HOLLOW JAKE • by Douglas Campbell

In October of 1768, a beech nut, one among thousands, fell to earth on Dorsey Ridge, in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Through countless blessings of fortune, it found its way below the leaf mold, into dark, moist earth. There it sprouted and began to grow.

One night in June, 1931, Harry and Eva Nevers of Somerset County joined their bodies in love. Through countless blessings of fortune, one sperm struggled to its goal in Eva’s Fallopian tube. In March, 1932, Carl Nevers entered the world.

By then the beech nut on Dorsey Ridge had grown into a towering tree, its trunk four feet in diameter. Lightning had struck the beech tree in 1874, the damage resulting in a slow rot that eventually hollowed out a chamber in the lower trunk big enough for a young boy to sit in. That’s exactly what eight-year-old Carl Nevers did, when, while wandering on Dorsey Ridge, he ducked inside the beech’s hollow trunk to escape a summer thunderstorm.

“Clever lad,” the tree said. Thunder boomed and rolled. “Rough weather today!”

“Hey,” Carl said, “how can you talk to me? You’re just a tree.”

“How can you talk to me? You’re just a boy.”

“I don’t know.”

“Empathy,” the tree said. “You feel the wind in your hair and the sun on your face, don’t you?”

“Of course I do, silly you.”

“As do I, wise guy. We’re alive in the very same world. We can empathize.”

On the beech tree’s trunk, Carl found a face in cracked bark and puckered lumps left over from branches long gone. The face looked like his grandfather, Jake Nevers, so Carl named the tree ‘Hollow Jake’.

Hollow Jake became Carl’s best friend. As a boy, Carl visited Jake every day during the summer when school was out. Sometimes on cold winter nights, Carl, full of empathy, snuck out of his house to go build a fire in Jake’s hollow trunk.

“Ooh, nice,” Jake would say. “Toasty! Be careful, though – don’t burn me up!”

As a teenager, Carl often brought his girlfriends to visit Hollow Jake. Sometimes Carl would kiss those girls, and at such times, Jake had the sense not to say anything. But the kisses he witnessed warmed him like the fires. When Carl came alone, though, Jake offered his advice.

“That Susannah’s a winner, Carl,” Jake said one day. “Such gorgeous lips — you should marry that girl!”

“Little out of your comfort zone there, Jake,” Carl said. “What do trees know about girls?”

“I know when I see Susannah I feel like I have squirrels in my branches.”

“Squirrels aren’t girls,” Carl said. “Don’t the squirrels annoy you?”

“Not a bit,” Jake said. “They make me shivery as a breeze with their tickly little claws.”

As a grown man, Carl grew restless, eager to see a bigger world. He went one day to say farewell to Hollow Jake.

“Don’t you ever wish you could jerk loose and go somewhere new?” Carl asked.

“I can go as far as I need to,” Jake said.

“Jake, you can’t go anywhere. You have roots.”

“I’m a tall tree high on a ridge top. I can see a long way. Why would I need to go farther than that? Makes no difference how far you travel. What matters is how much you see.”

That made no sense to Carl. What a nightmare, trapped like that, stuck in one place for such a long life. How pitiful! But Jake was his friend, and Carl kept those thoughts to himself.

“I don’t know when I’ll see you again,” Carl said.

“Come whenever you can, lad.”

And so Carl’s life ran its course. Born in green hills, Carl dreamed of beaches. When he’d tasted beaches, he dreamed of snow. He built guitars, learned Russian and Japanese, swam in blue lagoons and walked on northern tundra, tireless in his passions, but ever restless in his bones. He loved, but always lost love or left it. He never slept in his own home, never fathered and hugged children of his own.

While Carl wandered, Hollow Jake stood his ground. Carl came only twice, when each of his parents died. On those occasions, Jake’s leaves would flutter, though no wind stirred. But for long stretches of years Jake missed Carl. Now and then he chafed at his roots, wished he could wrench free to go look for his friend. He missed Carl most on cold winter nights.

Every wanderer grows old, and wearies of the seas, skies, and roads that lead endlessly onward. The time came when Carl headed back to the green hills to live out his days. He could hardly wait to visit the truest friend he’d ever had. On his first day back he climbed Dorsey Ridge, moving slowly on legs worn out from having covered so much of this big world.

What he found brought a cry from Carl’s throat. Hollow Jake lay on the ground, his branches stretching far down the slope, roots torn from the earth and exposed, thick roots like the spokes of a madman’s wheel, fine feeder roots hanging in wind-tossed webs.

What could have happened? Jake had been a wounded tree, but mighty. Had he finally grown tired of his rooted life and loosened his grip on the earth? Carl hoped the simple truths of time and wind had toppled Hollow Jake, not the tortured yearning of restlessness or despair.

Carl sat on Hollow Jake’s trunk. Having once sheltered him from the rain, Jake now gave Carl a place to rest his exhausted legs. Carl ran his hand over Jake’s smooth bark. As a young man, he’d almost told Jake how pitiful he was, trapped in one place, tied to the earth by roots. Now Carl wished, more than he’d ever wished for anything, he could have told his friend how lucky he was.

Douglas Campbell‘s fiction has appeared online and in print, in publications such as Literary Potpourri, Flash Me Magazine, Every Day Fiction, Slow Trains Literary Journal, and Jabberwocky. Sometimes his writing wins prizes, too. He can’t seem to resist telling stories. Douglas lives and scribbles in southwestern Pennsylvania.

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