The Clearing Tree

My father was a writer and I was his only son. He and I lived in a cabin a little way from the village, up a dirt track that became impassable at the first sight of snow. We stocked up on supplies every autumn, because otherwise we’d spend the whole winter carrying food from the store to the house on foot.

We lived in a small, perfectly formed cabin in a clearing just past the conifer ridge. My grandfather had taken his time over the house, which was warm and dry and built only from timber that he had personally inspected. It was set into a meticulously-crafted circular area of flat ground, surrounded by the forest. There was something deeply pleasing about the symmetry of the land, at least until a few years back, when a new tree sprouted suddenly from dormant roots into the midst of the clearing.

At first, we left it. It was small, and so was I. I sat against it in the hot summer and decorated it at Christmas. After three years, it began to shed pine cones that would tumble across our round dirt garden in the wind. Sometimes I would sweep them up, but mostly I would gather them into pyramids and towers till they formed whole streets of monuments across the soil. I could lie on my stomach and squint up at them as if I lived in a city on an alien world.

The tree grew up faster than me. At the age of ten, when I was 150cm tall, it was already twice my height. When I turned twelve, it was over 4 metres tall, and at the age of fourteen, my father told me to chop it down.

“It’s too close to the house,” he said. “It’ll be a danger soon.”

He was right, but I rebelled. All summer I defended it, etching my name into the side of the trunk and climbing it at every opportunity, especially when I was wanted for chores. Autumn came and I spent hours hurling its pine cones at tin cans, pretending I had a gun.

The winter of my fifteenth birthday was bitter. Ice winds gushed down the mountains and sluiced through the thin woods towards our cabin. At night you could hear the trees creaking arthritically in the cold. One tree in particular.

“It’s my tree,” I insisted. “I’m not killing it.”

That evening we sat by the hearth, our wooden chairs pulled in as close to the heat as we dared. I wrapped myself in a downy blanket and held tight to my mug of tea.

“I’ve been thinking,” my father said. He was always thinking. “I’ve got a story for you. You want to hear it?”

I nodded without looking at him, my head cocked and staring at the slim reeds of fire blowing in the grate.

Once there were three brothers who lived together in a house on the prairie. Outside their house were three trees. When they grew up, their mother said to them: “Sons, each of these trees is for one of you, and you may do with your tree what you wish.”

The eldest son was called Jack. He chose his tree first, and it was the tallest and most impressive of the three. He uprooted it and turned it into a boat. He sailed off across the great lake and returned years later to embrace his mother in his huge arms. “On the other side of the lake, I found more trees,” he said. “I started a logging company and now I live with my family in a huge mansion that I built myself.”

The second son was called Duke. He picked the sturdiest tree, the one with a thick trunk and wide branches. He chopped his tree down and began to whittle away. In a few weeks, he had created a beautiful statue in the shape of an eagle. He loaded his sculpture onto the back of his truck and drove to the city. Years later, he returned to kiss his mother on the forehead. “In the city, I found art galleries,” he said. “I became a famous sculptor and now I live with my wife in a luxury apartment that overlooks the sea.”

The third son was called Kane. The tree that was left for him was the smallest and skinniest tree. He left it to grow for a while, and a while longer, and soon whiles turned into years. He moved on with his life, but years later, he returned to see his mother in her old age. “Your tree’s still there,” she said to him softly. “What are you going to do with it?” He had been thinking about this for many years now. “I still don’t know,” he said. “I guess I’m going to keep thinking.”

The tree was very old now. The day after Kane returned, a huge gust of wind swept through the state and knocked it to the ground. It fell on the house, flattening it and killing both him and his mother. As he lay crushed beneath the rubble, just one thought ran through his mind. “Wow,” he muttered. “I sure wish I’d cut that tree down.”

A long silence followed the end of my father’s story. I stared at the flames, trying not to laugh.

“Subtle,” I said at last.

The next day, I took an axe and I chopped down my tree. I wore wool gloves but still my hands stung with the cold. Snow lay all around and I could look back towards the house and see my footprints treading an uncertain line behind me. When the tree finally fell, the snow muffled its landing. It settled gently in the clearing as if resting on a bed of marshmallow, the type I was never allowed to buy from the store.

I resolved to let it lie for a day before I took it apart for firewood.

That night, I found a piece of paper lying on my bed, laced with my father’s pecked handwriting. It was the story he had told me the day before, but with the final paragraph omitted and a single detail added.

Thanks to his tree, Kane became a writer.

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