by Steve Campbell
The oak tree hasn’t let me sleep since Em left. Every night, as the limbo of the day starts to dissolve, branches drag themselves down the roof tiles and tap-tap-tap against the window, begging to be let in.
It’s the same oak tree that’s been gathering rings and sprouting branches in the back garden for generations. As children, Em and I would lose hours climbing it and nesting in the lower hanging branches. Em carved two stick-birds into the branch we always perched on. ‘They’re cuckoos,’ she explained. ‘They live in other bird’s nests. We learnt about them in class. It’s what we are, cuckoos.’
One summer, we looped a length of rope over the ‘cuckoo’ branch and tied a plank of wood to the end of it to make a swing. The plank was wide enough for us to lie across on our stomachs and so, in sync, we would take a few strides backwards and surge forward to let the rope take our weight. With our arms outstretched and our feet off the ground we were flying. I closed my eyes every time we took off so I was no longer a few feet above the ground or tethered to the tree. I was everywhere else.
The tree died years ago after being infected with Oak Decline. The roots stopped receiving nutrients from the soil and the tree became nothing more than a corpse standing in an unkempt garden.
The lack of sleep stings my eyes as I wander out into the night and stand in front of the tree. It’s as tall as it’s ever been but its wrinkled bark hangs loose from the trunk, and branches that once held aloft a majestic crown of green are barren and limp. All that remains of the rope swing is a sad piece of frayed rope biting into a withered branch.
‘What the fuck do you want from me?’ Spittle bursts from my lips and splatters my chin.
I snatch at the end of the rope and tug down on it with all my weight. We used to call it burn rope because of how it pulled through our fingers and scorched our hands whenever we lost our grip. The drop from the swing wasn’t far but the burn would be sore for days, so it was always better to accept the consequences of a fall rather than try to cling on. But this time I wouldn’t be letting go, however much the rope fought against my grip.
I grit my teeth and pull until I hear the wood snap and the branch hit the ground with a thud. The rope breaks the branch cleanly, revealing that the tree is black and rotten at the core.
My words are a jumble of half-curses and grunts as I use the severed branch to pound the tree trunk. Each strike chips at the bark but the trunk holds firm, only letting go of a handful of the thinner branches. I take strength from those pieces that shatter onto the soil around me and strike the tree harder and harder, again and again. Shards from the tree begin to gather at my feet and I swing through the pain in my shoulder, raising creaks and groans from the old wood.
I close my eyes as a blow finally breaks through the bark to the decay within and Em is on the swing beside me, her arms outstretched. Flying.
I wake up amongst the debris of the tree still clutching the branch. My shoulder is on fire and my arms and hands are coated in soil and bark. I take a moment to clear my head and blink away the grogginess of the morning – it’s the first time I’ve really slept in months. On the ground next to me is the urn. I must have carried it outside with me last night.
I clear away some of the tree and, using the branch, I dig a crude hole in the soil. Unscrewing the urn, I push my cupped hands deep into the ashes, scooping out handfuls of memories and regret. One final hug. I transfer Em to the ground one hand at a time and then I cover it over with soil and chunks of the broken tree.
Running my fingers along the birds that Em had etched into the branch, I don’t understand why she never had the opportunity to soar. And then there’s the guilt, festering in the emptiness that surrounds me. A constant reminder that I could have flown free but I’d chosen to remain in the comfort of the lower hanging branches.
‘I miss you, Em. So much.’
I peel off the bark, tearing around the cuckoos that Em had etched into the branch, and take it with me as I leave the house and tree behind for good.
Steve Campbell has short fiction published in places such as formercactus, Idle Ink, Spelk, New Mag and MoonPark Review, and on his website standondog.com. He somehow finds time to manage EllipsisZine.com. You can follow him on Twitter via @standondog.