Timber

http://www.thetortoisetable.org.uk/common/files/catalogue/55/large/falseacacia%20_lr_nov092.jpgI held still.

The forest all around me soughed with the gentle breeze and I closed my eyes and listened to the symphony of oaks and maples and larch and locust and poplar. Each leaf gave an individual sound, the wind breaking through the different shapes and sizes and positions. I understood the complexities of playing a clarinet or bassoon suddenly even though I’d never picked up a musical instrument in my life.

Tools I understand. I’m a Builder. That’s why I was in the forest.

*

“You have to do this for me,” my brother said. He lay in a hospital bed dying of colon cancer. He was too young for this and younger than me. Life isn’t fair. “You have to.” His voice was not even a fourth what it had been when he was strong. Now it was reedy, full of too much air and almost hollow.

He held on to my hand with a strength he’d always had but never showed.

“I will, Ollie. I promise.” I hated this. I was crying and I didn’t want my little brother to see me crying. Our sister would have torn me up for showing emotion like that. Susan was a bitch but I loved her and Ollie more than almost anything. My own family were the only ones above them. I sniffed and stopped trying to hold back the tears.

“I can’t go until you do, Jamie.” Ollie always had a penchant for gravitas and that’s what made him good at what he did. He could write copy like no one else and he had that shelf of awards to prove it.

“I’ll go out there first thing in the morning,” I said. I sniffed again.

Ollie nodded and let go of my hand. The drugs finally took him and let him rest.

*

Out in the hall I stopped to hug Ollie’s wife. We both cried and held tight to each other. In another world, I might have won her affection if I hadn’t met Marta around the same time. Charlene chose Ollie, picked him from all her suitors and made sure he knew just how much she loved him. Being a former Miss Texas USA, she attracted all sorts of men – and women – just by being in a room.

“What does he want you to do?” She hadn’t put on any makeup and her face was blotchy from crying.

“A small thing,” I said. I looked at the floor. “Tomorrow morning.”

“Oh god.” Charlene wiped her eyes with the heel of her hand. “Jesus.”

I took a step back. “He’s sleeping now.”

“You haven’t told me.”

“What?” I shuffled to my left half a step.

The glare she shot me withered away any resolve I might have had. Still, she didn’t need to know everything. I sighed.

“There’s a tree out on our parents’ property. He wants me to use it in the house.”

Her face melted from stern reproach to confusion. “I don’t understand.”

“You don’t really have to, Char,” I said. “This is what he wants me to do for him.”

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “No, you’re not going to finish the house, are you? Really? Because I’m not moving into it.”

“It’s paid for.” I put my hands in my pockets and kicked at the hospital floor. Immaculate, I couldn’t even scuff it with my boot. “It’s what he wanted. Wants. This is him, Charlene.”

Charlene narrowed her eyes and tightened her lips. “Are you sure, Jamie?” She held the glare for almost a minute and I had learned to not say anything in these sorts of situations.

Eventually she broke the glare and her face fell, her shoulders slumped. “It’s not fair.”

She started crying again.

*

I let my breath out, long and slow in time with the soughing trees. I tried to match the notes but they were on a scale I didn’t know. Still, my best would have to be good enough.

It had been before.

*

“This one,” Ollie said, still a little of the teenager in his voice. “This is the wishing tree.”

“That’s a black locust,” I said, my arms crossed and my impatience showing.

“How old do you think it is?”

Home from college, we both had decided to take a walk on the outskirts of the parental homestead and smoke some dope. Ollie got some really good California indica from god knows who but he always shared with me. I was home for another week before I started my new job in Oregon and he was in between his sophomore and junior years. We were already halfway through the second joint.

“I dunno… Pretty old. Maybe a hundred or so.” I held the smoke as long as I could then let it go.

“Cool,” Ollie said. He took off his shirt and pulled out a Swiss Army knife.

I coughed and laughed. “What the hell, Ollie?”

My brother shaved off a five inch by five inch portion of the tree’s bark. The skin underneath was smooth and yellowish. When he turned back to me, I barely recognized him. “Charlene Parson.”

“What about her?” I squinted.

“You went out with her,” Ollie said. “Did you do anything?”

“What do you mean? We had dinner. Is that a big deal?”

“You went back to her place!” Ollie came undone and threw the knife at me. I ducked to the side but he missed by a good four or five feet. “Did you fuck her?!”

“No! Jesus Christ, no! We drank some wine and made out was all. What’s the deal with you?”

He relaxed a little, seemed to come back into himself. Ollie looked around for his shirt and walked over to pick it up. Through the haze of my buzz I watched my brother wander around in a circle three or four times wadding his shirt into a tight ball and shaking it loose again. He talked a mile a minute but nothing made sense. It was almost like a chant though I didn’t understand the words.

“What are you doing?” I took a step toward him and Ollie held a hand out to stop me while he completed his circuit and chanted the words that weren’t quite words I knew.

When he was done I noticed his shirt was dripping with blood.

“Ollie,” I said, “you’re bleeding.”

He ignored me and went to the tree and unwrapped the shirt. His hand was definitely covered in blood and he recited some more words with a singsong that sounded Middle Eastern to me. On the bare wood of the tree, he drew a cross and then a cartoon heart. He put his initials on the left and CP on the right.

“Do you see this?” His voice was calm but he didn’t look at me.

“Yeah,” I said. Completely brilliant in the face of my brother’s madness.

“This is my wish,” Ollie said. “This is what I want more than anything and this tree has the power to grant me this wish but you’re my witness so I need you to finish it off when the time comes. Do you understand?”

“Not a fucking thing,” I said. “We need to get you to a hospital, brother. You’ve lost a lot of blood there.”

Ollie looked down. “That’s part of it, my blood on its roots and my wish on its wood. That’s how it’s going to happen.” When he turned to me, he was smiling weakly.

“You don’t look so good,” I said. “Come on.”

“You have to promise,” Ollie said, his voice rose with urgency. “You have to promise!”

“I promise to do what needs to be done when the time comes,” I said but I didn’t mean it. At least back then I didn’t think I meant it.

“All right,” Ollie said. “Good. Thass gooddd. I’m feeled a lil wibblee.” His eyes rolled up white and Ollie fainted.

*

I dropped my coat on the ground and hefted the axe. This was the right tree. It had to be. There was a healed up spot about five by five a foot or so over my head. Almost thirty years since Ollie drew his heart in blood on the tree so that was about right. If this was a wishing tree, it had at least made one wish come true. I hoped I lived long enough to find out if the second half worked.

“Hello,” I said to the tree. “I was here with my brother Oliver when he drew his heart onto you. He’s asked me to do this, I hope you don’t mind.”

*

So Ollie and Charlene got married when he finished college and they had a life together. Twenty-seven years is a good long run. Once, about ten years into the marriage, Charlene had come to see me with a bottle of wine. I knew I shouldn’t have but I was lonely. Marta had been home exactly three days in the last sixty and wasn’t coming home for another two weeks. Charlene knew and I let her take advantage of the situation. Don’t get me wrong, I participated wholeheartedly, and we definitely enjoyed ourselves. But we never spoke of it again. It was the implied question she wanted answered in the hospital.

I love Marta. I never cheated on her again. I had opportunities – more than my share – but I didn’t. After that second night with Charlene I never felt good about lying to my brother and my wife. And Charlene, too.

Anyway, they had a happy life. No kids, but a happy life. Neither one wanted kids but they both doted on mine and Marta’s. Jake and Lexy both spent summers with Uncle Ollie and Aunt Charlene while Marta had her career and I became a Builder of Great Houses.

He never reminded me of my promise until he lay on his deathbed, though. I thought it was something crazy he did to give himself the courage to chase after Miss Texas USA but what if it wasn’t? What if he was dead serious about all of it?

That’s why I was chopping down a hundred year-old locust tree with only an axe. Because I didn’t want to take that chance and I owed it to my brother to carry out his dying wish. I stopped every so often to drink some water but otherwise I chopped and chopped and chopped with that axe until my forearms were numb and my shoulders ached. I hadn’t worked this hard in a long, long time.

When the tree fell it crashed through its neighbors like it was trying to be careful, like it was sorry it was hurting them.

Everything was silent.

I turned and drank the last of my water, picked up my coat and made my way back to the car.

*

Ollie was dead.

When I got to the hospital, Charlene sat in the room holding his cold hand.  “About an hour ago,” she said.

I nodded. That’s about when the tree finally fell. I had my confirmation that this was, aside from being fantastic and beyond belief, as real as anything else. Ollie’d made a wish on a tree and he’d gotten everything he told me he’d asked for.

I sat on the other side of the bed and looked down on my dead brother. “I’ll finish it, Ollie. I promise.”

Charlene growled at me, here eyes closed. “The hell you will. I’m canceling the contract. I’ll never live in that house. It was too big for us, anyway. You’ll find a buyer.”

Now wasn’t the time to argue with her. I’d finish the house.

*

Three months after we buried Ollie, I persuaded Charlene to come out and at least tour the finished house. It didn’t take much, but she made me work to get her into the truck.

“It’s impressive,” she said as we came up the long drive.

She didn’t say anything else until we got inside. Our footsteps echoed through the halls, the kitchen, up the stairs. I gave her the details, the kinds of wood we used, the care that had been taken with everything in the house. I didn’t tell her that the house would serve as a kind of way station for travelers from other – well, she didn’t need to know any of that and I really should be writing any of this down. Except I can’t help myself. Maybe I owed it to Ollie.

I took her to the upstairs study, the one Ollie expressly instructed me to frame with the boards I cut from his locust, his wishing tree. The shelves remained empty but the desk was one Ollie had picked out. The only chair was behind the desk. I pulled it out and held it for her to sit.

“No thank you,” she said.

“Please,” I said. “You’ll want to be sitting down for this.”

“What?”

Charlene’s suspicion was a sharp thing that stopped its point at the top of my heart. If Ollie hadn’t made his damned wish, I might have pursued her… but that was long ago. And there’s really no use pretending I’m honorable. My debt to Ollie was tainted. I had to do what I could to carry it through. I nodded at the chair. “Please.”

She sat and I walked back to the door, closed it and stood in front of it. “It’ll only take a minute.”

Now she was frustrated but resigned to whatever it was I had brought her here for.

The light didn’t pop in, it didn’t make a sound. It was just there, hanging on some unseen breeze, a will o’ the wisp. It lengthened into the shape of a man and came to the floor. It didn’t touch the carpet.

Charlene, dazed, put her hands on the desk and nearly came up out of her chair. “Oh Jesus…”

Ollie turned toward me and smiled. “Thanks, Jamie. You did good.” His voice was even, calm. It contained all the sounds of the forest and yet was still his. I shrugged and gave him a thin smile. My brother looked happier than he did on his wedding day. Charlene fell back in the chair and covered her mouth but not the tears rushing down her cheeks.

I held still until he turned back to his wife.

Then I left them alone in their house.

Jason Arnett is a storyteller living in Kansas and writing in the plains of the fantastic. Some of his work can be found at www.jasonarnett.com

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