Once upon a time, there was a tree. The tree was special, and it was alone. It lived with its mundane brethren and watched life parade around it. In its youth birds tried alighting in its branches, but they did not stay, and in time no animal came near the tree. One day, a young woman came to the glen by accident, for it was in an obscure place, and no man had been there and cared enough to tell of it. She spied the tree, the special tree, and sat beneath it; she let go a heavy breath and slept beneath it. When she awoke, she felt as though a whole night's sleep had filtered through her, and she returned home, light as down on the breeze.
For years, the woman would come under the tree to rest. She was a teacher, she was, at a schoolhouse nearby; and though she was gentle, she was under great stress, for the children were an unruly bunch. She was glad to live a spartan life, for it was her dream to teach, but every day, she would allow herself some time under the tree and rest. There was no tree quite like it; it seemed an acorn tree, and acorns indeed grew upon it, but looped about its branches were switches with sharp thorns. The woman called it the Stickertree, and she loved it for its shade (which always seemed to fall atop her, no matter the time of day), and because its scent made the stress melt away. She loved the Stickertree.
She did not know the Stickertree loved her too.
For all her life she came to the tree; when she retired from teaching she would spend afternoons beneath it, sewing, reading, dreaming, and the Stickertree would be rapturous. One unkind day, the woman did not come, and the tree knew she had died; for it had seen the grass die, and leaves die, when the winter came, and she had withered as grass did, and leaves did. Winter had come for her. And so the Stickertree wept.
For so long, the tree was alone.
One day a boy came. He carried books with him, books not unlike the woman's years before, but he dropped them in the grass, and ran between the trees, uncaring. The Stickertree remembered the woman (but it always did), and remembered how she talked to herself about the little girls (whatever they were) and the little boys (whatever they were) and how they could be a handful. She lamented when they were truant, and wished she could set them back on the right path; but they were so wily, and would not be caught and would not be taught. The Stickertree took it upon itself to, if only once, help set a boy-whatever-that-was right. It remembered the woman's words, for she spoke often, to herself and in her sleep. It knew its bark and flesh, and how to make them move, and how to make them seem to be other things. And so it took the teacher's shape as best it could.
Oh, how the boy looked when he saw a tree that, in shape, seemed to be a woman in dress, whose hair was the rich green of leaves, and whose hands were wrapped with thorned vines, and who stood so tall above her. The boy came close, and so the Stickertree took its chance. "An uncouth child!" the tree said, "How you shame your teacher so." And with a quick swat, the Sticketree slapped the boy across the backside. "Return, and don't you stray from school again." The boy cried and ran, clutching his behind in one hand and carting his books in the other. The tree took its true shape again, and, at peace, wondered if its long-lost woman would be proud of it.
The boy fell sick soon after returning to school. Days passed, and the illness grew worse; he was bed-ridden, running a most dire fever. His mother and father called desperately for healers; many nurses and herbalists and doctors came, but they were at a loss to help him, and called the thing in the boy both illness and venom, and kept him alone in his room. Of all those that came to help, there was only one who truly knew what harmed the boy. He asked the parents what happened to the boy; they told the doctor what their son had told them, that the boy climbed a tree and, by accident, sat on a thorny vine. The doctor, who was not really a doctor, apologized to the boy's parents, for there was no cure; the boy had been cursed by darkness.
Not a day later, burning up and raving, the boy passed from this world, and he, and his house, were burned to clear away the ruinous poison that coursed, hot and hungry, in his blood.
The doctor was not a doctor; he called himself a "researcher," but this was not his profession either. He was, in all truth, a collector, and he knew of the tree.
It was a Tree of Death. Where three good and blameless men are slain for a selfish cause, the seed is planted; when one of the darkest powers strides across the seed, the seed grows; when a mind close to breaking sits beneath it, it becomes strong. The veins in its leaves spell out blasphemies and curses; its wood, if burned, coughs black smoke that takes the shape of wickedness and sorrow; and the Venom-that-flies-as-Plague that coursed through its thorns flies forth from the bodies of its victims, hungry and waiting.
They think, too, and can change their shape; this is the extent of their power, and so many do not know how terrible they truly are.
* * *
Metzger looked up at the eager-eyed guard.
"If you believed the villagers," Metzger said, lighting his pipe, "it happened that the doctor-who-was-not-a-doctor set forth and told the Stickertree of its nature; and because the tree was good at heart, it could not let itself live, and raked itself with its own venom, and perished. At death, it faded into ash; and in the ashes grew a sapling of a Tree of Life, for its sacrifice redeemed it of its nature."
"Really," the guard said, chuckling.
"We just left an apple-tree sapling behind." He puffed on the pipe, gazed through the plated glass into Garden 333. "The 'ash' was mulched-up soil from when we ripped it out. ...We lied about the venom being contagious, too."
"It was either that or mention the doppelgangers, right?"
"People have enough to worry about, y'know?" He shrugged, then glared at the thing behind the glass. "I loved my mom. I want you to know that. And that thing..." His voice broke. "I loved my mom. And that bitch took her away. And it gave me back a... a thing."
Behind the glass lay the only Tree of Death in captivity, known as the Stickertree to Amelie Metzger (and, until several years ago, her Gregory). It had his mother's shape, in a sense; it was too large, its "hair" too wild and leafy, to be exact. Thorned vines pulled tight across its form from its branches, down its face and arms and body, down to its pseudo-legs and roots. It stared at Gregory like it loved him.
The acorns grew two feet thick, hit the moist and blackened soil with wet thucks, birthed things that each looked like the little boy that fell to its venom. They pawed at the glass, at the walls, at the rough skirt of their mother's roots. When they starved to death, they collapsed into mulch.
"Think we'll ever get rid of it?" the guard asked.
Gregory laughed. Cold, hateful. Weary.
"Maybe when the price of barbed wire goes down."