This story is by Lizzy Henry and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Her house was filled with family, friends and workers from the ranch. Her boyfriend Frank grabbed her hand and whispered in her ear, “Are you ok?”
“Not really, I have to get out of here.”
She flew out the back door and headed towards the west field.
Lucy headed towards the Octopus Tree, as quickly as she could without running. She needed to ask for its magic today.
The Octopus Tree was an old twisted live oak in the middle of a field on her family’s ranch. Decades had created long branches that curved down to touch the ground before abruptly sweeping back towards the sky. Its silhouette at dusk resembled the sea creature that lived in the ocean depths far from this place. For generations, the tree had been considered sacred and the hopeful would come from great distances to leave a stone or a tree branch at the foot of it, an organic, worldly offering to the magical spirit that inhabited the tree.
Lucy ran to the tree today to ask for its magic. She wanted her little sister Mary to come home. Mary had left home after an argument with their dad. Her dad never divulged the subject of the fight, and Mary never came back. Today was their dad’s funeral. He had lost a short battle with cancer and they were burying him today. She had been asked no fewer than ten times today, and it was only 2:00 pm, where was Mary and would Mary be here and how could Mary not go to her dad’s funeral.
It was October, but still warm and by the time Lucy had reached the tree, she was breathing hard and sweating. She’d have to change before the funeral.
She stopped about one hundred yards away from the tree, watching one of the old women who lived nearby placing a stone in the pile of the makeshift alter under the canopy of branches. Lucy let the woman finish her spiritual business.
For what was the woman asking the tree? Patients at the hospital where Lucy worked told her of trips they had made to the tree, or tales of the successful pilgrimages of others. The Octopus Tree seemed like Las Vegas to Lucy. People were eager to tell you when things went their way, but silent when they did not.
Abusive husbands, unwanted pregnancies, unwanted infertility, troubled kids, cancer, job searches and more had all been laid at the foot of the Octopus Tree. Lucy had heard the glowing accounts of the interventions it had done, but she was skeptical. Most likely, coincidences or projecting magic onto outcomes that were pre-ordained.
Lucy searched the field looking for a stone while the other woman finished her commune with the great tree. Finally, she found a small one, around 2 inches in diameter. It was rough limestone and not very pretty. It was going to have to be good enough, she supposed.
The other woman, wrinkled from years working in the hot sun, stopped as she passed Lucy while walking back from the tree.
“Do you believe?”
“Uh.” This was the only answer Lucy could come up with on short notice.
“There is no “uh”. You must believe. If you don’t, the magic won’t work.” The woman walked on.
Looking up at the tree, Lucy opened her mind to the possibility of something beyond the corporeal. Something magical. The tree was huge and beautiful, and yes, looking at its unique shape, it was otherworldly. She decided in that moment to believe.
Not being sure the process of making an application to the tree, she decided to say her hopes out loud.
“Octopus Tree, I am asking you today to bring Mary home. My mom is dead and my dad is now dead. I am alone. Yes, I know I have Frank, but he is not my family. I need my sister with me today, to get through this horrible day. I am worried and scared for her. Is she alive? Does she even know Dad is dead?”
Lucy was on her knees now, sobbing. She looked up at the tree again. The branches, like the arms of the sea creature, seemed to be reaching out to hold her. She felt a calm descend on her and she stopped crying. She breathed, in and out, in and out. After a moment, she rose and turned. The old woman was standing far away, looking at her. Lucy acknowledged the woman’s presence with a nod, and the gesture was reciprocated.
Lucy plodded home, thinking about her dad, this day, her sister, her life, the old lady and the Octopus Tree. She didn’t expect a miracle, but she was hoping for one.
She snuck in the back door, and headed straight for her bathroom. She grabbed a wet washcloth and wiped off her face and body. She had hung her black dress on the back of the bathroom door earlier, and she slipped it on. She applied some make up and brushed her long hair back into a ponytail. She took a deep breath and looked in the mirror.
She rejoined the guests and Frank in the living room. He shot her a concerned look and she replied with a faint smile that didn’t reach her eyes.
Once it was time for everyone to leave for the funeral, she climbed into Frank’s truck and headed into town for the service. The funeral service was like her mom’s. She couldn’t tell you what was said, or what hymns were sung, or what people said to her before and after. She held Frank’s hand, because there were no other hands left to hold. And there was no Mary.
I believe. She repeated this mantra over and over while staring at the casket. She stayed in a trance through the graveside service. The funeral homes don’t actually lower the caskets anymore in front of the grievers like they do in the movies. You just stand there and try not to think about your dead dad being in a box they are going to bury in the ground when you leave.
I believe. But no Mary.
After the funeral, they drove back to the ranch. Everyone was going to eat, both out of hunger and also because there was nothing else to do. Her aunts would grieve by making plates of food for everyone and wrapping casseroles in foil. Lucy made small talk with Frank and had conversations with her guests she would not remember later. For the second time that day, she whispered in Frank’s ear, “I have to get out of here.”
“Be careful,” he replied. “It’s going to be dark in a bit.”
Mary had not shown up, and Lucy was going to walk back to the Octopus Tree and tell it to go to hell. How dare that stupid non-magical tree get her hopes up?
As she approached, she noticed another woman, a younger woman by all appearances, carrying a small child. Probably asking for the daddy to come home, or better yet, not come home, just send money. Lucy immediately chided herself for being so nasty.
The young woman turned, and began to walk towards Lucy. The sun was setting behind the stranger, and Lucy could not see her face plainly. Gradually, the woman got closer, and Lucy gasped.
It was Mary. And a beautiful little girl who looked just like the woman holding her.
Lucy threw her arms around Mary. I believed. And here she is.
“I am so glad you are here. I asked the tree for you to come back, and you did.”
“You must have changed while I was gone, you never believed in the Octopus Tree before.”
“I didn’t. But I do. Why didn’t you come to the house?”
“I needed to ask the tree for something.”
“That you’d be happy to see me.”
“Oh I am.” The two sisters hugged for a long time. And cried. And laughed.
As they walked back home, Lucy grabbed the child from Mary’s arms. “And who is this little one?”
“That’s my daughter. Her name is Lucy.”