The People Tree: An American Fable
There was rustling in the backyard. Possums must have gotten into the trash again. She groaned and looked at the clock but it was still blinking 12:00, as it had for the last year. She groaned again and promised that today was going to be the day she remembered to set the clock. She tried to go back to sleep, but there was a muffled grunting now that she felt she should investigate.
She padded barefoot down the hall and into the kitchen to turn on the coffeemaker, which was also blinking. While waiting for the coffee to percolate, she opened the window over the sink and craned her neck to see into the backyard. Just off the patio there was a man in a chambray jumpsuit digging a hole in her yard. Beside him a tree lay on its side, its roots wrapped in burlap. The man was digging precariously close to her beloved iris and she noticed some of her hosta in a heap near the fence. She was irritated at the missing hosta but she had needed to thin them out anyway.
She left the window open and pulled two mugs from the cabinet. Stepping onto the patio, she called to the man digging in her flowerbed, “Good morning, sir. Can I offer you some coffee and ask why you’re digging up my hosta?”
The man looked up and stabbed the shovel into the ground. “Thank you, ma’am I sure would appreciate some coffee.” He wiped his hands on his workpants. “A man’ll break his back digging in such hard ground.”
By the time he stepped onto the patio, she had a mug of coffee waiting for him and he blew on it before taking a sip. She stayed quiet, waiting for him to explain his presence. After a few more sips of coffee, he finally announced, “I’ve brought you a People Tree, ma’am. The Homeowners’ Association has decided your house is the perfect place for it. It’s really quite an attractive house.”
She cocked her head. “Well, thank you I suppose. I’m not really responsible for the color of the house; it was like this when I bought it, I just planted the flowers. What is a People Tree, if you don’t mind my asking? Is it a fruit tree?”
“Oh, it’s very fruitful. You’ll love it, trust me. It won’t even bother all your other flowers.” The man set down his coffee cup and returned to his work. She sipped her own coffee while she watched him unwrap the burlap from the roots of the tree and set it into the hole. After he’d finished filling in the dirt around the tree, he thanked her for the coffee, tossed the shovel on the pile of hostas and let himself out the side gate. Apparently, he’d even used her own shovel.
She stood looking at the new tree for some minutes. It was much closer to the house than she would have liked, but it was a lovely tree. It stood only six feet or so and its branches were long and wispy with delicate pink and blue blossoms amid slender leaves. The weight of the blossoms made the wiry branches hang and reminded her of a willow tree. She decided then that she liked this People Tree and when she went inside to shower, she left the kitchen window open so the sweet smell of the blossoms wafted through the house.
For several weeks she enjoyed the new tree in the yard. The blossoms filled the house with sweet scents and the branches grew and spread and provided pleasant shade when she sat on the patio reading or drinking sweet tea; however, it was bothering all her other flowers. In fact, it was killing nearly everything in her yard. This People Tree needed lots of water and nutrients and no matter how she watered and fertilized, it seemed to be leeching everything out of the soil. Not even grass could grow within ten feet all around the tree. The pink and blue blossoms had since fallen and were replaced by ugly brown pods that looked like a clenched fist and smelled like baked beans.
Early one morning, as the coffeemaker blinked 12:00 and dripped its liquid into the pot, she heard a plaintive coo coming from below the tree. She had noticed that the pods were slowly growing, many now reached a size like the spaghetti squash she’d had for dinner the night before. One had fallen to the ground and split open and she was surprised to see an infant squalling on the ground beneath the tree. The baby was covered in blue pus-like goo and smelled suspiciously like baked beans.
She looked around, wondering if someone would be coming back for their baby. After several minutes of the baby wailing, she scooped it up and took it in the kitchen. Having mostly ignored the children of her friends, she had no idea what to do with a baby and it was much too early to call on anyone for advice. The baby continued to cry and she thought, after her own stomach rumbled, it might be hungry. She took out the leftover spaghetti squash, put it on the special dinnerware she reserved for houseguests, and offered it to the infant. She thought it most ungrateful when the baby continued to cry and its tiny body quivered with rage and frustration. She didn’t want to be a rude hostess and shut the baby up in the guest bedroom, but its crying was getting quite loud and obnoxious.
Moments later there was a knock at the door and she was torn between relief at the prospect of another person to help with this situation and the natural irritation at someone coming to call at such an early hour. She left the baby on the kitchen table and opened the door to see her neighbor from next door. He was older and his house was much less attractive, nevertheless, she welcomed him.
“Good morning, sir! What brings you here at such an early hour?”
The neighbor man smiled and waved in greeting. He said, “Morning, dear! I heard the crying while I was trying to read the morning paper. Since the crying persisted for some time undisturbed, I assumed you needed my help.”
She exhaled and invited him in. “I was having coffee this morning and noticed a baby in my backyard. Have you by chance lost a baby?” She led him back to the kitchen and offered him a cup of coffee. He was looking out of the window as he shook his head, no.
“Well, there’s your problem, right there” he pointed to the People Tree. “You’ve got yourself a People Tree.”
She said, “Well, yes. The gentleman from the Homeowners’ Association called it that. I’d never heard of it before but he assured me I’d love it.”
The baby continued to wail, its face turning red with exertion. The neighbor looked at the baby on the table. “I heard you’re supposed to pick them up or something to make them be quiet.”
She had thought she’d heard that rumor as well, but was averse to touching the baby. It smelled quite bad she had no way of knowing where else it had been. “I offered it some squash but it wasn’t interested. What does it have to do with my tree?”
The neighbor picked the baby up and held it in front of him, its chubby legs dangling and it went from crying to whimpering. He was making shush sounds at the baby and jiggling it back and forth as he said, “Well, those pods on your People Tree fall to the ground and as soon as they fall, they sprout babies. I thought, being female and all, you would at least know that.”
“Well, that gentleman planted it in my backyard a few weeks ago but he never said anything about babies. I thought it was a nice tree, but this is a hassle. I guess I’ll just have to get rid of it. I just can’t have babies littering my yard and eating all my spaghetti squash.”
“You’ll have to petition the Homeowners’ Association to get rid of the tree. I think they’re having a meeting next week.”
She eyed the wriggling creature in her neighbor’s arms. “Hey, do you know anyone that wants that? Do you think it likes chocolate milk?”
By the time the Homeowners’ Association meeting came, five more pods had fallen from the people tree. She was awash in pink and blue gooey babes, all squalling for chocolate milk and spaghetti squash and making the house reek of baked beans.
After the first pod had dropped, she had tried pulling the unfallen pods from the tree, only to find them stiff and unmovable. Neighbors stopped by, hearing the crying of several babies, to congratulate her. One neighbor cooed at all the babies, exclaiming how the tree was such a blessing and how beautiful all the babies were, but just like all the other well-meaning neighbors, left empty-handed when she offered the woman one of the infants.
On the evening of the Homeowners’ Association meeting, she pushed her shopping cart full of children (a neighbor had been kind enough to lend her one to transport all her new children) down the sidewalk to the clubhouse. She saw many people who lived in her neighborhood and she smiled and waved at them as she passed. Some smiled back, but just as many looked away as if they hadn’t seen her.
One neighbor in a blue house muttered about selfish whores and something about having babies and not taking care of them. She knew the neighbor couldn’t have been talking about her. She was taking care of the babies just fine. She’d even bought a new smoke detector for the kitchen in case one of them started a grease fire. She couldn’t remember if she had a fire extinguisher, although it wouldn’t really be helpful in a grease fire anyway. Sure, she hadn’t gotten out much in the last few weeks, but it was hard to transport six babies and she didn’t trust them alone in the house. Number Four had a left eye that wandered a little too far to the left and she thought he had been eyeing her grandmother’s heirloom tea cups. She could have sworn they all gurgled in disappointment when she loaded them all up in the shopping cart.
Chairs were being set out and she wheeled the shopping cart against the far wall and took a chair at the edge of the room. A long table stretched across the front of the room and there sat the representatives of the Homeowners’ Association: the President, Vice-President, VP of Marketing and Bake Sales, CEO, COO, CFO, CSR, and the Secretary. Placards with their positions of importance were placed in front of them on the table, except the Secretary who just had a pencil sharpener.
She walked up to the Secretary and handed over her forms (in quadruplicate, of course) and requested to be put on the agenda. The Secretary nodded and stamped the papers, handing them down the line.
She waited patiently until her name was called on the docket. She stood and motioned at the cart full of babies. “Council of the great Homeowners’ Association, I would request assistance with the problem of this People Tree in my yard.”
The president gave a harrumph that made his gray handlebar mustache waggle and brought a monocle to his eye as he looked over her paperwork. “I don’t understand what the problem is. I’m told People Trees are quite pleasant.”
She nodded and cleared her throat. “Well, sir, it was indeed quite pleasant at first. The blossoms are beautiful and fragrant and the tree itself is fine. It’s just that…well, it has some not-so-pleasant aspects that I’m not sure what to do with.” She motioned toward the shopping cart. One of the babies had smuggled a switchblade and was menacing a little gray-haired woman into giving up her purse.
The president lowered his monocle and squinted at the babies, who were growing anxious at being confined and were squirming all about the cart. The president seemed confused as he asked, “Those are babies aren’t they?”
“Yes, sir. Six of them in less than three weeks. From the People Tree.”
“But women love babies.”
“I’m not particularly fond of babies, sir.”
The president jerked back as though he had been slapped by some large, invisible purse. Maybe containing several heavy bricks. “But you’re a woman.”
She nodded, “Yes, sir.” People were beginning to whisper amongst themselves. She continued, “I’m a woman, but I don’t really like babies. In fact, I was hoping to re-home these here.” She pointed at the babies, gnawing at the metal bars of the cart.
The president persisted, “What kind of unnatural woman doesn’t like babies? What kind of monster wants to give up these precious angels?”
The VP of Marketing and Bake Sales pointed out that the baby with the switchblade had just stabbed the little blue-haired woman.
The president waved his hand, as if he were swatting at a particularly pesky fly. “Irregardless. All life is precious and I won’t hear another word about it. What’s next on the docket?”
The Secretary proceeded to pass the president the next set of forms, but she wasn’t ready to sit down. “But what about the tree?”
“Well if you didn’t want all these babies, you shouldn’t have planted the tree.”
“I didn’t plant the tree. A man came into my backyard and planted it.”
The president squinted at her. “You should have stopped him then.”
She nodded, “Well, yes, but at the time it was quite pleasant and I didn’t see any harm in it. I didn’t even know what kind of tree it was. He said he was from the Homeowners’ Association. I offered him coffee.”
The CFO of the Homeowners’ Association stood up at this time and offered his own advice to the situation. He said, “The way I understand it, if the pods of the people tree don’t hit the dry ground below, babies don’t erupt from within. Can you fashion a net around the tree so the pods don’t fall to the ground?”
She felt excitement swell in her chest, smiled a wide smile and nodded, “I can, sir! What a great idea!”
The little blue-haired woman who had been stabbed by Number Four stood up to object, holding a handkerchief to the wound in her neck. “I would like to interject, please” she said. “I live behind this young woman and I greatly enjoy looking into her yard at the lovely tree. It calms me better than chamomile tea. A net around this tree is a travesty to all the neighbors who enjoy it. I refuse to look at such an eyesore!” The little blue-haired woman looked around at all the other neighbors who were nodding and shaking their heads and murmuring their assent.
“I would be happy to transplant the tree into your yard, if you like!”
“No, thank you.” The little blue-haired woman said as she glared at Number Four and dabbed at her neck. “That tree is your burden to bear.”
She tried to protest more, but no one could hear her voice over the banging of the gavel as the panel moved on to the next order of business. She stood and wheeled her cart of babies out of the clubhouse and headed home.
Once back home, she discovered that three more babies had fallen from the People Tree. In her living room, Number Four was divvying up the contents of the little blue-haired woman’s purse to the other five babies. Number One was fighting with Number Two over cherry-flavored chapstick. Number Three had apparently stolen some jewelry and was hiding it in the couch cushions. Numbers Five and Six were rummaging in the fridge for leftover spaghetti squash. They had spilled a whole carton of chocolate milk.
She ignored each and every baby and went straight to the garden shed in the backyard. From the base of the tree she could already hear the squalls of the three new ones as she pulled out the hand axe. The sun was setting as she took each of the new babies into the house to join the old ones, where a game of Texas Hold ‘Em was being set up, and returned to the tree.
The tree was slender, the bark soft and brittle and it took only a few minutes to cut the tree down. It took longer to drag it through the gate and out to the curb, leaving a trail of open pods and wailing babes in its wake. Inside, Number Six was mixing up Moscow Mules for the newcomers and began fussing and crying as she picked him up, took him outside and tossed him in the Herby Curby. One by one, she took each baby out and threw them away until the dumpster was full of undulating baby flesh. She’d counted twenty-five babes by the time she finished. Before she went to bed that night she set the time on the bedside clock.
Sleep that night came quick and deep and lasted the whole night through. In the morning, the garbage men had taken away the tree and left only a Herby Curby that smelled of baked beans and vodka and a few pink and blue petals that littered the sidewalk. There were trails of goo leading off in different directions and she was briefly concerned for the neighbors; Number Three was a bit of a card sharp and Number Four still had that switchblade.
Later that week, she found a strongly worded letter from the Homeowners’ Association taped to her front door, outlining in bullet points all the ways in which she had violated her HOA agreement, as well as the trust of her neighbors—all of whom had enjoyed her lovely tree.
She crumpled up the paper and threw it in the Herby Curby, which no longer stank of baked beans.
Katherine McMullen is a graduate of Bluegrass Writers Studio at Eastern Kentucky University. A proud native Kentuckian, she is currently freezing her @ss off in Northern Ohio. Her work has been featured in the online journal Aurora and in the horror anthology Scary Story: An Anthology.