Once there was a tree that stood on a hill overlooking a town.
The tree was lovely, with gnarled roots that twisted over pillows of mossy soil.
Its strong branches waved glossy green leaves in the summer
and scattered canary-yellow leaves in the fall.
But the tree was always waiting.

For in the town below, which was full of tiny houses with bright blue shutters
and stout chimneys that led to warm fireplaces,
and fenced yards that held dogs that never bit anyone and liked to bark,
but only to say ‘hello,’
the children lived.

The children played ball together in the streets
and hunted for grasshoppers in the fields.
And loved to climb trees.

The tree watched over the town and the dogs and the children.
Showering the field with leaves each fall.
Offering shade each summer that no one used.

Until one day, the children climbed the hill and found the tree.
They perched in its strong branches.
They wondered at the silver roots erupting from the soft, green moss.
And they escaped the heat of the field in the tree’s cool shade.

The tree was happy.
The children were happy.

Then early one morning, some children slipped from their houses one by one.
They wore bright, red scarves tied around their heads as they climbed the hill.
Silent. Determined.
Mouths set in hard lines.
Eyes darting back at the town every few steps.

They carried buckets and hammers and nails and boards
and a sign that said “Keep Out” in dripping paint.
The children nailed the sign to the tree’s bark.
Then they broke off the tree’s lower branches.

“This tree is ours,” they said, swinging the naked branches around their heads
with a whistling sound that made the tree shudder.
“Of course, I’m yours,” the tree wanted to tell them.
“I’ve been waiting for you.”

Soon, the other children in the town woke and ate their breakfasts,
and climbed the hill to see their tree.
The angry children were waiting.
They swung their branches, hitting the others.
“This is our fort,” they shouted. “Go away!”

Surprised and frightened, the other children ran back to town.
The angry children seemed happy with this.
They spent the day nailing more boards into the tree
and putting up more signs in a circle around its roots.
“I’m not a fort,” the tree tried to say but couldn’t.

Early the next morning, more children returned.
All wore the red scarves tied around their heads.
They didn’t play together in the tree like they used to though.
Instead, they talked about who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’
and who was in charge.
“In charge of what?” the tree wanted to ask but couldn’t.

As the sun rose higher over the field, the other children returned.
One boy with glasses and a squint tried talking to the angry children.
They chased him off.
A group of girls brought them plates of cookies.
They took the cookies and chased the girls off too.

Finally, late in the day, a throng of children left the town and climbed the hill to the tree.
Silent. Determined.
Mouths set in hard lines.
Eyes darting back at the town every few steps.

This time, they didn’t bring cookies.
They carried sticks broken off of other trees instead.
The children fought.
They hit each other with the sticks.
They called one another names that would have made the tree laugh
if it didn’t make it so sad.

The children fought over the tree until the sun went down.
And then one by one, they were called home by stern voices.
“Come back,” the tree wanted to say. “Come back and enjoy my shade and swing from my strong branches,” but couldn’t.

Because the pillows of mossy soil around its roots were trampled to dirt.
Its bark was stripped.
Its branches were snapped and hung at awkward angles.
Its leaves were scattered prematurely.
“Keep Out” signs formed a prickly circumference around it.

The tree waited through the long night for the sun to rise again
for the children to return, even the angry ones with the red scarves.
A few did — the ones who liked to talk about who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out.’
But most of the children didn’t return.
Not the next day or the day after that.

Before long, even the angry children lost interest in the tree.
It was no longer beautiful.
Its sturdy branches had all been broken off in the fight.
It offered no one shade from the hot sun.

The children went back to playing ball in the town.
The tree went back to watching from a distance.

Then one night,
after the sun had set,
and the moon had risen,
a single figure left the town.
It climbed the hill without looking back.

When the figure grew closer,
the tree saw that it was the boy with the glasses and the squint.
He had tried to talk with the angry children
and they had chased him away.

The boy walked up to a sign and kicked it over.
He stared down at the sign a long time.
Then he went to the next sign and did the same, and the next, and the next.
Finally, he tore the sign off the trees’ trunk.

Then the boy sat down on the ground,
with all of the signs broken around him,
and cried.

The tree stood over the boy and listened to his tears without understanding.
“I’m not a fort,” the tree wanted to say, “I’m your tree.”
But the boy could no longer see the tree through his tears.
After a while, the boy stood and walked back to the town,
and he never looked back.

One by one the children grew up and moved away.
Slowly, season by season, the tree recovered and grew stronger.
The boards rotted or were absorbed by the trees’ ever expanding trunk.
The nails rusted. Termites and bugs ate the signs.

The moss around the trees’ roots grew back, thicker and softer than before.
New branches sprouted from the tree’s trunk, grew leaves, and lost them.
The tree stood on the hill and watched the town.
It watched new children play and listened to the dogs calling ‘hello.’

It spread out its shade in the hot summers
and scattered its golden leaves in the fall.
And waited.

Visit Christa at ChristaCHogan.com. 

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