My brother felled a tree and was dead, the experts said, before the earth stopped quaking.
The tree was a giant fir. Abies grandis. Three-hundred and forty-two years old. My brother was an orphaned Yemeni. Gnatus adoptaticius. Twenty-six years old. By the time he was ten, he’d been living with us for three months, and Mother had been so used to telling him no that it became his name.
“I found a dead raccoon in the garbage. Can I keep it if I can bring it back to life?”
“Can you drive me to the market? I need to get a heart for the raccoon.”
“I’m quitting school.”
“That wasn’t a question. I’m leaving school.”
“No! No! No! Is that all you can say? Just call me No, why don’t you?”
“Now there’s a thought,” Father said at the suggestion. “Maybe then he’d know the answer to his questions before he asks them. It could work. Double the meaning, double the emphasis. Let’s call him ‘No’.”
“No! No! No!” I said.
“Yasra, stop it,” Mother said to me, then turned to Father. “Must you be so cruel?”
“What?” he asked. “His name’s Noor. No’s the perfect nickname. We wouldn’t have to waste our breath saying no and Noor all the time. No, Noor, go to bed. No, Noor, do your homework. We’ll just have to say no once. It’s streamlined and twice as effective.”
And so, because the no’s never slackened, the name No stuck on Father’s tongue. When Noor turned eleven he began asking questions he knew would get a no, just to annoy Father.
Father humored him through monotone and averted eyes, and it was clear that both Noor and his nickname were here to stay.
Until he attacked that tree.
I imagine Noor hiking deep into Willamette with the MS 880 chainsaw and its fifty-inch bar and picking his mark; the oldest, tallest fir. A tree as wide as he was tall.
I imagine him ripping the saw on and standing for a moment, one hand on the tree, its destruction purring in the other.
Sawdust would’ve churned out of the ends of the belt, pressing into the tree like a slavering, rabid animal. The fresh smell of chewed conifer filling the air, the vibrations working his arms.
Noor might’ve noticed the tree stretching apart, becoming powerless against its own weight. Perhaps he backed off. Perhaps he turned and ran. The fir would’ve clutched at its neighbors as it fell, bringing branches and leaves down with it. A plume of topsoil and compost would’ve exploded from the impact and curled upward as the earth shook.
I imagine the noise dissipated slowly, the dust settled, and sunlight broke through the canopy and found the earth for the first time in centuries.
Perhaps it shone upon Noor who was under the tree, crushed dead. As if a god took a broom and smacked a pest.
Hunters found Noor’s body a few weeks later.
The papers reported it cold: Local Man, 26, Killed by Falling Tree.
They detailed Noor, a Middle Eastern lumberjack, sable-skinned and flannel-shirted. He worked for Associated Oregon Logger Inc., competed in the Lumberjack World Championships, and liked how out of place he was.
What they didn’t say was how he cut down trees in a protected, old-growth forest for the hell of it and how we hadn’t seen him in months because of his and Father’s falling-out.
People around Oregon volunteered and went into Willamette to chip away at the fir and retrieve his body. They’d freed him in less than a day, leaving a six-foot gap in the corpse of the tree.
He was buried in a fir coffin made from the tree that killed him. I spoke at the funeral. I had no idea what to say and hadn’t prepared anything. The moment came, and the priest introduced me.
I stepped to the head of the coffin and looked around. Mother, who’d sobbed no repeatedly into Father’s chest upon learning of Noor’s death, was dabbing her eyes. Father, who hadn’t said much of anything, was staring at the coffin. I stood mute with my head down. Then it came to me, what Noor would say.
He’d ask one simple question, and that’s it.
He’d laugh, because he’d think it was the perfect question to annoy Father for one last time. Already, I knew how he’d answer it.
Still, I’d ask him, hoping for an answer that would be different from so many Noor’d received over the years.
But, I stopped myself at the last second…
And thought of something else to say instead.
Matt Weatherbee‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Microfiction Monday Magazine, 50-Word Stories, and Drunk Monkeys.