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Heart Rot

“Looks like heart rot to me, ma’am,” the lumberjack-arborist says, this cool, breezy morning in our backyard. He’s a walking contradiction: a degreed arborist, one who studies tree health and habitat; and a lumberjack, one who makes his living by cutting trees down. He calls this “harvesting.”

            The second lumberjack, now forty feet above the lawn, hugs a huge cedar, which falls section by section, the remaining trunk appearing to lean even further toward the neighbor’s garage with each vicious amputation. Edward has authorized this. Edward is my husband.

            “That’s when it rots from the inside out. You can’t see, without cutting into it, what’s wrong with it,” he continues. “Look here, I’ll show you what I showed your husband.” He squats near a fallen length to point out the soft section at the center, darker in color, sweet-smelling, and surrounded by a ring of lighter, normal-looking wood.

            “Not sure what causes it. We see a lot of this around here. It’s a shame. There’s nothing you can do but take it down. The tree’s structurally unsound once the core decays. It’s a danger, really.” He glances at my face and says, “You’re doing the right thing. You can always replant.”

            “How long do you suppose it took this tree to grow to this size? Thirty years maybe?”

            “About that.”

            “It won’t, like, regenerate, will it?”

            The removal of the tree destroys the illusion of privacy our tiny yard previously enjoyed. It creates a gap in the green screen that made the yard’s size bearable. Without it, we’ll have a view of our evil neighbor’s overflowing trash and recycling bins and the peeling paint on the south side of the garage where he keeps his gang of spiders. We chose this house partly because of the green cocoon formed by the towering trees. If more of them fail us, our lot will become exposed like all the other scalped plots on this desolate block.

            “You mean grow back? No ma’am, it won’t grow back.” The lumberjack looks odd. Not albino, exactly, but startlingly pale skin, that kind of light red hair that’s almost colorless, like nylon fishing line, and dark blue eyes ringed by thick, white lashes. The effect is disconcerting, as if there’s one less layer shielding him from the rest of the world, as if he exists nearer the surface than people protected by pigment. His gaze is so direct as to seem impolite.

            “Well, I know this isn’t your fault,” I say, feeling, unreasonably, that it is somehow Edward’s fault if anyone’s, “but I don’t have that kind of time. And now I’m worried about the rest of these trees. The ones in front near the house. They look okay from the outside, but what if they have this rot, too, and we can’t tell?” I remind myself to try harder to be nice to this man. But it doesn’t come easy.

            I hear the back door open and Edward’s voice.

            “Joyce, did you do something with my keys? I have to be downtown in twenty minutes and they’re not on the kitchen table where I left them. Did you move them?”

            “Check the top of your dresser,” I call, without turning to face him, the man who gets to be downtown in twenty minutes. The lumberjack looks at the door, then back at me. At the pissy little wifey-person I have become.

            “I noticed that two in the front are leaning. Maybe ten degrees. You and your husband might want to think about taking them down. We could give you a quote.” He squints, the cold wind making his strange eyes water.

            “Hmm.” I shouldn’t ask because I don’t want to know. I don’t want to lose more trees. I don’t want a quote. I don’t want to invest more money in this place, this “home.”

            “You’ll have to plant something here. These roots held your bank in place. They’re your best protection against erosion. You could put in madronas. Anything with a good root system to keep your lot from sliding downhill if there’s a real wet year.”

            The bedroom window slams open. This will be our second fight today. The first was over Edward’s refusal to take the damn Covid-19 vaccine. It’s early in the day and I’m already feeling sorry for myself.

            “They’re not here, Joyce. And I’m late,” Edward says, more loudly than necessary. We are only a few yards apart. I used to find the absent-minded-professor aspect of his personality—memory lapses, the tendency to lose track of dates and his phone—charming. Now I find it irritating. Like learned helplessness.

            “Kitchen counter, near the fridge,” I say. How did I let myself become the keeper of goofed-up things around here? Misplaced keys and wallets, sick trees and children, all manner of broken, missing, disappointing objects—my exclusive domain.

            “So, do you guys plant, too, or just remove?” My eyes climb the remaining stalk of cedar where the second lumberjack prepares to fire up his chainsaw again. I consider what hideous accidents are possible, the violent potential of the saw, the fragile balance of the man holding it, and the strengthening wind.

            “Not this time of year,” he says. “We’d come back in early spring.” Edward reappears on the back porch, more agitated than before, just as the saw bursts into a roar, as if accompanying a prima donna’s entrance.

            “Take my keys,” I say, walking back toward the door. “They’re in my purse.”

            “That won’t work. My card-key to the plant is on that ring and I need it to get in,” he says with deliberate, mock-patient emphasis. His hand rests peevishly on his slim hip, as if he is somehow the wronged party. We re-enter the house single file, Edward first.

            “Okay, okay, okay. Did you check the pockets of the pants you wore yesterday? The ignition in the Honda? The deadbolt on the back door where you came in last night?”

            “Are you sure you didn’t shove them into a drawer when you were doing your manic little white tornado routine?”

            “I have not seen and did not touch your keys,” I say in an ugly, high-pitched voice. I don’t like myself at this moment. Or at any recent moment. 

            A loud thud interrupts us, shaking the ground slightly as another hunk of our tree crashes lifeless to the ground. Jessie, in “Hello Kitty” pajamas, sticks her head around the corner from the hallway and says, “Dad, your keys are on the coffee table,” and then stands watching us to see what will happen next.

            “Thanks, little one,” Edward says, running his hand over her blonde hair as she wraps herself around one of his long legs. “I have to go now.” He gently disengages from her embrace. “You get well, okay?” Then those long legs carry him toward the living room to collect his keys, jump into his car and speed away from me, the five-year old who adores him, and the tree-corpse that we will cremate over the course of the winter. I try to remember why, having once escaped this house for good, or so I thought, I decided to return to a man who doesn’t even say good-bye when leaving for the day. Oh yeah—guilt over abandonment of a little girl to an inattentive and frequently incompetent man, her favorite parent.

            “Your keys are always in your purse, aren’t they, Mom?” Jessie says. 

            It’s frightening what this tiny person knows.

 

###

 

            When I open the door to Jessie’s room in early afternoon, the stink of vomit greets me. I realize with a guilty start that I should have checked on her sooner. I’ve been on Zoom with my office trying to accomplish from afar what I should be doing in person but can’t, because I am home with our daughter. She’s been diagnosed with “tummy ache” and sent home from kindergarten. I’m missing a critical client meeting as a result. I’m new at this tech consulting firm. These clients need to like me if I’m to succeed. I’m not good at relationships and it’s even harder to create and nurture them remotely through videoconferencing. I had trouble finding a job when I returned to Tacoma two months ago; I must keep this one. Edward is missing nothing. Caring for the sick is not his job. I feel a spasm of shame as I recognize that I, too, would prefer being at my office to mopping up after Jessie. In truth, it’s less that I want to be at work than that I want to be away from our house.

            She’s heaved up tomato soup and crackers in her bed and fallen back to sleep in the mess. The volume of material this small child’s stomach can hold surprises me. All the linens will have to be washed, as well as her pajamas, the area rug near the bed and a dish towel I left on the nightstand with the empty lunch tray.        Reaching down to pick her up and carry her to the bathtub, I feel the cotton of her pajamas soaked with sweat, and her skin clammy and cold. She wakes and begins to cry. “I threw up, Mom, I’m sorry, I couldn’t get up,” she says between sobs. “I couldn’t help it.”

            “I know you couldn’t, sweetie. It’s okay. That was yucky stuff you didn’t want inside of you, and now you’ve gotten rid of it. We’ll get you cleaned up, and you’ll feel better soon.” I hug her little body to me, soiling the fresh blouse I put on so that I can rush to my office as soon as Edward comes home this afternoon from his shift at a factory that makes doors. I see now that I can’t possibly go to work today, even late. Jessie is still sick and can’t be left. Edward can’t be relied on to relieve me at the agreed time.

            I set Jessie in the tub, warm water at full blast, and step away to fetch the bubble bath that has so delighted her in the past. It fizzes like 7Up and turns the water tranquil lavender. I shut off the taps, leaving her for a minute to strip the bed and bring clean sheets. I return without them. There are none in the closet that fit her little bed, because it’s Edward’s week to do the laundry and he hasn’t gotten around to it. The linen closet is a jumble, towels where blankets should be, pillowcases wadded and crammed in randomly, Edward’s gym bag abandoned on the closet floor. My irritation at him is out of proportion; I can’t help it.

            Outside, the wind picks up. Heavy rain rushes at the house in horizontal sheets, plastering the unraked leaves against the bathroom window.

            Jessie is crying again, and looking at her, I feel like doing the same. My chest aches to see her pathetic miniature face. Her wispy, short hair is plastered to her head with sweat and bath water and now she’s shaking with chills. Her eyes are huge and owlish, her thin limbs nearly blue. “I’m cold,” she says, “Can I get out now?”

            “Of course. I’m going to towel you off good and take you up to my bed, where it’s clean and dry, and snuggle with you until you’re all warm. How’s that?” 

            She nods weakly and sits in the tub waiting for me to do what I’ve said I will do. She asks, “When will Dad come?”

            “Soon,” I lie, feeling a twinge of jealousy for her affection for Edward.

            I carry her, wrapped burrito-style in a soft fleece, up the stairs to the cavernous attic, the bedroom I share with Edward. I slip one of my T-shirts over her head and lay her down on my side of the bed in which she was conceived. We have no electric blanket (Edward believes they’re carcinogenic). I drop my damp shirt on the floor, put on my bathrobe, lie down next to Jessie, wrap myself around her from the back to warm her, and cover us both with the big comforter. 

            Jessie does not fall asleep for a long time. We lie there together without speaking, listening to the wind outside. It seems louder up here. Then the usual house noises cease as the power goes out. I pull the comforter over our heads to trap our body heat. It creates a dark nest which muffles the sound of the air leaking in through the drafty, ill-fitting windows. Jessie’s breathing becomes regular and shallow.

            I wonder if she is worried that I will disappear again, leaving her to the well-intentioned but inadequate care of her father. She is right to worry. I think about it every day. I am thinking about it now. Maybe I could take her with me? Or not. My arms tighten around her. Tears roll down my face and moisten the pillowcase. She can’t see me lying here behind her. She can’t hear what I’m thinking. 

            I’m sure she can’t.

            Finally, we sleep.

 

###

 

            It is the vibration more than the loud boom that wakes us. When I open my eyes, nothing looks familiar. 

Seconds after the reverberations fade, I hear footsteps approaching and Edward’s alarmed voice calling my name. I grab for Jessie in the darkness; she is next to me. Then greenery around the doorway frames Edward’s pale face and fills the space between him and us. Cold air rushes in, along with rainwater. The pungent scent of split cedar spreads through the room, which opens to the elements and the winter evening. Blackness looms above us, visible through the jagged hole in the ceiling. Everything between Edward and us is strange, set at a cock-eyed angle. The immense tree that crashed through the roof bisects the room and separates Jessie and me from the hallway, the staircase and Edward.  This view disorients me. Is that really the door? Where is the floor? I can’t see it.

            “What happened?” Jessie asks in sleepy surprise. Rain pelts her small head.

            “The wind knocked a tree over,” Edward says, with forced calmness that does not mask the mounting hysteria beneath. He stands several feet away. Boughs conceal his body. I see only his silhouetted face. There is little light. Gusts of wind whip his blonde hair. He raises his voice to be heard. “A tree landed on our house, honey.” It takes me a minute to realize that the tree blocks our way out.

            “Everything is okay,” Edward says, but clearly it is far from okay. He addresses our daughter, not me.

            A large limb pierces the floor beneath us. The living room is visible through the hole. The tree trunk reclines across the foot of the bed, lucky inches from my leg. Wallboard, lathe, and asphalt roof tiles cushion it. Branches fill the room. I see no good place to put my bare feet. The bed tilts toward the tree at a jaunty angle. The floorboards shift and creak.

            Oddly, I feel no panic.

            Edward stands on the other side of the immense tree. Our eyes meet. What to do? He transfers his weight from side to side, testing his footing. His shoulders move up and down as he sways.

            “Damn,” he says, running his hand over his head, pushing his glasses up on his nose. “I just got here.” He still wears his coat. “Damn,” he repeats, and looks around. The hat he usually wears has been knocked off, and hangs on a nearby branch, suspended at a rakish slant. “I’m not sure I can get over the top of this.” He gestures at the fallen cedar, which obscures the way and rests level with his chest.

            I sit up to see what I can see. When I lean forward, transferring my center of gravity, the bed frame moves a couple inches, so I stop.

            “Dad?” Jessie says. “Dad?”

            “Yes, pumpkin. It’s going to be okay,” he says. Is it? “Joyce, try moving the other direction,” he suggests. “Move backward. Just a little, and slow.”

            The bedclothes are soaked already. They squish and slide as I plant the palms of my hands behind me and scoot back and then sideways, toward the door. Nothing seems to move. Yet. I kneel on the bed, holding Jessie in front of me with both arms around her narrow torso. We can’t reach Edward from here. 

            He speaks to her in a soft, reassuring voice. Before I can stop her, she escapes me and scampers toward him through the branches, up over the top of the resting tree trunk.  He pulls her into his arms and clutches her firmly against his chest.

            “Jesus,” he says, his voice disintegrating into a whimper of relief as both of us realize what might have just happened but didn’t.

            “I’ll take her down the stairs. They’re okay.” He turns to go, then looks back at me. “Don’t move, okay? I’ll take her down and come right back to help you get out.  Jesus,” he says, “look at this place.” They disappear into the shadows of the hallway.

            I sit on the uphill edge of the bed with my bare legs dangling over. Through the hole the tree ripped in our living room ceiling, it would be possible for me to slide or maybe plunge right onto the couch downstairs. Then I think I see the corner of the coffee table, and at length I grasp that the reason I am craning my neck is that I want to know if Edward’s keys are there. I almost laugh.

            I sit in the dark, waiting for my husband. The fresh smell of the cedar boughs masks the undeniable rot beneath, and my lungs fill with it.

Susan Hettinger is a Wyoming native, former attorney and writer. Her essays and short stories have appeared in Fiction Factory, Please See Me, Reedsy, Seattle Magazine, The Olympian, Washington Law and Politics and Colors Northwest. She lives in Olympia, Washington.

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