Birches


He stood at the window, staring past the birch trees swaying in the cold wind. Fall was descending rapidly, the kind of Canadian fall that slips in quietly on the back of warm days. Autumn was taking him by surprise this year—the trees had nearly no leaves left, and the back yard was carpeted in faded browns, reds and dirty golds. When had he missed the violent colours of the trees before the fall?

He was walking along the river, when she was there, and they were sitting under a canopy of colours. She caught the odd brilliant red leaf falling and remarked, “This is life. Learn from it!” and then playfully shoved him over, gazed into his eyes with those deep green gold eyes and kissed him, and he held her to him, her warmth merging with his under the canopy by the river.

The water was cold and grey. He had been doing dishes; they had been piling up for days, and this morning he had finally gotten sick of looking at them. He was nearly finished with the task, but the suds had disappeared. He took his hands out of the murky water and rested them on the edge of the sink as he lost himself in skeletons of birch trees waving in the wind. He found himself thinking of Emerson, strangely enough, thinking of the line “Give me truths/For I am weary of surfaces/ And die of emptiness.”
He jerked himself out of his reverie, and his hand knocked a glass off the counter where it shattered on the floor. The emptiness grew larger, now leering at him. It was a wine glass, a blue luminescent wine glass. He had cooked. Dinner had been a stir-fry, and the wok caught on fire. She shrieked and had nearly thrown the wine on the fire. He beat her to it, calmly and coolly, with the salt. The fire extinguished now, they collapsed laughing on the floor. Then she reached up, took the wine glass off the cupboard with a deft backward motion of her wrist and gave it to him, and they had chardonnay on the tiled floor, the musical clink of the glass as she toasted his cooking, a mischievous twinkle in her eyes.
The shattered glass grated and crunched. Mechanically, the pieces now dull in the cloudy twilight as they were swept in the blue dustpan the blue hood of his car in the clear navy night of summer with the stars so close he thought if he reached up he could pluck one out of the sky. He, in his confidence, promised to give her one. She would, he had promised with a grin on his face, be the only girl with a star on her finger.

Her silence.

Lying there on the blue hood of his little Honda with a quiet smile on her face, never once taking her eyes from the stars. “See that cluster there? That’s the Pleiades,” she murmured, pointing to a cluster of six stars. She told him of the Cherokee legend, of the boys who would rather play than work and were given stones to eat instead of corn. Upset, they determined to get away from their mothers, and danced around in a circle praying for the spirits to help them, and thus, were taken up into the sky and became a cluster of six stars. The seventh boy’s mother tried to keep him, and yanked him down where the earth promptly covered him up. He grew into a pine tree, reaching forever up to the heavens, immortal. In the winter, when all things died or went to sleep, the seventh boy would live and remain green, reaching up to his brethren twinkling in the sky. “Out of sadness, comes beauty,” she finished quietly. “That is always the way things are in life.” She reached for his hand and put it on her heart, and he had not dared look at her as if looking at her would make the stars disappear, make them and that moment disappear. He was not certain why he did not want the moment to vanish. He still did not so he kept it locked up in the closet of memory hidden away.

He had not understood at the time. He still did not understand. She seemed to know things, to feel things he could never understand and at times this had disturbed him, as a rock thrown into a pond disturbs the smooth, unbroken surface and disappears to the still, silent currentless bottom. From the bottom of the heart the currents are sometimes still and from where the spring comes no one knows he thought to himself the words meaning nothing, nothing at all. It was always words with her he thought, a never-ending river of words buzzing around his head like so many flies. The words meant something to her, and as frantically as he searched for the keys to why he could never find them and the fact that he could not niggled at him but he shoved that discomfort down inside him. He shuffled through a box of papers. Everything she had ever written to him. “I love you and I miss you” folded up and silenced in envelopes torn open only to be put in a box with a lid and placed in his closet. The door stuck on the closet. He didn’t like opening it. She tried to fix it once and it annoyed him because she could never leave well enough alone. Wasn’t it enough he put his arms around her, wasn’t it enough he would laugh like he did on the floor with the wine glass now shattered. Why did she need to know so much why did she need to fix that stuck closet door that he wanted to keep the way it was because it was easier than forcing it open but she said it had to be opened in order to be fixed.

The silence descended on him with the blue darkness. She hated silence. She used to give him music, used to give him songs. He hated it. He hated figuring out what they were supposed to mean. She was communicating something but he was never certain what it was, and this caused him discomfort as well. He tugged at the closet door, angry at its refusal in opening. A CD spilled out through the crack, a violin concerto that he had never listened to. Again he had that uncomfortable feeling of not understanding. He threw it angrily back into the dark crack. The door wouldn’t shut either. He opened the front door and went outside. The clouds were parting and the stars were becoming visible in the darkness. Down the road the neighbours’ lights shone warmly into the darkness. The silence was friendlier out here and he did not wish to go back to the silence of the house and the cold grey dishwater and the single wine glass that was not shattered. The coldness bit through his sweater and looking down at the front stoop he saw he had forgotten the plant. It was dried up and dead; he had neglected it. He considered the deadness of the plant. To be certain he placed his hand on his heart in the darkness and heard the comforting steady rhythm under his palm. He was alive. He had the uncomfortable feeling that somewhere in the living he had turned for a second and missed something as he had missed the thundering explosion of the colours of the leaves in the cold autumn. The brightness of the stars was covered up by a cloud and the friendly silence turned colder. Wearily he turned to the dark open door of the house and blindly groped for a light to banish what lurked in that silence.
Then in his memory, the darkness fell away and there were lights all around him and the shouts of “Surprise!” echoed. She presented him with a cake with what he thought was way too many candles and as expected he blew them out. It was then a shadow crossed her face, as she beamed at him as shadows had been crossing them for the last little while. He wondered what he had done to make that shadow appear. She ought to have known he disliked surprises. He liked birthdays to come and go and did not pay much attention. He had missed Valentine’s Day and had been silent at Christmas as well.
The lights faded until there was just one on glaring over the dining room table. He walked back to the sink where the dishes now clean were piled up and decided against putting them away. He smiled grimly to himself as he realized he was revolting; she had always insisted on putting them away immediately, she always washing, he drying them, he liking her closeness, she always moving closer as she washed, sometimes touching his nose with the soap bubbles trying to get him to laugh. He had never laughed much around her and he found himself now her laughter fading away considering this as if he stood outside himself looking at the two of them through a glass wall and he could not pass through the glass to become the man he saw and for the first time he felt separated from himself in a way he had never noticed until now and he shoved this new discomfort away in the same box with her letters and her love. I only did what God asked he thought stubbornly. She doesn’t understand. He didn’t understand; how could she?
He was there; she ought to know he was happy. He could not be as ebullient as she was, always every moment a celebration and when she was sad the whole world crumbled around her and she curled up into his arms as if she could crawl inside of him. He reflected she would not like what she would see. But he liked cradling her weakness and wiping away her tears. Then as quickly as it began, the tears barely dry, she would smile and it would be as if the clouds had never darkened her sky. He never cried about anything and marvelled at her capacity to do so as frequently as she did. He thought he could help her not to, and could not understand why she was angry when he talked with her about it.
She was angry so much at the end, angry in love with him. He could not laugh as she did, could not dance, and felt as if he were perpetually in a whirlwind when she was around him. She loved him so much and he could feel her arms wrapped around him but the still waters brought nothing bubbling up and in his discomfort at his own private silence he put his arms around her as she expected and she squeezed him harder as if it would forced something to pop up to the surface. She felt the nothingness in the silence and separated, they sat down, she on the couch in the front room and he at the table. He had work to do; snowflakes were dancing outside the window. She loved to dance and took his hands one day when he was at the table looking at papers and took him round to music only she could hear. He did not understand and he knew she knew too for the shadow reappeared and she went back to her book the moment irrevocably changed and then he could no longer focus on his work because of the question that now hung in the air that she did not want to ask for she knew the answer already, and she tried to hide it, but he saw the tear gliding silently down her cheek as she read her book and he knew she wondered if he loved her at all, and he stared down at his hands, the hands that held her, the hands that gave her things, the hands that strayed over to hers in the car, the hands that were so useless to him for he knew he could not comfort her. His hands rested on the sink unwilling to put them in the freezing cold, grey water. Then he did and watched the water swirl down the drain. He avoided looking at the wine glass on the counter, and in doing so, his eyes were brought to the window over the sink and he saw a dead brown leaf stuck in the windowpane shuddering in the wind. It might have been red, the red of her hair. His hands remembered her hair, and his mind the last time he saw her, broken, his private silence unleashed between the two of them now outside shoved back at him. It had all happened so silently, smoothly, the dissolution, the winter. He turned.
He saw the card on the refrigerator. He did not know why he kept it or why she sent it. He would not write back; he did not know what to say; she had sent him a Christmas card every year for years and this one seemed a cold echo of the brilliant autumn so long ago. She had written nothing; only enclosed a vivid red leaf, dipped in epoxy so it would never fade.
His mind flew back to the river under the canopy and it was a second chance and he plumbed the silent depths of his heart holding the frozen life of the leaf in his hand. He stared at it willing it to tell him something but it yielded only the silence, the redness it had floated down on under the canopy by the river. Her laugh was frozen in time like the leaf and he tried to feel her warmth as he clutched the leaf but that was gone now too and the leaf, the dead red embalmed leaf shining in his hand a parody of the life it once pulsated with and brilliant in its demise floating and twirling down from the birches in the autumn breeze.

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