The Breathing Tree (ShoStoBloMo #9)
There is this area of the park where a weird tree grows. It sticks out of the ground like a nest of snakes. There is no trunk or leaves or flowers or anything – just bare tentacles reaching out, like they’re trying to grab your hat or pluck a crow from the sky.
I like to go down by the tree to draw pictures of it. Charcoal is perfect for trying to show the way the branches stab into the sky. You can make a charcoal gash across the page just like the branches cut through the clouds. And when I blow the charcoal dust across the page, it leaves the barest smear, just like the light haze of smoke that rolls through the park from the factory on Gilbraith Street.
I was sitting by the tree, slashing charcoal branches across my drawing pad, when I felt a hand on my shoulder. Startled, I turned and saw a figure standing behind me, dressed in filthy swim trunks and a tank top. He was streaked in mud, causing the white of his teeth to stand out like in those TV commercials for gum. I could tell he was old because of the way his face sagged even though he was smiling. The dirt and mud settled into his wrinkles so that it looked like he was an artist’s sketch of a crazy person.
I jumped up, of course, and stumbled backward, stepping in my art supplies and dropping my drawing pad. My back hit a branch of the tree and I felt the breath go out of me like it did when I fell flat on the ground after falling from the monkey bars when I was in the fourth grade. Gasping, I was too disoriented to fight off the man’s hand as he grabbed my arm and pulled me away from the tree.
“It lives on living, you know,” he said in a gravelly but cheerful voice. “It needs our breath to grow. I wouldn’t touch that part if I were you. That’s not very smart.”
As soon as my back wasn’t touching the branch, I could feel air in my lungs again. I coughed a few times before I managed to sputter, “Hey! Don’t touch me!” The man let go of my arm and took a step back. He never stopped smiling.
“I apologize for that, young man. It did, however, look as though you needed some help.” He brushed a few splotches of dirt from the front of his smeared tank top and then looked directly into my eyes. “I have seen you here before and always admired how you never touch the tree. Never touch, always watch.”
“I’m just leaving….” I mumbled as I bent down and quickly began gathering up my supplies. This guy was weird and scary and it was getting late. I was already half-running away from him as he spoke again. “Before you leave, young man, I would like to ask you a question.”
I looked briefly over my shoulder, but kept moving. I wasn’t go to stay in the park and talk to some crazy guy who looked like he’d just escaped a hole in the ground. No way. Don’t talk to strangers and all that.
“Simon!” he called after me. “Simon, I’m not going to hurt you!”
I bet that’s what all of the psycho killers say, I thought, as I walked through the black gate surrounding the park. When I got up enough courage to look behind me again, the man was gone. I ran the rest of the way home and when I got inside the house I slammed the door and locked it.
Mom looked up from her computer. “Why so slammy?” Her glasses were on top of her head pulling her hair back from her face. I like it when her hair is back from her face because I can see her eyes better. Even when she’s mad at me her eyes are always smiling.
“Some weird guy at the park,” I answered, dropping my art supplies on the table in the hallway and going to the kitchen for a drink. I didn’t want to tell her that he knew my name, because I was afraid that saying it out loud meant it really happened. I didn’t want to think about an old dirty scary dude in the park knowing my name or admitting to having watched me in the past. That was the kind of thing that happened in movies. Movies my mom wouldn’t let me watch, but that I watched anyway, and then wished I hadn’t.
I got my drink and sat at the table across from Mom. “What are you working on?”
“The city council is pressuring us to remove that old tree in the park.” She looked up at me. “The one you always draw. They say it’s dead and it’s an eyesore and it has to go.”
“It’s not dead,” I said, setting down my drink. “It’s growing a lot, actually. You can see from my drawings how much bigger it’s been getting lately.”
Mom shrugged. “I don’t think the council is going to allow your drawing as evidence of the continued life of an ugly tree, honey.”
“So you’re just going to let them kill a tree for no good reason?” I stared at her.
Mom sighed. “Simon. I don’t want them to kill anything. But that old tree scares people away from the park. Even the birds won’t go near it. You’re the only person in this whole town who gets anywhere close to it.”
“It’s a beautiful tree,” I said, standing up. “Everyone else is stupid.” I stormed off to my room, knowing that I had just lost the argument by invoking the “s-word.” A hated word by my mother, saying “stupid” in our house was akin to saying much, much worse in other people’s houses.
I laid on my bed, eyes closed, images of the tree flashing under my eyelids. Images of the creepy old man. Between that guy and the city council, I’d either be too afraid to go back to the tree or never have a chance to see it again. I rolled over on my side.
Why did I feel like I was suddenly losing a friend? It was just a weird old tree.
The next morning I awoke still wearing my clothes from the day before. I changed quickly and ran downstairs. No park bum was going to scare me away from my last few days to draw the tree. I grabbed my art supplies and was out the door before Mom even had a chance to offer me a glass of orange juice.
I made it to the tree just as the dingy morning fog was wearing off. There were still patches of the stuff clinging to the lower limbs, making the tree look just as creepy as that guy yesterday.
“Hello, Simon. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be seeing you again.”
I didn’t look up from my drawing. “What do you want?” I was trying to sound gruff, but it came out more strangled than I would have liked.
“I want to ask you a question. Is that OK?”
I didn’t answer, just put one shoulder up and then down. The man was behind me and I couldn’t see his expression, but I hoped he understood that I was ready bolt as soon as he did anything out of the ordinary.
“Listen, Simon. I know you love this tree, and I know its days appeared numbered. I want to know if you know anything about the history of this old beast.”
I put down my charcoal. “I don’t know anything about it. It’s been here my whole life. It was here my dad’s whole life, too. I’ve seen pictures from when he was a kid, with the big branches looming far in the distance.”
“I’d like to tell you more about the tree, if you’d like,” The old man said, and Simon could tell he was moving closer. “I’d like to take you to meet it.”
“What do you mean take me to mee——” before I could finish my sentence, the man’s hand was on my shoulder and the world had suddenly gone black. I hadn’t lost consciousness, though. I could feel things swirling around me. Grit, soft clots of earth, sprinkles of moisture, the smell of ozone and rain. My feet weren’t on solid ground anymore. I couldn’t tell if I was up or down. And then, the swirling stopped. I landed with a thump on a mound of moist dirt. I blinked a couple of times and rubbed the dirt and mud from my eyes. The man was in front of me holding out his hand to help me up. “Sorry about that. The first time is always a little tricky.”
I grabbed his hand and he heaved me to a standing position. Behind him was a stunning sight. A tree, probably twenty feet tall, with a massive trunk, and thousands upon thousands of glittering emerald leaves – was hanging upside down from the top of the cavern we were in.
In between the leaves were tiny green berries. I plucked one and smelled it. Wintergreen. “That is a breathing tree mint,” the old man said with a smile.
“A breathing treatment?” I laughed.
“Kind of,” the old man said with a nod. “Try it.”
I put the berry in my mouth and chewed. When I did, a burst of fresh air hit my lungs like I was breathing in an entire pine forest at the top of a crisply cold mountain. I gasped and the old man nodded. “It’s nice, isn’t it?”
“Where are we?” I asked, reaching my hand into the leaves again. “What is this place?”
“This place is one last hope, Simon. And we need your help.”