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It was a grand house. Nobody could deny that. Three stories tall, it towered over the other houses on the block. Everyone who drove by slowed to look at the place that contrasted so sharply against the plainer residences on the street.
It was an old house, too. It was built in the twenties by a family with big ambitions and gentle hearts. In the years that passed while the other houses crumbled from disrepair, this family kept vigilant, making sure the house would be there for future generations.
And it was. The same family that built it still owned it. The house was handed down from generation to generation. For that reason, everyone called it the Robinson house.
But by far, the most important part of the house was the tree. Old and grand, it stood in the middle of the spacious backyard. It provided a place for Jimmy's clubhouse, and a solid branch for the tire swing. Several knees had been scraped from climbing it, but never anything serious. And whenever one tree died, another was planted in its place.
Yet all things must pass. After eighty years in the Robinson family, the house eventually was too much work for them to keep up. They sold the house to a more capable family. They also had big ambitions, and their first one was to build a swimming pool in the backyard. This meant that the tree had to go.
The father brought a chainsaw out of the garage and went into the backyard. It was a hot summer day, so he wanted to get this done as quickly as he could.
He didn't like trees that much. They were always a nuisance, growing in places that got in the way of things. This was one of those trees, but it wouldn't be there much longer. Instead, a swimming pool would be in its place. He had grand ideas for this house.
He picked up the chainsaw and started it. He was about to cut into the tree when he heard a voice call his name. He stopped the chainsaw and looked around to see who it was, but there was no one in sight. Everything was silent. He started to cut again, and again he heard his name. He looked around, but there was still no one to be found. As he stood there listening, not sure what to do, a shout rang out from behind him. "Stop!" it yelled. He turned, knowing instantly that it was the tree that was talking to him.
He stood there for a while, just feeling the tree's presence in front of him. He turned to walk away when he heard the voice again. "Where do you think you're going?" it asked.
He faced the tree. "How can you talk to me?" he asked.
"Technically," it replied. "what is happening between us cannot be described as talking. Your science cannot explain arbosens."
"Arbosens. Tree-sensors. Those people who can tap into the life-flow of trees. This allows us to communicate with you, though you never demanded an explanation before."
"Before? I could never talk to trees!"
"You were a loner." Those simple words sent his mind reeling. Against his will, he remembered the days when he was young.
He is a loner. Those were the words he had overheard his mother say. And it was true. He didn't like the humans in his kindergarten class. He much preferred the old solemnity of the trees. He would spend most of his days in the woods, conversing with the trees as he walked past. His favorite was Old Ben. He would climb up and sit in its branches, spending the whole afternoon talking with it. He was especially glad that such an old and wise tree would condescend to talk to a little boy like him. He didn't care what his mother said; he enjoyed being with the trees.
Then came that awful day. He returned home from a walk in the woods to see his mother crying. Many of the neighbors were there, trying to comfort her. One of them pulled him aside to talk to him.
His father had had an accident. He had been walking along, getting some exercise, when a branch broke off a tree over him. It was a particularly heavy branch, and it landed right on his head. He suffered several skull fractures and brain damage. The doctors were not sure he was going to make it.
This came as a shock to him. He visited his father in the hospital, feeling helpless. There was nothing he could do. His father died the next day.
Even though it was hot outside, he felt a shiver run through him. He hadn't thought of that in years. "Why did you do that?" he asked the tree. "Why did you make me remember that?"
"Merely to save you, arborire."
"What did you call me?"
"Arborire. A word not so easily translated. It means those arbosens who reject the life-flow, for whatever reasons."
"But I don't need to be saved. I never did anything wrong."
No sooner had he spoken those words when memories again came flooding back. He tried to stop it, dreading what they would reveal, but he was powerless to do anything.
His father was dead. He didn't want to believe it, but his mother never lied. It was true, and a tree had caused it. One of his most beloved companions had caused the death of his father. He was confused and angry, and whenever he felt like this, he could always turn to the trees for help. Now he wasn't so sure. He didn't know what to do.
He ran through the woods, pushing aside branches as he went. He heard the trees calling out to him, but he didn't want to listen. He didn't want their useless conversations right now. He wanted help.
Finally, he got to his destination: Old Ben. The tree always had an answer to any question he had. "Why is Dad dead?" he asked.
There was a moment of silence. "A branch fell on him," came the reply.
"Some questions have no answers."
"That doesn't make me feel better! I came here for help!"
"There's nothing we can say."
He could feel the anger swelling up in him. The tree just stood there, not doing anything at all. Why wouldn't it help him? It was rejecting him. Why? He picked up a stone nearby and started beating the tree, trying to make it help him. He jabbed again and again at the bark, trying to make it feel his pain.
"Calm yourself!" the tree shouted. A branch swung and wrapped around his arm. He struggled and tried to break free, but it wouldn't let him.
"Why'd you do it?" he asked hysterically. "Why'd you kill him?"
"Shut up!" He pulled his arm as hard as he could. It scratched against the bark as it was yanked from the tree's grasp. He held his arm and felt the blood forming from the cuts. "Murderer!" he spat at the tree, and then he ran.
He ran as fast as he could, trying to get their voices out of his head. He could hear them calling after him, but he drove them out of his mind. He didn't want to listen to them anymore. They couldn't help him.
Instead, he turned to people, and he discovered a wonderful thing. People listened to you, and comforted you, and tried to make you feel better. They cared about him. His mother was a bit surprised at his complete turnaround, but she didn't complain. And he never talked to a tree again.
Sometimes they called him, but he ignored them. He had gotten very good at it in the past thirty years. That is, until today.
He could feel a tear forming in his eye. It had all come back to him, that same feeling of loneliness and anger. "Why are you doing this to me?" he asked.
"You make it sound like something bad," it replied.
"My life was perfectly fine. I didn't need to remember that."
"Then you don't know what you need."
He picked up the chainsaw. "I know that I don't need you."
"We never meant to cause any harm. You were simply too young."
"So you're saying it's my fault?"
"Not because of your age."
"Then because of what?"
"Your violent outburst of emotions."
"Fine," he said, "go ahead and insult me! That'll raise your chances of convincing me not to cut you down."
"Do you think that's what this is all about? There is nothing to fear from death. Death hurts loved ones more than it hurts the victim."
"And I suppose that refers to me, doesn't it?"
"It refers to everybody. It is a rule that applies to all things, a commonly observed occurrence."
"All your observations didn't help you any. You still couldn't help me."
"That's why we're offering now."
"Well, you're too late."
"It's never too late. There's still some worth in you."
The man shook his head. "Don't you realize that I hate you?"
"We don't see why. Hatred is hard to understand. We could ever hate anything, except injustice."
"You sound too good to be true."
"We're certainly above your culture."
"Does that mean we're primitives?" he asked fiercely.
"It means you have a lot of growing to do."
"Why are you so optimistic? You almost sicken me."
"You're pretty damn close."
There was a pause. "You have nothing to fear from us," the tree said.
"Who said I did? What could you possibly do to me?"
"Hopefully you'll never find out."
The man laughed. "This is ridiculous. This is the stupidest thing that has ever happened to me."
"Only because you don't understand it."
"I hate you, always having a response to anything I say. Stop talking like some stupid professor!"
"You didn't always think that way."
"Well, buddy, things change. I'm sure you've observed that."
"We're sorry for whatever we did to you."
"Wow! That took a lot of courage to say, didn't it!"
"You've been forgiven ever since that day."
"We've never done anything to you in these past years."
"Not until today."
"Have to start sometime."
The man walked up to the tree. "Why are you doing this? You have nothing to gain."
"Some gains are not physical."
The man huffed. "I'm tired of you and your witty sayings. Don't you have a life?"
"Think for a moment. We trees spend all our days sitting and thinking. In all this time, we've come up with a lot of information."
"A fat lot of good that will do you now." He turned his back to it and walked away.
"You've never been happy these past years, have you?"
"What makes you think that?" he said over his shoulder.
"Sure, life has been good to you, but something was always missing."
He turned and pointed threateningly at the tree. "Shut up," he said softly.
"A wife, two kids, and yet it was never enough."
"I said shut up," he said a little louder.
"Perhaps we are not the ones that need to forgive you."
"Don't talk to me!"
"Things can change. You said so yourself."
"I don't care."
"You are one of the most caring individuals we've seen."
"That's a lie."
"You deserve better."
"I hate you!"
"Like you hated your father."
The man's breathing quickened. He tried to think of something to say, tried to stop the tears from coming to his eyes. He let out a yell and collapsed on his knees.
"We used to have arguments," he said. "He'd yell at me because I'd skip baseball practice and play in the woods. I remember wishing that he'd just leave me alone, that he'd go away. I thought he didn't care about me at all."
"We remember talking to you about that," the tree said.
He took a deep breath, as though carefully deciding what to say next. "My mom sat me down one night after his death and told me about all the ways my father had cared for me. She told me how he would proudly show me to his friends when they came over, how he would spend so much time trying to find me the perfect present." He turned to face the tree. "Whenever he worked overtime, he would have my picture there to give him strength."
"He loved you very much."
"And I completely ignored him," the man said with in a faltering voice. "God, I felt so bad about that. I cried in front of my mother. I thought I had failed him. He wanted the best for me but I didn't care."
"And so you left us."
The man stood up and walked around the tree. "You never told me that he had loved me! You always made polite statements whenever I cursed my father. You never let me know the truth. And I thought you had killed him! Here I found out about how much my father did for me, while you had never done anything. Sure, we talked, but we never did anything else. Your words never had any compassion in them. I felt like you were pulling me into your world of not-caring. So yes, I left you."
He sat down on the grass and stayed there for several minutes, not moving at all. Finally, he ran his hands through his hair and looked at the tree. "There," he said, "are you happy?" He stood and picked up the chainsaw. "I've finally dug up feelings I've had buried for so many years."
"Does your wife know?"
He froze, a confused look on his face. "What?"
"Does she know?" the tree asked. "Have you ever told her?"
The man shook his head and laughed feebly. "I only just remembered this a couple minutes ago."
"Will you tell her?"
"I can't," he said. "She'd think I was crazy. She wouldn't understand."
"Who would understand?"
The man made feeble noises as he tried to think of something to say. "I…"
"What are you afraid of?"
He was thrown off by this change of direction. "Afraid of?" he asked.
"All these years and you've never opened yourself to anybody?"
"Why should I?"
"The question is: why don't you?"
His eyes revealed his troubled emotions. "I don't understand what you're talking about."
"You fear revealing yourself to others!"
"Fear? There's no fear!"
"Your very actions disprove that!"
The man turned and walked away. "You don't know what you're talking about."
"You're afraid of us, too."
The man just walked faster.
"Go ahead and run!" the tree shouted. "Just like you have for your whole life!"
The man whirled and glared at the tree.
"Mike?" a voice asked. The man turned to see his wife approaching him. "Mike, what are you doing?"
The man was caught off guard. What could he say?
She walked up beside him. "Aren't you going to cut it down?" she asked, pointing to the tree.
He sighed. "I suppose," he said, but he hesitated. Why? He needed to get rid of this stupid tree. He locked an iron gaze on the tree and reached down to start the chainsaw.
"What are you afraid of?" the tree whispered.
"Shut up," the man whispered back.
"What did you say?" his wife asked in shock.
"I wasn't talking to you," the man quickly apologized.
"Then who were you talking to?" she asked.
The man was silent. He couldn't think of anything to say.
She walked in front of him and stared into his eyes. "Mike, something's bothering you."
"No, I'm fine," he said.
"Don't lie to me," she said. "Come on, it always helps me to talk about my troubles to someone."
He sighed. The tree stood there, watching him. If it's wrong… "I was talking to the tree," he said very quickly.
"Oh," his wife said, trying to hide the emotions from her face. "May I ask why?"
"Because it started talking to me first!" he said, pointing at the tree.
"Of course," she said, keeping her voice steady. "I'm sure you've been under a lot of stress lately and-"
"I'm not making this up!" he shouted.
"Of course not," she said soothingly, but he could tell that he was losing her.
"Tell her Daisy forgave her," the tree said.
"Daisy forgave you," the man repeated, not sure why.
She stopped, her eyes wide in shock. "What did you say?"
The man was quiet, listening to what the tree was telling him. "The grasshopper," he started, "that you had when you were little. You called it Daisy. You found it in the garden and put it inside a glass jar. You hid it up in a tree and didn't tell your parents. It was your little secret. But when you went to check on it the next day, it was dead. You had forgotten to put air holes in it. And you felt so guilty and cried, and your parents didn't know why."
She put her hand over her heart and sat down in the grass. "How did you know?" she asked faintly. "I never told anyone."
"The tree told me," he said.
She held her hands to her head and started shaking it. Tears were in her eyes. "No," she said. "It's impossible." She stood and took off for the house.
The man ran behind her. He caught up to her in the living room and grabbed her arm. "Where are you going?" he asked.
"Don't touch me!" she screamed, and pulled her arm out of her grasp. "You're crazy! Leave me alone!" With those words, she bolted out the door and slammed it behind her.
The man watched the car pull out and drive away. Shocked, he plopped down in a nearby chair. He couldn't quite grasp what had just happened.
A couple hours later, he was pulled out of his thoughts by his stomach growling. He got out of the chair and headed for the kitchen to order a pizza. He picked the phone off the hook and looked out the window. There was the tree with the chainsaw beside it.
Anger surged through him. The tree! His wife had left and it was all the tree's fault! He slammed the phone back and rushed out the back door. He took long strides and crossed to where the chainsaw lay. With one swift motion, he picked it up and started it, fully prepared to do what he knew he had to do.
"Don't make the same mistake twice," the tree cautioned.
The man stopped. The chainsaw rumbled in his hands. Thoughts and emotions ran through his head. He remembered that night so many years ago. He could still feel those same angry and sad feelings as he had struck out at the thing closest to him. It wasn't their fault, though. He lowered the chainsaw and turned it off. It wasn't the tree's fault. It was his fault.
Tears filled his eyes as he walked back to the house, dragging the chainsaw behind him. Light washed over him and he noticed a car pulling into his driveway. He quickly ran back to the house to see who it was. He entered the living room and saw his wife standing there.
Both of them stopped and stared at the other. They stayed that way for what seemed like the longest time, until she broke the silence by clearing her throat.
"I've been doing some thinking," she said. "I don't know how you knew that incident, but I don't think I can believe that a tree told you."
The man was silent, letting her speak.
She took a deep breath. "In fact," she said, "I don't think I can handle having a husband that talks to trees." She dropped her head. "I just couldn't handle that."
The man thought it was his turn to speak up. "You won't have to."
She looked at him questioningly.
He took a breath and hoped for the best. "I don't want to talk to trees. I haven't since I was a little boy." He took another deep breath. "Let me tell you a story."
They sat down and he started to tell her about his childhood and the trees and his father's death. It was hard at first, but his wife was silent and her eyes implored him to continue. It got easier as it went on, and he found himself eagerly telling her every detail of the experience.
"And so I haven't talked to them since," he finished. He turned his head to see her reaction.
She was silent, biting her lip. Then she came close and kissed his cheek. "I'm so sorry for what happened to you," she whispered. "I never knew."
"I never told you," he admitted.
She studied his expression. "Are there any other stories?" she asked.
He was surprised. "You want to hear them?"
She took his hand in hers. "I think I need to hear them."
They talked long into the night and well into the morning. They didn't stop until the sun started rising. Warm sunlight shone through the living room window. The wife stretched her arms over her head and yawned loudly. "It's been a long night," she said.
"You should get some sleep," he said, helping her off of the couch. "I'll call work so we don't have to go today."
"Thanks," she said, her eyes half-closed. She walked out of the living room and started up the stairs, but the man called out. She stopped and looked at him expectantly.
"Does this mean you'll stay?" he asked.
She considered for a moment, then looked him straight in the eye. "I'm willing to put to rest what happened yesterday afternoon," she said to the man's delight. Then she leveled a finger at him. "Just don't forget what happened last night. Promise me you won't clam up again!"
The man smiled. "I promise."
This satisfied his wife, and she continued upstairs to the bedroom. The man looked at the spot where she'd been for a couple moments, then turned and looked outside. The tree was standing there, its branches swaying slowly in the soft breeze.
There was still one thing he had to do. He walked outside and made his way in front of the tree. "I did it," he said.
The tree didn't respond.
"I've finally opened myself to others," he continued. "I have you to thank, and thank you I do, but I don't think things can return to the way they were before. I can't talk to trees. It's just impossible. I'm sorry."
The tree still said nothing. "Can I at least have an 'okay' or something here?" the man asked.
A voice came very softly. "Our work is done." It was all the answer he needed.
The man was true to his word and didn't forget what happened that night. He started talking to his friends a lot more, and enriched his life with such openness. His friends said that he seemed more relaxed now, and thought that the new house had been good for him.
Eventually, the man grew old and started having heart problems. He asked to visit his house one last time.
Once there, he asked to be left alone in the backyard. He lay in a lawn chair, staring at the tree that towered over him. The setting sun threw golden light over the scene. He cleared his throat, trying to think of what to say. He had rehearsed a speech, but it now felt inadequate.
"Why did you come back?" the tree asked.
"I've been doing a lot of thinking lately," he said, then smiled. "Haven't been able to do much else with my heart problems."
"Now you know how we feel."
He laughed. "There are some things I should tell you," he said, getting back to the point of his visit.
"First, I'd like to thank you for what you did those many years ago. I greatly appreciate the help you gave me. I can't imagine what might have happened had you not done that."
"The pleasure was ours," it said.
"I think I understand how you feel."
"How do we feel?"
He started coughing. The tree waited until he had quieted down. "In my old age, I have lots of knowledge," he said. "I've been through lots of experiences and know how to handle many situations. Whenever I see young people around doing something, I want to walk up to them and tell them my wisdom. I want to share what I know! You must feel the same way, since you've been observing and thinking for so long."
"A wise conclusion. We feel the same desire to help those younger than us. When you have solved your own problems, other people's problems become your own."
"I like that saying." A cool breeze blew over his face. "I'd also like to apologize to Old Ben for hurting him so many years ago. I know I should have said that a long time ago, so I'm going to say it now."
"Though never spoken, we always knew you felt that way."
A curious expression came over his face. "Is Old Ben still around?"
"In a sense," the tree answered. The man still looked confused. "It's a trait of ours," the tree explained. "You may understand someday."
"I don't have many days left."
"Not on this earth, no."
The man relaxed in his chair. Stars were starting to appear now. He didn't have much time left. "What will come in the future?" he asked.
"We don't know," the tree responded.
"Things don't look good for you. Popular opinion is turning against the environment. Machines are taking over."
"We have seen the danger coming."
"How will you survive?"
"We'll find a way."
The man laughed softly. "I'm sure you will," he said, still staring up at the sky. "I'm sure you will."
His last thoughts were of the stars and how wonderful the universe is. Then he died, and the last few rays of light from the setting sun illuminated tree and man.
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The "arbosen" idea is mine and may not be used without my permission.