Fiction — “When Men Came”

“When Men Came” was published in the college mag Writ in Water in 2018. Enough time has passed that rights to the story have reverted back to me. Since the publication was only distributed on the Houston Baptist University campus, I thought I would share the story here to the internet. Spoilers: The narrative is about an oak tree in the Middle Ages.

When men came, they scratched against my brothers, kicking up a dust of innards, until I was surrounded by stumps. Then men removed the stumps.

I waited for the cutters to strike my knees but men must have feared the look of me. My gray shoulders, my nine arms, my armaments of acorn.

They burned the land.

I smelled the screams of grass—that fragrant wetness—before smoke. The fires ran up the bowl of the valley, and behind it men with long poles turned over char and removed the stones. If it reached me, the fire would burn across my flank, mutilate my face, but not kill me.

The fires stopped before the crest, and I was spared.

They were hard to spot—men. Blurs, fast as sparrows. Not that I wanted to look. I spent the days in sleep or enjoying the coats of sunlight tossed over my shoulders, ignoring the men, the snakes, the rats, ignoring new snow and new leaf.

Vegetables grew in the valley. If I wanted, I could see their human keepers, for they bent among the stalks, or crept. My children grew, too.

One day, herds of men approached. A band of colors. They killed the keepers and lit the vegetation. This time the fire was not a slinking thing through the bracken but a storm, and there was no one to stop its hot blow. The saplings, grown from my seed, their roots and my roots wound—those saplings disintegrated. The flames charred my leaves, left behind smoke stink and pain.

If I had ignored my hatred, it was revived in an instant. I was tempted to crack my joints and spear the next human who traveled across the hill. But there would be justice. Not in the way that I wanted, but there was justice.

The band returned. Green had sprayed across the black earth, but there were no new trees. Now the men were colors themselves—reds and yellows, blue-grays, their cloths bearing spots and squares and the shapes of things—eagles, badgers, trees. At first I took them to be birds. When I knew them to be men, I despaired.

The men waited. Then another band approached, and the two faced each other across the valley. A volley of branches flit the air. These were bones of wood, sharpened, foliage mocked by feathers. The bones stuck everywhere. Later I would fantasize about being stripped to splinters, to be tossed into man, to pin him to the earth, to grow, to set my roots to ribs, to wire around bone, to crush them beneath my weight.

Now bands met. The clash vibrated the rocks, and I watched men use cutters to fell other men. This was the limit of their minds. Soon the leafage of the bands was lost behind dark dusts and blood—that stain that seeps like sap.

Then I felt hot breath against my back. A man was swinging his cutter against another. A hand pressed my flank. I pushed back, and he fell. The man lost the foliage of his face, then heaved forward, screech mulling the air. His cutter did not miss.

The survivor stood a while, solitary as an owl. He touched his enemy carefully—not cloth or rock but flesh. For a moment I understood. Perhaps behind this wildness, there is a want for solace.

The man crawled to a view of the valley, and leaned against me, and was quiet. The bands broke to fragments—some turned and fled, slips of sparrows. The cutters were cleaned, exercise over. Some crept among the dead, fingers nimble, searching for small fruits. The man against me was not bothered.

The dead were buried like squirrel stores. Wilds returned. My children wove their roots around coins and cloths and cutters, and a few tasted the summation of soldiers.

The man returned. I did not know it was him until he sat at my knees, hand to the earth, where slept the skull of his enemy. I will never know if that enemy was kin, or if the man felt some affinity for his species—that same sympathy I have for oaks, for all trees, bracken and brambles.

Another sunless sky, and the man returned, this time with his cutter. He looked up at my tall branches, my nine arms, and put his cutter in the air. He hesitated long enough for me to see his foliage gray, eyes quiet as fox holes. Then he went away, and struck younger trees, and from their remains built a home. There he lived, and produced keepers like himself.

Seasons blue, and green, honeyed, ablaze, lusty, pale.

In idle mists, they buried him by my feet.

I have left him—undisturbed.