If a Tree Falls

By Sondra Friedman

Chlorosis killed the red maple that grew behind Nathan Sandy’s house for twenty-five years.  Professionals came with machinery and ripped into its trunk.  Winter air filled Nathan’s lungs as he peered out the back door, stunned to see how fast the tree fell.  They offered to chop it into firewood.   Nathan refused.

That evening, he ate broth and a tuna fish sandwich.  He could see the moon from the kitchen window, the rhododendrons, the twin evergreens and the contours of the fallen tree.  Its branches looked like arms reaching out.  He told himself the darkness was playing tricks.  Still, he went to bed thinking of the outstretched branches and fingerlike twigs.

In the morning he rode the bus to work, as usual, sitting with his legs pressed together to avoid knocking other passengers by accident.  Lanky and long-limbed, Nathan struggled to fit into the small plastic seats.  Beside him sat a young woman with bright red blotches along her upper cheek.  Good morning, he wanted to say and maybe tell her about the streak of gold that rose with the sun.  But bother her, he wouldn’t dare.

He arrived early at branch sixty-two of the Stateside Bank and found teller three already inside.  Nodding to her, he flicked on the green banker’s lamp, wiped his station, straightened the deposit and withdrawal slips and kept to himself.  Eyes might be watching, a keen pair capable of catching a man in the act of studying the full udder shape of his colleague’s breasts, which hung down to the middle of her torso.

“What’s news today, Nathan?” she said.

“Nothing really.”  He hung his head.  Blue shirts, he thought, we all wear blue shirts.

By the week’s end, frost outlined the windowpane, leaving intricate designs and latticework patterns.  Nathan stood at his kitchen window with his cup of tea.  The sunlight poked through the clouds and traced the fallen tree’s form, illuminating it so that the bark appeared to drape instead of splinter.  The thin branches beckoned.  He stared at the limbs and trunk belly, wondering why they looked curved instead of knotted.  Come, those branches reached out.  Come, please.

When he stepped into the brutal cold, he remembered how his mother used to call this kind of day a whipping post:  “If we’re tied to the earth, the air lacerates our back.”  He was younger then and she was robust and single-minded.  He listened to what she had to say; if he didn’t, she’d slap his head, not hard but pointedly, as if he were a dog trespassing onto private property.  She was thirty-six when the first stroke came.  Facial spasms forced her bottom lip to go one direction while the top lip went the other.

The evergreens looked like pointy towers above the fallen maple, which was slight in comparison, a thirty inch circumference at most.  The trunk lay on the ground just as it had all week.  Yet somehow it struck him as vulnerable, with its branches extending into the air and body freezing in the cold.  Maybe he could pry it loose from the ground?

He knelt and pulled, to no result.  Down he went again, shoving and huffing until he wedged his boot underneath and forced the trunk to roll.  On the gray bark below were bruises and signs of frostbite.

“Come on, now.”  He patted the trunk.  With a great thrust, he lifted the base but it slipped out of his hands and landed with a thud.  A trail of red buds spotted the ground.

“One, two, three, up!”  This time he took hold in the middle, hauling it inch by inch to the door.  Splinters and bracken and wet moss collected on his gloves, coat and even in the curls of his hair.  The weight seemed unbearable.  But just as his arms were about to give way, the trunk became inexplicably lighter.

Still, he had to move slowly.  He scratched the linoleum floor in the kitchen and left a trail of a sticks and wooden matter as he maneuvered the trunk to the cellar door then down the steps, bam, bam, bam, into the basement.

A waning bulb swung from the ceiling.  The storage shelf held tools and rusty paint cans, primers, colors never used.  The trunk rested in the middle of the room, its arms extending two feet in each direction.  He removed his gloves and lay his hands down.

“Hello?” he whispered.

*  *  *

At noon on Tuesday, Nathan went out for a sandwich, tuna on rye, and returned to find teller three bumbling through papers at his desk.

He chose his words slowly and carefully.  “May I help?”

“Damn, Nathan, you’re always moving stuff around,” she moaned.  “I can’t find my purple pen anywhere.”

“What color was the pen?”

“Purple.  Didn’t I just say that?  It’s the only one I have.”  She grunted and got down on all fours to search.

He watched, stupefied, as her rump shifted from side to side with effort.  Her pants slipped down in the back and he could see a dark line of elastic pressing into a strip of pink skin.

“Got it!” she called out.  When she stood, her breasts heaved beneath her blue blouse and his eyes followed.  Don’t look.  He looked.

“Uh oh,” she said.

His banker’s lamp teetered and he lunged to the rescue, missing by a split second.  The lamp fell with a resounding clunk.  He fumbled on the ground to retrieve it, still picturing the teller on all fours.

“The damn thing still works,” she said.

Sure enough, it did, but the green glass shade was cracked.  The fissure exposed the bare bulb inside.  Nathan yanked a curl in his hair.  “Oh dear,” he mumbled.

That night he ate a bowl of noodles with toast.  In the heavy darkness, he couldn’t see the maple’s stump among the shadowy shapes and began to wonder if the trunk was downstairs after all.  Maybe he’d imagined dragging it inside?  He wiped his mouth, cleared his plate and went into the sitting room.  He sat.  He put his hands in his lap.  He crossed his legs.  He opened a book.  He closed it again.  An anxiety began to swell, where it started he didn’t know but now the back of his throat felt full and choking.

In the hallway closet were the boots he’d purchased to help his mother with yard work after her second stroke.  He was still a teenager and afraid to leave her alone.  “Nonsense,” she’d said, but couldn’t stand without moaning.  The pain medicine fogged her memory.  She’d leave the kettle on the stovetop until the water evaporated and the bottom turned black.  Whistling, whistling.  “The kettle’s calling,” she’d yell in her garbled tongue.  The boots held up year after year.  They had thick rubber soles and polyurethane lining.

Downstairs, the maple waited.  He studied the rivulets in the wood and wondered about the way they wove patterns around the trunk, like an elegant Akkadian tract he once discovered in a dictionary.  Kneeling, he lay down his hands.  “Hello?”

The next day after work, the bus dropped him in front of a hardware store of alarming proportions.  Moisture gathered beneath his arm pits and trickled down his sides as he walked the aisles, laboring to select the right carving tools; the options were mind-boggling.  The display shelves were three times his size.

“You must be proud to work here,” he told the man at the check-out station and counted out his bills with graceful precision.

“This place is a joke.” The cashier took the cash.  Ding! sang the register.

An exchange of possessions, nothing more.  Nathan frowned as he carried his load to the bus stop.  The bite in the air meant snow.

*  *  *

At first, the wood was unyielding.  The chisel slipped and landed in his left hand.  Ooo, he moaned, but not out loud.  He left to soak his hand in warm water then sat on top of the toilet compressing his palm until the bleeding stopped.   Then he started over.  This time he used a hand-saw to remove the extraneous branches, nettles and half-peeled bark and maneuver his way towards the smooth, pale inner bark.  A carver’s rasp followed to winnow down rough patches.  He winnowed and winnowed, his hands moving in rhythmic motion, back and forth, until morning filtered in.

The kettle sang and the tea bag bled in his cup of water.  He placed the bread in the toaster and waited while the timer ticked.

At work, he wore bandages on each hand.  Teller three gasped when she saw him counting out bills with only the tips of his fingers.  His face reddened but there was nothing to be done.  The sores underneath were raw, red slugs.  Anyone could see if they lifted the tape.

Teller three whispered to teller one.  In the perennial gesture of gossips, their heads inclined toward one another.  He had no idea how to explain.  What words might he use?  Eyes stared down and he hung his head, counting out the bills with the precision of a dealer who understands the stakes and starts the game anyway.

He’d discovered her.  She’d been hiding inside the trunk all along but he was terrible, skill-less, when it came to subtleties and hers was a figure that did not force itself in any way.   He had to dig patiently for fear of forgetting where she might begin or end.  Before he realized what he was doing, a shapely knee appeared beneath his chisel.

He halted to regard its form, and began to sand away the rough edges, circling downward along the shin towards what could only be a foot.  He found the other foot easily and soon the second leg emerged in full, long and lithe, and he didn’t dare explore the bark triangle that lay between them.

He carved her torso quickly at first, as if it were a shameless act and he a shameful man.  But when he moved the rasp along the curve of each hip and felt the fragile incline, a slowness overtook him as he steadily shaped and sanded the crescent leading to her midriff.

By the time he reached her breasts he forgot this was female anatomy.  In his hand was a perfect orb encompassing all that was endless, possible and impossible.  Never had he known the heights of beauty, the point at which it climaxes and the dark circle that underscores its light.

His hands pulsed beneath the bandages while he moved deposit and withdrawal slips in and out from behind the counted; patience his ally, because it was only a matter of hours before he could return home to her.

“What did you do to your hair, Nathan?” Teller three asked.

He felt his head, twirling his fingers through the mass of curls on his head.  He had no idea which way they were going.  Now he became extremely nervous, thinking his own head misbehaved unknowingly.  He excused himself and tried to address the situation in the men’s room, but his reflection looked no different than he last recalled.  Same long jowls, watery eyes, pile of hair.  Why was she taunting him?  Was she taunting him?

That night he took a long, hot bath and shaved meticulously.  He brushed his hair and snipped off the parts most unruly.  He put on aftershave.  The bottle was ten years old and crusted at the rim but no matter.  When he came down to the cellar, he glowed.

Her neck lilted to the side as he massaged it loose with sandpaper, carefully not to mar the tender nape and tendons connecting to her chin and slender face, pushing out like a siren might emerge from the sea.  His heart nearly stopped as an aquiline nose pressed up into his hands.  And the eyes, he wasn’t ready to open.

“Wake up, Nathan!”  Teller three was at his side, pulling on the flack skin of his elbow. “Your customer’s waiting.”

His face burned with humiliation.   In came a white deposit slip, identification.  Out came his fingers, counting.  How many hours left?

After work, after sundown, stars aligning, Nathan sharpened his instruments.  He selected a narrow gouge and gimlet and held his breath before letting the metal touch the wood covering her eyes.  A lid took form, then a pupil, a hole for the iris.

With the gimlet, he bore into the eye as far as he could go, exhilarated.  He sat up, exhausted, chest convulsing.  Her eyes opened, widening with surprise.  Into her tiny black pupils that ended nowhere he stared.  Drawn in, pulled toward the opening into an abyss of earthen must, dried wildflowers and pine needles sticky at the tips.

He studied her.  She studied him.  Until, at last, she spoke.  He leaned over to listen, knowing the words belonged to him alone.  A hand stroked his hair, encircling his head.  Whispers rose soft as cinders in the air.  His chest pressed against her bosom as his heart pounded uncontrollably.  In each chamber, four doors opened and shut.  Ventricles seized in exultation.  The wild noise of a world we can’t hear.

Outside, snow began to fall.  The evergreens glistened.  Limbs of the rhododendrons sunk under the weight.  Snowflakes piled on the chimney, collected in the eaves and buried the maple stump as night progressed.  The window in the basement turned white.

A telephone ring signaled day’s arrival.  Throughout the morning, rings echoed through the bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and down into the basement.  The doorbell followed.  Then knocks, pounding, a mallet smashing the keyhole, the knob jiggling its release.  Footsteps, heavy, searching.   A stench—a mixture of wet wood and old food.

“Take out,” one police officer said.

“Compost,” the second corrected.

They beamed a flashlight down the steps and clambered down.

The first officer banged his shin on the tree trunk.  “What the—”  Both men stood dumbfounded as the circle of light re-traced the scene.  Neither could tell where the body ended and the tree began.  They grabbed hold of a place in the middle and pulled.  It took four heaves to pry Nathan off the log.  A woman’s face was imprinted in his cheek.  His eyes were open still.

“You get the feet,” the first officer said.  “Ever seen anything like it?”

The second shrugged.  “Like what?”

They hoisted the body up and carried it up the stairs to the kitchen, where the sun reflected off the snow and streamed in the window.  In the backyard, the evergreens stood like minarets of a castle in the sky.

“Hold on a minute, will you?  The man’s only got so far to go.”

“You gotta wonder what in the world he was thinking.”

“Drugs.”

“Booze.”

“Both.”

“Neither.”

“Who knows?”

“Who cares?”

____

Sondra Friedman lives in Washington state. Her short fiction has appeared in The Pittsburgh Quarterly Online and Slow Trains, and she is currently working on a short story collection.


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