When Anthony Willis pulled up to the Sawford Inn, he hadn’t quite expected the rustic quality of the place. It looked as though it had jumped straight out of a fairytale book. The roof was thatched with hay; dirt and dead weeds were growing here and there. The walls, white and brown with age, were supported by gnarled wooden beams bent by time. The windows were smeared with grime and cross-hatched with thin strips of metal. He felt as though he had stepped into an Arthurian legend, perhaps on a quest for the Holy Grail.
Parked on a patch of thin, yellowed grass, Anthony couldn’t help but marvel at the peaceful valley stretched out below him, covered in barren trees sprinkled with snow and neat little houses nestled into wooded corners.
“Yes, yes”, Anthony whispered to himself, “This certainly is the place to be.” It was a much better picture than the grimy, smog-ridden city scene he was used to, with its sprawling shantytowns and coils of bread lines. Stepping out of his old Ford, he patted the hood in reassurance. The car would make it, not to worry.
When he opened the old, creaky door, a blast of hot air smacked his face and a strong scent of ham with a hint of cinnamon infiltrated his nostrils. It was a warm welcome from the frosty air outside.
The first thing Anthony noticed was the unexpected coziness of the place. From outside, one never would have expected the muted pink glow of the windows from the evening winter sky, or the warm radiance of the fireplaces and candles, or even the warm earthy tones of everything. No, you would have expected a cold, dreary, dirty hovel with grey walls and pitiful fires in the fireplaces.
“Looking to buy a room, or just a bit of dinner? Perhaps both, eh?”
The speaker, a thin, middle-aged woman whose tanned face was worn with a lifetime of struggle and hard work, was across the room from Anthony busily fixing a loose candle bracket on the wall.
“A bit of both would be great, ma’am,” Anthony replied with a polite grin as he hung up his coat and hat.
“Well, room 6 is yours if you’ve got the money for it,” she said while straightening the bracket, “but you’ll have to talk to my husband about food and drinks. He’s the cook and bartender here. Does most of the cleaning, too. I make sure the place doesn’t cave in on itself.” She paused for a moment. “My name’s Sandra Sawford.”
She adjusted the bracket a moment more, and when she seemed satisfied, she turned to him with an empty look displayed across her face. “I had a cousin named Anthony. Good kid, too.” She gave an absent-minded shake of her head. “Got killed in the war. Was shot by a German officer in Belgium.”
“I’m-I’m very sorry to hear that, ma’am.”
“Yes, well, it sure did hit us hard, didn’t it?”
“Yeah, sure did. I had a friend who fought in the trenches. Came back and never was the same.”
“Did you ever fight in the war?” She asked hesitantly.
“No, no. Heart problems.”
“Yeah, yeah,” She mumbled absentmindedly. “Anyways, it’s great to meet you, and my husband, Sinclair, is somewhere by the bar. Just make yourself at home, alright? Oh, and sorry if it gets a bit cold upstairs. We don’t have electricity here, just fire.”
Anthony found Sinclair in the middle of telling a story to a throng of haggard looking men, all laughing heartily at a joke.
“Ah, a fresh face!” Sinclair bellowed, taking notice of the newcomer. He was a beefy man, not tall, but not short either. His hair was thick and messy, but his bristling beard even thicker and even messier. “Here, pull up a chair. What’s your name, my friend?”
“Ah, Anthony. Well, I’m Sinclair Sawford, the cook and bartender here. So, what’ll it be? Whiskey? Ale? Wine?”
“You got Cider?”
“Hardest Cider for miles around, my friend. Got some potatoes and just cooked up a ham if you want some o’ that as well.”
“That sounds great, Mr. Sawford,” Anthony said, taking a seat.
“Not to worry, not to worry,” he hollered, and bustled off.
“So, what brings a city man like you all the way out here, eh?” the man to Anthony’s right inquired, eyes sloppy and red from too much ale. “Oh, I’ve got an important job opening tomorrow, so I’ve gotta cut through the mountains. A friend told me it was a shortcut.”
“Oh, yes,” grunted a gruff gentleman across the table, “it is any season besides winter. That pass is dangerous, it is.”
“Aye, you’re much better off goin’ ‘round the mountains, not through,” chimed a small man to Anthony’s left. “Bad news, goin’ through there.”
“Well, I haven’t got much choice,” Anthony explained. “If I go around, I’m sure to miss the opening. Jobs aren’t easy to come by these days.”
“Hell, ain’t that the damn truth!” A man in a snow-flecked turtleneck grunted, chuckling at the hardships of life. This was met with a round of laughs and swigs of poison.
A pint of Cider came crashing down in front of Anthony, followed by large slices of ham and a heap of steaming mashed potatoes.
“First pint’s on the house,” Sinclair boomed, taking back his seat from a small fat man with a doltish grin on his face.
“Was keeping your seat warm for you, Mr. Sawford,” the fat man simpered.
“Ah, sure you were, Chucklehead. Now get the hell out of my seat.” The man, fittingly enough, gave out a short burst of girlish giggles before standing up.
A sudden thought struck Anthony.
“Did all of you men walk here? I didn’t see any cars, horses, or anything out in the yard.”
“Of course we did!” answered the man in the turtleneck.
“But those houses in the valley must be spread out miles!”
“The valley? Nah, they never really come to the Inn. No, we’re from a little town about a mile’s walk south of here.”
“All I saw coming from the east were trees and snow.”
“It’s tucked over behind the hills,” Sinclair explained.
So, the men’s talk continued deep into the night, talking about the issues of the day, the war, childhood memories, etc. In the early morning, after most of the men had gone home or retired to their rented bedrooms, Anthony paid for his expenses and went to sleep.
Hungover and miserable, Anthony really wished he hadn’t had all those pints of Cider and hadn’t stayed up so late. He glanced at his watch. It was already 10 o’clock, and his interview was at two. Better be one helluva shortcut, Anthony thought to himself. The bright morning light seared into his skull.
The going was slow. The dirt road was narrow and windy, with large swaths glazed over with snow and ice. Though he hadn’t quite reached the pass, the road was steep, and could send him and his car tumbling right down into the valley below him.
His original estimate of about ten minutes to reach the mountains had now been excruciatingly stretched to forty-five. Looking behind him, the Inn looked pathetically close below. Perhaps he shouldn’t have stopped at the Inn at all. Maybe just for a bit of dinner and a pint. What the hell was I thinking, staying the whole damn night?
It was about noon now, and Anthony could see no signs of descent in the path ahead. He was really starting to panic now. Snow was falling steadily, and Anthony was really appreciating his windshield-wipers right about now. If it weren’t for those, then he surely would have had to stop to wipe the snow off the windshield two or three times by now.
The snow was picking up hard, and so was the wind. The car had no heating, so Anthony could feel every drop in temperature seeping through the old floorboards, especially in his fingers and toes. Both were stinging and felt as if they would fall off any second. His fingers were almost blue.
Visibility was dropping. On either side of him was steep mountainside, and in front of him about ten feet of snow-covered path and then a wall of snowy white. Now five feet ahead. Now, Anthony could not see in any direction.
This was useless. He’d have to wait this out at this point. Right as he was putting his foot on the brake, the car lurched downward, reaching the descending portion of the path. There was just one problem: the path was iced over, utterly thwarting the Old Ford’s brakes.
“Jesus Christ!” Anthony roared at the windshield, repeatedly slamming the brake pedal to no avail. Pounding on the horn didn’t seem to do much either, but it sure felt good. The old car was steadily gaining speed, heading for who knew what.
He violently turned the car to the right as a large frosted boulder appeared right in front of him, and he found that his car was almost vertical, but still moving. A sudden tree appeared, slamming into the hood of the car, pushing it sideways and sending it tumbling down, down, down, and - -
Anthony awoke to the soft touch of tiny snowflakes on his face. At first he thought he was blind, but then realized that it was just the night darkness surrounding him. His body was numb. His eyes somewhat adjusted, he saw that he was still inside the twisted car, half submerged in snow and with the open door frame facing the sky above. Being numb from the cold, his first clumsy attempts to crawl out of the car failed, but he eventually flopped out into more snow. It felt good to just lay there…. The cold felt warm.
He lifted his head. Just steep mountainside rising into darkness. Behind him, snow lazily drifted in the harsh light of the headlight barely peaking over the snow. His eyes followed the beam of light, and he couldn’t quite believe what he saw.
It was a tree. It was tree that he had never seen that likes of before: its trunk was gnarled and twisted like a rope; the roots sprawled out from the base, climbing over rocks and digging into the snow, some rearing back out before diving back down. The thing that truly made it a spectacle, though, was that here and there on the bark, there would be patches of deep orange glow, as if light were passing through skin.
Stumbling towards the tree, Anthony saw to his foggy dismay that on all sides he was surrounded by sheer rock face and craggy mountainside. There was no escape.
Up close, Anthony could see that pulsating veins and arteries lined the inside of the glowing skin on the tree. Rather, the glowing light seemed to be coming from inside the tree instead of the skin itself, because past the skin the blurry shapes of throbbing and twitching organs could be seen at work.
“What the hell is this?” Anthony muttered to himself.
Something poked his leg. Looking down, He saw to his horror a long, thin tube of slimy pink flesh extending from the end of a nearby root feeling his numb leg. Anthony yelped and kicked clumsily at the fleshy appendage, but it only wrapped itself violently around his leg. Others followed, wrapping themselves around his limbs and crushing his body like hundreds of tiny boa constrictors. Soon he was totally incapacitated. One of the fleshy tubes slithered up to his face and opened the gaping end. Out from the horrid black organic abyss came squirming forth hundreds of slimy, warm-like threads, groping madly for food. Anthony screamed like hell.
Immediately, he knew it was a mistake.
The threads shot out at Anthony’s face, some shooting into his mouth and down his throat, some shoving their way up his nose; others into his ears and wriggling between the spaces under his eyes and the bottom of the sockets. He could feel them inside of him, feeling his organs… groping his brain… pulling him headfirst into the tube of flesh….
It was warm inside the root. If Anthony hadn’t been numbly paralyzed from fear, then his unfrozen body would have felt it being pulled deeper and deeper into the root. All he knew was that it was dark, warm, and that he was scared shitless with a bunch of tentacles inside of him.
Though the nebulous darkness seemed to last an eternity, eventually Anthony could see through raw, tearful, irritated eyes an orange glow approaching him slowly. Up, up, and up he went, until he found himself in a skin-tight sack that burned his skin, and Anthony knew that he was in the tree’s stomach… that this was the end…. Then….Images flashed before his eyes, images of the trenches in Europe, airplanes, tanks, dogfights, propaganda, V-boats. Some he had seen in the newspapers at the time, while others he’d never seen before. The worms buried deeper into his brain; some of the images were moving now. Air raids, chlorine, death. Now people were cheering in the streets, soldiers coming home. Next the Palmer raids, labor strikes. Now he saw post-war Germany with useless money… the establishment of the Soviet Union… the rise of Mussolini… the death of Lenin. Anthony knew he was close to his time, because now Hoover was president… the stock market fell… people were jumping out of buildings, banks were failing… Shantytowns and bread lines were appearing… Children lived on the backs of trains. Then he saw things that had never happened; or rather, not yet. People, thousands of people, were marching the Capitol… and infantrymen were approaching, using tear gas on the protesters. Then came a new face in office, speaking of a ‘New Deal’... but there was a new face in Germany, too, speaking of change, and of a new empire for the master race. Italy was invading Ethiopia… and there was a rebellion in Spain…. Meanwhile, Japan was expanding its empire. Germany was invading Czechoslovakia… now Poland. Anthony watched in horror as the blitzkrieg unfurled before his eyes.
Towards the north, Stalin invaded Finland, and Hitler came into Norway and Denmark. Germany turned west, too, into the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Now the fall of France… London being bombed.Back in Germany, Hitler was organizing a mass slaughter of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Communists, socialists, the handicapped, everybody the Nazis didn’t want. Anthony saw them starved, beaten, tortured, gassed… In Alabama, a bus carrying protesting African Americans was attacked. In Birmingham, he saw children hosed and beaten by police, with their dogs set on them. Riots like this were all over the country. More commercials and more mediocre commercials, and then Martin Luther King Jr. was dead. Again, things picked up once more. In between advertisements and commercials, Anthony saw war break out in Vietnam. Monks set themselves on fire, chemicals and lands mines killed by the thousands. Such were the visions Anthony saw in the tree’s skin tight stomach: Consumerism followed by acts of horror and then more demands for mass consumerism. All the way from Vietnam, to the Gulf War, to oil spills and the war on terrorism, and beyond, all through industrial humanity until, at the end, a great scorching death came across the land. This scorching Apocalypse, brought upon by human greed and hate, left almost nothing alive in its wake. Now at the end of his visions, so too was Anthony's life at its end, for the tree, its purpose complete, now finished digesting his unfortunate body, to take some nutrients for survival and the rest back into the Earth.
Written by Banned In CP