The Tree

March 6, 2014
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Early in the mornings, when the silver nightdress of the moon still hangs over the horizon, Tommy’s eyes are wide open. He stares at the ceiling for exactly thirty seconds—has to be thirty seconds! One Mississippi, two Mississippi. His stale morning breath penetrates the air as he slides out of bed.
The floorboards are cool beneath his feet, threatening to grumble with every touch. He walks lightly to the curtains, draws them back. The ashen light distorts the faces of his stuffed animals. Bitey the plush crocodile suddenly looks ravenous. Silver beams rotate in glass eyes and reflect Tommy’s round face as he gently pops the window latch open.
He swings the window wide after securing it with the rusted lever (the one Mum and Dad told him Not to Touch). The morning fog is rising amongst the grass, ghosts wandering through his backyard. It curls around the tree in the right corner, licking tentatively at the icy pink blossoms. Tommy draws his Thomas dressing gown tighter around him and steps silently onto the windowsill. He finds the drainpipe below with his feet, clinging onto it, then slides down, landing with the softest of thumps on the dew dropped grass.
He walks with a purpose, his feet covered in icy slush by the time he reaches the tree. Greyish-green stubs of leaves cling to his white toes. The sap leaves his hands gummy and damp as he scrambles up, and he tries to wipe them off with the leaves on the top branch. It doesn’t work. The sap smells and feels like PVA glue, the kind that his teachers tell him to stop mucking around with but it’s much more fun to play with it when you’re not allowed.
The boughs bend with his familiar weight--familiar because he does this every morning before his family wakes up. He’s always chatted to the tree at these times in his faint high-pitched voice, changing subjects at a speed which surprises even him. Maybe it’s because he’s never tired in the mornings. Unlike Dad who regularly appears with panda bear circles around his eyes, or Mum who stares into her coffee blankly until she’s drunken it, Tommy judders back to life by three a.m. most nights.
He likes to sit upon the top branch, the one that cranes above his roof, and watch the sun rise over the horizon to the rhythm of his voice. Sometimes he swings his toes off the edge, admiring the nothingness. Sometimes he’ll even hang by his arms, being a fearless adventurer, vaulting his body into the void below. He’s never fallen. And he’d never hurt himself, anyways. Most nights Tommy’s superhuman.
At school, the teachers put on frown faces and interrupt him when he tells them this, with words like “irresponsibility” and “danger”. They don’t let him play around on the high rope on the playground anymore, or let him near the roof. Not after last time. He’d simply been showing Charlie from Room Eleven that he could fly, but Charlie screamed and called for a teacher, who called the Firefighters and Pol-eez, who called Mum and Dad, and Tommy ended up getting pulled off the school roof by a very grumpy man and had to go to bed early without dessert.
Ever since then, the teachers have sent red stamped letters home to Mum and Dad, and yell at Tommy in class when he gazes out the window to see if he can see his house--and the tree!—from school. He knows he can from the roof. On that day, when he was dancing around showing Charlie from Room Eleven, he could look out and see the tree’s pink blossoms waving to him in the wind. He could hear the tree inside his head: Yeah, go Tommy! Fly Tommy! Fly to me! You can do it!
And he could do it. He can do it. When he says he can though, the other boys in school giggle and elbow him, like they do when he says a rude word. They don’t do that when he says the rude words to the teachers though. Tommy once thought he heard a boy say to his mum that Tommy was “messed up” after Tommy told the teacher what he thought of her using the words his Mum used when she burnt herself making lasagne.
The sun’s coming up, appearing over the horizon and allowing colour to leach through the grey fog. Time’s up. Tommy says goodbye to the tree, patting the trunk. It’s started to bob and sway as the wind picks up, and the branches tremble beneath his grip as he swings from branch to branch. He makes it to the bottom, gives it a final hug, then shimmies back up the drainpipe, tucks himself into bed, and closes his eyes tight just before his Mum comes in to wake him for school.
That night, while Tommy’s sitting eating goldfish crackers, his Dad comes in and uses big words in Adult Conversations with Mummy that Tommy Can’t Interrupt. But then, Dad’s massaging his forehead with his fingertips when he calls Tommy in, and Mum’s bashing around saucepans louder than usual.
Dad tells Tommy that the tree is sick, and will die soon. It will wither and go black and start smelling, and eventually, it’ll keel over and die. Dad’s going to hire an arborist, which is a tree doctor, to cut it down before its disease spreads to other plants.
Tommy turns a shade of reddish white. He pinches his lips in his small tight face, and his eyes are hot, so hot and stinging, and angry. No, he tells Dad. No. It’s not sick. It’s fine. It’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with it. You don’t have to cut it down.
Dad shakes his head in a way that lets Tommy see the black pits of his nostrils. Trust me Tommy. I know more than you. That tree is sick. It is bad. It needs to go. It’s just a stupid old tree. Who cares? It needs to go before it makes other plants sick.
I care! Tommy yells. Maybe what it’s got isn’t going to hurt other plants. Maybe its fine, you’re just wrong, you’re the one who doesn’t know anything, you stupid, stupid-
Dad stands up, we’ll have LESS of that behaviour thank YOU very MUCH-
Tears are spurting down Tommy’s cheeks by now. I HATE YOU I HATE YOU I HATE YOU I HATE YOU-
Dad sends Tommy to his room and locks him in.
After his parents go to bed, Tommy opens the window, and walks through his backyard to the tree again. He sits beside it for a while, breathing in the sap, the bark, the smell of the soil.
There’s nothing wrong with you, he whispers.
There’s nothing wrong with you, the tree whispers back.
Tommy sits there until dawn, until the arborist arrives and Mum drags him inside to try on his new boarding school uniform.

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