[This short story began as a challenge by Diane Schuett, producer extraordinaire of the South Bruce Christmas Show, to create an unique work for my 'annual' Christmas reading in the show. - ml]
* * *Once upon a time there was a man, a very ordinary man, who lived in a small white house on a quiet street in a little town, near, yet not so near, to the Big City.
Now this ordinary man had a not so ordinary wife, an extra-ordinary son and a definitely not so ordinary son. And a dog who was not certain what he was, but certainly NOT a dog.
Every evening this ordinary man would take long walks in the forest near his home - Winter or Summer, sometimes accompanied by his definitely not so ordinary son and occasionally by his dog that didn't think of himself as a dog.
When he left on his walks his not so ordinary wife would nod her head goodbye and when he returned she would nod her head in greeting, then go back to whatever not so ordinary thing she was doing. His extra-ordinary son would remain closeted in his room, doing extra-ordinary things no doubt.
On his walks the ordinary man and his definitely not so ordinary son would have long conversations. Conversations about the weather, the trees, the river they walked beside, sometimes about Thomas the Tank Engine or even Mater the Tow Truck. Which was definitely not so ordinary since his son could not speak. Or at least he could not speak in a manner that most folks could comprehend.
The doctor said his definitely not so ordinary son spoke with something called 'Echolalia', a sort of sing-song repetition of whatever was spoken to him. Most folks found this maddening but the ordinary man had learned from the nuances in his son's voice the essence of a return conversation. And at times his definitely not so ordinary son would stop in mid speech, ponder for a minute, then give an actual reply to one of his father's questions.
The doctor said this was to be encouraged so the ordinary man tried very hard to coax these actual replies. Packets of 'Rockets' and 'Gummy Worms' would line his pockets or the promise of frozen cherry cheesecake yogurt cones at the convenience store on the main street. Sometimes they worked, sometimes his definitely not so ordinary son would look at the ordinary man with his old man's eyes and simply shrug.
In time the Echolalia subsided and was replaced by a sort of gibberish, not quite English, not quite French, with a smattering of Japanese the definitely not so ordinary son had seen on a Youtube video about painting and accessorizing your Thomas the Tank Engine model.
Needless to say the ordinary man's not so ordinary wife took this with great chagrin, nodding her head twice as often in response to the child, who would look at the ordinary man with his old man's eyes and simply shrug.
One day on his walk the ordinary man felt a pain in his left foot, as though a dried branch had popped up beside his shoe and poked through the white cotton socks he always wore. He looked down but all around him lay a deep carpet of dried pine needles, soft enough to lie down and sleep in. And certainly not sharp enough to poke him in the ankle.
The definitely not so ordinary son stopped his observation of a wilted dandelion and looked at the ordinary man, “Owee?” he asked?
The ordinary man nodded and said “Indeed!”, as he rubbed his sore leg.
In a few weeks the pain in his left leg grew and his ankle began to stiffen. Sharp stabbing pains also appeared in his right leg, part of his left arm and across his shoulders and neck. Finally the ordinary man tired of hobbling about and wearing heated bean bags and with a nodded approval from his not so ordinary wife went to his doctor.
“This is odd,” exclaimed his doctor, examining an X-Ray of the ordinary man's leg, “Quite extraordinary in fact!”.
The ordinary man stopped leaning over to tie his shoes and straightened up to look the doctor in the eye, “Extraordinary?” he replied.
“Very!” responded the doctor, “In fact possibly unique!”, with a glitter in his eye as he contemplated being able to have something of worth to contribute to the Bi-Annual Conference of General Practitioners in the Big City the following Spring.
The doctor turned the X-ray this way and that, even turning it upside down to make sure the technician had not flipped the negative while processing it. The ordinary man stood still, holding his breath, with one shoelace flopped on the floor beside his grass-stained Rockport Walkers.
“I am afraid,” the doctor began slowly, looking at the ordinary man over the top of the X-Ray, “that I have some rather, well, upleasant news.”
“Unique, unpleasant news?” the ordinary man echoed back.
“Yes, indeed!” replied the doctor, clearing his throat, “Please sit down.”
The ordinary man tied his shoelace and sat as he was told, in a somewhat uncomfortable chair beside the examining table.
“I am not quite certain where to begin,” started the doctor, “and I am quite sure we will want to conduct more tests before we can be certain of a final diagnosis, but it is imperative that we be under no illusions as to the gravity of your 'condition'”, nodding and looking the ordinary man directly in the eye for extra emphasis at the word 'gravity'.
“Am I dying?” asked the ordinary man softly, thinking about what he would tell his definitely not so ordinary son.
“Well, not really,” replied the doctor, “in fact you will probably outlive us all!”
The doctor half-smiled to himself.
By now the ordinary man was quite confused. He was quite used to being ordinary in a not ordinary world, surrounded by extra-ordinary, not so ordinary and definitely not so ordinary people – not to mention a dog that did not think of himself as a dog! But to be labelled 'unique' was rather beyond his comprehension. He bit his lip and raised one eyebrow towards the doctor.
“Please go on,” he said softly.
The doctor straightened his tie and cleaned his glasses before neatly tucking them in his shirt pocket. A quick check of his fingernails and he looked the ordinary man in the eye once again.
“I am afraid to have to inform you, Sir,” the doctor said quite formally, “that you are turning into, well, a tree.”
* * *
The ordinary man took this news quite well, in fact better than the other two people in the world who had been previously confronted with similar news. He thanked the doctor and, promising to return the following Thursday for more testing, slipped past the receptionist and down the 6 sets of stairs to the street, catching the #12 bus at the corner to his little white house on its' quiet street not far, but far enough, from the doctor's office in the Big City.
At dinner, between the sliced tomatoes vinaigrette and the sauteed medallions of pork in mushroom sauce, he told his wife.
The ordinary man's not so ordinary wife stopped, with large bowl of mashed potatoes in one hand and a serving spoon in the other, and nodded at the ordinary man.
Then she fainted.
Reviving his wife took some time, as did removing the dollops of mashed potato from the dining room ceiling. Between himself and his extra-ordinary son they were able to pry the serving spoon from her hand and carry her into the living room, depositing her under an ancient and somewhat ratty quilt on the sofa. Vigourous fanning with a handy fly swatter eventually produced a 'murmle' and then blinking eyes, and within an hour her colour returned somewhat.
“A TREE?” she repeated, “Is your doctor quite sure?”, intimating that 'quite sure' could as easily be replaced with 'quite mad'.
“Yes,” he replied, “the X-Ray had definite indications of Hemlock in my lower left leg. I'm to return next Thursday for more testing.”
“What will they test?” she sputtered back at him, “Cut off your leg and count the rings to see how old you are or run blood tests for chlorophyll?”
“I suppose,” he replied slowly, “I am not quite sure – this is a rather unique situation!”.
Through all of this the definitely not so ordinary son sat at the dining room table, quietly eating his pork medallion and buttered beans. He did not like mashed potatoes and was quite amused at seeing them fastened to the ceiling, even if a few drops of mushroom gravy had dripped on his plate.
* * *
As the Summer turned into Autumn the 'Tsuga-fication' ('Tsuga' being the Latin name for Hemlock) of the ordinary man progressed unabated. First his legs began to stiffen and the skin became tougher and lined with long twisting creases. Then one morning he awoke to find that his ankles had grown together overnight, making it exceptionally difficult to tip-toe past his sleeping wife to the bathroom. As his knees stiffened he found it impossible to sit in his chaise lounge on the back deck or enjoy a family dinner. Instead he stood at the kitchen counter and ate slowly, watching the rest of the family through the dining room door.
Near Hallowe'en the ordinary man's right arm began to stiffen as well, unfortunately in an outward direction. It was at this point that his not so ordinary wife decided he might want to take a week or two of his accumulated sick benefits. His doctor agreed and quickly filled out the several reams of forms faxed to his office by the health insurance company. This was in fact the last time the ordinary man took the #12 bus to his job in the Big City.
By Christmas the ordinary man had stiffened to the point where he could no longer get up out of bed without assistance. Like an Ent from that famous children's story he plodded about the house in his fuzzy slippers, arms outstretched, remembering to turn sideways when passing through doors and not attempting the basement stairs unless the extra-ordinary son was in attendance.
On those rare occasions that he was able to plod about the backyard in the wintery sun the ordinary man found that he was quite popular with the birds in his neighbourhood. Ravens, kestrels, and the odd grackle would hop onto his arms and scamper along to peer into his face. Even the cheeky black squirrel that had often raided his bird feeders would stop to chatter at his feet. He remembered to wear his hat.
It was also at this time that his definitely not so ordinary son began taking his meals in the kitchen, pulling a high stool up next to the counter to happily munch on his peanut butter and jelly sandwich or tuna casserole beside his rigored father. Not a word was spoken between the two, but when he had finished his dinner the definitely not so ordinary son collected both their plates and took them to be washed.
* * *
As Winter became Spring the ordinary man began to experience strange dreams and a shortening of breath. His doctor became concerned - the conference was only a few weeks off - and ordered the ordinary man moved to a private clinic in the Big City. At first the ordinary man and his not so ordinary wife resisted, but it soon became clear that living at home was no longer an option. Along with the shortness of breath and strange dreams, the ordinary man was gaining weight at an accelerating rate. At New Years he weighed in at a shade under 400 pounds and by Valentine's Day he had crossed the 600 pound mark. This weight made it rather difficult for the extra-ordinary boy to counterbalance his father while navigating the basement stairs in search of pickled beets.
The clinic had been forewarned and necessary preparations made, including installing the engine hoist from a 1958 Edsel above the specially reinforced bed in his room. The extra-ordinary son contributed a small servo motor from his collection of parts and a game controller from a worn-out XBox 360 that made it quite easy for the ordinary man to operate the hoist, even if he only had the use of three fingers on his left hand.
But all knew the inevitable was near.
By St. Patrick's Day the Tsugafication of the ordinary man was almost complete. He breathed only a few times per hour and dinnertime involved standing him in a bathtub filled with cool water and Scott's TurfBuilder. The ordinary man had long since ceased to speak, merely blinking his eyes in response to 'yes or no' questions.
Every day the not so ordinary wife brought his definitely not so ordinary son to visit, leaving him with his father as she ran errands in the city. The ordinary man enjoyed the visits, propped up against a wall in the sunlight with his son sitting at his feet reading. The definitely not so ordinary son also responded, taking the time to read each story to his father in slow, distinct sentences. Of course when his not so ordinary wife returned the definitely not so ordinary son returned to racing about the room and spouting gibberish.
Eventually the ordinary man outgrew his room at the clinic and a meeting was called with his not so ordinary wife and his doctor.
“I am not quite sure what to do next,” admitted the doctor, flicking a bit of dust off his Certificate of Merit from the Bi-Annual Conference of General Practitioners, “he is about 90% cellulose and it is only a matter of time before he completely becomes a Hemlock.”
The doctor said all this in a third-party manner, as though the ordinary man propped up in the corner was in fact not in the room at all.
His not so ordinary wife nodded and his extra-ordinary son simply bit his lip and texted a friend.
“Plant him,” said the definitely not so ordinary son.
“WHAT??” said the not so ordinary wife, “WHAT DID YOU SAY?”, incredulous that her gibberish spewing son had spoken a near sentence, an almost 'honest to goodness complete thought in a single structure in a language that did not resemble French-anese from Youtube'!
“Plant him,” the definitely not so ordinary son repeated, “Dad needs to be planted in the forest”.
The extra-ordinary son stopped texting at this revelation and looked down at his little brother sitting on the floor amongst a pile of seed catalogues. He swallowed hard and began texting a new message as fast as he could to all his friends.
The ordinary man thought about this and a small smile sent tiny flakes of fresh bark floating down to the floor.
“Please!”, he rumbled softly, feeling the vibration in his core, “Please plant me in the forest!”
* * *
Once upon a time there was a young man, a definitely not so ordinary young man, who lived in a small white house on a quiet street in a little town, near, yet not so near, to the Big City.
Every day this definitely not so ordinary man would take long walks in the forest near his home, usually accompanied by his dog that didn't think of himself as a dog.
And every day on his walks he would stop in a grove of Hemlocks. Sitting on the ground with his back leaned against a tree and his dog at his feet he would take a book out of his backpack and read to his father.
And sometimes, if they weren't too tired, he would read to his uncle and his grandfather, who as it turned out were quite ordinary after all.