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art by Eleanor Bennett

The Taking Tree

Emily C. Skaftun lives in Seattle with her husband and their child, a cat who thinks hes a tiger. When shes not teaching or writing, she dabbles in roller derby and flying trapeze. Emily has an MFA in Creative Writing and is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her stories have appeared in journals such as Strange Horizons, Ideomancer, Every Day Fiction, and FLURB. Visit her at eskaftun.com.

***Editor's Note: This is an adult fable, not for children.***
The boy, who was an old man, did not stay long. As he hobbled out of the forest, the tree, who was only a stump, watched his cane of burnished wood. Her wood.
It all came back to her: the roaring of the chainsaw, sap bleeding from her wounds, the torment when the boy dismembered her, taking her limbs for a house and her trunk for a boat. She remembered watching her felled body dragged away across the forest floor.
After the old man limped away the tree never saw him again, and she was very sad indeed. Life as a stump was boring. She missed the chittering of squirrels in her branches, the feeling of wind rustling her leaves. The tree wished for death. After all, what was an apple tree without apples and leaves and branches or even a trunk?
But a strange thing happened. The tree's roots lived on, a twisting, spreading mass of subterranean life, and as the years passed they shot up saplings that ringed the stump. These saplings grew and grew until they united into a massive, gnarled apple tree, their flesh becoming one. The tree was the mightiest in the forest, and though she was alone she was pleased and proud.
Birds and chipmunks and other forest friends returned to her, and the tree, at long last, felt happy. They nested and nuzzled into her, and the tree vowed never to take these true friends for granted. She taught them which apples they could eat, and they never took too many or strayed too close to the tree's hollow heart.
Her long years of misery had changed the tree.
One day a child came to the forest: a little girl, whose blonde hair reminded the tree of the boy she'd once loved. For one weak moment the tree hoped she had found another human friend, someone who would climb her trunk and swing from her branches and eat her apples and love her.
The girl paused, looking up into the tree's leafy canopy as if into her soul. She eyed the beautiful red apples with hunger.
And something bitter twisted the tree's heart. This is how it begins, she thought. She bent a branch toward the girl, loading all her anger and venom into the darkest of her apples, then watched with glee as the girl plucked it and sank her teeth in. Pale juice dripped down her chin, and a look of joy spread across her face.
And then, stricken, the look on the girl's face turned to one of pain and horror and fear. She doubled over, vomiting until her heaves produced nothing but a thin bile like tree sap. When she was done, the girl got unsteadily to her feet and staggered away, out of the forest.
The tree's leaves quivered with laughter.
Summer's leaves browned and dropped and birds flew south. Snow blanketed the forest, and then melted away. Another child came into the forest. "What a marvelous tree," the boy said, and he immediately started climbing its knobby trunk and swinging from its branches, just like that long-ago boy had done.
The tree looked to her animal friends for support, but they had fled when the boy arrived. And that was all the advice she needed. She could still feel saw blades ripping through her bark and flesh, tearing her limbs away. She remembered the years of loneliness.
The tree shook with that remembered agony. She shook and shook until the boy in her branches could no longer hold on, toppling from her heights through her lower limbs to land with a thump and crack on the hard-packed dirt surrounding her.
She hardened herself to his cries and before long he crawled away from her, unable to use one of his lower limbs. Better him than me, the tree thought.
Again the tree was left alone with her animal friends. Seasons passed and she nurtured clutches of small beings and felt at peace. But they flew away every year; they had such short, flighty lives.
Summer came and another boy approached. He scrabbled all over her branches, scaring the critters away. He picked up a bird's nest and peered at it before tossing it out into the woods. And then, near the core of the tree, the boy crouched on a wide branch and pulled a folding knife from his pocket. He pressed its tip into a smooth patch in the tree's trunk and carved.
The tree felt those scratches like the deepest of violations. Chainsaws revved in her mind, and she heard the echo of her trunk crashing to the forest floor. No, not again, she thought.
The tree shook more furiously than ever before. The boy lost his balance and dropped his knife to the ground below. He clawed at the tree with his fingers, trying not to fall. But fall he did, right into the tree's hollow core. The space in the center of the tree was only a little wider than the boy. The bottom of it was the flat, sawn top of the old tree's stump, ringed with the saplings that had grown together around it.
The walls of the space were sheer. Though the boy tried and tried to climb out, each time he fell back to the bottom, bruised and scraped. His shouts for help reverberated through the tree, making her feel pleasantly full.
The tree thought that at last she had found a friend who would never leave her, never hurt her. The power was hers now, and she would never be lonely again.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, May 6th, 2013

Author Comments

I've always been bothered by the message of The Giving Tree; to me it is a horror story. So in this piece I wanted to give the Giving Tree her revenge.

- Emily C. Skaftun
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