Contest #90 shortlist ⭐️

85 comments

Drama Historical Fiction

Content warning: racial violence, violence against women

 

On a fresh spring day, a girl in a deerskin dress pushes me into the dirt with her small brown hands, hiding me from the squirrels and deer and mice who savour the taste of acorns. A voice calls out, “Nokomis!” `Her footsteps pad softly away.

 

***

 

A taproot burrows deep into the soil anchoring me to the earth. A green sprout reaches toward the sun. When I'm a sapling, buds grow and unfurl into leaves, which turn from green to yellow and red, falling in a fiery carpet round my base. Snow gathers in small drifts, and then the buds grow again, repeating the cycle many times. If you were to count my rings you’d need all your fingers.

 

On a cold winter day, the sun glints off the blade of a hatchet slung over the shoulder of a man walking towards me. He runs a hand along my still-smooth bark, then turns and swings the blade. The thunk of the hatchet bites into the trunk of my sibling, sending tremors through the ground.

 

“Phillipe,” a voice calls out.

 

“Oui, j'arrive,” he says as he drags the downed sapling along the ground, its branches scraping grooves in the snow, like fingers reaching back for me.

 

***

 

Ten more years pass until I’m twice the height of any human. A robin’s nest rests in one of my crooks, and the squirrels skitter and chatter and jump from limb to limb.

 

On a cloudy spring morning, a young boy in rough brown breeches clambers up my trunk, peeking into the nest. “Mother, there’s three eggs here!” he says, “They’re blue!”

 

“Take two and leave one, Tomas. Soon the egg will be a robin who lays more eggs.”

 

Tomas places the eggs in a cloth and ties the corners together carefully, before scrambling down the tree to join his mother. Her long black skirts brush against the ground, picking up leaves and briars as they head toward the thatched-roof village across the valley.

 

***

 

In my fortieth year I finally bear fruit. A few hundred acorns drop to the ground, but none survive keen noses and hungry mouths and digging hooves.

 

One summer afternoon, a barefoot woman in pale blue dress rests her cheek against my trunk, her arms circling me. Her breath is warm and smells of honey. A woman in a green dress approaches.

 

“Abigail, you came,” says the honey-breathed woman.

 

“Sorry I’m late, Hannah,” Abigail says. “I had to wait until he left.”

 

They clasp hands and giggle. A soft rain falls, wetting their faces. Abigail brushes a raindrop from Hannah’s hair, before leaning in for a kiss. They meet beneath my branches many times that summer, sharing secrets in the quiet afternoons.

 

One day, as summer fades into autumn, men in black trousers and long coats gather my fallen twigs and branches, adding them to a pyre in the clearing. In the centre, surrounded by tinder, Hannah struggles but she’s rooted firmly in place, a rough rope securing her to a square post. Abigail watches silently, a man stands behind her, his large hand resting on her neck.

 

Hannah’s screams carry on the wind toward me, drifting with the black smoke, coating my leaves and trunk in soot. 

 

***

 

By my seventy-fifth year, I'm seventy feet tall with a crown stretching nearly as wide. A thousand acorns carpet the ground around me. Those that aren’t eaten or stashed away fail to sprout in the shade of my canopy. Perhaps one of them will escape from a far-away squirrel’s cache and grow into a strong, fine tree.

 

 

***

 

Centuries pass. The village across the small valley turns into a town. The thatched roofs replaced with tiles, the timbers replaced with stone, then brick.

 

On a crisp autumn day, a young man spreads a blanket on the ground before sitting next to a woman in a red dress.

 

“James, you sure no one will see us here?” she asks.

 

“Naw, I was real careful,” he says as he slices an apple. “You worry too much, Ellen.”

 

She sticks a pink tongue out at him. He laughs and they hold hands, his dark fingers entwined with her pale ones. Towards evening, he carves a small heart in my bark, and the initials E + J.

 

A few days later, men in white shrouds throw a rope over my lower bough. James sits on a speckled mare, his hands tied behind his back. His face is swollen and blood trickles from his nose. The men loop one end of the rope around his neck, then slap the horse’s hindquarters. I feel James’ full weight on my lower limb, but it holds fast, even as he kicks and twists. The men laugh and clap each other on the back.

 

He dangles from my bough for several days, attracting flies and crows. Finally, a skinny man with walnut hands climbs up my trunk, easing out carefully along the thick branch. He saws at the rope with a small knife, until it frays and James drops to the ground, sending tremors to my roots.

 

***

 

As the decades pass, the town turns into a small city. More people move from the countryside to live in boxes stacked one atop another. Smokestacks taller than any tree spew gas and grit into the air, turning day to night. When the rain comes, it burns my bark and turns the leaves brown. Even though there’s water, it doesn’t slake my thirst, and without leaves, I can’t convert the sun’s energy into food. My bark turns grey and flaky. It feels like winter for many years.

 

 

***

 

A girl in a yellow dress rests her hand against my trunk and asks, “Mom, how old is it?”

 

“Hard to know for sure, Kara,” her mother replies, “without cutting it down and counting the rings, but I’d guess at least five hundred years.”

 

“Wow, that’s really old. Older than Grandma!”

 

“Much older than Nanna,” the mother laughs, “It may have been around before the first pilgrims arrived. Just think of all the things it must have seen," she says as she steps closer, her fingers touching the flaking bark on my trunk. "Hmm. Looks like it’s been through some tough times. You see these little bugs?”

 

“The black ones?”

 

“Yes, they’re shaped like rectangles. Those are oak pinhole borers. They drill into damaged trees.”

 

“Can we save it?

 

“I don’t think so honey, it’s too far gone,” the mother says, gazing up at my nearly bare branches.

 

“Oh,” Kara says, looking down the ground. “Look! An acorn. Can we plant it when we get back home?”

 

“Yes, Kara. That’s a great idea.”

 

Kara places the acorn in a pocket of her dress and takes her mother’s hand.

 

 

April 17, 2021 18:31

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

85 comments

Michael Boquet
14:33 Apr 21, 2021

I love that you set the story from the tree's perspective. The glances into history are very well constructed. The uplifting and inspiring conclusion is the perfect way to end the story too. I won't be at all surprised if this one gets chosen by the judges. Great job!

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
14:47 Apr 21, 2021

Thanks, Michael. I'm rooting (oh dear) for your story Palindrome, which I've already recommended to my Reedsy friends. I don't worry about the contests really, as I value the constructive feedback from my Reedsy friends. Tho, I do think it would be great if the Reedsy folks wrote a sentence or two about why they picked a story as the winner (other contests do that), and they could do it in such a way as to highlight good short-story writing practices, which might inspire more people to work on certain aspects of their craft (dialogue, buil...

Reply

Michael Boquet
16:18 Apr 21, 2021

You're welcome. That's a great idea, by the way.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Michael Boquet
16:40 Apr 30, 2021

Called it! Congratulations!!!

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
17:29 Apr 30, 2021

I feel like Glenn Close...it's an honour, just to be nominated...😂 Thank you for your support and encouragement, Michael, it means a lot. :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 2 replies
Show 1 reply
Christina Marie
22:14 Apr 19, 2021

Loved this! Really like the narrative being told from the tree's perspective - it wove everything together nicely and impartially! One thing I noticed was Kara calls her grandmother "grandma" and her mom immediately replies calling her "Nanna". Id probably stick to one or the other but that's just me! Great job!

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
12:23 Apr 20, 2021

Hi Christina, Thanks for reading and giving feedback, I appreciate it. :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Zelda C. Thorne
11:47 Apr 18, 2021

I loved this. Great mix of happy moments and tragedy making a compelling tale. The ending was lovely too. I hoped the tree would finally have one of its acorns grow into another tree. Saw one typo - "One summer afternoon, a barefoot woman in a plain white shift rest her cheek"- rests Another wonderful tale. Well done.

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
08:35 Apr 19, 2021

Thank, Rachel! I've fixed the typo, I appreciate you spotting it. I can tell you, I'll be paying special attention to oak trees now, after doing a bit of research. They're pretty amazing. :)

Reply

Zelda C. Thorne
11:36 Apr 19, 2021

Yep, I love oak trees. There was one in the middle of the park where I grew up that I used to climb.

Reply

Zelda C. Thorne
20:48 Apr 30, 2021

Woo hoo! Congratulations!

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
07:39 May 01, 2021

thanks, and thanks for your help. :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Claire Lindsey
19:11 Apr 17, 2021

The stories you’ve woven together balance each other nicely, tragedy and love and hope. I love the tree’s perspective, how it’s distanced from the stories but still intimately tied to them. The ending is perfect, and the prose throughout is vivid and lyrical. I was enthralled. A small critique: I was a bit thrown by the time change in Hannah and Abigail’s story, since theirs is the first last lasts longer than moments. Perhaps you can make this a bit less abrupt by adding something between those paragraphs: Abigail brushes a raindrop from ...

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
19:19 Apr 17, 2021

Hi Claire, thank you, that's a great suggestion! I wonder whether this may be more of a cautionary tale (as a whole), as the tree bears witness to man's inhumanity to man, and the destruction of the environment. I hope it's not too bleak. Maybe I should end on slightly more hopeful note?

Reply

Claire Lindsey
19:56 Apr 17, 2021

Personally, I thought the idea of planting the seed was hopeful without overshadowing the inhumanity and destruction in the other scenes. I like the openness of it, like an opportunity but not a guarantee that humanity will do better. Perhaps the scene could end with her actually planting it, somewhere that’s green or regrowing?

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
20:37 Apr 17, 2021

yes, that could work, thanks! I still want it to be an open question (and a challenge, 'we can do better'), so maybe there is a way to add a bit more hope towards the end.

Reply

Claire Lindsey
22:13 Apr 30, 2021

YAYYYYYY congrats! I was definitely rooting for this one (forgive the pun hehe)

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
07:40 May 01, 2021

haha, you know I love a good pun. Thanks for helping improve the story, I'm delightfully surprised that it was short listed.

Reply

Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Zelmaré Verkes
14:49 May 21, 2021

Wow, I got goosebumps...

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
15:08 May 21, 2021

Oo, glad it moved you. 🙂

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Lynsay Diane
14:03 May 05, 2021

I'm new here, wanted to express to you that this story touched my soul more deeply than I can say. It brought me to tears. Not only did you give a voice to the tree's spirit, but also glimpses of the horrors humans have committed toward nature and against one another throughout time, as well as the beauty of the ones who defied the evils of their era with their love (and you did so artfully, giving the reader enough solid details to feel the emotions for themselves without any expression of personal bias on your end, which made the tree as a...

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
16:06 May 05, 2021

Lynsay, thanks so much for telling me how the story made you feel. I'm touched that you found it so moving, and relatable. I think trees are amazing, and I need to commune with them again (weirdly, during lockdown, I was afraid of touching anything outside my flat, including trees). I truly appreciate you taking the time read and comment. :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
N K
06:28 May 04, 2021

So beautiful. I think it was really interesting to see it from the tree's perspective. I really love how it starts with the tree as an acorn and then ends with an acorn - it really comes full circle in a beautiful way.

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
17:57 May 04, 2021

Thanks so much for commenting, Natania. I appreciate it, and am glad you liked it.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Beth Connor
22:46 Apr 30, 2021

Tree stories dredge up such raw emotions in me, and this one is no different (I could never read the Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein to my kids without full-out bawling...). Eloquently done, and moving. You have such a mastery of the short story.

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
07:43 May 01, 2021

Oh, thanks so much for that Beth, it means a lot. :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Cathryn V
18:16 Apr 30, 2021

Hi Heather! Congratulations on being short listed! I hadn’t read this story before today. It’s so well done; I love the message and the history woven into such a short story. This part got to me right in the beginning: he drags the downed sapling along the ground, its branches scraping grooves in the snow, like fingers reaching back for me. Amazing image. Excellent writing!

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
07:44 May 01, 2021

Thanks, Cathryn! It was a lovely surprise. Glad you liked it. :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Ellie Yu
17:39 Apr 30, 2021

Congrats on being shortlisted! This story hit so many wonderful points and I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
17:43 Apr 30, 2021

Ellie, many thanks for kind words. I'm so glad you enjoyed reading it.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Rachel Loughran
15:26 Apr 30, 2021

Ahh! Shortlisted! Well done Heather!

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
17:32 Apr 30, 2021

Thanks, a nice surprise. I feel like whenever I write a story that I'm unsure about, it does much better than expected. thanks for your feedback and support. :)

Reply

Rachel Loughran
19:10 Apr 30, 2021

Of course! You’re welcome. Looking forward to speaking to you next week ☺️

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Nina Chyll
15:51 Apr 26, 2021

Ha! I find it cool how different your take was from mine, but we end on a very similar note, death and rebirth. I really enjoyed the descriptions and thought quite a few times you use the lexically dense words sparingly but at great points, when they called for, and they make the narrative come alive all the more. Would be lovely to read a longer piece based on this, actually.

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
12:22 Apr 27, 2021

Hi Nina, I looked up 'lexically dense' and maybe that's the way to technically describe my style? I think of it as economical, or lean. Or perhaps I've misinterpreted what you meant. 😂 Anyway, many thanks for your comments. We both tackled similar themes, differently. Yours is more personal, more intimate, with less psychic distance, which works very well. As for a longer piece, I really should try one of these days. It's almost like I have a kill-swtich in my brain..as soon as I reach 1100 words, that's it. Probably not the best habit ...

Reply

Nina Chyll
13:25 Apr 27, 2021

Ha, sorry about the lexical density point with no further explanation like it's the most obvious thing in the world. Effectively, what I mean here is replacing phrases which are put together from more general words (walking slowly) by a much more precise, single word (strolling) - not an example from your story that I can recall but hopefully that illustrates my point. What I meant to say is that you do that quite often, but in a tasteful way, because overdoing it may make the piece sound stilted and like thesaurus was employed too much. I h...

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
13:45 Apr 28, 2021

No worries, I don't mind looking stuff up, but even better when someone describes something clearly, like you did. I've heard of NaNoWriMo, but I've not had an idea for a story that I wanted to write (I mean, a longer story, ha). But I think a few of my short stories could be the inspiration for a novel (or at least a novella), so that's a great suggestion. What happened with your novel? What was it about?

Reply

Nina Chyll
14:13 Apr 28, 2021

I've just finished the second draft, and now I'm going to let it rest for a month or so before I go on to the third draft. I'm sure there are some incredible authors out there who can do it all in one go, but I'm certainly not one of those and I'm introducing changes in increments, hoping not to lose the overall tone if that makes sense. Trying not to get carried away with my saw and chop the entire forest down. I wish I could say what it's about, but I've kept it to myself for so long I think I will keep it under the lid until it's ready f...

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
14:24 Apr 28, 2021

Doubt that I'm more capable, but as I get older I care less (about what other people think, as well as expectations I set for myself), and I can use that to do stuff that I probably wouldn't do when I was younger. I wasn't aware of Camp NaNoWriMo--so thanks for explaining. That sounds like a good stepping stone towards writing longer stories. Good luck with the third draft. Let me know when you're ready to release it. :)

Reply

Show 2 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Kendi Karimi
00:44 Apr 24, 2021

Really loved reading this. A beautifully written piece. 👏🏽

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
16:49 Apr 25, 2021

Thank you Kendi, very kind of you. :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Ash Jarvis
17:24 Apr 22, 2021

This was a lovely story, and the point of view you chose was perfect for the tree (is there a name for it? first person detached?). Each vignette felt unique, and overall there was a balance of dark and light that really worked well. I’m struggling to find anything that might need to be corrected, other than in the paragraph that begins “By my seventy-fifth year...” you use ‘squirreled’ and squirrel. Sorry, that’s as brutal as I can manage. I didn’t have high hopes for what this prompt would produce from the Reedsy community and you proved...

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
07:58 Apr 23, 2021

Hi Ash, I struggled with what the tree's POV should be, and finally decided it would be more observational. A stoic bystander who notices the small details, and keeps speculation to a minimum. Glad you thought it worked. As for you brutal comment, ;), the double squirrel, I did think about that, and I may revise if I find a suitable substitute. And now I'm really curious what you thought might result from the prompts this week. 🤔😀

Reply

Ash Jarvis
17:38 Apr 30, 2021

Congratulations on making the shortlist—this story definitely deserves it!

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
17:42 Apr 30, 2021

thank you Ash, it was a pleasant surprise. :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
A.Dot Ram
23:59 Apr 21, 2021

Nice. This story really encompasses a lot of history! I started in on the same prompt this morning and had some similar cite ideas (but very different take-- sorry in advance for any similarities, assuming I get it done). Being in the midst of this, I really appreciate how the tree's perspective ties it all together. There's a good flow between events/observations. And your personification of the tree feeling things in its roots was haunting. I caught one little typo: I can’t covert the sun’s energy into food-- should be convert.

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
07:17 Apr 22, 2021

Thanks for catching that typo! I've fixed it. I look forward to reading your story (I hope you finish it by the deadline 🤞). I'm curious how you'll handle the tree's perspective, which is something I struggled with. I really wanted to try second person POV, but I didn't think it would work with a being that isn't human and ages across centuries (as that introduces psychic distance that second POV is meant to close). Thanks again for reading and commenting, I value your opinion. 😀

Reply

A.Dot Ram
15:40 Apr 30, 2021

Congratulations!

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
17:31 Apr 30, 2021

thank you, and thanks for your constructive feedback. :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Kristin Neubauer
12:58 Apr 21, 2021

That’s lovely - you’ve given such a sense of how one tree can be a witness to so much history. I’m working on the same prompt with a similar theme of tree as narrator but with a different twist. It may not really fit the prompt, but we’ll see. You developed this beautifully with such a poignant and hopeful ending.

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
14:37 Apr 21, 2021

Hi Kristin, Ooh, I look forward to reading yours. :) And if it's a story you want to tell, it doesn't really matter if it fits the prompt. Thanks for your kinds words.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
David G.
14:45 Apr 20, 2021

The timescale of trees has always fascinated me. I hope this tree sees us making progress towards something, but I’m not sure it does. Nice story. You’ve got some great lines in here. What if you end the story here? “Kara places the acorn in a pocket of her dress and takes her mother’s hand.“ It leaves the story a bit more open ended and avoids the clearly stated moral lesson at the end.

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
15:31 Apr 20, 2021

Hi David, I've gone back and forth about ending with the sentence you suggest. That's how I originally wrote it, but then I wondered if it as too bleak. I agree it would be stronger without it, so i'll probably revert back to the original. Thanks!

Reply

David G.
16:16 Apr 30, 2021

Congratulations! Well deserved!

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
17:31 Apr 30, 2021

I don't think I would have been considered for the shortlist if I'd not changed the ending (per your suggestion), so I'm sharing this with you. 🤝

Reply

David G.
18:19 Apr 30, 2021

I'm happy that I could be of assistance, but you deserved the shortlist with either ending!

Reply

David G.
20:32 Apr 30, 2021

Hey, Heather. I'm getting ready to submit a new story I wrote to another short story competition and I wonder whether you would be willing to give it a read. I always appreciate you critiques and I would be most grateful! If you're amenable, we'll need to figure out a good way to transmit it, as there's no DM function on Reedsy.

Reply

Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Palak Shah
15:58 Apr 19, 2021

Great description and especially of the tree and I love the way that you used the prompt and interpreted it in a different way. The ending was great and you are a very talented writer. Good job !! Keep me posted on new stories and I hope that we could be friends. Could you please also check out my stories if possible :)) ~Palak Shah

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
16:32 Apr 19, 2021

Hello Palak! Nice to Reedsy meet you. Thanks very much for reading and commenting. I left few notes on your latest story, but you already have a lot of people supporting and providing feedback, so you're very fortunate. :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Frances Reine
15:28 Apr 19, 2021

Oh this is so beautiful. Tragic, but perfectly weighted. It's a quiet journey even though the tree's not going anywhere. But this story is so thoughtful and'll be with me for a long time. One of my favourites this week, no doubt. Wonderful job, Heather!

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
16:33 Apr 19, 2021

Thanks so much Frances. I almost didn't post this week, but then I can't learn if I don't put stuff on here, so.... As always, your feedback is a gift. 🎁

Reply

Frances Reine
14:20 May 01, 2021

Another one!! Congrats, Heather! This was truly well done!

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
14:31 May 01, 2021

Thanks, Frances. And I appreciate your help on the earlier draft! :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Rachel Loughran
12:40 Apr 19, 2021

Gorgeous story, with some really haunting parts to it - you've definitely created some indelible images in my mind. A beautiful interpretation of the prompt - we've picked the same one again!

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
12:49 Apr 19, 2021

Thanks very much. :) And I love reading how other people interpret the prompt. Your story was very different, but equally thought-provoking.

Reply

Rachel Loughran
12:54 Apr 19, 2021

I know, right? I have to be quite disciplined in not reading any of the stories from the prompt I've picked until my story is submitted - so I'm not struck with crippling self doubt about my narratives. Just extra incentive to submit early so I can get on with the important part - the reading!

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
14:23 Apr 19, 2021

It's so weird. The first 3 or 4 stores I submitted, I didn't care that much whether they were 'good enough', because I was experimenting, and cutting myself slack because I'd never written short stories before. The last 4 or 5 stories, the self-doubt is creeping in, and I've almost not posted them. What's changed? Not sure, maybe it is reading other people's stories, and thinking I should have made more progress by now, haha.

Reply

Rachel Loughran
14:32 Apr 19, 2021

It's interesting isn't it? I had the weird experience where my first ever story on here was shortlisted (the same week your story was shortlisted actually!) and obviously you don't expect lightning to strike every week, but it's still a bit of a mental comedown every week since, y'know? But from a fellow self-doubter - please don't let it stop you posting! You are an extraordinary writer for someone who's never written short stories before. I look forward to reading your next submission!

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
16:06 Apr 19, 2021

Thanks Rachel, for the encouragement, it's truly appreciated. I didn't realise your first post was shortlisted, that would be quite a roller-coaster ride! There are so many writers on here, and so many judges (who have different tastes) that I don't expect to be shortlisted again. I think it's a bit of pot luck..depends on which judges read your story that week, and what they like. Anyway, I'm glad we're shortlist siblings, because I enjoy your stories very much. :)

Reply

Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply