BY MARI NESS
When he finds her, she is sitting on her feet, knife against her wrists, watching the blood fall down, drop by drop, to the base of the tree.
“I can save it,” she tells him drowsily.
He kisses her forehead tenderly. “I know.”
He pulls her wrist away from the knife. A small, shallow cut this time: no need for a hospital. He gives a silent sigh of relief as he gently leads her back into the house.
They need to cut the tree down, he knows. It’s mostly dead, with only a few dry, brown-green leaves, and the soil in their yard is more sand than soil. As it is, a single gust might knock it over, and hurricane season is approaching. Even she’d begged him to remove it a week before, and the week before that. And yet—
They’d bought the house in part because of that tree. Bent, crooked, and—at the time—flaming with red flowers.
“Perfect,” she’d said, and they’d started the paperwork that day.
He shuts his eyes for a moment, remembering the tree that day as he leads her around the familiar walls to the tiny main bathroom, where he cleans her wrists, running gentle fingers over the red marks already there, already healing.
“I think the yard wants me to save it,” she says, as he pours antiseptic over the small wounds. She cocks her head. ”Listen! It’s singing!”
The main bathroom is a tiny one with no windows. Most of the sound from the outside world is muffled, but the yard does have a lot of crickets, and he can almost hear them now. He nods.
“It would be a good place for the swing set.”
That hurts, and he doesn’t turn his face away in time. A shadow passes over her face.
“Let’s go,” he tells her. He finishes wrapping the bandage around her wrist.
It’s just a few steps down to the small bedroom in the front where she now sleeps, but she stumbles on the way anyway, and almost turns into the main bedroom, on the other side of the hallway, with its window overlooking the backyard and the tree.
The blinds in that window have been down for days, but at the last minute, she turns and enters the smaller room.
“I know,” she tells him. “Hurricanes.” His head lifts up sharply as he moves her feet up into the bed. “I know—but.”
He reaches out, putting his hands on hers.
She looks away.
“I can save it,” she repeats.
He tucks a light blanket around her. She doesn’t really need it, in this warmth, but he knows she finds it comforting.
He even knows how. Not with blood—that hadn’t worked the last three times, and isn’t going to work this time either. But the tree is a common enough one; he can simply arrange to have her stay someplace else for a couple days—sedated, if necessary—and get the old tree dug up and replaced with a new one. In her current state, she might not even notice. The hardware store usually has a decent selection. He could do that. He should do that.
He leans down to kiss her forehead. “Sleep.”
She won’t, not really, but she might shut her eyes and stay still, and that’s something.
He hasn’t slept for days himself, not really, and the evening is getting dark. But he heads back out to the yard anyway, listening to the crickets and the screams of the kids playing a few blocks down the street. His fists clench before he forces them to relax. He takes a deep breath and walks out to the dying tree. He reaches a hand out to touch its branches, remembering the first time he had found her outside here, collapsed on the ground, her jeans stained with blood.
He looks down at the patch of ground near the tree. In the evening, that patch still looks a little bit darker. He bends down to touch it. It feels warm. From the sun, he tells himself. The sun. But he leaves his hand there for a moment.
He’s lied to her before plenty of times, about little things, about big things. All part of marriage, he supposes, or at least their marriage. At the hospital, and afterwards, but before that too.
But he can’t lie about this.
He does call her sister to arrange to have her taken away for a couple of days. No. A week. A cruise. She won’t want to go, but being away from here might help, or at least get her some real sleep. Her sister agrees.
Once she’s gone, he calls the tree removal experts, telling them to take everything, even the stump. It takes four hours. By the time they are done, the darkened patch is completely gone, leaving only a hole surrounded by sand.
The next day, he heads out to the hardware store. He avoids the small trees with red flowers, and instead goes right to the seed section.
He doesn’t call for help with this. He plants every seed himself.
When he’s done, he falls back against the yard into the warm earth, shutting his eyes and imagining the flowers that will grow there: tall yellow sunflowers, with giant black eyes in their center. She might hate them. She might love them.
It doesn’t matter.
They’ll sell the house, he tells himself. Find another affordable place with trees, small and large. Or a place without a single tree, but a yard bright beneath the sun. Start over.
Or maybe they won’t. Maybe they will put a swing set out here after all. She’s right: it is a good place for one. He imagines small legs swinging out over the tall sunflowers, imagines sturdy lawn chairs, imagines resting in the sun, listening to the song of the earth. Imagines putting another tree with bright red flowers over there, in the corner of the yard. A tree that might, in time, grow to cover this part of the yard with cool shade.
Beneath him, the earth starts to rock, slowly, gently. He hardly notices, lost in thoughts of flowers and swings, shade and chairs, hardly notices the thin pointy things like branches or roots coming up to hold his arms and legs, cradling him, rocking him. Hardly hears the soft humming around him, softer and sweeter than the nightly cries of crickets. But he does notice the petals that fall into his hand, thin and soft, red as blood.
Mari Ness writes fiction.
Photo by Julian Santa Ana on Unsplash
Published August 13th, 2019