The tree was the centerpiece of the graveyard, and several generations of groundskeepers had learned to give it a wide berth. Its branches writhed and curled, extending like shadowy hands over the dry grass. Insects did not crawl on it. Birds did not nest in it. And because it was an ominous, dead thing that bore no leaves, no one dared get close enough to find out what kind of tree it was. It was something to be avoided.
The writer had decided to stay the night in the tiny town, on his way to a job offer in New York from the westernmost parts of Ohio. The town’s only motel just happened to be right next to the graveyard, and after dropping off his things, he decided to take a walk.
As he strolled between the tombstones, the tree constantly loomed in the corner of his vision. It beckoned, and he responded. Something about the century-old carvings in the trunk, the initials and hearts with arrows and messages corroded by time made him want to know more about the hands that had put them there. He chided himself for leaving his journal in his room; his memory was awful, and there were stories immortalized in this tree waiting to be transcribed.
A glint of light at the base of the trunk caught his attention. A plain knife with a stag horn handle jutted up from the parched ground. He knelt and picked it up, relishing the foreign coldness of it in his hand. His eyes flitted back to the initials in the tree. No one is around, the devil on his shoulder whispered.
The writer stepped forward, resting one leg on an exposed root, and jammed the tip of the knife into the bark. After a few calculated strokes, “JM” had joined the series of initials, the fresh etchings standing out amidst their faded counterparts. Satisfied, the writer tossed the knife back on the ground. The sun had set, and he was chilly. He walked back to the motel, not noticing the thick, black sap that had begun to ooze from his marks.
Back in his room, the writer pulled a leather-bound journal from his suitcase and wrote down as many initials as he could recall. He created names for each of them. For some, he even wrote their histories, their desires, and their fears. When he felt his eyelids drooping, he called his wife and told her he’d reach the city tomorrow, that he loved her and would see her at the end of the week. After he hung up, he donned a T-shirt and shorts and went to bed.
His skeleton was found the next morning by the maid. Her scream had brought the other guests out of their rooms in bathrobes and pajamas. He’d fallen asleep in the fetal position, and his bones would forever resemble an overgrown child’s.
The graveyard groundskeeper had been clearing weeds around a mausoleum when he heard the scream. He straightened, old joints creaking, and looked in the direction of the motel.
“Stupid bastard,” he muttered, and carried an armful of dandelions to his wheelbarrow.
Behind him, on the topmost branch of the twisted tree, a single green leaf fluttered in the wind.