By Erica Hoffmeister
When I was a child, our tree grew so large its roots broke through the house’s foundation: a battle between bark and concrete, between nature and ingredients, recipes we’ve fashioned to mimic the strength of the earth. Its roots had grown wild, reaching in tiptoes and arm-length expanses to touch noses with other worlds, in order to ask if trees grow upside down on the other side. They ran deep under the earth, making pathways that tunneled through time like wormholes leading to different dimensions. But insects don’t need trees like families need houses (or so my father told us), and for this, it was all warranted.
My father took an axe—an element of the very thing it was made to destroy. He hit the tree once, twice, for several hours. His arms percolated with sweat, merging with bleeding sap of bark, and from the porch, we could not tell who was tree and who was man or who the axe betrayed first.
Their noses were pushed up against glass like three little pigs, streaks of bubbling drool sliding across the front window in cinematic drama. My three brothers watched wide-eyed as our father removed his flannel shirt, button by button, and scanned the tree up, down, up, down. Several minutes passed in anticipation; the syncopated beat of tobacco chew snapping and spitting kept my heart’s meter pounding through each wrinkle of bark. His eyes followed up to the tip-top of my favorite branch where I perched in a gargoyle stance. My own eyes found my little sister one level below me, her hands wound tightly around her mouth, holding in her silence.
His shirt fell to his feet.
He gripped the axe, each finger falling across the wooden handle as if playing the piano. It was an old axe, reddened with rust and splintering at the bottom, famous for digging holes in the palms of those unlucky enough to be punished with splitting wood. Not his hands, no—his skin calloused and thick as tree bark, he raised the axe over his head, let it rest on his shoulder for a moment, wrinkled his nose at the boys in the window, and swung. I felt the impact ripple and roar, growing in power as it resounded through each layer of tertiary branches that no longer seemed as sturdy a fortress as we first trusted. We trembled in a sudden sharp fear, which reddened our faces and whitened our grips. Thunderclap followed thunderclap, the axe finding home in the deeper and deeper crevice each time. My sister bellowed beneath her breath, my father unstoppable.
I was a warrior. In a blood oath alliance to my tree given in every scrape, every splinter. Every summer’s day spent through bites of sweet slopping peaches under the shade of its thick leaves; every board ripped from the dilapidated shed out back and nailed to its trunk by my hand; every bird’s nest prudently placed and protected by my heart. Surrender or sacrifice, my soul had been spoken for.
As the bark began to bleed, out palms stuck in sap and glued into an immovable grip. One final blow rested in the bark’s crevice, a tremor unsticking Ruth’s hands in silence.
My young sister tumbled midair in a cloud of slow movement, scratching at the sky, pulling leaves to her chest in desperate tufts. Wails released themselves from the prison pits of her tiny body. At once, she lay crumpled at the roots of the tree, bone erupting from her forearm like a stick in the mud. Her face became white as milk, trickling blood as red as my father’s eyes. The drop seemed a swift mile when she fell, but for me, only a moment.
My wrist twisted in my father’s sun-hardened hand, pulling my bones apart as he dragged me diagonally, the balls of my feet digging trenches behind us across the dirt driveway. Tossed hard into the back of our blue Buick, a heavy door slammed against my body as a cinder block cell wall, my throat choking on defeat in thick gurgles. He sauntered back to the base of the tree and scooped up Ruth’s poor, limp body, draping her softly across his broad shoulders. She was a causality of war. And in her alliance, it was I who would be held responsible.
Ruth lay gently in the front seat on my mother’s lap, the three boys and I urgently squeezed in the back. Over rocks and potholes, we drove away. My body motionless as I watched my father slog the axe and head back to the tree. We turned the corner onto the road. Him, a blur of movement as he swung again.
It took nine hours to chop down the tree.
Once it had fallen, he tied cables to the thicker branches and used the tractor to pull it to the back of the house. It sat in three pieces next to the woodpile. Then, he took a shovel and dug deep around the remaining stump between the immense root system that shot in every direction in the dirt. With a pickaxe, he broke through fibers that had fed the tree for decades. He used his own weight for leverage to snap and tear its ligaments with a crowbar, then pulling the stump from the ground in grunted heaves. I wondered if he noticed how much it bled, how the ants retreated into the soil in search for a new home. He had developed new blisters in his hands. Muscles ached in victory.
The old splintered axe leaned against the trunk, inviting.
If I crawled in the space where the tree used to be, I can hear it breathing—a ghost of lingering dust so small we can only taste it if the breeze is still. I sat in gaps of time, waiting for it to return with our tongues reaching toward one another’s to China, to Antarctica, to space. To stars, where planets grow their own trees, versions of axes held upside down, houses too soft to rebuild when the roots keep growing.