Feb 02

The Sun Sets in the Branches

  The roots are large, splaying out to the other trees near it. The leaves are dark green, the color of ferns and moss. It stands tall and proud as if asking the world to come and cut it down. No one has yet. 
  Black ants march dutifully up and down the trunk, and birds have created little nests on its wide branches. Owls perch in its depths during the night, squirrels jump from it during the day. 
  It's a tree of life, but a tree of death. 
  My brother went off to war about two years ago. I won't say which war—it's not important. Sometimes I see his shadow in the hallways of our house, and other times I feel I can hear his voice. But of course I can't. Because he's across the ocean in some strange nation while I'm stuck here, stuck in a tiny house at the edge of a big forest. 
  I say it's the tree's fault my brother decided to leave. And it really is. 
  We used to climb in the tree every day. My brother hid little trinkets—bottle caps, yo-yos, spare buttons—below the roots, and would leave me to find them. The tree was a good climbing tree, once you got past the part with barely any branches. We said hello to the birds that lived up there and were careful not to step on any of the ants performing their daily march. My brother grew stronger as we climbed more and more. We could see the signs of the war in our isolated village, so I guess I should have known my brother would have left sooner or later. But I didn't expect him to choose to go. 
  The tree made him stronger. It made him more confident in himself, and our country. I suppose he realized that even the smallest person had enough fire in them to risk their lives for the greater good. That was what I didn't understand. Why would you gladly send yourself to death if you know there's a slim chance of you actually coming back? 
  The last thing my brother said goodbye to on the day of his departure was the tree. He laid his hand on it and whispered so softly that I couldn't hear his words. 
  But I knew he was thanking it. 
  I hated him for it. 
  We got the letter today. Some man from the army came all the way out here to give us the letter. He was short and stalky, like wheat blowing in a field. His hair was the same color, his face grainy. 
  My mother screamed and fell to the floor when she read it.  
  My father set his jaw—hard—and closed his eyes. 
  What did I do? I ran out to the tree. That's why I'm here now. That's why I'm staring at the splayed roots and the ants and the leaves and the nests and the branches and thinking of the day my brother left. 
  I kick the tree. I kick it harder and harder, not caring that it's hurting my foot. I want it gone. I don't want to ever see it again. It killed my brother, I think. It killed him. 
  But then I break. Weeping, I slowly sink down next to the tree trunk, nestled and enveloped by the trees' huge roots. Tears blur my eyes, my shoulders shake, and my heart throbs. But then I see it. I reach under the root and pick it up. 
  I always knew my brother liked wood carving, but I didn't know he was this good at it. I hold the little figure in my hands, cradling it. I've stopped crying. It's the tree. It's the tree and me. My brother carved the tree and me out of wood, and then hid it under one of the roots so I'd find it on the day when the sun set forever. 
  And I want to see it. I want to see the sun set for the last time, but I can't see it from here. I look up. I haven't climbed in a year, but I remember the tricks of climbing this tree. I slip the wood into my pocket, and begin my ascent. 
  It's gold. It's gold and orange and purple and pink and yellow. The light dapples through the leaves and branches, washing over me. Tears quietly leak down my eyes. I don't wipe them off, I don't tell myself to stop crying. The branch I'm sitting on is so wide that I don't need to hold on. So maybe that's what my brother loved about this tree. The pure enormousness of it, the vastness that made us feel so small and unimportant. Maybe he strived to be important because he didn't like feeling worthless and small. 
  Someone sits down next to me. It's not my mother or father. It's not a man from the army. 
  It's my brother. 
  He puts his arm around me, and I lean onto his shoulder. He stares at the sun, quiet and thinking. The golden light makes his face look beautiful, like he's alive and happy and there's nothing more in the world he wants than to sit in the trees' branches with me. 
  My brother and I sit together as the sun sets in the branches.