Kevin parked his jeep at the end of a meandering lane. A mottled afternoon sky spat snowflakes down onto gravel, leaves, and mud. Kevin jammed his keys down into one pocket and his cellular phone into another. Pulling a handsaw from behind the passenger seat, he planted both of his boots into the wintry mixture on the ground outside his door. A sudden gust of wind reminded him to grab his knitted cap from the center console. He moved a bundle of rope, opened the compartment, removed his cap, and pulled the wool garment down over his head. With an hour or so of daylight remaining on this December day, Kevin fully intended to demonstrate his thrifty nature before sunset.
Just beyond his jeep, the gravel lane gave way to an overgrown garden. The plot was full of dead and dying brush. A nearby maple and oak had been fully stripped of their foliage and now resembled gnarled hands stretching up to the gray sky. Papery leaves rustled over a stone path, which paved a route to the charred ruined of a farmhouse.
Kevin had grown up near the Tremblay farm, and he knew the remaining family members fairly well. He had even escorted Rochelle Tremblay, the youngest of the daughters born to Thomas Tremblay, to the prom during his senior year of high school.
Thomas Tremblay had kept horses and sowed the grains expected of an Appalachian farmer, just as his forefathers had done for generations. When Kevin and Rochelle were very young, Thomas had decided to cultivate pines and firs on a few hills on the eastern side of his property. Within a few years, the Tremblays entered the Christmas tree market.
Kevin’s parents were regular customers each December. Kevin remembered his father leading their family onto the hillside not far from the farmhouse. His family would debate as to which tree was best, and his father cut down whichever specimen was finally selected. Kevin’s family paid Thomas Tremblay $15.00 each year for their Christmas tree.
Kevin intended to not pay anything today.
Thomas Tremblay and his wife had died ten years earlier when the farmhouse caught fire on a chilly autumn night. Kevin remembered that the cause of the blaze was never definitely determined, but that several forest fires had tormented the area that year. The Tremblay daughters had all relocated by that time. One had moved to Pittsburgh. Another to Montréal. Rochelle had ended up somewhere on the upper peninsula of Michigan.
The farm had been uninhabited since the fire, as the Tremblay daughters had no desire to return. Kevin observed that the fields beyond the burned remains of the farmhouse were in the process of being reclaimed by the surrounding deciduous forest.
From where he stood, Kevin could also see the rows of Christmas trees on a hillside in the distance. He remembered from his childhood that the trees were just a short walk from the house. With a little luck, he would be well on his way home before dark.
Kevin and his wife were preparing to celebrate their first Christmas together. She worked evenings and weekends at a tavern near their home, so he was entrusted with the task of procuring a Christmas tree. He had delayed doing so for two weeks, and Christmas day was just around the corner.
Moreover, his wife didn’t want just any tree. She wanted a good tree. She wanted the perfect tree. She wanted a tree that would support an array of bulbs, lights, tinsel, and a large star, but not one that was so firm and rigid that the necessary cozy charm was lacking. She wanted a tree that could appear a countless number of times across multiple social media accounts and create the exact same feeling of envy in each of her followers.
The few places that sold precut Christmas trees in town had been thoroughly picked over, and Kevin was not interested in paying better than $40.00 to cut down his own tree at one of the more commercialized farms near town. He assumed that some of the Christmas trees growing on this abandoned farmstead must be able to serve his needs.
He would harvest his own tree, and he would do so for free.
With his old saw clutched in gloved hands, he trudged through a thin coating of snow and walked around the ruined farmhouse. Passing a bare apple orchard, Kevin reached an open area a short distance from the house. There were a few old sheds scattered around this clearing, and Kevin rightly guessed this was where Thomas Tremblay had stored equipment and tools.
Beyond the sheds, Kevin came upon a small pond. He recalled this feature fondly, as the Tremblay girls had a small rowboat on this pond during the summer. The pond was frozen and lined on the far side with a few aspens. Kevin thought the pond was nearly the perfect size for a hockey game, and he wondered if the girls had skated on the pond during the winter months.
Immediately east of the pond, Kevin started to climb a hillside. He encountered the first spindly, stunted pines just a few yards from the pond. The soil was obviously too poor at this point to allow for the trees to grow properly, but the rows of trees just ahead assured him that a tree pleasing to his wife’s eye would be located. After a few more steps up the steady incline, Kevin was within the neatly planted rows of pines and firs.
Many of the trees had grown too tall to be considered, but Kevin was surprised at the number of trees remaining. He had not even reached the crest of the hill and had already encountered as many trees as he could remember from his childhood, although the unchecked undergrowth had choked and killed a few and wild vines had hopelessly entangled others.
Kevin walked through several rows, crunching through crisp snowfall and casually swinging his handsaw back and forth. He reached out and touched the branch of one tree, hoping that the needles were not too brittle.
A few rocks tumbled down the hillside behind him. He turned and watched as the rocks gained momentum, passed the decrepit trees at the base of the hill, and danced out onto the ice of the pond.
“Hello?” Kevin croaked. He realized he hadn’t spoken in some time, and his voice sounded weak and strange.
There was no reply.
Kevin stepped back and looked between several rows of trees. He assumed he was alone, but he was unsure how the rocks had come free of the hillside. The wind kicked up and scattered some leaves nearby. Otherwise, there was no sound.
A pair of work gloves rested on a stone near the base of one pine. The gloves looked fairly new and were only covered by the thinnest layer of snow.
“Hello?” he said again with more strength.
Shuffling between a few rows of trees, Kevin whiffed an unpleasant odor. He couldn’t imagine the source of such a fetor. His nose caught this strong and pungent smell again, and he looked around for the source of the stench. Behind an especially distorted pine, he found the rotting carcass of a whitetail fawn. He suspected the animal had been there for some time, as most of the skin and flesh had already rotted into a disgusting mass within the skeleton. The fawn appeared to be somehow entangled in the upturned root of the nearby pine.
Kevin pulled his sweater up over his nose and moved away from the decaying fawn. He inspected several other pines, finding a few to be nearly appropriate. While carefully caressing the branches and needles of a few, he stumbled and fell onto his arms and chest. Grateful that he hadn’t cut himself with the handsaw, he lifted his body off a thin layer of leaves and snow and wiped some mud from his pants. He looked back to see that a few contorted roots had caused his misstep. These roots looked oddly similar to those that had ensnared the fawn.
The wind sighed again, whooshing around several of the trees and freeing hundreds of dead needles that rained down onto the ground. When the gust relented, Kevin heard a strange shamble come from a few rows uphill. He moved quickly to this spot, expecting to encounter a few mischievous teenagers or, perhaps, a startled deer or two.
There were only more prospective Christmas trees present. Kevin was slightly unnerved, and he attributed this to the dead fawn and that dank accompanying aroma. Moving through a few more rows, he reached the top of the hill. There was a rusted handsaw partially buried in the ground near an aged stump.
“Someone forgot their saw,” he said to himself, waving his handsaw in the breeze.
He could see his jeep in the distance, and the paved road at the end of the lane. Hills seemed to roll away from the farm in all directions, and Kevin knew that the highway, town, and his house were out there somewhere. He desired to be away from this isolated place, so he resolved to start back toward his jeep and cut down the first tree he encountered along the way that was of passable quality.
“But this tree has so much character!” Kevin said to himself, practicing the lines he planned to deliver to his wife later.
“This tree is one-of-a-kind!”
“No one has a tree quite like this one!”
He was thrifty and clever. This made him smile. He may have had to deal with deformed roots, loose soil, and rotting wildlife, but he saved $40.00.
Kevin started down the hill but had only taken a few steps when his eyes became fixed on one pine. The conifer seemed to omit a marvellously wonderful fragrance that baited his nostrils and lured him the few remaining feet toward this wonderfully shaped form.
This was the perfect tree. The perfect shade of green. The perfect height. He brushed one hand through the branches. The needles were soft. The body of the tree was amazingly full. There was not as much as a single bare spot.
“This is the tree,” he said to himself smugly. “I knew I would find you out here, where no one else thought to look.”
Kevin got to the ground and scrambled under the lowest branches. His handsaw was not in the best condition, but he was certain that he could manage. He fought his way toward the trunk, pushing aside a few stones, needles, and wayward branches. He brought the teeth of the saw toward the trunk and began to work his cutting instrument back and forth.
Progress was slow but steady. Branches and needles fluttered down into his face as he worked, but he didn’t allow these distractions to delay his progress. Golden sap poured forth from the tree, but the sticky substance only served to encourage him to work faster.
The wind blustered above him, throwing needles and leaves under his tree. This debris struck his face and brought curses to his lips. He worked the saw even more vigorously, eager to finish.
When his saw blade was over three-quarters of the way through the trunk, a fresh torrent of sap poured from the pine. Some of the sap escaped the tree with such force that a few droplets of the fluid struck his cheeks and eyes and forced him to turn his face away. He cried out in frustration, dropped the saw, and covered his face with his gloves.
“That’s it!” Kevin shouted, wiggling his way out from under the tree.
He would kick the damn tree the rest of the down. He would twist and torque the tree until the remainder of the trunk snapped. He would pull on the tree until the final timber sinews gave way and he seized his prize – the perfect Christmas tree.
As Kevin gained his feet and wiped the last of the sap from his face, something else gave way – the very ground where he stood. The perfect Christmas tree appeared to splay roots beneath his feet. The sudden collapsed of the muddy hillside sent Kevin into a backward fall.
He rolled down the hillside, striking a few of the malformed trees near the bottom. His momentum carried his body out onto the pond. He came to rest face down on the frozen water.
Before his dazed mind even had a chance to contemplate what had happened, the ice cracked and broke beneath him. Kevin plunged into the freezing depths of the pond.
The Tremblay farm was quiet again, except for the crumble of leaves in the wind. The perfect Christmas tree was still on the hillside. During more than a decade of life, this knotty pine had successfully manipulated a few errant sparks from a burning aspen, the roots of neighboring pines, and the earth of the hillside to thwart attacks. There was healing to be done now, considering the holiday season was not yet over. The perfect Christmas tree would wait in silence for the next attempted harvest.