Mary Ann’s clothes were faded with repeated washings; though an observer knew it was impossible, her hair seemed to mimic the effect, the blonde locks laying lank against the faded blue fabric. Kneeling before the caged tree, it was clear she cared neither for the impressions the fence was leaving on her forehead nor the tears streaking her cheeks. She seemed abnormally tired for such a young girl. When she spoke, she sounded dull, as if she had given up.
“Momma and Daddy are too busy to care for Suzy, but I can’t do all my chores plus care for her. She runs me ragged. I’ve missed school for three weeks now. And now Momma says she has to go back to work with Daddy and I have to care for the baby too.” She sighed, dropping further into the dusty ground. The wind whistled through the branches of the cage, echoing her despair. “I wish you could help me. You’re my only friend.”
“Free me.” The voice was clear and crisp, and so unexpected as to rouse Mary Ann from her stupor.
“What?” She turned wildly, searching for the source of the voice. There was nobody in sight.
“Free me.” This time there could be no doubt, the crisp voice came from the tree itself.
“Wh—why are you in this cage?”
“I know not. The people feared me, but I know not why. They imprisoned me because of their fear, but now I cannot grow. I know not why. Free me.”
Many Ann looked to the gate, hanging askew in the fence holding the tree. She rose from her despairing crouch, and walked to the gate. Hesitating only a moment, she pushed it open, hurriedly stepping back.
“I cannot grow through a gate. Free me.”
Mary Ann again looked around, as though someone would appear who would admit to playing this joke on her. Seeing nobody, she found her resolution. Talking tree or no, this was her only friend. Raising her chin and straightening her dress, she she marched to the fenced in tree, determined to free him.
As soon as her foot passed the fence’s perimeter, she felt the tugging. Once her upper body joined, it was a pulling. Before she knew what was happening, she was pulled into the suddenly gaping knot in the center of the tree.
* * * * *
“You’re looking healthier today,” Lucy chirped, beginning her weekly conversation with the caged tree. “Did you hear Mary Ann O’Hara disappeared?” Spreading her lavish lunch on her bright picnic blanket, she brushed her shiny brown hair out of her face to peer up at her only friend. “Momma and Daddy were in such a tizzy, sending out search parties, but nobody could find her. Can you imagine? Miss Rose and Mr. John haven’t been back to work – and them with the new baby, too. It’s a shame. I can’t imagine why she’d want to leave, really. It’s rather boring here, and lonely, too, but safe. Nothing bad happens here. Not like outside – you hear such terrible things from outside.” As she was chattering, she was pushing half her lunch through the fence for her friend. She was so used to the gentle tugging sensation when her fingers entered the fence that she barely noticed it anymore. She was still babbling away happily around bites of their lunch when she heard her nurse screaming her name. She wasn’t able to gather her things before Nan crested the hill and saw her.
“Ooh chile you in trouble now. Comin down here the one spot yo momma tole you not to come. Ooh chile. You don’t think I’m covering for you neither, no ma’am—“ Nan’s face drained of blood as quickly as her mouth drained of words when she came close enough to see the unlocked gate. “You do that?” She whispered hoarsely. Lucy shook her head, wondering at her nurse’s sudden transformation. “Go run and get your Daddy, and any other man you can find – quick. I’ll keep here. Go, girl!” Lucy ran, more scared than she’d ever been in her life, though she couldn’t have said why for the life of her.