Bucky carefully stepped out of a low hollow in a meadow and looked around. His glossy brown eyes surveyed the land, and he was crushed to see all the damage. He sniffed the air and it smelled like old metal in dampness. With everything so flattened, his sense of direction was out of whack — then he remembered the old pub by the lake, and he started out in that direction, as best as he could guess, hoping the place was still in one piece.
He trotted on slowly and carefully and the world seemed entirely vacant. There was a subtle settling of dirt and dust in the air and it made the horse sneeze a few times. Bucky saw no other signs of life except for a few wayward birds with no real understanding of what happened below. He was hoping for some sort of neon miracle on the horizon, and it was a long time before he came to a narrow crest and looked down upon the lake — a haphazard shape of utter confusion and jaggedness.
The pub was still there at the southern end and so Bucky picked up the gravel road below and followed it. Everything was eerily still and the air was the color of diluted pollution. As the horse drew nearer to the pub, he noticed there was a dirty beat-up old car resting out front. He went up from behind to see if he could detect a body inside behind the wheel. Someone was in there, but because the light was so askew Bucky couldn’t make out much except that it seemed to be a man. He carefully stepped to the front of the car and peered in through the cracked windshield. Whoever it was sitting there in the car, they weren’t alive, Bucky could tell that much.
The horse looked around and then poked the tip of his nose inside the driver-side window and sniffed at the figure. He nudged the man but of course there was no movement. Bucky looked over the rest of the car and noticed there was a lot of trash — mostly fast-food bags and beer bottles. The ashtray in the dash was overflowing with cigarette butts and there was a pile of dirty clothes in the passenger seat. Bucky pulled his head out because the smell was just getting to be too much.
“Gross,” Bucky said aloud, and then some birds above him in a tree squawked in agreement. “People can be so disgusting at times,” the horse said to an old tree standing in the hay beside the road.
“They sure as hell are,” the tree replied with a sarcastic sneer. “You’re lucky though, you can at least walk away if they start getting on your nerves. I’m stuck right here, forever, and I got to listen to all their bullshit talk all the time. Especially on Saturday nights when they come pouring out of the pub right there all drunk and obnoxious. Hey, horse. Come around here and look at my backside.”
“What?” Bucky said, puzzled as puzzled as a horse can be. “You want me to look at your… ass?”
“I don’t mind tree huggers, but I draw the line at ass lookers… No, you dumb horse, take a gander at how much I’ve gotten carved up over the years. I imagine there are a ton of goofy love hearts and chick’s names back there, but I can’t really see so you have to tell me.”
Bucky went around to the rear of the tree and looked at the bark. It was covered as high as a human could reach down to the base with symbols of foolish love. “Does it hurt when they carve on you?”
“No, it feels great! What do you think?”
Bucky swept his eyes over the carvings one more time. “I suppose it’s something like getting tattooed, right?”
“How the hell would I know,” the tree whined.
“You’re not a very nice tree. In fact I think you are quite crabby. You wouldn’t happen to be a crabapple tree, would you?”
“A crabapple tree? That’s ridiculous and I am somewhat offended by that. I happen to be an Amur corktree.”
“I never heard of that kind of tree. It sounds made up,” Bucky said.
“Well,” the tree stammered. “What do you know? You’re just a horse. How could you possibly know anything about trees? If I was a bucket of oats perhaps, then maybe you’d be able to offer some intelligence to this conversation.”
Bucky turned his head and looked over at the pub. “I’m going for a beer,” he said to the tree. “I’ll try not to bother you on my way out.”
“Wait!” the tree demanded. “Aren’t you a bit curious about the dead man in the car?”
Bucky had started walking but then stopped. His ears pricked up and he turned his head. “What do you know about him?” the horse asked. “Did you do something to this poor old soul?”
“No! Of course not. How could I possibly kill a human being? I’m a tree for crying out loud. I can’t even walk. Can’t you see I’m attached to the ground, permanently?”
Bucky found his argument to be logical and so he scratched him off the list of possible suspects that he had started in his brain. “I suppose you’re right about that. Well, then it must have been one of the bar patrons. Maybe there was a fight inside? They came out and the fight continued and one of the fellows pulled a bowie knife and stabbed the other in the guts. Am I right?”
“No, you are not right. In fact you’re way off. It wasn’t an act of animalistic violence. Did you see any wounds on the body of the deceased?”
Bucky thought about it. “No. I didn’t see anything but his lousy gray face.”
“And what makes you so sure he didn’t just die of natural causes? Why do you mammals always assume death is caused by violence? There are many, many other ways a mammal could die.”
Bucky bowed his head and scraped at the ground, feeling somewhat embarrassed by his inability to keep up with the tree’s powerful wisdom. “I didn’t think of that,” the horse grumbled. “But what makes you so special that you think you know everything?”
The tree’s branches creaked as he spread them out like arms in a manner of instruction. “Mr. Horse, how long do you expect to live?”
“How long do you expect to live?”
“I… I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it.”
“Then I’ll tell you… You’re going to only live about thirty years.”
Bucky’s cocoa bar colored eyes widened at the sound of that. “What? Only thirty years? Well… That’s terrible and I think you are wrong. You’re making it all up to frighten me.”
The tree folded his branches in front of his trunk and sneered at the dumb horse. “I’m afraid I am very correct, my dear horse friend. Don’t get too excited about the future because you won’t have much of one. On the other hand, I can expect to live up to 100 years, that’s a century.”
Bucky squinted his eyes and squished his brain as he thought up something clever to say. “At least during my lifetime I can walk around and go different places. I can see the whole damn world if I want to. You’re just stuck in the same place, day after day after day. You can’t go anywhere, and you have to look at the same damn scenery every day. I tell you what; if I was a tree I’d shoot myself in the face.”
“Be careful what you wish for, dear horse. A bullet may be the end of you yet.”
“Oh what the hell do you know? You’re just a crazy old tree. You’ve been sitting in the same spot for so long that you’ve lost your mind.”
The tree twirled his twig tips against each other and grinned. “Maybe I’m a bit insane that is true, but at least I don’t have to worry about dying at thirty years of age.”
“Shut up!” Bucky snorted. “I don’t want to talk to you anymore.”
“But wait! I still haven’t told you what happened to the dead man.”
Bucky huffed and glanced back at the tree again. “So hurry up and tell me. What happened to him?”
“I bored him to death.”
“What are you talking about?”
“He came to get a drink here at the pub, just like you, but he never made it inside. I kept talking and talking to him and I just wouldn’t allow him to depart. Oh yes he tried, but seeing that most mammals have a hard time saying no, he felt obligated to stick around and listen to me. He eventually grew tired and sat down in his car but I managed to draw his attention for several more hours, well into the evening and even to the crack of dawn. When the morning fog lifted a bit, I could see he was slumped over and not moving at all.”
Bucky motor-boated his mouth. “You’re being ridiculous. He probably had a heart attack. And why would you even admit, and even seem proud, that you bored someone to death? Don’t you have any self-esteem?”
The tree stroked at his face bark with his twig tips and felt stumped. (Do you get it? Stumped. You know, because he’s a tree). “I have plenty of time to build my self-esteem,” he gloated.
Bucky drew as close to the tree as he could and spoke into his face. “But what if someone comes and cuts you down? I suspect you’re a non-native species, and you know what that means, right?”
“What!? What does it mean?”
“It means they’re going to try to… Eradicate you.”
“No! They can’t do that! I’m a very important and beautiful tree!”
“I bet whoever does do the deed will use a nasty old chainsaw … Bzzzzz … Right through your guts.”
“Stop it, horse! I demand you stop speaking to me like this!”
Bucky shook his head at the tree and grinned before turning away and walking down the path toward the front door of the pub.
“Hold on now, horse!” the tree yelled out. “How do you expect to get a beer if there’s no bartender?”
Bucky turned to look at the dead man in the car.
“That’s right, horse. There isn’t anyone to pour a drink for you,” the tree teased. “You have hooves. You’re screwed!”
“I also have a brain. I’m sure I’ll be able to figure something out.”
“Oh really?” the tree sneered. “I’ll bet you one million dollars that you can’t pour your own ale.”
“And where in the world would you get one million dollars?”
“Can I tell you a secret?”
“Come closer. That’s good. So the secret is… Many, many years ago, a farmer who lived just up over that hill, well, he came right to me and he climbed up a ways on me, and you know what he did?”
“Well, see that opening a bit of a ways up my trunk?”
Bucky looked and he saw a wide crack in the tree that looked like a sideways mouth worn by time. “Yes.”
“The farmer put a sack of money in there, and over the years he came every so often and put more and more money in there. One day he just stopped coming. He hasn’t been here in a very long time and no one else ever went up there to retrieve the money. It’s still there. Lots of it.”
Bucky scrunched his face in disbelief. “I have no need for money, tree. Just forget about your stupid bet.”
“You think I’m lying?”
“Of course you are. Everyone is a liar. Everyone is a back-stabbing liar!”
“Fine, suit yourself. Go fetch your beer and leave me alone. I have no need for a grumbling horse in my life.”
TO BE CONTINUED