Monday, November 5, 2012

The Sycamore Tree

First published by The Rusty Nail
Autumn had come again, faster than ever, and the old man knew it could not be put off any longer. The great Sycamore that had seeded itself unbeknownst to him, over twenty years before, had now greedily taken most of the light from his garden. It had to go.

He had become fond of late, of sitting out in the low autumn sun. The pleasure it gave him to feel the warming sun was physical. The memories of happy summers past, were his spiritual bread and butter. The glow of a benevolent sun, on a young man's work stretched back. The caress of a strength giving sun, when his love laid her burning hair, on his bared chest. They had once lain together, in the summer's purple meadow, in this very garden.  And so he welcomed the happy memories that the warming sun returned to his mind and body. If he didn’t move, he could feel no aches and pains. The uninvited tree blighted this warmth, and caused him to move his chair repeatedly, in search of of the little patches of sunlight, that managed to make their way through. It had to go, - when he still had the strength. The decision was made.

Under the stairs he found the old bow-saw that had not seen the light of day for many years. The blade was rusted. In the old man's memory he could see the glint of sunlight on steel. He remembered the sweet tune it once made, as hot steel sang its way, through the soft flesh of woods, wafting the scent of timber across the garden.

He went down through the long grass, picking his way carefully. He lived alone now, and could not afford an injury, no matter how slight. The tree waited for him, impassive and unafraid. He looked up at its great canopy of drying and dying leaves, spotted with Tar Spot fungus. Once again, he felt revulsion that it had dared blight his garden with its presence. In the space of only twenty years it had grown to over fifty feet tall, and he judged that had he wanted to embrace it, his arms would not be able to encircle its girth. The old man knew that sycamore left to dry in his wet county, became weak and rotten, rather than hard and dry. Its timber was no good for the fire. In ancient times it had served to make kitchen utensils; its flesh was said to be sweet and clear, but he was no wood carver, so he would kill it, only because he hated the cold shade, it now spread over his shrinking world. 

Still fit for his age, the old man leaned on his saw for a while, and sized up what had now become his adversary. In his mind he drew lines down from the uppermost branches, down to the main trunk. Lines that he knew gravity worked through; lines that would dictate where the tree would fall. These were lines and judgements you took your time with. A rushed or careless assessment, could bring the tree down where you stood, or worse still, it could be; the newly felled tree getting support from a neighbour tree.  In this case, no one would be able to predict where or when it would finally fall. That could be lethal. He examined the nearby trees carefully, and saw that if he were to drop it down hill he would be clear. The added bonus, he observed with satisfaction, was that the trees uphill were straight and had few lateral branches. These would afford him a refuge and some protection if his victim fell the wrong way.

The afternoon winds stirred the drying leaves, and he felt a tinge of sadness at the  apparent indifference of the tree. A tree never takes into account the actions of man. It stands resolutely against winds and seasons, prepares itself for frosts and snows and drought. There was no planning for the hatchet and the biting blade, and this tree would fall like all the others before it. It would fall out of the necessity of a man, and not of its own volition.

The old man straightened up and stepped forward, his eye fixed on where the first cut would go. It would be the belly cut. The cut that sloped upwards on the away side of the tree. The cut that would lead the tree, to where he had chosen it would fall. He wanted it to fall along the boundary where it could lie until he was ready, and not across into his neighbour’s garden where it might do damage.

After the first scoring of the bark, he put his two hands to the saw, and with each pass, a spray of timber confetti fell to the ground. Eventually he removed a wedge, not as deep he would have liked, as he was beginning to realise, it was not only the blade, but he himself, that had grown blunted, and rusty with age. Oh well, he conceded, a fairly good start had been made.

At first he slept well that night, but through his dreaming, ran a definite concern that he could not leave the tree, now that he had started, and a suspicion that the task was going to weigh more heavily, than he had originally estimated. He prayed that if there was a storm, it might be blown down, but only if it acme in the night, when nobody was around, and no one could be hurt, or even killed. There was a great weight in a falling tree, and even the less heavy branches, could inflict serious injury. 

Then he thought of the young fellow, next door. The special child. There was no point in telling him to stay away. He never heeded the old man, when he was shooed out of the garden; he just kept coming back.  How do you explain danger to one who is always inquisitive, but can never learn?  In his sleep, the old man tossed and turned under the weight of what he had started, and would now have to finish.

He should have left it. Or paid someone to come in, and do the job with a chainsaw. But he hadn’t waited. He had started. Still confident in the memory of the strength that was once his; he had fooled himself into thinking, that it would be an easily completed task. When he was younger, maybe an hour or two's work. Now he knew, that after the effort of the belly cut the night before, his muscles had lost much of their ability to hold onto oxygen, and they could not work for long stretches, without rest.  Was it his lungs, or maybe even his heart, that was at fault? He didn’t know.

The morning was already tired when he left his bed, and the old man resolutely restarted, what he hoped would not be another full day’s work. All great jobs can be broken down into simple steps, as much from necessity as belief.  This was the thought he most often comforted himself with, and he knew that if a man sets his mind to anything he can do it, - no matter how small the man. A grain of sand removed, is the beginning of the end of a beach. Even the stones of the great pyramids had to be put in place one by one.

With such thoughts he kept his mind occupied, as the drudgery of the task he had started began to wear him down. He steeled his mind against the pain in his muscles, and the weakness that he had so recently begun to recognise in his body. He worked slowly and methodically, with thought and guile on his side. There was as much time as he needed, and sometimes, even more than he wanted, he thought wryly to himself, and with that realisation, he found some added energy to continue. And so he continued throughout the day, feeling for where the blade might bite more easily, and trying to find easier ways to drag the aged steel, against the ever pressing weight of the tree.  The evening sun, saw the old man still struggling, and when it got too dark to work, he eventually gave up, and slunk back to his home under cover of darkness. 

It was the third day. The morning sun dragged itself slowly at first, over the hill to the east of the house, and though he had lain for hours, awaiting its arrival, when it did come, he fell into a deep and fitful sleep. Across his chest, and down into his arms, it hurt all night, and whenever he had to turn in the bed, an involuntary cry of pain had escaped from his tortured body. One night’s sleep, would not cure this, he knew. But he had worked through pain before, and it was not new to him. All his life had been a celebration of hard, physical jobs, well done, and pain was just another sign of effort, and deserving of respect. This new pain felt different, however. It was in his joints. They all ached, and the old man realised, that this must be what they called ‘growing old’. His age was against him.

He ate his breakfast slowly, taking the time to build his mind, as much as his body, for this new resumption, of the task he was locked into. The tree was finite. It was made of normal material, something that grew. Organic. He knew that he too was organic, but he also had mind, and mind was not so easily measured. He made his way to where the tree waited, still impassive, but the thought that it was organic and destructible, gave him little relief. 

He placed the blade carefully in the gaping white mouth, that was the sum of his work so far, and summoning up the strength of his youth, from memory, he started to saw once more. Stroke after stroke, despite his will, was slowed and held tighter by the willful tree. He could not work, for more than two or three passes, before withdrawing, and going to sit on the chair he had placed, just uphill of where he worked. Again and again, he returned. The intervals between the work, and the rest, became longer, until even he began to doubt his own ability, to outlive this tree.  In a daze he worked and rested, rested and worked, filling his mind with thoughts of how men felled great trees with stone axes, so they might have heat and shelter; how small men were sometimes dwarfed by great tasks that they nevertheless managed to complete. Then he thought of his forefathers, and how they had made fields where there was bare stone; raising walls to both shelter and aid their efforts. He retreated once more, to where his tribal and spiritual memories lay, always ready to come to his aid when all else failed. He turned to the will that allows a man to perform drudgery, while still holding the gossamer thin threads of his imagination.

Now it was too late for turning back. With every pass of the blade the tree had to be weaker, and with weakness came danger. He worried about turning his back on it, even for a moment. In his youth he had heard the stories of trees that had killed, as an answer to their tormenters. He eyed again the twisted heavy lower branch, that grew away from the main trunk before straightening up to the sky. This was the heaviest of the lower limbs, and now he could see that it might force the trunk to twist on its foot, when it was released, and throw the entire weight  uphill, against him, instead of where he had originally thought it might fall. The old man did not know how heavy a tree might be, but he knew it must be measured in tons, and dead weight was heavier than live. He shuddered in fear at the thought of this tree weighing down on him, and realised that his end could be quick, or slow, depending on the embrace. 

Just then there was a deep throated echoing wrench from within the tree and he knew that something had given way. Automatically, he stepped back in fear. Nothing more happened. There was silence. The wind still rustled the drying leaves, and the top most branches still swayed gently. There seemed to be no movement from the main trunk. The old man stepped forward and rested his hand on the warm bark feeling for the slightest hint of a movement. There was none. It was as still, and as unyielding, as stone.  But unlike stone, under the palm of his hand he knew he could still feel a life. He did not understand why it was still standing, and so, he began to suspect, that it was now choosing its own time and place. He anxiously examined the tree once more, prodding around the gaping wound. He angrily pushed himself away from its trunk in frustration. It ignored him.  He leaned forward, once more, still prepared to get away quickly, and placed his ear to the warm and dry trunk. He could hear nothing. And still he knew something had definitely torn inside that tree.

Then he remembered his dream from the night before. He had dreamt that at the heart of every tree there were strings, that made the music; the music that all trees make when they sing in the wind. This revelation had made him sad, he remembered now, but he had quickly forgotten about it when he had awakened to the pain of another day’s work. Now he realised, what the sound had been; he had cut into one of these heart strings. The tree would no longer be able to sing. He was sad that he had done this. He had spoilt such beauty, and for what? A whimsical wish for more light in his garden. He was ashamed.

In spite of this shame, or because of it, the old man now felt renewed energy, and attacked the tree once more, with the passion of a small child ,kicking out with all his futile energy. He was sorry, but the injury had already been done. He realised, that only in the felling of this tree, could all his half completed actions be redeemed. He did not sleep well that night.

On the final day, the old man rose early. He was frustrated and angry, and in pain. He wrested himself from the bed with a cry of anguish, cradling his swollen wrists, and pained joints, to his chest. He hobbled from the bed, to the window at the back of the house, hoping against all hopes, that the tree itself might have lain down in the middle of the night.

The grass was covered in hoar frost. The sun had not reached it yet. The tops of the trees were receiving the first heat of the early sun, and the dried leaves that had been frozen in place, overnight, were now falling silently and relentlessly. It was like a snow fall, there were so many leaves, but it was not pretty, as a snow fall can be ,when viewed from the warmth and safety of your home. This was a laying down of death, and a deep winter sleep.  The old man stood, holding his aches and pains close to him, and he felt a shawl of sadness fall seductively about his shoulders. The tree still stood amongst its peers, and it too was shedding its leaf. The old man shook his head in frustration, for now he knew he had lost an ally. With the canopy gone, the effect of the wind would be greatly diminished. 

He went downstairs stiffly, and made himself a cup of tea. He took three paracetamol. The packet said two, but he needed three. This day would have to be the last he thought. It would be the last, for one, or the other of them. He had spent too much time with this tree, and shared too much. It had seen him at his finest, and at his worst. He had probably shared more with this cantankerous, useless, weed of a tree, over the past three days,  than he had shared with any of his fellow man in recent years. Silently, he finished his tea, and gathered up his tools, from where they had been dropped the night before. Then he went out again to face his adversary. 

The leaves fell steathily as he approached, and the whispering pass of their fall,  filled the frosted silence. The tree waited, and the old man first examined it with a mixture of disgust and envy. All it had done was stand as it always had, and he thought of how his own efforts, had been reduced to a bundle of painful nerve endings, and a mind that was close to tears. He placed the saw once more in the gaping mouth, and tried to cut his way inwards, to where he might still find taut fibres waiting to be cut. Again the tree pressed down on his blade, and most of his effort was spent, in simply drawing it through, and pushing it back, through the narrow space.

His neighbours, best dressed, passed on their way to mass, for it was Sunday. The shook their heads, when they saw the old man and what he was doing, but none interfered for he was well known for his stubbornness. 

The morning wore on, and the leaves continued to fall, as the frost was burnt off. Then he noticed the drops of liquid. More and more, were appearing on the bared white flesh, above the main cut. The tree was losing moisture. He knew then that he would triumph in the end, as the more moisture the tree lost, the weaker it would be. 

He reached out his index finger to catch one of the drops, and put it reverently to his lips, and when he tasted of it, he found that it was sweet. The old man drew strength from its sweetness, and came back hungrily for more. He smiled as he realised his strength had begun to grow again, and now he sawed cleverly, first on one side, and then on the other, searching out for the remaining heart strings. He remembered, that the Sycamore was related to the Maple, and he wondered if Maple syrup came the same way.

Both his hands were now swollen and bloody, as the blade had gone to its depth, and his knuckles constantly hit against the scarred rim of the widening cut. He ignored the pain. Suddenly there was aloud crack! He jumped away, from where he was braced against the ditch. He waited. All was quiet. The leaves continued their autumn settling, but everything else around him had changed in that single instant. He rushed to pick up, the discarded head of the hatchet that had broken on him, and wedged it into the gap, on his side of the tree. Then with a stone, that he pulled from the ditch, he pounded on the steel wedge, to drive it as deep as possible. 

There was another loud crack, and then a third, and a fourth. He stepped away, from where he had worked for so many hours and waited, out of respect for what he knew would now inevitably follow.

Silently, the tree finally lay down, and the old man's spirit soared from the weight it lifted from his soul. He saw that it had fallen exactly where he had planned, and he was happy until the tears came,  and then he cried because his tears were  bitter and salty, like all men's tears, and because he could still remember the sweetness he had tasted just hours before. 

©Niall OConnor


  1. Welcome back. I enjoyed this very much in a sad sort of way, though I'm not sure if it's more for the tree or the man. I look forward to the next.

  2. PC Vandall

    excellent story. I love that he kept cutting despite knowing better. The ending is bitter sweet. I enjoyed this.

  3. Angela Cox

    That was just beautiful Niall. So atmospheric and captivating. Thanks :)

  4. Eithne Reynolds

    Great story Niall really enjoyed it

  5. Mahasty Eslahy

    It was wonderful Niall! Autumn's story with all its unique features in a unique expression!

  6. An Outstanding tale, Niall. I have felled my share of trees. Only when I've had to, and it's never been much fun. And the bigger the tree, the greater the worry of how it will fall and the regret that comes of felling a forest giant.

    In my own defence I state that I have planted many many thousands of trees. Doing something to repay the debt owed. A great story, so very well told. Thanks for sharing.


  7. brian.e.triplett 11/09 03:27 PM
    It reminds me of Tolkien's "Leaf by Niggle".

  8. I've just read this again in 'The Rusty Nail' I like the slight pruning. It is still a delight!


Comments are welcome . . .