The Witness Tree

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by Shane Douglas Keene

Down there dark beneath the rich chocolate cake soil, all his lovers rest, safely protected by garden and cherry tree, no seeing eyes to concern themselves. What lies below will stay forever, no recourse but to sleep the sleep of the still and beautiful dead. Naked and natural beneath the dirt, nude as cut and peeled pomegranates, once blood-full, now bones, bodies without people in them, they live in him; slumbering history away beneath the sentinel cherry.

Making a lazy spiral around and outward, his beautiful garden lines both sides of a simple brick path. It is the ancient man’s pride, the centerpiece of a life lived well. He tends to it every morning, weeding, trimming, loving the feel of arthritic fingers soaking in cool, damp earth. He sits on the bench in the shade each spring afternoon, watches pristine white cherry blossoms trickle like Zen paratroopers to the ground. As peaceful as love is violent. On this day in particular, he enjoys the beauty of it, sun shining brightly on flowers dark and glorious in the light.

The garden is the culmination of a career spanning 52 years, a compilation of all his special projects completed. From the tree that finished the garden, began his retirement, to Haemanthus coccineum, his blood flowers, the frosting with the cherry tree at their center. And finishing off the outward spiral is a dance of black dahlias, lonely in daylight. In the night, they become a dark ocean, twining, interlaced with writhing vines alive with the stars of night-blooming hedgehogs, queens of night. It’s a mesmerizing transformation that he wishes he could stay up for every night. 

But his treasures, his joys, are deeper, and they wander back through time, traversing from the now to the then. They are a decaying chronicle rambling through his storied career. His thoughts turn to them frequently of late and he anticipates communing with them, his projects—his kills, the way he peeled skin from them, strip by strip, from faces and genitals and, finally, all, screams and blood painting night red—for the remainder of his life, and he is not mistaken, but for Time, which is not the fixed wheel expected.

His stop is coming up soon.

In the night, as the old man sleeps the sleep of the nearly dead, his beloved legacy begins to transform, bearing wicked fruit in the shape of his transgressions. Confessions telling their truths in secret darkness. They bear the fruit of an old man’s demise. Outside his midnight window, the darkness writhes, shuffles. The world of his little garden is pulled apart, shredded. Dahlias, hedgehogs, and bloodflowers flying apart, scattered by some unseen hand. But most significant of all, the tree, the changes wrought hideous, unspeakable. It was a dream becoming a horror, becoming Judgment.

***

Morning.

Cataract eyes pop open, shutters on the dirty windows of a haunted house. This day is full of uncertain dread. His arrhythmic heart surges and races like an engine revving. Klaxons scream in his head.

The world seems too quiet to his tired brain.

No hollow echo of a faucet’s drip, no creak of a settling floorboard.

Something is desperately wrong.

It takes the length of a second’s ticking to tell him true:

the world is silent.

No buzzing bee or traffic noise, no birdsong.

Fast as his old bones will let him, he jumps out of bed and hits the floor. Sans housecoat or slippers, he heads immediately toward the back door, toward his beloved sanctuary. His heart feels like it’s pounding in his throat, throttling him with terror. Slamming through the screen into the springtime sunshine morning yard, he halts abruptly. Jaw hanging open, eyes gray saucers in a time ravaged face, he issues something halfway between a moan and a sob. His Garden of Eden is Hell on Earth.

Desecrated, his flowers destroyed, torn, stomped on, smashed—unrecoverable. They look like organic confetti strewn, sprawling across lawn and even on the roof of his tiny, tidy little home.

A shrill keening slips past tightened white-line lips, and he stumbles forward until he stands on the sacred ground of the garden.

His shrine is undone, the body of his life’s labor defiled.

And the precious cherry tree?

It still stands.

Or rather, something yet stands in its place.

An abomination, an impossible one. The trunk consists of interlocked human bones intertwined with what appear to be pulsing arteries. Letting his eyes roam upward, he spots ragged, desiccated clumps of flesh clinging to the putrid nightmare construct.

But for the “branches” he might retain his sanity just a moment longer. The horrible realization hits. They’re elongated human spinal columns, hung here and there with dangling nerve bundles, loose wiring from a broken conduit.

Undulating slow and smooth, like Leviathan’s tentacles.

His gaze lands on huge bulbous orbs growing from the ends of the branches. No, not orbs. Human heads.

Those grotesque columns, still in soft motion, bend toward him and he sees the faces.

The faces of Love.

His creations, lovers, all gathered, lending undeath to the living tree. They are malformed beyond recognition, without skin, lips distorted into angry sneers, eyes the color of rage. Teeth in rows of triangular razors, gnashing, hungry for the taste of his suffering. The bundles of dangling nerves encircle him, squeezing relentlessly. The heads bend down, slowly, so slowly, toward him. They speak his name all in unison, a crescendo of cacophonic sound in a song that will last forever.

END

Shane Douglas Keene is a poet, writer, and musician living in Portland, Oregon. He is one third of the Ink Heist podcast and co-founder of inkheist.com. He wrote the companion poetry for Josh Malerman’s serial novel project, Carpenter’s Farm in 2020, has short fiction in Cemetery Gates’ Paranormal Contact and has multiple works forthcoming. He lives with his wife and two small dogs who are convinced they are royalty.

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