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Witch Trees of New England

The day was far too lovely for witch-hunting. It should be dark, lightning in the distance, maybe some hail, a tornado imminent under a green sky. Not balmy, blue, brilliantly sunny, with a few wispy clouds overhead. Though I suppose if the weather had been that bad, we would have stayed inside. At least the tree smelled vile, but they always do. 

“This can’t be the spot.” I gestured at the flowering atrocity. “That’s a Bradford pear, and they only live for about twenty years. It can’t be old enough to mark the grave we’re looking for.” 

“Maybe they replaced the original with this one.” Megan took a big sniff of the frothy white blossoms and wrinkled her nose. “Though why this? Yuck.” 

“Maybe to keep people away,” I replied, walking slow circles with my head down, just in case. Grass, speedwell, creeping charlie, nothing to indicate that the ground had been disturbed recently, just unbroken vegetation. Nothing to indicate that any particular spot had been disturbed in the past, either. No headstone, no slightly sunken rectangle, no subtle change in vegetation; nothing to denote a grave, just an erratically-tended grassy verge outside an old cemetery.

It was a horrible cliche to find a diary describing buried treasure in the attic of the house you’re renting, and yet. Here we were. You’ve heard this story a million times: mysterious book describing fabulous treasure; people stumble across it and go looking; eaten by monsters. Or, in the realer-world versions, are badly injured by failing equipment, or go broke hunting. 

You’d expect cramped, spidery handwriting, but the author of this book had perfect copperplate penmanship. She lived in this old farmhouse once upon a time, and died there probably. It wasn’t her grave we were looking for. Megan and I didn’t know her name, though we were reasonably certain it was a girl. We didn’t know when or where she died, or where she was buried. But the diary contained a detailed account of how a neighbor, one everyone knew was a witch, died of “surely old age” and was buried outside the hallowed ground of the cemetery, back when this was a thriving town in a growing area, before the church and most of the town faded away. 

We were out here for the summer, Megan to work on her book, me to… not work on my book, based on what I’d done for the past few weeks. This was another in a series of excuses to do something, anything, rather than face my notes. Besides, how often would we have the opportunity to hunt for the lost grave of a long-forgotten witch? Or of a cranky and disliked woman who people felt justified in calling a witch and blaming for things because they didn’t like her, anyway. And treasure!

Not in her coffin with her, no. We had no plans to dig up her grave, even if we found it. But according to the beautiful copperplate account, the gold and ruby ring that was the sign of her pact with the devil was sealed, blessed, and buried under the tree at the foot of her grave. That ring received more care and attention than the poor woman’s body did. The tree clearly wasn’t a Bradford pear, but the author didn’t mention what kind of tree it was.

Megan was leaning on the pear tree, trying to find the cardinal singing somewhere overhead. I was still scanning the ground as I walked, but was more just admiring the new spring growth than taking the hunt seriously, when everything happened at once. I tripped over a tree root that I swear hadn’t been there — I was looking at the ground as I walked! — and fell on my face in a patch of violets. I was wet, muddy, and suddenly freezing cold. I rolled over, a bit bruised but mostly fine other than my clothes and my largely non-existent dignity, and sat up. I had wandered away from the semi-tended open area and into the woods. The skeleton of a grand old oak loomed over me, a wolf tree that I hadn’t noticed while wandering the area instead of writing. 

I looked back the way I’d came, and could just see the white pear blossoms. Megan wasn’t visible, but she could watch birds for hours. I laid my hands on the oak’s patchy bark, still clinging around the immense trunk. This tree was here when the town was founded. It watched the town grow, the area be cleared, then presided over its abandonment. It surely witnessed the supposed witch being buried. I scanned the surrounding forest, all much younger trees. The wide-spreading branches told me that this oak had stood alone for a long time, with freedom to grow without competition from other trees. Now in its death it was providing a place for fungi, for insects, birds, small mammals, and eventually it would blow over in a storm and create a clearing for growth to start anew. I looked down, thinking of the flowers and then shrubs and then saplings that would find a new home after the oak fell. Except for the battered patches where I’d fallen on them, the violets formed an oblong patch a couple meters long, the size and shape of a grave. 

I would have yelled for Megan, but I was reluctant to disturb the quiet. It’s not like the violets would walk away while I wasn’t looking. I headed back out into the sunshine, only to find my wife not there. This was nothing unusual, since she was forever wandering off to get a better look at an interesting bird, but I was eager to show her the violets. I spotted her in the cemetery proper, and jumped the low iron fence to join her. 

“Chasing birds?” I teased. 

“What happened to you, Emily?” she asked, looking at my muddy clothes?

“Looking at some violets up close and personal. I want to show you something.”

“Just a minute. I saw a girl over there, by those headstones, all by herself. It would be a great place to play, but I don’t think any kids live nearby any more. And she was dressed oddly, in a flouncy skirt and an actual bonnet. I wanted to ask her what she was doing, but I couldn’t catch her.” Megan walked a bit further down the overgrown gravel walkway, but soon returned. “No sign of her.” 

I led Megan into the edge of the woods. There were oaks here and there, but no giant wolf skeleton presiding over her descendants. There were violets galore, but no grave-sized patch. I described what I’d seen to Megan, and she felt my head for bumps, concerned for concussion. I was fine, my head was fine. Somewhere out there was a giant old oak, and somewhere under it a buried treasure. I could keep looking. I had all summer.

– Excerpted from the preface to Witch Trees of New England: A Cultural and Botanical Assessment, by Emily Downwell, Professor of Forest Ecology, Connecticut College, New London, CT.

@talkwordy: A skeleton who knows too much
@premeesaurus: a well-dressed child alone at a cemetery
@valerievaldes: Bradford pear tree in full bloom and smelling of fish

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