Face in the Tree
About a year ago, in early
spring, as I got out of my car in the pharmacy parking lot I heard a strange
noise, a humming, or was it a moan? The sound was coming from the tree directly
in front of my bumper. There were no birds. No groups of swarming insects. I
stared at the tree and saw a face seemingly emerging in the bark of the tree
trunk. The noise appeared to be coming from the mouth, the eyes were staring
right at me. I was curious and a bit afraid. My grandma, a folklore enthusiast
had told me that such things existed, that men are sometimes trapped inside
trees as punishment.
I turned away. Why would a tree
man want to confess to me? As I tried to shake off the strangeness of the
encounter, I let my feet carry me into the store. When I got back, I didn’t
have time to ponder on the tree, for fanciful ideas of punishment and
confession. I left, but the face stayed
with me. Over the subsequent days, I ended up parking by the tree quite often.
The noises continued and began to resemble words. Were they his garbled,
wooden, staccato speech?
The more I thought about it, the
surer I was that the man in the tree was trying to speak to me. After a few
weeks, I began to drive to that parking lot, parking by the tree even after the
store was closed. I got out of the car, stood looking at the tree, struggling
to understand the man’s voice. I wanted to learn what he saw as a tree man, how
he saw the seasons and why he was inside the tree instead of out in the world,
Suddenly, one day, the words
became clear: “Spring melts winter’s hard resolve with her flagrant colors,
promises, will truly brighten hearts, and bring new life from the seeds. Treat
her gently,” I was charmed. He was a poet! I fancy myself a poet. This seemed
I found myself visiting more and
more often. Not wanting to wait until evening or after closing, I went early in
the morning before the store opened to be alone with the tree. Summer’s excess
of leaves hid his face a bit, but never muffling his speech. He told me that
summer is tasked with, must
fulfill spring’s pale green promise with fullness of leaves to shelter baby
birds and so that longer days of light, should not burn out delicate flowers
that need shade. His wisdom inspired me. I began to crave even more time to
listen to him. I began to think of him as a master of the environment, holding
the key to all earth’s ills.
That autumn he whispered the
secret of coloring leaves, so they appear to have caught on fire. He said it
was more than a loss of chlorophyll. He said, “Fall colors heralds the need for
warmth in the next season when winter will chill all around us.”
“Winter will come all too soon,”
he announced one morning in late October, adding “as the bark thickens to
safeguard the tree, I will no longer be able to push my face out from the
trunk, to see the outer world, to speak with those who like you have compassion
on me. I will be truly trapped. My tears will become sap and my cries, simply
an echo of the wind in the branches.”
My heart, by now had indeed
taken compassion on this person. I had forgotten about asking what sins had
trapped him there, forgotten about seeking his confession. So I simply asked,
“How can I help?”
The bark-lined lips turn up a
bit. He explained that my touch could save him. I reached out my hand to trace
the outline of lips. A testy response vibrated through my fingers. “Not your
hand, your lips!” He was strident, sharper.
A sudden cool breeze and the
cawing of a crow from high in the tree shook me from my reverie, my bond with
the bark crusted eyes, the clipped voice from the bark lips. A frisson of
warning shook me. Should I be wary of such magic? I touched the lips with my
fingers once again and I felt the lips move and try to claim my fingers, to
suck them into the tree!
In that moment, I realized he
had no love for me, no desire to help me understand nature, no desire to
confess and release himself. With his flowery words he wanted to trap me in the
tree, so he could escape, for me to take his place, pay his penalty and he
would be released. Deception was certainly an art he was practicing on me. Were
lies the reason he was in the tree? I didn’t really have much time to
wonder—fear outweighed my curiosity. I knew I had to escape.
I jumped back, and with all my
strength pulled my fingers away from his bark-lined lips. Out they came, with
scratches. I was glad I had the strength for that and had not put lips to bark.
If he had pulled me in by the lips, it could have been impossible to pull away.
I hurried into my car and drove home as fast as I could. For several weeks I
didn’t go anywhere near that place. When I did return, for an errand, I parked
far away from that tree.
In the fullness of winter, I
dared to glance again at him. The bark had thickened, and that face was just
barely visible. From deep inside the tree, I heard groaning and knew it was not
the wind. It was the wicked cry of one mourning for himself and for his
inability to succeed at his attempt to trick me into changing places with him.
Postscript: This past spring, as
I drove by the parking lot one day, I saw that the store I frequented was
closed and a sign proclaimed that the building and its parking lot were to be
repurposed into a community center. Many of the trees had orange ties
encircling them, marking them for cutting. The tree with the face was one. I did
not shed a tear.
Joan Leotta plays with words on page and stage. She performs tales
of food, family, strong women. Internationally published as an essayist, poet,
short story writer, and novelist, she’s a multiple Pushcart nominee, Best of
the Net, and 2022 runner-up in Robert Frost Competition. Her new
chapbook is Feathers on Stone,
Henry Stanton's fiction, poetry
and paintings appear in 2River, The A3
Review, Avatar, The Baltimore City Paper, The Baltimore Sun Magazine,
High Shelf Press, Kestrel, North of Oxford, Outlaw Poetry,
PCC Inscape, Pindeldyboz, Rusty Truck, Salt & Syntax, SmokeLong
Quarterly, The William and Mary Review, Word Riot, The Write
Launch, and Yellow Mama, among other publications.
His poetry was selected for the
A3 Review Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for the Eyewear
9th Fortnight Prize for Poetry. His fiction received an Honorable Mention
acceptance for the Salt & Syntax Fiction Contest and was selected as a finalist
for the Pen 2 Paper Annual Writing Contest.
A selection of Henry Stanton's paintings
are currently on show at Atwater's Catonsville and can be viewed at the following website www.brightportfal.com. A selection of Henry Stanton’s published
fiction and poetry can be located for reading in the library at www.brightportfal.com.
Stanton is the Founding & Managing Editor of The Raw Art Review—www.therawartreview.com.