Fiction, Vol. 5.3, Sept. 2011
Margaret’s husband came in only a few minutes after he had left. She could hear him calling from the door.
“What is it?” Margaret asked, meeting him in the doorway.
Their daughter, Anne, came down the stairs.
“One of the trees along the driveway had some of its branches broken in the storm last night,” James said, hurrying them outside. “But it’s only one tree in the row and then only on one side and in the middle.”
A few large boughs of the fir were strewn along the concrete. Several more hung in the tree, caught on lower branches that had not broken. They seemed to have an immense weight. Anne wandered among the debris.
“See how they’ve broken in the middle,” James said, pointing into the tree. “And that’s it in the whole row . . . one, two, three . . . what? Twenty branches? And none from the other trees. Big branches too,” he added, prodding one of the boughs with his foot.
Anne walked along the row, the carpet of fallen needles accentuating her youth. “There aren’t any other broken branches,” she called. She came back toward them, downcast, searching the needles. “We read a story in school about children who gather pine boughs and burn them as an offering to the gods for children who have died.”
“It was a story from Japan.” The boughs are New Years decorations that the children gather and the women of the village weep, whether they’ve lost a child or not, whether they’re mothers or not. In the story, the children pile the boughs so high that they topple during the fire.
Margaret’s eyes never left the tree. The stubs were jagged, protruding like spikes, implying a terrible sound.
“How do you suppose it happened?”
“I don’t know,” James replied. “It must have been the wind against the house creating something of a funnel into and up the tree.”
“Isn’t it strange that we didn’t hear them break?”
Even on the opposite side of the house, Margaret was surprised she herself had not heard the breaking branches. Perhaps it was simply the howling of the wind that had muffled the cracking of the tree.
Margaret had first noticed the wind as she bathed with James. She had sat behind him, plucking hair from his back.
The hair curled when she plucked it and he did not complain. When they were first married, and before, he would fight to stop her from plucking his hairs, but she would promise sex and he would grudgingly submit. It was a sort of lover’s game. Even now there was something erotic about the curling of the hair as she plucked it, though it wasn’t exactly true that years of sex had created the eroticism. And there was more than eroticism; there was tenderness in caring for something he himself could not care for.
Still, it troubled her that he no longer complained. The dance of expectation and rejection had left their lover’s game. It was ritual without vitality.
Margaret rinsed her hands in the warm water. “Your mother called today,” she said.
“Oh? What about?”
“John and Lindsay are divorcing.”
“Is that right? Weren’t they just married?”
“It’s been nearly four years.”
She plucked another hair. They grew fine and if left intact would become several inches long. And the hairs always returned. In a few weeks identical hairs would spot his back. No doubt the sameness of the hairs played a role in her feeling that the plucking had become ritualized.
“And no children? Isn’t it usually children that cause the trouble?”
“I suppose they decided they were better off as friends. Apparently they’re even living together as the divorce proceeds.”
“That seems impossible.”
“Your mother thought it was terrible.”
“She said they should hate each other.”
“Is that right? But … if they agree they would be happier apart, why shouldn’t they separate? And, if they’re comfortable enough, why not live together?”
“Why marry in the first place?”
“If they would be happier, what’s the trouble?”
Margaret found a clogged pore and squeezed hard at his back. He did not complain and she knew he would expect intercourse. The ritualization of the plucking had naturally permeated their lovemaking. She couldn’t remain silent:
“Shouldn’t they put their marriage above happiness? A marriage is, after all, a bond before God.”
“That’s rather old-fashioned.”
She splashed water on his back to rinse his swollen skin. Outside, the wind swirled. Often, she would run her fingers over his raised skin as he made love to her.
“We’ve been unhappy,” she said softly as she rinsed him.
“Yes, but there was a baby to consider … and it really wasn’t that bad.”
“How bad can it be between them?”
“Perhaps a baby would have kept them together – though in our case wasn’t Anne also the trouble?”
“And soon she’ll be moving out.”
James laughed. “Yes, but that will be easier than her arrival.”
He leaned back into her, his head resting on her breasts. He seemed to be listening to the wind.
“Do you think they’re sleeping together?” James said suddenly.
“Wouldn’t it be difficult after having each other so easily for so many years?”
He began to gently massage her legs where they came around his waist.
“Unless sex was the original problem. If he had problems satisfying her or if she weren’t adventurous enough … though they wouldn’t have married as virgins would they?”
At last he turned to nuzzle her breast. The wind crashed against the house.
“Will we have to cut it down?” Anne said, now in front of the damaged tree.
“The whole tree? Will that be necessary?”
“No, I don’t think so,” James replied. “But it does look strange, and probably even stranger once the stubs are cut back to the trunk.”
Until now Margaret hadn’t considered the tree aesthetically. There were a few branches lower down, nearly eight feet from the ground, and then bare trunk for forty feet before the upper crown filled out normally. The fullness of the other trees in the row heightened the bareness of the trunk.
“We have to keep it,” Anne said, moving closer to the tree. “And look, it’s weeping.”
James went under the tree, catching a drop in his palm.
“Water … I suppose the tree is just coming out of winter dormancy and is drawing up a lot of water – it hasn’t yet closed its wounds.”
“The tree is crying,” Anne said. She herself seemed on the verge of tears.
Margaret was astonished that she hadn’t noticed before. Though the droplets of water came infrequently now, during the night they must have fallen like rain.