“I want to tell you of the Tree of Lost Souls,” my grandmother began. Her voice was low and soft but clear and strong. “If you find yourself walking through Brickenrack park and the path becomes unkempt and overgrown, turn around immediately. For if you continue on you will soon find yourself lost in the surrounding forest. Your pride and bravado may try to convince you to keep forward, to ignore my warning, but I beg you not to listen.
“The path will wind and lead you deep into the forest. No matter the time of day it will soon be dark and the trees overhead will block the sun. The sounds of the forest will go quiet, soon to be replaced by the sound of your own breathing and beating heart. The forest will test you. It will show you your deepest fears, bring to the forefront your doubts and shortcomings. The deeper you go, you will be haunted by ghosts of the past. If you ever hope to return, do not turn you back to them. Once they get hold of you, you will be theirs forever.
“When they take you, they will bring you to the tree of lost souls. It is an oak so old no one knows when it first sprang. It’s branches are gray and dead, it’s roots black and deep. When you look close in the bark you will see the tortured faces of the souls trapped within, others who did not heed the warning of those who came before. For you see, all who have gone seeking the tree have never returned.”
My grandmother stopped speaking and grew very quiet. Her eyes darted back and forth looking at nothing in the room, but seeing a memory playing before her instead. I watched her, reluctant to break the spell. Normally she was so full of lifer and vigor. But right then she looked to be as old as the tree in her story.
When I couldn’t stand the silence any longer I asked, “But Grandma, if no one ever comes back, how can you know what the tree looks like?”
It was a simple enough question, but one my nine year old mind couldn’t answer. My grandmother looked at me with a sad smile having returned to the present with me.
“I know because of my brother,” she said. “We weren’t twins but we were born so close that we shared a special bond. We could often feel what the other was feeling, sense each others distress and joy. Sometimes we even dreamed each other’s dreams. My grandmother warned us of the tree just as I’m warning you now, but my brother did not heed the warning. There was no park back then, just the winding path. My brother was much more adventurous than me, and he couldn’t resist the temptation.
“Despite my protests, he set off to find the tree. He wanted to be the first one to see it and return. We walked together for a while until the path started to thicken. I begged him not to go any further but he would not listen. I watched as he entered the thicket. I stared after him when I couldn’t see him any more. I waited for him to lose his resolve and turn around. But he didn’t.
“I waited growing more anxious by the minute. When I couldn’t stand the silence around me any more I ran home to tell our parents. My father went from door to door trying to get others to come with him into the thicket. None would come. My mother cried until the sun set, then I cried with her.
“I don’t know when I fell asleep, but soon I was dreaming. I could see my brother running along the path. His face was a mask of fear. Apparitions appeared to him, reaching for him but he backed away. He couldn’t follow the path and watch them at the same time. Soon he was completely lost but he’d found what he was looking for.
“The tree of lost souls loomed before him. It’s branches stretched impossibly far, some reaching up to the sky and others reaching out for him. The roots extended down into the ground but surfaced every few feet or so to trip any who would traipse through. There were faces in the bark, their pain so detailed it was as if they had been carved there.
“My brother was so intent on the tree that he forgot to watch the ghosts. One appeared on each side of him, taking hold of his arms. He fought and screamed, dragging his feet, but the ghosts carried him without pause for his resistance. As he drew near, the base of the tree opened up ready to receive my brother. He cried, tears streaming down his face while the ghosts took him silent and dispassionate. The tree closed up behind him and one more face was added to the countenance of the bark.
“That’s when I woke up, struggling to breathe, choking on my sobs.”
I sat frozen on the ground before my grandmothers favorite chair. My eyes were wide with terror, her tale so vivid it was as if I was there with her the night her brother disappeared. A chill passed through my entire body and I swallowed a lump in my throat.
The sound of the front door slamming woke me from my stupor. My mother entered the room with her arms full from paper grocery bags. I shot from my seat on the ground and ran to her. She had to step back to keep from dropping the bags. One look to my grandmother and she knew exactly what had gone on before she entered.
“How many times did I ask you not to tell her that story?” my mother asked. She knelt to put down the bags. As soon as her arms were free, I wrapped mine around her neck. I felt safe there and the smell of her hair and perfume helped to chase away images from my grandmother’s story.
“It’s time she was warned,” was all my grandmother said.
“She’s only nine years old, mom,” my mother said stroking my hair.
“I wasn’t much older when it happened.”
“It was just a dream,” my mother said. “It was your way of coping with your brother’s…”
My mother’s voice trailed off and I started to doubt my grandmother’s story. My mother’s more rational explanation now making the story much less frightening. I looked over my mother’s shoulder to my grandmother. Her expression was equally haunted and hurt. Whatever my mother believed, the story was true to my grandmother.
“Times have changed,” my mom said. “No one hardly ever goes that way any more.”
My grandmother looked from my mother to me wearing a grave expression. “And now she knows why.”