A TREE NOW DEAD
By Skyler Nielsen
A tree acted as the council rooms eastern wall, and it was dead. Poisoned the morning Mr. Nunn opened up on it with the old family rifle. Every so often an elder crumbles under the burden, leading to a predictable uproar. Led by friends of the fallen, the mob insists the charter be amended, but the pleas are only humored. Nobody hated Mr. Nunn in the end, but everyone agreed that blaming the tree was excessive.
Old stories say the leaves were dark and broad, and the pale bark would glow when struck by the afternoon sun. The tree roots stretched out in seven directions, creating seven slots in the landscape. The towns original carpenter carved seven stools from the fallen trunks of walnut trees, and placed them in a circle to the west of the great Oak. On the face of each stool he etched a symbol of one of the world’s pillars.
At first the elders took up these stools under the trees canopy, which reached out toward to the horizon in every direction, holding the heavens in place. Then, in the sixtieth year following the charter’s signing, there came a winter with a twenty-foot snowfall. The lake froze to half its depth. Avalanches tore vast corridors through the forests. Four elders died from sickness carried on those cold winds, so a building was erected around the stools, using the massive trunk of the tree as its eastern wall. Some argued the elders must live in the world if they were to guide the village through it.
“What if they die?” people would inquire.
“Death is as much a pillar of this world as all the others.” It was a good point, but still the walls went up.
Stories piled up around that tree like acorns. Then one morning, hundreds of years after the signing, a newest council ascends the easy southern slope of the hill, discussing nothing of consequence. The young ones avoid the weight of the moment, not wanting to betray their nervousness. They feign a disinterested air as they ask the senior members about the old days. For their part, these venerated individuals humor the discourse, understanding the interest is false, but knowing that once they cross the threshold of that little shelter on the hill, forces beyond their understanding will control their lives.
Unable to restrain herself, Ms. Salmonshon speeds up at the last moment. She recall’s the time her mother served on the council, and every night as they sat for supper father would say, “Do you understand the importance of the work your mother is doing upon that hill?”
“Yes Papa,” she would answer eagerly.
There has to be a memory, a statement of repressed wisdom that will surface and guide her, but the truth is undeniable; she doesn’t remember seeing much of her mother that year. After it was over, mother made a point of never talking about her eldership, like an unspeakable atrocity occurred.
Still there’s hope. Ms. Salmonshon readies herself, and pushing through the simple leather tarp into the ancient, council room she prepares for a sudden flash of inspiration. There is no flood of memories, or truth. Her mind does not ache from a sudden inundation of knowledge. All that strikes Ms. Salmonsohn as she waits impatiently for her fellow elders, is the odor. It’s a new smell, but it comes from an old place, the scent of the world when the council tent was erected.
Below the lowest branch, the roof of the council room is attached with a rusting bolt driven into the trunk. Hundreds of years, and yellow sap still seeps as if the wound were made yesterday. From this high point the hide roof slopes down until it reaches the anchor on a large tor of granite where the top of the hill begins its decent to the lake. Eight crooked pillars made of red brick support the roof and connecting each pillar, a thin chain of metal holds the thick canvas walls in place.
Ms. Salmonshon slips off a sandal, and rubs her foot across the fur rug covering the floor of the confined, poorly lit room. Along with the canvas walls hang tapestries streaked red by the rusting chain. The images are faded, but scenes depicting the signing of the charter, and other heroic feats can still be made out. In the center of the room are the wooden stools spaced evenly around an ancient fire pit. Scattered about the stools, in no discernable order, lay various cushions and blankets for the new elders to choose.
“Our first order of business must be an investigation! Nothing is more important,” Mr. Barrabee says as he hurriedly pushes past Ms. Salmonsohn, refusing to take up a stool.
Mrs. Benedict sighs, and heads for the nearest seat. She sits, trying to catch her breath after the accent. “Investigate what?”
“How I’ve been chosen three years in a row. It’s unfathomable.”
“Come now, we have work to do.”
“They’re fixing it I tell you. Someone has it out for me. They’re torturing me.”
“Perhaps you should take it as a complement” says Mr. Pampas. “This faceless manipulator could be selecting you out of admiration for your contributions to the village.”
Snarling, Mr. Barrabee spins on his heels, pausing long enough to regain his balance as the old war wound acts up. “I’ll not be mocked. Perhaps it was you! The way you stand there, enjoying my torment with a front row seat. You may as well shout your guilt for the whole village to hear.”
“Mr. Barrabee, please calm down. We have work to do, and I’d like to get home before nightfall.” Mrs. Benedict imagines her family heading in for lunch. They’ve been at work for hours now, and Mrs. Thatcher will have finished the cooking. So nice of the old widow to help out while she takes up a stool.
“I tell you they’re manipulating the choosing. It’s not possible that with six thousand people in this village, I should take a stool three years in a row, when so many others go a lifetime without having to serve. It’s fixed!”
A sharp pain, and Mr. Hund knows his arthritis will bother him all year. “Listen to me boy, I’m no more than a few years from the grave. My wife’s dead, and I can’t work anymore. No use to anyone. The only thing I want is to play with my grandchildren, and die in my sleep. Instead here I am in this damn room. I doubt one person here wanted to be chosen. Now, like Mrs. Benedict said, sit down, and let’s get to it.”
Mr. Barrabee sits reluctantly, avoiding eye contact with anyone. “I tell you it’s fixed. And when they start doing it to someone else, I won’t have an ounce of pity.”
Mr. Pampas leans over, picks up a red cushion and slides it under him. “Well, seeing as you have so much experience, maybe you can tell me what we do now.”
“There’s no need to antagonize, Mr. Pampas. So who’s the chairman this year anyway?”
“Last year it was the person who took up the Life seat, so it’s Lightening’s turn,” Ms. Salmonshon says.
“Mine! I don’t want anything to do with it.”
Mr. Hund flashes Ms. Bumgarden a mean glare. “I’m not going over this again. We all have to be here, and you’re the damn chairman. That means you have to go down the list of issues placed before us, and call for votes when the time comes. Now, please start reading.”
No point in arguing. Better to look on the bright side, like brother always says. Ms. Bumgarden shifts on her stool, diving into one of only two real responsibilities she must fulfill over the next year.
“Well,” she says, “then I suppose we should get into the first issue on the agenda.”
“I’m not taking part in any discussion that doesn’t address the fixed drawing” Mr. Barrabee protests.
“Oh for goodness sake. If you’re not going to be of help, at least be considerate so the rest of us can accomplish something.” Ms. Salmonsohn blushes and looks to the ground. She made a promise to control her temper; father would expect as much.
The ageless carcass of the tree stands behind her, and in a few moments she’ll enter the shadow of the hill. Better to be cloaked by the darkness, far from the critical gaze of the town. She should have remained quiet. Let them snarl and snap at each other! What would have come of it; absolutely nothing. Those types always need to fight, it’s the only way they can feel validated. They’d argue for a while, come to a stalemate, then the council could have moved on. They got to her, their nonsensical, self-righteous fanaticism sapped her of patience, and by tomorrow the village will know.
A limping shadow walks behind her and she slows, allowing it to catch up.
“Well Mrs. Curtaz, by this time next year we’ll be free. I’ll tell you another thing, if I last I’m gonna need someone to carry me up this damn hill.”
Mr. Hund squeezes his arthritic joints until the pain makes him sweat. The chronic ache subsides as soon as the pressure is released, and for a short period the dull throb doesn’t seem so bad. It’s the old trick he learned up on that mesa. Day after day, watching herds graze that hard country drove him to madness. He would be there another four days until his cousins were sent to relieve him. That’s what it was in the old village, eleven days on, five off. He couldn’t stand the cold winds, the unforgiving ground, not to mention the bland food. Worse than anything was the crushing boredom of watching sheep eat grass. Then he woke on his last morning, excited that he’d soon be free, only to find that his grandfather had passed during the night. The memory kept the monotony of the mesa from getting to him for many years.
“You alright Mrs. Curtaz?”
“Oh Mr. Hund, I fear I’ve brought terrible things on my family.”
“You talking about the investigation into the children’s health?”
“Can you imagine what people will say when interrogators arrive on their front step? They’ll hate me. My poor daughter, she’ll be picked on as well. How could I have been so stupid, so selfish? I should have let those who cared do as they pleased. And to think I thought ill of Ms. Bumgarden after you pointed out she was shirking her duties. She’s the wisest of us all. Better to spend a year hiding in the toilet than suffer what I’ve brought on.”
“Ms. Bumgarden is dead weight. As for the other two, Pampas and Salmanshon, our first priority is to make sure they don’t ruin everything. Besides, the council voted for it. You won’t be alone in taking the heat.”
“I made the suggestion. That will be known, especially considering how unpopular it will be. Oh, curse the charter. Let the elders be chosen from citizens who desire the burden of leadership.”
“You want a council full of people like Pampas and Salmanshon. One consumed by fear and frustration, the other driven by unquenchable ambition. We should feel thankful Ms. Salmanshon is so young; that’ll make things easier. Mark my words, if she were a little older, she’d be as dangerous as the other.”
“They’re passionate about the village, at least more than myself. The interested should rule, and let the rest of us live our lives.”
Mr. Hund takes a look at the silhouette of the great tree. “People like them are passionate, but they don’t care if the village loses, so long as they win. People like that are always going to be on the council, so will people like Bumgarden, who only cares about her own comfort. It falls on the rest of us to keep them at bay. The world being the world, I’m sure they serve some purpose, but I’ve never been able to figure it out.
“Once in a while something else happens. I’ve lived in this village forty years, and in that time I’ve seen it three times. You get a council of seven with one purpose in mind. Seven people who truly care about doing what’s best. When this happens the pillars align, and great things happen.”
The shadow of night has enveloped them now, but the sky is still light enough to see each other clearly. “What happens when you get seven people like Mr. Pampas on the council?”
“They yell at each other, thump their chests, but nothing changes. They line their pockets, help out their friends, and the people suffer something awful, but then they go away and a new council is formed. Come now Mrs. Curtaz, let’s get home before it’s too dark to see where we’re stepping.”
“I still don’t feel better. So many are going to hate me for this.”
“It was the right thing to do Mrs. Curtaz, don’t doubt that. None of those others had the courage to make the tough call, you should be proud of that. Today on this hill, you showed why we pick our elders like this. Besides, if the measure does what it should, then you’ll be thanked in the end. Remember, some of those children will take up a stool one day.”
Out on the hillside meadow the first lightening bugs of the evening begin to display. They start down near the foot of the hill, where the edge of the forest ends its hundred-mile stretch of unbroken woodland. Soon, when the stars come out from behind the dark, these little bugs will dance across the grassy hill, all the way up to the tree now dead, and around the council room. In other parts, the lightening bugs don’t appear until the thick, humid nights of the summer. Here at the village by the lake they arrive early, and stay until the first leaves turn color.
About the Author:
Skyler Nielsen grew up on a family farm in California’s San Joaquin Valley. After graduating with a degree in History in 2002 his family lost the family farm and he began writing to fill the glut of free time he suddenly had, and didn’t know how to cope with. His work has appeared in Crack the Spine, The Literary Nest and an upcoming issue of Main Street Rag.