A fresh-cut tree, kept well supplied with water, will last about a month. All Christmas trees start losing needles as they dry out. Ours grew more. Much more.
I remember the exact day we went to get it, because that was the day of the first snowfall of the year: Saturday, December 3. My boyfriend dragged me out to a forest up near Thunder Bay to get an “honest-to-God true Christmas tree”, as he put it. He was way too excited. I never understood the appeal of using real trees. It was freezing and the snow prickled my cheeks.
After trudging through that damned forest for about an hour, Tom finally found what he deemed to be the best one. “This is it,” he shouted, holding his arms up before an oddly unblemished spruce. “This is it!”
It was in the dead-center of a small clearing; deep green with a healthy glow, standing proud and strong, unflinching even in the harsh wind. And, unlike any of the other trees, not a speck of snow on it.
I handed him the axe he’d made me lug along, and then he giddily chop-chop-chopped away. Then there was the wonderful task of hauling it all the way to the truck.
Tom seemed so set on the whole tree thing that he didn’t bother to ask me if I was okay when I slipped and fell. I even cut my hand on the bark, and he didn’t notice. Or didn’t care. Either way, I remember thinking that it should’ve been him bleeding over that stupid tree he wanted so much. But he just kept smiling and humming, never uttering so much as a word, as I practically bled all over its trunk while struggling to get a decent grip.
Seeing him like that, a grown man behaving like a child anticipating — well, anticipating Christmas, added ‘pity’ to the list of undesirable feelings I’d developed towards him. I’ve never been much of a do-gooder, but pity is my weakness. I remember deciding there and then to wait until after the holidays to break up. I could at least do that, I thought.
I wouldn’t fulfill that promise.
We were impressed with how well the tree maintained. It was literally the perfect Christmas tree. It never sagged. It never faded. It drank all the water we gave it and didn’t make a mess. “Miracle Tree,” Tom called it triumphantly, and he’d always say, “Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t I say so?” I’d bite my tongue every time. Tom always had to be right.
Eventually, he started insisting that the thing was growing. I dismissed it as his usual boasting bullshit until we woke one morning to find the tip of it pressed up against the ceiling. We were both downright baffled when we discovered the nubs of emerging baby-branches all along the trunk. Of course, we decided to stop giving it water. It didn’t make any difference.
By the time it started sprouting pinecones, I very clearly announced my concerns. But my oh-so-very sweet and considerate boyfriend wouldn’t hear of it.
I was secretly glad when it got to the point that Tom admitted it needed trimming. Not so great after all, was it? In full-character, he asked me to do it, but I told him that since he was the one who wanted an “honest-to-God true Christmas tree”, he could be the one to do the “honest-to-God” work of looking after it. It sure as hell hadn’t been my idea to go out into sub-zero whether and chop an innocent plant down for some bogus holiday. We argued for a bit about that. He caved. I got him the hedge trimmer.
It was the first snip — that’s what did it. That’s what forced me to break my promise.
Just as Tom pressed the shears into a particularly long branch, the entire tree immediately started trembling.
Its shuddering foliage produced a loud hiss that slowly faded into a quivering shush before diminishing into silence.
All Tom and I could do was stare at each other, wide-eyed and confused. At first, I think we were both mostly scared. But by the time the shaking subsided, relief replaced the fear. At least for me. I couldn’t tell if Tom was glad it stopped, or something else. His face was beaming as he fumbled around for his phone.
“Holy shit!” he said. “Did you see that? I have got to post this online. Maybe it’s some special breed.”
I didn’t share the enthusiasm.
Later that day, I made a coffee and approached Tom. He’d been finicking around with the tree all evening, ruffling its branches and waving at it as if it was some caged animal, trying to reproduce the earlier event. Thankfully, to no effect. I told him that I was going to visit my parents for the weekend. I gently broke it to him that if that tree was still there by next week, I wouldn’t come back. He stopped and looked at me. I could see in his eyes that he wanted to argue. We didn’t.
When I got back from my parents’, I was utterly furious. Pulling into our driveway, I saw tree branches hanging out from our broken livingroom window. Evidently, Tom chose the tree.
I got out of my car, slammed the door, and marched right up to the house, ready to burst in and really let him have it before leaving for good. What an idiot, I thought. He hadn’t bothered to trim it at all. And he didn’t even clean the broken glass.
When I opened the frontdoor, my anger was instantly replaced with shock. I’d even say amazement, if it wasn’t so absurd.
The interior of the house, in its entirety, was covered in plantlife. Where there was once carpet were tufts of grass. The tendrils of forking vinery ran all along the walls and had torn through the wallpaper. The ceiling was dripping wet with muddy-brown stucco. And besides that, almost every corner and corridor was occupied by long, twisting branches with whorled sprigs. A rich, earthy smell wafted through the air, combined with the sharp scent of resin. Somewhat pleasant, but too strong. Like musk.
I called for Tom. No response.
I cautiously stepped through the doorway and was startled when something squirrel-like skittered at my feet and disappeared somewhere into the grass. I then noticed the unmistakable sounds of wildlife. Chirping. Cooing. Rustling. Some kind of ticking, here and there. The overall impression was like being in the woods. Except confined in a house. All unreal. All natural.
Again, I called for Tom. This time, in addition to the sounds of the ‘forest’ that now dominated our home, was something else. A soft giggle. Then a whisper, too faint to determine the words. I grimaced and tilted my head, trying to make it out, listening, listening, listening. More giggling. More whispering. As I slowly came to realize that it was coming from the living room, my emotion shifted from initial astonishment to pure dread.
I made my way through the cave that was once our main hallway, brushing aside thick offshoots and being careful not to trip on the occasional protruding tree root. Eventually, after pushing my way through great clumps of growth, I was on the other side.
If you can imagine what a dome made up entirely of pinetree would look like, well, that’s what the living room was now. Everything was twigs and needles. Broken furniture adorned its walls of brush like trashy ornaments. A single beam of sunlight came in from between boughs at the top, producing a green glow all around. At the center was a huge trunk, bark like iron, and its thick-as-thigh roots had broken into the floor.
Something was right next to me.
I hadn’t seen him at first. Maybe because he was mostly hidden behind needly tree limbs. Or maybe I had already caught the sight in my peripheral, and I subconsciously knew what it was. Maybe I just hadn’t wanted to look directly at it. Not at first.
But it’s odd how curiosity can overcome even the greatest of fears. I slowly turned.
There was Tom, suspended by bramble. His head hung low. His eyes were glazed over. His mouth was agape. Fresh blood oozed down his lower lip and dripped off his chin. His mangled body was riddled with sharp, pointy branches that were gripping deep into his flesh like flexed fingers. Like claws.
I couldn’t move. Fear gripped me to my very core. My heart hammered. My head throbbed.
Suddenly, the whole dome shivered, making that wispy shushing again, only louder this time.
The branches gripping Tom swiftly pulled away and slipped out from beneath his skin. His splintered corpse thumped down wetly.
I stumbled backward, and instantly spun around when I heard an echoing crack come from the huge trunk in the center of the room. If I was scared, then what I saw horrified me to a new level of terror.
What first appeared to be lumps of bark shifted and broke apart to form a nude female figure with skin that had the appearance and texture of an oak’s husk. Its arms unfolded to reveal a face, smooth and steely with hair of twine, that returned my gaze with solid-black, alien eyes.
“My tree,” she said. Her voice was flat and buzzy. “Why did you take my tree?”
I managed to speak, even though my jaw shook uncontrollably: “Ch-Christmas,” I said. “Christmas t-t-tree —”
The strange feminine creature screamed at a decibel that pierced my ears, “WHY DID YOU TAKE MY TREE!?”
“It was him! My boyfriend, he — he wanted a real tree to — to celebrate our holiday, it’s called Christmas, and —”
“It is not your hallowed day. It is ours.” She raised her spindly arms and gestured all around.
“We didn’t know. P-Please. I didn’t even want the tree.”
“He did.” With authority, she pointed a sharp finger at what remained of Tom.
I cringed and forced myself to look at his carcass. A fuzzy dark substance quickly creeped across his skin, and soon completely covered him. His head shrunk ever-so-slightly. His hair fell out. His eyes sunk into their sockets and disappeared. His face looked more like his skull now, enveloped in — fur? No. Moss.
“Please,” I whispered.
“Man-things,” she said. “They smother Mother and wilderness with layers of concrete and cement. They erect heavy buildings upon Her bosom. They cut Her children down and worship industry. Yet underneath our feet, underneath the buried pipes and the buried cables, She is still there. If She were only to shrug or raise Her eyebrow, then we should all be gone.”
I was hyperventilating. I just nodded. I think I nodded.
“But you. Woman-thing. You have helped me build a new shrine, born in anger’s flame. Not too late to make amends. Tell the others my message. Tell the man-things.”
Again, I nodded.
“Leave us,” she hissed.
I got out of there as fast as I possibly could with hollow legs, stumbling and scrambling all along. Tripped a few times. I didn’t risk driving in my state of mind, which was surely bordering on insanity. I just ran. I ran for a long time. I ran all the way into town.
I avoided every tree, bush, and field on the way.
I thought a lot about what happened. I thought about how the creature let me go. I thought about how she told me to tell others.
Well, here I am.
More than anything else, however, I thought about how she said I helped her build her shrine, born in “anger’s flame”.
When I was little, my grandpa used to tell me folk stories from his home-country. He’s from Slovenia. He often told a story about something called a Vila, a kind of tree-spirit, vicious and cruel, connected to their trees. If their tree died, the Vila associated with it could die as well. Because of that, they punished any mortals who harmed trees without their permission.
What actually scared me about those stories, though, were the parts about their curses. You could inadvertently cause a curse just by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, or by performing the wrong actions in the wrong place.
Or by thinking the wrong thing while bleeding on the wrong tree.
Now I’m sure of what’s out there. Now I know wilderness. Now I know Mother. I listen closely and I can hear Her. I take note of how people talk about their relationships with Her; always about triumphing, always about pushing back, always about imposing will. We are arrogant. We somehow assume that we can do whatever we want to Her and She will always be there and She will always take care of us. I know that’s not the case. This organism that we live on, this planet, is so finely-tuned and so finely-balanced that whatever happens to Earth happens to the children of Earth. There are consequences. If you cut a part of the forest, you cut a part of yourself.
So I’m going to say this over and over, every Christmas, until the day I die:
Stop. Using. Real. Trees.