James saw himself pick up the chainsaw from the damp grassy meadow at his feet.
It was almost as if he were having an out of body experience yet he knew this was as real as what he had for breakfast. Four eggs, half a pound of bacon, three pieces of toast, a grilled tomato and two glasses of orange juice. Damn! Focus, Dude. From where he stood in the field overlooking the forest, it was still safe. He peered into the woods not one hundred feet away. It was dark and damp within the trees and there were heavy clouds hanging overhead as if grasping the top of the forest with soft, damp hands.
It's not as if I've never been in there before, he thought.
James took his first steps with slight trepidation. He glanced suspiciously at the orange-yellow saw in his hand as if it might have suddenly taken leave of him. It was still there. He double checked the extra can of gasoline strapped to his back. With more purpose, he strode toward the woods. He knew there were allies in there. He also knew of the defenders of the tree. Oh, they wouldn't kill him and their trickery and magic and conniving would certainly set him off his task if he didn't concentrate.
The ogres were the worst, he mused. They smelled like raw sewage mixed with skunk. And their breath would kill... well... an ogre. Once I was past the ogres, the ghosts and the field of poison ivy, I would be fine... I think. At least I had the wolves, hawks and rabbits on my side.
The forest engulfed him almost immediately. Clouds, seemingly sensing something was afoot, moved lower creating a damp haze close to the ground. The path to the gnarled old tree was never a question; head straight for the heart. It was where it all began. James had seen the tree on a few occasions when he was removing other diseased trees. The bark was grey and scarred, it was flat along the top as if it were pushed down by the hand of God though he knew it was simply the illness afflicting it. It spread far and wide. There were more than a dozen large branches emanating from the twisted, stubby trunk. The patchy clusters of leaves were a coppery, green but they didn't really shimmer. The light they appeared to have was stolen from the energy of the forest.
The tree was the disease.
It was how the tree managed to survive. It drew energy from every corner of the forest stunting the growth of otherwise healthy trees. It seemed to reach everywhere like a black hole eating light.
As James stepped through the forest, damp leaves whispering at his feet, he recognized trees he had passed before. Near the edge were saplings he had planted recently and as he drew deeper into the woods, he saw trees he had planted months and years before. There colour and energy invigorated him... inspiring him to push on.
The forest became darker... wetter... sadder.
As the fog grew thick closer to the ground, he could hear the ogres echoed grunts in the distance. Did they know he was here? He pushed on single minded in his task. What will be, will be.
The abruptness of shapes passing silently through the woods around him took him by surprise. It wasn't the ogres. They were never quiet. More often than not they simply waited until a hapless victim wandered by. They were often lazy that way unless they became agitated. James expected agitated today. They wouldn't be quiet.
A moment after he noticed the shapes, the wolves morphed from the fog. James stopped for a moment and watched as the entire pack appeared. They were all varying shades of grey from almost white to almost pitch black. The largest of the pack came up to him, nuzzled his free hand and started ahead of him through the forest. The wolves would handle the ogres if it came to it. They were fleet of foot, quiet and worked as a team.
James followed the alpha male. The alpha female circled around behind him to make sure nothing came from the rear. The rag-tag team moved into the forest. James could feel the mist dampening his clothing and his hair. I hope the saw starts, he thought.
James heard the grunt before he saw the massive outline.
The ogre was on James and the wolves in the blink of an eye. It's grey-brown, pock marked skin glistening with droplets of mist. It let out a roar akin to a tormented elephant or buffalo. James skin crawled with the vibration of the bellowing beast. Somewhere in the distance James heard answering roars.
Yup. They're agitated. Crap! Time to go!
The wolves leaped in front of the ogre. James took off running, the alpha female and three other wolves at his side. The saw banged awkwardly against his thigh yet he managed to keep moving forward. The wolves kept his pace.
Branches whipping around him caught his bare skin yet James continued to scramble through the bush. He ignored the painful welts appearing across his face. The struggle behind him filled the forest with snarls from the wolves and bellows from the ogres. All the wolves had to do was keep the ogres away from him until the tree was down. After that, it was over. Easier said than done. Even as he ran he could feel his trembling heart. The ogre had taken him by surprise. What other surprises was he in for?
The forest was alive now. Everything here knew he was coming for the tree.
Even the tree knew.
It wasn't long before the clearing began to emerge ahead. James broke into the meadow. It was a field of mostly dead grasses and flowers with the life sucked out of them. The ground became soggier. The mist cleared then closed then cleared again. He could see the ring of poison ivy surrounding the massive tree at the centre. And he could hear the low moan of the ghosts. Three hawks landed on dead tree branches on the opposite side of the clearing; waiting. The hawks would handle the ghosts.
The rabbits hadn't appeared. Where were they?
As if on cue, the rabbits came out of the forest from behind him. They went straight for the poison ivy. This wasn't regular poison ivy. It was the spawn of the diseased tree. This ivy didn't just make a person itch. It burned like a hot poker. Unless, that is, you were a rabbit. Who knew rabbits ate poison ivy? James knew he wouldn't make it through the ivy on his own. The pain would be excruciating.
An ogre burst through the trees a hundred feet away. Eight long, thunderous strides with three wolves snarling at his heels and he was almost on top of James. James ducked as a wooden club swished over his head. The breeze of the club swing ruffled the hair raised on the back of his neck. He scrambled past the ogre and the wolves, the cacophony of snarling and bellowing ringing his ears. He glanced at the rabbits as he ran. Eat faster!
The ogre tried to turn as James rushed past. It slipped to the ground and the wolves were on it in an instant. The wolves couldn't kill an ogre. What they could do was inflict enough wounds to make the ogre back off.
As he ran, turning away from the scene of ogre and wolves, the first ghost flew through James. He recognized the ghost from his past just before it passed through him. In an instant a feeling of deep regret overcame him and he went to his knees. Damn it! He bowed his head in a sudden onslaught of shame. He glanced around and could see more ghosts. He recognized all of them. Self doubt filled him, shaking him to the core. I haven't even reached the damned tree yet! How can I do this? I don't know if I have it in me. I simply haven't... One of the hawks flew by, turned and landed on his shoulder with a whisper of wind from its wings. James turned toward the hawk who cocked his head to one side. It's yellow-orange eyes stared at him unblinking. Okay, he thought.
James looked around. The wolves were snarling and snapping at the ogre. Another ogre had appeared and was already down on the ground. The hawks were corralling the ghosts one by one. He saw the poltergeist. The one who had started all of this. The one who had planted the tree. If that one got to James, this fight was over. The hawks flew over his head in a protective shield. The rabbits were already half way through the ivy. The war raged around him. From somewhere deep inside, he drew the strength to get back to his feet. His clothes muddy and sodden, he took one step. Then another. And another. He looked at the ghosts, his face growing stern. This is the last time you take me down.
Another ogre appeared nearby. James started running again. The rabbits were almost through the ivy and James followed their trail. There was little fear in him now. Only determination. It was time. James made it to the tree moments after the rabbits had cleared a path through the ivy.
He heard the tree moan ominously. The first part of the war was happening behind him. This was his battle and his alone. The wind began to pick up whistling through the branches. Leaves swirled in the wind around him in dust devils that grew in intensity. The sky darkened further as more cloud settled in around the tree. The sun was almost completely blocked now. Dusk had settled over James and the massive tree.
You need me, the tree seemed to say.
I don't, James replied having a conversation in his mind.
The tree whispered back, I have been here for you all of your life. I have protected you. You hid in my branches and leaned on me when you were hurt. You cannot let me go.
I needed you long ago, James thought. Now... NOW... you are in my way. I have grown beyond you. I now have my own strength to lean on.
But I protected you!, The tree's whispers became a quiet plea.
James started the saw.
The wind whistled louder in the branches of the tree. The tree groaned angrily and its branches flailed, often narrowly missing James. The saw roared in his hands and ignoring everything happening around him, he cut off one of the massive branches. Sap began pouring out of the wound. It was blood red. A second branch swung violently in the wind catching James in the ribs. He was flung to the ground, pain shooting through his chest. He ignored the pain. Today was the day.
That branch was the next he cut off.
James continued to cut the branches off the tree. It wasn't long before he was covered in blood red sap, sawdust and blown leaves. The tree still struggled, the ogres and wolves still fought, the hawks kept the ghosts at bay and he focused on the trunk. It was massive. Over the years it had disfigured and twisted itself into a massive knot. Piece by piece he hacked at the trunk.
It seemed like hours before the tree began to sway. James kept hacking pieces out until finally the tree tumbled with a massive thud to the ground emitting one last mournful, gasping groan. He looked at the fallen tree. It wasn't over; not quite yet.
James stumbled over to the extra gasoline. It had separated itself from him when the branches caught him in the ribs. He was breathing heavily, bruised, lacerated and covered in the filth from a monumental struggle. As he poured gasoline over the downed branches and the massive trunk, his strength slowly came back. He carved several deep notches in the huge stump and poured gas as deeply in as possible. The roots have to die, he thought.
James stood back for a moment, thought a silent prayer, took an orange lighter from his pocket and lit each piece of the tree. The smoke whisked into the sky; gold, grey, brown and auburn. As each branch burned, the ghosts began to disappear. As the trunk burned, the ivy began to wilt. As the roots burned, the ogres fell to their knees.
James watched fire consume the tree. Both delight and fear filled him. The centrepiece was gone. That which he had lived with, breathed with, hidden behind and lamented over was gone.
After an indescribable amount of time, James backed away from the inferno. The tree no longer made any sound. The sap was no longer flowing. The forest around him was silent; peaceful. The wolves joined him at his side. All were battle worn; bruised and cut from the conflict. He turned and walked away when he was sure the tree was completely consumed in flame.
James walked from the darkness. The sky overhead was clearing and the trees of the forest whispered in a light breeze. The wolves accompanied him toward the edge of the woods where they would stay as his protectors. The hawks flew overhead, diving and soaring on the breeze. The rabbits had retreated back into the forest. They didn't find battles appealing. Only one remained behind; Walter. James smiled at Walter and he swore he got a smile back.
At the edge of the woods, James hesitated for a moment. Two tears rolled down his cheeks; one for the loss of something he had carried all of his life and a second for newly found freedom.
With one last glance over his shoulder and a contented smile, James stepped purposefully out of the woods.