Below the hill, and with his fingers lost in the curls of a white beard, Nick stepped outside through the only door of his silent lumber mill. Misery had broken his spirit and stance, for he now limped, his back bent. His buried eyes looked at the valley from half the height at which he had first seen it. And outside, the sun teased rows of disheveled stumps. He had chopped trees to take revenge on a forest that had provided him with rotten logs for his cabin. Those same logs had collapsed on his wife, killing her while she slept.
His water wheel, the one with paddles that had counted his tears for decades, turned no more. He had grown used to it, the noise of the saw it powered comforting him with a strong purpose in life: repelling the forest border till he saw it no more.
He made his familiar walk to a group of willows and placed flowers on the grave. They were different, the willows, not like those pines! Then, for the first time since he had planted the willow sapling, he opted to take a nap under the cool shade of his grown protégé. He had never taken a nap under that willow, because he feared he would find the same disease that had led to the trunks collapsing on his wife. His connection with his friend, the willow, was best left in the attic. There, his dormer framed it into a picture of silent majesty. But that day, although it had been one as silent as any, something pushed him to the willow. Was it a whisper?
Soon after the first snores, drops of sunlight tickled the lumberjack’s nostrils. Then twigs broke. “Who’s there?” asked Nick.
“It’s me, the one you stare at mornings and evenings, the one you talk to all the time but never listen to,” said a hoarse voice.
Nick opened his eyes to a web of blue sky and asked: “Who are you?”
He looked up and down, left and right, but met no soul. Then a knotted root wedged itself into his lower back and set him on his feet. His eyes only left the root when it retracted to a mere bump. It sucked clumps of wet soil and grass, while a cold finger ran down his spine. “Who?
Where are you?” asked Nick.
“I’m here, where I’ve always been. And you could say ‘thank you’!”
“I helped you stand, didn’t I?”
Nick shuddered and stepped back. This could not be, trees did not talk, and if they did, then how would he face them? Over four decades, he had decimated their ranks. He had dragged them to the hilltop in pieces and burned them on the foundations of his former cabin, blaming them for its collapse.
He circled the trunk once, twice, and said: “Nobody’s here, I don’t understand.”
“Stop wasting our time and listen, because I can help you shrug your sorry state,” said the voice. Nick sat back, knees to his chest.
“You’re the willow tree, are you?” said Nick.
“Yes and I do talk, but you chose never to listen!”
“Well if you do speak, prove it by wiggling a branch. I want to make sure this is not my imagination. Go ahead and wiggle this branch,” he said while he patted the ground, searching for roots eager to emerge.
The shaking produced a warm shower of sunlit droplets. When it stopped, Nick said,
“What do you want? Why would you help me?”
“I’ll help you because I’m tired of crying.
“And what can I do about that?”
“You can do a lot. Every time you think about me, you call me ‘Weeping Willow’.”
“But you are one,” said Nick.
“Please call me ‘Smiling Willow’ for once.”
“Because then I’ll believe I’m happier, even though we both know it’s not entirely true.
And I won’t need to borrow the river’s tears to cry. A smile goes a long way, you know.”
Nick frowned. “You mean you actually keep borrowing water to cry? I didn’t know I was causing you such harm, at least it wasn’t directed at you and the willows over there. All this time,
I thought you grew so large because you were happy.”
“Happy? How could I be happy? Yes, I’ve been draining the stream for some time, but it’s not totally your fault, because how could you know? Trees don’t talk, right?”
“Right!” said Nick.
“But they do talk…and…and you never listened to what they tried to tell you. You never listened to my weeping. My weeping, that is, and the weeping of all the trees, the ones you can’t hear the wind blowing through because you’ve pushed the edge of the forest far from here…and your weeping,” said the tree.
It sobbed, its leaves trembling, drops falling to the already moist grass.
Nick frowned. “I think the world can hear my weeping,” said Nick.
The willow’s leaves bristled again. “Every day, I am filled with sadness because I cry for the forest. It exhausted its tears long ago and asked me to borrow the river’s water to cry for it. We are related. You didn’t think you came here to take a nap because you suddenly had some epiphany, do you?”
“Why did I come here, then?”
The willow branches sagged and a breeze blew through the leaves, as if a long sigh. Some leaves fell on Nick’s head and became stuck in his beard, so he brushed them off. “Well, the forest, the one you never hear, bid me to call you over here. It thought that, being your friend, I could bring you to listen and could bring all this nonsense to an end. Since I cry for everyone, it thought that if you made me happier, I’d be able to change the course of history.”
“But you never tried to talk to me,” said Nick.
“That’s not true! Remember the bristling branches and the chirping birds in my branches on certain evenings?”
“Yes, and? That was just birds in the wind.”
“Oh, yeah? Did you just hear yourself? How could it have been just birds and wind when you cut all those trees and burned them? What would the wind have bristled through and where would the birds have perched were it not for me and my willow friends?”
Nick sat, patting the ground, hoping to avoid angry roots.
“You never cared to notice. Sometimes, when my trunk crackled under the wind, you closed the shutters on that little dormer of yours,” said the willow. “How did you think I felt all alone on that bank, away from my brothers and sisters?”
“You have brothers and sisters?”
“Yes, I know it’s hard to imagine, but I do have brothers and sisters in that grove up the bank.” I missed them and I tried to tell you, but you heard nothing. I wiggled the branches, shook my leaves, and shed them early on some winters, but you never noticed. Granted, I grew tall and wide because no other willow drank at my spot, and eventually I saw them.”
“Saw who?” said Nick.
“My brothers and sisters, Nick, please pay attention and listen for a change! I can see them now, of course. The breeze also helps us send words to one another, but still, it’s hard. So I cried, I cry still, so much that I did not have enough tears and had to start borrowing from the river.”
“But you had me,” said Nick.
“You mean you had me. All the good that did! After the first weeks of watering me, you realized you didn’t need to care much about me because I was growing fast and my roots were thickening. And, mind you, you took me away from my kind to soothe your heart. But you never thought how everything you’ve done affected us willows. You humans chop trees to build houses, that’s fine, but to leave a field of stumps as a revenge on the forest because it wronged you?”
“It did wrong me! The trees killed my wife with rot that grew from the trunks on my walls,” said Nick.
“Yeah, but that rot didn’t grow from the trunks, it grew on the trunks,” said the willow.
“What do you mean?” said Nick.
“It was a virus, that’s what I mean. It wasn’t the fault of the trees! And did you pause to think that the forest couldn’t have hurt you because the trees for your house were already dead! You used the uncommon strength you were gifted with to leave a field of stumps, of tombstones, because you found the same rot in the forest. You blamed our forest for the house collapse. How did you think we’d feel, we by the bank? These were all friends of ours. Then, every evening and after your rampage, you left us fretting, wondering if we’d be next!”
“I’d never hurt you and your kin!”
“Well, you never checked on me and, yes, I did get that virus too. Yet, it left me unscathed—”
“Why did it leave you unscathed and not the others?”
“Why does a virus let some live and others not? Who knows? Let’s not dwell on things we can’t do anything about and let’s talk about those things we can change. That’s why you never came close to me, was it?”
“What do you mean?”
“You thought you’d see the virus and you were too scared to lose your only friend. You feared you’d see me rotting,” said the willow.
Tears trickled into Nick’s beard. He dug for them and snorted. “I guess I did…but I got a tree and I thought I wouldn’t have to take care of it like a dog! How did you know about the rot, anyway?”
“You confided in me, Nick. I know all your thoughts, your sadness. So, as I said, on top of my misery, I have to hold on to your misery and to that of the forest. That’s why I cry so much and that’s why I borrow from the stream.”
Nick buried his face in both hands and leaned against the trunk. Soon, he tasted the salt of his tears and it burned the tip of his tongue. His beard wiggled between his elbows. “Oh! What have I done? Poor me, what have I done?”
“You’ve done a lot of bad, Nick…You know, about those shutters of yours…I didn’t sleep those nights when you shut them. I was alone and by a field of tombstones. All those nights of rain, thunder, and don’t forget the snows. It was just scary, and most of all, I envied my brothers and sisters on the bank down there,” said the tree. It lifted a long limb, folded its branchlets and leaves, then pointed at the willows. “They probably held one another’s fingers!
Indeed, remember when I grew so much I finally filled the pane in your dormer window?”
“Not exactly, but I remember you filled it one day, quite suddenly,” said Nick. “I remember the wind tugging at you, and I imagined how you were trying to scratch the edges of my window.”
“I was trying to!”
“Trying to scratch the edges of my pane from the opposite bank? Are you taking me for a
“No, of course not, but I was trying to stretch and get your attention. I was thinking that maybe, just maybe that time you would notice something? After all, what are friends for? That was even before the forest asked me to intercede. What a burden that became!” The roots throbbed, drops of water clung to the lush grass. “I’m sorry, just thinking about my condition makes me cry, and you know what else?”
“What else?” said Nick.
“The other willows, the ones in the grove where you buried your wife, they also cried,” said the willow.
“For you?…for my wife?”
“I admit, your wife dying was quite sad, but no. They only wept for me and took water from the stream too.”
“All right, all right. What is done is done. I’m sorry and let’s stop this. How can I help?
And if I do, you’ll be happy and won’t drain water anymore?”
“Yes, that’s right!”
“And you’ll let the wheel turn?”
“Now that you know all I told you, do you promise not to chop anymore trees only to burn them?”
Nick’s lips quivered as images of his beloved cluttered his mind. “I guess you got me. I didn’t know the trees were sick, and anyway, I think I’ve done enough, so I do promise.”
“Then just call me ‘Smiling Willow’,” said the tree.
“Really? That’s it?”
“Can’t you do that for an old friend?”
“Sure,” said Nick. “But that’s all it’s going to take and you’ll be happy? Why couldn’t you just call yourself that and whisk our sorrows away?”
“Because I cry your tears and the tears of the forest besides mine. The change has to come from you, because you have to believe it. If you do, you’ll stop killing trees and maybe, just maybe, you’ll toss some of that sadness of yours. Then I wouldn’t need to borrow the stream’s waters.”
“So, then you’d be happy?”
“Maybe not fully because I’ll never be with my kin, but a smile can do wonders,” said the willow. Nick looked up. The web of thin branches straightened to point at the sky, then it parted in the middle and each side formed an arc mirroring the other into a crescent. And leaves fell into Nick’s beard, while crackling competed with the tweeting of birds.
Nick stood, his back also cracking. With one hand against his lower back, he said: “Here you go, then: ‘Smiling Willow’.”
The ground throbbed, roots shriveled and rose to unveil their true girth. Nick toppled to the grass, then he crawled to the canopy’s edge. Along the low embankment, roots poked holes into a crumbling soil, water trickled, then began to gush. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart, wherever it may now be. I’m sorry I wasn’t totally honest with you,” said the willow.
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t worry, you’ll see.”
“I’ll see what? You’re not going to keep your promise?”
“Oh, yes, nothing like that! I’m going to do more than that,” said the willow. “It’s just that all this crying…”
“You didn’t tell me everything? But the water’s coming back, that’s my best news in years!” said Nick.
“Anyway, you’re quite pale. I can see how frightful it must be to realize that we, the trees, do actually talk. Why don’t you resume your nap under the cool shade of my canopy?”
“I don’t think I could go to sleep now.”
“I insist,” said the willow.
“Weep—I mean ‘Smiling Willow’, I just can’t.”
“Please don’t call me the other name, you’re tired.”
“Really, I’m fine and I’m sorry, I won’t call you Weep—I mean that name,” said Nick.
The tree spoke, this time in a firm tone: “Nick, listen carefully. You’ve done a lot of bad, but you’re not an evil soul. I better than anyone know this from all your thoughts that clog my breathing. Your deeds grew out of a horrible event that we had nothing to do with. We, the trees, are used to sacrifice, and when in a just cause, we’re glad to at least serve a purpose in the after-life! The stream is drying, I can’t live without water, and I can’t live with your sadness and that of the forest choking me…”
Nick grabbed hold of a branch that had started withering and it split in his hand. He noticed that drops had retreated from the edges of thin leaves. “ What do you mean? You’re leaving me?”
“Not really, Nick. I’m giving you a blank slate at life. I’m giving you a new shot at it, as you humans love to say.” Nick shuddered and looked back at the shriveling tree. “But what are you going to do?”
“Don’t bother yourself with such questions. Instead, look at that spot, the one over there close to that side of my trunk. Doesn’t it seem nice? Go lie there for a nap.” The swirls and knots on the trunk started twirling like the cogs of an intricate machine. They pulled Nick to the willow’s center, and he stretched. Birds chatted in the web of branches, while more of the blue sky emerged under the canopy.
As if a child, the old lumberjack fell asleep.
When a ray of sunlight invited a sneeze, the old man’s eyes opened. He limped to the canopy’s edge, pricking his skin on withered branches, and he placed his palm on a thick root. Nothing beat, so upon hearing his waterwheel splashing, he resolved to return home.
Once on the opposite bank, kicking pebbles into the rising stream, Nick looked back. At the tree’s base, a shriveled landscape had further unearthed a web of roots far thicker than the trunk. Nick wiped a tear as rising waters bubbled by the willow’s knotty roots. Then a fresh thought struck him, the kind of thought born from a restful nap. “Wait a minute, what do you mean by ‘second chance’? What’s all this water rising, is that all my tears—I mean your tears and the forest’s tears? You’re leaking life for me? For someone who did nothing for you? Come back, I don’t deserve such sacrifice!”
The waters rose to lick his shoes and the current nudged him toward his mill. The willow continued to wither as a white mist arose above the forest of roots. It danced, twirled and swirled
ever so faster, nagged by a breeze that distorted it into clouds of puffy smiles. Yes, thought Nick, the mist was smiling at him. From the willows farther downstream, water gushed. Already, he could not see his wife’s grave. Then the waves swallowed his calfs and engulfed the forest of stumps. He waddled, struggling to keep pace with the waves that trashed by him, eager to lead the water wheel into a frenzy.
The door to his mill swayed with the waters. Before entering in the musty mill, he glanced at where the willow had stood: had it withered into a skeleton, the ghost of a former companion? The mist that had so smiled and danced dissipated into a wide blue sky. He rushed to his stairs. At the back of his attic, he could escape the flood through a window that led to the hilltop where his cabin had once stood. As he climbed, the waterwheel ground its axle to a burn.
Bolts unscrewed amidst rising smoke and the axle became unhinged, swiping chairs and table. Cups, plates, silverware, and knick-knacks rained on him. Then the axle flung into the wall of the dormer window, inviting the waters into Nick’s bedroom.
Through the back window, more of a narrow opening, Nick emerged on the hilltop, clinging to slick blades of grass. Once higher than the rooftop of his mill, he turned back to where his willow had stood, but only waves cluttered the horizon. With no wind to push him over the hilltop, he sat and pulled his knees to his chest, curling into a ball, his beard wiggling between his legs. Empty of tears, for he had lost them in the flood, he watched the waters rise until the evening. And he listened, as never before, to the waves carving the hillsides into cliffs.
In the morning, birds filled the skies and an immense lake covered his forest of stumps. Its shores licked the horizon of trees he had so despised, and he sighed, for he beheld their beautiful duvet of green again. Nothing but a pristine sheet of water blanketed his former misery.
And Nick decided he would not remain alone, for he wanted to share this pristine panorama: his new life.
Bits of bark fell into the snow, while Jack, a toothpick of a boy, shivered among an army of giant pines that competed to prick his skin through a sad hand-me-down sweater. He waddled through puddles of moonlight, teased by a wind that whispered something he could not understand. But he did not fail to grasp a snickering that was not the wind’s, and he locked eyes with those of a black wolf standing between two pines the snow had already petrified.
The boy lifted his arms to appear larger, and he tried shouting as his brother had taught him, but fear stole his voice. He waddled uphill until waves of blue moonlight washed over his shoes, and he stumbled upon a clearing. Emboldened by the sudden lake of light, Jack turned and raised a fist toward his tormentors hiding in the trees.
And two pairs of glowing eyes stare at the boy.
He lost himself in those eyes. They pulled him as they drank the moonlight from the field, but the cold wind whipped Jack and helped him break free. Again, he trudged through snowdrifts, stopped, turned, and waved his arms, but another wolf appeared.
When the boy walked, the wolves walked. When he stopped, they stopped, and when the wind paused, their whispering filled the air.
Walking should have been easier in the moonlit field, but the wind played games with the snow, piling on one side what it took from the other. Shadows lengthened as Jack turned to wave his arms, but now the pack split: one half to his right, the other to his left. So, Jack shivered, pushing against a fickle wind. He waddled, stopped, waved his arms to one side, then the other. Just as the forest was about to swallow him again, for he followed the moon perched on the highest of peaks to find his way home, he noticed the hipped roof of a hut in the shadows. Its outline contrasted against the moonlit wall of trees, and although he was fairly certain the structure was a shepherd’s summer shelter, he thought of those mythical white towers his mother had often talked about, those same long-gone medieval towers that had protected the region’s many, valiant figures.
The faster Jack stepped, the deeper he sank, and the angrier the snow became. “Is anyone there?” he asked. Nobody answered, but one of the lengthening shadows merged into his. “No, you won’t!” He spit at the pack leader, but it pulled back on its front legs, offended. As if it had waited for a permission, the pack unveiled its arsenal. Jack bumped against a low fence, stepped through its gate, and closed it: a symbolic move at best. Still waddling backward, he judged his distance to a narrow door, and he leaped.
Jack slipped on ice that covered the beaten earth floor. He looked at the moon between uneven planks, then he stumbled into a wall. He turned to face the door and his back slid down the knotted logs of the opposite wall. It stood no farther than a full-grown man’s length. With his legs folded and his arms wrapped around his shins, he cradled his chin to sob, longing for the hearth his brothers and parents were surely sitting by. Outside, silence started to muffle the wind and the growls. Jack rubbed his eyes, fearful of sleep. Then something heavy fell on the roof and shook the hut to its foundations. He screamed, and as soon as he did, yelping started behind the door. He brought his knees closer to his chest, if at all possible, and his lips caught salty tears. By now, worries would fill his brothers and parents, for he had never returned home after dark.
More wolves jumped on the roof and a plank snapped, shattering on the floor. Eager to stir the moonlight, a paw dared dangle through the roof opening. Without much of a thought, Jack grabbed a piece of the plank on the floor, stood, and whacked the paw. It disappears with a yelp, while he lost balance and crashed into the back wall. How he regretted the decision to sway from his usual path home, the one hugging the hill, the long but sure way home. He had walked, or rather climbed, along it every week-end coming back from school in the village that lay in the valley. But the bus had been late that evening, later than it had ever been. Menacing clouds had hugged the high peaks, threatening to petrify the forests and the few houses with early snows.
And his ears began to ring, while the chorus of wolves grew distant.
A gunshot echoed in the mountains and a streak of sunlight blinded Jack. Much yelping followed. The roof planks shuddered one last time and through wall cracks, Jack watched his tormentors scatter between the early morning sun rays.
“Is anyone in my hut?” a deep voice asked from behind the fence. A minute passed, maybe two. Jack tried to stand, but his legs flinched. “Someone’s in there, I can hear you,” said the voice. Then something clicked. “The old gun’s stuck!” said the stranger. Then, Jack heard the familiar growl followed by puffing and thumping. How long had he slept? Was it really morning? Then his father and brothers would be combing the hills for him at that very moment, combing the hills for their dear little boy. “Shoo! Get off,” said the stranger as one wolf bit into the fringes of his fur coat.
Through a crack in the wall, the boy saw two wolves jump onto the man’s back, their front paws tangled in the man’s long white beard. Three more awaited their turn, while a fourth, the relentless black wolf, stood back. When the man dropped his shotgun, the black wolf inched forward and Jack leaned against the door, his face glued to it. His long eyelashes, the ones his schoolmates always teased him about, never stopped wiping the door planks.
Surely his father, or one brother, would now hear the growling and shouting? Jack yearned for the mountains to echo his father’s call. Yet, would Jack even hear that echo against the grunts and growls of the unfurling battle? It was not long before he realized the old man would die failing any help. But what could a boy of eleven do? Sweat soaked his hair and his fingers burned with frost. He remembered his big brother saying: “find a branch and beat the wolf as hard as you can.”
“But what if there’s no branch?”
“Why so many questions?” Jack recalled how Peter had laughed.
“Well, what then?”
“Then you stand your ground!”
He waited. A heavy silence cloaked the field, a silence broken only by the pack’s snorting and the stranger’s panting. Jack bit his nails as a ray of sunlight, followed by others, reached the hut’s back wall through cracks in the roof. Maybe if he detracted the wolves, the old man, if he still could move, would fix his shotgun, and Jack would have a chance at life?
“How do I stand my ground, Peter, tell me?” said Jack, closing his eyes to recall that long-ago chat. “Peter, how do I stand my ground?”
“Little Brother, if you have no branch, make a fist and–”
“And what? Punch the wolf?” Jack recalled his own laugh.
“No, Jack. Instead, shove your fist into the wolf’s mouth.”
“But it’s going to eat my arm!”
“It won’t be able to, because it can’t breathe when your fist is in its mouth.”
“Yeah, and then when I get it out …”
“When you get it out, there’s good chances it’ll think you’re too hardy a snack … I would!”
Jack opened his eyes, blinked against the sun now above the trees, and shivered at the thought of his fist in the wolf’s throat. He stared at that same fist, its knuckles cracked from frost, and he tightened it until the fingers whitened. It was a hard fist, hardened by the cold. So, he pulled his cap down, and lifted the plank closing the door: if this was to be his last morning, he wished it not to bring shame on his kin, and he yearned to join those heroes that once had emerged from the white towers of his boyhood stories. A bright sun highlighted the stranger who shuffled his arms and legs as if making snow angels, the shotgun feet from him. Twice as tall as the boy and two to three times his width, the old man’s still struggled to shrug off the pack. His white hair whipped the wolves that clung to his fur coat. Jack screamed, and the black wolf, who had just begun tugging at the coat, turned. But the boy rushed to the beast, his arms beating the cold air, his loose sweater flapping in the wind.
“Come and get me! Didn’t you want me all this time?” asked Jack. When he met the wolf, Jack shoved his fist into its open jaws. With the strength left in his thighs, he pushed, gliding into the throat, scraping his skin along a rough tongue. The jaws released their grip, and Jack thrust deep. His eyes locked with those of the beast and he fell to his knees. In those eyes, he saw the sun, the peaks of tall pines, the blue sky, and he drifted. A growl, although something more like a gargle, brought him back to twisting his fist. Though the canines had not clamped on the boy’s arm for lack of breath, Jack’s warm blood still painted the snow.
The other wolves released their grip on the old man long enough for him to grab a revolver from the folds of his jacket. And a gunshot echoed, while the black wolf shuddered. Jack pushed one more time before sliding his arm out and collapsing. Two other shots echoed before the leaderless pack vanished into the forest. Then, Jack closed his eyes, his body light as a feather, all pains gone. But someone slapped him across the face.
Someone slapped him once. Twice.
“Wake up, boy!”
Jack opened his eyes to stare into the canyons that criss-crossed the old man’s face. A long mustache rustled, and a gargantuan laugh greeted him.