July 2, 2017 by Patrick Starks
The night was cold, yet purifying, the man had discovered something new. He had never seen such a place, let alone one that be so close to his location. However, that wasn’t his concern. He only thought of the scream he heard just moments before entering what he believed to be a sanctuary. He looked everywhere for clues but couldn’t find anything. The man then came across a desolate path—a path of mystery, a path of trickery. He took a step with his left foot and then his right, but as he stepped with his right, he realized he was now upside down. The man was aware he was a bit late to telegraph such a trap, although feared what the trap was laid out for. As he remained swinging by the branch of a tree, he recognized a hat that laid buried beneath the mud. Eager to confirm what it was, the man swayed his upper body side to side to grab it, he missed on his first try. He tried again for the second time missing again—yet, was much warmer than before. He then gave it one more go, swinging as hard as a child on a playground swing. He finally obtained the hat, falling back into full speed towards the tree he hung. As he gazed at the hat he now held in his rugged palms, his head hit the body of the tree. The man was knocked out and was out for quite some time, but once awakened, found himself in a place mystery.
“Look at man, he look like big child.” Laughter filled the forest as a thousand branches vibrated in joy. Awakened by the racket, the man risen. He saw nothing, only felt the pile of leaf’s he laid on. He looked harder, but all he depicted was a dark room with the slightest bit of moon light inside of it. “Where… where am I?” The man pondered. He’d even thought how’d he got there in the first place. He looked to his left and saw the hat he grabbed from earlier. It looked like it had been washed—the mud it was once soaked in no longer resided within it. The man stood up to go get a closer look, to hold, to feel it, however stumbled a few times in the process—it appeared he took quite a knock to the head. As he finally approached the hat, he heard a noise, something that sound like a rock hitting a stone wall. From the looks of where he was, he figured it was probably rats or bats lurking for food.
After scoping out the room, the man gazed at the hat once more. He recognized it very well. It was blue and gold, and had damage on it that depicted that it was an old hat. “Jeff…” The man thought. He knew that what he found was from a friend—an annoying one, but a friend. The man then called to the tree he spoke to before. “What the hell is this! What did you do?” There was silence for a moment, but before the man could let of his rant of destruction, a life form then appeared from a coal corner. “What man talk about?” It asked. The man immediately became irritated, he knew it was playing dumb.
“You know exactly what the hell I’m talking about. The hat, the fucking hat! Where did you get it?” The life form said nothing only gazed at the man with its fluorescent eyes. The man gazed back, he was still unaware to what he was looking at. The life form was not like the tree he saw before, but unusual. The tree was older—possibly thousands of years old. The seams on its body were not straight like the average tree but twisted. Sap oozed from its body as it dripped on to the dry ground. “Is it sweating, can trees sweat?” The man questioned.
The old tree then approached him. Its approach was slow and heavy—years had appeared to not be so kind to it. “Hat belong to man, bad man.” The tree said. The man instantly became worried, he wondered what it did, what the forest did. “What did you do? What did you do with Jeff?” The man asked, but the tree smiled. “What the hell is so funny!” The tree smiled again, only this time in a malevolent way.
From what the man was taught trees were always peaceful—they didn’t move a lot, most of the time not even fall. However, this tree was non-like any other, more threatening, more wicked. “All men bad, all men try cut tree, try hurt tree, hurt tree friends, hurt tree family.” The man was aware of what the tree spoke of and did not disagree, however needed to know, wanted to know, where his friend was. “I… I understand, but please, if you have my friend, let him go. I’ll take full responsibility of his actions, I swear.” The tree then took a step closer, deeply looking into the man’s eyes. It didn’t trust men, not one bit, and felt that the one that stood before him was pulling off some kind a trick. “Tree give test, will see if man good.” The man was confused, annoyed. He had no clue what he was about to be tested on and felt it wasn’t the appropriate time for games, but for the sake of his friend, he agreed to it.
“What test? The man asked. The tree once more had a smile, a dire one at that. “Tree test, test of growth.” The man paused, became rambled within thought. “Test of growth…” He stared at the tree as it continued to smile wickedly, without hesitation he questioned it once more. “What… What kind of growth? And why growth? Why test that on me?” The tree didn’t say a word, only faded back into the black. “Begin.”
The man looked around, turned around, but no sight of the tree was seen. The place that was once cold now became humid. For a moment, the man was fine, but after a few minutes had difficulty breathing. He put on his friends Jeff’s hat and started to move as he now realized time was running out. He picked up his pace but stumbled a few times on anonymous object he could barely see. As he fell, beneath him lied a puddle—he hoped, he prayed even, that it be an exit—from the heat he struggled in. He figured to go all the way, after all any way was better than backwards. After a few heavy steps the man sunk, he found himself submerged into a body of water. The water was smelly, horrid, even the taste was unbearable as the man got in a little in his mouth. “My god I hope the doc doesn’t say I have something when I get back.” The man thought.
Beneath the water was a glow, it was an odd coloring but bright enough for the man to see parts of its bottom. The bottom appeared ancient—with relics of a time the man figured his great grandpa had not seen. Through the ancient abyss he saw an opening, an underwater cave he presumed. Escaping from the humidity from above, the man descended. He wasn’t much of a swimmer, but good enough to make it to the point he desired. His vision was slightly blurry, eyes burned a little—the water was a bit too murky for comfort. Through the pain, through the burns, he saw the entity of the glow, but it appeared to be getting further away as he approached. The man swam as fast as he could to keep up, for that he was running out of time—running out of breath, eyes burning like hell. As he followed he saw surface to breach, however lost sight of where the glow had gone.
The man then pulled himself back onto land, the air was much fresher, richer than before. The land was fresh as well, everything that surrounded him was green and radiant. Although the man was baffled, he was unsure of what kind of test the old tree was giving him, if there were any test at all. He scoped the area and saw a man, tied and tangled, looking as if all life had been sucked out of him. “Jeff?” the man questioned, but was too far to verify that it was in fact his friend. He walked over to get a closer look, although was hesitant to not get caught into another trap. The footsteps were light and cautious, avoiding any noise to be heard. As he approached the tangled man—the man he questioned to be Jeff screamed. “It hurts! It hurts! Please help me!”
The man charged over as fast as he could—running fast enough that the hat he wore on his head flew off. Before reaching his friend, he fell into a ditch—it was deep and held just enough water within it to keep him a float. He was still, he searched for ways to pull himself out, but gained no result of it. Footsteps then announced there presence as they advanced with wet sound—ؙthey were slow and steady, and held a slight drag. The man looked up as he waited for what was to reveal itself.
“Dam… You don’t look so good friend.” The untangled person said. “Jeff… I thought you were…” The man was in shock, speechless, he didn’t understand what was going on—it appeared that his friend Jeff was more alive than he thought. “Dhought wuut… O’ you dhought I was dead. Naw, naw, but you’ll be soon enough.” The man was pissed, aggravated that his friend would do such a thing—such a thing to him, let alone consider it. Everything was imaginative, unbelievable, he felt that this was just another test from the old tree. “Nice try asshole! But I ain’t falling for that one. If this was truly Jeff he would’ve already chopped your ass down already.” The man however heard nothing from the old tree, all he heard was Jeff. “Believe what you woant but dat dam tree you talk about gone.” The man grew tired of games, he somehow clawed his way out. “I’m going to knock the shit out of you! I told you the trees don’t want us hear. Why can’t you just fucking drop it already!” Jeff seemed careless, all that mattered to him was the money and the fame. The man took a swing at Jeff but missed, he now found his back turned to him.
Jeff now had him in a choke hold, the clinch was tight and the man found it hard to obtain a breath. The two fell backwards as the man used the strength of his legs to push. They clashed against an anonymous tree, it hurt a little, but Jeff laughed at the pain. “Is dat all you got ol’ friend? Hope not.”
Jeff then pinned the man to the ground, sinking his head into the nearby puddle that settled. “Your finished boay! You ain’t getting in my way no mowre. Dat be da damest trut.” As the man’s head remained obscured, he had another memory of his grandmother as he did before—what she told him.
“You were once a child, do not forget that spark. Growth never ends, let your soul burst with joy, let it make your mark. Be proud of who you are and how far you have come, for that you are infinite, you have already won.”
The man then developed an urge, a will to move. His head revealed itself from the muddy puddle it plummeted in. “You ain’t nuttin! Your weak, just as yo ass was when we were kids!” Jeff became eager to break what courage the man now gained. Eyes of gleaming gold now bared within the eye sockets of the man. He was different, stronger. Jeff’s hand remained on the man’s head, struggling to keep it down. “No more, no more!” The man yelled as he countered. Jeff kept fighting back but the man remained hesitant, it was still his friend, no matter what it was currently. “Jeff stop! We don’t have to do this.” The man pleaded but Jeff yelled at the top of his lungs in anger as the saliva oozed through the cracks of his teeth. The man then took Jeff’s head as it became covered in the puddle that he once was. The man yelled as tears rand down his craggy cheeks. He had never killed a man before, especially one being someone he knew—a friend. As the man sat in awe, Jeff remained still, pale, face down into the grown.
The old tree then appeared. “Man good.” The man became furious, he couldn’t believe that the tree watched everything happen and did nothing to intervene. He charged the tree yelling with hate. The tree however did not move, it confined the man, wrapping what appeared to be vines all around his body. “Man good. You fight for tree, fight for tree family.” As the man remained coiled, he saw the body that was once was Jeff convert into a pile of leaves—the same leaves he once rested. “You pass. Tree trust man, tree show.” The tree then took the man over to the murky water he’d submerge himself in before. In it revealed a vision, a current vision—it was Jeff. He was home and safe, working on a new book he thought would strike gold one day. The man turned to the tree, “What does this mean? Why?” The tree smiled in a more pleasant manner than what he had before. “Cus Tree want to know if man strong, strong like tree, can protect tree. Tree want to see man grow, see if man can grow.” The man laughed as he sat in front of the tree, he realized that what the tree had taught him was something no school, no parent could ever demonstrate—to face the fear of growth, to face himself.