The Woman in the Trees
In Western Africa there lives Pachira oleaginea, a tropical tree with large flowers like shaving brushes where bats deposit pollen. After fertilization, the tree drops chestnut-like seeds onto the ground. Though only one embryo has been fertilized, additional embryos appear in the same seed, and these grow faster than the fertilized one. These fatherless seeds produce the next generation of trees.
Pachira oleaginea thus gets along perfectly well without male input.
There’s a Chinese man in Alice’s yard. Or maybe he’s Korean or Japanese. She can’t tell humans apart in the same way she can distinguish trees. She dislikes this man, regardless of his race, simply because he’s in her yard. He’s holding a rake. Christ, he’s raking her leaves.
She goes out and leans over the porch railing and shouts to him: “What do you think you’re doing?”
He flattens his hand over his brow, though his red-checkered hunting hat already has a visor. “I’ll give you three guesses,” he says.
“My first guess would be trespassing.”
He walks closer, tents his fingers over the knob of the rake. “You Mrs. Tremaine? I was told you’re the only other year-rounder.”
She’s always surprised when Asians don’t have accents. “I’m Doctor Tremaine. What do you want?”
He flashes a smile. “Thought you might like a little help with these leaves. Being neighborly.”
She arches her back and bellows, “I certainly don’t need any help with my lawn. I’m a dendrologist.”
“Like a botanist?”
“Yes. Retired. And dead leaves take up space in landfills. Leave them, they make excellent mulch.”
He ponders this for a moment then shouts, “You just stopped me from ever raking another lawn. My raking days are finished!” He takes up the rake and shakes it like a tent revivalist. “As God is my witness, I will never lay hands on the Devil’s instrument again!” He holds the rake aloft, huffing in the chilly air.
“See that you don’t.”
She turns to go inside.
Good Christ, he’s still talking. “What is it?” she asks.
“I’m Peter Lo,” he says. “Just moved in down the way, wanted to introduce myself. Since there’s no one else out here.” He tilts his head up at the surrounding tree-laden mountains.
She returns to the railing and peers at the cottage a quarter-mile down the road, the one he says he’s living in. “That’s a summer rental. . . . I never saw any moving trucks.”
“I had a truck. I don’t own a lot of stuff. Some books. I plan to make a go of it year-round—I like the quiet.”
For a man who likes quiet, he talks a great deal. She studies his silvery sideburns and pointed goatee. Men are strange animals, with their facial adornments like groomed dogs. He goes back to leaning on his rake, nods his head toward her driveway. “That’s a fine-looking automobile,” he says. “A Land Rover?”
“V-8, too. How’s she drive?”
“I don’t know what business that is of yours.”
“None, I suppose.” He smiles again, flashing his crooked teeth.
She studies her knobbed knuckles, gripping the porch railing. “I haven’t driven her—I mean it—in a couple of months.”
He sucks his teeth, a sound like a squeaking mouse. “Ought to drive her at least once a week. Cars are like women, you gotta take them out once in a while to keep them happy.” A dozen curses spring to mind, but he asks a question before she can utter any of them: “All that land behind the house belong to you?”
“Most of the way up the mountain, yes. Fifty acres.”
“How come it’s not BLM land?”
“It just isn’t. It’s my land.”
He rocks back on his heels. “Lot of different kinds of trees back there,” he says. “How’d that come to be?”
“I planted them.”
When the slash pine of South Africa is planted at a high elevation, it ties itself into knots. Among California Redwoods, if a parent tree is gnarled, any growth it spawns will also be warped. Some trees, like the Sitka spruce and the Douglas fir, are known to twist on the inside with little evidence of turmoil on the outer bark.
She’s just finished washing her wooden plates, her wooden spoons, her wooden bowls, when the doorbell chimes. With her hands submerged, she gazes out the back window at a stand of aspens two-hundred yards up the mountain, hoping whoever it is will go away.
This her favorite time of day, soaking her hands in the dishwater and looking out the back window into the trees. For whatever reason, warm dishwater helps the pain more than anything. Maybe it’s the Palmolive. The bell rings again, then a third time. She wipes her hands on the dish towel and finds the Chinese man on her porch, wearing that same red-checked hunting cap. She sticks her head through the door and shows him a deathly frown.
“Going into Taos,” he says. “For groceries. They say there’ll be an early snow this weekend.”
She waits for a question. He smiles dumbly back. The staring contest continues until she asks, “And?”
“And I thought I’d see if you wanted to come along. I’ll buy you a coffee.”
“All right. Can I get you anything in town?”
“No. Thank you.”
He tips his hunting cap. “All right.”
He’s not leaving. Just stands there with that broken-toothed smile. “Driven that Land Rover lately?”
He rubs his hands together in the chilled air. “I could take her for a spin sometime, just down the main road. I’d like to see how she drives. Be good for the car, too.”
He peers at her for a moment then shrugs. “Well, I’m off.”
When he reaches the bottom porch step, some strange force provokes her to call out: “Oatmeal!”
He squints back. “Oatmeal?”
“I’m almost out of oatmeal.”
“Oatmeal for the lady.” His face holds an expression of solemn gravity.
In the evening she finds ten canisters of oatmeal on the porch steps. Enough to last a year.
Morning: a bath, oatmeal, then pruning and mulching. Lunch, grapes and crackers. Afternoon, more pruning and general tree care, perhaps a short hike. Dinner, skillet chicken and green beans or salad. Read and sleep. Repeat.
On the slope behind her house reside the usual New Mexico subjects: lodgepole pine, quaking aspen, piñon pine, bristlecones, white firs. Peachleaf willow. Chokecherry. And then there are the less common ones. Osage orange. Autumn blaze red maple. Tulip poplar. Smoketree and tricolor beeches. Spartan juniper. For fruit, a hardy Chicago fig and a Cleveland pear. And then there are the trees that have no business growing in this part of the world. A flask tree. A crooked hazelnut. An English yew tree. A Yoshino cherry.
These last are her favorites. Transplants. Outsiders.
One day the sheriff will find her somewhere up on the mountain, slumped lifeless at the base of an Engelmann spruce, half-eaten by raccoons. This is acceptable. No surprises until then.
On Holland’s West Coast live poplars one hundred feet tall, entirely covered with sand but for a few twigs at the top. Though these trees are little seen, they are strong and powerful. Their magnificence comes not from their physical beauty, but in how they cope with being buried.
She finds herself peeking down from her forest at the neighboring cottage, looking for the Chinese. Peter, right?
It’s not as though she wants him to come around again. Though he is amusing. It’s strange to have conversations with another person. Sure, she has conversations with her trees, lazy afternoon chats with the knobcone pine and the monkey puzzle. They discuss all manner of things. The changing season, the stiffness in her wrists, the way Joseph used to sneeze three times when he woke.
These conversations sustain her. And the trees respond, in their quiet ways. She’s even told them about the Chinese. About Peter.
Plants are not above killing. Certain trees are known to swallow and digest insects. The pitcher-plant of Borneo drowns victims in its cup-shaped leaves. The difference between trees and men is that trees only kill to survive, and even then it’s exceedingly rare.
Never once has a tree killed out of anger.
The power went out this afternoon.
There’s a five-thousand-watt two-stroke generator out back, gives enough electricity to warm her bedroom. She pours the remnants of the red gas can into it and starts the thing up, reminding herself to go into town for more fuel. The doorbell rings before she can make a note.
Peter Lo is standing on the porch with a rifle. She flings the door open. “Have you lost your mind?”
“Don’t think so.”
“I don’t like guns. In fact, I abhor violence of any kind.”
“That’s a good way to approach life,” he says.
She waits for him to say more, but he just stands there grinning. “What do you want?”
“I noticed quite a few deer up on your land. Overpopulated, by the look of it. Thought I might cook us some venison for Christmas.”
“You’re asking if you can murder a deer on my land?”
“Murder seems a bit ungracious, but yes, that’s the gist of it.”
“Not on your life. Take that weapon away from here.”
“All right.” He turns and says over his shoulder, “I’ll put it next to the rake in the garage. I’m creating a do-not-touch zone in there.”
Walking back to his cottage, tiny clouds of breath puffing, he resembles a boy with a toy gun.
The plantsman Harry Blossfeld recounted the story of an acquaintance from Hong Kong who traveled up the Yang Tse to spend an evening in a remote region where bamboo was harvested. In the night, the man was awakened by the sound of distant screams. His hosts later told him that, on warm mornings, giant bamboo grows at such an astonishing speed that it shrieks as if in pain.
She can still hear the echo of her own voice, reverberating in her skull. Her heart thumps. The blurred figure of Joseph remains before her in the darkness. His worried face, in that moment before he steps out of the car to confront the man in the Super-Save lot. The lunatic, waving a pistol at his pregnant girlfriend.
The last moment of Joseph’s life. Even now, she wants to call out to him, to stop him. But her voice doesn’t work. Thirty years, the same dream.
The power kicks back on and the kitchen light suddenly shines through the house. She welcomes the coming warmth and drifts into sleep, neglecting to turn off the generator.
There’s a stiff tribal penalty for cutting down a certain conversational tree in tropical Africa. The tree is held in high regard, considered something of a wise counselor. Locals pay good money to witch doctors for permission to sit by the tree and spill out their troubles, plucking its leaves as they talk.
She glances out the window and sees his footprints in the snow before she hears the bell. His hunting cap is papered in white flakes from the walk over. He talks before she has a chance to speak: “You like eggnog?”
“I haven’t thought of eggnog in twenty years.”
“Special Cleveland recipe,” he says. “Got a hefty kick. Come over, it’s too cold to be alone.”
“That where you’re from? Cleveland?”
“Stop calling me Ma’am.”
“What should I call you?”
“Alice, I suppose. If you must call me something.”
“Alice,” he repeats. “I like it.”
She pushes the door closed and speaks through the glass. “I don’t want any eggnog, but thanks anyway.”
He hollers back through the door: “You can leave anytime. At least walk back with me, see my place.”
His expectant face. Holy God in Heaven, what is she supposed to do with this man? She tells him to wait while she puts on her boots and coat.
On the walk to his cottage, he chatters like a squirrel: “Sure is pretty out here. Can’t get enough of it. Gets kinda lonesome though. Maybe I should get a TV, though I have a record player and that works pretty well.”
On and on he goes. Though she prefers this to being asked questions. She counts her crunching footsteps. How many steps she’s gone from her forest.
On his porch they kick the snow from their boots. All is quiet for these few moments but for the thumping of their heels against the steps. In the entryway he takes her coat and she unties her waterproof hiking boots and leaves them by the door, ready for a quick escape. He tells her to make herself at home then disappears into the back of the house.
The small den is sparsely furnished. For a moment, she considers running away. But the bastard would just come and find her. Her attention is drawn to artwork on the den’s log wall, a hanging scroll of ink on paper, discrete wooded scenes nestled into the white openness of the paper with Chinese writing across the top.
Peter re-appears with two steaming cups. “Hope you like it hot!”
The idea of hot eggnog turns her stomach. She asks about the painting.
“My mother’s work,” he says. “She was a great artist. This is done in the style of the Chinese master Ni Zan, who lived six centuries ago. I love this scroll but find it kind of sad.”
“Because there are no people in it, I guess.”
That’s what she likes about it, she says. He ponders this, then asks if she’d like to go into his library. Reluctantly she follows him into the next room, taking an adventurous sip of the eggnog along the way. It’s the most delicious drink she’s ever tasted.
The library is really a small bedroom with bookcases and a couple of love seats facing one another across a dented coffee table. There’s a huge bay window on the far wall. Outside, the snow falls thickly. Peter sits on one of the love seats, and she occupies herself with the bookshelves, surprised to see the names Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, Schrödinger, Einstein.
“What is it you do, Peter?”
“I’m a physicist.” He sets his cup down and absentmindedly pats his knees. “Employed at Los Alamos these last couple decades.”
“A nuclear physicist?”
“Yes.” He shifts in the loveseat. The silence grows thick in the room and he speaks again to fill it: “I’m told you were married to a popular attorney in Taos.”
“Who told you that?” she asks.
Her throat feels dry and she sips the eggnog. “His name was Joseph,” she says. “That’s his house that I live in. We lived there together until he died.”
“Sorry to hear it. About him dying, I mean. How long have you lived in that house?”
He whistles, low and hollow. “That’s a long time. How’d you meet him?”
“At Oxford. He was a Rhodes scholar.”
“Sounds like quite a guy.”
To stop the interrogation, she turns her attention back to the books. On the third shelf, nested atop a leather-bound collection, she sees a familiar spine. She removes the book, holds it up. The Inner Lives of Trees by Alice Tremaine, PhD.
“You’ve been checking up on me.”
That toothy smile. “A little, I guess.”
The fact that this man owns her book sends shivers through her, as if he has access to her innermost thoughts.
“Have you read it?”
“Some of it. It’s great.”
Panic approaches. “I must go.”
He follows her to the entryway, leans against the jamb while she pulls on her boots. “I ran across it in the bookshop in town. I won’t finish reading it if you don’t want.”
She can’t pull her boots on quickly enough. “Do whatever you wish.”
She slops out into the snow in her untied brogans. He follows her out in his stocking feet. As she slushes along the mountain road, she feels his eyes on her back.
She’s halfway home when he shouts, “I’m going to drink the rest of your eggnog!”
The Pachypodium trees of Angola are known by the locals as Ghost Men. In the desert, natives refuse to enter the areas where they grow by moonlight, so afraid are they of these haunted trees. It’s said that the Ghost Men are the frozen souls of a tribe of Hottentots, who were punished by the Creator for attempting to flee the desert.
Joseph has returned. He stands skinny and pale in the corner of her room, his mouth a black O.
She wakes, shivering. In the streaming moonlight her breath puffs phantom white. The power’s out again. She remembers now that she neglected to go into town for more gasoline. She pulls her coat over her nightgown and slides into her boots and spends ten minutes outside in the freezing darkness, trying to get the generator started, yanking the cord until her back screams in pain. Futile. As she jerks the plastic handle, she can still see Joseph’s white face in her mind, his hammock jaw and black eyes. A new dream. She searches the shadows among the trees behind the house, expecting to find him there, watching.
She takes up the metal gas can and stomps through the house, muttering curses. Driving to town at this hour in the dark and the cold and the ice will be a new kind of hardship—if the Land Rover can even make it down the mountain road. On the porch she slips and bangs her hip. Limping out to the car, she takes the keys into her mittened fingers and turns the ignition.
She tries again, but it’s no use.
She recalls Peter’s joke about cars being like women. She hates him.
Somewhere beneath the hum of Peter’s generator, she can hear Mozart’s twenty-fifth. The little symphony in G minor.
He doesn’t answer his door until the fifth ring of the bell. Her ears are so cold she fears they’ll shatter. “What’s wrong?” Then before she can answer, “Come in, you’re freezing.”
He takes her into his library, covers her in blankets, puts on a pot of tea. He stops the Mozart record but she insists that he start it again. When he returns with the tea she explains about the power outage, about the generator and the Land Rover. He sits on the opposite sofa, never taking his eyes from her. She is tempted to tell him about the dream, about Joseph’s ghost in her room.
“I want you to sleep here,” he says. “You can have my bed and I’ll sleep here on the loveseat. Give me your keys. In the morning, I’ll get your car running and fetch gas for your generator.”
For once, she’s too tired to argue.
His bed is a simple full-size mattress and box spring pushed into a corner. No other furniture. She wonders where he keeps his clothes.
He puts her into the bed and tucks the quilt under her chin and pads back into the library. She can hear him rustling around in there. Then the click of the light switch, the swell of Mozart, the hum of the generator. She blinks up into the shadows and thinks of Joseph’s ghost. The gaping mouth, the wide eyes, the sickly face. She looks into the dark corner behind the door to see if Joseph is there. No.
Mozart ends. She hears a creak. A footstep on pine boards? How can she be frightened of Joseph? He was like a reliable old redwood, strong and stately and quiet. He was safe.
Another creak. Louder.
In the library, Peter’s socked feet poke over the loveseat’s arm like two moonlit puppets. She hovers in the doorway, listening for signs that he’s sleeping.
“Alice? What’s wrong?”
She stands with her mouth open in the doorway. He sits up, scratching his thinning hair. “Tell me,” he says.
She wonders if he can see her outline in the darkness. The wideness of her hips, her pointed shoulders, her limp hair. Gathering courage. “This is silly,” she says. “Come to bed.”
The Angsana trees of Singapore are peculiar because they don’t flower continuously; rather, all of the trees in a region will explode into color on the same day, filling the air with fragrance. The next morning, the trees will rain down petals and then return to their unremarkable former state. A few days later, another mysterious stimulus will set them off again, and the trees will bloom their golden inflorescences.
She opens her eyes to a bright morning, with the icicles clattering down against Peter’s porch. Beside her, the little man snores like a warthog. She quietly dresses, slips her boots over her feet, and steps out the front door into warm sunlight.
No bath, no breakfast. She doesn’t even bother to go home, instead climbing straightaway into her forest. Now she’s here, among her trees, tending to the rarest of them all. The maidenhair, the only remaining species of the Ginkgoaceae family. A living fossil, long thought to be extinct until live ones were discovered hiding among the forests of China. Hers is still young, struggling for survival.
She can still taste Peter. Can recall the smoothness of his cheek beneath her fingertips, his crooked teeth jutting against her bottom lip. These aren’t unpleasant recollections.
In the afternoon she hears the rumble of a distant motor. She climbs down the mountain and find the power back on in her house, with the heater blasting and Peter reading a Graham Greene novel on her porch. The Land Rover idles in the drive.
He smiles when he sees her. “Thought I might drive into town, get some gasoline for your generator. You want to ride? I’ll buy you a coffee.”
“No,” she says, and thanks him.
He slaps his knees in that way he does. “Suit yourself,” he says. “Excited to drive your truck, anyway. Eight cylinders, hoo boy.” He waggles his eyebrows at her and skips down the steps.
She watches this funny little man jitter out to her Land Rover and swing himself up into the cab. A tip of the red hunting hat, and he goes roaring down the drive, leaving only a trail of dirty snow behind. Somewhere up on her mountain, the rattle of a woodpecker that decided not to leave for the winter. Beyond that, all is silence.
She turns and heads back up the hill. Peter will be back soon. In the meantime, the trees need tending.
Jonathan Baker returned to his small West Texas hometown of Canyon three years ago, after living in New York City and Chicago for a number of years. He is the former assistant to the editor-in-chief at W.W. Norton & Co., where he worked on finalists for the National Book Award and the Man Booker Prize. In the past few years he has completed four novels, and his copywriting has appeared in Esquire, Road & Track, Marie Claire, Inc., and Popular Mechanics, among other publications. Baker holds a master’s degree in Humanities from the University of Chicago, and he’s a former professional comedian who has performed at clubs nationwide.
Image: Flickr / moni cah