The Tree

A tall tale in time for Halloween

Ryan had been enjoying a year-long truce with The Tree.

He first suspected that the towering maple — that rose from his lawn at a scary angle toward his three-story house — had a conscious life come several Octobers ago.

The high branches of The Tree have provided a clear pathway for squirrels to invade the attic where Ryan had a small office. He could hear the little creatures behind the sheetrock walls playing knock-hockey with acorns while he tried to work at his computer.

Ryan banged on the walls to stop their sudden-overtime championship games. This would bring momentary silence followed by all-out insanity as the fans breached security and rushed the court, joining the victory celebration that ended in a brawl.

When he gazed out his small window overlooking the street, his lawn, and The Tree, Ryan would see the long parade of squirrels marching from telephone wires onto the highest branches both in and out of his attic. Most, including one brazen squirrel with a diamond marking on his breast that Ryan named “Nutjob,” would stop and gaze at him. In his most bleary-eyed moments, Ryan swore he saw Nutjob pointing and belly laughing at him.

In summer months, wasps nested in The Tree and somehow managed to invade his small office through a small tear in a screen that Ryan was certain Nutjob had made. Ryan spent a week at war with the wasp warriors from The Tree — flailing a fly swatter, hurling books, and spraying Raid, poisoning the air and covering his desktop with a film of toxic payback. The wasps retreated, and so did Ryan for a week because the reek of poison lingered.

Soon he had to stop parking his car in the driveway over which The Tree loomed like vengeful monster. The various birds that nested in The Tree turned Ryan’s car into target in a shooting range that left his SUV a polka-dot circus car ready for 50th anniversary ride to Woodstock.

That was it.

Ryan called a tree service guy to come look at The Tree. He wanted it removed.

The tree guy parked his truck at the curb, got out, took a look, and said the tree had a trunk wider than seven inches. It was probably 100 years old. It would probably need an official inspector to come out to assess it and then he’d have to apply for a permit to have it removed, or face criminal charges for “arboricide.”

When he uttered that word, birds began to caw and bleat and screech from the deep foliage. Squirrels raced through the branches like an air raid drill had been sounded. Bees and wasps buzzed around Ryan and the tree removal guy like F-16s of the Strategic Air Command.

Ryan asked, “Arbori-what?”

“Unlawful killing of a tree.”

“Arboricide? Like tree homicide?”

Above them, The Tree began to rustle and shake, birds exploding from the top branches.

The tree guy looked startled, walking backward to his truck. Ryan asked what was wrong.

“Um . . . there’s, like, no wind today but your tree is swaying,” he said. “It’s the only tree on the block that is.”

“It always does that,” Ryan said. “That’s why I want it removed.”

“Uh huh,” said the tree removal guy. “My advice: Go ask permission first.”

The tree removal guy jumped in his truck and sped off.

His advice sounded to Ryan like a costly bureaucratic nightmare.

When the leaves began to fall, Ryan sat in his top floor office one shadowy fall night listening to the eerie silence from behind his walls. Had the squirrels hitched ride on the backs of birds flapping south for winter? Then Ryan was startled by urgent scratching from his window. Like an intruder trying to get in.

He spun.

At the window he saw a small dark hand with long and gleaming sharp nails. They clattered on the thermal pane. Then the arrowhead nails squealed down glass, clawing at the hard, plastic frame. Ryan followed the small arm up to the angry furry face where the red eyes of a raccoon with a lather of white froth bubbled through gnashing teeth.

Ryan gazed at it. Hairs raised on his arms. He rolled his swivel chair backwards. The raccoon clacked his fingernails of his second paw on the pane over and over like a marauder biding his time. He gazed right into Ryan’s eyes like Roberto Duran during a referee’s pre-fight instructions.

Ryan then heard a rumble in the ceiling above him. His heart thumped. He gazed upward. When he looked back at the window, the raccoon was gone. All he saw was the brown end of a long branch swaying in the night breeze. It tapped on the window like a fingertip, then seemed to curl upward.

But Ryan was distracted by the sound now of two raccoons turning the crawlspace above the dormer and the ceiling into a honeymoon suite.

The Tree sent a hit team to clip me for calling a tree service guy, Ryan thought.

Then Ryan realized he was getting paranoid, losing his marbles. People would say, “You’re out of your tree.”

Ryan chuckled, retreating for the night. He called a raccoon guy who came the next day and cut a hole in the sheetrock wall and placed several traps in the attic crawl space. He caught one pregnant raccoon but not the button man sent to take out Ryan. The guy also took out three squirrels, promising to set them loose in the wild.

Then came the tail winds of Hurricane Florence. Ryan parked his car at the curb instead of under The Tree and carried groceries toward the house as the winds howled. He heard a crack!, like the startling report of a palm pistol. He looked behind him. Instead of up. And then bang! A seven-foot limb smacked into the wet lawn six inches from Ryan. The thud of the wet limb lashed mud across Ryan’s face and clothes.

If that piece of timber had hit him, Ryan would have needed a wooden box.

Then came a new October, the season of the witch, and The Tree would soon shed its leaves. Ryan knew the fragile truce was over. There were squirrels in his attic again, Nutjob laughing like an audience plant on the phone wire strung through the high branches. The button man raccoon was back with a new squeeze.

The Tree was threatening murder if Ryan thought again of arboricide.

It was going to be pitch battle between Ryan and The Tree that could come to a head on Halloween.

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