IN THE TIME SLOT between when school got out -- two-thirty -- and when the
first worthwhile reruns came on -- four o'clock -- Aaron had nothing to do.
Since his mother had been hospitalized -- the term his father used was
"destructively bi-polar" -- the the house was empty. The eerie, sometimes
pounding silence of the house drove Aaron into the woods.
The woods were alive. They changed visibly; they evolved, unlike the
perfectly static world of television reruns. This was exciting, yet also
slightly haunting; Aaron sometimes found signs of creatures -- gnawed bark,
footprints, broken branches -- but would never actually see animals, aside
from squirrels, birds, occasional snakes and toads. Despite occasionally
feeling apprehensive in the woods, Aaron also felt an impulse to explore them
more deeply. He would walk for what seemed like hours, straying from what
few paths there were, racing through little swarms of gnats, trampling along
the mossy, mud-slick shores of motionless streams, battling through tangles
of thornbushes. The woods seemed to go nowhere. They just existed. The
urge Aaron had to purposefully explore them -- to find something, to get
somewhere -- was constantly defeated.
That's when he began building forts. In his garage he found old boards of
various sizes, in various stages of decay. Some had clearly been used
before, but when, or for what purpose was unclear. Aaron nailed these
together to create private dwellings for himself. One was a floorless,
box-shaped structure with no actual entrance: to get inside, he'd lift it up,
crawl underneath, then let it slam down over him. And sit in darkness.
One afternoon he lifted up the structure to squeeze himself under it, when,
in the dark shadows, he saw motion: a shiny, black creature slamming against
the back interior wall, apparently trying to escape. Leaping back, Aaron
dropped the edge of the fort. He slipped on pine needles and fell into a
sitting position, staring. He decided it must have been a skunk. Had it
tunnelled into his fort? Do skunks tunnel? There was no way it
could have lifted open the fort.
Aaron didn't know what to do. He knew that skunks could bite; that they
sometimes carried rabies. Moreover, they sprayed foul-smelling liquid that
was nearly impossible to wash off. Frustrated, Aaron picked up a heavy pine
branch and hurled it at the side of his fort. He found a rock; it fractured
against one of the boards with a hollow pop. For nearly an hour Aaron bombed
his fort with branches and rocks. Eventually one of the sides split open.
The damage spread quickly.
When several of the boards on one side of the fort had been demolished,
Aaron -- his breathing quick, tense -- stepped up to the side of the
structure. The breaks allowed ample sunlight to penetrate the fort. Peering
in, Aaron looked for the skunk. There was nothing inside the fort but rocks
and bits of wood.
Walking back to the house to watch television, Aaron tried to shake his
sense of self-doubt. It must have been a trick of the light: the utter
darkness of the fort clashing with the vivid sunlight creating a sort of
moving mirage. His senses had been thrown off. He accepted this explanation
-- it seemed scientific -- yet he was bitterly angry at himself for having
destroyed his work.
Aaron's immersion in television was particularly deep that afternoon. He
found some of the commercials almost painfully funny. One of them advertised
paper towels while simultaneously discouraging pollution: after one actor
lauded the absorbant capacity of the towels, another tossed a crumpled up
bunch of them into the Pacific Ocean, which several hours later went dry,
becoming a plane of cracked earth scattered with countless aquatic skeletons.
Skunks and other creatures invading one's fort: that must be one reason
why people make tree-houses, Aaron concluded the next day. He retrieved a
new mess of boards from the garage and began designing a tree-house.
He found that none of the trees in the forest near his house were very
well-suited for tree-house building because of their branch structure. None
of the branches were horizontal enough, and almost all of them were uneven.
Aaron had to nail supports into branches before he could begin laying down
the actual floorboards. Once he managed to nail in place a series of
floorboards, he found building walls onto them almost impossibly difficult.
Ultimately, Aaron ended up with a dangerously tilting two-walled structure.
He felt the birds in the forest laughing at him. Resigned, he walked back
to his house to watch television.
"Where the heck have you been? I told you we were going to visit your
"Jeez, I forgot."
"You know how important it is for her to see you."
"I know. I forgot."
Aaron hated visiting his mother. Generally they visited her every week, and
each time he found her more difficult to recognize. She aged astonishingly
quickly in the hospital.
It was as almost unbearable environment. Aaron felt like something forced
him to stare at the other patients, while forcibly preventing him from
looking directly at his mother. His mother's ward was crowded with troubled
adults -- some walking extremely slowly, mummbling to themselves, their hair
like exploding squirrel's nests, their eyes foggy; some of them sat
catatonically, staring at plants, or at unopened books on their laps; some
argued with ridiculous levels of emotion over board games, or TV channels;
some did weird aerobic exercises, as if trying to strengthen the muscles of
limbs they did not actually have. Every time he was there someone seemed to
be weeping loudly, but he could never find the source of the voice. There
were foul stenches circulating through the air, like olfactory
weather-patterns adrift on the currents of the two old rotating fans
occupying opposite corners of the room. Aaron occasionally saw pills,
capsules, and enema bottles on the floor.
"He's begun building tree-houses."
"Oh? Tree-houses? Tree-houses..."
"They're excellent. He's a regular Frank Lloyd Wright."
"Jeez. Oh, come on, Dad."
His mother stared at him. She rocked slightly. Her facial muscles twitched
irregularly. Usually she appeared tranquilized; verging on sleep. He had
never seen her this uptight before. He had no idea what had caused the
"Did they teach you that in school, Robert?" She spoke in a quick spurt.
"It's Aaron, Mom. My uncle's name is Robert. Your brother."
Her embarrassment was pronounced, and he immediately regretted correcting
her. Her face grew dark; she frowned, her lips quivering. He could see
tears gleam in her eyes.
"It's okay, Mom. Really."
"You were always so strong. Active. Active. It's good. It's good. Keep
active, Aaron. Aaron?"
"Yeah," he said, looking at a huge, blurry painting of black and white cows
across the room. "Yeah, it's Aaron."
The next afternoon he couldn't find the tree-house he had begun constructing
the day before. It was gone. He found the tree, and he climbed it: there
were nail marks, but the tree-house was gone.
His first thought was that for some reason his father had torn it down.
Maybe he had actually been saving the wood for something, and dismantled
Aaron's tree-house to get it back. But Aaron checked: the wood had not been
returned to the garage.
Aaron returned to the tree. Again he climbed it. If someone had
maliciously destroyed the tree-house, why would they bother carrying off the
wood? Aaron scanned the forest for signs of the boards. About a quarter of
a mile away -- about as deep into the forest as one can see before everything
fades into the mass of branches -- Aaron perceived an unusual shape amidst
the trees. Unable to wrench his eyes away from it, he leaped to the ground
and began running.
From the ground, he gazed up at it. He recognized many of the boards; they
had not been changed. But the structure of this tree-house was flawless; it
had four walls, a doorway in one of them, and a slanted roof. Climbing up
the tree, Aaron tried to remember what his father had done the previous
night: after they had returned from the hospital, his father had sat in front
of the television drinking scotch until the news came on. There's no way he
could've built this during the night. And that morning, Aaron remembered,
his father left the house before he did.
Aaron spent the afternoon inhabiting the mystery of the tree-house. There
were no readable signs on the structure itself that explained its origins.
Whoever had built him the tree-house was a very skilled builder, and off the
top of his head, Aaron could not think of anyone like that. His father owned
tools, but never managed to make anything useful.
Walking home that afternoon, Aaron expected to see his uncle's car in the
driveway. Robert must have come at some point in the morning, observed the
clutter Aaron had nailed up on the tree, and decided to make Aaron the house
as a gift -- maybe to console him during this difficult period of his
But Aaron called his uncle's home, which was in another state, and his aunt
told him that he had been at work all day; they had even had lunch together.
No, she was sure he had not visited Aaron.
"Dad, were you at work all day?"
"Look, I even ate lunch in my office. Why?"
The next morning was Saturday. Before the cartoons came on, Aaron --
rushing to put on his shoes -- strode into the forest. He ate two
chocolate-chip granola bars while he walked. When he got within sight of the
tree, he froze.
It was gone.
Dropping the granola bar, he ran to the trunk of the tree. He stared up
into the branches. The tree-house had vanished.
For several moments he felt dizzy. The contents of his stomach seemed to
come to life: the grains in the granola seemed to germinate and grow into
stalks -- burgeoning tangles of coiling plant-stems, writhing in his gut,
poking against his stomach walls. Aaron fell to his knees. He thought of
the skunk -- the trick his senses had played on him. Aaron thought of the
crazy people in his mother's hospital, their bizarre behavior, their
inability to perceive reality. He thought of his mother, and what he
overheard his father and her doctor saying about illnesses being "passed on."
Aaron's mind went blank. It was a psychological defense mechanism he had
used in the past -- during fights between his parents, the early but
horrifying stages of his mother's illness. He set his mind on a blank
channel, and rose to his feet. In order to get air-time on this channel,
thoughts had to be inoffensive. Constructive and health-oriented. The
tree-house must have simply been a harmless trick his senses had played on
him. Or perhaps he had actually fallen asleep in the woods, and had dreamed
that he saw the tree-house. This he found the most comforting hypothesis; he
accepted this. Straining slightly, Aaron smiled. His mind was a warm, blank
channel. He stared up at the tree one more time. The tree was a blank
channel. Lowering his gaze, about to turn and leave, something in his field
of vision jumped out at him like a bullet.
In the distant trees -- about a quarter of a mile deeper in the forest -- he
saw a familiar Problem. A familiar Irregularity.This time he didn't run.
This time he half-expected it. As he came closer, he saw that this was not
the same tree-house that he had seen the day before. It was quite similar,
but this one had a pointed roof; two sloping sides, rather than one. This
one seemed considerably larger. This one had more symmetrical boards.
Climbing up the tree, Aaron noticed that the wood seemed sanded; almost
perfectly smooth. Inside, Aaron found that the floorboards were richly
oiled. There were several horizontal slots under the roof which allowed in
Aaron remembered the time. It was morning. He had left the forest just
before sundown the night before. Someone had built this tree-house -- this
flawless construction -- during the night.
Aaron returned home in a state of profound excitement. The depth of the
mystery was swallowing him, consuming him like a dark night. But he was
convinced that this was happening for him; someone was doing this for
his benefit. He felt no fear.
He returned to the tree-house around midday. He spent an afternoon trying
to think of a letter to write and leave in the tree-house for the person who
was building them. Finally, he wrote "Who are you?" then signed it, "Aaron."
On each of the five subsequent days, Aaron found new tree-houses. Each one
was larger, more complex, and more stylish than its precursor, and each one
was deeper in the forest. The next tree-house Aaron found -- the third --
had a hinged door, a shingled roof, and a small glass window.
The fourth had three small rooms, rather than one large one. One of the
rooms, which seemed physically lower than the others, had a medum-sized bay
The fifth tree-house had two stories. The lower room had a brick fireplace.
There was a small table and a chair in the upper room.
The sixth tree-house had several skylights on its upper floor, contained a
total of nine small rooms, and an empty bathtub that had both a drain and a
pipe leading to the roof that would channel rainwater into it.
And the seventh? The last tree-house?
Aaron decided that he would enter the woods at night and catch the carpenter
at work. The carpenter had never written notes back to Aaron explaining his
identity or his purpose, though Aaron left new notes in each tree-house.
Aaron knew there was a danger that the tree-houses might stop coming; that
their builder would simply get bored, and leave Aaron's life. It would be
horrible to never understand why this was happening. Aaron resolved to go
into the woods that evening.
As usual, when his father drank himself to sleep, Aaron turned off the
television. Had he awoken when the set clicked off, he would have seen his
son wearing a coat and holding a long, black flashlight.
The flashlight began fading after Aaron travelled two miles into the woods.
Aaron worried; without a flashlight, and with the moonlight thoroughly
blocked out by the trees, it would be nearly impossible to see in the forest.
It wasn't until the light died completely about half an hour later that
Aaron spotted the bizarre light ahead of him. The trunk of a huge tree --
about a half miles away -- was emitting a strange, hazy glow. Aaron stopped
walking. For several minutes he stared at the tree, focusing and re-focusing
his eyes. Then he began walking toward it.
As Aaron approached the tree, he saw that the massive trunk supported a
gigantic tree-house that was perhaps as large as any terrestrial home he had
seen. It was strangely shaped -- its roof was considerably wider than its
base -- with odd, angular protrusions, like compact rooms thrusting out of
the main contours of the building. As he neared, Aaron saw that the glow was
coming from a string of small white bulbs, like Christmas lights, leading up
the trunk. Dropping his flashlight, Aaron began climbing the trunk.
There was no formal doorway to the gigantic tree-house; the only possible
entrance Aaron found was a window. Aaron opened it, and climbed into what
felt like a very large room; Aaron could not see the walls or the
ceiling. The space seemed to contain a limitless emptiness; every noise
seemed amplified and sustained: Aaron's footsteps, his breathing.
"Hello?" Aaron called out. The sound of his voice seemed suspended in the
air of the room for nearly a minute -- its tone losing definition, becoming a
sonic blur -- but only very, very slowly losing amplitude.
Walking slowly, with his arms extended, Aaron reached a door. Opening it,
Aaron found that the door was only slightly taller than his head; the
corridor the door opened to was roughly the same height. After taking
roughly twelve steps, Aaron found that the corridor was not straight; there
were unpredictable turns, and even slopes, as well as occasional steps up,
then steps down, and several doors -- some as few as three feet apart -- not
leading to other rooms, but simply to more of the same corridor.
At one point Aaron found a hammer on the floor, along with several nails.
Finally, after what seemed like two miles of corridor, Aaron discovered a
door on the wall. Straight ahead, the corridor continued up a low flight of
concrete stairs. Several inches of soft orange light spilled from under the
door. Aaron knocked, waited for about ten seconds, then opened the door.
The room reminded Aaron -- in its size, and in its barren, block-like shape
-- of the gymnasium at his school. There were more than a hundred lit
candles spread out over the floor. They weren't arranged in any particular
order -- neither in rows, nor in fancy diagrams. Some seemed on the verge of
burning out, their flames flickering and struggling; some had already gone
out, and were nothing more than puddles of steaming wax, cooling,
solidifying. Others were bright flames as high as two feet above the floor.
But even this many candles could not fully illuminate the immense room.
Shadows of amazing complexity seemed to bounce, vibrate, or swerve across
the floor and the walls. Patches of the room were still quite dark. Gazing
around bemused, Aaron began walking, directionlessly, away from the door.
His eyes swept the room. At first it appeared to him that all of the
candles were cream-colored. Then he began spotting blue ones, and then red
ones, black, green, and multi-colored ones. At first he believed that they
were all unscented, but then he began to smell pine, sandalwood,
frankincense, and a variety of scents that were foreign -- and some repugnant
-- to him.
After walking around in the room for about fifteen minutes, finding no
doors, no objects aside from candles, Aaron decided to pick up a candle from
the floor, re-enter the corridor, and follow it further. As he reached down
to get a candle, he heard someone clear his throat -- accusingly, as if to
suggest that Aaron was breaking a rule. Aaron looked up, and saw a figure
slumped against a wall, half concealed by shadow.
Aaron stared, speechless, for several seconds.
"Are you the carpenter?" he almost whispered.
"The...well, the builder, yeah. Uh, you..."
"Why do you build these tree-houses? Why are you doing it?"
"Uh...yeah, I'm the carpenter. Carpenter. But I'm also the guy who
takes care of your mother."
Aaron's eyes seemed to stop reflecting the candlelight.
"You asked...why I did this. You want to know? Let's..." He rose from the
corner, slowly, then began walking toward Aaron. "Let me show you. Or,
explain. But I have to show you. You see, there's--"
As he stepped to avoid a puddle of wax, the man planted his foot on a very
weak board. It snapped under him, and he fell forward. Apparently the
support for that section of the floor was also flawed; when his body hit the
the floor, several more boards snapped, and he fell, entirely, through the
floor. Aaron heard a prolonged yell. He rushed toward the gaping hole in
the floor. Peering down into it, Aaron could faintly see -- perhaps
illuminated by the lights on the trunk of the tree -- what appeared to be a
swamp. There was movement: Aaron could see an object splashing. It began
thrashing violently. There was a brief scream, which terminated in a
muffled, gurgling sound. His eyes adjusting, Aaron could see the man being
devoured by some sort of huge, shiny, fish-like creature. Then silence,
broken only by several flaps of the creature's tail against the surface of
Aaron rushed away from the hole in the floor. He raced back to the door --
having to turn frequently to avoid stepping on candles -- then entered the
hall. He shut the door of the candle room behind him, then raced in the
direction of the entrance.
Racing through the lightless corridor, Aaron bumped into several doors.
Finally he bumped into one that was locked. Aaron threw himself against it.
He pounded it with his fists until he was certain that he had smashed the
bones in his hand.
Finally, he retreated in the other direction. He remembered that the
hallway had, beyond the entrance to the candle room, turned into a concrete
staircase. Perhaps that would lead to an exit.
Before Aaron reached the entrance of the candle room again, however, he
bumped into another door. This one was locked as well.He was trapped in a
stretch of corridor. He slammed his shoulder against the door until he felt
his skin tear open. He screamed -- the echoes taunted him. Finally he
collapsed on the floor.
He told himself to shut his mind off. Tune to a blank channel.
He began crying. Every channel was filled with panic or despair.
When the pain in his hand and his shoulder subsided, he fell asleep.
Aaron's father appeared at the hospital alone.
"He's gone, isn't he?" his wife asked, "Something's happened to him...?" He
"I'm right. I can tell from your face."
"He's...no! He's on break -- it's his spring break -- and he's visiting
with my sister."
She shook her head. "No," she said.
"Look, Martha, you need to relax. Aaron's fine."
"You'd've made him come if you knew where he was."
"I don't care. It's good. They'll never find him. He was always so
active. They'll never be able to get him. Not like they got me. Not like
they got me."
© Copyright 1997 by Swagazine, All rights reserved.
Photographs courtesy Richard Miller.