This week instead of Teaser Tuesday, I decided to reach into the big pile of ancient rejection letters and see what I would find. What I came up with this old slip, from a magazine called Pirate Writings, from none other than Tom Piccirilli, author of such atmospheric horror novels as A Choir of Ill Children and the on-my-Kindle, not-yet-read The Last Kind Words, currently on sale for $0.99 for the Kindle edition. (Marked down from $15. Really, Random House? $15 for an eBook?)
As I recall, and as can probably be gathered from that little snippet, the tree in “Graveyard Apples after Midnight” had sent its roots into the grave of a murder victim, whose semi-conscious spirit then took up residence in the tree. Not one of my better efforts, re-reading it now, but then, I pretty much always think that when I go back and look at an old story. (Crows and Dragon Stones excepted, of course.)
A long time standing, growing, cycles of light and dark nestled within cycles of cold and warm. Leaf and blossom bloom time itches, scratchy as they emerge. Then the apples form, limbs grow heavy, gradually lighten again as the fruit ripens and falls.
Through it all, he comes every night; comes and stands beneath the branches. His presence is icy. It makes the bark shrink, the leaves wither. He remains until dawn, when the sunlight chases him off. He never uses his knife.
The old wound hurts, there in the side, whenever he is nearby. It is always present, a dull intrusion, rough and ingrown; but when the chill settles in it feels like the blade when it first struck bone, before the darkness and the slow rebirth to light. Memory of that earlier life is dull, until the pain makes it vivid. Limbs quiver with the recollection of agony, and of something precious, lost.
Daylight now; and some other presence near the grave, within the circle of awareness. Not cold, but warm. Not him.
Ryan stomped on a fallen apple. It squished under his sneaker, putrid brown flesh spurting out to either side. He wiped his shoe off in the tall fescue. “Looks like brains,” he said.
“Yeah, Michael’s brains,” Gary said.
“Go to hell,” Michael said mildly.
Ryan squinted up into the branches. The sun was behind the tree, shining through the leaves, making them translucent and bright. Hanging fruit punctuated the greenery with dark spots. “Early for apples, isn’t it?”
“Good fertilizer,” Michael said.
“Yeah,” Gary said. “See how it’s growing over the tombstone? The roots opened the coffin and went into the body.” He smacked his lips. “Ate it right up.”
Ryan pictured a massive root shaped like a person, a corpse encased in a shell of wood. He ran his fingers along the edge of the headstone. Only a few inches protruded from the tree trunk. “Who’s buried here?”
Michael said: “Delbert.”
“A farmer who used to live up here. He went nuts and killed his family with an axe. They hung him right from this tree and buried him underneath it.”
“It’s true. Right, Gary?”
“Yep,” Gary said. “Only they did it wrong and he didn’t break his neck, so he hung for a long time. His face turned black, his tongue stuck out, he drooled all over, and he crapped his pants. And they didn’t even clean him up before they buried him.”
“Since you’re not from around here, we wouldn’t expect you to know about it,” Michael added.
After a moment, Ryan said: “You guys are demented.”
“They say if you climb the tree, you can hear Delbert’s ghost,” Michael said. “They say he’s inside the tree.”
“Sounds like grade school bullshit to me.”
“Yeah?” Michael said. “Then I dare you to climb it.”
“Sure, I’ll climb it.” Ryan grabbed a low branch with both hands. It creaked slightly under his weight as he pulled himself to a sitting position. From the branch he could see over the cemetery wall, across overgrown fields to a falling-down farmhouse. Delbert’s former residence, no doubt.
Gary said: “Climbing it in the daytime doesn’t count.”
Ryan looked down at them. “Why not?”
“Come on, who ever heard of a ghost that came out during the day?”
“Yeah, you have to climb it after midnight,” Michael said.
“Now you’re just making shit up.”
“Okay then,” Ryan said, “let’s all come back and climb it tonight.”
Gary and Michael exchanged a glance.
“Come on, this was your idea. You dared me to climb it. I’m daring you back.” Pause. “I mean, unless you’re scared or something.”
“I’m not scared,” Michael said.
“Me either,” Gary said.
“Then it’s settled,” Ryan said. “We’ll meet here at midnight.” He jumped off the branch. A single small, red apple dropped from the tree and rolled to a stop at Michael’s feet.
“Look,” Gary said. “The tree likes you.”
Michael kicked the apple and it hit Gary in the shin. “No, the tree likes you,” he said.
“Guys,” Ryan said gravely, “it’s just a tree.”
Darkness is a feeling similar to winter, but not quite the same; breathless, sluggish, the energy of daylight slowly draining. Night is when the life processes slow down, and sleep almost comes; almost.
He is out there, as always, standing beneath the branches; but he departs suddenly, much earlier than his accustomed time. It is not yet dawn. Why did he leave?
Warm bodies approach. Leaves quiver as illumination flicks over them. That explains his quick flight: the light frightened him away. He fears the light.
Clumsy movement up the trunk, weight settling onto branches. Sharp sting as an apple is plucked; a little bit of self removed.
Oh. He is not going to like that.
Not at all.
“Hey, you’re sitting on the same branch they hung Delbert from.”
Gary looked down at the tree limb, then at Michael. “How the hell would you know?”
“It’s the biggest one. It’s the one I would’ve used.”
“Well you weren’t there, so shut up.”
“What’s Delbert supposed to say, anyway?” Ryan asked. He sniffed the apple he had just picked. Tart. “Does he lead us to buried treasure or something?”
Michael said: “I don’t know. They say you can hear him talk, that’s all.”
“He probably just gurgles,” Gary said. He demonstrated, clutching his throat and making strangled noises.
“No, it’s more like this,” Michael said, imitating the gurgle but putting more phlegm into it.
“You guys are warped,” Ryan said, taking a bite of the apple. The flesh was hard and sour. He listened to Michael and Gary carrying on, trying to outdo each other with gags and retches. They were still at it when he finished the apple, so he threw it at them.
A cloud floated across the moon, dimming its light; the wind picked up, rattling the leaves. Movement drew Ryan’s gaze across the cemetery; but nothing was there. Some animal, maybe, or a bush waving in the breeze.
Wait. Someone was at the opposite end of the cemetery: a single, porous person, grey, alone. It crouched behind a weathered tombstone, watching them. As Ryan looked harder, he saw mist dribbling from the grave behind the figure, curling in tendrils to gather at its feet.
The lingerer’s gaze met Ryan’s. Its eyes were blank pits, like tunnels running forever into darkness. A slow, pencil-thin smile spread across its face. Ryan felt a spasm up his spine, as if someone had touched an ice cube to the small of his back, and looked away.
“What?” He realized that Michael and Gary were both standing on the ground.
“I said, are you gonna stay up there all night?” Michael shook his head. “Come out of the ozone, man. We’re leaving.”
“Sorry.” Ryan took another glance across the graveyard. The lurker was gone. He climbed out of the tree and joined the others. They had their flashlights on. They had both brought big industrial-strength lights, but the best Ryan had found was a penlight that fit in his pocket. He didn’t bother using it as they began walking through the cemetery.
A low, thin mist had begun to ooze from the graveyard earth, teasing the bottoms of their flashlight beams, swirling around their shins as they walked. It reminded him of what he had seen rising from the grave across the cemetery. “See? I told you there wasn’t any ghost,” Ryan said; it came out too severe, and he worried they would think he was trying to convince himself instead of them.
“Maybe he was scared of your ugly face,” Gary said.
“Maybe he was scared of …” Ryan trailed off. The lingering figure had returned; it crouched behind a crooked headstone not far away, pale fingers curled over the marker, peering at them from around the side. The black pits of its eyes were wide and round. Ryan put a hand protectively over his stomach, then wondered why.
“Scared of what?” Gary prompted.
Ryan blinked. The figure was gone; no one was there. The mist seeped slowly out of the earth. “Nothing. We should go.”
They climbed over the cemetery wall. The steep hill dropped off on the other side, sloping down to the dark wall of the woods. Ryan paused there, fighting an urge to flee headlong into the forest, to just run and run—
“Mary … where are you going?”
Ryan turned to the others. “Who said that?”
Gary looked at him. “Who said what?”
“Don’t answer him, dope,” Michael said. “He’s just trying to freak us out.”
“You won’t get away from me, Mary.”
Ryan whirled. Threads of mist had slithered throughout the cemetery, flowing between the tombstones, settling into the hollows formed by sunken graves. It gathered against the wall, slowly rising, dribbling between the loosely-stacked stones like water flowing through the cracks in a dam.
A sudden sharp pain in his stomach doubled him over and for a moment he thought he would pass out, sprawl face-down in the gully and slide into the forest.
“Ryan? You okay?” He couldn’t tell who had spoken. The voice was unknown, unfamiliar.
He gulped air, tore at the grass with his fingers. He heard his friends talking, their voices muffled and indistinguishable:
“What’s he doing?”
“Maybe he’s choking. Do that thing.”
“The choking thing!”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
The pain abated somewhat, allowing Ryan to roll onto his side. Gary and Michael eyed him dubiously, obviously unsure if he was conning them. “You through?” Michael said.
The lingerer stood on the opposite side of the wall.
Its features were vague and grey, as if it were made of the surrounding mist. Only its eyes were distinct: spots of midnight anchored in the fog of its face. Its gaze was fixed on Ryan.
It hated Ryan.
“What’re you gawking at?” Gary said.
Ryan thought he was going to say he didn’t know, but instead he said, “Delbert.”
“Right,” Gary said after a moment. “Lemme guess, he’s coming to kill us all with his axe.” He turned to face Delbert, though obviously he couldn’t see the apparition. “Come on, Delbert! Come out of there and get us!”
A leer flashed across the phantom’s face; a leer that took up its entire head.
Delbert began climbing over the wall. The mist rose up and spilled over the stone like a wave surging across a levee.
Ryan scrambled to his feet and raced down the hill.
Roots, buried in the warm moist dark, first sense the change: the acid-sour flavor drains from the soil like so much vinegar. Then the leaves taste a new, odd freshness in the air.
He has left the graveyard, gone in pursuit, chasing the little piece of self that was taken. He feels its escape. He won’t let even that small bit get away; he will bring it back. He will use his knife.
Leaves shudder in the still air.
Nothing to do but wait, while it happens again.
They were chasing him, crashing through the brush without even trying to be quiet. Ignorant of the danger, they would lead Delbert right to him.
The pain in his abdomen hit again and he fell writhing to the ground. It felt like his stomach was going to burst. A scream escaped his lips despite his efforts to choke it back.
Gary and Michael appeared from the trees, flashlight beams slashing the dark like futile sabres. “Where the hell are you going?” Michael said, panting.
Ryan looked up at them. Two strangers. He shut his eyes tight, opened them again. Not strangers; his friends. He pressed his hands to his stomach as more pains shot from it, radiating up his chest and across his back. They came in waves, a few seconds apart, hitting more and more rapidly.
In the distance, the graveyard mist rolled forward, trailing capelike behind Delbert as he strode through the trees.
“Keep him away from me!” Ryan cried. His voice sounded strange in his ears, hardly like his voice at all. Gary and Michael looked at each other. Gary said something, but Ryan couldn’t hear it over the roaring of his blood. He tried to stand, but his legs were jelly and the best he could do was prop himself up against a tree. A short, sharp branch jabbed him painfully in the side.
The mist rolled in, sheets of it, surrounding them. It blotted out the forest. The pain in Ryan’s stomach reached a crescendo, then quickly faded to a dull throb; a swelling nausea took its place, a fear of being caught by something dread and vengeful. He drew his knees up to his chest, looking this way and that.
He was here somewhere, hiding in the fog.
“Cripe, this is thick,” Gary said.
Michael said: “Can we go now?”
Delbert stepped out of the mist behind them, grey and vague, black eyes and smile punctuating his face. He held a long, curved, cloudy blade, drawn back, ready to strike at Michael’s back.
“Watch out!” Ryan shouted.
With a casual sweep of his arm Delbert drove the knife into Michael’s spine. The pallid tip emerged from the center of his chest, then vanished as Delbert yanked it out. Michael crumpled to the ground.
Gary turned. “Michael?”
As Delbert stepped up to him, Gary raised his flashlight and pointed it at Michael. The beam of illumination crossed Delbert’s side, tearing into him like a physical weapon. Clots of mist swirled away to rejoin the enshrouding cloud. The phantom’s pencil smile flattened into a grimace; he lunged and slashed. Gary staggered back, gurgling, scrabbling at his throat. He dropped the flashlight as he fell. It struck a rock, flared, and died.
Delbert stood over the bodies a moment, then turned and walked up to Ryan. “You thought you could hide from me, Mary?” he said. His voice was thin and strained, as if it had been caught and stretched and dried in the sun like leather. “You thought I wouldn’t find out?”
“Go away, leave us alone,” Ryan said. The words surprised him, as if he were listening to someone else speak.
“Whoring around with the help. I’d ask you the daddy’s name but you probably don’t know it, spreading your legs for anything wearing pants.”
Delbert lunged, but not to strike with his knife; instead he made as if snatching something away from Ryan. He withdrew, cradling his prize—a fluffy ball of mist—in the crook of his arm.
“Don’t you hurt him!” Ryan shouted.
His black eyes cold and bottomless, Delbert hooked the curved blade into the cradled fog and slit it like a loaf of bread. Mist dribbled to the ground; for an instant it was blood, bright and red, flowing from a murdered infant. He tossed the phantom child aside like a dead rabbit and it vanished.
He looked back at Ryan. “You’ll come home with me now, Mary, and we’ll forget this ever happened. No one will ever know what you did.”
“They’ll know what you did!” Ryan said. “I’ll tell them. I’ll tell everyone!”
Delbert came up close. “You’ll tell them, will you, Mary? You’ll tell them I killed my whore wife’s bastard son?” Delbert showed Ryan his hand. The phantom blade was long and curved. For a moment Ryan saw it as a real knife, an iron crescent set into a smooth-worn wooden handle. A farm implement, he thought. A sickle.
“You’ll never see the light of day again, Mary.”
That made Ryan remember the penlight in his pocket.
He’d been rushing through the forest in the dark, following a path that had led him not toward home, but away from it, deeper into the woods. Mary had selected the route, just as Mary had been speaking to Delbert. The pains in his stomach … maybe those had belonged to Mary, too. Labor pains.
Mary was going to get him killed.
It was time for Ryan to take charge again.
Delbert drew back the blade, held it with both hands and raised it over his head, readying a single blow to split Ryan’s skull. Ryan snatched the penlight out of his pocket, clicked it on, and shined it in the phantom’s face. The beam burned through Delbert’s head like a laser. Immobilized, the phantom stood with the blade upraised; his outlines blurred still more, sagged, began to flow. In seconds he was no longer recognizable as humanoid, but was just a shaggy blob; then even that cohesion was lost and he collapsed into a puddle of frothy mist that sank into the ground and vanished.
Ryan collapsed against the tree trunk, panting. He felt the snapped-off branch against his back again and, turning, discovered an ancient, rusted, pitted sickle deeply embedded in the tree. The remains of a wooden handle clung to the tang.
Mary must have died at the foot of this very tree.
He staggered to his feet and went to Gary, then to Michael. Both were breathing but unconscious. He shook Michael. “Wake up,” he said.
A hand grabbed his shoulder, hauled him to his feet, and spun him around. He caught a glimpse of grey as Delbert’s sickle flashed across his vision. The blade crashed into his skull between his eyes.
Autumn, late. The fruit has fallen, the leaves begun to drop as well, each little loss a pinch, a sting. Hours of light dwindle, hours of darkness swell; moving into his time, his season. He comes and stands and stares. The chill settles into the roots and gnaws there, even after he departs.
The wind gusts. Limbs knock against each other. More leaves lost: a slew of pinches.
A roar; a sharper pain suddenly, biting into the trunk, and a quick hot line traced all the way through. Then toppling over, hitting the ground, branches snapping like bones.
Darkness crowds in.
It’s the knife, all over again.
When the apple tree crashed down, Ryan cut the motor on the chainsaw and stood back to let Gary work on the stump, carving it by hand away from the tombstone. Michael had refused to help; he said he couldn’t even think about the graveyard without feeling the sickle stabbing through his heart. He warned them that if they came back, they would die.
They didn’t die; but the wounds had become more painful as they neared the cemetery. Ryan knew he could expect a migraine tonight, and Gary would probably spend the evening choking for air through his newly-diagnosed asthma. So maybe Michael had been the wisest after all.
At length Gary cleared away enough wood to reveal the epitaph on the marker. He stepped back and took a pull from his inhaler. The two of them stood side by side, looking at the inscription.
Mary O’Hara, Beloved Wife, 1910-1929.
Sean, Her Son, 1929.
The apple fell at the foot of the tree.
Gary said, “Well, is that what you expected?”
Ryan was silent for a moment.
“Just about,” he said.