about the author

J. R. Gerow is a Montreal-based novelist (whose longer work is still searching for a home). He was born in Buffalo and studied literature, economics, and law. His short fiction has published via The Yale Review, Hypertext Magazine, Adelaide, Conver-gence, and Mobius, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

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The Tree and the Worktable  

J. R. Gerow

A village sits at the edge of the forest. A man wants to cut down a tree to build a table.

“It’s only one tree in the forest,” says the man.

“But isn’t a tree more beautiful than a table?” says his wife.

“A good worktable is all the beauty that hands can make from it,” offers the man.

They happen to be standing at the edge of the square, where others can pick up on the conversation.

“If you cut that tree down, though,” says his neighbor, who finds himself interested and therefore can be said to have an interest, as he leans in and points to something up in the tree, “you’ll displace that family of birds, there.”

“If he doesn’t cut it down,” interrupts a second neighbor in passing, “he won’t have a work table, and if he can’t work, his family very well may starve.”

The man and his wife are silent. The first neighbor considers this rejoinder. “So,” he posits, “if we agreed to just give him a table from someone in the village who has an extra, we could avoid this whole exigency?”

“Oh, but well then, if we started giving away tables,” interrupts a third neighbor, having overheard the dispute and feeling a bit hot at the implications, “we’ll create an unsustainable social contract. Be bankrupt of tables by noon, we will.”

“If you displace that family of birds,” pipes up a fourth, poking out of a nearby bush in camouflage, binoculars hanging from his neck, “they may take others with them, and that could lead to wildlife impacts that disrupt our whole economy, never mind the moral weight—”

“Oh, pish-posh,” shouts a fifth out the church window, “if we start valuing birds over people, we’ll put God’s chosen into poverty in the service of feathers.”

“Now, my concern,” arrives a sixth neighbor, probably a lawyer, wearing his glasses alarmingly far down his nose indeed, “is that if we permit this man to cut down a tree for no reason at all, we’ll create a legal precedent that we can’t control. All the neighbors will want to cut down a tree, and we’ll be bankrupt of forest by—”

“What do you mean, no reason at all ?” pipes up the man.

“I’m only indulging a healthy dash of hyperbole, let’s not be politically correct,” insists the sixth neighbor condescendingly.

“If we did clear this forest, that would make for good farmland,” says a seventh, gazing out over the potential fields, alit with imagination.

“But who’s to say this man shouldn’t starve?” pipes up an eighth, not-so-very-popular neighbor, stirred from his subreddit at the noise and leaning from his door half-dressed, “when all the rest of us have tables already, what was he doing? Probably the drugs, reckon.”

And so forth they go, reframing the nature of the action, its effects, its downstream effects, its precedential effects, the different comparative moral perspectives one could apply at each level of the analysis, until the tallest, most attractive neighbor is decided upon.

Thus concluded, the village’s response acquires the legitimacy of consensus, then, slowly, the legitimacy of precedent, and then finally, manufactured objectivity. Their children recite it to this day in school, hands over their hearts.

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