The tree unstuck its roots from the ground before walking into the hardware store, a trail of dirt behind him as he made his way through the sliding doors. A clerk greeted him, asked what he could help him with today. He pushed past to get inside.
A few days ago, the tree’s mother had gone missing.
It was his cousin’s birthday and his family usually did something to celebrate. Usually something small because his cousin, barely a sapling, would be too young to remember any of it. His family had decided to meet at the hiking trail. It was hot that day and the trees talked about what trees talk about: the seasons, the weather. Anything pertinent to their water supply.
But about an hour or so into the party, he noticed his mother still had not arrived. So he began to ask around. Calmly, at first. And then Cindy, a hiker stretching into a triangle pose underneath his shade, told him that he should check out Bill’s hardware store.
“Just in case,” she said, shrugging. “You never know.”
He waited a few days to see if his mother would return home on her own. When she did not, he did as Cindy suggested.
The tree walked through each aisle. He started with the stationary, separating each pack of card stock into two piles: mom and not-mom. No mom here. Next, aisle three, notebook paper. Aisle seventeen, cardboard boxes. Sketchbooks, wrapping paper, toilet tissue. Still nothing. And then he walked to the plywood section.
“Oh,” he said at first, when he found her. “Oh, god.”
He reached for a stack of oak panels and dropped it — her.
No one heard him. He bent down to read the labels, his bark bending, too.
Sanded. Hardwood. Sheathed. Treated.
“Treated?” he asked. “With what?”
He looked down at the ground, at his roots, at the earthworms he had tracked inside, writhing on the floor — hardwood floor, he noted.
Someone tapped him on the shoulder: “Excuse me, but aren’t you the tree from the main hiking trail?”
He shrugged her off. He waited in line. He bought his mother.
* * *
After the funeral, the tree wandered to distant parks, crossed state lines to reach far-away rivers, to wade through auburn stretches of wheat.
He would plant himself alongside highways, watching cars zip past him, past each other, 75 miles per hour. Every morning, when the traffic would get heavy and the honking would wake him, he would unroot himself and begin walking.
Nowhere specific. Just away.
At first he was determined to find Bill — for revenge, he would later be embarrassed to admit — but he heard Bill’s wife had cancer, so he let it go.
One night, after a particularly loud bout of honking, he walked, exhausted, to a new place: a small, private hillside overlooking a cliff. In the morning, he awoke in a field of yawning venus flytraps. He befriended them; when they seemed hungry, he shook some of the spiders that lived in his branches loose from their webs and into the oval, spine-toothed mouths. He felt like a father. Briefly.
Then the thought reminded him of his mother, so up he went, on he went.
* * *
The tree fell in love with a woman.
She passed him on a morning walk, holding her baby close to her chest so the wind would not hit his face, and the tree just said it. He said hello. She was the first person he had seen in months.
Startled, she turned around.
After some explaining — trees did not talk where she was from — they became friends. She saw him every day, sometimes even two or three times a day.
“My husband,” she would say, “is never home. And when he is, all he does is yell. So what’s the point?”
They would talk for hours about her father and his fishing business, about her six-month old son, Thomas, about the tree’s mother and all of the lakes and terrains and strangers he had come to know. She taught him advanced math. Never using paper, of course.
He liked her and her long, thoughtful silences. He liked her habits — the way she threw her head back every time she laughed and said, “They don’t teach you that in school, do they?”
He liked her so much and for so long that he loved her.
One day, at her suggestion, they spent three hours working their way through each of the “Thirty-Six Questions that Lead to Love” that she had found in a magazine article. After they were finished, she said, “This is my way of telling you I’d like to be with you. You, me, and Thomas.”
The tree was elated.
* * *
She loved him, too. She ate his leaves, his fruit. She climbed his branches when wild boar tumbled through the fields, ripping through the berry-shaped flowers with their hooves. She and Thomas slept in a bed he built for them using his own branches.
He gave. She received. And by receiving, she was giving him something, too, she reassured herself. Purpose.
Although their sex life was complicated, she soon got pregnant and gave birth to a small swarm of purple dragonflies.
“It was like millions of tiny little bubbles popping,” she said afterward.
The dragonflies slept beside her, collectively a buzzing, plum-colored cloud that always seemed to loom slightly out of reach. It hurt her when, with bodies as thin as matchsticks, they left for a wilder wilderness. The tree waved goodbye as they dispersed. She wept into his bark.
“I guess this is what it means to be a mother,” she said. “To let go until they are gone.”
* * *
Sixty years later, the woman died, as people do.
From a human perspective, they had lived a nice, long life together. Although the dragonflies never came back to visit and they never had more children, they traveled the world together, enrolling Thomas in new schools along the way. They learned new languages. New ways of cooking. But in tree years, it had only been a decade, and the tree, still more than twenty years away from the middle of his life, did not quite know what to do with himself.
When she died, Thomas was getting ready to retire. He was an established accountant with children of his own and lived in a narrow, two-story yellow house in the middle of the suburbs with Barbara, his wife.
His relationship with the tree was much better now that he was an adult. As a child, he would endure ruthless bullying from his classmates because, one time in middle school, he had to present a photo of his family in Spanish class, using the present tense to describe them and say things like, el es mi papá, ella es mi mamá, el es alto, ella es amable.
His classmates could not conceive of a tree being anyone’s father and they let him know that by shoving notes in his locker. He was Earth-boy, his mother was a tree-hugger, tree-fucker if no teachers were around. It took him until his twenties to forgive his father for being a tree.
But now that he was a dad himself, he knew that a dad was a dad, and that a dad who stayed was even more of one.
So he would visit him every week, his dad. He, his wife, and his two daughters would have weekly dinners with the tree, eating pumpkin-sage pasta underneath his foliage and bringing buckets full of water for him — sometimes even acidic mulches or pricey fertilizers if it was a special occasion.
At his mother’s funeral, Thomas had taken the wooden wedding ring off her finger before they buried her and handed it to his dad, who insisted he keep it.
“Give it to my granddaughter when she’s older. Tell her who it’s from.”
He nodded and down his mother went — lowered, lowered, gone. Where else would they bury her but underneath the tree?
* * *
Years later, Thomas walked up to the tree as his five grandchildren chased each other in the field where the tree had remained since the funeral. The two of them watched as Thomas’ youngest granddaughter tripped on her untied shoelaces and the oldest, age twelve, picked her up, bent down, and re-tied them for her.
He loved being a father and loved being a grandfather even more. He had a feeling his dad felt the same.
“Hey, dad?” he asked.
“Would you want to come live with us? Barb and I could take you home. Plant you in the backyard. And, well, you’d get to see the grandkids everyday, which —”
“Oh, no, Thomas,” the tree said. “I think I’m meant for here, right here.”
“Don’t answer right away. Just think about it. Lauren says that little Marnie asks about you all the time, you know. Did I tell you that you were her first word? A week ago?”
Thomas was getting old, close to the age where he wanted his family nearby in case something were to happen. Barb was just as old but she handled it better. And they both agreed that it would probably be best to have the tree around — at the very least, he could help with all of the grandkids.
When Thomas told her that his dad probably did not want to move into their backyard, Barb suggested they plant a few sexy pine trees in their garden first before asking him again, so the next Friday, before they all met for dinner, they did just that and he relented.
The tree insisted again and again that it had nothing to do with the pines, but his bark betrayed him by blushing a deep scarlet-brown.
* * *
Fall. Winter. Spring. Summer.
* * *
Everything they planted in the backyard was seasonal. That was the tree’s primary complaint.
The pumpkins were harvested and Jack-o-Lanterned by the end of October. April lilies lived in April and were dead every other month. To his left, they planted a pomegranate tree so steeped in her own grief that she refused to talk to him. It was understandable to the tree; every autumn he would watch as her pomegranates fell to their death on the ground, splitting open, their seeds falling out like red rosary beads spilled on the floor.
The apple tree Marnie planted, to keep him company while she went away to college, lost her apples in the same way — apples and apples thudding to ground when a strong wind hit — but she had so many, she didn’t seem to care if a few fell.
The pine trees lost their needles to root rot a few months after he moved in. Something about improper drainage. Apologetic, Barbara planted new ones — small seedlings — and promised him they would grow up quickly.
* * *
It is summer now and the tree has a feeling it will be his last one.
He tells this to his great-grandchildren, who say, “Hush, grandpa. Don’t be silly. Not in front of the kids.”
He had spent the winter with red and green Christmas lights strung around his leaves, ornaments hanging on his branches, heavy. With his permission, of course. He did not mind. It made his great-great-grandchildren happy.
In the spring, his great-granddaughter had a gender reveal party in the backyard. The photographs look like this: his great-granddaughter, her bump, a spray of pink confetti, wide open mouths, and of course, him in the background.
But it is summer now and it saddens him to think that soon more seasons will pass, and more people will pass, like Thomas, who is buried near his mother, and has been for some time.
He would never admit this out loud, but he does not really care for the most recent wave of great-great grandchildren. They are not sensitive to his being a tree. They do their homework on paper in plain sight in front of him. They do not hesitate to put their life problems in terms of “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
Once, when the adults were watching a football game in the living room, one of the kids snuck out and carved their initials into his bark with a steak knife.
Last week, there was talk of wildfires.
Now the alarm blares throughout the city and helicopters repeat the same message overhead: “You are in a compulsory evacuation zone. Please evacuate immediately.”
His great-grandchildren are quick to pack.
As they make their final rounds throughout the house, one of them asks what they will do about the tree.
“Oh, right,” they say. “Grandpa.”
That afternoon, they hold a family meeting to tell him that they are leaving. He tells them to go, not to worry about him, that he will follow behind.
The next morning, the sky is bright orange. Bright like a shock. A jolt.
The fires are nearby. He can smell them. So close that the alarms have stopped sounding, that the alarm towers themselves have melted off into puddles where they once stood.
And yet he feels so sleepy. So orange. This is what it must feel like to be an orange tree, he thinks. He feels warm — enveloped and heavy and warm — and he swears he could feel a haze of dragonflies droning wildly toward him, coming, finally, to rest on his branches.
So, he stays as still as he can — for them. Rooted.
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