On the western bank of the wide river, whose waters rushed strong and cold during the spring and remained treacherous even during the hottest summers, grew a tree older than the memory of even the oldest residents of the nearby town. Its branches brushed the sky with rustling green leaves during the growing season, promising life, just as during harvest time their lifeless husks whispered of the dead when the chill wind passed through them. Roots that ran deeper than any person could imagine were rumored to be anchored in Hell itself, and no lovers had ever been able to carve their initials in the tough, deep, ashen-grey ridges of its bark.
“Cursed,” the village elders proclaimed, “haunted.”
Yet, it didn’t stop the younger generations from heading down to the river on the anniversary of when the tree supposedly acquired its curse, or asking the old folks their take on the situation.
“Some say it was a pair of lovers, caught by the girl’s father as they were trying to run off. When the father had the boy strung up on the tree’s branches, she threw herself into the river, and the father’s bitter tears tied him to the spot. You can hear him crying there,” said one old man, his toothless grin extremely satisfied by the wide-eyed listeners.
“Feh, I heard ’twas an outlaw and his childhood sweetheart. She waited years for him to give up his wicked ways, and he finally did, but on the night they were to meet and begin their life together, his past caught up to him. The lawmen of the time ran him down on their horses, stabbed him near a hundred times, and parted his head from his shoulders as she wept over his corpse. It’s her that hangs from that bedeviled tree, taking her own life in a fit of grief,” proclaimed an elderly woman, who spent much of her time rocking back-and-forth on her front porch.
“Hah! Young lovers and childhood sweethearts my aching foot,” yet another man, a nearly ancient fixture in the small community, spat. “No good dissenters, is more like; caught in the act of planning a coup beneath the rattling, bare branches of the tree. By midnight, everyone gathered to watch the various forms of execution. Most were attached to weights and thrown into the river, a couple were flayed alive as their small children watched, a few were staked down and disemboweled to die slowly, while the youngest, thirteen summers old, was spared such pain by being beheaded.”
“At the very least,” the soft-spoken voice of the woman who ran the general store asserted, “the ground around that damned tree is soaked with the blood of the innocent and guilty alike. Nothing good can come of such a thing–best you keep away.”
But they never did. Fueled by foolish provocations and the desire to impress their crushes, the children–usually teenagers–would sneak out and head to the tree.
Most times nothing would happen despite numerous claims otherwise, and they would go back home incredibly disappointed, but ready to scare the next generation into the time-honored right of passage.
Sometimes, however, when the moon was a disc of ebony in the sky and the wheel of the year began to turn toward darkness, a lone, misguided person might be granted a meeting with the souls trapped in the heartwood. It was then they could whisper angrily or woefully of their crimes, injustices, and demises to the living, as they were doomed to experience the moment of their deaths over and over.
Most fled for home and spoke to no one of what happened. Others, though, succumbed to the madness of the ghosts and were never seen again. Marked as runaways, no one searched for them. However if one dug deep enough near the roots of the tree, just a breath farther than most felt they needed to, the corpses of the missing would be found–an expression of horror forever etched in their features. While their souls joined the legion of dead to fall beneath those branches.
So if you’re asked, or taunted, to visit the tree, maybe it would be best to accept the good-natured ribbing of your cowardice over the loss of your life and eternal soul? But then again, who’s to say you’ll meet with the dead? Take a chance and roll the dice…if you dare.