**This story was originally published by The Mystic Blue Review in September 2017
**NO part of this story may be copied or reproduced without written consent from the author.
The Whupping Tree
by Kristy Gherlone
Henry Hunton wasn’t quite right. His father told him as much all the time. He was so wrong, in fact, his mother took one look at him, fresh out of the womb, and ran away.
“Your mother whizzed out of that hospital so fast, my hair got swept away with her. Left you all covered in innards before anyone had a chance to clean you up,” his father told him. “When they did, you looked just like a squirrel with a bad case of the mange. Ugliest damn thing I ever did see! Whoo-wee, you was ugly!”
Henry thought about that. He couldn’t wrap his mind around a lot of things, but his mother was gone, and his father was bald. The old mirror hanging above his father’s shaving kit told him everything else he needed to know.
“How come you wanted me if I was so ugly?” he asked.
“Well,” his father said, scratching at his stubble, “I guessed you were kin, so I figured I’d probably better take you on. Plus, I s’posed you’d be all right enough to work the fields someday.”
Henry didn’t know if he should be glad or not. They lived on a rundown farm, and his father had him hauling potatoes as soon as he’d learned to walk. It was a tough job and Henry struggled. He tried as hard as he could, but sometimes, even with all that trying, he got it wrong. His brain would tell him to do one thing, but his body would do something else. Or his mind would want to say something, but his tongue would get all mixed and he’d stutter.
“You water the south crop?” his father would ask.
“Y-y-y-yes sir,” Henry would answer.
“You ain’t right, boy,” he’d say, smacking him in the head. “I swear you’re nummer’n a pounded thumb. Git on out there to the whupping tree and cut me a switch. I swear I’m gonna beat you until you learn to talk right.”
Henry would hang his head and go out into the yard where the old willow tree stood. It had been there since before his great-great grandfather had been born. It was called the whupping tree because everyone in the family had been spanked with the branches at one time or another.
It was a beautiful tree and Henry hated to cut it almost as much as he hated getting a whupping. “I’m sorry,” he’d whisper, snapping off a shoot. “I wouldn’t hurt you for anything, but Daddy says I’ve gotta get a whupping. He would go back inside. His father would put him over his knee and lash on him until he cried.
After the punishment, his father would go over to the pot-bellied stove and rub his hands as if to say, ‘that’s that,’ and throw in the switch as Henry lay sobbing with his backside full of welts.
“Don’t sit there blubbering, either,” he’d say. “My father used to lick me. Smartened me up and straightened me right out. Yep. Smart as a whip now, and tough as nails too. You don’t hear me stuttering, do you? You won’t do it either, when I’m done with ya.” He’d nod his head and smile.
Henry knew he wasn’t smart. He’d never been to school. His father said he wasn’t smart enough for school.
“Boy, you’re too stupid for school. They’d laugh you right out of there. Nope, you stick to the fields,” he’d said, but Henry knew enough to know that a spanking wouldn’t help his stutter or make him any smarter.
Sometimes Henry would go out into the yard in the early mornings before he went to work in the fields. He’d sit under the willow tree and talk to it as if it were a real person.
“I don’t know why Daddy’s so mean,” he’d whisper, rubbing his bruises. “You suppose I’ll be like him, someday?” The tree never answered, but it was a kind and patient listener.
“If Daddy is the way he is, and my granddaddy, and his daddy before him were that way, how come I don’t feel the same? You’d think there’d have to be some goodness in someone, somewhere along the way. I don’t want to hurt nobody. Not nobody ever. When I have kids, I’m never going to hit them. And I’m going to make sure they go to school.” He didn’t know if the tree understood, but he’d keep talking on and on about all the things he wanted to do and about all the things he’d been thinking about while the tree cradled a nest of young birds and rocked them to sleep.
His father caught him one day. He overheard Henry’s ambition to become a forest ranger. “You’re a fool,” he yelled. “That tree can’t understand you. That tree doesn’t care if you live or die. No one does, except me. I swear, you’re softer’n a jack rabbit’s scruff. Forest ranger,” he scoffed, shaking his head. “You’re never going nowhere. You’re gonna stay right here and farm potatoes just like I do and just like your granddaddy did and his daddy before him did. I guess I need to smarten that hide of yours up some more. Go on now, cut me a switch. I’m going to make you the meanest and smartest son of a gun there ever was, then maybe I’ll get some real work out of you.
Henry didn’t know a lot, but he knew that a spanking wouldn’t make him mean. He also knew that it wouldn’t make him want to farm potatoes. He didn’t want to be like his father, or his father’s father, or anyone before him.
As he grew older, the tree started to die. The limbs began to dwindle until there were only big ones left. Each whupping became more painful than the last. One day when Henry went outside to get a switch, there was a woman standing behind the tree. He rubbed his eyes to make sure he wasn’t seeing things.
“Hi.” She smiled shyly and poked out her head. “You sure have grown up tall and handsome. You’ve changed a lot in fourteen years.”
Henry turned around to see to whom she was talking. There was nobody there but him. “Who, me?” he asked.
“Yes, you. What’d your daddy name you?” she whispered.
“Henry,” he said. He didn’t know what to make of the whole situation. “Who are you?”
“I’m your momma, Henry.” She smiled again as she tried out his name.
“Oh. W-want me to go and get Daddy?” he asked.
“No! Don’t tell him I’m here,” she said, her eyes wide and fearful.
Henry felt kind of sorry for her but didn’t know if he should. “Why’d you run off and leave me when I was just a little baby?” he asked.
“I didn’t run off. Your daddy threw me out when he took up with another woman. He used to beat me something fierce. He told me he’d kill you and me if I ever came back to claim you.”
Henry didn’t remember any other woman being around. “You sure you didn’t leave because I was so ugly?”
“Heavens, no,” she said. “Is that what your daddy told you?”
“Yep, but I didn’t need him to tell me. I’ve seen myself in the mirror.”
“I bet you’ve been looking in your daddy’s shaving mirror,” she said. “That thing is so old and warped, everyone looks awful in it. When I lived here, it got so I felt pretty ugly, too. It got so I forgot what I really looked like. I was afraid to leave the house because I thought people would laugh at me.”
Henry wrinkled his nose. He didn’t know whether to believe her or not.
“See for yourself,” she said. She fished a tiny mirror out of her purse and handed it to Henry. He glanced at his reflection and grinned. He needed a haircut, but other than that, he liked what he saw. He didn’t look anything like he did in his daddy’s mirror.
“You were just about the sweetest baby I’d ever laid eyes on,” his mother said.
“But I’m not too bright. Never was. C-can’t even talk right.”
“Nonsense! All you need is a little schooling. Don’t let anyone ever call you stupid!”
Just then, Henry’s father came out of the house. Henry’s mother ducked behind the tree.
“Where you at, boy? Hurry up with that switch!”
“I’m coming!” Henry said.
When his father went back into the house, his mother came out from behind the tree.
“He sure has changed! He’s just a little old man now. He’s shrunk five inches! I can’t believe I used to be so scared of him,” she cried, surprised.
“Well, I’ve gotta get in,” Henry said. “I’m getting a whupping for breaking the harvester.”
“He hits you too, does he?” She glared towards the house. “That man is as mean as a snake.”
“Yep,” Henry said, cutting off a large, dead branch. He reached over and rubbed the tree’s trunk, “I’m sorry,” he murmured, “I hope I didn’t hurt you too much.”
“You talk to this old tree, too?” she asked, giving it a slap. “I used to do the same thing. It was about the only thing I had to talk to.”
“Yeah, I talk to it, but it’s pretty near dead now. I don’t know what daddy’s going to use to whup me with when it’s gone.”
“Henry, I bet you’re two feet taller than he is, and I bet you outweigh him by a hundred pounds! He can’t beat you if you don’t let him.”
Henry hadn’t thought about that. He was much bigger than his father. He couldn’t even put Henry over his knee anymore. Still, though, he feared him. “I can’t go against him,” he said.
“You can if you want to. Why, I bet you could give him a whupping”, she said, testing him.
Henry looked at the branch. It was a big one. It was big enough to break bones; but he didn’t want to hurt anyone. Not even his father.
“Nah,” he said. “I can’t hurt nobody.”
“You’re nothing like your daddy, are you Henry?” his mother asked quietly.
“Nope. I don’t suspect I am.”
“That’s good,” she said, relieved. “Would you like to come home with me? We could sign you up for school.”
Henry thought about that. “Would you hit me?”
“Never!” she gasped at the question. “I could never hurt anyone.”
Henry grinned. He didn’t know a lot, but he knew right then and there where he got his goodness from. He also knew that he’d have to go to school if he ever wanted to be a forest ranger. “That sounds okay,” he said.
“Good,” his mother smiled. “You go and pack your things. I’ll wait out here.”
Henry went inside to tell his father.
“Like hell you’re leaving!” his father spit with rage. “You give me that stick. I’m gonna whup you double now.”
Henry looked at the stick and then back at his father. “I’m bigger than you and probably a whole lot stronger,” he said, surprised when he didn’t stutter.
“What’s your point?”
“Well, I figure I could probably whup you if I wanted.”
“Is that what you aim to do?” his father asked, fixing his jaw, but stepping back a few feet.
“Nope. I’m just going to leave,” he said, and that’s just what he did. He went to live with his mother and his aunt a few towns away. He went to school and worked hard. When he grew up, be became a forest ranger, just like he’d always wanted to.
One day, Henry received a call while he was at work, telling him that his father had a stroke. Henry wanted to see him, because no matter what, his father would always be his father. He made the drive over, his stomach flopping around the whole way. All the wounds inflicted upon him, growing up, felt raw again when he pulled into the driveway. He rubbed at old bruises as he got out, opened the back of his truck, and took out a can of poison. There was something he needed to do.
He walked into the yard. Henry got tears in his eyes when he saw his old friend. The once beautiful whupping tree was now a crumbling stump. “You were a good friend for listening to me all those years,” he murmured. “I know it wasn’t your fault that I got spanked so often, so I hope you understand what I have to do.” New budding shoots sprung up from the ground underneath it, promising new life and another generation of whuppings. Henry didn’t want to take any chances there that might be some bad in him somewhere. He placed his hand on the withering trunk. “It’s time for you to go,” he whispered. He uncapped the poison, poured some into what remained of the tree, and went in to the house.
His father was lying in bed. He couldn’t talk very well or move anymore; the stroke having stolen his functions. Henry fed him some soup.
“Th-th-thanks, H-henry,” he said, drooling and looking embarrassed. “I s’pose you oughta get a switch and whup me. C-c-can’t even talk right n’more.”
Henry wiped the soup off his father’s chin, “Nope. I figure this family has taken enough beatings. I’m just going to love you.”