A Tree Most Ancient, story by Christopher Johnson at Spillwords.com

A Tree Most Ancient

A Tree Most Ancient

written by: Christopher Johnson

@cjohnsonwrite

 

“What’s wrong with you?” Maddy said. “You’re just not there. You’re off somewhere.”
He knew she was right. He looked at her and sank into the valley of her soil eyes—the eyes that had originally pulled him toward her—the eyes in which he had sunk himself—the eyes for which he had married her. “I don’t know,” he said, haltingly, without any confidence that he knew anything at all.
She said, “I mean, I love you, and I don’t mean to be accusing you or anything like that. I really don’t. But honestly, Henry, you’re just not there these days. Amy was hurt. I couldn’t believe how you reacted, or overreacted is a better way to put it. That’s what you did, for God’s sake! You overreacted! Yes, I know she should hang up her clothes in her room. But you had no cause to get so angry at her! And, honey, I know you’re not like that—deep down, you’re not like that at all.”
Her words cut him like a stiletto. He didn’t know whether to scream or cry. The words made him bleed the psychic blood that filled him with shame and made him think that when all was said and done, he was a crappy father. The words sliced him like the sharply serrated knife that he had just bought for fifty dollars from the teenage boy next door in Natick. He looked down at his hands. They were pathetic and puny. “I know,” he said, sounding weak and ineffectual to himself. “I know. I feel bad. I’ll apologize when they get back from camp. I’ll hug her and tell her I’m sorry.”
“Well, you’d better. She was in tears. She came to me and buried her face in my lap. You didn’t see it, but she came to me and wept. She’s only ten years old for God’s sake! She’s going to mess up her room once in a while!”
They got out of the car. Amy and her brother, Peter, were at summer camp in Maine for two weeks, and Maddy and Henry were going to go for a hike just by themselves at Wachusettt Meadow, a nature preserve that sojourned, silent and hidden, some forty miles west of Boston and just a little south of Wachusett Mountain, where the ski runs were and where, from the summit, you could see the Hancock Tower in the distant Back Bay, gleaming like a monolith holding the universe together. The preserve undulated over 1100 acres of gently waving prairie and woodland. A pond anchored the meadow to the south, and the pond was pushing its way into the southern portion of the meadow because of a beaver dam that had blocked a stream. The ecologists who managed the preserve were purposely leaving the beaver dam intact, allowing the water to expand slowly northward.
They started to walk north on the trail that led from the visitors’ center, away from the pond. They hiked through a field, following a trail that had been mown. On each side, they were surrounded by woven waves of grass that shimmered like the green of Ireland. The sky swept above them–an enormous blue dome sheltering clouds that resembled babies waiting to be born. The two of them—husband and wife–were silent. Tension sparked between them. The tension felt palpable.
Maddy propelled her way forward. She swung her arms with positivity and confidence, and she thrust her legs and pulled the ground forward and progressed upon it. She had steeplejack thighs and eyes as brown and deep as a river, and the humidity curled her hair. She was as intuitive as a bird. Henry lumbered to conclusions, and she snapped to them. Her synapses bypassed logic and locked in on the truth like a loaded gun. She just knew things. They hit her like a green light from an unknowable source. Her arms were white, and because she worked out, the upper contours of her arms swelled slightly from the muscle that she had recently put on. She looked ahead and examined the scenery with indefatigable concentration. She rolled up the sleeves of her T-shirt to capture as much of the sun as possible, and she wrapped a bright red-and-white bandanna around her head to absorb the sweat from her forehead.
It was July. To Henry, it was the most sumptuous and sensuous month of the year, when things were magical and free. He loved July, and he loved the fact that they were free for two weeks. The two children were somewhere near Fryeburg, Maine, and Henry and Maddy could liberate themselves temporarily from the strictures and responsibilities of parenthood.
They walked northwest on the mown trail. Henry felt the path beckoning to him, as if it were alive and tempting him in the same way that Maddy beckoned to him at night after the children were asleep, as if there were an elixir that connected nature and lovemaking. His eyes darted, blue and impatient, from one object to another. When he examined things, he needed to know their meanings—the meanings hidden beneath the surfaces. He had always been like that, ever since childhood. And when those meanings escaped him, he grew impatient. The veins ran down his narrow arms like worms. His black hair crept over his ears. His blue eyes were alive, but the emotions refused to reveal themselves. He mulled things over–was slow to decide–slow to change. Yet he was quick to laugh, and when he did so, his eyes lit up with quicksilver, and then, when he was done laughing, the curtain came down again. At times, the shadows of doubt would darken his eyes to a blue-black; they became opaque, fearful.
Maddy and Henry walked into a woodland and soon stood before a large glacial boulder that had been deposited eons before when the ocean of ice that once blanketed Massachusetts had retreated. They advanced toward the glacial boulder, which towered above them. Each of them reached out gingerly and felt the surface of the boulder. It was rough, harsh. It was ancient and impervious and separate and impersonal and impenetrable. Yet Henry felt a strange connection to the boulder. It would last as long as the earth lasted. It did not feel pain. It was never confused. He did not want to say any of this to Maddy. She would not understand. She would just say, “Honey, it’s just a rock—that’s all.”
They wound on through the woodland of oaks and hickories, a forest regrown since the Massachusetts Audubon Society had reclaimed the land from farmland in the 1950s and transformed it into this sanctuary. The trail was leading toward Brown Hill, which lifted gently above them some 1300 feet and would give them a workout if and when they climbed it. But before moving toward the hill, they saw a bench. They sat down because the temperature was nearly 90 degrees, and the humidity was suffocating. They unscrewed the tops of their canteens and drank deeply. The water slid like ice into their mouths and traveled down their throats and sacked into their bellies.
Maddy was still thinking, still ruminating. “And Peter,” she finally said. Peter was twelve years old and loved two things—baseball and rock music. “Would it hurt you to compliment him once in a while? Compliment his guitar playing? Tell him he’s making progress?”
Now Henry felt that he was being attacked, like a submarine battered by depth charges. He shrank from Maddy, felt that she was veering toward being overcritical. He felt raw, exposed. “You hate me,” he said, with an exaggerated pout. “I’m a terrible father.” He leaned pathetically toward her. “I’m as sorry as I can be,” he said in a Jerry Lewis voice. “I’m vewy vewy sorry. I’ll pull my pants down, and you can spank me right here.”
“Oh, for God’s sake!” she spat out. Her anger sparked, and tiny tears crept like mosquitoes into the corners of her eyes. She shot up and started to put on her backpack. “I’m going back to the car. I’ll wait for you there.”
He reached out and touched her on the shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have done that. I’ll stop being a jerk. Really—I mean it.”
She sat back down, but she did not look at him. The tension yawned like a fjord between them. He saw a blue jay, squawking and flitting through nearby bushes, landing on a branch that bounced up and down. The jay took off, continuing its flight to another bush. It squawked again in the way that blue jays do. “Look,” he said, pointing at the blue jay.
“I know,” she said in a monotone. “I see it. I don’t like blue jays. I prefer bluebirds. They’re prettier and more delicate. Blue jays take over everything. They’re bullies.” She stared at him.
The silence crept over them again, like a malignant disease. He ran the film of how he had gotten angry at Amy for leaving her clothes all over the place in her bedroom. He had yelled at her, and Maddy had told him to get out of their daughter’s bedroom. He had gone downstairs and poured a Scotch on the rocks and sat in his easy chair just as his father would have done. He felt his heart gallop with anger and his face red and the guilt pressing down on him. He didn’t know why the anger blew up like that and burst from him like a beast that he could not control.
Now, on the bench at Wachusett Meadow, Maddy turned to him. She said, “What’s going on with you? You’re just not you these days.” She put her hand on his wrist. “I know you’re better than that.”
She asked him this, and he did not know what to say. There were many things that he wanted to say, that he needed to say. But they were very difficult, almost impossible to say. “I guess I just feel cut off somehow,” he finally said, by way of starting, trying to explain things to her, trying somehow to let her see him at least a little. These were things that had been obsessing him, but he had never said them to her before. He said, “It feels weird, and frankly it feels ungallant somehow to talk about this shit. I don’t even know if I should talk.”
He said this without looking at her. Instead, he looked at the woodland surrounding them. In the distance, he could see the meadow with its grasses talking to the breeze. He said, “I don’t know what it is. It’s weird. I keep saying that, don’t I? I feel cut off, and I get angry about it and frustrated and then I take it out on the children, which I know is completely unfair and uncalled for. But I can’t seem to help myself.”
He felt as if he were falling off a cliff, going down, down. He said, “All my life I needed people, and now I don’t have people. I work, and that’s it. I feel lost, and it feels so humiliating to say so.” He paused, and he squeezed his eyes together, and he opened them and looked down into his lap and at his hands lying there. He stared into his lap because he did not want to look at her. He took a deep breath. He said, “You know, there’s this thing that happened when I was a kid. It just popped into my mind. I was in sixth or seventh grade, and we had to write a theme. We had to write about our strengths and weaknesses. I was a good student, but my teachers were always reprimanding me for talking too much in class and making smart-aleck remarks. You didn’t know that about me, did you? So, that’s what I wrote–that I was very immature and that I talked too much and that I picked on my younger brother and sister too much. I mean, I was very hard on myself.
“I got the theme back, and I got an A. On the theme, though, my teacher–Miss Hasselbeck, I remember her name, even after all these years–she wrote a note that said she appreciated my honesty but that I had many qualities that I should think about and that I could have written about.
“Well, then, that night, I showed the theme to my mother. She blew her stack! She growled, ‘How could you write something like this for all the world to see?! Don’t ever show this to your father!’ I felt so damn guilty. But I didn’t know what it was that I had done wrong! I had no idea! But I felt just terrible. I never showed the theme to my father. In fact, I tore it up and flushed it down the toilet. Literally—down the toilet!” Henry paused. “I hate to burden you with all this.”
“It’s all right,” Maddy quieted. “Keep talking.”
He said, “Sometimes I feel like I’m invisible, like nobody can see me. Nobody at all. I sit at the library, and I’m reading a newspaper, and I feel completely and totally anonymous. It’s strange. It’s hard to explain. I feel totally out of sight of others, like I’m living underground. I don’t have friends. You are the only friend I have. You are the only person I can talk to. It feels so ungallant to be talking this way, but I can’t help myself. It’s just vomiting out. It’s just like vomiting. I don’t know how else to explain it.” He paused. Suddenly he felt tiny tears form in the far corners of eyes. He looked at Maddy.
“You need to vomit it out,” she said.
Then it was silent—the silence of an ancient cellar where wines have been ageing for centuries—the silence after a funeral—the silence of distant love yearning to be captured. Finally he said, “Maybe I do.” Another silence. “But I’m sorry. I’m sorry for putting all of this shit on you.”
She said. “You need to do this.” She said it with Biblical solemnity because she knew. She knew things. She knew things more than he did.
He sighed. “My father was always getting angry,” he finally said. “You don’t realize that, because he’s always so nice to you and the children. But he’d get angry about the slightest thing, like if I didn’t clean up the paintbrushes the right way or if I broke a window or I forgot to put my bike in the garage. ‘Don’t you know that someone could steal it?!’ he’d yell at me. ‘You’re so goddam careless! You’ve got to learn to think, for God’s sake! Think!’ In those moments—and this is terrible to say–I would hate him. I would hate him! He’s nice to you and the children, and I’m thankful for that. But he was so hard, so angry when I was growing up. To be honest, I’ve never really forgiven him, even though he’s mellowed as he’s gotten older. He could be scary to me—really scary!”
Maddy and he looked at each other, and they were naked to each other. They had shed their psychic clothes, and he knew that for the first time, she could see him. She could see him for who he was. She took his hand in hers and squeezed it. They looked at each other. Their eyes melded like the merging of two consciousnesses. He trembled and shivered with the emotion he felt, the relief of dropping all pretense and the residual shame of revealing himself so nakedly. The emotion traveled through their touching hands. He could feel Maddy shiver and see the tears creep into the corners of her eyes as she looked at him.
They released their hands from each other. They arose from the bench on which they had been sitting. The brilliant sun was starting its chariot ride toward the western horizon, and they decided to backtrack toward the visitor’s center. Before starting, though, they looked at the map of the sanctuary, and they noticed a figure of a tree with a label that read, “Crocker Maple—A Tree Most Ancient.” Something about the figure of the tree called out to them. The tree lay to the southwest of where they were now. They started on the trail that led to the tree.
After fifteen or twenty minutes, they reached it. It towered above them—immense, overpowering. They stood, their shoulders touching. They stared in wonderment at the tree. The enormous, heavy limbs spread from the thick trunk like the arms of a giant octopus. The dense canopy of leaves unfurled over them, blocking out the sun. Thick chains protruded from the trunk of the maple, supporting the limbs of the tree. Those limbs would have crashed to the ground without the support of the chains. The thick, heavy limbs struggled toward the sky and sprouted smaller limbs, which yearned toward the heavens.
Maddy and Henry stood at the foot of the monster tree, and they were overwhelmed by its size and power. They walked up to the tree and embraced the trunk, felt its ancient bark grown rough through the decades and the centuries. The tree dated back to the American Revolution. It had seen decades of humanity’s trials and tribulations and tragedies and triumphs. Maddy and Henry felt the bark rough against their skin. Henry felt the sap flowing like blood through the trunk of the tree. He could feel the life’s blood of the tree. He could feel the very essence of the tree.
They looked up as one, and the thick canopy of the tree spread over them, blotting out the sun. The canopy was formed of thousands of maple leaves, which soaked up energy from the sun and formed chlorophyll. They could feel the life of the tree. They could feel the breathing of the tree as it lived and grew ever so slowly. They could feel the essence of this enormous organism that had served witness to the events and heartbreaks and yearnings of humanity. As they embraced the tree, Henry felt a mysterious completeness.
They departed from the tree, bade farewell to the tree. They walked hand in hand, skin on skin, and something traveled between them as they held each other’s hands. They carried the essence of the tree. They were silent, but it was a good silence as they slowly retreated from the tree and the glacial boulder and the long grass, weaving and talking in the gentle summer breeze.

Christopher Johnson

Christopher Johnson

I’m a writer based in the Chicago area. I’ve done a lot of different stuff in my life. I’ve been a merchant seaman, a high school English teacher, a corporate communications writer, a textbook editor, an educational consultant, and a free-lance writer. I’ve published short stories, articles, and essays in The Progressive, Snowy Egret, Earth Island Journal, Chicago Wilderness, American Forests, Chicago Life, Across the Margin, Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Literary Yard, Scarlet Leaf Review, Spillwords Press, Fiction on the Web, Sweet Tree Review, and other journals and magazines. In 2006, the University of New Hampshire Press published my first book, This Grand and Magnificent Place: The Wilderness Heritage of the White Mountains. My second book, which I co-authored with a prominent New Hampshire forester named David Govatski, was Forests for the People: The Story of America’s Eastern National Forests, published by Island Press in 2013.
Christopher Johnson

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