The Wishing Tree
I was hot and tired from sitting still all morning. Church had been holy hell for me. I knew I had an entire afternoon ahead of momma making us sit for hours and read the bible in Aunt Reba’s parlor. The prospect of this was so boring and awful that I couldn’t stand it. I needed to find Gretchen right away. If we could slip away before momma found us, we could go to the river with the town kids and cool off. The trick was getting Gretchen to go along with it. Being the goody-goody that she is, if she stayed behind, momma would have her goodness to compare with my truancy and that would surely result in a butt-whipping for me.
I found her standing by the reverend’s wife with a group of church women. Thank heavens that neither momma nor Aunt Reba was there; if so, my plan never would have worked. I sidled over to about five feet from the group.
“Pssst, Gretchen,” I whispered loudly, trying to get her attention. “Hey, come here.”
“What?” She looked over annoyed as usual with me, with little sisters in general. ‘I am having a conversation.” The reverend’s wife flicked her eyes over to me and then went back to talking to Mrs. Thompson.
“Come.Over.Here!” I hissed “Please…”
“Oh for heaven’s sake,” she stalked over to me “What is it? I was in the middle of a conversation.”
“The only things they talk about” I retorted jerking my chin in their direction “is a bunch of chicken feed; cause they ain’t nothing but a group of hens.” I felt a blush of pride at the scandalized look on my sister’s face though I knew I wasn’t helping to get her to go along with my cause. “Now, I got a plan, a real refreshing one, and I need your help.”
Her face flashed with interest before settling back into the stern mask she always seemed to be wearing lately. She leaned in and her whisper had a harsh quality to it. “No Peggy, I don’t know what you have in mind but I know that look on your face. That look spells T-R-O-U-B-l-E.” She pointed her finger right at my nose. ‘I won’t have it.”
“Won’t have what? A hard ass from sitting on one of those straight-backed chairs this afternoon at Aunt Reba’s? ‘Cause that is exactly what you will have if you go along to get along like always, or,” I narrowed my eyes and wrapped my hand around her finger that was hanging in front of my face, “you could live a little and go to the river and maybe cool off. Maybe get a chance to talk to Maxwell for real instead of looking at him like a Mooney bird all the time.”
Gretchen shook her hand free of my grasp and quickly looked around to make sure no one had heard me mention Maxwell’s name. “Don’t use that kind of language; and in church!” Her admonishment was automatic though, I could see that her heart wasn’t in it. Her voice dropped to barely audible, “do you think he will be there?”
I knew then that I had won. The prospect of freedom made me generous even though I had no idea where Maxwell Tidell was spending his afternoon. “Sure he will. And I’ll bet he’ll even take his shirt off for swimming!”
Half an hour later we emerged from the sun dappled forest path to the river bank. I was relieved to see that Maxwell was there after all. Gretchen’s face lit up as she saw him. He was standing with a group of boys laughing about something, shaking his dark curly head back and forth. Even though I thought boys were pretty much useless, I had to admit that he was handsome; still, to moon over someone like that? Maxwell turned and looked over our way, his smile broadened as he made eye contact with Gretchen.
“Oh Peggy, he’s walking over here,” she breathed. “What do I do?”
I rolled my eyes and prepared to come up with a really clever answer but couldn’t think of anything, besides she was already gliding over to meet him and wouldn’t have heard me anyway. Over by the tire swing I saw my neighbor Tommy Fenton and the Walker twins raising a rumpus and splashing around. By the time I made it over there, my sister and her love life were the farthest thing from my mind. Tommy’s dad had just left for Korea and I knew how that felt, only my dad never returned.
“Hi fellows…and Fiona,” I announced as I strutted over. Fiona Walker gave me a yellow gap-toothed grin back. “What cha doing?”
Tommy looked up “Cooling off, I got about an hour and then ma needs me back at the house to paint.”
I nodded sagely “Yep, I know all about that. Being the child of a war hero myself, if those Nazi bastards hadn’t of murdered my pop, my life would be a lot more leisurely.”
“Shut up Peggy,” Tommy sneered, “your father was a drunk and never even made it out of Fort Benning. Not only did he kill himself in that wreck, he took an entire family with him.” He stood up and brushed some of the mud off his shorts. “So don’t try to relate to me. As far as I’m concerned you and your sister and your momma are trash living off your Aunt Reba’s charity. My ma says…”
“I don’t give a hot damn what your cow of a ma says or what you say!” I was fighting back hot tears, dizzy with shame and anger. I shoved him as hard as I could; he landed hard on his ass. “You can both go straight to hell for all I care!” I turned and stomped away, leaving that asshole sitting in the mud and the Walker twins starting after me with their big, stupid eyes. The riverbank was a blur of tears and other kids as I looked around for Gretchen. I looked over where Maxwell and his friends had been and saw to my dismay that he was sitting with Tommy’s sister Alice, holding her hand. Rage bloomed inside of me at this. I was angry at Tommy and Alice and their stupid ma, angry at Maxwell for holding her hand when clearly Gretchen was a better pick, angry at ma for making us move in with Aunt Reba, and most of all angry at pop for drinking and getting into a crash and leaving us.
“Oh Peggy! Let’s get out of here!” Gretchen came up from behind me and grabbed my hand. I didn’t resist but let her drag me into the woods. We ran together through the trees holding hands like children from a fairy tale. We ran together, both crying at the unfairness that life had dealt us.
After what felt like forever but was only a couple of minutes, we reached a clearing and slowed to a walk. My chest was heaving from running and crying at the same time and my hair was sticking to my face from the tears, sweat, and humidity. I dropped Peggy’s hand and turned to look at her. I was about to tell her all about Tommy and his ma but stopped cold at the wretched expression on her face.
“He kissed her,” she sobbed. “He was talking to me and when she came up; he turned his back on me and kissed her.” She leaned against a slippery elm and wrapped her arms around it. “I hate Alice, she doesn’t even like Maxwell and she’s taking him away from me. I wish she would go away and quit ruining my life!”
“Bastards, both of them!” I hugged my sister around the tree from the other side. “Yeah, I wish she would take her no account brother with her…and their ma!”
We stood there like that for a little while and then wiped the tears off our faces and headed back through the forest to Aunt Reba’s.
That night the Fenton house burned to the ground taking Mrs. Fenton, Tommy, and Alice with it. They lived across the street and over one from Aunt Reba’s place. We woke up a little after midnight to the sound of sirens wailing and slices of red lights revolving on the ceiling and walls. The worst was the smell of burning and smoke coming through our open window. We ran downstairs and out the front door without even grabbing our robes.
It looked like the entire neighborhood was out on the street. Firemen were working to put out the blaze consuming Tommy’s house. I looked around for him or Alice and didn’t see them anywhere. I turned to momma.
“Where’s Tommy?” I asked although in my secret heart I think I already knew the answer. She didn’t say anything; she just looked at me and shook her head slowly back and forth. I heard a choked sob from behind me and turned to hug Gretchen.
That night neither of us slept. We eventually made it back up to our shared room and laid in our beds in a shell shocked silence. A little after dawn, I finally said what I had been tossing around in my head all night.
“You know that this is our fault right?” I turned over on my right side so that I could look at her. She was lying on her back with her hands covering her eyes. “We did this.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You know what in the hell I’m talking about,” I swung my legs over to the edge of the bed and sat up. “We wished they would go away…ALL of them, and they did.”
“That is ridiculous Peggy; their house burned down is all. We had nothing to do with it.”
“Maybe we didn’t mean for anything to happen, but it did and it is because we made that wish. I know it and you know it!”
She sat up and swung her legs over the bed too and with a fierceness that was unexpected she hissed “Fine! Let’s test the theory! I wish that I was queen of England and that I had a room made of gold!” she looked around sarcastically, “Well there goes your theory; just ordinary me in our ordinary room.”
“Just saying the wish doesn’t matter” I whispered, “you have to recreate the whole thing.” Then I said it, the thought that had been underneath the other crazy thoughts all night. “It was the tree.”
“Let me get this straight Peggy, you think that the tree burned down the Fenton’s house?” She looked incredulous but a little scared too, “OK little sister, let’s go test out this wishing tree!” With that she jumped up and stormed across the room to the dresser. She jerked her nightgown over her head and threw it on the floor and then tugged on a dress. I was frightened; Gretchen was the steady one. Seeing her blazing around the room like this and stomping into her shoes confirmed what the little worm in my gut was telling me, something is wrong here.
I followed her through the woods toward the tree. She was walking so fast that I had to jog to keep up. When we reached the clearing, she paused for just a second and then strode across it and flung her arms around the tree. I could feel the air get heavy…charged, the way it does before a storm. The little worm in my gut wasn’t a worm after all. It was a butterfly. An awful butterfly that was beating its wings in my stomach and making me want to throw up. I needed to stop her before something else terrible happened. Before I could say anything she closed her eyes and opened her mouth.
“I wish that our family could be together again!”
“Are you crazy?” I slapped my forehead with the palm of my hand. “That is the worst wish ever!” I stomped over to that damn tree and slammed my hand against its trunk. “Listen up you evil fucker! I don’t want any part of you or her wishes!”
For once, Gretchen said nothing about my bad language; she just stood there looking at me with bright sparrow eyes and flushed cheeks. Still, she had a bland expression that I didn’t care for. It was like she wasn’t all there. I’d never seen someone look both bland and flushed at the same time and at that moment, for as much as I loved her, I hated her too.
“Don’t you get it?” I yelled, “Wishes are tricky! They’re like making a deal with the devil. You gotta be careful and find the loopholes.” I started pacing back and forth. I could feel the roots of the tree poking hard through my shoes. “Pop is dead! Wishing that we could all be together again is like inviting a zombie version of him to come knock on Reba’s door! You need to take it back!”
“I’m not taking anything back” she said evenly. “We’ll just see which one of us is right.” With that, she walked off; leaving me standing alone by the tree. I took my belt and wrapped it around the base of the trunk just to make sure that when I came back there would be no mistake about which tree I was gonna take down.
The next day momma took Gretchen shopping for a dress to wear to the Fenton’s funeral. I didn’t go along since I could fit into her old one from daddy’s funeral. I spent the morning fidgeting and walking around the house. I was waiting for something bad to happen and as it turned out, I didn’t have to wait long.
The knock at the door came right after lunch. I knew as soon as I saw the police officer standing on the porch with his hat in his hands that my entire world had ended. Aunt Reba invited him in but he just stood nervously in the foyer. I sat on the bottom step and watched the dust motes swirl in the beam of sun right above his shoulder. He said the words “car accident” but I knew the truth. It was that damn tree and her damn wish.
A flood of memories hit me at once. We are at the beach and momma was collecting shells with me and Gretchen. We giggled in the surf and put the delicate pink and yellow pieces over our fingernails and pretended that we were mermaids. Gretchen holding me all night after pop died; her promise that she would always take care of me- only she wasn’t here to do that anymore.
Aunt Reba was still talking to the officer when I decided to take action. I got up off the step and slipped out the back door and ran over to the shed to get the sharpest, meanest looking ax I could find. I got one and a saw. I ran back into the kitchen and grabbed a pack of matches out of the drawer.
A half an hour later I was crossing the clearing. My belt hung limply around the base of the wishing tree like a discarded snake skin. The air all around was getting that charged, heavy quality and the sky was iron-metal gray. It looked and felt as though the sun and daylight had been sucked away. The little hairs on my arms and the back of my neck stood up and even though I felt a breeze and saw the leaves and branches on all the other trees moving and swaying; the wishing tree was still.
I knew then that the tools I brought with me were useless. The ax would probably shatter in my hands. I had to beat this thing at its own game. I dropped my weapons and started circling the tree slowly. I needed to be clever. I needed to phrase it right.
I took a deep breath and made the last wish I would ever make in life. I promised myself that there would be no more evening stars, no more pennies thrown down any wishing wells, no more birthday candles; just this one wish. I decided that clever wasn’t working for me and that direct would be the best way to go.
“I wish that this tree would be destroyed and there will never be another wish granted from it.”
Power surged from all over. It felt like my hands were stuck to the tree. There was a blinding white flash and an unbearable heat. It was so quick that I don’t really remember what I was yelling; only that I was, and the next thing I know I was laying in the middle of the clearing about 15 yards from where the tree lay on its side smoking and split in two.
I took a quick inventory of myself just to make sure that I wasn’t on fire and that nothing was broken. The pounding electric quality that had been in the air was gone and the sun was back out. I could hear birds chirping again.
I left that clearing and the shouldering remains of the tree. I went on back to Reba’s and grieved hard for those I lost. Aunt Reba and I went on over the years to forge a decent relationship. It wasn’t the same as having Gretchen and momma there but I respected her and she was as loving toward me as she knew how to be. As far as the tree goes, I left it there that day and never once came back. I knew that the wishing tree was dead.