An avid fan of the fantasy, dark-fantasy and mythology genres. Will use adjectives with reckless abandon.
The dead tree
I grew up in one of those idyllic, quiet, up-country towns during the late 70s. It was one of those towns that ended up on postcards, with one department store where everyone knew everybody else. The main street, if we could even call it that, was a cobbled asphalt strip bordered on either side by pale, white-washed stone buildings that ended abruptly in the center of town, where the cold concrete gave way to crisp, maintained gardens that made up the town’s central park. The park was beautiful, with jacaranda trees and a little pond that often had ducks. The perpetual smell of blooming flowers hung in the air. A large tree that stood in the center of the park ruined this rather picture-perfect image. Its thick, twisted branches were gnarled and reached to the sky.
I could never recall the tree having leaves, no matter the season. From the tales I had heard, the town was built around the tree, its branches as barren then as they were now. Everyone thought the tree was dead, but for some obscure reason, the tree was never cut. On the contrary, I would wager that it was oddly revered.
The tree had a small perimeter fence, perhaps erected to deter children from climbing it. Surrounding the tree’s base was a short brick and barbed wire barrier approximately a foot in height. It had been erected years earlier, and I had doubts about its efficacy, considering that it was beginning to bulge, rot, and crack in several places where the tree’s roots had tunneled and pushed up below it.
Personally, I had never had any urge to explore near the tree, let alone climb it. I was not too fond of the tree, and something about it deeply unsettled me. It did not help that our house, right above the town’s only department store that my mom ran, was situated ideally with a full view of the town’s central park. Therefore, before I drew my bedroom’s blinds to turn in for the night, I often caught a glimpse of the tree, its gloomy branches silhouetted in the dusk’s waning light. Even peddling past the tree on my way to my errands raised the hairs on the back of my neck on end.
Only later would I learn about the ‘accidents’ and feel that my irrational dislike for the tree was justified. I had always heard stories of accidents surrounding the tree. They were often told around a campfire by children my age as spooky night-time stories, and I usually dismissed them as such.
The first story I actually believed was told by my father as a warning never to climb the tree. He told of a young boy who had lived a few houses down from my grandparents’ place when my dad was younger. The boy, no older than ten years old, had challenged his sister to climb to the very top of the tree. The girl had refused to move past the tree’s lowest branch, but her brother, spurred on by the sense of adventure – and a good deal of childlike stupidity – had made his way much further up the tree. However, he missed a step, or perhaps slipped on one of the old branches, and fell to the ground, breaking his neck on impact.
I started hearing more stories, usually from older folk as warnings, or read them in old newspaper clippings in the town library.
A group of children had been playing around the tree when one of the children tripped on an exposed root and impaled himself on a jagged end of a fallen branch (this was the incident that prompted the erection of the barrier). But the deaths did not stop there. A teenage girl had been on a family picnic, right outside the barrier, when she was a falling tree branch crushed her. This accident, in particular, was seared in my memory as it happened a few years ago and had been in the local paper for weeks. None of these incidents also include the townspeople and occasional stragglers that hanged themselves from the tree branches through the years. And to think, that that tree was one of the last things I saw every night as I turned in to sleep.
I hated it.
© 2022 Ralph Kiragu