Tiny was the smallest pine tree in the forest. The other trees stood straight-trunked and tall, like soldiers on parade, while he grew stunted and slightly crooked.
“They won’t even bother cutting you down, Tiny,” the majestic pine on his left sneered.
“They’ll make fine furniture from me,” another said with lofty supremacy. “You’ll probably be chopped up for firewood.”
“Don’t listen to them,” whispered the white dove who rested on Tiny’s highest branch. “Everything on this earth has been placed here for a reason. You just have to await your destiny.”
The timber workers moved in the next day with their heavy earth moving equipment. The ground vibrated under the wheels of the yellow monsters as they gouged an access path through the forest. Whining chainsaws woke the slumbering mountainside, sending frenzied birds into flight.
Giant trees plummeted earthward all around him. Day after day without respite, Tiny’s companions were felled, until he was the only tree left in a sea of utter devastation.
I’m too short and puny even for wood chipping.
Eventually seedlings would be planted to replace the majestic giants that had fallen. The cycle of planting, growing, and cutting down the trees once they matured would continue.
It was lonesome being the only tree left. The birds had not returned because their sanctuary had been violated. Even the little white dove had deserted him.
The hot Australian sun beat down cruelly, a fierce inferno that wilted Tiny’s needles and robbed him of strength now there were no giant branches to shade him. The once moist earth gradually turned hard, and cracks opened up in the ground exposing his roots. Tree stumps and splintered branches were left strewn around, white and grotesque, like bones bleaching in the sun.
No moment of triumph for me. I’m going to slowly wither and die, without having served any purpose at all.
A man with a sack trudged along picking up pine cones and pieces of wood. Tiny barely reached the shoulders of this tall young man, whose hair was long and unruly. His beard was scraggly and unkempt. His blue eyes were traumatized; his face lined and weary.
“Ah, you’ll make a good fire for me little tree.” The man’s hands trembled. “Lieutenant Steven Godfrey at your service. Well, that’s who I used to be.” He gave an exaggerated bow. “The nights are mighty cold up here in the mountains when a man’s on his own and cannot sleep.”
The axe was wielded with something akin to desperation, and soon Tiny felt himself toppling to the earth just as his friends had done. He was picked up and slung across the man’s shoulders, then was bumped and jigged along as the man called Steven climbed higher up the mountain. Ragged ledges, like scarred battlements, towered above them. Brooding, lonely and isolated.
“No-one bothers me out here, little tree. I don’t have to conform to standards set by people who haven’t been to hell and back as I have.” He let out a shuddering breath. “Only veterans like me understand that a car backfiring gives me the shakes and chills me to the bone. Getting drunk helps me forget what an IED can do to a soldier. Takes the rancid odor of burnt flesh and blood out of my nostrils. Stops me from seeing my men dying every time I close my eyes. Hearing their screams.”
They finally came to Steven’s mean little shack built from packing cases and old sheets of tin. A piece of canvas covered the doorway and Steven dumped Tiny on the ground, and shouldered his way inside.
The area near the shack was littered with beer bottles and cans. Cigarette butts were ground into the dust. This was a hideout from the world, where a man could farewell civilization for as long as he wanted.
Around the shack, tall and aloof, gum trees grew, while the only relief from the green/grey vista were the yellow daisies nodding to each other in the breeze. The once pristine beauty of their surroundings was spoilt only by the mess left by this human.
Steven came outside after a time, staggering slightly and swigging from a bottle. He kicked Tiny, and cursed virulently when his foot connected with the hard trunk instead of the soft branches.
“Do you know what day it is?” Steven slurred. “Christmas Eve. My mother used to always decorate a tree for us when we were kids.”
He struggled to push the pine tree into a standing position. “She probably thinks I’m dead.”
Great shuddering sobs were suddenly wrenched from his body, and he collapsed to the ground, writhing as if in agony.
“I couldn’t go back to her like this little pine tree. Not with the nightmares and fits of rage that can only be eased by drinking myself into oblivion. Her brave soldier son who returned from battle is no more.”
He wiped the tears from his eyes. “No victory marches for me. Like a thief in the dark they smuggled me back in the dead of night, gave me a de-briefing and a medical examination before discharging me from the army with PTSD. Setting me loose in a hostile environment that didn’t care or understand what I’d been through.”
Will the soldiers now fighting in Afghanistan fare any better than us when they return home? I doubt it.
Bitterness overwhelmed him. “The Government deserted us veterans, the public reviled us, until all there was left for those of us returning from Iraq, was to leave the human race behind. It’s kinder for my mother to think I’m dead, than for her to know how low I’ve sunk.”
Steven stumbled to his feet and savagely wrenched a handful of daisies out of the ground. He twisted them around the branches of the pine tree in angry, jerky movements.
After a time the rage drained out of him. He became calmer, his decorations more carefully arranged. He lit a candle and attached it to the top branch, and the flame burned brightly. A beacon to light the way for someone who had strayed and wanted to go back home. Perhaps he wasn’t a lost cause after all.
“Not as fancy as the ones we used to decorate,” Steven mused. “No fairy lights, either, but you’ll do. In the morning I’ll clean myself up, come down from the mountain, and contact my mother to wish her a Merry Christmas.”
Tiny saw a sudden, determined thrust to Steven’s jaw.
“One day soon, little tree, maybe I might even be able to rejoin the human race again.”
Tiny suddenly felt very tall because just as the white dove had foretold, there had been a reason for him to be different from the rest of the pine trees.
The melting wax dribbled on to his foliage, solidified then hung like diamonds in the starlight, and Tiny realized that adorned only with the jewels from nature, he was more beautiful than the most magnificent of trees.
When the first crimson rays of the sun chased away the night shadows, and it was Christmas day, the man would prepare for his long journey back to civilization. Tiny was satisfied that his job was done.
“Merry Christmas Lieutenant Steven Godfrey.”
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