Copyright is held by the author.
“SAD, ISN’T it?” The old woman placed a hand on the crumpled grey bark. “The poor old thing has been standing here for centuries. Such a shame to see it go.”
“Yes, I know, but it’s dying. The whole top of it is dead,” said her daughter. “There are no leaves and every time there’s a high wind, there are twigs all over the green. We can’t take any chances. It has to come down sooner or later.”
“I wonder how old it is?” The boy looked up past the few remaining brown leaves on the huge horizontal lower branch of the old oak, the only limb left living, to the pigeons perched on its bare limbs at the top. “I bet it’s been here since forever.”
His mother replied, “My aunt told me about that scientist who came through last spring. He said it was hundreds of years old. He said if it were cut down, we could count the rings and see the whole history of the tree by the rings in its trunk.”
“Such a shame,” said the boy’s grandmother. “It’s been such a huge part of the village for so long that things won’t seem the same without it.” They turned away, the women with their minds on errands still to be run, the boy clearly looking for any opportunity to escape his elders that windy autumn afternoon.
The tree sighed, her leaves restlessly rustling in the growing gusts. She was so very tired. It was true. She was over a thousand years old, and in that time had seen and experienced much. She’d had a checkered history, not always one to engender pride, and now she just wanted to sleep forever. The first cold winds of winter had whistled through the village only last night, and she’d thought she could finally let go . . . simply not wake in the spring.
She dreamed, remembering her life as a sapling. Then, there had been no village, no people. Just forest for miles in every direction. She recalled the day her life had changed, her lower limb becoming misshapen. She’d been about twelve feet high and was very proud of herself, having just grown a new tip on her crown, She’d been basking in the bright spring sunlight when a pigeon had landed just there. “Oh,” she clearly remembered thinking, “please don’t break it off. I’ll be all bent and ugly.”
The pigeon had cooed to his mate in the branches of a pine some yards away, and stepped carefully away from her new growth. Then, out of nowhere, a falcon had swooped down on the bird, just missing him as he flapped his frantic way to safety, but at the very bottom of the falcon’s stoop, his cruel talons snagged on the tree’s tender tip and broke it off.
She remembered her pain, thinking she’d be misshapen for the rest of her life, which as things turned out, was precisely what happened. She had one strong limb growing sideways, about ten feet off the ground, while the rest of her body twisted away from it, eventually finding its way to the light. From that day onward, she’d been bent to one side, less than perfect.
Over the years, she became accustomed to her odd shape, even proud of it. Different from all the other oak trees, she never gained the height they did, but she was strong and sturdy.
When she was about 600 years old, the men came to her part of the forest. Sadly she watched as they cleared the land and cut down the tall, straight trees all around her for lumber to be used for masts in their ships, rooftrees for their homes, the smaller branches to be burned for warmth and comfort for their families. Finally, she found herself alone, surrounded by a large, open, grassy area which eventually became the village green as the settlement grew around her. A willing participant in the life of the village, she shared their daily lives – the crumbs from their picnics as the people sat in her shade, the dogs sniffing around her roots, and always, every day the pigeons perched in her branches, raising generations of their young.
Often there were hard times — years when there wasn’t enough rain and the people struggled to feed themselves, but her sturdy roots, sunk deep, deep into the soil, kept her green when all other vegetation shriveled. There were times when plague struck the village and she could do nothing but offer her shade to help them as they lay dying under her branches. All too often, war, anger and hatred overtook them, their lifeblood feeding her roots, and while she’d grown and thrived from the nourishment they offered her, she hated that they had to die so she could live. She’d given her life to the village, but now that life was nearing its end.
She had one last task to do before they came with their cold hard steel. Carefully, she released an acorn to fall onto the soil, down among her roots. She dropped several leaves to cover and protect it. It was the best she could do. In the morning, the men were coming to cut her down.
She had hoped they would let her die quietly over the winter, but she feared the axes. They said she was no longer needed. They said she was an eyesore, that she’d outlived her usefulness. The branch that had defined her life was now a reminder of their ugly history. The old hanging tree had to go.
The autumn wind picked up. She was ready. The ancient oak raised her branches to its embrace one final time and let herself go. With a mighty crack, her last living branch broke off and crashed to the ground, driving the acorn deep into the soil. When the seasons turned again to spring, it would germinate, growing strong and straight where once the Hanging Oak had stood. It would carry on her long tradition of service to the people of the town, and even though she would never see it, the new young tree would once again give refuge to her beloved pigeons.