T HAD BEEN MORE than fifteen years since he last visited the Gallow’s Tree, and the old paths were overgrown with treacherous weeds and briars. Val worried he wouldn’t remember the way through the tangles of crooked oaks and pines. But as he trudged along the shadow-dappled carpentry of leaves and pine needles, he started to notice familiar landmarks—the rotting remains of a great stump, a jagged outcropping of rock with peculiar red markings—though they be concealed by moss and brambles.
“This way,” he said, pushing aside a grasping, thorny vine. “I can almost make out the trail.”
David followed. As he ducked beneath the vines, a thorn snagged his sleeve. He cursed and tugged his sweater free.
“Let me get this straight.” He laughed. “You used to live here?”
Val nodded. He had been expecting David’s sarcastic streak to bloom at any moment.
“Here,” David said again.
“In the vicinity, yeah.” Val glanced over his shoulder and cocked an eyebrow. “You find that hard to believe, I take it?”
“Well, yeah. No offense, man. Me of all people I’m not judging you, but I just can’t imagine you growing up in a place this … I don’t know … rural.”
“Eight years of my life,” Val said. “My family moved here around the time I turned nine. Remember the house we passed at the edge of the woods? I grew up there.”
“That old ruin?” David laughed again.
“It was in better shape back then.”
“I can’t imagine anyone ever living there, let alone the great Val Winters, cosmopolitan playboy.”
“Houses rot,” Val answered, “and people change.”
With every step, Val felt the day-to-day pressures of boardroom battles and grueling conference calls and scandalous media attention. He had wondered if returning after all this time would be a good idea. Now he wondered why he had waited so long.
“Val Winters!” David’s voice rang out through the forest. A flock of agitated black birds took flight from nearby branches. “King of the Wild Frontier!”
Up ahead, wiry vegetation with inch-long thorns swallowed the path. To the right, dense grey trees formed a nearly impassable wall. To the left, the path descended toward a dry creek bed. This Val remembered, only water flowed through the channel when he had last seen this place, and he had used stepping-stones to cross. He skirted down the bank and climbed the other side. David tripped when he reached the creek bed, falling to his hands and knees. He regained his footing quickly, brushing feverishly at his slacks.
“We never discussed the matter of my dry cleaning bill,” he said. “And my shoes are ruined.”
“Should have worn something more suited to the woods.”
A snide smile curled David’s lips. “Like I have anything like that.”
“Haven’t you ever been camping?”
“You’re kidding, right?”
Offering a hand, Val hoisted David up the other side of the bank. David’s palm was clammy and sweaty.
“You all right?” Val asked.
“Fine. Fine. But tell me again what we’re looking for. I mean, I understand wanting to take a walk down memory lane as much as the next guy, but this—”
“We’re not far now,” Val said.
The path was even more overgrown on this side of the creek bed. If not for Val’s memory of the route he had taken on so many occasions, they might have quickly lost their way. As they proceeded through the forest, the twilight shadows grew longer, the darkness between the hollows of trees deeper. Soon, the trail broadened, exposing a shaded clearing.
Before them loomed a massive, gnarled old tree.
“This is it,” he said. The trunk of the tree was gray, and runners, like veins, threaded along the craggy bark. The limbs stretched in all directions, reaching to the edges of the clearing and forming a crisscrossing net overhead, a web ensnaring the darkening sky. The bends and knots of the branches reminded David of the arthritic arms of retired muscle builders. “This?” David asked.
“This? You drug me all the way out here for this?”
“You don’t know what you’re looking at.”
“What did you call it?” David asked.
Val’s gaze danced over the tree.
“The Old Gallows Tree,” he said.
David shrugged. “Sorry, man. I was expecting a little more, I guess.”
“This spot was used during lynchings,” Val said. “From the branches of this tree—the Gallows Tree—criminals were executed. A lot of people believe many of the men who were killed here were innocent, victims of an overzealous lynch mob. At night the ghosts of the hanged men appear, still dangling from the branches, whispering their pleas of innocence to anyone who will listen.”
“You’ve got a real morbid streak, Val. Did I ever tell you that?” David shook his head, but his laughter caught in his throat. “Wait a second. You’re not going to tell me that you believe the stories, are you?”
“Of course I do,” Val said.
A gust of wind rushed through the clearing, and the old tree limbs swayed.
“When I first heard the stories about the Gallow’s Tree,” Val said, “I was fascinated. I always loved monsters and ghosts. They terrified me, but I loved them.”
“Sounds vaguely like a co-dependent relationship,” David mused.
“Smartass. You know what I mean. Then I learned that this tree was just a short hike through the woods from my house, so of course I had to check it out. I snuck out of the house one night and followed the trail back into the woods. Got lost so bad at least once that it’s amazing that I ever made it out. I found the tree, though … and the stories were true.”
He approached the tree, ran his fingertips along the trunk.
“The tree hasn’t changed much in all the years,” he said.
“So if it’s true,” David said, “where are these ghosts?”
Val backed away from the tree, still looking up at the crooked boughs, and sat down upon the ground. “We wait,” he said.
“What? For how long?”
“As long as it takes. You don’t have to stay if you don’t want to.” He fished the car keys from his pocket and tossed them to David. “Go on back to town, check into a motel. I’ll catch up with you later.”
“As if I’ll be able to find my way to the car.” David threw the keys back. “I guess I’m waiting with you, although I hate the idea of fueling your delusions.”
As night settled around them, the air grew cold.
Val continued his story.
“Here’s the thing. When I was a kid, I felt like no one wanted to talk to me. No one wanted to listen to me. We had just moved to the area. You know how it is—being different. I didn’t have any friends.”
“Everyone feels that way at one time or another,” David said.
“Yeah, I guess so. I know it’s going to sound crazy, but the tree became something of a friend to me. Not the tree. The spirits. I listened to them and they listened to me.”
“Val, if you’re not pulling my leg with all this, the first thing we have to do when we get back home is get you a therapist. Sitting out here in the middle of the woods, waiting for … ghosts to appear—it’s crazy. We don’t even have jackets, and it’s freezing out here.”
“It always gets colder before they appear.”
“Oh, come off it, will you ”
The tree groaned and creaked.
Val turned and looked up at the tree. A pale luminescence washed across his face. David followed his gaze.
From each of the heavy branches depended a ghastly figure. Coarse, knotted rope dug into the flesh of their throats. Their bodies sagged, limp beneath outstretched and distended necks. Their faces were bloodless, frozen in painful leers. Their eyes bulged in the sockets. They swayed back and forth as they glared down upon Val and David.
“Oh, Lord,” David choked.
The whispered voices of the ghosts joined the unremitting creaking of the ropes.
“I did not do this thing.”
“Please. Innocent. Please.”
Each horrific spirit gibbered of its innocence.
“Val, let’s go. I believe you, ok? You’ve proven your point. Let’s just go.”
But Val stepped towards the tree. He raised his arms towards it. “Do you remember me?” he asked.
“Innocent,” the spirits hissed. “I used to come out here.” Val’s voice sounded almost childlike. “To talk with you.”
“Mercy! Mercy! I have committed no crime!”
“Please,” Val said, “you remember, don’t you?”
But still the spirits ignored him, instead crying out to the unseen lynch mob that had killed them so long ago.
“Let’s get out of here,” Dave said, grabbing Val by the shoulder. “They … they don’t remember.”
“No!” Val shrugged his hand away. “They know who I am.”
The spirits gibbered incessantly, and it was impossible to tell where one plea for mercy ended and another began.
“They remember,” Val said. Spittle flew from his lips. “They just want me to prove myself.”
“What are you talking about? I’m leaving. You hear me, Val? I’m leaving.”
“You’ll get lost in the woods,” Val said. “You said so yourself.”
David stepped away.
“Funny thing about these spirits,” Val said. “They hang there professing their innocence. But they aren’t innocent, David. They committed the crimes. Only they won’t admit it, except to one of their own.”
“One of their own?”
“I found out quite by accident, you know? And they demanded so little. A favorite pet. But they started asking for more and more, but it was worth it, because they listened, really listened. They understood me.”
Val jangled the car keys in his had. He wrapped his fist around the keys, leaving the point of one protruding from his fist.
“I just have to remind them. That’s all.”
He took a step towards David.
“What are you doing?”
Val drew closer. As if sensing Val’s intent, the tree spirits started convulsing and howling, only this time they did not plead for clemency, did not weep for their disavowed innocence confessions, but instead cackled and hissed the most awful stories stories of murder, theft, rape, and worse all the while trembling and bucking and swinging back and forth back and forth on the decaying, creaking ropes.
Val’s hand flashed out.
© 2005 Cullen Bunn, all rights reserved
September 2005 Issue, Updated December 23, 2018
BLOOD ROSE is Copyright © M. W. Worthen.