly, stopped. Vernon knew it would start again. But it didn’t. He heard Mrs. Cratoville call, “Lightning!” then silence. She called louder. Then came the shriek. Vernon and several neighbors rushed outside. Lightning was gone, and Mrs. Cratoville was frantic. “One of you sonsabitches did something to him!” she screamed at those who’d gathered. She clutched Lightning’s collar and staggered away. Vernon stared at the tree.

The ground around the trunk was bare. Vernon examined the broad, five-pointed leaves. They spread wider than his hand and had blood red veins. He touched the center of one. Its leaf tips curled inward. He found no evidence of disease or insect damage. Not even an ant scurried along anywhere. He touched the trunk and wished immediately he hadn’t. It was fleshy, warm, like a human limb. He tore his hand away wondering sickly if it would ooze sap when cut or if it would bleed.

That night Vernon dreamed again of the figure in white—a woman. She carried a scythe like a pale Grim Reaper. As she passed through the crowd, people strained to touch her. She reached the tree, picked up a ragged doll, kissed it, placed it back on the ground, and raised the scythe. The face leered. A strong but supple vine whipped from below the evil grin, snatched the scythe and swung it, hooking the woman through the ribs and lifting her effortlessly. She neither struggled nor screamed. Vernon woke up gasping.

After that, Vernon kept his reading glasses on to avoid seeing the face. One evening he absently watched a sleek, black cat stalk something he couldn’t see. She crept toward the tree, keeping low, then crouched and swished her tail. Vernon looked. The face was there, even with his glasses on. He held his breath. She leapt. A green tendril shot out from below the face and snagged the creature by the neck. Another wrapped around her midsection, and then the cat’s head was gone. Instantly the rest followed. Vernon gaped as nausea swept over him. That night sleep was impossible.

The next morning he saw the soccer ball. Vernon tried to convince himself it had been left outside. The local news dashed such hope. “Police need your help finding a missing child.” He turned the television off. Enough was enough.

Vernon couldn’t take a chainsaw to the thing in broad daylight. Mrs. Cratoville would call the police. Nearby houses made fire unfeasible. Vernon went to a hardware store and bought the biggest bow saw he could find. Quietly, at night, the godforsaken thing was coming down.

He waited until three in the morning. In a black shirt and pants, Vernon crept out with his saw and stole beneath the tree. He touched the saw’s teeth to the trunk but stopped, convinced of movement in the branches–nothing. He touched the blade to the tree again and nearly screamed when something brushed his cheek. He dropped the saw and clawed at his face–again, nothing. Vernon snatched up the saw and raked it across the trunk. The blade leapt from his hand, a green tendril wrapped around the handle. The saw flew at Vernon’s head. Jagged teeth ripped into his skin taking a chunk of scalp. Blood rushed down his face as he tried to scramble away. Two thick vines gripped each ankle. Another wound around his chest, crushing his ribs and hoisting him from the ground. Vernon tried to scream as the face opened its emerald jaws, but another vine encircled his mouth. Then it was dark.

The next day Mrs. Cratoville stood on her back porch. She drew a breath to call Lightning but stopped and dabbed her eyes with a balled up tissue. Sunlight glinted off something in the grass near her garage. She walked over and picked up a large, perfectly clean saw. Mrs. Cratoville glanced at the tree. For a moment, she thought some of the leaves and branches formed a face.

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