My oak died without me. It was a stray lightning bolt that did it, unexpected since the storm itself had passed. My spirit shuddered as the wood cracked, but I clung to my tree as it crashed to the forest floor. There were no humans around to hear it, but yes, it did make a sound. First a splash into the puddling mud on the path, then a thud as it hit deeper earth.
I waited. I counted the rings to see how old I was. I watched the birds. Woodpeckers mostly, drilling into my arboreal flesh for grubs. I contemplated my ragged stump and mourned the dying roots. But I never died.
I stayed, trapped in the decay. A colony of ants penetrated the softening bark, living, eating, and breeding within me. Windblown spores attached themselves to me, tangled white threads worming their way in as the mushrooms unfolded above.
I watched, beneath the blanketing moss, as triumphant hikers passed me by, high-fiving as they completed their journey. The humans fascinated me, shrouded in the dirt and leaves from my forest. Their bodies were exhausted, pushed to the limit, yet their eyes always held the same blaze of renewal.
It was fall when I first saw them. The Devoted Couple. They walked slowly, hands clutching rather than congratulating. They paused as they emerged at the trail’s end, and then turned to stare back into the forest. Not excited to have finished, I think they wanted to go back in. Lose themselves in the autumn inferno of leaves and wind.
He slid her pack from her shoulders, and tossed it carelessly to the ground. He led her over to me, and they sat on my deteriorating log. She rested her head against his shoulder, a cascade of tangled brown hair spilling down his shirt. His arms wrapped around her as they watched the sun set over the trees.
When the first stars came out, the man pulled a coin from his pocket. He turned it over three times in his hand, then jammed it ruthlessly into my side. The cold metal slid between the plates of bark, wedging into the soft wood. He kicked it with the heel of his boot, driving it in deeply until only the grooved edge could be seen.
“What was that for?” the woman asked, her pale thin face livened by laughter and the breaking moon.
“Granny never told you that story?” he asked. She shook her head.
“I’m surprised. She was always talking your ear off. Anyway, back in the Highlands where she grew up, you can find century-old Wishing Trees. Trees embedded with hundreds of old coins. People would make an offering to the spirit of the tree, and it would heal their sickness. That coin was for you.” He took her face in his hands. “You’re going to get better.”
I couldn’t make him a liar, now could I? Although my outsides were breaking down, my heartwood was fully intact. And so, I was delighted to find, was my power. It was not so hard to grant the wish, to send healing waves crashing over her. They engulfed her small frame, washing away any trace of illness.
She stared up at him, glittering tears shelved neatly on her lashes. She had planned to tell him it was impossible, that it was time to face facts. She smiled instead. “You know what? I think I will get better.”
They come and visit me every fall.
They’re not the only ones. Since that day, many have come to press their coins into my trunk and share their secret yearnings. My fallen oak has become riddled with metallic offerings, silvery curves peeking out from the deep brown bark. Protected by this studded armor of nickel and zinc, my heartwood will never crumble. Neither will my power. And when the noon sun hits, I’m a supernova, a beacon flashing at the trail’s end. Tell me what you wish.
J.G. Formato is a writer and teacher from North Florida. She lives in a little house by the woods with her amazing husband and their four wonderful children. You can find her most recent work in Youth Imagination Magazine.