Ye Pines that loved my childhood,
I crave thy sight again;
So Gothic in the wild-wood,
So Saxon in the plain.
Charles Wellington Stone
Tall shadowing evergreens lined the alleyway. Starlight filtered through the broken clouds. Dimly luminous clouds of dust bit at the darkness. Clusters of red and white mushrooms sprouted out the pine needles that covered the ground. A gusty wind hustled past David and rustled the sound of footsteps. No drunken, pot-smoking, oversexed teenagers. The adjacent Hebrew boarding school was closed for the weekend. David’s eyes gazed upon a spirit. Its form within the natural configuration of an evergreen’s tree trunk, the lines in the bark shifting and changing as it receded inside. Bare of all its needles, the tree had a long gnarled branch with an empty noose hanging from it. David kneeled before it in prayer; the religion of his volition and reality reconciling the paradoxes that were irreconcilable. Then he rose up, lifted the tomahawk over his shoulder, and swung. Wood splintered with each chop. A piercing scream belted out from inside of the fort.
“The fuck you doing?”
“You said we needed wood for the fire.”
“That’s my father’s tree,” David’s buddy, Jonathan, said as he snatched the tomahawk from him, threw it, and then spit three times through his fingers. He used the sap to paste the piece of bark back on.
“What do you mean?” David asked.
David suddenly heard something among them. It sounded like the hum of a generator, but there was nothing electric around other than his battery-operated boom box that was playing Barbra Streisand’s “Evergreen.” He checked to see if something was wrong with it, and when he did, a kind of electrical current started to vibrate in his head, then his throat area, then his chest. Then it was all over him. The energy was invading his body. Like when a fuse box blows a fuse because there’s too much energy going through it the same thing was happening as the spirit entered into David. It was commingling with his conscious state, making him feel like he was having a panic attack. He grabbed hold of Jonathan’s arm to gain composure, which was when Jonathan said, “He hung himself from that tree.”
David’s quivering legs forced him to collapse to the ground. He knew Jonathan wasn’t one to joke around. Even when he decided to get a svastika tattooed on the back of his neck David didn’t question Jonathan’s rationale.
“I ain’t no fag,” Jonathan said, showing it to David. He then took a bite of the red and white mushrooms they had eaten before having sex, and said, “What we do ain’t gay. We’re brothers and brothers share a bond. That’s all this is, a bond. We’ll get married and have kids and still have our bond. But no one’s gonna call me a fuckin fag. Not with this.”
Only the tattoo made him stand out at school more than he already did. Jonathan walked around with what everyone thought was “a look.” Girls saw it as serious. Guys mistook it for dirty. So he took to keeping his head down when walking around because a single glance would turn into an all-out brawl and land him in detention. Day over day, week on top of week, year after year, each fight reflected an unspoken anger that he shared only with the evergreens. Jonathan built the fort deep inside the evergreen forest next to the Basin Spring, extending as far back as secrets could extend. He furnished it with was an old throwaway couch, a Mezuzah that he hung over the doorway, and a rusty stone-headed tomahawk that he found in the woods and used to build the fort. In the wee hours of the morning, he would call David crying, laughing about the cruelty of humanity, beseeching him to come to the fort. Sometimes David would stand off in the quiet distance and watch Jonathan from the fire he had made. The woods were a graveyard of souls and the sound of owls hooting, crickets chirping, or birds singing were never heard. David would only follow the trail of light when night’s darkness sliced open Jonathan’s pain and bled through the trees, letting out a harrowing scream that shook and swallowed them whole.
Tonight was one of those nights.
Jonathan went and got his book bag, took the Bible out, and then, where it was bookmarked read:
“I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; You have been very pleasant to me. Your love to me was more wonderful Than the love of women. How—”
“I know what it says, Jonathan.”
“You’re my bro, man. Like David and Jonathan.”
The cold, mean disposition everyone at school had characterized Jonathan as didn’t deter the straight-A student from crushing on him the first day of his senior year when he walked into Talmud Studies and saw shaved head, pale-skinned Jonathan sitting in the back of the room wearing doc Martens, rolled up combat trousers, a tight fitting white t-shirt, and black and white check braces that crisscrossed in the back. The attraction only intensified when the teacher paired the two to be study partners for the year. Their friendship coalesced quickly. At first, Jonathan used it as an excuse to see David’s soft blue eyes, long brown curly hair, and thinly framed body, walking in on him singing during rehearsal for the school follies to invite him to the fort to study afterwards. But, after a certain point, they didn’t even have to be studying to meet up, and hung out simply for the laughter, the intimacy, and, of course, to eat mushrooms. Whenever Jonathan saw David in the corridor he would yell out David you stud! or hide in a classroom doorway and jump out and onto David’s back all in fun. Jonathan was often conflicted between his feelings for David and what happened to his father.
“My father never believed it was a sin for guys to do what…we did. He always told me that King David and Jonathan were married with many wives and did what we did. But while he was fighting in the Vietnam War, he was discharged for having sex with another guy. My mother put him in the nut house. She told me that pops was a sick man. I have heard him here many times, but can’t make out what he’s saying. It scares the shit out of me.”
David stared out at the Basin spring watching the stream meet a boulder, split, and then merge on the other side. The waves smacked against the high bank. The rippling water shadowed David. He shivered as a wind gust slapped him. The tree he was standing under began to creak as though something was weighing on it. David looked up and cringed, frightened by what he saw. He could see the spirit that had invaded him. Its body hung right above him from the gnarled tree branch swaying, then, as the wind died down, slowed and turned and faced in his direction. It was Jonathan’s father Benjamin. He began dropping pieces of his life in front of David.
He was in his twenties. His cheek bones were sticking out. His eyes were sunken inside his head. His body was very thin and gaunt. It was seventeen years earlier, 1969, a time of fear and dark despair. American soldiers were dying in an ungodly raid in a war-torn Vietnam while at home the Cold War and the murders of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy had terrified young and old alike. Tragedy was a visitor on every doorstep and a creeping hopelessness set in with every man, woman, and child. But at Mount Sinai Mental Hospital tragedy came not from war or pestilence, but from Rabbi Abraham Schuster a trained psychiatrist. The rabbi had used the Basin Spring to cure a local judge of a crippling disease. The judge then put his considerable influence behind promoting the springs to friends, family, and colleagues throughout the state. Miraculous cures were soon reported in the local newspapers. Many of those were about badly injured combatants returning home from the war who flew directly to Eureka Springs, Arkansas with the hopes that the healing waters would cure their ailments. Benjamin, a solider himself, was sent there by his wife for conversion therapy after she found out the MP’s had caught him performing fellatio on another soldier in the barracks. Benjamin drank and bathed in the healing waters, was castrated, and given electric shock treatment. He killed himself unable to rid his attraction to men.
“The rabbi lied to your father,” David said. “He told him it was all in his head. All he wanted to do was shock his brain. ‘You’re not shocking Benjamin Mueller’s brain again,’ he keeps telling the doctor. ‘You got that? You can electrocute somebody else.’”
Jonathan leaned forward, put his glasses on, and said, “You’ve been eating too many shrooms.” Then, as he watched David pace back and forth, said, “You’re off your nut.”
David saw himself pacing a black and white checkered floor inside a white-padded room, yelling at the doctor who was coming to take him for his ECT treatment. The orderlies were trying to seize Benjamin who was putting up a fight until one of them in the tussle accidently tore the gold Star of David necklace from his neck. As Benjamin picked it up off of the floor the orderlies strapped him down onto a stretcher. Without any kind of sedative, the rabbi proceeded to electrocute Benjamin’s brain, which within seconds gave him tremendous pain and a rage he did not recognize when told about it.
Raindrops pelted the Eureka springs, but Jonathan’s feet pacing, pounding the dirt floor inside the fort were of no match. David sat up unsure of what to do as Jonathan approached him.
“You strike me as the kind of guy who likes fucking people in the head,” David blurted out in southern twang, as he approached Jonathan who sat up unsure of what to do. “But what you don’t understand, doc, is if we start to fight, it’s not gonna end until one of us is dead.”
David then stretched his arm out across Jonathan forcing him to jump back in fear and fall off of the side of the couch.
“Hold your water, I’m just gettin my smokes,” David said, taking one of Jonathan’s cigarette’s out of the box. Jonathan gawked in amazement at David as he lit it and took a puff. David didn’t smoke. “I ain’t crazy, doc. So Benjamin Mueller sucked a guy’s dick. That don’t make him crazy.”
Jonathan could see David wasn’t there anymore even though he was standing right in front of him. He was gone in his head. But Jonathan knew that David had lived by his instincts because he told him the story of how he survived a car crash that had killed both of his parents on the way home from the hospital two days after he was born. David’s mother and father died instantly in the crash that had landed their car on its roof in the frigid Basin Spring. The night before, a man living nearby heard a loud crash and stepped outside to check, but he saw nothing unusual, police said, and dismissed it. The car seat strapped new born was trapped in the overturned car for fourteen hours before an angler noticed the wheels up in the water. The infant saw many souls from the demolished psychiatric facility roaming the woods as the foundation of the Jewish boarding school was being built. He watched as his parents’ souls left their bodies and approached his. It was when the police came that David discovered he had the ability to reach a higher plane and see beyond the earthly realms. With his mind, he told the rescuers, I need help, and Help me. The police later told reporters about the surreal voice they heard that led them to the child, saying, “It was the voice that gave us the surge of adrenaline needed to push the vehicle upright.” David learned that the dead were not lost. That they spoke to as part of something greater. And if listened to what speak, they could give the power to save.
From then on, David was able to size people up pretty quickly especially his grandmother who raised him as her own and Jonathan who he had figured out to a tee. He saw in Jonathan a kindred spirit, but wasn’t able to express that to him for fear it would frighten him away. So he took to wearing Jonathan’s verbal bruises because imprecision would only ignite homophobic remarks. That he was soft, malleable, not up to his male counterpart. Whenever he stared deep into his pretty brown eyes, David worried Jonathan would instinctively know what he knew to be untrue, to think of another man as beautiful was bridling, unthinkable. But underneath the camouflage, Jonathan was beautiful, fatally, stunningly prepossessing. Yet the compensatory respect he commanded from Jonathan only deepened the yearnings of his heart. To let it open. To let Jonathan in. The way he did the night they had sex.
The crescent moon high in the sky, raindrops pelted the Basin Spring, and a cold wind pushed its way through the pine trees allowing the two stoned seventeen-year-olds more time to hang out together inside the fort and stay out past their respectable curfew.
“Freeze your ass off with no fire going,” David said, sitting on one end of the couch rubbing the goosebumps on his arms.
“I don’t feel nothin.” Jonathan kicked off his boots, sprawled out, and made David lay down next to him. “Sing for me.”
David would usually say no, but he was too cold to deny his secret lover’s request.
“Love, soft as an easy chair. Love, fresh as the morning air. One love that is shared by two. I have found with you. Like a rose under the April snow. I was always certain love would grow. Love ageless and evergreen. Seldom seen by two. You and I will make each night a first. Every day a beginning. Spirits rise and their dance is unrehearsed. They warm and excite us. ‘Cause we have the brightest love. Two lights that shine as one. Morning glory and midnight sun. Time we’ve learned to sail above. Time won’t change the meaning of one love. Ageless and ever evergreen.”
Before David finished singing they were both fast asleep, but it wasn’t long before Jonathan’s snoring woke up the living.
“Christ, you’re loud!” David said, in a sleepy voice.
With David’s back to him, Jonathan put his hand over his mouth. Both their eyes opened in disbelief when they felt something long and hard between them.
“Suck it,” Jonathan whispered in his ear.
“I don’t suck dick,” David said, pulling his hand away.
“Get your hands off me,” David said, wriggling around. “I told you I don’t suck dick.”
“You tellin me no?” Jonathan said, ramming his erection against David’s behind.
“Bet you’d like that, huh?”
Jonathan took down his suspenders and his pants, pulled David’s down, bent him over, and, with some spit, entered him.
“Oh, please don’t do that. Please don’t. Don’t. Oh, don’t stop. Don’t stop.”
Thereafter, they went through this perfunctory dance every time they had sex, which started with a game of hide and clap. David always wore the blindfold. It was the only way Jonathan could have sex, and realized now, watching his male counterpart behave in such a strange manner, that what David did was the highest form of complement. Sometimes David heard the claps from the souls of his parents who longed to play with their child, even though they were always with him like a handprint on his heart. It was during those games David connected with their pain, often giving a smile when it came. In so many ways their pain made everything all right. That was why Jonathan’s father felt compelled to use David’s body. He knew that with the impediment of his physical body removed, truths would be revealed that the conscious mind would not allow.
“You can’t get away with it, doc,” David said, poking his finger into Jonathan’s chest. “I know what you did, and that’s why I came back to Arkansas to make sure that you come out with it this time.”
“Come out with it?”
“Yup. It's time everyone knew. That’s the reason I’ve come forth. The only thing that matters is the ending. It’s the most important part of the story. You know how long Benjamin Mueller’s been waiting for everyone to know that he ain’t crazy?”
Jonathan stood silent. No words could he muster. Fear was shrinking his brain. His mind was like white noise. He knew his father was dead, but he also knew portals linking the spirit realm to our world were mentioned in the Torah. If his father’s dybbuk had truly taken over David’s body, he had to find a flicker of humanity inside of him to bring his beloved back. In times of difficulty he turned to his father, and his father always sustained him. Jonathan believed his father would not forsake him for undoing the last thread that bound him to the living world, and to the body and soul of his young love. That he would not uproot a young tree before its time. His father’s vagrant soul had no reason or excuse to live anymore, because every petition to be someone he wasn’t pained him like the needles of pine piercing a body. No longer were the roads barred against him. No longer did his soul need to find purity. Jonathan understood this now. All he wanted for his father’s soul writhing in angst was solitude. For the grief and sorrow that the world he lived in had given him so much of to be gone.
Jonathan learned in Mythology class that there was a way to drive a dybbuk out without having a rabbi perform any holy rituals. He opened his book bag, took out his kippah and Tallit, and put them on. Then he opened the Talmud and searched for a single word of command, but while doing that, he wondered if David was playing a trick on him, getting back at him for eating mushrooms to escape reality. “People have used the mushroom to transcend space and time, to communicate with the death, to touching the very face of God for thousands of years,” David would say. Feelings of ineffability, and sacredness could only come from Eloheim, David knew, and would respond with, “Some people don’t know a good thing when they got it. Some people don’t know they got the whole world and its right in front of their noses.”
“Wait, hold on,” Jonathan said. “There’s something I wanna ask you?”
“You never trusted me. I had to earn your trust. Now there’s something I gotta know. Are you making any of this up?”
“You a callin Benjamin Mueller a liar?”
“You think I’d make this all up?”
“No I don’t. I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry!” David yelled angrily.
“Benjamin, will you listen to me for a second.”
“You’re just like all the others, aren’t ya?” he said, Jonathan’s clipped tone like a jackhammer on his eardrums. “You say you believe me—”
“—Benjamin, I do believe you—”
“—But you don’t. You lie just like everybody else!”
“No, I believe you, Benjamin!”
“I trusted you, I trusted you. I was a fool!” David ran into the woods. Jonathan chased after him until he lost sight. He looked around, and to his dismay, he saw David climbing up the tree his father hung himself from.
“Stop! Can I say something, David? David can I say something? I know you’re tired, but there’s something you gotta know. I tried to kill myself the night we had sex. I was so sick because of what we had done that I took the tomahawk and slit my wrists. That’s when I saw your body floating in the water. I tried to save you and when I did my cuts heal. I realized I was tripping from the shrooms. But I also realized what you saw in me that I couldn’t see in myself. It’s what you always saw. Because that’s how you come at things: without judgment and without prejudice and with an open mind, which I’m not capable of. I’m telling you this because it’s the right thing to do, and because I don’t want to happen to me happen to you. I know you’re afraid of the truth because I was afraid of it too. I can’t explain all of it except to say that my mom knew, didn’t she?”
“Yes,” David said, as he climbed down the tree. “She was trying to protect you.”
“Protect me from what?”
“She saw what I went through, son,” Jonathan’s father said, as he approached Jonathan. “To know I am who I am. I struggle no more.” He put his hand on his son’s head, and said, “Say Kaddish for me.”
Jonathan did as his father told him, and said, “Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash sh’mei raba. B’al’ma di v’ra khir’utei. V’yam’likh mal’khutei.” Before he was finished, David slowly fell to the ground and his father was gone.
Jonathan came up behind David and pulled his limp body into his arms. He sat still until David came out of a sleep that was not sleep but more like a trance. They lay that way for a long time in front of the fire crackling against the darkness, the silent embrace giving them more satisfaction than the sex, and a craving David could neither help nor express. Jonathan hummed, rocked a little, and David leaned against his steady heartbeat as he said, “I see these things, but I don’t know how.”
“Where’s my father now?”
“They took him to protect his soul from the great harm he had suffered in his life.”
“You can see him?”
“We’re gonna need to hold hands.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m gonna summon his presence to you.”
“Are you crazy?” Jonathan exclaimed. “King Saul had the Witch of Endor summon Samuel, and Samuel told him that he would die the next day for doing so. He died. You don’t go looking for something you don’t wanna find.”
David clutched his hand with Jonathan’s. They stood up, closed their eyes, held very still, and didn’t say anything. A sudden chill they both began to feel. David felt a pressure in his ear, which told him that they were there. It was but a minute when he could feel their presence surrounding them. The men were all wearing soldier’s uniforms and had an old, rustic look to their appearance. One of the soldiers approached Jonathan, put his hand on top of his, and led him outside. Long minutes had passed before David opened his eyes and realized Jonathan was gone. He saw Jonathan on his knees digging in the dirt under the tree he had cut for firewood.
“Jonathan, what are you doing?”
He pulled a book out, and said, “It’s my father’s.”
He leaned up against the tree trunk, opened to a random page, and began reading, “They did more test, but no ECT. I was awake and they strapped me to the bed including my head. They shot something into me, then asked me questions. I always lie though to tell them what they wanna hear just to make them stop. I hate them and I hate the way they treat me, like I chose to be this way. Like I want to be an outcast and have my wife and government want nothing to do with me. I don’t want to be this way. They know this, too, but don’t even care.”
Jonathan flipped the pages, and continued reading, “Sometimes I feel like my soul was taken by the doctors, but not all of it. I remember what it felt like to be loved by a man. I remember the man who loved me. A man I met in the academy with blue eyes, curly brown hair, and thinly framed body who would tell me he loved me. I hope someday my son and doctors read this to know love is not a disease or disorder. To know I was born this way. No religion decrees the death of a child who loves another. I am not a shiqquwts. A thing that should cease to exist. I know when this sin is cleansed in a powerful flame, it becomes the greatest holiness—the “Song of Songs.” A love I wish for my son to know. For if the Holy powers will not aid me—what then?”
He flipped through more pages, and said, “He talks about running away. He wants to run away so that they stop doing test. Then it just stops.”
Jonathan picked up a picture that lay on the next page. David touched his hand and in his mind saw how much fun they had that day at the beach together.
“Hmm, wow, that’s a nice day at the beach.”
“You can see that?” Jonathan asked already knowing the answer. “That day meant so much to him. We were driving along the coast and my mother pointed out how beautiful the sunset was. My father wanted to take a photo. He was shipping out the next day and wanted it to remind him of what he had at home waiting for him. He said we would finally move off base and into a house when he got back. He was so happy. I’d never seen him so happy.”
“Do you believe in second chances, Jonathan?” David asked. “The chance to correct the mistakes we’ve made in our lives?”
“You mean in a future life?”
“That’s what your father’s trying to do. He’s trying to atone for killing himself. He was a victim. The doctor knew there was nothing wrong with your father. He knew the futility of hopes and prayers. It’s what I saw in you when we first met. It’s why I followed you. Why I’d do it all over again.”
As Jonathan went to hug David, David noticed a gold Star of David necklace shining from underneath the pine needles. He picked it up, dusted it off, and put it around Jonathan’s neck. They smiled at one another. Jonathan’s eyes peered past David and gazed upon a spirit. Its form within the natural configuration of an evergreen’s tree trunk, the lines in the bark shifting and changing until it receded inside. Bare of all its needles, the tree had one gnarled branch with an empty noose hanging from it. Jonathan kneeled before it in prayer; the religion of his volition and reality reconciling the paradoxes that were irreconcilable. Then he rose up, lifted the tomahawk over his shoulder and swung. Wood splintered with each chop. Music began to play. Jonathan turned around and saw spirits rising from all around. They began to dance. They danced unrehearsed. They danced and they danced. Ageless and evergreen.
ALLEN M. PRICE's fiction and nonfiction have been published in the Columbia Journal, the Tulane Review, Oxford magazine, Pangyrus, The Saturday Evening Post, Muscle & Fitness, Natural Health, and many other journals. His poetry is forthcoming in the Tower Journal. He lives and writes in Rhode Island. He has an MA in journalism from Emerson College.