To Arlen Jewel Crisworth,
Regarding your submission of July 25, 1867: Please sir, refrain from sending any further such rubbish. We shall return all other missives unopened.
With Waning Regard,
Pinkus Sooch, PhD, FJMD, Fellow GGLIOR, President of the National Academy of Science
Arlen lifted the top envelope to the edge of the box. Still with one finger, he raised the heap beneath it. He retracted his hand in a fist and punched the box off his lap.
“Damn them arrogant bastards! I wouldn’t give ‘em the time of day to catch the train to Glory!”
He heaved on his poles to roll his chair back from the scattered paper proofs of failure, craving solace from the trees out front. When he had come back to the cabin from the War his wife and daughter were in a single grave at the churchyard. He’d constructed his wheeled chair right after being dumped with his trunk from the Yankee minion’s carriage. With a choice of big old cart wheels and the little wheels from Jeannie’s toy wagon, he’d gone with the small ones for maneuverability. He’d made the seat high enough to reach the stove and such, making the knobby ash poles necessary.
Having removed the front door to act as a ramp at the porch steps, he gathered speed through the sitting room to gain the momentum he’d need to get a few feet out into the yard. Balance! Bump! Whoosh! Getting back inside would be hell, but the smell of the leaves and the rustle of the trees made it worthwhile. He breathed in deeply; when opened his eyes he saw a peculiar man not two paces from him.
Arlen sat bolt upright. “Who, Sir, might you be?” He wanted to reach over and feel the material of fellow’s grayish overalls that had sleeves, all in one piece, no buttons. “And where on God’s green Earth might you hale from?” Where could the man’s horse be hidden? Arlen glanced up the path to the road beyond the stranger without any answer. He caught the man’s amber eyes once more. “I have nothing you could want here.”
The pale man’s thin smile seemed foreign to his narrow face. “You do have something here I would like to see.” He stepped carefully as if fearing the ground to heave. “May we discuss the contents of the box that your neighbor up the road dropped off for you this morning?”
“You heard my theories about these trees! “ Arlen’s hunched shoulders fell as did the feeling of having heavy weights on this back. “I’d go get that box for you, but have some difficulty moving about these days. Walk forward through the cabin and you’ll see it. The box got knocked over, so you’ll need to scrape the papers up. Bring that box and a kitchen chair if you don’t care.”
The stranger performed his tasks without comment and placed his chair opposite Arlen. He appeared to know just which packet he sought and passed a letter across. “Can you please explain this document?”
Arlen read it quickly; yes this was the initial effort to explain what caused some trees hereabout to grow with wavy or off-kilter trunks. He looked up to see the fellow patiently waiting. “There are two forces that cause plants to point one direction or another as they grow. One is the sun; little, fast growing plants aim at the sun and generally grow straight up as the sun passes overhead each day. Ah, the average sun position is up but you can sometimes see the bloom follow the sun throughout the day. This effect coincides with the effect that Newton fellow calls gravity. I figure a big, slow growing tree would be more affected by gravity because the sun’s relatively rapid cycles are a simple blur of light for the poky tree.”
The placid man made no argument or derisive comment, so Arlen ploughed onward. “I’ve learned a thing or two about gravity the last few years. I know a thing naturally wants the least area askew from straight up, as gravity pushes directly down. A person standing has this push on his shoulders and head. A man sitting has this plus the push on his extended arms and his upper legs. Thus I pay more gravity tax than you!” He grinned for a second with no response from his companion.
Arlen sobered. Now for the meat of it. “A tree feels this same gravity force and naturally grows as close to be in line with gravity as possible to reduce unkind stresses upon it.” He stirred restlessly, his broken body crying to pace. “These trees are like any other on God’s magnificent Earth. They grow in line with gravity.” Great Heaven, his body screamed to escort the stranger to witness the oddly grown trees. Tears streamed from his eyes. “Go to that poplar over there and peer back toward the road. You’ll see trees, mainly white oaks as that is the main type here, that at different stages of growth grew toward a gravity that DOES NOT match that which we share today.” He’d said it, so be it. He awaited laughter as he rubbed his face dry.
Instead of levity, the man appeared more intent. “What may explain the observation that trees in the same vicinity exhibit varying curving effects? What may explain a tree growing one direction and abruptly adjusting that direction? Could it be caused by strong winds?”
“You mean why they don’t all bend in the same direction even if they look to be the same age and all. That comment about wind is a stray dog trying to drag the conversation from reason as the trunks for most would have been too stout to do naught but break were the wind fierce enough. The only reasonable response is that gravity has varied in a manner not uniform over the lifetime of these slow-growing trees.” He held his breath.
The strange man stood with a somber mien. “My friends and I have been drawn to this area for many years. It is we who placed what you might call cameras around the spring that your grandfather had tapped for your drinking water. You are the only child here that has benefitted from that water from conception.”
Arlen’s breath left his lungs like a popped bubble. “You jiggered the water? My wife and daughter drank that water as well! Did you and your confounded friends kill Rosella and Jeannie?”
“No harm came to any that partook of the spring. The water has properties that should not be perceptible to you or yours and should not have created any behavioral or metabolic changes. Your women died of a contagious disease as did many others in this general area.
“’Should’ don’t mean for sure ‘did not’. Your shenanigans might have made them more susceptible to whatever fever passed this way.”
”True. Very few things are proven, solid facts. Most things are gradients of true or false, always or never, positive or negative. I believe we had no part in the tragedy which occurred here.”
“I know what probability is. Our Major was a college professor before the War. He bequeathed me his books as he lay in gore at Caney Creek. I know them by heart now.”
The stranger turned to leave with no parting words, nothing.
Arlen shouted, “Your camera doodads each stayed up by manipulating its very own gravity field and that’s what bent the trees!” When the fellow stopped, Arlen continued more civilly. “Those doodads were there for decades, watching us, not moving for years at a time. Won’t you for God’s sake tell me what you were seeking by hovering over my family night and day as our lives blossomed and withered?”
The white-haired head bowed. The stranger returned to the chair and sat. “We could not interfere with what happened here. We could not halt the horrible War, nor could we prevent what happened to you.”
“Could not or would not?”
“We are not permitted to take action that might change the natural course of events. Please ask no more of me on this.”
Arlen ran out to energy, his meager eating habits catching up with him. “Very well. May I not learn the reason for your visit at least?”
“You have discovered evidence of our presence which was not meant to happen. I must plead with you to end your effort to make this phenomenon known. We do not wish observers to arrive and make similar deductions.
“You watched my wife and babe die in agonizing misery. You had the means to save them but did not.”
“Be gone and trouble me no more.” Arlen attempted to roll back but a rock thwarted him. He loosened his grip on the poles and set his mouth in a strict line. “If you cannot aid me or allow me to interact with the world as I see fit, leave me be.”
The man pulled Arlen up the makeshift ramp and left him in the sitting room.
The next morning, Arlen found another box on his porch. Inside scampered yellow chicks, a dozen or so, cheeping away. That box sat atop a portable desk like he’d seen some officers use. He opened it to find several pencils, an eraser and a thick sheaf of fine paper. By all that lay a sack of flour, a sack of meal and a beautiful large and sharp knife in a sturdy sheath. Beyond that his jaw dropped to see a set of perfectly sized wheels for gripping; no more muscle-wrenching poles. His heart surged with forgiveness. He dearly missed his poor wife and child, but they and the others who perished now dwelt on high, free from the world’s cruel pains. Who was he to demand anything from beings that could play havoc with the very forces of creation? Let them follow their own heartless edicts!
He looked over the bounty before him. His visitor was under no obligation to provide these precious items, and would perhaps incur wrath for his largesse. Arlen considered that his scrawny self might well survive the coming winter now. To enable their continuous study? Because the Almighty interceded on his behalf? Or because the pale man really did possess a heart and conscience. He smiled that he had such questions and possibilities to ponder. All because had he noticed the curiously curved trees.
Great start, that reeled me in and set the tone.
I love the complexity merely from weird shaped trees, the story is rich and memorable, the era easily imaginable.