The Joshua Tree: a short story

I’ve been working on not apologising for my writing and I’m not making excuses however I feel I should warn you about this one. It’s macabre and dark, this one. It’s darker than most of my pieces and I’m not ashamed to say that it was hard to edit due to that.

Having said that there is, I hope, a tone in it that’s not all dreary. It is a post-apocalyptic story set in Europe and it’s about 4500 words.

Again I’m giving you the option of downloading a Kindle file of the story so you can read it there if you prefer. Enjoy!

thejoshuatree

THE JOSHUA TREE

It looks like a Joshua Tree though I’m not sure that’s what it is. It has a strong stem and three thick branches that reach for the sky and if it isn’t actually a Joshua Tree it is something in the same family.
I was used to Joshua Trees in my childhood underneath the Eagle Mountain. We had one in the backyard when I was a kid. It may have been the only one of its kind in town I’m not sure, but there were others in the vicinity and in the desert. I used to try to climb the one in our yard, though it wasn’t easy. My mother used to berate me for it. She thought the tree was a blessed. One of my sharpest memories of her is when she saw the tree dead in our backyard. She crossed herself and told us that it was a very ill omen.
I guess she was right.
I was far from the place I used to call home underneath the Eagle Mountain. I was in fact on a different continent. This used to be Spain when we still cared for boundaries and borders. I used to drive with my wife and the girls all the way from Sweden to stay at a camping in the north of Spain for a few weeks, to get disconnected, to get some sun and some distance from what we called reality.
Now that thing called reality has become surreal and diffuse, almost intangible.
We weren’t trying to escape civilisation or to get closer to nature. We simply wanted to be outside. That was something we strove for. I remember how we felt the air inside was stuffy and thick when we got home from our trips.
Now I long for that stuffy air… and for that soft giggling of careless children. That’s a sound I haven’t heard for a long time.
I remembered that particular tree because it was the only one of its kind I had seen since moving to Europe and I took notice of it because it reminded me of home. Or what I used to call home back in a time that now seems to belong on the fiction side of things. Your childhood home never really leaves your bones though, however unreal it becomes. I used to request the spot with the tree, usually I got my way because it was far from the facilities and nobody but me actually wanted to stay just there. The girls used to complain that they wanted to be closer to the water.
Those were the days, and I’m glad I stuck to my guns on that one.
Why this was the place that called to me after shit hit the fan I can’t tell you really. Maybe it was because I had the happiest memories there with the people I loved the most, those who lived in my inner most sanctum but nowhere else anymore. Maybe it was because it used to remind me of the home that was now forever out of my reach, both in time and space.
The journey that had taken us three days when everything was right with the world took me months. I don’t know how many. I haven’t been keeping track of time for a while. It seems redundant and unnecessary. The world moves on no matter what. All I need to do is sleep when I get tired and spend my days trying to find a way to survive to the next day. That’s not always an easy task.
It was too cold to survive up in the north so I decided to roam south. Walking over the bridge that bordered Sweden and Denmark was strange. I caught a rare glimpse of the sun that day. It was wading in cold clouds but I saw it and it cast its rays over the still blue ocean. It was a beautiful sight and from a distance I saw what was left of the Turning Torso. The building that used to be the city’s jewel now reminded me of an obscure twisted hand. The top of the tower had crumbled, leaving what was still standing bare and a block of concrete made it look like as if it had a finger that was pointing up towards the sky.
Rubble, I had to remind myself that it was just rubble now.
I had a roadmap and I followed the highways, taking detours to make sure I wouldn’t be caught having to turn back as there were no ferries anymore going between Rødby and Puttgarden or anywhere else for that matter.
Mine sounds like a complicated life story, doesn’t it? Moving from one country to another, having a family, the road trips, but it wasn’t very complicated. It was simple and easy. It’s hard to relate to the emptiness that came after everything collapsed. The cities are deserted mostly and in ruins. The people who used to live there are dead, the ones that are left have scattered, trying to find a meaning in the emptiness that is left. Some have stayed put, trying to ignore the world around them and lead lives as close to what they used to as possible. Other’s, like me, have hit the road, trying to find something, some meaning elsewhere. Yet others have turned dark, making the world more dangerous than I could have fathomed in my wildest nightmares. Some days I thank my lucky stars my girls didn’t survive the first blow, though most days I have to keep a tight hold of myself not to crumble underneath the sorrow.
I heard my mother’s voice clearly when I finally reached my destination and saw the Joshua Tree on that old camping ground in Spain.
I was finally there after all the traveling, after all the fights, after sneaking around to get food, stealing from people to survive, I even had to hunt. Rats aren’t beneath me. I had spent a long time on the road, driving when I could, but mostly walking. I even had a bicycle at one point but left it when I got a flat tire I was unable to repair. Some things aren’t worth the effort they require.
The Joshua Tree stood where it had before of course. It had marked a corner spot on the camping lot. They used to take good care of the trees that separated the spots and gave the guests shade from the blazing sun. Now there was no one there to care for anything and the shade wasn’t as needed anymore. Many of the trees were dead, barren and broken.
But my Joshua Tree stood tall still. It’s needles big and healthy. I saw it from afar and stopped to look before I got any closer. I didn’t notice the macabre sight that had me gasping for air when I got closer and tried to comprehend what I was seeing.
It was my mother’s voice I heard, when I saw what was hanging from the tree and the words she uttered were the same words as when she saw the dead Joshua Tree in our backyard.
“This is the work of demons. The devil walks amongst us.”
Her words hadn’t been edged in my memory exactly. Though I did recognise them as her when I heard them. I had never much believed in demons or the devil and always considered my mother’s believes a bit far fetched.
But those were her exact word.
From the branches of the Joshua Tree hung two corpse. They were dangling close, hitting each other softly in the wind. They looked like chimes, though the only sound they made was the creak of the robe.
I had seen such sights before. I had seen the desperation in a youth, throwing himself off a bridge in Germany clearly seeing his future dead before him, all too aware of the horrors the world was eager to show. The look of such sheer desperation that nothing I said or did would ever have made any difference. That was maybe the worst, worse than the bodies, sometimes hundreds of them scattered in squares or large houses, worse than seeing the decay nettle itself in on the world.
As I stood there seeing the corpses, memories of my house in rubble hit me. The bodies of my wife and those of my girls on the floor. I tried not to imagine their decay, but my nightmares were haunted by the sight even if I’d never actually witnessed the thing.
I tried not to think about it. Tried to focus on their living beings and not the dead. I talked to them on the road, trying to make them more alive in my memory. Putting death in its context is just too hard. But somehow I must have managed because otherwise I would be like that kid on the bridge. Why I wasn’t, and am not is beyond me really and sometimes the coldheartedness that comes with that worries me.
It’s hard to walk that middle ground.
Grey profane anxiety, grey raw desperation and deep black depression hit me but as I shuffled forward I tried to remember the happy tunes I had sung with my girls. If you ever saw a man dressed in black singing: “What does the fox say?” that would be me. And I told myself that I would see them soon, in a world much better than this.
It’s been said before but we really weren’t made to outlast our children.
I was never much for religion. I really believe it would have made everything a bit easier to bare if I was religious. If I’d believed there was a point to all the madness? That would have been a light in all the darkness. Now it was like stepping in honey, the darkness stuck underneath the soles of my shoes and though it affected my stride it still kept me moving forward as I sang my saddest melodies. “Hakuna Matata,” how would I otherwise have coped?
The sight of those two people hanging there were some of the worst things I ever saw. The corpses were dangling from the tree I had somehow, unwittingly, unknowingly, uncomprehendingly been putting all my faith in. I stood there just looking at the corpses of a little girl and a woman. It was amongst the worst moments of my life thus far.
I cut them down, actually listening to the phantom voice of my mother all the while and I wondered if I hadn’t been wrong and she right. When you pass a certain age you start having those thoughts. Those thoughts that your parents weren’t as wrong as you once thought, that they may have had a sight truer to your own.
I buried the strangers on the beach and I even said one of my mother’s prayers over their graves. The woman looked so young, and the little girl had been no more than five years old.
Afterwards I spent some time trying to find food. I found the camping grocery store almost untouched by diligent hands and so I spent the rest of the day gathering supplies. I put my tent up on the spot underneath the Joshua Tree and made campfire.
It was nothing like old times.
I ate underneath the dark sky and thought about the woman and her daughter hanging in the tree.
l tried to envision who they had been, what their lives had been like before and I tried to understand what their relationships had been. I suspected the woman had been a young mother but there was little else I could decipher.
I gave them a lot of thought and then I returned to the beach in the dark, hoping to see a glimpse of some stars – a hope that was quite absurd – and I cried.
I hadn’t allowed myself many tears.
When I stood the house, wondering what damnation had saved my life and taken my family away from me I cursed everything I held sacred but I hadn’t shed a single tear, not then, not until later. But on that long, sandy beach, in the dark I cried for three perfect strangers I had found hanging in my Joshua Tree.
Something in me became soft that night. Something in me also became harder that night. I made a decision. If decision is what you can call it. I decided to stay, care for the Tree, make sure it bloomed and maybe even see if I could breed more of them. I knew nothing about the reproduction of Joshua Trees and I wasn’t even sure it was one, maybe it was in the same family of trees but that meant there must be more somewhere nearby and more meant I might be able to pollinate.
I was suddenly a wannabe botanist. I guess we all find our odd ways to survive.
I went to sleep with the tears dry on my cheeks.
What magic occurred during the night I know not. All I know is that when I woke up, crept out of my tent and breathed in the first air of lingering pollution and old sins the sight that met me was inconceivable.
There they were again, hanging from the tree, the girl and her mother who I had buried with my own two hands the day before. The young woman with her red scarf and her kid with no shoes. They were dangling, just like the day before when I found them, quietly rubbing up against each other because the branches of the Joshua Tree were too close together. Awful macabre chimes.
Before I knew it I was cutting them down again, sobbing as I dragged the bodies back to the beach, dug another hole in the ground and buried them again as fast as I could. As if getting the decay out of sight would eliminate the horror of what had happened.
The rest of the day I sat by the tent, eating old nuts out of a small tin can thinking I was going crazy. I had half a heart to just walk away, put the beach, Spain and the Joshua Tree behind me and find another mission. Find another way to survive. The thought that I might just as well just stop searching for ways to survive and just sit down and die even occurred to me bizarrely for the first time.
I don’t know what stopped me from doing that. Cowardice maybe? Maybe I realised somewhere deep inside that my problem wasn’t the place, but something else. Something within me had broken, maybe my mind and I wouldn’t be able to get away from that no matter how hard I tried barring death and what if it wasn’t my mind that was broken? Then it was something else, something sinister and cold had reached the roots of my heart and I knew I needed to face whatever that was.
I spent some time in the old camping swimming pool. There wasn’t much water in it, just a puddle of rainwater. I sat on the bank, reinventing some adventures I’d had there with my girls years before. I could almost hear their screeching laughter as they jumped into the pool, holding their knees shouting “cannon ball”. At least I tried, but my mother’s words were echoing in my ears all the time, not in my head but actually echoing all around me and it made it hard to concentrate.
“This is the work of demons. The Devil walks amongst us.”
I tried singing the old songs, but nothing worked – all I heard were those words of hers. I walked the camping ground. Went into the office. Everything was well preserved and there were no dead bodies there. I guessed that maybe the people who ran the place never returned after winter break, though I wasn’t sure they’d had a winter break in this place. Now it was eternal, unless I could find a way to breath life in it, and how could a single soul do that? I was alone in a broken world, empty of civilisation and of people.
The next day I was prepared. I went out of the tent and I was prepared to find them hanging there. It was still a shock to see them dangling there for the third time.
I did what I did the day before. I took them down and I dragged them to the same place on the beach where I buried them before. The red ribbon in the girl’s dark hair somehow making the task possible, as if that ribbon still humanised her.
I tried to analyse the situation. Tried to find a way to realise if this was something my mind was conjuring up or if it was real. I had seen strange things happening before, though nothing quite so extraordinary. But how does a madman realise he’s mad? As far as I knew there was nothing else odd about the world, well except everything was odd, everything was new and strange and awful, but a side from that nothing was really out of the ordinary, the new kind of ordinary. Everything, but these reappearing corpses, made surreal sense.
I realised that the only conclusion I could possibly make was that it wasn’t my mind, because if it was my mind there was little I could do about that. I would be crazy and start seeing ghosts hanging in all the trees and that would be that. I guess the mad do better in this world than in the one we had before. However I couldn’t do much with madness, so I decided to ignore that possibility. Or I tried.
And so I spent the day resting and when the day turned darker I kept awake. I kept the fire lit and I spent the night awake, hoping that I’d either see what magic was performed or notice the lies my mind made up, excuses to explain what I’d experienced, or not experienced.
They came creeping, the mom holding her girls hand, tongues lulling in their mouths and somehow they managed to re-appear the snares I had disposed off and they hung themselves in the tree again, their movement subsiding only after they were dangling from the branches.
I screamed. I was helpless to stare at them go about their business and I remembered thinking that they didn’t look like the zombies of old movies. These corpses moved with slow ease, not with the compulsive stride they always seemed to have in the movies.
I couldn’t do a single thing to stop myself from just sitting and staring at the horror, completely convinced that the things I saw wasn’t due to magic but my own mind playing an awful trick on me.
It does that, you know? The mind, it plays tricks on us all the time – it thinks it’s helping but sometimes it’s really not. That wasn’t something I’d ever thought of before, the idea had never occurred to me but as I stood there staring at those reanimated corpses I was sure I had gone crazy somewhere along the way. Maybe I really had gone mad when I saw the little girl dead beside her decaying mother a month or more back. The mother’s decomposition a lot further gone than the girls. I had nightmares about that little girl for weeks afterwards, the time she must have spent by her dead mother’s side, not leaving until there was nothing left to do but lie down and die herself. It was unfathomable horror.
Or maybe it was a few weeks later when I was attacked by desperate people who thought I had magical powers and wanted to force me to use them to help them acquire food and supplies, something to live off, something to live for.
I escaped after three days, only after being tortured more than an average Joe like myself can take, needles under the fingernails because I wouldn’t perform magic tricks for them.
I escaped that place with my fingers bleeding and my soul scrambling to see humanity in whatever was left of the earth I walked. Actually feeling thankful that there weren’t many people left.
Now here I was seeing corpses climb out of their graves only to hang themselves time and again.
I thought about fleeing. It was the only idea I had that made any sense, but I didn’t. Instead I acted like the madman I was and I buried the corpses once again. This time I put a cross on their grave, hoping that if it wouldn’t appease their reanimated corpses, then maybe it would put a peace to my own mad mind.
It did. It helped. The next morning when I woke up there were no bodies in the tree and not the morning after that either. The only thing dangling from that tree was what was left of my own self esteem.
Being crazy is one thing, but for the craziness to be of any use I would have to be stark-raving. When one starts to doubt ones own sanity, without the sanity actually being gone entirely all you do is fear its loss. You start to doubt everything you see, every decision you make. You start to question everything you do and everything you’ve seen and with that doubt comes anxiety so heavy you can do little but kindle the flames.
I spent an awful long time underneath the Joshua Tree doubting myself. Until I was actually contemplating doing what the others had clearly done. When I actually stood up to get myself a robe I thought that enough would have to be enough. I hadn’t survived an extinction of the human race to fall by my own hand. Sanity or no sanity, I decided to HELL with it, let the demons come, let the devil walk the earth. What did I care? All I loved and cared for was gone but I wouldn’t end my life. I would fight through the anxiety and do… something. Anything.
So I stood up and I walked down to the beach. The cross was still on the grave and so I took it and I threw it out to sea as far as I could. Then I went and got myself a can of Tuna which I ate by the fire.
When the corpses came crawling out of the sand I stopped the woman. She was hideous to look at, her decay so far gone that I could see the skull underneath the flesh that was hanging on her cheekbones. I stopped her with my hands, careful as not to disrupt anything on her more than I had to.
She looked at me then and said the words my mother had said, the ones about the demons and the devil. I told her that this Joshua Tree was still alive, that there was no curse here. And for a moment I thought I saw my mother’s eyes in her dead eyes.
“That’s right,” she said. “Reverse it, this one is blessed.”
Mad I may be. In fact I probably am, but I took her on her word. The tree is sacred. When the tree in my old hometown died, the town slowly died with it. It didn’t happen over night as with the tree, but it happened afterwards, slowly and the town underneath Eagle Mountain became a ghost town.
Years and years later most of the trees in the Mohave desert died a sad death due to the change in climate. It happened slowly over time too, but then quickly and surely most towns on earth have become ghost towns. I know that what killed the trees pulled us down as well eventually.
So I may be mad, but I see a pattern where there might not be one. I will be damned if this tree will go the same way. I don’t know how to breed them, but I will find a way or die trying.
I buried the corpses for the last time that next morning. I made a cross and I made sure it wouldn’t be caught by the tidal waves. I even said another prayer over their grave. I said a prayer for my two girls as well and for my wife, for the little girl and her mother I had seen, for the man on the bridge and for all the others too.
I’m sure my mother would be proud.
So I sit on this former camping spot and I care for the tree. I water it and otherwise do very little but make sure no harm comes to it.
And you know what?
There are people now. Lonely people like me have come to stay. They came walking up to the tree and they nod their heads and they pat me on the back and we even have a civilised conversation, broken as it may be because though some of us speak the same language our experiences are now so vastly different that it’s hard to relate. We still sit it in peace. We take care of the tree making sure no harm comes to it.
And we’ve made several excursions to try to find another trees like it, to find a seed so that there may be yet others. Because when nothing is left but insanity, who is to say that the craziest idea of them all isn’t the one that will save us in the end?
I see her sometimes. The little girl I found on the road. I see her by her mother’s side, the corpse clinging to her corpse. And sometimes I see her alive, unwell hugging her mother’s dead body, unable to stand on her feet do to malnourishment or decease and I see the stone by her side. I see the tears in her eyes, they flow though she doesn’t really have the stamina to cry anymore. I feel something breaking inside me, something important.
Did I really left her there to die by her mother’s side? Was she really dead when I found them? Or was that stone by her side a weapon I used?
She sits in the Joshua Tree from time to time and smiles down at me. I even think I can hear her whistling sometimes. She seems content now and she’s keeping an eye on me.
I take that seriously.

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