The Bristlecone Incident

a short story originally written for the NYC Midnight contest

Absolutely nobody in Bristlecone, Nevada actually believed there was a witch trapped in the ancient tree that had been growing in the town square since long before there was a town. Though a keen observer might note that very few people walked near the fifty-foot, gnarled and twisted thing after dusk. Marjorie Taylor, the attorney who had a stylish store-front office facing the square, might occasionally be heard to say as she eyed the jagged, unevenly spaced, and pine-needle covered branches, that the shadow it cast in the late afternoon gave her the creeps, “looks like it’s moving in that light.” 

While Norton Fitzsimmons, whose family had been there the longest aside from the Johnson-Slaters – not to be confused with the Adler-Slaters who were relative newcomers – would admit sheepishly to tourists visiting his art gallery that he sprinkled a little holy water on the roots every Halloween morning. “Silly old family tradition,” he’d say with an embarrassed smile, “something about it just amuses me I guess.” In truth, it made him feel closer to his father who had taken him along on his morning walk each year and made it a special thing they did together. His grandfather had done the same, and his father before him. Norton hadn’t initially carried the tradition on after his father passed, but that first Halloween had been … odd. He’d done the early morning ritual that following year and every year since then. Father Wiley pretended not to notice when Norton would sneak a little holy water the Sunday before Halloween and though they’d never discussed it, Norton felt sure the priest knew what was up. Norton wasn’t sure if the St. Rita’s priest approved, but the almost imperceptible upward turn of the right side of Wiley’s lips when he greeted Norton both encouraged and discouraged him at the same time.

Then there was Nancy Johnson-Slater, the woman who owned the Bristlecone Repast which was the bed and breakfast on the other side of the square from Marjorie’s legal offices. She would tell her guests when they asked that of course she didn’t believe the Legend of the Bristlecone Witch, but with a conspiratorially sly smile, “I do sort of hope it’s true.” But, and everyone did agree, Nancy Johnson-Slater was a bit of a pot-stirrer. The general consensus was that it was no wonder the rest of her family had distanced themselves from her. Nancy thought that was ironic, because it was she who had distanced herself from the whole lot of them. “Cantankerous, closed-minded puritans,” she had snorted, dismissing the gossip one afternoon over tea with her best friend Ruth Cohen. For her part, Ruth agreed both with Nancy about her family and the rest of the town about Nancy. Ruth was a gentle soul who found fault with few and epitomized the principle of live and let live. The dichotomy between the two women’s view of the world was part of what made their friendship work. Absolutely no one knew what Ruth thought about the witch in the tree, it had never occurred to them to ask. Had they asked, they would have learned that Ruth thought it was endlessly silly, but she supposed it was a necessary part of the town’s economy and entertainment.

It so happened that Bristlecone depended upon the tourism the legend brought them as people made their way to other parts of the state for things Bristlecone could not offer. The thrill of ghost towns, awe-inspiring national parks, camping on reservations, overtly commercial hedonist festivals, or the ubiquitous casinos most locals found uninteresting at best. The town had been founded during the nascent silver rush that never quite realized itself in their parts. A brief period of farming and forestry had also not seen any long-term boom. It was too far away from Reno or Tahoe to advertise itself as a day trip alternative and it was not central enough to benefit from the lucrative Air Force or warehousing industries. A long string of Bristlecone mayors had grappled with “the revenue problem” and viewed the Legend with a mixture of covetous protection and weary resentment.

The current mayor, Allister Adler-Slater was on this very day, October 31st, nursing that resentment while drinking his coffee and contemplating the tree from his office in City Hall. He stared at the tree and indulged one of his frequent fantasies of cutting it down. He almost chuckled at the image that arose in his mind of horrified faces reacting to the very idea. Nancy’s face in particular. They had never seen eye to eye about the tree, facing off in town meetings about this or that proposal to try to make the area around it more attractive or to hang things from it during holidays. There was an ordinance that forbade all but the most necessary of arboreal maintenance and Nancy had made sure to have it amended to include specifications prohibiting coverings, decorations, or signage. It wasn’t the only Bristlecone pine tree in the area, nor was it the oldest. One Pinus longaeva in the Sierras was purported to be over 4,800 years old – though where it was in the Sierras was a closely guarded secret. The tree he was looking at had not been age-dated, but estimates had been well before Christ was born.

If he was being honest, which he rarely was, the tree made him uncomfortable. Like anyone else who had grown up in the town, the Legend was one of the earliest stories he remembered being told. As an Adler-Slater, doubly so, because the witch in question had supposedly been trapped in the tree by his great-great-great-great grandmother. Most of the Adler-Slaters viewed the story as an example of upstanding citizens protecting their community from harm. His father in particular had been almost gleeful telling his son the gruesome details of how the old woman had been caught and made to confess her evil deeds. Of which there were many, and it seemed to a young Allister the purported magnitude of her evil grew with each telling. By the time he was a young man, he’d come to realize that the truth was probably a tragic tale of superstition and greed that led to his family taking possession of her land. He adopted an attitude of being unconcerned with all of that. Survival of the fittest and what-not. But inwardly, there was …. discomfort. It seemed to him that the only way to alleviate the discomfort was to get rid of the tree.

Which is precisely what he was hoping he would finally accomplish, but first he needed to make sure there would be no interference. He noticed Nancy talking to Norton Fitzsimmons in front of the tree. Nancy seemed to be in one of her moods, her body language confrontational and superior in that way that infuriated him. Norton appeared to be good-naturedly deflecting whatever had gotten Nancy’s ire up this time. Alister sighed as he watched Norton putting something in his pocket and waving Nancy’s questions off. He didn’t want Nancy in the square on this of all days. He called for his secretary, “Ruth!”

Despite his tone, Ruth entered and affably asked how his evening had been.

“Fine, fine. Dinner with my son and his wife. Look Ruth I’d like to ask you a favor. I need … I was wondering if you could distract Nancy today. Keep her away from the square?”

“Oh.” She looked out the window just in time to see her friend stalking off to her B&B. She bit her lip when she saw Nancy give Norton the middle finger. Norton was such a nice man, and she hated it when Nancy let her temper get the better of her. “This would be for your visitor coming today?” She didn’t smile when she asked but thought the amusement had crept into her voice anyhow. She of course knew about the “conservationist” coming into town that day, Allister could be very transparent. She agreed it would be best for Nancy to be none the wiser, though out of concern for Nancy’s sense of well-being, not for Allister’s sake.

Had Ruth known, just how far from a sense of well-being Nancy was that day, she may have opted to take her to the spa after all. As it was, Nancy had just discovered Fitzsimmons pouring something on the roots of the tree and though he claimed it was just water, she suspected it had something else in it. She was shocked by how malignant people’s feelings could be over the tree and how ignorant her community was about the delicate balance of soil content, weather conditions, and terrain the tree needed to survive. Just because they grew in extreme conditions, didn’t mean they could grow in any conditions! Thank goodness there were almost no natural predators that were a threat to the tree. Beetles, rot, most fungi, it was impervious to them. Although she’d been worried about a white fungus that had been killing some. But that infection was, thankfully, far away from Bristlecone.

Her relationship to the tree, she realized, was possibly a little odd if looked at from the outside. It was after all, where her great-great-great-great-great grandmother had been put to rest in one of the worst periods of the town’s entire history as far as she was concerned. Late at night when she would sometimes look out her window and see the moon casting crooked shadows of the tree onto the rocky ground beneath it, she also felt – more than saw – what she imagined was her greatgrans’ spirit trying to escape from the tree, but something always pulled her back in. She felt she owed it to her to find a way to set her spirit free, hopefully without hurting the tree, and she thought she had finally figured it out.  It would mean making a small hole in the trunk, but that would hardly hurt it and she could re-plug it as soon as she’d finished what she needed to do. Today was the day and Fitzsimmons puttering away in his jolly way had set her nerves on edge.

When Ruth arrived at Nancy’s in the middle of the morning with a basket of fresh apples and a cheerful announcement that they were going to make pie for the evening’s festivities, she was just getting ready to leave the house. She had the tools she needed in her bag and was pulling on some heavy gardening gloves as she told Ruth to go ahead and put it all in her kitchen, they could do that later. “Today is the day!” She yelled triumphantly over her shoulder as she marched with determination toward the square and the tree.

Despite Ruth’s attempt to stop her, Nancy was already crossing the square and on a collision course with Allister and his “conservationist.” The conservationist had what appeared to be a small box that he was carrying carefully, almost reverently. When Allister saw Nancy coming, he practically pushed the young man as he urged him to hurry up and get to the tree before Nancy could. Ruth imagined a great clash of ancient sword-wielding warriors crashing into each other as she saw the three converge in front of the tree. The young conservationist fumbling with the box to pull out a small vial, Allister desperately trying to block Nancy’s way, and Nancy… dear Nancy pulling out a vicious looking tool from her bag and brandishing it threateningly in Allister’s direction.

It was the shouting that most people would remember later. Unfortunately for Allister, Nancy knew exactly who the specialist was that he’d brought with him and what he was a specialist of from all the researching she’d been doing about white fungus. The bellowing had started almost immediately. “A fungi specialist?! What is that in his hand?! Oh no you don’t!!!” Ruth had caught up and was just in time to stop Nancy from impaling one or the other of the men with the little boring tool she had. It took three people – Marjorie, never one to miss some good drama, Ruth, and Norton who had come out of his gallery for an afternoon smoke – to pull the awkward melee apart. By the time it was over, quite a little crowd of onlookers had gathered around the square.

In the end, Allister’s attempt to infect the tree with the deadly white fungus was thwarted and he resigned the next day. Ruth was more than happy to step in as interim mayor. Nancy had been able to extract a small, ancient, looking jar from inside the tree that she promptly smashed into bits. “Such a drama queen,” Marjorie had whispered to Norton.

After the dust had settled, nearly everyone would tell you, if given the chance, that they’d known all along about the little witch’s bottle hidden away inside the tree. “That old wives’ tale about trapping a witch’s spirit in a bottle! Oh, I heard my gran tell me all about it.”  But nobody, just nobody believed there’d ever been a witch trapped in the Bristlecone pine tree. Except maybe Nancy. She cherished the memory of watching her great times 5 grandmother’s spirit finally walk away from the tree and fade away into the high desert foothills.

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