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[The melancholy sound of guitar against a background devoid of other life, other rustle. As the music goes on, the sound of footfalls rising in the background emerges, conjuring a hoofed animal alone in the desert, the hush of its breath loud by contrast against shifting sand, or the stark black shape of a cripple-oak against a scalded sky so hot that it’s turned pale and unforgiving.] The path to the hanging tree proved far longer and windier than I expected. I came first to a tree in the center of town, but it stood bare of fire plums. I asked a passerby about the hanging tree and followed their directions, but that one also lacked the fruits. I then scrolled my phone for a clue which took me to yet another tree. [A hissing of dry leaf against leaf. Hands pawing through crispy debris, turning over the parched vegetation, digging through the litter. The sound of trees that have been thirsting for many seasons, as though the leaves are ready to fall off, to lay on the ground and be crushed into fine, brown dust.] Not a dangling or fallen fire plum in sight. I asked around and then walked to another and another and another. Finally, I stood at a withered and bare tree on the verge of giving up when a passing jogger called: “Hey, buddy. You lost or something?”
I observed him for a moment before I spoke. He was a bony fellow with red hair, these orange short shorts, and a loose-fitting white tank top. He looked to me almost like a flaming cigarette.
“I’m looking for the hanging tree,” I said.
“Ah, well, you go a mile south and take a left on Stonewall—”
“No, I’ve been to that one—”
“Okay, you must mean the one right there on Lee.”
“Does that one have fire plums? The one I’m talking about grows fire plums.”
“Ah, no. To get to that one you’ll want to go straight this way and it’s by Dustlands Park. You can’t miss it. It’s out there by itself, looks like it’s standing watch or something. Behind it, there’s this semi-circle of grass and then about twenty-five feet beyond that, they’ve got some trees standing like a bunch of soldiers at attention. Can’t miss it.”
I watched him for a moment. My tongue stilled. His eyes searching mine to see if I understood. “Goddamn,” I said, “how many fucking hanging trees y’all got?”
The man shrugged and continued his jog. [Bells and chimes in the distance, footsteps running off toward the horizon line. Then the roar of fire right next to your ear, behind your back, your face so hot it feels as though it is glowing. The sound growing louder each time you turn away from it.]
Finally, standing before the tree, I marveled at the treasure of purple fruit collected in its arms. The fire plums were dusted with white freckles that made each fruit appear to sparkle.
I felt as if I was being watched by something I couldn’t yet see. I heard a screeching in the distance, and the sound made me shudder. [Shrill, sharp cries swirl in the air. With their speed, their movement, it’s difficult to tell how many creatures there are, only that in their blurred unity they form an entity larger than any you’ve seen.]
Nevertheless, I moved closer to the tree, examining its bark—brown, swollen and knobbed like the hands of my grandmother. I snapped a fire plum from the branch. [A sharp, forceful crack, a snap like a bone. Have you ever heard a bone snapping and wondered if it was yours?]
“Ouch!” I heard a voice call from the tree.
I jumped in fright and dropped my fire plum to the ground, my eyes wide and jaw hanging open as if on slack hinges.
[A deep giggle rattles around in constricted space, like a stuck thing.] Laughter echoed from above and then all the nearby trees rattled with the fluttering of bird wings.
The smell of burning and charred flesh wafted through the air. [Roar, surge, flap and flutter. Fire roiling with an intensity that is almost liquid. The sound of the flame is like all insects moving at once, a terrible conflagration that forms a perfect circle, beginning again when it seems it should come to an end. The burning is a log that can never be consumed.] I gazed into the darkness of the vegetation beyond the hanging tree and soon there appeared a flaming man. He held his hand out to me and in it he clutched a fire plum.
Why I didn’t run I’ll never know. I found myself rooted in the spot as if I had become a tree. I didn’t reach for the fruit. It sat in the man’s blackened hands, bathed in flames. [A constant vertiginous roar, like the deeps opening up beneath your feet. The fire whirls all around, its rhythm as constant as the movement of the sea. Have you ever wondered why fire, when it surrounds you, sounds just like water? Why saltwater in the lungs burns like cool fire?]
“What?” he said. “You’ve never been to Burning Man?”
I couldn’t help laughing, and it seemed the trees laughed with me. I took the fire plum into my hand. It felt cool to the touch. [Swooshing of trees, the canopy in motion, everything gone wobbly. A rush of flame. A slow roar of assent from every leaf, like a standing ovation from an audience dressed all in red.]
“I’ve been out here a while, but I try to keep current,” the flaming man said. “I’m Floyd. I speak for the trees.”
“What’s a while?” I asked.
“Since 1923, 24, 25, or so. Once I knew for sure, but now—” He shrugged. [Ragtime music and laughter rearing up, women’s voices bouncing across the surface of the song, hovering above the plinking lines of the piano’s false joviality.] “I used to have this comedy act with dummies. Floyd & Friends. I really am a master ventriloquist. I can imitate any bird or beast.”
Floyd made the trees meow.
“Really, I got tired of my act and planned to become a balloonist. Never got a chance to lift off though. Anyway, the friends were Frank and Fantone—a white dummy and a negro dummy. I could get away with anything with that damn white dummy. Cracking on all the white folks in the audience. Calling them racist and shit. I could even make suggestive comments to white women. [The laughter continues, it quiets, it surges back into loud, mocking excess.] Those white folks treated that piece of wood with respect. Talked to Frank after the shows like he was one of the good ol’ boys, while ignoring me completely most of the time. Wasn’t unusual for them to serve Frankie drinks while walking past me, bumping me with their shoulder, shit like that. I made a ton of money in Port Yooga and Point South. But then I did what my mother told me never to do and started to forget myself. Did my same act one night with the negro dummy. Didn’t change not a single joke from the Frankie night just to see what would happen. [No sound, no music; only the feeling of a stone-faced audience, staring.] Them Port Yooga crackers sat stone face as a mu’fucker.” [The music starts again, its bounce and vigor newly menacing.] Floyd chuckled, but it sounded regretful, bitter even. “Got to the point in the show where I tell a joke directed at a white woman in the audience; the damn punchline is, I got three inches of wood for you.Must have told that goddamn joke a hundred times with Frankie. Well, them crackers weren’t having it this time. Yanked me off the stage and dragged us here and strung up ol’ Fantone real good on this damn tree. Made me project my voice all night to seem like that negro dummy was begging for his life. And when that mob got tired of me, they doused me with gasoline and set me ablaze. You should have seen how big a fire I can make, man. This flame dancing on me now ain’t shit. [Silence, no music. Where does music go when it’s not being played?] It’s dumb to be proud of that, huh?”
“Uh, no, not at all,” I said, but I lied to Floyd. Soon his fire died down and he was no longer inflamed. Smoke trailed him and embers burned throughout his body.
“Goes out sometimes,” he said. “I take it you came to loot the tree, huh?”
I didn’t respond.
“What you want with these things? You’re allergic, aren’t you. Look at those ol’ blister scars. They come from fire plums, not fire. I’ve been out here a long time. I’ve seen it all.”
“I just need a bag full for my wife—”
“I just need a bag full for my wife,” he mocked in a whiny voice and he projected it so that it seemed to come from my mouth, and for a moment, I wondered if it was me who spoke.
“Pathetic,” he continued. Floyd spit a chunk of ash at my feet. “How come I only meet niggas with no self-respect? Reveal myself to y’all, and y’all pretend like I’m not even here. Act like I’m some kind of hallucination. I’m not a hallucination. Why is that thing even still standing?” He pointed a charred digit at the tree. “Make the fruit bitter and they cook it, bake it into pies and shit. Make some taste like blood and our blood becomes a delicacy.”
Floyd spit some more ash at me.
“Go ahead,” he said. “Fill up your bag with fire plums if you have no self-respect. But if you’d like to free me so I don’t have to stand by this damn tree no more, I made a golden axe for you.”
He pointed to a shining gold-and-wood piece dangling low on the hanging tree. [A bright chime, like sunlight flashing on metal.]
“Would do it myself but these charred arms got as much power in them as a well-done steak. Go ahead. Do it. We’ll call you—say, what the fuck is your name anyway?”
“We’ll call you Percy the Axe-wielder.”
I wanted to flee Floyd. His burning form gave me the creeps. I grabbed my bag and began removing fire plums from the branches. It took me longer than expected as so many were rotten or home to slithering caterpillars. All the while Floyd watched in silence. I could barely make out his face beneath the char, but I imagined his expression as a one of despondence. Perhaps I recognized the sad slump in his posture. The trees hummed and sang lines from negro spirituals as I picked fruit. [The murmur of voices singing indistinctly, as if from a spatial or temporal distance.]
After I filled my bag, it occurred to me that I shouldn’t leave without examining the axe. Such fine craftsmanship. Floyd had engraved what I assumed were his birth and death dates in the bit. He lived just twenty years. I was double that age, but made of flimsier stuff. I would have flaked away if just a third of the flame applied to Floyd had been applied to my body and spirit. How does one become sterner and more solid?
“Floyd,” I said. “Tell me how you made this.”
“It’s amazing, the things you learn when you’re out in the wilderness for a century.”
I looked again into the branches before me and suddenly began to crave the physical exertion of swinging an axe into the body of that tree. [The slap of axe against wood, again and again.] I swung the tool back as far as I could, and when the blade struck the wood, I felt my muscles tighten, my body begin to grow. When I would finish chopping, I would be a giant. It wasn’t long into hacking that the chop became my everything. I forgot about the fire plums, forgot about Sharaina, about all else that made me feel weary and alone. I chopped well into the night, the fiery glow of Floyd keeping me warm company. [Thunk and chop, thunk and chop, the blade digging into wood over and over, trailing off infinitely, headed toward the horizon line.]
Rion Amilcar Scott is the author of the story collections The World Doesn’t Require You and Insurrections, which was awarded the 2017 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and the 2017 Hillsdale Award for Fiction from the Fellowship of Southern Writers. He teaches creative writing at the University of Maryland. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, Kenyon Review, The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2020, and Crab Orchard Review, among other publications.
Alexandra Kleeman is the author of You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine, Intimations, and Something New Under the Sun. She lives in Staten Island and teaches at The New School.
Cher Vincent is a senior producer at Pushkin Industries. She has been a producer and story editor for Gimlet Media, Vox Media, NPR, Buzzfeed, and many other places on the internet. She’s based in Brooklyn but her heart will always be in Chicago, her hometown.