An excerpt from a longer short story.

The oak tree was all that anchored Hector Gonzales to the past. His family, community, and land had been devoured by the Arcadia Fire during his long tour in Afghanistan. For his future, he had no plan other than this first thing: to visit the Grandmother Oak.

He hiked up the path to the tree’s hidden valley, shouldering both the foreignness and the familiarity of homecoming after so many years away. The sun had swung to the west and now punched straight into the canyon, so that the shadows fled to the small corners, and even the cicadas stuttered from the heat. Hector loved these times in Northern California, when the temperatures soared, and the north wind carried the incense of hot weeds and volcanic dust, so hot it pressed down on his shoulders and only an act of will allowed a man to stand upright. He took a drink from his water bottle, letting the drops fall on his chest, smearing across the sooty grit, then hooked it back to his belt, where his shirt hung around his waist. Reaching a small rise, he turned and looked back over the canyon. To his left, all was blackened from the fire that had destroyed Arcadia. To his right, the fire had skipped like a stone, hitting this patch, but not that one, all the way down to the wide grasslands below, the landscape dancing in the waves of heat.

Home, and yet not home.

The Arcadia Fire had devoured his family—mother, father, & dog all found scorched to death along the Skyrim Route in the old Ford F-150. His grandmother among the missing. Hector had watched the news, helpless, from the barracks in Bagram as his hometown and everything he knew exploded in mountains of flame. Discharged from the service, he’d inherited seventy acres of ashes on the edge of a mortally wounded town, a graveyard of crumbling foundations, and a life without connection. His few friends from high school, equally dislodged, had moved on with their young families, chasing jobs, or just too busy to get together when he’d called. He reflected, as he walked, on the nature of these relationships, how—once uprooted—they cannot grow again in the same way. Joining the service had been the act of a bewildered teen. Leaving the military as soon as he was able, the act of a wiser, tempered man. He didn’t know what he would do next, but Hector hoped that visiting the oak might giving him some sense of normalcy, or home, or a jumping off point for the next move. His mother and grandmother had talked about the old tree as a revered elder, one of the family, and made frequent pilgrimages themselves to “talk to Grandmother Oak” when they didn’t know what to do.

This path to the valley had been a secret in his family for generations. The first Spaniards to explore here had found the odd hanging valley above the canyon and wondered at the enormity of the oak tree there, its mighty branches stretching from one rock wall to the other, its trunk as thick as a house, its knotted toes held fiercely to the rocks where countless snakes and marmots and ground squirrels had lived and then died. Even the Spanish, half blinded in their hunger for gold, had paused beneath its branches, felt the thrum of something mysterious and old and powerful vibrating up from the earth or through the air around the old tree, and so they named it Grandmother Oak. The Spanish had named it, yes, but earlier threads of Hector’s blood had known this place as well. Before the Europeans, his mother’s grandmothers had gathered acorns here, and surely, they too had wondered at the mystery of the tree, dwarfing any other oak for as far as a man could walk in a string of days.

The Hooker Oak, down in the valley, had been a famous tree for its size, but Hector’s father had stood beneath its branches as a young man, and had proudly declared their own Grandmother Oak to be twice as large. No one knew, for certain, how old the tree was. No forestry student from Chico State had bored into its trunk to count the rings, no placards had been placed, no parking lot for visitors. Its only access was this: one single, difficult foot path traveled by Hector since he was a boy, and his grandfathers before him, extending back into the murk of history. As a child, his family would picnic in the valley every year, spread a blanket between the roots, sharing wine and food beneath the cathedral of branches, and Hector hoped that one day he would bring his own children here to do the same. Though all else was gone, the fire maps hadn’t extended quite to the oak’s valley, and Hector hoped it might have been spared.

He came, at length, to a small footpath that led north, away from the canyon floor with its rolled river rocks, up a few grassy slopes, thick with star thistle, to where a tower of basalt cliffs climbed to the Tuscan formation at the top. He loved this walk, first through the soft sedimentary boulders, long-ago blankets of underwater mud, up through the layers of metamorphic rocks, heated and tumbled by the earth, to the top strata of volcanics, all of it formed over millions of years and then carved again, just as slowly as it had been formed, by the creek below. Time, at this grand scale, comforted Hector, and gave perspective to all his recent horrors. He, his lost family, the Afghan villagers—all of human civilization, for that matter—were the tiniest blip on the radar expanse of geologic time, represented in only the top two inches of soil at the canyon rim, of no interest to the thousand feet of history below or the thousand feet of rock that would one day form over the top, whether by water or volcanoes or the patient folding of the Earth. From this perspective he could look out over the blackened slopes—up to the southern ridge where his family home had stood for generations below the town of Arcadia—and see the wiggling threads of life returning, and know that in the grand scheme of things, none of it mattered.

These thoughts, and similar ones, had made him a poor fit for high school, a worse fit for the military, and an awkward guest at keg parties. Women—at least those his own age—tended to blink, giggle nervously, then wander away. The men just shook their heads. “Chicks don’t dig that shit, man.” And so, now, Hector hiked alone, making this pilgrimage in the space between his deployment and whatever he decided to do next. He had no plans, or at least none that seemed to take root. He placed each foot carefully, alert for rattle snakes and sharp scree that could send a man tumbling backwards when the path grew steep near the canyon wall. A red tail hawk cried high above, and Hector smiled at the sound he had not heard in years, had a momentary vision of himself from the bird’s perspective, glistening brown shoulders, the black pebble of a head.

The trail ended at the canyon wall, where the cliff swallows clustered by the dozens, weaving the air around their nests. Or, at least, the trail seemed to end at a clump of thick alder scrub fed by a small trickle of water on the mossy face of the basalt. Hector wiggled into the shrubbery, first an arm, then a foot, then—turning sideways—the rest of his body squeezed through to the center, where a long narrow crack had formed in the rock wall. He pushed into the tight slot canyon, shaded and cooler than the exposed furnace of rock just beyond. This cleft ran thirty feet deep into the cliff face, a tunnel of shade that opened at the end into the valley of the oak. They called it a valley, for lack of a better word, but in truth the oak sat in the center of a nearly perfect circle of hard rock walls, like the Devil’s Tower in reverse, and all who saw it agreed they had never seen a place like it, as if the basalt had formed millions of years ago around some softer core that had long since been worn away. Hector paused in the slot canyon to catch his breath and enjoy the chill of moist rock against his back. He took another drink of water, then pushed on.

At the end of the narrow rock alley, he blinked, eyes bedazzled by the burst of open sunlight in the valley of the oak, where there should have been only dappled shade.

“No! No no no! Grandmother, no!”

Hector ran forward into the oven of sunlight, of all that should have been cooled and cradled under the arms of Grandmother Oak.

The tree was gone.

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compass rose with mermaids

A.G. Bennett lives with her wife and family of elderly four-footeds in the woods of Wisconsin. She has worked on a crab tender off the Pribilof Islands, as a Hardee’s line cook, a dishwasher, a waitress, a roofer, and as a glorified toilet cleaner in a ranger’s uniform. She has published several children’s picture books under another name.

Her first book, Shepherd's Derelict, will be released by Paint Creek Press in July 2021.


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