Let the Punishment Fit the Crime
By Dr. Bob Rich
The worst day in Tim O’Liam’s life started well. It was a Monday, hot and windless, but cool enough in the shade of the tall timber. As usual, he was well ahead of the others, he had fifteen sticks on the ground by lunchtime. Tim switched off his chainsaw, took off his hardhat with its attached visor and earmuffs, and tossed it into the front seat of his white Jeep. He put the saw and other gear into the back and hopped in. He drove the few hundred yards to the creek where Jimmy had the hot food ready and bubbling. Three of the other fallers were already there, as well as the riffraff. And Sam the boss of course. Then that bloody skite Laurie Smith drove up in his bright red Range Rover.
“How many you cut?” he asked Tim.
Tim told him, and Laurie went a puce color, then managed a smile. “Well I got twelve,” he said.
“Not bad, for a beginner,” Tim said complacently. It wasn’t, either, the next highest score was eight. And last Saturday, Tim had beaten Laurie again in the open chainsaw comp at the Show, $300 and a bloody beaut plaque to hang on the wall.
They were by a creek, muddy brown of course with all the work being done. A few treeferns stood about, like bloody leftover featherdusters stuck into the ground at a dinosaur kids’ party. What had been standing forest lay in untidy heaps on the ground. The big yellow machines — like dinosaurs themselves — were parked among the giant pick up sticks, wherever lunchtime had caught the riffraff driving them. The nearest branch ripper was halfway along a tree, its mouth frozen around foliage, its ass buried in green and yellow mulch. That’d burn well in a few weeks’ time, then this area could be reseeded for a plantation, so much easier to work in than bloody rainforest like this.
Tim settled down with a big bowl of stew and half a loaf of bread. Sam sat at the same folding table with his lunch, took a bite of bread and asked with a full mouth, “Is the timber any good?”
“OK. Thinner than I’m used to though.”
“Aw well, a two-foot stem’s good enough… hey, who the hell is that?”
Tim followed the boss’s gaze. An old geezer picked his way among the stems and branches on the ground. He was about half Tim’s size, completely bald, but with long snow-white whiskers. He wore something green that covered him all over, except for the head. Somehow, as he approached, he seemed to be quite unimpeded by obstructions that would have stopped a bigger man. Sam heaved himself to his feet and walked forward. “Hey, you!” he shouted at the old man who was now about twenty-five yards from them. “This is a restricted area. You must keep out, for your own safety.”
The old fellow stopped and said in a quiet voice that nevertheless carried easily to them, “Yes. Keep out. This is a sacred area. Keep out for your own safety.”
Gawd, a bloody protestor. Just what we need, Tim thought, but let Sam handle it. That was what the boss was being paid for.
Sam continued a menacing advance towards the intruder. “Listen, mate. We have a proper permit, this is an approved logging area. If you want to challenge it in the courts, or in Parliament, do so. But in the meantime, piss off.”
The old man smiled at him. “I am challenging you in a higher court.”
Sam turned, and his eyes sought out his two burliest employees: Tim, and John Harn, one of the D9 drivers. “March him off,” he ordered.
This’d be a pleasure. Tim smoothly stood and hurried forward, with big, swarthy John by his side. They walked past Sam, who had stopped. The little old fellow just stood there, in front of a pile of two-foot diameter sticks, seeming quite unafraid. Tim now saw that his eyes were as leaf-green as the funny coverall on his scrawny little body. Those eyes were looking at him calmly, almost sadly.
They were nearly up to him. He said, “You will all get a fitting punishment,” then he was no longer there. He just vanished.
Tim and John stopped. Tim closed his eyes for an instant, and opened them again. Was he going crazy? He glanced at John, whose dark, bristly face was blank with amazement. He slowly turned to look back towards Sam, and the others behind him.
“What the shit?” Sam asked. “What’dya do with him?”
“Nothing.” Tim and John turned and started to walk back towards their cooling lunches. “He disappeared!”
Lunch over, everyone stood to carry on. Sam called John Harn to him. “I want you to start on the next stretch of the access road,” Tim heard him say as they walked towards John’s big machine. Laurie Smith was already climbing into his tomato-colored four wheel drive, so Tim hurried to his Jeep. He had a reputation to maintain!
As he opened the door, he heard the chug-chug-chug of the first great starter-motor whirr, then a roar as the diesel caught. But a long, drawn out, high-pitched scream sounded over the machine. Tim whirled. John’s D9 was trundling forward on its caterpillar tracks, heading straight for the camp kitchen. The huge blade was up six feet, and tilted back. Sam was the one screaming. He sprawled on the edge of the blade, holding on to the top with both hands. His legs dangled over the side. The right one still had a brown-booted foot. The left foot was not there. Tim clearly saw the stream of dark blood spraying in rhythmic little bursts.
People were scattering out of the bulldozer’s path. One man tripped and fell, then crawled on hands and knees with desperate speed. The great track missed him by inches.
John’s face up in the cabin was a mask of desperation. Tim saw his shoulders move as he obviously wrestled with the controls, but without effect. The machine seemed to be frozen on its course, as if it had a mind of its own.
The kitchen lean-to fell over like a card-house as the blade pushed it, and crunched under the tracks. A great flash seared the eyes, blooming like a monstrous yellow flower from under the dozer. The bang came a perceptible gap later, and Tim found himself lying on the ground, a good ten yards from his Jeep. A terrible, high-pitched ringing sound filled his ears, but there was no other noise. His head hurt like crazy. Shakily he raised himself on an elbow and looked towards the camp.
Soundless to his deafened ears, the bulldozer made senseless circles as the engine continued to turn the left track. The right one was whipping through the air, then became a giant flying metal snake that hit a smaller bulldozer. The flying track sheared the cabin right off, then landed to drape itself over a pile of logs.
As the blade of the D9 momentarily faced toward Tim, he saw that Sam was no longer on it. John still sat in the cabin, his dark head slumped back and still.
A small figure moved forward. Tim recognized David Cohen, the blasting expert. He was a young fellow Tim had ignored until now, he didn’t bother with the riffraff much. David neatly tossed something under the churning left track of the killer dozer, then dived for the ground.
Tim saw the explosion, a much smaller one. A spurt of dust rose ahead of the track, then the ground shook. He still heard nothing but the horrid ringing inside his aching head. The dozer stopped. The drive wheels still caught the sun as they turned, but the left track had bunched up between the idlers. Several men scrambled up into the cabin.
Tim stood up with a great deal of difficulty. He hurt all over, but ignoring this, he hobbled toward the action.
Four men were carrying Sam’s limp body from across the creek, where the blast of the exploding gas bottle had thrown him. Others were lowering John’s body down from the high cab of the D9. The dozer was still rhythmically vibrating, the drive wheels stupidly turning. Tim wished for nothing more than that the terrible noise in his head would stop. He still could hear nothing else.
Suddenly, unaccountably, his wish came true. The ringing stopped like it had been switched off, his headache disappeared, and the air was full of the rumbling idle of the heavy engine, and the shouting of men. Then the dozer’s engine stopped too. A quiet voice spoke into the silence from behind Tim: “I want their bodies. Bury the two of them well in the forest.”
Tim turned, as fast as his aching bruises permitted. The little old geezer stood just behind him, in his funny dark green coveralls.
A silence followed. Obviously, everyone had heard the softly spoken words of the old fellow. Tim noticed that the old man had bare feet. His long, bushy white beard moved, then a pair of tiny eyes peeked out just for a bare instant.
He spoke again, still in that quiet voice that everyone heard, “Bury Sam and John in the forest. Then go from here, and leave me alone.”
Then he was gone. Like before, he simply vanished.
The helicopter curved down from the sky, raising a dust-storm as it landed. The circle above it became whirling blades, which gradually clattered to a standstill. A dark-suited figure clambered down. Stupid city bastard, wearing that in the bush, in the tropics! But there was nothing stupid about the craggy face, the cold blue eyes. He was a big man, as tall as Tim, and solid. He gazed around at the silent, watching crew and said loudly, “Men. There is still work to do. Get on with it.”
Well, that was fair enough. Tim walked to his Jeep and climbed in. He fired up the engine and wove among the piles of sticks to his working location. His stiffness had eased, the headache and ringing were long gone, and he only had a few tender spots where he had hit the ground after the explosion. He put on the hard hat, lowered the visor but left the hearing protectors loose for the moment, and jumped out. It was good to be away from the blasting heat of the sun, here in the shade.
He walked to the back of the vehicle, absently patting its white metal side, and opened the tailgate. As he reached in for the saw, suddenly he felt cold. The tropical heat was gone, and instead it felt as it used to in the Victorian Alps when he’d been cutting there. Mountain mist and all that.
He looked behind, then his mouth actually dropped open, shocked. The air glowed an almost solid white. He saw the mist swirl among the tall trunks, envelope the piled-up heaps of cleared undergrowth. His fingers felt cold, and he saw droplets of water shine in the dim light, on the forest litter at his feet, on the chunky marks left by the passage of the dozers, on the broken end of a vine trailing from the tree he was about to cut down. He felt the icy touch of the mist on his face. “Well, I never…” he said aloud. Mountain mist on a hot tropical afternoon? Was he going crazy? Maybe he’d had more of a bang on the head than he’d realized?
Then he heard Laurie Smith’s voice from somewhere to the right. “Tim? Tim O’Liam!”
“Yeah, I’m here!” he shouted back.
“Come and help me mate, I’m trapped!”
“Sure!” He hesitantly walked in the direction Laurie’s voice had come from, and shouted again: “Keep talking, Laurie, I can’t see past my feet in this muck!”
“Yeah, that’s what got me too.” The voice sounded a little closer now. “I stepped aside for a piss and crashed through into a hole. I think me leg’s broken.”
“Bugger of a day for accidents,” Tim answered, carefully picking his way among the barely visible rubble.
Then, instead of Laurie’s voice, he heard the quiet speech of the mysterious old bastard. “That’s far enough, Tim,” he said. “Laurie is nowhere near. That was me, imitating his voice to get you away from your Jeep. I’ll deal with him another time. But now it’s time for your punishment.”
Tim felt annoyed at the crazy old coot, wanting to wring his scrawny neck. He tried to lift his left leg, to take the next step. But the leg wouldn’t move, it was as if he’d stepped into glue. He looked down.
Where his foot should have been, he saw a gnarled, knotty bit of wood. As he watched, he saw the leg of his yellow coverall turn into yellow bark, a different yellow, a creamy, pastel color. His right foot and leg were the same. Too amazed for any emotion, even fear, he watched the space between his legs fill with a yellow-barked solidity.
Then he realized that the part that had been his feet was getting further and further away. His eyes were now a good fifteen feet above the ground. Only, he didn’t have eyes any more. He had a consciousness of the visual appearance of his surroundings, all around. Simultaneously, he could see the ground, around a full circle, but as if from a great height. At the same time, he was gazing at the foliage of half a dozen trees. And above spread the blue sky with the life-giving sun beaming from the west. A possum-thing jumped from the neighboring tree onto one of Tim’s branches.
One of my branches? One of my BRANCHES?
He examined himself. He stood maybe a hundred and eighty feet tall. He had a wide-spreading crown, every leaf aimed to catch as much sunshine as possible. He felt juices course up and down within the cambium layer surrounding his two-foot diameter stem, and deep below the ground, far and wide, his seeking roots sucked in nutrient-laden water. He enjoyed the satisfying feel of his taproot sunk deep into the subsoil, the comfortable solidity of his main lateral roots stabilizing him against the light breeze, the gentle flow of cool air over the thousands of leaves that were his mouths.
He was still Tim O’Liam, the best faller in Queensland. But also, he was this tree. And, for the first time in years, he felt at peace. He couldn’t remember when he had felt so good, so powerful, so serene. It was great, being a tree. He felt immense, strong, in balance with his surroundings, perfect for where he was, and in a perfect place.
And the old bugger thought he was punishing me! he chuckled to himself.
At that moment, he became aware of a foreign, deep, throbbing sound. He extended his awareness, and saw a patch of unnatural red. It was moving.
The 4WD stopped, and Laurie Smith jumped to the ground. “This’ll do for the next one,” he said aloud, looking at Tim. Then he got his chainsaw out of the back