I am posting two stories that are drafts.
I am not sure where I am going with them or if I should keep working on them or if they are finished.
I would like questions and ideas: feedback. Places where you are confused? Sections that you love? What does the story make you think about? What is the tale about? All helpful comments most appreciated. Here’s a question: In Quandary, I switch to the present tense in the middle of the story. Does that work?
What better place to ask for feedback for rewriting ideas than here?
The Tree of Life
This is a story about the limitations of our language.
She slammed on the brakes when she saw what she thought she saw. The sprawling tree, she had no idea what kind of a tree it was, but she knew the tree. It wasn’t a tall tree but it had thick branches, its limbs spread out in an embrace. She thought she remembered it blooming, at times, in her childhood. Do trees bloom, she wondered. It grew in front of the town’s library forever. Her forever and probably before. It always looked full-grown. But now, the tree was surrounded by three men, wearing hard hats and yellow vests, over their round heads and bellies. Two of the men carried chain saws. The front of the library was cordoned off with yellow crime scene tape. No, she thought. No. No. No. She slid into a side street parking space, whipped open her car door, and ran to the tree. She crossed over the yellow tape, grabbed onto the lowest branch by jumping up to it like she did as a kid, and pulled herself up into the lower branch and sat, with her arms crossed, where the branch met the trunk. She was up in that tree before any of the men saw what happened. And then they saw her.
“What are you doing?”
“What are you doing?” she replied. She stood up in the crotch and put her arms around the trunk of the tree.
“It’s a tree hugger! An honest-to-god tree hugger.”
“You’re the first tree hugger I have ever met.”
The young woman smiled.
“Are you planning to cut down this majestic tree?” she asked. “Why would you do that?”
“It is a beautiful tree. It’s been here for as long as I remember.”
“Me too,” she said. “So why cut it down? Who told you to cut it down, anyway? Was there a vote or anything?”
“We work for the DPW, the Department of Public Works, right?”
“The tree is deceased, darling. It’s gonna topple over.”
“It’s sick? What is wrong with it?”
“It’s hollow on the inside. Something has been eating it from the inside.”
“Something? Like an animal or something?”
“Probably a fungus. Maybe the tree got damaged or something.”
“Yeah, sometimes a lawn mower or something might hit a tree and weaken it and then that’s that.”
“You mean, a human killed this tree?”
“Well, we don’t know what happened to it. It’s an old tree. Sometimes trees just die.”
“I thought trees lived for hundreds of years.”
“Some do. But this isn’t a redwood tree.”
“What kind of tree is it?”
“It’s a willow tree.”
“This is not a willow tree,” she said. “I know what a willow tree looks like.”
The men were silent. Nobody quite knew what to do.
Finally, one said, “Look, if you come down out of tree, we will take your concern to our boss. And you can go talk to him. We won’t cut it down now. But only if you climb on down.”
“Promise?” she said.
The three men nodded and she climbed down and gave them hugs and told them she would contact the head of the DPW to figure out a way not to cut the tree down.
Everyone left. But first she encouraged the men to hug the tree with her.
“Oh, hell,” one said, “why not?”
They all hugged the tree.
The next day, she drove by the library and was shocked. The tree had been sawed down, its branches, they did look like willow branches as they lay prostrate on the ground, strewn across the lawn. She was angry. She pulled her little car into the same side street and parked in the same place as yesterday. She jumped over the yellow crime tape and ran to the downed tree. She could see into the hollowed trunk. She sat on the grass and cried, really wept, for the tree.
She marched in the DPW office and demanded to see the head of the department. He, of course, wasn’t there. He was on his lunch break. She said she would wait.
He returned after an hour and they talked. He apologized; he understood her dismay. He, too, loved trees. But he had to think about the safety of the children, the community. He promised he would plant another tree. Right there.
And that was that. Except there is this:
A week later, the tree hugger’s mama, who lived in the same town, was driving on a two-lane busy road in a terrific rain and wind storm. On the side of the road was a tall, thin tree that could not withstand the pounding of the storm. Uprooted, it fell, hard, toward the road, onto the hood of mama’s car. The car screeched to a stop, smashed, by a tree, its top reaching across into the other lane. Mama survived. The ambulance came and there were lots of people around to help. She was released from the hospital with a bit of a whiplash but no major injuries. Two seconds, maybe one second: if she had been driving a wee bit faster, she would be dead. The tree would have fallen smack on the roof of her car, on top of her.
Of course, these stories are not connected. Well, connected only in that a mother and daughter both had encounters with a tree within a week. It is a random thing. Certainly, when a tree falls on someone – like a jogger in Central Park – it is a freaky, horrendous accident. How could it be that the tree would topple at just that moment, catching a person in motion. Purely random even if it feels like fate.
There has been lots of new research about the hidden life of trees. How they communicate with each other, how the roots reach out to support each other, usually the same species seeking connection for survival.
Imagine the roots of the decayed willow tree, feeling obsolete as they have no tree to nourish. The energy in the roots of the tree spreads, searching for a place. Another willow tree to help, anything to keep alive. And then the roots felt the sleight weight of something new. A new growth? Hope? An embrace momentarily wakes up the wandering tangles under the earth. The tree is loved. The tree has been loved. The roots feel less lost. The roots communicate with the other trees. Did you feel that? Did you sense that? They are aware of us. They do appreciate us. And the signal goes all through the town. Even after the tree was cut down. Somebody tried.
“Whoa, Nelly!” cries the tall tree by the side of the road. “I can’t hold on any longer. My roots are saturated. The wind is too strong. The concrete has weakened me, giving no place for my roots to take hold. That’s it. I’m doomed. Here I go.”
If the roots of the downed willow tree had eyes, they would be bugging out. Because they know, they sense, they feel the mama come down the road in the blinding storm, driving slowly, peering intensely through the rapidly moving windshield wipers.
“Oh no,” say the roots. “This random thing cannot happen.”
The willow tree’s roots yank hard.
“Now, go down now,” the roots scream through the earth. And the roots were thinking: Do not fall on that car. She, or somebody like her, tried to save me. There is a bit of energy left in my roots and I am sending it to you, Mr. Tree by the road, to bring you down fast.
Pretty silly thing to think about. That the hugging of a tree might influence that tree’s roots and spiking its energy to send important information to another doomed tree about when and how fast to fall to save the tree hugger’s mother. Pretty silly to hear a tree say, ‘Whoa, Nelly.’
Pretty silly to think of an underground network of tree roots connected to what happens above ground. And events that happened weeks apart.
Pretty silly to think of trees talking to one another.
Could this story even be told from the tree’s perspective without being absurd? Think of those novels told from a dog’s point of view. Sometimes they work but at least dogs make eye contact with humans and understand human speak. There is communication between dogs and humans.
See how this story is about the limits of our language? There is a possibility that the dead willow tree’s roots sent an alarm call to the tree about to topple and smash and kill the mama driver, but I can’t translate the story into tree words and convince the reader.
This is part of the last sentence in Peter Wohlleben’s book The Hidden Life of Trees:
“…perhaps one day the language of trees will eventually be deciphered, giving us the raw material for further amazing stories. Until then, when you take you next walk in the forest, give free rein to your imagination – in many cases, what you imagine is not so far removed from reality.”
Is he giving me permission to imagine this story of connection and consequences? Is this story trying to deny the randomness of life? Because I know life is random, yet, I see a possibility of connection, cause and effect, between loving a tree and not being killed by a tree. Which is so rude to someone who has been killed by a tree. What if, I think, what if the two trees in this true tale worked together? And life is not happenstance or coincidental but synchronistic and balanced? And you will say, can’t it not be both? Accidental and purposeful?
Perhaps this is not a story about the limitations of our language. It is a story about trying to make sense of our world and it involves trees and mothers and daughters and betrayal and near death experiences and how nothing changes, no matter what the story is about.
A Quandary: Hit and Run?
Laura was aware of how close the car in the long entrance lane to the highway felt as she drove in the right lane, anticipating her exit a mile beyond their entrance. She thought it would be awfully easy to hit it. And then she did. The front right bumper crashed into the other car’s left rear bumper, while she was driving at least 65 mph. She didn’t feel the hit; she wasn’t sure she really hit the car and she kept on driving for a bit but then pulled over into a grassy area by the side of the highway, thinking she had better check. She got out and looked at her car. There was no damage anywhere. She looked down the straight roadway and she could see the car she bumped. It was upside down; the windows were smashed. She could see the spider web crackles even from this distance. It even looked like the tires were still spinning. She reached for her cell phone to call 911 and then thought or hoped that someone already had. A car slowed down beside her. It stopped on the side of the road. Did you call 911, she yelled at the open window. The response was a garbled nothing and the car drove away.
She ran down the road to what looked like a totaled car but not before she thought that maybe she should just get back in her car and drive away. There wasn’t any damage to her car. She rear-ended the other vehicle; she was going to get a ticket and go through a lot of hassles. She could drive away. Who would know? Of course, she couldn’t do that. What if someone was hurt? She couldn’t live with herself pretending that nothing had happened. She envisioned the future: 20 years from now, living with the guilt eating away at her, living in denial, carrying a deep dark secret onto her death bed. She would have to confess on her death bed. Confess that she was involved in a hit and run accident and that she has no idea what happened to the people in the car, if anyone died, or even, god forbid, there was an animal, like a dog, in the car.
The occupants of the car were standing next to the upside-down vehicle. They looked to be in one piece and maybe she even heard one of them chuckling. What surprised her was how many people there were. There were seven adults standing there. She tried to imagine seven people in the car – it wasn’t a van – it was a car, like a Chevrolet or something.
“I’m the one who hit you,” she yelled. “I rear-ended you.”
They looked at her and shrugged. Maybe they didn’t speak English, she thought. They sure did look like Americans, though. Hillbillies, maybe?
“We’re going to have to get this car towed to a garage,” a very large man said.
“Is anyone hurt? Do you need an ambulance?”
They all shook their heads. Were they in shock?
Then she heard the sirens and saw the flashing lights. Someone had called for help. A police car pulled over. She saw the tow truck. She stood on the periphery of the group while the paramedics checked each adult, three large men and four small women. They were all fine. The policeman interrogated each passenger. Nobody claimed to know what happened. He was more concerned about how all seven fit in the car. She listened as he told them he might have to ticket them for something. He would meet them at the garage. Nobody talked to her. The tow truck driver took them all in his cab to the garage in the nearby village. They squeezed three into the front seat and four into the crawl space of the back seat of the tow truck after the driver offered to take them with him and she was going to also offer to drive them but then they would have to walk back to her car along the highway and that seemed a bit sketchy. She kept her mouth shut.
Who were these people who passively accepted the situation? They didn’t look developmentally disabled, (she almost thought the word ‘retarded’ and corrected herself), but they didn’t seem quite all there. Maybe a little stupid? Well, they certainly weren’t blaming her for anything. She walked back to her car and thought she really should just keep on driving. No one questioned her; no one said anything to her. If they had heard her claim her responsibility for the crash, they didn’t acknowledge it.
She drove to the garage. When she stepped out of her car, she realized that the day had turned lovely. It was a perfect spring day; deep blue sky, no clouds, a warm sun. Was she really going to step into that vacuous, windowless garage? She did. The family – were they a family? – was seated in a semi-circle in folding chairs, waiting? For what?
She leans against a cold wall.
A very cheerful woman with blond, puffy, and stiff hair, wearying very sharp high heels, carrying a clip board, enters.
“I’m here to take all the information about the accident and write up the report,” she chirps.
Where’s the policeman?
“Office Rinoni sent me in to cover for him on this one. He had another emergency.”
Laura really wants to speed this along. She wants to get outside into the spring day.
She tells her that she rear-ended the car.
“Are you sure?” she asks. “I looked at your car. There was no damage. Are you sure you rear-ended them? Maybe they swung into your lane?”
Laura hadn’t thought of that. She remembered the sensation of feeling like the car was really close to her.
She asks for their insurance company names. “Liberty Mutual.” “Allstate.”
“We are a no-fault insurance state, so I will send this report to your agencies and let them figure it all out. Let me show you the diagram I have drawn to represent the accident and you all can tell me if that looks right.”
She passes a thin piece of half-paper around the semi-circle group. Each person looks at it and passes it on, without acknowledging what they see. She looks at it and sees that the bubbly, cheerful, high-heeled officer imposter had indicated, in her drawing, that the totaled car had crossed into her lane, causing the accident.
Should she question this? Maybe it is the truth. Maybe she had just wasted three hours of a beautiful spring day and should have driven away.
Laura waits a week before calling her insurance company. They tell her they have received no paper work involving her car or an accident. She explains to the agent what happened. The agent tells her to just let it go and she will contact her if she gets more information.
Let it go? Laura thinks. Let what go?