Greg Stermolle

When my grandfather was a young man and just beginning his marriage to my grandmother, they went for a twilight horse ride in the forest. Grandpa, being the hopeless romantic he was, brought a blanket to rest on, a small handkerchief stuffed with cheese, and a cheap bottle of wine. The forest grew more dense and crowded the farther down the river they rode. The trees were tall and ominous as the branches began to dull the small sliver of sun still peeking over the rolling hills of Arborsham. Even the birds seemed to have found some other place to gather and squawk. They came to a place where the river forked into three sections and then continued roiling underground to another watercourse rushing toward the coast. The trees stretched out their branches like arms, wiggling great claws in the harsh autumn breeze. Faces grew from the knots in the bark, watching the pair ride past on their powerful mounts.

But as they rode into a small clearing, my grandfather caught sight of a brilliantly prismatic purple and orange flower perched daintily on the ground beneath a great tree; a tree completely at odds with the rest of the forest. The other trees at the edge of the clearing grew slouched and at odd angles, like shameful, disgraced underlings. The entire forest seemed to be shirking away from the dominating presence that rooted everything else out of its clearing. The

great tree had dark moss encasing the lower half of its trunk and listed to one side like a pirate ship victoriously limping to port after a great battle. The bright green leaves were a funny shape with three points; like little clusters of pitchforks.

Grandpa slung himself from the horse and started to crunch his way toward the beautiful blossom. "Look at that," he said, as his eyes whirled like a purple and orange kaleidoscope. Grandma was pulled in by the flower as well, but as she stepped from the stirrup, her foot crunched something she recognized was not wood. Her foot had come down and collapsed the chest of a decomposing rabbit, half covered with leaves. She began to see the remains of hundreds of different animals littering the ground. But not just animals—black and gray feathers were strewn about as if a historic pillow fight had been decided in this very clearing. Beaks and claws poked silently through the leaves autumn had left, like a blanket over the clearing. A scream primed in her throat, but by the time it reached her lips, it had shriveled to a weak moan and dribbled from her mouth. She was left breathless at the sight of the giant tree, as the trance of the dazzling flower drew back like a snake slithering from a fiery torch. She could not say the tree had eyes, but it was studying her just the same. Goose bumps washed over her as an awareness from the tree combed her body, gently prickling its way through each of the little thin hairs at the nape of her neck. The horses must have felt it also, as they stamped and pawed at the ground.

Grandpa was spellbound by the flower and paid no heed to the tree or the fact it had begun surrounding him with its branches. As he knelt close to the flower, he could feel warm drafts drifting past his face in regular intervals; enough to unsettle his deep brown hair, smartly parted down the middle. Something was breathing on him. Almost too late, Grandpa realized he had become the prey. Wind rustled the bloodred pitchfork-shaped leaves and snapped him to attention. But he couldn't help himself. Grandpa reached down and grabbed the beautiful flower, pulling with all his might. Even though he was wearing a leather jacket, he could feel the branches, like wooden stakes, slowly driving into his skin. Shards came up from the ground and wriggled through the soles of his boots like a knife through warm apple pie. Grandpa grabbed the flower with both hands and leaned back on his heels, straining against the wooden spikes twisting their way into his skin. And finally, with a ghastly, tearing sound, the flower gave way. Grandpa was snatched into the air for a moment and then dropped as the tree let out a creaking, desecrated wail.

Grandpa landed on his rear and scrambled, hands and feet, to get clear of the talons thrashing about the fibrous beast. A beast, born of some devilish timber, undeniably coming to life in front of him. The flower was still clenched tightly in Grandpa's hand as he found his legs and ran to Grandmother, who was holding the two horses. He could see she was horrified, shaking, eyes wide from fear and wonder. "Toss me the reins," he yelled, but got no response. "LIZZY!" he shouted, grabbing her right foot.

Grandmother kicked out like a mule, striking Grandpa in the chest and sending him tumbling to the ground. "OH JESUS," she finally yelled. "Throw that cursed thing away, and let's GO, Marion!" Grandpa got to his feet again and took the reins from her, but his horse wanted nothing to do with him as long as he held the flower. With the bark-encrusted monster still wailing behind them, like a wicked witch watching a hungry vulture fly off with her favorite black cat, Grandma spurred her horse and hoofed away with Grandpa's mount in obliged pursuit. But Grandpa wasn't ready for the sudden burst and was only able to grab the saddle horn. He lifted his legs off the ground and let the sturdy beast gather some momentum. When the horse had enough speed going, Grandpa kicked down at the ground and propelled himself back into the saddle. The two horses needed no steering as they made record time back to the Good Samaritan ranch in Arborsham.

Neither could hear during the ride, but once they stopped, Grandpa heard the helpless flower stifling a bittersweet lament of mourning. He had jammed the little bud into the inside pocket of his riding jacket and could feel it shivering, ever-so-slightly, against his left breast. He pulled out the minuscule blossom and cupped it in his leathery, workman's hands. Grandma caught a faint whisper of the sobs and wrapped her arm around Grandpa, thinking it was his sobs, perhaps of amelioration, she was hearing. But as she laid her head on his broad shoulder and saw what lay in his hands, she withdrew her hand as if he was the keeper of the fiery furnace, come to call. Brimstone and fire spewed through her tone. "I know you left that…that…devil's posy back where you found it, Marion Shaloot!" she hissed, as she crossed herself. "I know you did not bring that cursed thorn back to the preacher's ranch. If my father finds that unholy thing here, you'll be doing more than volunteering at the church and the school and here at the ranch to find his favor. You take that demon seed back to where you found it."

"But Lizzy," he said, without glancing from the flower.

"Right NOW, Marion! And DO NOT Lizzy me," she said, hands at her hips, left foot out, vehemently tapping the dirt.

Grandpa could not take his eyes off the flower. "But, Elizabeth, look, it's crying."

"Yes, Marion," she said, as if she were scolding a five-year-old, "because it's possessed. That's a hell's bell in your hand, you village idiot! Now, do as I say and take it back." She gave him a farewell nod and shot her long, bony, manicured pointer back down the trail. Grandpa finally looked up and started to speak but was shut down as she tilted her head to the right and started back down the trail. Grandpa obliged, put the little bud back in his coat pocket, and trotted his horse back down the trail. Only, he didn't go back to where the river forked and then went underground. Instead, he went home.

When Grandpa was a young man, he met a beautiful young girl who happened to be the preacher's daughter. The preacher was a fire and brimstone Baptist, and no one except himself or Jesus Christ was ever going to be good enough for his princess. But the preacher had the money and the influence in Arborsham's early days, a fact Grandpa was well aware of the day he introduced himself to Miss Elizabeth Abraham. And five minutes in the same room with her was more than enough to expose her as the deplorably scandalous, most wretched young girl in the county. Also a fact Grandpa was aware of but knew how to use to his advantage. The preacher had no stomach for a young man off the farm, with no schooling and dirt under his nails. And so, Grandpa played the part of the country bumpkin. He talked and worked and ate like the halfwit everyone believed him to be. But beneath the tanned, calloused, dirty exterior was an incredible machine. He was a tenacious man and continued toiling away on his father's farm. He lulled the ersatz preacher and his wayward daughter, like a snake charmer, with phony smiles, a sympathetic ear, and cordial affection. Grandpa put up with the whiney, stuck-up daughter and eventually put a ring of gold-plated tin on her finger. Grandpa knew, when the preacher finally kicked that Golden Bucket, everything would go to the daughter.

When Grandpa got to the edge of the forest, he only needed to take one look at the clearing surrounding that tree to know exactly what it was: an answer to his nightly prayers. A tree that ate things. He saw the multitude of dead carcasses surrounding the massive beast. A country man all his life, he could sense the death, could smell it in the air. So he took the little whimpering flower home and planted it out near a small brook in the corner of Mr. Shaloot's land. He took great care to find the perfect spot, near water, ample morning sun, and decent shade in the afternoon…about the time couples go picnicking. His father was too old to work the little bit of land they owned, and his mother never ventured past the big oak on the outskirts of their cornfield. Grandpa watered and cared for the little bud like a favorite dog. When it was small, he would gather grubs and pinkies for it. Then, after several months, it sprouted and was able to capture its own food. And after about two years of care, the tree matured and was leaving its own patchwork of carcasses, which Grandpa carefully disposed of.

Elizabeth eventually moved in with Grandpa and his parents and set out immediately to become the wedge between him and everything he loved. One night, at the end of a particularly labor-intensive steak and potato dinner, Elizabeth said, "You know, Mrs. Shaloot, my mother offers classes on cooking at the church. I'm sure she could teach you how to put some flavor into your cooking. If anyone could flavor up…"

Grandpa grabbed her forearm and tried as hard as he could to splinter the two bones beneath his grip. "That was not very polite," he said through clenched teeth, staring down at the brown potato skin, empty cobs, and leftover gristle.

"I actually thought it was a wonderful meal, Ma," Mr. Shaloot said. "Now if I could just get a little of that fresh apple pie you got steaming over on that stove. Course…" he said, looking over to Elizabeth, "won't be so good when I see it again tomorrow," and clapped her on the shoulder, sharing a laugh with himself.

"Well, I just thought everyone could benefit from a little time well spent. I'm sorry, Mrs. Shaloot, I did not mean to offend." The last she said with the most despicable excuse for a smile, using her cheeks rather than her lips.

Grandpa stood up and began to clear the dinner plates. "Lizzy, would you mind giving me a hand with the dishes," he said as she excused herself and trotted off toward the door.

"No," she said, without turning around. "I'm going for a walk. Hopefully it will help settle my stomach." And out the door she walked.

"Well, be careful, dear," Mrs. Shaloot said from the kitchen.

"Nonsense!" Mr. Shaloot said, not so loudly, "…go fall in a deep hole and join your father for a swim in that lake of fire he's always preachin' about." The three could only look at each other and chuckle.

Grandpa continued his loving relationship with the little flower, which had grown into a strong, rooted tree. Occasionally, he would have to remove some poor animal's paw or tail from the knots in the bark. On days when Grandmother was ostentatiously absurd with her ranting, Grandpa would sneak out and sit beneath his tree. It would bend its branches to provide him shade and allow him to vent about her latest farce. But when Grandmother eventually became pregnant, he didn't go out to the tree as much. The two children she carried in her womb had changed his spirit. The feeling must have spread through the house because the further along she got, the more querulous and critical she became only, no one seemed to mind so much. Even after they were born, the two children brought happiness and joy into the humble country home.

When the children were about six months, Grandma decided she was going to leave and move back with her parents. She said she had had enough of country living, the dust, the smelly animals, manual labor, and the horrible company she was forced to keep. At least that was her excuse. So Grandpa agreed. He wished her farewell and even helped her pack. She was gone three nights before she asked to come back. Her father was even more controlling than she. One afternoon, she came to the door crying, pleading to be let back. "He keeps me bottled up like an ant," she said, through buckets of fake tears. "He said if I left, I'd never be welcome again."

That evening, Grandpa prepared a handkerchief with cheese and a cheap bottle of wine. "I found a wonderful spot by the brook," he said. "We can take a blanket and sit out and discuss things before we make any more…abrupt decisions." They walked out past the field and past the big oak, to where the little brook passed through a corner of the Shaloot farm. "Right under this tree over here, we can watch the sunset," he said, with a heart-melting smile. She rolled out the blanket beneath the tree, and he sat down next to her. Grandma almost warmly wrapped her arms around his waist and put her lips close to his ear. But before the words could come out, she was snatched into the air. Grandpa opened the handkerchief and popped a piece of sharp cheddar into his mouth. The screams only lasted for a few moments. Grandpa could not bring himself to watch the feast, but I don't think you could say he was sad either. Once the tree was finished, he gathered up the picnic and walked back to the house.

The preacher searched for months. Grandpa was questioned. The preacher was questioned and eventually tried for the crime. He had the better motive. During the trial, however, the preacher suffered a massive stroke, and Grandpa became the heir of the Good Samaritan ranch. But nothing of Mrs. Elizabeth Shaloot was ever seen again. Of course, if anyone would have looked closely at the tree by the brook in the far corner of the Shaloot farm, near the top were two branches that stuck out like arms of a scarecrow. At the ends were five smaller branches, which could almost have been an old woman's hands. And, if anyone had paid attention, the third finger on the right branch was wearing a gold-plated tin wedding ring.