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Tree Soup

by Russell Bradbury-Carlin


“Can you pull up a few of those Yak’s Ears,” Grandpa asked Chris as they walked behind the cabin. The plants were small with long pale leaves. It was a key ingredient for his grandfather’s soup. “I hate that name,” he continued. “It doesn’t relate at all to what it’s like. Maybe I’ll come up with a new name. You can pass it on to your children.”

Chris yanked one of the plants out of the ground. The plant was his favorite to eat raw. His father had introduced it to him when he was just old enough to walk, back when things in the world still seemed new.

“You can eat the root raw. They’re kind of earthy,” his father had explained. “Unless you imagine hard enough that you want to taste another vegetable, and even some kinds of fruit. Then, it will taste exactly like the thing you imagined. Very odd and amazing.”

Chris handed a bulbous root to his grandfather, who popped it in his mouth and chewed. “There is a chemical in the roots, you know. It’s in a minuscule amount.” Grandpa threw the rest of the plant into the woods. “The more you eat,” his grandfather explained, “the more you want. You have to eat a lot of it, but the craving will creep up on you.”

Chris has heard this all before. He had eaten the root so many times as a child that he had to stop picking it. He had begun to eat only Yak’s Ears and nothing else. It took his parents several weeks to get him to eat a normal diet again.

Frustration began to fill him. Sometimes he saw his grandfather as a kind of playback machine, repeating the same stories and facts over and over. Chris wanted — needed — someone he could talk to about the things that were running through his head. But he didn’t have those kinds of conversations with his grandfather. The ghost’s job was to dispense information to Chris, not to engage in emotional problem-solving, especially when the problem-solving involved his indecision about continuing the family line.

Still, there wasn’t anyone else to talk to about this. “Grandpa, I’m not so sure about this woman,” he ventured.

The old man’s ghost remained stooped over as if looking for other unique plants to describe to his grandson. “I need to tell you something, Chris.” He didn’t pause to see if Chris had more to say. “Something that I guess you need to know at some point. Maybe by telling you it will push you out of whatever it is you’re struggling with. I don’t know.”

He took a deep breath, but did not stand to look at his grandson. “Your father didn’t really like your mother at first,” he said as he grabbed at Yak’s Ears and pulled them out of the ground. “In fact, he tried to leave for a long time after your mother joined us.”

Chris stared down at the ghost’s back. He listened carefully. It had been a long, long time since his grandfather had told him something about his parents that he didn’t already know, that hadn’t been repeated over and over.

“He was very curious about the outside world,” his grandfather continued. “Desperately so. He quizzed your mother endlessly about what things were like ‘out there’. She tolerated him at first, but became more and more exasperated with him. She could see that her growing love was not matched by your father’s.

“Things almost blew up in a way that has never happened here before. Your mother threatened to leave and return to the other side. She didn’t want to, but your father was giving her no choice. He could not leave, but she could. No one who came from the outside world has ever returned in the history that I know.”

Grandpa stood up and finally looked at Chris. “Your mother eventually laid down the law. She told your father that she would never speak again about the outside world to him, and that was it. Your father fumed and spat out ugly words at your mother, but I calmed him down. I told him what an ass he was.

“And eventually he relented. It took a long time. But your father quietly immersed himself in the routines of the house. He let go of that part of himself. And, eventually, he grew to love your mother. She was kind and patient after she set her limit. Your mother came to love this place more than anyone I have known. And she was able to transfer some of that, at least just enough, to your father. And time just passed until you came along.”

Chris did not know what to say. The image of his father as a quiet man made more sense now. But it seemed that his father had always loved the land. Chris thought of all those moments when his father seemed to be nursing the cabin from the inevitable aging and wear and tear that befell it; he treated it with such tenderness. Chris had no idea that there was some part of his father that had withered up and hid deep inside him. It made Chris feel sad that he never shared this with him. What else hadn’t he shared?

“You are different from your father, Chris,” his grandfather said. “But your decision has changed things radically.”

“What decision?”

“I should have seen it earlier. It seems you’ve already decided what you’re going to do. I think that’s why things are disappearing.”

Chris leaned down to pull up one of the Yak’s Ears. When he stood and turned around, his grandfather was gone.

* * *

Chris caught a glimpse of the woman’s red shirt as she passed over the hill. He had just missed her. It had taken him longer to walk to her hiking path because some of the familiar markers were gone. The family’s garden patch had vanished. The lone gathering of white birch trees had nearly faded away. The huge fallen oak that he had scrambled over as a child was completely gone. His seventh sense was almost completely dulled.

And over the last few days he had not seen Grandpa or even heard his voice. Chris realized that like the trees, plants, and rocks, his grandfather’s ghost was probably not coming back. Chris was now, truly, the end of the line of his family. Everything was fading around him.

Chris leaned up against a maple tree. Then he put his arm around it, holding it like some kind of anchor. He glanced around at the forest, what was left of it at least, and began to cry. His entire world was dissolving like a dream upon waking.

Not everything was fading though. The path the woman followed was vibrant and distinct. The vividness of the broken branches and boot prints in the sandy patch of soil contrasted with the blurriness and faded colors of the forest as parts of it appeared to evaporate.

The path hung like a clear bridge all the way to the small hill the woman always climbed over when she left the forest.

Chris felt that the big decision he had to make was being made for him. Still, the thing that Grandpa had said about his having already made a decision plagued him. Was not making a decision, a decision, he wondered? It seemed so.

On his way back to the cabin, Chris veered off the usual path and walked to a large boulder that sat under a circle of pine trees. The boulder had been a plaything to him as a child. It was filled with cracks, crevices, and toe holds. It had been difficult to climb, but not too much so. His fingers and toes — the way his seventh sense felt the invisible charge of the rock — retained the memory of every inch of the grey boulder.

As Chris approached it, he saw that patches of moss and lichen had developed on the shaded parts of the rock. It made him realize how long it had been since he had pressed himself against the stone, making the possibility of anything growing on its surface impossible.

Chris found the easiest side to pull himself up on. The lower toe hold that required him to hitch his knee up as high as his stomach as a child, was no higher up than two porch steps, it turned out.

He scrambled to the top and stood. The once dizzying height of the boulder was also diminished. As an adult he could jump down and probably not even twist an ankle.

Chris knelt down and looked for a part of the large crevice that cleaved through the center of the boulder, a split that probably came when a glacier had receded millennia ago and dropped it into this spot. Chris wondered if his ancient ancestors had been there to witness the thud of its arrival.

He found the widest part of the crevice and poked his hand deep inside it. He pulled out a dry, frail pine branch and then scooped out piles of dead pine needles. Then his fingers found the small ledge within the crevice. He felt around and found what he was seeking.

He withdrew his hand and pulled out one of the old sacrificial dolls he had made as a child. The pine-needle doll was tightly wound with string, and it remained intact. He vaguely remembered calling it Sapphire.

Chris decided to retrieve the doll because he wanted to take some things with him. He knew he had no choice now. He was going to have to walk that path and follow the woman or risk staying here and disappearing too. The idea of finally seeing what lay beyond that small hill thrilled him. But it also made his stomach feel hollow. All of the sameness he’d always known, replaced with everything new?

As Chris held the doll in his fingers he remembered the months he had spent making them. How he was almost feverish as he toiled over each and every one. He could remember that he had slept and eaten little during those months. He spent hours locating each and every sacrificial place to leave his creations. His parents were worried about him, but Chris didn’t tell them anything about his plans.

As Chris sat on the boulder, now decades later, he thought maybe this was when he had made his decision. Chris had decided as a child that he didn’t want to continue the family line. And whether there were gods or not, maybe everything flowed from the moment he had gathered a hand full of needles and wrapped lengths of string around them.

Ultimately it didn’t matter though. He had no choice but to leave — or to disappear, perhaps, like everything else.

* * *

Chris sat at the kitchen table with a heavy rucksack at his feet. If he stared hard enough, he could see the outline of his legs through the top of the table.

Everything was faded or fading. Chris thought of his world — the only one he had known — and wondered if in some way this bit of forest had been a kind of container for his family and its history. Only now it was finally giving up its tangible existence, turning from hard graspable objects into flimsy, fleeting memory. True memory.

Chris had filled the rucksack with a few things so he could be sure he would remember all of this and that it could not be excused away some day as a distant, very intense dream. He took his Grandpa’s cooking spoon, his father’s smooth-handled hammer, and a brooch that his mother had made out of a chunk of quartz she found near the front porch. He also had the pine needle doll he had made so long ago.

Chris scribbled furiously on a piece of paper. Across the top, in a loose script similar to his grandfather’s, were the words “Recipe for Tree Soup.” The deadness of his seventh sense told him he didn’t have much time. He needed to get to the path soon.

He wrote everything he could remember — before the words his grandfather had repeated to him over and over disappeared completely and were forgotten, too.

Copyright © 2012 by Russell Bradbury-Carlin

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