The King Saul Tree
It Ate Ornaments for Lunch
Story and Photos by John O’Bryan
Kelly and I have been married for close to thirty-five years and in that time we have had our fair share of disagreements, although I’d hesitate to call them true arguments. I may have made her cry a few times but it’s nothing to the number of times she’s made me cry.
If she weren’t so darn stoic, I’m confident that my antics would make her cry more often, but as it is, she laughs in the face of what passes for my fury, she spoons cold water onto my grievances. Because of that, and because I’m afraid of her, we get along really well—except at Christmas.
As I’ve gotten older, the season of good cheer—the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, the Black Fridays, and the kings named Wenceslas—seem to irritate me more and more. When I was little, Christmas was a magical time of sleepless nights, throwing up on Christmas Eve, mounds and mounds of presents, and heaps of food that always included a shriveled orange and six hazel nuts in the toe of my stocking so that Mom could feel good about all the candy she’d given me.
I relished calling my friends to gloat over the new slot car track I got and to make fun of the new underwear they got. There was always deep snow and a roaring fire and sitting around with the top button of my pants undone because I had eaten long and hard to fill the emptiness caused by the previous night.
Then came adulthood and responsibility and shoveling the tundra of snow that the singer is always dreaming about. But in northern Idaho it isn’t always powdery snow that sheds easily off the backs of excited travelers as they enter the house in their Norwegian sweaters and balaclavas. Sometimes, most times, it’s slush, and it always melts to dull brownness.
We always spend too much on the kids but everyone seems so happy because of it, until the GI Joe figures are inadvertently called dolls by my wife and the boys refuse to play with them and the dream that my sons will have the same action-gripped Kung Fu childhood as mine flies out the window.
This is the season during which someone is always getting their wings or telling George Bailey that she’ll love him ‘til the day she dies or people are wondering why they have to have so many kids, which is a moment when I’m on George’s side.
There is the ever-present BB gun and the Bumpass’s dogs always eat the Christmas turkey and Flick is perpetually stuck to a flagpole and no one ever knows where he is. Cindy-Loo Who is always cute and the Grinch’s heart always grows multiple sizes because Christmas isn’t about the presents, it’s about friends, and there is always a kid in the street ready to get the biggest goose in the world from the butcher shop down the street and Tiny Tim is always tiny and he always lives.
Washed up and drug-addicted pop stars constantly sing of the baby Jesus or buying new shoes or wanting Santa Baby to give them something expensive and Michael Jackson is always freaked out because his mom is making out with Santa next to the Christmas tree.
The avalanche of Christmastide is continual and relentless from when the month chimes in at the end of November and it doesn’t stop until I get to the point where I almost wish Jesus had never been born and I swear that next year I will donate all the money I would have spent on Christmas to an orphanage in Bangladesh, and then I have a hot-buttered rum and things somehow get better.
Of course, there is always a Christmas tree. Some of our biggest disagreements have been over the Christmas tree. The issue always rears its head the moment we pile into the car to wrangle that year’s tree. Kelly unfailingly says our tree needs to be just tall enough that we can smile for the camera as we put the angel on top without standing on a chair.
Her husband and children, who are made of sterner Irish stock, dream we will make our selection from vast vistas of Christmas trees that would require extension ladders to put angels on their peaks. One year, because we were legion, we got our way. It was kind of like she had tried to keep us from displaying the leg lamp in front of the window, except this year our lamp was a Christmas tree with a trunk the size of a dead-lifter’s thigh—a thing so massive it needed to be tied to the beams in the living room to keep it from falling over.
This was the year when we stumbled onto a secret steroid tree farm, where all the trees were the size of redwoods. Kelly begged us to turn around and allow her to buy one from the tree lot. The family was having none of it. We were on an adventure. We were making memories. You don’t make memories in a tree lot! Besides, for some strange reason, in that expanse of sky, all the trees looked reasonably sized. As our feet pounded holes in the snow at the tree ranch, I told myself this was one dream that wouldn’t be crushed.
The kids and I picked out a remarkable tree that stood like King Saul, head and shoulders above all the others. I plopped onto my back and shimmied under the tree to get at the trunk with the saw.
“John?” Kelly asked in a quavering voice. “Are you sure this is the tree we want? I can’t see your feet.”
It was too late. The axe was, so to speak, already against the trunk. I lay on my back for what seemed like hours, sawing like a madman. There was a loud crack like a howitzer going off next to my ear and the tree started to tilt.
I yelled, “Timber!” but I was so muffled by the branches that no one heard me and I prayed they would run in the right direction.
It took a good thirty minutes to drag it to our vehicle and then another ten to wrestle it onto the roof. The entire body of the car sagged and moaned as the tree engulfed it. I climbed through the back and rolled down the windows so I could lace the rope through the interior, because the roof rack was completely hidden, useless.
I heard a small group of children ask their parents why they weren’t getting a dinosaur tree like our family had. When we eased out of the ranch, I felt an immense sense of pride, like I had just killed and skinned a moose and was bringing it home for the family to feed on all winter. The manufacturer of our automobile even used the picture of our tree atop our vehicle to demonstrate how awesome people are who drive their cars (true story).
When we got home, I had everyone stand back while I cut the cords holding the tree to the car. They let loose with a twang, like piano wire snapping. The tree leapt from the roof like a caged animal suddenly freed, and took out a rose bush and a gutter downspout before it rolled to a stop next to the front porch.
Undaunted, I trimmed the excess branches off the trunk so I could attach the plastic tree stand to the end. It should have concerned me when I counted the rings and it turned out to be older than I was, but tree-hunting is blind, and I soldiered on. With the help of a chainsaw and judicious trimming I finally was able to sledgehammer the stand to the end of the trunk and the kids tightened the thumb screws as I leaned against it.
Everyone helped push and pull our sequoia through the front door. Everyone, that is, but Kelly. She was still lobbying me (translated as beseeching) to take the vile creature away from her house and return it for a full refund, minus shipping and handling, of course. On we went, ignoring her pleas. We sounded like a rowing crew manning the oars, chanting, “Pull, pull, pull.”
With each chant, the tree inched closer to its final resting place, taking molding and paint along with it, until with a loud whoosh, the branches, trunk, and all lay on the living room floor.
Our living room isn’t huge but it’s good-sized and it has a vaulted ceiling. After we wrestled the tree into a vertical position and I tied it to one of the overhead beams, it filled the entire room, and I mean completely. The tree was so big around that if we stood at opposite ends of the room, we could not see each other. It was like a bottle brush and our living room was the bottle.
“There,” I said, as nonchalantly as possible. I stood wedged between the branches and the wall. “Fits perfectly.”
Kelly fought her way out of the living room like a jungle explorer. She turned and said, “Yep, a regular latex glove.” Then she was gone.
The look in the kids’ eyes was one of awe—sheer awe, like the entire real forest had come to our house for a sleepover.
I climbed under the tree to see if I could maybe push it closer to the window to give us more room. It didn’t budge, but the blind fell off its casing. I pushed and pushed until my hands gave way. They were freezing under the tree’s own microclimate.
Fog washed over me from above as the tree warmed from the outside in. I am convinced the National Weather Service noticed a change in the ebb and flow of the tides because of the gravitational pull from our tree.
I called for my loppers, which I taped to my frozen hands, and then I began working my way up the back of the tree, cutting every branch as closely as I could to bare wood without losing all the green. When half the tree was gone, it snuggled up nicely against the window. From the living-room side it was beautiful, although from the window side it looked like it had been dragged behind the car all the way from the tree farm.
I sat on the couch and marveled at this beauty. Pitch and needles and discarded branches were everywhere, and the living room looked like a Picasso painting but we had our tree—the state record for that year, I think.
OK, I should have listened to my wife.
It took me more than an hour to drape every single strand of lights we owned around the tree and it still looked unlit, as if it were a black hole from which light could not escape. I was forced to head to the store for more lights, and even then it cast but a faint glow in the gloom of night. This giant sequoia also ate ornaments for lunch.
Once you put an ornament on a branch within the gaping maw of greenery, there was a chance you would never see it again. There were just too many bare spots and not enough ornaments. Kelly was so distraught that she almost allowed me to put tinsel on the thing, which we all knew to be the cardinal sin of tree trimming.
When it was finally done, everyone stood back and took a good hard look at it, but aside from the obvious bare and dark spots, there was something terribly wrong. The darn thing looked crooked. I climbed underneath and undid the screws while the kids pushed and pulled on it, but no matter what we did it still listed to one side, like a ship taking on water. There was nothing to do about it but enjoy it as it was.
For a while, all was well as we began our adjustment to living with a tree from the Jurassic Period. We took turns using the one chair in the living room you could get to without crawling under the branches. We watered it on the hour every hour for what seemed like eighteen hours a day, because it needed to remain hydrated.
Kelly did not want this tree to dry out and spontaneously combust and blow the doors off the house. I think it actually put down tap roots and grew a few inches when it lived with us. And then, a week before Christmas, all heck broke loose.
Moses prophesied ten plagues that would descend upon Egypt. We experienced three of them, four if you include spiders. There was so much entomological activity taking place within our tree that we were afraid the EPA would find out and declare it a wetland and never let us remove it. The cobwebs hung from the chimney with care and spiders skittered around the ceiling like something out of a Stephen King novel.
The gnats were so thick that a black plume arose from the tree if you brushed against it. I got so used to swallowing the occasional gnat that I gained an appreciation for their taste. The locusts didn’t swarm, but their smaller cousin, the cricket, made its presence known every hour of every day. It got so bad that we almost killed an unblemished lamb and smeared its blood on our doorpost just to protect our firstborn.
On the second day of treemas, my true love gave to me: a phone call telling me that the tree had fallen over. I was at work. She said water was everywhere and she hoped the presents weren’t ruined. There was something telltale in her voice when she said, “I just wanted to let you know.”
I raced home and was able to get the tree upright and lashed to one of the ceiling beams. That tree was going nowhere. We filled the stand with water, but it was so dry that the tree drank faster than we could keep up. I must have put two gallons in it before I realized the stand had cracked when the tree fell over and all the water had spilled over the presents again.
I may have said a bad word.
I won’t go into the gory details but I bought a new stand, unlashed the tree, and with a pair of 2x4s and the help of my son, we lifted the tree high enough to allow his sister to crawl under and arm-wrestle a new, industrial-sized stand to the bottom of it. By this point, I hated this tree more than Kelly did. I was sure it was possessed.
Christmas finally arrived. We all crowded around against the walls and the girls passed out the presents. As usual, there were way too many and the kids each piled them up like fortresses. We always open our presents one at a time to make the day last longer and as we went from child to child, opening gifts, one thing became apparent: the wrapping paper was sticking to everything.
It was like static electricity on a balloon, only it wasn’t static—it was pitch. Everything underneath the radius of the branches was covered in it. Our enthusiastic watering had caused the thing to bleed like a stuck pig. Little anthills of pitch, built drip by drip, rose from the floor like mini-stalagmites.
I was done. Christmas was dead to me, and while the kids opened their presents in the dining room, I took what ornaments I could find off the tree, chain-sawed the thing into smaller pieces, and dragged them to the backyard.
Pitch burns really well.
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