He wiped the sweat off his forehead with a grimace, spitting onto the wet grass. His grip tightened around his axe, and he took a step back.
This tree would not destroy his entire farm while he was here to stop it. He swung with gritted teeth but jumped back at what peeked out of the tree trunk.
There were two things that Lucas Brown truly loved in this world. First was his family, made up of his wife Debra and their kids Brian, Shelly, and Kenny.
The second was his farm, where Lucas had poured his years, sweat, and money. For the Brown family, the farm was more than just a ranchette. It was the source of their livelihood. So when Lucas noticed his land was slowly dying, he was beside himself.
The Brown family farmed with birch, pine, and spruce trees which they sold to their local market. Lucas had recently started growing apple and maple trees on the side, and although he was new to it, he enjoyed it.
They had a lovely farm. The soil was dark and rich and the trees were green and healthy. But the most beautiful part of the farm was a massive oak right in the center. But this oak would soon bring trouble.
Lucas’s typical day on the farm always began with a drive down to inspect his trees. He would assess everything, from the soil’s acidity to the look and health of the trees themselves.
He got up early that morning with his last born Kenny, and they began their routine check-up. But nothing about that morning would be typical.
The first thing that ticked Lucas off was a burning stench that lingered in the air that morning. He was used to the fresh smell of leaves, tree barks, and wet soil. Today there was a faint foulness that’d mixed with the scent.
“I think we should continue on foot,” Lucas told Kenny. They never explored the farm on foot, given how expansive it was, but there was something wrong today. They needed to find out what.
The foul stench became heavier as Lucas and Kenny neared the center of the farm. The trees around here were also a shade lighter than their typical dark green colors.
“Something’s not right, dad,” Kenny, an agriculture major at the university, observed. “Look at those leaves,” he pointed, and Lucas’ sight jumped up. What he saw made him step back.
Lucas couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Perched on the countless leaves above them was an army of grey caterpillars. Lucas cursed inwardly, his eyes trailing to the trees around. “They’re everywhere,” he said.
“They’re also spreading out,” Kenny called, looking at the center of the farm. “I think I know where they’re coming from.”
Lucas called their local botanist to attend to the caterpillar attack. But he couldn’t pinpoint the source of the foul smell. “Dad,” Kenny called, grounding Lucas in the present.
“There,” Kenny said, and Lucas hurried over. At the center of the farm stood the mighty white oak, but Lucas couldn’t describe what was coming out of it.
The tree was oozing grey liquid out of the many cracks in its bark. Its leaves were eaten by the pests and replaced by webby silks. “Grab my axe,” Lucas choked, holding back the overwhelming need to hurl.
Kenny ran to their truck and soon returned with the axe, handing it over. He seemed to notice the dilemma in his dad concerning bringing down the prized tree. What he said made Lucas well with tears.
Kenny shared his dad’s sadness when he realized that they wouldn’t be able to save the tree. “I think she’s already gone, dad.” He told Lucas. They didn’t know it, but the tree had been getting worse and worse over the span of a year.
Lucas’s stomach dropped, he was heartbroken. The tree had been in the family for decades. Lucas grew up with it in their yard. He sighed deeply as he wrapped his cold fingers around the axe. He wondered if he had the guts to swing it.
“It’s alright, Dad,” his son comforted him. “The caterpillars have been nesting here. If we don’t cut her down now, we might lose the farm.” Lucas motioned him back and let the axe fly.
Thick grey liquid oozed out of the cut. The stench was unbearable. Kenny handed him a handkerchief which he tied around his face. He swung a couple of times, making significant progress. And then he saw it.
The tree creaked as the axe’s blade wedged deep into its trunk. Lucas pulled it out and swung once more. More smelly liquid poured out, the horrid stench now at its worst.
Lucas jumped back, and Kenny came closer to investigate. “What is that?” he asked, amazed at the dirty white blob that was wedged amid the ooze. As it bobbed along with the thick liquid, Lucas pocked it with his axe, an old memory surfacing in his mind.
Lucas and his brother, Larry, had spent years playing on these lands as kids, long before Lucas had turned it into a farm. Among their favorite sports, the boys loved practicing their golf swing by driving balls at this very tree.
They had once lost a golf ball in this part of the land. Lucas never saw it again. His eyes ran wet again, but it wasn’t from the stench this time.
Lucas and his brother, Larry, spent many summers here. Their favorite game had become a sibling rivalry. On one occasion, the score was tied at 19 hits each. The next hit was going to be the decider.
The match between them had become such a classic. It seemed almost anticlimactic to use one of their ordinary balls. That was when Larry had remembered the “special ball.”
Lucas called his brother Larry. He told him about their find, and they had a good laugh about their time as kids.
Even though the white oak tree was no more, Lucas was happy that it had given him a slice of his childhood back. Some things, he felt like, should never be lost to time.
It had been an ill-fated choice to use the ball. Lucas was confused when he won the game, only to find no trace of the ball around it thereafter. The ball had been part of their grandfather’s collection.
They had argued over whose fault it was, Lucas for his last hit that lost the ball, or his Larry’s for convincing him to use that ball for the last shot. Either way, both boys were left gutted that day.
As Lucas peered at the wall of goo still oozing down the hollow cavity in the trunk, it was unmistakable. Through the murky grey color of the liquid, he could still make out the faint lines of the autograph on the ball.
It seemed that not only had the liquid kept the ball hidden all these years; it had also somehow kept it well-preserved too.
With Kenny’s help, the pair used gloves to carefully extract the ball from its sappy tomb. Gently spraying off as much of the gooey liquid as he could, Lucas dried off the rest. To his amazement, the ball was still in pretty good shape.
While it now had minor staining, the autograph had clearly been done with a permanent marker. Despite being a little faded, the valuable signature was still precisely as Lucas remembered it.
Lucas had long since given up hope of being reunited with the special ball. He found a solitary tear streaking down his left eye as he wished his dad and grandfather could have seen it one last time.
The liquid’s odor became more pungent now as it snapped him out of his daydream. The hole gouged into the trunk seemed to disagree with being exposed to the elements. There was still work to do.
The botanist, Lara Peltzer, eventually arrived. She recommended the Browns spray the farm as soon as possible to minimize the harmful effects of the caterpillar infestation.
Unfortunately, to avoid any contamination of neighboring farms, she also urged quarantining of the farm. As for the odd liquid, Lara explained that the tree had hollowed out over the years, and water had likely collected inside it. But this wasn’t the weird part.
Over the years, the harsh shifts in conditions had turned the inside of the tree into a bacterial hotbed. With millions of microorganisms congregating inside the tree, they had begun to mutate its structure from the inside out.
Between the water gathering on the inside and the chemical gasses being produced by the bacteria, it was likely that a unique kind of tree bacteria known as slime flux.
Lara spent hours painstakingly analyzing the strange substance. After collecting vials of it for further lab testing, she finally packed up her equipment.
She promised to do what she could to ensure that Brown’s farming activities weren’t too badly affected by the quarantine. Lucas was still a little uneasy about one thing. As he geared up to ask Lara, he was almost afraid of her answer.
Lucas Brown had always been proud of his heritage. After years of research, he discovered that the land on which the family farm was built had been in the Brown family for six generations.
The land was among the oldest plots in the state. Lucas had seen pictures of his ancestors that spanned across the last four generations. Amid all the changes the photos highlighted down the years, one thing always remained constant.
The mighty oak tree had been a stalwart of the property. It had outlived every previous generation and still stood tall, like a sentinel watching over the land.
The photos provided a glimpse into the role it played for each generation that lived here; a swing, a picnic spot, a family portrait site, and in Lucas and Larry’s case, a target for golf practice. Now, it seemed its time was finally up.
Lucas recognized that since the tree appeared to be the source of the caterpillar infestation, it would probably need to be cut down. They had already damaged its trunk so badly.
It was a sad sight to see the mighty tree looking so wounded. Even the roots seemed weathered these days. Lucas feared the worst when he asked Lara about the tree, but her answer surprised him.
Lara thought long and hard about the tree and analyzed the ground around it several more times. After what felt like an eternity, she turned to Lucas and Kenny.
“If you follow my guidelines to the letter afterward, we can still save it,” she assured them. Lucas was overwhelmed with joy, and Kenny was just as ecstatic at the news. It would take some work, but it was doable.
There wasn’t anything else Lucas could do for now. After all the drama of the day, he found himself beaming from ear to ear with the way it had ended.
He could finally turn his attention back to the special ball. With Kenny’s help and Lara’s advice on which chemicals to use, the ball was carefully cleaned. Kenny was thrilled to hear the story of its history and knew there was just one thing left to do.
Lucas called his brother Larry. He told him about their find, and they had a good laugh about their time as kids. Lucas was so grateful that the tree had given him a slice of his childhood back.
Since the ball had been left to both he and Larry, Lucas was afraid that a new argument might arise over who should keep it. As he asked Larry’s opinion on this, he dreaded the answer.
Far from a new tussle over the ball, Lucas was pleasantly surprised when Larry graciously stepped aside. As Larry had never been married or had children, he thought it would be fitting that Lucas keep the ball.
In Larry’s words, “one day, you can pass it down to your sons too.” It was settled, the ball would stay, but Larry had still had one condition.
Larry committed to letting go of his ownership of the ball if Lucas promised one thing, it would never be used to practice golf shots again. Lucas had never been prouder of his family and heritage.
As he gazed out the window of the ranch, the vast property seemed even more beautiful today, the oak tree swaying gently in the breeze. Lucas hoped it would live on to bring the next generation of Brown’s the same joy.