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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Horror/Scary · #1696827
Lumberjacks beware- a new kind of giving tree.
The Environmentalist
Based on a tale by Steve Klein

      My Uncle Jim is dead; he died about a week ago up in my hometown of Cranberry, Maine. And I guess that’s the reason for me writing this, because I’m not usually a writer or even too good a storyteller. But Jim was always good for a yarn- a family memory (in our family, we pass down anecdotes like pocket watches), a tall tale, or a ghost story. His favorites to tell were the ghost stories.
      We would all go over there on Halloween, all us younger kids and sometimes the older ones too, if they didn’t have special plans with friends or toilet paper and their neighbors’ trees. Jim would be alone in the house until usually around one in the morning, because his partner Tom was on the force and he would be pretty busy with all the delinquent stuff people would report. Tom always made us candy apples before he left for his shift, though- he made the best candy apples I ever tasted. He never used those crappy caramel sheets you find in the stores now. Tom’s candy apples were covered in a mix of liquid caramel, chocolate sauce, and a little maple syrup, rolled in peanuts, M+Ms’, and candy corn. Now, I think it was a way for them to clear out some random dessert topping-items from their fridge and pantry, but at the time, we all thought it was a magic recipe. That was as far as Tom’s domesticity extended, though, that and the laundry. Uncle Jim was the homemaking one- he was a big environmentalist in his time, which is weird because you always hear about the police hating environmental activists, but he and Tom met when they were both just out of college and stayed together until Jim died. Jim wasn’t much of an activist, though- he did mostly desk jobs, with some community organizing, but he worked everywhere from Greenpeace to the EPA.
      Our favorite story that he would tell us, on those Halloween nights, was about one of those jobs. I can still go back to those times in my mind- we would sit in a half-circle, around the little white wood-burning stove in their living room, with Jim in the lazy boy armchair at one end of the half-circle, mostly in shadow, and us on the carpet. We would lick and gum our candy apples, still too frozen to bite, as the logs crackled in the fire. Jim’s house was warm and pretty well- lit, but the wind would whistle and wail, and the blackness outside the windows would make us feel like the night was an enemy army camped all around us. We couldn’t see beyond the house; anything could be happening out there where the light didn’t reach. In this frame of mind, we would sit quietly and listen to Uncle Jim’s story:

      Jim had always hated corporations, and told himself he’d rather starve than work for one. Tom never had any problem with that; it wasn’t like cops pulled six-figure salaries either. You didn’t do the jobs Jim and Tom did for the money. But all that changed when they began to think about adopting a baby. I’m not sure what made them think about it; they liked us kids fine but never seemed to want to be parents. Maybe they just wanted to give a needy kid a home. Anyway, they considered it for about a year. That’s when they realized they weren’t making enough money for an agency to consider them financially able to support a child. This is all stuff I learned later from Jim when I asked him; as kids we weren’t told any of this, and we didn’t really care. Kids usually don’t need a back story the same way adults do.
    But that’s why Jim took a job with the lumber company. He always said he couldn’t remember its name, and we never asked (we really suffered from a depressing lack of curiosity as kids). It was one of those big companies that cuts down trees on a huge scale, sometimes for the wood, sometimes just to clear the land. It sounds like a bizarre place for an environmentalist, but they hired Jim as an environmental consultant. Later I found out they wrote a press release on it and everything; it was a pretty big media deal, a real publicity stunt. Mostly, Jim did a lot of research, and occasionally went out with the company’s scientists to get data. He generally tried to minimize the company’s damage.
    About three months in, Jim was chosen for a pretty interesting- or so I think- field assignment. The company asked him to spend a month or two out at a new logging camp just outside California, close to the redwood and Sequoia forests you hear about. There were a lot of old, valuable trees out there, and so in addition to clearing the land for a factory farm, the company wanted to sell these trees’ wood to some furniture manufacturers. They were running into problems with some activists and the local government was having doubts about the demolition. Having Jim out there would make the company look better, and he might be able to talk the activists into backing off. Jim knew it would be best for his future with the company if he went, so with a heavy heart, he packed and set off for this camp.
      He had to take a plane, a train, and a company jeep to get out to that camp. He said it was plunked down in a clearing with the tall trees growing close together around it and towering above it. He hated every minute he spent there; he’d always been at home with nature, never been scared of anything in the natural world before. But that camp gave him a bad, cold feeling deep in his chest. He said he always expected it to be haunted, or preyed on by a serial killer, or whatever. He didn’t sleep well there unless he got to call Tom right before bed and talk to him for a little while.
    It was about a week into his stay at the camp when he first saw the tree. It towered above the other trees, not quite tall or thick enough to be a sequoia. He never knew what kind of tree it really was, although when he tried to classify it, he found that its leaves resembled strangely the shapes imprinted in some plant fossils archaeologists had just found in Israel or somewhere. Its bark was not red or brown so much as green, a dark mineral black-green that always reminded Jim of obsidian. There were no other trees like it in the area, that they had been able to find; Jim didn’t read about any others online.
    The company knew even less about this tree than Jim, but they were sure it would be valuable as furniture or woodwork for some rich person’s house. They wanted to take it down. Jim fought with them about it for a week; he called and emailed experts, put together dozens of reports, contacted as many higher-ups as he could, and nearly got himself fired by the end of it for raising his voice to the executive supervising the project. But the decision was the same at every level. The tree was coming down.
    Now, Jim didn’t like that tree, he was always clear about that. He admired it for its rarity and strange beauty, and as an environmentalist, he thought about climbing up and living in it a few times, like those other protesters who want to save trees. But personally, it gave him a dark feeling, the way that camp did. He never could explain it.
  On the day of its demolition, he was there, and he felt a mixture of emotions. There was grief, as a scientist and environmentalist, that such a rare, mysterious, and beautiful tree was going to be destroyed for corporate gain. But there was also a sense of relief, such as a vampire hunter might feel while staking Count Dracula.
    They started with the saws, and Jim decided not to watch. He was walking back to his cabin when there were yells from the men still gathered around. He ran back to see what was wrong.
    There was blood everywhere when he got to the scene. Two of the saws- and they were those long, two-person saws- had slipped, and somehow they’d hit most of the loggers or their saws. The tree had not even swayed, let alone fallen. Now two men were dead, one with his head mostly severed except for a few inches of flesh and some veins, and the other with a deep, jagged wound running up and down his torso, “like a teddy bear with a split seam”. (Jim always loved to dwell on these gory details, describing them until we begged him to stop, with the stove’s light illuminating his mischievous grin.) Their blood was on the saws, on the ground, and some got on some of the tree’s roots, the ones that stuck out of the dirt, and dried there.
    The next day, they decided to try bulldozing the tree over. They figured if they could dig deep enough beneath it, they could pry the roots loose, and none of the loggers would agree to another try with the saws. They said its trunk was too thick, and they could have been right. Again Jim went to the site, and watched as the bulldozer drove up to the tree.
    The next things happened almost too fast to see. The bulldozer dug its shovel into the dirt a foot or so from the tree, deeper and deeper, until the tree did sway slightly as the bulldozer began pushing back up. But then the shovel stopped with a scream of metal. There was another screech as the driver tried to raise the shovel more, even revving the engine and starting to pull the bulldozer into reverse. And suddenly, like a rubber band, Jim said, the bulldozer that had been pulling away from the tree, pushing up again slowly, snapped forward, hard. That tree must have been unusually hard, because the front end of the bulldozer smashed against it, before the entire thing fell over onto its left side. The tree still stood. But Jim found the driver still belted into his seat, still inside the bulldozer. The man’s head had cracked open on the side where he’d fallen against the earth, and blood flowed out, gushing at first, and then steadily trickling from inertia, pooling around his ear. In addition, the man’s face and body glittered in the morning sun “as if they’d been covered in diamonds”, from the tiny shards of broken windshield that had lodged in his torso, arms, neck, and face. Despite it all, the man was breathing shallowly when Jim and the others reached him. He died just as they finished hauling him from the wreck.
    The days wore on and everyone seemed irate about the tree. The men wanted it down badly, but had come to be almost superstitious about it. Not one of them said it, but they had decided it was cursed somehow. The higher-ups were upset about what they saw as the “incompetence” of the crew and administrators who couldn’t uproot a single tree.
    Jim thought about all this as he took walks in the evening. Inevitably these always led to or around that tree, and he would touch it, amazed at how smooth and weathered the green bark was. The night before the third attempt at demolition, he walked to the tree as usual. As he touched one of its roots, a spider- he always told us it was the size of a dessert plate, but I think it was smaller- that had been trying to spin a web in the crevice he’d inserted his hand into, bit him on the finger. Within a few hours, the bite had swollen up and was looking infected, and there was a small chance the spider had been venomous. He and another one of the consultants drove out twenty miles to the nearest town with a hospital to get it checked out. By the time they were finished, they decided to spend the night.
    They arrived back at the camp the next morning.
    It wasn’t until much later that they found out what had happened, when the company investigated the “accident,” as it was called. So Jim only knew what he saw, as he climbed slowly out of the truck to gaze at the camp.
Or what was left of it.
The final plan to uproot the tree- at the very end, the camp manager had spoken of it in hushed tones with his fellow administrators, with shaking hands and a steady light in his eyes, eerie as the forest- had been scheduled for that day. They had decided, because they were going to get that tree, because it was valuable and old and had killed their men, to use dynamite. They would blow it out of its dark bed of soil at the roots.
“To this day,” Jim would say, “They still aren’t sure how much the crew used.”
It had been enough.
Jim would get less enthusiastic as the story ended, and more mournful. Sometimes, it would be a few minutes before he would start to speak again, and we would see the black silhouettes of the naked skeleton trees out the window, swaying in the wind, branches contorting and snapping, against the dark blue velvet sky.
    And then Jim would start to talk again. He would tell us how when he drove into camp with his fellow environmental consultant, there was not a living man in the place. The buildings were reduced to rubble. No two bricks stood standing. The air smelled of explosives and blood. The sky was gray.

    The tree had come down at last. It had crushed the entire camp and everyone in it.
© Copyright 2010 Shulamith Bonderovsky (shulamith at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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