The Old Man was a tree that sat like a bad tooth in the middle of nowhere. It was bigger than any tree had a right to be, alone in a place bare of other trees. Little dogwood saplings struggled at the edge of his territory, but the Old Man sat kingly in the middle of everything.
No one knew why it was called the Old Man, only that the name stuck. It was like an artifact left over from another time. A forest so tall and deep it sent man’s progenitors screaming for the open country. It only had green leaves way high up in the crown. It didn’t have proper climbing branches, just a bunch of knots from where limbs had broken off boiling over the surface. No one would want to climb this tree, anyway. No telling what lived in the hollows.
The town grew up near the tree, not the other way around. There wasn’t enough of anything to make much of a town. Not enough land to farm. No metals, no minerals, not even a salt flat. The only reason you lived in the town was because you had been born there, and the only reason you had been born there was that you were going to die there.
There was a saying in the town: “go tell it to the Old Man.” The implication being that no-one cared. No one actually told the Old Man anything. No one stuffed screwed-up pieces of paper in his knotholes to wish or ward away bad things. The Old Man didn’t care.
As these things do, something rankled enough that some of the men got a mind to pull the Old Man down. They would stay up long nights in the town’s only alehouse, drawing diagrams in the dirt so as not to waste paper. No one told them off because everyone knew that they would never do anything about it. It was only when the men lined up at the edge of town with chains and hooks that the panic started.
Everyone in the town had an unspoken belief that the Old Man was alive. Not in the dim way of animals, or even the blind way of other plants. The Old Man knew and tolerated the town only so much as they left him alone. Now this would be breaking the rules, which lay unwritten in their simple hearts.
The men were young and strong, otherwise they might have been pulled into the swamp and had their mouths filled with peat by their fearful neighbors. Instead, the townsfolk watched as they went whistling on their way.
They had laid out a careful plan, priding themselves on hours of thought. The ground was too swampy to be a proper foundation for anything. They decided to scoop out a trench next to the tree and pull from the safety of a far bank. In a show of fun, one of the younger men decided to shimmy up to the top of the tree with the help of a hook and chain. He came back quickly and altogether sombre, reporting the green at the top was not leaves but a hearty moss. This made the men feel they were intruding on something beyond them, so they set to quickly making it recognizable with work.
When their shovel-holes began to fill with water, when the sun showed red on the lip of the valley, the men knew they were done. They looped long, thick chains around the trunk and relayed them to the closest, firmest bank they could. They had a coal cart and a team of oxen besides. They hitched the chains to the cart and whipped the beasts, who strained and pulled as hard as the loam beneath their hooves would let them.
The cart pulled in half.
They hitched the chains to the yoke and whipped the animals again.
The yoke broke in half.
By braiding the chains, the men were able to make a makeshift harness for the beasts. They also pulled with their own sinewy limbs. Their curses could be heard from the town, where many an obediently fearful man would rush for the safety of his hovel. Every little superstition they had ever invented swelled in a tide of abstention. They broke straws, turned cats out-of-doors, made foul concoctions to set out in bowls so the evil would hover around it rather than enter homes.
As the last sunlight died, something finally happened. The crack could be heard as far away as the next town.
Seeing as it was dark, folk were reluctant to investigate. But the few remaining able-bodied men in town gathered lanterns and set out, shaking, into the swamp.
None of them knew what to expect in the dark. They imagined the Old Man moving, writhing like an angry polyp, a thousand devils churning out of a broken stump.
They came upon the bank and the men and the chains and the oxen, all laid out in a state of disrepair. There was no sign of the Old Man. He was not in his roost on the opposite bank, nor was his waterlogged trunk in the swamp.
The oxen were dead. The chains pulled apart by mighty stress. Some men lay floating the dark water, some sprawled out where they had fallen. All dead, all with a terrible strain on their faces.
All but one.
Like the wind sawing through a broken plank, one man was breathing his last half-in, half-out of the water. They fished him out and held the lantern close to his face as if that might revive him.
His eyes rolled in his head, his mouth babbled inconsistently. They could only extract a little from his ranting before he expired as well.
“The tree—” he gasped, “hateful—it ain’t a tree, you hear me? Whatever’s beneath the ground—that thing is the root!”