The True Story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree

Fiction by Ben Loory
Have Legs, Will Travel, by Brad Holland. Copyright the artist.

George Washington chopped down his father's cherry tree. Why, even he could not say. He was out there in the yard, the axe was in his hand, he was chopping, and the tree was falling down.

Oh God! said George, when the tree was on the ground. Why? What have I done? My dad is going to kill me! 

He thought for a while.

Well, he said, I'll have to blame it on someone.

So George spent the rest of the day making up a story, then repeating it to make it sound convincing.

There was a man on a horse! he said. He came leaping over the fence! He chopped the tree down, and then he rode away!

And George Washington concentrated really, really hard as he told himself this story again and again.

Then he heard the front door banging open and shut.

Who chopped the cherry tree down? his father yelled.

And suddenly, standing there face to face with his father, George knew that he couldn't pull it off. There was no way he could possibly make that lie sound convincing. 

So instead, he stepped forward and cleared his throat.

Father, he said. I cannot tell a lie. It was I who chopped down your cherry tree.

You? roared his father. And what do you want, a medal? For not lying? That was my favorite tree!

I know, said George Washington, glancing out the window, trying to think of something to say next. 

It's just, he said suddenly, I was thinking that maybe… maybe I might make something from it?

Make something? said his father. Make something like what?

Oh, I don't know, George Washington said. He reached up and scratched his head a little bit. Some kind of artistical project, I guess?

Artistical Project? George's father roared.

Like a desk, George Washington said. Or, you know, a boat—or maybe a table.

Or possibly even a chair, he said.

You want to make a chair out of my cherry tree? said his father.

He looked like he was about to strangle George.

Or something, said George. Something made out of wood.

Oh yes naturally made of wood, his father said.

And after a while, he raised up one finger.

Well whatever you make, he said, it better be good. Because if I find out you chopped down my favorite tree for nothing, I swear that I will tear you limb from limb.

George Washington stood there. He’d started to shake.

Yes sir, you have my word, he said.

Good, said his father, and he turned and left the room.

I will make something truly great, George said.

So all the next day, George stood out in the yard, just staring, staring down at the chopped-down tree.

What can I make out of this thing? he kept wondering.

And then—all of a sudden—it came to him.

It came to him in a vision: not just some piece of furniture, or a boat—some kind of conveyance. What he saw was a work of art—like a great painting of the cherry tree, standing there, tall and resplendent.

But it wouldn't be a painting—it would be made out of wood. It would be made out of the cherry tree itself. All cut apart and hand-carved, sanded and stained, then glued together into an image of its former self.

A transcendent image! George Washington said. 

But how exactly should he show the tree? Should he show it full of new leaves? Or bursting into bloom? Or bare in winter, with snow weighing it down?

He pictured the tree in sunlight, in the light of the moon. He pictured it enshrouded in fog.

And how should the branches themselves be arranged? Should they all be straining religiously up?

Or would they all being reaching out—angling toward the viewer?

And suddenly George knew that that was right.

He could picture it so well—the branches of that tree reaching out, as if to hold him tight.

And George Washington smiled, because now he had a plan. He went upstairs and put on his pajamas.

But that night when he slept, George had a terrible dream—he dreamt that the tree was strangling him.

He dreamt that the tree was reaching out those long branches and wrapping them tightly around his throat. He dreamt that the cherry tree was choking him to death.

And he still felt like he was choking when he woke up.

George went down to breakfast and he could hardly breathe. 

Well, what's wrong with you? his father said.

Nothing, said George.

His father frowned at him.

You look like you're dying, he said.

No sir, said George. I'm perfectly fine. 

I'm perfectly fine! he said.

But he could still feel those rough branches tightening around his throat.

And then he had a terrible thought.

And his thought was, that when he made his image of the tree, that would be the image that he'd make: the image of himself being strangled by the tree.

But that's crazy, George said. Why would I do that?

What? said his father. Why would you do what?

What? George said, looking up. 

Oh, he said. Nothing. I didn't say a thing.

Oh no? his father said. I thought you did.

Nope, said George Washington.

He stood up from his chair.

Excuse me, I'm not feeling well, he said.

And he ran up to his room and closed and locked the door.

Then he stood there and stared at the floor.

I just won't make that image, George said to himself. That image of the tree strangling me. 

I'll make a different image—a normal image, George said. Just a normal image of a normal cherry tree. Just a normal cherry tree, just a normal, harmless tree. Just a normal image of a normal, harmless tree. 

Just standing there, he thought. 

Not strangling me, he thought.

This is easy; You can do it, he thought. 

But at the same time, George knew that he couldn't—he knew. He could never see the tree now any other way. He could only see it now with those branches strangling him!

And that would be the image that he'd make.

But that's crazy, George whispered. How can I do that? Everyone will think that I'm insane!

He looked around the room, ran his fingers through his hair.

I am not insane, George thought.

No no, said George. 

Of course not, he said.

Jesus, get a hold of yourself, he said.

I just hafta get out of making this stupid thing, he thought. If I just don't make it, everything'll be all right!

But how could he explain not making it to his dad? His dad, of course, would never understand. His dad would tear him apart, limb from limb—he'd said he would!

So George began to try to think again.

Ah ha! said George, after a little while.

Then he laughed.

It's perfect! he said.

And he rubbed his hands together and looked at the clock.

Then he paced about the room until midnight.

And in the midnight hour, George climbed out his bedroom window, and went and took the mule team from the barn, and he hitched them to the cut-down tree and dragged it to the river. 

And then, with all his might, he pushed it in.

Plop, went the tree, as it fell into the water.

And the current took it and carried it on.

And eventually, George couldn't even see it anymore.

All right then, George said. Well, that's forgotten.

And all the next day, George simply lazed about. He read a pamphlet about surveying equipment. He lay in his hammock, ate a slice of apple pie. 

But later on, his father came home.

Well, said his father. I see the tree is gone. 

George whitened—he'd forgotten about his dad.

So what'd you end up doing with it, then? his father said. Did you make a table like you said? Or a chair or what?

Uh, said George, taking a moment to clear his throat. No, I… didn't make a chair.

A boat, then? said his dad. Or a podium? Or what?

Let's see what you made from it! he said.

Well, Dad, said George.

His mind was completely blank.

Actually, it was the craziest thing, he said.

What's that? said his father.

And then the idea came.

Actually, someone stole it, George said. 

Stole it? said his father.

Stole it! George said. I was standing there at the kitchen window, and this man on a black horse came leaping over the fence, and he picked the tree up and then he rode away.

George Washington's father stared at him a while.

A man on a horse, he finally said.

Yes sir, said George. On a black horse.

He nodded.

And he just carried the tree away, his father said.

Yep, said George Washington.

On horseback, his father said.

Yes, said George Washington, and nodded again.

And you expect me to believe that? George's father asked.

Just saying what I saw, George Washington said.

And it was at that very moment that George's nightmare became real—only it wasn't the branches of the tree that he now saw, but the hands of his father which came reaching out for him, his father's fingers which were tightening about his throat.

No, Dad! George choked out. No, Dad, please, no!

You lying piece of shit, his father said.

Stop, Dad, George tried to say, but he found he couldn't speak.

But then George saw something in his head.

And what George suddenly saw then was that he was taller than his father—and that he was larger and stronger than him, too.

When did this happen? George said to himself—because in his mind, his father was always huge.

Get off me, George said, and pushed his father back.

Then he stepped forward and punched him in the chin.

His father flailed about and then kicked George in the stomach.

Then the fight truly began.

The two men punched and thumped each other, then fell onto the floor and rolled about, wrestling for a while. Then they rolled on out the front door and onto the porch, then down the steps and into the yard.

And out there in the yard, the two fought tooth and nail. In fact, George actually lost some teeth. But that just made him madder, and he lunged toward his dad, got him down on the ground and started beating him.

George was beating his father as hard as he could. He was punching him about the face and neck. He was blackening his eyes and pounding on his ears.

Then he saw a rock, and knew that he could kill him.

Yes, yes! George Washington thought. Kill him, kill him—good!

He reached out and lifted up the rock. It felt good in his hand. Good? It felt amazing. He lifted it way up above his head.

Now, George Washington had hated his father his whole life. Always correcting him for this and for that. Always yelling at him and telling him that everything he did was wrong. 

Well, who's wrong now, Dad? George thought.

And he was just about to smash the rock into his father's face, when all of a sudden, he stopped. There was something strange happening—there was something in the air.

Something floating—and it's pink? George thought.

And when George Washington looked, what he saw were flowers—hundreds of flowers—pink blossoms. They were coming down through the air, landing on the ground.

And then George raised his eyes up.

And what George saw then was truly a miracle: Overhead loomed the cherry tree. It was back in its place now, whole and tall and strong. And it was in bloom, and its blossoms were falling down.

And George Washington looked at them—he stared at those flowers.

Then he looked down at his dad.

Are you seeing this? he said—though without any words.

And after a while, his father nodded.

And right then, George Washington let the rock go. It fell harmlessly to the ground. He looked down at his father, lying bloodied there before him.

And he reached out one hand and helped him up.

And for a moment, the two men just stood there in the yard, as those pink petals rained down all around. 

I'm sorry, said George Washington. 

I know, his father said.

It's probably time for me to leave home, George said.

It happens, said his father. Wait here, I'll be right back.

He hobbled away into the house.

And when he came back, he handed George some banknotes.

This, he said, will get you started out.

But, said George Washington.

Shh, his father said.

And he took George and led him to the stables.

Take the black horse, he said, she's the best we have.

And he watched as George climbed into the saddle.

But Dad, said George Washington. Are you absolutely sure?

Son, open your eyes, his father said. 

And George Washington turned then and looked at the cherry tree.

And after a while, he nodded.

All right, said George Washington, and he shook his father’s hand. And then he slowly lifted up the reins.

And then he rode away—down the path, into his life.

And he never, ever told a lie again.

Ben Loory

Ben Loory is the author of the collections Tales of Falling and Flying and Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day, both from Penguin Books. His fables and tales have appeared in The New Yorker, Fairy Tale Review, Electric Literature, and A Public Space, and been heard on This American Life and Selected Shorts. He lives and teaches short story writing in Los Angeles.

Brad Holland

Brad Holland is a self taught artist and writer whose work has appeared in Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Playboy, Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Rolling Stone, New York Times and many other national and international publications. In 2005 he was inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame. Brad Holland lives in New York City and continues to work on assignments and commissions from clients around the world.