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Pitiful tears fought to overwhelm Mr. Hackert as they welled up in his sunken, brown eyes, but he won the battle and forced them back down. “No man would cry about a tree,” he muttered to himself as he surveyed the once proud tree in revulsion. But, in reality, to him this tree, now bent over in its sorrow, was anything but ordinary. The pine was his whole childhood, his sanctuary, his fun. Now, after a whole fifty years, Mr. Hackert had come back and the tree had withered like a dead flower, burned, scarred, and unloved. More than half its branches still peeled off the now wobbly trunk, infested with termites. The tree’s needles weren’t a lustrous green anymore, but an unnatural shade of puce. Something finally cracked as the miserable man dug up the half beautiful, half terrible memories stored in the absolute back of his mind. Mr. Hackert remembered every little detail all very well…
The crisp as a freshly picked apple day had drawn his eight year old self outdoors and led him over brambles, across an ice cold river, and nearly off the mountains until he reached the most fantastic pine tree in the state of New York, gazing in awe at the sight. Branches on it were full to the brim with gorgeous green needles sprawled on every possible part of the tree. The trunk, as sturdy as a mountain, grew more immense every minute as his eyes traveled upwards. Every different time the small boy scanned it, he found something different, such as a robin’s nest or spiny, deep brown pinecones. And the smell, oh the smell! The aroma emanated from the tree smelled of pure nature, filled with scents of mint, pine, fresh air, and earth jumbled together in one. He laid his soft hand onto the jagged bark and sat down at the tree’s edge just enjoying the striking surroundings.
After his first exciting visit, the young boy finished his lessons, taught by his mom, as soon as he could and afterwards dashed off to his tree. He desperately needed the alone time from his five siblings, which the tree provided in full, along with everything else. Sometimes, he would come to scramble up to the highest peak of the tree and then other times he was able to take a glimpse of all the tree tops in the forest before his nerve failed him. Other times, he would just lean against the bark and relax, letting all his stress flow out, and observing the natural beauty around him. One May morning, he brought a pocket knife with him and ingrained his initials, T.H., deep into the sappy wood. After he had finished, he glanced back and observed his fine craftsmanship. While his eyes were averted onto the carvings, Tom heard the faint although familiar voice of his youngest brother, but it was spiked with fear.
“Tom! Tom! Hurry, Mother’s gravely ill!”
Tom leaped up from his patch of grass and followed his brother, all the while sprinting in the direction of his house.
The black thread of the somber clothing irritated his sweaty neck as all his family clustered around the open casket. Tom gazed into the glassy eyes sunken into the calm, white face of his loving mother and silently whispered, “Goodbye.” A single tear rolled off his freckled nose and ended its short life when it landed on the floor.
“Tom, I need you get a job,” Tom’s father announced at a scant dinner one night.
The boy’s head whipped around as he exclaimed, “What?!?”
“We need the money and now with your mother gone,” his father’s voice caught for a moment, but steadied soon, “I will need to stay home more.”
Tom’s father’s brow furrowed when he tried to decipher his son’s emotions, but Tom said no more on the subject. Tom itched to go back to his tree for solitude, but he knew his duty and early the next morning, Tom applied for a job as a stable boy, one of the crummiest jobs in the early 1900’s.
Fast forward through fifty years and several terrible things happen along the bumpy road of Tom’s life. In his new job, Tom disappointed his boss and always teetered on the edge of being fired. Even so, Tom was able to keep his family afloat even with only minimum wage. That was until the cruel, fateful day when a wild horse that some rangers had captured went into a frantic and while Tom tried his best to soothe the horse it kicked him in the ankle, sending him plummeting to the firm ground. Tom was immediately fired as he was now a cripple for life and couldn’t fulfill his duties. His father eventually died of overwork and stress and one by one the rest of his family succumbed to Death. Lonely, he sought out a wife ten years later and had two children, identical twin boys. This blip of happiness ended abruptly when both the boys caught pneumonia and died within a month of each other.
Soft, multicolored petals lightly brushed the many headstones of loved ones. Mr. and Mrs. Hackert stood there looming over the freshly packed soil. Mrs. Hackert spoke first with anger in her wheedling voice.
“I’m sorry,” with no hint of sympathy in her wavering voice, “but I have to leave. You’re of no use, a cripple to boot, buried in debt just like my innocent children, and you have no family. You’re a mess.”
She turned and strutted away, Mr. Hackert never to see her again, leaving behind several dark bruised in his memories. On top of everything else, when the Great Depression hit, Mr. Hackert already didn’t own anything, so he was ripped of his dignity and forced to become a worthless beggar on the cold streets of New York.
Pause at exactly fifty years later. Everything had been stripped from Mr. Hackert. His family, his money, his pride, and his will to live. Even his now gray hair had started to fall out. The sunlight was fading into darkness, but anyone who happened to glance at the lone man and tree, they would’ve seen the man’s stature crumple like a stepped on leaf.
Mr. Hackert snapped out of his reverie and decided to leave before he could do any more damage to his self esteem. As he limped away from the tree, he wheeled around on a sudden impulse to take one more look and revelation whammed into him, full force.
The tree acted as a mirror, a mere reflection of him. They had both experienced some of the worst things life could offer. Behind the tree, what used to be a bountiful forest had been burned into black ashes now scattered on the ground, making the tree the only one of its kind for miles around. Behind Mr. Hackert, his whole family, every person he had ever loved, had either been taken by forces of nature or left him of their own will. They shared their loneliness as one. Mr. Hackert wobbled back over to the base of the tree, gently crushing the dead pine needles with his too small boots, while the crisp wind whistled through his thinning hair, chilling him to the bone.
“And your needles are falling out just like my hair…”
They also both shared the stripping of their pride and dignity. Man and tree used to be strong, healthy, and happy and that, over time, had changed dramatically.
Snickering, although his cold amusement didn’t reach any part of his body, he thought aloud, “How ironic is this? My childhood tree shares my problems with me.
Kicking the rocks beneath them with his good foot, he watched the stones fall over the cliff. “But why me? Why did we have to suffer?” he asked raising his muddy eyes to the sky as he proclaimed his questions to the heavens. There he haw nothing but the fading blue sky except for one tip of a pine tree, almost lost, but not quite yet.
Realization suddenly came upon him as he figured out the most significant likeness. Even though they had both suffered through things that could’ve killed either of them, they still stood, maybe a little diminished, but they both were still alive, still able to do some good in the world.
Mr. Hackert stayed by the tree’s side in wonder until the blazing sun had finally gone down to another part of the world. And after so many sad sunsets the man had experienced, at last he enjoyed this one. Now at peace with himself and the world around him, no more pitying and blaming anyone, because at last there was someone, who cares what, who was just like him.
And that was all that mattered as the gleaming moon rose up and as Tom signed with a relief that had been held in for fifty long years.