The Tree

First published in June  2017 by Halfway Down the Stairs, an online  literary magazine whose editors are in a half-dozen states and in New Zealand.

Troy discovered the tree hut in the spring of his first year in middle school. He hadn’t noticed before, perhaps because it was high up in the massive oak at the edge of the forest, hardly visible unless you knew where to look.

“Why don’t you go for a walk until you feel better,” Mother had said. It was not a question, and meant what she sometimes said aloud: “until you are decent company again.”

So he stomped through the knee-high grasses of the newly-verdant meadow, warm in the afternoon sun, and into the woods, where he threw himself face-down on the soft duff under a hemlock. After a time he rolled over, and saw that the feathery branches brushed the bole of the oak. And a few feet off the ground, a weathered board was nailed into the tree.

He got up to examine it. It wasn’t very stout, thinner than the two-by-fours Grandfather kept in the basement, but long enough that he could get a handhold on either side. The nailheads were rusty, so it must have been there for some time.

There was another above it, and another, and all the way up into the first branches. It was unmistakably a ladder. He wondered for a moment if he ought to talk to Father when he came home from work, bring him here to see it, ask if he’d known about it. On the other hand, if it was someone’s secret, he ought not tell anyone.

He should climb up.

He would be very far above the ground. The oak was so big he couldn’t wrap his arms around it. He tried to picture the chimney of their three-story house, and decided the first branches were higher than the top of the chimney. He thought about a recent lesson about gravity. If he lost his grip, it would be a hard fall.

That would serve Mother right, he thought for a moment, if he fell out of the tree and they came looking for him when Father got home and found him dead. Or they might not find him until morning, so Mother would have a sleepless night and be sorry she had scolded him and sent him out.

Father might be amazed that his son had been brave enough to climb so high. Unlike a few years ago, when Troy pleaded with him to keep a hand on the bicycle until he got the hang of it. “Be brave!” Father said, giving the bike a hard push, and in a moment Troy was pedaling and still upright. He rode the length of the driveway, came back, and managed to stop without falling over.

Compared with the terror of learning to ride a bicycle, climbing this tree should be easy. So he started up.

At the third board he paused to look down, and almost quit. From this far up a fall wouldn’t kill him, but he might break his legs and be helpless until Father found him. “Be brave!” he said out loud, remembering the bicycle again. In a minute more he was up into the first sturdy spreading branches, across which was a plank platform.

He made a fist to thump the planks. They seemed solid, so he edged onto them. There were no sides, so it wasn’t exactly a hut, but a frayed rope was tied almost horizontally from the trunk to a branch, as if someone long ago had stretched Boy Scout shelter halves into a tent.

A tent, though, would ruin the view. He could see across the meadow to the house, which was surprisingly diminished. The chimney didn’t seem at all high. The art teacher had recently taught them about perspective, which he hadn’t quite understood but now suddenly did.

A tent might also make his secret tree place more visible. If Mother were to come out in the yard just now, he would see her, but she would be unaware of his watching. If he were to shout, she might hear him but not know where the sound came from, and if he ducked back to lie flat on the platform she would not see him. If she shouted at him, it would not matter.

He wished she would come out so he could try it, and then immediately thought no, that might ruin the secret.

He felt confident now, and rolled onto his back to consider climbing higher. This tree must surely shoulder above all others in the forest, so the view would be magnificent. There were no more ladder-boards, though, and he was wearing his slippery-soled school shoes. This was Friday, so tomorrow morning he could wear rubber-soled sneakers.

Getting down proved harder than climbing up, because he had to grope with his feet for each board step, but he was by now certain that he would not fall.“Did you have a nice walk?” Mother asked coolly when he got home.

“Yes, thank you.” It occurred to him that by apologizing he might avoid being quizzed about where he’d gone. “I’m sorry I made a fuss about the peanut butter sandwich.”

“You’re a good boy.” She gave him a hug, and went back to making supper.

The real fuss had been at school, in the cafeteria. Peter and Harry, eighth grade bullies, came by just as he took the sandwich from the paper bag. “What’s that?” Peter said. “Peanut butter?” He said it loud, so everyone could hear. “On brown bread? That’s little kid stuff.”

“You could have a hot dog or hamburger if you bought lunch,” Harry said, just as loud. “Real men like real meat.”

“He’s not a real man,” Peter said. “What are you, a faggot?” By now everyone was watching.

Troy tried to ignore them and took a bite, but felt his face getting red, because he wasn’t sure. He had wondered why he wasn’t more interested in girls. Wondered if he was different. The other boys in his class talked about girls all the time.

“He’s blushing!” Peter fairly shouted. “He IS a faggot!”

That was when Troy tipped the table over. It took all his strength, but he stood up as he pulled and it went over surprisingly easily.

Better yet, the edge smashed Peter’s foot. “You bastard!” he shouted. He tried to come around the table, but couldn’t.

“Help me lift this god-damned thing!” he snarled at Harry.

By then the teachers monitoring the lunchroom were hurrying over, and the policeman assigned to the school was just behind them. It was too late for Troy to just slip away.

“He attacked me!” Peter said. “I wasn’t doing a thing, and he threw the table at me!”

Every kid in the lunchroom knew that was a lie, but no one spoke up; they were afraid of bullies. So Troy was escorted unceremoniously to the principal’s office. He took some small satisfaction that two ambulance guys passed him in the hallway with a stretcher.

The principal made Troy wait while he went to see what had happened. “You’ve broken that boy’s foot,” he said when he came back. “Why did you do that?”

“They were teasing.”

“You can’t take a little teasing? What was it about?”

Troy didn’t want to get into the real reason, so he refused to say anything more. Finally the principal telephoned Mother and she had to come bring him home.

And he couldn’t tell her the real reason either. “It was because of your peanut butter sandwiches,” he lied. “I hate them!”

“You’ve never told me that,” Mother said. “I thought you liked them.”

“I don’t! So I threw the sandwich on the floor,” he invented, “and those two bullies tried to make me pick it up and eat it. It’s all your fault!” He was so angry, remembering how it had really been, that he was afraid he would cry.

Which was when she told him to go for a walk. And now that he had apologized, she’d forgotten to ask where he’d gone this afternoon.

She told Father about the school business when he got home, of course, so Troy had to go through it all again. But it came out differently. “Good for you, son,” Father said. “Standing up to bullies is a brave thing.”

So he went to bed feeling a little good about himself, but still wondering, and woke up early in the morning to go climb the tree again.

It was indeed the tallest in the forest, and from the uppermost branches he could see his school off in the valley. He rested a moment, feeling big with the rest of the world so small, and then started back down.

He had just reached the platform when he heard sounds at the foot of the tree. In a moment, Father’s head appeared at the top of the ladder.

“I see you found my tree hut,” he said as he clambered aboard.

“Oh, it’s yours? I wondered.”

“Your grandfather helped me build it, when I was about your age. I liked to be up here because it made all my problems seem smaller.”

“I know what you mean,” Troy said.

“Do you have problems?”

So he told Father about the faggot business in the cafeteria. “I don’t know if it’s true or not,” he said.

“Troy, you’re thirteen years old. Some of us take longer than others to feel an interest in the opposite sex. I was fifteen.”

“But suppose I am . . . suppose I’m gay?”

“I wouldn’t worry about that just yet. And if that’s how it turns out, so what? Nowadays, most of your friends won’t care.”

“Those two guys in the cafeteria would care.”

“You’re a brave young man, son. You showed that yesterday.” He paused, and looked up. “Have you climbed up to the highest branches yet?”

“Yes. I was just coming down when I heard you.”

“Climb up again.”

So he climbed to the very top, and Father called to him.

“Can you see the school?”

“Yes,” he called down.

“How big is it?”

“It’s tiny.”

“And if those two bullies were there this morning, how big would they be?”

Troy tried to imagine. “They would just be specks.”

“Exactly,” Father said. “Remember that.”

“You mean it’s a matter of perspective.”

“Exactly. Now come on down and we’ll go have breakfast.”

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