Lauren Mathews first saw the old house from the interior of her buyer’s agent’s car. It had been kind of a lazy-feeling day, mostly cloudy with the occasional intrusion of cheery sunshine. Tina had shown her two other dwellings that day in Lauren’s price range. Both were inadequate and one was in a bit of a scary neighborhood. However, being a recent college graduate, Lauren simply could not qualify for a higher mortgage. She simply had to hold out hope for that bit of extra luck or magic or whatever it might take. There was no way she was moving back in with her mother.
As the car stopped in front of the old A-frame with quaint front porch, Lauren was hit with an immediate feeling of deja vu, although she couldn’t possibly have been there before. Until a month ago, she hadn’t even heard of the town. Tina was a talented real estate agent with some experience, and so watched Lauren taking in the scene. Tina smiled to herself.
“Well, let’s go take a look,” Tina said.
Both women got out of the car, Tina with her folio and Lauren with her notepad and pen. While Tina used her office’s key to unlock the house’s external key safe, Lauren walked up to the front porch and paused at the bottom of the steps. A wave of welcoming family love washed over her, which she luxuriated in until her rational mind reminded her of all the potential problems an 80-year-old house might have. Still, she wondered why that feeling had been there in the first place. As she wondered about this, she saw a slight movement in one of the front windows. Startled, she backed up into Tina, who had retrieved the key and was on her way to the steps.
“Sorry,” Lauren said. “I thought I saw something in that window. Is someone else here?”
“Not that I know of,” Tina said, looking into her PDA. “I’m the only realtor scheduled for this time.”
Tina lead the way up the steps and let them both in.
“No one here. Probably just a breeze,” Tina said. She walked over to the right side wall of the front room, prepared to shut one of the windows there. Both were closed tight, but not skipping a beat she said, “Of course that’s one of the downsides of a place like this. You can end up having insulation issues.
Lauren took in the front room, it’s windows and airy feel, the door off to the side of the fireplace that appeared to lead to a dining room. Through the side windows she saw the trunk of what must have been a very old tree, since the trunk was so wide. The tree made her feel a little uneasy, but she had no idea why, any more than she knew why the house made her feel so welcome and loved.
There also appeared to be a small room through another door on their left. Tina walked her through to tour the rest of the house, starting with the small dining room. That room lead to the kitchen, which lead to a hallway that would lead back to the front room. Off the hallway was what might be a game or family room and a bathroom. There was also a staircase going up.
“There’s also a livable attic space,” Tina continued. She began walking up the steps. Lauren followed. As they neared the top, they were bathed in a very warm wooden heat. Lauren looked forward towards a small attic window that looked out onto the back yard.
“See, unless you’re a basketball player, you can stand up up here and be just fine. This would be a great place for a little library or work room,” Tina said.
They both thought they heard a faint tapping sound. Tap tap tap… it happened again. Their puzzled expressions gave way to realization that someone was knocking on the front door downstairs. Both women went down to answer it.
As Tina opened the door, she saw an old woman standing there, smiling, with a plate of cookies in her hands.
“Are you thinking about moving in here?” the woman asked.
“I’m not but my client is,” Tina said. “I’m Tina and this is Lauren.”
“I’m Doris Martin. It’s so nice to meet you both.”
“It’s nice to meet you ma’am,” Lauren replied.
The woman squinted her eyes at Lauren. “You look familiar. Where do I know you from?” The question almost sounded like an accusation.
“I don’t think we’ve ever met ma’am. I’m not from here and have never been to this town before. Were you ever in Ohio?” Lauren said.
“No,” Doris responded, still seeming to think about it, but resigning herself to the idea that she had been mistaken.
“This place is special you know,” Doris said. “You’ve got the Healing Tree.”
“Healing Tree?” Lauren asked. Tina’s eyes widened. She naturally wanted to know all she could about the property, especially anything that might make it more interesting.
“Yes! Yes,” Doris continued. “That tree has the power to heal folks. But you’ve got to use leaves from the top or near the top or it doesn’t work. And it’s better if they’re wet.”
“I see,” Tina said. The two younger women looked at each other and shrugged with their faces.
“Well, thank you for telling me about that. I’ll have to get some instructions from you later on it,” Lauren said.
“When the time comes, you’ll know. You’ll just know,” Doris responded.
There was silence for a moment as Tina and Lauren tried to figure out how to end this without being insulting. Time was always a good driver…
“Well, Lauren, we’d better get going,” Tina said. “If you feel like you’ve had enough time for now to look it over, I’ve got to get back to the office for an appointment.”
“I’ve had enough of a look today,” Lauren said. “I can always call you if I think of questions.”
“Sure you can. Nice to meet you Ms. Martin.”
Doris Martin handed her plate of cookies to Lauren. “A little say hello, welcome for ya.”
“Thank you ma’am,” Lauren said. Doris turned and walked back out onto the porch and down the steps.
“You’re welcome,” she shouted back, “I’ll see ya around.”
Although logically, Lauren thought she should have shopped around more than she did, she decided she did want that house. She had been trying to listen to the ‘trust your intuition’ philosophy, recalling that her inner voice had never steered her wrong, but not listening to it had resulted in regrets.
The buying process, with it’s seemingly endless series of bureaucratic mazes and paperwork and inspections went remarkably smoothly. Aside from needing an electrician to repair and upgrade some wiring, everything else was up to code.
Within a month Lauren found herself for the first time in her own home, arranging books in her attic library. Projecting forward 30 or 40 years, she could easily imagine herself as the neighborhood eccentric, more full of wisdom and fun and fewer boundaries than the she had currently. She really felt this had been a life-defining decision.
As the sun went down, a steady, hypnotic rain began pelting the roof and the windows. A few minutes later, occasional flashes of lightening could be seen. By habit, Lauren counted the seconds between flashes and the low rumbles of thunder that followed them. The storm was apparently still at least a few hundred miles away, if she’d remembered the calculation correctly. So she grabbed a copy of “Finite and Infite Games” and went down stairs to read in bed.
As most of us know, reading in bed usually results in the book reading us through our foreheads. Lauren, having spent the day unpacking and arranging books, was especially prone to this. However, she never completely fell asleep due to the increasing loudness of the thunder and the crack of branches of the Healing Tree as the wind rolled through it. She would come to gates of dreamland, only to be snatched away by the sound of CRAAACK rumble BOOM, and the huge, eerie tree posing for mother nature’s flash bulb.
“Smile for the camera,” she thought. At that moment a lightening flash lit up the tree in such a way that she thought she did see a face in relief from the tree trunk. Immediately she dismissed the idea.
“Talk about playing mind tricks,” she told herself. Figuring she’s not going to get any sleep this way, Lauren got out of bed and walked towards the bedroom door, thinking some hot cocoa would be just the thing. She was stopped in her tracks by the sound of breaking glass. Turning around quickly she saw a limb protruding through the window. Looking at the bed, she realized if she hadn’t gotten up just then, she would have been quite cut up by the glass.
As she was considering how lucky she had been, the awareness came to her that the limb was still moving towards her.
“What the hell??!!” she yelled. Was the tree still falling? Would she still be standing there when the bulk of the thing was on it’s way to crush the house and her inside it? She turn and ran for the door. The nob pulled off in her hands.
“Shit! I can’t catch a break!” she said. Lauren turned to see the limb snaking it’s way through the room. In one swift movement it wrapped itself around her waist and began pulling her towards the window. She tried in vain to struggle out of its grasp and then tried to hold on to the bed post as an anchor. The limb pulled her and the bed towards the window. Its pull was too strong, and Lauren just couldn’t hold on.
The tree pulled her out through the window into the rainy night. Her mind reeled, trying to find a rational explanation for what was happening to her as the tree straightened itself. Vines from the ancient tree wrapped themselves around her feet, her waist and her wrists, tying her horizontally to the limb. Despite the fear and danger of the situation, she found herself embarrassed to be lying prone on a tree limb wearing only a nightie and panties. What if a neighbor had walked by? “Idiot!” she thought. “You want a neighbor to walk by!”
The limb she was now tied to, bowed itself somewhat in the middle causing her hips and bottom to be raised higher than her head and feet. Lauren looked around, afraid that was a sign that it might be breaking and she might fall 10 feet or more to the ground. But it was now stable. The bad news was that she saw the movement of other much thinner, branches on a neighboring limb. There were 3 or 4 of them, bare of leaves, about 1/2 an inch thick and about 2 feet long. They whipped up and down through the air and were coming closer to Lauren.
“Stop! What’s happening to me!?” she yelled into the rainy night. The whipping limbs had moved close enough to reach Lauren’s bottom. “Owww!!!” she yelled as switches took their turns, about a second apart, lashing her wet bottom. Lauren hadn’t gotten spanked since she was 11 years old and somehow assumed that growing to adulthood made one less prone to being affected by that kind of punishment. But the fiery pain growing in her bottom from the switching made her want to run crying and hide.
“Owww! Oooohhh!!!” she was howling now, the wetness of the switches intensifying what would already be an intense bottom whipping. The rain tasted saltier to her now, having mixed with her tears.
“I’m sorry!” she yelled. Lauren had no idea who she’d be apologizing to or why, but she was desperate to try anything. The wet switches cut through the air with the hiss of unknowable and unanswerable accusation.
Abruptly the whipping stopped. Lauren stopped screaming and put her head down to cry. Feeling the rain pelt her welt-striped bottom, she looked back over her shoulder. She recalled the woman had called this Healing Tree. Was that supposed to have been some ironic commentary on this cursed thing? Was this akin to calling a huge thug “Tiny”?
The answer to her question came in the form of the movement of another limb, full of leaves that descended to her bottom. She cringed, expecting more punishment, but when the leaves touched her, she could feel the swelling of her welted skin subsiding. Stripes on her bottom that were close to bleeding from the switching healed almost instantly. Lauren was even more confused and amazed. Had she imagined the whipping? She looked over her shoulder towards her bottom and realized the her panties had been ripped in several places. A new wave of shock ran through her body.
Then the whipping limbs began their motion again, as the healing leaves raised up.
“No! Nooooo!!!” she cried, “Why is this happening?!”
Her second whipping began. Again the night air was filled with the eerie and harsh swish swish swish of ghostly switches and the desperate crying of a severely punished woman.
“Please stop! Please!!!” Lauren cried. She felt herself starting to pass out from the pain and as her head drooped, she saw standing underneath her, Doris Martin. The old woman looked up at her, smiling.
“Now I know where I know you from,” Doris said. “And this tree knows too.”
“Please! Make it stop!” Lauren sobbed.
“Aw sweetie, I can’t. It knows you need a lickin’ and I couldn’t stop it if I wanted to. It’ll stop when you’ve been punished enough.”
“But why!?” Lauren cried, desperate. “What’d I do?” The lashes stopped and the healing leaves descended. Lauren was wide-eyed with pain.
“It’s not what you did. It’s what you didn’t do. When you said Ohio, that rang a bell. My granddaughter lived with her mother in Ohio. Do you recall Barbra Ericson?”
The name filled Lauren with immediate guilt and regret as she thought about the summer camp that bridged the time between middle and high school. It was supposed to have been a character-building experience, learning about leadership and independence. It turned out to be a scam, run by too few people who cared way too little about what happened to the students. An experiment in student self-government had gone horribly wrong and Barbra Ericson was the victim of it.
As the healing leaves ascended again, Lauren nodded, knowing why she was being punished if not knowing by what force.
“Barbra’s still paying for your mistakes. She was never the same after that summer – depression, panic attacks. She’s afraid all the time and can’t stand to be alone.”
The whipping branches started slicing through the air again, beginning Lauren’s third whipping.
“Ow! Owww! Please! I didn’t whip her! I didn’t touch her,” Lauren pleaded. Without adult supervision, the campers had decided to mete out corporal punishment to their own using switches. Barbra had been the first convicted of a crime and sentenced to “20 licks” from each of the girls in that cabin – 15 girls. None of them had any idea about the size of switch that would be appropriate and no thought had been entertained to trim them smooth. Lauren had been 13th in line and refused to whip the girl seeing her injuries and looking like she needed medical care instead of more whipping.
“No, you didn’t whip her,” Doris continued. “But you could have told someone. It could have been stopped. Her life is ruined now. And you are going to pay.”
As Doris turned and walked away, she left Lauren crying in the Healing Tree, being lashed for the third of what would be many more times during the night. Lauren knew there was nothing she could do but take the pain. She no longer felt the panic, because she knew she wouldn’t die. She probably wouldn’t end up even being marked. But she would be punished, meaning the tree was also healing her finally, of her guilt.