The Tree

As I lay awake in bed last night, the solace of sleep staying far from me, an image, unbidden, suddenly formed itself in my mind:  An old, weathered tree, with gnarled branches, many of them dead and rotting. A few green shoots could be seen, higher up, trying to fend off the rot.

I felt my mother’s presence, and she bade me break off a branch. “Each one is a memory, a moment of significance.”

I broke each one off, holding them briefly before discarding them in turn. Each branch transported me back to a moment in my past I had willfully forgotten.

The first branch was my Greyhound ride to Bozeman, keying in on the day I returned to Seattle, when it rained and hailed, until the gutters swirled and overflowed with ice and water, the hot Montana sun even then burning its way through the clouds, preparing to turn the storm into nothing but a memory, like the echo of a lost song, or the phantom smell of fresh grass when the trees have died and the winter has come. It was one of the last times I saw my grandmother, who is dying now.

I grasped the second branch—it put up more resistance before breaking, the memory of life still strong even after the life is gone. This branch was the house I grew up in, on the last afternoon I spent there, echoing with emptiness, like some strange cathedral, built to be filled with song and prayer, but now haunted by its past, more empty than it could have ever been had it never been full. “Where are my memories? Where are the things that made me who I am, that have defined me?” “Packed up and shipped away, destination unknown. But you’ll remember me for how I was, before you emptied me.”

I reluctantly took hold of the third branch, breaking it from the tree. I was back in my dining room, looking out over our backyard, stretching for almost an acre, filled with trees. My mother had had a tree company trim them that day. I barely recognized them. The lower branches, just then turning their leaves to yellow and orange in anticipation of the coming Autumn, were all gone: They had butchered our silver maples, our oaks, our poplars, our cottonwoods, their amputated limbs piled in heaps, like flotsam after the flood. They had left the willow, weeping in the corner. I was angry, and when the anger died, I cried, knowing it would be one of the last Indiana Autumns I would ever see.

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