This tale is set within the “Growing of the Trees” world and my attempt to improve upon word usage. It’s not perfect, but a work in progress. Enjoy.
Candles illuminated the chapel with an orangish glow surrounding a series of chairs lined up in four columns on each side of the center walkway that led to the casket. Wallpaper of a faded blue color reflected back a feeling of sea sickness. The room was filled with contrasting sorts of people, most of whom I did not know. In the far corner of the room, across to the right of the casket, an elderly woman in a dark brown dress was playing the piano, the most dreadful music that could only be suitable for a funeral. It was my friend’s funeral. It was Halloween.
How curious it was to have a funeral on Halloween, but the stars aligned the death of my friend, Jacob, and the following weekend to be All Hallows Eve. I entered the chapel and picked up a funeral program. There was a brown and white stuffed bear near the entrance that seemed to smile at me. It’s eyes blinked. I wandered the chapel to locate a seat. People were chattering and crying about the person they once knew and how he could have driven his vehicle off the road and into a tree. It was terrible, they said. How awful! Nobody could believe it. Events as tragic as this do not happen out of the ordinary. Terrible things only came out of the void, not from the light. A woman wearing a dark blue dress was fidgeting and biting her nails near the stack of programs. She seemed familiar.
I waited while the minister went up to the podium. He was dressed in priest garments, which was expected. His mustache was particularly crazy, like the madman from old cartoons laying women on tracks for oncoming trains. Staring at my program it read on the cover:
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance…”
It was nonsensical, lying words to comfort those in grief and to further repel folks from facing the truth. Many folks turned to this type of belief to comfort themselves knowing that when they pass their time is not up. It was difficult to conform to their belief.
I placed the program between my thighs and folded my hands. The room was causing me to sweat, and the elderly folks were panting and fanning their programs. The piano woman ceased her playing. It was time. The minister coughed and began reading from his prepared remarks.
“The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul; He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.
Tears rolled down the cheeks of many faces in the chapel, audible crying annoyed me. I’ve never met these people before, they could not have known Jacob for long. Granted, his extended family was not known to me, he never spoke of them. This particular passage the minister read similar to the programs. I interpreted it to mean hope, the Lord will guide you, you did not know any better than the Lord. It was dreadful to my ears.
Jacob’s mother, Lauren, sat in the front wiping tears away from her face every time a speaker hit a punchline. He was her only son. His father had been dead for several years now, I imagine this was difficult on his mother now that she was alone. A few guys that knew Jacob back in high school spoke. They talked about how they had great times, but never went into describing a specific story. That’s because there were none. I knew these guys, David and Benny, Jacob never spent time with them. I was flabbergasted that they had the gall to stand up there and spew such nonsense.
Another person that was puzzling was Jacob’s Aunt, Becky. Wiping tears from her eyes as she attempted to give her eulogie, she uttered words that consisted of faith, prayer, sin, redemption, and gospel. Jacob was as antithesis as one could get. When we were together he specifically spoke about his lack of faith in God, or any religion. He was fastidious about his beliefs, scientific about it. This woman was up there, along with the minister and this awful funeral program, preaching about how his faith saved him. Nothing of the sort was further from the truth. Jacob was not a believer, I did not need faith to know that for sure. Jacob died, and now they were here pawning off his beliefs with their creations like it’s a build-a-bear workshop.
After the eulogies it was time to pay our respects. People gathered in a line in the pathway between the two sections of chairs. This was the part to pay respects, behave scrupulous, and say goodbye. In the moment I had an epiphany about it all, how much of a charade all of this was. It was not about the dead, it was about them. I stood up and went in line.
It wrapped around section of chairs to the right of the casket and I was standing behind a man about my height, just under six feet, he dressed in all black and even wore a black fedora inside the chapel. He wore a bowtie. The man smiled and nodded at me.
“Did you know him well?”
“For awhile, we went to high school together.” The man nodded.
“I’m James, hi.”
We continued chatting about Jacob. Tony knew Jacob through the church, again I found this curious. Jacob did not go to church. He spent every Sunday on the roof of his home smoking weed while his parents were at church. This man seemed affable and therefore trustworthy, but I did not believe that he knew Jacob at all. Tony leaned towards me and said “Did Jacob really die hitting a tree in the woods?”
“Why would you ask me?” Tony, the man with his peculiar bowtie, black suit and fedora stood staring at me. His smile is what irked me to my core. It was not friendly. The grin widened the longer he looked.
“I know you were with him.” He said nonchalantly playing with his bowtie.
“How -” But he did know. I could not delineate how, he simply did.
“The fresh cut on your forehead, wounds on your arms from thorns, right? Those suckers hurt.” I was dumbfounded. I refrained from spilling too much information but his eyes, those black eyes just stole a part of me that told him what he wanted to hear. “Please, take your time, James, tell it to me like you’re writing me a letter. Make a nice letter, with plenty of details, please.” My feet were glued to the red carpet floor, and my mouth without thought told this man who was a stranger just moments ago what had happened between Jacob and I just four days ago.
* * *
Four days ago Jacob and I decided to drive to the woods to go on a hike, little did we know that it would be more than an ordinary hike through the woods but a treacherous race for our lives. It is always expected to be ordinary. I was weary from a late night shift the previous night but promised Jacob I would be going along with him when no one else would.
We parked his car outside the edge of the woods, but only a few miles from the nearest gas station. I packed meticulously with all sorts of snacks, survival stuff, and whatever else I wanted. Jacob just brought himself, it was all he needed. Immediately we noticed how strange the woods were. Trees were not natural to our area. Jacob noted this, but I did not say anything. How was I supposed to know what trees were native to our area? The dirt was not right, the color was off, and the texture was too soft. It felt like sand, but the ground was rough and riddled with stones. The woods sent off a draught smell of dying trees. A wind chill swept by us and the branches brushed against each other, making a noise of grinding planks of wood on pavement. Something stood between the trees that I could not form the details of through my eyes.
Off we went hiking through the woods. We first took a trail that curved a few miles ahead but we eventually had to get off of it when we came to a boulder that had broken trees blocking our path. We went around it climbing over cliff edges to get back to the trail. The trees impeded us further.
Trees towered high enough to blot out the sun and much light that would seemingly get by. This was no ordinary forest, I thought. The trees bent in towards us with their branches gabbing outwart. I was losing my mind. Jacob was as calm as a whistle, he maintained we continued onward. We marched and marched. I could not comprehend what was racing through Jacob’s mind and why it was important to continue.
Further away we drifted into those woods I began seeing something in between the trees. A man, smiling at us. He wore a white colored button up shirt and khaki pants. The shirt was tucked in tight with not a wrinkle in sight. His eyes were white, his teeth were black, pointed like sharp corsairs. I saw him and Jacob did not. Nor did he believe me. I only mentioned him to Jacob after I saw him across a pond, waving at us with the friendliest of greetings. A shiver went down my spine and shook me to my knees. I pleaded with Jacob, “Let us leave this place!” I said. “Something is not right about these woods.”
“Continue our course forward.”
“But to where, Jacob?”
“To the trees.” He did not give me more information about our goal. Nothing of what we were searching for nor what was waiting for us. I waited and looked at him, he was walking with his chin up and posture poised upright. There was no emotion in his march.
I felt betrayed and was pugnacious towards him. As he said we maintained our march forward and hiked through the woods. The treacherous woods, I called them. The phantasmagorical nature of these trees was morbid. It did not feel right. Behind a gorge ahead I saw those eyes, teeth, and shape of the white dressed man. He was wearing a black fedora now.
I was shaking with fraught at the sight of that figure. Our hike was beginning to become interminable until I noticed Jacob’s wild behavior. His sporadic fits of laughs, it caused consternation in my bones. He fell to his knees. I asked him, “What’s wrong, Jacob? What is it?” He did not answer. He laughed. I never encountered insanity until I witnessed Jacob’s uncontrollable behavior. I can not belabor how terrifying it was.
Pulling out my cell phone, attempting to call any emergency person. The connectivity bars on my phone went blank. Silence. I heard only laughter and tears dripping coming from Jacob. I continued battering down at my phone attempting to contact anybody. Jacob got up, sprinted off into the distance and out of sight. It was getting darker and the trees were delighted by this. The white dressed man appeared behind me, smiling his pointed black teeth at me. His hand, abnormally covered in hair, with sharp tipped fingers that were suited for digging into a victim’s chest, he waved and pointed towards me. My arm hairs rose and I no longer smelled the draught smell of the dying woods but smoldering ash. The white dressed man’s pants where they met his shoes were burnt, nearly on fire.
I chased after Jacob, going towards the direction we parked the car. I hoped this was the way he went, if he had not then he would be lost in the woods. Sprinting and zig-zagging through the trees I had only my sense of direction and hope, hope I was going where I needed to be. I heard Jacob call out, “To the trees, James.”
“Jacob!” I yarped out.
I ran posthaste towards the edge of the woods. I saw the gleam of the light reducing in brightness, raising the shadows of the trees coming after me and I’m sure the following of the white dressed man. “Come, James, see the growth,” The white dressed man whispered horridly into my ears. I spun my head around but he was not there, it was a whisper from the shadows only I could suspect. He, who was a superlative, told me, he whispered to me, that help was on the way. It was not the help I wanted.
“Come, James, see the growth.” He whispered again.
“James, see the trees!” Said Jacob.
It was maddening. It was terrifying. I was losing my mind reaching for the edge of the woods, the shadows crept faster towards me as I used all remaining energy to sprint to the edge of the woods escaping that shadow. Escaping the white dressed man.
“Come, James, see the growth.” It whispered.
“James, see the trees!” Said Jacob.
I leaped and galloped towards the edge of the woods onto the pavement of the street, not caring if a car or anything hit me. Ah! It’d be a relief, a relief to escape this nightmare and horrible place. I needed to escape, to escape the woods and the white dressed man. Dirt and rocks met my face as I hit the ground as hard as hitting the third base plate and the feeling was just as warmth feeling.
Glaring left, and searching right, I did not see Jacob only the car we arrived in smashed into a pine tree off the road into the woods. It was totaled and would not be able to drive out of here. I charged down the street away from this place, with as much haste as I could muster I ran away. I did not dare to look back, I did not need to, the white dressed man whispered “We’ll meet again, James, you’ll see the growth of the trees.”
* * *
Tony smiled at me, with an aspiring glare. His eyes petrified me as they pierced through me and I was sure my face was full of confusion and slight fright. “Wh-what is it?” I asked.
“Your story fascinated me is all, James.”
“I do not understand. It’s not fascinating, Jacob died in a drunk driving accident. It’s terrible.” I said. Tony just gave me a look of shame, but maintained his smile.
“It was what I expected, James. You have not remembered. The words, James, the words that crept through your mouth. Remember them.”
“I … I don’t know. What transpired between meeting you and now I’m lost.”
“You are not lost. You are found. Jacob is lost.” He said. His gaze was soul sneering, and I was shaken with fear. “It’s your turn, show him the growth, James.”
I went forward, looked down at the casket with Jacob in it. Moments such as these I lack the right words, nothing could adequately describe the relationship we had and what friendship meant to me. I told Jacob I would miss him, try to continue playing the same old games and listen to the same albums we always stayed up late listening to. Lastly that I would miss him, and I was sorry I fell asleep.
Without irony, I gave Jacob one last look and said amen. Turning to Tony, the candles blew out and the room went black but where Tony stood was ignited with light. The smoldering ash smell filled my nostrils with disgust, and a chilling wind blew by with the sound of shaking leaves. Tony was no longer standing by my side. It was Jacob.
“James, it’s time to see the trees.”
“Jacob, what -” I did not understand and blinked several times until I went mad. A giggling fit ensnared me not with joy but terror, my mind was not right, I thought. My hands went to my eyes to close them shut but I could not ignore what was standing near me.
“James, look down, it’s time to see the trees. To see the growth.”
Struggling I could not bare to withhold curiosity, I looked towards the casket and my eyes, I hoped, dared to deceive me. They were not. My body laid there in the casket, eyes closed, arms and hands crossed, and legs stretched still. I was in that casket!
“Yes, James, you were driving, you slept too soon.”
“I saw the trees?” I said.
“You saw the trees,” Jacob said. “Now, you’ll see the growth of the trees. Forever.”
Jacob held out his hand to me, offering me his guidance, I accepted. He led me down the pathway between the columns of chairs lined against the wall. The candles relit themselves as my friends family stood by, giving eulogy after eulogy of how they described their relationship and favorite memories we shared. I picked up the funeral program. It spoke about me and encompassed my whole damn life in twenty-five words. It said my best friend Jacob, was forever lost in the woods. “I’m sorry, Jacob.”
“Do not be. Now, the growth. Come, he’s waiting.” Towards the front of the chapel was the white dressed man. Waving at me, pointing his fur-infested sharpened hand, beckoning me closer. I felt an ominous feeling loom within my soul as I took my steps towards him. Walking and looking back at my friends and family, I felt the finality of all things. I died peacefully, and Jacob who was no longer by my side, was lost in the woods, as I walked through the chapel doors.