The Hanging Tree by Chris Reeve
The following document was found in December of 2003 by a Park Ranger on his daily rounds of Windsham Forest. It is a sketchbook, the majority of which is filled with charcoal drawings of local landmarks. The back of the book contains ten pages of handwritten notes scrawled in cramped cursive, the details of which follow. Apart from the final page, which is marked with a bloodied and dirty handprint, the book is in surprisingly good condition.
My father used to tell me that it’s very difficult to get lost in the woods in England these days, and it’s even more difficult to stay lost. “It’s not like we have the great expanses of woodland that the US has in her National Parks,” he would say. “All you have to do in this country is pick a direction and keep going. In less than a day you’ll hit a road or a path, or you’ll find yourself at the door of a farmhouse or a cottage.”
I used to believe that. But now I’m not so sure. Three days ago, Bunny and I got lost in these woods. And I fear the worst. I fear we’ll never find our way out of this place, a place where the birds sing in mocking tones and the trees point gnarled, accusing fingers.
As for Bunny, his behavior has grown troubling. I thought I knew him inside out, every tic and idiosyncrasy, but he has changed these past twelve hours. He’s been conversing with someone, someone I can’t see. Even now, as he collects wood for the fire, he talks. Not muttering, but one half of a discussion that I am not privy to. He regards me with suspicion and no longer looks me in the eye when we speak.
For the first time since I met him four years ago, he scares me. His behavior isn’t that of the happy-go-lucky man I fell in love with.
I’m writing this down partly for my own sanity and partly so that there’s a record if something should happen to us. We are out of water and food and, as I said, I fear we’ll never leave this accursed place.
It feels like this is all I can do now, note down the details as best I can, order my thoughts lest some terrible fate befalls us.
I cannot shake the idea that we have somehow set something in motion, something that can’t be stopped.
Forgive me if this sounds melodramatic. I’ll start at the beginning, and hopefully I can convey at least some sense of the madness of the past seventy-two hours.
We arrived on the 3rd of August, with plans for a short hike into the woods to see Wystern Lake and to find the old oak known locally as the ‘Hanging Tree.’ There are many legends surrounding the tree, some of which are repeated in the numerous guide books written by those who have never seen it in person. The majority of these legends are based around the Witch Trials of the 17th Century. It is said that Matthew Hopkins, the feared Witch-finder General himself, brought a young girl from a nearby village here one summer. Accused by her neighbors of making a deal with Satan, the girl found herself hauled into the woods, one end of a noose tightened around her throat and the other slung over the thickest branch of the Hanging Tree. According to the legend, the girl swung from her neck on that branch for three whole days, refusing to expire. On the third night, she vanished. Her body was found the next morning, floating face down in the nearby lake.
But Bunny spent many a summer near here as a boy, and assured me it was only hearsay and conjecture, a tale told by the locals to stop children from straying too far into the woods unaccompanied and then later to part tourists with their money.
Yet still, the oak looked grand in the photographs I’d seen, and I’d been looking forward to sketching its wide trunk and knotted branches.
We walked a fair distance that first day, for twice as long as we were told it would take to reach Wystern Lake. Above us a blue and cloudless sky peeked through the branches and leaves.
Finally reaching the lake and the fabled Hanging Tree in the late afternoon, we found an overbearing sense of melancholy lingering about the place, and even the birds themselves seemed to whistle a sadder song. Bunny pointed out a tattered length of rope thrown over one of the low branches. Placed by a member of staff at the visitor center, he suggested, a morbid trick to enhance the already disturbing legend of the place.
I parked myself down on a fallen log and took out my charcoal and a sketchbook, the same one I write in now, and began to draw the old oak, getting lost in the myriad turns of its trunk and twists of its branches. Bunny decided to strip off and take a dip in the lake, joking about the warmth of the water and how I should join him before it got too cold. I questioned his motives and elected to continue with my sketches.
Somehow, the day must’ve gotten away from us. Before we knew it, the sun began creeping toward the horizon, and the shadows in the woods grew long and fat.
Bunny, drying himself on the shore, pointed out the futility of trying to leave, that we would only get lost and possibly injured attempting to feel our way through the dark and back to the visitor center.
I didn’t argue. It was chilly, but not uncomfortably so, and the small amount of provisions we’d packed would be enough to last the night. Besides, I found the scene quite romantic, sat by the lake in the light of a small fire Bunny had made from twigs and dried grass, our backs propped against the Hanging Tree in such a way that we could ignore the grisly silhouette it cast behind us.
I fell asleep in the loving embrace of my husband. Had I known what lay in store for us, I would’ve wrapped myself around him and never let go.
Visions of a falling star came to me in my dreams that night, accompanied by the shapes of hairy, stooped, and colorless figures with shrunken heads who chattered away in the darkness.
I awoke the next morning, still in Bunny’s arms. I reached up to touch his cheek, to draw him in for a kiss, but he pulled away from me, his eyes wide and darting about.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Look around,” he whispered.
I did as he said, and spotted that the ground and trees for as far as I could see were covered in a fine layer of what looked like ash. It had fallen on us too. Bunny pulled me close as I jolted in panic, holding me tight as I tried to brush the grey powder from my body.
“And look, up there.” He motioned with his head.
“What is it?” I saw only the twisted branches of the Hanging Tree above.
“The rope, it’s gone.”
Bunny was right. The frayed length of rope had vanished.
“This ash, perhaps it’s from the fire?”
“That’s what I thought, but look. It’s everywhere. We only made a small fire.”
We both agreed that we should gather our things and leave.
“What time is it?” I asked. The sun shone high in the sky. It must have been mid-morning at the earliest.
“I don’t know,” replied Bunny. “My watch must’ve stopped in the night.”
We packed up our belongings and resolved to head east, back the way we came. But Bunny’s compass refused to comply. No matter which way we faced, the needle only flicked around maddeningly.
“It’ll be all right,” he said. “We can use the path of the sun to guide us. And I still have my maps.”
Always a resourceful man, Bunny spoke with confidence. It was one of the reasons I’d fallen for him. But we’d been together long enough for me to recognize the worry in his voice. I’d heard it before, two years ago, when our newborn son contracted pneumonia. “It’ll be all right, it’ll be all right,” he’d said as we waited in that claustrophobic room at King George Hospital. But back then we both knew it wouldn’t be.
We found a point in the woods where the layer of grey ash stopped, a perfectly straight line. I felt a sense of relief as we stepped over it, back onto the greens and browns of the moss and bracken that yielded underfoot.
I hadn’t noticed it until that point, but there were no sounds from the woods that morning. No birdsong, not even the rustle of leaves in the breeze. But once we crossed that border from monochrome to color, it was as if an arboreal orchestra sprang to life. I never thought I’d find the sounds of the unseen denizens of the forest so comforting.
We trudged on for hours through the trees, not seeing another soul or anything that even vaguely resembled a footpath.
We stopped once to drink the remainder of the tea from Bunny’s thermos flask. It felt thick and cold as it went down. We shared an apple, the last of the food, and I tried to reassure Bunny with my father’s words. “It is very difficult to get lost in the woods in England these days, and it’s even more difficult to stay lost…”
Even as I spoke them, I knew they would be of little comfort.
On we walked, until the sun once again began to set. Bunny said we should start another fire and so we set about gathering some wood, but we found only damp twigs and branches that were difficult to set alight. After an hour or so of trying, and with the light beginning to fade, Bunny reasoned that we needed something dry to act as kindling. He asked for my sketchbook. I refused. “Why not burn your maps?” I said. “A fat lot of good they have done us so far.”
I spoke jokingly, but I was serious. I didn’t want to see all my work literally go up in smoke.
“You can always draw more.”
The flippant nature of his comment bothered me greatly. He knew how many hours, days even, I’d spent creating those pictures. They were my pride, my joy.
Bunny must’ve seen the scowl on my face. He begrudgingly pulled out his map book and began tearing pages out, screwing them up and stuffing them under the moss-covered twigs and branches we’d gathered. The crumpled sheets with their lines and symbols caught light on the second flick of his cigarette lighter.
Had I known then what I know now, I would gladly have let him burn every single piece of paper I’d ever put pencil to.
We cuddled up against another tree that night, more out of desire to keep warm than out of affection. The light of the fire threw haphazard shapes around the never-ending woods, and the trees danced in the glow.
I woke up sometime in the night, lying on the floor. I saw Bunny up and hollering into the dark, waving a lit branch around for light.
“What is it?” I asked, clambering to my feet.
He turned on his heels, his eyes almost… wild.
“Someone is out there. It… they touched my forehead then ran away, laughing.”
Something about his face caught my attention, a black smudge over his brow.
“What is it?” he said, seeing the look I gave him.
“You’ve got something here…” I licked my thumb and went to rub it away, but he pulled back.
“Leave it!” he snapped, batting my hand away violently. Almost immediately, he dropped the flaming branch, realizing what he’d done.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he repeated, hugging me tightly.
We returned to the tree trunk and sat back down, his arms still around me.
“I guess I’m just stressed. There’s someone out there, someone playing tricks on us,” Bunny whispered. “It’ll be all right. It’ll be all right.”
I eventually drifted off in his embrace, and I dreamed of a great blue serpent descending from the heavens, twisting on the forest floor before silently swallowing the pair of us whole.
The next morning is when I began writing this. We’ve been up for hours and we have decided, no, Bunny has decided, that we should stay put. He says it’s our best chance of being found, but I suspect he wants to confront whoever or whatever accosted him in the night.
His demeanor has changed, and he glances at me with distrustful eyes as I write. He is speaking as he searches around for wood suitable for a fire. I only catch the odd snippet, half sentences like “we will wait” and “when it is time.” And he pauses often, occasionally nodding in agreement with some unheard and unseen individual.
He is no longer telling me “it’ll be alright.”
I am afraid, for Bunny’s sanity and for my own safety.
He is calling me now, asking for my help with the firewood.
What have we done to end up in this mess?
The following is written on the final page. While the script is significantly looser and less uniform, it is still recognizably by the same hand. A smeared and rust-colored palm print crosses the words.
Bunny is gone now. Rough-hewn hands came out of the night and took him. Snatched him away from me.
My dear Bunny.
I love you.
I ran, headlong into the darkness. Somehow, I don’t know how, I have ended up back at Wystern Lake and the Hanging Tree.
The noose is there, swinging accusingly from the thickest branch. The ash is everywhere, thick piles of it like snowfall.
And there is a body in the water. It isn’t Bunny. It’s too small, dressed in a dirty white nightshirt and with long straggly hair. I don’t dare go into the lake to see it up close.
The woods all around me are filled with chattering and laughter but even in the clear light of the day I can’t see who or what is making those sounds. They’re like nothing I’ve ever heard before. A star is falling and a serpent hisses and I can feel it coiling around me.
I’m sorry. Whatever I did, I’m so sorry.
I don’t want to die here. Not alone, not like this.
Come back to me, my dear Bunny.
Amelia and Eric ‘Bunny’ Pendleton were reported missing in 1955. Their last known location is recorded as Windsham Forest, an area that was searched repeatedly and extensively for several weeks after the alarm was raised.
No trace of the pair was found.
The authorities have no explanation for the Pendletons’ disappearance, or the sudden discovery of Amelia’s sketchbook some fifty years later. How it has remained in such a remarkably pristine condition is also a mystery.
As of today, their case remains unsolved.
Chris Reeve Esq. is a writer of weird fiction and peddler of nightmare fuel, currently residing in Nottingham, England. Much of his work is based on witness accounts and historical records, further examples of which can be found on his blog.