The Man by the Tree
Four months ago, a leisurely walk through the local woods set my life on a new course. As an avid walker, I thought that I had seen everything there was to see in this greenery. I had been coming to this place since I was born; my father frequented the woods, explaining that it was his way of calming his mind.
Twenty-two years later, I continue this habit of my father’s. He has since been put into a retirement home, his mind fractured into its own world. I still try to remain close with him despite myself and everyone from this world being absent from the new reality that his mind resides in.
Walking these woods helps me feel connected to my father. It was still something that we shared, even if those times were in the past. It was something that I had planned on doing with my own children.
Throughout our times walking through these woods, we took multiple paths. We saw each and every nook and cranny of this place that I adored. Or so I thought.
On that day, four months ago, I discovered an area of this green wonderland that I was shocked to notice that I had never seen before. This section of the woods seemed to have been airdropped in, straight from the sky. It hadn’t been here the last time I took this route, I could have sworn it. I had just walked this route three days ago, that wasn’t enough time to landscape this whole new area, with a little hill and trees that I hadn’t seen before.
I probably would have noticed this new area, regardless, but what grabbed my attention was the mumbling. I had gone out that night without my earbuds, wanting to just take in the sounds of the crickets, birds, and other critters going about their nightly routines. Off to my left, my ears picked up on an unfamiliar sound. The mumbling was a noise that wasn’t native to this area. So, I turned my head to it.
I only noticed the new section of the woods in retrospect. What my eyes immediately caught was the tree. I’m no arborist but I knew that this type of tree wasn’t one that was found in these woods. A dark, thick trunk twisted upward, sitting shorter than the surrounding trees but its presence felt towering, nonetheless. Its limbs protruded outward like the mangled arms of some slim figure who had taken one too many steps toward the edge of a cliff.
I shivered at the sight of it. The brooding ambiance that the tree created didn’t belong there, amongst the warm colors of the foliage that had given me comfort for so many years.
At the base of the twisting trunk knelt the source of the mumbling; a man. The man wore a hoodie, joggers, and trainers; typical attire for a jogger. He wouldn’t have looked out of place if he hadn’t been kneeling by the tree. Everyone stayed on the trails unless they had to clean up after their dog. With no dog to be seen, this stuck out like a sore thumb, even without the mumbling.
The mumbling was incomprehensible at first but his face gave me some context. His slightly weathered face, clean shaven, was wearing a smile. His body shook a little with his smile, indicating laughter. I had no clue what could be so funny about a tree, maybe he was on drugs. Whatever it was, I didn’t stick around to find out.
The whole way home and all of that night, I couldn’t shake the image of the man and the tree that he knelt by. It was so out of place, so ominous, and contrasted so drastically with what I knew to be the pleasant atmosphere of the woods, that it felt like a whole new world had opened up in that small sector. Was it a one time thing? Or would it be there the next day? I was too curious, I had to find out.
The next day, I returned to the woods. The whole walk, I kept my head on a swivel, trying to see if there were any new sections that had popped up. As far as I could tell, everything was as I had remembered it over the last 22 years. The same trees, bushes, signs, paths, and everything else that he had grown to know.
Except the tree and the man kneeling in front of it.
The man by the tree was wearing the same attire as yesterday but his face looked slightly different. Slight dips of wrinkles in his skin had appeared, seemingly overnight. His hair, both on his head and face, had grown longer as well. It wasn’t a huge change but it was significant enough that it should not have been able to happen over night.
The mumbling continued as it had yesterday. The smile remained throughout his talking. Again, he appeared to be laughing, as if talking to an old friend.
Drugs these days are so crazy, this guy’s on a whole other planet, I thought.
A moment later, another thought crossed my mind; what if it wasn’t drugs? What if there was actually someone or something that he was talking to?
Before I could think any better, my feet started off of the path and towards this new area. I didn’t really have a plan at first, I was simply drawn in. As I labored to not snap any sticks or step on any crunchy leaves, I decided that I wasn’t going to approach the man. I still wasn’t sure if it was drugs causing this strange scene that I had witnessed these past two days. So, I had no clue what I could expect if I approached him.
I flanked off to my left, which brought me out to the back of him. I was about 40 yards away, keeping a safe distance to avoid detection. I ducked behind a tree, one much more vibrant than the one that had caught my attention the day prior.
Looking towards the kneeling man, I squinted my eyes, trying to narrow my gaze to the center of focus. My eyes locked onto the man and the tree behind him.
What I saw was just that; a man and a tree. A normal man and a normal tree.
At that, I decided that the culprit was in fact drugs. I returned to the trail with a smile on my face, finding solace in this conclusion. I continued on my walk without sparing another thought for the man by the tree.
My walks took the same course for the following months. This new area of the woods became commonplace in my routine, slowly integrating into my ingrained vision of what the woods look like. The man by the tree was there every day, in the same outfit. I paid him little attention after that second day, just adding him to the scenery.
That was, until the day where he wasn’t kneeling. On that day, I saw out of the corner of my eye that the man was not in his normal position; he was face down. I broke off of my course and hustled up to the tree. I shook the man, to no response. Desperate to make sure the man was okay, I rolled him over.
What I saw was not the same man that I had seen on that first day when the tree came into my view. His face was decrepit, riddled with wrinkles and wiry grey and white hairs. His smile was absent, replaced by a ghoulish frown, even in death.
I looked up to the sky, taking a moment to breathe and take in the fact that I had just discovered a dead body. A tear fell from my eyes as my gaze fell. Before it could fall back on the man, my eyes leveled with the tree. At first, it seemed to be just the same as I had seen it on that second day, from a distance. Something made me look closer, holding my stare on the tree.
That was when I heard the whispers. Not from the body that I had just rolled over, but from the tree itself. The whispers were telling me to come closer and to gaze into the trunk. I couldn’t resist the whispers, they had a certain tonality to them that demanded obedience.
The trunk started moving, the grey and dark brown colors morphing together in an ovular shape. What appeared to me wasn’t a face but a foreign shape. My attention was drawn, forcing me to my knees.
I sat there, listening to the whispers as they promised me good fortune and a positive future if I simply continued to listen to its message. What seemed like only a few minutes but was surely a few hours passed and my trance was broken. I came straight back to my apartment to write this account.
I will go on my walk the same as every day but I know that tomorrow’s walk will include a detour to that tree to listen to the whispers once more. I hope that someone finds this account of my experiences so that someone can stop me from sharing the same horrid fate as the man by the tree.