Grandpa drags the old desk chair across the wide-planked wood floor to the side of my bed, leaving a trail in the ashes that coat every surface of the house. His stories always begin with Legend has it, When I was your age, or In my day.
“What kind of story do you want, sweetheart?”
“In my day, please.”
“Then it shall be the tale of the Tree Eaters.”
Before he starts, he clears his throat and spits black into a bandana which he stuffs back into the pocket of his hole-filled cardigan.
“Are you ready?” I nod, shaking my raven curls and hugging the doll Pa carved for me.
“In my day Willow, the summertime was green as far as the eye could see around my house, this house. We had what was called a meadow, covered with colorful flowers and grasses. Not the puny things we grow for food now. These came back each year on their own and changed from the beginning of spring until the end of autumn. My Grandma knew which of those flowers cured illness or flavored food. Some fed birds, butterflies, and bees. Bees flew freely then, not like the hives and cages we keep out back. If they flew farther than the cages today, they’d die of starvation.”
“What are butterflies?”
Grandpa strokes his gray beard streaked with ash. “They were the silliest little things, but beautiful. They drank from flowers and flitted around like this,” he put the base of his thumbs together and waved his hands in and out. “I’ll draw you a picture tomorrow. It’s not the point of the story. Ok?”
I nod and hug my doll close.
“Beyond that meadow was a forest filled with tall trees. Some were covered in leaves during the summer and others had tiny oval-shaped leaves called needles all year round. My brothers and I marched around in the forest and played until our Ma rang the bell by the kitchen door for us to come home. You know, someone’s rung that bell to call children home for so many generations back no one remembers. We tried to bring something home each time— a feather, fireflies, flowers, berries—but mushrooms were Ma’s favorite.
“When she or Grandma went to the forest with us, they taught us about nature. They showed us how to use the mushrooms that grew on the fallen leaves and the sides of dead or dying trees. Grandma told me that mushrooms, or fungi, were tree eaters.”
“They must’ve been huge to eat a tree! How can a kid catch one?” I sit up tall as I imagine giant creatures eating whole trees in my room.
“Some were as small around as your pinky fingertip. Others filled my bucket. They came in different reds, yellows, oranges, blues, browns, all the colors.”
“How big were their teeth?”
“They didn’t have teeth. They used—” again, Grandpa strokes his beard as he looks at the ceiling. “Well, I guess they used like a spit to break down dead stuff, and absorbed it, but not chewing and swallowing like you eat. They didn’t have mouths. Sweetheart, I’m sorry. I wish I’d asked my Ma and Grandma for more details. I just knew which ones we could bring home for food.”
“Not all of them?”
“Oh, no. Some healed you, some hurt you, and others tasted delicious,” he rubs his belly then moves his hand over his heart and taps. “Ma and Grandma knew all the answers. Maybe my brothers knew more, but there’s no one left to ask.”
“Why did they eat trees?”
“Not just trees, but all plants. Their job was to take something big and make it small so new thing could grow in it. They made dirt.”
I think of the piles we burn each day to get rid of the mounds of trees, plants, and trash. The fire created light and heat for our home and to cook food. We use the ash to grow our food, protect our skin from the blazing sun, and line our paths. The charcoal is used for drawing, writing, brushing teeth, and cleaning. Soot covers everything. “Like when we burn the trees?”
“Not really. Dirt smelled of life. Not like ashes. It was brown and gritty. It was different. When we burn, we’re trying to act like mushrooms. But they were better at it.”
“Where did mushrooms come from?”
“Well, Grandma used to say they fell from the sky in the rain. Ma said they came from spores, which were like seeds, but extra super small. I think they were both right. There’d be tons after a storm.” He always sighs telling in my day stories. It’s my cue to hold his hand to my cheek.
“Where did all the mushrooms and butterflies go?”
He shrugs and retrieves his bandana from his pocket to blot his eyes and rub his nose. “I don’t know, Willow. It all happened so slowly. Less here, less there. Fallen trees stayed on the ground longer and no longer became dirt. Rains either poured for days or not at all. With each year, fewer butterflies came to the meadow. There were fewer bees unless you had a hive. Fewer mushrooms and flower to bring home for Ma and Grandma. People said I imagined it and it wasn’t a big deal. Then one summer when I was all grown up—nothing. The trees just stacked up as they fell. It was like we were living in a beaver dam.”
“Tomorrow, sweetheart. We can talk about beavers tomorrow,” he whispers as tears leave trails in the soot that coat his cheeks.
-Flash Fiction and Photograph “Resiliency” by Christy O’Callaghan
Christy O’Callaghan lives in Amsterdam, NY. Her favorite pastimes include hiking, gardening, swimming, snowshoeing, and collecting sea glass—anything in the fresh air. You can find her nature photos on Instagram @christyflutterby and Facebook at Christy O’Callaghan. Her blog and website are christyflutterby.com.