39 comments

Drama Historical Fiction

**Author's note: Please see the note in the Comments for a fact vs. fiction breakdown


Savannah, Tennessee

April, 2021


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...


***************


Savannah, Tennessee

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.


************

Savannah, Tennessee

April, 2021


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

April, 1885


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.



April 23, 2021 09:52

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

39 comments

Kristin Neubauer
10:00 Apr 23, 2021

Author's Note: As some of you know, I've been reading the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant and this is one anecdote in the 600 pages that stood out to me. Facts: The passage at the end is quoted directly from Grant's memoirs...Union headquarters were set up briefly at Cherry Mansion in Savannah, Tennessee...The Battle of Shiloh did begin with a surprise attack on Union forces and Grant and his staff did rush out of the Cherry Mansion to the battlefield that morning...Grant did die of throat cancer on July 23, 1885. Fiction: Everything in t...

Reply

Show 0 replies
21:10 Apr 23, 2021

Sometimes I wonder where fiction ends and facts begin. It's difficult most times because of the seemingly easy way you write your stories. Writing this from a tree's perspective is incredible and truly mindblowing. I love how simple it feels and yet how incredible it all really is. I am not a big fan of history and war but this just makes sense to me. I love how much time you put into your stories to make them come alive. It is so powerful.

Reply

Kristin Neubauer
21:49 Apr 23, 2021

Thank you so much, Abigail! I really appreciate your reading even with the history/war aspect. Usually I have a story mapped out in my head before I start writing, but this time I didn’t. I had the nuggets, but hadn’t consciously decided on narrating from the tree’s perspective. When I started scribbling, that first “I am dying” line came out.... and the rest of the tree’s story kind of fell into place as I imagined it speaking to me. It was weird! That has never happened to me before. I really appreciate your feedback!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Frances Reine
13:59 Apr 26, 2021

I'm a big fan of the perspective. And this made me love non-fiction as much as fiction. The opening line is a damp sort of sad and I was wholly hooked from then on. I love how everything you write is incredibly distinct and somehow told from a very recognizable voice. I love this!

Reply

Kristin Neubauer
14:13 Apr 26, 2021

Thank you so much, Frances! I love how you phrased that.... "a damp sort of sad"....look at that, you are a great writer even in your comments. As I wander around my neighborhood and office now, I almost feel like I am hearing the trees chatter (maybe that is the first step toward crazy? 🤣) I appreciate taking the time to read and comment!

Reply

Frances Reine
15:05 Apr 26, 2021

So many tree stories last week, I'm also getting influenced and hearing things, haha. No problem at all!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Arwen Dove
21:39 Apr 25, 2021

I love this!

Reply

Kristin Neubauer
21:04 Apr 26, 2021

Thank you so much!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Yolanda Wu
08:13 Apr 24, 2021

I'm not aware of the events of this particular part of history, I should probably read up on it to better understand the story, but I still really enjoyed it nonetheless! Sorry it took me a while to get to it, I saw your comment in the morning, and then I was out for the rest of the day, and throughout that entire time, I was thinking about reading your story. Choosing to write it from the perspective of a tree was such a creative way to go about the prompt, it really brought the story to life. Those descriptions near the beginning were so g...

Reply

Kristin Neubauer
11:04 Apr 24, 2021

Thank you, Yolanda! I really appreciated that you let me know you weren’t familiar with this bit of US history - sometimes I get a little geocentric and forget that parts of countries’ histories will not be easily known to folks from other countries. I am really glad that you reminded me. Also, i was really happy that the tree element of the story spoke to you. I didn’t know how a tree would sound so I tried to imagine it speaking and write that down. My riding trainer’s husband - who is a crusty 83 year old man - read it and said it br...

Reply

Yolanda Wu
00:47 Apr 25, 2021

Those descriptions almost brought tears to my eyes as well, it was like the tree was a living, breathing character. I do have a lot going on right now, but I always take the time - often at night - to write a least a few hundred words. I'm usually a really quick drafter, but this one is taking me so long - I don't really mind, drafting is my favourite part of the process. At this point in the draft, Rhyvahr and Fenndon are having some serious sparks! I'm excited to keep writing. :)

Reply

Kristin Neubauer
00:53 Apr 25, 2021

I can’t wait to read it! Keep going!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
20:32 Apr 23, 2021

I always admire your commitment to research for your stories, and this is obviously no exception. I'm personally not a history buff, but I was invested anyway, and that's a mark of your skill. This was my favorite part: "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." The tree is somehow relatable even though it's not a human narrat...

Reply

Kristin Neubauer
21:42 Apr 23, 2021

Thank you so much, Natalie. I wasn’t sure what kind of voice the tree should have, so I just closed my eyes and imagined it speaking to me. And I appreciate your comment on the time periods transitions - I was worried they would not make sense. I know how easily a story can get lost in tenses which is why I try to avoid jumping around. My first drafts were very confusing - even I was confused. So I tried to make it really clear but I still wasn’t sure I had. So a big thank you for noticing and telling me!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Thom Brodkin
19:38 Apr 23, 2021

Kristin, I don't know if anyone who isn't a Civil War Buff can truly understand how magnificent this story is. I read the other comments and I can see people who are taken by your talent and are moved by your story but I don't know that they love it like I do. I grew up going to all the battlefields of Virginia, and Maryland, and especially Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. My dad was a history buff and he passed the passion and love down to me. I remember the first trip we took to Tennessee to walk the Shiloh battlefield and to learn about th...

Reply

Kristin Neubauer
20:04 Apr 23, 2021

Thank you so much, Thom for taking the time to read and for such an interesting comment. Growing up in New England, I have always been a Revolutionary War buff.... but after reading Grant’s memoir (and then Sherman’s) and driving past Manassas Battlefield everytime I go to the barn.... well, I have gotten a little obsessed over the Civil War. I was concerned about accuracy in this one. Though I have read Grant’s memoir carefully and did some cross-referencing, there is so much more research I would have liked to have done. Grant fascinate...

Reply

Thom Brodkin
20:12 Apr 23, 2021

Robert E. Lee said "It is well that war is so terrible – otherwise we would grow too fond of it." I am struck by the heroism of very simple men and the sense of duty of all the men. Grant was a complicated man but he was the right man at the right time. He was however just a man. You personalized him perfectly and I couldn't agree more with your assessment to the effect the war had on him later in life.

Reply

Kristin Neubauer
21:38 Apr 23, 2021

Such wisdom in your words!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Kristin Neubauer
23:05 Apr 30, 2021

Hey Thom! I posted a new story....I'd love to hear your thoughts but it's totally silly, over-the-top ridiculous. Like a satire-ish/dark comedy kind of thing. It was also rushed and I'm not sure reading it is a great use of your time, but if you have a few moments, it might provide some levity.

Reply

Thom Brodkin
00:58 May 01, 2021

I’d love to. I’ll probably have to wait until tomorrow but I’m looking forward to it. I’m sure it’s a lot better than you are letting on. 😀

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 2 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
A.Dot Ram
18:24 Apr 23, 2021

I love the amount of research that goes into your work. I feel the care and the detail in your writing. You blend fact and fiction so seamlessly. It's intriguing how this story explored the end of two lives, but in a peaceful and beautiful way.

Reply

Kristin Neubauer
19:57 Apr 23, 2021

Thank you so much, Anne. I love that you used “explore” because that’s the word I kept coming back to as I worked on this one. I wasn’t sure it was entirely in the spirit of the prompt, but I felt so driven to explore this moment in Grant’s life and - as you noted - the ending of these two lives across 130-ish years. I could really go down a rabbit hole of research, but there comes a moment I have to stop the research and get on with the writing. Thank you!

Reply

A.Dot Ram
21:38 Apr 23, 2021

Very in the spirit of the prompt, I think.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Daniel R. Hayes
17:47 Apr 23, 2021

This was such a beautiful story Kristin! I really loved the tree's POV and I really felt sad about it dying. I thought this was a great way to start this story because I was instantly sucked in! I also love how you seamlessly combine real life events into your stories. This adds a certain level of authenticity that I very much appreciate ;) Your author's notes are always well done, and I like how you provide us with some bonus features to your wonderful stories. Overall, this was beautifully written and I really liked it! Great job a...

Reply

Kristin Neubauer
18:16 Apr 23, 2021

Thank you so much, Daniel. I really appreciate the kind words as I wasn’t entirely sure if it worked. I felt very close to this story - so close that I wasn’t sure what I saw in my mind would come out in the writing. I feared confusing the reader, especially with all the tense-jumping. I’m glad I didn’t - thanks sagain!

Reply

Daniel R. Hayes
18:26 Apr 23, 2021

You're welcome! Don't worry, your story worked really well. I wasn't confused at all and I don't think anyone else will either :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
H L Mc Quaid
13:52 Apr 23, 2021

Really interesting...have you thought about doing fictionalised biographies? I like the combination of true historical facts embedded in an engrossing story (some parts imagined/fictionalised). Reminds me of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, or even The Five by Hallie Rubenhold.

Reply

Kristin Neubauer
14:06 Apr 23, 2021

Thanks so much! I haven’t read those, but I will now. I am so fascinated by Grant. I think he is one of the most complex and intriguing figures in US history. There are many small moments in his memoir that I’d like to explore like this. It would require an incredible amount of cross-referencing with accounts from his wife, kids and friends - and likely his descendants. It would be a lifelong project most likely. But it would be a fulfilling experience. Thanks so much for reading and for your kind words! (I worked really hard to avo...

Reply

H L Mc Quaid
15:33 Apr 23, 2021

I think telling the story of the civil war from his perspective would be really interesting. But yes, it would require a lot of research. If you think you might like fictional biographies that are historically accurate, then I highly recommend Wolf Hall, it tells the story of Thomas Cromwell in the early 1500s when he was an advisor to Henry VIII. Also, just thinking about your story, I wonder if the tree could see things beyond Grant, because we first we get the tree's perspective, then Grant's, but they're quite similar. Maybe some soldi...

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Nainika Gupta
12:38 Apr 23, 2021

Oh gee, Kristin. This story was absolutely perfect. I can't even begin to describe to you how much I loved it. I'll try :) The perspective from the tree really tied it together. I just loved how you made it sound - which sounds weird to type, but like the inner thoughts felt very...tree-like? If that makes sense - I have no idea what a tree's inner voice sounds like XD I loved the tie into the Civil War and once again, it flowed really well. Amazing job :)

Reply

Kristin Neubauer
15:41 Apr 23, 2021

Thank you so much, Nainika! That makes me feel so great, especially coming from you. I know you have an interest in historical fiction too - I wil never forget the story about the soldiers - so I really appreciate your comments. Especially about the tree sounding tree-like.... I wasn’t sure if that worked but I’m falafel it did. You’ve made my day!

Reply

Nainika Gupta
19:11 Apr 23, 2021

Aw my pleasure Kristin! It was an amazing story to read :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Shirley Medhurst
19:43 Apr 27, 2021

I loved your story. The way you wound your historical research into the tale was seamless and really interesting. So sad when the tree is condemned... I wrote my story from the POV of a real tree too, altho it’s very different to yours. I’d be interested to know your thoughts on it if you have any time to spare...

Reply

Kristin Neubauer
19:58 Apr 28, 2021

Thank you so much! It felt like a privilege to go inside the mind of a tree - now I look at trees all around me and feel like they are chattering away!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Kanika G
12:33 Apr 26, 2021

This is a great story! In a short story, it is really hard to capture long periods of time, but your story does that perfectly. It is also interesting that the young 20-year-old tree has a different perspective and sounds different than the same tree in its old age. It gives a sense of time passing and a character arc to the tree. And of course you've researched it well. Even to a reader like me who has little knowledge of these historical events, the story made sense. It was beautifully written. You're very talented. Well done!

Reply

Kristin Neubauer
14:11 Apr 26, 2021

Thank you so much, Kanika! That means a lot, especially after understanding how much effort and value you place on research as well. Grant was pretty obscure in U.S. history and largely unknown among world history.....If I go the historical fiction route again in the future, it might be wise for me to pick someone who is more familiar worldwide. I really appreciate you taking the time to read and comment!

Reply

Kanika G
04:50 Apr 27, 2021

It was my pleasure to read this story. It was very well-written! Yes, I would love to read more of historical fiction from you. There's one historical fiction I wrote called 'Miles to Go.' It has a bit of India's freedom struggle. Please check it out if you have time. Have a good day!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Josh C
01:48 Apr 26, 2021

I wish I knew anything about Ulysses Grant so this story would have more of an impact on me as I really like your use of the prompt.

Reply

Kristin Neubauer
10:35 Apr 26, 2021

I did get pretty lost in the weeds on Grant on this one. I think that’s what comes after spending so much time reading his memoirs. I lose perspective and forget that Grant is pretty obscure in US history .... and hardly known at all in world history. Thanks so much for reading anyway and for the kind words!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply