It was a very old tree and no one who saw it really knew how old. The only way to tell would be to cut it down. It had weathered storm after storm, drought after drought and decade after decade of abuse by the climate and the people coming and going, claiming to own it. It grew wide, with its roots going deep and its branches reaching high. It had hundreds of generations of bird’s nests. Some rotted to dust while others were still green and providing a home for a bundle of robin’s eggs. Surrounding it were several foundations of homes that had come and gone. Families had thrived under its leaves; swings had been hung from its branches; and the tides of time had sifted all those wooden boxes away until only outlines of their concrete bases remained.
The tree stood on a plot of land way out on the plains. Corn was harvested near by, but none of the cornfields were as old as it was. Its bark was a deep, crimson-brown. It was thick and calloused, from years and years of being worn away and re-growing like a scab covering the entire trunk. The branches were thick and sturdy. Some were brittle, but the younger ones were pliable and swayed in the wind. All the branches, whether young or old, bending or breaking, flowed through and through with the sweet sap that fed every leaf. The sap pumped slowly, very slowly through the tree like blood in the veins of a grandfather. The arteries ran straight to the center of the massive trunk, where the solid liquid seeped from and filled the whole tree like honey might fill a sponge. The leaves were broad, like shields carved by some savage tribe from a distant land. They were gleaming and elegant, as if crafted by a glass-smith. They looked as though they had been melted from the very sand that surrounded the tree in the summer. They glistened with dew in the morning and their deep, dark green gave them the appearance of something other than a leaf. With the lighter green veins crisscrossing through them, each leaf looked like a window through which one could peer into the green night sky. The dewdrops appeared as stars, tossed like breadcrumbs into dark ocean water. These windows to a green sky numbered in the hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands in the springtime. The tree knew all of this and lived accordingly.
A new man arrived one day. He surveyed the land, walked in circles, shuffling his feet and kicking up dust around the old foundations, the headstones of ancient homes. His hair was brown and slick, like an old-time banker or lawyer. His hands were rough like a farmer’s, and his eyes were hard, like those of a thief. Perhaps he was all of these. His common clothes were unusually clean, but for his boots, covered in mud, a thing not native to this arid landscape. He was obviously from somewhere else. All the other tenants on the tree’s plot had certainly been farmers and nothing but. They had been men with broken backs and sunburned necks; men who loved their wives and spanked their children; men who never got hay fever. But this man was without an origin, without roots. He was a sapling, though he may have been fifty. He was planted on poor soil. His branches had grown strong enough, but his leaves provided no shelter and his sap ran too quickly.
After glaring in all directions with his hand over his forehead to shield the sun from his burning eyes, he turned to the tree. Walking sturdily in the direction of this monolith, his stride was unswerving, like Hercules approaching the hydra. His intent dripped with the sweat from his muscular arms, a confrontation. He glared at the tree indignantly, and after a moment, chuckled and returned to his car. He drove away looking over his shoulder at the tree, not the land or the view of the sky, but the tree. The tree stared right back; peacefully bearing witness to the breeze that had rustled its branches for a hundred years.
The man returned a month later with trucks and dozers and crewmen and nails. He brought lumber and fiberglass and porcelain tubs. He sawed, hammered and groaned into the nights, while the tree had no trouble sleeping. The birds in its nests had already left. Winter was on its way and the breeze was cooling. The man with the banker’s hair and the burning eyes returned everyday to build a house. It was a house, not a home.
There were no playrooms, or dinning room tables intended for more than one person. He brought an enormous bed but only one pillow. He built a bathroom with a seven-foot-wide mirror, but only one toothbrush, one closet, one easy chair and no couches in the living room. He built a fireplace and mantle with no room for pictures. His porch had a solitary rocking chair and his entryway was scuffed only by size nine shoeprints. He built a shed that could almost be called a barn. He painted no flowers and planted no gardens. He brought all of his food from some far away town. He had only cash and I.D. in his wallet and his checkbook was always on his desk. While he moved in, he never produced a dog to sniff around the trunk of the tree, or even a cat to claw its way up into the branches. He settled in and laid down a lawn. After hours of work in his yard, which he had bought, he showered and dressed himself in a very fine suit. His Mercedes was always waiting for him in the shed and he drove it away on weekends. He never brought anyone back with him until one day when Dernhart came.
Dernhart had no eyes, or ears, or even a mouth. But he had teeth–one hundred and twenty teeth on a chain, sharpened and ready for cutting. Dernhart promised to cut through almost anything. His father was a lumberjack from the mountains. Dernhart had thousands of brothers screaming their way through forests all over the country. He was built strong, like a rock, with no branches or leaves or sap. Dernhart had nothing in common with this land except the man with the burning eyes. Perhaps the man would have bought another pillow if not for the fact that Dernhart never slept. He stayed awake every night, sitting silently in the shed, staring without eyes though the window into the night sky and into the branches of the solitary tree. Though he had no eyes, his glare penetrated like a harpoon. His dead, cold, lifeless stare accompanied the chill of winter on the tree’s trunk. The frost could never get past the thick bark. Even with the leaves gone and shriveled into the wind, the pillar of wood stood naked and dignified. All the while, Dernhart stared. But the tree had no trouble sleeping.
Several nights passed before the man went to the shed again. It was eight in the morning and frost was still on the windows. With a half-crumpled piece of paper in his hand and a pencil behind his ear, the man shifted in his coat and swung open the door of the barn. Stepping past his Mercedes he looked at the tree. His eyes burned bright today. He disappeared into the dark of Dernhart’s lair and after sounds of shuffling feet and clearing a throat, he emerged with the sleepless devil himself. The man then retrieved a can of gasoline and Dernhart drank it in like alcohol. With a putter and a whiz, the thing came to life! Suddenly he had eyes and a voice to speak curses and cries. His screams resounded like a demon agonizing over his damnation. With every flick of the man’s finger they became more intense. Dernhart was alive and hungry.
The two approached the tree steadily. Stopping at the base, the man tilted his head and Dernhart tilted his. They calculated and conspired against the behemoth. For a minute, which seemed like days, they looked and thought. Finally, with a careful stroke of the man’s strong arm wrapped in a wool sleeve, the monster’s row of teeth bit into the trunk of the tree. Grinding and snapping echoed against the house and the morning air. The two groaned against the thick bark. Deeper and deeper their groans grew more and more labored, until finally with a sharp pang and a squeal, Dernhart gagged, choked and died. Cracked from top to bottom, the little beast’s yellow body sizzled and stank like smoke. The man stepped back and cursed. He lifted his gaze to the face of the tree and said,
“Very well. From the roots then–You’ll come up from the roots.” With a proud gate he walked back to the house and threw his half-crumpled piece of paper onto the ground. It unfolded to reveal diagrams and measurements ensuring that a particular falling tree would not hit his wooden box.
A few days later a flatbed truck came from a distance with a bulldozer on the back. After an hour of measuring and arguing with the driver, who insisted that the tree was too big, the man finally conceded and sent him away angrily. The next day a larger truck came, with a larger dozer. Its driver had been with the crew of builders and had seen the tree before. After two hours of measuring and somewhat more civilized arguing, he also drove away, not wanting to waste the man’s time or risk his dozer. After two more dozers had come and gone on flatbed trucks, the man’s eyes burned bright and angry. His lights stayed on all night and his pencil never stopped scratching. But the tree had no trouble sleeping.
Several months passed and spring came bringing the birds and the leaves. Every day grew warmer and wetter. Finally it became temperate enough for the man to come out and polish his Mercedes. As he stood admiring his car, the shaking of the leaves caught his ear and he turned to the tree. There was no forgetfulness there in his face. He was waiting for an opportune time. His eyes wanted the sun to be hidden so he could work long and hard against the current of a cool breeze.
The next day the sky was dark with clouds. One could hardly tell it was morning when the sun rose in secret, behind a very dark, very gray curtain. Lightning flashed and wind howled in the distance. Rain roared as it drew nearer. The leaves whispered about the coming storm and the birds joked about it. If they could have, the birds probably would not have told the man about the storm that was headed his way. Perhaps the leaves would have told him. Perhaps they would have told him about how the wind swirls on the plains and the clouds reach down with their fingers to write things in the dirt. Perhaps he would not have listened. But either way, neither the storm nor the man could be stopped. He came out of the shed this day with a plain handsaw and a ladder. Clapping the ladder against the trunk he climbed up into the neighborhood of the birds. Wings and chirps came from everywhere as he perched himself on the thickest branch. His hard day’s work began with a snort.
Sawing and sawing, the man’s muscular arms made little progress in actually cutting the branch, which supported him. The wind whistled through the tree and his breathing quickened. Periodically he would rest his back against the trunk and take a deep breath and start again. Rain began to patter on the wide leaves that surrounded him. Little fell on his shoulders because the canopy was so thick. He grunted and sawed and cleared his throat as the rain and wind began to roar. From his perch inside the tree, he couldn’t see the clouds toying with the skyline. They swirled and dipped and groaned. They crackled with thunder as the tree watched patiently. All the while, the man grew more frustrated and frantic, still making little progress to cut this branch he was sitting on. The tree watched as the fingers of the clouds dipped and doodled on the plains all around. Straight up in the sky, they formed something like a whirlpool. The man coughed as the wind suddenly screamed through the leaves. The neighborhood of birds exploded from every branch as they took flight to the west. A flurry of soft feathers and hard air knocked the man off balance. Suddenly realizing his situation, he grabbed hold of the branch he had been cutting and dropped his saw. He watched in disbelief as it was swept away before it hit the ground. Hugging the thick arm of the tree, his burning eyes watched the ladder beneath him as it was also yanked into the sky.
Snapping and crunching sounds came from his house across his lawn. The roofing was being removed piece by piece. The same began to happen to his shed. Windows shattered and planks of wood splintered. The tree kept more leaves than the house could hold onto, but the more that were torn away with the shingles, the more the man could see the swirling finger descend on the highway less than a mile away. The black beast moved quickly toward them, plucking fence posts from the ground and sending them spiraling into oblivion. It sounded like a lion roaring, like a baby crying, like a choir of monks singing a dirge. It sounded like the voices of a thousand Dernharts coming alive, screaming and hungry.
The man felt his fingers being pried from the tree. He felt the fire in his eyes growing cold from the fear running icy through his veins. He grappled with other branches, being pummeled by shear wind. Finally, losing his grip he was swept forward against a tangle of branches and leaves. With a crunch and pain so intense he felt as if he could taste it, his legs were broken and his fiery eyes were flooded with tears. He was pressed harder and harder into this cage. With cries of despair and utter anguish he watched the wind and rain strip his house bare and flick away the wooden beams. The torrent sprayed glass into raindrops and launched his Mercedes into the growling haze. The rain felt like needles against his skin and he imagined the shrapnel of his beautiful mansion to be inside his shattered shins, cutting and sawing and biting him, bleeding him of his sap.
His branches were broken. His leaves were gone. He hung naked in the wind, shameful and ragged. Sobbing, he reached his wavering hand toward the new tombstone where his building had been. He bled and wept and pounded his fist against the bark, which had been softened by the rain. The clouds remained and after a long time, they eased the movement of their fingers. The wind grew warmer and the rain fell lightly. The man was exhausted and helpless. All his work had been blown into the wind and his clean clothes had become nothing but rags. His bed with one pillow, bathroom with one tooth brush, mantle with no pictures, and porch with one chair; they were all gone. The only thing that remained was the tree. Solemn and sturdy, it stood with him in its arms. Like a father with his child it cradled him as he cried. His eyes grew dimmer and dimmer and soon he had no tears left to shed, no strength left to grieve. He hung there, alive. He had no will left to die. He had no trouble sleeping, but the tree stayed awake all night.