Published by Two Sisters, a prizewinner, in November 2020
“Owwch!” The tulip tree groaned when the arrow hit it, piercing the wrinkled bark and imbedding itself half the length of the arrowhead.
Howard was not an imaginative teen-ager. His best subject was math, and he planned to go out for cross-country instead of football because he had difficulty visualizing plays and remembering where to go. And at this moment he had difficulty imagining a tree talking to him. Still—improbable though it was—he was certain he’d heard a cry of pain.
“Did you hear that, Peter?”
“The tree. I hurt it.”
Peter was even less imaginative. Their English teacher had them read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and he thought the headless horseman so stupid an idea that it ruined the story. “Sure you did, Howie. You want a Band-Aid?”
“Honest, I heard it! When my arrow hit.”
“All right. Suppose I hit it again, and we’ll both listen.” Peter laughed sardonically as he pulled an arrow from his quiver and notched it on the bowstring.
“Stop!” Howard stepped forward to block his view of the tree. “Don’t hurt it again!”
The two had invented the game to amuse themselves in after-school ramblings through Gardner’s Woods. They were eighth graders, both tall and strong for their age, looking forward to high school sports but meantime enjoying Scouting and outdoor activities: skiing in winter, boating in summer, hiking and camping year-round.
They called it arrow horseshoes because they scored it that way: one point for an arrow that landed within a bow’s length of the target tree, two points if it leaned or lay against a tree or exposed root, and three if it stuck, as Howard’s had, imbedded in the trunk, quivering. They called that a ringer.
In those days, before the city began sprawling outward, it was a forest primeval, almost a square mile, thick with trees of every kind. Peter’s family lived in a former farmhouse on the northern edge of the woods, on an unpaved road. Howard’s lived on the southern edge, on a half-street whose pavement didn’t go beyond their home, the fifth and final modest two-story house starting up a hill.
They took turns getting off the school bus at each other’s homes—wherever they’d left the bows and arrows the last time. After milk and cookies, they would set off through the woods to the other’s home, playing the game. They’d agree on a target tree, take turns shooting first, walk to the tree to see how they’d scored, then pick the next target tree. It was typically a half-hour’s walk through the woods, maybe a bit more.
They used the walks as occasion to learn to identify by name every tree they aimed at. There were hemlocks, pines, spruces, swamp maples and sugar maples, red and black and white oaks, birches both grey and white, aspens, tamaracks, sycamores, beeches, even a few chestnuts and shagbark hickories.
Naming trees was as close as Peter got to literary accomplishment. His father worked in the factory on the edge of town; his mother was busy at home with a half-dozen of his siblings; his family went to the First Presbyterian Church maybe twice a year; and his fondest wish was to get a job in the factory. Howard, by contrast, was the only child of a school librarian and a family-practice lawyer; he aspired to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His family attended the Unitarian Church almost every week. He never told his parents about that tulip tree—lest they suggest, only half in jest, that he look into Buddhism or some other exotic philosophy.
This was the first time they’d targeted the tulip tree. It was surely the tallest in the forest, and one of the stoutest: Together they could barely get their arms around it. It had grown up in a forest section so dense that all lower branches had been stunted and died back for lack of sunlight. That made it a bold, undecorated column almost up to the total height of neighboring trees before leafing out above the rest.
And it apparently didn’t like being targeted.
Howard ran up to the tree. Peter shrugged, put the arrow back in his quiver, and strolled up to join him.
The tree groaned when the arrow was yanked out of its flesh.
“What was that?”
“You heard it this time, didn’t you?”
“Nah. It was just the wind.”
“Do you feel any wind, Peter? I don’t.”
“It’s up above. Look at the branches blowing in it.”
Howard put his hand on the coarse trunk. “Feel it! It’s vibrating like a string of your guitar. I think it’s shaking its head at us.”
Peter wasn’t a metaphor kind of kid, but he reached out his hand gingerly. “It’s the wind.”
“Do you see any other trees blowing in the wind?”
“This one’s taller than the rest.”
That was true, but Howard was sure the others would also show some motion if it were windy up above. Still, he felt strange, as though having succumbed to a foolish superstition, maybe like Washington Irving. He certainly didn’t want to get into an argument about it, lest it become something Peter might tease him about among the other kids. “Never mind,” he said. “You pick the next target.”
“Okay.” Peter pointed. “I think that’s a pin oak over there. Am I first this time?”
“All yours.” The tree Peter had picked was closer than they usually chose. Howard kept his hand on the trunk of the tulip tree, which had stopped vibrating.
Peter drew back, the bow shaping into the familiar, tense arc, and let it go. “A ringer!” he exulted.
The tulip tree began shaking again. “Feel this!” Howard said.
Peter took a few steps, put his hand on the trunk, and looked up. “Wind again.”
“Funny, it just began when your arrow hit the oak.”
“So what’s your theory? You think it feels when something hits other trees? C’mon!”
“Maybe it’s the big daddy of the forest, Peter. Like it’s looking out for the children. It’s big enough.”
“Tell you what. You keep your hand on the trunk, and I’ll take my shot.”
“Okay. I’m three points up on you.”
Howard stepped away, notched his best arrow, and drew partway back, not aiming yet. “Has the tulip tree stopped shaking?”
“Yeah. Get on with it.”
He drew all the way back, relishing the tension in his shoulder, and aimed at the same oak, focusing on a spot just above Peter’s arrow. Suddenly the thought hit him: He was about to wound another tree; perhaps he should aim at the ground beside the tree. But it was too late; his shoulder was beginning to feel the pain of sustaining the draw. He released the arrow, and it buried itself just above Peter’s.
“It’s . . . . The wind’s up again.” Something in Peter’s voice was different as he looked up. Howard followed his gaze. The top of the tree was convulsed as though hit by a hurricane, but they felt not the slightest breeze where they stood.
Howard put his hand on the trunk next to Peter’s; the vibrations were unmistakable. “That’s a pretty big tree to tremble like that.”
“Mr. Quinn said in science class that some tall buildings sway a couple of feet in a high wind. That must be a big wind up there.”
“Or else Daddy Tree is shaking his head. Let’s try that again.”
It struck Howard that his friend didn’t want any more evidence, but he was insistent. “Once more!”
“Okay.” Peter’s reluctance was unmistakable.
Stepping away from the tulip, Howard chose a white birch for a target, notched another arrow, and looked over. “Vibrations stopped?”
He fired. Another ringer. He looked up. The top of the tulip tree was dancing again. And lucky he’d looked up, because just then a branch broke out of the crown and started down.
“Peter, get away!” He was for a moment tongue-tied, but found more words: “Quick! Don’t look up, run to me!”
Luckily, the branch hung up for maybe a second or two on the branch of another tree. Peter had jumped just in time, and it landed behind him, a leafless, branching tangle that looked almost like a sculpture made of multiple deers’ antlers. It was maybe six feet long. “Holy shit!” he said.
Howard was as shaken. “Do you think the tree threw it down?”
Peter stubbornly refused to consider the obvious. “Probably hit by lightning long ago, sitting up there dead,” he said. His voice was as flat as though he were reciting some book-learning in science class. “A wind gust had to bring it down sooner or later.”
Howard didn’t want to pick a fight. “Funny when those wind gusts come,” was all he said.
“C’mon,” Peter said. “Let’s get going. I’ll pick that tall pine.” He notched an arrow, cocked the bow, and missed the tree by ten feet.
Not a coincidence, Howard thought to himself. He aimed and fired, but was obviously intending at best leaner, not a ringer. They walked up, and found that neither of their arrows had landed within a bow’s length of the target. They both looked back at the tulip tree, which seemed to stand impassively.
They didn’t talk much the rest of the way. They took turns picking target trees, and fairly often one of them scored a point for landing within a bow’s length – but neither of them hit a tree or even got close enough to score a leaner. It wasn’t accidental on either boy’s part.
They’d taken longer than usual, so when they arrived at Howard’s house, Peter decided to skip the usual second cookie-and-milk and start home.
Both of them always went home through Gardner’s Woods, because going by road was more than twice as long. This afternoon, without saying anything, Peter went out the front door and headed toward the road. “See you in the morning!” he called with what seemed forced cheerfulness.
The next day, both of them stayed for an after-school activity, took the late bus, and said it was too late for a game in the woods. And the next day. And the next.
In fact, they never played arrow horseshoes again. The giant tulip tree, neither wanted to say out loud, had taught them a lesson. Peter insisted the problem was that the forest was full of dead snags caught up in the treetops, and so was more dangerous than they’d known.
Both their families moved away soon after they graduated high school. Howard got into MIT, and Peter ended up joining the Army and then getting a factory job in another state when he mustered out. By the time they came back for their tenth reunion, they learned that Gardner’s Woods had been developed into a large tract of expensive housing. One of their classmates, Arnie, who’d gone to work for that developer, took them out for a look.
They’d done a nice a nice job, saving enough of the trees that every house was nestled in a cocoon of foliage. There was no sign of the tulip tree, though. Peter asked: “Wasn’t there a huge tulip that stood out above the rest?”
“Had to cut it down,” Arnie said. “Its crown must have been full of lightning-struck dead branches. It got to be dangerous to walk under it.”
Howard perhaps shouldn’t have been surprised at Peter’s next question, but it took him aback. Peter, the skeptic: “Did those dead branches tend to fall when you were cutting down other trees to clear for another house?”
“I’ll be darned,” Arnie said. “How’d you guess that?”