Down by the creek and just below the bluff stood the Halloween Tree. Its large broken trunk reached jagged fingers into the sky. The top of the old tree lay across a bog where a storm had deposited it after snapping it in two, and it was rotting slowly into that thick mire.
Up the short slope at the bottom of the bluff a cavernous hole in the trunk of the tree supplied room enough for little children to enter and sit a spell amid the scent of rotting wood and among the skin-prickling company of spiders and other creepy-crawlies. And while resting there against its strangely damp innards they could stare up through the chinks in the rotting bark above them to the oft overcast autumn sky.
Not that my sisters, brother or I were much interested in sitting in it-not even to use it as a recess for hide and seek. We pretty much ignored the tree with its suspicious self-created pathway across the bog. We were too busy diving into the swimming hole from the rope swing, anyway.
Then fall would come, and our family would head down the lane to the creek with our dogs to have a weiner and marshmallow roast in a firepit that rested between the clear, cold water of the creek and the murky green and brown sludge of the bog. Dad would start talking casually about the Halloween Tree, spinning yarns about its tragic past and the current mystery of its enclosure and what awaited anyone who entered it. And while sitting there by the campfire, blackening marshamallows in the cool evening, he would dare us to cross the bog and sit awhile in the Halloween Tree.....
That's when I'd turn to Annie and Nate who simply with a glint in their eyes challenged each other to cross the fallen trunk to the tree. And off they'd go.
Mandy, our mutt, followed us to the edge of the bog. Rueben, our great lab, continued to sit by Papa's feet, head up watching; the Halloween Tree wasn't an adventure for him. He had no funny feelings about spiders, insects, rotting wood or about trees that looked like Frankenstein in the light grey of early evening.
Annie usually beat Nate to climb the old trunk and edge out slowly over the bog. Nate began across behind her. Then I followed in a very low crouch or even on all fours, eyeing the bog with distaste as I inched closer to the tree.
With her long legs like those of a ballerina, Annie leaped off the trunk onto the bank just in front of the tree and quickly ducked inside. A moment she sat on the chair-like rim of rotten bark inside, her head bent. Then just as quickly as she'd entered, she sprang up and out, pushing Nate to the side as she passed. In went Nate as I spun to follow Annie back across the trunk after she'd climbed over me, laughing.
Nate sat a spell longer than Annie. Then he exited and darted toward us, running deftly back on the wide log.
"Come on Hillary, you have to go in, too," they began chiding me, panting and again with eyes glinting. "C'mon-we did it. Go!"
So I went. I depended on those two for a study supply of mischief. If I failed their standards, they might never again include me in their dastardly plans.
This time I walked the log fast as I dared as I gazed down at the bog. Only when I was safely on the bank did I look up, and the Halloween Tree was right there before me, its gloomy interior already sending forth its strong earthy smell to assail my nostrils.
"Go on, Hillary! Go in," Annie and Nate called from the opposite side, laughter in their tone.
"You're a brave girl, Hoo-doo," called Dad, petting Rueben's head while eating his black marshmallows.
I had no back-up. Still I went in. No need to duck like my older siblings, but I did anyway. There was no way I was going to let my hair brush that bizarre ceiling and possibly touch creatures that made that Frankenstein tree their home.
I didn't want to turn my back to the inside of that tree in case something came crawling out of its rotten core. The smell of the bog, the tree and the darkness, plus the idea that all my family was back across the bog at the campfire made goosebumps multiply on my flesh until I shot out, scrambling back over the top half of that ugly old tree until I touched drier ground and glanced back with a whole-body shiver.
Poor misunderstood monster. It couldn't help that a storm had devastated it and the bog was rising slowly up to eat it. Still, I wouldn't have been surprised had I found an old witch there, her crooked body curled up in its pockmarked trunk.
Dad named the tree, of course. It was another one of his stories. We'd forget about that old tree for months when the weather was fine, and the swimming hole was ready. Only in the chill of autumn did we start to shiver....and dare each other to enter The Halloween Tree.