Tuesday, December 3, 2013

O Christmas Tree: The Untold Story

The following is a short story I wrote after thinking about captive Christmas trees due to an email subject I misread. The subject was "Release the Christmas Stress," but I read it as "Release the Christmas Trees." The beginnings of a story swirled into being, and the following grew out of it. (Grew. Tree. Ha, ha. I am easily entertained.) It is rather sad, so if you don't like sad tales, skip this one. 

O Christmas Tree: The Untold Story

by Rebecca Blevins

The first Great Slaughter I remember, I was a little slow to figure out what was happening, even after all the preparations my parents had made. After all, the sap had thickened in my branches a great deal since I was quite small back then, and that always made me a little fuzzy. The air was my favorite kind—so cold my needles tingled, so clear I could see down into the valley where hundreds of us evergreens stood, growing straight and true, protected by the hills. The snow glittered shades of pink and orange as the sun hung low in the sky, bathing us all in the most enchanting scene. It would have been perfection, except for one thing—
The screaming.
“Just hold still, Sprout,” my Mama had said. "They likely won't notice us evergreens out here in the oaks, but you can't be too careful." There was some rumbling from the oaks, but it was too low to understand.
“Yes, listen to your Mama.” I loved hearing my Papa speak. The low vibrations of his voice rumbled into my roots and made me feel safe, protected. Both my parents had told me many times how fortunate we were to be here, safely tucked away on a quiet, oak-filled area of the hill, away from the humans. We didn’t know how we came to be here, but as I heard the laughing of human children in the distance, the sound of whining killing machines, and the sickening thuds of the trees falling, I was ever so thankful for our secluded spot. The only time we were ever exposed was this, the worst time, when all the leaves had been blown away in the icy breezes and snow gusts, and the people came with red and green scarves and strong shoulders to carry away those trees they had killed. Even though this was my first time seeing what was happening, Mama and Papa had prepared me as well as they could. 
“But, why do they do this?” I had asked for the umpteenth time. 
"You know as well as we do," Papa said. "The humans aren't very intelligent. They can't even understand what we say. We have tried for years, but they don't listen. There were some humans who came close, long ago. They lived among us in the forest, but they disappeared. Now, no one comes close to trying to understand us." Papa shook a cone off a branch in disgust. It hit an oak, who cursed at him. "Pardon," Papa said. 
"I know that, Papa. Tell me the story Mr. Bumblepaw told you." If they were telling me stories, I could halfway ignore the screaming trees in the open field. I knew they would. My parents indulged me in telling the same tales over and over again. Trees like tales. It's the only thing about us that travels well.
Papa motioned to Mama, who was the best storyteller. She began in a grave tone, “One day, long ago, we had a friend, Mr. Bumblepaw.—”
“He was a rabbit, right?” I asked.
Papa grumbled. “Don’t interrupt your mother. Yes, he was a rabbit—”
I broke in, “He was called Mr. Bumble—”
“—Because he had a paw that had been damaged by a thorn. You know this already, so hush,” Mama scolded and flicked a few of her needles at me.
The needles tickled, so I laughed, then said nothing. After a few moments, she started again. “One day, Mr. Bumblepaw came to us all excited. ‘You’ll never guess what I found out!'” Mama shook an annoying cardinal out of her branches and continued. “So, Mr. Bumblepaw said, 'I followed a group of humans as they dragged a poor spruce to their house, then set it up inside in a pot of water that kept it barely alive. Then they put spots of fire on it—that didn’t burn it up—then hung apples and other foods and things on it. Then, they sang a song worshipping the tree, calling it a Christmas Tree and praising its beautiful branches.'” Mama stopped, choking back sobs.
“That’s right,” Papa had said in disgust,“They cut down the tree, then stuck things all over its branches while keeping it barely alive, tortured it with fire (I recoiled in horror, as fire was one of the things we feared most next to humans), then called it beautiful! I don’t know what these humans find so appealing about cutting a tree and torture-worshipping it until it dies.” He rustled some of his huge blue-green needles as he always did when he was upset.
Mama let out a little wail. I wondered again why she consented to tell me the gruesome tale whenever I asked, since it upset her so much. But then again, we trees don’t have a lot of excitement day-to-day. The oaks love telling ghost stories when their sap runs fast in the spring, the scarier the better. They mellow out to tales of skunk and porcupine wars in the summer. I guess we’re not that much different, even if we do keep our needles while they lose their leaves. (The oaks brag a lot about their colors in the fall, but don’t talk much in the winter. I think it’s because they’re naked and embarrassed, but Mama won’t let me ask them. She says it’s not appropriate to discuss such things.)
I was as horrified as I always was when I heard Mr. Bumblepaw's story. “But the humans seem so happy!” I stared out at the field again, listening to joyful singing from the humans amid more screams—this time from a tree named Sway, who was only a few years older than I. The spring before, we had begun to call to each other and kind of became friends, since I was old enough to have my voice carry. I curled some of my shorter branches to my trunk, trying to muffle the sound. Now that Sway was being hacked down, I didn’t want to hear any more tales. It hadn’t quite seemed real until I heard screams from a tree I knew. Thick drops of sap leaked down my spindly trunk, and I tried to wipe them off, but only got my needles stuck together.
When I'd looked again, Sway had been tied up and was being dragged away.

That was several seasons past. Since then, no new tree has grown up to take Sway’s place. The humans planted new ones farther away from where we were, and that made me hope we would be more hidden as the years went by. Even though I heard the evergreens laughing and talking to each other during the warmer growing months, I had learned not to be jealous of their friendships—having no friends was better than dying. Each winter I held my breath and tried not to hear the screaming, hoping the humans would never find us. It seemed to work, until this year.
The snow glistened as beautifully as ever, and I concentrated on it, trying to block out the thudding sounds and dying trees.
Suddenly, Mama smacked one of my branches and hissed, “Sprout, Deform!” I bent a few of my limbs and listed my trunk to one side. I let go of some of the needles from a few branches my parents had chosen. We had practiced this many times before. Mama and Papa Deformed, too, and my heart sunk into my roots as the horror shot through me.
The worst had happened. 
My branches shook in terror, because the older my parents got, the harder it was for them to manipulate their branches. Neither of them could bend their trunks anymore, though they could still drop a few needles. I wished and wished as hard as I could that they would be able to Deform enough to keep them safe.
“Well, well!” A laughing man’s voice exclaimed. “Look at these! All hidden in the oaks—what a beautiful green they are!”
“Yes, yes! Those branches are so lovely!” a woman’s voice replied, all shiny. “The little one is too small—besides, it’s bent—but either of the other two would do nicely!”
In a few moments I saw what my taller parents had already seen. Humans. Two of them. The man stepped in front of me, over by Papa. He wore loud orange and red, and carried a stick of dead tree topped with a gleaming, silver weapon. “I think this larger one would be perfect. There are a few dead branches, but nothing a little surgery can’t fix.”
“Oh, wonderful!” The woman, with yellow hair and blue everywhere else, examined Papa. “Yes, I think the council will be thrilled! This will be the best lighting ceremony Castledale has ever seen!” She frowned. “I’ll need more lights, though.” She turned around and put a black thing to her ear. “Yes, Mr. Mayor. We’re going to have to increase the lighting budget by a little bit . . .” She walked away, deep in conversation, then turned to watch the man as she kept talking into her little box.
The man sharpened his silver weapon until the edge gleamed in the dimming light. Then he picked it up and marched over to my mother, staring at her. “Oh, Silvia! No!” Papa cried, shaking his branches. The man paused for a moment at the rustling and muttered, “Stupid wind.”
I watched in horror as the man swung at my mother! I heard a snicking sound, and she gasped as a branch tumbled free, landing in the powdery snow.
“What did you do that for?” The woman covered the talking device with her hand and stalked toward the man, glaring. “We could have used that one next year. Now you’ve ruined it!”
The man's face fell. “Oh. Sorry. I wanted to test the blade, and I thought that tree had too many dead branches to look nice. It had more bent ones than I'd first thought.” 
The woman rolled her eyes. "I still don't understand why you won't use a chainsaw. An ax is so archaic."
"You just don't understand the appeal of doing things the old way. If you want me to get the tree, let me do it how I want, or you can get a saw and do it yourself." He stood solid, eyes flashing.
 The woman sighed. "Fine." Then she turned her back on the man, talking again into her device. The man put all his sharpening supplies away. He stood by Papa, and I pled with all my might. Please, please, not Papa.
For a moment, the man turned away, and I thought my begging had been heard. I was about to rejoice when he held the weapon up and brought it around so fast it was a blur.
Papa shuddered and moaned.
Mama sobbed quietly. The man didn’t notice her quaking limbs.
My sap ran freely from my few knotholes, thick as it was. I felt numb, cold to my roots, and it wasn’t the good-feeling kind of cold. I wished I could save my father, I wished I could transport us all away, I wished the man would stop. I begged him, but he didn’t hear my pleading. The only sounds besides the grunts of the man swinging his flashing silver weapon were dull thuds punctuated by cracking, and the pungent scent of Papa's needles shaking loose.
 I don’t know how he kept quiet after that first moan. He had to be in agony. I felt his shaking through the ground clear to the tips of my needles. I think the only reason he didn't scream was so he wouldn't leave me and Mama with that as our last memory of him.
I couldn’t take it anymore. I pretended it was spring and we were in a beautiful rainstorm, the sound of rain on us, around us, glorious rain hammering the dirt into mud. Anything to stop the dull thuds vibrating my bark, resonating the sounds of my father’s murder into the deepest part of my soul.
The thudding ceased, and I felt a final crash on the ground. My mother sobbed silently next to me. “Oh, Oren,” she whispered over and over. I wanted to yell at her to stop. Saying Papa's name wouldn't do anything to help. After a few minutes of rest, the man began whistling. I looked at the spot where Papa lay, majestic and barely alive. The air was filled with the sweet scent of his sap, which dripped slowly off the end of his trunk and beaded in small circles on his stump.
The man left. Mama and I stared at Papa, when he whispered weakly, "I love both of you so much."
We whispered back our love as the shock set into Papa's trunk, and he grew quiet. Soon, the man came back with a machine, which he hooked my father up to. I said goodbye to my Papa as he bumped along in the snow, taking my soul with him while leaving broken needles and sap on the broken white trail. I looked away and saw Mama’s lopped-off branch lying beside her. “Mama, does it hurt?” I winced at the sight of the sap oozing on her white limb.
“Not much. It’s a clean cut and is already hardening over. No twisted bark, thank goodness." She sighed, resigned. "I have to say that I’m glad that branch is gone.” There was relief in her voice along with sadness, which puzzled me.
“Why? I don’t see how that could be anything good, Mama!” I stared out at the trail where Papa had gone, and at the sparkling lights in the distance where the humans lived. I felt empty, drained of sap and life. The glittering snow, so beautiful minutes ago, reminded me of the glistening silver edge the man used to cut down Papa.
Mama straightened out her branches as well as she could. “Well, if you heard the woman, now that the man took my branch off, they won’t come back to get me next year. Things will never be the same without your father--" She paused for a moment to regain her composure "--but this means I will never leave you here alone. We will be together here for years to come.” She reached out and stroked one of my little, spindly branches with one of her soft, silvery-green ones before holding it, gently. She spoke with sadness. “We will miss him. We always will. But this is the life of a tree, and it looks as if we will get to live a better one than most.” Soon the night was fully black, dotted with bright stars overhead. I heard Mama sniffle in her sleep now and then, and I cried silently for my Papa, who I would never see again.

As the dawn rose, illuminating the stump that used to be the foot of my father, I resolved to only think of his life, his bravery, his love for me. And a few nights later, as the distant sounds of a choir came from the town, the soft strains of gentle music filled the air. It had always been a great time of sadness, this funeral song spreading over the land, but this time my mother and I felt it to the very innermost ring of our cores. I don't know if we trees will ever understand why the humans insist on killing us in order to celebrate our lives, but I hope someday we will be able to communicate with them to tell them that what they do is not the way to honor us.
 Someday, I hope they become smart enough to understand.
My mother and I stood, branches touching, quiet as the blowing snow. Every tree fell silent and still as we bowed our branches and listened to the funeral hymn for my Papa and all the trees who were taken from us this Slaughtering Season. 

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree,
Your beauty green will teach me
That hope and love will ever be
The way to joy and peace for me.

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree,
Your beauty green will teach me.

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