The morning the oak tree was cut down was dismal and wet, clouds drooping under the defeated sky. My breath fogged up the school bus window as I strained my eyes for one last look at the tree’s branches; one last look at the way they stretched towards the weak sunlight. I did not feel particularly sad, as I had expected, but then, what was going to happen had not yet fully registered. It was as though I was going to snap my head up in the middle of next day’s math class and say “What!” about twenty-six hours too late.
The town council, as they so bravely called themselves, had come to us months before, demanding that we cut down the “safety hazard” in our front yard. My father, never one to respect authority—especially if they were asking him to destroy something he loved, had laughed in their faces and slammed the door. Thinking that they would give up, we had promptly forgotten about the encounter until presented with their lawyer, who listed the laws we were violating until our eyebrows touched our hair. Knowing they had won, the group of committee members had smugly walked down our walkway, smart skirts and pressed pants rippling in the breeze. I had felt a strong urge to yell something at them, but my father’s footsteps drew my attention. He was walking away, toward the kitchen! To my utter disbelief he had picked up the phone and dialed the local tree service company, arranging an appointment for the “soonest time possible.” My father, who loved that old oak as much as I did, had given up. His great grandmother, when her father had built the house, had planted it. His father had taught him to climb in its dependable arms, and he had taught his daughter, me. But he had given up. And then, so had I.
And here I was, being pulled away by a cheerful, yellow bus amid drizzling rain and gray skies, wondering if I would hear the crack! of splitting wood all the way in my science room. Then the realization I had been expecting came, and I knew that I wasn’t going to sit around while my favorite part of the neighborhood was destroyed by paranoid monkeys in dress clothes. I was going to try my best, come what may.
“Excuse me?” I asked the bus driver, trying not to look at the rolls of fat that cascaded from her stomach, resting on her legs.
“I was—um—wondering if you would let me out. I forgot something at home. I can have my mother drive me to school after I get it, she’s off work today.” This was a lie, but how was she to know?
“Sure, hon, get on out. Don’t be late for school!” With a faint hiss like angry snakes hidden inside the dashboard, the doors opened, and I ran down the rain-darkened steps and onto the road. Even though my house was only a few blocks away, I knew I had to sprint to make it there in time. They were coming to cut the oak down at eight-thirty, in less than five minutes. Panting, I reached the back gate of my yard and yanked it open. Hidden by leaves, I put my foot in the familiar knothole and hoisted myself up into the tree’s branches. They stood, immobile and confident under my feet, while their delicate leaves filtered sunlight like stained glass. I climbed from branch to branch, farther than I had ever dared to climb before, so far up that when I peeked down, the whole town seemed unfolded below me like a giant Monopoly board. Suddenly I felt a little scared, as if I might be doing the wrong thing. But I couldn’t turn back now, could I?
The rain had started to come down harder by the time the green truck pulled up into our driveway. Scrawled across the side in mud-brown print was Fitch & Thompson’s Tree Service: Providing Help for Trees for Minimum Fees since 2007. I didn’t really see what there was to brag about, but then I wasn’t in the tree service industry. Three men wearing atrocious orange shirts bearing Fitch & Thompson across the back walked the length of the yard and up onto our front step. Before they could knock on the door it opened, and my father and three committee members walked out. When had they gotten here? One of the men walked over to the base of the oak and started to take notes, while the other two pulled the truck out of the driveway and parked it parallel to the edge of the yard, where their soon-to-be victim gallantly stood. They began to prepare their chainsaws, and I knew it was time to announce my presence. However, I didn’t get the chance.
“What are you doing up there?” The man who had been taking notes had evidently looked up, and everyone else followed suit.
“I’m passively resisting,” I stated bluntly. “You can’t cut her down now. That would be murder.” I said the last bit triumphantly, directing my words at the people who had condemned my friend to die. They sputtered a bit, and the tree man’s jaw fell open, but my attention was now focused on my father. He had a sad, slightly disappointed look on his face, as if he had expected better of me.
“Caroline. Come down, now. This is going to do nothing but disrupt things. You can’t stay here forever, and then they’ll just come back tomorrow.” I hadn’t thought about that in my race to figure out what to do, and suddenly the plan seemed much less ingenious. But I would stand my ground.
“No. I’m staying up here.” The rain was pouring by now, sticking my hair to my neck and soaking through my clothes. My teeth chattered of their own will. One of the council members stalked closer to the tree and began to speak.
“Do as your father says. Come down here no-” The woman was cut off by her colleagues, who pulled her into their circle and began whispering. Finally she broke away from the group and glued a wide smile on her face before approaching the tree once more.
“Now listen, honey, you don’t want to cause a problem for us, do you?” She waited for my answer, and when it did not come she continued anyway, smile hardly faltering. “Be a good girl and come down now, OK? You’re probably really cold and wet by now, and we all want to go home.” As if for emphasis she opened an umbrella over her head with a loud snap!
“No. And you can’t do anything about it. If you try to cut her down, I’ll fall, and then my dad will sue you and you’ll be arrested for murder.” She sighed dramatically, as if I was just the stupidest, most stubborn person she had ever met, and retreated back to the rest of her army.
A half an hour or so passed, and the men who had been called to cut down the oak began to check their watches and restlessly shift their weight from one foot to the other.
I really was cold by now, and that, combined with the feeling of disobeying my father, made me start to shiver. What if this didn’t work? I hugged the slippery side of the tree trunk protectively and glared down to the ground where my father was approaching the base of the tree. What was he going to do? He hoisted himself expertly onto the first branch, then the second, and before I realized what was happening was almost halfway up the tree. I had no place to go, for I had climbed as far as the tree’s now fragile branches would let me. I held the trunk even closer. Then my father reached my branch and yanked me down from my perch, slinging my slight body over his shoulder. I struggled, but he was very strong, and I did not want either of us to fall. Although holding my legs with one hand while simultaneously climbing with the other, he easily found footholds and branches to clasp in his huge hands. I was losing, and I knew it.
“Let me down!” I cried, but he ignored me, concentrating instead on navigating down the tree with his squirming load.
Tears began to roll down my cheeks as I thought about what would happen, and by the time my father set me on the ground, I was sobbing. The men with their chainsaws advanced, and I ran inside the house before I could hear the rip of breaking wood. I raced up the stairs to my room and threw myself on my bed, heedless of my muddy shoes and wet clothing. Pulling a pillow over my head, I loudly hummed the national anthem, but I could still hear the thumping as bits of the oak were lowered to the ground, still hear the buzzing whir of the chainsaws.
When it was all over, my father came into my room and sat down on my bed, stroking my hair and telling me that he was sorry. I stayed in bed for the rest of the day.
* * *
For the next week, I walked the long way home from school, a path that led me to my house’s back door instead of its front. I couldn’t stand to see the gaping, bare space that had once been so filled with green life, or the pile of stout logs that would be used for firewood.
At first everyone at school had acted a bit wary of me, as if I might do something as radically unexpected as I had that day. The story of my failed boycott had spread rapidly, and even my sixth-grade teacher shot me sympathetic glances. I had forgiven my father with little effort, for how could I hold the oak’s death against him when he was as sad as I about it? Most things went back to their old routines, but I couldn’t seem to pull myself out of my morose mood.
My mother, who I suppose saw herself as an aspiring psychologist, said that I should try visiting the tree stump—that seeing it might help me “come to terms” with what had happened and “move on with my life.” She bothered me non-stop about it, until I had to clench my fists to keep from yelling SHUT UP!! with all the force in my lungs. Then I would remember that she was just trying to help, and the anger would fly out of me like a cut balloon. But no matter how much I loved my mother there was just so much of this I could stand. One day at dinner, I had had enough.
“What?” she asked, almost surprised. I had refused her so many times she had probably accepted the fact that I always would.
“Thank you, Carrie. You know your father and I cannot stand seeing you so upset. Anyway, even if it doesn’t work, there’s no harm in trying, right?”
As far as you know, I wanted to say, but instead refused to respond and walked into the hallway to slip on my coat. It was dark out, so I took with me the emergency flashlight that perpetually hung in the mudroom. It bobbed cheerfully with my every step, shining strange dollops of light onto the grass and trees.
The place where the oak had once stood was no different than I expected. A wide, slightly raised circle cut off the grass, already splattered with mud. Seeing it, I did not feel any better. I heard an eerie rustle of leaves, felt an imaginary coolness from standing in what would have been the tree’s shadow. It was like my neighbor, who had lost his arm in the Vietnam War and said he could still feel the pain of the wound that had infected it. Phantom pains, he liked to call them. But there it was again. That rustling sound.
I whirled around, accusingly spotlighting the pile of logs with my flashlight. The rustling sound was coming from there. The light of the beam searched the shadows and dense leaves, finally flickering once off the startled eyes of a calico cat with a bundle of dark fur in her mouth. She had been the one making the noise!
Carefully pressing the flashlight to the grass so that its light dimmed but was still enough for me to see, and then sitting down on the damp earth, I waited. She stood perfectly still, staring into my eyes, the kitten in her mouth limp. I knew she was gauging my danger. I tried to be as quiet as possible, barely even breathing for fear of startling her. Cautiously, she began to move again, climbing onto the largest bit of trunk and dropping her baby into its rotted interior. Enthralled, I watched as she ran quietly away, to return with another kitten, this one splotched white and black like a miniature cow. During the next half an hour she made five more trips, coming back each time with a kitten more adorable than the last, fur colors ranging from white to black to calico or mixes between them. Every time she gently laid a baby cat inside the log, I thought about how she was making use of the hollowness that had caused the oak to be a danger, thought about how happy it would have been to be something’s home.
It took me a while to realize that I was smiling.