The Sad Tree
I was sleeping on the couch—drifted off while watching M*A*S*H—when somebody pulled my shoulder and I sorta jerked awake. I’d done that since Ma died. I always hoped she’d wake me.
“Neill,” said Nate, my big brother.
It’d been me and Nate against Pa for a couple months.
“Yeah, alright,” I said, and leaned up.
“They’re cutting the tree down tomorrow,” Nate said.
“How’d you know?”
“Heard Pa say. Want to see it?”
“It’s a tree,” I said. The light in the room came from the television and made Nate’s face pale, like he’d seen a ghost. His dark hair was shaggy–Ma used to cut it. Nate handed me a flashlight.
“Pa said not to,” I said.
“Pa don’t know shit,” said Nate.
“Ma ain’t home to stop him,” I added.
“I know,” said Nate.
“You’re right,” I said.
Nate stood up straighter. He was two years older and I was 11.
“So you coming or a chicken shit?” he asked.
“Okay,” I said and pushed myself up. I wanted to see the tree, even though I didn’t.
I followed him passed Pa’s armchair. The built-in cup holder was filled with butts.
“Sure Pa’s asleep?” I asked
If Pa catched us I didn’t want to think about it, but losing the tree felt like losing Ma all over again. That tree, out by the pond, was the most beautiful we’d seen. Ma loved trees. She said trees owned themselves. She said poetic stuff because she loved Robert Frost. When we lived in Georgia she went on walks and found new trees. Yellowwoods, Red Maples, Beech, and White Ash.
I don’t know what kind of tree this one is. When we moved here, Ma lost her love of walks and Robert Frost, and all the trees but one.
I followed Nate to the door and put on my shoes. Everything’s louder when the world is quiet. The front door creaked as Nate opened it. It could have been an alarm. I was sure Pa would wake and know and come down the stairs in that stiff fashion and ask, The hell you boys doing? And he’d get his belt. I didn’t know what Nate would do because he was maybe as strong as Pa and wouldn’t let him hurt me without a say so.
Then I stepped through the door after Nate and shut it with care.
The moon overhead was a sliver and didn’t cast much light.
We walked toward the Front 20. It was a large field, owned by our neighbors but they lived more than a mile away. We jumped the fence. The grass was long and wet and I felt cold-damp where the grass pressed my jeans.
We didn’t speak. I think we both worried about Pa.
Once we were halfway across the Front 20, Nate spoke. “Know what Bobby says about Ma?”
“Everyone knows what Bobby says about everything,” I said.
“You think he’s right?”
“Don’t know. Maybe.”
“I don’t think so,” said Nate.
“You said you thought he was,” said Nate.
“I said maybe, but maybe not.”
“Why’d we move?” I asked.
“Pa’s work,” he said.
“That ain’t what I meant.”
“I don’t know what you meant, then.”
On the other side of the field we jumped the fence out of the Front 20, where it met the forest. A woody smell. Cedar. The dark below the branches was much worse. We flicked on our flashlights.
“Ma was never the same, you notice?” I asked
“Sure I noticed.”
“She say something?”
“Naw,” said Nate.
“She told me Washington’s got no soul like Georgia,” I said.
“So you do think Bobby’s right,” Nate accused me.
“She changed, but crazy? no,” I said.
“Crazy. . .” Nate hawked and spat on the ground. “Bobby’s a pissant,” he said.
The light of the thin moon hung up on branches overhead.
“Yeah,” I said. “He is.”
“You listen to him.”
“I ain’t,” I said. “Pa might’ve drove her to it, though.”
“Pa drives people to all sorts of things,” said Nate. His words were as sharp as his pocket knife. I knew he was thinking about the next time Pa got on the drink.
The branches above blocked out the light. The underbrush my flashlight beam fell on was old and brown and fallen from the cedars themselves.
After about a hundred yards I heard the sound of Quade Creek. The trees thinned and the starlight sprinkled down. The path followed the creek for a while. We came to the fork. One path cut away from the creek, the other followed it. This was the way Ma went, and so did we.
“You miss Ma?” I asked.
“Naw,” said Nate. “I know I’m supposed to, but I can’t feel that for her.”
A stinging nettle brushed the place where my pants cuff rose above my sock and I felt the tingling itch that it left there.
“Damn,” I said. “Nettle sting.”
“Yeah. That’s what it feels like to me,” said Nate. “I sting inside but it’s not like my mom has died, it’s like she’s gone away.”
“I miss her,” I said.
Nate turned around. His face was dark. He was a good big brother, but if he left me with Pa I didn’t know what I’d do with just Pa. But Nate was here now, so I tried not to think about it.
“Parents die,” said Nate. “It’s the natural order, is all.”
I didn’t know how he knew this, but once he said it, I agreed.
“Yeah,” I said, but didn’t feel the words were just. Good parents didn’t choose to die.
I remembered when Ma first took me to the tree. It was at the edge of the pond and the branches hung low with some unknowable weight.
Ma was gone for three days before. . .
I didn’t hate the tree. The Sad Tree–that’s what I called it in my head. It was the only thing Ma loved at the end.
I felt the temperature drop and the pond came into view.
In movies and books the saddest trees are Weeping Willows, but this tree wasn’t one of those. It had thick bark and needles.
I wanted Ma to be there waiting for me. I wanted Nate to tell me he wouldn’t leave. I even wanted Pa mean again because for the last while he’d just been quiet. I knew what he was thinking when he was mean.
I walked forward, ahead of Nate. The tree was a quarter of the way around the pond. I imagined Ma walking in the exact place I walked.
When I placed my hand on the trunk I felt the life there, almost. The bark was grooved like a deep scab.
“Easy to climb,” said Nate.
“Yeah,” I said. “Which branch, d’you think?”
Nate regarded the tree. I could see his face now. His gaze darted from branch to branch until it settled.
He pointed. “Two up and three right.”
I saw which he pointed to. I fit my hands into the deep grooves of the bark and climbed. After the first scramble, I was among the branches.
“Ma could have done that,” said Nate.
“Yeah,” I said.
I sniffed and looked out across the pond. The starlight and moonlight glinted off the dark water like flung paint. I imagined Ma looking at the same view. A breeze blew back her dark hair. Her eyes lingered on the depths of the pond, the swirling light reached out from the other side, the other bank. A quiet, peaceful land. Welcoming.
I tore my gaze away and looked down. A body hung from the branch I sat on. A thick noose was around the woman’s neck. Ma swung back and forth and my breath caught. I couldn’t get another. My flashlight fell from my grip. My hands worked by themselves. I pulled and scratched at the knot in front of me. Nate yelled, but I didn’t know what. Fireflies burst in my eyes. The beautiful pond fled in the distance and that peaceful land was long gone. Ma’s body fell to the ground as light brighter than the sun and whiter than the moon hit me in the face. Boom!
My fingertips throbbed. I sat up and my vision blurred. My legs were wet. I wiped my eyes with my palms and looked around for Ma’s body. I’d fallen from the branch just like Ma and landed with my legs in the pond.
Nate was standing over me, looking up.
“Where’s Ma?” I asked.
I think Nate shook his head, just a little, but I couldn’t be sure.
My eyes flared and burned and my nose was like a leaky faucet.
“But she was right there,” I said, pointing up. “Right there. And she fell and—” A hurt ran from my temples down to the heels of my feet like a pressure inside me. “—I just thought maybe she’d still be alive if I untied her,” I said through my gushy nose.
Seeing that branch like that—from above and then below—I knew that tree, that branch, that inch of bark where Ma tied her rope, was in another world altogether. An unnatural world. It was in a place I couldn’t touch and a place I didn’t want to go, even if I could. It might be peaceful, but it wasn’t for me. Not yet, anyway.
I climbed to my feet. My shoes were wet and squashy. My right ankle hurt, but not as much as my fingers. I picked up my flashlight and went up to Nate. He hadn’t said a word and hadn’t moved, except to maybe shake his head.
With snot in my nose and tears on my cheeks, I said, “I never wanted her to leave.”
Again, Nate was silent and didn’t move.
I nudged him with a hand. Nothing. So I nudged him harder, but no. I flicked on my flashlight and held it up to his face. I expected him to go all mean on me. Call me a turd and accuse me of blinding him. I even wished he would.
His eyes were glassy and stared up at the branch—at that same inch I knew didn’t exist in this world and I thought, maybe, he was there too. And I thought about what he’d said when that nettle stung me—how he knew he was supposed to be sad Ma was gone but he couldn’t, and I understood that he was sad she’d abandoned us, and he’d just not known it.
I waved my hand in front of Nate’s face, but it stayed smooth and calm. At peace. I imagined that was what Ma was like now. I figured it wasn’t a bad way, as long as you were away from Pa, and that was Nate’s final escape.
All this time I’d thought Nate stuck around to take care of me, but it had always been me stuck around for him. I took a step along the bank as if I’d meant to do it all along. I turned away from The Sad Tree. Turned away from Pa, and even Ma. But most of all, I turned away from Nate.
I walked on along the edge of the pond. I came to the outlet and the little deer path beside it. I looked down the overgrown way and knew, just as Ma had known, the bend in the trail led to light. As I took my first step upon that path I left a whole world behind, and I could have been anybody, and that’s who I was. Anybody. And Pa couldn’t stop me no more.
Alex is a graduate of the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. His fiction has appeared in eFiction Magazine, Smokebox Literary Magazine, the Best New Writing 2016 anthology. This is his second time appearing in The Cost of Paper. His piece “The Story of Grandma Snow” was included in volume three. He lives in Olympia, Washington and is currently seeking representation for his debut novel, a blend of magical realism and horror. Follow him on Twitter @alexclarkmcg or at alexclarkmcg.com.