When I close my eyes I see the killing tree.
It rises from the ground the colour of ash; its sap a crimson wash. My eyes are transfixed upon its leafless branches, sharpened to hooks. A dying breeze soothes the hate within its heart momentarily, cooling the flames of hell that dwell within. Yet its malevolence is ever constant; totems of white flesh skewered upon its being. Some lie crumpled and still while others writhe as worms do before being cast into the sea. The pain of this image is profound and it wakes me from my wet slumber on the leafy forest floor. I am close now to finding my prey, having been on foot for three days. My quarry is a murderer, unleashed from the comforts of sanity. A man whose motives are as distant as the stars above me. A man whose friendship I once knew.
I first heard of the killing tree in the oily swamps of Louisiana. At the time my friends lay lifeless about me, their throats laughing from freshly cut smiles. I myself was as pale as they but with fever and a sickness that meant food had but a fragile affair with my stomach. My friend nursed me there in that swamp where others would have left me to die; insisting that no other comrade would fall in this futile skirmish between red coat and Frenchman. I told him I did not share his optimism and lamented that our plight could surely get no worse. It was then he turned to pierce me with his eyes of onyx, sunken beneath a malnourished face. Indeed his visage frightened me some, not just because of the wildness that stirred behind his tranquillity but because through the mud and matted blood, through the sweat dyed and unkempt beard and hair and through the crest fallen, tattered lieutenant uniform I saw a reflection of myself and what this war and more before it had made of us all. Swallowing us greedily before spitting us out half chewed. I stared back as he spoke. ‘This is nothing’ he said ‘these forests are home to the killing trees’.
He said the idea had been borrowed by the great eagles that lived in these lands, apparently some soared through the air with a wingspan as long as a full grown man while others of legend could have lifted a Buffalo from the ground effortlessly. These birds of prey, said he, would always return with their catch to the same tree to finish the kill so as to avoid the detection of their nests when at their most vulnerable. The stench, he said, was the first thing one would notice of the killing tree, its ripe decay splayed about the roots. A smorgasbord of fish scales and rodent fur. Such imagery embedded itself in the natives’ minds as it did my own and thus as an offering to whomever they saw as divine they adopted this macabre practice themselves. Choosing one tree to splay their hapless victims both to misdirect attention and to produce panic in their enemies. The thought alone of this sight did enough but I hid my fear well, disguising it with incredulity. Rank and file said much of the barbarism of their French enemy as well, but all had yet to witness their infant eating habits first hand. If my dismissal offended him he buried it deep. So deep that I wondered if any emotion stirred within at all. The mist of his breath came heavy and thick like dragon smoke, obfuscating his face from mine. He ordered me to rest and I did as instructed.
It was the first of many nights that the image of the killing tree germinated in my mind. Back then it was but a sapling, taking a bit part in otherwise whimsical if banal fantasies. Yet soon enough its corrupted roots strangled all other thoughts from my dreams, taking centre stage from loved ones and betrothed alike. I confess that as much as I was repulsed by this sadistic image I found myself ever ruminating on the dreams which it filled. Dreams which I loathed and yearned for equally. I woke suddenly, a thing I would do ever more, and found the day struggling to break through the swamp fog. To my horror new corpses lay close to me, three in all and of Choctaw heritage by their markings. I cried out his name, cold and shivering before admonishing myself for feeling as helpless as a child. He emerged slowly through the fog, bathed in fresh gore. ‘My God, man what happened last night?’ But he responded not to this question.
‘The killing tree is real’ he said, ‘and we all live upon it.’ I stared at him in silence as he drew a shape in the mud, straining through pain and fatigue I looked over to see a crude sketching of a snake; its tail being swallowed by its own gaping maw. When I asked what this meant he smiled with pursed lips before reaching down to hoist me to my feet. We travelled slowly back to our fort without incident and without a word muttered. My fever lasted another two weeks but recovery finally came. When I sought him out I was told by an infantryman he had abandoned post the day after our arrival. From then on I dreamed only of the killing tree. I spoke to Chickasaw ally and Choctaw prisoner alike during the closing heart beats of the trade war and all denied any knowledge of such a grizzly totem. And when asked then why a man would conjure such a vivid falsehood the response was near always the same. Because man is mad and white man the maddest of them all.
Two years pass and I find myself in Scotland. In rolling hills as foreboding and unforgiving as any swamp despite their familiarity. This time it is the midges that sting and not mosquitos and in truth I preferred the later. Unlike mosquitos there is nothing surreptitious about midges and their brutish tactics. And yet the hounds of hell would not stop me now in reaching my goal.
I was scraping a living in Newcastle as a footman when rumour began to spread of a madman at work across the border. Of a man shifting from village to village to seemingly kill indiscriminately those on the road at night. The fiend’s trajectory was always due north and, for what blessing it was, would seem to only stay in one place for a day or two. These two days were more than enough, however, for him to commit terrible crimes, leaving the dead and his own growing myth in his wake. At first I cared little for these shilling shockers, its distaste the height of popular vulgarity. But then I heard mention of a tree three mile from Durness. A most debased sight they said. Bodies torn asunder. Innards decorating evergreens like icicles. These images flashed before me, lashing my subconscious day and night. I had no choice. In the morning I set forth to end my friend’s malady and to see the killing tree for myself.
I stand from my exhausted slumber on the forest bed, my body pin pricked by the nattering of the dreaded midge. My mind however is focused. I see up ahead a faint light in the darkness flickering an inviting gold. As I stalk closer I smell the warm spice of roasting meat, my mouth salivating at the thought. Ahead of me now I see a hillock protruding from the ground, the trees thinning in number around it. At its heart lies a cave, the glow of the fire I had followed emanating from within. Undoubtedly this is where he calls home now and so I ready my rifle with powder kept dry by my breast and prepare myself for the task at hand.
I slide gently in, hugging the wall as shadows do but when I scan the abode it is clear my quarry is abroad at present and so I allow myself to relax slightly and to ponder on the many wondrous and bizarre things that lay within. Symbols painted in tar upon the cavern wall of a codex or language I am unfamiliar with, while cattle skulls adorn spikes around a rotten wooden table, their ivory faces tattooed in a similar vein. Striking me most however is the tome upon the table before me, bound in old leather, the mold from which attacks my nostrils persistently. I open the book expecting notes and reasoning of his recent murderous intent but instead all I see are numerals alluding to dates in the future, some a few years off while others several generations away, some even beyond the day of revelations itself. Intriguingly beside each year lies another figure and one that I cannot make sense of. Sixteen thousand, one hundred thousand, six million. There is no logic to it, to any of it and so with frustration I slam the book closed. Where is he? Where is the killing tree?
“I am here.” he says from the cavern opening and I spin to point my rifle at him. We stare at each other as prey and predator do though I wonder which I am in this scenario, trapped as I am in his home. A moment goes by and his expression changes slightly. Does he remember me? Remember Louisiana and a time before the Chickasaw wars when our minds where not so disordered? I wonder if I should say something, my resolve to slay my friend waning despite his crimes, but as I stall I shiver and my finger succumbs to the pressure I have placed upon it. A single bullet jumps from the gun in a fanfare of sparks and sulphurous smoke. When it clears he has fallen, his hand clutching his chest and I rush to his side. “What possessed you?” I say, “What in God’s name made you commit these heinous crimes?”
He smiles at me and I notice a crude tattoo of the mud drawing he had created two years hence. “The killing tree,” I say “tell me where it is.” He looks at me genuinely confused. “Please”, I say, “I need to see it.”
“Don’t you remember?” says he, “I already told you. This is the killing tree. All of this under the sun.” He lowers his hand from his heart and blood decants to the ground hurriedly, “And we are all its victims.”
“Speak sense, man,” I demand but it is of no use, his smile is now mocking me as he fades into himself and into death, taking with him any clue as to its whereabouts. If indeed it exists at all.
I bury him shallowly and desecrate his holy temple with fire yet I am compelled to take his tome of dates and numbers with me rather than see them perish. Perhaps they will make sense soon enough, the first date being only a year away. A brilliant storm approaches as I reach the forest once again. My mind still plagues me with visions of the killing tree and I falter as to whether to venture into the gloom of the woods to ensure its nonexistence or simply return to civilization. Can a soldier truly return to civilization I ask myself before realizing I am stalling. “Leave it” I say aloud, “lest you be seeking the horrors of the killing tree forever.” I am right of course- this journey was started by a madman and should not end with one. Yet here I stand. staring out into the trees, excited by the darkness.