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 toward her.
“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 branches.”
“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 Mrs. Mulberry.
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.