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Saturday, October 6, 2018

SHOWCASE: “The Avenging Tree,” by Patrick Hurley




Just outside a small Tennessee town, amid the rolling hills and lush valleys, there stood a young apple tree who’d sprung up in a holler a ways away from where her mama had first let her crab apples fall.

Though their roots had never quite touched, the young tree loved being near her mama, watching that great tree sway in the breeze, offering shade and fruit to travelers all throughout the nearby town. When she was young, the sapling told herself that one day she would do her mama proud and help others, just like her mama did.

Then, the boy came.

He appeared with the suddenness of a forest fire and descended on her mama like a plague of locusts. The young sapling never liked the boy. She saw the fierce hunger behind his eyes and knew he would be no good for her mama.

Her mama’s nature was to give whatever was asked of her, and so she gave all she could to the boy, ever to her detriment. It was lucky the sapling had already taken root before the boy came along, for he harvested so many of her mama’s apples that it looked like the sapling would grow to be an only child.

In the end, after the boy had shrunken into an old man, all that was left of her mama was a worn-down stump. The old man would sit on this, defiling her mama’s remains with his backside, enjoying the sun that should have been her mama’s, even daring to complain of the lack of shade that had been his own damn fault, having cut down her mama’s great limbs to build his house. And worst of all, the pitiful stump still offered kind words and weak excuses to the old man who’d taken so much from her.

A shadow grew over the holler where the old tree’s daughter brooded. No longer a sapling, she now decided she would never allow herself to be used like her mother was. These greedy, stealing, hungry folk like the old man were her enemy.

Though the old man had taken her mother’s seeds, he had still found time to sow his own. He had a son who had another son, who was the spitting image of his selfish grandfather.

It was this boy, the son of the son, who began to visit the young tree’s holler and lay beneath her shade. The boy tried to talk to her the way his grandfather had talked to her mama. At first, the tree didn’t answer back. Then one day, the boy began to cry.

“Boy,” the young tree asked, unable to contain her curiosity, “why are you crying?”

The boy looked up, startled. “Who said that?” he asked.

“You know who said that, boy,” the tree responded. She gave her branches a quiet rustle. She wondered what the boy would do. His eyes widened. Then he smiled, a great wide grin, and shouted, “I knew the stories were true!”

“What stories?” the tree asked, suspicious.

“The stories my paw-paw told about wish-giving trees! He said if I ever found one that talked, it’d give me whatever I wanted.”

The tree had never been struck by lightning, but she now knew what it felt like.

“That’s not true, boy,” the tree answered, but the boy cut her off.

“Don’t you try to back out, now! Y’all helped my paw-paw and now you gotta help me.”

“Help you with what, boy?”

The boy told her he was hungry, so to make him be quiet, the tree gave him one of her apples. As the boy ate, the tree felt the old anger stir inside her. She was tempted to break a heavy branch off and crush him—or feed him a poison apple—but she couldn’t bring herself to do it.

For one thing, if she did kill the child, what then? Some might believe her branch had fallen by chance, but not the boy’s grandfather. He would know what happened, and he would come for her. The old man might not be strong enough to wield his ax anymore, but he had access to fire.

Also, however much she hated the boy’s family, the tree was no murderer. If she sought revenge, it would have to be of another kind. Something that would prevent the boy and his family from ever taking from the trees again. So she waited, giving the boy shade and an occasional apple, for those were free and meant little to her.

One afternoon, the boy came to her and began to complain, as he always did. He wasn’t doing well in school. The other boys and girls didn’t like him. They called him greedy. They called him mean. They didn’t understand him like the tree did.

“I just wish,” the boy said, “I could win the 400-Yard Dash.”

Now the tree knew what the Dash was, since her holler was right by the school. Once a season, the boys and girls of the school held the race to determine which one of them was the quickest on two legs. A ridiculous notion, the tree thought to herself, but whoever won this race would receive a prize and become the first picked in all the games and first invited to all the birthday parties.

The boy wanted to win that race more than anything, but he knew he wasn’t fast enough. He wondered, somehow, if the tree could help him.

The tree thought long and hard. She did possess a small amount of magic. And she had other gifts. And she had her apples.

It seemed to the boy that the tree had moved in some hidden way. The shadows under her apple-laden branches seemed just a bit deeper, the apples themselves a little more red and ripe.

“I want to help you, boy,” the tree finally said, her tone warm. “Yet all I have to give are my apples.”

“What good yer stupid apples gonna do me in a footrace?” the boy complained, kicking up dirt around the tree.

“You didn’t let me finish, boy,” the tree continued. “It’s true, all I have are apples. Yet I have in my branches one magic apple, just for you.”

“That so?” the boy muttered, a doubtful look on his tone.

“A most special apple,” said the tree, lowering it down with her branches. “Take one bite, just before the race, and I promise you’ll win. No one will ever forget how fast you ran.”

If there ever was a magic apple, it was this glistening, ripe red fruit the tree proffered within its leafy branches. The boy could smell its juices even from where he stood. As he reached for it, licking his lips, the tree cautioned him. “You must wait to eat it, boy, until just before the race. If you eat it now, the magic will wear off by tomorrow, and you’ll lose.”

“You gonna give me that apple or not?” the boy said.

Gently, the tree released the apple into the boy’s waiting hands. “Remember what I said, boy. Wait until just before the race. Only then will you win.”

The boy stared at the apple hungrily, but put it in his pocket. “I’ll wait,” he said, “but I better win this race, y’old tree. My paw-paw said you helped him, so ya better help me the same way.”

“It was my mama who helped your… paw-paw,” the tree said.

“One tree or ‘nother, who can tell the difference? ‘s long as I get what I want,” the boy said. He began to walk back to out of the holler, down the winding road back to the house made from the tree’s mother.

“Trust me, boy,” the tree said softly, its voice whispering with its swaying branches. “You’ll get what’s coming to you.”

¤

The day of the race was a fine one. The sun shone clear in the faded blue sky, casting a delicious light over the tree’s many leaves. There’d been fine rain the night before, and a delicious, cool wind blew through the holler, carrying scents from all sorts of far-off places.

From her place, the tree could make out the race’s long starting line, out in an open field behind the boy’s school near the edge of the wood. She watched as the children marched out from the school’s open door, all dressed in identical red gym shorts. Waiting for them out in the field were the children’s parents, grandparents, and town officials.

The 400-Yard Dash was a tradition enjoyed by everyone. The parents and grandparents watched, hoping to see their child win. The town officials watched, hoping for votes and good press from the local paper. From far off in the holler, the tree watched, hoping for revenge. She could make out the boy in his gym uniform. Her branches shivered when she noticed his grandfather, her mother’s defiler, yelling loudly for his son’s son in the crowd.

The school’s teacher began to line the children up along the starting line, making sure no one had their feet placed any further forward than they should, and told them to get ready. The tree noticed the boy had no apple in his hand. Had he ignored her prohibition and eaten the apple the night before?

Just then, the boy reached into his shorts pocket, pulled out the apple, and took a huge bite. If the tree had a mouth, she would have smiled.

Just as the boy finished swallowing, the teacher held up a pistol and began his count. Then, with a loud bang, the children were off and running.

The results of this particular 400-Yard Dash would become the talk of the town for many years. Parents chuckled over it with other parents over mint juleps, sweet tea, or applejack. The children who ran passed the story on to their children who passed it on to their children, causing the Dash to graduate from colorful anecdote into local tall tale, and after many years, into the town legend.

The only folks who never spoke of the Dash were the boy’s family. For them, it was “the incident,” their secret shame, never to be mentioned unless one wanted to start a brawl at family reunions.

The race started in the usual fashion, with all the children running hurly-burly towards the finish line at the school gym. A few unlucky kiddos tripped over their feet, a few slowpokes hung back, but the rest of the unruly mob flew forward. Some of the more athletic children began to pull away from the pack, and at first, the boy was stuck in the middle.

All a sudden, the boy’s bottom pinched, as if he’d just received a static shock. His eyes grew wide and his face took on a slightly greenish color. A child running next to him claimed to have heard his stomach groan louder than a tornado.

With a panicked look on his face, the boy began to pick up speed. His legs pumped and his arms flew. In a flash, he was moving away from the pack, passing the quicker children, running faster than any child who’d ever run the dash before.

Just as the boy passed the final child in front of him, there was a noise like a sweaty rocket blast: the loudest fart anyone in town had ever heard. The last child the boy passed swore she’d never forget the awful smell for all her days, claiming it smelled like the worst sour apples ever.

Those watching near the finish line saw telltale brown stains form in the boy’s red shorts as he continued to run, even faster than before, but in an awkward, pinched fashion, as if he was clenching certain muscles.

The boy didn’t stop when he crossed the finish line, ignoring those who were waiting to give him his blue ribbon, but kept sprinting, straight through the school’s open doors into the bathroom just next to the main entrance. From outside, all the astonished onlookers listened as more farts, and even worse noises, blasted forth, interspersed with the boy’s groans.

Several minutes later, the noises ceased. The toilet flushed many times, and the boy quietly shuffled back outside to claim his prize. Everyone couldn’t help but notice he had changed out of his gym shorts and into regular pants. They tried to keep quiet as the boy was declared winner of the Dash, but as he went up to claim the blue ribbon, another thunderous fart escaped his nether region, and, like a dam released, was quickly followed by the roaring laughter of the whole town.

The boy’s grandfather was so furious he nearly had a stroke. The boy himself moved away from the town as soon as he grew old enough.

And the tree? The next day the tree heard folks warn one another not to eat any of her apples, because they affected the gut “sumthin’ fierce.” She watched from her holler in the wood with quiet satisfaction. She didn’t think anyone would be coming around making demands of her again.



Patrick Hurley lives, writes, and edits in Seattle. He’s had fiction published in Galaxy’s Edge, Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores, Flame Tree Publishing’s Murder Mayhem anthology, Hy Bender’s forthcoming anthology Ghosts on Drugs, Abyss & Apex, The Overcast, and The Drabblecast. In 2017, he attended the Taos Toolbox Writer’s Workshop taught by Nancy Kress and Walter Jon Williams. He is a member of SFWA and Codex.

1 comment:

ellen said...

this made me laugh quite a bit, such a delightful ending to a sad story!