The tree came into view as David reached the crest of the hill. It was a monstrous thing: huge, gnarled, and black as coal. A girl—young, fair, and pretty—knelt at its base.
As David walked down the other side of the hill toward the tree, a twig snapped under his sneaker, and the girl turned her head in his direction.
“Hi,” David said, feeling compelled to announce his presence.
“Hello,” the girl responded.
As David approached, he could see the girl’s pale, blue eyes were wet with fresh tears. She seemed distant, looking past him. Her forehead was mostly covered by a large, white bandage. David suddenly regretted his decision to visit the tree.
“Did you know her?” the girl asked.
“No,” David answered. “I just moved here with my parents a few weeks ago.” He pointed up the hill behind him. “We live just over the hill.”
“Did you hear it?” she asked.
David nodded. “It was awful.” As he lowered his head and closed his eyes, the sounds filled his mind: the screeching brakes, followed by the crunching of metal. Then the sirens. “I just wanted to pay my respects,” he held up the small bouquet of fall flowers clutched in his hand.
“I blacked out,” she said, reflexively putting her hand to her forehead. “Your flowers smell lovely. Why don’t you place them here with the others?”
David approached the tree and placed the bouquet down next to the other flowers and stuffed animals along the base. As the wind picked up, a heart-shaped balloon, already half deflated, its string tied to a rock on the ground, bounced gently against the tree’s scaly bark.
“I saw her around school a few times,” David said. “She seemed really nice.”
“She was,” the girl said. “Jessica was my best friend. We grew up together.”
“I’m David,” he said, reaching out his hand. “I don’t think I’ve seen you around school.”
“I’m Katherine. I go to the school in town—the blind one—so you’re going to have to help me out here a bit if you’re trying to shake my hand.”
David took her outstretched hand in his. Despite the chilly October weather, her skin was warm and inviting. “I’m sorry.”
“That I’m blind?” she smiled. “Thank you. I’ve been waiting seventeen years for someone to finally say that.”
David was relieved that Katherine couldn’t see him blush, but he was pretty sure she could sense his embarrassment, regardless. “No…I just mean…for not noticing. Never mind. I’m an idiot.”
“Well I hope you’re cute at least. That makes up for a lot, you know.”
He blushed even deeper.
They stood there under the shadow of the tree, listening to its great branches creak in the wind.
“It’s haunted, you know,” Katherine said, finally breaking the silence. “I wish it would just die and fall over. But it never will. Its roots are too deep. It’s outlived everyone and taken more than a few lives along the way.”
David looked down and noticed the deep gashes along the trunk facing the road. “There have been a lot of accidents?”
“They aren’t accidents,” Katherine said. “The tree takes lives. Everyone around here knows that.”
“Why don’t they cut it down?” David looked up into the twisting, snake-like branches.
“Joe Morgan, 1958.” Katherine said. “Joe Morgan’s boy was climbing this tree one afternoon. Limb snapped. The Morgan boy fell with it. Brain hemorrhage. After burying his son, Joe Morgan came here, took the offending limb back to his house, and burned it in the fireplace. That night, the Morgan place burned to the ground, killing Joe, his wife, and their three other children.”
“Jesus,” David said.
“After that, there was no more talk of cutting down this tree. Evil has to take root someplace,” Katherine said with a sigh. “Best not to spread it around, I guess.”
“I’m surprised you can even be near this thing,” David said with a shiver.
“I’ve got some unfinished business. There’s a hole near the top of the tree. Legend has it, if you drop a keepsake belonging to a victim down into the tree, their spirit will be set free.”
“And you believe that?” David asked.
Katherine reached into her pocket and pulled out a silver necklace. The butterfly pendant hanging from the chain glinted in the afternoon light. “I believe it enough.”
“You’re going to climb it?” David asked.
“I’ve probably climbed more trees than you have,” Katherine said, crossing her arms.
“It’s really tall,” David squinted into the afternoon light poking through its branches.
“Yup. The tallest in the county. Oldest too.” Katherine stuffed the necklace back into her pocket and reached for the lowest branch, pulling herself up onto it. “You can be my spotter.”
“I’m going with you.” The words were out of David’s mouth before they had time to register in his brain.
“You sure?” Katherine asked.
“Nope,” David said, pulling himself up onto a branch next to Katherine’s.
They climbed—slowly and carefully. The tree’s canopy of deep red leaves enveloped them into darkness as they ascended. From the ground, it seemed almost impossible that such an old, rotted-out tree could still produce leaves. But as David’s hands gripped the rough, cool exterior, he could feel something pulsating from within. Something ancient and eternal.
“How are you doing down there?” Katherine called.
She was several branches ahead of him. When he looked up, he caught a glimpse of her stomach—flat and white—poking from under her shirt. He looked away before stealing another quick peek. It felt especially wrong to be ogling a blind girl. He wondered if she could tell. Probably.
“I’m okay as long as I don’t look down,” David said.
Based on the number of branches he climbed, David figured they were at least twenty feet off the ground. Wonder how high the Morgan kid was, he thought with a grimace.
Katherine suddenly stopped climbing and ran her hand over a protruding spot on the tree. “Come onto my branch. It’s strong enough for the both of us. I want to show you something.”
David gingerly climbed onto the large limb Katherine was standing on, holding onto a branch above for balance. A wisp of her blonde hair tickled his nose, causing his heart to beat even faster than it already was.
Katherine ran her hand over a protruding bump in the trunk. “They say that if you look closely enough, you can see the departed within the tree.” She gingerly moved her fingers over the bark and let out a delighted gasp. “It’s a face,” she said, her breath quickening.
David leaned over Katherine’s shoulder and squinted into the mass of knots and crevices. “I don’t see it.”
Katherine reached down and took David’s free hand in her own. “Close your eyes.”
David closed his eyes as Katherine moved his hand to the tree’s surface. She spread his fingers with hers, guiding his palm like a Ouija board planchette. “There’s the nose,” she whispered. She moved their hands down slightly.
“And here are the lips.”
Suddenly, David could feel it. The mouth. The nose. The eyes. “A face in the tree,” he said.
“Do you think it’s the Morgan kid?” Katherine asked.
“It doesn’t feel like a child’s face,” David’s fingers searched. “A woman. These are a woman’s lips. She’s sad.”
“Gertrude Braun,” Katherine said. “She was struck by a fallen limb while walking down the road when her car broke down during a snowstorm.”
The limbs creaked louder under their weight as they climbed higher, as if the tree was warning them not to go any farther, swaying and moaning with each step. They passed many more faces. Katherine told the story of each one. She knew them by heart. Peter King: car accident. Jedidiah Wolf: suicide by hanging. All in all, there were almost a dozen.
“I think this is Jessica,” Katherine said, running her outstretched fingers over a lump on one of the topmost branches.
David reached up and felt the mass. It was smoother and less detailed than the others, but he could feel the crude facial features being formed into the scabby wood. Katherine’s hand pressed against her best friend’s unformed impression, and David’s hand pressed over hers.
Then, tucked into the shadows of the tree, David saw it: a wide, gaping crevice nestled between the two highest branches. “There it is,” David said.
He took Katherine’s hand and guided it to the hollow. Katherine leaned forward, her long hair dipping into the gaping hole. “Listen,” she said.
David put his ear to the hole. Underneath the wind and rustling leaves, from deep within the tree itself, there was another sound: a distant crying.
“Ready?” David asked.
Katherine nodded. She took the necklace from her pocket and dangled it over the hollow. She dropped the necklace. David watched as the tiny silver butterfly pendant disappeared into the blackness.
There was no sound.
Katherine slowly turned and buried her face into David’s shoulder, her tears soaking through the fabric of his shirt. She reached up and moved her fingers over his face. His eyes. His nose. His lips. He watched her face come alive with discovery as she discovered his, resisting the temptation to kiss her fingertips.
As they climbed down the tree—carefully and in no particular hurry—David and Katherine discussed their plan to free the rest of them. They would gather up keepsakes from the loved ones of the deceased. For the long dead, they would hunt down family heirlooms. Estate sales. Antique shops.
It may take them many years, they decided, but the tree wasn’t going anywhere.