The Fir

By Suzana Matić

Translated By Ira Martinović

Dad planted the fir when I was nine, after it was done more or less successfully pretending to be our Christmas tree. Sure, it was a tree; just a puny one. The smallest Christmas tree in the world. Our next-door neighbors had a potted tree, as well. Their daughter was a friend of mine, so I remember it very well: she was always better than me in every possible way, including that one. If I could have picked my own Christmas gift – to put under a tree, mind you – it would have been her tree. Ours was slightly disappointing, nothing like its illustrious predecessors that needed trimming on the top to fit into our living room after mounting. We didn't even need to whittle the top to put the ornament on it – we knew we'd plant it in the garden later, and Dad said whittling might damage the bark irreparably. So on top of being absurdly small, our tree wasn't even decorated properly: the shiny, spiky topper didn't fit. The emperor was naked, but I kept my mouth shut. Someone's gotta be a grownup, after all.


When we took the decorations off, Dad planted the fir by the backyard wall; into a raised garden bed with cement frame, filled with fresh soil dug up in the nearby woods. Years went by and the fir, as trees sneakily do, grew without anyone noticing. We only took notice after it grew taller than the house and started leaning on the backyard wall. It leaned on me, as well; as I witnessed the ever-growing disproportion between the magnificent fir and the space we offered to it long ago, failing to peek into its future, and which it used to the fullest, having no other choice. I'd turn my head away from the fir, from the uncomfortable knowledge it has spent its entire life suppressing its roots in the shallow soil. But then, out of the corner of my eye, I'd notice its mighty top towering over our three-story house by a third of its height, and think that maybe the fir decided to ignore the laws of nature – as above, so below – and write its own laws. Maybe it poured its heart and soul into the trunk and leaves. Negative gravitropism. What if it falls down?, sometimes I wondered.


The fir next door dried out and died after only a few years in the backyard.


Another day I saw an old man trudging up the hill to our house. He stopped by the low brick wall surrounding the first front yard on our street, leaned on it to rest, and even from afar I could see he was shaking with fatigue. The scene made me sad, something cold grabbed a hold of my heart and I thought I should go and see if the man needed any help. Then I realized the man was my dad. My eyesight isn't as good as it used to be, but as I always say, only from up close. From afar, it's perfect. The thing is, the first house on our street may be far from ours, but I'm too close to my dad to see things as they are. Up close and personal.


I simply could not recognize him.


Up until yesterday, our fir was an old tree. Even I'm tiptoeing toward the middle age now. My dad, the man who built the wall around the yard, built the frame of the raised bed and filled it with soil he had pushed up the hill in a wheelbarrow, is now a sickly old man. He's been taking care of things these past few months. I can see that, but I can't ask him about it, can't talk about it at all. I just feel the cold grip around my heart tighten.


We've all been worried the fir might topple over and damage the roof, but I'm not a doer, just a worrier and a complicator.


Dad, however, called in some help yesterday. Landscape professionals. Guys with chainsaws. The fir was cut down, chopped into pieces and gifted to a neighbor for kindling. When I parked my car in the yard yesterday, that cold grip got even tighter. I kept my mouth shut, though. I didn't want to burden Dad with my emotional issues, especially since obviously he's trying his best to take care of things and let me live carefree. I didn't complain to Mom, either: my pain is her pain, that's inevitable. Kids and their parents are like roots and treetops: if one is blue, so is the other.


Instead I went for a jog, found shade and solace in deciduous woods nearby. In the evening, I went to pick up my daughter from her dance class. When we parked in the front yard, I dropped the heartbreak on her casually. Grandpa had the fir cut down. She took a knife through the heart and I could see it written all over her face. She took one look at the empty garden bed and started wailing bitterly, painfully loud. Why, why, why... why did you do that?, she kept saying over and over again.


And I hit a different kind of wall.


I hugged her, leaning over the gear shift and the handbrake. Helped her out of the car as if she were wounded, and hugged her again in the shade of the now gone fir. We stood like that until the dark. She was still crying when we went in. I did some wrongs I wouldn't dare to right. In the end we managed to wake up my mom; she came down from her floor. Why is Nina crying?, she asked. The fir, I just said. She shot me a look. Me too, she admitted quietly. All day.


And then Dad joined us; a fragile old man in trousers much too wide for his frame, with hearing so bad now he needs everything repeated at least once. His voice shaking, barely audible, he threatened, Let's hear it; who's made my little girl cry?, and I replied as loudly as I could, as if taking a peek under a bandage on a fresh wound that'll someday inevitably be an old one I'm used to. Nina is sad about the fir. Dad teared up. I'd only seen him cry once before, and it almost killed me. It was somehow easier the second time around.


I stood there and watched their tear-stained faces. I didn't cry. Someone's gotta be a grownup.


Later, I promised Nina the branches we kept would grow into new firs. I lied. I told her we'd plant them the next day, together. She asked me how long it would take for them to grow, and I said ten years. Lied again; told a tale as tall as the fir. Ten years, she yelped. And tears trickled down her cheeks once more. She's twelve. Ten years is basically her entire life, as she remembers it.


Her trunk and leaves.


This morning I went to the backyard to scout the location to fake-plant the saved branches. My mom was already there. She said, It's all dead and dusty now, the soil around the stump. We should have had it cut down in the fall and planted something in its place. Now we'll just stare at this empty space all summer long. Her voice was really low; Dad was still asleep. The cold grip around my heart struck again, but I didn't cry.


Someone's gotta be a grownup, Mom.