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There was definitely something wrong with the tree, thought Casper. He was not a farmer or an arborist – it wasn’t that he worried the tree was not healthy or anything like that, as he did not know enough about trees to know the difference. What concerned him is that there was something about the tree that did not seem right. Was it too symmetrical, or not symmetrical enough? Was the green of the leaves quite the right shade, or not? Casper couldn’t tell. But there was something that was different enough between this particular tree and the other trees around it that he took notice, and he told his wife so as he sipped coffee one morning, looking out the window at it.
“Does that tree look right to you?” he asked.
His wife looked at Casper first, then out the window. “Which one?”
“Can’t you tell?”
Vera, his wife, sipped coffee as well. “No.” She looked at him again. “What do you mean?”
Casper shrugged. “I don’t know. Just doesn’t seem quite right to me. Like it’s fake or something.”
Vera furrowed her brow. “I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
Casper gave an exasperated sigh. “You know, fake, like the ones they use for wireless signals.” He was recalling the time he first saw one, when he was a child maybe eight or so. The funny thing was, as his parents commented while driving past it, was that they never really noticed the cell phone tower when it was a plain cell phone tower, the narrow triangle of metal decked with cylinders and antennae. It was near a church yard on the edge of the city, where the open fields gave way to the first shops and large department stores. They all drove past it a hundred times, never giving the white metal tower a second glance. But one day they noticed a team of workers swarming around the base of it. That didn’t mean much either.
Maybe a week later they made the same drive into town, and there it was. The cell tower had been dressed up as a tree, and it towered weirdly over the rest of the treetops. That was the first thing you noticed. Then you saw how narrow it was, like a skinny toilet brush, and then you saw how perfectly symmetrical it was, the fake needles giving the impression of some kind of outsized evergreen.
Casper’s parents found it to be hideous, and now noticed it every time they drove into town. Casper, however, thought there was something sublime, perhaps admirable, about it. He forgot about all this until today, looking at the tree outside his window.
But now something about the fakeness of the tree bothered him deeply. They had gotten much better over the years, dressing up this or that signal tower to look like a tree. Some would say that they had gotten so good at it that you could not tell the difference. That any normal person, looking at the latest model of artificial tree and the real thing, could not tell them apart.
Casper was quite certain that he could, standing at his window this fine spring day, and there was something else stirring inside him as well. This was something like hatred. He was suddenly angry at the tree, and angry at whoever had made it. He felt like it did not belong in the world, and that someone should get rid of it. He decided, standing there not yet in his work clothes, that he ought to be the person to do it.
“You all right, hon?” Vera asked.
“Yeah,” Casper said, taking another sip of coffee. “I’m fine.”
Now that Casper thought of it, lying in bed, Vera already asleep beside him, he was quite certain that people had been visiting his little grove of trees. Not just people, workers, like the ones who had dressed up the cell tower years ago. They must have replaced the tree. Why hadn’t he been more attentive, he thought, and he felt shame. After all, what is a man but someone who looks after his home, his property, his family. He looked over at Vera and wondered when they might start their own family. But if he couldn’t stop people from coming onto his property and replacing his trees, what right did he have to expect to head a family?
Casper closed his eyes. Tomorrow he would find an axe.
The axe was more difficult to find than he had expected. But he finally got one, and he hid it under the bed, waiting for nightfall. For some reason he did not want to explain it all to Vera. For some reason he thought she would not understand.
The moon was full, and so he had enough light. He stood before the alien tree, and whatever doubts he had melted. It was certainly not like the others. He still could not say why. He touched the bark of the tree, then the bark of another. He touched the leaves likewise. How did he know the difference? Was it that the fake seemed somehow to droop at night, or not? Yet somehow he knew.
He raised the axe and began to chop, first tentatively, because it seemed like an unnatural movement and his blows would not quite bite. But after the first random notches he landed a few in the same spot and began to make progress. With each stroke he gained more confidence, until he began to hew away, fragments flying.
He was more than halfway through when he saw the lights coming out of the corner of his eye. First in the sky, then on the ground, closer and closer and he redoubled his efforts, pushing himself through exhaustion. He knew for certain he was doing something important. People were coming. He found himself laughing, and with a crack the tree fell over.
There were two of them, dressed in black and bearing badges. They found him leaning on the handle of the axe, heaving and laughing, sticky with sap.
“Geez,” the first guard said.
“Man, we are totally gonna get fired for this,” the other said.
“Why do they always put nutjobs next to them?” said the first guard.
The second guard shook his head. “I don’t think they try. I think it just gets to them. Over time. I really think they should have kept them in museums or something.”
“They tried that. Drew too much attention. People went bonkers, kept coming after them. They thought that if they just hid them in plain sight, didn’t tell anybody…”
Casper’s laughs quieted and he looked at them. “I’m sorry. Tell whoever it is that they can’t replace my trees. I knew it was wrong. I knew it was fake.”
“Buddy…” the first guard tried to say.
“It won’t do any good,” the second interrupted. “They’re too far gone by this point. I’ve heard that.”
“Look, there’s not any left, so we’re definitely out of a job. So why not?” said the first, a little angry. “Hey, buddy, you just cost us our jobs. You’re an idiot. You just cut down the last real tree.”
Casper looked at him. “No, you don’t understand. I cut down the fake.”
The guard grabbed the axe from Casper. “Nuts to this. I’m already fired.” He swung the axe at the tree next to the sap-bleeding stump. Bark flew away until a dry sheaf of fiber optic cable spilled out. He moved to the next tree, and the next. All cables and wires.
Credit: Gibson Monk