The Little Man in the Big Tree
A cool breeze sweeps through the park, guiding frisbees thrown for energetic dogs and holding aloft kites controlled by young children who dream of flying into space or fighting giant monsters when they grow up, though they will likely end up in dead-end desk jobs, much like their parents did. For today, those woes are set aside, as everyone enjoys running in the grass and basking in the sun’s warmth, accompanied by the aforementioned wind at their backs. It is here that we find the subject of this tale, a young man who has nothing better to do with his day than lounge in the grass and soak up the sun’s blinding light. If one were to ask this man his name, he would say it was Harold; whether he is telling the truth or not is anyone’s guess, though.
The world of the park surrounds Harold, but it does not touch him, it fails to notice him completely. Dogs with balls whizz by, kids with sticks rush past at a safe distance, and couples looking for the perfect picnic spot never even look in his direction. Harold is in a world of his own, unperturbed by the hustle around him and able to laze about to his heart’s content. It is a peace so serene, and often missed, that Harold soon drifts into a deep slumber, the wind whistling lullabies into his ears.
Harold is awoken by a strange sensation on top of his stomach, like millions of tiny feet were stepping over him in rapid succession. Opening his eyes, Harold was face-to-face with a conga line of ants about half his own size, crawling over his body like a bridge. If he had any air left, Harold would have surely screamed in horror and disbelief, but all he could do was stare with his mouth open as the ants continued to cross his body. After a hellish few minutes for Harold, one ant notices his face, and responds in the most polite way an ant possibly could.
“Finally you’re awake, asshole. You’ve been holding up this line for hours! Do you know how hard it is to walk over your body?”
Despite his best efforts, Harold failed to make any noise with his throat, and opted to shake his head left-to-right instead.
“Well, it’s not really that hard, but it’s still incredibly inconsiderate of you. Now, could you get outta the way? We gotta get these tasty crumbs to King Chip; it’s prime picnic season!”
Harold crawled out from under the ant, mumbling an apology that wasn’t even audible to himself. Turning around, he watched as the ants carried their booty to the trunk of a large tree, surrounded by miles and miles of skyscraper-sized blades of grass.
How long was I out? Harold wondered, Did I sleep so long that I ended up in a messed-up future with talking ants and giant grass?
While this was one of the more reasonable guesses Harold could have had, it was also the possibility that scared him the most, so he decided to go and talk with this so-called king.
After his trek to the tree, Harold went through a large hole at the base, his eyes basking in the glory of its majesty. The inside of the tree was hollowed out, containing a society of various animals and insects going about their days. Above Harold, beetles pulled along carts full of animals of varying sizes across wooden pathways built into the tree, intersecting and crossing as the beetles delivered their passengers to their destinations. Lining the inside of the tree were makeshift homes, built with sticks and candy wrappers, fastened into the sides and going up so high that Harold couldn’t see where the top of the tree truly was.
On the ground level was a bustling marketplace, filled with stands similar in design to the homes that clung to the walls of the tree, Harold watching as busy citizens rushed from stand to stand, haggling with vendors and examining wares. Between the entrance of the tree and the path to the marketplace stood an important-looking squirrel, overseeing the havoc ensuing in the hectic shopping spree. Adorned with an aluminum bottle cap for a hat and a piece of blue cloth fashioned into a vest, which was wrapped around its fluffy gray fur.
The squirrel turned its head, noticing Harold for the first time, walking over to greet the human.
“You’re a far way from home, ain’t ya? Need any directions?”
Harold could feel the squirrel’s gaze drilling his skin, trying to pierce through and hit bone. Did the squirrel consider him a threat, or did they treat all outsiders this way? Swallowing his fear, Harold responded, “Can I see the king?”
Grabbing the brim of his makeshift hat, the squirrel let out a scoff. “King Chip? What makes you think you’re so important that you can get a meeting with him?”
Like many of Harold’s previous encounters with law enforcement, this officer of the tree was treating him like a nuisance. Had this been a human officer, Harold would have had a few choice words for him, as well as some gestures he wouldn’t mind sharing with his hands, but this was neither the time nor the place for such a reaction. Instead, he chose to be as cordial as possible with his reply, “Well, like you said, I’m not from around here, and I would like to go back home. I figured the king would be my best chance at getting help.”
The squirrel’s piercing gaze turned into a glare, before it shrugged its shoulders, throwing its hands up in the air. “Whatever, just don’t get mad at me when the King sends you right back here.” Pointing a clawed hand straight towards the other end of the market, the squirrel put their free hand on Harold’s shoulder, “Straight down that way is an elevator that will take you to the King’s office. His secretary, Miss Bea, will let him know about your predicament.”
Nodding his head, Harold thanked the squirrel for his assistance and journeyed onward. As he walked away, the squirrel shook his head in disapproval and spoke loud enough so as to be heard only by mice with exceptionally large ears, “Typical tourist.”
Upon reaching the elevator, Harold found himself enamored with the ingenuity of these creatures. The elevator was a box made of twigs with what appeared to be a bell, similar to one found on a cat collar, dangling from the top. There didn’t appear to be any levers or buttons, and Harold wondered how exactly this box would rise to the King’s office, but with no other immediate choice, he rang the bell. Immediately, there were sounds of a monster scuttling across the ground and voices yelling in anger. Before Harold could find out what was causing such a ruckus among the people, the elevator was gripped by the mandibles of a Hercules beetle, and it scaled the walls of the tree with Harold in tow.
“Top floor: King Chip’s Office,” the Hercules beetle declared, its booming voice bouncing off the walls of the smaller lobby Harold found himself in, before returning to the ground floor.
Gazing around the room, Harold took in the sight of this royal office. It was the polar opposite of the bottom of the tree; a long, almost empty hallway, ending in a desk with a set of large wooden doors behind it. At the desk sat a small bird, who was furiously screeching at whatever was staring back from the surface of the desk.
“That moron, how am I supposed to make these flyers? I don’t have hands! Does Chip expect me to use my beak like some kind of savage?” The bird, who Harold had figured is likely Miss Bea, flapped her wings violently and cocked their head towards the sky, sending a piercing screech through the hall.
As Harold approached the desk, he noticed small scraps of paper scattered across the floor, circling Miss Bea’s dark brown desk. “Excuse me, are you Miss Bea?” Harold asked.
The bird, who was almost certainly Miss Bea, looked down at the human in front of her. “Sorry, Miss Bea is out for lunch. I’m the Easter Bunny.” She let out a laugh that was bigger and longer than her joke deserved before regaining her composure. “Kidding, that was a joke. They have jokes where you’re from, right? Anyway, you’re another human, right? I’ll go ahead and let King Chip know that you’re here, and we’ll have you back where you belong.”
“Wait, what exactly is going—”
Before Harold could finish his statement, Miss Bea had already moved over to the large wooden doors behind her and began knocking with her beak. After a moment, one door pushed open, and a rat adorned with a rainbow of scraps and a pointy, paper hat stood in the doorway.
The rat heaved, taking heavy breaths as they refilled their lungs.
“Let me—” The rat heaved again, followed by a series of heavy coughs, “Let me guess, another human?” This animal had a strange quality to their voice, sounding like a cross between a clown and a chain-smoker, the gravel of their voice clashing with the bouncy inflections.
Miss Bea moved to the side, allowing the rat to see Harold for the first time. “Yep, another one.”
A heavy sigh comes from the rat, “Fine, come with me. Let’s get this sorted out.”
Harold moves through the doorway, the rat letting the door slam behind them, a deafening thud echoing through the hallway. Looking ahead, Harold finds himself in an even longer hallway, with a large figure seated on a throne at the very end.
Feeling a tap on his side, Harold looks over to see the rat walking beside him. “Hey kid, my name's Robby. Mind telling me yours?”
“Uh, it’s Harold. I think you’re the first person to actually ask my name.”
A sigh escapes Robby’s mouth, “Yeah, the people here don’t have the best manners. It’s not their fault, though, I truly hope you don’t blame them. They don’t have the best role model, unfortunately. Speaking of, there’s something I need to talk to you about before we get down there.”
Harold nods, “That’s fine, but can you tell me what’s happening first? I’m completely lost right now.”
“Right, of course. It’s simple, really. King Chip has this scepter he’s been trying to practice spells with. Every once in a while, he accidentally blasts a spell outside the tree and it hits people. So far it’s only shrunken people, at least as far as we know. We’ve had to send back dozens of you guys.” Robby stops and pulls Harold closer, whispering, “In fact, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. As long as Chip is the ruler here, things aren’t going to get better, they’ll probably get way worse. If he figures out how to do more than shrinking spells with that scepter we are all fucked, literally and figuratively. I want you to help me kill Chip. You kill him, and then Bea and I will work together to keep this place alive.”
In many ways, this situation was a dream come true for Harold. An avid fan of regicide, overthrowing a king is something he had only dreamed of up to this point. He should be ecstatic, but it all felt very wrong. Harold barely knew these people, and now it was up to him to decide whether their king lived or died? Who was he to make a call like that? Could Robby really be trusted, or was this a desperate attempt to gain power?
“Well, why can’t you do it, Robby? I don’t feel like I’m the right person to make this choice, I didn’t even know this whole society existed until today!”
Robby takes a deep breath, staring deep into Harold’s eyes, his own eyes reflecting Harold’s face. “I’ve known Chip for a very long time, and I just don’t have the guts, kid. It has to be an outside party, and I would rather get this whole thing over with.” Reaching a hand under the colorful scraps that adorned his body, Robby procures a crumb. “This is a crumb from a blueberry muffin, Chip’s favorite; I snagged it from the ants while they were marching in. I’ve doused this thing in a ridiculous amount of a poison that I concocted, just an absolutely obscene amount. If he eats this thing, he’ll basically die on the spot.”
Grasping Harold’s hand, Robby places the poisoned crumb in his palm, closing Harold’s fist around it. “I’m giving this to you. It’s your choice whether you offer it to him or not. Regardless of what choice you make, I won’t hold it against you. Do whatever you think is right, human.”
Harold stares at the ball of death he grips in his hand, “Will it be painful?”
Nodding his head, Robby replies, “Oh yes, it will be incredibly painful; it will feel like his body is tearing itself apart from the inside. On the bright side, it will be very short. Probably.”
Meeting Robby’s eyes, Harold forces out a small smile, and the two resume their journey towards the throne.
Harold’s fist feels to him like a ball of lead, dangling by his side as they approach King Chip’s throne, threatening to drag him down through the depths of the tree at any moment. King Chip sits upon a throne of twisted metal, angles darting in every direction, metals of different colors and textures all mashed together, resembling a throne fit only for those who have never heard that chairs can be comfy or practical. Sitting in his throne, the King twirls a brilliant gold scepter, decorated with diamond, emeralds, rubies, and various other gems. It is unlike the other objects Harold has seen in the tree, seeing as it was not made of repurposed trash leftover by his fellow humans.
Robby bows to King Chip, gesturing towards Harold as he does so, “Your Highness, I present Harold the Human. He comes requesting your aid in returning to his previous size.”
King Chip stands up from his throne, throwing out his arms as if to hug Harold, despite the two being far apart. “Welcome to my wonderful kingdom, Sir Harold! I am the wonderful and amazing King Chip!”
Standing before Harold was a very tall, and very overweight, chipmunk, wearing a Crown Royal bag as a makeshift cloak, and a crown of paperclips wrapped around his head.
“I see you’ve already met my court jester, Robby,” King Chip points the scepter at Robby, a look of dread taking over the rat’s face. “Hopefully he hasn’t been filling your head with any wild ideas, like committing regicide or something!” The King lets loose a hearty laugh, “All jokes, of course. We’re a fun kingdom here! I know my dear pal Robby would never do something like that, he knows how it would break my fragile heart.” Chip places his free hand over his heart as he says this, tears forming around the bottom of his eyes.
There’s no way I can kill this guy, right? Harold ponders his current predicament. Even if he is that dangerous, there has to be some other way. I can’t poison him, I just can’t. I’m sorry Robby, you’re going to have to figure this one out on your own.
“Oh, jester!” King Chip’s sudden exclamation distracts Harold from his moral dilemma, “Why don’t you dance for me, my jester? That’s your job, after all! You exist purely for my amusement, and nothing else. Isn’t it just wonderful! It’s a wonderful purpose, right, human?” Robby begins to do a small dance, moving his arms up and down while shaking his hips from side to side, visibly annoyed by the King’s request.
Nevermind, this guy has to die.
“Oh yes, Your Highness, it is so wonderful. Speaking of wonderful, why don’t you try this piece of blueberry muffin I grabbed for you?” Harold reveals the deadly crumb to King Chip, his eyes growing five times larger upon seeing the gift.
“Blueberry muffin! Why, that’s my favorite! Give it here!”
Before Harold has the chance to hand it over, the King has already leaped from his throne, pouncing onto his hand and devouring the crumb in one bite. The King plops down on the floor of his throne room, his hands rubbing his rotund belly.
“Ah, now that hit the spot. Thank you so much, human. Now, about getting you back to your proper size.” Suddenly, Chip’s face turns a bright green as he topples over, clutching his stomach on the way down. The sound of his body hitting the floor fills the room, and the King is silent. There was no scream, no sound of anguish, just death.
Robby walks over to his former ruler, “I’m sorry you had to witness that, Harold. I thank you for taking care of the difficult part for me, though.” He begins to fish around under his scraps again, this time pulling out a small glass vial. “Here, have this, and don’t drink it until you’re safely outside of the tree. It’s a potion that will reverse the effects of the shrinking spell. I wish we could have met under better circumstances, but for now, I think it’s best you leave. Miss Bea and I have a lot of work to do, starting right now.”
With no other choice, Harold turns back, and heads towards the exit of the tree.
Miss Bea gives Harold a knowing look, moving past him to meet Robby in the throne room. The elevator jostles Harold on the way down, but it does nothing to take his mind off of what he’s just experienced.
“Bottom Floor: Marketplace,” the Hercules beetle announces, but the words fail to reach Harold’s ears.
He continues marching, passing by families shopping in the market, children playing in the street, the sounds of scurrying beetles creating their own soundtrack overhead. Harold avoids the denizens of the tree, and the people fail to notice him.
As he nears the exit, the squirrel notices Harold and stops him. “What’s wrong with you? Look like you saw someone die!” A full belly laugh erupts from the squirrel, finding his comment to be a real knee-slapper. “Ah, cheer up. You’re probably upset ’cause you couldn’t get an audience with the King. Well, join the club, pal! I’ve been trying to give him a piece of my mind for months now!”
Harold gives the squirrel a nod of acknowledgment, an attempt to appease him, but the truth is that Harold didn’t hear a single word that escaped the squirrel’s mouth. Instead, his comments simply added to the noise in the back of Harold’s mind.
Eventually, Harold reaches a clearing of grass far away from the tree, and decides now is as good a time as any to down the potion. Popping the lid off, he drinks it in one gulp. At first, Harold feels nothing, then there is a pain in his chest, a pain so unbearable that all he can do is close his eyes and try to endure it.
The pain subsides, and Harold opens his eyes. He’s back in the park again, towering over the grass which had previously towered over him. It is dark now, the moon shines through the trees, casting a white spotlight upon Harold, the lampposts of the park illuminating the walkways that surround its grassy fields. Kids with kites have gone home with their families, and the dogs that were chasing frisbees and balls have since gone to sleep. The cool breeze from the day has turned into the chilly air of night, freezing Harold’s skin as he stands, staring back towards the tree he had just left. With nowhere else to go, Harold turns his back to the tree and begins his walk home, the cold night air guiding him along.
Ryker J. Sanders is an English major with a Creative Writing minor, who is currently finishing their final year at SIUE. After graduating, they plan on finding a nice cave, or perhaps a deep, damp hole—just any place far removed from any society known to humans.