His step-father casts a bigger shadow than the tree, and that shadow approaches, covering Aiken in its darkness.
“Reading?” says Tarin, crossing his arms against a barrel-shaped chest. Dirt stains his clothes and sweat drips from his brow. “You’ve always got a damned book in your hand. Ain’t you got chores to do?”
“I thought reading was a good thing,” says Aiken, though already he wishes he hadn’t said a word. He smells a hint of alcohol on the breeze, and he knows—he fears—what that means.
Tarin bends closer to the boy. The smell of whiskey assaults Aiken’s nose, the shadow darkens around him.
“Reading don’t put beans on the table,” says Tarin.
A callused and unforgiving hand slaps across Aiken’s face to hammer the lesson home.
Aiken wipes his mouth on his sleeve, slapped-out spit soaking into the linen with sprinkles of blood whose stains will serve as a remembrance of the lesson for years to come.
“Now,” Tarin says, “ain’t you got chores to do?”
Aiken closes his book and stands, a hand against the tree for support. He nods at his step-father, afraid what any more words would bring, but even silence is the wrong answer.
“Guess reading don’t teach respect, either.” Tarin stretches out the fingers on his slapping hand, still red from the last assault. “I asked you a question, boy.”
“Yes, sir.” says Aiken. He stares at the pain-hungry fingers.
“Look me in the eyes when you talk to me.”
Aiken follows his command. “Yes, sir,” he repeats.
He notices the emptiness in Tarin’s eyes. No emotion, not even a hint of anger or hate. His soul might as well be buried at the tree, too. There’s nothing left of it inside him.
Aiken walks on to his chores and tries to remember if things had always been this way, tries to find sympathy for a man who lost his wife and was at least good enough to raise a child that wasn’t his. He rubs his sore jaw, and gives up trying.
Tarin breathes behind him like a bull. The sound fades as he walks on.
Then he remembers: it has always been this way.
He leaps from bed and thrusts his mother’s book into the back pocket of his jeans (he slept in his clothes to get to work faster). He’s hard at work before the door can slam behind him with a thunder-clap that could wake the spirits in the early morning silence.
Aiken finishes his last chore just as the sun begins to stretch its rays above distant hills, waking the rest of the world. There. Done. Now maybe he’ll let me read.
Free of the demands of his world, Aiken hugs the tree. He reaches his arms all the way around, imagining his mother’s embrace. Then he takes his customary place in the grass, back against its trunk, book in hand. The rough bark scratches his back through his thin linen shirt just like his mother once did. An echo on the breeze, he hears the door slam again.
Tarin stumbles along the front walk, hungover, or still drunk, or maybe a mix of both. Aiken knows the squinting eyes of his step-father are seeking him out, and it doesn’t take long for the man’s whiskey-drowned brain to think to look at the tree. Tarin forces an off-balance, but determined step toward the tree. Aiken tries to disappear into the pages of his book.
A cloud of dust assaults Aiken’s face, dragged up from the foot-worn path to the tree by Tarin’s drunken stumble. Aiken coughs. Tarin growls.
“What the hell did I say about all this damned reading?” Tarin raises a fist. “Wasn’t I clear enough yesterday?”
“My chores are finished.” He pauses, then remembers to slip in the obligatory, “sir.”
“Chores done?” Tarin slurs his words, seems to struggle to even get them out of his mouth.
“Yes, sir. I didn’t think you’d mind me taking a break with all my work done.”
Tarin surveys the farm, no doubt looking for evidence of a job half-done. Aiken remains confident he will find nothing.
Tarin lets out a snort that reminds Aiken of a warthog. “Maybe you need more chores, then, since you seem to be so damn fast.”
“I did the work, Tarin, did everything you had on my list. Just let me read. Please just leave me alone.”
Tarin twists his face, looking like an ogre trying to think of something intelligent to say, or trying to think at all really.
“It’s time to let go,” he finally forces out, and Aiken is almost fooled by the false compassion in the ogreish voice until he notices Tarin’s eyes. He’s staring right at the book.
“Not that, Tarin.” Aiken pushes himself to his feet and pulls the book tight against his chest. He leans back against the tree as if he can gain sanctuary, if only he can squeeze into the trunk itself. “I’ll do more chores. I’ll do all the chores. Just don’t take her book from me.”
Tarin holds out an open hand, his slapping hand.
“Your mother’s gone, boy. Dead. It’s about damn time you man up and move on.”
Aiken tries to ignore the demanding hand.
Tarin won’t let him.
Tarin swipes at the book but Aiken pulls away. Tarin swings at the boy’s face, a fist this time, and Aiken drops to the ground, the book falling inches from his fingertips.
He stretches out for the book but the heavy boot of Tarin crushes down on book and fingers alike. Aiken cries out like a wounded pup.
The boy tries to pull together enough strength to fight back, but his second lunge is as weak as the first. Tarin peels his boot away from the smashed fingers, his boot-print lingering in the boy’s gentle skin.
Aiken reaches out his arm, body still sprawled on the dirt path, mouth bleeding, eyes drowning in tears he refuses to let fall.
Tarin stares at him with a dull, but rock hard expression. “This is for your own good, boy.”
He engulfs the book in his giant, ogreish hand and walks away, stumbling now only slightly, and leaving a trail of dust and dead grass in his wake.
Aiken weeps. He crawls through the dirt, blood dripping from his nose and mouth, leaving dark blisters of mud along the path.
He reaches the welcoming blades of grass encircling the tree and curls up in a few water-seeking surface roots. The roots embrace him as a mother holds her newborn child. They soak up his tears.
“I’m sorry,” he says, wiping blood, spit, dirt and tears into an ugly stain on his sleeve.
A warm breeze whispers to him through rustling leaves and he feels somehow comforted. He sleeps in the tree’s embrace.
Aiken drifts his soft fingers along the rough bark of the tree. He sits, leans back against the trunk, and out of habit, tries to open a book that he no longer has. He pulls his legs to his chest, buries his face in his knees, and cries.
The whisper of the leaves consoles him.
For a moment.
Tarin’s voice tears through the breeze like a knife through silk.
“Men don’t cry,” he says. “Time to grow up, boy.”
“Just leave me alone.” Aiken doesn’t even raise his head. “Today of all days, just leave me alone.”
“What have I said about looking at me when you speak, boy? You need to learn some damn respect if I have to beat it into you.”
Tarin kicks him in the leg. Aiken feels the ache and burn burst through his thigh.
“Get up, boy. I’m gonna teach you respect once and for all.”
Aiken stumbles to his feet, if only to try and lessen the coming assault. The thick, dark bottle sways in Tarin’s hand, the last remaining swallow splashing within.
Aiken ducks just fast enough for the bottle to shatter against the tree instead of his face. He looks back.
The splatter of dark red beer drips along the trunk, seeps into glass-cut bark. He remembers his mother the night she died, battered and bloodied as she lie in bed unconscious. “A bad fall,” he had said at the time.
Somewhere in his soul, Aiken knows it was a lie, has always known, and after ten years of simmering, the truth is bubbling over.
Aiken turns to the ogre of a man. A moment of fear distorts his ogreish face before it returns to its usual hard yet slack-jawed expression.
“You killed her,” Aiken says, hands clenching at his sides. “Gods damn you. You killed her.”
His face is a mess of rage and tears as he springs at Tarin, fists flailing like bluegills dying on the river bank.
Years of abuse, all the anger and hate rained down on him since his mother died, all the pain she must have endured to protect him while she was alive—it all comes flooding into his brain. The dam of innocence, or maybe denial, shatters into a thousand pieces. Tarin beat her, and that night, he beat her to death. It all comes together, snaps in his head like a shotgun.
Aiken lands a punch into the alcohol-infused fat of Tarin’s gut. His fist sinks in like he’s hitting a marshmallow. He isn’t even sure Tarin can feel it.
He swings another wild fist, at Tarin’s jaw this time, but the man catches his arm with reflexes that belie appearances, preventing the blow from hitting its target. Tarin twists the boy’s arm back until Aiken is sure it will snap.
“I’d break your damn arm if it wouldn’t just mean more chores left undone.” Tarin turns the boy and smashes his face against the tree, its bark sticky with beer. “Now, I told you what happened the night she died, and you’re better off just believing what I said than coming after me for what you think might’ve happened.”
“You did it, damn you.” The tree bark muffles Aiken’s voice. “I can see the pain in her tree.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Tarin says, a slight chuckle quivering on his voice. “You see it in the tree?”
“You’re damn right I do. It’s her soul-tree, it’s connected to her, and she is showing me the truth.”
Tarin pushes the boy harder against the tree. “What’s she feeling now, huh? I’ll tell you what. Fear.”
Tarin laughs. He pulls on Aiken and drags him up the path.
“You and your tree,” he says. “I never should have planted that damn thing for you. Some stupid tradition of your mother’s. And what do I get for honoring her beliefs? A damn ingrate of a step-son. Well, I’m done with it.” He glances back over his shoulder, looking at the tree as he stumbles forward. “I should just cut the damn thing down. Maybe then you could move on.”
Aiken unleashes a shriek that could scare Death herself.
“You can’t cut it down. Her soul would wander for eternity without a place to rest.”
Adrenaline bursts through his body and Aiken renews his struggle. Even at his best, though, he isn’t strong enough to take on Tarin.
“And what are you going to do to stop me?” Tarin pushes the boy into the dirt. “You’re as weak as she was.”
Aiken jumps to attack, only to be caught again, arm twisted behind his back, tears trying to force their way to his eyes. Rage burns through him, its pain magnified through a lens of helplessness.
Tarin doesn’t say a word, just slams the door as he leaves.
Aiken crawls to his bed and buries his face in his thin feather pillow. Tarin’s footsteps return moments later and Aiken’s body tenses, but the door never opens.
Aiken hears shifting wood. He hears nails being driven, shaking the walls as if the harder he hit, the stronger they’d hold.
Aiken’s room darkens as the sun gives up for the day. Aiken doesn’t really notice the change. His face still buried in the pillow, he wishes it were his soul in the tree.
He looks into the darkness, trying to see what Tarin is planning next. Light flickers from the lantern swaying in the man’s left hand. Aiken thinks he can see the gleam of metal in the other hand, but it’s hard to make out in the extra darkness of Tarin’s barrel-shaped shadow.
Aiken tries to push open the window, to see better, but it’s nailed shut, too. He doesn’t know when it happened, but he’s damned sure who did it. Gods damn it. All these years. What a damn idiot I’ve been to trust him.
Aiken breathes against the window and wipes the condensation away with one of the few spots on his sleeve that isn’t crusted with blood. He opens his eyes wider, then squints, trying to understand what Tarin is up to in the darkness.
Tarin reaches the path to the field, the path to the tree, and there, with the added light of the lamp post, Aiken sees it.
The axe hangs from Tarin’s hand, its sharpened edge sparkling in the dim lamplight with enough shine to burn into Aiken’s eyes like the sun.
Aiken feels the chill of the metal, feels the cut of the blade. He runs to the door, right into it, shoulder first, hoping to knock it down like a hero. His heroism gets him nothing but hurt.
He kicks the door, tries to put his foot right through. He tries punching a hole in it, aiming for what looks like a weak spot in the wood. It isn’t.
Aiken does more damage to himself than the door.
An image flashes in his mind of Tarin taking a few warm-up swings as he walks down the path.
Aiken grabs a chair and swings it at the window. Glass shatters. He tries squeezing through the wooden framework, slices himself on the window’s jagged remains, but can’t fit through the small gap.
Tarin mumbles something in the distance. He’s at the tree.
Aiken scans the room, looks for anything that can help him, for anything that can give him hope.
Then he hears it.
The thunder clap, the haunting, echoing sound of the first chop of the axe vibrates through his bones, rattling his teeth. The second chop roars through the sky and pierces his soul like lightning.
He falls to his knees, hammering at the door with fists as broken and beaten as his heart. He cries, pleads to Tarin, too far away to hear. He begs the gods for mercy.
Aiken hears the slow, stretched out crack of a tree tearing in two. He hears the maniacal screams of Tarin. And then he hears nothing.
Silence conquers the world.
In that silence, in his pain and exhaustion, Aiken collapses at the base of the door and passes out.
Aiken opens his eyes. They burn from so many lost tears. He reaches an aching, swollen hand to the door knob, turns, pushes.
His prison remains.
He gathers strength and calls out to Tarin in a hoarse, breaking voice.
He tries again, managing a stronger yell, closer to a scream. The hated sound of Tarin’s name on his lips stings their chapped flesh. His voice echoes through the room.
Still no response.
He needs to see for himself.
His body hurts but his willpower is renewed.
Aiken breaks a splintered strip of wood from the chair and pries at the door.
The chair piece snaps, but not before moving the door just a hair, an inch at most, but it’s something, and it inspires him. It gives him hope.
He pulls off another piece, thicker this time, and crams it into the slowly-widening gap between door and frame.
Aiken pulls on the chair piece, levering it against the prison door. Nails squeal as they pull from the wood, the sound of freedom.
He pulls harder, closes his eyes, yells, curses the world, and puts everything he has into breaking out of his bedroom prison cell.
The wood snaps. He loses his grip with a jerk, and falls back onto the floor.
He’s almost too afraid to open his eyes.
The door hangs open.
He hears nothing.
He creeps through the doorway, wary of his unseen enemy, and makes his way to the front door.
Nothing moves outside, save the birds, and Aiken feels bolder in his solitude. The cows remain in the barn, a sure sign Tarin hasn’t yet begun his chores.
Still too hungover, I bet. Must’ve celebrated too much after killing her soul.
Aiken’s first step hits the path in a burst of dust. He breaks into a sprint fueled by a mix of fear and hatred. In the distance the tree comes into view.
Or a miracle.
Aiken falls against the rough bark, squeezing his eyes shut to hold in the dream. He hugs the tree, stretching around the trunk to lock his hands as he always does, but can no longer reach all the way.
He opens his eyes, surprised, and sees it, real, right in front of him. It lives. It survived the dark night of Tarin.
Through tearing eyes, tears of joy this time, Aiken takes in the sight of the now-great oak. The tree spreads out above him, tall and proud, with strong boughs and a thousand verdant leaves. The barrel-sized trunk carries a deep scar in its side, but remains as solid and sturdy as stone.
Tarin calls out, his voice muffled, sounding a world away. Aiken ignores the sound. He places his hand on the tree trunk and thinks of his mother, always his protector. Even now. He laughs, and it’s the truest, most honest laugh he’s had since she died.
He slides a hand down the trunk, letting his fingers bump across the scar. He curls up in the cradling roots and feels the mother-like scratch of the bark on his back. He feels the comfort of whispering leaves that no longer struggle to protect him from the hot sun overhead.
Aiken remembers his mother, distant memories of childhood, and decides to take a nap, perhaps to dream of her. They were better days, those days lost to memory, and in the whispering breeze, he knows better days will come again.
Aiken lies next to the tree and begins to drift away to sleep, though he hopes to not nap too long. He still has to find her book. And there are chores to do of course, twice as many as before.