THE DEMON IN THE TREE
I was about twelve when Sidney Gottlieb began living in the tree next to our house. It's possible to be more specific than that — he took to arboreal existence, more or less, on the same day that Sophronia, my older sister, went up to the attic to find our grandmother's old snood which she intended to take with her to the guru Prahesh Mahindi's ashram that she was determined to enter as a novice weirdo.
Sidney was a bachelor. He was somewhere about thirty years of age when he moved into the house beyond our fence. We didn't know exactly what it was he did for a living, but the rumor in the neighborhood was that he was some sort of free-lance writer. That would explain why he was always at home.
Some of the neighbors, my dad included, thought that this was an exotic and slightly suspect occupation for a young man, or any man for that matter. Having literary ambitions myself, though, I thought nothing much about his mode of living except that I tended to idolize him on not much evidence. So far as I know, Sophy had never seen Sidney before, her vision being fixed upon the imminent — should I have said "immanent"? — change in her own lifestyle. I know he hadn't seen her.
Sidney lived alone with only his cat Thisbe for a companion. He was devoted to Thisbe, who used to go for walks with him. That's right — walks. Some cats will do that, like dogs, and Thisbe was one. After supper Sidney would come out of the front door of his house, and Thisbe would emerge with him. Sidney would set off down the street at an easy stroll, the cat behind or ahead of him, depending on her mood and state of anxiety, for she'd have to be on the lookout for dogs, of course.
If she saw one she'd head for the nearest tree. She was a great climber, but not very good at getting back to solid ground. If she got too high Sidney would have to go over and coax her down, and that might take some time. When they got back from their jaunt around the block the sun would probably be quite low on the horizon and Sidney would be ready to head for his typewriter.
On the particular day in question Thisbe and Sidney had gotten back from their stroll early. Sidney was busy tapping away at his keyboard, as I could see and hear from my bedroom window, and Sophy was up in the attic looking for Grandma's snood. It was spring. The sun was ducking down beneath the horizon, but it was still light out. I heard a cat meow, looked up, and saw Thisbe very high up in the tree that grew just on Sidney's side of the low fence that divided our yards.
"Mr. Gottlieb," I called out of my window. "Your cat's up your tree."
"Oh, for...." I heard him say. He rose, leaned over his desk and yelled, "Thisbe, what in hell are you doing up there? You get down!"
Thisbe said "Meow" in a pitiable voice and sat down on the big limb
that reaches across the fence and comes within maybe three feet of our attic window on that side of the house. Sidney said something inaudible. In a minute or so he was standing in his yard at the base of the tree — a big maple of a peculiar variety — coaxing the cat down. I could see him visibly trying to control his temper and his voice — by that time I was out in the yard on our own side watching the whole performance, and so was my mother.
"Oh, dear," she said, "we'll have to call the fire department."
"No, ma'am," Sidney said, glaring at the tree and shaking his head so that his very full head of brown hair tossed around, "I'll get her down myself. Wouldn't trust anyone else with Thisbe. Thisbe! You get down here right now!" Thisbe just looked down and said meow, holding it in her throat for quite a while. Sophy was still in the attic poking around, but she must have been preoccupied, because I didn't see her in the window.
We stood around for a while, and finally, when it began to grow dusky, Sidney went and got a ladder, two lengths of rope, and two harnesses, one small and one man-sized. He saw me looking at this gear over the fence and he said, "This has happened before, so I had these contraptions made up, just in case." He propped the extension ladder against the tree so that it reached quite high up the trunk, well into the lower limbs, clipped the ropes to the harnesses, and put his on. Then he slung the ropes over his shoulder and started to climb.
When he got to the branch just below the one with Thisbe on it Sidney tied the ends of the ropes to the thick part of the limb, about four feet out from the trunk, and began to edge out toward the cat, carrying her harness. At first he cajoled her, keeping his voice low and soothing, but all Thisbe did was mewl some more and move closer to our attic window. The farther out Sidney had to climb, the more threatening his voice got — we could hear the edge of fear in it — and he started mumbling swear words again.
Thisbe didn't feel safe any more, her branch was bending and swaying so much, so she stood up on it and teetered there caterwauling. Sidney didn't feel safe, either, but he inched closer.
"Oh, dear, oh, dear," my mother kept saying, "please be careful." She was big-eyed and holding her face in the palms of both hands. When Sidney made a grab for Thisbe with one hand everything happened all at once. My mother screamed. Sidney lost his balance and nearly fell. The cat jumped, too, right at Sidney's head. She landed on top of it and dug her claws into his scalp so that the blood began to trickle down his forehead. And Sophy opened the attic window just then and peered out.
As you have probably figured out by now, my sister Sophy is a peculiar young woman, very imaginative, and at the time very rebellious for reasons only other teen-age girls will understand. God knows what she thought she saw, but what she did see no doubt looked pretty diabolical in the evening light — there stood a bloody-faced man just outside her window twenty feet above the ground, his arms raised, and the tail of a cat writhing like a snake out of his deformed head.
Sophy did the only reasonable thing under the circumstances —she screamed, too. The cat gave a yowl and turned around very carefully to look at her, digging its claws in all the way around, Sidney cursing now at the top of his lungs, swaying on one limb and holding on to another, nearly blinded by blood. When Thisbe got herself turned around she gauged the distance and gave a mighty spring through our attic window. She landed on the snood Sophy had in her hand. Sister screamed again, dropped the snood and cat and just stood there staring pale-faced at Sidney in the tree.
The apparition freed one hand, wiped the blood off his face with his sleeve, and saw Sophy for the first time. He nearly fell out of the tree again — we could see his thunderstruck face in the light spilling out of the attic window.
I don't understand what it was in my sister that cut Sidney down like that. She's a kind of mousy girl — well, not mousy, but very quiet and sort of thin. She has almost no bust and, though she isn't ugly, she isn't what anyone could call beautiful, either. Her one striking feature is her eyes: large and glowing, pale blue — a Dresden blue, I guess you'd have to call the color, with a skin to complement them, so transparent that you'd swear it gave back a slight reflection of light. The word I want is "translucent," I suppose.
So Sidney had found his true love and lost her at a stroke, for Sophy wasn't the same from that day forward. She believed she had seen Siva, or a demon sent by Siva to keep her out of the guru's ashram. And she wouldn't come down from the attic from that moment, though this didn't become apparent for a while. My mother turned around and ran into the house to let Thisbe out of the attic and outdoors.
Sidney slowly made his way back to the trunk of the tree. He had to mess with the harnesses and rope in the dark and in his confused condition, but he finally made it to the ground. By that time Thisbe was sitting on Sidney's front porch asking to get in. Her hackles were down, but she was still upset and yowling.
"Was that your sister up there in the attic?" he asked me over the fence.
"Yes," I said. "Looks like you scared hell out of her." He ignored the remark.
"Why haven't I seen her around?" The blood was beginning to cake on his neck and face. He still looked like a demon, or someone who had been mugged — his clothes were torn and his hair was standing on end.
"Because she never goes out," I said. "She's been sitting around getting herself ready to go into an ashram run by this Indian faker up in the Northwest Territory somewhere. She says she has to be in a proper frame of mind."
"An ashram!" Sidney shouted. "An ashram! This is the twenty-first century, not the nineteen-sixties. Nobody goes into an ashram any more. What is she, crazy?"
"If she wasn't before, she is now," I told him. I had no idea at that time how true those words were. I could see a look of calculation replace amazement in his face.
"By the way, that's 'fakir,' not 'faker,'" he said. "Let me clean up a little, and then I'll come back over and talk to her. I have to apologize for scaring her like that." I walked around to the front of the house and waited while he went in to take a shower and change.
When he came out again looking decent I led the way into our house. My mother was nowhere in sight, nor my father, who had gotten home sometime while the tree scene was being played out — his car was parked in the driveway. Sidney and I went upstairs to find the attic door standing open and voices floating down from above. My mother's sounded pleading, and my father's was gruff and authoritative. When we got into the attic we could see them standing behind Sophy who was still staring out the window. They were trying to persuade her to come downstairs, but she wouldn't do anything, not even answer them.
"Mom, here's Mr. Gottlieb," I announced. She glanced at us over her shoulder, but my dad swung full around.
"So you're the young man who's the cause of all this," he said. I could see he was angry but determined to be as polite as the circumstances would allow.
"The cause of what?" Sidney asked. "I've come to apologize to the young lady for frightening her."
"Oh, it wasn't his fault," mother said. "It was the cat."
"It was the demon in the tree," Sophy said. It was so quiet after she spoke those words in a low and shaky voice that we could practically feel the shivers running up and down each-other's spines. She turned around then and looked at Sidney for the first time. Her eyes were glazed over, and it was clear she didn't recognize him.
"I came to apologize to you, miss," Sidney told her.
"I've seen the messenger of Siva," she said, "as I always knew I would. He's come for me, but I won't go. I shall stay here forever."
"That was no messenger, Miss," Sidney said. "It was only me trying to get my cat out of the tree."
"I know a demon when I see one," Sophy replied. "You're not he. You're just trying to get me to come downstairs, but I won't go. I'll be safe as long as I stay here."
And that was that. We had to rig up a bedroom for her, complete with an old commode we found in a corner, and she ate from a little table that had belonged to Aunt Margot years ago. It was coming on summer, so father had to air-condition the attic, but Sophy wouldn't let him put the machine in the window that looked out on the evil tree — she had to have an unobstructed view, she said, so she could face her mortal enemy. "My mortal enemy!" she would cry, and Sidney, standing in the tree outside so he could be near her, would shudder and despair.
Naturally, Sophy missed her appointment to go into the ashram. A contingent of women in white robes came to the house one day to see what they could do. While they were talking with Sophy they heard the sound of someone outside the attic window pounding nails. When they looked out they saw Sidney building his tree house.
"What," said the Mother Dendrite, or whatever it was she called herself, "is that man doing out there?"
"That is the messenger of Siva building his house," Sophy said. "I must stay here to ward him off."
"Nonsense," the woman said, "That's a mere man, not a demon. And why is he building that structure?"
"So he can be near Sophy," I said — I'd been hanging around at the head of the stairs to pick up what I could. "His name is Sidney Gottlieb and he's in love with her."
"That is not Mr. Gottlieb," Sophy said, "it is a monster in Mr. Gottlieb's guise."
"My dear," the headwoman said as the other "sisters" — that's what they called themselves, just as though they were nuns — exchanged whispers and a snicker or two, "you must get hold of yourself and come with us."
"Sophy shook her head. "As long as I stay here, Siva will be occupied and won't bother you at the ashram. I'll keep him busy."
"I bet she will," I heard a young sister whisper, "there are no curtains on the window." It was a hoarse whisper and the head sister glared at her.
"He turns his back when I prepare for bed," Sophy said huffily.
"And your father permits this?" There was outrage in the woman's voice.
"He can't do anything about it," I told her. "As a matter of fact, if Sophy can't see Sidney she thinks he's trying to get into the house and she gets hysterical. Dad chased him out of the tree once and then had to ask him to come back, Sophy made such a fuss."
My mother had come up the stairs just in time to hear one of the guru ladies say, "Why, they should both be committed!"
"They're not hurting anyone," my mother said. "Now I think it's time to let Sophronia calm down a little. Won't you come and have some tea?" Everyone but Sophy started down the stairs holding on tightly to the rickety banister.
So Sidney began to court Sophy from his tree. Because my sister really did start to get very strange if he were out of sight, Sidney had to move his study up into the tree house. He even ran an electric line up the maple so that he could plug in a coffee pot and his computer. He had to be very crafty just to eat.
Sidney didn't need to be in Sophy's line of sight, so long as he was whacking away at his keyboard and she could hear the patter of the keys tapping away. What he did was to make a cassette with about forty-five minutes of typing sounds and other noises on it — throat clearings, foot tappings — and when he got hungry and Sophy wasn't looking, he'd turn on his portable boom-box, climb out of the tree and fix himself something to eat or whatever. When he got back, Sophy wouldn't know he'd been gone.
But Sidney didn't spend all his time writing. He did a good deal of reading, too. By any standards, the tree house was palatial. It had a front stoop big enough to accommodate a deck chair, and Sidney would sit out there on a nice day, the birds flapping around his ears, with a book in his lap. Sophy would be over by her window or reading herself. They looked like a happy young married couple if you blocked the ridiculous setting out of your mind.
They would often have conversations, too, if the window were open. Sidney would never admit to being a demon. "I'm not Siva's messenger, Sophy," he would tell her. "I'm Sidney Gottlieb, your next door neighbor."
"Then what are you doing up in a tree?" she'd reply smugly.
"Keeping you company. What are you doing spending your life in an attic?"
"Keeping you busy," she'd say. "As long as you're there, you can't make trouble in the world. It's almost as good as being in the ashram — better! I can see my enemy, and he is all mine."
"You like the idea of having a demon all to yourself?"
"As long as there's that bit of air between us," Sophy would say.
"Believe me, Sophy, I'm Sidney, and I'd like nothing better than to keep you busy. But it's the air between us that bothers me."
"Don't I know it!" Sophy would say, blushing.
"Don't you like me even a little bit?"
Sophy put her knitting down and looked at him. "Insofar as you appear to be Mr. Gottlieb," she said, giving him a cool look, "I like you fine." She cast her eyes down and blushed again. "But insofar as you are the messenger of Siva, I abominate you!" And she looked up at him with those amazing eyes flashing.
"That's not very good Hindu theology, Sophy," Sidney said.
Then it got to be full summertime and it was hot. Sophy had to keep the attic window closed because of the air conditioning, so these incredible conversations pretty much came to a halt. Sidney and I had gotten to be really good friends by this time. He let me read his books — even some books he'd written, for he was, as it turned out, quite a successful writer, mainly of fiction, and I liked the things he turned out. Some of his stories were for boys my age, in fact, and he started to value me as a first critic.
Fairly often I'd promise to keep an eye on the demon in the tree for my sister to give her a break. I'd sit at Sophy's window reading while she was off lying down or puttering around among the trunks and boxes. Later on Sidney might turn on his boom box and take a break too or, after dark, climb down the ladder, and then we could discuss one of his stories. I even began writing some things for him to look at. I was well aware that I was privileged to have such a tutor, and he was a good teacher. But I was, after all, a boy, and what I really wanted was to be allowed up in the tree house with him. The problem was Sophy, not to mention my parents.
If I dared to raise the subject in Sophy's presence she'd fly off the handle. "Don't you ever go up in that tree," she said. "Don't you ever! He'll take you instead of me, or maybe he'll hold you for the ransom of my soul." And she'd fall to her knees and start to pray for all she was worth, scattering strange noises around faster than Sidney could type.
"Listen," he said to her one day when the window was open while she was doing that, "tell you what I'm gonna do. You write that prayer down on a scrap of paper and I'll build you a prayer wheel. We'll put it in the wheel and you can turn it instead of exercising your lips so much." Sidney could be quite sarcastic when he became exasperated. "Maybe we could even rig it up so that the wind will turn it for you, or your rocking chair while you sit there knitting or tatting or whatever it is you do."
"Prayer wheels are Buddhist, not Hindu," Sophy said icily.
So I learned to avoid the subject of my ascension in her presence. Instead I'd go over to the house next door when Sidney was having his supper, and we'd discuss it. "It's fine with me," he'd say, "but you'll have to have your father's permission, and we can't let Sophy see us. Look," he said once and got something out of the closet to show me. It was a harness like his and Thisbe's. Thisbe had to wear hers often, for she had taken to climbing up with her master to enjoy his company and that of the birds. "I'm afraid she'll get to drooling over a sparrow someday and forget where she is," Sidney had told me.
We tried mine on for size and it fitted very nicely. It went under the shoulders and around the torso, and it was strong. "May I take it to show my father?" I asked.
"It's yours," Sidney said.
When I showed the harness to my father he began to relent a little, I could tell. He knew what a tree house means to a kid, and, truth to tell, I think he half wished he could go up to visit with Sidney too. He was a bit too paunchy for that, though, and a little too old, it seemed to me. It wouldn't have suited his dignity. But he'd been saying "No" all summer long, so I knew I'd have to work on it a while longer, even though I had the harness.
Everyone was under pressure that summer. My mother, especially, put the arm on Sophy to come downstairs once in a while, and my father did, too. So did I, of course. The problem was to think up a ruse that she'd go for. "I've got it!" I shouted one day. "A harp!"
"What have you got, dear?" my mother said hustling in from the kitchen. "Are you all right?"
"A harp!" I shouted. "Sophy's always wanted to play the harp. Why don't you buy her one?" In fact, in high school Sophy had even taken some lessons — I'd had to go to one of her concerts. But harps are expensive, and my father said, "She doesn't seem to have the gift. No sense buying one to sit around after she's gone into the...'ashram,' you should pardon the expression." He tried not to curl his lip too obviously.
This time, though, dad was ready to part with the money. "It would be too large to go up the attic stairs," she said. "She'd have to come downstairs to play it." And that's how we did it. No sooner had the big golden instrument been installed in the living room than all three of us were scuttling up the attic stairs to give Sophy the news.
"Why would you buy me one now?" she asked suspiciously, but I could tell she was tempted. She darted a glance out the window where Sidney sat on his stoop reading the paper with Thisbe in her harness sitting beside him.
"Don't worry about the demon," I said. "I'll keep an eye on him while you're practicing." We didn't say anything else, just let the idea cook in her mind a while.
"Well, perhaps I could get away for just a few moments," she said. "The demon seems to be occupied at present."
"Oh, good," mother said. "It would do a world of wonders for you, you're looking so peaked."
They started for the stairs, but before my father could follow them I grabbed his sleeve and said very quietly, really just moving my lips, "Now?" He was preoccupied, and he nodded his head absently. As soon as I heard the first notes of the harp downstairs I tiptoed down the attic stairs, grabbed my harness out of my room, and sneaked out the back door.
Before I began to climb the tree I put on the harness, and as soon as I got out on the stoop Sidney clipped a stout rope to an eye on my back and tied my line onto the branch beside his and Thisbe's knots.
"Well," he said, "two birds with one stone." Thisbe pricked up her ears. "When we hear the harp stop playing, you'll have to scat down out of here, so be careful not to trip going down the ladder."
I nodded happily.
For a while we just sat quietly, listening to the sounds of the harp and the slamming of the neighbors' windows up and down the block, house by house. But before long we started discussing a story Sidney had just written and I had read. We lost ourselves, I guess, because by the time we noticed that the harp had quit ringing, it was too late.
"Don't you dare hurt that boy, you devil!" Sophy screamed out of the attic window. She slung one leg over the sill.
"Sophy!" Sidney yelled, jumping up in a panic.
Thisbe gave a tremendous yowl — Sidney had stepped on her tail and, hissing, made a leap for me. I ducked and fell over backwards in my chair.
"Sophy!" my father and mother hollered from the attic stairs which they were evidently trying to negotiate side by side. By the time they got to the top Sophy had the other leg out the window and was sitting on the sill, tilting forward. Sidney was racing like a professional tightrope walker along the branch.
Sophy cast a look back over her shoulder and saw my father making a grab for her. "Take me, but let my brother go!" she screeched and launched herself at the demon who grabbed her and hugged her as hard as he could while he fell sideways off the branch which was springing up and down like a whip. Sophy set about trying to scratch his eyes out, but she was so tight up against Sidney that all she could reach was the back of his head. I was falling, too, and so was Thisbe. It happened in a second, but everything seemed to be in slow motion.
Somehow, I missed all the big branches, though a lot of little ones broke my fall, but Sidney bounced from limb to limb all the way down, thrashing his legs while he held on to Sophy so that she could hardly breathe. We all came to a stop dangling about four feet off the ground. Nobody said anything at all until my father showed up, puffing around the corner of the house. He stopped goggle-eyed.
My dad is not known for his sense of humor, but he started laughing so hard that tears ran down his face and his knees buckled. My mother showed up late — she'd stopped on the way through the house, with incredible presence of mind, to phone for an ambulance.
"Stop laughing and take your daughter," Sidney said to him.
Somehow, he did, and collapsed to the ground with Sophy sitting on his paunch. It was a funny sight, but the three of us in midair didn't feel like laughing yet. My legs were quivering badly, but I couldn't fall down even though I felt like it.
Sophy said, "Why, you're not the messenger of Siva!"
"That's what I've been trying to tell you, Sidney croaked. We could hear the ambulance in the distance, and the neighbors were collecting in our back yard.
Sophy turned her head to look down at father. "I can enter the ashram after all," she said.
"First get off me," father said.
"Oh, no, you can't," Sidney managed to gasp — he had two cracked ribs, we were to find out, and a broken leg. Most of the hair was gone from the back of his head where Sophy had gouged him.
Sophy got up and brushed herself off. "Oh?" she asked, "and why not?"
"Because you gave yourself to the messenger of Siva up there," Sidney said pointing painfully aloft.
"But you're not the messenger. We've settled that. You're Sidney Gottlieb," Sophy replied, her eyes wide and glittering. It was as though she had achieved some sort of epiphany.
I saw a crafty look come into Sidney's eyes. The paramedics were working at getting him down by this time, and my mother and father were listening carefully so that they could hear the conversation above the uproar of the crowd in the background.
"But you thought I was," Sidney said. "And I caught you."
And that's how I got myself both a brother-in-law and a tree house.
Originally published in The Tower Journal. All rights reserved. Other items of my fiction may be found in The Museum of Ordinary People and Other Stories by Lewis Turco, Scottsdale, AZ: StarCloudPress.com, 2008, 196 pp., ISBN 978-1-932842-1-66, trade paperback.