Chapter 1

THE WITNESS TREE

A NOVEL

AMY PENDINO



“Our souls are tethered by the love of things that cannot last.”

—Louise Erdrich


Chapter 1:  Dani

April 2002


At least thirty hooks covered the red and white wall in front of the counter, one for every regular at Susie’s Café. Each ceramic mug that hung there, embossed with its owner’s first name in thick, black letters, made the loop from wall to table to dishwasher and back daily, sometimes twice. Several mugs had collected grime around their rounded handles; some had drab brown stains around their lips. Most of them faced the same direction, their openings tipped to catch the news from the local color congregated around the tables nearby.


Dani didn’t have a mug with her name on it. She sat on the last stool at the counter, a “Crestview Farm & Feed” mug in front of her. Swiveling around, she could see all the way through the café, the small square tables in orbit around the big round one filled with local farmers and small-town businessmen. Except for her and Donna, the waitress, every other patron was male, dressed in denim and cotton, their bristly cheeks and forearms pink from spring sunshine.


The morning, damp and gray, had given Dani a reason to drive to town. Last week she’d planted her first crop ever. Until it sprouted, she had two choices: try to spruce up the rundown farmhouse included in her lease, or continue learning the twisting county roads that transected Howard County. She thought about picking up a window fan for her upstairs

bedroom as she waited for Donna to return and take her order.


The café’s screen door banged open and Jacob Dorn strode in. He eased himself around the counter, reached in front of Dani, and grabbed his mug off the wall, the “j” and the “b” almost invisible from use. He didn’t so much as nod to Dani as he filled his mug from the carafe in front of her, his attention occupied by the loud voices emanating from the big, round table in back.

Jacob finished pouring and took the carafe with him, nodding to his neighbors and acquaintances as he passed. He claimed the empty seat left open for him, the one in the back that looked out on the rest of the dining area. The other men there had been drinking coffee and exchanging stories since before Dani came in.


“You go to the funeral?” the one they called Bud asked. 


“Nah, sent Barbara. It was her day to work the Guild, so she was there anyhow.” He took a quick sip. “She said not many came, other than the usual. Said it was a quick deal, over in less than half an hour.”


Dani turned and watched Jacob place his cup back on the Formica- topped table with a flourish. He cleared his throat and picked up the threads of a conversation she’d overhead earlier but had not understood. “So, I’m planning to take that tree down this week. Old Swenson was the last one left, you know, so it’ll be safe now—”


“Isn’t that tree supposed to have a curse on it?” Dani recognized her own voice as the one that interrupted. Almost without being aware of it, she’d transitioned from her stool to the step that separated the counter seats from the dining area below.

Jacob’s blackbird eyes turned and bored into her scarlet face. “What’s your name again?”


“Uh, it’s Dani,” she gulped. “Dani Holden.” An older man at the round table coughed into his hanky. Dani felt her heart drop to hide down near the floor.


“Dani, sure it is.” Jacob’s voice held no warmth. “You’re renting that lot off of 8, aren’t you?”


She nodded and told herself to be brave.


Jacob sat himself up to his full height, still an inch or two lower than the hat brims and shoulders of those around him. “You never farmed before, is that right?” Silence formed a barrier around his pack. Donna, carafe in hand, was a deer on the side of his high beams.


The roses drained from Dani’s cheeks, but she kept her eyes fixed on Jacob’s and tried not to blink. “Well, I—”


“Once you prove yourself at that little place you got, come back. We’ll save a seat for you.” He barked out a laugh, looking around the table to gauge the other men’s reactions. A chair squealed across the linoleum, someone pushing himself out of Jacob’s range.

Dani took a step back, but didn’t return to her stool. She’d been in Crestview for a month and a half so far, and no one, save Donna, had put forth more than a tight smile in her general direction. Getting someone to talk to her, she was finding, was as difficult as navigating through the feed store without losing her way. She decided she might as well continue.


She stepped down near the round table again. The men had resumed their conversations. She caught the eye of a man next to Jacob and directed her question his way. “That tree, the one you’re talking about, is that the one that’s supposed to be cursed?”


“That’s what they say.” From the chair to the right of Jacob’s, Bud broke the silence. He tossed a glance her way. “Story says the curse stays put ’til the last one alive from back then passes on.”


“But no one knows for sure if old Swenson was the last one left or not.” Lloyd took off his Frontier Seeds cap and swiped at his face, his smooth, pale forehead a startling contrast to his tanned and wind-creased cheeks.


A blond guy named Chuck finished up. “Anyone living here during that time was afraid to touch that tree, from the fear of that story. My folks said a criminal of some sort, some fella from Texas or somewheres, was killed there, hung, from that tree. Everybody knew about it. The story’s just continued on.”


Jacob cleared his throat. “Fellas, you know there’s no truth to that. My dad told us the same thing when he wanted to put a scare in us.” He reached forward for more coffee. “It’s nothing but BS.”


Bud switched his toothpick to the other side of his mouth. “That may be, Jacob, but are you willing to risk it?”


“Don’t see why not. It’s in the way, every time I steer near the edge of that section. I aim to take her down this week before we spray.” He clapped his empty mug onto the table’s surface. It clattered but did not tip. “Anyone got time to help?”


The other men mumbled a litany of machinery to grease, cattle to sort, supplies to pick up and deliver, everyone too busy to lend a hand to this particular chore.


“Dani, you must have extra time, that little place you’re running? Know how to run a chainsaw?” Jacob drove these words at Dani with more volume than he needed. She knew that he was reminding her of her place and reasserting his own as the head of this table.


“I’ve got time.” Dani waited for Donna to finish pouring top-ups. Steam shook like scolding fingers from each thick ceramic mug. If she helped Jacob, maybe the others would be more open to her, a woman, farming on her own. She stepped down into the dining area and stood to the side of their table. She told herself to ignore the tree stories and look past Jacob’s arrogance. “What are you thinking?”


The others chimed in with their recommendations. They compared the use of chains to dredging; they debated cutting the tree there before removing the pieces versus dragging the trunk out whole. Every man spent hours by himself each day, ruminating over rainfall and wind speed and cloud formations. The way the leaves at the edges of the windbreaks unfurled could tell the story of the season ahead, if a person watched carefully enough. They’d obviously had the time to consider Jacob’s dilemma, for each man spoke with his own firm confidence that his way would be the best and the cheapest. No one actually volunteered to help, though, Dani noticed. She wondered how Jacob would deal with her without his audience nearby.


“I’d compensate you for your time, fellas.” Jacob gave it one last shot. “We can get it done early tomorrow. It’s supposed to dry out, and it’d be nice to have that thing out of the way for when I pass through with the sprayer.”


The men started pushing back their chairs, patting their pockets, shift- ing about looking for change. Several gave their goodbyes and rose to make their way back to work.


“Bud, how about you and your boys? It’d give them something to do, other than riding around making dust on those four-wheelers you got them,” Jacob said. It was dawning on him, Dani thought, that she’d be the only one with him out there in the field.

Chuck cleared his throat from across the tabletop. Lloyd snickered. They were the last ones at the table, lingering to see how Bud would respond.


“Normally that’d be fine, Jacob,” Bud started, “only I promised Missy I’d take her and Jenny up to Rochester to do some shopping.” He stood and carefully laid a single wrinkled bill at his place, tucking it under the edge of his empty cup. Adjusting the belt that protruded sideways from under his round belly, he pushed in his chair and turned to go. “You can pick up the boys at the corner, though. Tell me when. I’ll have ’em there waiting.”


Jacob was the last to stand. Usually there was a buzz of conversation and ribbing when the men left, but today, Dani noticed, their exit was like the departure from St. Nicholas’s after Mass: quiet, contemplative, eager to get back to the familiar.


She made her way back to the counter up front, wondering what she’d gotten herself into.





the witness tree © copyright 2018 by Amy Pendino, Wise Ink Creative Publishing, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form whatsoever, by pho-

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writing from the author, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in critical articles

or reviews.

ISBN 13: 978-1-63489-145-5

Library of Congress Catalog Number: 2018950324

Printed in the United States of America

First Printing: 2018

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Cover design by Liz Forester

Interior design by Patrick Maloney.

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