For the Love of Trees
A nebulous yet familiar image surfaced in Angel Bender’s mind. It gave her the same sensation as being unable to run in a dream. The feeling reeled her back into the fog bank of childhood memories—she was a little girl lying sleepless in bed, wondering if the universe had an edge.
No matter how hard Angel tried to grasp its meaning, the nebulous image slipped farther from her. A man’s face flashed briefly, and with it came an unaccountable sense of loss. Angel’s heart stirred with recognition but she could not recall where she’d seen the man. His disturbing eyes finally eddied away into oblivion just as she noticed the rain falling off and a sudden glare of sunlight silvering the hood of her car.
Angel opened the window to let the ebbing rain sprinkle in. Beyond the sun-starred droplets a magnificent double rainbow shone in a sky of dazzling blue and rolling clouds. She caught her breath, enraptured by the radiance of light and the fresh scent of rinsed city air. A startling screech jerked her attention to the road and she swerved back into her own lane. The offended driver jabbed a middle finger at her, but Angel didn’t see it. She was slowing to a lucky stop; the light ahead had turned red.
With her head thrust out of the window, raindrops caught on her eyelashes and trailed down her warm cheeks in a cool path. The rainbows were complete, one being somewhat dimmer but both brilliant and alive. Angel gazed without blinking, anxious the sight would vanish as quickly as the nebulous image and the man’s face had. This was the pattern. Strange “knowings” would seize her and promptly dissolve into mist, like ancestral memories passed down through DNA of a long-lost paradise. As frustrating as they were, she lived for these moments when her spirit was transported, always so briefly, beyond the absurdities of everyday life.
But the beautiful rainbows endured as the red light endured. Angel’s peripheral vision had registered something odd, however. No one, not one driver, not one passenger waiting at the intersection or cruising through it was looking at the sky but her. She glared incredulously at each oblivious occupant talking on a cell phone or dealing with rambunctious children. Offended on behalf of Nature, Angel turned her attention back to the sky until a sharp honk sounded from behind. She threw the car into gear and drove on, keeping one eye out the window.
The sky soon reverted back to a somber billow of darkening clouds. It was the tail end of November, meaning gray chill, rain, more rain and an occasional glimpse of sun. It also meant Christmas shopping and clogged streets. Angel was semi-conscious of excited children, gesticulating drivers, back seats overflowing with brightly wrapped presents. She passed a haggard man on the street corner listlessly holding a wet cardboard sign declaring his willingness to work for food. As if that was not sufficient to depress her spirits, a Christmas tree lot appeared on the right.
Safely back at home in her own carefully controlled environment, Angel was able to diffuse a whirlpool of emotion. The shallowness, the cruelty, the sheer blindness humankind was capable of never failed to agitate her sensitive nature. With an angry flourish, she opened a laptop and searched her desk for the Omega file. While the system booted, she leafed through the technical outline but her mind wandered off to the double rainbow. The corners of her mouth twitched into a smile followed by a frown. She was suddenly sure that the rainbows meant something, particular to her, but the conviction melted away as quickly as it had come.
She dreamt that night of flying—weightless, glorious flight above the trees. A delicious wind flowed through her as she soared. The dream was more real in a strange way than waking hours could ever be and when she opened her eyes to the dawn, it was with sleepy regret. The density of her body infiltrated by degrees, canceling out the exquisite feeling of release, tethering her once again to the familiar groove of her life.
She dressed for a meeting with Omega. The middle chapters of the manual had to be gone over and approved. When she showed up at Omega’s front desk, Angel suppressed an urge to laugh while facing the receptionist. It was the young woman’s voluminous locks and coquettish tosses of the head that tickled Angel. That, and her bejeweled and painted nail extensions clicking over the computer keys, sounding exactly like a dog careening across a polished floor.
After punching up Harring on the intercom, she gave Angel leave to enter the conference room.
Angel sat down at the inlaid exotic-wood conference table while greeting Harring and the circle of executives already seated. They all looked roughly the same regardless of gender: a series of beige and gray blobs with little highlights of color here and there all displaying professional smiles and perfectly coiffed hair. Angel ran a hand over her black braid and pulled a hard copy and a red pen from her briefcase. The meeting began.
“Have you worked out the syntax in chapter eight, section five Ms. Bender?”
Eager eyes darted over the draft, searching for flaws, grammatical errors, inconsistencies—anything to justify the executive billing, the superior position, the negotiated salary. Angel watched as they bantered and pontificated, poked and prodded, sniffed with appreciation or disdain in sync with Harring’s mood.
“The graph, one-twelve—it’s weak. A drop shadow might give it punch.”
“We could cut the heavy description in section ten on merging cells and add another screen to clarify.”
“Excellent idea, Mr. Harring.”
“I think we need to define blah blah blah blah . . .”
Angel’s mind wandered. The urge to laugh—or weep—returned with a vengeance. The whole human race was mad, wrong, blowing steam into meaningless directions. Race was appropriate, for humans seemed to be careening toward the edge of an old-world map, stumbling over each other to reach the treasure guarded by dragons and sea monsters. Angel pressed her lips together and concentrated on the manual. With serious intent, she looked for geometric forms hidden within the arrangement of letters. She had discovered a lopsided pentagon of uppercase A’s when a question broke her concentration.
“Excuse me,” Angel said, “which paragraph?”
The female beige blob on her right leaned over to point out the correct passage, and Angel redoubled her efforts to stay focused on the meeting.
On her way home she stopped at The Coffee Conspiracy. After ordering a cappuccino she took a window seat and gazed out into the drizzly weather, half-listening to bits of conversation bouncing around the cluttered cafe. A familiar voice pierced the hushed colloquies and she scanned the room for its owner. A little electrical shock jolted her.
She saw . . . him.
It was the face of the man she had almost remembered before discovering the rainbows. Or, at least, it seemed so. A young woman was standing next to his table, holding forth a book. He smiled and took it. Angel watched as he wrote something in it, his gray-streaked waves falling over a broad, intellectual forehead. His expressive eyes were polite but indifferent, his lips curled to the precise angle of battle between deadly earnest and self-mockery. Angel recognized the very look she wore in her own heart. Embarrassment flooded in as if she’d glimpsed a part of the man’s private domain and she flung her attention back out the window.
Dark rivulets of rain snaked across the pane. She noticed a pick-up truck parked outside the cafe with a Christmas tree tied down in the back. Its deep green boughs were decorated with bright raindrops, lifting and swaying gently in a last dance with the wind. Droplets of rain dripped from the branches beyond the tailgate like tears onto the concrete curb.
Angel blinked and looked away. She sipped warm froth and sought the man out again but his table was empty.
The rest of the day spun out in a string of copy changes to the Omega manual based upon so much idle posturing. Angel’s brow furrowed. She wanted to do something . . . something that mattered. Not write technical manuals for corporate America. She finished up the last chapter and shut down the computer with a sigh. Impotence twisted in her heart. Everything that truly mattered eluded her, defied description and left only a residue of distant longing. She was deeply tired. She would go to bed early, get a good night’s rest, feel better in the morning.
Flying again. Angel sailed over a deep green canopy of Christmas trees, on and on, above a huge forest of endless rolling hills. Feather-light, she descended into a small clearing carpeted with long swaying grasses. He was there, looking different, strange. His flowing hair was tied back and he wore a metallic shirt covered with dancing geometric designs. His mouth had lost its bitter edge and his eyes . . . his eyes drank the light like clear pools of sparkling water. “You are dying,” he told her in a voice as soft and comforting as velvet. With one smooth gesture he pointed to the edge of the wood where several conifers drooped, fatally stripped of bark, wizened and knotted.
Angel woke up reluctantly, held down by the sticking web of dreaming. She emerged fitfully into an overcast morning. The sky was ashen but dry, the air cold and heavy. She dressed, made coffee and shuffled into her office feeling like a ton of lead bricks. After a few obligatory sips of steaming French roast, she brought up the Omega manual and began typing with one finger. In the middle of chapter twelve, section three, paragraph one, her dream came flooding back. You are dying. . . . Goose flesh crept up and down her arms.
Later that day Angel found herself walking into the Coffee Conspiracy.
Disappointment gripped her when she found he wasn’t there. Horrified to feel tears pricking, she pressed her burning eyes. She searched for a table carrying a cappuccino and a lump in her throat. Much to her relief, the very same window seat was empty and she slid into it as one would slip into a dear old coat. She gazed out the window with a shuddering sigh and watched the scudding clouds drift by in a sea of steel gray.
“Did you ever think, Angel, that the double rainbow was only meant for you . . . that it only had meaning for you?”
Angel jumped and looked around. No one was there. No one was looking her way. Who had spoken? She rubbed her dilated eyes and blinked. Startled into action, she sipped the cappuccino, surprised to find it had gone cold.
“I don’t want to die!”
Angel heard the words in her head, over and over as she drove. Then she noticed what was happening ahead in the front yard of a house in an old historic neighborhood.
The deafening buzz of a chainsaw set Angel’s teeth on edge. She stopped her car by the side of the road because she couldn’t breath. Her chest was cruelly squeezed.
A sob escaped her lips as she helplessly stared across the street into the yard. The chainsaw bit in waves, gouging mercilessly, taking mortal slices into the old oak. Long branches trembled, and with one creaking, horrible crack, the oak fell gracefully but finally to the ground. Birds screeched overhead.
Two children danced around the felled centenarian while their parents made cheery plans for the now available space. The tree surgeon stood holding his lethal instrument, the oak’s lifeblood dripping from the jagged blade onto the screaming grass.
Angel gripped the steering wheel with anger and impotence. The children stopped dancing and looked over at her, somehow feeling Angel’s presence and intensity. She saw their confused faces. Something gave Angel pause. Was she angry at the family cutting down the beautiful tree, or was she angry with herself? She drove off in a squeal of tires.
The adults hadn’t felt or heard a thing.
An azure blue sky peeked through lavender-edged cottony clouds. Little drops of rain still fell now and then, sparkling with yellow sunlight. Angel sat dangling her legs over a smooth, sturdy branch of the apple tree. She was giggling because the tree’s cool skin tickled her own warm skin. Mama forbade her to climb trees, but she couldn’t help it; their leafy arms always seemed to welcome her right in. He always came, too. She didn’t know quite how he got up the tree, or even how he stayed up, as he didn’t seem to sit anywhere. She didn’t know how he spoke, either, because he didn’t move his lips except to smile.
Angel caught sight of a juicy red apple and her stomach growled. She looked over at him but she knew what he would say.
You must ask first . . .
Angel said in a thin, clear voice, “Mrs. Appletree, may I eat one of your seedbabies?”
A pool of rainwater upon one green leaf suddenly moved. It pulled the leaf and its slim branch down, then dripped off, and the branch sprung up with a shower of sunlit raindrops. In this way, Mrs. Appletree gave her okay.
Angel smiled, said, “Thank you!” and reached for the fruit.
When she was done eating, he began to speak again. He was telling her to touch the trunk of the tree.
Do you feel the heart beat? he asked her. Do you feel the kindness?
Angel nodded earnestly.
You and the tree are one, he told her while pointing to a double rainbow in the sky, as the two rainbows are one . . .
Fractal imagery swirling with vivd colors issued from the computer. Like a holographic tunnel, it seemed to reached beyond the screen into the room. Angel emerged slowly from the deeply buried memory. She took a ragged breath and brushed a wisp of hair from her forehead. The entire house was black beyond the glowing geometry of the screen saver.
She remembered him now: the elusive image, the man in the dream, the man in the café who looked like him. He was her childhood spirit friend. Adults had called him imaginary, but to Angel, he had been more real than they were. The loss of him, the loss even of his memory made her aware of a bruise over her heart that had never healed. Angel did not believe she had felt the pain of separation then, when his benevolent presence had faded from her young life, but she felt it now. The memory cut like a surgeon’s scalpel, excising the cancers growing in her disillusioned heart.
The hurt ebbed away leaving in its place a tingling numbness, but her mind had cleared. Something important, vital, was stirring inside her. Angel’s mental weave of defenses had loosened, faltered, in the face of forgotten purpose that grew inside her now, brought to life from the brief lifting of the veil. She had glimpsed eternity, for to shift time one must also discard it. Eternity and existence are one.
She knew now, what she must do.
The waxing moon was only a faint, hazy glow. The city slept soundly beneath it at two o’clock in the morning. A blanket of thick clouds rendered the night black while greenish streetlights glowed eerily in the stillness. Occasional wisps of fog floated by like wandering wraiths. Angel steered her car down quiet streets, past human-filled hexahedra with darkened windows. No dog was awake but she caught the occasional shadowy shape of a cat gliding over the phantom landscape.
When she pulled up to the curb, she could see it already from across the road.
At first, it was no more than a ripple in the fabric of sight. As she got closer, a thin glow became visible. The glow eddied, keeping a rough, mushroom shape, feathery at the edges (if there were edges). It was pinkish-gold in color, opalescent and shimmering. She could see dark patches now, moving erratically within the light mass. It hovered sadly, confused and lost, over a spot of freshly turned earth in the middle of the grassy lawn.
They had dug down far enough to remove the trunk entirely, but severed roots still branched out into the soil, held in place by the warm embrace of Mother Earth. The shining spirit remained, too, held in place because it did not know where else to go; it had lived in this spot, enjoying the kiss of sunlight, the soothing coolness of rain, the breeze rustling through its branches for the very longest time. It had gripped the Earth with love, and housed the baby birds in spring. Buttercups and Lilies of the Valley had bloomed in its sun-dappled shade. It had been home to countless little creatures and now . . .
Angel stood right over the dark mound where once the oak had lived, submerged in its disembodied spirit. She and the oak were one. She felt the loss, the bewilderment, the loneliness of the oak and bore it all. Then she spoke, not with her voice but with her heart.
She thanked the oak for its gift of shelter and shade. She acknowledged the beauty of its life. She saw, and she felt, the home the oak had offered to so much life. Like a loving mother, the oak had spread its arms wide to all the creatures, welcoming them in, and sheltered the plants beneath her. Angel’s heart expanded painfully with the memories of the oak’s life of loving service, but it did not break.
She wove a circle in the air and showed the oak that its own circle of life had closed. The oak’s golden spirit pulsed with grave understanding.
Then Angel wove another pattern in the air, a hypertetrahedron that rose slowly above her head when the last gossamer thread had been spun. The oak caressed its spot of ground one last time, pulsed good-bye to Angel, and entered the hypertetrahedron. Angel watched it spin away into the night where a few faint stars blinked hopefully through the clouds.
Angel basked in the moment. And though tears fell from her chin for the oak, she felt gratitude, for her moment did not fade, or elude her, or cheat her in any way.
Angel’s heart began to sing.
Hushed voices mingled with the smell of coffee and sugary muffins. The sounds of steaming wands frothing and cheerful barristas taking orders gave Angel a warm-fuzzy feeling. The Coffee Conspiracy was packed as usual on a Sunday afternoon, and she drank in its friendly familarity with gratitude.
While standing in line, she scanned kiosks of coffee mugs, espresso machines, and roasted beans. At the end of the counter a small display caught her eye, and she felt very drawn to it.
The display was a small, ornate easel supporting a green book. Angel left her place in line to look at the book. Its cover read: For the Love of Trees and Other Poems, by Stephen Stone.
She flipped through the recycled paper pages and found free verse coupled with watercolors. The book felt good in her hands and with uncharacteristic spontaneity Angel decided to buy it. She ran her fingers over the smooth, shiny dust cover and turned the book over. Even before she saw the photo she knew.
He was there, in black and white, wind in his hair, trees behind him, his lips curled to the precise angle of battle between deadly earnest and self-mockery. A peaceful, satisfied expression reflected in his incredible eyes, clear pools of sparkling water.
Angel left The Coffee Conspiracy with her book and a cappuccino, and stepped outside into a dove-gray day. The cloud cover was thin enough to let the winter sun through its filmy veil. Rain-washed buildings glistened and the street lay silvered like a shining ribbon.
Somewhere, a lark sparrow trilled to the glory of warm sunshine and the trees swayed gently to its lilting rhythm.