The Forgiving Tree
A collaborative story by The Parking Lot Confessional
(Pt 1 & Pt 2: S. C. Green, Pt 3 & Pt 4: Amy McLane, Pt 5: Amy K. Nichols)
The last time Landis sat under the Forgiving Tree, he was cradling his leg, freshly snapped from the fall. It had been more than four years since he’d been back here, his limp almost unnoticeable now. He no longer fit between the tree roots to rest his back against the old oak like he used to. Although, he tried for a while anyway.
A thick rope hung from the branch above his head, forming a deep groove where the limb tried to grow around it. The end, long exposed to weather and time, eroded away the clean-cut marks of his knife.
Echoes of the past played in his mind. The Pierson twins howling and beating of their chests as they swung from the tire swing. The same swing that eventually snapped when Tommy the Tub tried to jump through the hole. He kissed Tub’s sister Beth for the first time next to the hollowed knot, not sitting in the tree as the following weeks of taunts and songs might have suggested. Ben’s failed tree house attempt using his “patented” gummy bear and spit adhesive.
A million more memories came and went before his butt began to hurt, wedged in the roots of the tree. His good leg had fallen asleep, forcing him to lean on the trunk for support. He made sure his hand was nowhere near the hollowed knot.
“I thought I’d find you here,” came a voice from behind him.
Landis turned too quick and nearly toppled over. Ben stood there smiling with his hands behind his back.
“Shit, Ben. You scared the piss outa’ me.”
He tried to steady his leg, but the pins and needles intensified wherever he touched it.
The Pierson twins stepped out from behind the tree. Being paternal twins, Terry was taller, but Collin had Terry beat in mass. However they did share one identical trait, something new. Both twins were missing their left hand.
“We heard you were back from college,” said Ben, “and kinda’ wondered why we hadn’t seen you yet. Figured you’d be paying your respects.”
“Something like that.”
He willed his leg awake to no effect. What movement he could manage only got him a few steps away from the tree.
“I take it you haven’t asked for forgiveness yet.”
“I don’t need forgiving,” said Landis, stuffing his hands in his pockets.
“Sure. And I bet that had nothing to do with you going to such a far away school, either. Which was that again?”
“Berkley, right. That’s where Tub wanted to go, wasn’t it? To Berkley that is, not where he actually ended up.”
Landis followed Ben’s stare to the rope and failed to react in time before the twins grabbed him from behind. Terry had him by the neck, his stump digging into Landis’s cheek, while Collin grappled his right arm and started to haul him towards the hollowed knot in the tree.
The smile on Ben’s face never changed, but something in his eyes did. His right arm, no longer behind his back, ended at the elbow.
“For Tub’s sake, I think you do.”
Landis struggled against the twins, but for every inch he gained, the twins took two, the hollowed knot getting closer and closer. He stared into the empty hole. The lids of his eyes locked under his brow, unable to blink. Tales of the Forgiving Tree flooded his head from the stories kids told each other in the dark to the whisperings their parents thought they couldn’t hear.
The postman used to say it was a curse placed on the spot where the butcher’s daughter was killed by a couple of drifters.
“They found her face down,” he told me. “With a hole in her back clear through to the ground, and circled round an oak sapling.
“The butcher, he went mad with grief, too. I tell you, he swung that cleaver of his ‘round anybody that tried to get near the body. So they let him to his grief. Really, no one wants a cleaver in his back just for trying to help.
“A couple days later they decide he’s had long enough. They go, and what do you suppose they found?
“That’s right. Nothin’. No butcher. No body. Nothin’. Only that sapling ain’t a sapling any more. It’s three feet tall. A week later it’s looking like a fifty year old oak.”
He stopped when he noticed the neighbors peeking out their window. He winked at Landis and continued his route.
The next day he ran out to hear the rest, but the postman kept his eyes to the ground and put the mail in our box with his left hand. His right gone at the wrist.
Tub came running to the Forgiving Tree’s field one Sunday afternoon all twitchy with nervous energy. He had a talk with his pastor and couldn’t wait to tell us.
“He says it was God himself that put that tree here. To weed out the sinners. The tree takes the sin right out of you. The more you have, the more it takes. That’s why Billy’s dad is missing up to his elbow where Mr. Millings is missing up to his shoulder. The tree wouldn’t take it if the sin wasn’t in it.
“He told everyone in the room they shouldn’t be afraid to stick an arm in if they were a proper God-fearing person.”
The next Sunday Tub’s pastor gave his sermon an arm poorer than the week before. Tub never spoke of it again.
Ben’s Nan tried to keep him from playing near the Tree. Said no grandson of hers will be caught near such a place of evil. A lot of the folks in town agree, but know better than to voice it. Ben got his Nan so riled up in front of the corner market that she spouted off right there.
None of them ever saw Ben’s Nan again. Maybe she didn’t want to be seen with how much she lost. Or maybe the tree took too much.
The stories differed from person to person, but the effects were etched into the whole town’s being. If you’ve done wrong, the tree would take. The more wrong, the more it would take, and the only ones safe from harm were the town’s children.
Landis’s hand hovered inches from the hollowed knot, and he wasn’t a child anymore.
The twins froze. Landis tensed his legs and then threw himself backwards, twisting out of Terry and Collin’s hands. He skidded on his back through the dirt, rolled onto his side and staggered up like a drunken jack-in-the-box. Beth stood watching them all with her hands on her hips, her strawberry blond hair falling loose around her shoulders. Landis knew he should run, by the way she looked at him. But he couldn’t, he couldn’t play the coward to her again. He wiped at the sweat beading on his forehead and tried to look more cool and casual, and less like he had just escaped being maimed by a pair of cripples.
“Go home Beth,” said Ben, “This don’t concern you.”
“That’s funny, I seem to remember Tommy being MY brother, not yours.” Beth tossed back her hair.
“If you loved him, you’d know how much we need to do th-”
“If I loved him?” she suddenly screamed, “If? Go to hell, Benjamin Baines, you redneck idiot. You don’t know a thing that can’t be found in the bottom of a whiskey bottle.”
Ben sneered and pointed at her with his stump of an arm. “You made me what I am.”
Landis looked between the two of them. Ben, and Beth? Oh no. No.
“Men make themselves,” she said.
“Like him?” Ben said, pointing at Landis, “Running off to college, leaving Tubs to die? You think that makes a man? I’ll make you, you mouthy little princess.” He started toward her.
Landis didn’t know he was going to punch Ben in the face. He just did it, stepping into the swing to increase the momentum, striking Ben where he was weakest, in the bridge of the nose, broken once years before by an errant softball Tubs chucked in a tantrum. The bone gave way with a crunch. Blood streamed down Ben’s face. He turned to Landis, shocked, his eyes wide and wondering, as if the blow had woken him from some twilight fugue. He touched the divot of his upper lip with his fingertips and stared at how they came away crimson.
“You aren’t the law,” said Landis. “You aren’t justice.”
“I’m the only one here who cares about justice.” said Ben flatly.
Landis opened his mouth to retort.
“No!” cried Beth.
Landis was turning to her with a confused look on his face when he felt something hard slam into the back of his head. His knees buckled.
The world went white.
“That’s not true Benny,” said Terry. “Collin and I care about justice plenty.”
“Yup,” said Collin, dropping the fallen oak branch he had used to brain Landis with. It lay inches from Landis’s face. His eyes were pulled into the snaking curves and whorls of bark, whorls like a tornado, like a maelstrom, like
“You just had to come down here, didn’t you?”
Ben. Landis craned his neck. Ben and Beth stood together in front of the Forgiveness Tree. Ben gripped Beth’s forearm tightly. Terry hulked nearby.
“You don’t understand,” said Beth.
“You just had to butt in,” Ben said. “Don’t you know I was trying to protect you?”
“Ben you can’t,” she said, pulling against him as he drew her hand closer to the hollowed knot.
“Honey don’t you see? I have to.”
“NO!” Landis bucked hard. Collin slid off with a surprised grunt. Landis scrambled to his feet.
Ben rammed Beth’s hand into the hallowed knot.
“Sinner, be judged!”
Landis froze. Her hand. Collin put him in a headlock and dragged him closer. “Time you saw justice workin’ up close and personal.”
“Yes,” said Beth, “You should all see this.”
She drew out her arm, healthy and whole, down to the fingertips.
“What?” Ben let go of her.
“Looks like I’m not much of a sinner.”
“But you’re a woman,” said Ben.
“Everybody gots original sin,” said Collin.
“And you’re not a virgin, neither,” said Terry.
Landis’s stomach flipped. Ben? Or someone else? It should have been him. If he hadn’t been such a coward.
Beth glared at them, holding up her hand. “This is the judgment of the Forgiving Tree. If you think it’s wrong, maybe you should stick your other arm in there and see what happens.”
Ben and the twins shook their heads.
“Now, let’s get some things straight. Tommy was my blood. That gives me the right here. So clear out. Not you,” she added as Landis inched backward.
“I can’t believe you’re going to let him off,” Ben snarled as he backed away.
“Who said I was going to let him off? I just said you can’t do it the way you were trying to. You want Landis to be judged? Then go, and he shall be.”
“Beth, you’re an angel,” Landis blurted. He wanted to kiss her.
She shrugged, a little smile playing around her lips.
“And all that stuff about judging me was just to get them to leave, right?”
“No.” Her hair still shimmered in the sun, but all the light was gone from her eyes. “The Forgiveness Tree doesn’t take women. Nan told me.”
“But your Nan disappeared!”
“Tree didn’t get her. But that’s another story for another day. And, you can’t be forced. That’s why I stopped Ben, before. Wouldn’t have done any good. You have to want redemption.”
“Oh.” His mouth was too dry now to say anything else.
“You loved Tommy, I know you did. And I think, Landis, that if you loved me, you would want redemption.” Beth trailed one slim finger around the lip of the hallowed knot. “So, do you?”
Landis sputtered. “Do I what?”
“Do you love me?”
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.