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The First I Heard of Them
There is a valley in the north mountains where people grow like trees, walk around like men, then lose their features and dry to deadwood in the winter. It’s just a tale to most towns, but most towns are more than a day out by car. The towns closer to the valley take it seriously. The closest is called Ridge City, though it is in no sense a city. It’s just a few strip malls set on a cliff over fields of blueberries that drool down the hill to the freeway. The first time I went up to Ridge City was to hunt boar. I brought my older brother on that trip. My brother is a hefty bald guy who can barely shoot a gun, and only came because he wanted a change of pace. I went to unwind after a girl quit me. Anyway, that’s why we went hunting in the middle of January rather than a more comfortable season.
We were unloading the packs for the hike into the forest when my brother started talking about his wife and my lack of one. It must have gotten too serious for our guide because he cut in and said something like, “Marriage is grand, so what is divorce?” He paused and grinned at us before finally adding, “Ten grand!” We laughed. We asked him how he fared with the ladies. He got quiet for a bit, then changed the subject and started rambling about tree people. That’s how I first heard about them. He said, “Tree people. I know it sounds nuts, but they look just like people—once their spring blossoms fall away, anyway. They get these pink flowers kinda like cherry blossoms. They awaken in spring with them. They grow right out of the arms and legs.”
My brother stopped for a bit and examined the guide’s face. “Is this a joke, or are you seriously saying that over the hill there are naked tree men?”
“And ladies. You never seen a dick until you seen a blossomed dick,” the guide quipped with a shrug. I laughed pretty hard at that. He dropped the topic as quickly as it came up, though, and became sullen—as if he had made some mistake he wanted to ignore. I heaved my pack off his truck bed.
An hour later, while we were in the underbrush tracking some boar, I brought it up again. “So, these tree people, do they just hang out in the valley and die?”
The guide kept his focus on tracks in the mud. It was obvious he had said more than he wanted to, but I was curious, so I asked again. He sighed, then responded, “it’s a bit like that, I guess. They die—hell, what doesn’t? But naw, not exactly. Story goes they drop their blossoms in late spring and wander into town. Some help with the harvest. They like the sun—it’s a big meal for them. Fuckers never get a sunburn, either.”
I talked about them more, but it was clear the guide wanted to drop it. Hell, I wanted to drop it, but it was hard to think of much else. I have had years now to ponder why the story hooked me, and I think it was the blatancy. Myths about sasquatches or lagoon monsters always have their beasts tucked in some far glen or under a half-mile of water in a lake; there’s always some distance or cover to make their secrecy feasible. But this story was a plain-spoken tale about neighbours of an improbable sort. I think that’s what stood out for me, though I doubt I had my thoughts clear at the time. Nevertheless, the thought was a haunting one, so I remember pushing the conversation on.
“Nobody’s ever reported this to the other towns?” I asked somewhere farther up the trail.
“Naw, we talk about it—well … some don’t, but that just cause they’re afraid it’ll bring tourists. A different sort than we normally get, anyway—not hunters, I mean. But, naw, lots have told tales around. I am not afraid tourists are gonna turn up if I tell anyone.” A shot went off from my brother’s direction, and he dropped his gun, gripped at his arm, and cursed after a fleeing rabbit. The guide shook his head and told my brother to ease off the wide shots at rabbits. “You’re going to scare the boar off. Besides, you hit some tiny rabbit with that gun and you’ll just have a smear to scrape off the leaves.” He laughed, then wrinkled his brow and asked, “why you grippin’ your arm like that?”
“I think I hurt my shoulder,” my brother said, pulling up his limp arm.
The guide shook his head. “Aw shit … ya fucking popped your shoulder, didn’t you? Jesus, have either you even been shooting before? Damn city kids … aw well, I can pop it back in. We’ll have to make camp, though—the sun’s too low to go back now.”
The guide insisted putting a shoulder back was a common skill for guides, but my brother was still trying to get cellphone reception so he could google treatments. This resulted in a low-speed chase, the guide pursuing the one-armed man holding his glowing cellphone toward the sky. Eventually, my brother was talked into lying down, even though he insisted his phone had bars for a moment. I stood by and laughed like a good brother. The guide bent the injured arm until it popped. After a quick yelp, my brother said it felt better. The guide then made a sling out of some rags from his pack and tied up his arm. My brother wanted to go to the hospital without delay, but that would’ve meant hiking through vines until the moon was the only light. So, we set camp despite his protesting.
I think we were gathering firewood while the sun bled orange down the sky when I brought them up again. “I feel like if there were a bunch of blossoming tree people, it would bring in crowds of tourists. But you said earlier you aren’t worried about that. Why not? Don’t mind tourists?”
He paused and grinned for the first time in a while. “Because no straightlaced mainland motherfucker gonna believe in a crazy tale of blossomed dicks enough to book a trip to a mile past nowhere.”
“So, it is just a crazy tale, then?” I asked.
“It’s at least that, yeah,” he said with a brief nod.
I couldn’t shake the feeling he was just back-pedaling, so I called his bluff. “At least? Are you saying it’s true? Well then, let’s go look. Show me the valley—let’s see if there are tree people.”
He paused for a long moment, then sighed. “It’s January. It’s just a grove of lonely dead trees.” He continued picking at the underbrush for twigs.
“Show me the dead people-shaped trees, then,” I insisted.
“I’m not sure if your brother is up for the hike,” he said quietly.
“Hey!” I yelled to my brother, “The guide is going to take us over to the tree people grove, want to come?”
“Hell yeah! I don’t want to miss that,” my brother hollered back. I shrugged at the guide. He nodded his head in defeat.
“Is this a hunting trip, or what? ’Cause we sure aren’t doing much hunting.” He dropped his twigs to the ground, and waved us toward the ridge.
“I think the hunting trip sank when my idiot brother popped his shoulder,” I responded. My brother gave me a long stare as he walked up. I continued, “What? I told you: pull the stock into your shoulder or you’re gonna break yourself.”
Ignoring me, my brother followed the guide up toward the ridge.
We zig-zagged up broken boulders stitched together by shrubs and pines. It was a steep hike. My brother slowed when the rock was to the right—his sling was on that side, so he couldn’t grip the rock and that made his steps careful. It took less than an hour, but proved long enough to leave us in the moonlight.
We came out through a pass in the ridge into a wide valley crowned by high rock walls. Like the guide said, it was a grove of dead trees and they weren’t exactly a crowd of human sculptures, either. Still, they were unusual forms and colours. It was easy to see them as crooked human figures, I could give him that. Most of the trees were bared of their bark, revealing the red wood beneath. They had stout trunks with plentiful thin branches sprouting from the top. Out the sides were two knobbly branches reaching skyward. Nearly every trunk split midway, producing two stalks that rooted separately into the soil.
“They sure look like people reaching for the moon or something,” my brother said. The guide stayed quiet. He took a seat on a rock to smoke, looking to the sky or the ground—anything but the grove itself.
The trees sounded as hollow as jars when I knocked on them. “Well, it’s an interesting grove. I will give you that. I have never seen a place like it. Still, they look like trees to me.”
“All right. Want to head back, then?” the guide asked between drags. I nodded.
I didn’t bring it up again. The guide was a nice guy and I thought maybe I had embarrassed him. We ended up tagging a boar on our hike out. I left it with the guide, and drove the half-day to the hospital. There was an airport nearby, so my brother arranged to fly out. I left him there and drove back to get the boar.
The guide’s home was a trailer in a wide ring of fences. The property also had a greenhouse with some cultured bushes and bonsai trees, and a butcher shack propping up his business sign. There wasn’t much more than that. He was hosing the blood off a red and blue butcher’s apron when I pulled up.
“The meat’s good … really good,” he said. I knew the meat would be good, though. The game wardens put no limits on feral boar because they ravage the crops. Boar are pests that came with the colonies—something that was brought but unwanted. The meat was good because the boar ate any damn thing their jaws could shred. The local supply of blueberry bushes and smoked game meat made their diet rich, which made the meat rich. Hunting boar makes me happy, the wardens happy, and the locals happy. It was a good quarry all around.
“Thank you for the hand with the boar. I have an extra day’s pay in with the rest here to compensate for the trouble. Do I owe you anything more?” I handed him the envelope of cash.
“Nope. That’s more than fine. Hope your brother comes out okay,” he said, picking up a box of packed boar meat and passing it to me.
I was still feeling guilty. “Hey … uh—sorry for harping on the tree people thing.”
“That’s all right. My own dumb fault for bringing it up,” he said, turning away.
“I have one last thing—and you don’t have to answer—but you said the trees come into town and help with crops. Is this place just so remote no one driving on the highway would notice?”
“There isn’t anything to notice. They are how you saw them in the winter, and they blossom in the spring, but they just look like you or me during the summer. Hell, they don’t even know they’re different, really.”
“They don’t know they’re trees?” I asked, bewildered.
“Most of them don’t seem to, no. It ain’t always that clear, though. You’d know it if you hit them, though. Fuckers are built like oaks. Look tender as a calf, hit hard as a bat.” He looked over his property for a moment, moving his gaze from his truck to the greenhouse, then back to me. “You know, I take it back. Maybe don’t go blabbing about all this. If nothing else, no city hunter is going to let me take them into the woods if they think I’m nuts,” he said. I nodded and said goodbye.
Written by Rory
Edited by Lindsay Vermeulen
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