By Kenetha J. Stanton
The four of us were sitting at a booth along the back edge of room having a few beers to celebrate the end of Jake’s last shift as a police detective. He was retiring after 40-some years, and he had more stories to tell than most of us could even dream of at this point in our careers, but we always had to pry them out of him.
“What’s the weirdest case you ever saw?” asked Kurt, the newest of us on the force, and therefore the one most willing to ask the questions we all wanted to know.
Jake stared at him for a moment, then took a deep drink from his mug of beer stared off through the smoky pub, clearly thinking it through. The muscles on his jaw worked steadily as he ground his teeth.
With a deep sigh, he finally answered, “I was a rookie myself when it happened. Must’a been back in ’72 or so. I was workin’ over in Bimmley on the east side of the state at the time.”
“You worked in a resort town?” I asked. “That don’t sound like your cup of tea.”
He shook his head with a gruff chuckle. “Nah, it weren’t much of nothin’ in those days; just a little village sittin’ on the edge of the Preserve. The resorts didn’t start popping up until the late ‘80s. This was long before that.”
He stopped and stared down into the depths of his mug. The rest of us were used to his slow, taciturn way of speaking. He never said much, but when he did decide to tell a story, it was always worth listening to.
“There was this forester who lived on the edge of the village; his yard backed right up to the Preserve’s forest. He’d been there for years, and I swear he knew every damn tree in the forest by name. He was a loner.” Jake looked up with a wry grin. “Even more than I am, if you can believe that.”
Marv let out a snort of disbelief and elbowed him in the ribs. Jake gave him one of those level stares of his, and Marv looked down and gestured for him to continue.
“One day, out of the clear blue, he showed up with a newborn baby girl. Never would say a word about who the mother was, but he claimed it was his own daughter. People claimed it woulda’ had to been a tree that he’d knocked up since he never had anything do with real women. They were full of that kind of nonsense over there.”
He shrugged and shook his head. “Anyhow, he raised her himself. Never hired a nanny or nothin’. I guess several of the spinsters in town tried every trick in the book to become her step-momma, but he was having nothin’ to do with it.”
He took another drink.
“He used to take her everywhere he’d go even when she was just a wee mite. She’d occasionally play with a few of the neighbor kids in her own yard, but otherwise, it was just the two of them mostly staying at home or traipsing through the forest. Kept totally to themselves. Apparently she took after her father with the tree thing, ‘cause she was more interested in this one little birch tree in back yard than in having any playmates. She was obsessed with it.”
He paused as he swirled his beer mug in a lazy circle on the table. “It was the weirdest thing … even then.” There was a long pause as he stared at his mug.
He shook himself and continued the story. “The little girl was about eight, I’d guess, when I got there. There’d been a big hullabaloo in town a year or two earlier when it was time for her to start school. The nearest school was in the next town over, and every time she’d head off to school, she’d pass out before the bus had even crossed the village line.”
“People thought she was just reacting to being away from her dad since he was about all she’d ever known, and that he needed to just push her to adjust.”
He glanced up at us from under his bushy, grey eyebrows. “You know how women can get when they think they know more about how you should raise your own kid than you do. They carried on somethin’ fierce and raised a big stink about the whole thing.”
He shook his head. “But he ignored them and pulled her out of school. Decided to home-school her himself, which really pissed those old bitties off. Of course, he didn’t much care what they thought, but it did seem like he started to leave her at home alone more often when he’d run errands in town so she wouldn’t have to deal with them giving her any grief.”
“Things kept on as they had been with them staying mostly to themselves until her tenth birthday. It was in early May, I recall, and she just vanished without a trace.”
“Her father reported her missing, but I remember he didn’t seem to have the slightest bit of hope that she’d be found. He just seemed to think that it was the right thing to do to at least report it.”
“I wasn’t with the first group that arrived to take his statement, but I guess he’d been drinking right heavily before they got there. He was out in the back yard with the tree that his daughter had loved so much, and he refused to leave it to come into the house.”
“They tried to question him, but he just kept saying that she’d gone and that it was her time to go, as she was ready for womanhood.”
Marv broke in. “Her time to go where? Did he say?”
Jake nodded slowly, and looked up at us. “He said she was in the tree now.”
“In the tree? That makes no damn sense.”
“Yeah, that’s what they thought too, but he was drunk. He was so insistent about it, though, that the initial theory was that he’d killed her because he couldn’t deal with her hitting puberty and buried her under her favorite tree.”
“Was there any sign that the yard had been dug up?” I asked.
“Nope, but then they only had his word for it that she had disappeared just that day. For all we knew, she’d been gone for weeks. We musta talked to every person in that little village trying to figure out when someone else had last seen her, but it had been weeks as best as we could tell.”
“In the meantime, he kept himself in a drunken stupor and refused to do anything except sit under that damn tree. Wouldn’t hardly talk to anyone … even us. Wouldn’t go inside ‘cept to get pee or more drink. It was pathetic to watch.”
He stopped again and took a long drink from him mug.
“When nothing else could be found, they finally got a warrant to cut down the tree and dig underneath it to look for a body. He went totally nuts over this. Kept claiming that we were going to kill her … that she was alive and in the tree and cutting it down would kill her.”
“Psycho,” Marv muttered and traced a circle on the side of his head.
Jake shrugged with one shoulder.
“It took six of us to hold him down when they cut down that fool tree. He fought like a wild man, yelling something about dryads and her being in the tree and they were gonna kill her and some such nonsense.”
Jake paused again and stared at his beer.
He finally looked up at us, “I know this sounds crazy, but I’d swear I heard a girl’s scream over the sound of the chain saw as they cut it that sucker down. And the sap that ran out of the cut was just as red as could be … runnin’ down over the pale, white bark of that tree like blood from a wound.”
The look on Jake’s face was as grim as I’d ever seen it. None of us dared to laugh at his preposterous story.
After a really long pause, he continued. “The fight totally went out of him once they’d cut it through, and he sobbed like nothin’ I ever heard before or since. Howling, more like.”
He shook his head again and resumed sliding his mug in circles on the table.
After a long enough pause, Kurt cleared his throat. “So did they find her? Was she buried under the tree?”
Jake looked up with start, as if he’d forgotten we were there. “Nope. They dug up that whole part of the back yard and never found a damned thing.”
“What happened to him?” Marv asked.
“They found him hanging in a tree in the forest a few days later. Apparent suicide. Had a hand-written note on him saying that the tree he was found in was the mother and that both the mother and daughter were dryads”
“Dryads? Those are just a myth!” exclaimed Kurt, as he fidgeted with his napkin. His eyebrows were about to blend into his hairline. “There’s no such thing!”
Jake looked up at the ceiling for a long moment, then turned his eyes toward us. “Yeah, they’re just myth. Or so they say. All I know is that no sign of that girl was ever seen again … assuming you don’t count the blood that poured outta that tree.”
“You’re full of shit, old man. You made that up just to pull one over on us.” You could hear the wishful thinking in Kurt’s voice.
Jake sighed. “Wish I could say I was, but you go on over to Bimmley and read the police report. I think they still list it as an unsolved case, but I saw what I saw … and so did every other guy there. Weirdest damn thing I ever did see. Had nightmares about that one for years.”
We sat in silence for a bit, with none of us knowing what to say.
Jake took a final swig of beer and set down the empty mug. “I transferred outta Bimmley shortly thereafter, and been here in Smithton ever since. Thank the good Lord, I made it to retirement without ever seeing nothin’ like that again.”
Kenetha J. Stanton is a writer, artist, and healer, who lives in the Indianapolis area. Although she has been writing in various forms for years, this is her first short story. More of her work can be found on her website.