From the author: The rings of a tree tell a story. For some trees, that means a litany of horrors that have twisted its long life and haunt its space still, even after the tree is harvested. This story was written for the D. F. Lewis-edited Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies as a twist on the theme to expand the image of what an anthology is and might be.
Starting at the center of the tree stump, a tight zoom that shows only the first few rings:
The pith, that center dot enclosed by the first true ring, appears charred. It is no age-stained falsity, but a memory made physical, a mark of the fire that seared this land when it was a tiny sapling. That juvenile tree was far enough from the bomb to avoid any visible marks of radiation, but the bomb-sparked fires must have nearly killed it.
See it there, a thin stem of a trunk, two maybe three leaves and bark as smooth as a salamander's skin, scarcely big enough to deserve the name tree. Flames curl those leaves and burn through the bark, but the fire moves so quickly away from the epicenter that the sapling doesn't quite die. It stands in a landscape of ash, its valley made gray by the fire. As animals return to the scorch, the tree tries again. New leaves, a new layer of wood to swaddle the damaged center.
Zooming out and panning side to side, the eleventh ring.
This ring squeezes into its neighbors along one, damaged side, impossible to distinguish from the previous and the next, but on the opposite side it is wider than any of the other rings that tell the tree's stories, seems stretched to weakness. It is a strange reminder of that year of horrors. The sickness began among the mosses and scale liverworts, but hopped rapidly from species to species across the entire kingdom of plants. A third of the plants infected died immediately – a slow process for large trees and a quick one for saplings and weeds, but inevitable either way as the disease weakened their cell walls and interfered with the organelles. A third of infected plants lived on, the weakness only temporary after they incorporated the disease into their cells. Once made a part of these plants, the disease gave the hosts a string of letters, inserted in their DNA, that proved to lengthen their life spans, but make their pollen and pistils toxic, so that new generations – even the spawn of healthy plants – could not rise. Less than a third recovered from the sickness with no long-lasting symptoms.
Read it there in the rings, our anthology of the valley's horrors. How the tree, strong and slender and truly a tree this time, contracts the disease. The sickness invades the vascular tissue beneath the trunk, leaks into the vital sapwood. One side of the trunk buckles inward, the wood weakening. The crown bows as if to an invisible sovereign, a twisted bow forced on the tree, not given willingly. By divine or demonic luck or perhaps by a quirk of its genetics, the tree struggles through the sickness, survives somehow.
It pulls itself upright, in time, grows thicker bark to hide the past. The horror is hidden, but not forgotten.
On the twenty-seventh ring there is a tiny dot of green. A point in one dimension being a line in two, it marks what was once a stripe of green from root to crown. Not that the stripe was ever some kind of straight line in a geometric sense – it twisted and wrapped itself around the tree, like the vine it resembled. Yet it was not a vine, not as we normally understand the word.
Few will ever forget that strange year, as scientists struggled to understand this new and unfamiliar life form. Their correspondence, made more difficult by the times, rushed around the world as they worked to examine the thing's structure and genetic signature. Was it alien life, piggybacking to earth on one of several space probes that had returned in prior years? Some evidence suggested that a microscopic spore may have survived such a journey and given rise to the thing. Or did it hitch a ride on an asteroid and survive its host's destruction, survived to come to earth when the rest of the material encasing it disintegrated in the atmosphere? In some ways that seemed just as plausible, though the re-entry made the explanation suspect. The recent crash of an out-of-commission satellite was also suggested as a source and host, though how the satellite itself could have become host was unknown. Was it, perhaps instead, a newly evolved living thing, one that fit no known kingdom-phylum-class-order-family-genus-species? The possibility thrilled scientists, even as evoked unease.
This anthology does not answer those questions, however, but it poses its own, written there in a green dot on a single ring. How did the tree survive that strangling grip? The life form did not spread far and fast, like the earlier disease, but where it did take root, it killed. It did not respect biological categories, but preyed on whatever living thing it became attached to, whether plant, animal (including humans) or fungus. Perhaps microscopic life forms as well, for all that was every known and understood about that strange living thing that came and killed and disappeared. That the tree not only survived but absorbed the unknown life form into its own tissue is, perhaps, our first sign of the changes at work within the tree itself. Of strength not entirely natural.
The next ring of note is not subtle. Show the whole cross-section of the tree, out to the forty-first ring. It is white, bleached of any color. Even the sawdust and smudges left since the tree came down seem unable to blemish that pale wood. This is the memory of a localized horror, particular to this small valley, to this tree.
Children can be cruel to trees, and had this cross-section come from a little higher in the trunk, it would have been a different anthology, with scars that told the stories of those knives, of nails pounded in from a misguided hope for sweet sap, of makeshift chisels used to chip away new wood and make old carvings brighter and more striking. No child's cruelty could have created this ring, though. That takes a different order of cruelty.
To the tree, male and female mean nothing, but this season's horror is human. The knives she carries in his backpack are sharp, the toxins powerful. At first she makes tiny cuts through the bark, just barely breaking through. No cut will leave a mark on the rings beneath the mark. When the cuts are complete – several hundred of them at various heights – he takes out the first paste, spreads it over some ten of the cuts, and waits.
These first toxins do not destroy the tree. If it feels anything, if any of the transport vessels lying just beneath the bark act as nerves for the tree, then it feels a distant sense of ease and pleasure, growing more intense as the substance works. Other poisons will follow. Leaves shrivel or change color, depending on the chemicals force-fed to the tree. Bliss and pain alternate until one blurs into the other, their meanings bled into one.
Eventually it is too much, and the vessels shut down, die. The sap is compromised, the trunk a hash-mark of shallow lines and poison. Where before the roots pushed the ground upward, breaking through in places into the open air, now those same glimpses of root have a flaccid look, limp laundry draped over the ground to dry.
She notes the reactions to these experiments in his notebooks, notes the spread of the dead-looking wood. Does she note that the tree still lives, despite appearances, or does he believe that she has killed the tree? He leaves the tree, a bleached husk of aged wood, her notes carefully marked and bound and packed among his gear.
There may be some years missed after that, empty years with no new growth. So let this white ring stand in for those horrible years as well, a bleak and uncertain span that might as well be death, the tree a corpse, a zombie as it begins to stir, and finally returned to life. Only then do the rings resume.
From shortly after this bleak ring and outward for several rings, the track of a borer beetle wanders over our anthology. Follow that track from its outer end and back inward, a shaky line, yet with a certain inevitability as it heads for the tree's heart. False inevitability, for it stops short without killing the tree.
This is no fluke, that the cross-section before us happens to show the trail of that beetle. It would have been difficult to saw through the tree and not see at least a portion of one of the many such trails. The beetles came like a malignant sleet, falling suddenly from what had been a clear sky. No clouds to announce them nor thunder to warn of their approach.
They pierce the bark of all but the hoariest of trees and start in on the wood beneath. The thousand trees in that valley and on the slopes above lift arboreal voices to scream at the stinging pain. Our tree remains silent, even to its kindred. It bends its deep-rooted, horror-forged strength toward fighting the creatures off. Perhaps it takes pleasure in the hunt, the slaughter. The leaves shake with what might be ecstasy, and their color grows into a more vibrant green...though the shade is not quite what we associate with healthy, its color spectrum bent askew.
A dozen rings nearer the present is a dark, charred stain, similar to the first except that it bisects several rings and only in one, localized segment. No fire this, then, but the story of lightning. A mundane sort of horror, at first blush, and yet...no less painful for its commonness, its mundanity. Stories of the storm that night draw an image of pure terror, nonetheless, of clouds gathering suddenly, of repeated strikes of lightning so close together that darkness never came between flashes.
For the tree, that second of high voltage stretches on and on, its nerve analogs shocked into awful silence by the surge of current running down the wood, into the roots, its bark splitting in silent-screaming protest, its leaves losing color in shock.
Beyond that point, none of the rings is complete. Each comes to the scar of the lightning strike and stops, resuming on the other side. The new years never fully overcome that wound.
One final ring of note remains. More accurately, several rings worth focusing on. Out nearly to the bark the rings become confused, piled tightly together, but not in the way tree-ring readers recognize as drought years. There have been many of those across our anthology, the common yearly horrors of drought and flood, as the rings spread outward. But this, this is something different. The rings waver, touch and retreat in a pattern of compression and expansion. These several rings mark a single year, a single growing season, despite appearances.
The season begins in sun. Intense sun while snow melt feeds the thirsty roots. It grows, the spring wood expanding, though not quite in the even, natural pattern that a normal spring would have induced. An engineered drought plagues the valley and halts that growth, closing the ring as if with autumn wood. But then the cycle repeats as worldwide the hijacked weather goes insane. The sun's heat powers through a weakened atmosphere, a powerful catalyst when the water is there, a bane when it is dry. Scientists tinker with the cycles, find a solution that is less than what had been natural but the best they can do in a broken world.
A last ring shows a climate close to normal. After that, the need for fuel made the tree too tempting.
Horrors exact a price. This anthology of horrors has not left the tree a mild victim.
Scan sideways, a quick pan to the saw blade. It is rusted. Its teeth are corroded, even missing, eaten away as if by acid. The sawdust beside the blade is fresh, though, no more than a few days old. Where the sawdust is thickest, the ground is rotting. Those plants that grew beside the trunk are withered. Work gloves lie beside the saw, still wrapped around the handles. Still encasing what remains of the hands that held the saw.
The tree, untethered and rootless, is free to haunt those who caused its life of horrors. And those with no blame as well.
This story originally appeared in Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies.