This week I am so thrilled to unveil the once-lost ending of ‘The Mulberry Tree’. Huge thanks to the author Kara McKeever for helping me be able to show off the ending of her wonderful story. So without further ado, here is the original ending of the story:
It was Oscar who was sent to retrieve Elliot later, when his mother was ready to drive them all home. He ascended easily up to his cousin, wrapped an arm around him and started to climb down. Elliot fought him and gripped hard at the branch, but Oscar extricated him little by little and brought him closer to the base of the tree. Near the bottom, Elliot kicked furiously. His glasses were knocked from his head and Oscar accidentally crushed them scrabbling to yank Elliot from the trunk.
On the ground they separated,
breathing heavily. Elliot had clutched the tree so hard that his hands bled
from being torn away.
There was no one around
outside when Oscar stood by the tree the next morning. His father had dropped
him off at the house on his way to work, to see if he could help his
grandfather. Oscar looked at the scratches Elliot had made in the trunk, and
bent over to pick up a few pieces of Elliot’s broken lenses lying near the
tree’s gnarled roots. Elliot was being taken to get new glasses that day. His
eyes had looked smaller without them. Yesterday he had snatched the broken rims
from the ground, and Oscar saw that he was sweating and trying not to cry.
Oscar went to get the weed
cutter from the shed. Between this house and his cousins’ and his own, Oscar
felt like he had been cutting grass all summer. He was actually looking forward
to the hot, dry spell of late July and August when the lawn almost ceased to
grow, even though the dried grass pricked bare feet.
He had long been aware of the
ax hanging against the dark walls of the shed, shrouded in dust-laden cobwebs.
Just looking at it had brought on a delicious sort of terror when he was
smaller. But today he put the weed cutter back and for the first time reached
for the ax, the rusted head heavier than he expected, the long wooden handle
worn smooth. For a moment he had the ridiculous thought that it must be so old
it wouldn’t work. The blade didn’t look especially sharp. But it could probably
still do something. He hefted it in one hand and went back outside.
The mulberry tree’s dead
branches swayed slightly, though there was only the smallest whisper of a
breeze. There was almost more dead in the tree than alive, Oscar thought. He
approached the trunk and studied the base, then put his hand in the hollow that
used to be hard to reach. The inside felt damp and dirty—in fact, it really
felt rotten, diseased. Oscar brushed his hand across his jeans, gripped the
handle of the rusted ax, and swung.
Oscar knew that it was only a
matter of time before the sound drew someone from the house. He moved the ax as
hard and quickly as he could. And then his younger cousin Megan came around the
side of the house and screamed.
“Hey, Meg,” he said, turning
“What are you doing?” she
asked. He could tell that just the sight of the ax—so large and rarely used,
present in tales of horror even little girls had heard—scared her.
Kate appeared around the
corner, following Meg’s outcry.
“What are you doing?” she
repeated, but with her horror directed at the tree. She rushed over to the
trunk where Oscar had pounded a crack into the wood. It had been harder than
he’d expected, but he thought that if he could get far enough inside the
rotting flesh would be soft.
Kate knelt and touched the
tree’s new wounds tenderly.
“Are you crazy?” she said in a
quavering voice. “What’s wrong with you?”
Oscar stood and glared at her
with the ax in her hand.
“What’s wrong with you, Kate? It’s a tree. Stop being a baby about
it, and get out of the way.”
“You’re worse than Elliot.
This is stupid—this is insane. Just leave it! What’s wrong with you?”
“There’s no way…”
Oscar swung the ax. Kate
shrieked and jerked back, but Oscar had aimed above and to her left, into a
crevice where the trunk split into branches.
Megan started to cry.
The look Kate gave him made
Oscar wish it hadn’t seemed like he wanted to hit her. She took the younger
girl and went quickly into the house. Oscar tried to pull the ax from the tree
and realized it was stuck. He left it.
“Someone thought he’d do it
the hard way today,” said one of Oscar’s uncles at supper that night. “The good
old-fashioned ax.” He grinned over his hamburger.
Elliot noticed that Kate was
barely eating, and that she glowered at Oscar across the table. He saw Oscar
mouth the words “grow up” to her before pushing back his chair and taking his
plate to the sink. Elliot had seen the ax sticking out of Mrs. Mulberry that
evening through his new glasses. He thought it must have struck her heart. But
the fact that it had gotten stuck there meant the wood hadn’t given way. That
part of her, at least, was not sick.
Elliot set his sandwich on the
floor for the cat.
Later Kate went out to the
front porch to sit with arms folded and stare at the firefly-filled yard. Her
parents were still talking with the other adults in the kitchen. Kate wanted to
go home, but she was also afraid to leave, afraid that when she got back things
would have changed before she was ready. Soft lamplight from the living room
window lay in a distorted square beside her. After a little while she got up
and went back in the house, entering the room with its single lamp glowing in
the corner and the shag green carpet cushioning the floor.
“We have to cut down Mrs.
Mulberry,” Kate told her grandmother while she slept. She could feel all the
bones in her grandmother’s hand.
Kate wasn’t there when it
happened. She was watching the kids at home while her mother was at her
grandparents’. That evening their father picked them up and took them over to
the house for supper. It had been a long day for everyone and supper was very late.
The door to the living room
was shut and the adults gathered the children around the kitchen table with
plates of spaghetti, before sitting down at the dining room table themselves.
“Sit by me, Kate,” her cousin
Patrick insisted, so she had squeezed between him and Donald, scooting her
chair as close as she could and elbowing gently for room to use her fork. It
was only then that she realized the sun, bright and red in the west, was
cutting across her eyes, obscuring the faces in front of her. She looked up
through the window and straight into the sunset.
“Uncle Jim cut the tree down
today,” Patrick announced to Kate, sitting on his knees on the wooden kitchen
chair and stabbing his fork into his noodles.
“And Daddy. And Uncle Pete
helped when he got off work. Uncle Jim had a chainsaw.”
“You shoulda heard it, it
was loud!” Donald chimed in, and
then reproduced the sound to his best ability until Kate shushed him and made
him sit back down.
“He cut the big trunk and
it crashed into the
ground,” Patrick continued, smacking one arm onto the table. “Then he cut
another one and it crashed into the ground! Then Daddy made me pick up the
“I picked ‘em up, too,” added
Donald, looking pleased when Kate praised him.
Elliot’s lip trembled a
moment. If only he had held on tighter. If only Oscar hadn’t been stronger than
him. If only Mrs. Mulberry had never started rotting. If only they had all
cared more. If only Kate had helped him. He glanced at his sister’s face, the
sunset brushed pale over her cheeks. He watched as she urged the boys to eat
their supper, to keep their restless bottoms on the kitchen chairs as they
reenacted different moments of their day, watched as she gave an approving
smile to the girls eating quietly across from her, their chins only inches
above the tabletop. She seemed older all of a sudden.
Oscar got up to pull the
kitchen curtain over. The sun was at an obnoxious slant, filling the room with
a thick, red ray that illuminated dust swimming in the air and made it hard to
see; Elliot looked bug-like with his lenses reflecting it. Oscar glanced
outside, irritated suddenly that with the tree gone the sun would shine in this
way. Even half-dead, even rotting, the tree had been useful. And it had been
his grandmother’s tree. Quite unexpectedly, Oscar found himself remembering
when he had first bent to pick up a fallen mulberry and had put it in his
mouth. He had been very small, as it was one of his blurriest memories, and he
had been holding his grandmother’s hand. He remembered her smiling and letting
him feed her one. She had looked up and thanked the tree, and she had called it
Oscar gripped the edge of the
sink as he stared out past the clean-cut stump at the sunset. It shone on the
faces of his cousins behind him and he ached that the tree was no longer there
to block its brilliance.
But that, he thought after a
moment, was maybe the wrong way to look at it.