The Dragon Tree
© Copyright 2023 by James Osborne
by Steve: https://www.pexels.com/photo/gray-deer-eating-grass-397850/Photo by Stev at Pexels.
by Steve: https://www.pexels.com/photo/gray-deer-eating-grass-397850/
“Give me a hand,” I said for the second time.
“Please?” I said for the first time.
The booming rattles of rolling thunder added a sense of urgency.
Like most nine-year-old boys, I loved storms. The kitchen windows of our lakefront cottage provided a ring-side seat.
Nancy, eleven, reluctantly set aside her Nancy Drew book and helped push the heavy table from the center of the kitchen over to the windows. We each dragged chairs over to it. Nancy positioned hers opposite mine, still grumbling. I knew she enjoyed watching storms as much as I did but was reluctant to admit it to me.
We knelt on our chairs, elbows on the table, each casting our shared anticipation through the multi-pane windows. Outside, the leading edge of the storm whipped up dust and debris, foretelling its impending power.
Jus a few minutes earlier, thunder and lightning had been faint flashes and distant rumbles. Now, heavy dark clouds were throwing off brilliant white bolts of lightning. The thumps and growls of thunder that followed heightened our shared anticipation, also injecting a strong but thrilling measure of unease.
We watched tall trees, 200 feet away, swaying in the wind. For as long as we could remember, they’d been standing guard across the gravel road from our family’s cottage.
Soon those conifers and poplar trees were dancing and swaying sharply to the staccato rhythm of aggressive winds, announcing the full force of the storm had arrived.
“Can I see, too?” asked Susan, our six-year-old sister. She rested her chubby arms on the table, a scruffy knit doll clutched in her right hand.
I looked at Nancy, studiously ignoring both of us, her hazel eyes focused outside. I jumped down and helped Susan push a chair over beside Nancy. Susan climbed up beside her big sister. Distracted now from the gyrating trees, Nancy looked down at Susan. She hesitated a moment, and then smiled warmly and tucked our little sister under her arm.
It was early afternoon that Saturday, but the roiling blue-black clouds by now had cast the kitchen into darkness. Occasionally, a flash of lightning illuminated for a brilliant fleeting nanosecond everything inside and out.
Heavy rain began beating down.
Then an exceptionally bright flash of lightning was followed quickly by a loud crash of thunder.
“That was a good one!” Nancy declared. My older sister tossed her light brown shoulder-length hair with a haughty flick of her head in a familiar air of assumed superiority.
I knew Nancy’s blasé pretense was a ruse. It was a fain attempt to camouflage her rising trepidation over the storm that now began to envelop our aged vacation home with the fullness of its ferocity.
Along came another brilliant flash of lightning, followed immediately again by deafening thunder.
“That was even closer!” I challenged defiantly.
It probably wasn’t, I had to admit silently, but my triumphant proclamation helped conceal my own faux confidence.
The three of us watched the wind-driven rain pelting down hard outside, as the storm grew more intense by the minute.
Without warning, hail began pounding against the windows.
“Careful!” our mother called out behind us. “Stay back!”
Mom hurried over to check her offspring. She had been tending an enormous cast iron kitchen stove behind us.
“We’re fine,” Nancy and I assured her in a rare show of harmony. Mom smiled indulgently but checked us just the same.
Satisfied, she returned to a stable of cooking pots arranged on her big black wood stove resplendent with its decorative chrome fittings. The storm raged on.
With each loud clap of thunder Susan’s eyes would grow big. She’d look intently at Nancy and then at me, checking for signs of fear. Her green hazel eyes found none.
Susan kept glancing around repeatedly for the reassuring presence of our mother. Behind us, Mom was humming away happily before the big stove as if oblivious to the storm raging outside, tending lovingly to the pots and pans, each issuing mouth-watering aromas from the food cooking within.
As the storm’s intensity grew Susan became more frightened. Thinking it best to distract her, I said:
“Look, Susan, little creeks all over the road!”
I pointed to rivulets created by the heavy downpour running in zigzag patterns through the sand and gravel across the soaked roadway. On both sides of the narrow road, shallow ditches had filled with muddy water.
A brilliant flash of white lightning startled everyone.
At that exact instant a deafening concussion of thunder crashed down around us. Violent shock waves rattled our aging cottage. Glass in the multi-pane windows clattered loudly.
We jumped from our chairs and backed away from the windows. Nancy and I exchanged frightened glances. Susan began to sob. Nancy knelt and pulled Susan closer, wrapping her arms around our little sister.
Mom rushed over. She checked each of us again, then instinctively wiped a dishtowel gingerly across the bright red and white patterned oilcloth covering the table, checking without success for broken glass and rainwater.
Dad raced in from the living room, his pale blue eyes wide and concerned.
“Everyone okay?” he asked. Clutched in his right hand was the operator’s manual for our new boat. Dad looked around quickly for any signs of danger, still dressed in the faded jeans he’d been wearing a half hour earlier while working on our spanking new 25-foot pleasure boat.
I announced that we were fine, just shaken. Nancy nodded. A bewildered Susan said nothing. She cuddled closer to her big sister, using both fists to wipe tears self-consciously from her frightened eyes and chubby cheeks.
I saw our parents look at each other. They exchanged nervous smiles and shrugged.
“I wonder if we can see what happened out there,” I said. We climbed back onto our chairs. Nancy pulled the curtains further aside to give us a better view of the storm. She wiped condensation from the window with the sleeve of her cotton shirt.
“Holy smokes!” I shouted. “Look at that!”
The others stared silently, their eyes and mouths open from shock at what they saw.
“It’s gone!” I shouted.
For years, an enormous old poplar tree across the road had dominated the edge of the forest. An abundance of low sturdy branches enticed my sisters and me, and scores of visiting children, to play in its welcoming arms. We loved climbing in and around the tree’s huge branches, inventing games as we went.
“It’s gone!” I cried in disbelief. “Our tree’s gone!”
That favorite old majestic tree, some 80 feet high and 40 feet wide had been transformed in an instant into a disheveled stump surrounded by a massive scattering of leaves, branches, and wood shards.
Strips of bark, peeled from an eight-foot stump that remained, were curled up in the underbrush like oversized tangles of wet spaghetti. Out from the top of the stump poked thin three-foot spikes of buff-colored raw wood.
“What in the world happened to our tree?” I asked.
“Looks like it blew apart,” Dad replied. “Lightning.”
“How could a lightning strike do that, Dad?” I’d asked.
“Lightning has many characteristics, son,” Dad explained. “We often think it only strikes downward from the clouds. That’s not so. Sometimes it flows between clouds and doesn’t reach the ground at all. Other times it flows from the ground upward to the clouds. That can cause trees and even buildings to explode.”
Debris had formed a rain-soaked matt covering the area around the tree, the road, our front yard and almost everything else in sight.
An hour later, the storm had passed, and the sunshine returned.
“Come on!” I shouted. “Let’s go and have a look at our tree!”
My sisters and I took off our shoes and socks, rolled up our pant legs and scrambled eagerly in our bare feet out the door and across the front lawn to the road.
“What’s this?” I asked Dad, who’d followed us out, clad in rubber boots. I showed him a three-foot shard of wood with long pale blue streaks.
“Each burst of lightning is a massive flow of electrical energy,” he explained. “The electricity reacted with chemicals in the wood as it passed through, leaving the blue streaks.”
I noticed that Mom’s attention was elsewhere.
I’ll bet she’s worried we might get an infection from running around barefoot in the mud, I thought. We’d received similar warnings on earlier occasions.
“Be careful!” Mom called out. “You can get Lock Jaw from running around barefoot like that, you know! Be very careful where you step, okay?”
Mom had invoked her strongest admonition: Lock Jaw, whatever that was. Regardless, it had become her go-to warning for a range of catastrophes, real and imagined, each being a disaster of such gargantuan proportions it eluded description by even her extraordinary vocabulary.
I must confess that I never quite understood what dire consequences that obscure ailment might visit upon our healthy young bodies. (In the urban world, Tetanus could be the nearest kin.) Regardless, my sisters and I thrived despite those lurking perils, basking contently as we did in our mother’s unconditional love and devotion to our wellbeing.
My attention and those of my sisters returned to the tree stump. As we drew closer, the damage was even more awesome. Remaining branches nearest the ground had become awkward versions of their former grandeur – short, mangled stubs reaching out helplessly at awkward angles from a truck that had been violently abbreviated.
I glanced down at my little sister.
“Know what, Susan?” I asked. “I think an angry dragon did this! I’ll bet he came stomping up in the storm when we weren’t looking and chewed up the tree. He ate some and spat the rest out all over the place! Look! He tore away almost all of the tree.”
Dragons fascinated Susan. She was both enthralled and frightened by stories about them, even though she knew they were fictitious. Well, she was pretty sure.
“I’ll bet those spikes of wood sticking up from the stump slithered out from between his great big sharp teeth as he was ripping the tree away,” I continued, warming up to my imaginary story. “Look around... look ALL around! That giant monster chewed it all up and spit out pieces in every direction. Hey, Susan, what tree do you think he’ll rip into next time he comes back?”
“Stop that, Billy!” Nancy scolded. “You’re frightening Susan.”
She squatted down and grabbed Susan’s right hand.
Our little sister’s eyes were welling up with tears.
“He’s just fooling, sweetie,” Nancy soothed. “Tell her, Billy.”
“How can we be sure?” I teased, chuckling.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught our parents exchange knowing smiles and shake their heads at yet another of my all-too familiar boyish pranks.
A few minutes later I was silently cursing another consequence of that bolt of lightning. So was Nancy. Good thing Susan was too young to have learned any great swear words just yet.
“Looks like you kids are going to have something to keep you busy for a while,” Dad told us with a grin. “You can start on it this afternoon ... after your chores.”
To Nancy’s and my chagrin, we’d just been assigned to haul the debris off the road. We guessed it would take at least a day to clear it fully and many more days to repurpose the debris. That meant we would have to saw it up, and chop and stack it, ready to eventually feed the ravenous appetite for firewood of Mom’s cook stove.
I’ll never be sure, but perhaps it was instinct that drew me around to the back of our house, overlooking our boathouse and the lake. We couldn’t see either from the front.
“Holy smoke!” I said. “Come here everyone. Look at this!”
The top eight or ten feet of our tree, still filled with branches and leaves, was sticking out of the roof of our boathouse.
“Damn it!” Dad exclaimed when he saw the damaged roof.
“Hush now, Henry!” Mom admonished him quietly, glancing around protectively at us.
I felt a tug on my sleeve. I glanced down.
Susan was looking up at me, her bright eyes wide in wonder.
“Did the dragon do that too, Billy?”
“Yup ... that dragon’s pretty strong, huh?” I said. “We sure are lucky he wasn’t breathing fire after eating all that firewood! He might have burned down our house and the boat house!”
“Billy!” Nancy scolded.
I chuckled. Then, feeling contrite, I knelt and took both of Susan’s hands in mine.
“I was only fooling,” I said. “Honest. There are no such things as dragons. They’re not real. They’re just pretend. Right?”
“If the dragon didn’t do it,” Susan persisted. “Then how did the tree get on the roof of the boathouse?”
“The lightning probably broke the top off,” I replied. “Lightning is very powerful, like Dad said. Then I guess a really big gust of wind blew it there.”
“Oh,” Susan replied, obviously not convinced.
I was pretty sure that secretly, Susan really liked my first version, that a big scary fire-breathing dragon had done it.
No one’s sure who heard the groaning first. We all turned at once toward the sound, just in time to see the boathouse shudder then collapse into the lake, crushing and sinking our nice new boat beneath it.
“Holy cow!” I said.
“Damn it all to hell!” Dad shouted, raising both his hands in frustration.
“Henry!” Mom admonished him, more firmly this time. “The children!”
“Billy?” Susan asked with a worried look in her eyes.
“Nope,” I said reading her look. “Nope, Susan! It’s gone. The dragon’s gone. Honest! It was never here, actually. There’s no such thing. Really! I mean it, Susan ...
“Mom? Nancy? I need help here ...