He did not know why he suddenly thought of the oak tree. Nothing had recalled it. But he thought of it—and of his summers on the Taggart Estate. He had spent most of his childhood with the Taggart children, and now he worked for them, as his father and grandfather had worked for their father and grandfather.
The great oak tree had stood on a hill over the Hudson, in a lonely spot on the Taggart estate. Eddie Willers, aged seven, liked to come and look at the tree. It had stood there for hundreds of years, and he thought it would always stand there. Its roots clutched the hill like a fist with fingers sunk in the soil, and he thought that if a giant were to seize it by the top, he would not be able to uproot it, but would swing the hill and the whole earth with it, like a ball at the end of a string. He felt safe in the oak tree’s presence; it was a thing that nothing could change or threaten; it was his greatest symbol of strength.
One night, lightning struck the oak tree. Eddie saw it the next morning. It lay broken in half, and he looked into it’s trunk as if into the mouth of a black tunnel. The trunk was only an empty shell; it’s heart had rotted away long ago; there was nothing inside—just a thin gray dust that was being dispersed by the faintest wind. The living power had gone, and the shape it left had not been able to stand without it.
Years later, he heard it said that children should be protected from shock, from their first knowledge of death, pain or fear. But these had never scarred him; his shock came when he stood very quietly, looking into the black hole of the trunk. It was an immense betrayal—the more terrible because he could not grasp what it was that had been betrayed. It was not himself, he knew, nor his trust; it was something else. He stood there for a while, making no sound, then he walked back to the house. He never spoke about it to anyone, then or since.