The Tree with the Face
Morrie Quircus always took his walk after dinner. He would walk up Pierce Rd down to Miles Rd, then take Miles down to Ragford and Ragford back to Pierce in a big square.
The walk took him down wholesome country lanes, the roads all dust and dirt the color of khakis. The grass was green and long and the meadows and woods were like paradise.
The tree was right up the corner from Pierce and Miles on the southern shoulder of the road, across from a farmhouse owned by a reclusive family whom neither Morrie nor his neighbors had ever had much interaction with.
The tree was notable because it had a face on it. The features were carved from pieces of wood that were nailed to the trunk about seven feet up. There were googly eyes and a crooked, Alan Rickman-esque nose and a grinning mouth full of teeth. The look on its face was supposed to be goofy and playful but it came off as maniacal.
Morrie didn’t know how many times he’d passed the tree before it spoke to him. He took his walks at least five days a week — it kept him spry and energetic for his 74 years. If he didn’t get to take his walk, he was grumpy and cramped.
He was walking by the tree when he heard a rough voice to his left.
“Hey, chief,” it said.
Morrie turned about. He didn’t see anyone.
“Excuse me?” he said, expecting a person to walk out of the brush.
“I said, ‘Hey, chief,’” said the voice.
“Where are you?” said Morrie, looking around.
“Up here, chief,” said the voice.
Morrie looked up the tree and gave a start.
The tree was grinning down at him. Its eyes blinked.
It was an old tree and its trunk was thick, the width of a truck tire at least. It’s branches were long and grasping, extending out over the road. The tree stood at least thirty feet tall.
“You can talk?”
“I can,” said the tree. “Just happened recently. Want to know how?”
“I most certainly do,” said Morrie. The tree was down off the road across the ditch. He stared at it.
“Come a little closer and I’ll tell you,” said the tree, still grinning.
“I can hear you from here,” said Morrie.
“Fine,” said the tree. “See the house across the street?”
The tree seemed to lean forward, pointing with it’s branches.
Morrie turned and looked. There was the old farmhouse at the end of a long, long driveway. Morrie had never seen the family that lived there, but his neighbors said it was a mother and a father and a son.
“Yes,” said Morrie.
“The kid’s got severe cerebral palsy, and he put this face on me so I would be his friend,” said the tree. “Cause no one talks to him, not even his parents, really. And he wished so hard for me to be real, that the other day I just gained consciousness out of nowhere.”
“I see,” said Morrie.
“So yeah, it was just some Frosty-the-Snowman type shit,” said the tree. “Now I’m just chilling in the breeze.”
“I see,” said Morrie again. “Well, I’d best be on my way.”
The tree frowned.
“Because I’m on my walk, and I have to get home.”
“You’re talking to a tree,” said the tree. “You’re going to just walk away from a talking tree?”
“You just said you came to life for the boy,” said Morrie. “Not for me.”
“Yeah, but he can barely talk anyway and his parents never let him outside. They wouldn’t believe him when he said I’d come to life. I think he’s being punished.”
“Not my problem,” said Morrie. He turned to go. He would take an Ambien when he got home and sleep like a baby. Lord knew why he was seeing this talking tree. He had been missing sleep lately.
The tree looked hurt.
“You’re kind of a prick, aren’t you?”
The tree shook itself, seeming to cringe in regret.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean that. I didn’t mean that. I’m just jazzed to be sentient, you know? I’m really old — almost a hundred years. Never thought I’d be able to talk to anyone. Please don’t go just yet.”
Morrie stood there with his hands in his pockets. He looked up the road.
“I have to admit, I never thought — “
“Hold up,” said the tree. “I can’t hear you. Come a little closer.”
“I’m not coming near you,” said Morrie sharply.
“Fine, dickhead,” snapped the tree. “Suit yourself.”
Morrie went home and took three Ambien and was knocked out for the night. As he drifted off into a drug-induced slumber, he saw the tree’s grinning face.
The next day on the walk, Morrie watched the tree as he approached it. Just when he thought the wooden face was back to being frozen and inanimate, the wooden lips jerked and it spoke to him again.
Dammit, thought Morrie. I hope I’m not getting dementia.
“Sorry I swore at you yesterday,” said the tree. “I have a temper sometimes. I’m stuck here by myself all day. No one talks to me.”
“I didn’t think you were real,” said Morrie. “I thought I might have imagined you because I wasn’t getting enough sleep.”
“Oh, yeah, sleep’s so important,” said the tree. “I hate nights, I count as high as I can so I get to sleep.”
“You can count?”
“Yeah, I can do just about anything except move around,” said the tree. “Listen, I want to apologize for calling you a dickhead yesterday. If you’re not comfortable coming over here then I understand. But please will you just chat with a poor old tree for a few minutes before you continue your walk?”
“I suppose so,” said Morrie. “What would you like to talk about?”
And so over the next few days Morrie began to stop and talk to the tree on his walks. The tree was very lonely, it seemed. It hadn’t seen the child from the house since it’d been brought to life.
“Just my luck to become self-aware and I lose my only potential buddy,” the tree said glumly. “Sure glad your evening walk comes past this place.”
Morrie was a tad ruffled by the whole situation. He felt that he might be imagining the whole thing. The tree loved to talk.
In addition, the tree was always trying to get Morrie to come across the ditch, but Morrie always refused. He’d listen politely, and the tree guilted him if he tried to split before the tree had its fill of talking.
The conversations went on, the tree lecturing and pontificating and spouting information and opinions like a drunken uncle at Thanksgiving.
The next day…
“I’m not saying that Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t deserve credit for creating Facebook,” said the tree. “All I’m saying is that social media was an inevitability, just like all waves of technology. There’s people that catch the wave and people that don’t. If it hadn’t been Zuckerberg, it’d’ve been someone else. Zuckerberg was just right place, right time. Talent and connections. Lots of people with talent in this world, not everyone is a billionaire. So without the connections, you’re nothing. Right place, right time. So what makes him so fucking special?”
And the day after that…
“You don’t ruffle someone’s hair if you respect them, that’s just blatant disrespect. Would you rub the president’s hair?”
“Probably not,” said Morrie.
“Would you rub your boss’s?”
“I’m retired, but no.”
“Were you afraid of your father?”
“Oh, all right, never mind…”
And the day after that…
“The scene in Pulp Fiction where Samuel L. Jackson is dominating the white boys — the one played by Frank Whaley, you know, where he eats the burger? That was an edgy thing in the nineties — tough black guy dominating some weak-looking white boys — Frank Whaley was known for his boyish looks. He looks weak. Weak-looking white men are always depicted as unsympathetic victims in movies, always looking scared and helpless. Nowadays someone does it and it just looks trite, cause it’s easy to rip on white people.”
And the day after that…
“Conspiracy‘s not in some bunker a mile under the ground somewhere, the conspiracy is in the conditions. You humans will never see that. Keep a civilization stressed and in competition and at each other’s throat, you can take whatever you want while the rabble is fighting. Shit, you monkeys haven’t evolved at all, you just dressed natural selection up in cement and steel.”
Morrie began to find the tree annoying. But he refused to change his walking path because of it. He’d been going on these walks for years now, ever since Betty died. He wasn’t going to change his route just because of some talking tree that he was probably hallucinating as a result of early-onset Altzheimer’s or some other damn thing.
Towards the end of the week, the tree and Morrie were talking about something or other when the tree went quiet and looked at Morrie.
“You’re bored, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am,” said Morrie, at the end of his rope. He was standing with his arms crossed, tapping his foot in the dust of the road.
“I’ll tell you what,” said the tree. “You come over across the ditch, just once, and I’ll leave you alone when you walk by here from now on. If anything, I’ll give you a nice smile and a nod and you can get your exercise and I’ll just stay here and let my roots soak up the rain and let my leaves feel the breeze and my bark dry up and fall off. More than likely, I won’t even notice you.”
Morrie was slightly miffed by this, as he’d made such an effort to be polite and the tree was acting like he had refused any conversation at all.
“Why the hell do you want me to come over there so bad?”
“You’ll have to wait and see,” said the tree. “But I can tell you’re curious now, so you should just find out. Only a few steps, and you can see what’s up.”
“You’re not going to eat me or anything?”
The tree chuckled, and its leaves shook.
“No,” it said.
“You have my word as a century-old life-form,” said the tree.
Morrie really wanted his privacy back — he missed all the thoughts and peaceful headspace he achieved when he was putting one foot in front of the other for a good hour. He missed his solitary evenings alone and at peace, an old widower like him whose house was paid off and whose lovely wife was three years buried and whose kids were off with families of their own.
Morrie took a deep breath and stepped down into the ditch. There was a shallow trickle of dirty water down in the trough of the ditch and Morrie stepped over it. The grass squished under his shoes.
Two more steps and he was looking up at the tree’s face.
The tree leaned down until his face was almost level with Morrie’s.
“I need about tree fiddy,” said the tree.
Morrie was puzzled.
The tree stood back up and laughed, a sound like wind in a hollow trunk.
“Just kidding, just kidding,” said the tree. “Couldn’t help myself. But seriously, I have something for you — around behind me there’s this knothole around where my ass would be if I was a person.”
Morrie stepped around. Indeed, there was a baseball sized knot of wood sticking out the side of the tree’s trunk like a tumor.
“Yeah,” said Morrie.
“Reach into it.”
Morrie’s hand trembled as he stuck it into the dark hole. His fingers probed the darkness. He felt something hard and sharp. He pulled it out.
It was a crystal, white and about the size of an egg.
“Ah, thank you so much,” said the tree. The tree heaved a great sigh.
“What is this?”
“That’s what brought me to life,” said the tree. “The kid stuck it in there and chanted some shit so I couldn’t just tell anyone about it. That’s why I kept trying to get you to come over here. But now that you’ve removed it, I’ll be gone.”
“Yeah, poof,” said the tree. “No more talking. I’ll just go back to being a regular-ass oak.”
Morrie didn’t know what to say.
“Oh, don’t worry,” said the tree. “I’ve been around a hundred years and I’ve been able to talk less than a week and I fucking hate it. I want to just be a tree again. Too much thinking.”
“What do I do with this?” said Morrie, holding up the magic white stone.
“Put it in their mailbox,” said the tree. “I think that’s why the kid is grounded — he took his parent’s magic life-giving stone. I think the parents are practicing Wiccans or something.”
Morrie took the stone across the road and stuck it in the mailbox.
“Thank you, sir,” said the tree. “I’m going to sleep now.”
“Goodbye, tree,” said Morrie.
The tree’s facial expression went back to its default state, and Morrie went back to having his walks. Though he still passed the tree every evening, it never spoke to him again.