The Secret TreeNatalie Standiford
The Legend of The Secret Tree
About the Author
A ghost can live anywhere. Some ghosts live in the water. Some haunt houses or graveyards. Others live in the air. And some ghosts live in the trees.
If a tree has a good, deep hole in its trunk, a ghost can live inside it, feeding on secrets. Secret-keepers are drawn to the tree. They put their secrets in the hole, the ghost eats them, and soon those people are free. Their secrets whisper from the branches of the tree and float away on the wind, gone forever.
Every town has its stories and superstitions. In Catonsville, we have Crazy Ike, the Witch House, the Man-Bat, and the Secret Tree. I stumbled upon the Secret Tree in the woods across from my house last summer. This is what happened.
I’m Minty Fresh. My best friend is Pax A. Punch.
Minty Fresh and Pax A. Punch are not famous yet. But when we’re older and rule roller derby, our names will bring fear to skaters all over the world.
Not that Minty Fresh is a very scary name.
Paz and I have been derby fans since we were eight, when our local roller rink started its own team, the Catonsville Nine. We cheered for them all winter — tough young women in helmets and knee pads, skating hard in competition against the Arbutus Cuties and the powerhouse Baltimore Bombers. We got our own roller skates and practiced tricks and skills.
I struggled to come up with my roller derby name. Minty Fresh didn’t pack a punch like Pax A. Punch. It sounds like a toothpaste. But I hadn’t been able to think of anything better.
“What about Cleopaintra?” Paz suggested. We were skating in front of her house, in the loop that dead-ends our street. “Or Carrie A. Chainsaw?”
I tried them out. “Minty Mortimer, also known as Cleopaintra. No. Sorry. It just isn’t me. It has nothing to do with my real name.”
She didn’t get it. I wanted to turn myself into a roller derby superstar. My real self, not a made-up person.
She’s lucky: Paz Anita Calderon is great material for a roller derby name. Paz means “peace” in Spanish, and pax means “peace” in Latin. They’re basically the same word. And A is Paz’s real middle initial! It’s like her parents were thinking of roller derby when they named her. Though, knowing her parents, they probably weren’t.
Lennie, Paz’s younger sister, sat on the curb, keeping an eye on their little brothers, Hugo and Robbie, as they tumbled across the Calderons’ front yard like puppies. “I’ve got one for you,” Lennie said. “I. Minty Structable!” Lennie could sit around thinking up roller derby names all day.
“Too awkward,” I said.
“Sheila Beecherbutt?” Lennie tried.
“It’s getting dark,” Paz said. “Let’s do one more leg whip.”
The leg whip is a trick we saw Lemon E. Kickit and Willa Steele do at the last Catonsville Nine bout. Willa stuck out one leg behind her, Lemon grabbed her foot, and Willa kicked it forward, whipping Lemon up the track to score a point. Lemon E. Kickit is a jammer, which means she scores points for her team by passing the other team’s skaters. The other skaters on the track are blockers, who try to keep the opposing jammer from scoring. The trick is for the jammer to get past the enemy team’s blockers, and the leg whip worked great.
Paz skated ahead of me and stuck out her leg. I grabbed her foot. She kicked me forward. Her long, black braid whipped around her head, but I didn’t whip anywhere. I fell on my butt. Again.
“Great trick,” Lennie said. “What’s it called, the butt bouncer? You should totally do it in the parade.”
“The parade’s two weeks away,” I said. “We’ll have it down by then.” I wasn’t so sure. But I figured if I kept saying it, it might come true.
Paz and I planned to skate in the neighborhood’s annual Fourth of July Parade. We used to decorate our bikes and ride around the block like all the other kids, but this year we were going to blow everyone’s minds with our roller derby routine. If we could ever get it right.
“Let’s go to the rink tomorrow for some real practice,” I said, changing out of my skates.
“Can I skate with you?” Lennie pleaded. “I’m a million times better than either one of you.”
I knew what Paz would say. Lennie was right — she was at least as good a skater as me or Paz. But she was only nine. Ever since Paz turned eleven, she tried to leave Lennie out of everything. Paz said Lennie was too young, which made steam shoot out Lennie’s ears.
“Maybe next year,” Paz said. “I’m thirsty. Go get us some lemonade.”
“Why should I?” Lennie’s jaw jutted out.
“Because I asked you to,” Paz said.
“You didn’t ask me, you ordered me,” Lennie said.
“If you don’t want Mami and Papi to find out about you know what,” Paz said, “then you’ll get us some lemonade.”
“Grrr.” Lennie rose to her feet and went inside the house.
“What’s you know what?” I asked Paz.
“She put a drink on the side table in the living room,” Paz said. “And it left a ring.”
“Oh.” The Calderon kids weren’t even supposed to be in the living room, much less leave rings on the mahogany furniture that had come all the way from the Philippines.
An ominous sound — pfft pfft pfft, like the blades of a distant chopper — came around the corner. It could only mean one thing.
The Mean Boys.
The Mean Boys, David Serrano and Troy Rogers, turned the corner on their dirt bikes. They called them dirt bikes, but they were just regular bicycles with fat tires and playing cards stuck in the spokes to make that pfft pfft pfft sound. They flashed their neon Super Soakers like gangsters.
“Oh Pa-a-a-z.” Troy made kissing noises at her — smack smack smack.
“Hide!” Paz ran for Hugo and Robbie. But there wasn’t time to hide.
“Hold it right there!” David shouted. He aimed his squirt gun at me and pulled the trigger. A red spray shot out of the gun.
“Hey!” My white T-shirt was splattered with sticky red juice.
“How about a nice Hawaiian Punch?” David laughed like a maniac. He sprayed Robbie and Hugo red. Troy zeroed in on Paz, yelling, “You can run, but you can’t hide!”
Quick as they’d come, the Mean Boys disappeared down Western Street to Carroll Drive, where they both lived. Paz, Robbie, Hugo, and I were left dripping and sticky.
Lennie came out of the house, balancing four paper cups full of lemonade in her hands. “The Mean Boys?” She handed a cup to Paz. “Your Majesty.”
“Thank you.” Paz took her cup an
“You’re lucky you missed it, Lennie,” I said.
“Lennie always has such interesting timing,” Paz said. “I bet she knew the Mean Boys were coming.”
I took a lemonade from Lennie and settled on the curb to wait out another sister smackdown. Paz and Lennie had been fighting for as long as I’d known them, and that was a long time. The Calderons moved to Catonsville from the Philippines before I started first grade. Paz was in my class, and we became instant best friends.
Now we were going into sixth grade. We were about to start middle school together.
Lennie glared at Paz. “It wasn’t my idea to go inside. You ordered me to get you lemonade. I bet you wanted to be alone with your boyfriend, Troy.”
“Don’t make me puke,” Paz said. “You’re the one who likes Troy.”
“You guys, nobody likes Troy.” I was hoping this would stop the argument, but it didn’t work.
I stared into the woods across the street, trying to ignore them. It was that after-dinner hour when the world looks like a black-and-white movie. The grass turned gray, the lemonade white, and the red stain on my T-shirt blackened as the light drained away.
The woods rustled. Some kind of creature moved among the low trees that bordered our street. I could see the leaves shaking, but I couldn’t tell what was hiding in there.
“What are you staring at?” Paz asked me.
“I thought I saw something,” I said.
A branch snapped. I could make out an arm and a small blob that might have been a head. The rest of the creature blended in with the leaves.
Flash! A light sparked in the woods.
“Hey!” Paz said. “Did someone just take our picture?”
Lennie clutched my arm. “The Man-Bat!”
“Calm down,” Paz said.
“Does the Man-Bat make flashes like that?” I asked Lennie.
“His eyes are yellow-green. He could flash them if he wanted to.”
Lennie was obsessed with the Man-Bat, a giant half man, half bat who supposedly lived in the woods. He was seven feet tall with webbed hands and feet and could fly like a bat. He attacked people and animals. Sometimes he rattled people’s windows, trying to get inside their houses.
Another flash! Paz shaded her eyes. “What is that?”
I jumped up. “I’m going to find out.”
“Minty, don’t!” Lennie tugged on my arm. “The Man-Bat skins squirrels alive!”
“I’m not a squirrel,” I said. “And I want to know what’s making that flash.”
I took a deep breath and barreled into the woods.
The creature crashed away through the trees. He was fast and hard to see, but I could tell he wasn’t seven feet tall like the Man-Bat. He was closer to my size.
“Stop!” I yelled. “Get back here!” The creature ran like he was being chased by an ax murderer. Soon he disappeared in the deep dark of the woods. I got about halfway through before I had to stop and catch my breath.
It was full-on night now. A few lightning bugs flickered through the trees. Otherwise, darkness. I listened for the creature. He was gone.
There was another noise, though … a murmur that burbled under the creaks of cicadas and crickets and birds, the breeze shuffling the leaves, the yelps of kids, and the roar of traffic far away … a murmur like voices, whispering.
I took a step toward the sound, then another.
It was close by.
I was almost there.
I found myself in front of a big, old elm tree. It had a hole in its trunk bigger than my head, and when I pressed my hand against its thick bark, it vibrated like a hive full of bees.
I peered into the hole. It was dark inside the tree, but a bit of white winked in the blackness.
There were no bees. Just that scrap of white. I reached into the hole and pulled out a piece of paper, folded up many times.
What was a piece of paper doing inside a tree?
“Minty!” Paz shouted. Her voice seemed to come from far away. “Where are you? Come back!”
I stuffed the paper in my shorts pocket and ran back through the woods. When they saw me, Hugo and Robbie jumped up and down and waved. “Yay! The Man-Bat didn’t get her!”
“Are you okay?” Paz asked.
“He got away,” I said.
“Who got away?” Lennie asked.
“I’m not sure, but I think it was a boy,” I told them. “Sorry, Lennie, but he wasn’t tall enough to be the Man-Bat.”
“Don’t say sorry.” Lennie shook her head. “I don’t want it to be the Man-Bat. But it could have been a Boy-Bat.”
“Maybe,” I said, to make her feel better.
“That flash,” Paz said. “Why would he want to take our picture?”
“He must be a spy,” Hugo said. “He was spying on us!”
“Where did he go?” Lennie asked.
“He ran to the other side of the woods,” I reported. “All the way through.” I didn’t mention the tree that stopped me along the way. It was like the tree had told me in its murmur to keep it a secret.
“The other side …” The Calderons all turned their eyes nervously to the woods.
There was only one place a person could go on the other side of the woods.
The Witch House.
“He couldn’t live there,” Hugo said. “No one lives there but the Witch Lady. And she eats children.”
If the Man-Bat was a legend — I couldn’t be sure, but I’d never seen any proof that he wasn’t — the Witch House was one hundred percent real.
“I don’t like being spied on,” Paz said. She clutched her stomach. “Ow.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“My stomach hurts.” Paz sank onto the grass and rolled over on her side. “Oof.”
“Did you do something to it?” I asked.
“No. Everything was fine. Then right after the Mean Boys were gone — pow. Ug. Ow …”
“Oh, no!” Lennie said. “Are you okay?”
“I’ll get Awa.” Hugo ran inside. Awa is the Calderons’ cook. She doesn’t speak much English, but she knows strange herbal cures for everything from bee stings to poison ivy to headaches.
I knelt beside Paz, who moaned and rolled back and forth, her face squished with pain. “I don’t understand it,” I said. “How did you get so sick all of a sudden?”
“I don’t know….”
Awa ran outside, trailed by Hugo. Muttering in Chinese, she examined Paz, staring into her eyes and poking at her stomach. She said something else in Chinese — the Calderon kids can usually understand her, even though they don’t speak much Chinese themselves. She helped Paz to her feet and led her into the house. I started to follow them, but then the bell rang — my parents calling me home with an old ship’s bell they’d hung in our backyard.
“I’ll get my dad,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”
My dad is an emergency room doctor, and my mom teaches nursing at the community college, so they’re like the neighborhood medics.
“That’s okay,” Lennie said. “Awa has it under control.”
“Awa,” I called. Awa turned. “Should I get my dad?” I pointed down the street toward my house, three doors away, where the bell was insistently ringing.
Awa shook her head. “No, no, is okay.”
I frowned. Awa knew what she was doing, but I was worried about Paz. “Lennie, call my dad if you need him. Promise?”
“I promise,” Lennie said. Awa nodded and waved me away. They all disappeared inside the Calderon house, leaving me alone in the front yard, the ship’s bell ringing and ringing. I walked home, thinking about Paz and the Witch House.
We live on Woodlawn Road, a dead-end street, one side lined with cookie-cutter houses, the other side lined with woods. Behind our houses are more houses and more streets, like Carroll Drive, where the Mean Boys live.
On the other side of the woods, for as long as anyone could remember, an old
farmhouse sat rotting and lonely, surrounded by barren fields. It was tall and shabby, with peeling paint, cobwebs in the dusty windows, and gray shingles missing from the roof. Everyone called it the Witch House.
A crazy lady lived in the house. As far as we knew, she was as scary, rotten, and alone as her house. Last Halloween, Troy Rogers dared me, Paz, and Lennie to ring the Witch Lady’s doorbell and say, “Trick or treat!” We didn’t want to do it, but Troy said if we didn’t, he’d egg us until we were walking omelets.
So we agreed to do it. “We’ll just press the doorbell, say ‘trick or treat,’ and run like crazy,” Lennie said. “We won’t even wait for the door to open.”
“I guess it can’t hurt anyone,” I said.
For Halloween I’d dressed up as my favorite roller derby superstar, Lemon E. Kickit, in black-and-gold Catonsville Nine’s colors, with a gold helmet and a black mask to hide my eyes. Lennie decided to go as a bat, in case we ran into the Man-Bat that night. She figured he wouldn’t hurt her if he thought they might be related.
Paz had planned to go as her derby favorite, Willa Steele, but changed her mind at the last minute and had dressed up as, of all things, a witch — a cute witch — in a silky, black dress. She already has long, black hair, so no wig was necessary. She taped Lennie’s toy cat, Marcella, to her shoulder. “Every witch needs a familiar,” she explained.
Lennie had had Marcella since she was a baby. She protested strenuously.
“You can’t take Marcella,” she said to Paz. “What if something happens to her?”
“Nothing will happen to her.”
“I can’t fall asleep without her,” Lennie whispered. I don’t think she wanted me to hear that.
“I said, nothing will happen.”
“It better not, or you’ll be sorry,” Lennie said.
“Ooh, I’m so scared.”
That Halloween night we marched through the neighborhood, stopping at every house from Woodlawn Road to Western Street to Carroll Drive to Bailey Street. When our bags were stuffed with candy, we dropped them off at the Calderons’ house and started our trek through the woods. I changed out of my roller skates, since it’s hard to run through the woods on wheels and I wanted to be able to make a quick escape.