The story begins when a pine cone raises its knuckles and abandons its nuts, losing them to the birds and the chipmunks and the wind, only one of them taking hold in the earth. This is in spring, in central Oregon, after the powdery snow has turned to a hard rain that makes the rabbit brush go yellow and the cheat grass go green and sends floods of brackish water surging through the canyons.
This particular nut, buried and dampened by the rain, opens softly to release a green-tipped stem that, like a finger pointing the way, uncurls and stiffens and presses its way upward until it breaks the soil and takes in the warm air and the warm sun, so thrilled by them both that it grows three inches that day and three more the next. Its roots mine the soil, burrowing downward, extending like capillaries, drinking up all the precious moisture and gobbling up all the nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, knocking aside any worms or grubs in their path, feeding, feeding, feeding off everything so that several other nuts can find no sustenance and wither and eventually break down into particles the tree consumes also.
It is so hungry.
And so the tree grows, and growth remains its principle concern. It is a ponderosa, thick-waisted, towering in height, with three-needled fingers and scab-colored scales of bark with black lining the crevasses between them. For so many years its branches stretch skyward and its roots grope downward and it drinks with great appetite, allowing no neighbors except sagebrush and cheat grass, knowing no company except for the turkey vultures that roost in its branches and the ants and the beetles that scuttle in and out of its bark and the occasional cow that takes rest in its shade.
The cows—and the tree for that matter—belong to a family named Moss that for several generations has ranched this acreage. When the old man, Samuel, doesn’t wake up one morning—his eyes open, one of them reddened by a starburst of blood—his family begins to parcel up the land to sell to developers who build on two-acre lots homes of a similar neo-colonial design, with rustic touches such as river-rock façades and wideboard hardwood flooring. Big bay windows look out over the patchwork of sage flats and alfalfa fields that stretch on to the upthrust of the Cascade Mountains.
Though the tree at first views the front-end loader and the concrete truck and the flat-bed carrying lumber and the big-bellied men wearing tool-belts as invasive, and though it at first spits sap and drops pinecones like bombs and shifts its woodgrain into a groaning complaint when anyone comes too close, really, the tree is cautiously interested, after so many years of nothing but the birds and the bugs for company. It has not realized up to this point its loneliness as a kind of hunger.
Its hunger—once consigned to sunlight and rain and those nutrients underground—suddenly transforms when one day a moving truck followed by a bullet-shaped car crawls up the driveway. The car door kicks open to reveal a little girl with hair the color and curl of wood shavings. There is a mother and father, of course, but the tree sees only the girl, when immediately she runs to it and balances on a snakelike root and places a warm, little hand on its trunk and asks her father if he might hang a swing from one of the branches. Aside from a construction worker who crushed out a cigarette against its bark, this is the tree’s first human contact, as welcome as a warm rain. It trembles its needles and moans with pleasure.
“It’s talking to me,” the little girl says.
Soon a swing with yellow ropes dangles from one of the lower- reaching branches and nearly every day the girl pumps her legs and bends her body to reach higher and higher as if she hopes to toe the clouds from the sky. She reads books in its shade. She plays with her dolls and stuffed animals in the tangle of its roots. Nights, it scritches at her window to get her attention, pleasuring in the way she startles, her eyes wide, her arms out before her and then falling to her side, relieved, when she realizes it was only a branch, only the tree.
In the winter, her father pulls from the garage a box full of blinking colored lights and wraps them around the tree’s trunk and up along its branches. The tree doesn’t mind, not when it sees her mouth open with wonder, her eyes a glimmering reflection of the lights, the tree, as though it is inside her, a part of her.
When the wind blows, the tree dances—its branches bending—and sings—its needles hissing, its trunk moaning, crick-crack—for her. As a child the girl claps and giggles. And then as a teenager she gives a half-smile and maybe hums something back at the tree before turning to a magazine, her phone. She still swings, but lazily, her bare feet and painted nails gently scuffing the ground, its roots, an almost caress.
After so many years she knows the tree and the tree knows her.
And then one day she is gone. She has left before—usually for a weekend, sometimes for a week, even two—vacationing in Mexico or Florida, returning to the tree with her skin smelling of salt and coconut oil and glowing from too much sun—but never for this long and never at this time of year, when the alfalfa is reaped, when the aspen’s leaves go golden. Without the girl, the mother and the father continue to watch television in the living room, to carry groceries out of the trunk of their car, as if nothing has changed. The air begins to grow cooler and when the wind rises the tree sheds many of its needles and empty cones like tears.
In a hollow where a woodpecker once burrowed for grubs there is now a wasp nest, and the tree threatens to crush the larvae into a yellow paste if the wasps do not do as the tree bids and find the girl, find her. In a buzzing rush they rise from the hollow and follow so many roads and wind currents to peer into cars and houses and caves alike, hunting for her. Two weeks later one of them returns to the tree—its wings tattered, its stinger limp from a run-in with a robin—sputtering out the news that it has found the girl, faraway from here, over the mountains, in a dormitory on the University of Oregon campus.
Of course the tree does not understand why she has left, only that she has left, has begun another life away from here. The tree wishes that its roots could uncoil, that it could slither like a wooden octopus across the many miles that separate them presently and deposit itself outside her window and scritch at the glass and earn once more the warmth of her smile.
But it cannot, so it schemes other ways to earn her attention, hurrying the sap through its system and opening its buds a season early to send spores to the wind. They follow a maze of updrafts and downdrafts to finally find her, constellations of pollen arranging themselves on her window like a foreign alphabet whose letters she does not understand. She wipes them away with a damp paper towel, and when they reappear the next day she wipes them away again.
The tree seizes a crow and whispers splintery threats into its ear and sends it off with a nut tucked like a jewel under its black feathers to carry over the forested foothills, the snow-capped Cascades, the green expanse of the Willamette Valley, where it finally swoops down onto the campus. Outside a brick dormitory, on a lawn shaped like a half moon, the crow pecks a hole and deposits the nut and then goes fluttering past her window, a black cackling shadow. The soil here is rich and dark and almost immediately the nut cracks open and begins its probing ascent, like a periscope, to spy the girl, to seek her out. But on the third day a shirtless man in jean cut-offs sits on the seedling and strums his guitar and sings folk songs off-key for a good two hours. And on the fifth day a lawnmower growls across the lawn and lops off the green shoot of its head.
The tree’s bark begins to darken and grow knotty. It feels betrayed. Its branches twist. Its roots curl. Spiders and beetles scuttle in and out of it. A vulture roosts in its crown and screeches all night its rusty music.
Winter comes. The sky goes gray. Ice cobbles the ditches. Frost creeps across windows of the house and the figures inside become blurred shadows. The sagebrush and the rabbit brush wither into dry wigs. The ants and the wasps die with their eggs and become the food of next season. Geese fly south in flocks the shape of a spearhead.
When the first snow falls, the tree knows the father will soon drag from the garage the box full of colored lights to weave around its branches. And he does. And the tree is ready. A ragged crack is the only warning before a branch the size of a missile falls from above and crushes the father’s skull, a red smear on white snow. Legs twitch. Colored lights blink. The tree pleasures in the taste of the blood that warms its roots.
And the girl comes home, as the tree knew she would. She looks different somehow. Her face squarer. Her body longer. Her hair a different color, the yellow of the mullen flower. Her black clothes match the black bags beneath her eyes. She stands for a long time looking at the tree. A wind rises and the tree dances for her, waving its branches, moaning out a song. She does not clap or smile. If anything her face grows more pinched and severe. She goes into the garage and emerges a moment later, not with a fistful of lights, but a chainsaw. She yanks the cord and it belches out a cloud of black smoke before settling into a full-throated growl.
The tree does not fight the blur of its toothy blade, even as sawdust covers the ground like newly fallen snow, even as it bleeds and weeps trails of sap, so hungry for her final touch, its loneliness repaired.
Benjamin Percy is the author of three novels, the most recent among them The Dead Lands (Grand Central/Hachette, April 2015), a post apocalyptic reimagining of the Lewis and Clark saga. He is also the author of Red Moon (Grand Central/Hachette, May 2013) and The Wilding (Graywolf Press, 2010), as well as two books of short stories, Refresh, Refresh (Graywolf Press, 2007) and The Language of Elk (Grand Central/Hachette, 2012; Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2006).
His craft book — Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction — will be published by Graywolf Press in October of 2016. And his next novel, The Dark Net, is due out in 2017 with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
His fiction and nonfiction have been read on National Public Radio, performed at Symphony Space, and published by Esquire (where he is a contributing editor), GQ, Time,Men’s Journal, Outside, The Wall Street Journal, The Paris Review, McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, and Tin House. He also writes the Green Arrow series at DC Comics.