TREE’S A CHARM
by Toneye Eyenot
“Well, look at you, Mr. Caterpillar! You are a colourful critter!” Clarry Montfarland knelt on the forest floor, leaning right forward on his arms with magnifying glass in hand. The caterpillar he was admiring had just ridden a dislodged leaf from a low hanging branch and was now slowly consuming its ride. Clarry inspected the uncountable hair-like spines on its back and knew not to try picking it up. He recalled with a shudder, the stupid game they had going at school, where you’d pluck a leaf with a spitfire caterpillar on it, sneak up on some unsuspecting kid and touch them with it. It was all fun and games – outrageous itching, a sting which hurt for hours, red, painful blisters – until someone allergic blew up like a balloon and went into anaphylactic shock.
Douglas Quinn had been sitting down, eating his lunch, when one of the kids (nobody owned up) crept up on him and touched the spitfire to the back of his neck. The effect was near instant. Douglas screamed at first and jumped to his feet, rubbing the back of his neck and crying in pain. His face suddenly turned beet red and he looked like someone had stuck a hose up his bum and was filling him with something. His face turned purple in spots and his neck swelled to the same width as his head. Teachers swooped onto the scene from all around, as if a radar had signalled them. The poor kid couldn’t breathe, and having all those kids crowding around him only made it more stifling. He nearly didn’t make it, but thankfully some of the teachers knew what to do until the ambulance arrived.
Clarry had been stung more than two or three times. He was an easy target at school. He didn’t fit in with any clique and he had one friend the whole time he’d been at this school. Over one and a half years ago, Clarry moved with his mother after his parents divorced and met Dave Brubeck on his first day at the new school. Dave was still fairly new there – only a few weeks – and he was also yet to make any friends. They hit it off straight away and had remained best friends ever since.
Normally, Dave would be with Clarry on their little adventures into the woods. It was Clarry’s favourite place; somewhere he could go to be away from all the jerks from school. He and Dave had discovered some pretty cool little nooks, and had three separate hideouts where they kept supplies. Dave had chores to do before he was allowed to go anywhere. Clarry was bummed, but there was nothing to be done about it except take a solo excursion.
He had been out all day, since ten in the morning, and without the distraction of a friend, he’d instead gotten distracted and lost in his own thoughts. Clarry found himself deeper than he’d ever been, even with Dave. He looked up to see where the sun sat and was surprised to see it had moved all the way across the sky without him noticing. It was late afternoon and he was far into the woods. Even though he knew his way by watching the skies, once night falls and the world beneath the treetops succumbs to the all-consuming darkness, there was every chance of becoming lost. Clarry stopped for a moment and thought about his predicament. He wasn’t a jumpy kid, didn’t scare easily, but the thought of spending the night alone in the woods wasn’t a very appealing one.
He decided to risk it and see if he could make it back before night made things infinitely more challenging. Worst case scenario, he would at least make it far enough back to be in the familiar part of the forest. There was something ominously unsettling about this new territory which Clarry was just beginning to notice. He then felt it hit him like a sonic wave, moments after he’d made the initial contemplation. As soon as he thought to himself whether he should go back or press on, He was struck with a very ‘Go back!’ feeling. The picture in his mind of the small, hidden clearing where one of their hideouts was situated, that nailed it for him and Clarry turned around.
Off to his right, after he’d turned, a track cut back diagonally in exactly the direction of home. It was a small but well-defined, unmistakeable track and if it led all the way through, it would cut more than an hour off his roundabout route home. Clarry made haste on his decision and headed up along this new found path. He had maybe two hours before all visibility would be lost. The thought of getting lost urged him on faster until he was half running. The path ahead curved gently over some time yet not enough that Clarry noticed. Although he thought he was still heading straight ahead, the track was gradually leading him away from his home and deeper into the forest.
After half an hour of following the deceptive path, the gentle curve righted itself and resumed a direct, straight trajectory. Clarry saw ahead in the low light, a massive white structure which at first he couldn’t quite make out. As he got closer he noticed it was actually a tree.
“A white tree? How odd.” Clarry thought to himself. The path stopped about twenty feet from the towering tree, which stood in the centre of a clearing. Clarry stepped into the circle, his eyes glued to the spectacular sight before him. It seemed to exude a hypnotic ambiance and Clarry was drawn to it like a moth to flame. His entire attention was commanded by the tree. Clarry hadn’t realised that the path continued across the other side of the clearing. Two more tracks cut through his path, all four directions showing identical, right down to the assortment of loose stones and twigs which littered the ground at each point of entry or exit. An illusory crossroads in the middle of what was otherwise undisturbed woodland.
Clarry didn’t see any of this at first. He slowly circled the giant tree, running his hand along the bumps and knots of the alabaster trunk, stepping carefully over the gnarled and giant roots as he gazed up and down its humungous frame in wonder. How many laps around the tree? Clarry was oblivious. After several passes, he finally broke his gaze and noticed the sun had set beyond the trees of the forest. Where he entered the clearing, Clarry was now completely unsure. He looked in each direction at the four paths and had no idea which direction to take. Even if by chance he chose the right path, it was highly unlikely he would make his destination before proper nightfall. The normally unperturbed lad felt pangs of fear issue from his gut and radiate through his chest. The only sensible option now would be to remain here until morning. At least then, he surmised, he would have the entire day to find his way home. He decided he would choose a path in the morning and if after an hour he doesn’t find himself in familiar surroundings, he would return to the clearing and take the next path to his right. If need be, he would repeat the process with each path until he found his way out.
Clarry sat cross-legged before the tree, admiring its immensity. He fancied some of the bulging knots which dotted the length of the trunk were reaching out for him in some manner of silent plea. The thought made him shudder unexpectedly. The influence of day finally snuffed, and the Moon began to take her place in the night sky. Although the forest around him had been plunged into darkness, the tree seemed to give off an illumination of its own. When the Moon broke the treetops and cast its glow into the clearing, the massive tree looked truly magical.
The myriad sounds of the forest nightlife echoed loudly in the clearing. The surrounding trees rustled in darkness and Clarry feared what may appear out of the gloom. He moved to the tree and decided to make himself as comfortable as possible for the night, finding the most agreeable position amongst the giant roots with his back against the trunk. After a little while of shifting and wriggling around, he found he just couldn’t get comfortable enough to settle. He sat up onto one of the roots and looked up at the tree. In turn, the massive tree gazed back down at Clarry with a covetous air, as though impatiently awaiting something.
Clarry picked up a jagged rock at his feet and turned to the tree. He began to carve his name into the smooth bark of the trunk. After finishing, he sat and admired his handiwork for some moments and then let out a huge yawn. After walking all day, Clarry was overcome with exhaustion. He once again slid down between the roots and did his best to get comfortable. It didn’t take long and Clarry began to fade.
His name carved just above his head began to slowly bleed as he drifted into slumber. The sap dribbled down the trunk from the crude carving, making its way towards the sleeping boy.
More emerged from the wound, riding the existing trail of sap a little faster than its predecessor. Within a minute, it reached Clarry’s head and ran through his hair. The boy continued to sleep soundly. At this point, the letters of his name split and spread, increasing the flow of sap exponentially until Clarry was beginning to be covered. It ran down his face, covering his nose and mouth. Clarry awoke with a start, unable to breathe and unable to pull away from the sticky assailant. As if the tree sensed his rousing, the name carved into its flesh burst open, dumping a mass of sap to completely engulf the helpless Clarry.
Completely immobilized, Clarry’s final moments were spent in a whirling mind-storm of panic, suffocating and slowly being crushed. He didn’t notice the moment he passed, but his awareness remained intact after his body gave up the ghost. Clarry was now a living, sentient part of the mysterious tree. He was aware of being amidst many other forms of consciousness, all in a perpetual state of misery and longing, and it wasn’t long before Clarry realised these were the spirits of people who had met the same fate as he. He knew now what all those knots and bulges which dotted up and down the massive trunk were. In time – many years from now, Clarry would find himself high up from the ground, looking down covetously at a young lad much like he used to be.
Find this story in the anthology THE THICKET