MARKING THE TIME • by Caetlin Witbrod

There is a young tree who lives near the edge of a forest. He is small — a side effect of his age — and he has very few branches. But his leaves are a gorgeous shade of bright green, and his soul is full of youthful desire and optimism.

Not far from this young tree resides a stately old tree. His large branches are plentiful. He has weathered many seasons, and he is tired. He eyes the young tree and can’t help feeling a little jealous of the way his branches effortlessly spring toward the sky, unencumbered by the weight of a lifetime of leaves.

The young tree watches the old tree, too. He admires the old tree’s beautiful leaves and strong branches while growing self-conscious and overly aware of his baldness. “When will I get leaves and branches like that?” he often wonders. He dreams of the day when the wind will rush through the forest causing his branches to shake and his leaves to rustle, creating a magnificent concerto. But reality is never as kind. The wind he hears now doesn’t sing. It laughs, mocking him and chilling his naked trunk.

Year by year, the young tree grows. His roots spread further underground and his branches multiply, extending his ownership and declaring his worth to the rest of the forest. His dreams are coming true at last.

The old tree watches as the young tree sticks out his new branches with pride. When the wind comes, the old tree stands perfectly still while the young tree waves gleefully. The old tree smiles to himself, remembering his youth and how he had longed to sway freely in the wind. It was all he could think about for much of his adolescence. Once such an important aspiration, that desire for freedom now seems absurd.

Meanwhile, the young tree has grown so happy he doesn’t notice the old tree anymore. He no longer stares at him, yearning to be more like him. He is in his prime now, and he knows these are his best days. But sometimes, on particularly cold nights, when the wind is gnawing into him and the darkness seems like it will never lift, his confidence wavers. He steals a look at the old tree once more, and he notices the old tree doesn’t dance.

The young tree focuses all of his energy on the old tree until his brief observation gives way to obsession, and he notices the old tree never dances. This lack of dancing deeply disturbs the young tree. He cannot understand why the old tree would refuse one of life’s greatest pleasures. “Maybe he just needs the right kind of wind,” the young tree assures himself. But time passes, seasons change, and every kind of wind imaginable blows through the forest, and still the old tree is unmoved.

As the young tree ponders the meaning of all of this and wonders if he, too, will stop dancing in the wind one day, he notices a human crossing into the forest. This human isn’t like those the young tree has met before. They come with backpacks and walking sticks. This one carries neither, and his only companion is a can of orange paint. The young tree looks at the old tree, forever his ruler, to gauge how he should react.

The old tree stiffens. He is no stranger to humans like this, and he has seen the lasting effects of their work. As a young tree, he welcomed them. They made it easier for trees like him to establish their place in the forest. But time has altered his feelings. With every visit from these men, the forest’s border shifts further inward, and he knows it will soon be drawn without him.

The man whistles cheerfully while he walks, pausing only to decorate another tree. The old tree now bears his mark, and the young tree — still too young to understand — feels a flash of childish jealousy burning in him once more. He hates the feeling, but it consumes him, rising through his trunk, singeing his leaves. He does everything he can to get the man’s attention; he is desperate for that beautiful orange tattoo. He dances and waves and shakes his leaves as loudly as possible, but the man just ignores him. The young tree pouts, choking on the smoke of inadequacy, and the man leaves the forest.

The next day the man returns, but this time there are others with him. The forest is bloated with humans, and they all carry big shining machines. The noise these machines make is unlike anything the young tree has ever heard. They sound like power: mighty, god-like, and untamed. Despite his heartache at being rejected, the young tree is still fascinated by them and eager to watch them work. One by one, these visitors walk up to the trees with orange paint and fire up their machines. They place the shiny metal pieces against the trunks and tear through them. The young tree is horrified as he realizes what it means to be chosen.

As he has done so many times before, the young tree looks at the old tree in search of guidance. The old tree remains completely still until it is almost too late. Then, as if something has awakened in him, his branches clutch at the light breeze, and he begins to sway softly. He is slow and awkward at first as he struggles to remember how his body works. He worries it has been too long. But the wind encourages him, and his movements continue to strengthen until the whisper of his leaves becomes an impassioned battle cry screaming into the forest, “I am here!” The young tree, safe in his vitality, bears witness to the old tree’s final anthem as the chainsaw grazes his bark, masticates his cortex, and eviscerates his heartwood. The blade quickly reaches the other side, and the old tree is felled in one swift movement.

Caetlin Witbrod graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English from Missouri S&T. Her previous work has been published in America’s Emerging Writers, Missouri’s Emerging Writers, Southwinds (Missouri S&T’s literary magazine), and other anthologies. In 2014, she founded Words by Witbrod, a freelance editing business. When she is not editing the words of others, she enjoys filling countless notebooks with those of her own.

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