Sprawled beneath the summer sky, I watch the rays of buttery sun dance across my vision. Clouds slant like uneven blinds against a blue window. The great
expanse stretches above us, seemingly endless, turning the whole summer the same, glaucous hue.
“You will go blind without your sunglasses on,” Denton tells me. His body stretches, cat-like and lethargic to my left. To my right, Ranko and his sister
Marna are corpse-like, and still but for the rise and shrink of their bellies, the only sign that they are alive and breathing.
I press the back of my forearm to rest against the bridge of my nose and shield my eyes. An explosion of color, my flesh set on fire, red, and glowing at
the edges where the sun still leaks through.
“Harriet, did you hear what I said?”
Marna sits up indignantly. I shift my arm slightly and see her delineated there with a sunny backdrop. Her flesh, too, is fire. “One more word out of you,
Denton, and I promise you –”
“What — you’ll lock me out of the air-conditioned house?”
She is only a shape, but I can tell her lips are pursed because it has always seemed that her entire body has to shift form slightly, to make that
expression, so that even the sharp incline of her chin and the oddly boxy shoulders convey her irritation. She is petulant as a bird these days, ever since
the town turned into a sticky, unbearable inferno.
Ranko groans as he straightens up. He is painted red too, but from sunburns across his freckly skin, not the illusion of sunlight. He turns our attention
away from the potential conflict, as he has the tendency to do, though never as discreetly as he believes he does. He points a finger in the distance
towards a grand oak tree with grand, fat branches and even fatter roots that twist and crawl over the hump of a hill, spilling over it like snakes, or
dried candle wax.
“I wonder if the birdhouses are still there,” Ranko says.
Marna lets out a soft noise that sounds oddly like a bird’s lamenting coo, and forgets Denton, and sunglasses, and that she has forgotten to tell Ranko to
put on more sunscreen. “Oh — don’t you remember when we made them?” She leans forward, and it is like she is emerging from a shadow into light. No longer
silhouetted like a strangely shaped bird against the sun, but a girl with freckles, and twinkling eyes. Her posture shifts again, as her expression morphs
into a smile. “Oh, Harry — those were the days!”
“We should check the tree,” I say, sitting up, “to see if they’re still up there.”
Marna throws a bottle of lemonade at Denton’s stomach, by way of telling him to sit up too.
“How old do you think we were?” Ranko asks.
“It had to have been ten years ago, at least,” Marna says, “before you had your first surgery.”
Ranko’s face twists slightly at the mention of surgery, and he looks around frantically for a moment, as though looking for somewhere else to point,
redirect our attention. The bush where Denton trapped and then hid a jar of bees! or Look! The fence we pretended was the barrier to another world!
But Mrs. Tarbell, Ranko and Marna’s mother, uprooted those bushes to replace them with a freshly manicured lawn, a green quilt patch stitched into the
earth. She tore that fence down long ago, and remodeled the house and the garden after her second husband left, so that the ancient oak pitched on its
haven of a hill is the only object left our childhood that has survived this long, unscathed.
“No, nine years ago,” Denton is arguing. He’s dragged himself to his feet, and peers down at Marna through a set of impossibly darkly shaded sunglasses,
that are so big they create shadows that melt all the way down his face. “We were seven that year.”
Marna stands, positioning herself slightly on the incline so that her head is level with his. This is always the way with those two — their arguments are
dances of coordinated body movement, back and forth, back and forth. “No, Den, we were six.”
Denton looks to me. “Harry, back me up here.”
I rise to my feet with a roaring yawn. The air is viscous and heavy. I am walking through pudding, blue, impossibly blue pudding. “I just want to know if
the birdhouses are still there,” I say.
Ranko crawls to grab the bottle that Marna has thrown at Denton, either out of fear of leaving such articles on the carefully tended lawn of Tarbell, or
else he is thirsty. Then he follows me, and says, briefly, “Harriet”, as though it ought to mean something. I watch as the sunlight slices through the
glass, painting a speckled design in the grass.
We do not wait for Marna and Denton to follow us, but they are both coming, though I can hear Marna mutter under her breath for a final time, “It was ten
years ago,” and Denton reply with something unintelligible.
We fall silent as we make the pilgrimage to the tree at the top of the hill, skin ruddy and sleek with sweat. The silence is too solemn a sound, a song
meant to be sung by the dead, not the young.
But in that moment, we are a choir of silence. We pause at the base of the hill, bend down to pick idly at the grass, or crane our necks all the way back
around to catch sight of Marna and Denton’s house, a little box in that patch of pathetic green.
“It looks small,” Ranko says, but he proves himself the bravest of us all by taking the first step up its little slope, feet tangled by the wild yellowing
weeds, dead and neglected, but more alive than that lawn we have left behind will ever be.
Marna follows him and grabs me by the hand, for balance on the way up or for search for a deeper, sturdier foundation, that I fear I cannot provide.
Denton is the last, the ambler, the wanderer, the one who must pace the perimeter of the hump of a knell twice before ascending it.
The tree is as ancient and beautiful as its always been, wielding arms that stretch and wind in an effort to reach heaven; by now they are warped as the
bones of an old man. The trunk is thick, plumper at the base with lines and scars in the bark that chase each other up its side.
There was one year, Denton got a pocket knife, and we’d painstakingly carved our initials into its base. Denton, more patient than us, had spent much of
that year tattooing words and sayings, all over its branches.
On one large branch, a whole chapter of Ecclesiastes, that had taken him a month to finish.
I step on the knotted bumps at the tree’s base and swing onto the thick, lowest hanging branch. I trace my fingertips where the scarring is almost healed,
but can still make out the intricate carvings.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose;
A time to keep, and a time to cast away;*
I begin to ascend. The bark ingrains its harsh pattern into my palms.
“Come on, Harry,” Denton complains from down below. He stands at the base of the tree, but already Marna and Ranko are beginning to climb it. “Look how
brittle the branches are up there. They could split. It’s dangerous.”
The oak is a staircase winding up to heaven.
“Come on, Den,” Marna hollers back at him. She is agile, clambering up a branch opposite me, shining in the sunlight. “Don’t be such a coward.”
Denton tosses a glance back at the Tarbell’s house, but follows suit. The tree groans beneath the wait of all of us, but it is sturdy and eternal, and we
have learned to trust it. “Ranko, where is the voice of reason?”
“Climbing trees,” Ranko says.
Then, it is silence again, except for heaving breaths, and the sound of bark scraping.
The draught has claimed most of the old tree’s leaves which makes it easier to climb. The higher I get, the fewer leaves there are, just dried, brown
things baked in the summer sun, clinging by delicate stems. I am just beginning to scoot back down a disconcertingly thin branch that bounces slightly
beneath my wait, when — “I see them!” I call. “I see the birdhouses!” They are there at the top, four of them dangling, perfectly still in an uneven line,
hung haphazardly from the rusty nails we hammered carelessly into the impossibly thin wood.
“Harry!” This time it is Ranko’s voice cautioning me. I look down and see his face further below me. I am impossibly high. The tree is impossibly tall.
I look to the birdhouses. “Do you remember the day we hung them?” I call, to no one in particular. With the sunlight, little halos have formed like crowns
around the roofs of the miniature houses. Mine is the one furthest to the left. I remember, hanging them in age order, youngest to oldest. The purple paint
is faded and peeled. “I can’t believe, all this time and none of them have fallen.”
I inch further up the branch, slowly, carefully, aware of its thin wobbliness below me.
“Harry, careful!” Marna chides.
“You have to come see them!” I insist.
Denton is the one who follows me up this time, but his expression is dark. He has lost the sunglasses, and his hazel eyes watch me humorlessly.
“That was the first summer you moved here, Den,” I say, “wasn’t it?”
Denton swallows but does not speak. He regards his footing with a glare and then climbs upward with an indistinguishable mumble.
“A little higher,” I tell him. “Then you’ll be able to see them.” I venture further out on the rickety limb. My hands are scraped from gripping onto the
rough bark. Palms transformed easily into red sandpaper.
I watch Denton’s face, as he sees them. It contorts slightly, his typically nonchalant expression given way to an unfamiliar one — eyebrows slanting
darkly, shadowing his eyes, mouth firm, with no hint of a smile. “Which one’s mine?”
“Don’t you remember? The green one, next to Marna’s, the pink one. There, to the right.”
He nods, solemnly. I do not know if he has truly forgotten or if he is just testing to make sure that I haven’t.
Then, I slip. It is not a particularly dangerous sort of slide, but it takes the breath from me in one great gasp, and I hug onto the branch more tightly.
“What happened?” Ranko wants to know.
“HARRY GET DOWN FROM THERE,” Marna shrieks.
A leg dangles, then two. My eyes meet Denton’s.
“Harriet,” he says, voice far too cool and calm to be reassuring. He shifts toward me, slowly, careful not to cause the branch to move. “Swing your leg up.
There’s a foothold right here, by my hand. Can you reach it?”
I lift my leg, scramble for a moment, but then my foot connects with something.
“Is she alright?” Ranko asks, but Denton ignores them.
“There ya go, Harry, right towards me, come on.”
He talks to me like he used to, when we were children, in that voice that makes me feel very, very tiny. I let out another gasp as I swing myself back onto
the top side of the branch and cling to it, my stomach resting against it. I can feel the tree sending back the vibrations of my own heartbeat.
“Nice and slow,” Denton says. “Right here behind you.”
I am on the lower branch, back to safety.
His voice transforms, into an unexpectedly cold thing. “I told you not to go up there, Harriet.” He turns and begins his own descent, for me to follow. I
hear murmurs of, “She’s fine,” below me.
Marna hugs and scolds me once we are on the ground.
I stare at my feet, with the yellow weeds poking up around them, but I still feel as though I am
Then, Denton takes out a pocket knife, and carves the last thing he ever will carve into that tree. He chooses the space beneath our initials for his
canvas. Two sloping wings, the shape of a bird. I can not help but think that he has trapped it there in the wood and now it can never be free.
“I thought you’d like to see them,” I say to him. “The birdhouses, still there.”
He frowns at me, and pauses. “Didn’t you notice?”
We walk back to the house. Ranko gulps the lemonade too loudly. Marna kicks idly at the shrubbery. Denton fiddles with the knife, and then puts it back in
The neat quilt of a lawn is back in our vision, and I remember suddenly, how everything has changed. That we are older now, that though there is a time for
everything under the earth, there is little time left for us. Then, more to remind myself than anything, I say, “But the birdhouses are still there. Can
you believe that?”
Denton, Ranko, and Marna wear mournful expressions, and that awful silence is back.
“The birdhouses are still there,” I repeat.
“Yes,” Denton says, “but the birds have all flown away.”
FOOT NOTES (* from Ecclesiastes 3 KJV)
By Ellis Wright Mischief managed. – Padfoot