As our Saturday feeding time arrives again, we bring a foreboding tale of blood-sodden roots from Rose Strickman to your table.
Rose Strickman is a sci-fi, fantasy and horror author living in Seattle, Washington. Her work has appeared in the anthologies That Hoodoo, Voodoo That You Do, After Lines and Sword and Sorceress 32. You can also find her work in the e-zines Luna Station Quarterly and Aurora Wolf. Feel free to connect with her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/rose.strickman.3.
THE HANGING TREE
By Rose Strickman
Yes—closer, closer, little man. What a lovely day it is; how the wind soughs through my branches. He stumbles on a rock; or what he thinks is a rock. It’s been buried so long; only a smooth white dome is visible.
I can’t say I like the look of this one. Too skinny, for a start—I like some flesh. And there’s a dullness in his eyes, a bitterness around his mouth. Oh, for a bit of spirit, that animal fire! But I can feel the humanness in him, the evil—and that’s all I need.
I remember the first death. I was so young then, still thin, roots still shallow, reaching hungrily for any scrap of light. Why did they choose me? But choose me they did, throwing the rope over my strongest branch, that rope with the loop in the end, where they forced the young boy’s head. So young, so frightened. His last word, before they kicked the stool out from under him, was Please.
They left him here, to dangle like fruit from my branch. And the flesh rotted from his bones, and his blood dripped onto my roots, and I drank his blood, and felt his terror and despair enter me. And his rage.
It was only a small amount then; but, as if they could sense my contamination, they came again, the men with torches and ropes in their hands and evil in their hearts. More boys, more young men, trussed up for their pleasure, while they hooted and howled in the flaming light and the victims’ tongues swelled and protruded from their cracked lips.
I was the instrument of their deaths, and I drank their deaths, and, little by little, my reservoir of blood and hatred grew.
Oh—this new one’s so close now. He’s raised a hand to shield his eyes, squinting up at me. He’s got a bottle in his hand, like so many of them do. He sighs, taking a swig, and sways a little. Soon he’ll want to sit down. And, on a day like this, he’ll sit down in the shade.
The first one I took for myself, when I was strong enough, was one of the men in white hoods. He’d been here the night before, wielding a torch while his comrades hanged another man in my branches. He’d laughed—I heard his dirty chuckle—when the victim died, and I knew in my bark that he’d be back. I’d drunk another death that night; but suddenly that was not enough. My lust and my hate had grown too great for mere hangings. That man, that hooded man, came back the next day, to look upon the corpse, and that was when…
My branches creak involuntarily at the memory, and the new man jumps at the noise. No, that won’t do. I relax, letting my branches lift in the thin, humid breeze, and he relaxes too, staring mournfully into the distance, still drinking from his bottle.
So many of them have had bottles: the vicious ones who came in the beginning, swinging their bottles and firing guns in the air; the lone ones who came later, stumbling through the moonlight. So many of them, drunk, foggy, not noticing anything, even when my branches strained—
He’s done it. With a whuff of air, he’s sat down among my roots, his back against my trunk.
I do not hesitate.
Down my branches swoop, the blood and the hatred of hundreds of murders fueling the headlong rush in a crash of leaves; the man looks up, he gapes, he screams; but it’s too late as I draw him up, lifting him from the ground they defiled, those men, the ground full of the bones of my victims; and I stab all my hollow twigs into this new man, this man I hate with the passion that the hanged ones hated their tormentors; and I suck, suck, pulling blood and liquid tissue in through my twigs, oh good, so good, his life and his death flowing into me, strengthening me, filling me with the cruelty and murder that the drunk ones and the hooded ones and the vicious ones taught me. I drink, and I drink, pulling muscle from bone, absorbing it all, taking his life for my own. And then, when there is nothing but bones and clothes and bottle, I let it all fall, to clatter among my roots with the other half-buried bones.
And then I relax, letting my branches sway, my leaves whisper innocently; for I have all the time in the world and a vast store of blood. I hunger, and I watch, and the deaths of those murdered men will not go unavenged. I will wait, and I will kill, and no sun will abate my fury, no moon soothe away my hate. And, when the humans come with saws and axes, to kill me and avenge their lost, when they have fought through my thrashing branches and finally felled me, my severed trunk will ooze with the blood of centuries.
And so we hand out the napkins for you to mop the mess from your monster's maw. We hope you've enjoyed the nourishment and will see you next week for another meal.
*The Hanging Tree © Rose Strickman