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The Trees

the trees


Estimated reading time — 5 minutes

Over by Snap-Neck Swamp there are trees of a very particular type. They are tall and gangly, with slender boughs that sway this way and that and very few leaves to grace the tips of their branches. Their dispositions are quite wretched, and though one may gaze upon them for hours on end and see no cause for dread, a subtle but unmistakable wrenching gradually grows in the gut, churning and churning and churning until the viewer is compelled to cast their eyes off the gnarled beings and vacate the premises. Throughout the years, people have called the trees many things, but to this day they know no formal name.

Our town has known about the trees for decades, though our people seldom speak of them. We are far more content to talk about our pioneer heroes, our prize-winning gourd farms, and our proud but minute contributions to this nation’s history. Few records are kept of the trees in the community annals, and it would not be surprising if most have forgotten about them entirely.

But, for those curious enough to ask, there is one who remembers the story. Walk a mile or two down the Wending Road, turn right at the Crow’s Fork, and stop at the hill with no grass. You are bound to see it. It is a small, crumbly thing, made from weathered hardwood and brick. It always seems on the verge of collapse, but no one remembers a time when Old Mary Sutton’s cottage wasn’t there. If you knock on her door and ask to come in, she will no doubt smile that wrinkled smile of hers and immediately go about preparing a fresh pot of tea. She receives very few visitors these days, and it’s no wonder that she enjoys the company that she gets. After a couple tongue-scalding cups and several charmingly inane tales about her grandnephew, she may pause and think for a moment—and this is your chance. Gently but surely, ask her what she knows about the trees. She may hesitate and try to drag the conversation into some other, tangential corner, but stay focused. Insist, keep insisting. She will tell you. When she does, listen carefully. Pay attention to the details—especially the ones she seems reluctant to share.

Mary will tell you that way, way back, back before the river was dammed and the church was built and the town was anything more than a set of cabins huddled along the Blue River, the trees were beautiful. She and the other village children used to climb up their trunks and pluck the bright yellow flowers that blossomed along their branches every spring. After the plantings and the harvests—the events that made the community in those days—everyone would gather under the shade of those verdant leaves to laugh, drink, and be merry. She’ll tear up in one eye and pause there for a second, as if temporarily tucked away in the folds of her past. Give her this moment, but keep your eyes trained upon her. She will continue. It went on like this for many years, she’ll say. People living, laughing, loving. Until the day they hung Obadiah Smith.

Obadiah was, by all accounts, a meek and mild-mannered young man. He spoke very little and went out less, but when he did go out into the village square he always brought with him homemade biscuits that he would distribute to children, often to the vicious complaints of mothers and fathers. Although he was not one to flaunt his intellect, he was quite intelligent, and spent most of his days locked within a room, writing and observing. It seemed unlikely that he would be a criminal. He was neither a murderer nor a thief, nor a liar of any sort. He hated the smell of blood and grew faint at the sight of it; the very thought of hurting another living creature repulsed him to the point of nausea. But, make no mistake, Obadiah was a criminal of the highest degree. You see, Obadiah was a dreamer.

Mary says that Obadiah had what they call a ‘Link.’ He had a connection to the cosmic stream running through all things, from which essences emerge, dissipate, and morph into the varied strata of being. Since birth, Obadiah had drunk deeply from this world, though even he struggled to comprehend its meaning. Others found him strange when he spoke of it, and from an early age he had learned to hide himself behind nervous smiles and small talk in the hope that someone, anyone, would be deceived into thinking that he was normal.

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He was able to keep up his facade for many years, but just when he was respectable enough to be ignored, the nightmares came. Night after night, he writhed in pain as dreams pulsed through his mind. What horrors he witnessed are not known. ‘RED ROOTS—RED ROOTS—RED ROOTS RUNNING THROUGH MY BONES—’ Mary remembers that was all he screamed each night as his neighbors tried to wake him from his subconscious torment. It soon came to be that his mind could not contain the dreaded visions, and others began to have terrible dreams of their own—abstract feelings more than vivid horrors—but dreadful nonetheless. Terror worked its way through the minds of the townsfolk, adults and children alike. After three nights without sleep, the town elders decided to do something about it.

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They sent Obadiah to a Priest. At first, the Priest wasn’t sure what was wrong with Obadiah. He brought the young man to his secluded hermitage and examined him there for a week, recording careful observations in a leather-bound journal. At last, after a thorough investigation, he concluded that Obadiah had been possessed by a demon, and that the demon had to be brought out before it could inflict further harm upon the town. The Priest sent word out to the exorcists from all across the land, and when they convened to treat the case of Obadiah, they spent one day and one night working the evil entity out from the man’s withered husk.

The exorcism worked, or at least so it appeared. For a few beautiful weeks, all was well in the town—no dreams, no terror, peace. But then the dreams came back. And they came back with a vengeance. The exorcists returned, confident in their ability to rectify the matter, only to be humbled by Obadiah’s persistent and incurable madness. Experts were summoned, physicians from the big cities. None understood Obadiah’s infectious torment or how it was able to create such lasting agony in the minds of those around him. They dragged Obadiah far out into the woods and abandoned him there in the hope that distance would at last provide some refuge. But even from several miles away, Obadiah’s nightmares kept gnawing away at the townsfolk each and every night.

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At last, the people decided that the only solution was to rid Obadiah from this world altogether. They brought the man’s emaciated body out from the woods and strung it up from the trees. According to the hangman’s report (the only written document available to corroborate this claim), Obadiah took an unusually long time to die, and all the while, he was cursing at the spectating villagers. No one is quite sure what he said, for he spoke in a strange and unintelligible language, if in language at all. When the last breath finally drew out from his corpse, the hangman lowered him off the branch and buried his body right there, beneath the trees.

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It was the next day that Mary noticed that the trees began to change. At first, she attributed their loss of leaves to the coming of winter, but when their deadened state persisted past the coming of spring, she knew something was amiss. When she tried to climb their gnarled boughs in the hopes of resurrecting some memory of her childhood joy, she couldn’t even bring herself to approach the trunk. Something dark and twisted had happened. She couldn’t understand what it was—she still does not.

Few visit the trees now, ever since the Snap-Neck Swamp settled around them. Since they are inaccessible by foot, the most one can do is stand about a hundred paces away and try to make out their features through the fog. Even now, there is something peculiar about them, something that cannot be explained in word or deed, only feeling. One wonders whether Obadiah’s nightmares truly went away. Perhaps they are still there, trapped in the branches, waiting to be released.

Credit: Valmic S. Mukund

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