THE HANGING TREE
Dog tired from the fall harvest, my family was
fast asleep when I left my bed past midnight and silently crept down the stairs and out the front door. It would have taken the cloven footfalls of Satan
himself to awaken the household, but nonetheless, I halted with fea every time a floor board creaked under my weight, too afraid to move
forward or backward ,straining my ears to detect the slightest movement. Had I heard anything, I think that I would have died of a heart attack, well before
my Pa could have gotten to me with his belt or an ungodlyish long switch. I knew that I was dead if he found me sneaking out of the house.
No one awoke, and I made it outside with a pounding heart and labored breathing. For a moment, I just stood on the large wrap around porch. The woodlands around the homestead were quiet, the only noise was the sway of the trees in the brisk autumn wind, and everything was bathed in the full moon's cold pale light. Even the sky around the giant orb was alit brightly, I could see no stats, but I could see, in the blue hue that the heavens had taken, a few puffy, grayish clouds.
For a long time, I walked on the dead brown grass that ran parallel to our gravel driveway, for fear of making too much noise as the rocks crunched underfoot, but once around a bend with the giant rustic farmhouse out of sight, I took to the wood flanked road which snaked though a portion of forest before it let out onto the only paved road that the county had at the time. All around me was a sea of vegetation that seemed to run together in a blackish blur like paint; in the dark, it was all one, black swaying being.
No motor car headlights passed me as I trekked, but I stuck to the shoulder of the road anyway, mostly because the crunch of dead leaves under my feet kept me company and filled the otherwise crypt like silence with noise. I knew this country like the back of my hand, even at thirteen years old, but could not remember ever having been out past dark. Surely I had, it just could not be possible that I had never, could it? The more that I thought of it, the farther any remembrance that might have been there-if there was any-seemed to dance mockingly just beyond my grasp, frustrating me. Finally, I decided that no, never had I been outside, at least off the homestead and on my own, after night fall. What a sheltered life I had led!
For moment that realization sickened me. As
all country dwellers do in their youth, I yearned for excitement, for the adventure and for the whirl of the big city. I wanted to lead the life of a
character in a pulp magazine story. Just recently, Rudolf Valentino had been popular in Lawrence of Arabia; that was the kind of existence that I craved, not
this dull country crap, the life of a farm boy, ha!
Of course I attended school at the wooden one room structure over in Brandywine and there were always spring dances and autumn socials, in fact, I had been at one such even earlier in the night, in honor of Halloween. That was where I had convinced my friends, all dirty corn fed farm boys like myself, to steal away in the middle of the night to wait for the ghost of the hanging tree. It was said that the ghost of an executed slave would appear swinging back and forth, hands bound behind his back, late in the night if one was there to see it. I did not believe in such childish nonsense, but I knew that my friends would and that was why I planned to climb up into the tree and scare the willies out of them by pretending to be the ghost.
Presently, I came to the end of the forest which had been thinning out on either side of the road for some time. Up ahead, the road went on into the untamed wilderness southwardly. On my right, a large dark hill rose upward against the sky and in the ghastly light of the moon,
I could see the hanging tree, which had been used as the ultimate form of punishment for every type of vermin over the years, from renegade slaves and frontiersmen to the occasional sex pervert. The hill was formed-I describe it as my young mind saw it-like a giant breast. It was bare save for the withered dead tree at its summit. I could only see its outline, but I had passed it enough in the daylight hours to know what it looked like by heart: like a gray, decomposing hand stuck out of a grave, searching for a passing ankle to grab.
I quickly mounted the hill which, once atop, gave out a good view of the town of Franklin across the wide river and the surrounding countryside. Amidst the sea of forest all around, I could see the white church steeple of the Franklin Baptist church rising above the treetops, and also the whole dark outline of a small schoolhouse which sat atop a hill higher than the one on which I was standing. Farther off, dark mountains rose into the sky, melting together. I looked along the winding road from left to right and saw nothing. For a long moment, I stood there until on my right side, coming up along the road, I could make out a group of approaching figures in the listless moonlight.
They were coming!
I crouched down until there were closer, their voices, laughing and joking, carried to me on the chilly breeze. When they were almost to the foot of the hill, I hastily scurried up the tree trunk like an African monkey and hung with both arms from one of the jutting branches. Glee rose within me and I had to close my mouth and lightly bite down on my lip to keep from giggling and giving myself away. I could hear the mingled voices of my friends, getting ever so close. They were whispering, but thanks to the breeze, I could hear snippets of their conversation.
"…Johnny?" that one sounded like Big Tim, the fattest boy in the county at 250.
"Dunno," the tiny childish voice of Michael Ames, "…chickened out."
As they drew closer, coming slowly up the hill, my chest began to heave with the caged laughter within. I nearly did let it out, somehow hoping to make it sound like sinister and incorporate it into my gag, but I decided against doing it. Just seeing a dark form hanging from the tree would petrify the daylights out of my friends, adding demonic laughter would no doubt give them all heart attacks.
"Hurry…at boy…have all damn night," that sounded like Bobby Fischer urging Big Tim onward, I could plainly hear the latter's labored breath as he gulped for air. They were almost to the hill's top! They would see me and scatter, squealing like a flock of girls who had just
encountered a daddy longlegs hanging in a darkened corner. How fun this was!
"Oh my God," Bobby slowly drawled, clear as a bell. I almost lost it there. His voice sounded awestruck and frightened. And when a general horrified babble arose from the gang, I nearly roared with laughter. I could only see their dark outlines, but I could imagine the look upon their faces; mouths agape and eyes wide.
"The legend was right," said Michael Ames.
"Yeah," Big Tim panted, "but the legend never said that there was two of 'em."
What? I thought dumbfounded. I turned my head slightly from my friends and looked to my left…and I saw it. On a branch next to mine, away from where my friends stood, hung a human being. In the white light cast by the moon, I viewed the blue face of a young Negro man,
his blood-filled eyes were bulging horridly and he was grinning, revealing a mouthful of corn colored teeth. He was dressed in tattered rags and smelt of the grave. A heavy rope held him in place; his hands were bound behind his back.
It was my ear piercing wail of horror that sent my friends running down the hillside screaming, pushing and fighting to be ahead on one another. I let go of the branch and fell to the cold hard ground in a heap. I was on my feet again at once, but I tripped over them and was sent somersaulting down the hillside past my friends who must not have noticed me in their own flight of horror. When I picked myself up again, my heart thumping wildly and my hair standing on end, my friends were already running down the road toward the south, where all of them lived, even Big Tim was running as fast as a leopard, driven on by his intense fear. I gave chase.
"Wait up fellas!" I called, panting in my fright, "I'm one of you!"
Up ahead, I heard someone ask what 'it' said and I heard the reply, which in retrospect was kind of funny, but not at that moment. I think it was Big Tim who panted, "It said, 'wait up fellas, I'll have one of you'!" that brought a rise of girlish sound from the others who were running as fast as I had ever seen anybody move. The ran all the way home that way, leaving me winded and alone on the dark road, to return home on my own, passing Hanging Tree Hill as I did so.
My legs never moved so fast.