Black Walnut – Charlotte Hamrick
A Small Holding – Vivienne Merrill
Staghorn – James Claffey
The vaulting bodies are birds – Tara Isabel Zambrano
In the Word – Nick Fairclough
Figures – Ben Berman
Mariposa Grove, 1903 – Kristy Lin Billuni
Pests and Pestilence – Heather McQuillan
Poems and fantails and leaves – Sandra Arnold
Unveiling – Patrick Pink
Progress Report – Nick Roelants
Higher Up – Julianna Thibodeaux
The Hairy Child – Frankie McMillan
An Afternoon at Tony’s – Townsend Walker
Reading, Writing, Arithmetic – Nancy Ludmerer
Young Minds – Gaynor Jones
What Love Might Taste Like – Damhnait Monaghan
Wedding Picture – Diana Radovan
Beyond the trees they loved – Keith Nunes
Pragmatic – Mike Crowl
Naysayers – Kristin Kozlowski
The glue between – Cath Barton
Roots – Andrea Ewing
The battle of wills – Evie Jay
A Vancouver Dream – PJ Stephenson
When the Wild Wood Came – David Rae
Edvard Munch’s Eye in Eye – Jacqueline Doyle
Life is on the Edge – Ronnie Smart
Skins – Grant Faulkner
Sally Houtman: 12 Stories from 2012
Interview: Grant Faulkner
Interview: Frances Gapper
2017 Northland Flash Fiction Competition
In the Word
There’s a vastness that stretches. It goes and goes. Up and over. And where it must go down and then up again. Over and down. It goes and goes. The cloud starts to cover the peaks.
She comes to the foot of the mountains, where the trees crowd closer together. Crossing the bridge, she spots a lone trout in the river, stationary, facing the flow. For as long as she looks, it just stays there.
The river meanders, the track by its side.
The track diverts from the river. The gradient becomes steeper, the canopy thicker.
Deep in the bush now, the canopy covers the sky like a worn umbrella. Water seeps through, making her, and the ground, sodden. Her boots start sticking to the sludge.
A fog-like cloud creeps under the branches. She can only see metres ahead. The trees come in and out of the clouds. Words on paper. Come and go. Reappear. Disappear.
It’s tough going, this uphill slog. Her legs ache and her breath is heavy. Her heart thuds like the raindrops on her hood.
She makes it to the top but can’t see anything for all the cloud. She turns and looks back from where she’s come. The same: the cloud.
Some respite. Some calm.
The cloud cover breaks, only a little, enough to unsettle, just enough to see the tops of trees. The Words reappear. Disappear. Reappear. Smudge. Until the other side of the mountain is exposed.
Down she goes.
Because no one wants to hear about that time you hung a goat from a tree and his bowels came crashing down or what it’s like to have parasitic worms burrow into your feet then lay eggs on the walls of your bladder, we figured we’d better bring home some finely crafted masks to hang on our living room walls.
But you couldn’t make it through Unity Square without a wire helicopter bobbing and weaving in front of your face, without having to bust out into Shona to bargain a Rasta down from figures meant for tourists. And besides, all that beautiful art felt so foreign to our experiences.
I gave everything away once I got home, kept only the remembrances that came with memories – a bobble-head figurine of Mr T that my housemate gave me for my birthday, a campaign poster for Stalin Mau-Mau that I stole off a jacaranda tree, a wooden giraffe with three legs that I bargained off a street urchin for half a loaf of bread.
Mariposa Grove, 1903
Kristy Lin Billuni
This is how we saved Yosemite.
We summoned a wild man and a president. Distinctions like ‘president’ don’t usually concern us, but we cared whether this place remained our sanctuary or became theirs.
We sent a charm of finches, all red and gold and full of spirit. So they camped, built their fire, sprawled out on the earth and shouted at each other through the smoke that rose from our fallen heroes. They argued about art and bragged their hobbies. They arm wrestled and spat. We got them wine-drunk on our fragrance, and soon their chins tipped up toward our crowns.
Silence fell between them until the failing light got them talking about the colors in our branches. They quieted again, until they spoke of stars. Above them we listened to their voices vibrating in our needle-tips. We swayed to hypnotize them, fanning wide our most tender stems. The wild man sang. The president laughed. They danced.
In the soil below them we held fast to one another, our mighty roots pulsing. We chanted up into the soles of their feet. “We brought you here to love us. We brought you here to save the world.” Their conversation meandered through beloved poetry and treasured mountain ranges and finally turned to politics.
At last, the president said, “You’re right, John. You’re right.” And that was that. It was easy for us. We hold up the sky.
Pests and Pestilence
Mum named the apple tree on the riverbank Auntie. She prefers the tartness of Auntie’s apples though they’re riddled with codling moth, tells me I’m like the larvae who burrow to the core, an insatiable eating machine. Mum’s too tired to climb fences or trek across paddocks so it’s my job to gather windfalls and pick the ones within arm’s reach. I’m never to climb Auntie. From where she clings to the bank, the fall will be too far. Rabbits undermine Auntie’s roots. The river encroaches on our land. Fence wires dangle.
Long ago, Auntie swallowed an apple pip. It germinated. Sap threaded her veins, her cells changed, and she became a tree. These things happen in my family.
I shimmy up Auntie’s curved spine. One branch-arm reaches to the ground, the other points to sky. There’s a niche where I crouch, knees hunched, unseen from the sheds. I eat apples scored with boreholes. The river’s voice dulls out the shouts and constant sheep. Wary of swallowing a pip, I eat around deep-burrowed larvae tracks. I chuck fleshy cores into the current. Mum’s cells are changing. I cram my backpack with apples and walk home, my jeans soaking up the wet grass. My belly aches.
Mum can peel an apple all the way around so the skin becomes one long curling snake. I cut away the black rot and the cores and the pips. We make apple crumble. She touches my hand and tells me, Remember this.
Poems and fantails and leaves
A sycamore leaf spirals down in front of us. Anna reaches out and catches it. Absorbed with the leaf she doesn’t see my expression as she describes the weeks of chemotherapy, the blonde wig that covered her daughter’s bald head, the vomiting, the weight loss, the pain. “Then one morning I woke up at 2:00 am. I knew something was wrong.” She pauses. “She wasn’t in her room. I went out into the garden and found her. She was hanging from a tree.”
I stop, my breath ripped from my chest.
“When Riccarton House was restored I thought it would be the perfect place to celebrate my daughter’s 21st,” she says. “Instead, we held her funeral there.”
She studies the leaf. “Before we closed her coffin I took some leaves she’d pressed in a volume of poems by Ursula Bethell and put them in her hands. A fantail circled around my head then flew back into the bush. The first time I went to see Shulgi he told me about those leaves, and the bird. He couldn’t have known. But he did.”
Simon – or Shulgi – is walking towards us. Towards me.
“I have to give you a hug,” he says.
I take a step back. I don’t want hugs from strangers. Or stories about poems and fantails and leaves and girls hanging from trees. It hurts to breathe. But he’s holding me. And he’s saying, “You didn’t need to pack away her music. Play her music again.”
Tongues of flax, green karakia, call across gravelled pavement and puddled paddocks. Rows of old pines gnash grey clouds in serrated teeth beside pregnant patches of new growth. Clumps of white calla lilies gather along rusty railway tracks. Feathered toetoe bend their prayerful heads in a silent wind. The raised chalice of a nikau offers the sky a bitter drink of salvation. Whekī drag their long brown skirts, and mamaku remember grief.
Jase’s mum lays unfurled ponga to silver my way to the urupā at night.
It was a small coffin, lying in open ground, in a creek bed.
The Inspector of Nuisances was astonished.
Black-green slime on clay banks. Cracks, fissures – beds and conduits for putrefactive fermentation. Emanations – miasmata. Harbingers of zymotic disease. The Dead assailing the Living. Thus would read the report to Wellington City Corporation.
A child’s coffin.
Above it, a titoki tree, the crown lit by the sun that passed somewhere beyond the gully. The child’s refuge, he thought.
A young niece had been struck down years earlier by typhoid. In her delirium she had pleaded to climb the tree outside the bedroom window, to hide from the searching angel, she said. Vanishing one night during boisterous weather, she was found beneath the sickbed, drowned in her own lungs.
The box was light. As nothing. He was astonished. An unaccountable sprint up the slope of the Church of England cemetery; he and the girl’s father bore her. The funeral procession trailed behind, a broken black line struggling up from Bolton Street. Here, higher up, the nor’wester tore a sudden opening in the uniform grey and pulled at the coffin like a sail set for a journey. A force like a wind compelled him to turn and face the city below: the empty masts jostling restlessly at the quays; the weatherboard boxes of the Living, scattered along the shoreline, before his eyes multiplying, up the rises and along the gullies towards him. A contagion of progress, he thought. No place for the Dead.
At least the house isn’t an embarrassment. It has “great bones” – as the realtor said; it’s light-filled, the kitchen has “great potential” with its “open concept layout” and, if my husband ever has time again, I’m sure he’ll make some new cabinets and replace the vomit-colored tile. At least it isn’t linoleum. I had refused to buy a house with linoleum – anywhere. Even in the basement. I didn’t even want a basement, for God’s sake. So what if we have to ascend a ladder strung with rope, an empty loom with sockets peering into the gloaming cavity below. The ice can melt, the waters can rise. Hell can freeze over. Among the branches, life is fine. At least the house isn’t an embarrassment.
The Hairy Child
Because my father is not really out to hurt my mother and because the day is soon going to end and my bed is too messed up to sleep in, I climb the wardrobe and make another bed in the trees. First I drag up a faded red quilt. It has a few patches of Sellotape at the edge where the feathers leak out. If I curl up on this small hard space I might just fit. My legs of course are short. They are also covered in black hair. My father says he has never seen such a hairy child. I tell him my face is not covered in hair or my ears, fingers and toes but he laughs. He says, “What is this hairy girl doing, sitting on top of the wardrobe?” My mother hears our voices. “Don’t talk to him,” she says from the doorway.
I lie down, the sky so close if I sneezed it would rain. No one can get me up in the highest branch. After a while I call out. Yes, my mother says, she’ll bring my dinner up to the top of the wardrobe. A long time passes. The house is quiet. I stroke my hairy legs. It’s times like these I feel anxious – wondering about the next fight between my parents, wondering if the tall tree of my childhood will stand firm in the storm.
An Afternoon at Tony’s
Carlo is told to go to Tony’s Saloon on 82nd Street to see a man. He has white hair, is pale, with rimless glasses. Wears a dark suit, white shirt and red tie.
Carlo follows the proscribed route – the A train to 79th Street, three blocks north then left for a block and a half. He doesn’t know this neighborhood. Brought over for this job. He returns when it is over.
Carlo finds Tony’s, looks in, sees not one but three men at the bar. The three dress the same: beige suits, blue shirts, yellow ties. Their features are the same: black hair, hook noses.
He checks his watch, yes 3:12 pm. Carlo worries. He goes outside, rechecks the street number and name of the saloon.
He re-enters. No one is at the bar. Carlo worries anew, but walks slowly to the end of the mahogany bar, wood smell still on it, freshly hewn. The barkeeper asks what he’ll have to drink.
“Cinzano on the rocks.”
Carlo sips, looks around, watches the bartender serve other customers, glances at the door from time to time. The bartender drifts back to him. “Looking for someone?”
Carlo notices the bartender wears a red tie, with a black apron covering his shirt and pants.
Carlo is felled, falls from the stool.
He does not see the bartender take off his apron, put on his glasses, slip his arms into his navy blue coat.
Three men walk into a bar.
Reading, Writing, Arithmetic
Reading. “Who will be our donkey?” asked Mrs Lloyd. Third grade. Lance yanked Carly’s arm in the air, practically wrenching it out of the socket. Carly kept quiet.
She’d hoped to be a wise man – but was terrified they’d make her the tree.
The donkey costume was from Sarita’s father, who had a toy store. Carly couldn’t imagine a father who sold toys. Her own father did something important. Since her mother left, he was always angry.
She didn’t mind being the donkey. She didn’t have to speak.
Writing. In fourth grade, they wore uniforms. Outside for Poetry, Carly sat hunched over, knees to chest. A thick gnarly tree cast its shadow.
Mrs Conover recited Carly’s poem, which she said was the best. “Comments, class?”
“I like pounding rain,” offered Sarita.
“I like gashes of lightning,” said Jami.
Lance waved furiously. “I like ‘trees shake with fear’.”
Mrs Conover said, “I’ll turn you all into poets– not just Carly.”
But it wasn’t Mrs Conover who taught Carly. He taught pounding. He taught shaking with fear, and what “gash” meant.
Later, Sarita and Jami caught Carly hugging the tree. “Trees need to breathe!” Sarita scolded.
“I’m not stopping it.”
“How do you know?”
Carly knew. She knew you could hug someone so tight they couldn’t breathe. The tree wouldn’t notice.
Arithmetic. Fifth grade. The year they drew tree diagrams in math. Carly’s red pen bled over everything.
The year someone should have put two and two together.
But no one did.
So I guess I should tell you, I’m outside the Headmaster’s office again.
“No, no, no, you don’t understand this work at all.”
She wasn’t wrong.
“Something that was alive but now isn’t, yet still has a purpose.”
I talked about rotting corpses buried deep in earth until Angela Cook had to be excused to the nurse’s room.
Mrs Williams didn’t care that corpses have a purpose – if feeding worms and maggots can be called a purpose, after all.
She rapped on her wooden chair and asked, “What did this used to be?”
Ohhhhh. We got it. She wanted us to think, but only of the answer she was thinking of. So everybody drew chairs and trees in their science books.
Except for me. I drew a big bowl of red jelly next to a hefty cow.
“This isn’t what we just discussed. Where is your tree?”
I told her gelatine is made from beef and beef is made from cows so this jelly used to be alive and a cow and now it’s dead and a jelly.
Everyone was interested then, except for poor pale Angela Cook, who’d only just re-entered the room.
“And what is the purpose of jelly, exactly?”
Didn’t she know she was talking to a kid?
So, after I explained some more and everybody squealed and Eddie Thomas threw his birthday gummy sweets in the bin, I was handed yet another slip for Headmaster’s detention.
I guess I should’ve just drawn a tree.
What Love Might Taste Like
Tonight she’s cooking him dinner. Pasta, she said, because you’re Italian. As he climbs the stairs to her apartment, he thinks of Mama’s pasta. No woman has ever come close to it. When she opens the door, her cheeks are flushed tomato red. He sits at a kitchen stool and she pours him a glass of Chianti. Then she reaches behind him for the basil plant on the window ledge. She plucks a few leaves, carelessly, not in the methodical way of Mama. Then she hands him the planter so he can put it back. He examines it – an upcycled maple syrup can, decorated with a retro wintry scene. White smoke rises from a snow-covered shack. A horse, pulling a wagon, waits while a man in a red hat and coat bends over buckets near a stark tree.
“What’s he doing?”
“Tapping for sap,” she says. “You know, for maple syrup.”
He says he didn’t know maple syrup came from a tree.
She takes the can back and points out its slogan. “Made in Canada,” she reads, laughing. “Like me.”
Something about the man’s demeanour, the way he seems so engrossed in his task, reminds him of Papa in the olive grove. He remembers once at harvest when Papa said some olive trees would only bear fruit if they cross-pollinated with a different but compatible variety. Made in Canada. He pulls her close, half hoping she’ll taste of maple syrup.
The magnolia is in bloom in her hands. There’s a shadow on the on the wooden fence and on the door that stands closed behind them, but not a cloud in the sky. Her ankles are thin; one leg is slightly bent. His hand is resting on her shoulder, his fingers thick, swollen, red. It’s not the first time that he’s doing the marriage thing, but he is smiling. She is not. She cannot pose for the camera. She’ll never learn. The garden where they are standing is her mother’s, but they will not live here. The story will unfold itself, her womb will live and die, there will and won’t be children. But right now, it is spring. The red brick road unfolds in front of them. Their hands will still find each other even thirty years from now, even in more than one hospital bed, even in the darkness that she cannot escape. Perhaps he will rescue her. Perhaps she will rescue herself.
Beyond the trees they loved
He can smell the cinnamon that colours the porridge she made.
Deep inside his mouth, where the tongue slopes like Kilimanjaro, he can taste the medication. Not quite metallic, more the aftertaste of a syringe that’s just exited the gum before the dentist takes your teeth.
The chickens have escaped again – another bright idea that lost its lustre.
He edges his wheelchair down the pathway from the house under the weeping willow he loves, past the silent cherry she loves, to the roadside.
He sings lines from The Cruel Sea out loud: Life may be short but it’s still too long/sometimes I think it just goes on and on/and moves so slow in times of pain/mostly though it just seems to stay the same.
His wild laugh doesn’t travel – the low-slung, menacing clouds hugging the hills and sagging humidity muffle all sound.
His wife is in the lounge window with a coffee and is dressed in the blue kimono he once wore proudly. She doesn’t wave; she doesn’t do waves or blow kisses. They both guess at what the other is thinking.
A weighty concentrated rain crashes down on him as she answers the phone, still watching him at the roadside. She’s laughing at whatever is being said.
He tips himself out the wheelchair and lies prone on the road, watching her watching him. She stays on the phone, still laughing, the other hand fiddling with her tied-up hair.
The road is called Big Stone Road because there’s a big stone at the top.
It was named with the same pragmatism as the North and South Islands.
For the first time in all the seventy years I’ve lived in Dunedin we drove up the road to the stone. We stopped, and I climbed up the stone as far as I dared, having no wish to damage any of the body parts I’ve had for the aforesaid seventy years. And came down again. Carefully.
My wife stayed on the ground.
The so-called Pomeranian Cross ran up the stone, but didn’t go as far as I did. He has the idea that going somewhere, such as for a walk, requires you, at a certain unspecified point, to come straight back within the shortest possible time.
East, we could see Brighton Beach, and the coastline heading towards Taieri Mouth. West were endless hectares of forestry plantations. The old trees had been cleared. Toddler trees were digging in for the long haul.
By the time they mature, my wife, my dog and I will not be climbing on Big Stones, or on anything more imaginatively named. The little blue Mitsubishi, the one made for veterans of life such as ourselves – not including the dog – the one that’s so flimsy that a breeze will blow it across the road, will be blue scrap metal.
Young men not yet born will come in Health and Safety gear and hew the grown trees down.
I tell her about the naysayers. The horn breakers. I say there are people who will laugh at her ideas because her ideas are better than theirs, or make them feel stupid, or are so emboldened they can’t imagine how they’ll fit into the world. She says she isn’t allowed to say the word stupid, and I say: That’s right. But I am. And you shouldn’t listen to anyone who says your ideas are stupid.
I tell her that tongues are like forests, and people’s words are burrs that stick to us; we carry them. You have to grab them tight, yank them off. What happens if you ignore a burr? It pricks you in the behind when you try to sit down. She laughs when I say behind.
I don’t raise her like my mother raised me because she’s just like me and I know what didn’t work and that’s almost everything.
I don’t keep secrets tucked away like coins. I tell her the truth, paring away the flesh of the world. See, I say, how the bone gleams in the light.
I tell her that people are afraid of their own mediocrity, and that fear spreads faster than viruses. I tell her to always follow her biggest idea, her scariest one. I tell her to rope it and wrangle it to the ground no matter how long it takes or how many people laugh.
I tell her what I tell myself.
The glue between
You get out of bed, go to your desk and sharpen two silver pencils. It’s the day of your friend Caro’s funeral. You’ve slept badly. You put your nose to the curled shavings, searching for memories. What comes is the place where a boy took photographs of the person you were then, sitting against a tree in a nameless wood.
You feel the rough bark on your back through the thin blouse. Bleu, blanc, rouge: you’d bought the blouse in France. You gave him a four-leaf clover, that boy. The only one you’ve ever found. Much good it did him; they put him in a body-bag when he died. That was years later. Caro told you; she was still friendly with him. She was the glue between friends.
But Caro’s gone. There’s a tree by her grave, a silver birch. You’ll visit it, you promise yourself, next year on this day, and listen to the soughing of the wind through the leaves. There’s a view down over fields thick with corn now. And a patch of sunflowers. Like the ones in France.
You were there on holiday with Caro when she met a local boy. Another friend at her funeral remembers that too. You laugh about it together. But you know that she sat in the back of the car, your friend Caro, and wept as the sun glinted through the roadside trees, all the way home along the roads of France, without the boy. And now you’re the one crying.
As he grunts the camera one lane over, a cyclist’s gob of spit lands bristling at his feet. The bright antipodean light hits his stubbled face. In his orange high-vis vest he is a human road-cone, insignificant. A pedestrian laughs cheerfully: Mate! That was close.
In Poland no one dared call him mate, nor stay sitting when he strode into a room. He was Sir, or met with awed silence.
He thinks of blonde Ellie – how when she hums her seven-year-old songs, her voice is clean, untarred by foreign vowels yearning for a distant home. He moves a cone, and another. Forces confluence. Claims the empty space, eking out a place where he can stand.
The battle of wills
Dad kept exclaiming, “It’s a battle of wills!”
Three times since New Year, he’d found a browning Christmas tree in his garden. Three times, he’d thrown it back to his neighbour’s side of the fence.
“l’ll take it away if that man asks,” Dad said. “But I’m not going to let him dump it on me!”
I was alarmed. Dad had just moved into this house, and neither of us had yet met ’that man’, his only neighbour for miles. But I couldn’t say anything; Dad’s eyes were sparkling, and his voice more animated than I’d heard in a long time.
Next morning, I found Dad gleefully dragging a dying Christmas tree up the lawn. As I raced forward, a pleasant-looking man appeared on the other side of the fence. He introduced himself as Graham, and apologised for not talking earlier about “this business with the trees”. Townies, he explained, often dumped their Christmas trees around here at night. Dad’s house, being near the main road, was a popular site.
Graham laughed as he told us about the three trees stacked in his garden. Three? That’s right: three.
We peeked over the fence. There they were: three trees. How could we have missed seeing them?
Graham waved away Dad’s halting apology, and said he’d take the trees to the landfill. They shook hands, and agreed to have a drink together later.
“All’s well that ends well,” Dad said as we walked away. But his eyes were dull again.
A Vancouver Dream
You’re walking barefoot through the grass in Stanley Park, your skirt flapping around your thighs. Gnarled, twisted branches creak and sway, waving their leaves back and forth like the wrinkled arms of geriatric cheerleaders pumping fluffy green pom-poms in time to the rhythm of the winds.
Then you’re standing on the sea wall looking out across the bay. A float plane drones overhead, aiming its nose towards the distant skyscraper-lined waterfront where sun flashes off green glass.
When you turn, he’s standing in front of you, wearing a suit and tie. The silk square in his breast pocket is such bright crimson it seems his heart has swollen to bursting-point. Is that how much he loves you?
But why is he so smart? Is it his wedding day? He can’t marry anyone else.
“Elspeth ,” he implores, arms outstretched. “I want you back.”
He begs as if he needs forgiveness, as if it’s his fault your relationship is stalling. You want to say: “Yes, Sam. If you forgive me, I’ll forgive you.” But no words come out.
Another plane drones overhead.
No, it’s not an aircraft engine; it’s the buzz of a chainsaw. Someone is cutting down the trees. Raccoons and squirrels run for safety.
He continues to plead as trunks fall behind him, crashing to the ground in explosions of dust and leaves. You reach out to grab his hand …but you are falling. Falling to the ground with the trees of Stanley Park, a buzzing in your ears.
When the Wild Wood Came
When the wild wood arrived, it surrounded us, and we walked through the dappled shade. We thought it was a garden, or a park. We thought we could enter and leave as we wished. We thought of timber and firewood. We thought of hunting wolves and bears. We plucked fruit and flowers, thinking that they were gifts for us. We wondered if the whole world was forest now.
The wood stood a polite distance from the town. It stood waiting with arms reaching up to the sky as if it were expecting a sign. It did not have to wait for very long. It was as if we were being watched. At night, we would sit around fires, looking out to the forest and feeling uneasy. Some of us laughed about it. There is nothing to be afraid of. But we began to notice that more and more of us went into the wild wood and never came back.
The crows came; a whole mass of them started roosting in the trees right at the edge of the forest. They built wiry nests of twigs in the bare crowns of the trees and settled in for the winter. At evening they spiraled through the air, a harsh choir of beautiful croaking as they scolded and complained one to another.
One evening as the sun sunk into the trees, the whole rookery rose in alarm, circled round the sky and left heading out towards the coast. Something else had arrived.
Edvard Munch’s Eye in Eye
“We have no words for the simplest of things – for example, the way in which a person is present in the room, that person’s essence, it’s not something we understand, but something we feel and know with our emotions … And this is true not only of people. It is also true of trees. Every tree has its own expression, its own way of standing in the world.”
Between the Clock and the Bed
They face each other, their profiles separated by the slender, sturdy tree immediately behind them. His woeful expression and ghastly pallor suggest that words have already passed between them.
“Are you sure?” he asked. “I can wait,” he said. He is white-faced, his sepulchral visage and collar glowing in the darkness, making him appear disembodied.
“I’m sorry,” she answered. She stares, eye sockets dark, her face vivid with the colors of the tree trunk behind her. Her wild hair tumbles over her shoulders, rich chestnut and auburn, blending with the base of the tree, tendrils like roots. Her cheeks flush red. Everything is on her side of the painting. The leafy tree. The house in the far distance. Her profile overlaps the tree, echoes the red of the house.
An oval scar on the tree trunk marks an amputated limb. “See how I grow,” the tree whispers, trunk shining, upper limbs abundant with green leaves. “See how I grow.”
Neither looks at the tree, so close they can touch it. She hears. He doesn’t.
Life is on the Edge
A baby sparrow has fallen from its nest. It flaps its fuzzy wings, wings which wouldn’t serve to calm a match. Flames pass through the forest unheeded.
Some headless wonder stirs the flames. The airwaves become black with smoke and lies. The fire makes its way through the trees, trunks crackling and murmuring as they turn to cinders.
When life is on the edge, the tongues abate. There are some trees that stand apart.
But someday, maybe someday soon, the wind will rise. The air has weathered storms, and will have more.
If only we could go out back, like when we were kids, and smoke and fool around under the trees. We listened to our parents’ parties, their ashtrays filling up with butts, rumblings of laughter. Why did they want us to grow up to be like them? They didn’t think we’d mingle with evil. They didn’t anticipate inclinations toward torpor. We imagined the husbands loved the wives, boxer shorts and JC Penney bras. But we knew so much more, mosquitoes biting our skin. We knew it’s best to stay out of the way, even if there is no way back.