PseudoPod 764: The Hollow Tree
Sevatividam would let to give a shoutout to Dan of Groundcrew Studios in Charlotte NC. She recorded “The Hollow Tree” and “Grave Mother” there and he did a spectacular good job on both of these episodes.
The Hollow Tree
by Jordan Kurella
There are two kinds of secrets: those we keep from others, and those we keep from ourselves.
My mother told me this after one of her too-silent nights with my father. She told me that the worst ones, the ones too terrible to believe, are the second kind. She told me she hoped I’d never have one of these kinds of secrets, as she leaned over and kissed my forehead. Only then did she go to her bed. Three days after that, my second sister came out of her, unbreathing. That time, she did not cry.
She told me, “Pira, you won’t cry either.”
She told me, “Pira, you have to be strong for me. I need you to always be strong.”
And so I was.
I was strong every day as my father served my mother’s pies through our bakery window, telling all our neighbors in Stowe that they were his. He smiled through his thick black beard, dripping with sweat and grease, joking with each person who came by each day. My father’s smile was a smile I had grown to hate. But the town hadn’t. They always said: “Silas Baker has such a wide smile to go with his sad eyes.” They always said: “There are no pies sweeter than Silas Baker’s pies.” They always said: “He must make his pies so sweet for his lost daughters.”
Every day, my mother made the pie fillings while I made the crusts. And every day, my father would sell the pies, his smile never tiring. Every evening, my mother and I would clean the kitchen. She scrubbed her knuckles raw on the oven bars and wood counters while I stayed on hands and knees cleaning the floor and cupboards.
My father spent this time in the back rooms in front of the fire. He had his favorite mug in his hand; he sat in his favorite chair. Every evening, when we were done, my mother would go to fetch him for inspection. And every evening, he found something wrong. Every night, they retired to our room to too much silence, before I was allowed to join them. When I did, the room smelled of sweat and felt too crowded, although my mother had already left to go tidy her mistakes.
I was welcome in Stowe, where I ran errands for my parents. I had friends, like Elias the tailor’s boy, and I was friendly with other shopkeepers in town. I knew the layout of the farms and the orchards. I knew about the woods and their guardians. I knew about the legends they held. My mother had told me some, my friends had told me others, and I had gone exploring for more on my own.
Stowe was interested in me the way I was interested in all of them. I was interested in everyone’s tidy lives, in their clean faces, in their happy hellos. All the while, the town whispered about me: “When will Silas find her a husband?” Or they whispered to me: “When will you get married young lady?” Sometimes they told me: “It’s time for you to be thinking about a family of your own.” But I had my mother to protect, because she needed protecting.
My father never had guests over to our back rooms, the way my friends said their families had guests over. We were a solitary family, aside from my father’s friendliness at the bakery window. As my mother had told me, we had secrets to keep from others–written all over my mother’s face.
One evening, close to my eighteenth birthday, my father inspected the kitchen and found a raisin on the oven door. He plucked the raisin off, set it on the clean and oiled wooden counter, and took my mother back to our room. I couldn’t bear another few hours of silence. My mother needed protecting, but I knew not to interfere. So I took the raisin in my fingers, dropped it into my dress pocket, and hung my work apron and bonnet by the door.
I wanted my mother to be safe. I wanted my own life. As it was now, I would never get either.
A friend had told me of a fairy in the wood that liked to meddle in humans’ affairs. He told me, “Your needs have to be dire, and the price has to be right.” I closed my fist around the raisin in my pocket and walked out into the empty Stowe square.
I was long past the town gates, running along the cornfields on Anson Farmer’s land. Their green stalks towered over me, heavy with corn, ready for harvest. Cornsilk hung down long, tangled, and golden like my mother’s hair. Anson Farmer’s cornfields bordered the woods I wanted, with the fairy I wanted. But he was also a gossip; one I would normally be wary enough to avoid.
But tonight I was too determined. In my flight from my father’s house, I could think of nothing else but the fairy and my mother’s salvation. I did not think of what my father might do if he found me missing. I did not think of what Anson Farmer might think of me traveling along his road at night. I did not think. So I did not look for him. As I ran past his house, I did not notice whether he was awake; I did not notice whether he saw me.
Anson Farmer’s road lead right to Stowe Pond, where Pastor Laeren did his baptisms and where Elias Tailor liked to go night fishing. Elias and I had met here several times in the ten years we’d known each other. At one time we would go exploring around the woods together. But that stopped two years ago, when his mother found him a girl to marry and my second sister was lost before she was born.
I needed Elias now, though. Tonight. Elias was the one who had told me about the fairy I now wanted, so he was the one who could tell me a little more.
It was a cloudy night, and the moon was only a slim crescent, so the road was dark; the leaf-dotted path to Stowe Pond even darker. The path was underneath Anson Farmer’s apple orchard, and I had to be careful so as not to slip and twist my ankle on a fallen apple. So I slowed, stepping on twigs and being too loud–so loud even the crickets noticed and stopped singing at my approach.
Elias Tailor noticed my approach as well, from his usual fishing spot at the bank of the pond, his posture perfect—too perfect for a fisherman—and his clothes fitting him neatly, as a tailor’s son’s would. He pulled in his line when he recognized me, but his face was written with concern.
“Pira,” he said. “I’m happy to see you, but does your father know you’re out here?”
“No,” I said. “He doesn’t, and that’s rather the point.”
“I don’t want you to get in trouble. What are you doing out this late?”
“Looking for you, first,” I said.
He didn’t blush. He only blinked. He never blushed around me once, not ever. He never blushed around girls at all.
“You found me,” he said. “What are we up to this time?”
“I want to go to the Hollow Tree,” I said. “And you know the way.”
“I do know the way,” he said. He knew we were up to something. He had a sly way of speaking when we were conspiring. “Do you know what you want?”
“I do,” I said.
“You only think you do.” He picked up his rod and tackle. “That’s the trick.”
We walked past the pond and deeper into the orchard. Elias led the way, cutting between the trees so that we trailed along the cornfields again. I reached up and touched the cornsilk as we passed. I only wanted to touch it, to think of my mother, but pieces of it broke off in my hand. I pretended this was not a bad omen. With all the talk of fairies and the Hollow Tree, I hoped this was not a curse. I prayed it was not a curse.
I put the broken pieces of cornsilk in my pocket with the raisin and kept walking, saying nothing. Elias said nothing either. He asked no questions about the Hollow Tree. He said nothing about my father. But people with their own secrets do not ask about the secrets of others.
The smell of the orchard made me thirsty, and the air was heavy, like it had just rained or was about to. I did not take any apples, as I used to when Elias and I once played in this orchard. I did not pocket any other treasures. I was older now. I had my father to think about. And Elias had obstacles of his own.
The Hollow Tree stood on the border of the cornfield and the orchard, looming over Anson Farmer’s land. The rumor was that Anson Farmer had made a deal with the fairy here, which is why his crops grew twice as tall and twice as abundant as his neighbors. It was also why he was twice as mean. The town always said: “He dabbles in black magic.” The town always said: “He consorts with fairies.” The town always said: “He’s evil.” But they bought his corn and his apples and his cider and delighted in every bite and sip.
The closer I got to that hulking black mass of trunk and naked branches, the colder I felt. The night seemed to darken, the air felt as if it was even heavier, but Elias still approached–so I did, too. The stories about the Hollow Tree were only stories. Stories about black magic. Stories about things gone wrong. As Elias had once told me, the need had to be dire. And mine was. I knew what I was going to say; I knew what I wanted. What the need was.
But I did not know how it was going to play out. How could I know that?
Mushrooms grew in a semicircle around the base of the Hollow Tree, scattered and haphazard; tall and wet and earthy smelling. The trunk yawned open, split by age. The tree stood black, cavernous, and uninviting. All of the Hollow Tree was uninviting—nothing grew on it. No leaves or lichen. No fungus or flowers. No birds even came to roost in its barren branches.
The tree appeared dead, but those of us in Stowe knew better.
“You have to knock three times on the trunk,” Elias said. “And then whisper what you want to the bark.”
“What about my gift?”
“That comes later,” he said, and placed a hand on my shoulder. “Remember, Pira. The fairy doesn’t give you what you ask for, she gives you what you want. So try to make them the same thing.”
He then stepped back, standing a respectful distance away as I went up. I knocked three times, the sound shaking the branches above. I leaned in to whisper, my breath brushing the dry bark.
“Please,” I said. “Please make my family happy again.”
I walked away, wanting to stand next to Elias, but he gently urged me forward, away from him. So I stood alone. Waiting.
I waited some. And then I waited some more. I thought nothing was going to happen; I was certain of it. But then there was a shift in the air. The earthy smell of the mushrooms grew stronger, and the smell of the apples drifted away. Then, the dew shook off the mushrooms. That was how I knew the fairy heard my request. The Hollow Tree groaned loudly like a wounded deer, and its branches twisted and turned. I was about to run away when the yawning trunk snapped shut, and then it opened, with the most curious person standing inside.
She was as tall as my hips and had toothpick legs that rose all the way to her breasts. Her hair hung down in black strings over long arms that bent at her knees. Her fingers were pointed but not threateningly so, and they stroked her too-long chin as she approached.
“You bother me for happiness?” she asked. Her black eyes were narrow. Her voice, unkind. “You wake me for happiness?”
“Yes,” I said. Now was the time to be afraid.
“I have punished people for much less things,” she said. “Should I wake up and grant each person happiness, what would I be? What would this place be?”
“But you granted Anson Farmer great gifts,” I said.
“He did not ask for happiness,” she said. “And he came to me truly suffering. You are not suffering, little girl. But you will yet.”
“She is suffering,” Elias said. He was still standing behind me, still holding his fishing pole. “Tell her, Pira.”
The fairy’s head snapped from Elias back to me, and she smiled. Her teeth were all rounded, like pebbles.
“Speak,” she said. “Tell me how you suffer. There may yet be a bargain tonight.”
“My father, he hurts my mother, every night,” I said. “She cannot see anyone due to what he does to her face. He gives her tasks, duties, and she does everything he asks; everything he wants. Yet he still hurts her.”
“Go on,” the fairy said.
“I had two sisters,” I said. “They both died before they were born. My father is to blame, for what he does to her. I’m afraid he might one day kill her. I fear I can no longer protect my mother.”
“And you?” she asked. “What do you gain from all this?”
“He has not yet found a suitor for me,” I said. “I cannot live my own life until my mother is safe.”
“I believe I can make your family happy again,” the fairy said. “But it depends what you have in trade.”
I pulled the raisin from my pocket, and then,after thinking for a moment, also pulled out the pieces of cornsilk.
“I have for you the token of my father’s rage.” I said, giving the fairy the raisin. “And a symbol of my mother’s hair.” And I gave her the cornsilk.
“This will do,” the fairy said. “When I leave, wait for the Hollow Tree to bestow you with a gift. Use it to make your family happy.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Ah, but I am not done,” she said. “I require something from you. When you have made your family happy, you will have to return to me with a token of that happiness. Only then will the bargain be fulfilled, because only then will I have my gift. My assurance.”
“Of course,” I said.
“It is done.”
She retreated with my gifts back into the Hollow Tree. With another shiver and groan, the trunk snapped shut, swallowing her up. When it opened again, there was something there. I went to retrieve the item and recognized it immediately. It was my father’s favorite mug.
The mug was exactly his, down to the chip on the handle from when he fell asleep with it on his knee and dropped it; down to the worrying on the lip from where he always rubbed it with his thumb; down to the bottom, where etched were the words: “Love, Lunan.”
Lunan was my mother’s name.
“Did you get what you asked for?” Elias asked.
I showed him the mug, and he looked at it, and then looked at me.
“I think you got what you wanted,” he said.
“What I want is for my mother to be happy,” I said. “I don’t know how this is supposed to make her happy.”
“Well,” Elias said, “maybe that cup is supposed to poison your father.”
People with their own secrets are very good at guessing the secrets of others.
I arrived home, and my mother was waiting for me by the hearth. The fire was long dead, the sound of it replaced by my father’s snoring. My mother’s hands were folded across her hips, and her eyes were wet with worry.
“Where were you?” she asked.
But before I could answer, she grabbed my wrists. “I lost two daughters before they could draw breath. I will not lose my only living one.”
She brought me into her arms and held me close, her whole body shaking, her tears mingling with mine. My hand was still holding the replica of my father’s favorite mug. I held her back tightly, mug and all; I held her back as if the mug had done its magic and all her horrors were all over. I held her bruised face to my chest and ran my hand over her tangled hair.
I whispered to her while I held her there. I whispered to her over and over again.
“I’ll make it better soon, mama. I promise. I promise.”
The next morning, before my father woke, I replaced his favorite mug with the replica the fairy had given me. I hid the real one under my bed, among the toys I no longer played with; the toys my mother had made me keep for my future sisters. As my mother and I cooked breakfast, I watched her pour my father’s tea into the fairy’s mug and bring it to him in our room.
The rest of the morning, I was distracted with anticipation. My father had his usual three mugs of tea; neither he nor my mother noticed anything odd about the fairy mug. My father said nothing about the tea other than his usual morning banter. He said, “My what a gloomy day it is.” It was true; it was gloomy. He said, “I’ll need to fetch milk again.” It was true; he would. He said, “Pira, you look very sleepy today.” It was true; I was sleepy. As he spoke and as he swapped his tea out for water, I checked constantly for signs of poisoning–slurred speech, cloudy eyes–but my father remained smiling and talkative as ever.
He was at the window as he always was, his beard greasy and black. His smile wide for all the customers. If my father was indeed poisoned, he showed no sign of it.
Anson Farmer came by in the late afternoon. He bought a blackberry pie with blackberries from a neighboring farm.
My father said, “Anson, so good to see you. How’s the harvest coming?”
“Truth is, Silas,” Anson Farmer said, “I’m not here for the pie. I saw your daughter with the Tailor boy last night. Might want to keep a leash on that one.”
“My daughter?” My father turned and winked at me. I checked his eyes; they were not bloodshot.
“He’s spoken for, Silas,” Anson Farmer said. “They were on my land and then disappeared. I’d keep an eye on your Pira.”
“Thank you, Anson,” my father said. “You’re always looking out for me.”
My father hovered around me for the rest of the day, checking my crusts, commenting on my work. He said, “My these crusts are flaky, Pira.” He said, “Roll that dough down flat, that’s my girl.” He said, “Very nice crosshatch.” My mother attempted to intervene, but there was nothing she could do . Perhaps because my father was a large man, his chest round and thick like a boar’s and his temper just as brutish. Or perhaps because I was hovering around him so that I could smell his breath as he leaned over me. But I found no smell of rot or death on him; no evidence of poisoning.
The fairy’s promise had gone all wrong. Had my bargain been for nothing? Had I failed to save my mother? Had I failed to save myself?
When my father locked up the window for the night, my mother and I set to cleaning, and she cleaned again what I had cleaned. She cleaned it twice as hard. I knew what was coming. My father had turned his attentions on me.
He came in, carrying the fairy mug, and set it down on the counter. This time, he inspected everything, which was twice cleaned and three times as well-done. But he went over with extra care, feeling, sniffing, even tasting his fingers, all while watching me.
“These floors,” he said to me, “They’re sticky.”
They weren’t. They were smooth and waxed and I could see my reflection in them.
“Pira, it’s your job to clean the floors, isn’t it?”
“Come with me,” he said. And his hand closed around my wrist, and my stomach twisted around myself, and I felt my whole body go cold. I had trouble swallowing as if I was trying to swallow all my fear, all the coming pain. I was as weak as a rag doll, and as simple. I stood at the counter, staring at my father, all I could see was him, and all I could hear was: “No!”
Before I could move. Before my father could take me anywhere, there was a flash of red, then white, like a match strike. Followed quickly by the crunch of teeth on bone. My father’s black eyes rolled back into his head, and he swayed to the right, then the left, and then crumpled to the floor. My mother stood beside him, the fairy mug in her hand burning white-hot as my father’s blood spilled out over the clean, waxed floor.
My mother and I each accepted a lock of my father’s hair at the funeral, as was custom. She held hers in her hand, and I put mine in my dress pocket, closing my fist around it as Pastor Laeren spoke to us and all of Stowe about the legacies of great men. As my father was lowered into the ground, my mother did not cry. I did not cry either.
Anson Farmer came up to my mother and held her hand once it was all over. “Terrible accident,” he said to her. “If you need anything Lunan, just ask.”
The town was abuzz with my father’s death. Silas Baker was a much loved man in Stowe, but he was also a curious man. The town said: “What a tragedy for his wife and daughter.” The town said: “Did you see Lunan Baker’s face?” The town said: “Pira must be so afraid.” But my mother and I were no longer afraid. We were relieved.
The night after the funeral I met Elias Tailor at Stowe Pond and we returned to the Hollow Tree. This time I did not care if Anson Farmer saw. This time I did not care what Anson Farmer thought. Elias and I walked to the Hollow Tree and I held the lock of my father’s hair in my pocket, running my fingers across it. This would have to be enough.
When we reached the tree, Elias said, “I know his death wasn’t an accident.”
I said, “I know you know.”
And he smiled and looked at his hands. People who keep others’ secrets often do not share their own.
I went to the tree and knocked three times. I whispered to the bark, “I have your happiness here.” And then I stepped back beyond the mushrooms.
The air changed. The mushrooms shook off their dew. The Hollow Tree twisted and turned; it groaned like a mourning deer. Its yawning trunk snapped shut, and when it opened, the fairy walked out and toward me on those long long legs. Her eyes were wide with anticipation.
“You have your token?” she asked.
I held up the lock of hair, and she accepted it with her pointed fingers. Her too-long chin was turned down as she inspected the black strands.
“This will do,” she said. “In some time, I will share the token of my own happiness with you.” She turned back to the Hollow Tree and stood in its cavernous trunk. “You will see. We will both be happy.”
And with shiver and a groan, the trunk swallowed her up, and she was gone.
Several months later, my sister was born. She had black hair like my father. Her legs and arms were long, and she had a pointed chin. The town said: “Lunan must be so happy to have something to remember Silas by.” The town said: “What joy finally arrives at the Baker house!” The town said: “She looks a little odd for an infant.” My mother asked no questions; she knew the stories of the Hollow Tree. She merely loved my sister and showed her all the joy she showed me throughout my life.
But over the years, things would go missing: combs, forks, toys. My mother and I knew better than to ask. As my sister grew, she would run off sometimes through the gates, down Anson Farmer’s road, and past Stowe Pond. I would find her at the Hollow Tree, talking to the mushrooms, playing in the dew.
Each time I found her, I would take her home. We would leave the blossoming Hollow Tree behind. We would leave behind its birdsong and the gifts. Each time, I would wind my own fingers through my sister’s too-long ones as we walked past Stowe Pond, past Anson Farmer’s watchful gaze.
We held close to one another, my sister and I, and held close to our mother, as the town watched and gossiped and whispered that something was not right. We held close, because we had to. Because the town’s talk had never helped us before. Because our secret was the kind to keep from others, not the kind to keep from ourselves.
About the Author
Jordan Kurella is a queer and disabled author who has lived all over the world (including Cairo and Chicago). Their work can be found in Apex, Glitter + Ashes, and Strange Horizons.
About the Narrator
Sevatividam is writer, voice actress, singer/songwriter, political messaging strategist and hooligan who works for the political action committee Mad Dog PAC helping to annoy corrupt politicians with snarky billboards. Sev is a “GRITS” (a “girl raised in the South”) who grew up in Atlanta, and she’s never been to England before, but she wants you all to know that she really worked hard to research and practice this accent. She’s hoping to get a proper studio demo recorded of her song “Agnostic Gospel” done this year, and she’s beginning to feel the itch to process some personal demons into a very heavily Depeche Mode influenced album of new songs. She really enjoyed voicing the grumpy fairy.