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I recently inherited my grandfather’s rural home. A log cabin buried deep within 100 acres of woodland— a picturesque scene untouched for decades and a perfect dwelling that I am now proud to call my own.
I would spend the weekends here as a child. The wooded paths, crystal-clear ponds, and hidden meadows were always a welcoming change from the cramped city apartment I shared with my parents and sister. My grandfather only had one rule.”Never go near the woods at night.” This was an easy rule to follow, granted I was terrified of the dark.
What I looked forward to most during my visits, were my trips to the Hollow Tree.
Exactly half-a-mile from the cabin stands a large oak— towering over the nearby smaller trees. Its unprecedented height is not the only unique feature. At the base of the trunk is a large cavity, giving the tree a hollow appearance. This inevitably led to the landmark’s appropriate name. My eyes lit up whenever I discovered a new treasure lying within the Hollow Tree. My blue bicycle, a new football, and the dozens of other wonderful gifts I found throughout my formative years. Grandfather never admitted to putting toys in the hollowed trunk. “A gift from the tree I suppose,” he would say with exaggerated confusion. I knew he was the one hiding the presents, as he was the only person living within 100 miles of the tree. But… I enjoyed the game, and I never questioned my “gifts from the woods.”
As I grew older my visits to grandfather’s cabin were fewer. And upon his passing, the Hollow Tree remained barren. To honor him, I had his ashes placed on the mantle in an ornate urn.
The path I stroll each morning leads straight to the Hollow Tree. I happened to glance inside its trunk as I walked past. Lying on the ground inside the tree were torn shreds of dark brown fabric. Curiosity carried my feet to the mouth of the cavernous oak. As I knelt down and picked up the shredded cloth, a wave of familiarly washed over me— it was the mangled remains of an old teddy bear. My old teddy bear. The one I had lost in these very same woods 25 years ago. My grandfather and I had searched for the missing stuffed animal day and night.
One of its black-button eyes hung by a thread and dangled in the air, the other was missing completely. Dark, oily liquid stained the worn material and left it reeking with a putrid smell. My mind raced to find an explanation of how the bear could have ended up inside the Hollow Tree: maybe an animal dropped it, or the wind? Both seemed highly unlikely after so many years. I reluctantly stuffed the remains into my coat pocket, and made my way back home.
That night I dreamt of my grandfather. He stood at the edge of the woods. Large snowflakes fell and stuck to his jet-black coat. He raised his pale, thin hand and beckoned me towards him. I obeyed. The cold wind howled as its chilling needles stung my face. Grandfather grabbed my arm, pulled me close to him, and pointed into the dense tree-line. I shifted my gaze, and stared into a sea of crooked trunks and twisted branches. My eyes were drawn to the Hollow Tree. Its dark cavity stood out in the pure snow like a drop of black ink on a white canvass. Without warning, a horrifying shriek escaped the tree’s cavernous mouth. The bloodcurdling scream rang throughout the woods—sending a frightened murder of crows from their roosts into the grey, overcast sky. My grandfather’s tired, broken voice filled my ear A gift from the tree…
The high-pitched whistling of wind, and bitter cold jolted me from my slumber. My body shivered violently. I was outside… and in the woods. I hadn’t slept-walked since I was a child. Yet here I was in the middle of winter, dressed only in a bathrobe, standing before the Hollow Tree. Just as I was about to turn and head back to the cabin, something caught my eye. A small red light blinked inside tree’s dark, empty trunk. I quickly ran to the mouth, picked up the cold plastic object, and dropped it into the pocket of my robe.
I sprinted back to the cabin as quickly as I could. The dead leaves crunched loudly beneath my bare feet. I burst through the front door, wrapped myself in a blanket, and prepared the fireplace. As soon my body temperature started to return to normal, I pulled the object from my pocket, and placed it on the floor. It was my walkie-talkie, another childhood toy. This didn’t make any sense.
My sister and I would play with them all the time— until the day I accidentally dropped my receiver into the pond. I will never forget how upset I was as I watched it sink. Again the Hollow Tree had returned another long-lost possession, and my name was still scribbled on the side.
As I sat dumbfounded, the red light on the top of the walkie-talkie turned on. And ever so quietly, a faint noise crackled from the tiny speaker…The noise was brief— a stream of white noise. But, just before the the walkie turned off, for a split second, a hushed voice whispered my name. I took off the back panel of the receiver, and just as feared there were no batteries. I hurried to the attic and locked away the bear and walkie in a chest. I decided then to avoid Hollow Tree, and my morning walks all together.
The dreams continued. The same one each night: my grandfather, the tree, his message and the crows. I resorted to moving furniture in front of my doors to prevent my late-night sleep-walks into the woods.
Things were going well, until the day my grandfather’s urn went missing. I had just retuned from work—I froze as I stared upon the vacant mantle. My heart pounded in my chest. I knew exactly where it was.
I laced my boots, threw on my coat, and started my short journey to the Hollow Tree— grabbing an ax from the woodshed on the way.
Dark clouds left the world dreary, and the sun was setting. As I approached the giant oak, the unnatural stillness of the woods droned eerie silence around me. I shone the beam of my flashlight into the Hollow Tree. The cavern illuminated, and I crouched down to peer inside. I nearly vomited. Dark, sappy liquid dripped from the bark. On the ground my eyes met the blank stares of 13 dead crows. Their small bodies severed and completely hollowed-out.
I gazed upwards, and within the twisted branches I saw the beautiful silver and gold urn. The tree was toying with me, beckoning me to climb its ancient trunk to retrieve my grandfather.
Rage consumed me.
Tightly gripping the ax’s wood handle, I swung as hard as I could. The sound of the blade striking the oak was unbearable. Each blow sent a sound wave of shrieks from the bark. The same scream I dreamt of each night. Thick crimson liquid gurgled from the each gash. I chopped until I couldn’t lift my arms. The hollowness of the trunk echoed the screams like a concert hall. With anger pulsing throughout my body, I hurled the ax with all of my strength— and with a dull thud it stuck right in the middle of the tree.
Just then, the branches untangled and the urn began to shift. I hurried to the spot directly underneath, and carefully caught it as it fell. I held the porcelain vessel like a newborn child, turning back only once to see the wounded tree still bubbling its thick, bloody sap.
I placed my grandfather back on the mantle. Exhausted, I fell face-first onto my couch and passed out.
The dream was different this time. I met my grandfather in the woods, only all the trees had been cut down— leaving a sea of dark stumps. He whispered a new message into my ear, “It does not forgive.”
Again I awoke to find myself in the woods, and I looked out in horror. Before me stood three more trees with hollowed out trunks.
I still believe my grandfather was the one leaving the gifts when I was a child, but…I think something was watching him.
CREDIT: J. Speziale
(narrations are NOT permitted for this story)
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