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.