by Elizabeth J. Colen and Carol Guess
If trees could talk, you said. If they could tell us what they saw.
But if you didn’t want to talk about it, why would a tree?
We walked in the arboretum as if nothing had happened. Past Japanese Maples, Witch Hazels, Legumes. Through Pinetum and across the stone footbridge. The math of it, was what you said.
We stopped to eat among Hollies and Hawthorns. When you sliced an apple, the red cored curl made me want to ask questions. The thing that had happened was unlikely to happen again, but you needed to be sure, so you carried a knife. You wanted me to carry one, too, but I was clumsy and sometimes fell. Even in the arboretum I liked to wear heels, the kind most women wear at night. It felt safer to wear heels during the day. At night I wore flats, shoes that could run.
When we got back to your apartment, I always cleaned the bottom of my heels with a paper towel. I did this sitting on the floor in my skirt, and sometimes you watched, lifting my hem. After a while I stopped wearing anything underneath my skirt and our walks got shorter.
There was nothing unusual about them, you said.
Who? I asked. We were eating dinner at your place.
The couple, you said. In the arboretum. The couple I saw in True Ashes that day.
I thought you said it happened in Hollies.
God no, you said. Nothing like that.
I sprinkled salt on my salad. Sometimes I ate salty things and sometimes sweet, but never at once. You claimed you couldn’t tell salt and sugar apart. But you said that about a lot of things.
I thought about all the couples I’d seen walking in the Arboretum. How the woman sometimes bent into the man as if she couldn’t walk on her own. How the man explained the names of trees while she extended her branches.
We’re not like that, you said.
But what did you mean?
I wanted to ask what it was that you’d seen. I’d avoided the news for a week after that. You saw it first, from the outside, a stranger. On the cusp of True Ashes, and who knew what they saw.
Maybe trees bend toward us on purpose.
Sunlight, you said. The science of roots.
But maybe it’s more. Maybe they feel things.
Would you stop eating plants if you knew what they felt?
I didn’t answer, just rubbed my ring across my wrist.
You lifted my hem. Bunched my skirt around my waist and straddled me. My shoes and hands were dirty, but you wanted my mouth, so it didn’t matter.
The couple, I asked. What was she wearing?
Did I mention a woman?
I assumed they were straight.
So it was two men. Or two women? Who else could it be, walking in pairs?
The next morning you went to work and I worked from your apartment. It was part of our agreement to trade. Sometimes your upstairs neighbor played music, pot smoke drifting down through the vents.
At noon I walked to the corner store for a sandwich. While I was browsing I noticed a pack of bubblegum cigarettes. I hadn’t seen that kind of candy in years. Something about advertising smoking to children.
Can I have these for half? I asked.
The clerk looked at the date on the faded pink wrapper.
Just take them. We don’t even carry those here.
I put the pack in my pocket. Bought coffee and a loaf of bread. Walked from the store to the arboretum. Scattered bread, waited for birds.
They swooped down from the sky to land at my feet.
If you would wait. If you would stand very still.
When you came home that night you asked if I’d gone to the arboretum.
Why do you ask?
Because of the dirt.
It was true. I’d tracked dirt through the kitchen. In the movies you liked, girls licked the floor clean.
I scrubbed with a towel while you uncorked a bottle. Then you poured two glasses and we sat on the couch.
In the morning you were gone again. I couldn’t remember the kiss, if there had been one, how long, mouths open or closed. All I was left with was the dream, but no one wants to hear about that. Everything the color raw umber, everything shaded and drawn. I went looking again.
I liked that the woods had a name here. Arboretum. Sometimes I got glossolalic about it. Sometimes it turned into other things. Our bore eat them. Arrr burr, arrr boar. Eee tomb. A tomb.
What had you seen? I texted you all day. And followed couples. Took pictures while their backs were turned. Them? I texted, with photo. Them? To the pictures you offered no response. Only: stop that. You’ll get yourself in trouble. So I stopped that. Was someone taking pictures, I asked. No. Was someone hurt. No. Was there blood. Absolutely not. Well what was it. I took a picture of the sky and you told me: closer. And then the day was filled with meetings, you with your people, me with the trees. Near noon I looked at my watch to see if I could be hungry. The stippled light made my wrist look bark-like just for a second. Then a crow chattered and I was me again.
Did you work today, you asked when you got home. I told you I tried to, but you didn’t know what that meant. You took off your shoes and all I could think was that your feet were ugly, but that I liked all of the ugly in you. At ten, like always, you held my wrists behind me and pushed me up against the stove. I liked my hands on you, but you liked them behind me. No, you told me when I tried to get free. That’s not how this is going to be. Your face was full of drink and I went stiff until you quit.
What did you see?
What did you see?
But you were out, snoring, sawing zees. I put on the noise machine, turned it to birds and mapped out the park in my head. Everything green, but the ashes were glowing.
I went to see my mother in Auburn and sat so long watching talk shows I couldn’t get up from the chair. She was talking about men with red hair again. Why always this I didn’t know. And hats. Cloche and fedora, schoolboy and beret. At least it wasn’t the shadows. Sometimes she saw people who weren’t there. Sometimes my father. Sometimes another one of me. Was I a twin, I started to wonder. I tried to pay attention. Ginger, she said. Ginger? Ginger, their hair. I hit my legs, but they were wooden. I hit them again; they softened a bit. My legs felt filled with water. I felt I could spread out again.
You called to tell me not to come home, that you would be late anyway. I thought it was good to be out in the sun, or, the light like flame on the carpet from the skylight. I let it lead me around the room. I stretched out in it, lifted my face to it. Is it strange, I thought and then texted, that I swear I can feel my hair grow. You never responded. Just two words to say goodnight: sleep well.
What did you see?
What did you see?
Are we back to this again?
Out of the corner of my eye I saw an axe in your hand, but it was just the chain and you led me around, or it was just your two rings catching the light.
Come here, you told me. And I did as you said. I started to touch your face, but you said it tickled. In the lamplight you looked a little green. I couldn’t see myself in you.
Close your eyes, you told me. And I was sure I’d never open them again, so I didn’t.
Count to ten, you said. But I didn’t.
On the bed, you told me. And that wasn’t a question. My knees went out from under me. But you changed your mind.
Open your eyes. But they were already open.
On your feet. They felt out of control. I put on my heels.
Out the door. You may as well have collared and leashed me.
I was in front of you all the way, you giving directions. Right at the Hollies, left at the Dogwoods, straight through the copse of Magnolia. They smelled sticky and sweet. Dead blooms blackened underfoot.
Don’t turn around, you told me. But I wouldn’t have thought of it. Don’t speak. I said nothing.
Into the stand of True Ash my heels sank slow as you stopped me. My toes found soil, that damp cold, and began to tunnel down. My legs were striated and hard, hard husk, a cortex, a casing, outer shell. My head felt light and the wind began to move through me. You kissed my shoulder, hand heavy at the back of my neck. You got me down on my knees, but that wasn’t low enough. I disappeared in the leaves.
Elizabeth J. Colen is the author of poetry collections Money for Sunsets (Steel Toe Books, 2010) and Waiting Up for the End of the World (Jaded Ibis Press, 2012), flash fiction collection Dear Mother Monster, Dear Daughter Mistake (Rose Metal Press, 2011), and the long poem / lyric essay hybrid The Green Condition (Ricochet Editions, 2014).
Carol Guess is the author of fourteen books of poetry and prose, including Darling Endangered and Doll Studies: Forensics. Forthcoming books include With Animal and The Reckless Remainder, both co-written with Kelly Magee. She teaches in the MFA program at Western Washington University.