7.02 / February 2012

Life on the Dead Tree

listen to this story

They were not reptilian, though from time to time they did flick their tongues. They were a boy and a girl, resting in the forks of branches: brushing their hair with twigs, ripping bark chips from the source, always with the tree tissue, the mineral deposits under their fingernails. And they called one another “Darling.”

“Darling, I don’t eat beets.”

“I have never eaten a beet, Darling. I also don’t eat any sort of mushroom.”

“Darling, it’s been many years since I’ve eaten a mushroom. I would never eat a Brussels sprout, not if my life depended on it.”

“Your life would never depend on Brussels sprouts, Darling.”

The dead tree was on the corner of Ropes Street and Washington, where recently one man was stabbed in the thigh while another took his exit with a shoebox full of oily cash in a rented auburn sedan with numerous cigarette burns in the white leather interior. All of this read in the newspaper the next day. The boy and the girl were not in the dead tree at the time, and sorely missed the opportunity to witness a crime.

“Darling, my mother caught me applying her lipstick and told me to be home before dark today.”

“We can’t leave this tree now, Darling. What if something happens?”

“What will I say to my mother, should she ask?”

“Do you really think she will ask?”

“You’re right, Darling, she would never ask.”

Time in the tree was (as they say,) of the essence. The park across the street was part of an urban renewal initiative in the neighborhood. A goat-faced peddler of iced water was made more than once to move his shop, which consisted of a plastic barrel, from one bench to another by the police man who more than once arranged a set of orange cones around the various work sites. Trees that grew in lopsided or had been poisoned by too much graffiti were taken away in trucks. The workers had also torn away the crumbling sidewalks and were carefully positioning new granite curbs, as if the city’s very future depended on the slight expansion of the pedestrian walkway, and nothing else.

The boy was comfortable as he was, folding his arms behind his head, squinting at the people on the crosswalk and beyond. The girl, on the other hand, was experiencing a spasm in her hip that caused her right leg to become restless and tight. The dead tree had not been dead for a very long time, and though it was dramatically bare, the fibers still clung together in a pulp strong enough to hold the children safe. In fact, had the girl been more patient about the sensation spreading behind her ass and along her hamstring, she would never have tumbled to the ground, skinning her elbow so that it looked like a gory tondo.

“Darling, you were never much of an athlete.”

“I never was, Darling. Would you help me?”

“Climb back, and certainly I will.”

“OK, Darling, just give me a minute”

It felt like all of the pain she’d ever experienced in her short life had combined at this one excruciating point, this period between her upper and lower arm. Puffing through the agony, she hoisted herself over the lower forks and up to the same height as the boy. He’d moved to the fork she’d sat in previously, while she settled in his. In that moment, she thought that she and the boy might actually be interchangeable. Then, nearly laughing, she shook off the silly notion.

“You can see the water from here, just barely, Darling.”

“From here you can see the Farmer’s Market.”

“Darling, if we went just a bit higher, come sun down, what might we see?”

“I once climbed so high I saw last century, Darling.”

“Oh, Darling, I once climbed so high I saw next century.”

“I hope they don’t take this tree down, the way they took the others.”

She brought her dripping elbow closer. “Me too, Darling. Me too.”

Jennifer Pieroni's work has been published in Another Chicago Magazine, Hobart, Guernica, Mississippi Review, and wigleaf, among others. It has also been anthologized in Best of the Web 2010 and elsewhere. She served as founding editor of the journal Quick Fiction for nearly a decade.
7.02 / February 2012