Monday, December 24, 2012
The Loneliest Tree
One Spring day, a wren chose to nest in the smallest fir tree. Mornings, the baby birds chortled as their mother searched for grubs and worms. One afternoon, as the littlest fir tree and the baby wrens drowsed in the wan sun, the wren squawked loudly, rousting her family from the tree. A man and a boy, both clad in overalls, walked through the orchard, throwing fertilizer around the firs.
"There, there.” The boy tossed pellets under the littlest fir tree’s boughs. “Grow strong and healthy and green.”
He squinted up at the nest perched in the littlest tree, his Red Sox cap on backwards. His fingers stroked the needles and the tree shivered.
"So soft, papa,” the boy said. “Like a kitten’s tail.”
"Yup,” said the man. “He’s the youngun here – just like you.”
That summer, the wind smelled of sweet hay. Buzzing bees filled the air with song. The farmer and his son came to the hill almost every day, watering the trees when the sun withered their needles. The boy panted and groaned as he hauled the full pails up the hill, but he always watered the littlest fir tree. Afterwards, he collapsed in the cool shade cast by the littlest fir tree and told stories about the puffy cloud creatures scudding across the sky.
One morning, the farmer came with a machine that whirred and twirled. The smallest fir tree watched the farmer trim his brothers and sisters into triangle shapes. The other trees danced in the breeze, happy with their new look, but the buzzing tool scared the smallest fir tree.
“This won’t hurt,” the boy said.
And it didn’t, the tool tickled. The fir tree shivered with delight.
The leaves of the forest Maples flamed red. Shadows stretched long across the meadow. The man came to the orchard, but always alone; the littlest fir tree missed the boy’s visits. On the first hard frost, the hill sparkled with diamonds. The man walked the orchard, still alone, pulling long red and white and yellow ribbons from a leather bag slung over his shoulder. He tied a ribbon on each tree and soon, the ribbons fluttered like flags in the brisk autumnal air. The littlest fir tree wondered what color ribbon the farmer would tie on him. But when the man reached the hilltop, he paused before the littlest tree and sighed a deep sigh, then walked back down the hill.
The sun dropped behind the forest ridge. The fir tree shivered, sending needles to the ground.
The ground rumbled. Cars and trucks filled the bottom field. Shouts of children filled the air.
“There! This tree!”
“No, this one!”
The children swarmed around the small fir tree, sometimes even saying “This one!”
But the fathers said, “This tree is too puny. Besides, it has no ribbon,” and strode past, saws and axes thrown over their shoulders. The littlest fir tree trembled as his brothers and sisters groaned and fell to the ground.
Snow dusted the stump-stubbled hill. Without the protection of his brothers and sisters, the northeast gusted hard and cold, coating the trembling fir tree in ice. The mockingbird trilled as the wagon, pulled by the man, bumped and creaked up the hill. When the man reached the top, he pulled off his wool hat and wiped his sweat-shined forehead. In the wagon, the bundle of blankets moved; the small boy, pale and drawn, poked out his head. He smiled at the littlest tree, but the smile seemed as big an effort as lugging pails of water.
"This one?” the man asked the boy. “You’re sure?”
The little boy nodded and closed his eyes. The man gazed at the boy for a long moment, then turned away, a tear frozen on his cheek.
The fir tree looked down the hill at the stumps of his family one last time. Then he pulled his limbs tight and waited for the axe’s blow. But the man plunged a shovel into the frozen earth. He chipped a circle, deeper and deeper, around the tree, loosening the dirt around the fir tree’s roots.
The man pulled the tree tight to his chest; more than anything, the littlest tree wanted to stay in his embrace. But the man tugged hard, yanking the tree from the cold ground. The boy clapped his hands, his laugh sounded like birdsong.
“Your little tree will grow strong in the front yard,” the man said. “There, we can see him from the kitchen.”
"And I can visit him in the spring?” the boy whispered.
"Yes.” The man wiped at his shiny cheek. “Yes, you can.”
The man wrapped the trembling tree in burlap and nestled him in the wagon beside the boy. The boy snuggled into the littlest fir tree all the way down the hill and across the bumpy field. When the wagon stopped, the farmer unfurled the littlest fir tree from the cloth and propped him in a large hole. Shovels of dirt and snow covered his roots. The boy clambered from the wagon, falling twice in the deep snow. When he hugged the littlest fir tree, icicles tinkled to the ground.
May your winter nights be full of talk, of laughter, warmth and love. May you never be lonely.