I saw the tree from the car window when I was six years old. I was on vacation with my family, heading up north to go camping. It was on the far bend of a winding road, and as soon as I saw it, it was gone; it seemed to exist for just the briefest of moments, but the memory of it has been tattooed into my brain. I’ve never forgotten a single detail of that twisted shape, and of the man hanged dead from one of the thicker branches. That tree, knotted and bunched like a giant twisted in an ash gray cloak; suffocating and powerless. A mass of sharp branches cluttered up to the sky holding brown sickly leaves that shivered in the breeze, and a body which twisted lazily against the trunk.
We rounded the curve so quickly that I wasn’t able to process the vision until we were well away from the bend. I can still remember all the details; a hand curved and stiffened, only just touching the rough, inky blue denim of his jeans. I could only partially see his face; puffed, bloated and ringed by matted, greasy hair. I didn’t say anything to my family. I couldn’t, they wouldn’t have believed me, all Fall I had been getting in trouble for making up stories. I didn’t sleep a wink on that week of camping out in the deep dark woods for fear of bare branches reaching out, and what they would do when they grabbed me. We took a different road to get back home, so I was denied seeing if the tree had been cut down, or if there was at least some crime scene tape fluttering in the wind like an obscene party streamer. Maybe that’s why it’s been such a persistent image in my mind. I was offered no closure and no validation.
Once we got home I kept an eye on the newspapers and some of the TV news, but I never heard anything about that tree. In effect, the thing existed only in my mind. Even now, so many years after I’d seen it, it still haunts me, literally, like a ghost skirting the edge of my vision when I close my eyes at night, visiting me in dreams; a dark silhouette hovering behind me all throughout the day. I could go weeks without thinking about it and then, in the dark of the night, I remember those hands, fingernails chipped and filthy. That bulging face with distended eyes and blackened tongue. Sometimes, when I’m driving, I’ll find myself scanning the sides of the road, watching the trees fly by and wondering what's going on just beyond the tree line. I’ve never had any lasting relationships, and I’m not blaming it on that tree, but I don’t sleep well. I had a good friend once, a wood carver by trade, who said that the secret to creating life-like carvings is to be able to see the shapes the wood has within it before you ever start carving. She said that each and every block of wood is hiding its true shape, and it is up to the carver to coax it out. I think about that a lot.
Even now it comforts me, as I stand before that tree for the first time in over 20 years. The ease with which I found it was surprising, but I suppose it would have to be. Every second felt like a millennium as I hid my car in the brush and approached to finally lay eyes on the monstrosity, and it was every bit as terrifying as I remembered. Usually, when we see things as children they seem huge, but when we see them again as adults they become considerably smaller and prosaic. Not so the tree, which appeared to be immune to the physics of childhood. It was still massive, and I stood before it, barely breathing, barely moving, as if were the idol of a fallen god. The slightest indications of humanity felt profane to me as I stood in its shadow.
I saw no evidence of the violence that had defiled it so many years ago. Swaying branches creaked mockingly at me and I barely noticed the ache in my hands as I clenched my fists shut as hard as I could. I probably would have stood there longer had the weakened, muffled kick from my car not broken my reverie.
The boy looked hazily up at me when I opened the trunk. He was half dead already, broken and battered; the rope would only finish him off. His hair was the right type of black, curly and matted from sweat and blood. His build was thinner, and the denim of his jeans wasn’t as dark. As I lifted him out of the car and carried him to the tree, like a bride across the threshold, the words of my wood carver friend came to me. She would say that the hardest thing to do was to reproduce ones vision perfectly, but that trying was half the fun.
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