The tree stood alone on the top of the hill, out in the darkness. Either it was shy, or the others were afraid of it; because all around, the vegetation grew tangled and wild, except for the circle of dry grass that surrounded the dead tree.
"It doesn't look that old," I thought to myself, as I stood under the desiccated limbs. Its bark was cracked and peeling like the paint on my grandfather's house. The house where I said goodbye two weeks ago. Where he gave me these instructions on his deathbed.
"That tree is not what it seems!" He had gripped my arm with unexpected strength. "It has what you need. Ask it!"
I had asked him what tree, and what I was supposed to be asking for. To which he replied, "The dead man tree. Dozens were hung there in its day."
"Why am I talking to a tree grandpa?"
His eyes went wide, and for a moment I thought the moment had come. Then I realized that the look was fear, but not of death. Of a plant. "Nothing can see that many killings without changing, Ryan. You know, I think I was about your age when I first spoke to it."
He had kept rambling about the tree as if it was an old friend or at least a confidant. His voice kept wavering on the brink of fondness and terror. I tried to change the subject, but he ignored me and began writing directions, all the while muttering, " It'll know what to do...you'll see...you'll see..."
I set down the bag of supplies he'd insisted I bring. A knife, a rope, and a bottle of red wine. Drink the wine, the instructions read. Coil the rope around your neck, but don't make a knot.
I sat down, setting about the first task. From the hill, one could see most of the county; little lights gleaming here and there. Beacons announcing man's claim on the land. My gaze wandered upwards. The stars were out, Sending their own message to man, saying, "We don't care. Even from an eternity away, we still outshine you."
I frowned, tossing the nearly-empty bottle at the base of the tree, where it shattered. Rope around my neck, I lay down beside the tree and let my eyes rest.
I began dreaming of nonsensical things. The tree for example, began to stretch and groan as if waking from a long slumber. In this dream, the tree had a face. Its "face" was composed of knot eyes and a gaping hole full of full of long splinters that resembled jagged teeth.
The tree leaned over me, either curious or disgusted (its expression was difficult to read). Reaching down to where I lay limp, it scooped up the loose end of the rope on one of its branches, hoisting me upright.
For some reason, I thought it was going to say something. The way Grandpa had talked about it had left the impression that some conversation had occurred. Instead, it was steadily lifting me towards its gaping maw.
I decided I was not dreaming as I plummeted down its gullet. It was dark and cool there and as I felt around the grainy walls, I remembered the knife in my boot. I had reservations about this part, but the image of my grandfather urging me to do this drove me. The cut hurt less than I expected.
Pressing my bleeding thumb against the surface, I heard something like a happy sigh from the tree.
"You have good taste..." A dry, crackling voice echoed through my mind. "It's been so long since we drank."
"You have what I need..." I said uncertainly.
"Do we?" The voice mocked.
"Yes!" I yelled.
"You have asked, so it will be given. You bring this on yourself."
The voice told me many things. Things that I cannot forget no matter how hard I try. Showed me things, unforgivable things that had and would happen. I saw neighbors, friends, family; when and how each would pass. I saw the rise and fall of nations.
There were darker things as well. I saw the others, the restless things around the world, cursed beings bringing others down into torment and misery. I saw the things that they feared; horrible, beautiful things.
Then I heard the laugh. The pure, innocent laugh of a child playing, yet I found that laugh to be the most terrible of all of these.
I didn't know how to make it stop. I begged and pleaded, but the voice only replied, "You asked."
It felt like years.
Finally, I awoke, laying on the edge of the dry grass, in the shadow of a leafless tree as morning touched the horizon. I cannot remember everything that I saw that night, but I know that I left that place wiser and colder than I had been when I drank the wine.