When at long last, the boy arrived home, breathless and full of fear, he heard the unmistakable sound of people screaming. Men, women and children ran in all directions like ants in a panic. The entire neighbourhood was ablaze, ferocious fires consuming the walls and foundations of every house.
Some remained undestroyed by the fires. The boy arrived just in time to see his house crushed by a creature of gargantuan proportions. His face already hurt from crying, but seeing the monsters obliterate his home made him moan all the louder. Only he could hear his sobs above the surrounding calamity.
‘Why…?’ He moaned. ‘Why?!’
But the boy already knew. In fact, he was the only one who knew why their homes were being demolished.
* * *
Mister Gumboot’s gumboots went missing. Not that anybody cared initially, but soon enough the whole neighbourhood would lose something of theirs. Missus Apple would lose her apple, young Mister Quilt would lose his quilt and Bob would lose his cat.
In one of the neighbourhood homes lived a boy. He was a little thing, though not too little. But for a boy of six, his mind was amazingly, spontaneously bright, and curiosity always took advantage of him. Nobody bothered to tell him about the suburban thief, except for the local newspaper.
The boy hoped that his neighbours would be reunited with their beloved items or even better, the thief would see the error of his ways and give everything back. A week after the Mister Gumboot incident, the boy overslept on the weekend. Before he could oversleep some more, he heard a crash outside his bedroom door.
He leapt from his bed and flung the door open. In the bathroom that stood across his room, he glimpsed the sight of broken ceramic powdering the floor. When the boy burst into the area, he noticed what was missing.
He loved to read The Rainbow Fish. He loved the book so much that last year his mother redecorated the bathroom according to the theme of the book. Every second tile on the wall was glazed with a picture of the famous fish. Now every painted tile was gone, ripped from the walls.
But when he took a closer look, he saw that in each empty square, there was a seed. Some stayed in their shells, others sprouted the tiniest of saplings.
The next day, John the Fireman lost his fireman outfit, but he became the first and only person to catch a glimpse of the thief. He ran out to his lawn, quaking in fear and calling for help. By the time the police arrived, the only word he could utter was ‘tree’. All the passer-bys looked at one another, trying to decipher his whisperings. ‘Tree, tree, tree…’ The boy was there too that day, questioning the man’s mutterings.
The morning after, the boy decided, ‘I will go and catch the thief. Whatever it takes.’ With that, he stuffed his backpack with food, water, a map and a box of matches. At the last minute, he decided to wheel his mini wagon along.
He began his journey on the even side of the street, past house numbers twelve, ten, eight, and so on until he skipped out of his street. Adjacent to this street, there stretched Yellow Brick Road. For a moment, the boy thought this was far from a good idea. He did not know whether to follow the road north or follow the road south. To his left or to his right. At the same time, he tried to figure out what ‘tree’ could mean.
Tree… tree… Nothing else came to his mind. Oh, well. I’ll get to that later. For now, I need to find the thief.
‘But, which way would the thief go?’ Unexpectedly, he found the answer to his left.
Miss Pocketsocks owned seven pairs of pink pocket-sized socks, one pair of which showed off bright green spots. The boy stepped to the stormwater drain on his left. He bent down to observe the lone pink-green sock barely clinging onto the grid. Maybe she just dropped it here, he thought. But Miss Pocketsocks was a driver, not a walker. And she never drove on Yellow Brick Road.
So, he decided to head north.
He walked along the flat road, his wagon gently wheeling behind him. After half a mile, the road ended and he entered the Hungry Caterpillar Marsh. He trudged around the muddy area, making sure he missed the puddles that tried to drench his boots wet.
Squish, squash, squish, squash! For some reason, the sound of squelching mud made him sick. Every now and again, he overlooked some of the holes and ended up thigh-deep in water. He then decided he hated marshes.
As he trekked deeper into the marsh, he found himself in grass that stood an inch or two taller than him. He had never walked through a place so thick and herbaceous. In fact, he had never ventured this far from the Yellow Brick Road. He began to itch all over; the grass tickled him as he walked past and the bugs and grubs ambushed his arms and legs. Mosquitos buzzed past his ears, tricking him into slapping himself. When he pushed at the grass, it merely flung itself back at him. The boy could not see more than a metre ahead.
After twenty minutes of trudging and squelching, the grass maze ended. The boy pulled apart the last strands of grass and peered at the view before him. The land rose on a slope, leading to a meadow rich with golden flowers. He pulled himself onto the grass, glad to be rid of the sludge. After wiping his boots on the grass, he decided to be rid of them and his socks too.
‘There we go,’ the boy sang as he stuck his boots and socks onto his wagon. When he looked up again, he noticed a forest in the blurry distance. He squinted, as if it would somehow magnify the view. ‘Trees…’ he murmured. ‘Tree… tree…’
He searched his brain for an answer, but it was futile. Every time he came close to a great discovery, his mind would redirect and send him further away from a resolution. What would a thief have to do with trees? The witness had been quaking uncontrollably after the robbery. What else could have made him so terrified? The boy dragged his bare feet towards the forest, putting all conflicting thoughts aside.
On the third step, his foot hit a snag and he smashed his face against the grass.
‘Oww…’ the boy moaned, his face still buried in the dirt. ‘What was that…?’ He pushed himself up and turned to the cause of his fall.
He gasped. ‘My Rainbow Fish tile!’
Indeed, one of his tiles lay in the middle of the meadow. The boy picked it up and inspected it, using his fingers to trace around the fish’s outline. Dirt had gathered on its top, but with a flick of his hand it was easily cleared away.
‘Then, that means…’
The thief was hiding in the forest; the boy could smell it. He put the tile in the cushiony front compartment of his backpack and zipped it in a quick fury. Without another thought, the boy bolted to the edge of the forest, still pulling his wagon with him.
As soon as he reached the first bunch of trees, he saw it. Mister Gumboot’s gumboots were strewn across lines of roots. The boy picked up the pair and threw them onto the wagon. He delved deeper and deeper into the woods, recognising more of his neighbours’ items along the way. Missus Apple’s apple lay abandoned upon a bundle of sticks and Mister Quilt’s quilt was found not too far away. Those two things joined Mister Gumboot’s gumboots on the back of the wagon.
‘And now to find Bob’s cat,’ the boy declared. And the rest of the neighbours’ belongings.
The roots grew thicker at his feet as the boy tried to drag the wagon with him. When he failed to shift around an impossibly fat tree, it was decided that the wagon should be discarded if he was to traverse any further.
As he climbed over the heightening roots and treacherous terrain, he munched on a packet of sunflower seeds from his backpack. The treetops blocked out the source of natural light but the boy knew it would be sunset soon. Once he finished off the last of the seeds, he tucked the plastic package into his pocket.
Not long after his snack, he climbed to the top of the tallest set of roots he had ever climbed and beheld a bewildering sight. Lying before him was a vast ditch filled with stolen items. Only a small percentage of the collection belonged to his neighbourhood. He deduced that the thief had targeted not just the suburb, but the whole shire.
‘Whoa…’ he could not help but gasp. ‘This is just like The Hobbit.’
Excitedly, he ran down and jumped onto the piles of people’s belongings. He felt like Bilbo in the midst of the dragon’s treasure. There were new things, old things and things that could not be easily categorised. There were a selection of toys, furniture, books, clothes and kitchen utensils that looked older than time itself. Nonetheless, the boy knew that this was the loot.
‘But, wait…’ the boy suddenly said. ‘If the treasure is here, that means the thief is under…’
Something burst beneath his feet, sending the boy flying. He hit a hill of furniture and tumbled further into the ditch. He screamed until he landed flat on his backpack, letting out an oof! When he came to, he turned to find a fat, long root rising from the loot. Then another emerged from the piles. More roots erupted from everywhere, plaguing the forest with an ear-bursting roar.
The boy spun onto all fours and made for the nearest slope. He climbed and clambered up a hill of toys, only to fall back as more items sank and dragged him down. His bottom hit the ground and looked up to see a monstrous figure leaning over him. It had gigantic roots, extended branches and a face so angry that the boy could not bring himself to scream.
The creature stomped towards the boy and distorted the thing that looked like its mouth.
The boy shielded his ears and began to whimper in terror.
‘I… AM… THE TAKING TREE! WHO DARES TO DISTURB MY DOMINION?!’
When the echoes faded and all was quiet, the boy cleared his throat and thought of what to say.
‘I’m…’ he stammered. ‘I’m just a boy, here to get my neighbour’s stuff back.’
‘Oh?’ The tree croaked. ‘So, you think you can just walk in here and take my belongings?’
‘B-b- but, they don’t belong to you! They belong to my neighbours!’
The tree’s eyes sprouted with vicious madness. ‘Of course, you would say that! You humans are nothing but inherently cruel. But you never heard the trees complaining when you cut us down!’
The boy paused. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘You cut us down, steal us and turn us into whatever useless contraption you humans can think of, as if you own us!’
The boy shook his head. ‘No…’ he tried. ‘No, we don’t!’
‘Oh, really? Have you heard of a thing called paper? What about wooden furniture? Look at the pile, boy, you even have toys made from trees!’ Sure enough, there were marionettes lying around like corpses. ‘And we must not forget that you steal our fruits and dispose of the seeds! Well, not anymore… I have planted a seed into each of your homes and we will rise up and take everything back!’
‘No! No, please! Don’t do this!’
The tree raised its face. The boy thought it would roar again, but instead a high-pitched squeal came from its lungs. Birds scattered from nearby trees and the stolen items shifted with the unexpected vibration. When the tree finished, the silence returned.
‘What did you do?’ the boy asked warily.
‘I have called upon my seeds to burst forth from their shells and take over your neighbourhood!’
‘No! Call them off! Please, I haven’t done anything wrong!’
‘Even if that were true, perhaps this will teach your kind a lesson for committing crimes against the Plantae kingdom!’
A gasp escaped his lips. I have to get out of here! The boy jumped onto the nearest hill of trash, his limbs desperate to escape the Hellhole. His feet crushed the items as he climbed the shaky slope and his hands grabbed onto whatever ledge it could. Soon he reached the top and bolted out of the gyre.
He heard a great cackle as he left the area. Before taking his final steps out of the forest, he caught the sound of the tree screeching after him.
‘That’s right… Run back to your home! It won’t be there when you get back!’