About two years ago, right around this time, my wife and I had just let our heads hit the pillow, planning as one does to go to sleep. The boy was already asleep in his bed. A few moments passed in the dark and then —
A massive flash and the sound like the earth cracking open arrived together as one. Pulse and boom. We shot up out of bed, not sure what the hell was going on — but it was the start of a storm, a storm that had up and decided to announce itself literally out of nowhere with this cannon shot thunder and this coruscating crack of lightning. The storm came in fast, but that opening salvo was the worst of it.
In the morning, I went outside and surveyed the damage, and saw what happened.
Lightning struck a tree of ours about a hundred yards from the house.
The tree stood next to the driveway, and you could see along it where the lightning had snaked up the side of it in an erratic zag — and as it did so, it blasted the bark off the tree in a perfect line. You could walk out from the base of the tree and follow the trail of bark pieces.
And yet, the tree did not die. Not yet. Not then.
The tree was an old oak, and at the base of it we had growing a maitake — hen-of-the-woods — mushroom. Those mushrooms only come up near certain trees, as I understand it, and I was glad to have it around still. But, little did I know, that mushroom had one more year to come up before the tree would finally give up the ghost.
And, as it turns out, the tree would also give up its bones.
The bones it had been keeping inside of it.
(More on that in a moment.)
Once the tree was dead and done, it was starting to come apart, so we had our Tree Guy — a botanist who takes special care to keep the forest ecologically sound in a way that makes sense for the area in which we live — come on out and take a look at it and then cut the tree down. He and another guy came, they cut it apart, felled it away from the driveway, and… the end.
Or so I thought.
The innards of the tree had gone rotten. Looked like soft, rich dirt instead of tree. Some of it was pelleted, balled up into little mulchy Tic-Tacs. The rot had gone up through the tree in a cleft shape, and that was that. We decided we’d leave the tree there — most of the trees we bring down, we just leave because each dead tree creates its own weird little ecosystem. Pill-bugs and fungus all around, micrathena spiders hanging from the branches, deer and other mammals using the fallen tree as a hiding spot, for respite.
Here’s the thing, though. Out of the tree came two bones.
Looked like a pair of leg bones (one femur, one tibia, I think) from a deer. The ends, the knobby ends, had been chewed up, and the middle had been gnawed, too. (I’m not a bone expert, mind you, but we have a lot of deer around and further, I grew up on a farm where we raised whitetail deer.) The bones spilled out from the rotten middle of the tree.
I thought, well, that’s creepy. I mean, I recognize there was likely a logical explanation — I was not literally scared by the idea, but just the same, it was fascinating in a grim, grisly way. Lightning struck a tree that had contained actual bones, and now those bones were coming out of the tree. My mind spins stories out of that, as I’m sure yours does, too. The tree, eating animals or people. Or growing up around a buried human corpse, containing it in its bark as it grows larger and larger. Or a murderer hiding the body of a victim in a tree, thinking they’ll never be found until one day — flash, crack, boom. The bone tree, exposed.
Where it gets interesting is, the tree was not yet done yielding its osseous treasures.
Over the course of the year, more bones came out.
Some were little. Like the jawbone of the squirrel you’ll see below. Some were larger, like more bones from the deer — including, I believe, some deer teeth. The bones would come up out of both the stump and the fallen tree — and they’d either be on the stump or around its base. They weren’t there before — I know, because I went out with the camera and poked around pretty good looking for cool shots. Now, again, the explanation here is almost surely less grisly than you think — not that I want to pop anybody’s bubble, but squirrels chew bones. They do it for the minerals and to shorten their growing teeth. And, given that squirrels sometimes, well, squirrel away things into trees, it’s fair to say that this is exactly what happened here. Some squirmy, chattery bone collector squirrel was hiding his finds in a tree so other squirrels would not come upon them. (Or hell, maybe it was a SERIAL KILLER SQUIRREL.)
But, again, the story doesn’t really end here.
I found the new bones in May. With those bones, I also found a strange substance — it honestly feels (felt) like plastic. White plastic… not webbing, exactly, because it was not structured to any apparent design but was rather just a tangle. (I have a picture of it below.) It was all over. I tried to pull it apart, thinking maybe it was some kind of weird fungal growth, but it wouldn’t break. Again, like plastic.
Then, around August —
The bones were all gone. All but one, one of the femurs. And something had ripped up the side of the tree, pulling bark off. No claw marks that I could see, and no footprints — but something had pulled bark off the side of the stump. Further, that was also the day I found, down near the road (and about another 100 yards from the tree), parts of a dead deer. The parts I found were: a ribcage, with considerable meat upon it, and the lower half of a deer leg — the tibia, but with skin still on it, also the hoof. The smell was rank and stayed for days because it was hot and humid. The parts were in a grassy blind, right where deer like to sometimes lay and sleep during the day. Eventually vultures pulled the gory pieces out into the road, like a buffet — and they somehow pulled out what could best be described as a blanket of skin. This rotten deer leather literally tanned on the road for days.
I don’t know what happened or what any of it means. Occasionally I ponder on there being a bear around here — we do get them from time to time. A neighbor shot one a few years ago (which, by the way, you’re not supposed to do and he rightly got his ass in trouble for it). Our other neighbors also have a couple hellhound dogs which are about as unpleasant as you get. (Not the dogs’ fault, mind you, but they’re still some unfriendly beasts.)
Since then, a rank dead smell has come up out of the woods another three times since then, the most recent being last week — I’ve not yet been able to track these smells to their source. But the smell was strong enough it was more than just a dead mouse or something. (Oh, and yesterday I found half of a mole by our doorstep. Once again, probably nothing creepy: likely a red-tailed hawk who failed to eat the whole of its meal. We had a hawk at college who was fond of leaving squirrel heads around.)
It is what it is, I suppose. That’s life in the forest, man.
And that’s the story of the bone tree.
(Pics at the end of the post.)
Now! Before I forget, some news-slathered snidbits:
The Forever Endeavor is out now! PRESS THE SHINY BUTTON. For $2.99, you get a story about the consequences of traveling back in time ten minutes, and how exactly that relates to a pumpkin patch full of matching identical dead bodies. It also has connections to the overall “Wendigverse,” and helps to bridge the Mookie Pearl and Miriam Black series in kind of a weird-ass fate-versus-free-will way.
Also, Sci-Fi Bulletin did a very nice review of Invasive:
“His key figure is Hannah Stander, an FBI consultant who has been brought up by survivalist parents, which stands her in good stead for the events of the second half of the book, as everything that you start to fear as you read the opening pages begins to come to pass. She’s investigating the work of a group of scientists, and their charismatic leader who may or may not be responsible for creating a new strain of ant that isn’t going to be easily dealt with. Exactly who’s done what is a key part of the novel and Wendig constantly throws curveballs at the reader, with one in particular making me want to kick myself for overlooking something that was obvious in retrospect!
“Wendig’s style is always punchy, providing just enough information about characters and situations for the reader to be able both to understand what’s happening and to get inside the heads of the people in the scene. It’s a skill he’s honed over the last few years and puts to good use here. If you don’t find your skin crawling at certain times then I’ll be very surprised.”
Invasive also gets a shout at BookBub as one of 12 books to read if you love Michael Crichton.
(If you’ve read Invasive, or any of my books, or really any book by any author, I’d appreciate a review somewhere. Reviews are currency in online marketplaces, for better or for worse.)
Finally, today is the last day to get Atlanta Burns and its sequel, The Hunt, for $1.99. Note, both books are very triggery in a variety of ways — the stories are rural YA crime/noir. They get nasty. Be advised.
Onto the pics: