by Shannon L. Bowring
No one’s asking what I think about the tree.
“Tear it out,” says my father.
“If you had it your way,” my mother sighs, “the entire lawn would be a golf course.”
“If you try to tear it down,” my Sister the Activist proclaims, “I’ll live in it. You aren’t so heartless that you’d bulldoze a tree your own daughter was living in, would you?”
“Lawn guy’s coming Saturday. The tree goes.”
It’s not like it’s a mighty oak or an elegant, miraculously un-diseased elm. It’s a scraggly old spruce tree that smells like cat piss and bends in rainstorms as though it is about to snap like a trebuchet. One branch juts out like a broken tooth, hanging with limp abandon over the yard, sagging lower every year.
“Like an old lady’s tits,” my Brother the Prick laughs, soda dripping down his pimply chin.
“And you wonder why you don’t have a girlfriend,” spits our sister. She smells of patchouli and rides her bike everywhere, even when she has to pedal her way across town in the rain.
Our brother belches, confesses to me he’s peed against the tree trunk at least twice in recent memory.
My mother’s hands are covered in gray dishwater soap bubbles – it seems as though this is a permanent state of being for her, as though the suds are gloves she wears around the house at all times. She watches daytime television and pretends she might have become an actress in another life.
“Take it up with your father,” she says. “He’s had it out for that tree since we moved into this place. Don’t dry those bowls like that.”
My mother has specific requirements for how a dish is dried; it’s always struck me as a small miracle that her dishes get dry while her hands remain covered in all those foamy suds. It’s the only miracle she is capable of producing these days.
“Tree’s gotta go.” My father, a voice from behind a headline. His coffee sends up steam in the pale morning light, weaving and twisting in the air. He clears his throat, asks me if I shouldn’t be getting ready for school.
“It’s not doing anyone any harm,” I say, but if he hears me, he doesn’t answer. This is not a tragedy; this is not neglect; this is my father, reading his morning paper.
My sister stays home from school the day before the designated uprooting.
“This is my mourning time,” she says, staring out her window at the spruce tree. “Besides, I started my rag this morning and the cramps are a real bitch.” She reads Kerouac and pretends her friends are mad to drive across the country like her in a state of drug-addled frenzy when really they are beige automatons who drink lite beer and aspire to community college and office jobs. She is eighteen and ready to be anything other than what she already is.
At school, my brother sees me and my friends emerging from the cafeteria.
“Look at the little babies,” he says to his bully friends, the big one with the almost-mullet and the skinny one with the braces. “Off to take their little naps.”
He thinks to be a ninth grader is to be king. He forgets I will be in high school with him next year, sharing the locker room where his coveted Blonde Goddesses swap lipsticks while standing around in nothing but their matching satin bras and panties.
His bully friends laugh as I pass. I ask my brother if he remembered to clean his jizz out of the shower drain this morning. His friends laugh louder, at him now.
I’ll pay for that one later.
We’re not a family that shares stories or gives thanks over turkey dinners. We’re not a Wonder bread family, or a broken one. We’re simply who we are, who we became together.
My father, who works in an office that specializes in selling people things they probably don’t really need.
My mother, who wears dishwater gloves and watches soap operas all day long. Her entire existence, it seems, relies upon suds of one form or another.
My Sister the Activist, who protests taxes. One day she will be an artist. Or a kale farmer. Or one of those no-nonsense lesbians you see acting as body guards to the women who skulk into the abortion clinic among angry bloody-fetus-sign-waving Republicans.
My Brother the Prick, who may one day be very successful if shower-masturbation ever becomes an Olympic sport.
And me, who recently learned that trees communicate with one another in their own language, sharing secrets underground while the rest of us plod, unknowing, upon their earth, thinking we own the place.
Uprooting day comes in with a dim, tired light. The sun is in hiding, hungover, shuddering beneath a quilt of clouds. My mother washes dishes in the double sink she begged to have installed as a birthday present one year. My brother is in the bathroom, doing what he does best, oblivious to the scene in his own backyard, where his older sister is currently weeping under the tree marked for slaughter.
“It’s a living thing,” she sobs, “a living, breathing thing, Daddy!”
Our father sighs and smokes a cigarette, waiting for the lawn guy to arrive. “Don’t you have a job to get to?” he asks, because he doesn’t know that she got fired last week for spending too much time philosophizing and not enough scooping ice cream.
At one point he looks to me for support, giving me that smile we exchange sometimes when we want to pretend we are the only two sane people in this family. But I just look back at him and shrug, and eventually he sighs again and lights another cigarette.
“In twenty minutes,” he says to himself, “all this will be a thing of the past.”
The thought seems to comfort him. My sister, meanwhile, lies slumped on the ground, her white cotton skirt collecting grass stains, barely stirring in the comatose morning breeze. Her hair is long, her eyes closed, spruce needles plopping down upon her chest.
And the tree ignores her, unmoved by her theatrics, and whispers to me instead, its voice humming through the ground and into my feet.
You’re really not going to say anything? You’re really just going to let him tear us apart like this? Think of all the times we’ve shared.
So I do. I think. I remember.
Before her life became a series of dishwashing and television, our mother had us play hooky from school one day. I was six. We’d just moved to this house, and our father was at work. Our mother packed up sandwiches and chips and a pitcher of grape Kool-Aid, and we sat under the tree and ate our picnic, the three of us believing we had gotten away with something. To think, three children and their mother, none of them doing what they should be doing, instead lying under a tree and drinking sugar water until their bellies ached.
“Don’t tell your father,” she said, winking, and we never did, and it was our best kept secret for years.
Our next-door-neighbor chased me around and around the tree one summer twilight, the grass cool under our bare feet. His blonde hair stuck to his forehead with sweat. He kissed me under the broken branch, his cool, small teeth clicking against mine. We were ten, and he told me he wanted to be an acrobat when he grew up, but he was afraid of heights.
That cold night last fall, my sister and I curled up beneath one wool blanket, backs leaning against the trunk, hidden from the house. “You need to hold it in longer,” she instructed, demonstrating, and I did, the smoke burning my lungs and making my head feel like a balloon. The two of us laughing over jokes we forgot as soon as they slipped from our lips. Her face when she told me she’d never figured out how to swim without sinking a little.
And that bright January morning a few months ago. It was a week before my thirteenth birthday, and I’d woken to finally discover the red bloom in my underwear. The winter ground glittered in the sunlight. I lay beneath the tree, making snow angels, and the branches sighed and swayed, needles dropping onto the white ground, the tree quivering with the same joy and sorrow I felt. My body upon the earth, and the tree above and below, and both of us in the continuous cycle of shedding one life to begin another.
“Lawn guy’s here,” my father says, and he picks my sister up off the ground as though she were as light as a baby. “We’ll plant a new damn tree if it means that much to you. But this one’s gotta go. Half of it’s dead.”
She returns to the house, and when I look up at the kitchen, I see them all watching from the window. My brother’s greasy hair lifting slightly in the breeze, my mother and sister, both of their mouths set into the same straight, hard line.
“Shut the damn window, you’re letting out all the damn heat!”
But the window stays open, and my father drops the f-bomb under his breath but says no more, his way of conceding defeat.
The lawn guy is wearing dark green coveralls, dingy Nikes peeking out from the hem of his too-long pants. Dark, curly hair, a crooked mustache, a black-blue stubble on his cheeks. When he walks past me, I smell his cologne, and that weird part of me that has begun to wake up ever since I found that red rose of blood in my underwear springs to attention. He strides forward with his head tilted, staring up at the tree, laughing a little at the sad-sagging limb. In one hand, he clutches a chainsaw.
“Big one,” he says, and my father nods, grunts in that way men talking to one another do.
“Yup. Pretty big.”
“Gonna hafta watch the house with this one. Bit of a tricky angle.”
“Think you can do it?” A challenge.
“Oh, I can do it.” A bet.
Before the man pulls the cord on the chainsaw, I take one last look at the spruce as it is, committing to memory the jutting angle of that broken branch, the urine smell emanating from the needles, the proud way the tree forms a silhouette against the gray morning sky. Beneath my feet, the tree’s entreaties are growing fainter, as though it has accepted its fate, hearing similar underground stories from other trees sentenced to execution. So it’s like that, it says, another one gone and forgotten. Everything has to die eventually.
And I think we have an understanding, the two of us.
The lawn guy glances at me again before beginning, his dark eyes glinting with something new and thrilling as he glances at my budding breasts and curving hips. A barely perceptible nod, an unspoken answer, and that something in me awaking fully now, liquid flooding into the hollow between my legs.
He pulls the cord once, twice, and the chainsaw roars to life.
Shannon L. Bowring is 27 years old and lives in Maine. In 2012, she graduated from the University of Maine with a B.A. in English/Creative Writing. Her work has appeared in The Maine Review, the Hawaii Pacific Review, Sixfold, and the Joy of the Pen online journal, for which she won the Verdi L. Tripp Fiction Award. She is also the author of Twice Sold Tales, a blog published by the Bangor Daily News from October 2015 – February 2017.