SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
May 25, 2014

Ballad of the Evil Tree

 

I didn’t understand it at the time and I still don’t, but when I first moved to Minneapolis in 1986, my brother-in-law’s sister, a woman I had met maybe two or three times, gave me a small plant as an apartment warming gift. It was less “plant,” really, than “stick.” A four-inch-tall stick with three meager branches and a few sparse pine needles, one of those hopeless little pine trees they give to elementary school students to plant on Arbor Day. It was held in a tiny square plastic pot and the whole thing, as everyone who saw it pointed out, resembled more than anything else Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree.

            I’d always had a deep fear of plants of all kinds, so didn’t much relish the idea of having one of the damn things in my apartment with me. I only kept it around out of sheer, stupid politeness. Given that she lived 450 miles away, it wasn’t like my brother-in-law’s sister was going to pop in for a visit to see how it was doing. I could’ve tossed it in the alley, let someone else take care of the damn thing, but I’m an idiot. I even watered it once in a while.

            Over the months I did come to appreciate its appropriately pathetic wretchedness, but the next year, when the time came to pack up and move to Philly, I finally planned to leave it on the curb. I wanted to travel as light as possible, and besides, the little fucker had served its purpose. My girlfriend at the time, the one who’d decided on the move to Philly, had other ideas. She wanted to bring it along. I wasn’t sure why she was so adamant about it at the time, but in retrospect I’m guessing she and the plant were in cahoots. It should’ve become clear when, once settled in Philly, she transplanted it into a bigger pot.

            Well, with that new space and new dirt it sprang ceilingward, and a perfect cross of four new branches sprouted out perpendicularly from the very top. But because the cats started going after it she placed the scrawny, funny looking thing atop a pole near the window. Since it could grow no taller with that damned ceiling in the way, it grew wider, with long tentacles of pine needles drooping from its skinny limbs.

            Whenever she moved it to a new space and it found it had room to grow taller again, a single central trunk-like thing (though about the diameter of a Sharpie) would zoom upwards, leaving everything else below it. Then the process would repeat itself.

            After a few years of this, it had become a repulsive, hideous, gnarled thing. It wasn’t a pine tree anymore, it was The Elephant Plant. It no longer looked like Charlie Brown’s tree. Now, at two and a half feet tall, it looked more like one of those creepy, hairy trees you find in Dr. Seuss. Even the cats left it alone.

            I don’t exactly recall when I realized the tree was evil. Looking at it with disgust one day I think it simply became clear. Nothing that ugly and nasty-looking could have anything but the blackest heart and the darkest of intentions, and I knew I had to kill it before it killed me.

            Truth was, I had been trying to kill it for some time and might have succeeded, had not my girlfriend intervened, watering it regularly and turning it to maximize exposure to the sun. I did what I could, but it seemed to shake off all my paltry plantocidal efforts. Over the course of a mere three or four years it had grown too powerful, its wickedness ran too deep in its roots. It was beyond killing.

            In 1990, when we decided to move to Brooklyn, I thought this was my chance. This time I really would do it. I’d sneak out with the plant one night and leave it in the parking lot next door. With all the other craziness going on, what with the packing and other arrangements, my then-wife would never be the wiser until it was too late and we were unpacking in the new apartment. She’d look up and say, “where’s the tree?” and I’d say something clever like “Oh, I thought you packed it.” calm in the knowledge I was finally free of it forever.

            Like I said, I’m an idiot, and she took special care to insure the evil tree was moved safely. She took more care with that fucking tree than she did with the cats, and once up in Brooklyn it was clear I had escaped nothing. Worse, she kept it in a window a few short feet from the bed, as if to make sure it would be able to strangle me in my sleep with ease.

            When she moved out I was hoping she’d have the common decency to take the fucking tree with her, but that wasn’t part of the plan. No, the plant had to stay where it was with me. That’s the way the tree wanted it. It couldn’t very well torment and eventually murder me if it was in some other apartment in Carroll Gardens, could it?

            The evil tree was about three feet tall with an arm span of about four feet by the time Morgan arrived on the scene. It was more repulsive than ever. It looked like something out of Lovecraft, a monstrous sea anemone with grasping green tentacles, and its soulless hatred was palpable. I couldn’t get within five feet of the creature without growing nauseous. My god how I loathed that thing.

            I explained all this to Morgan, gave her the whole history, and what did she do? She transplanted the evil tree into an even larger pot, and moved it to a spot where it could grow more freely. Why in the hell do I always end up marrying women who cut satanic deals with evil plants to kill me?

            Well, the tree grew and grew and grew some more, only growing more disgusting and horrendous in the process. I tried to encourage the cats to piss on it, to dig out its roots, anything, but they wanted as little to do with it as I did. Apart from the transplantations, it never received new soil, plant food, Miracle Gro, any crap like that. It never got anything more than simple tap water, but that seemed to be enough. I could swear at times I saw it flexing its tentacles in preparation for the day it would ensnare and strangle me as I was trying to open a window. I watched my back, and the evil tree bided its time. Goddamn evil trees live a hundred years or more, after all, so why rush?

            In 2010, when I was forced to move from Park Slope to Bay Ridge, I figured that was it. The evil tree was nearly five feet tall, wider across, and there was no way in hell I was taking it with me. Luckily, Morgan was tied up at the time so I’d be moving by myself. How simple would it be to leave it on the curb? Maybe a bus would hit it or something.

            “You’re not leaving the tree on the curb,” Morgan said before I even mentioned my plan.

            “Yes I am.”

            “No you’re not. I’ll come over and we’ll move it together.”

            “But I don’t want the fucking thing in my house anymore! It’s gonna kill me!”

            “No it won’t. I’ll come over and we’ll move it and it’ll be fine.”

            A week later, after making me promise I wouldn’t shove it out the window, my treacherous future wife came over with a hand truck and, despite my protests, we strapped the fucking evil tree in all its filthy evil hideousness aboard and hefted it onto the subway, where a Flamenco guitarist broke into “Feliz Navidad” as we peered at him through the branches.

            The evil tree did not adapt well to its new home, and I couldn’t have been more pleased. It started dropping branches and suddenly grew spare and weak. Apparently the shock of the train ride and the Bunker’s lack of sunlight did everything I’d been trying to do for the last twenty-five years without success. Oh, I was tickled, and gloried in it’s dying moments.

            Then one day Morgan noticed something.

            “It has a parasitic twin,” she said.

            “What?”

            “There’s a new tree growing out of its side.”

            And I’ll be fucked if she wasn’t right. A new tree with a bigger trunk but just as gnarled was twisting from the evil tree’s side and upward.

            “My god, it’s more evil than I thought,” I said in horror. “Long live the new flesh.”

            From a distance, I kept an eye on the evil parasite as it grew larger. I did not like the way this was going at all.

            Two years ago Morgan brought a few small, simple, benign plants over from her apartment thinking they’d do better in the dim light of the Bunker. They may have too, had she not placed them on a window sill next to the evil tree. It was only a matter of weeks before the tree’s tentacles covered and strangled the little vines, same as it would do to me one day.

            Even as the parasitic twin grew, the original evil tree seemed to regain its strength (perhaps after sucking the life force from Morgan’s plants) and grew larger still. I could sense the showdown was nearing.

            Then when we decided that Morgan and her cats would move in with me, we also decided we should move the surviving plants outdoors as they were all poisonous to cats. I made sure that included the fucking tree as well, given “pure malevolence” should be considered just as poisonous to cats. It took some encouragement, but Morgan finally relented.

            The really hilarious thing was that by now the evil tree had grown too large to get out of the apartment, so Morgan borrowed a pair of garden shears from our upstairs neighbors, two avid gardeners who were always working in the backyard. As I watched and laughed and laughed, she amputated limb after limb and tossed them in a garbage bag. When she was finished, she hauled the still bleeding hulk out back, and I felt safe in my own home for perhaps the first time in almost thirty years.

            It only got better after that. A few days after we got the evil tree the hell out of there, the gardeners upstairs wrote asking permission to plant the evil tree for real and for true at the far end of the garden, some fifty feet away from the house.

            “Not only do you have my permission,” I wrote back, “but I strongly encourage it.” I knew that in all likelihood I was going to be moving soon, and for once that fucker wouldn’t be coming along. “Give it all the air and water and room it needs,” I continued. “I’m sure it will be very happy back there. And may god have mercy on your souls.”

 

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