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That Old Family Tree

by D. Morgan Ballmer

4924 words

We meet in a tumbledown tavern because Cutter doesn’t like the cold. He lost two fingers and countless friends nine years ago at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir where sub-zero temperatures proved more deadly than any Chinese rifle. He was lucky enough to come home but never forgave that cruel temptress, winter, for the many men she lured to her breast and held in an eternal embrace.

“Don’t matter if it’s Soviet, Chinese, or American, once winter gets her talons on it. Firing springs freeze up, lubricants go all gummy, may as well chuck the piece and pull a knife.” Cutter says.

Hard years have left their mark on him. His face is a network of deep fissures linking tiny blue eyes with a wide slab of a mouth. Not chiseled, his features are blasted like moon rock.

“Can you help me or not?” I ask.

“Easy cowboy, I met you didn’t I? You’ve been edgy ever since you left the cooler. You keep some unforgiving company. I need to know your intentions before I sell. Can’t have you blowing off steam at the wrong people, not with something they can trace back to me.”

His eyes twinkle like sapphires in the cavernous darkness of the bar.

“I break locks, not people,” I say.

“You ain’t asking me for lock picks, you’re looking for a heater.”

The world beyond the grimy picture window connecting this two-bit dive to daylight is encased in icy crystalline. The vista is an endless stretch of gray and white punctuated by the occasional strand of frosted evergreens. The wild reaches of northern Michigan need a heater, I just need a gun.

“It’s for protection.”

Cutter shakes with silent laughter, his shoulders moving like a dog heaving up a dead rat.

“You didn’t haul your cookies up here from Southern Correctional just to buy a gun from yours truly. If everything is copasetic then stow the shuckster routine and clue me in on your angle.”

The problem is there’s no angle. My life has been in a deep freeze of its own for the last eighteen months, trapped within a box of concrete and steel; praying for sunlight to find me. Turns out the sun don’t shine on anyone in the hoosegow. It’s a dark place filled with freaks, wet-rags, and nowhere men. They never rattled my cage, but making their acquaintance was enough to convince me to change my ways. This gun is for personal use, not business, and I’m none too keen on spilling my guts to a loose cannon like Cutter. Sadly I don’t have much choice.

“It’s a family thing, you dig?”

My eyes fix unwaveringly upon his craggy puss.

“Right before I got pinched for the Featherbrooke heist my kid brother Sammy took his girl north for some camping. We grew up in that area so it should’ve been no big deal. Come round-up time he and Susan were nowhere to be found. My brother isn’t the type to flake out without warning. I need some answers. The gun will make sure I don’t pull my own disappearing act while investigating.”

Cutter fixes those tiny blue specks of his on me like he’s reading the back of my skull. I meet his gaze. Two heartbeats later he breaks into a crazy grin showcasing those yellow stumps he calls teeth.

“Family, eh? Solid. You’re a good egg, Lucas. Those kids vanish on this side of the new bridge?”

“Nah, further north.”

“The Peninsula? Cold up there, real cold. I got something that’ll do the trick though; a model 27 revolver. Six reliable shots of .357 magnum if can keep your hand warm enough to pull the trigger.”

“I’ll take it.”

Two hours later the tires of my Chevy Nomad hum against steel grating suspended five-hundred feet above the Mackinac Straits. The new bridge is every bit as impressive as I’ve heard; five miles of flawless concrete and cable. November winds pound my ride making the trip a regular roller derby. To each side of the bridge a limitless expanse of white and gray unfolds, sky touching water. It’s enough to make me sweat. I focus my eyes straight ahead, timing my breath to the rhythm of the tires.

‘Adaptation to the environment is key,’ isn’t that what my cellmate always used to say? Vance Bergman — musician, hop-head, and longtime resident of Southern Correctional would bend a man’s ear forever on the topic of reefer. His affection for it had won him a seven-year all-expenses-paid stay in the pokey.

“The man can’t stop it,” he’d say to anyone within earshot, “because weed is hip to our needs, same as the domestic dog. Nature doesn’t cotton to man’s law, it adapts and survives. It evolves in response to the new paradigm. Mankind is just one more natural force to be overcome. Our laws are less than that.”

No shortage of dime-store theories peddled by hard-luck philosophers in the clink. I suffered Bergman’s hare-brained ramblings mostly by tuning him out. Yet something about his adaptation speech always struck a chord with me. Whether he knew a lick about plants I can’t say, but he knew something about what it takes to soldier on when your future is unfolding in a 6' x 8' cell.

As I near the end of the bridge the untamed lands of the Upper Peninsula peek through a thinning veil of fog. An army of alabaster pines stand sentry over snow-clad hills. What might ol’ Vance Bergman say about Sammy being lost out there, I wonder. Can my kid brother adapt to a place where the thermometer hangs below freezing more often than not? Can he survive fifteen months in a land where over a hundred inches of snow accumulates every year? These sorts of thoughts once left me paralyzed in my narrow bunk. Sammy is the only real family I’ve got. Sometimes, contemplating my situation in that dark and confined space, I’d wonder if it was worth sticking around until my release. What would I go back to?

Luckily the Mackinac Bridge isn’t the only thing connecting me with my missing brother. A well-worn envelope sent by an anonymous party rests in my coat pocket. It contains four photographs revealing just enough to sustain my hope. I’m not sure how Sammy survived or where he is, but I do know he’s alive; and when I reach Sault Ste. Marie I know just the man to shake down for some answers.

• • •

Oskar Karppinen knows everything about Chippewa County; to the last moldering skeleton in the smallest of closets. His logging career ended abruptly when a falling pine took an unexpected detour across his pelvis. The company settlement covered a year or so of Oskar’s bar tabs before running dry. Lamed and destitute Oskar hobbled about town charming people, doing favors, and moving freight to keep his belly full. Over time he developed a rapport with people on both sides of St. Mary’s River, the kind that makes shuffling questionable goods between the two nations easy and profitable.

We’ve done business in the past so locating his cabin is easy. Making it up the treacherous smear of frozen slush leading to his front door is another matter. I park the Nomad on the flattest ground I can find and tuck a bottle of Old Fitzgerald into my jacket. Between the whiskey and the .357 I figure the odds of learning about my brother look favorable.

The old A-frame stands like a crumbling gingerbread house under a thick coat of icing. Gravity holds no sway over snow which gathers upon every angle of the structure. I rap on the door, gingerly shifting my weight between icy feet. By the time it finally opens my toes are aflame with needling cold.

“Oh-li-wah, if it isn’t Lucas. Can ya believe it? Come on in.”

Oskar steadies his aged form over a cedar cane while ushering me in with his free hand. His worn overalls barely clasp over the thick plaid coat covering his portly frame. Wincing, I kick the ice from my boots and step inside with a brief nod.

“I was in the neighborhood.”

“Get oudda here, is dat right?” he says in his rustic yooper accent. “Siddown over by da fire, get warm.”

I hand him the bottle of hooch and an hour later we’re carrying on by firelight like a couple of soldiers swapping war stories. The cabin’s interior radiates a warm, pine-scented nostalgia that is almost relaxing, though hard times have taught me better than to relax near this jovial old huckster. Until I’m staring my brother in his baby browns my vigilance cannot be calmed by liquor or fire.

Oskar’s voice booms with boisterous mirth but his eyes remain subtly venomous. They continuously flick back toward an old wooden bureau at the rear of the lodge in a way that makes my neck prickle. Could be a weapon in one of those drawers. Maybe it’s nothing more than his tired dogs screaming for a fresh pair of socks. Either way I can’t risk a confrontation so I decide to lay my cards on the table.

“Let me ask you something,” I say, pulling the manila envelope from my coat.

When my hand moves out from my jacket Oskar straightens up like a groundhog searching for his shadow. His jumpiness only fuels my suspicions.

“My brother Sammy came up this way with his sweetheart back in May of ’58, right before the incident that landed me in the pokey. But he never came home.”

I lay the first photograph in the middle of table. A cheerful couple grins back up at us. The man is sandy-haired, well-built. His arm circles the shoulders of a dazzling blonde wearing a poodle skirt. They lean wistfully against the side of a Dodge Coronet. Towering pines fill the rest of the frame.

“Oh now, dats a shame all right,” Oskar says, “Your brother is good folk.”

“Yeah, he didn’t have any enemies … that I know of.”

The second photo falls atop the first, this time Sammy is alone. His jeans are ragged and soiled, his T-shirt frayed at the sleeves. He peers upward from a muddy, shoulder-deep hole some ten feet in diameter. An upright shovel is ominously thrust in the earth beside him.

“This one was mailed seven months after he vanished. The fuzz searched the area where he went missing. They found nothing and stopped looking.”

I slide the third photograph from the envelope. Sammy’s hair halos his head like a shaggy mane. His wears a threadbare flannel and a pair of dirty overalls. Hollowness has settled in his cheeks, his muscular frame has leaned. To his left stands an old native man in tribal skins, his dark eyes a pair of iron pellets set beneath his wrinkled brow. He holds a crooked walking stick adorned with feathers and wears a magnificent antlered headdress which imbues him with a fearsome and savage aspect. They stand in a valley where traces of a river peek between snow-shrouded pines.

“That one came a month before I was released.”

Oskar dabs his brow with a grimy kerchief. The urge to chit-chat must have evaporated because he’s fallen as silent as a Rudolph Valentino’s grave. Lifting the .357 from my coat pocket I lay it on the table, barrel facing my tongue-tied host. My other hand lays the fourth and final photograph down.

Springtime has sullied the white landscape with slushy pools and pits of mud. Vibrant shocks of greenery push through malformed snow banks. Long icicles hang from every horizontal surface. The vantage is from a great height overlooking a hill. Sammy’s profile can be seen among the trees. He stands on a distant ridge overlooking a familiar A-frame cabin. Parked nearby is a 1950 GMC flatbed truck that has long been Oskar’s pride and joy.

“Now wait a minute,” Oskar stammers, “You don’t think I have something to do with all this, do ya?”

His eyes travel from the gun, to the picture, to my own remorseless stare.

“I think my brother is cold, needs a haircut, and new clothes. I think you can tell me where to find him, Daddio, and you will. I’m not partial to plugging squares, but the border of Canada seems as fine a place as any to start.”

Oskar takes another glance at the gun pointing at his gut before tossing his hands up in a gesture of concession. He falls back into his chair with a grunt.

“Uff dah … I’ll tell what I know, but it’s not much.” he says, “Him with the antlers is called Scarecrow Jim. A big medicine man to his people but he don’t visit town too often. He stays out in da woods.”

“Chippewa?” I ask.

“No, not Chippy. Not Ojibwa at all. His tribe is older and shunned by da others. Not just natives, either. Forty years ago Simmon’s Lumber tried to muscle a cut of da tribes land. Natives wouldn’t sell so Mr. Simmons sent some bruisers to have a powwow with ol’ Scarecrow. A whole week passes but the men never come back. The sheriff is called and drives to da settlement. He returns, writes up two missing person cases, then buries the files deeper then da roots of an oak. Dat was da first group to go missing, but not da last.”

Oskar sounds sincere, which means nothing. The man lives by trading information, fencing goods, and telling convincing tales. Maybe this tribe is involved or maybe Oskar saves his best stories for nights when there’s a gun on the table.

“Okay, Oskar. Grab a coat and let’s take a ride. You show me where this Scarecrow man lives and I’ll let you fade quietly, no hard feelings.”

Cheeks redden beneath shaggy gray whiskers but he shuffles off to grab a jacket. I return the .357 to my coat pocket and rest my hand on it. Five minutes later we’re exhaling frosty clouds in the cab of the Nomad and crawling along a snowy road.

Our ride through Snows-ville is quiet which is fine by me. Oskar’s connections will probably want an explanation for this little joyride. Too bad; I plan to be working on my suntan by the time he drops a dime. Cracking safes and picking locks for small-time bag men is no way to make a living, and jail is no place to live a life. I’m going to find my brother and take him to the west coast where he can get his head together. Maybe I’ll hang a shingle up as an honest locksmith and teach the kid a trick or two.

The freefall feeling of tires sliding on ice snaps me back to reality. Clumps of the stuff litter the road, treacherously lurking just beneath the powder. Every collision sends us drifting with the looming threat of throwing us in a ditch. If that happens odds are no one will find our frigid corpses till morning.

I focus on the view beyond the windshield; a mesmerizing panorama of sturdy pines in black silhouette against the glow of a silver moon. It’s beautiful in a dangerous way, like that one poet said about the tiger and its fearful symmetry. In another life I might have stopped the car and tried my hand at painting such a sublime scene. This life affords me no such luxury.

Oskar speaks up as we reach the edge of a frozen lake. “We’re close, but I want you to drop me off by those fishing shacks just ahead.”

“Are you nuts? You’ll freeze.”

“Nah, this isn’t my first winter, ya know. I can do the shack for a night, walk back tomorrow.” He says.

The half-dozen fishing shacks gripping the lake’s flawless surface look one stiff breeze away from becoming kindling. I cast an eyeball at Oskar knowing the old coot is slippery as Elvis Presley’s comb, and twice as dirty.

“I need you to take me to Scarecrow Jim, that’s the deal.”

“Hold on now, I can point you there but I’m not going. Da place is cursed. I’ll take my chances widda cold.”

I don’t have much choice and the skunk knows it. He’s stubborn enough to clam up out of spite. If he calls my bluff to see if I’ll shoot, things will get complicated. I ease up on the gas and let the car coast to the side of the road.

“Your choice,” I say, “Let’s hear it.”

Oskar points a gnarled hand at a distant rise of old growth pine tickling the starry skyline.

“Over dat hill is a trail leading to an RV. You hafta walk, it’s too narrow to drive. Dats where Scarecrow Jim lives.”

“What about the rest of the tribe?” I ask.

“They live in da woods.”

“What, in teepees?”

Oskar arches a bushy wizard brow at me.

“In da woods,” he says.

Something about his tone sets my teeth on edge.

“I’ll be back. Don’t think about double-crossing me Oskar.”

He shakes his head slowly.

“No, you won’t be back. I already told ya, no one comes back.”

The dome light flares brilliantly as the warmth of the cab rushes through the open passenger door. It slams shut and through the windshield I see the ponderous bulk of Oskar hobbling across the icy lake. He lumbers like a wounded bear over the smooth and pale expanse. There was a time I would have waited to make sure he reached the shack safely. There was a time my brother was only a phone call away; times change.

Onward I press, the car struggling against each snowy incline. I should have made Oskar take me in his truck, he couldn’t have left and the driving would be easier. Too many hours have passed since I’ve piled up some z’s and I’m beginning to make mistakes.

Within minutes the tires of the Chevy are sliding sideways across the road. I work the wheel back and forth praying the car doesn’t plunge into the wood line. The loud crunch of bumper meeting snowbank signals that I’ve reached the end of the road for automobiles. I stomp on the parking brake and spend a minute holding my hands beneath the blessed warmth spilling from the vents. When my hands are limber I collect my gear; the gun, a knife, a flashlight, and a small set of lock picks.

Stepping into the frigid tundra I try not to imagine what the dark woods may conceal. Moonlight illuminates a narrow path that snakes among towering pines. Harsh wind cuts at my face like a lash from a length of barbed wire. I tuck my nose into the neck of the jacket but water still streams from my eyes.

The path descends into the shadows of the colossal trees before emerging in a small clearing. Standing at the edge of the shadows I observe the secretive glade. The modest stretch of ground is a patchwork of footprints, both animal and human. Tracks of deer, rabbits, and men weave through the area in seemingly random patterns. At the far end of the clearing the oblong from of a Spartan Manor trailer looms, half hidden under the snow-laden boughs of the forest.

I circle the clearing until I reach the dull metal door of the RV. My fingers are lifeless sausages fumbling a screwdriver from my pocket. Forcing a cheap lock open usually sounds no worse than breaking twig but in this serene glade it cracks like a rifle shot. If anyone was sleeping inside they’re awake now. I rush into the black interior swapping the screwdriver for the .357 and flashlight.

The gun and light move in tandem, sweeping a wide arc through the trailer. The beam reveals an unremarkable habitation. To my right, beneath a large observation window sits a couch strewn with socks, blue jeans, and other rumpled garments. To the left a clumpy trail of dry mud leads through the kitchen area. The counter tops are littered with soiled drinking glasses and open cans of beans, corn, and tuna.

My heart beats like a war drum as I move through the kitchen and towards the rear of the RV. My pale beam reveals the surface of a bed. A quilt bearing intricate zigzag designs covers the mattress. Something about the strange pattern wreaks havoc with my depth perception forcing me to fling my arms wide or lose my balance. For one terrible instant I’m lost in darkness, my head spinning, my ears overwhelmed by the hum of arctic winds scouring the metal walls. The quilt is a mind bender, like one of those new-fangled woodcarvings by M.C. Escher where the perspective is all confused. Sweat trickles down my neck as I point the flashlight back at the bed and realize that something beneath the covers is moving.

I keep my eyes on the window sill to avoid another attack of vertigo.

“Get up nice and slow.”

The bedding agitates slowly. Folds of the dizzying fabric collect at the foot of the bed. As the top of the quilt slides downward I risk a quick glance at the occupant.

A woman.

Not just any woman but Susan, my brother’s dame. Her golden hair is matted in filthy clumps but those blue eyes and that upturned nose are unmistakable. She looks about ten meals shy of healthy, but she’s alive.

“Susan! Are you okay? Where’s Sammy?”

The quilt falls to her waist as she sits upright. Her arms are broomstick thin where they exit from the sleeves of her blue pajama top. Her sallow lips pull into a tight smile.

“He knew you’d come for us. He’s close.”

I lower the gun. Her emaciated form and deliberate movements are unnerving. The earthy smell about her announces that far too many days have passed since her last shower.

“You look like hell.”

She pushes the covers to the floor and swings her narrow legs over the side of the bed in a way that reminds me of a construction crane. I step back to give her space when a something moves past the window. Something headed toward the trailer.

“Stay put kid, we got company.”

I break for the door so quickly I nearly knock the thing off its hinges on my exit. Night air rakes my body with icy claws. The flashlight trembles as I shine it upon the four figures standing quietly in the middle of the clearing, their bodies motionless as the pylons of Stonehenge. Three of the shadowy intruders wear long sack coats and trapper hats, the uniform of loggers from a bygone era. Their eyes shine like obsidian buttons above stiff, mossy beards. The fourth figure is clad in animal skins. The tall antlered headdress leaves little doubt as to his identity.

“Easy, Cochise,” I stammer, “Let’s talk like civilized men.”

Scarecrow Jim points at me and the woodsmen advance. Their movements are rigid as if they’ve been crouching too long in the forest. I train the gun on the closest one praying my numb hand will keep steady.

“Let’s not make this messy, guys.”

I may as well be talking to the snowbanks. The trio continues their awkwardly mechanical approach. I pull the trigger. The pistol jumps as it vomits fire and lead. I keep pulling until I hear the feverish clicks of the hammer striking nothing over the sharp ringing in my ears.

The lead man takes a dive into the powder, limbs flailing like an overturned crab. To my surprise the other two stay the course instead of high-tailing into the woods. I’m wondering whether these mugs are fearless or simply heartless when the downed man begins struggling back to his feet.

A frantic cackle leaps to my throat. Pitching the gun I unsheathe my knife as another woodsman steps close enough for me to see the frost twinkling in his chin whiskers. I lunge, striking like a viper. The blade hits something solid near his ribs and veers off at an angle shearing fabric and flesh. Two more thrusts yield the same result. It’s like trying to stab through a cutting board.

The lumberman grabs my shoulder with a grip fortified by a lifetime of swinging axes and plows my nose with his free hand. My body slams into the side of the trailer with an impact that sends arcs of lightning across my vision.

Survival instinct takes over and I bounce back to my feet. I hack like a butcher on my assailant. Each fall of the blade tears off strips of his clothing and flesh. To my horror I see the pale pattern of wood-grain in the cuts where blood should be welling up. A second lumberjack approaches from the left and I swivel to face him. My blade slashes across his torso only once before Susan tackles me from behind. It doesn’t matter; I feel the blade deflect as it strikes an unyielding surface below the man’s clothing. There is no time for me to break free of Susan’s surprisingly firm grip. Fierce blows rain down from above, each striking with the force of a billy-club. I shriek with unhinged laughter until the darkness claims me.

• • •

It turns out Sammy is alive, and will be for a long time. Yesterday he helped me break up the earth with a mattock and today he’s helping me dig my hole. Scarecrow Jim left two of the lumberjacks nearby, just in case I get the wise idea to split. A good call, since running was my first thought after awakening in this secluded section of woods. That panic eventually gave way to the constant but dull thrum of terror still gripping my intestines. I cope by focusing solely on digging and praying that soon I’ll be too deep to see my surroundings.

“It’s not bad,” Sammy says, “You won’t feel anything. You’ll drink powerful medicine on the night of the joining.”

“You mean the night you freaks bury me alive? When these demon trees tap my body with their roots like I’m a cheap bag of fertilizer?”

He gives me a vacant stare, a common response since our reunion. Sammy may have endured a transformation but he’s not going to be building rocket ships any time soon. If I keep my marbles through the joining process I’ll count myself lucky.

“It’s not dying,” he says, “You pass into darkness for a time, but then awaken. You will always awaken as long as the trees remain, even if your body’s destroyed.”

The mere mention of them sends a shiver through me. I pitch my spade into the frozen earth and try not to think of those foul plants looming above us. I can still see them, fleshy pods hanging from their boughs like misshapen cones. Walking under those unwholesome seeds I found that each bore the dwarfish and misshapen features of fetal humans upon them. The sight of those embryonic monstrosities dangling there was enough to send me howling at the moon. I believed I was hallucinating until one of the things opened a soulless black eye.

“Guess it’s my lucky day.”

Sammy doesn’t laugh. He affixes me with another blank stare and shovels icy mud over his shoulder. An hour passes before we speak again.

“You’ll live for a long time, in harmony with this place. The lumbermen have for decades, the tribesmen for millennia, and Scarecrow Jim from time immemorial.” His gaze wistfully sweeps the horizon.

My eyes stay low as I empty another shovelful of dirt from my grave. I can’t stand thinking about those dangling abominations, ripening and waiting to drop. Every time my eyes fall on them I picture my own mug poking out of a pod up there and it makes me want to chew my arms off. If my old cellmate Vance could see me now he’d bust a gut. Nature adapts to the new paradigm all right, just sometimes it isn’t humanity at the steering wheel.

“What about Susan?” I ask, “You spoke of settling down and having a family.”

“Susan is already joined”

“I know, dingbat, she tackled me while those pine-cone goons knocked the stuffing out of me. What I’m saying is don’t you want more from life than this?”

Another vapid stare, we continue digging in silence. One more day of toiling and my hole should be deep enough for the trees to reach me. After that it’s light’s out till springtime, I’m told. I take one more stab at conversation when the sun dips behind a western slope.

“It’s not right, taking folks and using them to protect these trees … even if they make your body hard as wood and regrow it a thousand times. It’s still kidnapping.”

“How many of the trees’ children have we taken for our own purposes? Our services are repaid with immortality. What reward do we offer the children of trees?”

Before I can reply a thickly accented voice calls from the edge of the pit.

“Hey, greenhorn, smile for the camera.”

I look up as Scarecrow Jim snaps a shot of me down in the mud, shovel thrust in the ground beside me. Idly I wonder who will receive the picture. The joke is on him, I don’t think anyone cares enough to search for a washed-up safe-cracker like me. The thought makes me chuckle as an arctic breeze sweeps down from the ridgeline.

I shiver in the cold.

D. Morgan Ballmer is an occasional writer whose love of weird fiction inevitably led to the creation of “That Old Family Tree.” His other literary works lurk quietly in unmarked graves awaiting the appointed time when dread things shall arise and reveal themselves to the living. He resides in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and daughter where he holds the esteemed title of ‘Tallest Family Member.’

Issue 25

July 2014

3LBE 25

Front & Back cover art by Rew X