Register Wednesday | December 12 | 2018
Tree Man Illustration by Bill Dunlap.

Tree Man

André Babyn’s first-place story from Maisonneuve’s 2013 Genre Fiction Contest. This year’s theme was fables and parables.

WHEN THE THIN MAN brings me soup I take it in quick sips from the tablespoon thrust out in front of him. He watches me as I eat, his brow knit.  

“How are you?” I ask, as he feeds me another spoonful.

“Thank you,” I say.

“Thank you ... thank you ... thank you ...”

The thin man will not tell me his name. He’s disturbed by my entreaties, though I don’t know why. If I could reach him, I would kiss him on the face. He quakes with every syllable of gentleness.

“I—”

His moustache quivers.

“love—”

His eye twitches.

“—you!”

His lips, cheeks and neck spasm, and he looks away and recomposes himself.

When we’re finished I lick my beard clean of fallen soup. In him then there is an—anxiousness? Eagerness to leave? A brooding, unresolved anger?

I can’t see him as he trundles off, cracking leaves and twigs as he goes.

TO ME I AM THE I.

My beard is long. I don’t know how long. Do I have limbs? I’ve forgotten them. I can’t move. Just my face. Sometimes I’m crawled on by insects or pecked at by birds: swallows, red-throats, chickadees. Ravens twist my nose in their beaks. They think I’m food. I’m not.

I don’t know my name, but I’m sure that I have one. I am sure that I am referred to by something other than my I.

The sun is my friend. We greet each other every day. There are many trees and in the summer it’s hard to see him. I am patient and I wait until he pokes through the canopy.

“Hello, sun!” I say. He warms me.

When he’s in the sky, I’m happy.

If you walk in the forest, you might hear me calling—on those warm days, when I’m in a good mood. I will Hellllloooo you too, if I see you. If you hear me calling, and want a hello, please come near me so I might Hellllloooo you and we can have a conversation.

I am very lonely. I’m not so lonely, really.

I DON'T KNOW where the thin man goes. Perhaps he lays down his pack and sleeps on the opposite side of my tree, waking only for a delivery (from another unknown, untalking man) of a new container of fresh soup. And the other man waits while the thin man spoon-feeds me, and he takes the empty case and it’s he who walks away, and the thin man puts his back up against the bark and goes back to sleep.

He’s a quiet man and it’s possible that he does that.

Or perhaps, all alone, I overestimate my importance. Who feeds the thin man? I don’t hear him eating. I don’t hear him breathing, coughing, sneezing—things that I do without even thinking about them.

The thin man is careful when he comes (I’m sure it’s him, now), and often it’s only the smell of disturbed earth, wafting down, that alerts me before I hear the nearer crunching of the understory. In the winter the snow makes hard cutting sounds and I can hear him from miles away, like he’s killing something.

THERE'S AN OWL nearby who eats my small friends. He shrieks and I shriek when he tries to catch something. I try to save my friends, but he gets them anyway. I watch him pick them up and swallow them, still struggling, bit by horrible bit. Until their tails are all that’s left, peeking out.

AT NIGHT I SEE STARS. I see my other great friend, the moon. I see the scattered forest, shaking and swaying. Behind me, I know (somewhere far!), is the thin man. I can hear his steps sometimes, odd times, over that distance. He doesn’t come at night. But I can hear him there, where he lives. Sometimes.

In the night the sky is dark. The forest is dark. They blend together, at the horizon where they’re all black. I have an idea that they are connected by a twisting band of dark road. A star-beaded path.

I ask the moon whether the path is really there, but he’s happy just to go by. I shout and he says nothing. I’d follow him if I could. He won’t come down.

“But moon!” I say, “don’t you want to visit your old friend?”

“Moon, moon! Come down and give your old friend a kiss, and I’ll kiss you back!”
“Don’t you want to be in Love?”

BECAUSE OF THE DARKNESS the night can be frightening. Sometimes I become afraid because I might see The Face.

But I don’t want to talk about The Face right now.

At night it’s the insects that chirp, not the birds.

It’s more pleasant to sleep at night because when I’m asleep I’m not afraid, and the day is not frightening like the night is, and it’s in the day that I eat and wait for the thin man.

THERE WAS ONCE AN OLD SQUIRREL that used to come and peer lazily at me, his one eye milky-white and swollen with green pus, his body missing fur, red from scratching, and covered in flaking scales. His hands were like death and I was nervous that he would pass that death on to me. I wished the owl would get him, but the owl left him alone.

LAST NIGHT while it was raining there was a flash of light and I felt like I could taste the spoon in my mouth, though it wasn’t there, and neither was the thin man. Something was burning. My tree cracked and split open.

I could feel my limbs again.

My body was white and shiny in the moonlight. I could see it.

I am skinny, slighter than the thin man.

I crawled around in the rain. I could feel the water on my shoulders. My hands pulled up the dirt as I went around in circles. My muscles were tight and uncoordinated.

I, I, I, I!

I looked behind the tree. There was a path there, brown and worn.

I knew where the path went.

THE PATH LED TO A COTTAGE. There was a hole cut in the logs, a rough opening. I pushed the wax paper blocking it aside and entered, just nudging my nose through, and then my eyes.

The thin man was sitting at a table. He was eating soup himself.

I heard him speak for the first time. He was smiling.

He was smiling and speaking to someone. Who?

I pushed further into the room. My ears brushed the paper.

At the other end of the table, there was a woman. It was The Face.

I got very mad. They heard me and looked scared. I pulled my body through the paper and fell onto the floor. I was very white and angry. Water dripped everywhere.

I knocked over a reed that was burning. It snuffed itself out on the floor. I leapt on the thin man and bit him really hard. He died.

NOW, I'M A WOLF.

Moon, will you be my friend?