25 Jul The Tree Singer
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"The Tree Singer"Written by
Estimated reading time — 9 minutes
My friend Kerry (names have been changed) told me this story many years ago. While its details might have imperfections here and there due to its memory fading slightly over time, I can assure you, it is completely true.
Ann and Kerry lived near one another in a quiet suburban neighborhood just outside of Minneapolis—the kind comprised of Craftsman houses from the 70s, tree lined streets, and lots of cul-de-sacs. They were best friends, bosom buddies, and attached at the hip. They were also polar opposites: Ann was the perky blonde cheerleader to Kerry’s mousy, morose bookworm.
Ann’s father worked in a psychiatric prison. He was short and scrawny, his strawberry blonde hair bordered by a receding hairline, but he held a quiet power in his presence. Both girls toed the line when he was around, as he was not to be trifled with. His role was to evaluate prisoners to determine whether or not they were eligible for parole or release, and suffice it to say he made more than a few enemies over the years. In fact, after an unfortunate encounter with an inmate he wore clip on ties to work in order to avoid strangulation.
It was one of those humid Minnesota summer nights. Ann and Kerry were at Ann’s house watching a movie and combatting the heat by drinking Diet Coke out of sweating cans. About 30 minutes into their show the sky darkened rapidly and severely, heralding the arrival of a thunderstorm. Both girls grew nervous, particularly since they were home alone—Ann’s mother was out of town on business, and her father was, as usual, working late.
The TV in Ann’s living room sat in front of a large picture window, giving them a clear view of the ominous sky. In the yard stood a multitude of trees, including a delicate crab apple tree a few feet away from the window. As the wind began to pick up the dark shapes of the trees began to sway. Kerry’s eyes moved from the TV to the crab apple tree. Its movement was mesmerizing. It also seemed to be moving more vigorously than the strength of the wind gusts. Wordlessly she rose from her spot on the couch and walked over to the window to take a closer look. As she peered out the window she noticed a dark shape crouching in the branches.
“What?” Ann asked, yawning and stretching from her perch on the couch.
“It looks like there’s something in the tree,” Kerry said.
“Well, it’s probably the neighbor’s cat, or maybe a raccoon. All kinds of critters like to hang out in that tree.”
“It looks pretty big for a cat.”
“It might be one of the neighbor kids. There’s this one boy who likes to spy on me sometimes. He’s a little weird.”
“I don’t know…”
Ann groaned. “Fine. If it will make you feel better, let’s go take a look.”
They exited the house through a back door and stepped into the yard. The wind was picking up. The storm would be overhead soon. Ann strode confidently towards the tree, only to stop before getting too close. Though the tree’s leaves and branches obscured the figure’s specifics, it was unmistakably human. Kerry’s heart jumped into her throat. Ann squinted, trying to make out what she was seeing. She yelled to the figure.
“Whoever you are, this is private property! You need to leave immediately!”
No response. At least, they didn’t think they had received a response. It was hard to hear at first, because the relentless rhythm of the wind swallowed up all other sounds. Kerry felt Ann’s arm wrap around hers—the universal signal for being terrified.
Whatever was in that tree was humming. It was a deep sound—almost a growl—and certainly not a noise that would emanate from a child’s throat. It was tuneless and still unnervingly musical.
The air was electric with the power of the approaching storm and lightning began to burst across the sky. Kerry and Ann ran back into the house, locked themselves inside, and called Ann’s father.
Ann’s father listened to Ann’s story with a great deal of attention and sympathy. He asked clarifying questions, and inserted “hmm” the way that psychiatrists do. He assured them that everything was fine, he would be home in a few minutes—he just had to “check on a patient”—and that the girls should double-check all of the locks. They barricaded themselves in Ann’s bedroom for the rest of the night.
The next morning when the girls came down to breakfast they noticed that Ann’s father was walking around outside and looking up into the trees. When he came inside he smiled a little too widely and there was a forced brightness in his voice. He was more pale than usual.
“Listen, girls, I have to go to work, but make sure to call me if you need anything. Anything at all.” He nervously buttoned his cuffs. “Also, um, just to be safe, make sure to keep all of the doors and windows locked. I’ll be home at lunch.”
“Dad…?” Ann’s skin tone matched her fathers. He laughed and hugged her.
“Everything’s fine, honey. I’m just making sure you feel comfortable after such a scare last night. Which turned out to be nothing. I just want you to feel safe, which you are. You are totally safe. You know that, right?”
Ann shot him a dubious look.
“Of course you do. Ok. I’m off to work. Call me if you need anything. Anything at all.”
After the garage door groaned shut and Ann’s father had piloted his sedan out of the driveway, Ann informed Kerry that she was not going home that day and would instead stay with her. Kerry agreed eagerly, as both of her parents were at work as well.
They spent the rest of the day playing video games, reading books, and jumping whenever they heard a noise. Ann’s father returned for lunch, but told the girls he would have to work late again, and that they should go over to Kerry’s house when Kerry’s mother returned home from work.
As the sun grew low in the sky Ann began packing a bag of her belongings. She decided to sneak into her mother’s bathroom and borrow a lipstick in case she and Kerry decided to go to the local coffee shop and flirt with boys. Or rather, she would flirt while Kerry sat there like a statue. After blotting her seashell pink lips and discarding her tissue she noticed a note in the wastebasket. She was not normally the nosy type, but something about the almost childlike, erratic scrawl of the handwriting compelled her to pick it up.
It had a few simple words on it: “What’s up, Doc? -TREE SINGER.”
Tree Singer. Someone who sings in a tree. Or hums.
Ann frantically called up her father, who chided her for digging through his bathroom trash. He assured her that it was a note he had gotten while at work, forgotten about it, and had thrown it away at home when emptying his pockets. Everything was fine. Ann was not convinced. His voice had taken on its higher pitch—his tell for whenever he was stretching the truth. She was grateful to be spending the night at Kerry’s house.
Ann ended up spending the next few days at Kerry’s house. Her mother returned from her business trip, and her theory—which seemed to hold the most water—was that the figure in the tree had been nothing more than a neighborhood kid playing a trick. Everything was safe and normal again, and soon the Tree Singer was forgotten. After a few more days Ann and Kerry began to doubt what they had seen and heard in the tree, and decided that Ann’s mother was right.
One evening Kerry’s parents had planned a trip to visit her grandmother, and Kerry had successfully argued that her perfect grades, exemplary behavior, and ladylike demeanor should earn her a pass to skip grandmother visits every once in awhile. Kerry’s mother had been fighting with Kerry’s father and she didn’t have another battle in her.
“Fine. You can stay here. But Ann has to stay with you. We will be back in a few hours.”
The girls were playing a nerdy strategy game on Kerry’s floor—a secret that Ann asked be kept between them—when Ann decided that she wanted pizza. Kerry wasn’t eating much that day—or year—but was the consummate hostess. She picked up her Star Trek Enterprise phone and began to dial.
She soon had the distinct feeling that she was being watched. Not just watched, but stared at in such a way that was as if two laser beams were burning the back of her head.
She removed the spaceship from her ear and held it in front of her.
“What is it?” Ann was behind her, hunched over the game board and puzzling over her next move.
Kerry returned the Enterprise to port and turned around. She locked eyes with Ann, and, without even thinking, rubbed the back of her head. Ann seemed to experience the same sensation, because her eyes grew wide and she turned around, ever so slowly, to look behind her. Kerry watched Ann intently, not wanting to move her gaze, while Ann’s eyes traveled up the wall to the row of narrow rectangular windows near the ceiling.
Directly behind Kerry’s bedroom was a row of spindly pines that the original owners had planted there in a feeble attempt at increased privacy. They hadn’t withstood the harsh Minnesota weather extremes, and looked worn and weary and a little too thin—not unlike the grandmother that Kerry was trying to avoid. Kerry drew a breath without exhaling. Ann let out a whimper—the kind of sound one makes when a scream is choked by the brittle fingers of fear.
Someone had, in fact, been watching them, clinging to a tree outside the window. Kerry forced herself to look. She saw small scrawny arms, beady and unblinking eyes, and a mouth turned down in a terrifying scowl. The face was misshapen and criss-crossed with thick scars. This was not a neighbor kid. Its eyes bore into her in a visceral way, gutting her insides with its gaze. Every inch of her was frozen.
The next thing she felt was sharp pain as Ann’s fingernails dug into her arm and dragged her out of the house. They wordlessly began running along the poorly lit, tree lined streets towards Ann’s house. They took a route their feet knew well—jumping the curb here, cutting through a neighbor’s yard there—two athletic girls, timing their paces to the rhythm of frantic breath. And then they heard another type of breathing—raspy and rapid—running along beside them. Kerry could see the figure darting between the trunks of the perfectly spaced trees, following them. The figure was waist-high and surprisingly fast, despite its awkward and uneven gait. But the sound of its breathing would be seared into her memory, bringing nightmares for many years. It was a deep, wheezing, desperately angry sound. Kerry willed her track-trained feet and lanky arms to move and pump their hardest until at last they saw the twin lamps that illuminated the end of Ann’s driveway. The figure stayed with them until they ran through that critical finish line of the boundary between street and driveway. Kerry said it was as if the figure disappeared into thin air as two hysterical, breathless teenage girls burst through the front door.
Ann’s parents wrapped their arms around the girls as they struggled to recount what they had seen. Kerry described the scarred face, and Ann’s dad looked as if he might faint.
“I’m calling the police,” he said. He turned to Ann’s mother. “Take the girls into the bedroom and lock the door.” She nodded and did what he asked.
Once they were safe in the bedroom Ann burst into tears and Kerry began peppering Ann’s mother with questions—something she does when she’s anxious. Who had written the note? Who was the Tree Singer? Who was this person that was after them? Ann’s mother had no answers.
The police searched for several hours and didn’t find anything. They took statements from the girls. They patrolled the neighborhood. Shortly before dawn, the girls fell asleep in Ann’s parents’ bed. Ann’s father let them sleep for a few hours and then asked them to join him at the breakfast table. He looked as though he hadn’t slept at all.
The person that was chasing them matched the description of one of his patients. This patient was born with dwarfism, and a combination of birth defects and terrible injuries had left him disfigured. He had been in prison for a long time, and over the years had managed to organize his anger and rage into a vendetta against Ann’s dad. He called himself the Tree Singer, and managed to stalk people and break into places because of his climbing talents.
The most baffling part of all of this, and the part that Ann’s father could not figure out, is that the Tree Singer never left his cell, which was heavily patrolled. When the girls called Ann’s father the first time he double and triple checked on the Tree Singer, who was in his cell the entire time and had greeted him menacingly. Even though Ann’s father knew that there was no way the Tree Singer had left his cell, he still couldn’t explain the note—the handwriting was an exact match—or the sightings.
I was one of few people who believed Kerry’s story. After all, I knew the kind of person she was—practical and grounded, and never one to be the center of attention. I asked her: if the Tree Singer was locked in his cell, what was it that she thought she saw?
She didn’t know. She said that people had their own theories. Maybe someone was playing an elaborate trick on Ann’s father. Maybe the Tree Singer had a twin. Some people got a little more abstract in their ideas: maybe the Tree Singer wasn’t human after all. Or maybe he was skilled in bilocation—the mystical ability to be in two places at once. No one would ever know.
The Tree Singer never bothered Ann or Kerry again. Unfortunately, their friendship would never recover from the terror of that shared memory. The summer sleepovers stopped, and when school started in the fall, they were strangers who would smile at one another when they passed each other in the hallway.
Ever since Kerry told me this story I make a habit of checking the trees outside of my bedroom windows each night—which is, of course, sage advice for everyone.
After all, no one knows who or what the Tree Singer really is, or where he will appear next…
Credit: Brooke Macabre
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