The Forgiving Tree, Part V

This is the concluding section of a five-part story. If you haven’t read the previous installments, please do. Part I is here, Part II is here, Part III is here and Part IV is here.

The wind kicked up, moving the hair on Landis’ arm and skittering leaves along the grass toward the Forgiving Tree. Beth moved a lock of hair from her face. The look in her eyes caused coldness to spread through his gut and made the muscles of his jaw clench tight.

She and Tommy had the same eyes.

But unlike Tommy, Beth would wait there like that for as long as it took Landis to answer. He knew that about her. He knew that, unlike Tommy, no amount of words would make Beth budge.

Sure, Tommy had tried to hold his ground. Had tried to deflect Landis’ harsh words. But in the end all the kid had was tears. So many tears. He didn’t even try to wipe them away. Just let them run, down his cheeks and out his nose. They’d puddled in his neck and soaked the front of his shirt. Puffed up with power, Landis had delivered the final blow, an easy insult, and then watched Tommy’s eyes dull.

Landis didn’t stick around to watch the end. Just walked away like there wasn’t nothing going on at all. He didn’t even turn back when he heard the branch take on Tommy’s dead weight.

Yeah. He needed forgiveness.

The leaves whispered his guilt on the wind. He watched the branches waving and thought of his own flesh feeding the tree. How much of him would it take? And how big would the tree grow then?

Landis took a halting step toward Beth and saw a smile move across her lips. He loved her. He always had. The fear numbing his face kept him from forming the words, though. He would have to show her.

Landis held her gaze as he passed. His feet scuffed at the grass and rocks until he could walk no more. The hollow gaped before him and he moved his eyes from her terrible, beautiful face to stare into a darkness he’d dodged for too long. He swallowed hard, his heartbeat thumping in his head, and placed his left hand on the bark above the hollow. He wriggled the fingers of his right hand, feeling the bones and sinews moving beneath the skin. The joint of his thumb cracked. A sharp sound, swallowed in the emptiness of the field.

“Sinner,” he said, his voice only a little louder than the wind, and he moved his hand toward the hollow.

A firm grasp pulled his elbow back, pulled his arm from the tree.

“Wait,” Beth said and Landis felt the tree shudder beneath his hand. He watched her face as she scanned the tree, her eyes wide. “Climb with me?”

Landis exhaled, licked his lips and tried to ease the tension from his neck. He nodded. Of course he’d climb. He’d do anything she wanted if it meant not sticking his hand in that hole.

The nubby bark made for easy climbing. In no time they sat side by side on a branch above the one where the rope hung. When Landis looked down, he couldn’t even see the rope unless the breeze blew it into view. He felt himself relax a little. Seeing Beth beside him, her one arm holding the branch above them and her feet crossed at the ankles, he thought of the teasing rhyme and of her lips and wondered if maybe this day had changed from his worst to his best ever.

“The night before Nan disappeared,” Beth said,  “she tucked me into bed like always. But after she turned off my light, she whispered something I never forgot.”

“What did she say?” Landis asked, watching the wind play with her hair. It moved as if in water.

“She said, One day that tree’s gonna get its fill.”

The tree shuddered then with such force that Landis dug his fingers into the bark to keep from falling. The branches moaned as they wound themselves around the two and pressed them toward the trunk. Even as the branches curled him into her and crushed him under their weight, he thought how he’d never been so close to her, how he’d never noticed the flecks of blue in her wide, hazel eyes.

After the tree dug itself down into the ground, it left a mighty hole; and the hole filled itself with water so clear you could peer down into forever.

For a time, those who passed the field wondered about the Forgiving Tree and the well that had taken its place. It wasn’t long before the stories circled of water that could show you your soul if you were brave enough to look. It wasn’t long before the townspeople started losing their eyes.