Uncle Gregory

Photo credit: Seonmi – my South Korean friend

Uncle Gregory

He had come to cut me down.

I watched him approach. Weighed down by more than the chain saw he shouldered, his force evaporated space in front of him. Yet, I could see gravity taking its toll, grinding him closer to the ground, the sky pressing, squeezing, flattening him.

I saw tears in his eyes, anger in his cheeks. Early morning vapour exploded from his lungs, flumes of expelled air as vigorous as dragons’ breath, as powerful as a training horse. This man was on a mission, and I knew what it was.

He had come to cut me down.

Unafraid, I welcomed him. With a subtle cold breeze blowing, I beckoned him closer, sympathetically throwing golden leaves before him, laying a soft autumnal path. As usual, there were no birds to frighten into the skies. Superstitious; they had not rested, roosted, nor nested anywhere near me for many years. Wary, fear of guilt by association, they stayed away. 

He stood before me. Tears flooding his eyes, their fall to my roots broken by taut ruddy cheeks. The man’s trousers and shoes soaked by the splaying early morning dew lying low, dead weight on bending grass.

“You killed my son,” the man screamed at me. “You killed my son!”

Without Pīwakawaka, Mātātā, or Tui resting on my thinning foliage, nothing could hear him in the valley, which was empty except for my feckless companion the river. That stupid river, who, regardless of the mood or day, chuckled and gurgled on its way toward town. Idiot.

“Why? Oh God, why?” the man pleaded.

I wish I could have answered him. I wish I could have told him, but my function isn’t to speak. Mine is pure and simple: elemental conversion, particle transfer. I take carbon people expel, replace it with oxygen so they can breathe. So, to accuse me of killing anyone is ridiculous; if it weren’t for me, well, there would be no one alive to kill!

Even before the first suicide, I’d lived a lonely life. Cursed; birds have always stayed away, except occasional Moho Pererūs flying by to laugh and gloat at my misery. Insects and possums, too, steer well clear. So, I live an almost companionless existence. My only company, the laughing river, the warming sun and passing selfish clouds, all out of reach and only ever focussed upon themselves.

Occasionally an ambling angler tracing the river, or young lovers making out in the country, picnickers indulging under the shade of my arbour, kept me company, but not often. Since the farmer cleared the glade, there was little reason to visit a solitary elm four hundred metres from the roadside and miles from town.    

But this week, I’ve had lots of visitors: the man’s son Jessie, a hiker who found him hanging in my limbs, lots of police, a priest, a Kaumatua. All of them coming to see Jessie! And now the father was here to see me.

Here to cut me down.   

 “Jessie, oh Jessie,” the man spluttered, now kneeling before me. “Why?”

I felt for the man. I wanted to wrap my limbs and roots around him. Reach out—touch him, hold him as I was once held, touched. Alleviate his pain. While the laws of nature and physics restrict my interventions, the law of Divine Oneness applies to every single living entity in the universe. At the most basic level, this man and I were the same, connected, a combination of atoms, that’s all—pure carbon! Just as I had been to Jessie. I wanted the man to understand that.

‘Elm hateth man and waiteth.’

I could have concentrated, dropped a limb off my trunk, given him a sign and a fright. Just as I had done before when trying to save others. People who wanted to abuse my stature or stain my reputation. But what was the point in trying to save myself? He had come to cut me down. There was nothing I could physically do to stop that. So, I had to try to reach him emotionally. 

I looked inward, tracing the rings of the seasons and years. I searched my whakapapa, my mana. I searched for something we had in common, something I could use to connect with the man. Then, almost immediately, I found it. It happened a long time ago, but it appeared before me as if it were yesterday.

Love and death. Everything was connected. Love and death, the guilt that follows; the banes of existence.

The day was bright and hot. It was summer, late afternoon. I looked around and saw my brothers and sisters. We were standing together; we were one, a glade of leafy trees connected by more than geography. Birdsong filled the air.  It had been hot for an age because I remember the soil feeling cool. Its gritty texture telling my parched roots it hadn’t rained for a while. They stretched, reaching out like a languid cat on a mat. It felt good.

A group of young farm lads ran toward us, about six of them, rough-and-tumble with scabby knees and nitty hair. They were joking, laughing, their din threatening to drown out the birds, who simply chirped and sang louder. They were in no danger, and they knew it, perching on the highest branches, gossiping amongst themselves, eagerly waiting to see what developed. Some boys were carrying planks of wood, another a hammer. Another one must have brought some nails. As they reached the glade, the planks were discarded to the ground. The boys, hands-on hips, surveyed the trees.

Pick me, pick me, I thought, please pick me. I didn’t know what they were going to do, but whatever it was, it was likely to be fun. The boys were so excited. It was contagious.

“What about this one?” a short boy with fair hair called out after looking me up and down.  

“Nah,” his mates called back. “It’s too short, too squat; its branches go out, not up. Not high enough to build a decent hut. We want a really tall one!”

They selected one of my brothers. I couldn’t hide my jealousy, my branches waving in the breeze in envy, my drying leaves loudly chattering displeasure.

Such was his excitement that my brother didn’t seem to mind when the nails pierced his trunk. He stood straight and tall as ever, his branches reaching for the sky. I took a sideways glance at mine, reaching and swaying sideways like lonely Greek dancers. The sky smiled, the river giggled, the clouds ignored me, and I felt short and silly. 

That afternoon, the boys built their hut: a ramshackle multi-level mess, piled and latched onto my brother like a cluster of reishi mushrooms. Oh my goodness, the boys had fun! “No girls or grown-ups allowed”, they yelled!

All summer, they laughed, joked, tried smoking cigarettes. Once, one lad even brought a bottle of warm beer. They came, played war, cops and robbers, Olympics, cowboys and Indians; you name it—they played it. They played all summer, returning at all hours, sometimes in the early mornings before dawn. They even slept out, camping in their hut, staying up all night, toasting marshmallows, frying pancakes on an upturned baking soda tin, and guzzling raspberry pop. Fun days that ended in late January when the school bus came and took them all away.

Over the next few years, they still came, but far less frequently. They grew up, rugby, school, their fathers’ farms, then girls all stealing time and attention. Their young brothers didn’t share the same joy in their hut, and of course, girls weren’t allowed! The glade wasn’t the same without the boys; now, the birds sang quietly, whistling stunted mutterings under their beaks. The summers didn’t seem quite as hot. The sound of the capricious river took over.

My brother became sick. His bark grew lesions, spots appearing on his foliage, such was his melancholy his limbs drooped. My family and I tried to jolly him, but sadness overtook him. Once the tallest of our family, his once erect posture became bendy and stooped, while his limbs became brittle and hard. It was hard to watch; we could do nothing to stop his decline.

Many seasons later, a young girl came running into the glade. I didn’t know who she was or where she came from. Barefoot and crying, she was hanging onto her cloth dolly as if her life depended on it.

“We must hide,” she told herself. “He mustn’t find us, Clara!”

I couldn’t see anyone else, so I presumed she was talking to her doll. I watched her grasping in vain, trying to reach the lonely fraying rope the boys used to climb up into their hut. Despite valiant attempts, she was too short. She looked around, eventually deciding I offered the best alternative for hiding. 

“This good tree will protect us, won’t he,” she said, walking around my base, patting my trunk, before sitting down behind me, hidden from the paddock, from where she came.  

“We’ll have to be quiet, Clara, no more crying, alright? Father will be very cranky, and Mother will be beside herself. I’m sure Mother has already sent Father out for us. But you don’t need to worry. I won’t let her put you in the washing machine!”

Thirty minutes later, a man’s voice boomed across the paddock, “Jocelyn, where are you? Come on, it’s nearly teatime! Joss, come on. Joss—Mummy said she won’t wash Clarabelle. She promises. She said if you wanted, the two of you could have a bath together instead.”

“Shush, Clara.” She raised her index finger to Clara’s lips. “Try not to make a sound. Daddy might go away if he doesn’t see or hear us.”

Her father walked closer. He examined my dead brother, pulled himself up, looking into the empty hut.

“Jocelyn,” he yelled again, half cupping his hands into a primitive megaphone. “Joss, where are you?”

“Shush,” Jocelyn whispered again.

Jocelyn’s father strolled amongst the glade, initially walking away from me.

Jocelyn giggled. “Silly,” she said.

At the end of the glade, he turned back, walking toward me. That’s when he spotted her.

“Oh, Joss, I’ve been calling you. Did you not hear me?”

Realising the game was up, she stood, brushed off the dust, and laughed. “We were hiding from you!”

Her father laughed, “Yes, I was a right silly billy and you a mischievous little ratbag!”

“It was Clara. She wanted to run away. She hates being washed, and she’s so scared of the wringer.”

“Well, she’s worse than you, but do you and Clara want a piggyback home? Mummy’s making googie eggs and soldiers for tea.”

“Yum.”

“Come on then, jump on. This horsey wants to take you home.”

Within a few minutes, Jocelyn was gone. I felt sad. I was a good tree, and I had protected her. She patted me. I felt important; I felt connected. I was part of her world. I hoped but never thought I would see her again. I was wrong.

She and Clara visited me often, sitting under my canopy, throwing tea parties, drawing, singing, dancing. I think I grew six feet that year!

“You can call me Joss,” she said to me once. “Everyone else does. And I’m going to call you Uncle Gregory. I’ve always wanted an Uncle Gregory! And you are the best Uncle Gregory in the world.”

My leaves turned a vivid green, my bark crinkled, and I stood up straighter. Hundreds of birds flew to my branches, all wanting in on the attention and love Joss was unselfishly dishing out. The best thing of all was she didn’t even know she was doing it. She was young. She was as innocent, sweet, and warm as the first scented breeze of spring.

Joss grew too, although, unlike the boys, she kept returning. Over time the greying and raggedy Clara was replaced by a diary, tea parties evolved into picnics, and pigtails grew into a long-braided ponytail. How I loved her company. How I loved how she read to me from the books she borrowed from the town library. My favourites were The Chronicles of Narnia, Joss acting out various scenes. Peering into the glade, ensuring she could still glimpse the open doorway of the wardrobe back to the empty imagination-free room from where she had set out.

Yes, the glade glowed when Joss visited, it was full of sound and movement, light dancing between the leaves, levity floating in the air. Even if she was simply lying under my canopy staring into the sky, making fun of the stupid clouds, she emitted grace and life.       

“Uncle Gregory, I need to tell you something. I hope you don’t mind, but you are such a good listener….”

I must have heard her say it a thousand times. Joss sharing secrets she knew I would never spill. Telling me of her hopes, fears, and infatuations. We shared an intimacy I never thought possible. She would hug me, tie ribbons to me, sit hard against me, her back resting on my trunk while she read or thought. She sang songs for me. “Don’t Let the Stars Get in your Eyes” was her favourite! I should have listened to Perry Como. Frankie Laine sang, “I Believe,” and I did. I was a silly tree; I felt special when I had no right to. I was a foolish tree; I started to crave the company of humans. Not all, just one. A young woman named Jocelyn. 

My brothers and sisters accused me of being smug, and in return, I cursed their jealousy. They were wrong; they were unenlightened on the relationship between man and tree, or in this case, girl and tree.

One day Joss told me about symbiosis after a science lesson.

“Symbiosis means a mutualistic relationship,” she said.

Symbiosis came from Greek and meant “to live together.”  

And, while she never said it, I was sure she was referring to us! I told my brothers and sisters. They laughed, turning their backs on me, calling me haughty and arrogant. After that, I became possessive and angry, telling the clouds off when they blocked the sun and stopped Joss from visiting me, shaking my limbs if the birds dared to come too close. After a while, they stopped coming. I don’t think Joss ever noticed the birdsong filling the glade was coming from around—not above her.

One day I noticed a “For Sale” sign on the road. The glade, the paddock, and surrounding fields were being sold. Not long afterwards, two men came walking toward the glade. Both were carrying something I’d never seen before. They had purpose in their stride, cradling a demon in their hands.

“The farmer wants these trees taken down, Bruce. All but one to provide shelter for the horses he’s going to run.”

The men looked around.

“This one here will make the best shelter—it’s gotta wider canopy; more shade.”

I didn’t know what they were going to do until they started doing it. My beautiful brothers and sisters were cut down one by one; there was nothing I could do to save them. My bark wept, my branches tensing and grimacing as the men used their mechanical swords to turn my family into logs, chips, and dust.

Stop it—stop it! I tried to scream. But I could only stand by and watch as my family was cut down then decapitated. Split into fire-size chunks. I wailed my respects and farewell.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust

From carbon, we grew 

And return we must

Man killed the fuel

That he fed to the fire

Matter to gas, via a ravenous pyre

Goodbye to the earth

Return to the sky

Recycle our atoms; say our goodbyes.

My family had been cut down!

The birds fled, never to return. I grew bitter, my leaves curling over in hatred, all the while the river laughed. I cursed. The clouds danced, I cursed again. I cursed so much even the insects deserted me.

Jocelyn visited me the following week. The day was grey, clouds blocking the sun, making a dull day feel like forever.

“Oh, Uncle Gregory,” she cried, “what have they done? All the beautiful trees, all gone—why, oh why?”

I could hear sobs, I could see tears, I could feel her pain. I was sure she could feel mine. She hugged me sympathetically, wrapping her arms around my trunk, pressing her face and body hard against me.

“You poor tree,” she whispered, “you are the last one left. I am so sorry; I can’t believe it.”

I am the last one left; her words resonated deep within me.

I was the last one left; I am the last one!

The boys, the farmer, the men with the mechanical swords, I detested them all.

The following winter, I hardly saw Joss. The season had been a wet one, clouds and the river gathering forces to mock and frustrate me. The clouds covering the sun, the river roaring with delight in response to rain. Twice jumping out of its banks to tease me, soak my base. It was becoming bold.

The spring brought the return of the sun, and thankfully Joss. Although this season, Joss returned with a young man she called Gary, her so-called boyfriend. I didn’t know what she saw in him. He was tall and gangly. He had pimples and spots and seemed awkward in her company. Like a wilding pine, he seemed to pop up without notice and invitation. He had the stride of a praying mantis and the presence of a woodlouse, his spindly limbs springing from baggy shorts and tight shirts. He gave me the shits!

Joss gave him coddles and cuddles.

What are you doing here? Who invited you?

I wanted to attack him, let him know I stood the tallest in the empty glade. I knew Joss more than he did!

As spring rolled into summer, the two of them shared sickening picnics, scoffing sandwiches, lying together in the sun. His white legs protruding foolishly from hand-me-down khaki shorts, his warty hands holding hers. They lay there for hours, looking up at the sky, playing guessing games with flippant clouds. They whispered secrets, shared gossip, and spoke in cutesy-wootsy, a dialect for the deliriously deranged.  

Then one day in January, right in front of me, they kissed!

Stop, stop. I wanted to scream. You can’t kiss; stop it.

But of course, I couldn’t, and of course, they didn’t. Instead, they kissed some more, then more again. They kissed so much I worried their faces would merge. Then I saw Joss quickly pull away; Gary was trying to unbutton her blouse.

“No,” she commanded, “no, Gary, please.”

He ignored her, his hands paring away her defences. 

“No, Gary, I don’t want to; I’m not like that; I’m not ready for this.”

Still, he ignored her; I tried shaking my limbs, I tried dropping leaves, I called on the absent wind to blow, the fickle clouds to rain. I wanted to help her.

“No,” she screamed again, slapping his face then kneeing his groin. Tears streamed down her face.

“Why Gary?” she asked. “I liked you; you just had to wait. I just wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready.”

He responded with a groan.

“I never want to see you again, and I’m going to tell my father.” She turned and ran across the paddock past the horses, her long locks trailing behind her. I didn’t know it then, but that was the last time I ever saw her.

It was dusk on the same day when Gary unexpectedly returned. He looked worse for wear, limping toward me; I could see there was swelling around both eyes, the skin around them turning black. His lips were fat; there was speckled blood caked on the corner of his nostrils. His head hung low, his shoulders curled forward. 

He was carrying a rope.

I wondered if he would make a hut, as the boys had used a rope when they built a hut on my brother. Suddenly Gary went up in my estimation! Perhaps he wasn’t so bad after all. He climbed up on a lower limb and threw a length of rope over a higher one. Tying one end of the rope to the limb he was standing on, he made a noose with the other. Then without fuss, he placed the noose over his head, tightened it, jumped.

He hadn’t said a word. He hadn’t cried out or even contemplated. There was no hesitation. One minute he was climbing me. The next minute he was hanging from me—dead. I honestly didn’t know what he was about to do. What species of living things sets out to deliberately kill themselves?

I felt sick. I felt dirty. I didn’t like him, that was true, but I did not wish him dead. My primary function is elemental conversion. I keep people alive by transferring carbon into oxygen. This was all wrong.

The lazy and recalcitrant wind now appeared, swaying Gary to and fro, rocking him, cradling him in its wispy fingers. The wind was too late and careless. The clouds parted, allowing the moon to stare down in soft light and sympathy. I looked at this young man, full of pimples and promise, his essence expunged by hormones and an underdeveloped frontal lobe.

What was achieved?

I thought of my dead brothers and sisters.

What was the point?

How do you make sense of the nonsensical?

I wanted Gary out of me. His dead body made me feel sick. With the help of the wind I shook him, but he would not fall; the rope would not snap. He simply hung, slowly swinging. He stayed there until he was spotted mid-afternoon the next day. By then, his face was bloated and discolouring. The people who collected him hardly said a word. Gary’s body was given more respect than he had probably ever received while he lived. He was taken away.

I waited for Joss. I wanted to comfort her, tell her it was not my fault, that I never wished for this to happen. I waited for days. Then weeks. Seasons came and went. But she never returned. I was truly alone.

The man beneath me sobbed loudly. I knew that pain. The agony of losing someone you love through no fault of your own. This is what we shared. I shed more leaves, tried to touch him. The leaves falling softly to the ground like the tears he spilled.

After Gary, there were others. Three others!

The first was an old man, sad and lonely. He used his belt to strangle himself, wrapping it around my lowest branch and slumping forward on his knees. I wanted to autotomy whatever limb it took to save him. But then he spoke to me, telling me he had lost his wife to cancer and now wanted to join her. He missed her and couldn’t carry on without her. I knew his pain; I believed I could feel it. So, I helped him on his way by gently pulling back my branch as he slumped forward. He passed quickly without fear or struggle. 

The next was another young man, he was angry. He cried how life was unfair, how he didn’t want to be gay. I didn’t understand what he meant, but I understood his pain. The young man procrastinated. It seemed he was unsure whether he wanted to die. I concentrated, I focussed on my lowest branch. I willed it to drop. I did not want to be part of the death of someone who did not want to die. It duly fell, crashing to the ground, landing on top of the young man. Dazed, he slowly got up and cried. After ten minutes, he ran toward the road, and I never saw him again. 

Jessie came. Just last week. He was young, handsome. He didn’t appear depressed; he didn’t appear angry. I imagined he was the type who was good in class, drove the coolest car, had the prettiest girl. A winner. He was well dressed and carried himself with confidence—his demeanour at odds with the rope he held. I knew what was coming. I wanted to stop him but knew dropping limbs would not achieve this. I concentrated.

I asked the wind to intervene, to blow a gale, create a maelstrom. It ignored me. I begged the clouds to help, to throw lightning down, hail, anything. They looked the other way. River, river, I cried out, do something! It pretended not to hear. We were on our own, the lad and I. Love and death!

Elm loveth man and saveth.

Please help, I pleaded to no one. I felt helpless; there was no one there to hear. Jessie and I were connected. We became one. I took on his pain. I stole it from him. I gave him my love in return. I urged him to stop, begged. When it was clear I could do no more, I wept for him. I embraced him and made sure he did not suffer. Poor Jessie.

Now, it started to rain, coming down in sheer sheets of starched bitterness. The man stood, pulled his collar around his neck, zipped his jacket. He picked up his mechanical sword, pulled the cord.

It roared into life; it was a sound I remembered well. It was the sound of my family’s demise, and now it was my turn. I looked skyward, waiting for the first cut. 

I heard a woman’s voice call faintly above the din.

“Hey there. Hello—you! Good morning—are you the farmer? What are you doing?”

The raucous stutter of the sword, his focus on his task meant he didn’t hear.

The woman started running toward him.

“I say, hello—can you hear me? Good morning.”

The man looked up in surprise, switched off the rotating blade.

The woman was old. She wore a pink hooded padded coat, woolly mittens. She was wrapped up against the weather like a marshmallow I had watched the boys eat years ago.

Years ago, yes, years ago. A bell was ringing in the damp silence. I looked more closely. It couldn’t be, I thought. It looked like Joss, but she was old; she was much smaller.

“Are you the farmer?” she asked.

“What’s it to you?” The man asked, bristling at the intrusion.

“This is an old tree, but it is still healthy. Why would you cut it down? 

“Because it kills people. And anyway, it’s none of your business.”

“What do you mean it kills people?”

“My son,” the man welled up, “my son hanged himself in this tree. And I know he was not the first either. This tree is cursed.”

“Oh, I am so sorry to hear that,” Joss replied. “Yes, I know your son was not the first. My first boyfriend also hanged himself here. That was over sixty years ago!”

“So, you know then,” the man cried. “We have to stop it from happening again.”

“Yes,” Joss sympathised. “But cutting it down will mean people will just go elsewhere—it won’t end their suffering. Unfortunately, I am sorry to say people will go somewhere else.”

The man fell to his knees, dropped the sword. “What can I do?” he wailed.

Joss moved closer, also fell to her knees. She hugged the man.

“I am so sorry; I am so sorry. I do not know what it is like for you. I can only imagine your heart feeling like lead; that’s what I felt. Only you will know the depth of your agony; it’s indescribable grief, a gnawing. It is a journey only you can take. Others may guide you, give you advice, but you travel alone. I am sorry. Love and death, then guilt can tear you apart.

“This is the first time I have returned to this place—the spot where my boyfriend chose to end his life. Up until now, I’ve tried to block this place out of my mind. I’ve spent many years, my entire life trying to rationalise the irrational. How my father’s hiding, how denial of a quick summer grope could result in death. It doesn’t make sense, it never made any sense, yet it happened. But none of it—I say none of it—was the tree’s fault.”

“What am I to do,” the man cried.

Two days later, Joss returned. She was on her own.

She smiled, “it’s nice to see you, Uncle Gregory. It’s been too long. Do you remember me?”

I bent toward her as she stroked my trunk.

“We have had sad lives, you and I. And mine will be over soon enough. I am old now, and I’ve stayed away far too long, my friend. I’m sorry. You were such a good friend to me, and I have never forgotten.

“I want you to know, I have purchased this land. I intend to return it to a wetland like it was before you were here. I want the birds to return, the river to come closer, I want people to come. It will be called Gary and Jessie’s Reserve.  

“And when my time comes, I want my ashes to be laid amongst your roots. Will that be okay?”

How I wanted to talk, how I wanted to touch her, but my function isn’t to speak or touch; mine is pure and simple: elemental conversion, particle transfer.

That will be fine, I thought. 

Joss continued to visit and help with the planting of reeds and natives. Jessie’s father helped too.

Two years later, I heard the booming call of a Matuku, telling me Joss had passed.

We would soon be one.

2 thoughts on “Uncle Gregory”

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