Death of an Oak

The following is a short story I wrote  in 2014 for one of my classes in Scotland. Partial credit is to be given to the tree across the street from our old house on Oxford Avenue.

 

Robert stood at the edge of the weathered porch and squinted at the large oak tree in the barren field. One wrinkled hand was clutched around a mug of black coffee, the other raised to block the noon sun from his eyes. Iowa wasn’t meant for trees. Corn, soybeans, and wind turbines, maybe, but not trees. They protruded awkwardly from the clean landscape like clumps of hair that stuck out oddly in the morning. They blocked the wide sky and took gashes out of the horizon. A sorry sight indeed.

‘You sure you want it gone? It’s been there over a hundred years.’

‘A hundred years of trouble. I want it gone.’

Matthew stood on the ground, a respectable distance away from Robert’s perch. The neighbor kid was clad in his usual grass-stained jeans and cutoff shirt that exposed his deeply tanned shoulders. He looked out at the tree, fidgeting uncomfortably with the brim of his Hawkeyes hat.

‘Jake and I have the equipment with us, so we can go ahead and do it if you really want to.’ He paused before adding offhandedly, ‘You took your corn in early.’

‘Course I did. It was dead without the rain.’ Robert sniffed. ‘Drought can’t take the tree, of course. Just the corn.’ He took a swig of coffee and wrinkled his nose. Too strong.

‘Nah, the tree’s as green as ever. You know, I don’t usually cut down living trees.’

‘You’ll be cutting down this one. I refuse to plow, plant, and harvest around it any more. I’m sick of seeing it every time I look outside. Who plants a tree in the middle of a goddamned field anyway?’

‘You don’t think it’s kinda nice?’ Matthew asked, ‘Everyone else does.’ He took an automatic glance over his shoulder at the field’s centerpiece. The oak was tall and strong, great lithe arms stretched over the dirt like a protective older sibling. Its leaves rattled as the boughs swayed in the dry breeze.

Robert grunted. ‘It sucks up all the water in the field. Kills the crops.’

Matthew put his hands on the hips of his Levis and chuckled. ‘Aw, Robert, you know it don’t work like that.’

‘What does it matter?’

‘It’s healthy.’

‘It bothers me.’

‘Luke and Josh will miss it, won’t they?’ Matthew grinned an irritating smirk.

Robert slammed his mug on the porch railing. Rejected coffee sloshed onto the whitewashed plank in a black wave. ‘Look, I’ve made up my mind. I want that blasted tree gone! And if you won’t help me, I’ll find someone who will!’

A disappointed shadow crossed Matthew’s face. He looked to where Jake sat in the Vermeer. His buddy nodded and started up the tractor’s engine.

‘We’ll get it done, sir,’ Matthew said, tipping his cap cordially.

Robert nodded and watched Matthew’s sunburned neck retreat as he loped back to the maroon Chevy. The engine kicked over twice before rumbling to life, and the ornery pickup lead the funeral march to the field. The two drove into the sea of brown, stirring up an entourage of dust. They parked their vehicles just outside of the oak’s generous shade.

Robert coughed violently. Traces of winter’s pneumonia tightened his chest. He watched the two men as they jumped to the ground and began to unload the bed of the truck. Glints of metal shone in the sun. The tree stood still, the laughing of the leaves quieted. The boys circled the tree, sizing up their opponent. Traces of their conversation drifted to the porch.

Behind Robert, the house was silent. Brenda had left with Luke and Josh only an hour ago, and the silence in their wake crashed upon him. There was actually enough space to think once more. He had made the mistake earlier of telling Brenda his plans for the afternoon. She flipped French toast as she listened to his plans for the oak, and he watched her expression go from surprise to anger before settling somewhere between disgust and disappointment. Assuming Luke was contentedly reading his book at the table, Robert went on with his long list of grievances the tree had given him, until finally he could take no more of his daughter’s frustration.

‘The smell’s getting to me,’ he murmured, nodding at the griddle before shuffling out to the porch and the almost barren sanctuary.

The screen door had slammed and Luke came bounding out. His round, deep eyes stared at him. ‘Why are you chopping down the tree?’ His simplicity was enviable.

‘Because.’

‘Because why?’

‘Because I want it gone.’

‘Why?’

Robert squinted and clenched his jaw. ‘Because it won’t die.’

‘Oh.’ Satisfied, Luke had skipped back to where he had come from.

But now they were gone, and Robert was glad to be alone. He had nothing to distract him from watching the boys prepare the chainsaw. They turned it on. His pulse quickened. The whirring scream cut through the air. Closer, closer they got. The saw wailed and then dropped in pitch at as its teeth sank into flesh. A plume of sparrows erupted from the tree, screeching as they flew into the September sky. Yes.

Matthew and Jake began to fell the tree, and Robert stared. Why hadn’t he thought to do this earlier? Cutting it down the oak would make everything easier. Much easier.

He thought of Matthew’s resistance and snorted. The way Matthew was talking to him, like he would miss the thing, was ridiculous. Who had feelings for a tree? He didn’t. Sure, it charmed him in his younger days, but those days were long gone. He remembered, like from another lifetime, sprinting out to the oak and climbing the rope that dangled from the best limb. If he got enough momentum he could swing and launch himself out, flying through the dusty air and trying for a perfect landing. He could still see the pursed lips of his mother at the fresh masterpiece of stains that bloomed on his shirt. He would look up at her sheepishly, the tree visible in the distance over her left shoulder. She was gone now. The tree was still there.

He remembered the time that Brenda thought she had discovered a fairy kingdom living in the oak’s branches. The floating yellow lights that blinked in the late June evenings had dazzled them all. But it was her wonder that he had loved, not the tree. It was the wonder that had dissipated, but the tree he had to stare in the face each and every day. He couldn’t escape it. How did it keep living? What was its secret? He shook his head. He didn’t want to know. He didn’t care. He hated it.

A shout came from the field. Matthew and Jake rebounded from the oak like polarized magnets. There was a sway and then a crack. The top of the oak teetered, and then it fell to the earth with a crash that shook the porch. A giant hole of blank sky was left in its place. Victory.

‘All done!’ Matthew bellowed.

Robert nodded and attempted a smile that they couldn’t see. The tree lay sprawled across the field, its once glorious body dead and humiliated in the dirt. Robert picked up the sticky coffee mug from the railing, then turned and took heavy steps back into the dead house. It was finished.

 

 

The sun had sunk deep below the horizon, the heat of the day faded into cool twilight, and Matthew was still working on the tree. He and Jake had removed the branches one by one and chopped up the trunk. Each load they brought away to the farm to use for lumber and firewood. At least they could get some use out of it.

Matthew lifted his hat and wiped a layer of sweat from his brow. Jake had gone home an hour ago to milk the cows, but he didn’t mind staying on. The wide sky was streaked with crimson over the darkening field; Robert’s house had been dark for a while. It was kind of peaceful out there, he supposed, and he wasn’t in a rush to go home. No, it was more than that; he felt he couldn’t leave the tree, that it was somehow wrong. Soon though, he knew the light would fade and that it was little use to continue laboring in the dark.

Matthew stooped down to pick up another pile of debris and heave it into the back of the Chevy. There was a lot more to do, too much for one day. His stomach gave an impatient rumble. They’d finish the rest the next day.

Matthew brushed the dirt from his callused hands and made to go back to the truck. No. One more load. He stooped to grab another bundle of branches, and when he did something in the dirt caught his eye. He’d been moving wood and leaves all day, so why did he notice this? He crouched down and cleared away the old oak residue. There, sprouting innocently from the dirt, was a small oak seedling, fragile and green among all the rubble.

Matthew glanced up at the dark house and looked down at the baby tree. He smiled. Then laughed. And, taking a big stick, he sunk it into the earth to mark the seedling. Then he stood, adjusted his Hawkeyes hat, and climbed into the cab of the Chevy. The old truck rumbled to life and he drove off in a trail of dust that clouded the wide Iowa field and settled onto the place where the oak might have died.

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