Oak, Ax and Raven
G. L. Eikenberry

In olden days, life was simpler. All you had to worry about was providing a home and food for your family, and stocking up enough wood for the winter. Oh, and the occasional sentient tree

See him? Over there, a few yards off, approaching the stand of youngish oaks. A young peasant by the look of him. Is he trying to grow a beard or just lax about shaving? He seems dressed well enough -- at least, well enough for a peasant -- the vest is leather, after all. And look at the ax. You can often tell a great deal about a man from the tools he carries, and that ax is quality.

This is the third time he's come back to that particular oak this morning. I'm willing to bet he truly means to put that fine ax to it this time.

"Yes, Flek, I do say so to myself, this is the tree. It is a special tree she wants, and it is a special tree I've picked. If I be any judge of tree-flesh at all, Flek, I do say so to myself, I've picked a fine tree. Just the right portion of wisdom, and of straightness, and of -- well, the right portion of all those other things she spoke into my forgetful ears. I have picked a tree 'twill suit our purposes wonderfully.

"The bestest part will suit itself to the crafting of the finest of cradles for the son which my Arda will bear me on the other side of this fast-approaching winter. The other parts will feed the rich warmth of our hearth, proof against the cracks and fissures that corrupt our frail habitation.

"Yes, Flek, I do say so to myself, you have chosen well. There will be no fault for Arda to find with this tree."

This peasant is a talkative one! Although I begin to harbor certain doubts concerning the initial assessment of quality. Perhaps he filched the ax.

And lazy! Laziness fertilized with wanton verbiage to yield a most unbecoming harvest. Look at him as he as he pulls a scrap of rough, unmarketable cowhide from his bag and places it on the ground to sit. The cowhide testifies to the premeditated nature of his sloth. He leans himself against the very oak he intends to fell. He looks over this way as if to say he has done something deserving of either rest or the crusts of bread and curds he is this very instant stuffing into his garlic-reeking maw, already over-full with crooked, yellow teeth. He spent the entire morning meandering about looking at a few trees, and yet I'd not be surprised if he were next to settle himself in for a nap.

There, see! He yawns and stretches. But, wait, I judge him over-harshly. To give credit where credit is due, he stretches to rise, apparently ready to heft that fine ax rather than sleep.

But, wait, he walks off -- meaning, perhaps to leave the work for another day -- or --

Why does he come this way?

The bumpkin means to fell the wrong tree!

I have not spent these many seasons spreading my vast and complex network of roots throughout this district -- I have not stood this ground for scores of years only to fall victim to an obviously pilfered ax wielded by a prattling, hollow-headed, landless oaf! Such indignities can scarce be -- ooommfff!

That will be enough of that, you ignorant, insolent, irreverent young -- uuurrrnnk!

Very well. I shall just give -- him -- a jolt -- of -- his own -- medicine -- communicated -- down -- along -- the handle -- of that -- fine -- ax -- and see -- how he -- ... -- there!

And perhaps, for good measure, I'll summon up a raven to follow him back to his own rootage. We might even manage to infiltrate a small amount of good sense and, perhaps, even a mote of respect into that igneous head of his.

"...yes, yes, of course, my dearest Arda, I fully comprehend. I did, my dearest, get myself a goodly start on the job, but I must assure you that the finishing of it will make no small feat! I have chosen us the very finest of trees, but, being such, it has its own mind about it. Its very own mind, I assure you, and it very much prefers standing its own ground to being felled for our son's cradle."

"Can it be, Flek of Amber Hill, that you are even more feebleminded than my father warned? Can you truly expect me to believe this cat vomit you spew about trees resisting your ax? You've little enough time left before the harvest to bring down a suitable tree and lay it open to season whilst you busy yourself with our lord's work. You'd best not waste any more precious time with your laziness and your foolish piffle about unwilling trees."

"There are things in this world about which a woman knows nothing -- "

"I know a great deal about that sort of mumbling under your breath! It was a form of insolence my father often tried against my mother, and it served him as poorly as it shall serve you."

"Woman, you vex me greatly!"

"Vexing shall be the very least of your worries if you don't get you back to the wood and -- what is that racket of rapping and thumping at our door?"

"Oh, dear me. How can it be, my dearest wife, that two so dear to each other can be so constantly a-quarreling? I am certain this boiling of our bloods can be of no benefit to the man-child you have stewing in your belly. We must make our peace -- "

"If it's peace you want, do something to silence that infernal commotion outside our door!"

"Of course, my dearest, I shall -- aaawk!"

"Get it out! -- get that beast out of my house -- scat, you demon -- scat, you -- begone!"

"It's useless, dearest Arda. The beast has taken up a perch in the rafters. Well beyond your reach or mine."

"So what, then do you propose to do about it, dearest numskull? Leave it there day in and day out until it expires by starvation? Or, worse still, leave it there to preside over the birthing of our child? I tell you this, Flek of Amber Hill, and I tell you true: There will be no raven in this house as long as I am here. Or no me in this house as long as it is here."

"But Arda, most dearest -- you can't -- surely -- where?"

"You can fetch me and the child I carry back from the safety of my mother's house after, and only after, you have rid our own house of that hateful beast and its dark and evil stare."

The mighty and venerable oak sends up sprites of saplings from the outermost reaches of roots recurving to probe the surface of the earth, which gives itself to her care. The sprites lift free and dance a slow hymn of celebration of their tree, gathering acorns, which, in turn, give rise to ever greater numbers of sprites. The growing congregation of life envelopes the monotony of the drudge's dwelling. Within, the wife of two or possibly three generations since the original insult weeps bitterly as an enormous raven draws one, then another and another withered sapling from the portal of her womb until, at last, mercifully, her consciousness flees, screaming.

Then it is the peasant, himself, who cries out, awakened by the screaming from the crest of the vision carried to him by my raven.

The dim-witted peasant has moved himself out onto his door path to sleep beneath the moon. It appears that he fears moon-madness less than he fears sleeping beneath a roof shared by my messenger.

"Go. Go, damn you. Go back to your oak, you demon-spawned apparition. My need of tree flesh is great, but not so great that I can't take it elsewhere. It's my Arda that needs satisfying, and she's not so demanding as all that when it comes to tree flesh. I had no way of telling I had chosen me an oak so great in spirit. I can be blamed, yes, blamed for -- well, I know not precisely what. But surely whatever blame may be due me is not blame beyond forgiveness."

He throws open the door.

"Leave us now. Leave our roof trees. Go back to your oak and communicate my capitulation. Go! Be gone!"

I am strong, but not hard. As he returns to my grove with the next dawn, bearing, of his own volition, offerings of fresh water and well-seasoned manure, my own reward awaits this rather pathetic creature. Perhaps I did not, after all, misjudge him by the quality of his ax.

I watch him now as he struggles to carry off the last of the pieces he has hewn from the plentiful windfall I left him from a failing lower branch.

G. L. Eikenberry (garyeik@geconsult.com) is a frequent InterText contributor who works as a freelance information systems and communications consultant in Canada. He's been writing fiction for more than twenty years. His work has been published in a wide (often obscure and mostly Canadian) variety of hard-copy publications as well as in electronic media.

InterText stories written by G. L. Eikenberry: "Eddie's Blues" (v3n5), "Reality Error" (v4n2), "The Loneliness of the Late-Night Donut Shop" (v4n4), "River" (v5n1), "Oak, Ax and Raven" (v6n2), "Schrödinger's Keys" (v7n1).

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 6, Number 2 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1996 G. L. Eikenberry.