The Tall Tree

A story by John Lechner

Illustration of a small sapling.

Once there was a young sapling who grew on a grassy hillside. From his high perch he breathed the fresh air and gazed out at the endless sky full of possibility.

The wide world felt intimidating, but the sapling wasn’t afraid. That’s because a much bigger, sturdier tree stood nearby, sheltering and protecting him. This was none other than the sapling’s father, a tall tree whose outstretched branches seemed to reach across the sky.

Illustration: A large leafy tree towers over the little sapling, with birds and bunnies playing around.

The tall tree watched over the hillside and all the creatures who lived there. Birds made their nests in the tree’s branches, rabbits scampered in the grass, and bees buzzed among the flowers.

The sapling wanted to be more like the tall tree, and he stretched his branches as high as he could. But the birds didn’t land on him, and he knew he could never ever reach as high as the tall tree.

Illustration: Sapling bends beneath torrential rain.

In the summer, torrential storms brought rain and wind. The sapling thought the entire hillside would blow away. But the tall tree clung to the ground with his roots, holding the earth together, and the sapling did the same.

Illustration: Orange leaves fall from the tall tree as the sapling also turns orange.

In the autumn, the tall tree’s leaves turned orange and fell to the ground. The little tree watched and did the same. The birds flew south and the rabbits went underground as the winds became colder.

Illustration: Heavy snow covers the tall tree, weighing it down as it protects the sapling.

In the winter, heavy snow fell. But the tall tree caught most of it so that it wouldn’t land on the little tree. The young tree noticed how the tall tree’s branches would bend but not break, and he tried to do the same.

Illustration: The tall tree is green once more, and so is the sapling.

Finally spring came and the snow melted. The tall tree sprouted fresh new leaves, and the little tree knew it was time for him to do the same. The birds returned to build their nests, and everything was as it should be.

Years passed, and the young tree watched the seasons go by. He laughed as the squirrels raced around the hill and the rabbits outsmarted a fox. He thrilled as a flock of starlings swooped down and flew away in a whirl.

During one particularly bad storm, part of the hillside was washed away. This made the little tree sad, for he had always liked the flowers that grew there. But the tall tree comforted him saying, “Sometimes things change whether we like it or not.”

“Well, I don’t like it!” said the little tree. But he tried to be strong.

Illustration: The small tree is a bit taller now, as the tall tree stands over him.

Many seasons passed, and the young tree grew. The tall tree looked down and smiled. “You’re becoming a fine tree indeed,” he said. But the young tree knew he still wasn’t as big and strong as the tall tree, even though the older tree had lost a few branches from all the storms he had weathered.

Then one summer, the tall tree became sick. He had overcome countless injuries in his life, but this sickness was stronger than anything he had ever encountered.

Illustration: The tall tree is now old and gnarled, with few leaves.

The tall tree grew weaker. His bark became brittle, and he could no longer hold up his branches. The young tree wanted to help, but there was nothing he could do, he could only look on helplessly.

Finally one evening, the tall tree couldn’t hold himself up any longer. He took his last breath, and with barely a whisper, he died.

Illustration: The small tree stands over the broken stump of the old tree.

The little tree, who was no longer little, stood alone on the windy hillside. His leaves fell like raindrops and he bowed his branches. He didn’t know what to do. The old tree had always been there to watch over him, to show him what to do next. What should he do now?

The winds turned colder and the birds flew south. The tree no longer enjoyed watching the seasons pass. He closed his eyes as the world froze around him.

Illustration: The tree stands leafless as cold winter winds blow.

All winter long, storms pummeled the hillside, but the tree did not budge. He slept beneath the snow and ice, dreaming of nothing.

Then the days gradually became longer, and the snow melted. The tree awoke to an empty gray world. He knew he ought to be doing something, but he couldn’t remember what it was.

Illustration: Tree stands alone with new leaves sprouting.

Then he felt a tingling sensation in his branches, and noticed buds sprouting into new leaves. How was this possible?

He heard a chirping, and looked up to see the birds returning from their winter travels. He was amazed when they landed on his own branches.

“Wait!” he called out to them. “I’m not strong enough to build on!”

Illustration: Two birds build a nest in the tree's branches.

“Of course you are,” the birds chirped, and continued their work. Below, two squirrels began to chase each other around the tree. A rabbit peeked out from the grass and munched on a flower.

“No wait, this is all wrong,” said the tree. “Don’t you see that the old tree is gone? I can’t do what he did.”

“Yes you can,” chirped the birds. “You’re doing it right now. We need you, more than ever!”

“But it’s too hard, I can’t do it alone,” said the tree, feeling more helpless than ever.

“You’re not alone,” said a voice behind him.

Illustration: the tree notices many other trees growing nearby.

He looked around, but it wasn’t a bird or squirrel, it was another tree, much like himself, growing nearby. And there was another tree near that one, and another. In fact, trees lined the hills and meadows as far as he could see.

“We all miss the old tree,” said one of them. “But we have to carry on his work, we have to pass down what he taught us. That’s what he would want us to do.”

The young tree blinked through his tears. He looked out across the hillside to the valley beyond, where a new field of flowers was blooming.

Then he looked up, and stretched out his branches as far as he could, as the birds landed to build their nests.

Illustration: Tree stands on the hillside surrounded by many other trees of various size, as the sun shines, birds fly, and rabbits play in the grass.

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