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A Hollow Tree

High school student still feels guilty about the death of his sister.


The Hollow Tree

This is going to hurt and I wish I didn't have to write it, but my psycho analyst said it would help to 'purge the pain' Whatever that's supposed to mean. Besides I hafta write a story for that--I'll skip the derogatory adjectives--creative writing class or else I'll fail, or at least that's what Mizzz Ralston says (she just HAS to be called MIZZZ for some reason).

Actually, though, this isn't a case of me condescending to the banal demands of either that teacher, to coin a euphemism, or Dr. Mascherata, my weirdo psycho analyst. I mean, he asks me all these questions about my mother and my dreams but when I ask him something he doesn't answer at all, no matter what the question is. "When's my next session?," I'll ask and Mascherata won't answer, but if I prod him enough, he'll say, "You know", but that's the most he'll say. He says he's laconic. I KNOW he's weird.

The REAL reason I'm writing this is because, believe it or not, I enjoy writing. On my own terms that is, not on old Ralston-Furina's. I was naive enough to believe the class would actually improve my writing skills like it said in the course guideline, but, like the guideline itself, that was a load of crap. I don't write that much because, first of all, I rarely get inspiration nor do I get ANY encouragement. After reading one of my stories, the reader--in a nice, subtle way, of course--says it stinks. My English teacher says I digress too much but I say everything is related to every other thing is some way. So if you say I get off the subject a lot, I say you're wrong because there's no such vegetable. So there, as my youngest sister might say. She also says (the English teacher, that is) that I break a cardinal sin of writing by using the second person. She's right, but do you really care?

Even though my memory ain't that good, I can remember almost every detail of what happened although it was such a long time ago. Technically, it was a long time ago; in reality, it was yesterday. Unfortunately, time isn't all it's cracked up to be as a healer. It's been eight years now--almost half my life--and the wound is as deep or deeper as it's ever been. And I will never allow myself to forget, because I can't and because I don't want to. It is absolutely mandatory that I never, ever forget.

Back then, our family lived in a small east Texas suburb called Cedar City Our family, which consisted of my mom and dad and my two sisters: Barbara, the elder and only one year younger than me, and Tara, three years younger than me and the youngest at the time. and of course myself, the oldest child and only son.

We lived in a large, cavernous house that was always dark, damp and cool in the winter and suffocating in the summer, even with the A/C on. We children didn't usually play in our front or back yards, except to swing on the tire or exchange gossip in the 'private-secret' treehouse located on the lower branches of our gigantic oak tree. Normally, and always on the weekends, we walked about a half mile to a place we simply called 'the trails' because of all the crude dirt pathways diverting in several directions throughout the copse. We never thought the trails were PUT there by somebody (or something), they were just simply THERE for our benefit so we wouldn't have to hack our way through all those sticky weeds.

Running swiftly through the trails was a fairly deep creek. We loved to drink its water, the taste so much different and far better than the tap water. About five feet away from the bank stood a hollow tree that leaned about forty five degrees. It raised above the creek at least fifteen feet and had no branches.

The tree always intrigued me, even today it does. Why was it hollow? How did it get that way? Was it MADE that way? Did it get that way after it died, and if so, how? I've never asked these questions to anyone. I assume they probably already know and if I ask questions like this they'd look at me as if I was some kind of idiot. Not that I'm NOT some kind of idiot; I just don't want anyone THINKING i am.

The tree could be climbed easily and we did so frequently. Except for Barbara. Neither Tara nor me could understand why the tree terrified her so badly. Barbara had climbed our front yard oak many times, and she could also swim very well. When we went to the trails, Tara and I would always climb the tree while Barbara waited at the bottom. We always encouraged Barbara to join us but she never did. In fact, she never looked or acted as if she even considered it. "What're you afraid of?," we'd ask in our snottiest voices. Barbara wouldn't answer, just simply stare at the water rushing by. This went on for a year and a half.

Then Tara and I made a plan.

Instead of climbing the tree ourselves, we'd stay on the ground and talk to Barbara until we persuaded her to climb the tree. The clouds threatened rain. But we had to go to the trails, because Barbara just HAD to do it NOW. I know I felt obsesses and I think Tara did too.

Reluctantly, Barbara agreed to go, but she walked so slowly and haltingly that I thought we might never make it to the hollow tree. But we finally did.

Tara and I talked to her for five minutes. Then ten. Then fifteen. Then we started shouting at her. That's when the downpour started.

"It's raining! It's raining!," Barb cried several times until she whispered to the air, "Why does it have to be today? I'm not ready."

I had no idea what she meant by that so I said, "Look, Barb, climb the tree, just climb it, you don't even have to stay up there, then we'll run home. All right?" It was more command than question.

"But...," she stammered, "we'll all get muddy."

"So what? We'll go AFTER you climb the tree."

Tears welled up in her eyes but I stood there cross-armed, oblivious. Barbara started up the tree, going by inches. She almost came down when the lightning started flashing, but when she saw by my stern look that I wasn't going anywhere she continued climbing. Finally, she made it to the top.

It happened immediately.

Lightning struck the tree right in the middle, and the top half snapped off, falling into the creek, taking Barbara with it. I jumped into the creek. The current rushed over my head and I could hardly swim. I swam as well as I could trying to find Barbara but she was nowhere to be found. After swimming what felt like forever, I finally gave up and somehow made it to the creek bank. I felt, and still feel, incredibly guilty.

They found my sister's body the next day. The tree had somehow smashed her skull and she had died instantly.

I didn't go to the funeral. My parents were madder than hell at me. But that was nothing compared to the truth that I had killed Barbara. I just wouldn't have been able to take it. Instead, i was hiding in the trails in a section far away from the creek. I read Barbara's diary that Mom had given her for her birthday. It was Barb's most prized possession because she wanted to be a writer when she grew up. I wouldn't have taken it it it didn't have all those PRIVATEs and PERSONALs and SECRETs scribbled all over the front. It had typical nine year old stuff in there until a week before the murder. That's when at the end of entries, kind of like a PS, she would add, "It didn't happen today. I wasn't kild." On the day she died she wrote, "It's today. I'm scared God."

I still have the diary with me and I read it often. I have never showed it to anyone. What good would it do to spread the suffering? The one time I did share the pain it caused more.

I wonder if Barb's mad at me for not going to her funeral. I hope not. If I was dead, I certainly wouldn't want all these people, at least half of whom I've never seen before and some of whom I never wanted to see again, looking down at me all sad faced and teary eyed with their horrible frowns and clucking tongues. People at funerals don't cry for the dead person, they cry for themselves. I cried because Barbara, as my overly protective mother would say, was "no longer with us". There was no reason to feel sorry for Barbara. I'm sure she went to a much better place than this one (please pardon the cliche, but I really do believe that). To listen to my mother, you'd think Barbara's simply on vacation in the beautiful Bahamas.

I hardly ate for a month.

And I never went to the trails again.

That is, not until two years ago, when I first started seeing Mascherata. It was another of his 'purge the pain' suggestions.

I went on my bike on a typically sultry Saturday afternoon. It took me ninety minutes to get there from our current address, There were no visible trails anymore and the creek was full of stagnating green sludge, made possible by the excretions of the people who lived in the new housing development nearby. An image of Barbara lying in that sickly green slime popped into my head. I jumped off the barbed wire fence that now surrounded the wooded area and I left. And I will never return. Never.

I biked to where our old house was. It had been converted into a playground and no sign of the old house remained. And the giant oak tree had been chopped down (I assumed), leaving nothing but a stump. A huge, hollow stump.

I would end it here, but I have to tell you I was lying at the beginning. Well, not lying exactly, more like sidestepping the truth. Not about Ms. Ralston. About my psycho analyst. I don't see him or any other 'doctor' anymore. He did tell me to 'purge the pain' by writing this story, but that was almost nine months ago. Four months before he killed himself (I TOLD you he was weird and I knew I shouldn't have told him).

Take this, Ms. Ralston.

Then throw it away.

I've done my duty.


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