In the Backyard, Underneath the Oak Tree (John Crawford)

As we sit in the backyard, the sky above us moving and turning, my daughter asks me a question. She glances up at me expectedly, the way children often look at their parents, as if we are filled with great wisdom, as if we know all the answers.

Is magic real, she asks me.

I suppose, I say, giving a noncommittal answer, not wanting to say no, but not wanting to say yes either. Sometimes the world can feel magical, I continue. It can surprise you.

And does magic come in two kinds, she asks. Is there good magic and bad magic?

I think that over. Above us, the sun dims, the day becoming something else entirely.

I spend a lot of time in our backyard. It teems with sunlight and color. Birds peck and flit about our bird feeder, the squirrels fighting over the feed that falls to the ground. All kinds of animals pass through: bunnies and raccoons and skunks. They can make gardening difficult, but I don’t mind. We’re just borrowing our little piece of nature.

After we moved to our house, and I first dug into the dirt in the backyard, I was amazed by all the trash buried there. Bottles and plastic bags, cans and clay pots. Feeling like an archeologist piecing together the past, I wondered about the people who had left their wreckage behind. Who were they? Why did they feel they had a right to litter the land?

I cleared away the trash. I planted. I watered and weeded. And now, I sit and rest, our backyard just big enough to surround and envelop me.

An old oak tree stands in our backyard, tall and formidable. I’m comforted by its presence, this wizened and weathered sentry towering over us. It has seen so much, standing witness over the street and the families who have lived in our house through the years.

My daughter, her long brown hair flowing behind her, likes to stand at the oak’s base. She’ll give the tree a hug, her arms not able to reach all the way around, and look up, the oak opening up above her, the branches framed by clouds and sky.

In a hollow at the tree’s base, my daughter builds a fairy house. For a while she had loved princesses, but princesses are simply pretty and spend their time waiting to be rescued. Fairies promise mystery and wonder and worlds beyond our own. 

For her fairy house, my daughter uses only natural materials. That’s the rule of fairy houses, she tells me. She collects twigs, leaves, rocks, pinecones, acorns, feathers, and bark, and she fashions them into a home. It blends into the environment. I don’t realize it’s there until I’m right on top of it.

When I sit in the backyard, the weather always seems so hot and unsettled. Out west, fires burn in the forests. Scientists say the trees are sick. They are weak and withering. Seeing the dying forests on TV is to look upon a world in ruin. Such a large area, mile upon mile, the earth used up, scorched, wrecked.

We wake up one day, and the morning is filled with fog. They’re coming, my daughter says. The fairies are coming.

As the mist clears, she looks up to the sky to catch a sight of them flying. When the sun catches their wings, she says, they glitter. They’re graceful like ballerinas, and as fragile as an ornament on a tree, suspended in air, dangling above the ground.

They come from far away, my daughter says. They need a home.

In the backyard, I try not to use any pesticides. I wouldn’t consider myself an environmentalist, though I try not to leave too big a footprint. But there is one troublesome spot, back by the fence, away from the fairy house, where weeds keep popping up. No matter how many I pull, no matter how many natural remedies I try, they don’t stop. Eventually, I give in and spray weed killer. I don’t want any of that in the ground, but I tell myself it’s only a little. I warn my daughter not to go near that spot by the fence.

The weeds stop. But I can never get any flowers to grow there either. 

My daughter asks my help in collecting bark and twigs. She wants to build another fairy house. More fairies need a home, she says.

I make walls full of twigs, stacking them. Bark is for the roof and dry grass makes a fine floor. I lay a footpath using stones. My daughter directs me like an architect. Her eyes, clear and blue, squint and focus.

After the work is done, we go inside to hide from the heat. This day, like many nowadays, hangs heavy with humidity, and the shade from the oak can only offer so much relief. There’s nothing to do but seek shelter in the air conditioning.

One day, an oppressive afternoon breaks wide open. Wind. Rain. Lightning. The sky turns a frightening black. Thunder rolls on and on, like something big is slowly unraveling and collapsing. The storm knocks down several trees in the neighborhood. They fall to the ground, giants slain by forces bigger than all of us. They are only the first. Soon more trees are dying. Crews chop them down. Our street fills with the sound of chainsaws. The stumps are left behind. 

All the while, the fairies keep coming, or so my daughter tells me. They have nowhere to go, she says. She builds more houses and soon a little village is huddled under the protection of our oak. The village bustles with comings and goings. The fairies drink dew that drips from leaves, and they lay on rocks, letting the sun’s rays warm them.

I sit in the backyard with my daughter, who dreams away the hours by looking at things I cannot see. I watch the birds come and go, the cardinals and chickadees, the blue jays and sparrows and robins, but there doesn’t seem to be as many of them. The day is dull and the ground is dry. The plants droop, as if weary from the effort of reaching for the sun.

One day, the fairies want to have a word with me. My daughter acts as translator. She stands by the village and waits for the fairies’ message.

The fairies thank you for all your hospitality, she says, relaying their message to me. 

I nod.

But they don’t like the poison you put by the fence, she continues. They say it’s not safe.

I suddenly feel defensive. I realize this is all an invention of a kid’s imagination, but still, I feel accused. I meant no harm, I say. It’s only a little bit. It shouldn’t make much of a difference.

My daughter frowns. They say that’s the attitude that’s gotten us into this mess in the first place.

People panic about the trees dying, but most go about their daily lives as they always had. They don’t change. For the most part, I don’t either.

I do stop watching TV. I don’t want to see the news. My daughter looks out the window, to the street and the stumps. I try to find the words to explain what is happening, but what I have to say feels inadequate. 

Then again, she understands much of this already, having grown up in our house, in this uncertain world. She knows.

The earth is changing, I say.

It’s like bad magic, she says.

You know there’s no such thing as magic, right? I say. It’s all pretend.

My daughter doesn’t say anything, but she looks at me as if I don’t know what I’m talking about.

Eventually, our oak begins to shudder. The end comes on suddenly. One moment we notice that something is wrong and the next it’s drained of life, the leaves turning brown and brittle. The branches sway in the breeze, but the sound is sad and empty, the rustling like a sigh.

Over the next few days, I look up at the tree. I think of history, of what it means to lose this connection to where we’ve been. I had assumed the oak would outlast me. I know it wasn’t immortal, but it had survived through so many other troubling times. I should have realized this time was different.  

Soon, I know, I will need to hire someone with a chainsaw to take the tree down, or else it will crumble on its own. I look up again. I’m at a loss. My daughter sits among the fairy houses talking and listening to creatures who remain invisible to me. Her mood isn’t sad. Rather, she seems like she’s convening a meeting, like she’s in the middle of planning something important.

Not able to stay outside anymore, I grab my daughter and go indoors. I crank up the air conditioning.

Not long after, the fairies go away. My daughter looks over the village. It’s quiet and empty. The magic is gone, burned up in the heat. Where did they go? I say.

My daughter doesn’t answer. She looks off to the distance, to a far-off place I will never understand. She knows where the fairies have gone, and perhaps she longs to go there, too.


John Crawford is a writer and editor in the Boston area. His work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, The Smart Set, Points in Case, and other publications. He can be found on Twitter, @crawfordwriter, where he writes weird, depressing, semi-amusing missives about climate change. 


image: Ashley Beresch. Check out more of her work on Instagram @ashleyberesch