At five and forty, running a chore for a manager he despised, he drove for the first time to the outskirts of the City. The shabby, chugging misery of a car he could ill-afford on his meagre salary belched its frustration at the neat boxes of shoulder-high grain. Inside, the man kept it company with a furrowed brow and a noxious cigar. The corn tossed its myriad heads in a disdainful refusal to take offence, which left the pair more disgruntled than ever.
City born and city bred, he had never seen Nature untrammelled. Prim, spiky shoots in flowerpots and green girdled round by smoky roads drew no more than a flickering glance. He deemed them no worthier of his attention than the gravel his boots scrunched.
On he went, truculent, nostalgic for the smells of ink and leather and burning petrol that he greeted each day with his choicest swearwords, mortally afraid of the dusk-shadows. Beside a vacant field he pulled over to tinker with his flagging car, hoping to coerce it onward, for it was running low on fuel and patience. Exhaustion turned it into fifteen minutes, then twenty … one and twenty, two and … defiantly humming the bawdiest songs he knew, fighting off slumber to the utmost, he fell asleep at the wheel.
He awoke with the sun rosy upon his face, and lumbered groggily to his feet. Through him was stealing an intense, poignant warmth he had not felt since the day he had forgotten how to cry. The shells and shields that encased his heart cracked, collapsed and were carried away by the current; like a lad smitten for the first time by the glistening eyes of a maiden fair, he crept from leaf to dewy leaf with hammering heart. His fingers trembled as he reached out the blossom veiled within, and stroked the delicate petals.
“What’s your name, Beauty of the Wilderness?” He whispered, and preening, ruffling in the wind, she answered him:
“Rosa mundi, Rose of all the world!”
The sun beamed upon him, and the wind withdrew, giggling and hooting. With it went his gaze to the stately trees in the distance that austerely creaked disapproval. He gazed upon them in awe and in some apprehension; then the besotted-swain grin returned as the cheep-cheep of fretful sparrow chicks cut into the trees’ swishing.
Sighing, he walked with lagging steps to the car. This job done, he would be back in the confounded City, trapped there forevermore. Visions of giving up his career and setting up as a farmer or hermit vanished ere they came. Impossible … Yet how sweet it would be to linger, to dwell forevermore in the forbidding shade of the trees, with the chicks perched on his wrist, and Rosa furling and unfurling her veils, toying with the thrumming of his life-blood. Impossible. This fecundity that soothed and gladdened and exalted all at once was barred to him.
With impending loss came cruel, grasping desire. He swooped upon the delicate flower he had considered it almost a sacrilege to touch, and wrenched it off, caring nothing for the outraged thorns that broke into his skin with tremendous oaths, or even her heartrending wails.
He stuffed his prize into his pocket, maiming a sepal, and pounced upon the nest. M. le Sparrow saw him coming, and shrilled out a warning to Madame. “Guard the nestlings, Chérie!” He cried, and charged beak first at the invader. The man caught him as it struck his cheek, drawing blood. Maddened by the pain, he broke M. Sparrow’s head open with one hard blow of his fist. With a heartrending cry Madame leapt after him, but the same gigantic implement knocked her breathless to the ground. He lifted the nest tenderly, and carried it to his car with gentle words upon his lips. The nestlings wept long after he had stridden off to the grove again.
He threw his arms around Father Oak, and strained to rip him bodily from the earth. Father Oak watched the puny creature’s antics with astonishment, and turned to Mother Maple as he dropped panting to the grass.
“What does the little rat think to do?” he demanded.
“What he and his kind have always done, and always shall do,” she answered grimly. “Plunder, ravage and desecrate!” And she told him of Rosamund and the Sparrow children.
“Dastard!” Thundered Father Oak. “Would that I had him within branch-reach now!”
“What then, Querus? He would drag it off with his forepaws.”
“A blight upon him and all his race!”
“Amen!” Said Mother Maple. “And may my samara and your acorns be protected –”
“Not so loud!” he growled, but it was already too late.
The misshapen monster was raking the grass. His scrabbling fingers fastened upon an acorn, then a wispy seed that had drifted next to it. He went home, ferociously joyful, ignoring the plaintive chirping of the little chicks, and the failing gasps of Rosamund.
He put her at the very top of the artificial daisies in his bedroom, put the nest by the window with a little grain in it for the babes, and planted the oak and maple in marble pots he had purchased on the way home. They were now part of his life, he thought contentedly, and would always be there for him to love and cherish. Jauntily he went to work, making his assistant jump nearly out of his skin when he greeted the boy with a clap on back and an amiable ‘How d‘y’ do?’
But when he came home again, he found the chicks cold with the untouched grain beneath them, and Rosie withering, crepe-black. Shouting execrations to mask his desolation, he struck them away from him. He tended his seeds obsessively. Slowly, very slowly, Little Oak and Baby Maple ventured to raise tender green shoots, and on them sprouted leaflets that were the pride of his life.
One night, as he dozed before the television, he heard a sob and the clucking sound made to comfort childish sorrow.
“Little Oak, Little Oak, don’t cry so!” said a voice clear as a silver bell. “You’ll wake him!”
“Let him be wretched eternally, the scoundrel! Remember what Rose told us? We are not meant to be here, in this windless room starved of sun and rain alike. Our place is in the Wild of which the Sparrows sang, to cleanse and enrich it and thrive upon it in turn! ”
“And remember also what happened to Rose!” said Baby Maple tremulously.
“Sooner or later we must face the same end, Baby Maple.”
“No!” shouted the man, leaping up in horror. “Baby Maple, Little Oak, I shall not permit you to wilt!”
Baby Maple shrank from him and folded her leaves close, but Little Oak drew himself up with the majesty of all his kind that had gone before. “Human,” He said, in a guttural voice that reminded the man most unpleasantly of Father Oak. “In this noisome den of yours none save your kind can exist. Do your worst; you cannot hold us here. Faugh!”
“If- If you truly mean those words,” whispered Baby Maple “Set us free!”
“Here you will stay!” raged the man, “Here you will stay. An you never grow as high and mighty as your parents, I care not; indeed, it is better so.”
Thenceforth they spoke no more to him. Day by day they faded in silence, and one morning Little Oak crumpled. The man raved, he swore, he behaved in a fashion that set his neighbours wondering whether to call the police or the asylum, but Baby Maple heeded him not. Before the day was out she too had fallen.
With her passing the man’s dream was finally broken. He threw their bodies away, as he had done before with the nestlings and the rose, forcing himself to stick rigidly to his routine. His hook-nosed face had become gaunt and sinister, and mothers dragged their children aside when he walked upon the crowded city pavements.
He set out for work in the morning, and found himself driving in an entirely different direction. Out of the City he slipped and up the long highway, too spent for concerted thought, until he came to the vacant field.
The roars of Father Oak greeted him, and the battering of metal on wood.
“Stop! Stop!” He screamed, running into them full-tilt, and seized their axes. “Kill him and he will wreck you! Peace will desert you; his dying groans will haunt you to the grave!”
“Eh? Dying groans – haunt – the poor fellow’s mad!” said the woodcutter in consternation.
“Crazy or not, he has my axe, and I mean to get it back.” Declared his companion. “Dolt, give that back here or I’ll brain you with it before we start on the tree!”
“Easy, easy. Let me handle this.” The first wood cutter stepped up to the man. “Sir, please return our tools. We must finish this tree before sun-down –”
“No. No. Allow me to explain,” He saw that they were baffled by his behaviour and not a little angry, and strove for a semblance of logic. “Trees are of the utmost importance to us and our environment. They supply us with oxygen.” He blinked. What else did trees do? Years ago, somewhere, they’d studied it in science class … he’d rote-learnt it for the exam and dismissed it with the rest of the bookish claptrap. “We need them. They supply us with medicine, wood –”
“Right you are!” said the first woodcutter, with false, baby-soothing heartiness. “Wood. That’s what we want, see? But we need the big shiny axes for it. So hand them over, there’s a good chap. You want trees? See the tall one over there with the pretty white flowers? Go on, take a look! There are dozens and dozens to look at around here.”
“But,” growled the second woodcutter. “Stay out of our way, okay? This tree here means my dinner, and I’ll be hanged before I let a worm-witted nature-boy get in my way.”
“You think I’m crazy. And a week ago I’d have said you were right.” He began to laugh, a high-pitched giggle that accelerated into a maniacal cackle. The two woodcutters exchanged speaking looks. “Listen,” he said, grabbing the arm of the first wood cutter. “You can’t chop these trees. They’re my friends!”
This was entirely too much for the second woodcutter. He lunged for his axe and secured it with one tug of his work-hardened muscles. “We’ll take this nutcase down to the station after lunch. Right now, let’s get to work!”
“Oh no, please!”
“What’s going on here?” demanded a stentorian voice from the road, and all three of them jumped. From a Cadillac descended a bloated, bewhiskered man with a permanent scowl for a face. “Lounging about again?”
“We were working, Boss!” exploded the second wood-cutter. “Then this misery came along and started his damn’ fool preaching!”
“He seems to be a little – uh, well, not right in the head,” interposed the first woodcutter. “We were trying not to be too hard on him…”
The Boss pursed his lips, assessing the situation. Unbalanced, definitely. Or just a little bosky, maybe? These city people… because the man wasn’t rich, or even comfortably well off, from the look of his coat and his car. Still, he might just be an eccentric, one of those tree-huggers who looked like suckers but turned out to be first cousins to a Judge or someone. And it was a virtuous deed to be kind to those mentally afflicted …
“Sir,” said the Boss so politely the second woodcutter nearly dropped his axe on his foot. “What seems to be the matter?”
“They’re chopping down the trees. I’m trying to explain that they must not. It sounds emotional, ridiculous… I know I’m not doing a very good job of it, but we do need the trees!”
“Of course, sir. I understand perfectly. Trees are essential to the survival of our planet and offer numerous benefits to us as well as our environment. They remove harmful gasses, reduce pollution, add good things, yes, yes, I fully appreciate all that. Look,” He took two safety-pin badges out of his pocket. “I’m a member of both Greenpeace and WWF, and totally committed to saving the environment. I believe from the core of my heart that trees have immense value, in both material and sentimental terms.”
“Then why are these men… they called you Boss…”
“Just in a manner of speaking. Right, lads? I would no more chop a tree than a child’s head! Trees are our future, and our country already suffers from a dearth of forested land.”
“Er yes.” Said the first woodcutter hastily. The second woodcutter smashed his axe hard into the bole of the tree and said nothing.
“Don’t worry, sir.” The Boss had begun to shepherd the man imperceptibly to his car. “I was just coming around to have a word with them. Your tree friends won’t be hurt any more. You there!” He yelled at the second woodcutter.
“Stop murdering the tree! And you, sir, can go home with an easy mind. Leave everything to me. A businessman like you must be far too busy…”
He saw the man into the car and off, smiling benignly until the car rounded the bend in the road.
“Does he mean all that stuff he said just now?” asked the first woodcutter.
“Does that mean we’re fired? My daughter’s getting married next month, I was going to ask for a raise… What am I going to do now?” The second woodcutter smashed his axe hard into the bole of the tree and said nothing.
The Boss turned around. “Get to work, you filthy scum! Do I pay you to stand around doing nothing? Get that row of trees chopped by sundown, or I’ll dock you for the day!”
Hibah Shabkhez is a writer of the half-yo literary tradition, an erratic language-learning enthusiast, a teacher of French as a foreign language and a happily eccentric blogger from Lahore, Pakistan. Her work has appeared online and in several literary magazines, including The Ravi and The Pen. Studying life, languages and literature from a comparative perspective across linguistic and cultural boundaries holds a particular fascination for her. Find her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/