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The Tree Who Held Back

by Kassandra Dick 6 months ago in short story
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A story of survival, beauty and disaster

The Tree Who Held Back
Photo by Matt Howard on Unsplash

The fire came without warning.

In one moment, Mother Tree was struck by lightning and in the next, her radiant needles were engulfed by flame.

Blue jay saw the strike. With a gasp, he flew above the trees, calling out in alarm. The other birds too sounded their cries and took to the sky. Chipmunks and squirrels darted away in all directions. And as soon as deer smelled the smoke they panicked and began a stampede.

When old cougar caught whiff, he snarled.

He cut off the nearest deer and said, “Tell your people to get to the river!”

The fire swept down the mountainside so swiftly, it was as if it were pursuing its own smoke. Many of the animals did not make it to the river.

None of the trees made it through the night.

By the time the creatures had forded the water and made their way to the surrounding valley, their home was unrecognizable. All the leaves and needles were ash in the air. The once colorful barks were blackened and scored with red coals, still burning.

It was difficult to witness what had become of their mountain, but they were mesmerized by the scene. The sky was dark with smoke clouds and it seemed the stars had fallen to the ground because all across the forest floor were licks of orange flame and embers.

The fire feasted on the remnants of the forest for two days. Then...there was a terrible storm. The animals stayed close together under whatever shelter they could find. They watched the startling bursts of smoke where rain collided with flame. They knew it was the best thing that could have happened, but still they shivered in the damp cold until the sky cleared and night poured darkness into the valley.

Since autumn was well upon the animals and they’d already had a dry and dismal summer, they could not waste time crying for their losses. Not even cougar would survive if the others didn’t find enough food before snowfall. The deer kicked up ash to reveal brown grass. The marten found morel mushrooms. The birds and squirrels brushed away debris with their wings and their tails to try and reach any unburnt seeds.

At one point, Magpie was perched in a dilapidated pine, paying his respects to Mother Tree. He was trying to piece together how this could have happened. Mother Tree had protected this forest for seven hundred years; why would a star strike her down like that? He felt angry at the sky people for this whole thing. As he was about to curse them, Magpie’s stomach rumbled. He looked around and saw that no one was watching, so he glided down to the foot of Mother Tree.

He felt ashamed rummaging around her deathbed looking for food, but there were too many other hungry animals to compete with. So, with his back on the once large lodge pole pine, he dug around with black feet. Soon, he grabbed hold of a pinecone and with a squawk of delight, he ravaged the little morsel. He dug around again and found another and another, eating them at once and thanking the tree for such a bounty.

By Lenstravelier on Unsplash

When Magpie was too full to fly, he decided to take one final pinecone. Just as he wrapped his foot around it to break it apart, he heard the pinecone yell, “Stop!”

Magpie had never had his meal talk back to him before. He dropped the little pinecone and flipped it over, looking for the mouse that must have called out. Instead, the pinecone said, “It’s me! I will not let you eat me.”

Stunned, Magpie asked, “wh-why not?”

“Because I am to be a great protector one day! I must stay here, where I was born.”

Magpie did not know if he could trust the little pinecone, who would clearly benefit if he decided to let it live. “How do I know you’re not trying to trick me?”

“If you live through this winter without starving, then you’ll know I was telling the truth.”

Magpie had to think about this for a while. He wasn’t really hungry anymore and there were still plenty of other pinecones besides this stubborn one. So after some deliberation, he said, “Okay, you have until the snow is melted, but if I should go hungry, I will come right back and eat you.”

“Thank you,” said the pine cone, “but you must bury me right where you found me so that I can fulfill my promise.”

Reluctantly, Magpie did as he was told. Then he flew away.

That winter was especially hard on the animals. It was sub-zero and there was so much snow that many deer and smaller animals starved or froze. Magpie however, did not go hungry. He regretted all the lives lost, but he helped himself to the carrion and indeed carried on. Soon, he forgot all about the stubborn little pinecone.

When spring came, the cone unthawed and stretched out under the muddy, sooty earth. A single seed took root, wrapping itself around the pinecone like an anchor. That seed began to grow as fast as he could towards the surface.

With his last breath, the pinecone said, “Ah, I was protecting this little one all along.”

By Matthew Smith on Unsplash

The seedling burst above the soil. He blinked in the sunlight. All around him, he could see other tiny green plants poking their heads out. He couldn’t help but notice that he was the tallest one around except for the ancient trees, black and dead. He remembered what the pinecone had said before it died and he felt certain he was meant to grow to great heights.

The spring became summer and then fall. Now the new tree was a foot tall and full of fluffy needles. To a passing bighorn, he looked mighty tasty. The sheep lowered his face to the sapling and opened his long mouth, ready to chomp. Suddenly the sprout yelped, “Stop!”

Bighorn was startled, he’d never heard a plant speak before.

“What’s wrong with you, little tree? Your job is to feed me so I can take care of my family.”

The sapling didn’t want to argue; helping the sheep stay alive was a very important task. Yet, he knew he had something serious to do, so he held his ground. “You must not eat me. I am growing here to become...a grand protector one day.”

“You’re lying,” said Bighorn, “you just want to grow bigger so I can’t eat you next year.”

“Your teeth are so powerful, even if you waited all winter and all summer and all winter again, you could still eat me.”

“Hmm… that is true.” And truthfully, there was a lot of grass to eat as well. The sheep did not feel like he could eat a plant that was so adamant about staying alive. “I’ll tell you this though.” And he loomed over the pine and whispered down to him, “I’ll remember where you live and though I will feel sorry, I’ll have to come back and eat you if I go hungry.”

“I will remember that you let me live and I’ll gladly sacrifice myself if it will save you.” The sapling swore his oath even as the sheep turned away and lost interest.

This winter was much milder than the last. Even in the deepest snow, the ground never froze completely. There were plenty of shrubs to strip of their leaves, and plenty of grasses to rip up too. No one in the bighorn’s family starved, not during that winter, nor the next. Although… his great uncle was eaten by wolves, but that wasn’t really the sapling’s fault. Bighorn forgot about the tree’s promise to him altogether. He had plenty to eat and his family grew strong.

So did the pine tree. In fact, for the next fifty years, the tree grew in peace. No one else tried to eat him and when it came time to bear cones, he gladly gave his fruits for the forest animals. When Woodpecker came knocking, Pine Tree did not protest. He looked out at his home and saw that thousands of other trees were growing with him, waving to him in the breeze. To this day, he was still the tallest and grandest tree.

By Jan Huber on Unsplash

Even the tiny lumberjack said so, as he climbed his way up the mountain towards the pine. He stood at the tree’s feet and caught his breath. To him, this magnificent pine was full of potential. It could become a totem pole...or a lamp post, part of a cabin, or an outhouse. Either way, he had to mark it for harvest. This tree was going to make his boss very happy. He shook up his spray can, but just as he was about to use it, the pine tree bellowed.

“Stop.”

The lumberjack was shocked. Never in his life had he heard a tree talk. Now here was one telling him not to cut it down.

“This can’t be happening,” said the lumberjack, feeling his head.

“It is,” answered the tree. “And you must listen to me. I should not be chopped down. I have to keep growing here so that I can become a great protector.”

“I don’t know,” said the lumberjack. He wasn’t accustomed to having trees tell him what to do. He was accustomed to having his boss tell him what to do. “If I don’t chop you down, Greg will be angry. He’ll fire me.”

The man’s words sparked a memory for the tree.

“Oh fire, yes. That can be so painful,” said the tree, letting the man lean on him as he thought about what to do next. “Fire once destroyed this entire forest, but look at us now. There are so many strong trees here, and I am the strongest of all. Surely if you cut me down, your boss would be happy, but what if you do not and he is still happy?”

The lumberjack looked out at the forest and saw that there were indeed scarred black trees from an ancient fire. He also saw many trees he could still mark and take away. When he turned his eyes upwards, he saw also a woodpecker returning to its nest high in the tree. And so he said, “I’ll make you a deal tree, if all goes well here for my crew, you will be left untouched. Here, I’ll even mark you as a habitat tree so that no one can cut you down.”

He pulled out several orange flags from his rucksack and pitched them in a circle around the tree. The tree thanked him. Then the man walked to the edge of the hill, before turning to wave goodbye. That was the last they spoke.

All around the pine,

for weeks on end,

the forest fell away to chainsaws and machinery.

The pine tree watched in horror as his neighbours, the ones he had always felt were smaller and more fragile than him, were cut down where they stood. Their limbs were sawed off and the air was rich with the smell of their blood. The ground was torn up as their remains were dragged away.

The dust settled.

And there was nothing for a long time.

The pine had made a mistake. Why had he not protected the trees, if he was so grand‽ Who would he protect now? There were only a few trees left, each with their pathetic little flags, their little islands of safety. It took months for the animals to return, but they were weary from the noise and destruction.

Winters came and went and the pine felt shrunken and old. Springs brought wild flowers and summers brought berries, but nothing could bring back the dead. Nothing could bring back the dead trees that he’d sacrificed to save himself. The tree longed to look out at the way things once were. A hundred years passed by and though sparse, spindly saplings did begin to grow, nothing could lift the pine’s spirits.

That is until the fox in the burrow had kits.

By Federico Di Dio photography on Unsplash

must have been spring because the rain was unstoppable. The air was damp and cold, and the sky was black with clouds at night, and grey by day by day. Under the skeleton of an ancient pine, there was a narrow hole just wide enough for a pregnant fox to slip into. An hour later, through the pounding of water onto earth, the tree heard small voices cry out for the very first time.

The tinny noise was like a little hammer breaking through Pine’s hardened bark. He felt their tiny yips nipping at his heart. The mother returned every few hours, sopping wet and skinny. Whether she herself had eaten, the tree could never tell, but she always fed her kits because they would quiet down while she was home.

In that silence, the tree felt peace once more. The sight of orange fur through green leaves gave him hope once more. But the onslaught of rain and the sweeping of mud down the mountain reminded him of the perilous path each creature must walk.

It took a great crack and a terrible rumble to shake the tree from his contemplation. Above the forest where the river began, came an awful gush of muck and rock. The weeks of rain had finally torn apart ageless mountain. The pine felt the shattering landslide long before it was upon him.

The animals who lived that far above the treeline were running for their lives. The barrage overtook one mountain goat and another deer. Pine looked down at the foxhole but did not see the mother looking up at him. She must have been away because the kits were crying in terror. Even in their den, they could feel the earth moving towards them. The tree felt helpless but to dig his roots deep into the ground, holding strong to the long dead roots of his mother.

When the massive wall of mud and debris finally pressed upon him, the tree was not certain he could prevail. He felt at any moment his grasp would give and he would become a death trap for the very animals he sought to protect. He braced himself against the maelstrom, felt every rock that gnashed its teeth across his back. He clenched his fists even though the winds whipped at his branches and tore his needles away. He closed his eyes as a boulder smashed into his side and stayed there, becoming a blockade against the nonstop flood.

He could still hear the high pitched terror, but at least he knew the kits were still alive. It was all he could do not to give an inch to the current, though he now leaned dangerously towards the den. Somehow through the eternity of uncertainty, the infinite bombardment, the pine tree understood his purpose and his cause. Here he stood, though he may die standing,

The tree who held back a mountain.

short story

About the author

Kassandra Dick

@fingerpainting.with.greymatter

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