The Oak and The Pea

Warmth flooded the pea sprout when she burst from the soil. Tall blades of grass surrounded her, a bright blue sky stretched above her, and—

“Whoa!” She craned her stalk back, but could not see the end of the towering trunk beside her. “My father is gigantic!

“Pah.” Only when the oak tree stooped over could he glimpse the tiny speck of green amidst the brown soil. “I’m not your father, pea. I’m a mighty oak.”

“Oh. Oak-kay.” The little pea sprout chuckled. “Get it? Oak-kay. It’s like you, an oak tree. But it’s the word, too, so—”

“Be quiet,” the oak tree said. “This field was fine without your chatter. “

“Oak-kay,“ the sprout said.

Sunny days and scattered rains filled the early weeks of spring. Each day the sprout grew taller. With it grew the challenge of staying upright. Worst of all were the windy days which threatened to knock her down completely.

But her added height brought unique advantages. Beyond their small patch of soil, an ocean of green stretched out. The hills crested to the sky then dipped behind the folds of grassy mounds. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she said.

“Pah,” said the oak tree. “Have you seen the beauty of my leaves? The strength of my trunk? I am far greater than those grassy hills.”

The sprout twisted back and forth from the field to the tree. Her gaze settled on the oak. “You are a beautiful, mighty tree.”

To her delight, the oak tree stood a little taller, splayed his leaves out a bit further.

She straightened up, too, even if it made her a little further from the ground. “Do you think I’ll be as beautiful and mighty as you one day?”

The oak burst out in laughter. “Never,” he said.

The pea sprout wanted to wilt. She turned from the oak, but the sight of the hills was no longer so sweet.

As spring turned to summer, the pea plant— for she was no longer a mere sprout— grew taller and taller. Perhaps even too tall, for every moment was a strain to keep herself upright. Even so, she would not complain. She had to show the oak tree how mighty she could be.

But then came a day of powerful winds that strengthened with each passing hour. Her roots clutched the soil and her tiny leaves tucked close to let the gusts by. For all her efforts, the wind’s push was relentless. “Help me, oak! I can’t stay up much longer.”

“Weakling,” the oak laughed.

Every fiber strained against the winds. “Surely you can support yourself and me, if you’re really so strong.”

The laughter stopped.

Please!” The stalk cried out as she spent the last of her energy. Her roots gave out and her leaves released. The wind pulled and she started to lift up-

Down swept a great branch of the oak which caught the pea plant before she flew off.

She folded her roots back into the soil and curled her stalk around the branch. Safe and secure, she let out an exhale that spread from the top of her stalk to the tips of her roots. For the first time since she’d been a little sprout, she could rest once more. “Thank you, oak.”

Never had such a delicate, soft creature lay in his branches before. It was a foreign feeling, one he discarded immediately. “Pah,” the oak said. “Weakling.” Nonetheless, he kept his branch extended for her. The pea plant could rest for a few minutes, the tree decided, only so she’d see how mighty he was.

Those few minutes turned to hours, which turned to days, then weeks. As summer marched on, the stalk crawled her way up the branch, drew ever closer to the leafy green top.

“You’re the rainbow,” the pea plant said.

“What are you talking about?” the oak tree asked.

“You’ve got green leaves, red and brown acorns, brown and yellow bark… even blue, from the sky that’s all tangled in your branches.”

“Pah.” The oak swept one of its branches up. “If only I were mighty enough to carry the sky… I can carry you, little pea. But that’s it.”

She lifted her head into the air. She trembled, then rested her head against the branch once more. She spoke in a low whisper. “That’s more than I can do. I wish I could carry me.”

The oak never heard her sound so glum. His words came out before he understood what he was saying. “Don’t be sad,” the oak tree said. “You can’t carry yourself only because of all those pea pods.”

The pea stalk fluttered a tiny leaf towards the small crescent that dangled along her length. “For all the good they do. They’re as boring and green as the rest of me,” she said

“Maybe they’ll burst with all sorts of colors,” the oak tree said.

“Maybe,” the pea plant said, even gloomier than before.

“Come on,” the oak tree said. “I’m sure there’s something going on with those pods.” He hesitated, then said, “Oak-kay?”

The pea plant lifted the tip of her head to peer up at him. After a moment, she started to giggle. Wrapped around his branch, her tiny tremors tickled the oak, and he couldn’t help but laugh.

“Oak-kay,” the pea plant said, which brought another spurt of chuckles between the pair.

Their flurry of giggles turned to gales of laughter as they took turns saying, “Oak-kay.”

As the days rolled by, the two of them pointed out the shapes in the clouds. Some looked like plump acorns, others like long pea pods. On the clear days, they gazed out across the field, tracing patterns along the rising and falling ocean of green.

On his own, the oak tree rarely looked across the stretch of hills, let alone found pleasure in it. This little pea plant was doing something to him, changing him. Even though he could not point his branches at what exactly it was, he found he did not mind the changes.

When autumn rolled in, the pea plant was ecstatic. “I always knew you were the most beautiful tree,” the pea plant said, who had grown all the way along the tree’s branch, and now started winding around the width of the trunk. “But the reds and yellows and oranges of your leaves are amazing!”

“Pah,” the tree waved a branch. “Look at you. You’ve finally got that rainbow of green and brown.” The oak tree gestured at the little green leaves of the pea plant, whose curled edges started to brown. “You’re the beautiful one. Besides,” he said, pulling down a branch which had started to loose leaves. “Give it a couple weeks, and the only thing covering me will be you.”

One cloudless night towards the end of autumn the sky teemed with stars, as if the heavens dazzled with sparkling white peas and acorns. A breeze stirred the oak’s branches, and another of his precious few leaves flew away into the darkness.

“My pods never bloomed into flowers,” the pea plant said. “And I guess you were right, after all. I’m too weak to carry myself.”

“I was being mean,” the oak said. “I didn’t mean it. If you want to try—”

“No, no,” she said. “I’m too tired for that, now. But I’m not saying this to complain or because I’m mad at you. I just… I guess…” the plant went quiet.

The oak’s remaining leaves rippled in the wind. Their soft whistle filled the night.

“What I’m trying to say,” the pea plant said, “is that I’m glad I can’t carry myself.”

“You are?”

She nodded her green head — the only part of her that wasn’t brown. “Being wrapped around you is why we could talk, laugh, and share all of this time. I don’t think I would trade it for all the beauty and might in the world. What we have is better than both of those things.” She laid her head back in the nook between the branch and the trunk.

“You are a strange plant, pea,” the oak tree said.

“Maybe,” she said. “But that’s okay. Thank you for catching and holding me, oak.”

When he drew up the courage to answer her, his whispers shook like his branches during a storm. “Thank you for letting me hold you.”

With the entire universe stretched before them, the oak felt very small. Strangest of all, he did not mind it so much, so long as he had his pea with him.

“Oak,” she said. Her voice was strained. “Oak, I’ve never felt this tired before. I’m afraid.”

“You’re safe.” Ever so gently, one of his branches brushed along her brown stalk. “I’ve got you.”

“You promise?” she said. “No matter how tired, you won’t let go?”

“I promise,” the oak tree said. “I’ll never let go.”

Her final word was softer than the faintest breezes of spring. “Oak-kay.”

They tightened their grasp on each other. Silence surrounded them. Patterned in the stars above, they traced out a mighty oak and an elegant pea plant whirling, twirling, and dancing through the night.

A thin layer of frost lined the ground as the sun rose. “Aha, look!” the oak tree said. “A big old baldy, I am, just in time for winter. Your pods may have fallen out, but at least you have some of your leaves.” He started to chuckle, then stopped. “Pea?”

The stalk remained wrapped around his branch, though her touch was light. Frost covered her.

Ever so lightly, he gave her a shake.

Though the ice chipped off she did not answer.

“Pea,” he said and gave another couple of soft shakes.

More and more frost chipped off, revealing the brown that stretched down her length. Even the green at her tip had faded. She did not move.

“Pea!” he shook and shook and shook. Even when the oak realized she wouldn’t wake up, still he continued to shake. At last, the stalk came loose. He clung on to keep her from falling, then waited for the familiar grasp as she wrapped around his branch.

It never came.

“I won’t let go.” Though the words were whispers, they carried a defiance against nature itself. If not for his promise, what else did he have?

He stood firm and clutched her tight in his branches while winter winds tore through him.

But even the might of an oak had its limits. A storm came with winds that grew by the hour. She slipped further and further, until a strong gust snapped her stalk in two. He clawed for her, but the wind pulled her away. She tumbled across the hills, then disappeared entirely.

All that remained of his beloved friend were her fallen pea pods, like little teardrops that dotted the ground where she once stood. The winter flurries were the only company in his mourning.

What if he had used more of his branches to hold and protect her? What if he had offered her help, sooner?

That wasn’t even the worst part. Their early days together were filled with sharp words and sour silences, but they could’ve been filled with laughter and play. Why wasn’t he nicer to her?

Why couldn’t he, at least, have apologized? Despite all the oak’s beauty, despite all his might, there was nothing the oak tree could do for her. The pea was right. There were things greater than beauty and strength. Realized, only when it was much too late.

Flurries turned to storms. Snow piled down and darkness closed in. He spent the remainder of winter in a cold and dreamless sleep.

A bright world of green and blue greeted him as he awoke. He had no want of it. His branches, filled with leaves, felt empty without the curl of her stalk. No solace could be found outside, for she was in the curve of the hills, the puff of the clouds above, even the empty patch of soil below. She was both everywhere and nowhere, close in thought but forever beyond his grasp.

His bark nearly leapt off at the sound of the tiny voice below.

“I’m the tallest!”

“Nuh-uh,” said a second and a third voice.

“I’m definitely the tallest,” a fourth voice said.

The oak bent over. He missed them at first glance, but dotted around the old spot of his friend sat four speckles of green. The children of his beloved pea.

Her pea pods, in the end, were more beautiful than any flower.

As they argued about their heights, the oak tree stooped even further down. “I do believe that I’m the tallest.” He whispered so he would not scare them.

The four sprouts yelped anyway. “Whoa,” said the first voice. “You’re huge!”

“No, he’s gigantic,” said the other two.

“What are you?” asked the last.

Four branches swept down and, ever so gently, caressed the little sprouts. “I’m your father.”

To his delight, he was greeted with a chorus of cheers, merriment, and one, “I-told-you-so.”

“We’ll be as big and beautiful as you one day?” asked one of the sprouts.

The oak tree let out a warm laugh. “Greater than any appearance,” he said, “Is the beauty and strength of our friendship we will share.”

“I bet my friendship will be stronger and more beautiful,” the first one said. A fresh flurry of bickers filled the air.

Though it only was spring, the warmth of an endless summer blossomed deep within the oak. At last the oak tree understood that one’s strength was measured not by the might of branches nor height of one’s trunk, but by one’s ability to love and to give. And though he did not know if he could match the strength of his little pea’s loving and heart, he did know he would try his very best.

That was how he would never let her go.

Joseph Paul Bernstein