In the Shoe Tree

By Syche Phillips

No coverage, not even one bar, the battery was dead anyway. It was still daytime, but it was overcast and the sky had a perfectly even dullness, so there was no way to tell what time of day it was, much less which direction was north or south or anything else for that matter. A two-lane blacktop road snaked up into the distance and disappeared into some trees, or a forest if you wanted to get technical about it. It also snaked down toward some lumpy hills and disappeared there as well. What sounded like a two-stroke chainsaw could be heard in the distance, but it was impossible to tell whether it was up in the forest or down in the lumpy hills. This had been happening more often lately. Two different ways to go, with a dead battery and no bars, and nobody left to blame.

Marti didn’t want to leave the El Dorado sitting out on the road, but she didn’t know what else to do. Despite the clouds the air was hot, and the humidity pressed down on her, full and heavy. She looked through the car, trying to decide what was worth carrying with her, and what she might find useful. She filled a tote bag with two half empty water bottles that had been rolling around in the backseat, a granola bar, a thin cardigan sweater, and a pen and crumpled paper.

If she was a kid, she would have done eeny meany miny moe to decide which direction she should set out. If she was a more competent adult, she would have been paying attention to the road and would have known more about the landscape she had just driven through—like whether there had been any sort of house or building or road leading off to a town. But—better admit it now, whether she liked it or not—she was still a little bit drunk, and she had been focusing on keeping the car between the lines, and hadn’t been studying the countryside.

She looked up the road, and then down once more, and then picked down, because walking uphill was more than she could face. Her head was beginning to pound, and after a few steps she turned around and went back to the car, looking through the detritus in the center console one last time for a spare travel pack of aspirin. She found one, dry swallowed the two pills inside, and walked away from the car.

As she walked, Marti realized that the road was misleading. It had looked like a half mile, maybe, to the hills she had seen. But as far as she walked, she didn’t seem to be getting any closer to them. She didn’t know if it the sprawling landscape was deceptive, or if she was drunker than she had originally thought.

By the time she got to the first slight incline, it was getting darker. The clouds still covered the sky, but the gray was deepening, and the heat was relaxing, slipping off of her like a heavy satin shawl. A breeze picked up and her skin drank it in. She stopped and took a drink of water, painfully aware that she didn’t have much between the two bottles.

She crested the first hill and looked back, but there was no way to pick out the car where she had left it. Not for the first time today, she thought about her choice back there—picking between the two different directions—and wondered if she’d chosen correctly. Then she turned and followed the road around a bend.

A large tree swelled up in front of her, dripping with moss and dead leaves. There were huge nests built up in the forks of branches, balls of sticks and debris. As she looked, she saw a large black wing extend out of one of the nests, and then fold itself back up. She moved closer to the tree, and saw in the fading daylight that some of the decorations on the tree weren’t actually leaves at all, but shoes. Pairs of shoes tied together by the laces and flung into this tree, out in the middle of nowhere.

Now that she looked more closely, she could see tire tracks in the dirt here, as if someone (or many someones) had pulled over in the mud, gotten out, hurled their shoes up into the branches over and over until they found purchase, and then turned around and driven back the way they had come. That thought reassured her—there must be a town somewhere nearby.

She tugged experimentally at a shoe hanging on a low branch, and found that the laces were so tangled around the tree that it didn’t move an inch. She stood below the branches and looked up, gazing at so many soles she couldn’t begin to count them all.

A rustling, and then a flapping, came from one of the nests as a large black crow took off, out into the twilight, without sparing Marti a second glance. She watched it disappear into the gray sky, a black speck in nothingness.

For a second, Marti was overcome by a desire to take off her own shoes and hurl them into the tree. But she was wearing slip on boots with no laces, and there was no way they would stick in the branches. She shook her head to clear it—and reminded herself that she also needed her shoes. For walking. To find a safe place and someone who could help her.

But even as she was forming the thought that she needed to keep moving down the road—nightfall was approaching more rapidly now—she found herself picking her way closer to the tree trunk, stepping over tall humped roots. She ran her fingers over the tree’s bark, thick and twisted, a layer of armor. She knew that others had felt the same way about the tree—wanting to triumph over it, exercise control, show their superior power as humans over nature—because there were decades of carvings etched into the trunk. She ran her fingers over the words and symbols, wondering what they all meant, who had needed to leave them here. One phrase stood out to her, whether because of its size or the depth the letters had been carved, or because it seemed newer than the others. They’re souls, the graffiti said, and Marti thought, The shoes? She was wrong but how was she to know? The crows called to each other in the branches.

Marti shivered and pulled her sweater from her tote bag, sliding it up her bare, goose-bumped arms. The cotton was thin, but did make her feel warmer and a little safer, more secure. She was reaching back toward the tree trunk when she heard scratching through the tall grass behind her, and she whirled around.

A boy was making his way up the bank from the creek that ran behind the tree. He looked up and saw Marti, and looked alarmed, but just for a moment. Marti waved to him, smiling, looking as friendly as she could. She knew she would be better equipped to put the boy at ease if she was able to speak, but that was one trick she had never learned. She tried some sign language with the boy, who looked blankly at her. Marti assumed he didn’t recognize what she was doing as communication. She went back to smiling, trying to put him at ease. She turned back to the tree.

Suddenly the boy was there at her side. He looked up at her, watching her run her fingers across the tree. He reached up and did the same, imitating her, looking at her for approval. His face and hands were dirty and grass-stained, and his feet were bare. He must have walked here from somewhere nearby, Marti thought, but she had no way of asking him where he lived or if he could help her. She pulled out the note she kept handy in her pocket, the one giving her name and saying she didn’t speak, but the boy just glanced at it and then went back to picking at the bark.

He got a fingernail under one chunk of bark, and pulled. The piece came off in a long strip, longer than Marti would have expected. It popped off with a surprisingly satisfying crack. He studied the moss that grew on it, the back suddenly exposed to the light, and then tossed the entire thing out into the grass, over the bank. Marti heard it splat against water. She peered through the tall grass and saw the low glimmer of a slow creek. The crows cawed disapprovingly above them.

Marti realized that once the sky had darkened completely, it wouldn’t be safe for her to be walking around out here, in the unfamiliar landscape. She could have slipped down the bank and fallen into the creek, which might be a foot deep, or ten feet. She could hit her head on a rock. She could twist her ankle. Without knowing where she was and without the ability to call out for help, she could die out here.

She faced the boy again, determined that he would help her. He must have a family out here; or, if somehow he was living on his own, he must have shelter. If she could only ask him to share it with her. She waved to him to get his attention, but he was staring past her now, back where the creek was.

She felt more than heard a noise from the creek bed, a shuddering intake of air, as if something very, very large was crouched down there, trying to breathe quietly. Something was listening back to her, waiting to see what she was going to do, if she was going to strike out on her own, away from the boy, become an easy target.

She couldn’t bring herself to turn her head, afraid that she would see one great eye looking back at her over the edge of the ridge. Instead, she stared at the boy, who was slowly raising one hand, palm out, toward her. She heard a branch crack behind her and then a shifting, maybe in the dirt, maybe in the trees, maybe in the water itself.

In the shadows of the tree, Marti saw a light issue from the boy’s raised palm, and push itself out, as if pressing out through a membrane. The light swept past her, enveloping her, and she felt both calmed and pleasantly tingly. The light pushed to the edge of the ridge, and she heard whatever was down there move away, quickly. She could look now: it was too dark to see anything, but she felt the air rush back in to the space that had been occupied by whatever was stalking her.

The boy beckoned to her and she moved closer to him, and he withdrew the light with her so that it tightened in around them. She realized then that the crows from the branches were swooping down, diving close to the light although not penetrating it. They seemed to be drawn to it even though they couldn’t enter it.

The boy covered his eyes with his hand and gestured for her to do the same. She obeyed him, and she heard him take a deep breath, and then, even behind her covered eyes, there was a flash so blinding that she saw stars—and then they were back in darkness. When she opened her eyes, the ground was littered with dazed crows. Their wings twitched and their tarry eyes glinted at her as if this was her fault. In a moment, they began standing up and hopping away, looking back at her, as if they were shaking it off. Within a minute all the crows were tucked safely back in their nests, murmuring softly to each other, and the only movement left in the tree was the gentle swaying of the shoes on their laces.

Marti was grateful to him. She shook out her tote bag onto the ground, found the granola bar from her glove box, and unwrapped it. She held it out to him, and he broke off a piece and then pushed her hand back toward her. They sat on the ground and ate together, sharing the water from one of her bottles. Afterward, he scraped together a pile of leaves and pushed it toward her, then made one for himself. He laid his head down on the leaves, hands behind his head, looking up at her.

She couldn’t see much, but she realized she could see him, because of a faint light that was constantly emanating from his skin. He was like a night light, keeping the crows and the scary things at bay. She smiled at him, and he smiled hesitantly back. It had never occurred to her to think about having her own kids, but she liked this one.

From habit, she pulled her phone from her pocket. She didn’t remember that it had been dead until she hit the home button…and the screen lit up. She sat up in surprise. The battery icon said 34%, when she was positive that it had been completely dead when she left her car. Of course it had been. She’d watched the battery trickle away, counting down the last 5%, hoping against hope she would get to a town before it died. So how was it now charging itself?

The boy had propped himself up on one elbow and was looking at the phone curiously. She held it out to him, and he brought it close to his eyes. He didn’t have any of the child’s normal impulse to swipe or click, and Marti thought he must not have seen a phone like this before.

He handed it back to her, and she noticed the battery now read 36%. How was it charging itself? As she held it, it fell back down another percentage. She thought of something, something crazy, but why not, and she pressed it back into his hands, keeping the screen where she could see it. In a few minutes the battery had climbed eight percent, and she realized it was the boy who was charging it.

That blast of light must have started it, she thought, and she looked back at the screen to see if she had any bars of service, but she must have been in a—Don’t think it, Marti, she admonished herself—dead zone.

Still, battery was something, and she felt much more positive about her chances of finding help tomorrow. She was almost cheerful enough to sleep, and she laid back on her leaf pillow once more. She was drifting off when she realized the boy was shaking her arm, and she sat up.

That feeling was back, the full feeling in the air, the sense that something was watching—no, stalking her. She couldn’t tell this time the direction it was coming from. She looked at the boy for help, but he also looked confused and scared, like he knew something was wrong but didn’t know how to handle it this time. She felt a sudden fierce need to protect him.

She realized then that the crows were completely silent. She looked up, and saw only the soles of a thousand old shoes, hanging from their final resting place. The laces whispered together as they swayed gently. The boy was looking up too, and she felt like he was pulsing the faint light that came from him, pushing it outward into the branches to try to see further.

Suddenly a crow dive bombed them, swooping so close she actually gasped out loud. Its wings brushed her head and she felt one talon scrape across her shoulder. She rubbed the spot as if she could erase its touch. The boy ducked the crow with a fluid grace that surprised her.

Another crow, and another. They were after the boy, not after her, and she realized in a moment they were after the phone. Some of his power had been poured into the phone, and they wanted it. Once she realized what they were after, she felt their want, sensed them craving the phone and what it contained.

They were coming faster now, and she was getting pushed away from the boy. She felt sure that at any moment they were going to scoop him up and carry him away from her forever. She began to fight through the crows, feeling their talons scratch her arms and face, feeling their musty wings brush across her cheeks. She felt like she might be sick.

The same light that had protected her from the thing in the creek blazed outward from the center of the crows again, blinding her momentarily and pushing her back onto the ground. Her head pulsed, and she felt each beat of her heart rush the blood through her temples. When she was able to open her eyes again, the crows had retreated and the boy was huddled on the ground, his light again reduced to a dim glow.

She crawled to him and cradled him in her lap, feeling his hot skin begin to cool in the night air. The phone was clutched in his hand and the battery was now almost full. His eyes were half lidded, and his cheeks flushed, but he still shivered in her arms.

Marti didn’t want to stay there any longer—didn’t want to risk the crows or the thing in the creek (or were they one and the same?) coming back for them, especially when the boy was so weak. She stood, still holding him (he was so light), and then kicked their piles of leaves apart, as if to not leave any sign of their being there. Then she made her way carefully over the great roots of the shoe tree, back onto the blacktop road that wound through the hills. Even in his state, he cast enough light in front of her that she could follow the road, and in the east, an orange moon was rising over the hills.

As they got further from the tree, she felt her spirits lift. The boy seemed to breathe easier, relaxing some of the tension in his small body. At the same time, she felt like he was gaining weight, although she couldn’t tell whether that was strength coming back into him or her arms just getting tired. After a few minutes, he opened his eyes and smiled at her, then turned and gazed at the moon, which had broken over the hills.

Marti also rose over the final hill, and stood on the open ground now. It would be an uphill climb to the car from here, but she did feel better being away from the shoe tree. The shoes had felt so whimsical when she first saw them, but she now felt a humming discomfort about them, an eerie sense they didn’t belong there…and they didn’t want to be there.

The boy struggled to be set down and she gladly put him on his feet. Together they began to walk up the long, slow slope to where she knew she’d left the El Dorado. It seemed like a lifetime ago. There was no reason to expect that the car would be miraculously fixed—but she also had an idea that, like he did with the phone, the boy might be able to help with the car.

And what happens after that? she thought. She was in no state to be taking in an orphan, even one as miraculous as the boy was. She didn’t even have a home herself, much less anything to offer a child. But she had an idea that he would gladly accept her company even if that was the only thing she could give him.

They trudged up the hill together, not speaking. It had been years since Marti had felt the need to break a silence with someone, but this was different somehow. Even without speaking, she felt like they were communicating, sharing their thoughts and emotions in a kind of conversation.

A rush of wind passed overhead, and the boy flinched. Marti looked up and saw a crow, a big one, circling in the moonlight. It seemed to travel with them in lazy loops, tracking them up the hill. She didn’t like the breeze that came from its ragged wings each time it swooped lower toward them. The boy pressed himself into her side and they both picked up their speed.

The crow uttered a low caw and Marti heard another one answer it, from behind them—but not too far back. She turned her head quickly and scanned the dark sky, picking out three—no, four—more shadows flying their way. The boy groped for her hand and she took it firmly, trying to reassure him as well as herself.

The car was in view now, still parked on the side of the road, and she could hardly believe that it had been just earlier that day that she’d left it there. It looked older than she remembered, dust-covered and sagging, and she thought of the thousands of miles she’d covered in the car. Not much more to go now, she thought to herself, so please let it work.

The boy seemed to know what she was asking, and he was ignoring the crows now, directing his attention toward the car. She could feel him pushing at it, feel a flow of something from him toward the car. She let go of his hand so he could concentrate. As she watched, the car seemed to sit up straighter, to shed some of its dirt, to look more real. They had almost reached it now, and she was ignoring the flock of crows circling them, hoping against hope that they would be able to reach the car and disappear.

The boy suddenly slumped where he stood, and she turned back to him. He looked at her and nodded, and she understood. He was going to get them out of there. She took her keys from her pocket and they were shiny, brighter than everything else around them. The boy looked triumphantly back at the birds, who were swooping ever closer. He glowed a little brighter for a moment and they hesitated in their flight, seemed to retreat. Marti realized the crows were surrounding them, on the ground, in the air, filling the night with the musty smell of dusty wings.

They made their way through the crowd, and back to the El Dorado. And as they approached it, a crow flew directly over their heads and landed on the hood and then looked at them. They stood some distance away and watched the crow watching them. Another crow flew directly overhead and landed beside it. The first crow squawked and then both flew away. They watched the crows disappear, looked at each other, and then got in the El Dorado. Only one way to go this time, with five bars and full battery.