by Mark Poe

My hands cradled my head as I stared at the black starlit night, searching for answers to questions I was terrified to ask. I had escaped the guilty barrage of vulgar insults into the rural quietness of my yard. The small towns were pinpointed by the lights   within glow distance of my country home in Poplar Ridge, AR. My community was a center blip in three triangular points of nowhere. These concentrated lights meant that the local Little League teams were playing night games against other small Northeastern Arkansas towns. There were dads coaching, grandpas and uncles umping the bases and moms doing their best to scream their small sons and daughters into greatness. The only sounds around me were tree frogs and the incessant buzzing of mosquitoes in my ear, rivaled only by the numbing hum with lost scenes of my childhood of when I was an active participant in those rituals replaying in my head. My whole inner being was in a constant turmoil with the stress of my everyday life. The addiction had hit hard. My sweet wife, Laci Lee, the absolute love of my life, was caught in the downward swirl of the pills. They had consumed her to the point that fantasy had won the battle with reality, in her mind. I knew of two paths that had to be traveled to get the result I needed for my kids and me and neither was comforting. It was the witching hour and it was time. I knew she had taken her hourly allotment and would be asleep.

As I quietly slipped the door open to the den, I noticed my two girls, Rena, who was 9, and seven-year-old Jena, had retreated to their rooms and Laci was floating in her opioid-induced dreamland. The pill bottle was still in the top of her purse by the couch, where she lay. I eased it out and made my way to the door. Once outside, I stopped by the barn and picked up my shovel. I went to the edge of the yard and dug a small six-inch-deep hole. After popping the lid off the bottle, I watched in the moonlight, as half of my last paycheck, disguised as Xanax and Hydrocodone, settled into the still cool dirt of the late June night. The dirt was patted back into place and the plug of grass replaced on top.  When I reached the concrete patio, I stomped the empty bottle with the heel of my boot. There would be no more devils let loose from that Hell.

I was dressed at first light and ready to head out to work. Locking the door behind me, my eyes inadvertently cut towards the scene of the burying and a curious sight grabbed my attention. There seemed to be a bush growing out of the hole. “This isn’t possible,” I thought to myself.  It wasn’t there last night and unless I had miscalculated my steps in the darkness, it was growing from the very spot I had deposited the poison. Once closer, I realized it was a small tree that had a solid stalk and finger-like limbs off the main trunk that split into even smaller branches, with tiny buds on the ends. It was unlike any I had encountered in my years spent in the surrounding wood lots. It was puzzling as to how it was possible that this tiny tree could have grown that quickly. The many buds on the end of the limbs looked as though they were ready to bloom, but how? The spring bloom was over and who ever heard of a plant of any kind blooming that quick? It simply wasn’t possible.

The day at work was agonizingly slow. My mind was totally consumed by the tree growing at the edge of my yard. I shared the photo with some friends of mine and they all agreed that they had never seen anything with such rapid growth potential. We talked about the possibility of the chemicals from the surrounding farmland; we talked about how the septic system could have created a mineral-rich pocket that would allow for an intense cellular growth. Most of our ideas had been passed on through the viewing of either the Twilight Zone or some low budget “B” horror movie. My friends, Dave and Josh, decided to follow me home so they could see firsthand that this alien plant was real, and mainly to verify that I wasn’t going crazy. We were completely astonished at the sight that awaited us when we pulled into my driveway. The tree had grown to around 10 feet tall and spread out like a weeping willow. The amazing thing was not the tree, but the horde of people standing around picking something off the ends of the branches. There were some local people I knew, some friends of my wife, and then some who I had never seen. Dave, Josh and I took off in that direction to clear the grounds. As we approached, the majority of the folks scattered like feral cats. One gentleman decided he was not ready to go and proceeded to tell me, in close proximity to my face, to fornicate myself, because he was not leaving. I decided against his proposition and promptly set him on his ass with a swift left jab. He instantly had a change of heart and slinked out of the yard like windblown trash.

Dave ran up and asked, “What the hell was all that about? Man, what are you not telling us? We thought this was just a big joke. Have you seen what they were getting off that tree?”

I made my way over and stood as mystified and speechless as a child who sees fireworks for the first time. Tears began filling my eyes, when the reality of my attempt to rid my family of this curse had resulted in me supplying every giver and taker around. What were once buds on the ends of the fingerling limbs, had bloomed into pills. Every limb produced a different variety. There were all sorts of anything that could dig claws into your soul and drag you into your own personal Hell. Josh and Dave were as unsure as I was as to what to do next. Obviously, it had to be taken down. This addiction tree would feed no more. It would be taken down, and now. I asked Dave and Josh to stay and they were more than willing to help in the destruction. The chainsaw was brought out and fired up. The trunk had zero heart. It was just a pulpy mush that frothed up off the chain of my saw. Once on the ground it was doused with gasoline. The match seemed to fly in slow motion towards the soaked addiction tree. Instantly, the single match became a roaring volcano of flame that erupted from the thickest foliage. As the flakes of bark fire flitted away skyward, twisting and turning for its momentary freedom, another body melded into our half circle, growing it to a four-count. It was Cherokee.

Cherokee Cotton was an old man who lived on the river. Not out of necessity, mind you, but by choice. He didn’t like the ways of the modern world or any of the people driving it. He would visit at my place and I at his. The visits here were his outreach to the world.

“Saw the black smoke and thought I better check it out. Why you wasting your time trying to burn that thing? It’ll never die, not that way,” he said.

“Wait, Cherokee, you’ve seen these before? You know what it is?” I asked.

“Sure do and I can tell you this, only one way to kill this tree and that’s by killing the root. Problem is, finding the root. I can help you, but I need to know the capabilities in your heart and mind. You come see me tomorrow and we’ll talk.”

“I’ll be down right after work,” I told him, unaware that wasn’t the plan in Cherokee’s mind.

“After work?” he exclaimed.  “You have no idea what in the Hell you’re dealing with, do you? Aren’t you tired of making excuses for that pill-head wife and dumpster fire of a marriage? Tired of every damn day having to haul the kids to your Mom’s house so they don’t see this crap? You be at my house first light and bring me a limb off that tree.”

“But we burned it already….”

“Yeah,” he laughed. “Just bring one off the next one.”