It was the perfect tree for hanging. It shot straight up into the sky, all its branches uplifted like so many beggarly hands grasping at salvation. All except one, which ran in a perfectly perpendicular line to the ground some seven feet below.
The trees form and presence seemed almost divine. There was nothing but stubby grass for a mile square, and this was scorched and stunted, even during the spring thaw, when the melting snow caused the farmland to erupt with verdure. Some sparrow might have dropped the seed from which the tree sprang, but birds were never seen there, not even passing in flight way up in the swirling miasma of the iron sky.
It was if the land wasn’t part of reality, but a moment suspended and plucked out of time: the frozen, still image of a snapshot. Even the wind seemed to shun the place; the few limpid strands of wilted grass that raised their blades above the barren landscape never so much as swayed.
The old farmhouse standing on a ridge a half-mile off loomed on the horizon like a Gothic mausoleum. Typhoid had killed off the family so long ago that no one was sure whether such tragedy had actually occurred, or whether they had simply got tired of scratching a meager living from the blasted land and simply moved on.
The mystery surrounding the place didn’t stop the more imaginative minds in the village from talking. It wasn’t typhoid, they said, but a wasting disease, a plague, an Old-Testament style judgment upon the whole blood line’s wickedness. On moonless nights, they said, you can still hear the screams to Heaven.
Others disagreed and said the low moaning moaning which could sometimes distinctively be heard was the pleas for mercy shouted by the men who’d been hanged on the tree in ages past, when a kind of wild justice ruled.
The more rational members of the town scoffed and said it was just the creaking of the branches as they rubbed against each other. The sagest were those who’d ventured to the old farm and kept their tongues in check, for they shivered just to think how still the uppermost branches of the hanging tree had remained as the branches creaked.