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The Madagascar Tree

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The Deathbed Confession of Walter Wright Shoemacher.


I was born on May Seventeenth, Eighteen Eighty, in Aurora Texas, and led an uneventful life until I was seventeen years old. My uncle, John Wright Shoemacher, was the constable at the town jail, and I had a job cleaning the small office and the four holding cells that were used to keep prisoners. I worked nights after school. My main job was to keep the place clean, but when there were prisoners, though there seldom were, my other duty was to take their dinner order, walk across the street to Joyce’s Cafe, and bring it back and make sure they were fed.

Most of the prisoners were local town drunks, or the occasional vagrant on his way to Ft. Worth, who thought he could get by without paying for something out at Marshall's General. So that job was pretty uneventful too. But that all changed on April 19, 1897. That morning, the famous Aurora UFO crash occurred. Well I guess it was famous for us. It made the Dallas paper and even Houston and New Orleans, I was told. And according to the newspapers, there was a pilot who died in the crash and was buried. Which wasn’t true.

On the evening of April 19, I was sweeping out the cells when my Uncle John, and his deputy, Clifford Harris, brought a boy in. He was about my age, maybe younger. He wasn’t hurt, though he had been banged up it looked like, and had some bandages on his head and arms. He was dressed kind of strange, with a blue coverall of some kind. His skin was kind of pale, and he had brown hair and bright blue eyes. They put him in one of the cells, then my Uncle said he wanted to talk to me. He had the only private office in the building, and I followed him back to it.

“This boy in here was in that thing that crashed this morning,” He said.

“I thought the pilot died,” I answered.

“Yeah, that’s what we said and that's what the paper will print. We need to figure this out and it seemed like it made sense to just let everyone think he died in the crash. We don’t want to turn the jail into a zoo. Hell you should see all the people out there at the farm where it crashed.”

My uncle told me the boy didn’t speak English, or any language that they could recognize. He told me to just treat him like any other prisoner, but I was probably just going to have to guess what he wanted for dinner. I was usually alone there for several hours in the evening while the second shift deputy made his rounds, and I was told to stay away from the boy. My uncle said they had put a call in to the Army over at Camp Mabry in Austin, and was just waiting for someone to show up and tell them what to do.

The first day the boy didn’t speak. He would watch me move around the room, dusting, sweeping, taking out trash. He was just sitting there. They had already fed him over at Doc Northwick's office when they patched him up. On the second day, I saw him get up from the small bed he was on and walk to the bars and stand there looking out at me. Finally I turned to him and said, “Hi.” But he just kept staring.

When it was time to get his dinner, I walked toward the cell and asked him what he wanted to eat, making a motion with my hand to demonstrate eating. He still didn’t say anything. I left and went to the cafe and brought us both fried chicken and mashed potatoes with a piece of apple pie. I walked to his cell and pushed his plate through the feed tray opening.

Then I sat at one of the three desks in the room and began to eat while watching him. He just sat for a long time, then got up and picked up the plate. He stood there watching me eat for a few minutes, then sat back down and slowly started eating. When he was finished he took his plate back to the opening and sat it down and stood there with his hands holding the bars and looking out at me. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking.

I know I was told not to go near him, but so far he had seemed harmless. More curious than anything. I stood up and slowly walked to the cell and stood in front of him. I reached my hand in to get his plate, watching him carefully. But he didn’t move. Once I had the plate, I said, “Was it good?”

He answered me but of course I had no idea what he said. I stood there for a minute. I asked him how he felt, if he needed anything, or if there was anything else I could do. He said a few more words, but made no motions with his hands or anything. Finally I walked away, thinking nothing of it.

The next day when I returned, he was lying on his bed. The deputy was still there, but when he left to complete his rounds an hour later, the boy got up and walked over to the cell and stood looking at me again. He said some words, so I walked over to his cell and tried talking to him, but of course there was no way for us to communicate. When I brought his dinner that night, he smiled. It was the first emotion I had seen in him. I smiled back and when I did he laughed slightly. It wasn’t deep or anything, just a quick laugh. I got the feeling he was just surprised and pleased that we had communicated somehow. With the smile.

The next day when the deputy left, the boy quickly walked to the cell and said something to me. I walked over to him and asked him what he wanted. For the first time he reacted physically to my question, as if he suddenly understood what I was asking him.

He made a motion as if he wanted something to write with. Thinking maybe we could communicate somehow by writing; I walked over to a desk and got a pencil and a piece of paper and pushed it through the opening. He took it and smiled again. But instead of writing anything, he walked back to his bed and sat down. I watched him for a while and could tell he was drawing on the paper, but I couldn’t tell what it was. He didn’t seem interested in showing me.

The next night when the deputy left, he made the same motion. He had kept the pencil. I didn’t think he was dangerous at all, and didn’t worry about leaving it with him, even though my uncle would have been very upset with me had I told him. But when the boy acted as if he wanted something to write on again, I pointed over to the piece of paper he had drawn on the previous night, now lying on his bed, and then at my eyes. He understood what I wanted and walked over and picked the paper up and slid it in the opening to me.

I held it up but couldn’t understand what I was seeing. It was beautiful. He had sketched a planet. It was surrounded by six moons. There was a ring around it. He had drawn other stars and suns and moons near the large planet, which was the centerpiece of his work. Some of them were larger than others, some shaded more to show which ones were less bright I believe. I looked up at the boy. “It’s amazing,” I said.

He just stared back at me without saying anything. I walked over and picked up a whole pad of paper this time and slid it through the opening. He smiled and took his treasure and walked back to his bed.

The next day the boy waited until the deputy left again, then walked over to the cell door. This time he had the pad with him. He slid it through the opening to me. I looked at his face. There was no emotion, but he seemed to be expectant. Waiting for me to look at them. I took the pad and quickly flipped through it. He had used every page.

The drawings were incredible. Dozens and dozens of planets. Vast forests populated with trees I had never seen before, nor even seen pictures of. And cities. Page after page of futuristic cities. Round buildings and towers with walkways connecting the buildings high above the ground, though the people in them didn’t seem to be walking and I had the feeling these connected sidewalks were automatic, taking the people from one destination to the next with them standing motionless.

They were so beautiful I was speechless. I looked up at him and smiled and he smiled back. Though this time his smile turned into a broad grin. It made me grin as well. That evening, after I brought his dinner, I sat and looked through the sketches. This time slowly. The sheer volume of the work was amazing. There were one hundred twenty seven drawings. One on each page that had been left in the tablet. I walked back to the cell and pushed the drawings through the feed opening, but he pushed them back and pointed to me. He had drawn them for me. A gift. I smiled and thanked him over and over again while nodding. 

I took them home and that night, I looked at them again and thought, these would be beautiful in color.

My sister had a child’s paint set at home, with several colors and small brushes. So the next day, I sneaked them into the jail and as soon as the deputy left for his rounds, I brought the paper bag out that held the small brushes and containers of paint and a drawing pad. There were only three colors. Blue, red, and yellow. Before sliding them through the bars, I took the lid off one of the jars of paint, picked up a brush and made hand motions to demonstrate how they were used. He smiled at me and I knew he understood.

The next morning was Saturday and I was eating breakfast when my Uncle John drove up in his wagon. When he walked in the door my mother asked if he wanted breakfast or coffee, but he told her he was in a hurry and they had a problem at the jail and needed me there.

When were in his wagon I asked him what the problem was, and he said he didn’t want to talk about it until he showed me something. When we arrived at the jail, I saw both deputies were already there, which was unusual, as they staggered their shifts. But then I saw why.

Much of the back wall of the boy’s cell was covered in blue and red and yellow. Some of it looked the same as his sketches he had drawn on the pad of paper. But the details were much more defined. There were planets and landscapes and flora and fauna that none of us had ever seen before.

Needless to say, my Uncle was displeased. First he admonished me for the danger I put myself in, communicating with the boy. But he was angry that this had been going for almost a week and I hadn’t said anything to him. He was also under a lot of stress because the army had not responded to his inquiry about the boy, and he was in a quandary about what he should do with him. He told me he needed me to stay at the jail that day, as the deputies were working later, and he had to meet with several of the town leaders to discuss the boy. As far as any of them knew, the pilot of the crashed spacecraft had died and been buried. When a few people in town discovered they were holding a boy at the jail, my uncle had explained he was a vagrant who was deaf and mute and had been caught stealing chickens from some of the farms in the surrounding area.

Once the deputies and my uncle left, I walked over to the cell. The boy had been quietly sitting on his bed until the others had left, but now he stood and walked over to the bars. I pointed to the wall and then smiled at him. He smiled back.

I stood in amazement, studying his artwork. But the more I looked at it the more I realized these weren’t just diagrams of a different galaxy. At first I hadn’t noticed because it was drawn from right to left. He was telling a story.

On the far right was the largest planet. It was beautiful. Drawn with yellow and blue. But then he drew it again. I could tell it was the same planet, because he had drawn the outlines of what I recognized as continents. But on the second drawing the planet was smaller and there was more red. He had drawn it a third time. This time it was almost completely red and even smaller. I don’t think the diminished size indicated the planet was shrinking, instead it demonstrated a change. As did the red paint.

Once the planet was red, there were vessels that seemed to be leaving it. I counted twenty of them, all traveling in different directions. And then I noticed there were even smaller vessels emerging from the larger ones. As I traced these, I noticed they were drawn twice. They seemed to enter a small tunnel, where you could see the rear disappearing, and at the other end of this tunnel it looked as if the front of the vessel was emerging. It seemed as if it was demonstrating a method of getting from one point in the galaxy to another, though to my seventeen year old eyes, I had no idea what it meant.

Then the boy walked over and pointed at one of the images. It showed one of the larger vessels, near a planet. There were people on the planet. It looked as if he was distinguishing between adults and children, as some of them were twice the height as the others. But to the left of that was a pool of blue water, surrounded by beautiful flowers. There was a figure on its knees drinking from the pool.

The next drawing showed the same planet, though this time, the taller people were prone, and the shorter ones were still standing. I didn’t understand what this meant.

The next image showed one of the small vessels again, near the planet with the children on it, and emerging from it near another planet. The continents were drawn in close detail, and were obviously showing North and South America. He had drawn Earth. As I stared at the boy, he pointed to the emerging vessel near Earth, then to himself. He smiled.

And then I knew. He was telling me his story. I looked back to the right where the large planet was blue and yellow and beautiful, and slowly panned my gaze toward the left. Something had happened to his planet and they had left in spaceships to go to other parts of the universe. Eventually he came to Earth alone.

I never understood what he was indicating with the pool of water and the person drinking, then what were apparently bodies lying around. I decided he was saying that this water was poison and it killed many of the people, leaving the children to fend for themselves. Though I am not sure if it was a proper interpretation.

I looked at the boy and smiled and nodded my head. He smiled back. We were together all day and all afternoon. I spent much of it looking at the drawings on the cell wall. He seemed pleased that I was so interested in it.

That evening, after it was dark, my Uncle returned with the two deputies and several men from town. The Mayor was there and a few business leaders. They walked in and stood silently looking at the paintings. My uncle said, “You sure?”

Mr. Kelly, the banker looked back at him, glanced at the others and I saw some of them nodding. My Uncle and the two deputies entered the cell, and my uncle turned the boy around and cuffed his hands behind his back.

“Hey, where are you taking him?” I asked.

“To Fort Worth,” My Uncle responded. “The army didn’t have time to come and get him, so I’m going to let the State decide what to do with him.”

They led the boy from the cell. He didn’t make any attempt to resist, but at the door, he stopped and turned to me and smiled. I smiled back at him and he grinned a wide grin and I returned it. They pushed him through the door and I followed.

They put him in the back of the one wagon the town owned to transport prisoners. My Uncle climbed up to the front and took the reins and the other townsmen got into another wagon and two of them climbed on their horses and followed the others. The boy turned around and smiled at me as they rode off down the dark street. I smiled back at him and lifted my hand.

I walked back inside the jail and looked at the painted wall again.

“Do you ever think you remember something exactly the way it happened, then find out later it was all a dream?” These were the words I heard of someone speaking behind me. Seventy years later I still remember them. I turned and it was the Mayor.

He was looking at the drawings. “That’s what this was Walt. Just a dream.”

I started to respond, but he said, “Come on. My wagon’s outside. I’ll take you home.” The Mayor owned the first automobile in Aurora, a Duryea Motor Wagon, and I have to profess, I was excited to ride in it.

I followed him to the door, then stopped and looked at the painted wall for the last time until the Mayor pulled the door shut.

The next morning I woke early and rode my horse to town, in a hurry to see my uncle and find out how the trip to Ft. Worth had gone and what was going to happen to the boy. When I pushed the door to the jail open I stopped. The painted wall had been white washed. There was no sign that anyone had ever been there.

My uncle came out of the office and saw me standing there looking at the wall. “Walter, let’s talk,” he said, and led me into his office.

Before I was even seated I asked him if the boy was okay.

“Walter, it’s best we all forget about the boy and this last week.”

“What are they going to do with him in Fort Worth?” I asked.

“Well, he got scared and jumped out of the wagon before we got there and took off in the woods. My guess is he’s on his way to Mexico as we speak.”

“Mexico? He doesn’t know anything about Mexico. He’s not from here,” I said.

“Yeah, I think I told you wrong," my uncle said. "There really was a pilot who died in the crash and this boy was a vagrant. And we kept him for a while then he escaped on the way to Ft. Worth. End of story.”

I stood up from my chair. “What did you do to him?” I asked harshly.

“Now Walter…” my Uncle was trying to calm me down.

“He wasn’t from here!” I yelled. “You saw the drawings on the wall!”

“There are no drawings on the wall. It didn’t happen.”

I was backing toward the door.

“Walter, sometimes we run into people who really don’t belong. They’re from over there. It’s not their fault, it’s just where life put them. But most of the time they need to just stay over there. Because it doesn’t help anyone when they try to go someplace they don’t belong. Someplace they aren’t wanted.”

Then he tried to speak to me in a kind voice. “That boy wasn’t doing himself any good. Or me. Or you. You want to be the laughing stock of the town? Of the whole state of Texas? We’re getting people up here from all over the state since that article ran last week. Can you imagine if we said we captured one of them alive?”

“One of them?” I yelled. “He’s just like us! He just came from a different place! And you didn’t capture anyone. He was just lying there in that bag. You told me so yourself!”

“He was. And he was dead. And we buried him in the bag. Last week. The next day we picked up a vagrant and held him for a week then he got away. That’s the story we’re telling. And that’s what happened. And if you say anything other than that you’re going to be laughed out of town. But it won’t matter because no one is going to believe you.”

I left his office and never went back. I graduated from high school in May of that year and the day after I took the money I had saved working for my uncle and bought a train ticket to California. I’ve never been back to Aurora. Not even for funerals. I think part of me died that day. The part I had always been told about small town values and hometown pride. In the end, the people I knew, the ones who raised me, the ones I looked up to…took a boy out in the woods and murdered him because he was different, and they didn’t know how to explain him. They were too afraid of being laughed at to stand up for someone who was different than they were.

And so was I.

I never forgot the boy. Everything I’ve done since then with my art and illustrations is just my attempt to tell his story. I haven’t drawn one thing, or illustrated one book or magazine that wasn’t done for him. My work is a sad attempt to imitate the beautiful art that he created.

I’ve asked myself many times over the years, why? Why did he paint the wall? Why did he befriend me? Because he did. I was his friend. You didn’t have to speak the same language or come from the same world to know that.

I’ve often wondered if, in his last minutes before they killed him, if he knew what was going to happen. And if he looked for me. Somewhere out in the dark woods. Wondering if I would come through the trees and rescue him. At first I used to think that’s what he did. He looked for me and hoped I would come and save him. His one friend. His only friend in a hostile place that had imprisoned him and then took him out to shoot him like a rabid dog. I agonized over that for years.

But as I grew older I changed my mind. Maybe it was to comfort me in my old age, soothe my guilt. But I remember him stopping at the door to the jailhouse and looking back at me. They had come in, seven or eight men, most of them he had never seen before, handcuffed him and walked him out. I think he knew what was going to happen to him. But still he smiled. He smiled at his friend. Because he was done. He had painted the wall and found a friend who would remember him and what he had painted.

He taught me what art was. Any art. Whether it is a best selling novel, a million dollar painting, the Pyramids of Egypt, or some silly little piece of writing that a few people will read. It’s just a way to say...we were here. We lived. We felt something.

That’s why he put his story on the back wall of a tiny cell in a small town in Texas. Because he wanted to tell his story. To his friend. And maybe his friend would tell it to someone else.

I’ve not been a good friend to the boy. Yes I’ve told his story for sixty years in my illustrations. But no one ever knew it was his story. Until now. I hope my friend is at peace. And I’m sorry I didn’t do anything to help him when I could have. But maybe I’ll meet him again when this life is over. And maybe we’ll be able to talk to each other. But if we aren’t it won’t matter. We’ll still be friends. Of that I’m certain.



Dr. Gaston turned the video off. No one spoke for several minutes. They were all lost in their own thoughts. Finally Dr. Gaston said, “I’ve had my staff get us some samplings of Mr. Shoemacher’s artwork.” She pressed a button on the remote. An image of a blue and yellow planet came on the screen. Dr. Gaston waited several seconds before changing the image. For almost an hour she moved through magazine and book illustrations, comic book covers, posters, drawings and full sized paintings. No one in the room spoke the entire time. It was like they all knew: they were glimpsing a different world.

Finally, she stopped on one last illustration. It was from inside a room. There were seven or eight people in the drawing, but they were all shaded, save one. The image of a boy who appeared to be in his late teens, looking toward the artist. He was light skinned and had brown hair and blue eyes and was smiling. To his left was a jail cell with the door open, and at its rear, most of the wall was painted. There was the dying planet with the vessels leaving it. There was another planet with the pool of water, and someone kneeled before it, drinking. Then the image of the taller people lying about the ground while the shorter ones were standing. Finally the image of the tiny vessel disappearing into a small opening and emerging near a planet that was obviously Earth.

“Mr. Shoemacher painted this in nineteen thirty seven,” Gaston said. “Thirty years before his death. There is such detail, we believe he used some of the drawings the boy had given him to spark his memory. I think it haunted him his entire life. Trying to understand it. And I don’t think he ever did. He thought the boy was just telling the story of a dying planet and how he came to Earth. 

“But we took it to a cryptologist who works for intel. He agreed with Mr. Shoemacher. He thinks that it is autobiographical in nature.”

She clicked the remote. The next photo showed an enhanced image of the original planet. There were several people on it, boarding the large spacecraft. She zoomed in to one. “This is a boy. Smaller than many of the others. Most of them are just outlines, but a close look shows this person’s features. He has blue eyes and brown hair.”

She changed the image. Now there was an enhanced image of the person drinking from the pool. Again, this image had brown hair, and the one visible eye was blue.

She changed the image and now the boy with brown hair and blue eyes was standing among the other children, as the taller people were scattered on the ground.

The final image was of the boy with brown hair and blue eyes entering the small spacecraft.

“He was telling the story of a particular individual,” Dr. Gaston explained. “Himself. But our cryptologist found something else. Each drawing has a symbol just to the outside. Not part of the picture he’s trying to draw, but just to the upper left of it. And each picture has the same symbol only slightly different.”

She quickly flipped through each frame, zooming in on the image. “Math is the universal language,” She explained. “And the cryptologist believed these were geometrical symbols, indicating the passage of time. He ran hundreds of computer simulations and couldn’t crack it. So he called me and asked me a question. He asked me to give him a date. Of course he didn’t know what this project was. Even though he had top secret clearance, there are very few people who know exactly what we are doing. But he said he was working on a theory and asked if I had a date for when the final event was supposed to have taken place. I told him to go with the date of the turn of the twentieth century. That would get him close enough to eighteen ninety seven.

“He called me a week later and told me he had cracked it. Or he thought he had. Using the final date I gave him, and an approximate starting period of two hundred fifty thousand years ago, he had his beginning and end, and was able to determine that these symbols were what he thought they were. A type of calendar.”

“Why did he use two hundred fifty thousand years ago as a start date?” One of the men asked.

“Because the first image of when these people left their planet showed one of these large ships traveling to Earth. Long before the boy’s small craft did. Modern Humans appeared on Earth between two hundred and three hundred thousand years ago. Basically, he guessed what we were looking for. He's been...reassigned.”

“What exactly are you saying, Doctor?” One of the other men asked.

“Our cryptologist believes this drawing is depicting the life of one boy. The boy who left his home planet and crashed on Earth in eighteen ninety seven. He believes these people left their planet two hundred and fifty thousand years ago, give or take a few thousand years. So I asked him to look again at the drawings where the boy is drinking from the water. I asked him if there was another way to interpret it.

“He immediately responded that the only other thing he felt it could indicate was that, rather than the water poisoning the people who drank it, it kept them alive. The children anyway.

“If this is true, the story seems to be that they found water on a planet that stopped the aging process. The only ones dead in the picture are the adults. The children survived. Otherwise, why send a child to Earth? Confirming what Will Robinson has said in his sleep. They never die.”

“So you think he wasn’t really a child,” The Lieutenant said. “He was one of these children who drank this water and stopped aging?”

“I don’t know. But myths of the Fountain of Youth have been around since Herodotus. If an advanced civilization discovered it thousands of years ago and had the technology to send a boy to Earth in eighteen ninety seven, who’s to say they didn’t send someone in the fifth century B.C.? Or to Florida in the fifteenth Century, when Ponce de Leon spent years looking for it. Someone looking for their own people who had come here hundreds of thousands of years before. What if they are we?”

“I think you're grasping at straws," one of the men around the table said, "Myths are myths. And you’re using the old man’s painting. He may have put this boy in all of them. Besides, there's no way to prove any of it."

“I’m not sure about that,” Doctor Gaston said. “The cemetery where the alien pilot was supposedly buried is still there. They refused requests twice from UFO nuts to exhume the body over the years.”

“You think they will say yes to you?” The Lieutenant asked.

She looked up at the screen, which once again showed the live feed of Will. “If this story is true, the boy in that bed might be more important than we ever imagined. I’m not asking their permission.”

They all looked up at the monitor. Will’s eyes were closed, and he was breathing softly. If he was still dreaming, at least it was peaceful.