The Caretaker

By Callum Heitler

The tree had fallen over again. He would have to check the roots and make sure they weren’t rotten. One time he had forgotten to check and a whole forest had fallen over. The problem with rot was it liked to spread, and if you didn’t get to it in time it could hide under the bark so that when you looked it seemed fine but really it was rotten all the way through. It would have been easier if he hadn’t been alone, but that hadn’t been the deal.

He wasn’t upset by this, but sometimes it wasn’t easy.

The tree had flopped over in the wind and was now belly-up, so that when the wind passed along the mountain side the roots shivered and shook like winter branches. He flicked open his pocket knife, which he had carried since the first day, and pressed the rusted blade into the flesh of one of the roots. It was white and soft and when his knife pressed into it a slither of sap bulged onto the blade.

There didn’t seem to be any sign of disease.

The mountains were not good for trees, though, and he knew a spot where the roots could grow deep. With a grunt he picked up the fallen tree and started down the mountain.

Ahead of him were the old roads and power lines and the river. Beyond them the deserted houses, with their overgrown gardens and pools, and beyond them, the city. He couldn’t remember now how many years it had been since the others had left. He was slower than he had been, and fatter too. He had started to notice wrinkles creeping into the sun-baked skin around his eyes, and whenever he reached down to pick up one of the larger trees, his back twinged and complained. He had started wearing glasses, and at night when he slept there was a buzzing in his ears. Well, it was to be expected.

Clumps of dirt and leaves trailed behind him, and a squad of eagles fretted round his head. When he had been younger he would have swatted them away, but now that he was alone, he rather liked the company. He moved steadily and without pause, down the mountain and across the river and inside the city.

The towers were empty, and where there had been pavement and tarmac there was now a carpet of small trees. These were only saplings and barely reached up to his knees. He walked carefully so as not to break them, and made his way to the open air theatre. When he had been younger he had enjoyed the theatre. He found a spot where the soil was soft and deep and putting the large tree to one side he started to dig.

Sometimes he wanted to leave, but that wouldn’t have been fair. There had been a deal. They had cut down all the trees, for their houses and fires. They had cut, chipped, carved and burnt through the woods of the world, building their civilization. They had created new art and literature, raised great monuments and buildings. They had filled the world with wonders, and one day they had built ships for new worlds, and they picked one to repay the debt.

Maybe his task would outlive him. Still – he thought as he pushed the tree upright – it was better than any desk job.

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