Fiction by Jeff Fleischer

The Midnight Tree

I don’t know when people started calling it the midnight tree, but throughout my childhood I never heard it called anything

It was an oak tree, one thicker around the middle than any other I’ve seen. Its base spread out like melted candle wax, and some of the lines in the bark looked like they’d run uninterrupted for centuries. The branches were strong enough to hold any of the kids who climbed the tree on warm summer days.

Nobody climbed it at night. Nobody even went near it at night. That was part of the superstition.

Right down to the name, Newport, the place where I grew up was your typical New England town. Lots of Cape Cod houses, some original and some made to recapture that look, mixed in with a few ranch homes developers put in a couple decades before I was born. Lots of families there could trace their roots back through whaling days and past the revolution to colonial times. My great-great-great grandfather bought our house during the Panic of 1893—and we were still talked about as one of the “new” families.

Also like a lot of towns around us, ours preserved a handful of its original buildings. An area on the edge of town, about three of our normal blocks, was fenced off with wooden pickets too tall for most people to step over, but short enough that we could always see the buildings inside.

Just past the gate sat the first town hall, which could only hold about thirty people at a time. Nearby was a log building the early townspeople used for storing extra grain in case of a bad winter. Behind that was the belltower. It was so thin that only one person could fit inside, and the only one who ever did was the poor maintenance guy who had to climb the tower every few years to replace the battery in the little mechanism that rang the bell six times every day, at noon and at midnight. A bellringer used to do it manually, but the town council voted years back to allow one merciful piece of automation.

The first schoolhouse was also there. The interior had been fixed up to look like it originally would have, but with chairs and desks new enough that they wouldn’t fall apart during our school’s annual field trips. One day every year, the social studies teachers taught class there, and did their best to replicate the experience. We had to use an outhouse if we needed facilities, so most of us held it. The boys and girls were taught in separate classrooms that day, and the teachers would remind us how lucky we were to live in a time when girls could be educated at all. The slates we had to write on with chalk always screeched horribly, making my whole spine clench.  

Technically, the old part of town wasn’t completely fenced in. There was fencing on three sides, but the end farthest from the rest of town backed up all the way to the woods. That’s where the midnight tree sat, dead center in the first group of oaks. Much bigger than any of the others around it, it looked like someone had placed it there by accident. Or, more likely, as if it was the last survivor of some primeval forest now surrounded by subpar replacements.

There were supposedly a few Native American stories about the midnight tree, and we all heard them. They always felt more like ghost stories that somebody just slapped with a Narragansett or Pequot label to try to make them seem older or more authentic. Anytime we had a campout or sleepover as kids, someone’s dad would inevitably spin some version his dad had told him, and the details always changed with the teller.

One involved a thief hanged from the tree, whose restless spirit still haunts the area. Another popular one said animals wouldn’t go near the tree because it’s where precolonial people used to offer crops and meat to the spirit world. Another featured a Hessian who hid inside the bole and died there, and claimed generations of wildlife had developed a taste for human flesh because their ancestors sampled his remains. There were dozens of others. Obviously, even the most popular stories could contradict one another, which didn’t help any of them feel like the gospel truth.

The consistent element in all these stories was whatever happened always happened at midnight. Whether that was the cause of the tree’s moniker, or a result of it, nobody really knew.

As kids, most of us were terrified of going into the woods at midnight. We treated that little fenced-in part of town like bad luck incarnate. Newport made it hard enough to venture out at night, since anyone under eighteen had a curfew of nine on weeknights and eleven on Friday and Saturday. You could be at a late dinner with your parents, or you could sleep over at a friend’s house, and nobody would bother you. But any kids in public without an adult past curfew ran the risk of the police picking them up. The fine went to your parents, but that only gave them more reason to ground you or take away your TV privileges.

Despite all that, every so often, one of our classmates would try to find out what happened to the tree at midnight.

In fifth grade, Barry Cobb climbed out his window one Friday night with his sleeping bag and tried to camp out in the woods. His parents figured it out as soon as they saw the pillows he’d haphazardly arranged under his blanket. They found him wrapped in his sleeping bag, sound asleep, in the woods around eleven. He slept the whole car ride home.

Two years later, Suzie and Reggie Hamilton made a big deal that they were going to climb the tree at midnight. It wasn’t all the twins talked about in the weeks before school ended, but it ate up most of their oxygen. They knew their parents had a wedding on the first Saturday night of summer, and were sure they could sneak out under the nose of an unsuspecting babysitter.

They were right. Where it went wrong was climbing the tree. Reggie lost his footing and landed hard, crushing his left leg under the rest of his body weight. Suzie was always the more responsible of the two. She got her brother to his feet and supported him on the slow walk back to Hanover Street, where she called an ambulance from the payphone at our only all-hours gas station. They were both grounded for a month once their parents got them home, and Reggie’s cast meant he was effectively grounded a few weeks beyond that, almost until school started again.

As you might expect, Reggie breaking his leg became part of how we all talked about the midnight tree. Never mind that he was always a bit clumsy; the tree had to be the reason he fell. After that, nobody dared try again.

Not until Matt Johnson during our junior year. Honestly, most of us had stopped thinking about the midnight tree by the time high school started; it felt like something childish to put away, and there was dating to be done and colleges to choose. The Johnsons, however, were new in town. Not new like my family; they inherited a house in Newport and moved in that summer. I guess the tree still had some novelty for them.

Matt was a nice kid, but he was quiet. Not shy, just the type who didn’t say much. He played sports, got good grades, and always had people to sit with at lunch, but he always seemed on the periphery of every group. We were all surprised when, on an otherwise insignificant Thursday in May, he told us he’d ventured out the night before to see the tree at midnight. We peppered him with questions but, true to form, he wouldn’t say much. He mostly grinned and said nothing bad happened. He said “nothing bad” often enough that something clearly happened, but we had no luck getting the details out of him.

I thought he seemed different afterward, but not in a way I could easily describe. At the time, I assumed it was just viewing him in a new light; he had guts I hadn’t expected. I know better now.

Word of his exploits got around, of course, and one of our class bullies, Tommy Wilkins, decided to beat the full story out of Matt. The first time, he and his friends jumped Matt on his walk home. They tackled him and punched him in the stomach over and over until a police siren made them scatter. Another time, Tommy punched Matt hard in the cafeteria during lunch, sneaking up to our table and hitting the side of Matt’s head when he wasn’t expecting it. He threatened to keep doing it until Matt told him what happened, and got three more hard punches in before Coach Rooks broke it up. Matt came away with a black eye, but never told Tommy anything except to perform an anatomically impossible act.

The Johnsons moved a few weeks later, just after school ended for the year. My father said the upkeep on the house was too expensive for them. When I biked by their place that summer, I noticed somebody had nailed two pieces of wood over the front door and painted them with the word “abandoned.”

That was the last time anyone I knew did anything involving the midnight tree. I didn’t think much about it for years after that.

Like most of my classmates, I didn’t hang around long after graduation. I wanted to try something new, and went to film school in California. After a few years barely eking out a living, I traded the west coast for business school in Philly and summer internships in New York. Most of my thirties were spent living and working in Boston, which only furthered my transformation into a city dweller.

Of course, I came back to Newport during breaks at school, and for holidays or short visits as an adult. It wasn’t until I moved back permanently two years ago that I settled again into Newport life. My parents had been thinking about retirement for some time, and wanted me to take over the house where I’d grown up. The financial details aren’t important to the story, but instead of me buying a place of my own—which would have been impossible in the city—they just gave me the old house and I bought them a small cottage near the coast of South Carolina where they could retire.

Nothing in New England is too far from anything else, so returning to Newport didn’t stop me from meeting with clients, even as I shifted to working mostly from home. As much as I thought I’d miss living in the city, I liked being back. The house was familiar and comfortable, and close enough to the quaint town center that I could run most errands on foot.

That’s how I started seeing one of my former classmates, Jenna. I ran into her one afternoon at the grocery store, where she was running the service desk. I remembered she’d worked in the deli department during summers in college, and she returned to that port when she lost her job during the recession. After a few rounds of nostalgic small talk at the store, we shared a long walk around town one night when her shift ended, and went out often after that.

It didn’t take me long to realize how much I’d missed the pace of life here. How at five I could take a bike ride around town without contending with much traffic. Or getting carryout from the same pizzeria or sub shop where I ate in high school, since big chains weren’t coming here to shut out the local places. How by the time darkness fell almost everyone was home for the night, watching TV or maybe having a few friends over to play games or cards. Things are simpler, and in a lot of ways better.

I guess it was only a matter of time before I started thinking about the midnight tree again.

Midnight for most of my adult life didn’t have any special connotation. If I saw it on a weeknight, it usually meant I was overdue in bed, and on weekends it usually passed with me out somewhere. But biking past the preserved part of old Newport reminded me of a time when midnight seemed forbidden and mysterious.

When Friday arrived, I had dinner with Jenna, but told her that I needed to take care of something once we were done. Knowing my energy level isn’t what it was before I moved home, I relaxed in front of the TV for a couple of hours, but set an alarm to make sure I didn’t accidentally fall asleep.

Just after eleven, I was walking to the edge of town where the midnight tree lived. I had my backpack, with a few granola bars and water, and a flashlight just in case. A police car drove by and I briefly froze, before remembering that curfew doesn’t matter for someone my age.

I got to the old part of town with at least twenty minutes to spare. The gate was locked, but the pickets that once seemed imposing were short enough that I could swing my legs over with a little hop. The way that strained my muscles was another reminder that I wasn’t a kid anymore. But I walked it off. 

The tree was still there. It had grown even wider in the decade and a half since I last saw it. I thought about a long-ago school field trip to the forest preserve, where Mrs. Spalding showed us how to tell a tree stump’s age by counting the rings, and wondered how many rings one would find inside the midnight tree.

With a little time to spare, I sat cross legged on the grass in front of the tree, looking up at it. This far back from the road, there was complete silence of a kind I hadn’t heard since camping on my classmates’ lawns. There was something eerie about it, something that grew more intense the longer it lasted. I didn’t know what I was going to see, but time dragged as I waited for it.

From the trees to my left, I heard a rustling sound. I looked up to see a trio of gray squirrels on a branch. All three of them scampered toward the end of the limb and stopped, all facing the midnight tree. While I was watching them, I started hearing similar noises all around me. I could smell the skunks that emerged from the thicket, and did my best to stay still so as not to scare them and earn a helping of their scent. Before long, I was surrounded on all sides by everything from deer to raccoons to chipmunks, all of them standing still and facing the tree.

The whole thing felt wrong, and I would have run if I wasn’t so determined to avoid an animal attack by hiding motionless in plain sight. I heard more noises behind me, giving me chills worse than those from the slate chalk. Before I could turn to see the culprit, a louder noise crashed my train of thought.

The bell in the old tower. Midnight.

As soon as the bell first chimed, my gaze fell on the tree as if it was magnetic. For the time it took that bell to ring six times, I stared right at the tree. I don’t remember anything unusual or compelling about it. Nothing happened, but the way it held my attention made it seem like nothing else in the world mattered. And when the bell finished its last ring, I blacked out.

I woke up the next morning on the grass under the midnight tree, with the sun’s rays hitting my face through the forest canopy. There were no animals around, except for some birds singing in the trees, and the silence of the night before had been replaced with the low roar of cars on the other side of the fence. I was badly in need of a shower, but otherwise no worse for wear. I gathered my backpack and hopped back over the pickets.

As I walked home, I realized why Matt Johnson had told us so little about what happened, because I couldn’t describe it well either. But it only took a few days for me to understand it wasn’t only our perception of Matt that had changed after he visited the midnight tree. Something about him was different.

I know because something about me is different. And I can’t explain why.

Since that night, small things have happened. Since I was a child, raccoons made periodic visits to my family’s trash cans, and cleaning up after them became a frequent chore. Not anymore. They stay away from my house. So do the rabbits that used to treat my modest vegetable garden as a buffet. The squirrels have even stopped trying to climb into my bird feeder. It feels as if the local wildlife and I now share some secret we won’t risk revealing, and they give me a wide berth.

There are other changes too. I never had a poor sense of direction, but it’s become impeccable. No matter where I am, I can just feel the cardinal directions, like a finely tuned compass. My sense of smell feels different too, as if my nose had always been stuffy before. The changes aren’t obvious, nothing people can see. I’ve gone back to the midnight tree twice since then, wondering if it might change me back, but the experience was exactly the same. No matter how hard I tried to stay alert, I blacked out on the sixth ringing of the bell and woke up in the same spot on the ground the next morning. I see no reason to keep trying.

The biggest change, though, comes at midnight. No matter how tired I am or how early I go to sleep, at exactly midnight I wake up with a shot and stare in the direction of the midnight tree for a few seconds. It doesn’t matter where I am, or whether I can hear the bell. When I travel out of state for work, or even when I visit my parents down south, the same thing happens. At midnight I’m awake, facing the tree. It happens at eleven during the winter months; whatever did this to me doesn’t acknowledge daylight savings. It’s something far too old for that.

Lately I’ve started staying up later, writing in my journal until the midnight hour breaks my concentration, so that this involuntary ritual doesn’t interrupt my sleep or disturb Jenna. Of course, she’s aware that I wake up in the middle of the night, but she doesn’t know it’s every night. Besides, I haven’t been able to explain the reason. I don’t know if she’d believe me, and part of me is afraid to find out.

The truth is, I don’t know why the midnight tree calls me every night. I’m not sure if it will ever stop, or if that’s even possible. I know only that I will never again go to the midnight tree. And I will warn anyone who suggests doing so to leave well enough alone.


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