Cool October winds blew over the holocaust scene of cornstalks, their remainders jagged and broken in the fields that made a leapfrogging patchwork of the farm. The grass was yellowing, and the leaves reddening in the distant knobs, and the sky was dark gray in the middle of Saturday morning.
Edgar sat on the porch, feet dangling in front of the porch lattice, above the naked rosebushes. His eyes were fixed upon the old black tree that leaned toward the farmhouse, its trunk angled uphill as if the finger-like branches were stretching, grasping toward the house. It looked like it might fall at any moment, but it had yet to fall during all of Edgar’s nine years of life. Keeping his eyes on the tree, Edgar spoke to his grandfather. The latter was nodding off in his rocking chair, just behind his grandson.
“Papaw,” Edgar said, “What kind of tree is that?”
His grandfather snorted and mumbled, rousing slowly, his voice drowsy, distant, from a faraway time.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Seems to me a black oak, but ain’t never had any leaves or acorns, even when I was a boy. Should be dead by now, but it ain’t never gone to rot yet.”
“Why haven’t you ever cut it down?” the boy asked.
There was a long silence. Edgar glanced back over his shoulder at his grandfather and found the old man’s head hanging low, chin to chest, snoring softly. A drop of drool hung from the old man’s pink lips. It fell like a raindrop onto his denim coveralls. Edgar wore the same kind of coveralls, but in miniature. He shifted slightly on the edge of the porch, trying to adjust his coveralls. It had been only a few months since Edgar was shipped off to his grandparents while his parents finalized the divorce. He had not gotten used to coveralls yet.
Edgar repeated his question, louder, and his grandfather stirred.
“Never seemed right to,” the old man said. “Clutching to life after a hundred years. Maybe more. Don’t know if any axe could cut it down. And I always got a strange feeling when I thought about it. It’s one of them ‘buzzard trees’. And it’s bad luck to cut them down. They say the buzzards have nowhere to roost no more and so they roost in your heart. And it…invokes the…Evil Eye on you…”
The old man drifted off to sleep again.
Edgar cast his sight again toward the tree. It was, as his grandfather said, a “buzzard tree”, except Edgar had never seen buzzards roosting in it, nor any other bird, nor squirrel, for that matter. The animals shunned it. His grandfather’s dog, Samson, who was the most ornery German Shepherd ever, never lifted a leg near it, eschewing its shadow like a pool of venomous snakes. It dawned on Edgar that he had avoided it without thinking to do so; as if it was as natural as avoiding a wildfire. But it was a silent wildfire. And it was sneaky; sneaky in that it seemed to grow closer to the house every day.
A breeze blew through the outspread branches, and their forking fingers trembled as if in a silent fury, trying to reach out to Edgar, clasp him, drag him into the deep, dark bowels of the earth.
Edgar took a bath in lukewarm water, and prepared himself for supper. Going to the kitchen, he found his grandmother heaping mashed potatoes, gravy, steak, and green beans on three plates. His grandfather was sitting at the table already, his eyelids heavy as he waited for his food. A big glass of milk awaited Edgar at his place. He went to the kitchen drawer and fetched three forks and three knives, arranging them around the table. He then sat down and glanced around the kitchen. It was small, rustic, bare. It had an oven, table, sparse tabletop next to the sink, a few cabinets, refrigerator, and a single window looking out toward the knobs. The pantry was a small closet in the corner of the room and was stocked with bags of dried beans, sweet potatoes, and flour. It was a very humble kitchen when contrasted with the kitchen that his mother and father had in the city.
Edgar suddenly wondered whose kitchen it was: his mother or his father? Divorces, he realized, were strange.
“Here you go, Egg,” his grandmother said, setting the plate of food in front of him. He picked up his fork and began to scoop a lob of potatoes toward to his mouth. His grandmother tsked him. “Not yet, Egg. Wait until everyone is ready to eat. And we have to pray, too.”
Edgar’s stomach grumbled, and he whimpered, watching anxiously as his grandmother gave his grandfather his plate, and then went to fetch her own, finally sitting down. The three of them then steepled their fingers and his grandmother prayed. The prayers finished, Edgar took his fork to the plate ravenously.
Through the cupola window he saw the moon. There was a halo around it— wide in circumference and thin in width—behind the tree, looking like a large white pupiled eye, the whole sky a dark face searching for him within his room, wanting to take hold of him and never release his soul.
That night Edgar dreamed of a woman standing in the yard. She was tall, thin, with one eye blue and the other pale, like milk. She had bone-white hair and wore an old leather frock, stitched together with what looked like sinew. She beckoned toward Edgar with one hand. The other hand remained behind her back, hidden. She smiled widely and Edgar could not guess how old she was. He approached her, his feet moving of their own accord. He tried to fight, to resist, yet his body moved without his permission, as if it was inhabited by someone else. Soon she was towering over him, her teeth gleaming. Behind her, the black night reached toward him. And then she drew her other hand out from behind her, and he screamed in terror. It was burnt black, cracked, scaly like tree bark, and as she reached for him the spell broke and he fell back, away from her, scrambling to escape, but moving so slowly, as if through thick molasses, and her hand grew larger, blacker, branching outward over him, becoming the Grasping Tree.
And he knew, as he screamed himself awake, that he could never escape its stretching fingers.
Edgar did not often enjoy going to church. His parents never made him go to church in the city. It seemed to him a lot of wasted time that could have been used for play or exploration. But today, at least, he was glad that church gave his grandparents the excuse to take him to town, and away from the Grasping Tree. Dressed in a pair of blue jeans and a collared white shirt, Edgar sat between his grandmother and grandfather in the cab of the truck, no seatbelt strapped across his chest and feeling the old clunker truck rattle itself half to death at any moment, and yet felt relieved despite the long sermon awaiting him at the church.
They arrived early— always too early for Edgar—and his grandparents sat in the front pew, keeping Edgar between them. It was an old church, built in the 1700’s, and had gone through minimal renovation. It was small, but big enough for the rural flock that gathered there every Sunday. Edgar’s grandfather told him, and often repeated himself in saying so, that the church had long history that began with the first settlers of Grayson County. By the time Father Douglas finished with his sermon, Edgar felt like he had spent as much time in the church as the founders. It did not help that the orange juice he drank that morning was already brimming in his bladder. While the flock exited the church to talk out in the churchyard, Edgar raced to the restroom in the back of the church. One of the few renovations the church boasted were the two restrooms, and Edgar aspired to make immediate use of such modern facilities.
He came to a screeching halt, however, when he saw Billy Mudford enter the Men’s restroom. Watching helplessly as Billy closed the door, Edgard despaired. Billy was a large teen, round like a pig and freckled red like a butcher’s block. When he used the restroom there was no hope for the next occupant to survive the miasma. But Edgar’s bladder was ready to bust. He wanted to cry. Glancing down the hall, he saw no one else, so he took a deep breath and opened the door to the Women’s restroom. Lee Frampton was standing by the sink, trying to look over it to see herself in the mirror. When she saw Edgar she merely furrowed her brow in irritation and put her fists on her hips.
“Egg,” she said, her irritation making her Southern drawl twang sharply, “this is the Ladies’ bathroom.”
Edgar just stood there, frozen in fear and bewilderment.
“Is Billy using the Men’s bathroom?” she asked.
Edgar only nodded.
“I thought I heard him gruntin’ like a sow in labor,” she said. She tossed her blonde curls, as she always did in the meantime when she was deciding something. She was a year older than Edgar, and a couple of inches taller, and so she was the de facto leader insomuch as Edgar was concerned. Whatever she said was what went.
“Come on,” she said, gesturing him into the restroom. “I’ll guard the door if you have to go that badly.”
Edgar could only nod and obey, walking toward the toilet while Lee stepped out and closed the door, standing guard in the hall. It took Edgar time to overcome his embarrassment and finally relieve himself. When finished, he opened the door, and was about to mutter thanks to Lee, but she shot him a scowl.
“Wash your hands,” she said, crossing her arms.
Edgar did what she told him, then came out of the bathroom. Billy’s stench was already invading the hall with preliminary fumes, and so Edgar and Lee left the church, going outside where the rest of the kids were playing. They did not join them, however. Instead, they stood under an oak tree in the churchyard, near the gated cemetery.
“Thanks,” Edgar said. “For…you know.”
“You’re welcome,” Lee said. “That stinky-butt Billy does it on purpose. Probably eats all the sausage and bacon and eggs he can before he comes here. Then comes out grinnin’, and smells like the sulphurs of Hell.”
She chuckled as if she had said something very funny. Edgar did not know what to say to any of that. Firstly, he did not know what “sulphurs” were, and, secondly, he knew Hell was a bad word. His grandparents always said the Framptons were “good people, but a little uncouth”, but he never understood what that meant, either. Maybe, he thought, it meant they didn’t give a single deer pellet what other people thought about them. And while Edgar had known Lee for a few months now, she was still a mystery to him. Despite her white dress and her curlicues, she was a tomboy, and he had never met a tomboy in the city. They were much more fun than the regular girls he knew who only told him he was gross and made of puppy dog tails. She liked to do things, like race and throw baseballs and climb things.
“Want to climb the tree?” she asked him.
He nodded, and up they went; Lee first—faster, with a firmer and more confident grip— and then Edgar after her—slower, more methodical, much more diffident in his fumbling finger-holds. At length he came to the lowest branch, sitting upon it, close to the trunk. Lee chose to sit on the branch above his, and farther away from the trunk. Unlike Edgar, who kept both hands always on his branch, Lee sat carefree on her branch, gesturing with her hands freely as she spoke.
“I wish papaw had this tree in his yard,” Edgar said. “Instead of that ugly tree that’s there.”
“I know about that tree,” Lee said confidently, her Southern drawl slowing around the vowels.
“You do?” Edgar said, his interest piqued.
“Sure I do,” she said. “It’s an old witch’s tree. A witch was buried there.”
“Under the tree?” Edgar said. “But what about the roots?”
Lee shook her head. “No, you ninny. I mean she was buried first and then the tree just sprung up from where she was buried. Everybody knows about it. It ain’t no secret around here.”
“Why didn’t mamaw and papaw tell me?”
“Because they didn’t want to scare you none,” Lee said. “It’s a gruesome story.” She smirked, her blue eyes twinkling with mischief. “Wanna’ hear it?”
Edgar did not know what “gruesome” meant, but he guessed that he probably did not want to hear the story. Watching Lee’s smirk widen, however, and seeing the twinkle in her eye grow bigger, he decided he would not let her think him a scaredy-cat anymore than she already did.
“Yes,” he said, taking a big gulp.
Lee’s smirk parted into a grin and Edgar wondered if he had not made a mistake.
“There was once this witch. She had magical powers. But she was a good witch. She did nothing but help people. But the judge had his mind set on her. They prepared a fire and the judge told her that if she didn’t marry him and put herself right by God she would burn in flames. The townsfolk pulled her to the fire when she refused. The judge gave her one final chance, but she fought back, falling down as they brought her toward that fire. Her hand went into the fire and she screamed in pain. Her hand got burnt up, but while it was burning it found the Devil’s hand waiting for her, and there and then they shook hands upon a compact.”
“What’s a compact?” Edgar asked.
“A deal,” Lee said, impatiently. “He made a deal with her for revenge. She then rose up, with her hand all fiery, and she tried to grab the judge. But somebody stabbed her with a knife.” Lee thumped herself in the chest with a fist. “Stabbed her in the heart. She died and they buried her where that tree is, in an unmarked grave. And that crooked tree grew up where she was buried. And then one day the judge was found dead, sitting next to her grave. They say it looked like he had a black ring around his throat, as if he’d been hung with a burning rope. Some think he had been strangled by the woman’s lover.”
Lee became silent, and the whole world seemed to become silent, and then Edgar thought he heard a witch cackling. And it was a witch: Mrs. Sparrow was cackling as she spoke to Mrs. Murrow and Mrs. Curtsinger. Edgar did not like Mrs. Sparrow. None of the children did.
“Why didn’t papaw tell me?” Edgar asked.
“Probably because he was afraid it’d give you nightmares,” Lee said.
“I did have a nightmare yesterday,” he said. “But…it didn’t scare me…not really…” He was overcome by disquiet.
“It’s just a story, Egg,” Lee said, her finger in her nose, digging away. “Don’t let it bother you.”
“It’s not bothering me,” he said defensively. “I’m not afraid. It’s just a stupid tree.” He stared down the side of the oak tree’s trunk, glaring at it as if it was calling him a scaredy cat. “I’m going to climb it when I get home.”
“You are a pretty good climber,” Lee said generously. “For a city boy. But I don’t think you should. I could climb it. Maybe momma and daddy can come over after church.”
“I can climb it by myself,” Edgar said, scowling.
“We’ll climb it together,” Lee said. Her scowl was much more intimidating than Edgar’s, so she won the argument.
That afternoon, after the Sunday luncheon, Lee’s parents brought her over to the farmhouse. Edgar was both happy to see her and resentful. He did not like it when someone treated him like a baby. His parents had done that for too long now. Everyone thought he was fragile; as if the truth would break him. But he could handle the truth. His parents should not have sent him out here, away from home. Even if home was cracking in two, it did not mean he would crack in two.
A misty rain was falling over the farm. Lee’s parents went indoors to talk with Edgar’s grandparents. Lee and Edgar walked toward the black tree. Lee glared up at it like it was a bully threatening her for her lunch money, and she would has its lunch money at the end of the day.
“It’s too wet to climb,” Edgar said, seeing the black bark glisten darkly in the falling mist. “We shouldn’t…”
“Don’t be a baby, Egg,” Lee said. “If you can climb a tree when it’s dry, you can climb a tree when it’s wet. Ain’t no big trouble. Now grabbing hold of a muddy hog, that is some hard wrangling.” She regarded the weirdly angled tree. “This…this is just a piglet chalked up in dust.”
Despite the wet chill of October, Lee was wearing shorts and a short sleeve shirt and tennis shoes. Her curly blonde hair was bound back in twin braids that clung tightly to her scalp, as if stitched there. In short, she had made herself ready to climb the tree.
“Maybe we should wait until it stops raining,” Edgar said.
“This ain’t rain,” Lee countered, holding a palm up for emphasis as the little mist softly alighted there. “This is just the fart of rain. It ain’t nothing.”
Every fear Edgar voiced circumspectly, Lee dissolved into shame, much the same as the mistiness dissolved the distant hills into vague shadows. He kept silent now, but Lee was not finished yet with his acid bath.
“Just stay here, if you want,” she said. “It ain’t really a hard tree to climb. It’s all bent over, inviting you up its back. Hell, it does the climbing for you, I’ll bet.”
And it was bent over, the tree having grown sideways so much that Lee easily scampered up its trunk, without the aid of any branches, her fingernails gripping the grooves in the bark.
“Easy-peasy lemon-squeezy,” she said.
But Edgar only watched her, steeped in his own apprehension. He could not move. He had never been this close to the tree before and he felt in his bones a chgill that was much colder than anything the rain could impart. The farther Lee climbed, the greater the chill he felt.
“Lee,” he called, “I think you should come down!”
But Lee was at the first branch of the tree— a thick, stumpy branch, almost fat and jointed like a thumb at the warty knot. Reaching this, Lee dared herself upright, standing to her full height. Edgar was too scared to be impressed, however, and moreover he had always seen Lee as being “higher up” than himself in many ways. He only wished she would return to the ground, but she just glanced back at him with a self-satisfied smile.
“You coming up, Egg?” she asked.
“No!” he said, his voice creaking with defensiveness and fear.
“You’re afraid you’ll fall and crack,” she said. “Like Humpty Dumpty.”
“Please come down, Lee!” he pleaded. He rarely used her name, for fear it might scare her away. He fidgeted as he stood in place, anxiety an army of tickling ants in his pants. “Lee, please come down. We’re going to get in trouble…”
He hoped an appeal to adult authority would convince her, but it didn’t. She only laughed…
And ventured farther out along the tree.
The sky was still gray, as it had been since Edgar first arrived in this county, but he saw everything clearly. The misty rain was still falling, but there was no wind. No other tree circumscribing the farm bobbed to the unrest of a breeze. No leaves, fallen or otherwise, rustled or tumbled or fluttered. Yet, the black tree moved; it trembled softly at first, then shook, and even as Edgar was rooted in place his mind went to catch Lee as she fell. He swore he moved to catch her, and yet he watched helplessly from afar as she fell. She screamed and her arms flailed as if in search of wings. But the only thing she caught was the earth, and the earth caught her as she fell to one side, one hand at a bad angle. She bounced on the soft wet grass, but there was a terrible crunching sound, followed by her protracted shriek. Edgar watched her roll around, clutching her twisted hand and twisted fingers with her unharmed hand. He then sprinted toward the house, yelling for any adult that could hear him.
There was a lot of shouting added to Lee’s wailing. It seemed to match the screaming inside Edgar’s head. He felt as if his head would explode and his heart would burst. The rush of her parents out to scoop her up, the screech of the tires of their truck as they took off toward the hospital, and the frenzied questions of his grandparents was all too much for Edgar. His mind was full of crashing, spasmodic images: the black tree, Lee falling, Lee’s ruined hand, her parents’ furious faces, and. A panic beset him and his breathing heaved and lurched rapidly until his grandmother took him to the living room’s couch, sitting him down and bringing him a warm rag which she put on his forehead while rubbing his back. As he calmed down, and his heart stopped racing, his eyes rested on the front window through which the black tree
His grandfather asked him a question, but he did not hear him. He only heard the echo of Lee’s scream, cycling endlessly. It deafened him to all other sounds. Gradually it subsided and he turned to look at his grandfather.
“What?” he whispered.
“What were you thinking, Egg?” he asked. “I thought you had enough sense not to climb in the rain!”
“I didn’t climb the tree,” Edgar said, still too disoriented to explain anything.
“But you let that little girl climb the tree?!”
“She’s taller than me,” he said, his thoughts still clogged by everything that had happened.
His grandmother interceded. “Please, Sam, leave the boy alone. You know he didn’t mean for anything to happen to her. She climbed that tree of her own will. You know she can be…well…uppity. Always has to prove something. Them Framptons have always been that way. Have to prove something. You heard Ellie in here, bragging about her rosebushes. And the way she said I should use more cinnamon in my apple pie.” His grandmother shook her head slowly, ruefully. “That’s not the way you are supposed to talk when you’re a guest in someone’s house.”
His grandfather nodded in agreement. “You’re right. Them Framptons have always been uppity. I just hope they don’t sue. Not that it was our fault. They asked to pay a visit and then their girl just goes and hurts herself. Awfully suspicious.”
“Lee didn’t mean for it to happen!” Edgar said suddenly. “I told her I was afraid of the tree and she wanted to show me there was nothing to be afraid of!”
His grandparents regarded him quietly for a moment. Then his grandfather spoke.
“Well, I guess she had something to fear from it, after all. Just stay away from that tree, Egg. And other trees, too. I don’t want to catch you climbing no more. It’s all well and good, being a kid, but there’s too much to risk at it. Not that I didn’t climb when I was your age…it’s just…well…”
“Your papaw thinks you have enough on your plate,” he grandmother explained. “What with your momma and daddy going through their…troubles.”
Edgar stood up, taking the warm rag from his head. “I want to go to the hospital,” he said. “I want to make sure Lee’s all right.”
“We’ll give ‘em a call,” his grandfather said. “She’s likely in a lot of pain, and, well, it’d be best not to bother them.”
“That’s right,” his grandmother said. “Folks need their privacy when they are dealing with their problems. And that ain’t ever truer than with the Framptons.” She stood, too, and went toward the kitchen. “I tell you what, Egg. I’ll make you a nice loaf of banana bread. That sound good? I think you deserve something sweet after all you been through today.”
“That’s a mighty fine idea,” his grandfather said, eagerly following the old woman into the kitchen. “I could do with some, too.”
Edgar stood alone in the living room, looking out the window at the black tree. The Grasping Tree. He had to do something about it. He just didn’t know what he could do. He glanced around the living room. There were crucifixes on the wall, and a painting of Jesus, framed, and other framed pictures— black and white photos of relatives he had never met and rustic paintings of barns and barnyard animals and angels— and. Then his eye alighted on the rosary that his grandmother coiled around her Bible. Unwinding the rosary, carefully, Edgar took the long tethered beads out to the tree and nestled it in among the roots. He then went inside and prepared for bed.
That night Edgar dreamed of a man in a black robe with a black hat and a black gaze. He held a Bible in one hand, and in the other a letter. The man was silent and stern, solid like a standing obelisk made of granite. But then his dark gaze faltered and he clasped the Bible and the letter to his chest, collapsing to his knees and weeping. A tall figure loomed over him. She bent down and embraced him with her long, willowy arms. As the man sobbed, the woman looked up at Edgar, and beneath ivory white hair and a blue eye and a milky white eye, her lips parted and a gleaming toothed smile spread in triumph.
Edgar woke to rain smattering upon the cupola window. Getting up from bed, amid shadows cast across his room by a nightlight, he looked out the blurry glass and saw the tree still grasping toward the house. He stared at it for a long time. Maybe it was only a trick of the heavy rain and his groggy eyes, but the bent-over tree looked as if it was closer to the house than ever before.
The next morning Edgar found the rosary shattered and scattered away from the tree. Rain was falling still, as it ever did, and his grandparents were inside. Now certain that it was, in fact, a witch tree, Edgar ran to his grandfather’s barn and fetched an axe. Edgar had used the axe before, helping his grandfather chop wood for Winter, but he had never used it to chop down a tree. Yet, he was a fast learner, even if he wasn’t a fast climber.
Edgar walked to the side of the tree that leaned away from him. Taking the axe in both hands, he eyed the trunk’s circumference and, taking a deep breath, raised the axe above his head. Hesitating only a split moment, he brought the axe down, striking the tree. It was not a solid strike— the axe head bounced off the tree, taking only a few black chips of bark with it. Worse, the rebounding axe almost chipped his shin. He steadied himself, his heart pounding and his brain afire with images of the witch and Lee’s broken hand and the tree shaking to life and the dark-eyed man weeping. He swung again, with a solider strike, planting the crescent blade into the trunk. He almost smiled, so proud he was of that swing. But it was raining outside, and it was a chilly rain, and he was chilled to his bones with fear and rain. He tried to pull the axe out and realized it was stuck. Putting a foot on the trunk, he jerked up and down on the axe. Gradually he pried the axe loose, seesawing the blade until it relinquished its bite, taking with it an oozing red pulp. The wound bled copiously, then, trickling sap that mixed with rain. Encouraged to see his enemy bleed, Edgar swung again, hacking an inch block out of the grievous wound. Now he was excited, feeling like a knight killing a dragon, and he raised the axe for another swing. It was as axe rose to its full arc above his head that the tree began to shudder in anguish. He felt it in the earth—a deep rumbling of rage—and he saw images in his head of the witch’s corpse clawing her way up through the wet soil to drag him down to Hell with her. Panic overtook him and the swing struck awry, his aim overextending and striking the trunk with the wooden handle rather than the head. The handle cracked up its shaft and the impact jarred Edgar’s bones, from his wrists to his shoulders. He fell backwards, scrambling out of the way as the axe leapt up and then came tumbling down toward him. It missed his food by half an inch.
Standing up, Edgar checked himself all over. Finding himself intact, and mostly unscathed, he stared at the tree. But it was still. It was silent. It held its secrets.
And then Edgar’s grandfather appeared.
“Boy,” he said, gawking between the tree and his grandson, “what’s gotten into you?”
“That tree is evil,” Edgar said, nearly breathless with fright. “We need to cut it down.”
“For the love of God, Edgar,” his grandfather groaned. “That Frampton girl put some strange notions in your head, didn’t she?”
Edgar began to cry.
“Jesus,” the old man said, not too unkindly. “Don’t go cryin’ at your age, boy. It ain’t right. Why, if my daddy saw me cryin’ he’d of given me somethin’ to cry about.”
Edgar’s grandmother came out, then, hurrying beneath her umbrella to see what was happening.
“What’s goin’ on here?” she demanded. “Egg, what’ the matter? Sam, did you whip the poor boy?”
“No, ma’am,” her husband said. “He sure tried to whip that tree good, though. Look at my brand new axe! Splintered to pieces…” He sighed in exasperation.
“Sorry, papaw,” Edgar said, wiping the rain, and tears, from his eyes. “But it’s evil. It hurt Lee. It’s trying to reach the house. I know it is.”
“Of all the nonsense…” his grandfather began to say, but the old woman cut him off.
“Sam,” she said, in a tone that bridged no argument. “I have always wanted to get rid of it, anyway. It’s an awful eyesore.”
Edgar’s grandfather gave her an indecisive shrug. “I mean, it’s a part of history…but it had to come down sooner or later, I reckon. And with a notch like that in it, it’ll die soon anyhow.” He sighed sadly. “When the rain stops, I guess I can get my chainsaw and take her down. The wood’s no good, it seems like. Too much sap. Just have to haul it all away…”
Edgar’s grandfather did as he said he would. Edgar watched from the front porch as the old man revved the chainsaw to its high whine and took its teeth to the Grasping Tree. Perhaps it was the acoustics of the holler playing tricks on Edgar’s ears, but he though he head a shriek beneath the whine of the chainsaw; and that shriek increased as the chainsaw touched the wood with its growling, hungry bite. Whether he truly heard it or not, he was glad when the tree came crashing down. He was even happier when his grandfather used his tractor and chains to haul it away. Yet, even as the tree dragged behind the tractor, it appeared to be reaching for the house; receding in the distance like a witch being dragged, clutching and kicking, to Hell.
Edgar went to bed that night expecting bad dreams. But he dreamt only happy dreams; dreams about his mother and father sitting at a table, smiling at him as the three of them sat and ate pancakes together. His parents talked and laughed and the world wasn’t falling apart. It was happy. No one was angry with anyone else. His mother took him to school in the morning and his father picked him up later, in the afternoon, but when they returned home, both of his parents returned there. Together. No one yelled. No one slammed doors. It was such a happy dream that it made him cry.
But in the morning he woke up to a real nightmare.
Edgar followed the scent of pancakes downstairs, feeling happier than he had in quite some time. His grandmother was in the kitchen, at the stove, pouring pancake batter into a sizzling pan. Beside her, on the counter, was a plate stacked tall with pancakes.
“Morning, Egg,” she said. “Sleep better last night?”
“Yes,” Edgar said, emphatically. He fetched three plates from the cabinet, and three forks, arranging them around the table. His grandfather came in from the living room, yawning.
“Papaw,” Edgar said, sitting down at the table. “Do you think we can go visit Lee later on?”
His grandfather and grandmother exchanged glances.
“In time,” he said, stiffly. “Maybe next week you can see you at church. Right now I’d give them some space.”
“But I want to make sure she’s okay,” Edgar said. “Please?”
“Tomorrow,” his grandfather said, his tone terse and final. “But I’m staying out in the car. The Framptons weren’t exactly nice to me on the phone yesterday.”
Edgar seemed to shrink in upon himself in his chair, as he always had when his mother and father were arguing. “They blame me for what happened to Lee,” he said.
“They blame all of us,” his grandmother said, disgruntledly flipping a pancake over. “But ain’t that just like a Frampton to blame others for the way they raise their own kids.”
This was little solace to Edgar. Suddenly he was afraid to see Lee; afraid her parents would yell and scream at him, and his grandparents, and he could not endure that. He had enough yelling and screaming back home in the city. He hated when adults argued. The whole world seemed to fall apart and nothing made sense anymore. It was as though their hateful words broke the sky itself and it would come crashing down at any moment, like a lamp, plunging the world into darkness.
“Don’t think on it, Egg,” his grandmother said. She brought the pan over and, using her spatula, slid a fresh, crisp pancake onto his plate. “Here. Starve your troubles by feeding your tummy.”
Edgar smiled up at her and cut his pancake into bite-sized pieces with his fork, pouring molasses over the brown-and-white bits of flat cake. But it was a long time before he managed to eat the pancake, and even then only with effort. He had lost his appetite the moment he learned that Lee’s parents was angry at them.
Maybe, he thought, Lee was angry with him, too.
It was a schoolday and Edgar’s grandfather always drove Edgar to school. The farm was so far away from town that the school bus could not travel that far in a timely manner. Edgar did not mind the school. It was smaller than the one he attended in the city, and so had a lot less bullies in it. Edgar also enjoyed the smaller class sizes and the quieter school. He was so used to the noises of the city that he never had the opportunity to realize how much he enjoyed silence.
And yet, as Edgard walked toward the truck, towing his backpack over one shoulder, there was a strange silence pervading the farm. His first instinct was to look to the Grasping Tree, but it was not there anymore. All that remained was a scattering of broken twigs and branches and the ugly, oozing stump which the rain had failed to washed clean.
He opened the truck door and climbed in. Buckling his seatbelt, he wondered if he would see Lee at school. Then he remembered that Lee was homeschooled and didn’t go to his rural school.
His grandfather checked the truck’s oil, as he always did before going anywhere, and Edgar, meanwhile, stared out the window, trying not to think about Lee and how anxious he was to see her. He could not say the exact moment it dawned on him that something was wrong. The silence was pervasive, of course, except for his grandfather’s gripes at the engine. Edgar was used to fairly quiet mornings at the farm, but there was always a soft ambience at the edges of the horizon. Birdsong. Cow lowing. Donkey laughter. Chicken bickering. Today, however, he could not hear any of those gentle accompaniments. He heard only a terrible silence.
And then he let his eyes wander away from the farm, out toward the knobs that were crowned in forests. The trees were utterly bereft of leaves, as if a great wind at swept through in the night and, all at once, disrobed the multitude. Trees as far as his young eyes could see were denuded of their flaring foliage. And what remained beneath were angry, clutching branches that all leaned toward the farmhouse like the burnt hands of Hell. His grandfather shut the hood of the truck and then got into the cab, turning the ignition.
“Gonna’ need to change the oil soon,” he concluded bitterly.
“The trees…” Edgar said. “The trees have changed.”
His grandfather glanced toward the horizon, where all of the trees reached toward them. “Lost all of their leaves, is all.”
“They’re not right…” Edgar said. “It’s all wrong…”
“They are a mighty bit uglier for it,” his grandfather said. “But that’s how it is. You know that. Lose their pretty red colors for Winter and then Spring comes round again and they’re the prettiest green again.”
“They’re just like that Witch Tree,” Edgar said. “They’re reaching toward the house.”
His grandfather regarded his grandson for a moment, then shook his head and sighed. “Damn it, Egg, don’t go on with that stuff. I can’t cut down every darn tree that makes you upset.”
“But they’re evil…”
His grandfather sighed angrily, and shifted the truck into Drive, easing down the gravel driveway.
“Now, Egg, you know better ‘an that. You’re just…overworked in your head. You need some work for your hands to keep your mind preoccupied. Maybe when you come back I can show you how to sand scuffs out of a chair. Or whittle wood. Or maybe .”
Edgar did not say anything. He only stared out the window, looking at all of those trees grasping toward the farmhouse.
Edgar arrived at school feeling wary. His nerves were screaming in an insistent chorus of alarm as he said goodbye, quietly, to his grandfather. He walked into the old brick school with his eyes darting to the left and to the right. Unlike the city school that he used to go to— with its many wings all arranged around a central lobby like a confused octopus—Grayson County Intermediate School was more or less a three-storey mansion with the gymnasium added to the back in a later century. It was more an eighteenth century mansion than a modern school, and it was decrepit and powdered with endless dust and the tiled floors were stained so badly with scuff-and-stuff that Edgar could not discern its original color. As soon as he entered the front doors the secretary’s office was on the right, the principal’s office was on the left, and the lobby lay straight ahead of him, cluttered with children opening and closing their lockers, chatting, horsing around, and generally doing what most kids in the city all did— albeit not so loudly, for lack of numbers, and with a slight drawl to their conversations. Did Edgar feel like an outsider here? Yes, but he often felt like an outsider in the city, too. And the children of Grayson County, much like the children in the city, ignored him since he neither offended them or impressed them.
And yet, Edgar felt eyes watching him. He felt eyes following him as he looked around, trying to espy his stalker in among the crowds and cliques. Several students returned his glance—with frowns of irritation or apathy or quizzical concern—and yet when they looked away the unseen eyes remained on him, urgent and unwavering.
Walking toward his Home Room, Edgar felt as if he could not trust any shadow, including his own.
In the schoolyard the leaves still clung to the branches of the trees encircling the recess area. The children were playing kickball and Edgar stood near the farthest edge of the clearing, so as to not be too involved in the game, and so as to not be culpable if his team lost. In fact, he was more preoccupied with staring at the different colors all clashing together in the woods than he was in the antics of the ball as it bounded past him. It was no wonder he jumped, so startled was he by its mischief. It leapt and charged into the woods like a wild animal seeking freedom. Edgar would have been happy to let it live out its remaining days in among the trees, free from the offenses of children’s feet, but his teammates shouted for him to fetch the ball before the other team could score a full run. So, reluctantly, Edgar tripped and stumbled and crashed into the woods, a hesitant hunter seeking his prey.
The ball, like flighty prey, ricocheted from one tree to another, zig-zagging in rabbit fashion and seeking shelter in the deeper, darker depths of the woods. When it finally came to rest in among the roots of a tree, Edgar was breathless with the chase. Gulping down air, he bent over and put his hands on his knees, trying not to vomit. The back of his throat burned with bile. The ball had led him on an escapade farther than it had any reasonable right to and though he could still hear the students calling for him in annoyed tones, their voices were softened by distance and density. The trees crowded around him and the voices of his classmates rebounded in devilish ways, tricking him with the acoustics of the woods so that he knew not which direction to go to return to the schoolyard clearing. The air suddenly became colder, chillier, cooling the bile in his throat and making his lungs ache. He felt the eyes upon him again, more intense than before, and stronger in intent. He knew he had to leave, and leave quickly. He knelt down to pick up the kickball. It was as his hands lifted the ball that he realized it had not been nestled between roots, but between boots. A chill caught in his chest, like a fist of ice clutching his heart, and, slowly, reluctantly, inevitably, he looked up to see that the trunk of the tree was actually a tall, stern man with a black gaze. The dark clad, dark-eyed man reached toward Edgar with a pale hand. Edgar fell back and away, fleeing in no one particular direction. He ran and ran, more wildly than the ball had when it bounded into the woods. As he carried it out into the clearing, he cursed the ball and he cursed his own rotten luck.
When Edgar emerged from the woods he was panting and sobbing. He fell to his knees and crawled across the yard, the kickball rolling away from him. His gym teacher, Mrs. Bradley, rushed to him, helping him to his feet and looking him all over.
“What happened?” she asked.
“Man in the woods,” Edgar moaned between sobs.
Some of the children exchanged worried glances. Others snickered. Mrs. Bradley looked toward the woods fearfully, then toward the children.
“Everyone inside! Now!”
They went into the Health classroom and waited there, confined indoors while the principal searched the woods for a trespasser. Finding no one, he returned and asked Edgar for a description. Edgar blurted out the details in earnest, never realizing until it was too late how absurd it was.
“He was tall and had a long black coat and black hat and black eyes and a curly white wig!”
The principal and Mrs. Bradley frowned. The principal rolled his eyes. Mrs. Bradley leaned over him, smiling thinly. Edgar knew that kind of smile; knew that it meant an adult did not believe you whatsoever.
“You’re not making up stories, are you, Egg?”
“He was standing in the woods. I’ve seen him in my dreams. The witch…he and the witch belong together!”
The students glowered at Edgar for the rest of the day. He had ruined their kickball game and shortened their recess. He had been a “baby” and ruined everything with his crying, they said. It was like the city all over again—just like when he tried to get his parents’ attention from the top of the bleachers. He had not meant to fall. He only wanted them to see him, and to stop arguing in the parking lot. He shouted at them and when they begged him to come down, he tripped over a seat and tumbled over sideways. He did not remember much after that except someone crying, and his own pain. Perhaps he was the one crying. Neither of his parents ever cried—they were too busy blaming each other. He had landed on his head, or so they told him later. It did not crack, but the yolk inside sure was scrambled for a few days. They said he had a “concussion”. It wasn’t a big problem for him. He had headaches, occasionally, but no worse than the ones he had suffered before his fall— the ones when his mom and dad yelled at night when they thought he was asleep, keeping him awake so that he went to school sleepy and dizzy and often too tired to think without his head throbbing.
And now everyone at his new school was looking at him with contempt, or mockery, or both. He was a “liar from the city”, like all cityslickers who came out to the country to boast of all of the useless things they knew, talking down to the locals, or committing that terrible sin of being worldly.
Yet, not everyone in the school was unsympathetic. Mrs. Ansel, the librarian, was a favorite of Edgar’s, as he was one of her favorites, and she spoke soothingly to him about her own misadventures in imagination while in the woods. Since he liked the old woman so much he did not mind that she did not literally believe him. At least she did not believe he was “cracked” like the other teachers.
“I remember when I thought I saw a fairy sitting upon a toadstool,” Mrs. Ansel said as she sat at her desk, Edgar across from her. “My mother thought I had been eating mushrooms and was delusional. She jammed her fingers so far down my throat that I thought she was trying to turn it inside out. And she nearly did. She didn’t stop until I had given up everything I had had for lunch, breakfast, and all of the cookies I had eaten secretly between. Even after all of that she watched me sideways for a week, fearing I might keel over any moment.”
Mrs. Ansel laughed softly, her eyes peering back through the misty decades. Edgar— who was no more intentionally manipulative than any other child his age—asked Mrs. Ansel if there were any historical books about Grayson County I the library. She holy half-roused from the thick, sticky web of her memories.
“There are a few at the Grayson Public Library,” she said. “But none here. Really more like folktales than legitimate historical works.”
Edgar did not say anything else. When his grandfather came to pick him up he asked to go to the Public Library. His grandfather shrugged indifferently, one way or the other, and so, an hour or so later Edgar returned to the farm clutching three books to his chest, as if they might shield him from the Grasping Trees now surrounding the farm.
The first book, “Grayson County History” was as dry and unappealing as its humdrum title. Edgard read it for about twenty minutes—skimming the pages like a water strider over a pond—until he came to an entry concerning a prominent judge named Ethan Blake. It did not say much except in mentioning a few reforms concerning “Patrilineage” laws in Grayson County. Edgar did not know what it meant. It did not provide elaborations, either on the law or the judge’s “queer death”, nor were there any pictures or drawings; only thick blocks of stale, dense text.
The second book was “Grayson County Folklore”, which was as dry a title as the first, yet benefited from its more flavorful subject matter. Or so Edgar had thought. Whoever wrote it, wrote it drily, too. He began to think that the two books were written by the same man, or woman. Yet, as he read it, sitting next to the dormer window, it was bettered by the vista of the Grasping Trees, which lent an urgency to his reading that was stonewalled by the previous book’s bland subject matter. As he read through the titles of these folktales he could feel the trees reaching toward him with their gnarled, black, skeletal fingers. And when he saw the title “The Witch’s Ghost” he knew, in the ancestral marrow of his bones, that he had all reason to be afraid. But he read the story, overcome with a clammy sweat. The story told him nothing new or different from what other people had told him. However, to see it confirmed on a page, in a real book, somehow granted his mind permission to feel justified in his fright, which only frightened him even more.
“Egg!” his grandmother called upstairs, making him jump. “Supper!”
“I am not going to crack,” he whispered to himself. “I am not going to crack…”
That night he dreamt of many hands reaching for him, grabbing him, fighting over him, pulling on him as voices boomed thunderously, arguing and screaming with gale-force winds, blaming each other and him. They yanked on his arms and his legs and his hair, wrestling him one way, and then another, until they abruptly released him, all at once, as if he was no longer worth having, as if he was spoiled, and he plummeted toward the earth, shattering on impact.
“I’m not going to crack, I’m not going to crack, I’m not going to crack,” he repeated, pressing his palms upon his temples as if to keep his skull from splitting apart. “I’m not going to crack…”