content warning: domestic violence, death
The Texas summer shone yellow with dust and dry grass and sun. Daniel was eight years old and lived on a triangular plot of land. Two sides of the triangle were bordered by oak woods, tangled and gnarled and parched. The bottom third of the triangle, though, was road, hot and dark and flatter than the earth was supposed to be and more dangerous than a rattlesnake. More than anything in the world, Daniel loved the wood and hated the road.
The wood loved Daniel in return.
In the spring, the wood was green, with a canopy of leathery, wide leaves that acted as cover for the ground and that shot intense rays of sun through the gaps. In the fall, the leaves turned brown and dry and light and fragile and fell from the trees to create a blanket that you could gather over you and hide. In the winter the blanket acted as shelter for the things on the ground, the rabbits and snakes alike, and rotted on top of them with wet and mold as they bedded down and waited for the earth to come back alive. But in summer, as with all things in Texas, the trees, still green and full from the spring, stood defiant against the baking heat, staring down the sun to see who faltered first. In this behavior, this defiance and patience, Daniel found a kindred spirit, and so, in he, did the wood.
So, in the summer, when Daniel was free from school and homework and the intrusions of friends, he would walk in the woods and talk to the trees, and they would shelter him as best they could from the intense, withering heat, and they would hold out together, until either the heat broke, or Daniel could take no more and would go back inside with the manufactured cool air and the manufactured entertainment and make plans to try again tomorrow. On these occasions, the trees of the wood expressed their disappointment.
“You cannot stay a little longer?” They whispered. “You cannot stand a little more?”
“I can’t,” Daniel said, and would be disappointed in himself, and would feel inadequate, and would hang his head and watch the ground as he walked back to his house, wishing he were a tree so that he could be strong and hard and gnarled and rough and thereby could weather anything and live for a thousand years.
One summer day, when Daniel had run and played until he couldn’t anymore, he sat down between the roots of a particularly gnarled and tall and old tree at the center of the wood to rest. He and the tree were old friends, and so they talked for hours, Daniel of his family and his interests and his troubles, the tree of its life and changes it had seen and things it heard when it thought nobody was watching.
“I wish I were a tree like you,” Daniel said.
“It is indeed a great life, long and slow and rich,” said the tree in its raspy whisper like two sticks rubbing together, “but why would you wish to be anything other than what you are?”
“I am small and weak, and humans don’t live for very long,” said Daniel.
“But you have dominated so much of the earth,” said the tree. “Surely you are strong, for your kind have felled many of mine.”
“Tools,” the boy said. “We make tools so we can cut down even the tallest tree.”
“Ah, but surely you grow large, because you take up so much space,” said the tree.
“That is only because there are many of us,” said the boy. “Well then, you must be long lived, because when you cut us down, you never give us the chance to grow back,” said the tree. “That is only because we pass our property and our stories from one generation to the next, so they know how to use the tools, and they also take up too much space and even more,” Daniel said.
The tree was silent for some time, and the more he thought about what the boy said, the more angry he became, until he vowed not to speak any more that day.
When Daniel realized what he had said, what he had done, he said, “I am sorry,” and he left the wood with his head hung low, this time not because he wished he was a tree, but because he feared he had destroyed a friendship, and that he would no longer be able to speak to the trees.
Every night when Daniel went to bed, his parents screamed at one another. They would wait just long enough so that Daniel would be quiet and comfortable and wrapped and warm, and so they thought he was asleep, and then they would begin to talk. They never spoke to each other while Daniel was awake, but on these occasions they would start in whispers that Daniel could not make out, that sounded like painful secrets. The whispers would escalate into hushed voices, and Daniel, staring at his wall in the blue moonlight that filtered in through the blinds, could just make out a few words, most of which were no help and some of which were things like ‘beer’ and ‘money’ and other words that he was told were strictly for adults. Then, after some time had passed at this volume, and with a number of long pauses and thumps and doors slamming and feet stomping, the screaming would start.
Sometimes, if he tried hard enough, Daniel could be asleep before this happened. On this night, though, his conversation with the tree kept him awake and worried, and his worries about his friendship smashed together with his worries about his parents fighting so that he could not have slept if he tried. So there, as always, was the whispering. It went on for some time and, if Daniel hadn’t known better, hadn’t been fooled on dozens of nights before, he would have hoped it would end there. After a while, as expected, came the hushed voices filled with words he either didn’t understand or wasn’t allowed to say. After a long pause filled with stomping and slamming, came the screaming. Tonight, though, Daniel thought it might be more than usual, louder, more desperate, and he lay there, trembling slightly, trying to determine if that was true or if it was just in his head.
Then, there was a sound he hadn’t heard before. It was sharp and brief and meaty. It was followed by a scream and a thud. That scream belonged to his mother.
If there was anything in the world Daniel loved more than the wood, it was his mother. She was gentle and kind to him. She protected him. She played, laughed, danced with him. When she punished him, scolded him, Daniel always believed it was because she loved him. That scream, short, like a mountain lion howl, had been hurt, angry, cornered, but it started with real pain. Daniel was afraid. His heart was beating so fast he could hear it in his ears and feel it in his fingertips. All the same, he knew what he had to do. She would for him.
Daniel snuck out of bed.
One foot and then the next, he tip-toed across his bedroom, down the hall and stopped before he entered the kitchen. The lights were on like they always were until his parents went to bed. He could hear his mother crying quietly. It was a low sobbing that did not sound like sadness to Daniel. It sounded like hate and pain.
“Shut up,” his father shouted, sounding unhinged, out of control, his voice cracking with the effort, dancing around in too high an octave.
The sobbing continued and Daniel stuck his head around the corner just in time to see his father, shirtless with starched jeans and leather boots, freckled, huge and hulking, all lean muscle in the arm and huge belly around the front that drug his spine forward in a curve, raising his right hand into the air, golden ring glinting in the fluorescent kitchen light as it arced back downward toward his mother’s pink face, already streaked with blood from her nose. There was that sound again but now it was loud as a gunshot and Daniel flinched. His mother let out a yipping bark of a scream from where she sat against the wall between the trash can and the refrigerator. She continued to sob, her left eye already starting to purple and swell, and she wiped her bleeding nose on her shirt sleeve.
Daniel felt a jolt of panic. It started in his toes and shot like lightning up into his legs and spine and brain. He pulled in as much air as he could without making any noise and held it in his lungs, felt it burn with the want of release and then let it out. His eyes darted around the room looking for a way to stop this, to set this right. It will never be right, he thought. It will never be the same again. He felt a hot tear crawl down his cheek.
In the corner next to the dining table, against the wall, lay his father’s tool belt. Daniel’s father always discarded it there after coming in the back door after work, usually on his way to the fridge for a beer. Daniel’s eyes locked on to the pouches and scanned before finding what he was looking for.
Daniel moved. It was three steps to the hammer. He scrambled for it and scooped it up. He pivoted on his right heel and made a bee line for his father. Daniel’s mother moaned, “Oh, god.”
Daniel screamed, squeaky and cracked and panicked, “Leave her alone!” He swung the hammer out blindly.
Daniel’s father just had time to turn his head toward the scream. His green eyes were unfocused with drink, his movement sluggish. The hammer made contact with his left kneecap and something cracked and moved in a way it wasn’t supposed to and pain shot up into his head, widening his eyes and toppling him back and to the left. As he hit the floor, injured leg shooting out in front of him, head flopping to the side and sounding a loud thunk against the refrigerator door, Daniel had the wild urge to scream timber.
Daniel’s father lay against the refrigerator, still conscious but only just. He moaned incoherently and his eyes rolled in their sockets. His left leg jutted out in front of him and was already starting to swell. Daniel stood, stunned, unable for a moment to process what he had just done. He looked at his mother, her wide right eye red with fear and crying, her left swollen shut. Blood was coming out of her nose and her lip was split open. Her chest was spasming with sobs.
“Oh, baby, no,” she said.
“Mom,” Daniel said. They locked eyes.
Just then, his father’s massive hand swiped at his face. He only just ducked out of the way.
“Go,” Daniel’s mother growled. “Go,” she repeated, louder.
Daniel was already sprinting. He hit the screen door hard and it swung open. He was out on the porch and down the steps before it slammed behind him. Now he was at the edge of the lawn.
His father stumbled through the screen door onto the front porch.
“Daniel,” he yelled. He might just have been calling him in from playing.
Daniel flew toward the wood. The wood was different at night. It whispered. Normally, upon entering the wood, Daniel would stop to greet a few of the trees, but he did not have time. The trees noticed his hurry, his panic, and they whispered to each other about it. Daniel could not make out the words and he did not stop to try. Daniel ran so fast that his tears didn’t fall all the way down his cheeks, but were swept back across his face and into the hair above his ears. The leaves crunched beneath his feet. He held his arms up to protect his face from the whipping twigs and branches that would dig at him as he ran blindly, but tonight his way was clear, as though it was deliberate. Daniel said a silent thanks.
“Daniel!” His father’s voice sounded behind him, echoing, distant, crazed.
Daniel doubled his effort. His father would have seen him entering the wood, would have followed him in, but Daniel knew where he was going and his father did not and that might be an advantage. He was also faster and did not drink. But his lungs were aching as they emptied and refilled with damp night air, and each breath didn’t go as far as it did before and Daniel was starting to gasp and sob.
“Daniel!” Closer now. Could his father hear him tearing through the leaves and grass and twigs on the ground? Daniel was looking over his shoulder, trusting too much in the cleared path ahead, so he slipped. He went down hard on his shoulder, the seam of his t-shirt tearing as a dead branch snagged both cloth and skin. He lay on his back, looking up and smiling. This was exactly where he wanted to be.
“Tree!” Daniel shouted up at the massive old oak at the center of the wood.
The tree said nothing, but Daniel swore he heard a grunt.
“Tree, old friend, please listen,” Daniel said, mindful now of his shouting and lowering his voice. He could hear his father’s crazed shouts from somewhere off in the wood.
“Say what you must,” whispered the tree.
Daniel got up onto his knees. “My friend, please, you must protect me.”
“From what?” The tree whispered.
“My father is angry with me and is looking for me and I am afraid he will hurt me,” Daniel said, desperation creeping into his voice as he looked back over his shoulder.
The tree did not speak for a long moment, then said, “Surely a boy of your kind would have nothing to fear from his father.”
“But he is drunk,” said Daniel, “and he has already hurt my mother.”
“You must have done something to wrong him,” the tree said. It was difficult to make out, but Daniel swore he could hear a petty anger in the tree’s whisper. “Who am I to stand between a boy and some much-needed discipline?”
“Please,” Daniel said, “Just let me climb up into your branches to hide.”
“Surely,” the tree said, “you have some tool at your disposal you could use to protect yourself. Your kind have felled so many of mine. One of your own should be no problem. Or is it that you would like to give your father a reason to knock me down as well?”
“Friend, I am sorry,” said Daniel through sobs that wanted to choke him. “I’m sorry, okay? I know you are angry with me, but I need your help.”
There was a long pause, and the tree said, “No.”
Daniel, too tired to run more, too afraid to scream, too small and weak to fight, simply turned his back to the tree and leaned his weight upon the solid trunk. He felt its warmth and rough bark through his shirt and his mind was taken away from here for a moment to days spent running and playing and he smiled in spite of his situation. He said up to the tree, “It’s okay. I know I hurt you and that you are angry, but I am still your friend, and I know you are mine. I will sit with you until this is over.”
The tree did not answer.
So Daniel sat and waited.
Out of the woods in front of Daniel came a monster. His father, stumbling, shirtless, drunk and injured, dragged his nearly dead leg behind him. He was covered in cuts and bruises from the branches he had run through, and Daniel had the satisfaction of thinking that at least not all of his friends had abandoned him. His eyes, usually kind or worried when he was sober, blazed with green fire fueled by hate and violence and drink.
“Dad,” Daniel said. “I’m sorry.”
“There you are, Daniel.” His eyes darted around as if looking for anyone watching.
“Dad, I’m sorry I hurt you. I love you. Please don’t.”
But Daniel’s father did not answer. He dragged himself, grunting, toward Daniel, one step at a time. And when he got to Daniel, he reached down with both hands and picked Daniel up from under his arms and stood him on his feet and pressed his back against the tree and wrapped his shaking hands around Daniel’s throat and squeezed, and as he squeezed a scream built up in his own throat and as he screamed all the pressure, the anger, the fear, the hurt flowed out of his mouth and his hands and he was unable to stop himself as he saw the light, the life leave his son’s eyes, and when it was done and Daniel wasn’t moving anymore, he dropped Daniel on the ground again where he lay against one of the tree’s giant gnarled roots and began to cool to the temperature of the air around him.
“Are you the boy’s father?” A voice whispered.
“How could a father do something like that to his son?”
“Who is talking?” Daniel’s father spun in a circle, stumbling, eyes darting.
“Is he dead?” More voices were whispering now.
Suddenly, there were a chorus of voices all around him. They were asking so many questions, questions he didn’t know how to answer, didn’t want to answer.
“No,” he said. “The boy’s fine, he’ll get up.” Daniel’s father looked at his son, crumpled on the ground by the tree root, small and helpless as the day he was born. “Get up, boy. Dan. Daniel. Get up.”
“He will not get up,” the large tree at the center of the wood said. “He is dead. I cannot feel his heart beating in my roots, and I always could before.”
“What? No.” Daniel’s father was swatting at the air around his head now as if trying to clear away a persistent gnat. “Who’s talking? Where are you? Get up, Daniel. We need to go home.”
“You have killed him,” the tree said, and it was the loudest thing it had ever said. Its voice sounded like a saw through a log. “You have murdered your boy. You have murdered my friend.”
“Murderer,” the other voices began to say, and it became a chant. “Murderer, murderer, murderer.”
“No,” Daniel’s father said and clapped his hands to his ears. “No!”
He began to run blindly through the trees, through branches that stuck out into his path and he was sure they were being thrust there, jabbing him, scratching and poking him. The ground itself seemed to become softer, to give way beneath his footfalls and grab at his boots, pull at him, slow him, and all the time the whispered chant of “Murderer” followed him until he came to the edge of the wood where it bordered the road, and he stumbled out onto the pavement weeping and dizzy. The air out here was quiet and he curled up on the hot tarmac and convulsed with weeping until a car he didn’t see, and that didn’t see him, came and took his life.
Long after the dogs had been called off and the searchers left without ever finding Daniel’s body, a sapling grew near the base of the big, old tree at the center of the wood. The big, old tree would talk to the sapling. “Is it everything you wanted?” Said the tree.
“Well,” said the sapling, “I am small, and I am weak.”
“Yes,” said the big old tree. “This is true. It is the secret that nobody ever tells you about being a tree, that first you must be small and weak and frail and if you can survive this, you can survive anything. In that way, I think that being a tree is very much like being a man.”
Brandon Applegate is an American writer focusing on dark, weird, and fantasy fiction. When he isn’t writing he is working at his job at an Austin, Texas-based technology company. He lives in Hutto, Texas with his wife and two girls.
photo by John Reed (via unsplash)