It was the mother tree, but the Dad never liked calling it that. He’d make jokes about it, crude ones like elementary school kids make on the playground to try and get under one another’s skin, bubbles of frustration pointed at others. The length of the tree shifted from a shaggy rough exterior to a smooth bone white the higher it rose, like a bony hand emerging from its skin, or maybe a marble statue slowly being revealed by the ravages of time. Trees are always haunted things, pastoral gothic that is at once romantic and intimidating, always seeming wise enough to speak but only creaking a swaying, timbered, chorus.
The children, the ones that were left, were the products of over a hundred seasons. Circling the old hickory and mixing in with the scrub oak and poison ivy they blended into the surrounding wood. Some grew up to fifteen feet tall, but still as thin as your wrist, decades-old teenagers that had learned to bend but not break, on the verge of adulthood. The ones that didn’t survive had fed the mother in their death, and their siblings. Their leaves chewed off by the deer who stopped at this small circle of trees to strip the young hickory saplings of their leaves before moving on to the sweet grass in the meadow beyond where they lingered in the stillness and the early morning light.
Better to use old wood, the dad said, when he loaded the old decking they had found piled at a curb on the way back from the store. Fresh wood smells like death to the woods, and the deer can sense it.
This probably wasn’t true, but these are the kinds of harmless sayings everyone’s father or mother always has on hand, familial doctrines passed on unacknowledged.
The stand was fifteen feet off the ground, a small platform big enough for a person to sit in a makeshift stool made of splintered 2x4s, the rest of which formed a crude ladder nailed into the side of the tree. His son had watched him build it, late on a Saturday afternoon and then again on Sunday morning, skipping church, but the mom was out of town visiting her sister, and the dad had suggested they could just let nature do the preaching this morning.
Gas station coffee splashed out of the Styrofoam cup onto the second box of nails they stopped to pick up at the hardware store as they drove down a quiet street before dark. Two gas station donuts were leaking Boston crème through the paper bag. Another indulgence while the mom was away.
He had managed to frame out the main structure of the platform the day before an now straddled several 2x4s while trying to keep a grip on the hammer and nails when his son shouted for his attention.
Immediately hissing at his son to be quiet, he dropped a few nails which promptly disappeared into a mass of leaves built up around the Tree before turning his attention towards the meadow.
Shhh, shh, quiet now stay still.
The son hugged the side of the truck peering around the corner trembling with nervous energy, eyes full in terror and joy as he looked through the early morning fog and light down the narrow tree-lined path.
A shifting in the fog became more apparent as a thick rustling sound cut through the stillness. He looked at his dad, then the path, then his eyes darted back to his dad who could barely contain his excitement.
See! He hissed quietly waving for his son’s attention. See! I told you this was a perfect spot, look at this! The first time, oh man, I don’t even have my gear I should have been….
The Dads excitement at this point was eclipsing his fear of spooking the animals. The rustling grew louder as a sort of hum filled the air. The hairs on the back of the son’s neck stood up, and he leaned in closer to the trucks cool metal side.
It was as if the ground itself was beginning to slowly pulse at the edge of the woods as his heart began to beat louder and louder thumping against his chest. Filling his ears, matching the crackling sound that now accompanied the shifting of leaves snapping twigs and humming, and then he saw it, majestically stepping out of the shadow of a large tree, a shifting pulsing presence that at first might have been a deer, but more substantial. It’s shape convulsed with a steady but arrhythmic pulse, beating three pulses regular like a heartbeat, then erratic for two more pulses. Larger, then smaller, details absorbed into a black mass. For a moment you might imagine that you could see fur, then scales, then antlers, then a human hand, but never for more than a moment before it’s shape throbbed. It paused at the opening of the path, and for a moment the pulses slowed. The son’s breath caught in his throat, had it seen them? He imagined an eye somewhere in the form focusing on them, oily pupils narrowing their focus. He could imagine tentacles snaking through the undergrowth, snapping the small trees in its path before grabbing him and pulling him into itself. Would It absorb him? Crush him? He didn’t dare to breathe.
Then it was gone. He didn’t remember seeing it leave; it just seemed to click out of view, filtering into the fog. The Dad scrambled down the 2x4 ladder and was almost dancing with excitement. He slapped his son on the shoulder.
Did you see that! I knew this was a good spot! Oh man, I can’t wait to tell the guys at work….But his son wasn’t listening. His eyes were still transfixed on the spot where the animal had been. He had never seen it. Some people never did.
Papers spilled out of the glove compartment as the dad pulled out some old devices he had found at the surplus store and he arranged them on the hood of the truck, turning the knobs and checking the frantically waving meters to try and record them in the notebook he always carried with them.
I can’t believe it! You’re some good luck I tell you…he said without looking up from the equipment and his notebook.
He never went back with his dad, who spent as many weekends as he could on the rickety stand attached to the mother tree, rifle in hand, equipment stacked beside him. Sometimes the dad would take his buddies from work, but that was mostly just to drink and regale them with the story about his incredible luck in seeing it and how he was sure he’d get another shot.
Years later the son drove out on the shaky dirt road that led to the stand. Even though he knew the creatures hadn’t been seen for decades, no one had spotted one since shortly after his encounter he still felt apprehension and a sense of being watched.
The tree had fallen, taking the stand with it which lay in a heap under a mass of branches and weeds. The mother trees children had grown to fill the void in the canopy and stretched upwards towards the light, bickering with each other over the remains of the old hickory, hungry for light.