Teetering on the crest of a marbled bluff, overlooking a field of wilting wildflowers, stands a lightning scarred red birch known as the Judgement Tree. It sits on a long-abandoned farm in Perryville, a property littered with dilapidated buildings and rusted equipment.
If you’ve ever had the misfortune to live in Perryville, the Judgement Tree is an all too familiar tale. Perryville itself is a rotting, destitute hell hole; it’s as much a town as it is a tomb. I’ve spent my whole life in Perryville. Every year I’d swear it would be my last, but somehow, the muck kept dragging me deeper.
The story of the Judgement Tree dates back to 1863, although record-keeping was notably sparse back then. A massive drought had swept through the area, killing off crops and livestock in droves. Food became scarce and starvation waited impatiently around the bend. People became desperate, willing to do just about anything to survive.
Theft and murder ran rampant, and whispers of cannibalism swept through the lands. It was every man, woman, and child for themselves — and this mentality spread even within families. Sons turned on fathers, mothers turned on daughters, and so on and so forth.
At the apex of this chaos, when blood ran like water in the streets, a nameless preacher from the south arrived on horseback. He was a scrawny, elderly man who looked as brittle as paper, but his voice boomed like thunder. Through his fiery, hell and brimstone sermons, he quickly became a messianic figure in the community, drawing enormous crowds from ten towns over.
Through the preacher’s teachings of redemption and ‘God’s unyielding forgiveness’, old rivalries and bad memories were laid permanently to rest. Soon after, the rain returned as well, bringing a bountiful harvest that filled the emptiest of stomachs.
The preacher was hailed as a saint, a holy figure whose miracles had blessed accursed lands. He brought peace to those who thought they’d never find it, and for that, he was revered almost as God himself. Unfortunately, that peace and goodwill were not long for this world.
One fateful evening, a group of hunters stumbled upon the preacher in an uncompromising position with a young man of ill repute — an alcohol drenched mob soon descended. Aghast by the preachers ‘unholy’ and ‘satanic’ actions, the townspeople tied the men up and hoisted them to the majestic bluff where the preacher had delivered his very first sermon. A blade appeared, and with two swift thrusts, their lifeblood was drained into the loose soil.
A week later, a tiny sapling burst forth from the dirt and sprouted, its blood-soaked roots tethered to the earth. The saplings growth was unprecedented, shooting up several feet per day, and within a year’s time, it had reached full maturity. A gnarled red birch with twisting, elongated branches that clawed at the heavens, the Judgement Tree cast a dark and looming shadow over the town.
Sensing it’s dark presence, several attempts were made to cut down the Judgment Tree, all ending in calamity and death. A farmer with a hacksaw slashed his carotid artery, a one-term mayor tripped on its exposed roots and snapped his neck, and a final attempt was made by a priest who was found hanging from its branches the following morning, his bible still clenched tightly in his hands. After that, people left the Judgement Tree alone and abdicated the property, as well as the town, to be swallowed whole by its benevolent darkness.
A century after the preacher’s execution, a pair of young, intoxicated lovebirds wandered across a forsaken farm searching for adventure, and privacy. By this time, the story of the Judgement Tree had fallen into obscurity, although that wouldn’t last much longer.
The lovers stumbled across a field of wilted flowers, with a lightning scarred tree standing erect above them like a cruel overseer. On a whim, they took the boy’s pocket knife and carved their names into the bark. As he cut into the tree, a sticky red liquid stained the blade, pooling at the base in a pile of dead leaves.
Unaware of the fate they had resigned themselves to, the two spent the rest of the night smoking pot and fornicating under the stars. A week later the couple was found swinging listlessly from the limbs of the Judgment Tree by a desperate search party, their names carved just beneath the soles of their feet.
Once again, the Judgement Tree made itself known to the people of Perryville, and as ‘breaking news’ does in small towns, it spread with the speed of a wildfire. Jacob the police officer told Bertha the hairstylist and Anne the teacher, who told Jenny Barker during a morning run, who told her husband at dinner over roasted turkey, who drunkenly spilled the beans at the local watering hole — and from there it continued unabated. Rumors and facts became indistinguishable from another, but one truth remained; carving a name into the Judgement Tree was a harbinger of death.
It’s difficult to pinpoint who was the first to carve a name other than their own into the Judgement Tree, but as far as I can tell, that dubious honor belongs to Nathaniel Cummings. Nathaniel was an entrepreneur with a nose for bad deals, a businessman with no business sense, or in less eloquent terms, a total and abject failure.
Having nothing but disgust and disdain for the life her husband had provided, Nathaniel’s wife left him for his business rival — although the competition was definitively one-sided. The betrayal caused him to snap, sending the usually soft-spoken and meek Nathaniel into a raging fervor, fueled by alcohol and cocaine.
Bottle of cheap vodka in hand, he stumbled towards the Judgement Tree like a drunken moth to a flame, some primal instinct dragging him to it. Using his fingernails, Nathaniel carved the names of his wife and her lover into the tree, until his hands were bloody and raw. Then, he slipped an engraved revolver from his waistband, pushing it against his forehead and pulling the trigger. By the time his body was discovered, two corpses very familiar to the deceased swung lazily above him, their names sloppily etched into the bark.
As word spread of the Judgement Tree’s power, the town greedily accepted its corruption. The festering hatred and deceit of the 1860s returned with a vengeance, only without the famine. Rivalries were once again ever-present and would often turn deadly.; violent crime was ten times that of surrounding counties. Hate was bottled and sold on street corners, and everyone partook.
Its root planted firmly in our soil, digging deep into the earth, the Judgement Tree changed us all; mostly for worse, but a special few for the better.
If you look upon the Judgement Tree today, you’ll see that its bark is enveloped in scars, the names of thousands of people adorning its bark. Even the thinnest, gangliest branches, that reach over a hundred feet, are tattooed with signatures.
It may not seem like it, and few know this, but the Judgement Tree is not a chaotic and random force — there are rules. Not every soul carved into its flesh is doomed to a grizzly end. Below, I’ve cataloged the four rules I’m willing to share, for now, with a little additional context.
1. If a name is written, a soul must be taken
If a name is carved into the Judgment Tree, that person will die, the ‘author’ will commit suicide, or both. There is no exception to this rule.
2. Initials, abbreviations, and nicknames will not suffice.
Only a person’s full name will allow the Judgement Tree to cast judgment. Anything less will result in the immediate death of the person who failed to engrave a full name into the bark.
3. Let your mind be clear, or your mind will be cleared
If you come to the Judgement Tree impaired on any substance, you will be judged as unworthy. Ensure you are of a clear and sound of mind, otherwise, you won’t have a mind any longer.
4. Follow the Bible, sort of…
The Judgement Tree is, undoubtedly, a follower of Judea-Christian teachings — although it differs in key areas. For example, adultery is a punishable sin, but not homosexuality. On the whole though, the Judgement Tree is very ‘old testament’, be wary of that fact before casting the first stone.
At this point, you’re probably wondering my relation to this affair, how I know such specific details about the Judgement Tree while most languish in ignorance — that’s a fair question.
I call myself the caretaker, I’ve held that title for almost five years now. There have been caretakers before me, and there will be caretaker after me, but for now, that burden is my own. As a caretaker, I ensure the tree is fed and properly maintained, in regards to the former, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
My name was once written into the Judgement Tree, by a scorned ex-lover too ashamed to be true to himself. He carved my name into the bark with a rusty blade, adding an offensive, homophobic slur for good measure. Unfortunately for him, I was deemed worthy, while he was not.
The Judgement Tree has no voice, but it can speak. It has no eyes, but it can see. That day, it saw me for all I was and spoke truth to power, selecting me as its steward.
The Judgement Tree believes in me, just as I believe in it. The world is rotten to the core and must be cleansed, purified through a holy fire and built anew. We cannot accomplish this alone, so I beseech you to find us, and help us judge those who must be judged, and save those who must be saved.
The Judgement Tree grows larger every day, and as it does, its skin lays bare, waiting impatiently for the next wanderer to etch names into its flesh. I’m calling forth to you, dear reader, to be that next wanderer, and help us construct a world free from the shackles of despair and pain.