The Tree Mumblers
"The Tree Mumblers" represents its own kind of milestone for me. I first sold it to Mort Castle for Doorways
Magazine, which he was editing at the time. Not only was he someone whose judgment and talent I had come to admire greatly, but my story ended up appearing in the same issue as a reprint of Clive Barker's "Midnight Meat Train.” It was a big deal for me, in other words.
Jump ahead a few years, and I was able to cajole Mort (not really; he’s un-cajole-able) into snatching up "The Tree Mumblers" a second time, now as a reprint to appear in his acclaimed anthology, All-American Horror of the 21st Century, the First Decade: 2000 - 2010. That anthology is currently enjoying a second printing and is slated for translation into Italian later this year.
To hear me reading "The Tree Mumblers," as well as All-American Horror selections from F. Paul Wilson and Norman Prentiss, give a listen to episode 22 of my Bare Knuckle Podcast.
Overnight, strange figures began appearing throughout Seattle. Tree mumblers, we started calling them, because each one stood several feet away from a tree, facing the trunk and muttering quietly at it. No one was quite sure which held sway, the trees or the mumblers. All anyone knew for certain was that it was damned odd. Even the six o’clock news teams couldn’t decide if the story should be played for laughs, screams or scientific interest. Imagine, a scoop too bizarre for television news to pitch across the home plate of middle America.
I saw my first tree mumbler on the university campus, on my way from the ladies’ room in Denham Hall to the north parking garage. I’d passed a student with an armful of tattoos, which got me thinking how I used to secretly scoff at such people. What if they grew to regret them? But I was starting to see that concentrating on post-modern American literature as a grad student had been a lot like getting a tattoo. Here I was, a lecturer on Barth and Pynchon who could no longer stomach the work of either writer. Now I spent my summers steeped in the luxurious prose of the Victorians, but the metafictional die had been cast. There was no turning back.
What was really on my mind was a yearning to take the longest bath of my life as soon as I got home. That’s when I spotted the hooded figure, facing an elm tree with closed eyes, as if hypnotized or awaiting instruction, all the while mumbling under his breath. He was off the pavement, standing barefoot in the grass. There was something disquieting about him. Disquieting and intriguing. I took a seat on a nearby bench.
There was nothing unusual about seeing a druid behaving strangely in Seattle. That’s what I called them, anyway. Young kids wearing hoodies that sported patches for bands like Neurosis, Disturbed and Static-X. Some were homeless; others tagged along and pretended to be. Like I say, the type was not unusual. But this tree mumbler was something else entirely. Though his lips moved ceaselessly, his eyes stayed closed. Wet or greasy strands of hair jutted from the sides of his hood. His skin looked unhealthy. Even the fingertips that poked out of his fingerless gloves were pallid.
Then, without warning, he rotated his head in my direction. His eyelids flashed open, revealing not eyes, but orbs of blue luminescence. The blue light seemed to envelop me, but it also entered me—and not just through my eyes. It poured into my ears, nose, and mouth, filling voids I didn’t know I possessed. The light gave me vigor and focus. I was becoming… one of them.
I’ve always loved cherry trees, so that’s the type of tree I chose. It doesn’t matter what you pick, of course, since your eyes remain closed most of the time. We’re told in the beginning that we’re waiting for a great revelation, that when we’re strong enough in number, the trees will unveil a great secret to us.
Until then, we mumble.
I recently overheard a talkative old lady comment to her friend that I may be the first woman mumbler. I don’t think gender is going to play a role in the coming age, however.
I stole a glance to my right a few moments ago because I heard the rustling of paper. A young man sits cross-legged on the grass nearby, feverishly jotting down notes of some kind. For the life of me I can’t guess what he feels so compelled to write about.