Topic: The Hanging Tree by Gwyneth Jones

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From the first moment I laid eyes on that bewitching pohutukawa tree I knew that there was something very wrong. Regardless of its beauty and spiny red headdress set against the background of turquoise water, there was something definitely amiss with that tree.

Over the following weeks of my stay I studied the Jekyll and Hyde tree both day and night. Some days it was part of a scene as beautiful as any oil painting. Other times, when a sickle moon cast its thin light upon the tree, there was a coldness about it that seemed to penetrate through flesh and bone.

I became driven to find out all I could about this tree. My intuition gave me some insight into what I might find.  I suspected that concealed in that splendid foliage lurked the restless spirit of someone who had once resided in this old house.

My search started with the local library where I discovered the house had been built at the turn of the 20th century by an old seaman named Sam Dove. How he had found the little arch-shaped inlet, known locally as Dove’s Bay, was not known. Sam, it seemed, had cleared the bush on the flat land beside the bay.

That is, all but one young pohutukawa tree, which grew only feet away from the high tide line.

Every pit-sawn timber slab and nail required for the building Sam had brought into the bay by rowboat. Once his modest house was finished the fresh young pohutukawa tree softened the squareness of his wooden dwelling.

At that time there was not even a bridle track overland to the tip of the inlet.  Sam apparently made rare trips by rowboat to the Kerikeri store to purchase supplies. His only neighbours were the tribe of Maori settled on the next jutting headland. They were friendly and traded goods with Sam. His life was simple and isolated and remained that way for many years.

One day when Sam rowed down to the General Store he was surprised to find a letter waiting for him. It was from the local county and informed him that he owed several hundred pounds in rates for the land his house was built on. The letter made clear that if he did not pay the County intended to seize his property by Court order. The legalities of all this terrified him so he hung himself in the pohutukawa tree.

His Maori friends discovered his grisley remains when they pulled their canoe onto the narrow beach one morning. A tapu was placed on both Sam Dove’s house and valley. As the news of the suicide spread around the district the pretty pohutukawa tree became known as ‘the hanging tree’.

Growth in the area was rapid between the two world wars, with much of the land cleared for farming and a road of sorts formed to the inlet. With the further felling of native bush the Maori tribe disappeared.  Sam Dove’s house sold twice to two separate families, each believing they had found their own special paradise. Both departed in haste claiming that the house was haunted.

Few people visited the bay and, with the house standing empty for so many years, it became dilapidated. When vehicle access became available, a few holiday baches sprung up on the higher ground above the house. But Sam Dove’s haunted house in the valley below, with its sinister hanging tree, remained free from holiday seekers.

 

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Mollie Kendle was a plucky little woman.  She bought Sam Dove’s house and valley on the strength of a photograph she saw in the window of a real estate office. She wrote in her diary, It will be pleasant to move away from the cold of the south and live by the sea in a state of peace.’

Mollie and her companion Ken Thomas took possession of the house on a wet and dismal day. Mollie couldn’t believe the sight that greeted them. The house she had bought bore no resemblance to the photograph in the real estate window. It was nothing more than a heap of rusting roof iron and peeling paint. The overgrown valley was no better and Mollie was not pleased.

But then, neither was Sam Dove.

No time passed before the new arrivals were informed of the property’s gruesome history and the notorious ‘hanging tree’. But even before the locals could tell the tale Sam Dove had begun his campaign to rid his valley of these new intruders. Rain continued ceaselessly until the valley was transformed into a river of dirty yellow clay.

Inside the house there was no comfort. It leaked and smelt of rotting flesh. After enduring twelve months Mollie made another entry in her diary, ‘A vile spot! This is indeed a haunted house. But it will not drive me away.’

If Ken Thomas was affected by the strange and unnerving phenomena he didn’t show it. He worked diligently on with remarkable calm, partaking regularly of Mollie’s excellent homebrew, to make the house habitable.

A tornado hit the tiny valley in 1970. The powerful wind ripped off the new roofing iron. The force uprooted shrubs and flattened Mollie’s newly planted rose garden. Vicious gusts snapped and deformed limbs from all but ‘the hanging tree’, which  stood aloof taking no part in the havoc, a mere observer, its foliage making no movement. Of this event Mollie wrote, ‘How green is my valley now! Dirty muddy brown, plastered with clay and sludge. The sea, once blue, now a livery yellow, the colour of gall.’

Just months after the storm Ken Thomas drowned while fishing in the bay. Mollie carried on alone as best she could. No one called on her and Mollie, mumbling endlessly to herself, became known in the district as an old eccentric.

And that’s when I came to the old wooden house, as a companion to Mollie Kendle. She died sitting upright in her chair looking out of the large lounge window that encompassed a magnificent view of Dove’s Bay and the headland where once the Maori tribe had once lived. Cutting through Mollie’s last glimpse of this beautiful scene, there, perfectly dead centre, was ‘the hanging tree’.

Mollie had willed the house and valley to a charity with the proviso that it be used as a holiday house for children. Perhaps she had imagined that the presence of young people might dispel the evil aura that hung over the beautiful pohutukawa tree and stop the mishaps that had plagued her during her occupation of this haunted house. However, the administrators of the charity didn’t want it as a holiday home. They preferred the money so they broke the terms of the will and sold the property at a public auction.

When I heard the news that the house was to be auctioned I travelled back to Dove’s Bay and observed the huge crowd from my stance beneath ‘the hanging tree.’ As if driven by some unseen force the frenzied bidders pushed the price higher and higher and Sam Dove’s old wooden dwelling sold for an unbelievably exorbitant sum.

One day my curiosity will take me back to Dove’s Bay to see how the owners of Sam Dove’s house have fared, and what of ‘the hanging tree’? Perhaps if they couldn’t handle its eerie presence, they might have cut it down, regardless that pohutukawa are protected trees.

But rules don’t seem to matter much anymore. However, if the hanging tree, once entirely the domain of Sam Dove, still stands I feel sure Mollie Kendle’s presence will be shared with Sam as she, too, now has a wrong to be avenged.

 

 

About the writer:  Gwyneth Jones had her first novel While Their Souls Slumbered published in 1998, and was then writing for the magazines New Zealand Memories and Rainbow News.

When Coal Was King, the history of the Pukemiro and Glen Afton townships and coal mines was published in 2002, the first in a series of four that will record the ‘History of the Waikato Coal Mines’. The second, The End of an Era, the history of the Glen Massey township and coal mines was published in 2010, and she is currently working on At the Coal Face, the history of Huntly, and Rotowaro: Lake of Coal, the history of Rotowaro and surrounding districts.

Gwyneth was President of the Uxbridge Writers in Howick for some time before moving to Tauranga, where she is now a much-valued member of Tauranga Writers.

‘The Hanging Tree’ was written for the Memoir & Local History Competition 2011, run annually by the New Zealand Society of Authors (Bay of Plenty Region) with support from Tauranga Writers, and was Highly Commended] by judges Susan Brocker and Tommy Kapai Wilson.

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This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016: https://perma.cc/NL4N-B9PD

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