The Family Tree

By Jonathan Levy

Fifteen years after he last set foot in his boyhood home, David moved back. When he parked his car in the driveway, he noticed that everything looked the same—the browning grass, the hoop attached above the garage, even the chipped wood on the corner of the roof where lightning had struck years ago. The house itself was a one-story, nondescript thing. The only reason David was there was that he couldn’t afford to buy a place of his own.

Inside, David’s steps clicked against the wood until he reached the rug, which displayed a now-faded floral collage. The rug will have to go, thought David. He turned and faced the living room and saw dust particles floating in the block of light from the kitchen window across the hallway. He saw the same pictures of his family, the same couch, the same TV—but what mostly caught his attention was the ugly sofa chair. David stared at it, and though it was empty, he swore he heard it creak as it had whenever his father flopped into it after a long day of yard work. The chair will have to go, thought David.

He realized that while some light came into the living room, none illuminated the foyer where he stood. The shades to the back porch were shut. David opened them to a full assault of blinding rays. Only after his squinting eyes adjusted did the tree emerge.

Or what had once been a tree. David remembered it as a lush giant, with limbs thicker than his body and a trunk more than twice as tall as his own father. (David himself was short and pale, quiet and curled up and pensive.) But now it looked like an incomplete drawing from the game of Hangman. It was short as a child, pathetic, without a single leaf. The branches looked like decrepit fingers, more gray than brown. The tree will have to go, thought David.

David got to work. He dragged the rug and hauled the chair to the curb, free for the taking. He piled up his old clothes for donating and unloaded all of his current stuff. He rid the fridge of rotted veggies and rancid mayonnaise, went grocery shopping, and distributed the food around the cramped kitchen. Finally, David found his father’s ax resting on two pegs driven into the garage wall next to all the equipment from his semi-pro baseball days. He heaved the ax to his rounded shoulder and walked it out back. A couple strokes should do it, and he could dig up the roots and dump the stump later.

David gritted his teeth and brought the ax back for the first blow, but then he noticed something on one of the branches. He bent over to inspect it. It was a tiny white flower on a tiny green stem sprouting from the branch as if from an old potato. He looked closer yet. The flower was spotless and perfectly shaped and quite beautiful. David let the ax fall to the ground. He reached a finger to the flower and touched it ever so lightly before wrenching his hand back as if he’d been electrocuted. The flower shook from his touch. David thought he heard it jingle. He smiled a big, dumb smile—his first in a while. The tree could stay after all.

Lying on his old bed under posters of his favorite bands as a teenager and next to the closet still half-full of clothes, David thought about the tree until he slept. He checked it first thing in the morning. The flower was still there, and some color had returned to the branches. He couldn’t stop thinking about it during his first day of work at the library. He pictured the tree as he shelved returned books and DVDs—not in its current state, but as it was when he was younger. Whenever he took hold of a patron’s library card to swipe it, he felt not plastic, but the soft, paper-like quality of the leaves. When he touched a bookshelf, he felt not polished wood, but natural bark.

David sped home after work. He turned up the volume on the car radio and drummed along on the steering wheel. He peeled into the driveway, strode into the house, and went straight to the backyard. There was a marked difference in the tree. The flower had grown larger, the branches browner, and the leaves…there were leaves! Little, oval-shaped leaves poked out of several branch ends. David tugged on one lightly to make sure it was real. It was.

After a week, the trunk had grown to chin height and thickened to the size of a street light. More flowers had sprung, and the leaves could now cover David’s palm. David, too, revived. A former stranger to exercise, he dragged the neglected treadmill from his parents’ room to where the sofa chair used to be and used it daily after pushups. He also perked up at work. Normally content to remain silent and out of everyone’s way, he now offered help to lost-looking patrons and hummed catchy tunes ever so quietly (it was a library after all).

The local library system didn’t pay as much as his previous one, but a month after his move, he was still saving money by cooking at home and riding a bike—his old bike that had been hidden behind some boxes in the garage—one hour to work and back each day. Meanwhile, the tree grew more. Now its trunk was taller than David and thick as a telephone pole. The branches were long and leafy enough to create a nice shady spot at the base. David sat against the tree and read in the evenings before the sun ducked behind the front of the house. In the mornings, he stood by the open shades with a cup of coffee and let the light shining over the tree caress him.

One time, David even had a date over to the house. He was a library patron who shared the same tastes in literature. They whispered to each other between one of the fiction stacks and the wall. He was tall and handsome and had thick-rimmed glasses. David cooked dinner for them both. They had a lovely meal.

“I want to show you something,” David said afterward.

“Oh?”

He put his arm around his date’s waist and led him out back. The sun was gone, but the sky was still orange. There was light enough to see the tree’s colors.

“It’s been here since I was born. My father planted it when he knew I was on the way.”

“The flowers are beautiful,” his date said. David watched him walk to the tree and reach for a stem. Alarmed that he would pluck the flower right off the tree and it would wither and die, David rushed from behind and yanked him to the ground. His date laughed and reached his hand toward David’s cheek. David swatted it away.

“What’s so funny?”

He was still laughing. “Wh-What?”

“Don’t touch it.”

His date put his hands by his face, a surrender. But still he grinned. “There’s a little fire in your belly,” he said as he reached to tickle David.

“Don’t touch ME.” David stood up, went back inside, and cleaned the dishes. He heard his date enter and felt his stare, but didn’t turn to look. Then he heard footsteps moving away and the door opening.

“Thanks for dinner,” his date said, and left. They didn’t contact each other again.

Autumn came. The tree had grown slowly but had grown nonetheless. It was now as tall as David remembered it, and stretched just as wide. Flowers continued to bloom, dotting the tree like snow flurries. And while all the other neighborhood trees’ leaves change to shades of red and yellow, David’s tree remained green as ever. In fact, the leaves were so high and plentiful that the sun cast their shadows into the house in the mornings, making the inside look like leopard skin.

Soon the top of the tree poked over the top of the house. David could see it as he biked home, and it put a smile on his face. How incredible that the once-dead tree now surpassed its former glory.

But the tree kept growing to where it blocked out the sun entirely from the foyer. Now if David wanted some sun rays with his morning coffee, he had to stand by the kitchen window. And that was only on some days. The morning sky turned grayer, and eventually snow came. David stopped biking to work, and the bleak days put him in a funk. He didn’t cook as much, settling for microwaveable meals or fast food. He used the treadmill less often, and then not at all. And he preferred to unwind slumped in the couch with the television on rather than outside leaning against the tree with a book.

This change also affected David at work. He retreated to his old reclusive self, avoiding human contact where possible. He trudged down the aisles as he reshelved items. His face betrayed his bitterness toward his day-in, day-out routine. He needed money but wasn’t eligible for a raise for many months.

David couldn’t find any other job he was happy with. He had no college degree and no marketable skills other than his fervor for literature. Bookstores were either closing or not hiring or too far away. Transferring to another library branch would only add distance without solving anything. He had no choice but to stay the course and try to spend wisely.

Nowadays, the only thing that filled David with any sort of pride was his tree. It was no longer a giddy sort of pride, though, but rather a sort that existed because the tree was the only thing that defined him. Though it was huge—too huge, even—David admired it towering over the house. And though he’d been afraid that the winter would kill its luster, the tree was ever green.

But still, it just wouldn’t stop growing. The highest limb reached over the roof toward the front of the house like an arm around a shoulder, and the branches were long enough that some of the leaves even touched the roof. No sunlight was permitted to reach inside anymore, not even through the kitchen window. Only the roof was welcome to its occasional grazing. The resulting darkness made David oversleep his alarm on some days. He usually made it to work on time with great hustle, but not always, killing any remaining hope for a raise.

David gained weight. He slept poorly. He didn’t go on dates, or out at all for that matter. It was too cold to spend any time outside, and he could no longer see the leaves from the back porch screen, as they were too high. All he could see was the trunk, which he now had to admit, was grotesque. Thick and lumpy as a bodybuilder and devoid of all color but the blandest brown, it was too wide for him to even wrap his arms around. And if he walked out back, the leaves and flowers were so high and large that they looked more like a frozen storm of knives and claws waiting to thaw and crush him than like the delightful expressions of nature they once were.

One wind-whistling night in March, while David was watching TV, the rooftop moaned. It stopped when he looked up, but then started up again and sounded like a whale. On top of that, there were creaking noises and what sounded like tiny cracks. David whipped to his side the pillow he was holding, bundled up, and walked out back. He saw through the misty sleet that the huge tree limb was weighing down on the roof. The leaves merely rustled as if being cradled to sleep, but the house was in mortal danger.

David flew into a rage. He stormed inside and straight to the garage. He grabbed his father’s ax, and with no plan but to cut the tree down, as he should’ve months ago before it became the overbearing beast that it now was, he walked back outside.

David powered through the slanting wind and sleet and arrived at the trunk. He brought the ax so far over his shoulder that it touched his back, then slammed it into the tree. The wood cracked as pieces of bark splintered off in different directions. David pulled on the handle so he could finish the job, but the ax wouldn’t budge, not even a little. He tried again—push, pull, push, pull—but he couldn’t jar the ax loose. Then in one last heroic effort, he grabbed the handle tightly with both hands, put one foot on the tree, and pushed with it. His force squeezed against the tree as his face reddened, and finally the moment of release came and David fell back onto the wet grass. He sat up and rubbed his hands together to wipe off the debris, only to realize that they were empty and the ax was still in the tree. “Stupid boy” David heard the tree say in his thoughts. Then his eyes rolled back into his head, and he fell back to the ground and passed out.

It was morning when David woke up shivering with numb cheeks and hands, staring up at the monstrous tree looming over him. When he sat up, he saw that the ax blade was fully inside the tree and that only half of the handle poked out of a scar that looked like diagonal lips folding in on themselves.

By the time spring came, the tree had grown to consume the entire space over the house and swallowed the ax entirely. But then having taken over the whole house, the tree grew no more. Nor did it shrink.

Everywhere else, spring brought sunlight and bright flowers. But David knew there would be no spring for him—not unless he left the house. But because he had nowhere else to go, David stayed, even though the tree would cast its shadow over him as long as he did.

Jonathan Levy is a law-school graduate living for the time being in Arlington, VA with his wife and two dogs. He joined the fiction world late last year, and so far the staff and readers of Boston Literary Magazine and Pure Slush have made him feel so grateful and lucky.

Photo Credit: “House, Old” by Kamal Hamid

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