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The Trees

copyright by J. Crispin-Ripley


The trees looked dead. They weren't, but spring was so far away they might as well be. On the path there was a stiff breeze, enough to bite her uncovered face, but not enough to freeze it. The hills bordering the ravine hid the city from sight; on the opposite side, the trees swayed in a fierce wind. She could only imagine the sounds the gale was making up there as it whistled through the bare branches.                         

In the ravine all that met her ear was the crackling of ice under her feet, the rustling of fallen leaves, and the calls of the few birds that hadn't had the sense to fly south for the winter. The river, which in the spring would again bounce joyously for a time, wound sluggishly and silently beside the path, not yet frozen, but preparing itself for that inevitable time. In its youth it had carved the valley, but it was older now, and slower, its force tempered by its own maturity and then further by dams built upstream by man to keep the river from infringing on its rightful flood-plane by the lake. Most years it didn't, but she admitted to herself a certain glee in the years it couldn't be contained, a wild joy she kept well hidden from her acquaintances as they toted up their losses and filled out insurance claims.

She noted the term 'acquaintances' in her thoughts--some of them called her their friend, and would be hurt if they discovered that instead of going to them for comfort she had chosen to wander this space, brown and powdered with white. They would have found time for her in their weekends, leaned out of their lives to share what they could, would be aghast if they knew she was in a place where anything could happen. She knew she was taking a risk, albeit a small one--on a day like this, the predators would be huddled in their dens--but unlike her acquaintances, felt risks couldn't be avoided. The best one could do was chose between them, and today this was her choice; the people she knew had nothing to offer her that she needed. They seldom had.

In the ten years since she'd found her fiance in bed with her supposed best friend, she had received more than enough pity masked as sympathy and concern. "You poor woman. How could they? At least you have a career. He's a fool. She isn't as good-looking as you. Some friend! Thank God you didn't marry him. You'll find someone better. Wait and see." She didn't need any more of that--it didn't help.

She turned away from the river and saw a low bush, bare but for three red berries that hadn't fallen or been taken. She felt compelled to pick them, and did. They were husks, dry in her hand. In high school she had been the acknowledged beauty of her year. Her flaxen ponytail flying wildly, she had soared, eliciting cheers and sighs in the bleachers. He had been her prince, her male counterpart, and theirs a storybook romance, the envy of everyone they knew. But that had been once upon a time, as in the fairy tales she had believed in back then. Since, she had found the real stories, ones in which princesses suffered and bled, and princes remained frogs in their slimy souls, even after being made men with a kiss--or far more than a kiss. She put the berries in a pocket before continuing along the river's bank.

Further on a trail led away from the water, into the bordering, sheltering woods, a dirt track quite different from the path paved for bicycles she'd been following towards the picnic grounds. Those would be deserted, the tables removed to prevent them from being stolen and the fast-food outlets boarded up. No, there wouldn't be anyone there either, but there she would be fully exposed to the elements and would need to choose between retracing her steps and returning to the city.

As she had suspected, the her chosen trail was short. It ended at the side of the ravine, a steep embankment which had been the riverbank when the river had been mighty. Above, she could hear the whisper of traffic on the expressway, punctuated by faint, trumpeting horns. In this place, long since abandoned by the river, there was also less ephemeral evidence of man--refuse scattered in and around the stunted trees: mattresses, stoves, a rusted car, all manner of things that had been thrown from the road above to be forgotten. Mixed in were a goodly number of items probably brought in the way she had come: empty beer cans, liquor bottles and used condoms. In better weather, it wouldn't be a place she would want to visit on her own. She sat on a discarded refrigerator; it shifted slightly as her weight changed its balance but after that, didn't move.

Yesterday she had sat in front of the television, switching channels and smoking endless cigarettes. Today, she'd known she had to get out, to go somewhere different, to a place she didn't normally go. She surveyed her surroundings again, and smiled. It was true, at times she did go to extremes, but even she couldn't be mourning a love ten years gone, a love that had never been. Her pain was more recent. She fiddled with the berries in her pocket, trying to resist the temptation to light up yet again, yielded to it, and unzipped her jacket to reach for her package. She was assaulted by the stale smell of tobacco, and herself. Mixed in, she thought she could sense a lingering touch of him, her most recent failure, but knew that like the sound of the wind seen in trees far away, that scent existed only in her imagination. Goodbye had been a phone call.

He had a wife who was going to have a baby, he said, and asked for understanding. She had listened, given him the words he wanted--half-believing his story but not caring whether it was true--and had hung up the phone. Another man captivated, captured for a time, and gone. That he'd had another life, one that didn't and couldn't include her, she'd known from the beginning--not that he'd said. From the beginning, his words had been predictable, a litany gleaned from the lyrics of popular songs, one that exalted her physical being and how it made him feel. She'd understood all along, or had at least thought she did. Still, it was over and she felt hurt.

After adding two crushed cigarette butts to the debris, she started for home. Out of the ravine, the wind was swirling, whipping snow into her face whichever way she turned. The bus, when it came, was filled with people intent on the window, the floor, their hands. In a true storm, there would be a sense of camaraderie, of them all being frail humans facing the same world, one that appeared to be nearing its end. This wasn't such a day, merely one of misery that could be contained.

A man got on, a nonconformist who smiled, her type--tall enough to see her over the crowd, bold enough to push his way through them towards her. Before he arrived where she was standing, she made her way to the rear exit and got off. It was close enough to her place to walk and she wasn't ready for beginnings, not when there was an ending heavy in her soul. On the road, cars moved slowly by, but she had the sidewalk to herself. Her hands and feet felt frozen by the time she reached her building and walked up the cracked concrete to the door and into the foyer. She fumbled with her keys, trying to find the right one, trying to make it fit, regretting having run now it was too late. He might have proven to be the better man her acquaintances claimed she was fated to meet.

Her apartment was as she had left it, except that snow had drifted in the window she'd left open to let the place air. She closed it, and huddled in the old, worn red velvet armchair that had moved with her for years, smoked, and watched the snow melt and trickle to the floor, listening to the rhythms of the dripping water, noticing how the sound changed as the pool on the floor grew. She curled her upper lip under so a tear caught there could drop to her tongue. It hadn't been anything to do with her, he had said--that had hurt more than the ending, more than him not telling her to her face. Had it ever been about her, she'd wanted to ask, but hadn't. He wouldn't have been able to answer.

The sheets were twisted and slick with sweat when she woke up. She didn't remember going to bed, or leaving her chair. When she went into the living room, the water was only a stain on the hardwood floor. On the sill, near the crack at the bottom of the window, there was ice. Using a dull knife, she chipped that off and carried it to the sink. Most of it melted in her hand.

She took a shower. Back to work today--she was ready, ready to be something other than alone. No one would know how she had spent her weekend; she'd smile, lie and say it had been just fine. In the bathroom, she stood outside the stall, adjusting the temperature until it was perfect. He'd always teased her about that, her latest, about how it made the bath mat wet, at the way she didn't just step in. My restraint in small matters is overcompensation, she might have told him, but hadn't. She knew herself well, and that he hadn't wanted to share that much of her, only her body and a certain amount of banter.

The bathroom was where she'd learned the truth about him, or rather, confirmed what she had suspected. At the beginning there was always hope, but after their first time she'd watched as he scrubbed himself, washed the taste of her from his mouth and dressed in the clothing he'd set carefully aside before they'd started--that he'd done so, she'd only focussed on after the fact.

No, she'd seen it at the time, and realized everything--including how it would end, or least, that it would--that for him this was transitory and she wasn't his princess or his dream girl, as he said. Well, his dream girl perhaps, but her body was his fantasy, not her being. She'd seen everything, and then had put it from her mind to enjoy what he did offer, what any man could. That's okay, I understand, and by the way--it wasn't anything to do with you either--yes, that's what she should have told him.

She tried saying it, but her words got lost in the hiss of the water from the shower head, in it beating against the flimsy enclosure. While washing herself, she practised the words in her head, saying it differently, emphasising each word in turn, trying for a casual tone, then one that could wound, one that would have forced him to hear, one she would believe, would understand. She reached out and twisted the knobs and said it into the sudden silence.

She heard truth. It hadn't been about him. The strength in his hands, how he lost control and the way his eyes glazed as he found release, then snuggling up to his body as he slept--all that, but not him--he could have been anyone, and in the end, as in the beginning, had been no one at all.

Then why had his leaving hurt?

Because once upon a time she had believed her soul had been joined to another for all time--that such a thing could be. Now she knew that for a lie yet still desired it. Because she hadn't been any more honest with herself than he had been. Because she didn't want to be alone and was.

Once upon a time her fiance had also asked for understanding, as had her supposed friend. She smiled at herself in the mirror; she had told them she understood they were both were named Judas. They had married quietly, not daring risk a public ceremony she might attend. Rumour had it they were happy. She doubted that, but hoped it was true. Maybe she should call and, whatever the truth, say that while understanding still eluded her, she could find the will to forgive. It wasn't a total lie. The lie had been her dream.

She dressed for the day and enjoyed the rustling hiss of silk as it went on, its touch on her skin, how the colour of her blouse brought out her pale eyes. Outside, the day was like the one before--more than dreary and bitter, but less than full-blown storm. At the door she dug in the pockets of the coat she'd worn the day before and found, along with her keys, three berries. She put them on the table. When she returned, she could decide whether to plant them or throw them out.


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