As soon as you step outside, you’ll be arrested by the searing cold.  Droves of fat white flakes will be floating to the earth.  They’ll first come without a hint of sound or haste.  But having not been home for so long, you forgot that it storms here rather than snows.  I bet you also forgot how the winds, when they do arrive, bluster rather than blow.  Or maybe you didn’t forget, just purged them from your mind.  Perhaps you barred recollections of the way the icicles grow from the dangling roots of the upturned oak stump, like the lashes of a massive dark eye blinking out of the white landscape.  Can’t forget about that old oak stump.  We never saw it upright, did we?

      We never saw the trunk and the branches and the leaves and the shapes the tree took in its four seasons.  Just the stump.  Just the toppled and trapped stump.  Half in the earth and half in the air with all its broken, twisted roots casting about the forest.  Though tipped over, the base stood taller than us as children and probably still stands as tall as us now.  The tree must have been a colossus.  We could only imagine how it might have once appeared: green, tall, and proud, proclaiming, “Look at me.  I am life.”  But we only ever saw a half-moon of sod and decaying wood, crowned by roots which remained disrobed in winter to remind us of the dark permanence lying beneath the soft coat of snow.

      You were always scared to pass it alone on our way to the pond, even though the gradient of the slope seemed to push the pond toward us.  It broadened and waxed below until we stood on the ice itself and the exposed plane surrounded us.  The trees offshore punctured the winter’s frail garb as markers of the water’s limit.  In the center of the saplings, we stood on a clean and smooth plate perhaps only blemished by the imprints of birds’ feet in the white dust.

      Down there on the pond, beyond the shadows of the shaven trees on the shoreline, amid the haze of your quick breath, you can feel the winter at its most brutal.  Funny how in that small notch within the ridge, where the pond nestles like a forgotten teardrop, the winter’s cruelest winds collect and wrap around each other, procreating like a ball of snakes.  The chill puts its eye on you when you step upon the sheet of ice and the howling communion of currents disdains your very presence.  How the wind can rage down there; it must be some trick of the looming slope around the pond.  Wailing in and out, coming and going, staying for awhile to hammer at your ears.  

      I’d always be waiting for you in the center of the pond and I’d ask you why you’d fallen behind.  Our brother would come up and say it was because of the oak stump again.  You couldn’t stand to walk by the oak stump alone.  And our brother and I would laugh because we knew no matter what excuse you made it was always because of the oak stump.  While I was busy plodding ahead to the pond, you’d always wait for our younger brother to catch up before you crossed the stump’s path.  You’d get so angry that you’d spit at our brother because he was braver than you and because he always told the truth when I asked him why you had taken so long to reach the pond.  I’d call you both ‘girls’ for lagging so far behind and you’d tell me to shut up and then our brother and I would keep on laughing.

      Shimmying out to the pond’s center, I’d watch the two of you: Derek spinning and gliding around like he was on skates and you slipping and tottering as you gave chase, gasping like an elderly man while Derek puffed away like a steam train grinding out the terrain behind it. 

      Now remember the time I grew bored and I began back up the hill toward the oak stump while you and Derek were still on the pond.  You turned to follow, leaving our brother to his acrobatics.  And the crack that you must not have heard spread its mouth out behind you, and Derek’s hand clapped on your shoulder as you put one foot on the shore.  I wonder what he said before you slapped his hand off your shoulder and scuttled away.  Did he say anything after you turned around to see him, once your feet were on solid ground and your mind at ease?  I never did get to hear those parting words though I feel I’m entitled to them.  Remember them well, for you are even more entitled to them than I.

      You learned not to fear the oak stump that afternoon.  You flew by the hoary roots without a second thought; I never thought you were capable of moving so fast.  That is how I knew something was amiss as soon as I heard the rapid crunching of your steps behind me.  I’d scarcely mounted the ridge and broken the edge of the forest.  And yet it was too late when the knowledge came to me.  It was only you who had the leeway, you who had the time, and passed through it, leaving him behind.

      How you think of anything else when you go home, I do wonder.  And I would think you would do nothing else but recall the old oak stump, the hidden pond, and your youngest brother.      

Ned Thimmayya is a second-year law student living in Brooklyn, New York.

The Stump is from a collection of ghost stories I wrote in 2008.  It is an anomaly because most of the stories were stylized as homages to other writers of the supernatural genre, and yet "The Stump" was written with no particular influence in mind.  Instead it revisits my early impetus to write as a child, when I was mostly concerned with imagery.  "The Stump" also diverges from the rest of the collection because its ghost does not emerge as an unexplained phenomenon.  Instead this "ghost" arrives in the shape of guilt and memory.  In other words, this ghost is real.



Copyright 2009