One Tree, A Field of Axes

Fiction
Sean DeLauder


Struggling in the frozen grip of death, Henry straggles across the Siberian tundra, gazing up from bluing hands across the blank, swirling whiteness in a wary, semi-conscious state for the threat of bears, Yeti, and other snowbound perils. In the haze of his mind he recalls Yeti are pseudo-fictional inhabitants of the Himalayas, not the icy Siberian deserts, but their inclusion seems appropriately hostile here as doom probes killingly with wintry stabs.

As he paws at the impenetrable terrain a corner of his mouth hooks into a smile, thinking someone ought to write a story about his heroism. Briefly, he thinks someone like Mindy Lacemaker might read and enjoy it. Mindy. With flaxen hair and screaming green eyes.

The smile tilts southward when an inadvertent elbow plows into his side. He chokes back a squeak of surprise and agony. Siberia melts away and rushes into a heating vent behind an empty row of chairs.

Henry sighs, quietly.

In truth Henry is seated in the lobby of an automobile repair garage, waiting for his tires to be changed. Minus bears, but equally hostile. He prefers the solitude of Siberia. Winter weather has made the light tread of old tires treacherous, and Henry hates to think himself as dangerous to others, himself, or the telephone poles lining the deep abyss of interweaving ditches around his suburban neighborhood. Bad weather makes him a reluctant comrade to a cluster of people in the tight confines of a bewintered lobby.

The room is stocked with typically seedy characters. A small, over-caffeinated fellow to his left with a greasy horseshoe of hair Henry names Bill Wiggum. Bill Wiggum stands every so often and treats himself to a Styrofoam cup of black java. The unground coffee beans look like beads of asphalt. On the other side is a middling woman in tight-fitting clothes better suited to a teenage girl determining the ins and outs of fashion through experimentations in gaudiness. Her face is thick with clashing makeup, a smearing of bright lipstick and dark rings below her brows as though her eyes were hollowed out of her head with a melon-baller. A far cry from Mindy. Her name, he decides, is Flaggy Mandible.

Henry’s hands are wedged into his coat pockets as if he were seated in a field of reaching thistles, hoping if he doesn’t touch anyone, no one will touch him. The air is filled with the sharp scent of metal, and it makes him edgy. It is cold in the lobby, but cold is easy to forget while imagining.

He pictures himself in a forest clearing, perfectly motionless, still as the husk of a bleached and lifeless tree. Squirrels dash playfully across his shoes playfully, and popinjays sit on his shoulder, peering into and tickling his ears for edible bugs. And still he is motionless. To move would scatter the calm and bring attention to himself. And Henry, like nature, feels safer when ignored by the skulking, suspicious eyes of humanity.

A joint in the seat whines faintly when his weight shifts. C sharp, he guesses. Trees think in music rather than words because trees never have anything interesting to say. Trees think in music, but never sing aloud because they prefer to amuse themselves.

Henry enjoys most sounds with tempo. The slosh of wet clothes in the washing machine and the sonorous tocking of a grandfather clock in the nighttime silence. Disjointed symphonic components. But here at Elmo’s tire store, with cold gushing through the squeaking door each time someone pushes through and pauses to stomp slush off their shoes, filled with the buzz of hydraulic wrenches and revving motors, the regular fidgets of Bill Wiggum with sharp elbows, simple harmonies are no more than a monotonous drone. And worse.

Not that Flaggy Mandible, her mouth hanging open as she works determinedly to pulverize a defiant bit of rubbery gum with noisy, intermittent smacks, would have been bearable in a different, less abrasive setting. No, even in a rainbow world of warless glee it would be a gnawing irritation, an inescapable torture, a noose he can feel strangling him in his seat. A hand reaches to the zipper of his jacket to relieve the choke catching air in lumps at his throat, but it is already undone. The chomping goes mercilessly on.

He stifles a sigh to maintain perfect stillness.

She doesn’t notice.

On and on it goes, a faucet droplet in an empty frying pan, and Henry’s grip clenches on the armrests as though he and the chair are falling chuteless through a cloudbank. Henry feels heat rising up his neck, a thermograph finger twisting slowly toward the red like an auto losing oil and overheating. Is she conscious of her peril? The chomping persists. An orange warning beacon lights on his forehead. Too late. The needle hits the pin and Henry, in the final stage of intensifying thermal activity, detonates in an agitated, cindersome shower of discomfited pieces. The world is obliterated with him.

“Hwuff!” he gasps.

A sharp blow in the ribs brings his attention back to Bill Wiggum, crossing and re-crossing his legs, threading the Styrofoam cup through the wanderings and probings of his angled limbs like a rabbit needling untouched through a field of briars. Henry wants to ask him to be still. But he is just a tree, Henry reminds himself. Do trees get irritable? Probably wouldn’t show if they did.

“Chomp chomp chomp smack smack chomp,” crackles Flaggy Mandible.

She is a creature, Henry thinks. A harsh, long-beaked bird whose obnoxious chirp sent others of her species to rapid extinction. Native Americans probably killed them in droves to cease the racketous yammering.

Henry’s head hurts. Maybe it is from squinting through a filthy windshield the wipers can never quite clear. For some reason they always rake a single swath through the filthy center, cleaning all but the peripheries, making everywhere but where he is seem an easier place to be. The world, in all its wonder, hides in the margins behind a layer of muck, afraid to show itself to him. Henry envies everyone.

Maybe his head hurts because he is a ping-pong ball, and those flanking him are the paddles, he thinks bitterly. Maybe he should bite one of them. No no. He is a tree. A tree.

“I’m a tree,” he breathes. Trees are notoriously toothless.

An ax drives hard into Henry’s trunk, making him gasp. He turns angrily toward Bill Wiggum, who appears oblivious that anything has happened at all. Instead, Bill Wiggum stands, strides across the room past the desk, where grease monkeys file in a door at one end of the counter and out another at the opposite, like plastic horses on a spinning carousel, and refills his Styrofoam cup. He drinks it empty, crushes it, and fills another before bouncing back into his seat.

He immediately jams an elbow into Henry’s side, who winces, nudging Flaggy Mandible.

“Watch it!” she snaps nasally and pushes to the edge of her seat furthest from Henry, eyeing him with wariness and disdain.

Henry bites his tongue trying to restrain himself.

I’m a tree. A tree. A nice tree, he thinks. Still and quiet, he could watch people go by in all their glory without chasing them away and sing to himself unharried.

“Chomp chomp smack chew smack,” says Flaggy Mandible, still glaring at him with deep, cannon barrel eyes over a long, broom handle nose.

Ah, but trees can only tolerate so much. From Henry there is a sudden, reluctant explosion of light, and he tries to tell himself they brought this upon themselves.

For an instant Henry is no longer a tree and his true form is revealed, towering through the shattered roof of the one-level building. A super tree. A colossus made of steel and stone and righteous vengeance. A super tree with eyes, he clarifies, blue with forked lightning. And a mouth. His voice is deep and resonant, transforming from its usual chime, and he addresses the tiny man beside him, who stares up in horror as one who sees their doom crushing down upon them like a bug beneath a boot heel.

“Heed my thunder and be still unto stone!” booms Henry with deified rhetoric.

Mortified, Bill Wiggum’s eyes glaze as calcifies obediently, crusting over with grayness until he is a motionless, cringing, awe-stricken rock holding a coffee cup.

Uber Henry turns ponderously to Flaggy Mandible, chomping with fevered fright.

“Doth the flavor of your meal match its foul music? Begone if the answer be nay!”

Flaggy looks up vacantly through the craters of her eyes that are like bowling ball fingerholes. Her chewing stops so she can peep in despair, then she curls and shrivels until finally winking out of existence.

Henry is suddenly alone. And he likes it.

There is peace in the universe and Henry smiles because everything is grateful. Henry is a tree again, and sparrows settle on his branches, appreciating his nearness. Deer paw close and nuzzle the twisted boles on his trunk because deer have no idea how else to express thanks. Their general reaction to everything is to throw their tail in the air and flee. Somehow that seems inappropriate now.

“You’re welcome,” says Henry softly, dipping his branches to caress the creatures gathered below. No longer steely and menacing, he is friends with everything.

“What?” asks Flaggy Mandible in a sharp voice. “Who’s welcome? Who are you talking to?”

Reality jumps onto his head and hooks its fingers in his nose. The stink of coffee and metal and vulcanized rubber returns and he is back in the tire shop. Nothing has changed. An elbow glances off his ribcage.

“Um,” Henry stutters, blinking furiously. The cold reaches him again, penetrating imagination. “No one.”

Flaggy gives him a look of disgust, edges a bit further, and returns to obnoxious chewing.

Of course he had not destroyed them. For one, Henry is not a tree God. He is just a tree with momentary outpourings of intense emotion, and trees are notoriously kindhearted and tolerant. Even if they had the power to smite, or maybe reduce axeheads to marshmallow, making foes less terrible, they would not. Better to avoid attention altogether. Henry would sit here and endure their obnoxious noise and invasive elbow pecks with quiet patience. His mind would rebel, but trees were good at ignoring their own vengeful thoughts.

Another rush of cold washes over Henry. Someone else has entered, but he doesn’t turn to look. He is a tree after all. Trees can’t turn and look. Most of their information is gathered through guesswork. Trees are quite sleuthsome in that respect. Henry tucks his feet under the chair, assuming the new guest will otherwise stride over and stand atop them to feel taller.

Footsteps near.

Night sweeps in like a black coat from left to right rather than the slow transition from light time. It turns and sits in the middle seat of the three across from Henry. Henry might have moved to that side, but once a tree sits it can’t very well get up again.

The fellow across from him is angry. His eyebrows are pushed together into a tiny bar with a point in the middle jutting toward the floor. Thin lips barely hold in a snarl that belongs at the end of a thick chain leash staked to the ground in a junkyard. His name, clearly, is Friz. And Friz is enough because when a person is so infused with intensity or malice or skill, such as talented soccer players who are all of the above but somewhat less angry than their fans, a second name is needless distinction.

Friz is seated only an instant before his gaze falls on Flaggy Mandible, her face billowing and contracting around a rubbery wad like a swimming jellyfish.

“Would you knock that off?” he snaps.

Flaggy Mandible starts and flashes him a dark look. Her mouth opens for an instant, then closes again. She is quiet. Still and so lovably soundless, albeit a gross caking of cosmetics and ill-fitting clothes.

Henry the tree likes Friz immediately.

“And you,” Friz says, turning on Bill Wiggum. “Sit still.”

Bill Wiggum is a bit more resilient.

“You can’t threaten me,” he squeaks, and lifts his cup like a chalice. “This is Canada!”

“How would you like me to chew you up and stick you to the underside of a coffee table?” Friz asks in a tone suggesting both his ability and willingness to do so.

The chalice wavers and descends. Bill Wiggum is frozen and says no more.

Henry feels as though he will race over and hug Friz, grimy and angry as he is. But he is a tree, and all he can do is smile daffily, enjoying the respite from long torment. It is a cool breeze after a year of toil in the windswept desert, a sudden handrail amidst an ice-covered sidewalk. A savior sweeping him from the mouth of the guillotine in unchopped wholeness. It is soothing and intoxicating and soporific and every missing component of absolute relief all arriving in a singular, overwhelming wash of perfect ecstasy. He feels as though he might turn to gel and slip through the floor heating grates to evaporate. Such is his utter satisfaction. Henry can feel his mouth opening, his voice swelling. Something epic is about to burst forth, and sonorous. He is certain it will be Amazing Grace.

“Stop staring at me, you stupid, grinning bastard,” jaws the man across from him.

Friz leans back in his seat, scowling, crosses his legs and tosses the draping wings of his coat over them. His axe is an unwieldy one, felling anything in reach of the reckless swipes.

The world darkens. Henry feels like he is behind the wheel, peering through muck clotted windows at the smeared world beyond. Amazing Grace, a firework under a running faucet, fizzles and expires.

“Kibble?” calls a voice from the counter.

Henry stands and approaches, noticing the blue fanny of another employee waving from beneath the desktop. He tries to ignore it.

“Mr. Kibble?” repeats the fellow behind the counter. Barry, according to the name embroidered on the dark, single-piece jumper. His face is lined with thin washes of black oil. Not so thick a makeup job as Flaggy, he notes.

“Kimble,” Henry mutters softly.

The mechanic’s eyes flick back to the repair list, eyes squinting, mouth quirking.

“Car’s all set, sir. Just parked it out front. Here’s your key,” says the mechanic, holding the spare shaft of toothed metal over the counter.

Henry reaches and reclaims the key.

“We checked your brake fluid too, and your patience is fine,” the mechanic adds.

“What?” asks Henry.

“The pressure, sir. It’s nothing to worry about. Your wiper blades were starting to wear so we put some new ones on. No charge. A swap for the long wait. Everything should be a lot clearer now.”

“Oh?”

“You’d be amazed what a new set of wiper blades can do for your attitude.”

Barry grins.

“And a haircut,” adds the fellow grease monkey hollowly as he probes beneath the desk, blue overalls bobbing as he squirms. Tunneling to Australia perhaps. It’s supposed to be summer there. Two more grease monkeys enter, pass the desk, and exit. The carousel is still spinning.

Barry nods in agreement.

“Makes the whole world seem a bit brighter,” Barry adds.

“Haircuts are a wonder,” the grease monkey continues with tangible sincerity. He stands, having found what he was searching for. A small round piece of metal whose purpose Henry will never fathom. The metal goes into a breast pocket lined with pencils and grease pens. He smiles and pushes through a door leading back into the garage. Henry notes the sheen from his head, reflecting the halogen ceiling lights, utterly hairless but for a few speckles of brown trying to reemerge.

*

It is only a short drive home, but straining through the cruddy windows makes any trip interminable. Time to test the handiwork of the repairmen.

He tugs on the wand jutting from the steering column, sending a spray of fluid across the window. The wipers follow and Henry is blasted back into his seat as the world explodes in his face. A perfectly clear swath of window glistens like crystal and he can see the decaying buildings and dead shrubbery lined by blackened snow shoved from the streets. Henry smiles, open-mouthed, in pure wonder. He can see everything. Everything! The world, he notes, is gray and disgusting. Astounding!

Such is his amazement he doesn’t know what to do. No fantasy seems appropriate. Flying, triumphing, and receiving accolades all seem so sub par. But still there is the compulsion to celebrate. Ah! A song!

Henry found himself singing noisily. The words he can recall, in any case.

“Amazing Grace, oh… hmm, hmm, yeah. That saved a wretch like me. I once hmm, mm. Hmm now am found, was blind but now I see!”

It is amazing how such small miracles can reverse the course of an entire day.

As Henry steps up the walk to the apartment complex he spots Mindy Lacemaker, a pretty girl who has just moved in, gliding in the other direction. She doesn’t coat herself in makeup and fits naturally in clothes Flaggy Mandible nearly bursts free of in a waterfall of frumpy flesh. No girl like Mindy Lacemaker will ever find Henry interesting because girls like Mindy Lacemaker prefer men who make them laugh and are overstuffed with a might that makes everything they wear seem much too small. It is no surprise that she scowls when he bends a smile upon her, skirting into the knee-high snow to avoid him on the adequately wide sidewalk.

Henry hears her sniff in disdain as she edges past.

Ah well. She is, after all, just a single shrub of many lining the yuck of the neighborhood. He can’t see the others yet, but they are there. He just has to look. Tomorrow. After a haircut, he decides.

Henry doesn’t feel much like a tree anymore. A tree can’t interact. Or won’t. They stay still because they think the world is better than themselves. Trees spend their existence covered over with leaves in a state of humble embarrassment. And trees, huge as they might be, never have the sense of growing Henry has now. He steps through the door to the apartment complex. His room is the first on the left.

“Oh. Hello, Henry,” says a dulcet voice from the level above him.

Henry looks up to see Bridgete, a smile with hair splaying away from her neck like an overused toothbrush. She is not as proportionate as Mindy, made plumper by the puffiness of a winter coat, but with a large smile. Smiles, he notes, are notoriously rare. Why had he never noticed her before? He ponders, then realizes he doesn’t know her last name. But he will find out.

“Hello,” Henry answers.

He stabs the key blindly at the doorknob. There is a wooden thunk as it strikes the door and a jangle when it falls out of his hand. He missed. Somewhat bedazzled, Henry stoops for his keys. The doorknob meets his forehead en route, but he doesn’t seem to notice. There are worse things. He slumps dazedly into a seated position. And better.

Bridgete flutters down the stairs.

“Are you all right?” she asks, stooping over him. She cups his face in her hands, very soft, and peers hard at his forehead with genuine worry. “It’s starting to bruise.”

“Ow,” he says with odd detachment. The world is a bit fuzzy, but he adds, “I’m okay.”

Bridgete stands, arms akimbo, staring at him, her mouth bending doubtfully.

“Well, if you say so,” she says. “I have to go. I’ll be back to check on you, though.”

With a smile, she turns, pushes out the door and heads to the parking lot. She glances back over her shoulder and Henry catches a wink before the door sweeps between them.

For an instant Henry sits dumbfounded, staring at the eggshell-colored door. He blinks. Twice. Not sure what just happened, happened. He has forgotten what he was doing, the image of Bridgete’s concerned expression burned indelibly upon his retinas. Oh yes. A song. Humming, he stands, grips the knob to his apartment and twists the door open.

Imagine Henry sliding across an arc of color suspended above the world, smiling with a contented broadness that borders on daffiness. From below, the world smiles back with crooked green teeth. Where he is going he doesn’t know. It doesn’t matter so much. They are a field of axes, he thinks, but he has escaped them. As he pushes through the apartment door, this is how Henry sees himself.

pencil

Sean writes quirky tales around 3 a.m. at his retirement home security job, behaves quirkily at his staff writer position at The Findlay Courier and is a strong supporter of the overuse of the word Quirky when penning brief autobiographies. E-mail: sidkhan[at]wcnet.org