Contemporary Fiction African American

It wasn’t such a bad place to grow up in, this little town. The streets were narrow but straight, the shops old but clean. Residents woke early to take in the crosswinds of coffee and pastry pumping out of the corner bakery. The dew muffled the morning into stillness, quieted the quiet folk, weighted them down with complacency, comforted them with a familiarity that kept their routines on track.

There wasn’t much room for hate here. Most of the day was spent in reverie of time gone by, or in wonder of what lay ahead. Most folks were so lost in thought they couldn’t see what was right in front of them. It was a quiet town with a quiet past, except for the old oak tree and its little notch.

The volcanic chute of wood consumed the center of the town square, its tortuous arms twisting and writhing over the town as if in an aggressive embrace, a mother trying desperately to get the attention of her children. Its leaves reached out over the iron railing and freshly mown lawn at its base, out over the paved streets and squat shops. Its deep roots emerged from the hard-packed earth in knobby tendrils and stretched deep into the ground, spreading out to encompass the town’s outer limits. This mad, serpentine network of strands completed a connection that spanned both above and below the town.

Anybody could tell you just by looking at it that the tree was older than the town itself, maybe older than any settlements or homesteads that had come before. Most towns planted a dignified courthouse in its center, but this old oak wouldn’t allow it. It acted as the courthouse and so much more. It was the center of all that transpired in this small town. It was witness to everything.

As for the notch, nobody asked about it, but they saw it. It had always been there, in that old tree, older than the oldest resident. A deep groove worn out of the heaviest branch, a few inches wide but deep. The exposed wood now clotted, smooth, browned with age. A wound that carved well into the mother tree’s rough flesh, a stain that she had sustained for the town. They all saw the notch every day, on their way to the bakery, to work, to school. And it was fine.

When the newcomer strolled into town, they saw him, too. But they kept walking, to the bakery, to work, to school. And it was fine.

He was a lot like the notch in the tree. Out of place but not, a stranger but familiar. He didn’t belong here, but in a way he had always been here. Because he was just like the notch in the tree.

The newcomer hadn’t drawn attention to himself as he made his way across the town square, but he sure did stick out. Different hair, different skin, different gait. He didn’t smile, he didn’t say hi. Maybe he didn’t belong here.

When he saw the tree with the notch in it, a sort of recognition appeared on his face. The newcomer focused on that notch, and he didn’t let go. Not for a second. The great old oak stared back, shamed, its mighty presence and age-old wisdom powerless to shield its wound from the newcomer’s cold stare.

With his eyes still transfixed on that old oak, the newcomer made his way to the corner bakery. He ordered a coffee, politely enough, and took it out to the quaint table outside the bakery entrance. From there, he just stared at that notch. As far as anyone could see, he hadn’t touched his coffee the whole time he sat in that chair of his. After a spell, the steam thinned out around him and his cup ran cold. Still, the newcomer kept his gaze on that notch.

Unknown to him, the newcomer had gathered unemphatic attention, from the old couple who sat at the park bench every day for the past twelve years to the mayor’s wife now getting her nails done at the salon. Even the mail carrier had slowed his route to take in this unfamiliar sight. Soon, a crowd of townsfolk had filtered into the town square as though the church bells had rung out to gather them together for an important occasion. Those folks in the town didn’t like this newcomer after all. And they didn’t like what he was looking at. It was like he was communicating directly with that tree, learning her past, hearing her scream out the truth. Disapproval had come to town for the first time in a while.

As the newcomer got up from his seat, the townsfolk snapped to life. They all gravitated toward him, barricading him from his goal with their politeness, their quaint pleasantries, their small-town how-do-you-do’s. They offered him dinner, a place to stay, asked him where he was from. The man strode right past all that, right toward that tree, toward that notch. The townsfolk gasped when he reached up to feel the notch, tracing the calloused contour of that ancient branch, the groove where a line of hemp, weighed down by something heavy enough, had once cut right into the wood. The great mother tree seemingly flexed that lofty branch for him, parting the foliage and Spanish moss overhead to allow the sun’s rays to spotlight his curiosity. The newcomer studied the earth beneath that notch, his hand hovering over the dirt in the shadow of that tree. Imagining what had transpired here, seeing it as clearly as if it were happening now, before his very eyes. He handled the plot of dirt with all the care of a curator examining a precious exhibit.

The newcomer turned his attention to the townsfolk, a hard stare freezing the dew, shattering the years and years of complacency, a new weight now on their shoulders. The tree loomed large, menacing, above the newcomer.

The man strolled into the hardware store, just a block down the way, and came out with a simple handsaw. He then returned to the old oak, the tree’s screams of protest falling on deaf ears, and began sawing at the great big branch. He worked as though he wanted to chop it right off. The chattering teeth of the saw dug into the old bark, and dug into the hushed silence of the town square. Echoing off one façade and onto another, every corner of the square now filled with the saw’s rhythmic babble. Now the townsfolk stopped what they were doing, openly observing the handiwork of this newcomer. But when he turned from his work and noted the relief on the folks’ faces, as though some deep wound in their sides was finally being treated, he stopped short. He inspected the fresh gash he had made in the tree branch, roughly the same size as the notch just next to it, and nodded his approval. He removed the handsaw and pushed past the onlookers. The relief in the townsfolks’ eyes washed away the moment he stepped away from his work, replaced with a deep-running agony that was more transparent than ever. No one dared approach that new notch.

After the newcomer strode out of town, the townsfolk went about their way. But he certainly left his mark. A new blemish on something that had always been, a reminder of what transpired. It changed the countenance of the tree. It changed the countenance of the town square. And when the townsfolk passed by, on their way to the bakery, to work, to school, the great mother tree’s screams were something they could no longer ignore. 

July 10, 2021 15:08

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