SHORT STORY

By Ernest Cooper-Bourn

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The Last Will and Tes­ta­ment of a Dy­ing Oak by Ernest Cooper-Bourn

T his oak tree, this gi­ant of the for­est, had stood on this very spot for a hun­dred years or more.

Its seed had been planted by a ras­cally squir­rel of du­bi­ous char­ac­ter, who had stolen the acorn from the tree’s an­ces­tor which had stood no more than a hun­dred or so yards away, and at that time was just as tall and proud as its off­spring.

That tree is now sadly no longer with us. The squir­rel had buried his

acorn in the ground un­der a tuft of grass, mean­ing to re­turn when the days of plenty had long gone. But squir­rels as we all know are no­to­ri­ous for their bad mem­o­ries and this one was no ex­cep­tion, so the where­abouts of its se­cret store was soon just as much a mys­tery to him as it was to all oth­ers.

Mighty oaks from lit­tle acorns grow and this one was no ex­cep­tion, and if the squir­rel had lived long enough it would surely have been thanked for the part it had un­wit­tingly played.

A hush hung over the for­est on this day, it was as if all were wait­ing for they knew not what, but they did not have to wait long for that which they feared the most, for strolling ca­su­ally through the trees came a broad-shoul­dered man with bulging bi­ceps, his pass­ing brought a feel­ing of dread to ev­ery tree he passed, their branches shook and their leaves trem­bled with fear, for this man over his shoul­der, car­ried a ra­zor-sharp axe.

The wood­man walked up to the oak and ex­am­ined it care­fully, mak­ing sure there were no signs of dis­ease in its rough bark. He had or­ders for oak and had had his eye on this tree for some lit­tle time. He stood and looked up at the wide spread of this canopy and judged its height. He then paced out a line through the gaps be­tween the other trees, equal to the height of the oak, and marked the spot with a small stick. This was to be­come the fell line.

The wood­man took an enamel flask from his can­vas shoul­der bag, he un­screwed the cap which dou­bled as a cup, pulled out the cork and had a drink of cold tea. This done he ap­proached the tree on the near­est side to the fell line, he widened his stance and with­out more ado he swung his ace. The dap­pled sun­light caught the ra­zor sharp edge of the blade as it flashed through the air in a wide arc be­fore bit­ing deeply into the trunk, large pieces flew off at ev­ery stroke and soon the ground around the wood­man’s feet was cov­ered in chip­pings.

There was no let up as the axe bit deeply into the tree un­til it had al­most reached half­way. Then the wood­man stopped, wiped his brow and stopped for a breather, he had another swal­low of cold tea be­fore he re­newed his at­tack on the tree, but this time from the op­po­site side, the ground around this side too was soon cov­ered in chip­pings

as the axe bit its way slowly but surely to­wards the cut on the other side.

To give the tree its due it never com­plained, but bravely stood its ground un­til the in­evitable end. The tree with now vir­tu­ally no sup­port be­gan to sway and fall, there was a ter­ri­ble tear­ing and wrench­ing noise as the re­mains of its trunk was sim­ply torn apart, and with­out any ef­fort on its part the tree fell ex­actly along the line the wood­man had marked out for it.

As it fell it tore branches from trees close by, and when it hit the ground with an earth shat­ter­ing thump, the branches on the un­der­side were shat­tered and smashed. But now in­dig­nity of all in­dig­ni­ties, as the wood­man sat on the fallen tree trunk to eat his mid­day lunch, of doorstep cheese sand­wiches, washed down with cold tea.

His mid­day meal over the wood­man stretched and flexed his mus­cles; he then rubbed a steel over the edge of his axe and ex­am­ined it closely, be­fore lop­ping off the branches that had once formed the tree’s canopy. All we have now is a bare trunk, and its branches all now of a tan­gled heap.

The sun now flooded into the newly-made clear­ing, in spite of its daily ef­forts it had been kept out for many years by the mag­nif­i­cent spread of the canopy of the oak tree, and it now seemed to take great plea­sure in high­light­ing the tree’s down­fall.

Came the new day and noises were heard ap­proach­ing through the trees. The wood­man ap­peared lead­ing a team of four mag­nif­i­cent draught horses, their tails and manes were cut to a reg­u­la­tion length, and their feath­ers floated above their hooves in the light morn­ing breeze. With much click­ing and cluck­ing of his tongue the wood­man turned the team, they then stood pa­tiently as he fas­tened chains about the fallen trunk. He hitched these chains to the horses’ har­ness, and with no more than a ‘gid­dup’ the horse leaned into their col­lars as one, they took up the strain un­til the trunk be­gan to slide over the rough ground. To give the trunk its due, when­ever it passed over a soft patch of earth it tried to dig in the stumps of its branches in an ef­fort to slow down or halt its progress, it was all to no avail, the horses sim­ply pulled the harder, and the trunk was pulled un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously out of the clear­ing it had known all of its long life.

The horses fol­lowed the well­trod­den paths through the for­est need­ing no guid­ance from the wood­man. Soon they came to a clear­ing by a road­way in which had been built a wood yard and saw mill. The horses in­stinc­tively stopped at the side of a long steel saw bed, and with the use of pul­leys and chains the trunk was loaded onto this by men who worked with­out speak­ing, nei­ther to each other nor to the wood­man.

Spaced along the edge of the saw bed there were steel arms which were hinged at the base, the tops were turned over at right an­gles and these were sharp­ened to a point. These points were ham­mered into the trunk to hold it in place as the bed moved to­wards the band saw, now started and hum­ming, ob­vi­ously happy in its work.

The band saw sliced through the outer sec­tion of the trunk and this slab was car­ried out of the saw shed by the work­ers, and laid bark down on pieces of wood laid cross­ways and spaced evenly along its length. The next slab was laid on top with pieces of wood known as spac­ers again evenly spaced along its length. In this way the tree was re-as­sem­bled but with gaps be­tween the slabs, this al­lowed the air to flow through and this would even­tu­ally dry and sea­son the wood. It would take some lit­tle time and the tree would see snow, wind, hail, rain and sun­shine be­fore it be­came sea­soned tim­ber, and was no longer a tree.

If, just be­fore that dry­ing, sea­son­ing wind, whisked away the last drop of its sap, its very life blood, and, in that last mo­ment, if the tree could in some way com­mu­ni­cate it last wishes.

Could it not be for­given if it sim­ply asked for noth­ing more than for some of its smaller sec­tions to be put aside, to be cut and shaped and formed into a rather grand, or­nate cof­fin, but, for the per­sonal use only, of the wood­man, the man with the axe?

Si­tikka/ iS­tock / Getty Im­ages Plus

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