The Tree

The tree had died and there couldn’t be any doubt about it. It had hung in for a few years, sprouting a few green branches every summer, even though the rest of the tree stayed bare. But that spring even those last, surviving branches hadn’t come back. Now the tree was just a wooden skeleton standing in the front yard.

It was clearly time to cut the thing down, but Nathan had decided that tree-life ought to be taken as seriously as every other kind of life. So, we shouldn’t be so quick to give up on it.

Several years earlier Nathan’s mom had left. Disappeared. Her family tried to find her, but they couldn’t. The grandparents still had a private investigator out there, but he never seemed to find anything.

Nathan had only met his grandparents twice, and there weren’t any uncles or aunts. She had been an only child, and they weren’t a close family. And since no one could find his mom, I seemed like the best option. I didn’t really have any official position or anything, but I had been living with Nathan and his mom for a few months, and we got along really well. Nathan was always connecting to things in a weird way that I found excellent.

His grandparents had helped me a great deal. Officially, they were Nathan’s guardians, but he lived with me, and they came over for visits. He got to know them much better after Celine left than he ever had while she was around.

That said, they couldn’t understand why Nathan got so attached to things. They found his weird attachments just weird, not excellent.

I had liked his mom enough, but she wasn’t like a love of my life, or anything. I wondered if I was responsible for what had happened. Then I decided that that was just arrogant on my part. I thought that she had just wanted to be the love of somebody’s life, and I was just the latest guy to fail at that.

But, for the first couple of years, I’d tortured myself going between rage and sadness. And trying to figure out what the reason was for her disappearance. And I was torturing him too. I mean, I wasn’t doing it on purpose. I tried not to lay that on him. But I was miserable, and it made him even more miserable than he already was about his mom.

So simultaneously, we both stopped thinking about it. We weren’t exactly happy, but we both felt more content about it. Just write it off, I guess. Maybe not a very healthy thing to do, but neither of us seemed to have an answer, and it didn’t seem like we were ever going to get there. So, it seemed like just a waste of effort to try to understand. So, we stopped spending time on it.

Anyway, he had decided to focus on the tree. He had been urging it to grow for years, but after it had clearly died, he redoubled his efforts like a surgeon who pounds on a patient’s chest before he calls it. I watch too much TV.

He made sure that it had some water every day. He had even used some of his money to buy it those sticks of plant food, and he diligently planted them in a wide circle around the dead trunk. It didn’t do any good, of course, but I also knew it wouldn’t do any good to force him to let it go and accept that the tree had died. When he came around, he’d do it in his own time.

Even when he had accepted that the tree wasn’t coming back, he resisted the idea of cutting it down. To his mind, the tree ought to keep standing as a kind of memorial to itself. I explained that I didn’t think this was terribly kind, and that we should really let the tree lie down. That, clearly, was what it wanted to do, so it wasn’t fair for us to keep making it stand up.

Eventually, he agreed that I could cut it down, but he demanded that we also give it a funeral and bury it properly. Obviously, I couldn’t see my own face when that happened, but I imagine that it must have fallen. It was going to mean that I was going to have to do a great deal more work, which isn’t necessarily what I wanted. However, he’d given in on cutting the thing down, so I didn’t feel like I could argue about the funeral.

I went out and dug a pit to put the carcass of the tree in. Luckily, it had been standing out in the yard long enough to be nothing but a tangle of dead branches. It wasn’t like it was very bushy, nor was it terribly tall. It was just a collection of gnarled trunks wrapped around each other.

But the digging still took me most of a day. I came across a few big rocks, some bits of metal piping, and a big block of cement that had also been buried in the yard.

But luckily, there was also a kind of trench that someone had dug in years previous. So, I was able to just expand it and make it a little longer so the tree would fit in there. And I got Nathan to help me. Burying the tree was his idea after all, so it seemed only fair that he should help dig.

When I was done, it was the end of the day, and we went inside for the night. If he’d been a little older, I’d have grabbed Nathan a beer when I grabbed one for myself. He wasn’t though, and he wouldn’t have liked beer anyway. So, I gave him an iced tea instead.

The next day, we went back outside, and I started chopping the tree down. I didn’t have a chainsaw, but the tree was only about six inches thick, so I figured I could just use an ax to get the thing down.

It worked. It fell wrong, but I was able to jump out of the way in time. And again, it really wasn’t all that big, so even if it had landed on me, it wouldn’t really have done much damage.

Once it was down, Nathan and I had no problem dragging it into the pit we’d dug. And once it was in there, we started burying it back over again, shoveling scoops of dirt on top of it.

The pit we’d dug wasn’t really deep enough. Almost, but not quite. Most of the tree went in, no problem, but there was still one branch that stuck out. We talked about pulling the thing out so we could dig deeper. I really hoped that he wasn’t going to want us to do that. I really didn’t want to spend more of my time and energy shoveling.

But he wasn’t up for more work either. He sighed and then nodded grimly and said we should just let the one branch stick out. He wasn’t really happy about it, but he didn’t demand that we dig deeper. Which was a relief. I had been anticipating a whole new attempt at a task I had thought was already done. But unexpectedly, he let it go.

So, we buried what we could and left the last branch sticking up from the ground like a skeletal hand reaching toward the sky. If it had actually been a skeleton, it would have been both terrifying and cliché. But it wasn’t. Just a branch.

Once the thing was buried, we could relax a little. When I mowed the lawn, I was careful not to damage the branch, since I knew Nathan would be mad at me.

So that winter it was still pointing up at the sky. There was a half foot of snow on top of it, but that naked branch was still sticking out. And in the winter, it was even safer than it had been. No one went back there, so unless it got broken under the weight of a bird perching on it, it was going to be fine.

I came home from work one day, and Nathan was outside fooling with it. I couldn’t really tell what he was doing, but I didn’t want to ask, since he’d been sensitive about me being too nosy lately. Though I did go out and ask him if he wanted me to make him a hot chocolate. I was making myself a coffee, so I thought a hot chocolate might be welcome.

He said sure, and that he wouldn’t be long, so I could make one right away. It wouldn’t have time to sit and get cold before he claimed it.

He was right, and he came back in right away. I looked outside, and the branch had a hat on it. It was a felt top hat that we’d always put on the snowmen we’d built. He wasn’t much into building snowmen anymore, so the hat hadn’t been used much in the past few years.

But now it had found a new spot on the tip of the branch. We got more snow, and soon there were only a few inches of branch still showing between the hat and the snow.

Nathan told me that he’d always liked that hat and felt bad that it didn’t get to sit on a snowman anymore. And he liked that branch, because it was evidence that we’d buried the tree instead of just hauling it to the curb. So, it made sense to put the hat on the branch.

I wasn’t sure how exactly, but it did seem to make sense, so I just left it there. It was another one of his weird ideas that I liked. And in the spring, it was wet and kind of moldy, but I still left it there.

And there were new sprouts coming up from the old trunk. I’d never gotten around to having it pulled out, and once it was sending up new sprouts, Nathan predictably forbade me from cutting them. So, between the dead tree and the sprouts, I actually wound up with more tree in my yard than I’d had before. And even though I don’t usually buy that more is better, this seemed like it might be different.