I have been busy the last few days finishing a second story for my critique group for the upcoming residency. It is harder than one can imagine putting a story together and making all the pieces fit. Then there is the task of smoothing the writing, nailing characters, and trying to leave some kind of impression on a reader.
Anyway, I worked on this one, and last night gave it to my daughter, her boyfriend and my husband to read. I thought I’d have my own little critique group first, then rewrite it before sending it in today (due date.) My daughter liked it. Her boyfriend played it safe and nodded a lot. (Smart fellow) My husband looked like he was sucking a lemon as he read it, his face all controted and his head jerking back like my words were slapping him silly. I chuckled, thinking, “Wouldn’t that go over well if I read manuscripts like that at my residency, acting physically sick by awkward sentences or concepts that didn’t sound perfect to me.” Ha. Wouldn’t that make me everyone’s best friend.
We had a rowsing conversation about the story and they pointed out a few things that didn’t gel for them. For all that my husband acted as if reading the thing was painful, he didn’t slaughter it. Hearing their impressions helped. I made some minor changes this morning that I think improved the story greatly. As for my husband . . . well . . . I made fun of his lack of diplomacy. I’m used to him.
Anyway, this is my second “literary” story (for this month). I only post it on the off chance that some friend might want to read it. I will no doubt make reference to it later, especially when I write about my residency and how my peers critique the work, so in the interest of following this endless diatribe about my life, it may prove pertinent.
I am relieved to be finished. Now, I only have to read a billion words to be ready for Boston. Sigh. But in a few days this will include everyone else’s manuscripts. Always interesting to see how the other camps are doing…
Anyway, here it is, Ginny’s story de jour . . . Enjoy!
Most people believed the best thing about Grandfather’s quaint cabin by the lake was the view.
Derrick just didn’t see it. He didn’t see fifty feet of lush grass sloped gently to a humble dock where a hand-built canoe lay wedged upside down on blocks, ready to use at whim. He didn’t see the lake beyond, a serene pool of water that reflected the afternoon sun as if it were a solar panel. In the evenings, the water supposedly captured colors. The vibrant orange and red of the sky looked almost as if someone turned the color button up high on a TV set, distorting the picture until it looked more like a page in a child’s coloring book than a realistic landscape on the nature channel.
He didn’t see what was beyond the lake either. Mountains. At times, a crisp, clear green reminding observers that life extends far beyond their own backyard. At other times, a misty gray, fading into the sky as if the many layers of hill and valley had been drawn with disappearing ink. In winter, they said snow made the view look as if it were drawn in charcoal, all muted shades of black, gray and white. In fall, the mountains were reminiscent of an autumn tickertape parade. Dots of amber confetti filtered from the sky from trees that were no more than wedges of color so thick it looked as if they were slapped on with a putty knife. God had used George Seurat’s technique when painting this particular landscape.
When Grandfather passed away and left the cabin to his two grandchildren, everyone assumed he was hoping they’d carry on the family tradition of sitting on the porch to stare at the view. Beth, always the more traditional of the two, did exactly this.
When she came home, she called her brother and said, “Derrick, since you have no place to go, I think you should live in the cabin for awhile. You could use the rest and the environment is inspiring. It’ll get you out of your slump.”
She’d been worried about her brother’s mental state every since his wife had left him for the predictable, upstanding accountant. Beth was convinced the peace and solitude of the cabin would heal Derrick’s depression and, with hope, jump-start his flagging career.
Derrick took her advice and moved into the cabin for a season. However, as it turns out, he didn’t sit on the porch to enjoy the view. How could a person gaze at mountains when they couldn’t see past the tree?
Grandfather had planted a nice, straight maple tree over fifty years prior. At one time, it provided shade and lured squirrels into the yard to entertain watchers with their antics, but now it had turned into a huge and gnarly obstruction, its branches reaching outward as if it were attempting to hug the very ambiance of the cabin. Perhaps, to swallow it.
“You sound so agitated,” Beth said on the phone. “Relax. Pour yourself a drink and look at the view.”
“I can’t. Grandfather’s tree is in the way,” he snapped.
“Come on, that tree doesn’t block the view. You aren’t even trying to feel better.”
She had a point. The tree stood far to the left of the yard, but even so, Derrick’s eyes kept wandering to it. The things he could touch always commanded his attention, while less tangible objects floating in the distance left him unmoved.
“The tree bothers me.”
“Like Mom’s bike bothered you, when you took it apart in high school?”
Beth’s exasperated sigh contradicted her upbeat tone. “Just don’t look at it,” she said. “Do you want me to visit?”
“No. I just hate the tree.”
“No, you love the tree.”
“I hate everything I love,” Derrick pointed out.
“So the tree isn’t really your problem.”
“No, the tree isn’t my problem.”
“So, you can leave it alone.”
“I think so.”
“Call me tomorrow.”
“Don’t I always.”
The problem was, the tree was harder to ignore than many of the things that bothered him, like his wife’s antique dining room chairs, handed down from her great aunt. She’d been furious when he sawed the legs off those chairs, as if he’d done it on purpose. Derrick felt it should have been obvious he didn’t have a choice. The chairs would’ve bothered him eternally had he not done something about the feeling they stirred within him. A wife should understand a thing like that.
Determined not to disappoint his sister in the same way, he forced his attention elsewhere to avoid staring at the engrossing tree. This, unfortunately, wasn’t much help, because once he looked away, the tree started talking to him. The maple was a loud tree, speaking to Derrick in a demanding tone every time he went outside.
“The tree is talking to me,” he told his sister.
“Trees don’t talk, Derrick.”
“This one talks to me.”
“I won’t. But this is a loud tree.”
“Ignore it and it will go away,”
Derrick hung up the phone thinking that was a stupid comment. Trees don’t go away on their own. They just keep getting bigger, their roots embedding deeper into the soil, their branches filling the air above. Eventually, a tree isn’t just in front of you. It spreads everywhere, a canapé of branches hovering above, the roots becoming a part of the very ground you stand on. If trees cold only bite down, they’d swallow you.
“This cabin would look nicer without that old maple,” he said to his sister on the phone.
Her silence at the other end made it perfectly clear she didn’t agree. “Should I come down there?” she asked.
“I’d rather you wouldn’t.”
“O.K., but only if you promise to leave the tree alone. It’s been in the family for years.”
“I’ll try,” he said.
Beth was quiet on the other end of the line, but he could hear the impatient tapping of her manicured nails on some surface in her home.
“I won’t touch the tree,” he said, knowing she wouldn’t hang up until he promised.
“Good. Now rest. Recharge. I’ll visit in the fall.”
Derrick hung up the phone staring at the tree through the window. The fall was a long way away.
He decided to stay inside, thinking it was best to avoid his Grandfather’s tree altogether. But then, the incessant hum of that tree started to reach him in the kitchen. He couldn’t cook dinner without the tree luring him into another disturbing ethical argument, one that would inevitably drag him to the window to stare again at the thick, twisted trunk filled with knots and burls.
“Shhhhh…..” he whispered.
The tree leered.
Derrick began thinking of removing the tree, just to gain some peace, but knowing how this would disturb the family, he put thoughts of the drastic measure aside.
He spent more time reading in the living room. Certainly, with this much space between them, the tree would stop its incessant flirting. But Derrick couldn’t focus on his book. The words on the page were like random grunts; senseless because his mind couldn’t string them together coherently while thinking that the book was once a tree too, each page made of pulp from a thick trunk. Did that particular tree talk too, or was it a nice, normal, silent tree? Invisible. There were, after all, lots of trees in the world, and Derrick wasn’t drawn to all of them. Perhaps the book had been the kind of tree that, while standing, one could easily dismiss. The vacant place left after it was removed might have gone unnoticed too. No one misses an unloved tree.
Derrick wondered who would notice if he were to cut down Grandfather’s tree.
Everyone would notice.
Grandfather bought this land when he was only nineteen. He cut dozens of trees down to clear the lot for the cabin. On a whim, he then planted a tree of his choice. Maple. One day he fell in love and carved a heart with his girlfriend’s initials into the bark. Unfortunately, when Grandmother moved into the cabin, she made him cut away the bark to remove the heart, for they were not her initials. In time, new bark grew over the offense like a scab over a wound. But it left a distorted mark, a scar to remind everyone a tattoo had been removed from the tree’s rough epidermis. That mark was a source of family jokes and family pride. Grandmother always got her way, and grandfather loved her enough to let her. They had a damaged tree to prove it.
While the children were young, the tree held a tire swing. After the kids grew and left home, the tire was replaced by a wooden swing for adults to sit upon while they gazed at the view. Over the years, the maple branches had been host to bird feeders, thermometers, hanging baskets of flowers, and other yard ornaments, as if mementos of family life kept creeping beyond the confines of the cabin, only to be caught in the branches before escaping the borders of the property.
The tree was a part of this cabin. A part of Grandfather. When he died, they scattered his ashes all over the cabin grounds and at the mouth of the lake. It was a good bet to assume some of Grandfather blew to the base of the trunk. Derrick believed some of the old man seeped into the earth only to be sucked up by roots and then carried through sap-laden veins to every appendage of the living maple monument. His grandfather’s essence was in this tree.
“Sit with me, boy,” he remembered the old man saying one day. Grandfather was sitting on his wooden swing, whittling a chess piece while watching Derrick mold playdough into little likenesses of animals.
Derrick had been so engrossed with his project he ignored the request. Some voices are easier to tune out than others are. But grandfather always got through. He urged Derrick to join him on the bench. Playdough gave way to a lesson in whittling.
“Where are grandfather’s chess pieces?” he asked his sister that night.
“Mom has them.”
“I don’t suppose she’d give them to me.”
“She’d tell you to make your own.”
“That’s not the point.”
“Well, I wouldn’t recommend you ask for them, at least not until she gets over the fact that Grandfather left the cabin to you.”
“Us,” he corrected, winding the phone cord around his finger like a coiled bandage.
“He left the cabin to us both, but I think he meant it to be mostly for you. He understood you in a way none of the rest of us ever have,” Beth said.
“He’d been disappointed if he knew I stopped working.”
“I think he’d understand that things like this happen.”
“We all do.”
“Not mom and dad. Not my wife.”
“Forget them for now. Wait until you feel better. Nothing good comes of conversations held when you’re depressed.”
“Am I depressed?”
“Haven’t you always been?”
Derrick shrugged. “Grandfather called me ‘different'”.
“Well, no one will argue that.”
He hung up, noticing that every time he talked to his sister, the rumble of the tree got louder. He tried to think back to when the tree started taking to him. He recalled hearing a subtle wooden whisper when he was in college, but it was easy to ignore a tree that spoke to him in such hushed tones. He didn’t even mention it to the family, because he knew they’d dismiss the idea of a tree calling to their offbeat son. They didn’t know what went on in his head . . . at least, not the way grandfather did.
“The tree is driving me mad, Beth,” he complained to his sister.
“Don’t do anything you can’t undo. You know it would be wrong to mess with grandfather’s tree,” she warned.
“I guess so.”
Derrick started spending time in the room furthest from the tree. The Bedroom. He lay on the big, four-poster bed trying to think of anything but the tree, but still, it called to him. He couldn’t sleep.
One day, a wind knocked a gnarly branch halfway off the trunk. Broken from the base, it swooped over to the house and brushed against Derrick’s window. Derrick might be able to avoid the tree’s incessant call, but the idea that it was making physical contact, actually reaching out to him, was simply too much to endure. He had to cut the tree down. Beth would simply have to understand he couldn’t live this way. Grandfather would have.
Filled with guilt and regret, he went into the yard to inspect the tree. He wrapped his arms around the trunk amazed that they didn’t meet at the backside. It was a huge tree, full of memories. Full of life. Running calloused hands along the bark, he closed his eyes, feeling every curve and distorted bump on the surface. The tree was twisted, as if time and the wind had broken the tree’s bones, leaving it stooped and slightly curved like an old woman’s body. In fact, the tree reminded him of a woman. The scar at the upper trunk looked pinched and distressed, like his wife’s face those last few years they were together.
“You remind me of my wife,” he said to the tree.
A wind served to help the tree answer. It shuttered as if insulted.
“But you remind me of Grandfather too.”
This seemed to make the tree happier. It swayed gently.
“Forgive me. You are simply too loud.”
He went into grandfather’s workshop to get the chainsaw. He paused half way there and turned to the tree. “Why me? Why didn’t you talk to grandfather all those years?”
The tree stood there silently, belligerently refusing to answer what Derrick assumed was a fair question.
“Thanks for nothing.”
He stomped into the workshop, angry at the tree for forcing him to do something he knew would cause him grief later. But it wasn’t as if he had a choice. He emerged moments later wearing goggles and work gloves, the engine of his weapon roaring. The deafening sound drowned out any inner conversation he might have about the value of the tree in his family’s estimation. Not that it would penetrate his purpose. History proved that once in motion, inertia kept Derrick going without food or sleep until the voice was quieted.
He stared at the bulk of the wooden monstrosity wondering just how he should go about making it fall. He’d done this kind of thing before, but it would be just his luck to go about the deed wrong, so the tree ended up killing him. But not cutting it down would kill him too, he thought, so he’d take his chances.
For fifteen minutes, high-speed metal tore at the smoldering wood. He made a deep wedge in the side until, eventually, a loud crack filled the air. The tree swayed as if fighting gravity and circumstance. Then, in slow motion, it tumbled, leaves showering the earth and lodging in the hair of the impassionate man who brought it down.
Derrick leaned over the freshly cut stump to count the rings. The tree was 52 years old, give or take a ring. He took off his gloves to run his hands over the freshly cut surface, studying the tree, recapping its history and character in his mind. The tree was still talking to him, but it was no longer forging an argument. Now the two of them shared something more akin to a satisfactory discussion of purpose.
It took several hours for Derrick to cut away the branches to make firewood. He stacked them neatly by the cabin, his leather gloves handling each piece with careless disinterest. Slowly, the tree dissolved; until all that was left was the huge trunk and the scattered leaves and sawdust covering the grass.
He stared a long time at the trunk. Absent of its appendages it looked not unlike a burnt Venus De Milo. Exhausted, both from the effort and the emotional release, Derrick went to bed dreaming of a woman, his wife, buried under the bark of that gnarly tree.
The next day, Derrick rented a tractor with an ominous grapple attachment, something resembling the Jaws of Life. He picked up the remains of the tree and moved it from sight. Dragging it to Grandfather’s workshop, he rested it upon two reinforced sawhorses, an open coffin for a maple corpse.
Satisfied now, Derrick was able to ignore the tree. For months, it dried and cracked as the wood withered and aged, lying in the workshop like an embalmed corpse awaiting its funeral.
“How are you? You aren’t still talking to Grandfather’s tree, are you?” Beth said, the next time she called..
“No, the tree isn’t bugging me as much as it did before.”
“I’m glad. I knew the peace and quiet of the cabin would do you good. Do you think you might be ready to go back to work soon?”
“Do you want me to come up there?”
“I’d rather you didn’t.”
“Alright. It’s been a crazy year, and since you sound better, I’ll wait. Maybe Christmas.”
“That’ll be nice,” Derrick said, his sister’s voice, as always, triggering strong thoughts of the tree.
“What have you been doing lately?”
“Looking at the view. It’s beautiful.”
Beth’s voice was filled with a smile. “I’m glad you’re noticing it now.”
“Me too,” he said.
* * *
Years later, a couple stood, eyebrows knitted as they stared at the maple
“This one really talks to me,” said the wife.
“I knew you’d like it. It’s a woman,” the husband said. “See the face in that scared area. It’s like she’s tortured or something.”
“Or angry. Makes me sad,” said the wife.
“I think it’s cool. But look. From over here, it’s a happy old man.”
The wife circled the piece, marveling at the spaulted colors in the wood. The statue was streaked with black, brown and white, areas of the bark left to add detail and design to the polished surface. “It looks different from every angle. Look at the little chess pieces at the base.”
The husband tilted his head. “I like it more than his sculptures of the bored Victorian people on chairs with the legs missing. I think that’s supposed to mean something, but I can’t tell. It’s weird.”
The wife hummed an agreement. “This guy’s different, that’s for sure. But with this piece, the longer you stare, the more you see.”
They gazed at the tree some more, images taking shape before their eyes as if a litany of concepts were hidden in the textured surface, revealed only to those with the patience to trust there could be more to a tree than the obvious.
Other people looked casually at the maple and passed by, seeing only a statue of a woman. Or an old man. Or sometimes, just a polished lump of wood. They walked by and gathered at the window beyond the exhibit where the seeded glass highlighted the gardens below, currently aflame with the early evening sunset.
“Isn’t that a beautiful view,” said an older woman to her companion, easing onto a bench to enjoy the pretty sight.
The couple, however, didn’t see it. They were too engrossed with the tree.