My daughter received a small cabbage plant from school the other
day. She was supposed to water it, but
at her age, daily chores are still quite a chore. As a result, after I waved goodbye to the
kids from the window this morning, I looked down to find that the little
cabbage plant had gone crispy. I watered
it thoroughly, just in case its root was still alive in there somewhere, and
while I was at it, I watered our two philodendrons as well. All this going back and forth with water from
the kitchen sink initially drew my sleepy focus to a dark cluster of leaves
poking up from the garbage disposal.
For a second, I was very confused. The leaves were whole, lush, and dark
green. I certainly hadn’t put them there,
and I hadn’t seen anyone eating spinach for breakfast. Then I remembered that my husband had eaten a
plateful of spinach last night, drizzled with ranch dressing: one of his
favorite simple vegetable dishes. So,
that solve the mystery of why it looked like something was growing up out of my
disposal. But my brain couldn’t leave
that sudden moment of “which planet am I on” alone.
What if there really
were disposal plants? my mind wondered. How
cool would that be? Something alive
in the bottom of our sinks, like a cross between a compost heap and a Venus
flytrap! It would eat all our kitchen
detritus, and through its digestive juices, keep that funky decomposing stink
at bay, no citrus rinds required.
But it would make more
sense, my brain continued, if the
sink wasn’t really a porcelain sink.
Some sort of garden circle, either in a giant pot, or just outside the
kitchen door toward the garden, perhaps.
And here I’ve already segued from reality, imagining a fantasy home with
servants in the kitchen, who have a rather large plant because they produce so many
kitchen scraps on a daily basis. I
envision kitchen maids scraping potato peelings and eggshells and the outer,
wilted leaves of lettuce from battered wooden platters into a deep, wide tub
rather like half a wine barrel.
Within the tub, I imagine a sort of Sarlaac pit, with
sloping dirt leading down to a cluster of leafy stems with bitey tips that
sense and target food with rather more independent movement than your average Venus
flytrap. Such a handy plant, it also
consumes its own stems when they begin to wither.
But plants need maintenance, right? And what if no one wants to touch the bitey
plant in case it nips them? So now I’m
envisioning ants. A small, symbiotic colony
that lives in the soil surrounding the plant and tends to the health of its
roots. They’ll also fight
opportunistically for the odd scrap that rises too high up the Sarlaac pit
slope for the plant stems to reach. And
how to keep this aggressive colony from escaping the pit pot? If the kitchen maids ever find one wandering
from its home, they are instructed to step on it and put its tiny, mangled
corpse at the edge of the pot. My ants
have evolved to understand that when they discover their own dead, it marks the
edge of their territory, unless food supplies run out. Which, within the pit pot, they never will.
So there’s my cool idea.
I don’t know about you, but I think I would actually use such a plant, ants
and all, if it were a thing. Would you?
I live at the hanging tree—well, I say live. A great, ancient cypress tree grows
in the swamp west of New Orleans. If you’ve given up, you’ll find it. And then, you’ll find me.
I am less than a man, less even than a spirit. I don’t quite know what I am, save to say
that I am some tiny, indomitable sliver of consciousness that somehow refused
to go quietly into that good night.
I must have been someone once. I must have had a life, a family. A purpose.
Now, and for a very long time, I have had none of that. For decades, I wandered. In the end, though, it seemed best for me to
retire from society—again.
And so I remain at the hanging tree. It seems my best—and their last—chance.
Every few weeks, someone comes. I never know how they will perceive me, but
humanity is generally predictable: the first word they utter is often a name. Their eyes widen, and they stumble back a
step. I always take pleasure in the fact
that they are suddenly and entirely diverted from their suicidal purpose, for
at least that one moment, by the face of someone they esteem.
Every person has a radius of awareness surrounding them. Depending on their level of intelligence and
current distraction, their radius may be very large, or rather close. Whenever I draw close enough to them, or they
to me, their mind perceives whatever ectoplasm I may be as the man upon whom they
place the highest emotional value.
Sometimes, that man is dead. Those always make for interesting encounters,
but you’d be surprised how often a message from the beyond can convince a
desperate soul to remain among the living. I’m convinced that, had Hamlet’s
father borne such a message for his son instead of one of revenge, the play would
have had a happier ending.
Even if their trusted confidante or long-lost lover is
still alive, my would-be suicides are naturally predisposed to listen to his
words. I am ashamed to say that, in my
long and sordid past, I have often abused this curious feature of my existence –
decades of enterprising housebreaking in the dead of night brought my temporary
body rather a good time on dozens if not hundreds of occasions. But now that I have come to certain
realizations about my existence, I have found some small measure of redemption
in using it to save others from a fate such as mine.
It doesn’t always go over well, the suicides suddenly
spotting me under the hanging tree.
Occasionally, I have been entirely unable to convince them to refrain,
and on the rarest of occasions my presence has actually spurred them to
action. Their brightly colored neon ropes
loop over the most popular of the low branches, easily spotted by their worn bark,
and though I am able to touch them as long as I am within their sphere of
awareness, the absolute panic with which their terrified orbs lock onto me is
something I would never wish to prolong.
And so, I am forced to back away until I vanish from their sight,
remaining only an invisible witness to their chosen fate. For I would never
abandon such a desperate soul, not again. No.
Thus do I save most, but not all, of my visitors from the
fate they think they deserve. And thus
it has been for the last thirty-three years of my interminable existence.
But one day, a different sort of person sought me out. She came to the tree alone, dressed in dark
red leather, old jeans, and sturdy boots.
Instead of a rope, she brought a gun. A heavy, shiny thing, it adorned her right hip
like a dangerous jewel. I had seen one
other suicide bring a gun, over twenty years ago. It has sunk two feet into the swamp since.
As she approached the tree, I stepped forward until I
felt the edge of her awareness pass through me – at a considerable distance
that revealed remarkable perspicacity for one so young. She froze except for her right hand, which
latched onto her gun, but did not draw.
Her jaw went tight beneath her pale skin, and her dark eyes stilled. She didn’t even breathe.
“You’re not him.
But I swear…”
A shock borne of a sudden shift in my reality rippled
through me, bringing existential discomfort in an intensity I’d never known. “How do you know about me?” I blurted,
hearing my voice as a rich baritone with a Midwestern accent that matched hers.
Her chin lowered, but her eyes remained fixed on mine. “I
came to find you. You’re the ghost of
the hanging tree. There are legends
about you stretching back thirty years.” She finally relaxed her posture and
removed her hand from her weapon. “I
suppose shooting you wouldn’t do any good, would it? You don’t really have a body.”
I held my hands out, palms up, and eased toward her, then
placed two fingers against her upper arm.
She flinched at the gentle pressure, and her glorious brown eyes went
wide once more. “As long as I’m close
enough,” I told her, “I’m as real as he is.”
She swore under her breath, took a step back, and dragged
her stocking cap from her head, revealing a short bob with pointy tips, which
matched the shade of her leather jacket.
“And you’re not tethered to this tree?
You can travel?”
A sudden wrinkle of suspicion crossed me. From the moment
she’d appeared, I’d felt a sudden absence of certainty, as if the vast map of
my world had suddenly sprouted a dark and unexplored region. I nodded.
So did she, far more decisively than I. “Good.
Because I need your help.”