SATURDAY TALE - Safe Arbor by Judy Darley
I hear my sister’s rumblings through my own dreams and feel the fear spreading through trunk and down branches to the twigs that mimic my fingertips. I sense the shudder of light and dark rushing through her rings. Sometimes we jolt awake at the same moment and I slip out of bed, hurrying to open the window. I see her leaves trembling, reaching for me, and I lean as far as I can out into the moonlit air, murmuring, Ssh, sister, you’re okay, you’re okay.
When morning comes, I make my coffee and carry it across the lawn to the bench I got my grandson to position in my sister’s shelter.
I can hide in you, I tell my old playmate. Among your reaching branches and below your twisting trunk, I can be a shadow, or a speck of drifting dust. I can lie low and pretend to be the earth you rise from, a layer of fallen leaves, bark sloughed loose by wind and rain.
You can, my sister agrees. You can pretend all you want with every cell of your being.
I can mask my voice with the whisper of air passing through your boughs, I say. I can be the footsteps of the insects that riddle your depths. I can be the creak of you leaning with gravitational pull, or straining for the sun.
My sister nods her branches with the breeze and murmurs: Just as I can play at being you with your blood and bones, flesh and skin. We’re all just cells, aren’t we?
We flourished from the same source, my sister and I – from the same complex net of cells. Ma planted the apple tree when I was born and buried my placenta to nourish the roots. My first memories of my sister are of lying in the grass where her trunk met the ground, and watching her wave slender limbs against blue skies. And I remember her apples, small and squat and sharp.
Now she is almost as tall as the house, while I… I am shrinking. My spine compacts with decades of gravity’s pull, and the face in the bathroom mirror is that of an old, weather-beaten woman.
Somehow I never expected time to march on as it does.
Time moves differently for my sister, but only just. The average age of an apple tree is 100 years, so it could outlast me by ten, twenty, more. Some make it to 200 years. I tell my sister that in wonder, and I touch my palm to her trunk. But the idea of either of us outliving the other makes my heart contract.
In winter I pay my grandson to prune my sister and ensure light filters through her canopy, ready to search out flowers and fruit. I get my hair cut and styled on the same day, and after my grandson leaves, we compliment each other coyly on our revamped looks. What a pair of beauties, I say, teasingly. No wonder the birds and butterflies can’t stay away in spring.
Last time he came, my grandson left a brochure on the kitchen table. It shows a large house like a hotel, populated only by old people. He thinks I might like it there.
“For a holiday?” I asked.
He looked uneasy. “Or longer.”
He told me they have a garden with trees in it.
I glanced out of the window, towards my sister, and didn’t bother to respond.
I think that’s what the nightmares are about. A dread of separation. We’ve never parted for more than a few days in all these years. We’ve lived each of the seasons together, experienced summer swell and fade more than eighty times over.
Her apples aren’t what they once were. They have a woolly edge, as though deliberating softening to suit my weakening bite. But when I bake them in a pie, blanketed in pastry and custard, I taste our childhood.
My freezer is full of apples, sliced and laid out in creamy layers, stored in old ice cream tubs. I don’t get through them any more. The neighborhood kids who help to pick them are barely interested in taking a handful. I used to leave out baskets full in front of the house, with a note saying ‘Free to a good home!’ but most stayed where they were, gaining brown spots and holes where earwigs had burrowed in. Then one day someone made off with the basket, leaving the apples neatly piled up on the curb.
I told my sister to save her energy and grow fewer, but she rustled gently and whispered: Making apples is what I do.
It’s cold now. Nearly winter. Just a few last leaves remain, waving bravely in the wind. I’m tired, and I can feel that my sister is tired too. There’s something budding deep inside each of us. Honey fungus perhaps. Some strain of cancer. A few stray cells bedding in.
Season after season we’ve seen. We’re lucky, the pair of us, to have felt so much for so long.
Judy Darley is a British fiction writer, poet and journalist whose work appears in magazines and anthologies and in her debut short story collection Remember Me To The Bees. Sky Light Rain, her second collection, will be published by Valley Press in Fall 2019. Judy has shared her stories on BBC radio, as well as in cafés, caves, an artist’s studio and a disused church.
Find her at http://www.skylightrain.com,
Find her at http://www.skylightrain.com,
And follow her on Twitter @JudyDarley
Cover: Amanda Bergloff
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