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October 31, 2023

The Devil Tree

Max Zell

My dad had this trick where he’d ride around on an upside-down chainsaw like a unicycle. He said he’d learned it in his old life working as an arborist with my mom. I’d watch and cheer him on as he zipped around the yard, cutting down the crawling roots and kicking up mud and grass.

The roots of the devil tree were always popping out of the yard and slithering toward our house. My mom was the one who had named it the devil tree, because the huge wooden tendrils of the thing always seemed to grow back the quickest around Halloween.

My dad always told me that if I thought his chainsaw tricks were impressive, then I should’ve seen my mom’s. She used flap two together like wings and fly.

“Did she catch birds like that?” I asked.

“She’d cut them right out of the sky,” he said, a wild glimmer in his eye. “I’d kill for some of your mom’s wild bird soup again.”

I could barely remember my mother’s face, and my dad had never believed in photographs. I was terrified of forgetting her.

“Can you teach me to fly? Like mom?”

He put his hand on my head. “When you’re old enough. Then I’ll show you the world beyond the roots.”

Only my dad was allowed to go into town for supplies, because only he was allowed to use the chainsaw. If I strayed too far from the house, an impenetrable wall of roots would rise and block my path.

One day, right around Halloween, my dad nodded off in the grass after a long day of cutting back the encroaching roots. I snuck up and grabbed the chainsaw, then locked myself inside. It took a few tries, but I taught myself to ride it just like my dad. I got carried away and tried to master figure eights, but in doing so I’d cut deeper and deeper into the floor until I’d inadvertently carved out a hole.

I fell deep into the basement that I never knew we had.

I pushed myself off the ground and onto my knees, coughing as the chainsaw rattled next to me. The earth was damp and sticky. The echo from the chainsaw rang out, and as my eyes adjusted, I realized that the basement was larger than our entire house. Thousands of dangling roots hung from the cavernous ceiling.

Then, clear as day, I saw the face I’d been struggling so hard to remember. My mother hung high above the ground, a bundle of roots plunging into her back and erupting from her pale decrepit chest. The chainsaw puttered and ran out of gas. The roots in my mother twitched, then her whole body lurched forward as she was carried toward me. Her bloodshot eyes opened slowly. Blood dripped from her face onto mine and ran down my cheek.

Her lips curled into a smile.

“Are you ready to learn how to fly?” she asked.