The Hanging Tree - Short Story - Fiction
My hands were stuffed deep into the pockets of the jacket I’d grabbed on my way out the door. The night air was uncharacteristically cold, and I wished I had brought gloves and a hat. With every hurried step, my breath hung in the air like frozen vapor. I made my way into the town square and under the massive Live Oak that stood at its center. The wintry wind blew down through the thick, gnarled branches of the ancient tree. I alternated my weight from one foot to the other, partly to keep warm but mostly because fear gripped me to the core. I listened as the bitter wind whistled through the gray, dead branches. I listened for names spoken by the tree known by some as the Whispering Oak, and by others, as the Hanging Tree. I heard nothing and felt only the icy wind biting at the tips of my ears.
If I had learned anything during the short time I had been in Oak Springs, it was that something was not normal about this sleepy southern town, but that is what had attracted me here. Oak Springs was a town that lingered in a simpler time - a place of escape from a stressful world. Taking up residence here was an easy choice; I was immediately taken by the charm of both the town and its people.
Their massive limbs intertwined overhead, made even the hottest day bearable.
Summer was in full bloom when I arrived. The days were hot and humid but the Live Oak trees that lined the wide streets, created a canopy of shade. Their massive limbs intertwined overhead, making even the hottest day bearable. I was fascinated by the deep pride of the citizens; family roots were carefully traced back before the Civil War. I checked out a book from the library, authored by a local historian. He wrote that the town sat atop a natural spring and former Creek Indian Village. After the Indians had been removed from the land, white settlers wasted no time building their own settlement on the site. The name, Oak Springs, was merely a description of the natural surroundings.
Those early settlers cleared the land, built homes, cotton plantations and brought slaves to work in the fields and the plantation houses. Although the ravages of the Civil War did not directly affect the area, many men, young and old, joined the Confederate Army to fight in the war of secession.
Once the war ended, and the sons of Oak Springs returned home; life continued on with little change. Even when slavery was outlawed and the slaves were freed, only a few left to find family members they had been separated from, but most stayed and continued to work for the same masters, as sharecroppers.
As many old southern towns do, Oak Springs held solemnly to traditions based on stories passed from one generation to the next. I stood under the oldest of the Live Oaks, which the town was literally built around, and the mighty that was the focus of their most treasured traditions. Its trunk was immense, requiring a dozen grown men standing finger-tip-to-finger-tip to encircle it and the height recorded at over fifty feet tall. tree
Twisted and tangled branches reached out on all sides of the tree, hanging over the streets that made up the town square. In the summer months, it provided refreshing shade for shoppers visiting the surrounding shops. In the winter, its limbs were adorned with twinkling lights that gave the square a fairytale look.
In springtime, it was a regular occurrence for young couples to meet under the tree where young men would propose marriage. The tree was said to whisper the names of the young pair, confirming a genuine love and a lasting marriage. Every wedding album had a photograph of the happy couple under the tree on their wedding day.
There was a darker side of the old Oak’s tradition
As is the case with many traditions, facts are sometimes tainted to keep an ugly truth from being known. There was a darker side of the old Oak’s tradition that was not spoken of in Oak Springs.
I was jogging through the square one morning, as I usually did, when I saw an old woman slipping in and out of the shadows along the sidewalks. As I neared, the woman began to shout.
“They don’ hear the names from the hangin’ tree no’ mo’, no sir, they don’ hear them.” She then disappeared down an alleyway that led into a more unpleasant part of town, known as the Old Quarters.
I asked neighbors, shopkeepers, even the pastor of the largest church in Oak Springs what the old woman meant. They all shrugged it off, dismissing it as the ramblings of a crazy old lady. An anxious look in their eyes suggested there was more; I had to know what it was.
I made a risky trip into the Old Quarters and found the woman who lived in a shack on the banks of a murky creek. She spoke through clenched teeth, which held a pipe, as smoke swirled around her head.
“If you stanz under de tree de night o’ de winter solstice, when de moon sits high in de sky, you hear dey names and ye see dey faces in de old tree. Dat tree where dey was hanged; De Hangn’ Tree.”
She spoke with a faraway sadness, and then slipped back into the shadow of her home. I left shaken and even more determined to find out about the story of The Hanging Tree.
I felt like some outside force was pulling me to the tree.
Finding the author of the book I had checked out from the library proved to be a challenge, but my persistence paid off. I soon found myself sitting across the table from him at a diner near his home in Georgia. I wasted no time in telling him about the old woman and her story. Then I questioned him as to why there was no mention of it in his book.
He smiled good-naturedly and explained, “During those days justice was served swiftly and every town had a ‘hanging tree’.”
Then he leaned over the table, looked me in the eye, and said in a somber tone, “As for the old woman’s story, if I were you, I would leave well enough alone. Some skeletons need to be left in the closet.”
I exited the diner both confused and a little spooked by what he had said. I found myself obsessed with finding out the truth, if there was any truth to find. It ate at me; I thought about it constantly and even dreamed about that damned tree. I felt like some outside force was pulling me to the tree. The closer the day of the solstice, the stronger the pull became.
My body began shivering uncontrollably as continuous gusts cut their way through the dry, dead boughs.
Another blast of cold wind blew across my face; my nose was numb, and my cheeks burned like fire. I looked up at the moon; it was round and full and its bright light shone down through the tree branches like a spotlight. A strong gust of wind blew across the ground and nearly knocked me off my feet; I staggered several steps before regaining my balance. The next gust of wind came straight down through the twisted branches making a baleful groan. My body began shivering uncontrollably as continuous gusts cut their way through the dry, dead boughs.
My ears piqued as the tree hissed “Rastus”, then “Thomas”, “Vernon” and “Martha.” Frozen in place, I didn't know if I had truly heard any names in the wind. Maybe I wanted to hear them, maybe this was a figment of my imagination, and I wasn’t sure. Suddenly my jaw dropped as I watched the rough ridges of bark on the trunk begin twisting into faces. Howling winds gave voice to the tree as it recited the names of those who had met their end on its branches. Their faces appeared within the distorted folds of bark, young and old, men and women, guilty and innocent, slaves and free men. I had no explanation of how I knew this; I just did. I collapsed to my knees as I cupped my hands over my ears, and squeezed my eyes tightly shut. There were so many names, so many faces; I could not bear to hear or see more. I curled into a tight ball as the winds beat down on me.
The names continued one after another. “Enough!” I screamed, “No more, please, no more!” The wind was relentless as it continued to blow harder, and scream the names louder. I heard a thunderous crack above me and knew that, at any moment, one of the ancient limbs would fall and crush me. I managed to scramble to my feet and willed myself to run as fast and as far from the tree as I could. My heart raced wildly, my ears throbbed in pain, and each gulp of the icy air burned in my chest. “Yes,” I thought, “some skeletons need to be left in the closet.”
© 2011 miss_jkim