The Hanging Tree
The Hanging Tree was well known to the townsfolk of Queensfield, even if it was not often spoken about. Gossip was considered a means of entertainment in most small Free State towns, and very few subjects were considered taboo, provided they were discussed discreetly enough. But talk of the Hanging Tree was more than inappropriate. It was unlucky, even ungodly. Such was the influence the Tree had on this small town.
The Tree was old. It easily predated the town, which was established in 1848. According to the yellowed journals of Queensfield’s founders, the local Tswana tribes people believed the Tree to be cursed. It’s roots had been fed by war and treachery, their tales went, so that if one were to cut through through the charcoal-black, near petrified bark, no sap would ooze out, but rather blood. The tree, and the barren red earth it had writhed from, were to be avoided.
It was not the indigenous tribes who gave the Tree its present name, but the town’s settlers. It was an efficient way of dealing with criminals, and to the town’s shame, those few tribes-folk who refused to submit to European law, in a time when the law was necessarily swift, and permanent. The Tree’s location, just outside of town, was also a convenient distance from the makeshift holding cells built into the basement of the town hall, but far enough away to not unsettle the more superstitious townsfolk. It was also believed that a few unmarked graves existed somewhere close to the Tree, and accommodated the bodies of those unfortunate souls deemed inappropriate for burial within consecrated ground. But they had never been discovered, and no one really wanted to find them.
Perhaps the real horror of the Hanging Tree, and the reason the townsfolk shunned even mention of it, was that it was not only the lives of criminals or rebels that ended on its twisted boughs. Farmers will tell you even today that the Free State can be cruel and unforgiving. But life was even harder for those early pioneers. Livelihoods were lost to drought, lovers to wild animals or drunken quarrels, children to disease. Some people just seemed to disappear into those dusty expanses of dry earth and cloudless sky. In the years following the town’s establishment, it became apparent that the Tree was providing a service to those townsfolk who no longer found merit in living.
So it was, that even though decades had past the Tree was still a thing of mystery and quiet fear to the residents of Queensfield. They would keep their eyes firmly fixed on the road ahead as the drove past the blasted field the Tree broaded over, a gnarled silhouette on the horizon a couple of kilometers off the road. Children told secret stories of the thing to scare each other. And it was certain that teenagers occasionally held some sort of adolescent pilgrimage to Tree, as part of a ritual dare. And every few years, the town would wake to the news of another forlorn body hanging from its branches.
Every time it happened, which was not often, there would be talk of cutting the infernal thing down. Resolutions would be made at meetings in the Town Hall. Relief would be expressed amongst the small groups that gathered outside of church following the Sunday service, where it was safe enough to discuss such things. Yet, inexplicably, such plans were never carried out. Resolution dwindled, plans were delayed indefinitely, so that the Tree remained where it had always stood, it’s great boughs patiently waiting for another length of rope.
Nicholas Kruger remembered the last suicide. It had been Mrs van der Walt, the town’s librarian. Nicholas was a teenager at the time, fourteen, maybe fifteen. He remembered his parents talking about how tragic and inexplicable her ending had been. Sara was a young, attractive woman, recently married to the son of one of Queensfield’s most successful farmers. There was much gossip to be heard the weeks after her death, as the townsfolk speculated as to the reason she’d decided to take her own life. Some suggested she had lost a baby. Others spoke of an affair, or abuse committed behind closed doors. If her widower knew the reason, he had not disclosed it, and never would. The same night of a drunken, grief-fuelled punchup with another farmer a month after Sara’s death, he left Queensfield, never to be heard of again.
Nicholas remembered the story now. He remembered how, at the time, he simply could not make sense of the poor woman’s decision. The idea of suicide was abhorrent to him, and ending his life on the Hanging Tree was as unthinkable as leaving his family’s farm, which had been established around the same time as the town itself. That had been before the accident, he thought to himself ruefully, as he wiped the whiskey from his lower lip.
Pastor Gofaone had been to see him a few hours earlier. He’d made yet another attempt to break through that haze of sorrow, anger, and whiskey; to explain to Nicholas that he might yet find peace after the loss of his wife and daughter. Nicholas had become abusive when the pastor began talking about Rene and Clara being beyond suffering, and so the pastor left, telling Nicholas he would return in the morning. He would rather reason with a hangover than inebriation, he said. Nicholas regretted his actions now. But what was one more regret, other than another reason to follow through.
He downed what remained in his glass, and stood up. Grabbing the keys to his truck and a half bottle of Jameson, he made his way outside. It was past 10PM, midwinter, and close to zero, but Nicholas was too drunk, too tired, and too grief-stricken to be bothered by the cold. He got into his truck, and after a few clumsy attempts at trying to find the ignition, he sped off into the darkness.
A few years back, the church had placed a stone cross along the highway, directly east of the Hanging Tree. Inscribed into the base of the cross were the words ‘1 Corinthians 3:17’. Nicholas parked his truck a short distance from the cross. Even though it was too dark to see more than a metre ahead, Nicholas knew that the cross would guide his bearing. He set off in its direction, with nothing more than a flashlight, what remained of the Jamesons, and a length of rope looped around his shoulder.
Nicholas kept the flashlight fixed on the ground directly infront of him, save for the wavering caused by his drunken gait. Whilst the barren field was flat all the way to a range of mountains about a hundred kilometeres in the distance, it still contained some miserable Free State scrub, rocks, and termite mounds, all easy to trip over. After what felt like ten minutes, and a few deep swigs of the bottle, he lifted the torch beam to the horizon, expecting to see the Tree close by.
The light from his torch penetrated only a few metres into the distance. He scanned from side to side, but couldn’t see anything more than rock and scrub. He probably hadn’t covered as much ground as he thought, so he kept walking. A few more minutes passed, when something scurried, quickly, across the narrow beam of light cast by his torch. It startled him, but Nicholas decided it must have been a rock rabbit, or even a jackal. He continued walking.
After a few more minutes walking, Nicholas again raised the torch to the horizon, but the Tree was nowhere to be seen. He panned the darkness, and the torch beam fell upon a human figure, crouched, with its back to Nicholas. Again, Nicholas was startled, and stood still with the torch fixed upon the figure. It was entirely naked. Nicholas tightened his grip around the neck of the whiskey bottle. “Hey. You alright?” he called out. The figure did not move. “Is jy reg?”, he tried in Afrikaans, but received no response. Suddenly, there was the sound of something scuttling through the scrub immediately behind him. As he spun round, he raised the bottle into the air, ready to strike. But there was nothing there. He turned back to the crouching figure, and it too, was gone. “Christ”, he thought to himself. “I’ll have to lay off the whiskey”. He dropped the bottle where he stood.
Somewhat shaken, but still firm in his resolve, he once again scanned the horizon in search of the Tree. But the barren earth revealed nothing but red sand, more rocks, more scrub. He tried walking a few feet to his left, than his right, in the hope that the torch would fall upon the charcoal bark of the Hanging Tree. He must have veered off somewhere, his sense of direction addled by the booze. No Matter. It was a short walk back to the road. The town lights were visible from the tarmac, and he’d be able to find his bearings, even in his current state. He turned, and began walking.
After only a few moments, Nicholas tripped, and fell hard. He brought himself to his knees, which, along with his hands, were grazed. The damn scrub was treacherous in the dark, he thought to himself, as he stood to retrieve his torch, which had rolled a couple of feet ahead of him. As he lifted it from the ground, he heard an odd gurgling sound from the direction of where he had tripped. He turned. The torch beam fell upon a man lying on his back. Blood flowed from his nose and mouth, as he coughed and spluttered. He was all but naked, save for a loin cloth. His hands writhed in agony at his sides. There was a spear buried in his chest.
“Jesus! Shit!” Nicholas screamed. He fumbled the torch, and it fell. When he lifted it again, there was no trace of the dying man anywhere. He walked over to the spot where he swore the man had been lying. There was no sign of him, not so much as drop of blood. Only sand. Yet, he was sure of what he had seen, whiskey or not, and he was getting the hell out of that field. He turned back to what he thought was the direction of the road, and ran.
His lungs aching, and his feet sore from landing on rocks and scrub, Nicholas stopped. Fear and exertion had largely sobred him up, and he knew that something was wrong. He should have reached the road by now. Nicholas new the land surrounding Queensfield well. If he had lost his way, he should either hit a river which ran south of the tree, or the town to the north. He was positive he was not heading towards the mountains which lay beyond the Tree. So he resolved to keep moving, until he came back to the town, or to the river, which would lead him back to the road.
More minutes passed. He was now feeling the cold. And the grazes on his hands and knees hurt, as did his aching feet. He also realised how thirsty he was. All thoughts of his discomfort evaporated, however, when he realised he could hear whispering.
The voices sounded close, but he could not make out the words, nor could he tell how many voices there were. As he listened to the darkness, he realised some of the whispers were actually sobs. He tried to pinpoint the direction they were coming from, but the voices seemed to emanate from all around him. “Is.. is someone there”, he called out uncertainly. The voices stopped abruptly.
He turned in short, staggered circles, attempting to locate the source of the whispering. His torch fell upon nothing but barren earth. He turned again, and his torch illuminated a torso, dressed in a ragged, sullied dress. He raised the torch to find the figure’s face. Framed in black, matted hair was a bloated, unliving face, tilted upwards towards the starless sky. Its eyes had rolled back into its skull. Its mouth hung upon, to reveal sparse, yellowed teeth, and a black, swollen tongue. For a moment, it stood still, and then took a step forward.
Nicholas fell backwards, and again dropped the torch. In a mad scramble, he grabbed it, and ran, stumbling in his frantic attempt to get away from that thing. His vision was blurred by the tears in his eyes, and he could not count the number of times he fell. He stopped only when his lungs felt like they would burst, and fell to his knees.
He crouched in the dirt, his torch darting nervously in every direction as he gasped for breath. Just as he was close to mustering enough strength to continue moving, his torch fell upon the wheel of an upturned car. It was spinning slowly. Nicholas stood slowly. He surveyed the vehicle. It was a silver Hilux Bakkie. The roof was completely crushed, as was much of the front of the car. A cold, panicked dread began to rise up in him. He hurriedly made his way to the back of the car, and his torch fell upon the registration plate of the truck his wife and daughter had died in a month before.
“Rene! Clara!” he screamed. He dashed to the driver side door, and attempted to rip it from its hinges. It wouldn’t budget. He tried the passenger door. He tried pushing the whole truck over, but to no avail. Eventually, he fell to the ground, sobbing and exhausted. After a few moments, he heard the voices.
They were soft at first. He couldn’t make out what they were saying. But they grew louder, and seemed to be coming from the truck. “Why did you let us die, Nicholas? Why did you let us die?” Nicholas frantically dug into the earth beneath the truck, ripping his nails and and his fingers. All the while, the voices grew louder, until they were screams which seemed to be coming from every direction in the darkness. Still, Nicholas clawed at the dirt, sobbing so hard he could barely see. He stopped when he felt a hand fall upon his shoulder.
He turned slowly, as he did so lifting the torch to face whoever it was behind him. Close enough for Nicholas to smell the stench of death and decay, its face was too broken and bloodied to be recognisable. Only a single word emanated from between it’s bloated lips and smashed teeth. “Nicholas”. He recognised the voice instantly.
Nicholas dropped the torch, and ran off into the endless darkness, stumbling, crying, screaming. The voices followed.
Pastor Gofaone’s had received a call from the Queensfield sheriff just after 6AM. A trucker had spotted the body hanging from the Tree, and called it in immediately. The sheriff had asked if Pastor Gofaone could be there, when they cut the body down. Maybe he could say a few words, whatever good that would do.
The drive to the Tree took only about fifteen minutes. The Pastor spent the entire duration asking himself if he could have prevented this. He realised, as he parked his truck next to the sheriff’s, that he would be asking himself this question for the rest of his life.
Pastor Gofaone looked upon Nicholas’s body, silhouetted by the rising sun and swaying gently, almost imperceptibly. The tragedy was hard to comprehend, he thought to himself. Still, he was a more progressive man of the church, something which occasionally angered the town’s more orthodox believers. Suicide was murder, he well knew. But his God was a compassionate one. Surely a man overcome by grief would not be condemned to an eternity of suffering?