It’s imperative that you understand how little I knew at this time. I had the fact that Oliver wasn’t acting himself, I had Ever’s story about that first night on the Farm, Ever’s death, Tracy’s call from the barn, and the stuff I’d seen for myself so far. I hadn’t got the whole story yet. That wouldn’t come until later, from the mouths of those who got out.
So when Oliver stood before the willow trees, his own axe in hand, I didn’t know the depths of what he’d done to my friends. But I knew we were all in danger.
This is how it happened:
Oliver takes the first swing and the blade sinks in so easily, I’m thinking only of the trunk, the impossible ease of what he’s just done, and the fact that what I’m seeing is simply not possible, not allowed, not in any reality I know.
For the duration of that swing, I’m not thinking about the safety of my friends.
The willow trunk is wide, thick enough that, when we walked to the cluster, I imagined it would be days before we got them all down.
“Oliver,” I say. “How–”
But I stop myself. Thinking of “Ever’s” words on the bus:
Don’t try to understand it. Get in and get out.
I look to Tracy. She’s watching Oliver, she’s squinting from the sun, shaking her head the way people do when they’re earnestly impressed. As if Oliver is juggling.
“How am I doing this?” Oliver says. “Is that what you were about to ask?”
Nothing about him is like the Oliver I know.
I look past him to the barn. Connie stands between us and it.
“Yes,” I say. Karen and Rodney watch Oliver with Tracy. Baum may be out in the fields still. I can’t see for the willows.
I look to the farmhouse’s second floor. To the far right side of the house.
It that where the room was?
But I know it’s just as impossible as what I’m watching Oliver do.
“These trees support an illusion,” Oliver says. “It takes a while for that to settle in. To make sense. But let it. The crops can’t be visible for all to see. You know?”
He’s smiling my way and I’m looking to the faces of my friends. We have to leave. We have to leave now. But none of them are expressing immediacy and it’s making me think of cults. Of Kool-Aid.
I’m not necessarily afraid of Oliver; what’s keeping me from rounding everyone up is the belief that, if I were to instigate exodus, something bad would befall me. And without me… what happens to them?
“Watch this,” Oliver says.
He takes a particularly strong swing, the fabric of his work shirt rippling as the axe cuts clean through the tree. Three swings. That’s it.
I don’t have to ask what happens next because it’s obvious. And either way I can’t find the words to question what I’m seeing.
The willow tree falls away from the home’s backyard, out toward the fields, exposing, suddenly, what at first appears to be a color, a long strip of brighter land, or many colors, hard to tell, a clearly defined row spanning farther than I can see.
When Oliver speaks again, he is much closer.
“It’s one of the first things The Farmer showed me,” he says. “The willows have a false shadow. See?”
False shadow. Again, I hear the words of “Ever,” admonishment half buried in the rumble of the wheels of the bus.
Don’t try to understand it.
“Hey man,” I say, “I need to know everyone is okay. Or that they’re going to be.”
The words come out like kidney stones.
“I know,” he says. “You’re worried. But that’s exactly why we’re cutting down the trees. For them. Come on. Help?”
He swings for the next one and the axe sinks into the wood like a worm slithering into dirt. I’m still holding my axe with both hands. I’m watching the faces of my friends who are watching Oliver like he’s the most interesting thing they’ve ever seen.
Am I supposed to hurt Oliver? So he can’t hurt us?
Is that what I’m supposed to do?
I don’t know the whole story yet. I don’t know what needs to be done.
What would you do?
“You gotta try it,” Oliver says. “It really feels great.”
He swings again. The second tree is more than halfway cut. It leans. A partial band of color is exposed behind it.
I don’t want to go near the trees. I don’t want to touch a thing out here. I want to get my friends and go home.
“Oliver,” I say. “If it’s all the same to you–”
“It most certainly is not,” Oliver snaps.
But it’s not really Oliver’s voice. Not one I’ve heard him use before.
It sounds like he swallowed a witch.
He laughs, trying to play nice again.
“Man, what I’m showing you here is so much bigger than that. Be a little patient?”
He eyes me like he’s making a note.
He swings the axe again and the second tree falls and a second, equally colorful, equally confounding row is revealed.
Now though, because there’s more of it, two rows together, I can see details I wasn’t able to before. The dirt is no longer the flat chalky color of dirt. It now looks like skin. And embedded in that skin are rows of every color known and unknown to man.
Oliver steps to the next tree. He swings the axe.
As if he’s not cutting down trees but taking down an enormous tent, the willows as stakes in the earth.
And what happens when the tent is folded up and put away?
The third tree falls. Oliver is sweating. He looks to the farmhouse and then so do I, lifting my axe, imagining The Farmer coming out the back door, coming toward me.
But nobody’s there. Nobody I can see.
I look to Connie. She smiles. The barn like a backdrop behind her.
“Donna,” I say to Oliver. Because maybe her name will put a stop to this. Maybe if I come at Oliver with something that I know matters to him, more than it matters to me, and more than I matter to him, maybe then he’ll set down his axe and explain to me how I can help my friends.
But Oliver ignores the mention of her name.
Or does he?
He wipes sweat from his forehead with his forearm. Did I reach him?
Is there any him to be reached?
“You aren’t just shown something like this and then turn your back on it,” Oliver says. The fourth tree falls and I see a red path, red bricks, splitting the fields in two halves. But I can’t see where the path leads.
“Whoever you were before discovering a place like this doesn’t matter anymore,” Oliver says. “You’re changed. Right away. Congratulations,” he nods my way, “you are different now.” He looks at the fifth tree. “They won’t bite. Take a swing.”
But I can’t move from where I stand.
I start to say Tracy’s name because, whatever this is, this has to stop. But Tracy stares out at the fields, no sign of feeling the same at all.
Behind her, Karen, Rodney, and Morris do the same.
I look to the farmhouse. When did Morris come outside?
And where’s the old man?
I grip the axe tight.
“Hey,” I say to Oliver. “Where’s the other guy?”
“Do you mean The Farmer? He’s standing right next to you.”
I turn. I swing. But nothing’s there.
Oliver strikes the tree and it falls, revealing another endless column of strange colors.
I’m looking for The Farmer. I’m turning in a full circle. I’m seeing Morris smiling and Karen gazing out at the fields. I’m seeing Connie watching Oliver and the open barn behind her. I’m seeing flesh and fields and the tall crops I walked through when I came to the house from the back. I’m seeing it all, spinning, sensing that fucking man beside me, now, no now, now, swinging the axe, looking for him, is that him on top of the barn? Is he peering around the side of the barn? I see Baum out in the fields. I look to Karen. She shows no sign of distress. Baum raises his head, stands up, walks to another spot, lies on his belly again. Where’s The Farmer? Oliver swings. Another tree falls. Another column shows. I try not to understand it.
“Tracy,” I say, backing up. “Guys, get back.”
Because the entire mass of impossible land rises and lowers again. Like something breathing.
“Guys,” I say, trembling, stepping back to the deck stairs, spinning, expecting The Farmer to be on the porch. I look back to Oliver just as the last tree falls. The sound of it is so pleasing, the axe through the dreamy wood, the tree dissolving into nothingness, only the huge spread of land now, colors in neat rows but not neatly paired, mesmerizing, yes, but not hypnotic, not lulling me, repelling me, making me feel sick with worry.
“Guys…” I say.
But they’re following Oliver toward the fields. Toward the red bricks.
“Make sure to stay on the path,” Oliver says, stepping onto it. “You will find certain crops absolutely irresistible if you don’t.”
He’s waiting for me.
I look to Tracy.
“Come on,” she says. She’s the only thing that lines up with the summer I’m standing in. Her genuine smile. The light in her eyes.
What has Oliver done to my friends?
“Obviously I’m going to explain it all to you,” Oliver says. “But it’s the kind of thing that works best with visuals.”
“I’m calling the police,” I say.
Oliver looks over my shoulder and I turn, fully aware that this time there will be an old man, a head of dirt.
But nobody is there.
“It won’t help anything,” Oliver says. “Trust me. One walk through the fields. One story. Then I’ll put everything back together again.”
I don’t loosen my grip on the axe.
What does this mean?
“Come on,” Morris says. “It’s too hot to stand still here without the shade from the trees.”
They’re all on the bricks now. I can hardly look to what lies beyond them without thinking of Ever on the bus.
Don’t try to understand it.
“Walk with me,” Oliver says.
They wait for me. Uncluttered. Not a sign of worry among them.
I think. I weigh. If I stay? What then? If I run? What then? Will I ever not be haunted by the sight of my friends standing with Oliver on the first red bricks of the path?
“What did you do to them?” I ask.
“For Christ’s sake,” Karen says. “You’re being so dramatic.”
Then I’m walking, axe in hand, not letting that go for the world, glancing back once, checking for the old man, before stepping onto the red path, close to Oliver, seeing, up close, for the first time, the root of things, the source of this horror.
The crops that grow on Carpenter’s Farm.