Owen glared out the cottage window. “There’s nothin’ to do,” he said. “Never is.”
A beetle walked across the sill and he squashed it to feel its tiny exoskeleton crinkle flat. He held up his thumb to examine the iridescent shell in the sunlight. Beyond his thumb he caught sight of a woodchuck peeking out of its burrow in the orchard.
He hurried outdoors and cut across his mother’s garden, leaving a trail of bruised petals and broken stems. He filled a pitcher with water and rushed to the mound. The woodchuck saw him coming and ducked back into its hole.
Owen poured water into the burrow and kicked dirt over the opening. A smirk unhinged his mouth. “You’re a goner.”
A gray squirrel perched on a nearby wooden fence chittered at him.
Owen looked up. “You again!” He’d tried thumping the squirrel’s head on several with rocks, but the quick critter had escaped every time. He hurled the empty pitcher, but the squirrel dodged it and ran up a Chestnut oak.
Owen stared at the mighty oak and anger blossomed in his heart. It was tall. And big. He wished that he was tall and big. But no amount of wishing could change that.
There was one thing that he COULD do. He could bring the tree down to his size.
Owen fetched an ax from his father’s shed. He planted his feet and started swinging. He hacked and hacked at the oak’s trunk. Bark splintered and his ax bit deeper, sinking its one sharp tooth into the tree. Somewhere high up in its leafy branches, the squirrel chittered frantically.
Owen stood back to wipe sweat from his forehead and admire his work. The trunk was almost severed. The nipped wood shone in the sun, exposed for the first time. The tree leaned and then groaned from somewhere deep inside. The squirrel shrieked.
The boy heaved the ax overhead and sunk it once more into the wound. The tree shuddered. He pushed his shoulder against the trunk. There was a final snap and the tree twisted and fell, right across Owen’s legs.
But Owen didn’t die.
He woke in bed feeling feverish. At first, he didn’t know why he was there. Slowly, behind the cotton fluff and fog in his mind, a picture appeared: a tree falling on top of him. A wiggle of panic shot through his body.
And his legs. His legs ached something awful!
The worried faces of his mother, father, and the local doctor hovered at his bedside. The room was stuffy and smelled of hard working Kentucky farmers. Beyond his parent’s shoulders he could see them gathered to pay a call.
Pathetic, he thought, smirking at the men’s dirty overalls and the women’s worn house dresses. Won’t catch me dead in this town once I’m grown.
Owen’s mother leaned in and whispered, choking with tears, “You’re going to be okay, Son. Everything’s going to be okay. Henry did a fine thing for you – ” Her face was pinched and red from crying.
His father finished for her. “Dr. Shoals saved your life, Son,” he tried to explain. “But, it was Henry who gave you back your legs.”
The doctor nodded to an old man to come forward. “This is Henry; he’s a wood carver.” The old man hobbled to the bedside.
Henry spit tobacco juice out the corner of his mouth, lifted his cap and slapped it back down on his bald pate.
Owen let the word ‘carver’ sink in, hoping it would settle into something else. When no one else spoke up, he flung off the bed sheets.
At the bottom of his knees were two gleaming wooden legs. His shins were smooth and dark. Whirls of wood grain tattooed his calves, gleaming in the light. Each leg was held in place with a hinged leather harness at the knee so it could bend. There were even two finely carved feet, complete with engraved toenails. His ankles were hinged too.
Henry bent down and whispered into Owen’s ear, “Made ‘em of oak, boy. Chestnut. Tree that took ‘em, is tree that’s gave ‘em back.” He stood and winked, spitting out another mouthful of tobacco juice.
Owen’s insides squeezed up his throat. He vomited on the rose embroidered quilt, which his mother had sewn when he was a baby.
Weeks went by and Owen wouldn’t leave his bed. Sores erupted on his body and his hair grew long and shaggy. He refused to try walking and insisted everything be brought to his bedside. His parents served him coffee and biscuits morning, noon and night. They complied because they felt guilty and were the kind of parents that blamed themselves for their son’s character flaws, which is probably why he had so many.
One afternoon, Farmer John and his wife, Katy, stopped by to check on the injured boy. They brought fresh eggs, fruit and vegetables from their garden.
“These’ll make you right as rain,” said Farmer John polishing a big red apple on his sleeve and handing it to Owen.
“Git out!” shouted Owen, throwing the apple at the wall. A shelf of toys fell and clattered on the wooden floor. Kindness never made Owen feel better; it only made him cross. The one thing that brought joy to Owen’s heart was outside his window, the oak’s stump.
“I made that tree come down,” he thought, “I felled it myself!” He felt huge and powerful, even as his heart shriveled like a grape dropped and forgotten.
One early autumn evening, when long shadows stretched over the fields, Owen heard something outside his window. He pulled himself up and peered outside. The squirrel Owen had chased up the tree was there, chittering away again.
The boy was furious to see the squirrel had survived. He swung his legs over the side of the bed. They’d healed a long time ago, but he hadn’t experienced walking on them.
He tightened the harness’s leather straps. He would kill that squirrel once and for all!
He stood up.
Pain like fireworks exploded inside his body. This would’ve stopped most people, but not Owen. Instead, it encouraged him. It fed his hate.
He took a step and was surprised to find how steady he felt.
And taller. He was over a foot taller! He hated Henry for making him legs, especially legs from the tree that took out his fleshy ones, but there was no denying it; the man was talented, and generous. It would be much easier to hunt and kill now that he was taller.
With each step, the gears clicked softly, bending his knees and ankles at the perfect angle. Everything moved in harmony.
The squirrel chittered again. His little raisin heart flamed with murderous ideas. He decided not to take time to change out of his soiled nightshirt.
On the way through the kitchen, he grabbed the largest knife he could find. He flung open the door and rushed outside.
Once Owen’s feet touched the soil, new sensations shot up his legs. Every nerve ending tingled. It was both painful and pleasant. All the feelings one was capable of having happened at once. They were strange and unfamiliar.
There was the pull of gravity on sap; water flowing up through the earth and into tiny internal canals; the flashing warmth from thousands of leaves twisting in a summer breeze. Owen could feel photosynthesis! He could feel photosynthesis!
There was the comforting weight of boughs and limbs stretched to the heavens; generations of nesting birds and chirping hatchlings arriving, departing; sharp pricks of pain as people scratched their initials into his body.
The wooden legs had memories, the tree’s memories.
Owen staggered forward, his knees threatened to buckle. With each step, more experiences surfaced. The sharp perception of history and his surroundings were unbearable. He couldn’t block anything out or make it stop. He tried running back to bed, but couldn’t. His legs had stiffened.
Owen closed his eyes.
The night sky and its stars cartwheeled behind his eyelids. Owls hooted in his ear. Curtains of indescribable force rushed to his fingertips. He felt sick.
“Help,” he mumbled, but his lips were dry and cracked. They made a rasping noise slipping past each other. His wooden toes plunged into the earth forming roots, which branched out in every direction. He felt the vibrations of earthworms wriggling past and families of mice squeaking to each other. The woodchuck he’d tried to drown nibbled on a root as it burrowed deeper to repair its home.
The squirrel scampered up Owen’s side and sat on an elegant new limb sprouting green, plump buds. Thousands of leaves unfolded, opening their palms to the sun. Nuttins appeared and grew into acorns. Leaves turned yellow-red, crumpled and fell, following autumn’s rules of rebirth.
The skeletal tree stood tall, like a lighting bolt erupting out of the earth.
Owen listened to the world turning on its axis. He felt the threat of a distant fire. He smelled winter’s approach in the damp air.
A voice somewhere deep inside the tree, deep inside of himself, whispered, “We all fall down in the end, Owen. It’s what you do while you’re here that matters.”
Owen tried to reply, but his throat didn’t exist anymore. So instead, he thought, “Thank you tree, for helping me to see, and feel, and know.”
“I am not the tree,” said the voice.
High up in a knot of branches, the small gray squirrel patched its nest of dried leaves and settled in for the night. He was tired and would wait until tomorrow to find the matches.
*Jennifer is an author, artist and DIY-enthusiast living the dream in Tacoma, WA. Her writing includes fiction, nonfiction and poetry with work in anthologies, magazines, a letterpress print and in the award winning pop-up book, SNOWFLAKES. Her latest book for children, EASTER NUMBERS, arrives January 15th. She hopes to connect with you at www.byJenn.com to discuss plumbing projects over petite tea sandwiches and a 7 and 7.