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Grey Sparrow Journal and Press, as of January 31, 2018 will move to

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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The Virgin Mary Tree


by David S. Atkinson




“They cure headaches,” Joy tells me.  “If you don’t have a headache, though, it’ll give you one.”


The 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.


Nicky 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.


“We should make a rope swing,” Joy tells us.  “This tree would be perfect.”


She 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. 


I 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.

“We don’t have a rope, though,” I say.  “Where are we going to get one?”


“My dad’s got a rope,” Nicky offers, rolling over a rock. 

“He’ll let us use it.  He was going to make me a rope swing with it anyway so he won’t mind.”


We 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.


“We can use my jump rope.”  Joy beams, holding it up.


“I don’t know.”  I hesitate.  “I don’t think it’ll hold us.”


The 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.


“Sure it will.  We’ll tie it to that branch.”  Joy points.  “You’ll see.”


She 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.


“When I get to the branch, one of you needs to toss the jump rope to me,” she tells us.



“Okay,” Nicky responds, not paying attention.  He’s using the rope as a machete to cut down a patch of weeds.


Joy 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.  Joy stares.


“Somebody was in the window!”  She squeals.


“Probably 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.


“I 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 attic.”


I 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.


“I 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 it.”


“You 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.”


Joy 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.


I 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.


“You 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.”


I 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 matter.


“My dad has nails,” Nicky chimes in, swinging the jump rope over to Joy.  “He’ll let us have some.”


“No, 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.”


“Yes, he will!”


“No, he won’t!”  I shove Nicky.  He acts like he’s going to shove me back, but then he doesn’t.


“Yeah, he will.  Go ask him.”


I’m 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.


“Hey,” Nicky remarks.  “Where’s Joy?”


We 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.


The 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.


Joy 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 neck.


“Where’s she going?”  Nicky scratches his head.


“I don’t know,” I mumble.


Something’s 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.


I 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.


“Don’t just stand there!”  I scream, running toward the fence.


Nicky 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 catch her.


We’re 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.


“Joy, stop!”


I 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.


“Stop, Joy!  Where’re you going?  What’s the matter?”  I shout at her, but she just keeps pulling.


I 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. 


I 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.


I 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.  Maybe worse.


I 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.