**Author's note: Please see the note in the Comments for a fact vs. fiction breakdown
I am dying. I do not need to feel the old man’s fingers probing my roots to know. Or his knife stabbing my bark. I do not need to hear the grunts as he shuffles around me shaking his head. Or his final pronouncement to the lady in the floppy hat and long skirt.
“Can’t be saved this time, Effie. It’s gotta come down.”
The lady dabs her eyes.
“Oh, Cal. Are you sure? It’s the last of our Civil War trees.”
“I know, I know. Hundred and eighty something. Sure hate to see it go. But look at it.”
He wipes his forehead with a rag.
“Them roots are barely threads. Hollow clear through. It’s gonna to come down on some damn tourist or go up in flames in this heat. Might even disease the others.”
I knew long before that day. One summer ago, when the sun warmed our branches and the rain fed our roots, I knew something was wrong. The flow of sugar and water that nourished my trunk and my branches thickened and slowed in my veins. My insides ached. My leaves turned yellow. And then brown. And then fell away as they did when autumn turned to winter.
That was the first time the old man came to see me. He patted new soil around my roots. He sprayed medicine all over me. He, and others like him, even rose in mechanical baskets and clipped away my sorest branches.
It will not help.
I tried to tell him, but he did not hear.
A tree knows when its time for living is over.
“When, Cal?” the lady whispers.
“We can be out here by 8 tomorrow. Before the heat really sets in.”
She turns her phone toward me with a quivering hand.
“I need a picture for the website. We can interview you too. Let the arborist explain in your own words why it needed to come down. We’ll give a proper send-off for Cherry Mansion’s oldest tree.”
“Sure, Effie. Sure.”
My last night is warm, as though the sun and the moon and the stars and the river have conspired to send the most caressing of breezes through my barren branches. The others bend and sway, brushing me with their leaves. The owl comes as he always has, but this time nestles into the crook of my strongest remaining limb instead of holding vigil on the end. The family of raccoons that has been nesting in my trunk stirs. The babies are almost grown and it is time for them to move on. Even the herd of deer come that night, nibbling at the shoots growing around my roots.
I sigh into the night and my limbs creak. I remember a time years earlier when those branches had been strong enough, supple enough to hold an entire house, plus the children who played in it. The old man - not so old back then - built a ladder that they scampered up and down. The echo of their laughter and whispers, cries of delight and sometimes tears run through me that night. The laughter always brightened me, as though a ray of sunshine beamed from the depths of my roots to the tips of my branches until I was practically giggling myself, leaves trembling with joy. It had to be those carefree howls of delight though. Not the polite titters that came from the audiences with big hats and shiny shoes. Ceremonies, so many ceremonies, had unfolded at the base of my trunk over the years. Men in stiff suits bellowing about democracy and victory, pounding the podium and then crowding together with others in front of me facing a camera. Oh, the cameras. First came these clunky, tri-legged contraptions that had to be positioned just so for that one highly anticipated snap. And now, they point a phone, smaller than a leaf, and click away one after another after another making silly faces.
How many pictures have I been in? Hundreds. No, thousands, I am sure. Draped in red, white and blue bunting, circled with a yellow ribbon, wrapped in twinkling lights two autumns ago as a black man and white woman married beneath my boughs. The last ceremony.
The memories are fading now. Pooling together and blurring, streaming from my crown through my roots and into the earth, draining out of me. Is this what happens when death is near? I am blank, as though I have never lived. My trunk fills with a white light. Except for a single memory slowly taking form, sharpening, coming into focus until it is so clear I am back at that day. The one memory that has stayed with me always...
April 6, 1862
The sun has not yet risen and the pre-dawn darkness is cold this April morning. Even here in Tennessee, spring has waited. The river’s wind chills the air all around us. No matter. I am young. Just over 20 years. Despite the cold, my branches are lush with green, my bark supple and strong.
This is a time of war. From our heights we can see the men in grey and those in blue. We see the guns, the horses and the cannon. We feel the tension. We hear the strained conversations.
The war had stayed away from us for a time. Then it came. Some weeks prior to this April day we saw the first signs of the men in blue coming to and leaving from the great mansion. “Union headquarters” were the words that floated up to us. What that meant, we did not know, but it was repeated often.
That April morning, the sky turns pale with the first strains of dawn when cannon fire roars through the stillness, closer than we have ever heard it. We tremble as we watch the men, already crisp in their uniforms, rush from the mansion to a boat waiting on the river. The small one leads the way. I’ve heard him called “Grant” at times, “General” at others. Despite his stature, he is the one everyone listens to.
All day the ground rattles with explosions and we shiver with every crack of gunfire. Mr. Cherry, the estate’s owner, paces back and forth from the mansion to the river with other men. They speak loudly over the roar and tension hangs heavy on their faces.
Trees do not know war like men. We hear the rumbles and explosions, we shelter the troops, provide cover, witness suffering and death. The unlucky ones among us have bullets buried in our trunks. But we do not know sides or politics, strategies or battles.
Still, I listen. I listen that day and well into the future.
Time will march on. The war will fade into history and a change will come to the land we loom over. People will bustle around, installing plaques with long passages, refurbishing the great mansion, tending the estate and planting new gardens. Groups of men, women and children will traipse through the grounds, led by guides who will talk about the Cherry Mansion, its role in history and even us - the aging trees. They will often pause next to me for part of their presentation and that is how I will come to understand that the cannon and gunfire we heard that April day was the Battle of Shiloh, a historic battle of the war they called the Civil War. I will learn that the small man I’d seen hurry out of the mansion that morning was called U.S. Grant, the leader of that section of the Union Army. They will say that he had been surprised by the attack that day and that his army had suffered many losses. I will strain to learn more, but by that point the group will move on and the rest of the story will be lost to me.
But I will know a part of the story they never will.
As that April day fades into night, the cannon thunder and the gunfire echoes with unrelenting ferocity. The sky opens up and rain drives down, smacking my leaves and soaking my ground. I stand tall against the wind and rain, listening to the sounds of battle, wondering what it means.
I become aware of a movement below and see the small man beneath my branches. It is the man they call Grant. He lurches toward me, grunting with effort, and collapses against my trunk. Rain drips off the brim of his hat as he leans over to remove his boot. His hands are shaking in the cold and he struggles. Finally the boot slides off to reveal a bruised ankle swollen twice the size it should be. He curses softly and leans against me, legs splayed. I feel exhaustion seeping from him and I try to position my leaves to form a stronger barrier against the rain but it is no use. A tree can only do so much.
Grant eases his boot over the ankle, tucks his knees to his chest, wraps his arms across his body, slipping his hands under his coat and tips his hat over his eyes, bowing his head. His back is flush against me, and for a brief time, I think he sleeps. But he begins to tremble as the wind and the rain do their work. He stands, bracing himself against me and scans the ground. He finds a branch that can function as a cane and he leans heavily on it, hobbling back and forth, muttering words I cannot understand and looking upriver where the gunfire continues.
I do not know how much time has passed, but he departs, leaving the cane behind and limping to the nearby log cabin which serves as a field hospital for the wounded soldiers. The sounds of agony that emerge from that structure are often too much to bear.
Perhaps for Grant as well. He returns after what seemed a short time, his lips clamped around a cigar. He finds a crook in my roots that he eases onto and which keeps him off the sopping ground. He moves little, but he does not rest. I watch him, willing my branches to move, to circle around him for protection, but they will not accede. The rain finally ceases and he removes his hat, shaking off the water. Dark circles beneath his eyes stand out against pale skin. His cheeks glisten - with tears or with rain? I do not know.
I do know that he huddles against me the rest of the night, as though he has found a hint of heat deep within my trunk. I try to summon whatever I can and transfer it to him, but it is of no use. He shivers and trembles throughout the night.
With the first light of dawn, he stands, gripping one of my lower branches to steady himself. He brushes off his uniform and straightens his coat. Taking a breath, he puts weight on the injured ankle, but winces and groans. After a moment, he takes a step. His face is stoic, but I can feel the pain erupting from him. He turns toward me, gives the slightest tip of his hat, and a brisk pat on my bark. He straightens his back and walks away, making every effort to disguise the limp. But I still see it.
The sun is rising. It will be just hours until the old man returns to take me down. I did not see Grant after that night and do not know what happened to him. He is long departed now. Of that, I am sure. Humans cannot live as long as trees. But this memory fills me with light. I am at peace.
Mount McGregor, New York
U.S. Grant sits on the porch, propped up by pillows, a blanket tucked around his lap. He is scribbling on a stack of paper, determined to finish his memoirs before death comes for him. His time is short. The cancer sears his throat and speaking takes such effort.
He is thinking about the Battle of Shiloh, or Pittsburg Landing as they called it back then. There is much he must write down. The plans to capture the railroad at Corinth, awaiting the arrival of Buell’s army for reinforcement, the fall from his horse, that early morning cannon fire which signalled the rebels’ surprise attack.
But, at this moment, there is a time that rises to his memory, that he must relate before it is lost amid the battle plans and troop movements, the losses and the victories.
“During the night, rain fell in torrents and our troops were exposed to the storm without shelter,” he writes. “I made my headquarters under a tree a few hundred yards back from the river bank. My ankle was so much swollen from the fall of my horse the Friday night preceding, and the bruise was so painful, that I could get no rest.”
He reaches down to rub that ankle, fine bones that feel so frail beneath his fingers. He thought the pain that night in 1862 could be no worse, but now, as he tries to swallow, he knows it can.
“The drenching rain would have precluded the possibility of sleep without this additional cause. Some time after midnight, growing restive under the storm and the continuous pain, I moved back to the log-house under the bank. This had been taken as a hospital, and all night wounded men were being brought in, their wounds dressed, a leg or an arm amputated as the case might require, and everything being done to save life or alleviate suffering.”
Grant closes his eyes hearing the screams and wails, seeing the wild and dying eyes. Of all the tragedy he witnessed in battle, this still pierces him. But his breath evens out as he remembers the tree. The solid trunk, the roots that seemed to form a most perfect seat, the patter of rain against the leaves, the calming strength the tree exuded, a warmth he felt when he curled up next to it.
“The sight was more unendurable than encountering the enemy’s fire,” he writes. “And I returned to my tree in the rain.”
U.S. Grant died from throat cancer on July 23, 1885.