She is barely two feet tall but has already witnessed the destruction of her entire family.
If the farmer had noticed her, she would have been torn down just like the rest of the forest. She survived the winter massacre and now stands alone, exposed, in the dank, still earth. Waiting for something. But what she can not tell. All she knows is that the hushed song of her kind as they swayed to the music of the wind is gone.
Remnants of her ancestors can be seen here and there; mangled limbs of once-mighty aunts, uncles, grandparents. Older even. Her tribe that thrust skyward, that sheltered her from the winds now tugging, nipping—cruel and impish—trying to strip her of her leaves.
She is small but her parents taught her well— Water will not always be plentiful, the sun will not always shine. Send your roots deep, youngling, and learn to take your time—so that now, though the icy gales thrash across the open field unimpeded, she will sway, she will strain, but she will not fall.
He is a boy on the back of his father’s tractor. He watches the tines of the plough tilling the soil, churning it like black rolling waves.
When the root of a tree is pulled to the surface, a bone unearthed, he jumps down, retrieves it, adds it to the growing pile of skeletal remains in the middle of the field.
He is a good boy, does what he’s told, but he misses playing in the forest his grandfather spoke of as being magical. There is no barrier against the frigid wind now and its fingers reach under his coat and down his neck. It bangs the doors and rattles the windows at night. In the dark, he misses the whispering trees that promised adventure with the rising of the sun; the chirping of the birds, and the chatter of the critters he heard but never saw.
“What will we do with the roots, Papa?” he asks his father.
“When they dry out we will have a great fire.”
“I miss the trees,” he says. “It’s so quiet without the birds.”
“We need the land for crops, boy.”
The boy nods that he understands though he does not. The crops on the hill don’t make his papa happy, why should he want more? They wither and die before they can be sold. Now the forest is gone. Replaced with dirt and wind and silence.
“Missed one,” his papa says, pointing ahead.
The boy turns and sees the little sapling. Though small, it has grown straight, its leaves dark and glossy.
“Oh, please leave it, Papa,” the boy begs.
The farmer ruffles the boy’s hair and turns the tractor’s wheels. The plough passes by, the tree does not fall.
The boy watches the little tree as the tractor ploughs curved channels around it. He sees things only in his imagination, so his papa says, but he is certain that he sees the tree wave a little branch to say, thank you, Boy.
The tree grows through the long grey winter, witnessing as she pushes both higher and deeper, the farmer and his son sowing and planting in the channels they ploughed.
Respite from the cold that stiffens her bark and renders her naked in the field comes slowly, but the days are getting longer. Green buds push through her skin and bathe in the strengthening beams of sun.
With her new growth, she feels the energy of the earth changing around her, coursing through her trunk that grows thick and strong. She absorbs and cycles this vitality through her roots, up and out to her limbs, sends it back out into the ground; a cycle of new life that can only mean one thing: spring has arrived.
Around her, as far as she can feel, seeds and seedlings absorb the earth’s bounty to push through the surface to imbibe the light. But something holds them back. The tree senses the little things are unable to draw from the soil what is necessary to grow. The few shoots that emerge from the ground wilt and succumb within days of breathing the air.
The farmer and the boy walk the fields. The farmer kicks the lifeless vegetation and curses the sky, the earth, the gods. He leaves but the boy stays.
The boy walks to the tree and runs his fingers over the tender shoots.
“You’ve grown,” says the boy.
The boy grows even as the farmer’s crops fail year after year. His father can not send him to school as he is sick and can not work the farm on his own. The boy learns what he can from books and from the life cycles of the tree, the only thing that seems to grow, apart from the weeds.
It’s taller than his father now, its trunk too stiff to bend. This year—its sixth spring—the tree produces her first blooms.
The boy picks a spray of white flowers and tells the tree he is sorry but he is sure the tree can spare them, such is their abundance. “They are for a girl in the village,” says the boy. “Wish me luck.”
“You’ve grown,” the tree whispers and her roots grow deeper still.
Favourable periods of rain and sunshine see the tree grow strong and proud in the desolate field.
The tree’s flowers are dying but she doesn’t mourn them. She knows from her ancestors the story of her birth and the flowers that precipitate the seeds of the next generation. Soon she will have younglings of her own.
Her seeds mature, harden, and drop to the ground. But the soil is impenetrable without the farmer and his plough—the farmer does not plough anymore. Her seeds are carried away by sparrows.
The boy, still young but now with his father’s eyes, sits beneath the tree and rests his back against the trunk and cries.
The tree whispers, “Shhh, Boy. It will be alright.”
“How did you get so strong when nothing else will grow?” the boy asks into the branches.
“They do not send their roots deep enough,” whispers the tree.
“Papa is sick. He doesn’t leave his bed for days on end. He wants me to sell the farm but who will buy a farm that can not grow crops?”
“Shhh, Boy. It will be alright.”
“That girl loved your flowers,” the boy says. “But her father knows Papa has no money and won’t let her see me anymore.”
“To be alone is not the end of the world,” the tree whispers.
The boy sits with the tree until it is dark, and, beneath his feet, her roots grow deeper still.
Winter comes. The division between sky and earth is obscured. Snow blankets the ground in white and weighs down her twigs. It chills her bark but her life force flows steadily, deep within her trunk.
A dark figure moves slowly through the featureless white. It is the farmer. He carries a box.
He reaches the tree and throws a rope over her strongest bough.
When he stands on the box, he loops the rope around his neck and looks up once more at the branches of the tree. He has tears in his eyes.
“Shhh,” whispers the tree. “It will be alright. I forgive you for taking my family. I understand you needed to provide for yours.”
The man steps off the box. The rope snaps tight and the man thrashes, dangling above the sullied snow.
The tree feels his weight shaking her to the ground but she will not break.
“I’ve got you,” she whispers, and holds him until he is still.
Later, when the boy takes the farmer down from the tree, he is no longer a boy but a young man.
When the young man brings the shovel to bury the farmer at the foot of the tree, he is careful not to injure her roots; the roots that grow deeper still.
Winter again, the young man hears a distant rumbling. Not thunder. Mechanical. Planes, he thinks. The war is here.
He runs to the tree and climbs into her canopy where he sees the bombers like black geese in their triangular formations.
He leaps to the ground, careful not to crush the wooden cross, and runs to fetch his rifle.
Giant machines, like tractors but with a single branch straighter than any the tree has seen, shake the ground as they roll through the farmer’s field. Men cloaked in the greens and browns of the forest that once stood there sweep the land before other green men push them back with giant fire-belching machines of their own.
They churn the field to mud that swallows the machines and the horses they bring to pull them out. Sunk deep in the quagmire, they can not escape the thunderous black geese that return to rain down fire upon them until nothing moves and the field is silent once more.
The tree has lost her leaves and a good number of her smaller branches, brittle from the winter. Her most significant injury: the farmer’s bough, blown off at her trunk; thick sap drips into the mud. But her roots grow deeper still.
Machines rust, bones bleach, then both sink into the earth. Remnants of the bloody battle are all but lost beneath lush grass. A lone figure pushes through the swaying green.
The young man is older now, the image of his father, except for the empty sleeve pinned across his chest.
He looks up through the tree’s branches, examining her and the toll the war has taken. He runs his hand over her scars and winces at where the farmer’s bough once was.
The young man says, “Looks like we both took a beating.”
Rain falls and soaks the earth where men and animals, returned to dust, nourish the field where the tree’s roots grow deeper still.
The tree blooms more abundantly than in any past spring and its branches droop under the weight of its fruit.
From the fallen fruit, seeds emerge, hidden from the birds between blades of grass. They take hold in rich, black earth.
The young man walks the fields and tends to his father’s grave. He pulls the weeds and straightens the wooden cross.
“I miss you, Papa,” he says. “I am alone in this world. Perhaps I should come and meet you.”
“Shhh,” whispers the tree. “It will be alright, Boy.”
“It’s just me and this tree.”
Kneeling in the soil where his father lays, the man finds a shoot. A weed? No, a sapling. Now two, a dozen, a multitude of tiny trees. Tiny but straight as rifles.
Smiling, the man takes a handful of the soil and crumbles it between his fingers before he walks toward the farm.
A rumble rolls across the grass, the tree hears the dreaded tractor. Surely the boy will not slaughter her kin as his father once did?
The tractor slices great black lines through the green and ploughs on toward the tree. She is destined to be alone in this world, she thinks. The boy, now a lonely man, envious of her younglings.
But the young man turns the wheel as his father did, the plough channelling curves around the tree and the saplings in her shade.
“We’ve crops to sow,” he says to the tree whose roots grow deeper still.
The young trees reach up to the sky, eager to join their mother in the sun.
“Slow down,” she whispers. “Water will not always be plentiful, the sun will not always shine. Send your roots deep, younglings, and learn to take your time.”