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“The Hanging Tree”

Daniel had never killed a man before, but that afternoon, he’d killed ten. When he was done, he did not weep for them. He wept for the five that still swung from the bough.

Photo credit: ParkerDeen
8 min read

No roads led here, this place like a scar of an old wound. No signs marked its location, no post hung with its name. There was no map of its existence or a print of paper for it to claim. Long ago, however, this wasn’t so. Surrounded by a sea of grass, the dirt road long since grown in, the white-columned house sat beneath the gaze of the oak on the hill.

Daniel stood beneath the tree, shaded by its leaves, its branches spread high like reaching arms, thick, strong, and proud. Its trunk was old and sturdy, a monument to centuries of life and struggle. He eased his aching bones down, resting his crooked back against its rough, crooked trunk.

“It’s you an’ me again, old friend,” his face oozed like tar over a handsome skull ― square and sturdy jaw, high cheekbones, a broad forehead.  Daniel dabbed the sweat from his brow with his handkerchief; he looked well for his age, though his age should have taken him long, long ago. His hair was as white and soft as goose down. He still had all of his teeth and, though it took him longer each day to get up the hill, he did so with his own limbs unassisted. He sat an axe, handle up, against the trunk and gave it a pat. The leaves rustled in the gentle breeze.

“M’lady’s mighty talkative today.” He waited for a response. A leaf drifted down to land on his knee. The old man smiled and patted the hump of its root, as thick as his arm, beside him. “So am I, so am I.”

He gazed off down the hill to the back of the house. The back door opened and shut as old Mina hobbled out to the porch to sit in the rocking chair he had built for her. The years, though as kind to her as they were to him, did not allow her old bones to make their pilgrimage up the hill to the oak. He could see her fanning herself in the heat, her bare feet pushing against the worn porch to rock herself gently back and forth.

Only six of them remained: Mina, the wash woman; Jacob, the butler; Jim, the stable boy; Adaire, the house woman; Louis, the driver, and himself, the man who would set them all free.

The oak affected them all differently; waking up beneath its cover just does something to you, Daniel thought as he carefully plucked dirt off a twig and placed it between his teeth. For a long time, Mina watched the oak, wondering about it. She clutched her Bible and went on about the burning bush, effectively proclaiming the oak was Yaweh. Every Sunday, she’d climb the hill and fall down on her knees, her arms outstretched to the oak, and send her prayers up to Yaweh.

Then there was Jacob who went about his day as if the oak did not exist. As if nothing had happened to him. He instructed Mina to continue the washing, Jim to tend to the animals, Louis and Daniel to maintain the property, and Adaire the house. He kept up a semblance of normalcy for them all, choosing this simple, known state of being over the uncertain state they resided in. Despite Jacob’s best efforts, Jim lived in fear. He watched the oak constantly, afraid of its branches and its whispering leaves.

Daniel pointed over the flat, green fields beyond the house. “Remember the grazing cows? The smell of manure as we walked the tobacco rows?” The soil tilled with brittle bones, crops watered with sweat, tears, and blood. He shook his head with the memory. “Sure wouldn’t know it now, though. Those fields and those cows, all gone.”

When there were no more animals to take care of, Jim had retreated into the house. To the room he called his own, to wait. That’s all he ever said. “Waiting. I’m waiting. Only got to wait a little longer, now. Just got to wait.”

The blades of tall grass bent in the afternoon breeze. Above him, the leaves of the oak rustled once more, the branches swaying, swaying. Swaying….

“Trees are like people,” Daniel murmured. “They got memories. They got scars, too.”

He knew what he’d find if he focused his eyes upward to that outstretched bough. The scars of the ropes as they swayed, heavily, back and forth, rubbing a permanent pattern in the wood.

The six of them had been young, emboldened by the time and enraged by the lashes on their backs. On their parent’s backs. On their souls. He’d fought for Mina and the others, just as they’d fought for him. They’d run together only to be brought back and bound together to this life.

“I don’t know why you did what you did,” Daniel said softly to the oak. “Maybeh you got tired of lookin’ on. Of watching and being used,” Daniel nodded. Yeah, that was it. If he had seen as many people hanged from those branches, he’d get tired too. He was tired; had been so for years, yet his soul could not rest.

When his rope had snapped and he fell to the earth, limp and broken, he smelled the musk of dirt and felt the life pulse through the gnarled roots beneath him. He tasted iron and the bitterness of rage.

Daniel had never killed a man before, but that afternoon, he’d killed ten. When he was done, he did not weep for them. He wept for the five that still swung from the bough. One by one, he cut them down, as a sea of Black faces stained with centuries of abuse looked on until those five bodies were laid side-by-side. The afternoon’s hanging had been to make an example out of the six of them; it had done just that, and so much more.

“We’re all that’s left,” Daniel sighed as he rested his head back against the oak. Those that he had freed ran off into the world, while those he had cut down from the oak remained with him. Adaire and Louis were the only two who tried to run along with them. They had had a little girl before. They had only gotten so far before they couldn’t go any farther. They put their little girl into their cousin’s arms and told her to stay strong, be brave, and live her life before the oak called them back. Like bodies still swaying in the breeze, they all remained tethered to its branches.

They were allowed to age. Allowed to see the land around them age too. After Mina grew so old she could hardly stand to make the trip up the hill, Daniel began going twice as many times. He felt a connection to the oak in ways the others could not understand. Maybe it came from being the first to open his eyes. He didn’t rightly know, but what he did know was that it was time.

“The world has changed a lot. I can feel it and I know you can too,” the curtains rustled on the second floor of the house and Daniel closed his eyes. They were all waiting on him, some longer than others. Watching to see what he would do― what he knew he must do.

“I am grateful for all that you have done for us,” he whispered to it. “For your shade, your strength, your life. We’re all grateful, but so tired. Even you, I think. It’s time for us all to rest, my friend.”

Daniel hefted himself to his feet, groaning as his old bones creaked and cracked. He loosened his collar, his fingers brushing against the puckered scar that circled his neck. He picked up the axe.

Mina stopped her rocking as Daniel swung.

Thwack!

Jim appeared, again, at the window.

Thwack!

Louis and Adaire leaned against each other in the doorway.

Thwack!

Jacob’s voice rose up in song:

Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home

If you get there before I do
Coming for to carry me home
Tell all my friends I’m coming too
Coming for to carry me home

The afternoon stretched on with the rhythmic swings and thwacks of Daniel’s axe. Jacob slid into one song after another, his smooth tenor carrying up the hill in time with Daniel’s swings. Any man would have tired, hacking through a trunk this thick, after long, but Daniel never stopped. Never wavered even as tears blurred his vision.

 Crack!

The oak leaned, its wood splintering, its leaves shaking. In the moonlight, the old oak fell and Daniel finally dropped the axe. Jacob had become silent.

Daniel turned back to the house; the porch was empty. So was the doorway and the window.

He leads me. Yes, He leads me, all the way home,” Daniel picked up Jacob’s song in his trembling baritone, adding his own verses as he went. “Oh He leads, all the way home. Yes, time has long gone, since I been home. Been a long time, I’m goin’ home.

He sank down beside the fallen oak, and rested his hand against its trunk.

When the breeze rippled across the silver, moonlit grass, Daniel went with it.

Free at last.

 

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Jade T. Woodridge

Jade T. Woodridge is a Washington D.C./Maryland native, currently living in Southwest Michigan. While her short fiction dabbles in various genres and styles, Science Fiction and Fantasy seem to be at the forefront. Her works can be described as emotionally driven, with the question of spirituality beneath its layers.

Jade has a BA in English Literature from Seton Hill University (2016) and a MA in Library and Information Sciences from the University of Maryland (2020). Her work has been featured in the Chiron Review, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, WitchWork, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, and midnight & indigo.