By LEON YOUNGBLOOD
The tree was magnificent last year, by Briar Circle standards. When I saw it, the morning sun was positioned in such a way as to illuminate the otherwise dead lights so that they shone with a natural brightness, subtle, but strong.
Different colored globes also reflected the sunlight, and the chilly air somehow made their appearance clearer and sharper. Likewise with the Christmas-themed ornaments. Angels, snowmen, reindeer and other such things heralded the sacred holiday and yet observed it with a festive, childlike giddiness.
The tree is outdoors, in the woods and up a hill, mute, yet loud.
For several years, it had been a mystery to the community: Who went up there and decorated it? And for whom? And why? After it was initially “discovered,” visitors went to see it, but the total audience was always small—20 or so people a season. Every now and then, votive candles were placed at its base, and anonymous handwritten prayers were attached to its branches. There were never many of these, but they did give the tree, a cedar now about seven feet tall, a little more responsibility as a liaison between the prayerful and the Deity.
At some point, the identity of the person doing the decorating became known, and it surprised us, a little. He did not seem to be the sort of person who would sneak around in the forest dressing up trees, but he did dress up this tree, and the practice was now a tradition for him. His privacy was generally respected, too.
The locals were satisfied with the “what,” “where” and “who,” and would be patient for the “why.” Besides, the Ouachitas harbor enough eccentrics that the actions of one more did not really register.
My curiosity got the better of me one Christmas season, though. The tree-man and I were visiting over coffee, and I asked him about it.
“That? It’s nothing, really. My daughter and son-in-law brought the grandbaby down a few years ago, at Christmas. He was four, then, and pretty lively. Added to that, they brought their cat and dog, both of which had no morals worth bringing up. The dog was a big fellow, about sixty-five pounds. The cat was just mid-size, for a cat, but he had enough meanness in him to make up any deficiency. The kids were worried about ‘em, out here in the wild and everything, so they got to stay inside. The grandbaby did too, in fact.
“My wife had decorated to beat the band, and had cooked, and wrapped and hid presents—there was nothing anybody needed that we couldn’t get by without. So of course you know what that means: Nothing will do but for them to go into town to get more stuff on Christmas Eve! As the grandson came in with a few sniffles and a trace of fever, I agreed to stay home with him, and the wife would go with them and take the checkbook. I didn’t want to get stuck in the shopping madness anyways, so it suited me.
“Things were okay for a little while—about 15 minutes. By that time, the boy had eaten a pound of sugar-coated cookies, the dog had chewed up a brand-new shoe and the cat was rearranging the decorations. Then the sugar-infused baby found a present and got into it, and of course it was the loudest dang thing in the county that could be bought for a four-year old. I stepped into the kitchen. I forget what for. But anyway, I hear the Christmas tree fall.
“I go back and the kid, the dog and the cat are all sitting in the shambles. They all looked at me innocently and pointed fingers, and paws and things at each other, like it was the other’s fault. They were each one wearing lights, ornaments, and tinsel that looked like silver spaghetti on ‘em. It hadn’t been an hour. There were six more to go.
“The next day—Christmas—I gathered up a handful of the decorations and took a walk. I found the tree and dressed it up a little, and took out my pipe. The tree and I had a quiet time together. My daughter has been prolific with the grandbabies. There are three more. Consequently, the tree has been a friend for years.”