We called him “The Tree Man”.
I used to beg Mom to pass by the Tree Man’s house all of the time, even though I knew it was many miles out of the way.
Sometimes she humored me and we took that detour.
The house was lost in a jungle of overgrown underbrush and grass gone wild. All of this was in the shadows of five giant, ancient trees.
Around the yard he had planted strange sculpture carved from tree trunks. There were several up front with a “For Sale” sign, but most of them hid and creeped through his semi-suburban, semi-rural forest. Over the years I don’t think one of the “For Sale” sculptures were changed, neither a new one added nor an old one sold.
Occasionally we could see the gnarled old man wandering around the yard, looking more gnomish than human. I couldn’t tell what he was doing and never got a good look at his face.
I used to make up all types of stories about the man, his house and the sculptures. Most of them had fairies and ghosts of two children long dead. The little boy and little girl weren’t scary ghosts, but presented a mystery to be solved. In my stories, me and the old man, the Tree Man, were the only ones who could see the ghosts.
Mom would just smile as I told the stories on our drives.
One day, out of the blue, Mom stopped in front of The Tree Man’s house.
We got out and browsed the “For Sale” sculpture, though I wanted to run and play in that mini-forest, wanting to find the fairies or catch a glimpse of the ghost children.
It wasn’t long before he showed up, the Tree Man, shuffling his way to the road.
“Why, hi there,” he said to me, bending down almost to my height. His voice matched the image I had for him in my stories. “You look almost like a garden sprite there, now don’t you?” His eyes twinkled as he smiled, but then he straightened up as much as his bent frame allowed and faced Mom.
“Yes, ma’am. How are you this fine day?”
“How much is that?”
She pointed with a frown to a strange sculpture of a twisted primitive man. He had flowers and leaves instead of skin and clothes, or so it would seem. The knowing grin was almost spooky.
“Our friend the forest troll? For you, five bucks.”
Mom shook her head. “No, don’t give a price for me, give me the real price.”
He glanced my way, a half wink in his twinkling eye. “For the garden sprite, then, four bucks.”
“No, no. Let’s say a man from the city in a nice suit came by, how much?”
“I’d never sell this gentle soul to such a man…”
“Then to a friendly farmer from Ladsville?”
“Why would he want a forest troll to play tricks on his land? No, no, I wouldn’t have it.”
I could tell Mom was exasperated. “OK, fine, here is 50 dollars. Is that enough?”
His smile went away. “If you insist.”
We planted the forest troll in the back yard where it was out of people’s sight. Mom said so it would be our secret, but later in life I knew it was because she didn’t want anyone else to see the ugly monstrosity.
I almost instantly began to make up stories about the forest troll and our adventures together.
I didn’t notice at the time, but we almost completely stopped driving by the Tree Man’s house after that. I know I never even caught a glimpse of the man himself after we bought our forest troll.
It was maybe five years later, possibly six years, that Mom’s sister, Aunt Lidia, was over. I had long since outgrown the forest troll and wrote no more stories about it. I had totally forgotten about the ghost children and even The Tree Man.
I didn’t hear much of their conversation, but I could tell Lidia and Mom were arguing something fierce. I heard references to my father, who had passed away when I was still an infant. I knew almost nothing about him except that he was almost twice my mom’s age when they married and that he had died in a car accident.
I did hear a couple of complete sentences, yelled by Aunt Lidia, “The boy needs to know his roots, see his father’s family. This is important!”
On her way out, Aunt Lidia told me that I was going to go to my grandfather’s funeral. No, not Poe-Pa, he was feeling fine. This was my dad’s dad. No, she knew that I had never met him. I needed to do it. It was important.
I hated the suit. I hated the tie. I hated going to a funeral for a man I didn’t know. There wasn’t a single person there that I had ever seen. I did not want to be there.
I hated it all, particularly the death that filled the room.
As I approached the casket, I noticed a small wooden sculpture to one side, mixed in with the jungle of flowers. I stopped and stared. It was two children carved with loving care from a single block of wood.
It was the ghost children of my stories!
After that sight, I was only half surprised to discover that the man in the casket was The Tree Man.
The Tree Man’s house was torn down long ago. All of his sculptures are long gone.
Or almost all.
A forest troll still stalks my front yard, highly visible to all who pass.
As to the ghost children, I discovered that his aunt and uncle had died in childhood in that very same house where he lived his entire life to the end of his days. He always claimed to have played with their ghosts as a child, as did my father.
And now they have a place of prominence in my own living room, thanks to the sculpture made with loving care by The Tree Man, by my grandfather.
This story was written for this week’s writephoto challenge. The challenge is now run by KL Caley. She shared the image, which this week was provided by Willow, and the keyword, “Tree Man”.