issue no. 5 | fall 2021
After Liam Moore next door died, most of our parents decided to move out of the neighborhood. They couldn’t stand to see the tree that killed him. FOR SALE signs sprouted up on each lawn in the weeks following the funeral, and within a year most of us had moved to the surrounding areas—Wayne, Livonia, Garden City—and we only saw each other when our parents had time to drive us back and forth. Even though Westland is in the middle of all those other cities, many of us never went back to the old neighborhood.
To be honest, we never should’ve been allowed near the tree. In the late ‘90s, we kids still roamed the old subdivision like feral cats looking for one another, asking around about pickup baseball games and goading one another into doing any stupid thing to entertain ourselves. We didn’t think much of the tree or its many blooming hands at first, but once we were old enough to realize that the hands would grab back, we knew we’d found a thrill we couldn’t find in tag or neighborhood-wide hide-and-seek.
We christened the tree the “Palms Tree.” The game was simple: run beneath the branches quick enough that the hands couldn’t grab you. It was an easy game. The branches were high and still mostly made of wood—they turned to flesh where a normal tree turned to leaves—so the hands could only reach us if a strong breeze pushed the branches down. The hands grew like flowers, starting off as a tiny fingertip bud until whole arms developed, and though they didn’t appear to move unless snatching at things, the biceps on the arms bulged, straining the impossible veins beneath the skin. The arms reminded us of our fathers—fibrous hairs sprouted along each forearm, and the calloused knuckles seemed to have been shaped through difficult work. Though what work could these hands perform?
For weeks, the closest any of us came to getting caught was a few fingers against the back of Janey McIntosh from down the block. She squealed and dropped to the ground beneath the tree, army crawling out from under the threat of hands. She said it was like the hand knew what to do, like it wanted to hurt her. Some of us didn’t believe it happened, or maybe didn’t want to. We said that it was probably June bugs trying to get into her nest of sandy hair. But if bugs did live in the tree, wouldn’t the hands have squished them?
Janey never played the game with us again.
Our parents didn’t know about the tree. It wasn’t hidden—most parents had to drive past the edge of the playground where the arms loomed limp every day on their way into work—but we somehow knew they didn’t want us playing with it. Sometimes at school we’d save the apples our moms packed for us and use them to play catch with the tree at recess. Once, we all threw our apples at the same time, and we were amazed when the tree caught all of them in a flurry of fists, closing and grabbing. All we could do was stand before the tree in awe of it—we’d done our research on our parents’ computers, there was no other tree like it in the world, at least not than anyone knew of. And for a second, if we squinted to blur the ever-twitching fingers and veiny forearms, it almost resembled a real apple tree with all the plump red fruit it contained. Then, one of the apples exploded—the hand that caught it squeezed until the fruit was nothing but pulpy remains smeared across its palm. Then another apple exploded, then another. Like kernels of popcorn crowning in an oiled pot. The teacher called us in from recess and we ran across the playground without a word.
We didn’t play with the tree for a while after that. It was early spring, so a lot of us had baseball or softball practice on the weekends. If not sports, rain washed us back into our homes, where our bursts of energy were mitigated, maintained to sprinting up the stairs after turning the basement lights out. We colored colonial houses and corner-of-the-page suns with lines for sunbeams. Our parents took us on vacations to theme parks or more tropical locales, and we came back sunburnt, stinging, and sore. When we slept, often we dreamt of the tree, couldn’t get it out of our heads. Our eyes sunk into the caverns of their sockets and we asked our parents if we could go to bed early, only to lay awake beneath the sheets our parents tucked us into and kissed our foreheads before wishing us goodnight and leaving the door cracked just a little bit.
Some of us wondered—on our own, catching pop flies in center field or jumping rope—if the tree had a brain, was capable of thought. What compelled the hands to grab or the arms to reach if not some firing of synapses from something sentient within the tree? In science class, we took care of Venus fly traps, feeding them mealworms, crickets, and—once—one of our eraser caps while the teacher wasn’t looking. It unnerved us to see the jagged teeth close around the plants’ unknowing prey. Even then, we couldn’t turn away as crickets rested on the carnivorous leaves only for the jaws to clamp tight around them, unable to wriggle free. We asked the teacher if the Venus fly traps had brains—if they knew to close their mouth as they chewed, surely they were capable of reading or math—but she told us that the plants neither chewed nor thought. It was evolution, she said, something the plants had to do to survive. But this yielded no answers for us—unless the tree’s hands were capable of digestion, this wasn’t something the tree needed to eat.
The palms tree apparently just showed up one day. It sat alone without the company of other trees at the far corner of the school playground that abutted an intersection our parents drove through every day. None of us remembered the tree being there until the beginning of spring when Jake Croft first showed it to us after school one day after a bad snow melted away. Our parents claimed to have never noticed it when we pointed it out. They didn’t seem interested in the palms tree at all—it might as well have been an oak. When we passed it on our walk to school each morning it seemed to be waving at us with all its hands.
In mid-April, Liam Moore’s cat disappeared. He was friendly, black with stark yellow eyes and severely long, gray whiskers. When we were at Liam’s house, the cat would rub against our legs and wrap its tail gently around our ankles, hoping for food or—at the very least—a pat on the head. Liam named him Midnight, for obvious reasons. We stalked the streets calling out “Midnight,” each of us with a handful of treats to lure the cat home. We put up signs, checked beneath porches, even flashed lights into sewer grates in case Midnight somehow slunk through. No sign of the cat. At the end of each day Liam ran home to cry in the comfort of his house, not wanting us to see.
After a week of searching, Liam found a dead bird in his front yard. It was mangled—slash marks across its breast and its thick, knotted neck was bent at an impossible angle. A burst of deep red coated its greyscale feathers. The birds’ wings were splayed limp, one at its side and the other across its tiny, lifeless body. Liam took this as a sign that Midnight was still out there, hunting birds around the neighborhood, and that he wanted to come home. The rest of us weren’t convinced, and so while some of us continued the search for a few more half-hearted days, the others quickly returned to our daily activities of playing catch and helping the neighbors prepare to open their pools for the summer. By the end of almost two weeks of searching for poor Midnight, Liam was the only one left searching beneath cars and leaving trails of treats leading to his front door.
Then one morning Liam was found, his head gripped tightly by one of the palms tree’s fully-grown arms, dangling beneath its many-limbed crown. We weren’t allowed to get too close, but his head looked like a squished grape or a pumpkin several weeks after Halloween. The palms tree was the one place none of us had yet looked, but had Midnight made his way near it surely it was too late anyway.
Suddenly the palms tree was all the neighborhood parents could speak of. The dads gathered around it like a fourth of July barbeque, trying to think of ways to remove Liam. Liam’s body hung there for almost a whole day before anyone could figure it out. Any attempt to manually extract Liam would lead to others being snatched up by the palms tree—even cutting the tree down entirely meant getting under it. By late after Liam’s dad remembered a pole saw tucked away somewhere in his garage, collecting dust. He went to fetch it and returned a few minutes later, determined to do harm to that which had done harm to his boy. He took the pole saw and went to work on the arm that gripped his son’s head like the apples we’d thrown into the tree just a few weeks earlier.
The palms tree didn’t like that Liam’s dad was severing one of its limbs. The rest of the hands grabbed at the pole, trying to yank it from Liam’s dad. One hand near the arm that needed pruning got too close to the blade and lost the first knuckle of its pointer finger. It plunked to the ground like a fat, wriggling caterpillar, pointing at us, Liam, the tree. Liam’s dad wrestled with the arms at first, but eventually needed the help of the rest of the dads to keep the saw trained on the perpetrating forearm. After a few minutes of struggle, they’d sloppily but successfully cut the arm off of the palms tree a few inches beyond the wrist. Liam’s body hit the ground with a hollow thud and, to all of our amazement, a streak of blood spurted out from the stump of the arm still in the tree’s branches. Liam’s dad sank to his knees and crawled slowly, quietly—as though the palms tree might hear him—and slowly pulled his boy’s body out from under the branches, stifling tears the entire time.
Liam’s dad started a petition to cut the tree down not long after the funeral, but being on the school’s publicly-funded property meant it wasn’t that simple. The city was hesitant to remove the tree, worried that environmentalists would protest. Maybe it was an endangered species, they’d reasoned; after all, they hadn’t seen a tree like it before. They spent months hemming and hawing, conducting studies on whatever species of tree they thought the palms tree might be. Local biologists sat a safe distance from the tree jotting down numbers and throwing various objects at it, never getting too close. If anything was ever done, it was long after the last of us moved out of the neighborhood. We packed the last of our things into a U-Haul our parents rented and drove off, the tree ominously waving goodbye with all its hands as we did.
This was the first time most of us experienced loss—many of us needed therapy for years after the palms tree. It might still be there, lurking at the end of the playground, waiting for either a bushel of apples to be thrown its way or a young boy looking for his missing cat. We still wake up in the middle of the night, covered in sweat more than two decades later, our arms reaching out for the thousand grasping hands, waiting for them to stroke our hair, to soothe us back to sleep.
J.R. Allen is an MFA student at Miami University in Ohio. He currently serves as the editor-in-chief of Ox Mag, Miami’s graduate literary journal, as well as the fiction editor for Great Lakes Review. His fiction can be found or is forthcoming in Crow & Cross Keys, Wretched Creations, Chaotic Merge, and more, and his poetry can be found in Daily Drunk, No Contact Magazine, Dunes Review, and elsewhere.