Aksel saw his life in ruins. Annelise, the girl he had loved since childhood, had wed another man — another man who had money and therefore the approval of Annelise’s father. Aksel had begged Annelise to elope. She said it couldn’t be, but he pleaded until her father came after him with a club. Aksel limped home from that beating to seek solace in wine.
On the wedding day, Aksel hid himself in his shack. He rose early from his cot the next morning after a drunken, sleepless night, and left home for a walk in the chill air. A wine flask served as his companion. The carles toiling behind their plows paid no heed as he stumbled along rutted country lanes past the farmsteads. Many hours and many miles later, he still had no desire ever to return home.
As Aksel passed a tall linden tree, a hearty voice called down from its branches. “Good day to you, young man!”
Aksel looked up with bleary eyes and saw perhaps twenty people in its branches looking down at him. “There is nothing good about this day for me,” he replied. “What fool wishes me a good day from a treetop?”
“Here I am,” said a burly, balding man a dozen feet above the ground, and the others in the tree turned to look to him as though he were their spokesman. “Gustav is my name, and I’m not as foolish as you think. I’d never be fool enough to poison myself with cheap wine over woman trouble, say. You’ve puked all over yourself.”
“Who said I had woman trouble?” Aksel snarled.
“It’s written all over you, son. Look at you. I’ve never seen such misery that wasn’t from some pretty girl.”
“Mind your own god-damned business. And what in God’s name are you doing up there, anyway?”
“We’re admiring the view, of course. It’s very beautiful.”
“There’s no view here,” Aksel said. “Poor farms and poor peasants are all there is to see.”
“There’s quite a view from where we are,” Gustav retorted. “We have a different perspective up here.”
“I can’t believe you really climbed that tree just to look at the view.”
“Well, no, we really didn’t. The soldiers put us all up here in the tree. Right after they burned our village. They said we worshipped the wrong way, so they burned our houses, and up we went into the tree.”
“Soldiers burned your village… Where?”
“Just down the slope from here.”
“No. There’s no village there.”
“Of course there isn’t! I told you, they burned it down.”
“There’s nothing there but pasture.”
“There again, we have different perspectives. Come up and take a look!”
“Not now. I need to sit down.”
“Take your time.”
Aksel slumped against the tree trunk. After a moment he raised his head. “Gustav,” he called, “are you heretics? Who were those soldiers?”
“Everyone’s a heretic in somebody’s eyes, lad. Don’t worry about the soldiers. Your side won.”
“My side? Gustav, are you angry?”
“Yes, I’m angry, but not with you — you had no hand in it. I wish I could have killed every one of them. I still hope for some little vengeance.”
“I want to rest now,” Aksel said.
“Sleep for a bit,” Gustav said. “We’ll still be here when you wake.”
The sun was an hour from setting when Aksel awoke with an awful conjecture. He sprang up and backed away from the tree. “You’re all dead!” he exclaimed. “You’re ghosts!”
“Oh now,” Gustav said sulkily, “what a thing to say.”
“The wars haven’t passed through here in a hundred years! If soldiers burned your village, you’re ghosts!”
“I haven’t been keeping track of the time. Are you scared, boy?”
“I’m not a boy.”
“Yes, you are. A man doesn’t cry over losing a girl.”
“I’m not crying.”
“But you were, and not a little, weren’t you? Come on, get up here and when you’ve seen what I can see, you’ll forget all about your little tart. Now, don’t get wrathful. I said that poorly. If you love her, she must be a sweet girl.”
“The only girl I’ll ever love,” Aksel moaned.
“Enough of this,” shouted a homely woman higher in the tree. “Come up, you oaf, or be on your way and stop wasting honest people’s time!”
“Hold your tongue, Hulda!” Gustav snapped. “We all agreed I’d do the talking, so just keep quiet!” Gustav looked back down at Aksel and sighed. “That’s my own beloved. She’s never been shy about speaking her mind. Now, do you want to come up? Your bottle’s empty; you’ve got to either come up or go home.”
“I’ll never go home. But I can’t climb up,” Aksel said. “The limbs are too high.”
“Well, get a ladder, son. We all came up on ladders. You think we flew up here? Go over to that barn. I’ll wager you’ll find a ladder to borrow. Get some cord too. We’re all tied to the tree. You’ll want to tie yourself as well or else you’ll fall out.”
“All right, I will,” Aksel said over his shoulder as he started for the barn.
The sun was touching the distant hilltops when he returned with a rough ladder and a coiled rope. He set the ladder against the tree.
“Gustav, what will I see up there?”
“It’s so beautiful. Who knows, maybe you’ll even see that your girl’s not lost forever.”
Aksel climbed slowly to Gustav’s bough.
“Good,” Gustav said. “You won’t regret it. Now, can you tie yourself fast? No, not like that. Try again. No, no. Look at me. Look at me! Look how I’m tied. Yes, that’s better. Yes! That’s right! You’re ready!”
As the sun set, a sudden wind whipped the branches and the ladder fell away. Aksel felt the cord tighten around his neck, and his windpipe closed. Presently his eyes opened wide, and he gazed in wonderment at the view that no living man has beheld.
Carl Steiger is a mild-mannered bureaucrat during the day, but after dark he assumes his true identity as Chief Bottle Washer and Diaper Changer.