The Virgin Mary Tree
by David S. Atkinson
cure headaches,” Joy tells me. “If you
don’t have a headache, though, it’ll give you one.”
cookie she hands me looks a lot like an Oreo.
It just has the word Hydrox stamped on it instead. I hadn’t ever heard of Hydrox, but it looks
pretty normal. Hydrox sounds like
something that might be medicine, though.
I eat it and it doesn’t taste anything like medicine.
heaves a chunk of asphalt into the alley.
It breaks into a bunch of pieces.
I worry for a minute that we’ll get in trouble for making a mess. The alley’s all broken up already anyway,
though. There are potholes all over the
place and the road is pretty crumbly. It’s
just an alley between our block and the graveyard. Nobody really fixes it. You can’t even see it from the graveyard
because the graveyard is on a hill from us.
There are trees and rocks all over the hill and the graveyard fence is
at the top so we can hang out there but the graveyard probably doesn’t care
much about the shape it’s in. The rock
Nicky smashed doesn’t make things that much worse.
should make a rope swing,” Joy tells us.
“This tree would be perfect.”
looks up at the tree. It does look like
it would be good for that. It’s kind of
gnarled and bent over the alley so it will be easy to climb. We can almost just walk up the trunk. It has a good strong limb, too.
still don’t think the cookie was medicine.
Joy probably made it up so we wouldn’t know her parents wouldn’t buy her
good cookies. If we couldn’t catch her
on it then it was something to show off, not something to hide. I think she made it up. It was probably just a cheap cookie.
don’t have a rope, though,” I say. “Where
are we going to get one?”
dad’s got a rope,” Nicky offers, rolling over a rock.
let us use it. He was going to make me a
rope swing with it anyway so he won’t mind.”
don’t pay attention. It isn’t true. Nicky is like that. There isn’t even a tree in Nicky’s yard you
could put a rope swing in. They’re all
really tall. The limbs are all too high
up. He’s just lying.
can use my jump rope.” Joy beams,
holding it up.
don’t know.” I hesitate. “I don’t think it’ll hold us.”
jump rope is ratty, like it had been left out in the rain too many times. It was white with rainbow bands and red
plastic handles, but the rainbow bands are faded and the white is washed out. The rope is starting to fray, too. I see little hairs sticking up all over
it. I’m betting it works fine as a jump
rope, but not for a rope swing.
it will. We’ll tie it to that branch.” Joy points.
starts climbing up the trunk of the tree.
She isn’t dressed exactly right for climbing. She has on a skirt for one thing. It’s an old-looking blue thing made out of
some rough kind of stuff. Like paper
towel rough. There are orange outlines
of cowboys on it with lassos. Kind of
looks like one of those poodle skirts in those old movies―Sundays on channel
42. I think maybe I’ll be able to see up
it while she’s in the tree. Her shoes
are giving her trouble, too. Some
odd-looking saddle shoes. They don’t
have good grip for climbing trees. She’s
making it up, though.
I get to the branch, one of you needs to toss the jump rope to me,” she tells
Nicky responds, not paying attention. He’s
using the rope as a machete to cut down a patch of weeds.
stops to stand on one of the lower branches of the tree. She’s looking over at Chris’s grandma’s
house. Chris’s grandma lives by herself
but sometimes Chris comes to visit with his parents. He’s fat.
Other grand kids come sometimes, too.
was in the window!” She squeals.
Chris’s grandma,” I mutter. Nicky is
still cutting down weeds with the jump rope.
I feel like I’m starting to get a headache. Maybe she was telling the truth about the
cookie after all.
think it was a ghost,” Joy goes on. “Maybe
the ghost of Rennae Liddle. I read a
book about her. She hung herself in her
look up at the window. I don’t see
anything. The window is dark. She probably didn’t see anything either. Besides, that girl wouldn’t be in Chris’s
grandma’s house. If she was in a book
then she hadn’t probably ever been to Omaha.
I don’t remember ever seeing a book about Omaha ghosts.
wouldn’t hang myself in an attic,” Joy says.
“I’d do it right on the Virgin Mary tree in the cemetery. It’s a maple right next to the big statue of
Mary. It looks like she’s pointing at
don’t have an attic anyway,” I say back.
“Your room would be the attic if you had one. It’s Jeanie’s and Nadine’s room, too. They’d probably see you.”
lives in a tiny house over on the next block.
It’s yellow. Weird, too. There’s only five rooms. Her parents’ room is off the kitchen. Her dad had been in there one time I came
over. He didn’t even have a shirt
on. I think he’d been sleeping, but it
was a weekday.
don’t think Joy’s dad liked me. I
thought maybe her mom liked me, but Joy told me both of them said we couldn’t
go out after Joy said she’d be my girlfriend.
They never said anything to me, though.
know what we should do?” Joy quietly
changes the subject as she climbs down the tree. “We should nail some boards to the trunk so
we can climb up and down to the rope easier.”
decide not to point out that we don’t have any nails. Or boards.
Or a hammer. It doesn’t matter
that we don’t have a rope so I guess it won’t matter that we don’t have any of
those other things either. It probably
isn’t going to happen anyway. It won’t
dad has nails,” Nicky chimes in, swinging the jump rope over to Joy. “He’ll let us have some.”
he won’t, Nicky,” I snap. “Stop making
things up. Your dad won’t give us any
nails. You always say he’ll give us
stuff but he never does.”
he won’t!” I shove Nicky. He acts like he’s going to shove me back, but
then he doesn’t.
he will. Go ask him.”
not going to ask. If I did he’d say
no. I’m not his kid. He isn’t supposed to have to give me
stuff. I’d be that kid begging junk from
other people’s parents. Nicky knew
that. I’d fallen for that before, but
not this time.
Nicky remarks. “Where’s Joy?”
look around. She isn’t up or down the
alley or down our block. She hadn’t
climbed the tree again, either. We look
up and see Joy slip quickly through one of our holes under the graveyard fence.
fence is chain link and there are three strings of barbed wire at the top. Less in some places where it’s broken
off. Since we couldn’t climb over, we
usually dug holes under it so we could go inside. The graveyard sexton filled the holes in with
cement eventually, but we dug others.
starts running as soon as she’s on the other side of the fence. She tears off into the graveyard. She has her jump rope wrapped around her
she going?” Nicky scratches his head.
don’t know,” I mumble.
wrong, though. She’s running. It isn’t for fun. People don’t have fun running around with
ropes wrapped around their necks. She’s running
fast, too, like she’s trying to get away from something. But, no one’s chasing her.
can’t figure out why she took off. Nicky
and me hadn’t said anything. Maybe it
was something with the cookie. Maybe she
got mad that the rope swing wasn’t going to work out. She would have gone home if she’d been mad,
though. Instead she’s running off into
the graveyard toward the Virgin Mary statue she talked about. Something’s real wrong. I know it.
My stomach feels sick.
just stand there!” I scream, running
toward the fence.
runs off down the block. I duck through
the hole and take off after Joy. I have
to find out what’s wrong. I have to
really going to get in trouble if something happens and we don’t help. My parents will yell at me and ask me why I
just let her go. Her parents, too. They’ll say she is our friend and we are
supposed to help. Or maybe they won’t
say it. They’ll think it, though. They’ll all think it when they look at
me. It isn’t fair. I don’t even know what’s going on.
grab her. She spins around, trying to
get away. She’s bawling. Her face is all twisted up and red. She keeps pulling. I can’t keep a hold of her hands. The rope seems to be the only thing I can
grab, but it starts to choke her when I try holding onto that. It’s wrapped really tight around her neck,
more like a noose than the lassos on her skirt.
Maybe she hadn’t been just talking.
Joy! Where’re you going? What’s the matter?” I shout at her, but she just keeps pulling.
don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I
knew I had to catch her, but I hadn’t thought what to do after I caught
her. I can’t figure out how they expect
me to do anything. I’ll be in for it if
I don’t do something, but I can’t think what something I can do. She won’t stop to tell me what’s the
matter. I’m not going to be able to do
anything and they’re all going to blame me.
kind of give up a little and don’t fight as hard. I can’t figure out how to stop her
anyway. Joy breaks away from me and runs
off toward the far side of the graveyard.
I don’t follow. There’s nothing I
can do. She won’t talk to me.
can tell them all I tried. Maybe that’s
good enough. I walk back to the hole in
the fence. I might even get in trouble
for having been in the graveyard. I’m
not supposed to go there at all. I go a
lot, but my parents don’t know that.
They’ll yell if they find out I went in.
don’t understand. She seemed fine. Not even mad.
She said that weird thing about hanging, but it wasn’t really weird for
her. Nothing else happened. Nobody said anything mean. One second she was good and happy. Then not.
I can’t figure it out.
Joy’s parents’ car barrels by as I stand up from
sliding through the hole under the fence.
They’re driving down the alley toward their little yellow house. Nicky must have run to tell and they went and
got Joy. She’s slouched over in the back
seat. Her face is puffy and red. She doesn’t look at me as the car speeds
past, bouncing over all the potholes.