From the author: Every family has a tree.
Every time we got together, my skinny grandfather showed me that last picture of his son, my father. It was a stranger with my face, surrounded by woodworking tools in his workshop. Calm on his last day, age twenty-five.
I was older than that, now. It was a sunny April morning, and the little graveyard made a pretty sight. Rows of white stones sunk in green turf, scattered around the big spreading oak. Shady, peaceful.
Chock full of my dead relatives. Dead, silent, and out of my hair, which suited me. Especially some of the great-aunts. I never visited when we weren't burying somebody.
But there I was, along with my still-living, talking, in-my-hair Gramps. He'd called me away from my endless waste of time and money at Northwestern, claiming urgent business at the family boneyard. Like an idiot, I'd gone ahead and put on my funeral suit and good shoes.
Gramps and I got out of his old pickup and he leaned back against it, pulled a pack out of his jacket and lit an unfiltered Pall Mall before speaking. "Harv, I got nut cancer." I waited while he sucked down some smoke. "Nut cancer, ass cancer, who knows what else cancer."
"You're kidding. Two packs a day -- you dodged a bullet."
"Lucky sonofabitch." Damnit, I'd miss the old guy.
He didn't crack a smile; the man had no sense of humor. He spit instead. "Kid, you oughta have knocked up that Danielle girl sometime in those three months you was married."
"Okay. Whatever you want to talk about."
"If you're not gonna have kids, it's all up anyway, family's over."
"Fine, sorry I used those condoms."
"Jesus God, Harv, you think your pecker's just for fun? It ain't."
"Sure wasn't with Danielle."
"Christ knows your homo cousin Reggie ain't having kids. You gonna make some babies or let your whole family just die out forever?" He ran out of breath and bent forward, his hands on his knees, face red.
"Jesus, Gramps, okay, I'll have some stupid kids. Whatever."
"With a woman."
"Sure, why not."
"Don't have a test tube baby or some goddamn thing. Stick it in a woman, Boy. Make it count."
"You should write those Hallmark cards, Gramps."
"Look here." He straightened up, went around to the back of the truck. He opened a toolbox, pulled out a tubular steel implement and held it up. "Increment borer. For dendrochronology. Got it?"
"Absolutely. No idea what the hell you're talking about."
Gramps stumped off toward the oak tree, lighting another butt. "Help me get a core from the tree. Grab the straightedge level from the box. And the 3-in-1 oil."
We walked on soft grass between my dead aunts and uncles, my dead dad and all the other dead Dwyatts. There was already a stone in place for Walter Jefferson Dwyatt, aka Gramps. The stone lacked only the second date. My own stone was in storage, ready for the big day. I could remember picking it out on my tenth birthday.
Gramps walked past his plot, into the shade under the spreading branches. He set the borer against the trunk and got it started, then leaned against the tree and nodded at the tool. "Steady and even. You work, I'll talk."
"So we'll both be boring." I took off my jacket and draped it over a marble angel. (One of my siblings, I think. I'm the only one made it past infancy). I grabbed the bore handles and twisted.
Gramps got another good lungful of nicotine. "Keep putting some oil on it as you go. Okay, now. Remember in my will, where it says you got to take care of the family tree? This is the tree."
"Seriously? Of course you're serious. I thought that meant Mom's genealogy charts." I looked up through the branches. The live oak was a good forty feet high.
"Now why the hell would I care about a bunch of Vicky's family crap? You mother was a good woman with a nice can, but that bunch of halfwits on her side aren't blood kin."
"They are to me. How far in do I go with this?"
"Up a few inches short of the handle. Keep 'er straight in to the core. Oak tree's exogenous."
"It grows outward."
"Right, college boy, it grows outward. Living on the outside, dead in the center."
"Like my ex-wife."
No sense of humor. "You only want to do this every few years. Okay, deep enough; let's get the bore out."
A steady pull brought out a pencil-thick, foot long cylinder of wood, striated with sections of the growth rings. Gramps took the core from me, holding it gingerly. He peered through his trifocals at the piece of wood, sliding his tobacco-stained thumbnail along it from the bark inward as he counted rings. He nicked the wood with his nail.
"Right there, that ring or close to. That's your great-grandmother Lucille. My mother. You never met her." He mused for some time, spitting twice. "Shrieking harridan, in fact. Sick in the head."
"So, that ring marks the year she was born?"
"Why the hell would it?"
"I thought you were trying to make a point about family tradition. So, what, it's the year she died?"
"Just after. Jumped off a bridge, and my old man had to bribe the coroner to get the body away in time for planting, over there." He pointed to an oblong marble stone, where I could just make "LUCILLE DWYATT".
It struck me just then -- for the first time, honestly -- struck me that, if I were a stranger, stopping by on a warm spring day to relax in a little country graveyard, I'd be wondering why all the stones were facing the oak tree. Why they were laid out in rough concentric circles, all turning their carved stone faces to the tree like an audience. I don't think most cemeteries are arranged that way.
Under Lucille's name was something else, a carved image; I remembered now. "Damn, I always wondered why there was a picture of a bridge carved on there. Does that mean Uncle Gary shot himself?"
"Yep. Right in both eyes."
"How'd he -- never mind. What about the skull and crossbones over there on Aunt Hedda's stone?"
"Rat poison. She had the stone carved a week before she did it. She's about here." He nicked another spot on the rod of wood. "You see why this tree has got to be taken care of."
I didn't, particularly. "Fine; tradition. You can mark everybody's death on the growth rings. Some people use calendars, but what the hell."
He stared at me, for a moment looking confused and close to his limit, not the hard old bastard I knew. He pointed again to the first nick. "Clean the shit outta your ears, boy. This is your great-grandmother Lucille. That ring right there. Her soul's grown into the wood. They all are, alla them bygone Dwyatts. They live in the tree."
I couldn't think of a good response. "Our dead relatives live in a tree."
"Only the direct descendants of Augustus Dwyatt. Every soul buried here, man or woman, is a Dwyatt by bloodline."
"And they're dead, but they live in this tree."
"That's the fact."
"Are they baking chocolate chip cookies in there?"
Gramps grabbed my shoulder. "A person's soul stays with the body for a little while, a day or two."
"Why'd you think I made it look accidental when your dad killed himself with the table saw? Just for fun?"
"No idea. I do remember you sitting me down and making sure I understood Dad killed himself on purpose, so thanks again for that, old man."
"Had to put him in the ground the next day; no time for an autopsy and inquest and all."
"You said we'd see him again."
"You will. You'll talk to him, Harv."
"I thought you meant, like, Heaven."
For once, Gramps laughed. "Ain't any phony-baloney heaven and angels. We got this tree. The roots spread out, see, into every one of these plots, clear across to your worthless Uncle Spence over by the wall. You put a Dwyatt in there and the roots extract his soul, draw it up like water and it just soaks into that year's growth ring, settles down into every little cell."
"Like, where? The chlorophyll?" Do you go along with a delusion, or argue?
Gramps spit and snorted simultaneously. "Jesus, Boy, what're they teaching at that school? Chlorophyll's in the leaves. Why the hell would my mother be in an oak leaf?"
"You're right, that makes no sense."
"She's in the wood. That's the part that lasts. Cellulose. Tracheids, vessels. Porous wood." He lit a match with his big yellow thumbnail and sparked another Pall Mall. "That's how come we don't lay our people in coffins. Gets in the way. Got to let the roots poke in there."
"And it saves money, I guess."
"Saves some money. Give me that." He carefully slid the bore back into the trunk and tapped it in place. "More of us in the old tree than out, that's for sure. My time's comin', just around the corner -- God, boy, damn it all, you got to get some damn kids, or else you are the ass-end of the Dwyatt line."
"Ah, Jesus. I'm gonna sit down for a second." My knees weren't feeling too solid; I let them fold and dropped down on my ass, back against the live wood.
A lifetime of casually observing my family's little quirks was coming into focus for me. The social isolation, the annual rehearsal funerals, the tendency to suicide and unlikely accidents. The family legends. ("Legend" means "surreal, pointless anecdote ending in abrupt death".)
And the business, which I wanted nothing to do with. There's nothing wrong with manufacturing veterinary enemas, but it doesn't excite me as a career.
Everything I'd always wanted to get away from. Almost seemed normal now, compared to this revelation.
Gramps took my arm, practically hauled me up. For a dying old crazy person, he had a good grip. "Augustus Dwyatt disappeared in 1851, declared dead in 1858. Last time anybody saw him, he came out here. Said he was going to cheat death and then go into town for some tobacco. Never seen again. I figure he's inside the trunk, maybe in that bole where it divides."
I looked up at it. "What -- what do you think he did?"
"You can ask him yourself some day. Spend a few nights out here by this tree, you'll hear 'em all right. God damn, Harv ... they don't stop talking. Once you start hearing them."
He took a last drag on the butt, burning it down to his fingers, and flicked it away. "You won't be lonesome."
"Gramps -- " I found myself with literally nothing to say except, "How many?"
"Seventy-three Dwyatts, plus old Augustus makes seventy-four. Big oak like this's got another five hundred, maybe a thousand years in it, if it's took care of. That's you, Harv. You have got to carry on the line, make sure it's done. It needs to be a direct descendant. Has to be. Listen."
"One, get a woman, two, knock her up, three, keep this tree alive."
"Gramps, has it ever occurred to you that maybe you're just an insane old man?"
Long story short, Gramps got his promise out of me. When badgering didn't work, he brought up his ass cancer. Then he showed me his latest will, and the black and white figures with their little conga line of zeroes. Those zeroes sealed the deal.
After that, the old man must have felt he could let go, because he was dead inside of a week. My guess is he induced a coronary somehow, but there was no autopsy, and I got him in the ground the next day.
There was nobody to contest his will, and a vague "take care of said tree with his own hands" clause is hard to enforce. The figures were rock solid, though.
I did my part. For a while. Ten years. Pruning, guarding against root rot and gall incursions, maintaining the right soil moisture. That tree and I had a longer, more nurturing relationship than I ever managed with a woman.
Another marriage, just as childless as the first but even more expensive. I sat in a big house and drank expensive booze, trying and failing to picture a child with my eyes. I didn't want to look into those eyes. In a rare decisive act and with some Dutch courage I got it taken care of. (They're not supposed to perform a vasectomy on a guy who just wanders in drunk, but enough cash at the right clinic gets results.)
After I sobered up, I reflected on how my entire life had consisted of waiting to die. It was time to get out of the family psychotic delusion business.
I rented equipment and went out and took the oak apart in sections. With a week's hard work I cut, burned or blasted it all. The roots would die and the remaining bits would rot.
I sold the Dwyatt house and the Dwyatt land, and anything else that reminded me of my crazy family, my family tree, craziness in general, families in general or trees in general. Walked away and pre-arranged for cremation.
When somebody asks about my "people", I say I put the family tree through a chipper. That goes over well with the damaged women I briefly attract.
I did keep one little piece of the past. It's a strange thing. An object I found when I was splitting the trunk at its juncture, wedged inside the bole. Somebody's jawbone. Three gold teeth.
Did Augustus Dwyatt have gold teeth?
Who can I ask? There's no one.
This story originally appeared in Short Story America.