THE SECOND TREE was a juniper. You can have it. Cottonwoods are shaggy, friendly messes—wrinkled, striated pigpens. Rumpoles of the Prairie.
Junipers are tidy, organized, presentable. Junipers remind me of student body presidents. Shoes in junipers remind me of student body presidents wearing weekend nose rings.
MY THIRD SHOE TREE—that other big cottonwood I told you about—was one of only six trees of any kind along a 105-mile stretch of highway. By then I was far south and far east of the first tree, but the world remained gray, windy, and bitter. Furious storms raged in the distant, lonely, world-class mountains.
From a quarter-mile, the tree looked healthy, full-leaved, normal. From 100 yards the leaves had become shoes and the tree had become hideous. At 20 yards "hideous" had become serious understatement.
Great pear-shaped clumps of shoes hung everywhere—like fruit grown on a planet from which no one returns—or lay on branches, piled thick, skinless and alien, like swarms of bats, quiverings of beetles, Medusas of deep-cave snakes. They were no longer shoes, but hulks: discolored, bloated, sole-holed, heel-less. Their foxed tongues were stiff and bent as limbs of battlefield dead.
It was like the detritus of an intergalactic breeding scheme gone terribly wrong, and the creatures hatched--the spores, the cysty underbelly dwellers, the tumors, the buboes—were the sort that attached themselves to suck life.