From the Malafarina Files, ‘The Hangin’ Tree’, a short story by the master of horror Thomas M. Malafarina

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by: Thomas M. Malafarina © 2019

1

The two old men sat quietly on the covered patio as the sun began its gradual descent into the western horizon. They each rocked slowly, mixed drinks in their hands as birds flew to and fro from bird feeders to birdhouses and back again, noisily gathering their final meal of the day.

“You sure do have a lot of birdhouses back here, Bob,” John, a widower from down the street, said.

“Yeah, I ‘spose I do. Last time I counted, I believe there were better than twenty of ’em.”

“That’s a good many birdhouses. And did I see what, three feeders?”

“Actually, there’s four. I got one near the back over there behind the shed.”

“I believe that’s a good many feeders as well, Bob. You surely must like birds.”

“I ‘spose I do. That’s because of Sallie. After dinner, we often sat out here, talking and watching the birds doing their nighttime routine till bedtime. We’d never get tired of it.”

John hesitated for a moment of uncertainty and then said, “I’m sure you miss her terribly.”

Bob took a pull of his drink and said, “That I do, John. That I do.”

“I can tell you from experience; it never gets any easier. It just gets, I don’t know, different, I ‘spose.”

They both sat in silence for several minutes, then Bob asked, “John, you and I have been friends for how long now, like thirty years?”

“Yep, since the day you and Sallie moved in.”

“We probably have told each other so damn many stories we likely know more about each other than our wives ever knew about us.”

“Most likely true.”

“Well, since Sallie passed, I’ve been thinking a lot about my life, you know, stuff from back when I was a kid.”

“Well, Bob, sometimes it’s good to reflect, to recall memories, especially the happy ones. These old memories are often all we have when we get to be our age. Personally speaking, I remember fifty years ago like it was yesterday, and I forget yesterday like it was fifty years ago.”

“Very true, John. That a good one,” This was what Bob said every time John used that same, tired old joke, which was every time they got together, “But lately, I’ve been thinking about something from way back when I was a kid. It was something I never told anyone about, not even Sallie.”

“Well, why not, Bob? You didn’t rob no bank or murder nobody or anything like that, did you?”

“Hell no; at least not so as I can remember,” Bob chuckled.

“Well, if you did, you can feel free to tell me. God knows I won’t remember it tomorrow. For all I know, you might have confessed to me yesterday. Hell, you’re safer telling me than a priest.”

“I haven’t told you or anyone this because it’s really strange. It always sorta made me feel a bit embarrassed and maybe a little guilty. Even though I was a kid, I guess I never wanted people to know about it. And I think it has a direct correlation as to why I feel this need to help out birds.”

“Now you’ve got my attention, Bob. Do tell. Do tell.”

“Remember what it was like being a kid back in the early sixties? You know, home for summer vacation and playing outside from early morning until late at night?”

“Yeah, Bob, I remember those days very well. But you didn’t grow up ’round here, did you?”

“Nope. I’m a transplant. We moved here because this was Sallie’s home. I come from much more humble beginnings. I’m originally from a small coal region town called Ashton, about sixty miles north. Our town was a blue-collar, lower-income place that seemed to have kids everywhere while I was growing up. No matter where you went, you were bound to find someone to hang out with. None of us had any money, so we had to find our own ways to fill the long summer days after school let out.

“Well, one summer back in like ’65, me and a group of neighborhood kids were looking for something to do. I was about ten years old, as I recall. It was that time of year when it was so hot the tar would blister on the road, probably late July or early August. By that point in summer, we had played all the baseball, basketball, and touch football we could stand. We had built treehouses and hung out telling ghost stories until they weren’t scary anymore. Some of us were actually looking forward to school starting to end the boredom. It was a perfect time for restless boys to get into trouble.”

John said, “Yeah, I know what you mean. We didn’t have all the electronics and stuff kids have today.”

Bob continued, “Our neighborhood was at the outer edge of town and was surrounded by hills and small woods of scrub trees. On this one particular day, we were walking along a seldom-used road, and one of the kids, I believe it was Charlie Janko, shouted, ‘Hey, what’s that up there?’ I could see something large and white alongside the road ahead. As we got closer, we could see it was some kind of large bird.”

2

“What the heck is that?” Davie Gardner asked. Davie was the youngest member of our crew and always seemed to have questions about everything.

Ronny Wharton, an older kid with a natural tendency to ridicule everyone, chimed in, “It’s a bird numbnuts; what did you think it was?” At the time, we didn’t know why Ronny was the way he was, but later we realized his home life was not a good one. He had an abusive mother and an alcoholic father.

Well, Davie got flustered and began stammering as he always did when confronted by Ronny’s comments, “I… I know it’s a b … bird Ronny. I was w … wondering what kind of bird it is.”

“It’s a dead one, dickweed,” Ronny chided, “Even a retard like you can see that.”

“Actually, it’s a goose,” Jimmy Thompson cut in. Jimmy was something of a mystery to our neighborhood gang. He visited us from time to time from several blocks away. Jimmy lived in an area of town with few kids, so we sort of adopted him. You know, he had an unspoken honorary pass. Jimmy was a thin boy of average height and was not only muscular for his age, but he carried himself with an air of confidence that made him seem older. It also made you not want to screw with him. Even Ronny stopped his rude comments whenever Jimmy spoke.

I could never quite figure out what exactly it was, but there was always something that seemed a bit off with Jimmy. He had a strange way of looking at you sometimes. It was one of those looks that made your skin crawl, you know; it gave you the willies. There were many stories about Jimmy circulating the town, and if even half of them were true, I had no idea why Jimmy wasn’t already in jail. I’m not ashamed to say that boy scared me plenty, even before that day. But after what happened that day, not to mention years later, I was wise to have been afraid.

Jimmy said, “The goose must have tried to land and was hit by a car or something.” He seemed to be studying the area like a detective. It was as if he could see things the rest of us couldn’t.

Charlie Jacko said, “It must have just happened this morning ’cause I was up here yesterday, and this thing wasn’t here.”

Jimmy found a long branch about two inches thick nearby and poked the goose with it. The body shifted a bit, and its long neck flopped over, revealing its head and bill. It was odd that there was no blood on its white feathers.

I wasn’t a whole lot older than little Davie was at the time and asked, “So what are we gonna do with it?”

That was too much of an opportunity for Ronny to pass up. He said, “That’s a retarded question if I ever heard one. What are we going to do with it? It’s a dead stinking goose. How’s about we put lipstick on it, and you can take it on a date to the movies, Bobby.”

I was never one to put up with Ronny’s nonsense, even though he was a few years older than me and could probably have kicked my butt. Whether a blessing or a curse, I was born with a smart mouth of my own. I knew Ronny was sweet on a girl in his class named Donna Williams. I jumped on the opportunity, “That goose is probably more your type, Ronny. Come to think of it, she looks a lot like Donna Williams with her duck lips. But at least the goose won’t be able to say no when you ask her out.”

The whole gang laughed hysterically at the jab. I knew I’d have to pay for the comment eventually, but at the time, it was too good to pass up.

Charlie said, “Seriously, guys. This is too cool. There must be something we can do with it?”

Ronny suddenly seemed to have an epiphany, which was never a good thing in his case. Whenever he got an idea, it was bound to end badly. His eyes seemed to glow with mischief as he said, “Charlie, you live the closest. Can you get some string or twine from your house?”

“Um… ah… yeah. I think I know where some is. Why?”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll tell you when you get back. Why don’t you run down and get some.”

Charlie took off like a shot, and Ronny said, “Jimmy, let me see that stick you were using.”

Jimmy handed it over, and Ronny tested it for strength and flexibility. “Yeah, this will work fine.”

“What are you thinking about, Ronny?” Jimmy asked with that creepy look in his eye. It was almost like he could read Ronny’s mind. If Ronny having an idea was a bad thing, then having Jimmy involved could only make things worse.

Ronny grinned like a Cheshire cat and said, “I was thinking we could string it up by the neck from this pole and carry it around the neighborhood, scaring any girls who are out playing.”

My stomach lurched at the idea, but I could tell by the look in both Ronny and Jimmy’s eyes, this was going to happen, and I was going to either have to be part of it or wind up ostracized by the gang. Pussy-fide might be a better description. To back out would mean being labeled a pussy for life by the gang. So I went along to get along, as they say.

Charlie returned with some heavy-duty twine, and Ronny held the pole steady while Jimmy wrapped the string around the pole and the goose’s neck. I could feel my knees get weak at the sight, but I held on somehow. Since they were the tallest, Ronny lifted one end of the pole, and Jimmy lifted the other, resting the rod on their shoulders. The goose dangled ridiculously from its neck between them, its feet just inches from the ground.

“Let’s go!” Jimmy shouted, looking much happier than any sane person should, especially considering what we were about to do. Davie and I stayed as far to the back of our twisted little parade as possible. I knew if, and when this turned into a disaster, it couldn’t help but become, I wanted to be able to distance myself as quickly as possible. Part of me realized how warped it was, but another thought it was awesome if that makes any sense. I suddenly had visions of my Mom crying, wondering what was wrong with her son, and my thoughts of my Dad pulling his belt from his pants, ready to strap me, yet I stayed with the pack.

Needless to say, a group of boys carrying a dead goose hanging from a pole was bound to attract attention. Soon our ragtag parade increased in size as other neighborhood boys joined us. This addition of kids was also good for me because now I was just one of many, which essentially allowed me to be invisible. Somebody started chanting “Dead Goose” in a low whisper, and we soon joined. “Dead Goose, Dead Goose.”

We had managed to scare one small group of girls, although, by the looks on their faces, it was more likely all we did was disgust them. The father of one of the girls, Janice Dawson, was home from work on vacation, and she ran home to tell her old man what we were doing. Her dad was a big man, a former high school football star, and still very athletic and muscular. When Mr. Dawson caught up with us, he saw the goose, heard the chanting, and shouted, “What the Hell is wrong with you boys? You sick, twisted, disgusting little bastards. I have a good mind to beat each of you to a pulp.”

As you know, had he chosen to give us all a whooping, not only could he have gotten away with that back then, but afterward, we’d still have to answer to our folks who would pick up where his whooping left off. Davie and I hid behind a nearby tree doing our best to disappear. Mr. Dawson shouted, “No, I don’t know where you boys found that disgusting thing, but you have thirty seconds to turn around, get the hell out of here and dump that god-forsaken thing somewhere up in the hills. Do I make myself clear?”

A few of the boys, even Ronny, said “Yes sir” while others said nothing, afraid to attract any unnecessary attention to themselves. Jimmy didn’t say a word either, but he wasn’t scared in the slightest. He looked at Mr. Dawson like he wanted to have him hanging from the pole instead of the goose. But Jimmy wasn’t stupid either. He started to turn, and Ronny followed. Soon we were all on our way out of the town and up the road to discover something that would become part of our lives for many summers to come and would eventually lead to the end for Jimmy Thompson.

3

As we approached the area where we had found the goose, our numbers had diminished to the original group of five, Charlie, Ronny, Davie, Jimmy, and me.

“So now what are we supposed to do with this stupid thing?” Ronny asked.

After a few seconds, Jimmy said in a strange, distant voice, “I know.”

Then he pointed toward a large tree in a clearing up ahead. It was growing from an outcropping of rocks high above the road. Some of the stones were quite large and flat. “That tree. We’ll hang it from that tree.”

That weird feeling crept back into my stomach as we marched toward the tree, like pallbearers carrying a casket to a graveyard. I should point out here that I never liked dealing with death and dead things even before that day. I still don’t. And even though I was just an observer on that day, my displeasure with all things non-living simply got worse.

When we got close to the tree, Ronny and Jimmy placed the goose on top of a flat rock section, and Jimmy began looking around the ground for something.

Ronny asked, “What are you looking for, Jimmy?”

“I need a … oh, there’s one,” Jimmy picked up a large rock with one side split to form a sharp knife-like edge. “This goose is too heavy for that branch. We can bury the body but only hang the head.”

Even Ronny was rendered speechless by this announcement. Jimmy acted utterly casual as if decapitating a goose was the sort of thing he did every day. He leaned against the creature’s bloated body, and with his left hand, he grabbed the head, stretched the neck out, and began hacking at feathers and flesh, dragging the sharp edge across the thing’s throat. Little Davie stared for a few horrifying seconds before turning and puking in the grass. It took everything I had not to barf as well. I could tell Ronny wanted to say something about Davie, but he looked like he was having trouble not tossing his cookies as well. I mean, dragging a dead goose around the neighborhood was pretty warped, but this seemed to cross over into some new level of depravity.

I looked around for Charlie and saw he was under an overhanging tree branch digging a hole in the soft dirt using a wide stick like a shovel. I decided to help him because anything was better than listening to Davie puke or watching our resident psycho hacking a dead goose’s neck. To this day, I can still hear in my mind the muffled scraping of that sharp rock cutting through feathers, flesh, muscle, and bone.

Within a few minutes, we had a nice size hole dug. Ronny dragged the goose’s body over by its feet, its headless neck flipping side to side. He tossed it into the hole, and without being told to do so, Charlie and I began covering it. After a few minutes, we finished. We were both drenched in sweat but hadn’t even realized it. We turned and saw Jimmy walking toward us with the upside-down goose head dangling from its twine noose.

The look in Jimmy’s eyes was one I’ll never forget. I couldn’t have described it at my young age other than to say he looked crazy, but in retrospect, as an adult, I would have to explain his look as manic euphoria. He was ecstatic over what he had just done. He had loved decapitating the thing. He walked over to the branch, and still smiling in that strange way, Jimmy tied the twine to the limb and let the head dangle. We all stood silently watching as the head spun slowly in the warm summer breeze as flies began to land on the soon-to-be rotting skull. Jimmy gazed on with that same longing stare as if he had found his life’s calling.

This bizarre expression was a side of Jimmy I never wanted to see again. As things worked out, I never would.

4

From that day on, we referred to that tree as “The Hangin’ Tree.” For a few weeks after that momentous day, we didn’t go back to the tree. Jimmy stopped coming around the neighborhood as well. If he had gone back to the tree on his own, we’d never know. After a while, Charlie, Davie, and me decided to go back and check on the status of the goose. None of us knew much about what to expect, but we rightfully assumed it might be gross. At some time, the skull must have slipped from the noose and fallen to the ground, which only made it easier for nature’s scavengers to make short work of it. All that remained was a skull and a few patches of featherless skin. Ants and other insects covered the thing, cleaning up what little flesh remained.

What we thought was strange at the time, but in reality, was something which we should have expected, was that the goose’s body would have been dug out of the ground and likewise consumed. Several feral dogs and cats were roaming the hills back then, and we should have realized they might smell the corpse and dig up the remains. Then again, this was 1965, and we were just a bunch of naive preteens with no prior experience dealing with dead stuff. Anyway, all that remained of the goose’s headless body were bones, most of which had been picked clean of skin and feathers.

I noticed the length of twine we had used to hang the goose lying on the ground nearby. I discretely picked it up and tucked it into my pocket. I had no idea why I did this, but it seemed like I should do it. Later I put it in a collectibles box I kept in my parent’s cellar, where it remained for many years.

“So, what should we do with these bones?” I asked the gang.

Davie said with a nervous stammer, I … I … dddddon’t know.”

“Just throw the bones back in the hole and bury it,” Ronny said, “Ain’t no wild animals gonna care about it anymore now that the meat’s all gone.”

So that’s what we did. And Ronny was right. After that, no creatures ever dug up the goose remains again. In fact, from that day on, any animals we happened to find dead would be taken up to the hanging tree and buried at its base. Over the years, thanks to cars, there was plenty; dead rats, squirrels, birds, frogs, and even a snake. We buried them all at the hangin’ tree. But there was never another goose.

Eventually, we grew older, and the hanging tree became a fading memory. The tree continued to grow, and its branches thickened. I assume the fertilizer we provided in the form of dead critters only helped with its growth.

Occasionally on a particularly dark and eerie night when the wind howled through the trees, I might dream of a goose head dangling upside down from a string with blowflies buzzing around it as maggots crawled from its empty eye sockets. But other than those few occasional early hauntings, I eventually forgot about the hanging tree. Until the year of my twenty-third birthday when the legacy of what we did that day at the hangin’ tree became all too real, and the meaning of that strange look in Jimmy Thompson’s eyes, that day so long ago, became apparent.

5

As I mentioned earlier, Jimmy never came around the neighborhood again following that day with the goose and the hangin’ tree. I’d occasionally see him around town or at school, where he might ignore me most days or on occasion acknowledge me with a bit of nod, but he never spoke to any of us again. A few years later, I heard through the grapevine that Jimmy had gotten a girl pregnant, and they both dropped out of high school and got married. The girl lost the baby, but neither of them ever went back to finish school. They ended up living in a trailer at the lower end of town, with both working dead-end minimum wage jobs.

The year I turned twenty-three, Jimmy would have been twenty-five or so. After graduating from college, I was home for the summer and had just sleepily stumbled down the stairs for breakfast. I picked up a copy of the Ashton Daily News and was blown away by the headline screaming up at me. It read “Local Murder, Dismemberment and Suicide Horrifies Community.”

And there, on the front page under the headline, were three pictures. The first was a high school picture of Jimmy Thompson. The second was a picture of his wife, and the third, which was the most disturbing of all, was a picture of the hanging tree, our hanging tree. In the photo, there was an empty rope fashioned in a noose. It was dangling from the same branch we had hung the goose from so many years earlier. But now, the branch appeared much thicker and stronger.

I read the story first in shocked disbelief and then read it two more times to get all of the facts straight and try to make sense of something that defied sensibilities. Police were investigating, attempting to find a reason for what had happened, but no motive was available at that time. Whatever his motivation, Jimmy had lost his mind, taken his wife to the hangin’ tree where he slit her throat and dismembered her on the very same rock where he had decapitated the goose so long ago.

Our police chief was described as being overcome with emotion and quoted as saying, “It… it was beyond description … so much blood … so many pieces.”

I could imagine Jimmy smiling the same strange smile he wore when he decapitated the goose. I envisioned that weird look in his eyes as he systematically began butchering his wife on that rock.

After killing and chopping up his wife, the paper reported that Jimmy put a noose around his neck then tied it around the large tree branch. The branch was too low for him to hang himself traditionally, so instead, he stretched out his legs in a sitting position with the rope elevating him slightly, so his butt was several inches off the ground. This method of suicide was not a quick neck-breaking death but would have been a slow, grueling form of self-strangulation. Jimmy could have grabbed the rope and pulled himself up during the process, but that was not in his plan. For reasons known only to him, Jimmy wanted to die in a way almost as horrendous as he brought to his wife.

6

“Holy crap, Bob! That was some story,” John said with a look of astonishment plastered on his face. “I don’t think I ever heard of anyone who went nuts and actually murdered someone, let alone chop them up into pieces.”

“Yeah, well, I tried not to make a habit of it either. For a while, it freaked me out, and whenever I take the time to think too much about it, sometimes it still does. By the time Jimmy committed the murder, it had been years since he had stopped coming around the neighborhood to hang with us. Still, it was very upsetting and freaky for me. Up until that point, I had never known anyone who had murdered someone before. It was a lot to absorb, and it screwed with my head quite a bit.

“I’ve spent the last fifty years watching out for anyone who had that same strange look Jimmy had. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve seen it. Many more than I care to mention. The sad truth is, John, many crazy and potentially dangerous people out there live, work, and function every day among us. Whenever I met up with anyone having that look, what I called ‘that Jimmy look,’ I always steered clear of them. I often wondered if that’s the reason I’ve managed to live this long.”

John said, “I think I know what you’re talking about. I’ve seen that look too. I call it ‘crazy eyes'”.

Then Bob reached into his pocket and pulled out his keys. A woven length of twine held the keys together. He held out his keys and said, “I don’t suppose you ever noticed my keychain before. I consider it something of a talisman I made back when I was about sixteen. I’ve carried it with me for almost fifty years. I use it to remind me to watch out for those people with that look.”

John stared at the chain, woven into a circle, and said with awe, “Is that the piece of twine from…?”

“Yes,” Bob said and tucked the keys back into his pocket, “I s’pose it is.”

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