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The Lumberjack and the Owl

by Rui Alves 24 days ago in fiction

A dark tale of the white tree of howls

Photo by Comfreak on Pixabay

Part I — Blood on Snow

The guillotine windows of the old family house were open. My eyes looked beyond the flower beds to the horizon. There was something else. Something had taken root there, nourishing itself from the ancient humus, something black as coal. Black and fertile as a grave.

Something metallic, translucent, unearthly, though organic and coiled to the ground. Perhaps it was a tree or, at least, the dreadful shadow of what was once a tree.

The tree trunk, split in half, rose as if drawn by an overwhelming urge to return to the nurturing humus from which it sprung; without losing a yearning call for the plenitude of heaven like Christ on the cross.

The thin branches were like deadly stilettos buzzing as the hallucinating strings of a demonic cello. At home, on Saint Barbara’s nights, we would cuddle around the fireplace, amid the warm crackle of the pine cones and hear the tale of that stormy night when a bolt of fleeting lightning had split the trunk of the old chestnut tree in two.

The whispering voice babbling about how the chestnut tree’s slow, agonizing crackle lingered throughout the night, a hoarse howl overlapping the whip of rain battering the windows.

The following morning, before the sun had risen, the pink fingers of dawn were still numb, and a thick fog enshrouded the valley. Grandfather gazed astounded at the garden.

A dreary scenario awaited him, nonetheless stunning in its tragic beauty. All the flowers disintegrated, volatilized — a translucent film of ash covered the soil with a black and oily0 mortal shroud. In the center, the chestnut tree resembled a ghostly shaped letter Y.

There was an intense aroma of death and burnt sap. Through the crevices of the bark, faint rolls of smoke still spiraled, reminiscent of the tongues of fire that slowly sipped all vital matter inside.

Dismayed, grandfather watched the passion and ordeal of the tree his father planted. His childhood friend was agonizing in front of him.

For days on end, the tree was in agony, and over time it became more and more like a cocoon. It was then just a black, misshapen figure. More than once, grandfather had grabbed the ax feeling sorry for the tree, just lying there like a wounded animal, waiting for the misericorde blade.

Meanwhile, winter came, and grandfather had commissioned a lumberjack to fulfill the grim task. The man came, ax to his shoulder, an impressive figure, big shoulders, and strong arms, where veins thick as steel cables pulsed.

The lumberjack held the ax with both hands and sent it flying through the air to an overlapping point in the sky, finally delivering a dry blow to that withered cocoon. The bark gave way, and the insides snorted like a geyser — a new swing of the ax and harshest impacts.

With another crisp blow, the whole tree cracked like an eggshell. As the cocoon shattered, a new tree emerged from all the soot. Like a dark chrysalid transformed into a white butterfly!

The astonished lumberjack would never strike another blow; swiftly, a razor-sharp white branch whipped across the air and the arm that held the ax, lying inert on the ground.

The man fell and rolled over, leaving behind a bloody trail in the snow. His screams still echoing through the air while the warm blood carved purple ridges like stains of red wine into the ice, soaking the hard, dried soil, sopping into the roots of the white tree, siphoning the nurturing sap from those mortal veins.

Days later, with the lumberjack still convalescing in one of the white and rusty beds in the sanatorium, the house had woken up to a stunning setting full of grotesque charms.

After a nocturnal snowfall, the garden was pale as a maidens bust ravaged by consumption. A sweet aroma entered through the windows. It smelled like spring and flowers. Like flowers and funerals.

The galvanized tree had blossomed as everyone slept. It had no leaves, yet it was covered by red clusters of large, fleshy, odorous flowers.

Eventually, the lumberjack left the sanatorium and returned home, where his wife and children were waiting. He was a strong man in the prime of life; thus, he survived the gruesome tragedy.

The lumberjack went back home, but he was no longer the same man. He had become a human rag. Something about him had forever changed.

He sat and waited on the porch for hours. His empty eyes were always fixed on the old tree stump where his ax laid useless.

The blade still embedded in the wood was decaying into crimson rust. The handle resembled a worm-eaten branch of an old tree. The woodworms were gnawing at him from inside—time hacking at him from the outside.

When passing by the stump, he would feel a tingling pain. Reaching for the knob of the handle with imaginary fingers, he could grasp no more.

No, it wasn’t an arm that laid chewed by worms in the sanatorium ditch. It was all his livelihood.

One morning, the rosy fingers of dawn touched the lumberjack face as he hanged by the neck. A scent of freshly cut lilies evolved around it. His face peaceful, as if he had died a long time ago.

Shortly afterward, the lumberjack’s wife and their children left the village. Grandfather bought the family house out of pity and guilt.

Part II — Love on grass

Spring came pouring down the mountains. After weeks of harsh weather, I was finally allowed to go out and play. An there I went, jumping from puddle to puddle. My thoughts wandering, I found myself far away from home.

Suddenly, I stopped. There, across the road, that’s where the lumberjack lived.

I wasn’t scared. The frail wooden gate was open, inviting me to go in.

As I walked towards the hovel, something unusual caught my eye. Nearby, still embedded in the stump, the lumberjack’s ax had gained roots, leaves, flowers—myriads of tiny, blood, and snow colored buds.

The ax handle carved from the trunk of a massive chestnut tree had covered itself with pain. Nature had taken its course. In front of me, the ax, a mix of metal and dead wood, came to life.

When the lumberjack lashed at the tree, his gesture, both creative and destructive, awoke the secret life lying hidden inside. At that moment, he also signed his death sentence.

Now, life had flourished again.

I remember cutting with tender and humble devotion one of those flowers — A gift to my mother! I thought, leaving and closing the gate behind me.

The same puddles of water and dreams guided me home.

It was a beautiful sunny day! Lying on the grass, I could hear the ants’ weariness and the recital of the cicadas and crickets.

A motherly shadow sheltered me from the sun. I felt embraced as I laid on that soft floor, shrouded in the gloom of the white tree canopy. But it disheartened me to see her always alone. Neither a flower nor a weed grew next to her.

Even birds were afraid of it!

Then, I saw a barn owl, each feather sparkling like the blade of a dagger. A white bird with a dark soul and inquisitive features. One of those dreary tenants of old barns and graveyards a hunter and opportunistic scavenger.

He flew through the meadows. Searching, with morbid excitement, for something below. Swiftly he plunged and came back, holding a small rodent.

Searching for a place to have his meal, he perched on top of a branch of the white tree. Reckless and defiant, the owl mocked with crisp barks of gluttony.

Swiftly, a skeletal branch flickered. The owl had overlooked that movement while focusing on the anatomy of the rodent. Suddenly, struck with surgical precision on both legs. Droplets of blood drizzled on the grass.

The owl fluttered in shock and flew away, to never perch again.

Meanwhile, Spring was spawning everywhere. Two sparrows in love were hopping through the grass. Their love was young, with moving displays of affection. But so much youth and inexperience cost dearly.

Distracted by the idylls of courtship, they neglected all mundane affairs. It was late, everyone else had nested, and they had nothing. It was urgent to find a nesting place as soon as possible.

Flying over the surroundings, they saw a large oak that seemed inviting with its green mane. They flew in and disappeared. Afterward, a racket followed by a chaotic flight. The tree was crowded, and the neighbors were cranky old hags.

Further away, the cherry tree looked pleasant. But a blackbirds couple had already claimed it.

Nightfall was about, and spending it outdoors seemed like the young couple’s cruel fate. They were chased away from all the trees in the vicinity.

Well, not all. The sparrows overlooked the tree right in the center of the garden. That one was unoccupied. Who would call that abomination a home?

No way, not there! But the wings were heavy, and the light was already leaving the world. They packed their little hearts with courage and flew to the white tree. If they would meet death there, at least they would die together.

Humble and still trembling, they landed on the treetop. One by one, placing and nestling the modest twigs they had brought as luggage. Silent and static, the tree seemed to disregard the sparrows. But, a sudden movement. I feared the worst.

I closed my eyes, terrified, and waited for the worst, biting my lips. When I opened them again, the entwined tree branches formed an extended canopy. There the sparrows could finally nest.

Night fell following the spasms of the sunset. I left them asleep on the canopy, each with their heads under the other’s wing, sharing common dreams. Tenderly cuddled up by the white giant.

The days passed, nights too, and on a sunny morning. They woke me up, eagerly chirping. I got up and peeked outside, there they were, three pink heads with open beaks shouting: — Breakfast! It was my mother calling me downstairs.

Afterward, I went out into the garden. The white tree was in bloom.

fiction
Rui Alves
Rui Alves
Read next: I See You
Rui Alves

I write to find the surrogate writer in me.

Rui is a graduate of the University of Porto, teacher, and life-coach.

He is also a partner of Rock n’Heavy and the founder of ZENite.

See all posts by Rui Alves

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