Celeste Flahaven, Villa Maria Academy
I wrote my first story sitting under the oak tree as tall as the Empire State Building.
I might have been ten years old, but it’s hard to remember now, three years later. My memory is so fogged, I can’t even remember what the story was about. I have lost so many notebooks over the years, including the one that story was written in. I think it had a kitten on it like most of the school supplies my mom purchased. My handwriting probably was scrawled across the page, erratic. That’s how I was then. Jumping around, running, and playing.
But all that’s beside the point. The point is the oak tree.
For the past three years, I’ve been going to that oak tree almost every day. I discovered her by happenstance once while my family and I were taking a walk after dinner. At that first walk, maybe a few months before I started dropping by, I hated the oak tree. She was in a little clearing where the sun poked at her body, but even that didn’t enhance her figure. I had to squint to look at her, and that didn’t help either. She was too tall and too wide, too shady and too cool, and far, far, far too ugly and too plain. She needed some care, or a good pruning. If only some cared enough.
Some kind soul did care enough. One day in March when the weather began to turn lamb-like, we drove past the oak tree. Most of the dead limbs that had blackened with age and disease were gone, lying in a tied bundle beside the curb. Now the oak tree looked polished. I knew she had been there for years, but now she had a certain charm. Before, she was just scraggly. Now she was almost antique. A vintage tree. What a strange, novel idea.
I made it a point to make the walk up to the oak tree sometime that week. The time didn’t come until the weekend, though, and even then it had to be in the evening because of lack of time. The clouds were the color of orange sherbet and the consistency of cotton that day. They looked almost good enough to eat and shaded the meadow, making it just the right amount of cool. Breeze rippled the tall grass and the flaxen heads of wheat bent to reveal golden undersides. The way the blades moved in unison looked like a wave.
My legs ached climbing up the big hill to the tree. I had to see her, I had to. I wanted to try to wrap my arms around her solid trunk and itch my belly against the patterned circumference. I wanted to drink in the sweet, dull smell of buds burgeoning on the thick branches. I wanted to lose myself in the tree’s essence. Somehow the oak tree seemed much more appealing up close. She seemed like the only unique tree in the small, lime green, sunlit meadow because of her enormousness, hardiness, and branches that tended towards the ground. They looked like dozens of human arms with dark, peeling skin.
I was armed with a pen tucked in my hair like I’d seen journalists do and a notebook only. I planned to draw something, a landscape. Under a tree in a meadow would be the easiest place, I figured. It was submerged in nature and no one would be around. I could be alone.
At first, the tree loomed high above me like a skyscraper and I was afraid somewhere deep in my heart. When the fear passed, the tree looked like something more. She was not a skyscraper. She looked almost inviting, comfortable. I stayed under her canopy of skeletal branches for as long as I was allowed. I had to be home to do important things like homework, but I promised to visit old Oakey whenever I could. The moments of tranquility I’d experienced with her were an escape. I could go there and not be nagged or bothered by anyone or anything besides the repetitive songs of crickets. It felt good to get away for a little while in a place no one else knew about or could take. The tree was all mine.
When it rained or was too cold to see the tree, I dreamt about her and wrote about her. I dreamt that someday I would climb high into her branches like a sparrow and sit there feeding off of the tree’s energy and spirit. All trees have a spirit, but the oak tree’s was special in some way. She was content to be alive, thriving, and growing. The oak tree was a kindred spirit.
Oakey grew more old and gnarled over the three years I visited her. She was starting to lean over like a giant sunflower and her trunk broke out in knobs. I tried to soothe her but I could tell she was aging with alarming alacrity and soon her spirit would be sapped away and carried along her roots. It worried me more than the math test tomorrow.
Exactly three years to the day I started visiting Oakey, I woke up and felt her crying. It wasn’t the kind of awakening where you roll over and think, I can sleep in five more minutes, no. It was panic. I tore myself out of bed and didn’t bother to get dressed. My fingers fumbled to tie my sneakers in the laundry room. I knew they would get me there the fastest. Oakey’s cries grew louder and more frantic as I started running for her. I cried out and screamed, “Oakey! Hold on, I’m coming.” She didn’t hear me. She was too upset.
I reached the fence that blocked off the clearing from the road and saw several faded orange trucks lined up on the street. A few men were leaning on an enormous machine that looked like a cement turner. They wore reflective neon lime vests, sunglasses, and hardhats. I clambered over the split rail fence and over the hill that was so steep you had to walk on your toes or else your calves would burn like fire. The grass was still slick from dew and I slipped a few times getting to Oakey, but I made it over the hill.
A crew of workmen with chainsaw, pulleys, and masks were taking down my tree. They had already cut a sliver out of her left side to make it fall right. The sight churned a muddy panic in my stomach. I was rooted to the spot, much like a tree. I watched as Oakey was taken down, unable to do anything besides. Here was my only private spot that was all mine being robbed away by mean men in ugly vests. I wanted to scream and protest but my tongue was a worm on dry gravel. The chainsaws growled as the men started them and shrieked like firecrackers when they hit Oakey. I couldn’t hear her crying anymore. She was already dead, murdered. The men lassoed high onto her crown to pull her onto the ground and the last string holding her together snapped.
She fell like a great ship.