Dinner at their cabin had been full of as many family members as they could possibly get in attendance these days. It was cramped, but the noise of their children and their grandchildren couldn’t have felt more peaceful to him. Linda, his wife for over thirty-five years, had always loved to cook for their daughters, and still prepared all the meals when they held the annual family reunion at the cabin. Tina, their eldest, was a veterinarian with three lovely boys, ages six, ten and fourteen. Tina’s husband Anthony was a mathematics teacher at their local high school in San Diego, California. Cole, Tina and Anthony’s eldest boy, was apparently against having his father as his math teacher that year and had been arguing about it with his parents all night long; the debate had been silenced by Linda and her blackberry pie. Christie, at thirty-six, was a park ranger at Wenatchee National Forest in Washington with her husband Christopher; they have identical twins, Molly and Sally, the girls were eight now.
Julia was their youngest at twenty-eight. She was not married. It was because she loved to travel so much. This year everyone had come to the cabin to celebrate their family, but also to celebrate Christina’s pregnancy. He felt happy. He wanted more grandchildren to fill his heart and he loved to see his girls happy.
When everyone began to settle down after the warm blackberry pie in their bellies, he finally noticed that Julia had not been very present in the conversations during dinner. In fact, he couldn’t remember one thing she said, and that meant she hadn’t said anything at all. He found her sitting by the fireplace, warming her feet. It took him awhile to get himself into a comfortable enough position on the floor, since he knees didn’t bend as well as they used to, but he managed. He had never been great at starting conversations with the girls. Somehow his silence always pushed them to talk sooner or later, though, so he sat because he was a patient man.
As he waited for Julia, he looked down at the carpet he and Linda had picked up at an antique store in Idaho. The owners had given it to them for twenty bucks. Later on, they found out it had been handmade by a local Indian woman who had passed away, no children to whom she could give it.
“Dad, why did you choose to become a park ranger?” Julia suddenly asked him.
He knew he had told her many times, but he indulged her.
“Being near the trees made me feel at home and perhaps safer than in a large city; even today our house is surrounded by trees.” He had never been without trees. He hoped he never had to be.
Julia, of all three girls, was the one he worried about all the time. She was healthy, but he examined her quietly, while the fire lit her features delicately. She was a lot like her mother, though most of the girls were; tiny feet, lean legs, rounded hips, tucked in waist, and beautiful big brown eyes, like a deer. Julia’s hair was the same color as his; blonde, and he believed that was the only thing his daughter had gotten from him genetically. She decided to attend Arizona State University, where all the heat seemed to be, she loved the heat. His other daughters had stayed in state, so that he and Linda could visit or they could visit them, but Julia never came home for more than a week. Julia’s absence hurt Linda, so much they had almost decided to move away from the forest, so their daughter could be with them again, but then Julia had decided to study abroad in New Zealand for a year, so there had been no point in moving. After college Julia had begun to travel more often with friends, going to Australia, Alaska, Europe, even South Africa. Julia never settled down and the life seemed to suit her. He and Linda had already discussed it. Letting Julia do what made her happy was the right thing to do.
“I know you don’t think I like it here.”
Julia’s voice startled him from his thoughts.
“You never made it a secret that you didn’t like it here, hon.” he said. “With all your absences and travelling we began to assume the forest wasn’t for you.”
Julia let out a huff of breath and began to stand. He tried to follow suit, but it took him a lot longer to get up. When he reached his full height she was already sitting on their worn brown leather couch. He sat next to her and placed his hand on her knee. Her knee was soft and warmed from the fire; his hand looked so old, pale, and with prominent veins, the wrinkles deepening with each day that passed. He remembered when he was younger looking at people the age he was now and thinking he would never get that old. But he did. And he was.
“I wasn’t running from you guys, Dad.” Julia placed her young, flawless hand on his own old-man hand.
What then was she running from, if not them? He wondered where Linda had disappeared to. He felt unqualified to hear alone whatever his little girl had to tell him next. He looked at the grandfather clock near the door. It was nearly ten-thirty; she must be putting the grandkids to bed and giving the girls a break from the children. Linda loved the kids.
“I didn’t want to be stuck here.”
He almost missed her soft words as the grandfather clock struck ten-thirty.
“Why would you feel as though you were stuck? We have always let you girls go and do as you please.” It was the truth. He and Linda had always supported their girls. It was especially important for Linda to do so, because she knew how hard it was when parents didn’t support their children as her parents never supported her.
“I’m not saying you’re not supportive,” she said. “Because you are. It’s just that you and Mom have always lived here, in the woods, in California and never left. I wanted to leave and go places. I don’t want to be settled down like Tina and Christina. I don’t want kids or marriage.” Her hand had lifted from his to wave them frantically in front of her face, showing her frustration.
It’s true that he had never lived anywhere but in California, yet he had traveled. What did his daughter think he was; a tree?
“I have traveled, hon,” he said. “Just not very seriously, since you girls started popping up.” He had stayed close to home when Linda got pregnant with Tina, and he never wanted to leave his girls side. He had been afraid he would miss something.
“Not really traveled. You haven’t seen what I have seen. The beauty in every place is different, each having its own unique quality. If I even thought about dating – like, seriously dating someone — I would have to give up who I am. I’m not willing to do that. I want to live my life.”
He could hear her voice become thick with tears, but not one dropped.
She believed they were disappointed in her, because she didn’t have a husband or marriage, and he realized she’d been thinking this way for quite a while. He sat closer and placed his arm around her slight shoulders. She shook from holding back her tears.
“Hon, we have always supported you and your sisters. We always will. Why do you think we never argued about you travelling so much?”
“Because you thought I was getting my wild stubborn side out of my system?”
“You will always be wild. You’re so much like your mother, Julia, you have no idea. Do you think she just willingly married me? It took three years for her to finally say yes, even when she knew I was the one for her. At least, that’s what she told me.”
“I remember, Dad,” she said. “I’m going to leave again.” Her voice had stopped shaking.
“So, where are you heading to this time? Spain, Korea, Mexico?
“I took a job. I’m going to be a bike tour guide in Bolivia.”
He saw her glance under her blonde eyelashes at him. He didn’t know anything about Bolivia.
“What will you be doing?” he asked.
“I’m going to make sure the bikers who want to take on the dangerous roads are ready for what they signed up for.” This time she looked away.
He remembered she had always been highly athletic, but he couldn’t remember her showing much interest in being a biker.
“All right. What’s your company called?” He wanted to make sure it was safe.
“Dad, it’s fine. I’ve already signed the contract. I’ve made my decision.” She pushed herself off the couch and stretched, “See you in the morning, Dad.”
He wanted to tell Linda as soon as he found out about Julia’s new job, but he didn’t know how to tell her. So, he took his wife on a trail through the woods, one that they had taken over a hundred times. It was cloudy when they began to walk, the storm coming in quicker than they anticipated. The rain began to fall. He and Linda ran for shelter under a natural bridge the trees had created. Linda made it to the trees first; his knee was acting up again because of the rain.
“That definitely was an unexpected storm,” Linda said. “You all right, Ron?”
He leaned against the tree, trying to catch his breath. He wanted to find a way to tell her about Julia’s news, a job that would risk her life every day. He had risen early that morning to research Julia’s so-called job. Julia was going to be working at the Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, and she would be training people to go on what is deemed to be the world’s most dangerous roads.
“Ron! Are you all right?” Linda’s voice was anxious. He was worrying her.
“Our daughter is going to be an extreme mountain bike trainer in Bolivia.” He shoved the paper that he had printed out in the morning into her hands, which was now a little damp.
He watched as Linda scanned the document, probably zooming in – as his had done — on the words dangerous, sentences like “two hundred people die each year.” He watched the emotions play over her face: confusion, dread, fear, terror. She looked over at him multiple times with her wide, doe eyes. Her brown hair speckled with gray was beginning to curl as it started to dry.
“She cannot do this. We cannot allow our daughter to do this.” Her face was flushed from fear, as his had been earlier that morning.
“I know, Linda. But, dammit, she already signed a contract to take the job. She also already has a ticket there, with no return date. Julia’s made up her mind, despite what she knew we were going to say.” He sank to the forest floor to rest, cringing when his knees began to throb.
“She could die, Ron. Two hundred people die a year! Our baby could be one of those two hundred!” Linda began to pace, her ponytail swishing with each stride.
“She’s already decided. We can’t do anything besides support her.” Yet he was surprised by what he said. He knew his daughter’s life was going to be in danger, he knew she could die. Why didn’t he say that to his wife?
“She will ruin her life because she won’t even have a chance to experience one, Ron.”
Dad, I want to live my life. Julia’s words still sounded in her heart.
“It’s her life, Linda. This is how she’s choosing to live it.” He sounded so old, even to himself.
His wife sat down next to him and began to tear the paper apart slowly piece by piece. Tears tracked down her face with each piece paper that dropped to the dirt floor.
“She’s our baby.” A sniffle.
“She’s twenty-eight, Linda. She’s no longer a baby. But I know how you feel; I broke our keyboard when I found out about it.” Linda gasped.
“You broke the keyboard?” He chuckled and put his arm around her shoulders, as he had done with his daughter last night. If only he could keep all his girls together, safe and protected.
“You’re so much like her, Linda. Remember when I first met you?” He kissed her hair as she still tore the paper apart.
He knew she remembered, but this was the game they played, so he could tell his stories over again. This one just happened to be his favorite.
He had just accepted a job as a park ranger at the Sequoia National Forest, and he had begun to learn the trails by heart. He loved the smell of the woods, the raw power each element untouched by man. He had been twenty-five and full of energy and youthful strength. The sequoias were his favorite trees not because of their size, but because of the amount of years they lived, and the history they had seen. Some people thought dinosaurs were cool, but these trees were the oldest living things this planet would ever see.
One day while walking the trail after the tour groups were heading out, he began reading about the legends in one of the pamphlets.
“Each tree has a soul,” he said. “It can come in any form, human or animal. The trees have seen so much over the years of their existence, that the trees’ soul can project themselves as far as it roots will reach. Do not be fooled, because sometimes the person standing next to you might be the soul of a tree, and it’s watching over you. So don’t litter or hurt the trees.”
He saw he was getting closer to his favorite tree in the forest. Although it was dead — really it was just a large stump left in the ground — he always made sure to press a hand to its 3,500 heart. This tree was said to have been over three hundred and eleven feet and over sixty feet wide.
As always when he neared it, he could feel the history thrumming under his soles. When the sequoia came into view, he saw a tourist bending over the middle of the stump. He ran over quickly, scaring a black rabbit from its rummaging.
“Remove your writing utensil from the tree!” His voice had been very loud. He sounded like an idiot even to his own ears. He felt his face heat.
The person had slammed down the pencil and turned quickly. He realized that the perpetrator was a woman, a very young woman; actually, a very angry woman.
“Excuse me,” she said. “I’m trying to do research, and with you yelling at the top of your lungs, my work does not go any faster. So, if you would, please keep your voice down. I will only be a minute.”
He hadn’t realized his mouth had opened during her speech, but his throat was dry when he closed it.
“What are you, anyway? The tree police?” She had bent down, turning her back on him again to examine the tree.
He hated this woman. “I’m one of the park rangers here.”
“Ah, I see. So do you get a lot of people carving their eternal love into the tree?” She peered over at him from behind her dark lashes. Her eyes were brown, he realized.
“Sadly… So what are you doing?”
She inched her way along the tree, marking her notebook every so often with a number.
“I’m a dendrochronologist.”
He was surprised; she studied tree rings.
“Each ring signifies a year in which the tree was alive?”
“You’re not as thick-headed as you appear to be, Mr. Park Ranger.” She laughed as he frowned down at her. She was wearing brown pants and a water proof black jacket. At least she dressed appropriately for the forest, he thought.
“My name is Ronald, but everyone calls me Ron for short,” she said.
“Ron suits you better,” she decided. “But, back to your question, yes trees are some of the oldest species on the planet, and the least threatening to our kind. We need trees in order to survive. My colleagues and I hope that by showing people that trees are a thriving species, if left alone, then perhaps more forests will become protected.”
She stood, brushed her hands of dirt and stuck out her hand. “My name is Linda Blake, it’s nice to have met you Ron.”
They shook hands and she began to pack her things into her bag. He realized he didn’t want her to leave.
“Do you believe trees have souls?” He blurted out.
She turned sharply and gazed at him. Her delicate brown eyebrow rose in a silent question.
“I ask because I read about trees that are old supposedly have souls and they can take on any form.” God, he sounded like an idiot again.
“It would be an amazing thing if they did. Perhaps the black rabbit I saw earlier was a trees soul?” she tapped her chin. “But then again there is no way to prove that theory of yours.”
She jumped down from the stump, quickly peering over her shoulder at him. She winked.
Over the next couple days, he continued to see her, studying the rings of the sequoias that had been cut down. Each day he found himself growing more used to her presence as easily as he had grown used to the trees swaying above him. He chatted with her about her job, and she sometimes asked about his. She was more intelligent than he was, he thought, but she never seemed to tire of teaching him different things about the trees he protected each day. Finally, he asked her out on a picnic, and they ate on a tree stump that she claimed was over seven hundred years old. He kissed her on a stump, asked her to marry him on a stump, and they made their vows together on a stump.
“I still get people to laugh when I tell them I was married on a stump.” The rain was starting to trickle around them.
“The grandkids seem to enjoy hearing it,” he said.
Linda rose and helped him get to his feet. They began to walk more quickly, so they could make it to the cabin before the next rain shower poured down. Julia’s decision kept them quiet; even the trees seemed to stay silent, waiting for Linda to speak.
Finally she said, “You’re right, Ron. Julia is doing something she wants to do, and we need to support it, no matter how dangerous and scared we may be. We need to support her.”
Linda’s parents had practically disowned her when she told them she was going to go to college and then graduate school to study tree rings. They’d wanted her to stay home after high school and have kids. Even when she got married, her parents had refused to attend their untraditional wedding. It made Linda sad, but she had wanted to be with him, not them.
“We’re not anything like your parents,” she said. “Julia is strong, like you, I truly believe she will be okay in whatever she does.”
He heard the trees begin to move again and caught sight of a black rabbit. He remembered seeing a black rabbit in these woods when he first met Linda. A slight chill brushed over his skin. When the rabbit didn’t appear on the other side he released his wife’s hand to walk around the tree. Nothing.
“Ron, what are you doing?”
Linda called for him again as he searched for any tracks. Again, nothing. He looked over at the tree where he had met his wife and there sat a little black rabbit, looking directly at him, nose twitching.
“Ron, it’s getting cold.”
He walked over to his wife without looking back at the tree, but he knew that if he had looked back, the black rabbit wouldn’t have been there any longer.