The dark was like an endless twilight under the dark ceiling of green. As a breeze moved through the leaves above, sneaky sunbeams managed to get by the thick green. He looked at these rare circles of light on the earth and moss-covered ground. They looked like pools of water, rippling as if afraid the breeze that gave them life would return to end it.
He smiled as he plodded through the forest. He moved slowly and deliberately, cane in one hand and a bag in the other. His smile firmly planted on a face as wrinkled as the trees. He pushed through a familiar thicket to a clearing and his tree.
“Hello old man,” he said as he approached the large tree.
He placed his cane against the large trunk. His bag dropped to the ground with a sound of clinking metal. The old man placed his hand on the trunk and marvelled at how smooth it was.
“I think you are aging better than me Rupert.” he chuckled.
He called his tree Rupert, not sure why, it just seemed right. He knew that no tree was his, but after spending 65 years together he felt a bit of ownership. He leaned down to his bag and got out his shovel and fork.
“Work time Rupert,” and he began his weeding.
The day wore on, the old man on his hands and knees, methodically removing anything that could bother his friend. His joints ached and his breathing was heavy, but he smiled and talked as he worked. He talked of when he first found his friend.
It was after the war that took so much from him. The house he lived in was his parents and where he spent most of his life. The day he stumbled, quite literally, on Rupert, was the day he decided to stop living.
He had returned from the war, to the care of his parents. His voice long-lost in the horrors he had endured. The long nights, the blood and loss of so many of his friends tortured his mind. It was endless and painful. No one understood what was wrong with him. They tried all manner of treatments and nothing brought him out of his long nightmare.
One night he heard a whisper, deep down in his noisy head. Though quiet and distant, it seemed to break through the other voices and memories. He picked up his service revolver and left the house quietly. He moved into the forest without thought or plan. Slowly the whisper grew louder and the distance between him and his home grew farther.
He didn’t notice the branches or brambles that cut his arms and face. The weight of the gun heavy in his pocket. He moved toward the whisper until it stopped. He stood in a small clearing, covered in vines and rock. The rocks themselves seemed to be alive with the green moss that covered them almost completely.
The whisper was quiet, but he wanted to hear what it had to say. He looked up at the dark leaves of old trees and then closed his eyes to the world. He heard it.
“Just leave Peter,” his own voice whispered.
He reached into his pocket and held the gun in his shaky hand. He knew that the answer was to end all the voices. Perhaps if he joined those that left before him, he would finally be free. The gun’s barrel rested with a coolness against his temple. He closed his eyes and tightened his grip. As he increased the pressure on the trigger another whisper was heard.
“Help me,” as clear as his own voice.
Peter looked around in the slow light of the morning and saw nothing immediately. He shook his head and was about to lift the gun when he saw it. In the middle of the clearing, covered in vines and surrounded by craggy rocks was a sapling. It looked almost desperate in its need and want to live. Peter stared at it and felt his heart warm, felt his head clear and just like that he had purpose and a friend.
The old man chuckled and winked at Rupert.
“You saved me that day,” he said with a wink.
After a time the old man turned and sat with his back against his friends trunk. He stared up into the strong branches and marvelled at every leaf. If there ever was anything in this world that came close to perfect, his tree was close.
“I know I have tried to thank you Rupert. Tried to be good to you. I have moved rocks and vines. I have weeded and fed the soil around you. I have fought fungus and bugs alike, but you always seem to do a bit more for me.”
Peter reached into his pocket and pulled out a yellowing photo.
“She loved you too you know. We spent so much time here. I still thank you for being here when she passed. I am a man of few words, but you let me cry without judging me. You never judge me Rupert, I never thanked you for that. God I cried rivers for her. I know you did in your own way.”
As if to answer, the leaves of his friend rustled in a light breeze. Peter looked up again and nodded.
“Thanks old man.”
Peter felt his bones ache, felt the air in his lungs struggling to feed his old body. He felt the tingle in his hand and the heavy beat of his tired heart.
“I don’t think I will be able to tend to you much longer,” he said as tears filled his eyes. “It isn’t that I don’t want to. I hope you know that. It’s just I am old and men that get old usually don’t last to long.”
He chuckled as he grasped the photo.
“I wish I could have buried her here. I wish I could be buried here. My kids never really understood you and me. I think my eldest thought his dad was a bit nuts.”
The breeze rustled the leaves, though no wind was felt on his face. He smiled as he felt his friend on his back, strong and well, Rupert would live on. His breathing became shallow, his aches faded, as his mind drifted to his wife. He remembered the first day he introduced her to his tree and how her face it up with joy. He loved her for understanding and sharing in his tree, his friend.
The sky moved on to night and the old man moved on too.
The middle aged man and his son moved quickly through the forest.
“Dad!” He called out worried sick.
His son kept up with his father calling out for his granddad as loudly. They had not realized the old man was missing until the morning. The Father busy with a deal that would earn him some much needed debt relief and the son just busy being 14. They didn’t spend much time with the old man, life always seemed to get in the way.
As they pushed through a thick bramble they stumbled into a clearing that didn’t fit.
“Welcome to wonderland Alice,” the father murmured.
The clearing was immaculate. Almost a perfect circle, completely clear of debris or tangled weeds. In the centre was a tree, huge and beautiful. The boy felt his breath shorten at how perfect it was. The father shook his head as tears streamed down his face. He stared at the lower branches seeing his father cradled like a babe almost 20 feet above them. He moved closer, placing a hand on the mythical trunk of the friend he had heard about all his life.
“Hello Rupert,” he sobbed falling to his knees.
The boy stared up confused as to how his old Papa could have reached those branches. He felt tears on his own cheeks and a warmth that he couldn’t explain. His eyes moved to the ground where he saw the start of a weed in the clean dirt. He knelt down and carefully removed the pesky intruder.
“Don’t worry Papa,” he whispered, “I got this.”