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The Sturgeon Tree

Larry Wentzel

The young man walked the path through the woods, jumping at every frog’s call or owl’s hoot. The warm, dank air reeked of the swamp that came to the very edge of the narrow track. The only the intermittent glow of the full moon as it passed in and out of the clouds lit his way. The phosphorescent glow of decay shone without illuminating its surrounding. Occasionally the frogs and the owls would fall silent, and the boy would strain his ears to hear something in the deafening silence. With extreme care he placed each foot on the path, making no noise himself

John would have preferred a clearer night, but this was the first full moon after midsummer, called the Sturgeon Moon. His only chance to become a member of the Sturgeons; the group which ruled the little community that surrounded John. This night’s ritual was his final test.

Once a year, a single person had the chance to visit the tree in the light of the Sturgeon’s moon. The Sturgeon’s tree was unique, and ancient beyond imagination. Its tortured trunk twisted and bent almost to the ground. Deep cracks in the wood reached in farther than the length of John’s arm. He had seen the tree during the brighter light of the day. It was scary enough then. Now, John’s knees were already shaking, and he had only made half the trek to the tree.

A frog jumped into the slime of the swamp, releasing stinking bubbles. John started and almost missed his footing. The bog had no bottom here that anyone had discovered. A fall could mean he would join those who never returned from this quest. He took a brief moment to breathe deeply of the rank air before moving on.

As he penetrated deeper into the woods, the light became worse. While the sky had cleared the trees had thickened, hogging more of the light for themselves. Now vines hung like gargantuan spider webs, and moss dripped fetid liquid on his head. Just as the moon reached its zenith, John arrived at the clearing where the Sturgeon Tree stood. It shivered and contorted in a wind that blew in some other universe. Branches scraped at the mucky soil, and roots lifted and quested like snakes. Cold phosphors gleamed from deep with the tree. It creaked and groaned with an animal agony.

Now was the true test. He untied a ribbon from his wrist. It looked black in the moonlight, but John knew that it was scarlet, with darker red from his own blood smeared upon it. This ribbon was his offering to the tree. He watched the writhing limbs until one errant branch came close to his feet. He darted in and looped the ribbon around the wood. It slashed at him and scraped his arm from elbow to wrist, but John scrambled back out of reach. The tree paused for a second, then leaned and grasped with its whole twisted length at the boy. He squeaked and rolled back out of reach, not caring what black water was darkening his clothes. He caught a vine and used it to pull himself to his feet.

He had been told to offer the ribbon, then leave, but John was mesmerized by the awful movement. Creaks and snaps sounded loud as thunder while the tree seemed to tear itself apart. Then it did tear, decaying light poured from its centre as a hand thrust itself through the bark. Sap, black as blood in the moonlight dripped from fingers that grasped at the blooded ribbon. A face followed the hands and John looked at his own face, fanged and evil. He whimpered and the tree-John looked at him and smiled.

John screamed and ran crashing, uncaring back along the path. Yet even in the tumult, he heard the sound of footsteps gaining on him.