Maeve was spreading molasses on a piece of pumpernickel bread when a guttural crack split the air, followed by a thud that she felt through the soles of her feet.
She lay down the knife and opened her back door to find leaves grasping like greedy children across her backyard through her smashed stockade fence. She crept outside and discovered a massive limb at least two feet in diameter lying across the Peel's driveway, electrical wires tangled like black thread beneath the fallen branch. It was a warm Tuesday morning in June, the ground still wet from an overnight shower, and the school bus that picked up the Peel boys had come not half an hour ago. Maeve gazed at the jagged tear left by the branch that had fallen from the beautiful old linden when a rustling sound made her turn to see Heidi Peel picking her way through the underbrush.
"Oh my God," Heidi said, arriving beside Maeve in the cul-de-sac. "I can't believe it -- right across my driveway." She looked up at the telephone pole. "Did you lose power?"
"No. Be careful." Maeve indicated the fallen wires.
Heidi shook her head. "There wasn't even a storm. It fell out of the clear blue sky." She peered at the gash left in the tree, and Maeve glanced at the skin-tight exercise pants that Heidi was wearing. Maeve couldn't understand how they could be even remotely comfortable, but it seemed that that's what young people wore these days. Not that Heidi was so young; she was probably in her early forties, but that was still young to Maeve, who had turned ninety-two in May, or at least young enough to be foolish, the way Heidi would take off running down the trail that ran along the back of her property several times a week, or dashing off to one exercise class or another. Maeve had warned her that she'd wear out her joints, but apparently not-so-young Heidi didn't believe Maeve.
Still, Heidi did always stop to chat, unlike their other neighbors, who would wave from their Mercedes SUV's or Priuses, or their new, bright orange Subarus with the fancy wheels. Maeve had even started doing her weeding a little later than usual, around the time when Heidi went for her run.
"Your pachysandra looks amazing," Heidi had said yesterday as she paused at the bottom of Maeve's driveway. "You put me to shame."
"Lawns are for the birds," Maeve had said, rising to stand ankle-deep in the bed of glossy evergreen leaves that covered her entire yard, completely replacing the lawn. She rolled her shoulders and stood up straight, pleased by how well her own joints were holding up. "All that money and chemicals, not to mention the water."
"That's probably true," Heidi agreed.
Maeve brushed the soil from her hands and chose not to mention that, come four a.m., when she was just starting her day, she would suffer the hiss of the Peel's sprinkler system as it began its thwack thwack thwack against the back of Maeve's wooden fence. There had been no such extravagance when Maeve's own children were growing up. And what a relief it had been, not to expect more than nature could provide.
"There goes my day," Heidi sighed, staring at the snarl of branches. "I don't want to think about how many thousands of dollars it will cost to take the rest of the tree down."
"Well thankfully no one was hurt," Maeve said, lifting her eyebrows.
"You're right. My God, what if it hit the school bus?" Maeve followed Heidi's gaze to where the limb lay embedded in Maeve's fence. They turned back to the tree.
"You might be able to save it," Maeve said.
"I don't know. It looks pretty unstable." Heidi frowned. "I'd better go call Con Ed." She turned and trekked back through a space between two barberry bushes.
An hour or so later Maeve heard the rattling purr of a diesel engine out on Hollyhock Lane, and she looked out her kitchen window to see a Con Edison truck roll into the cul-de-sac. She finished sorting her laundry and went outside to join Heidi as they watched the tree crew cut through the largest branch. The whirring squeal of the chainsaw blades sent wood chips flying with a surgical precision that was mesmerizing, and for an instant Maeve felt it in her own body, fissure of birth, bearing life into the world. When she looked up at the ragged tear where the branch had pulled away from the tree, she could see the heartwood hollow and filled with sawdust, the cycle of life and death almost indistinguishable.
She turned to see a Chevy Silverado pull up behind the Con Edison truck, and a young man with a clipboard and a shirt printed with Green Arbor Tree Surgery get out. Maeve recognized the name from her walks to the post office and library, when she'd surmised that Green Arbor must have the contract to do all the municipal work for Merrimac-on-Hudson, which also explained the shiny new truck.
Heidi held out her hand.
"Obadiah," the young man called over the chainsaw, offering his card.
"Thanks." Heidi swept her arm towards the tree. "So you see the problem."
Obadiah scaled the incline leading to the tree, climbing onto the fallen branch. He examined the cavity where the branch had broken away, then slid back down the embankment.
"It's rotted, isn't it?" Heidi said, her voice suddenly loud in a pause from the chainsaw. "Smaller limbs fall from the tree all the time, but now this." She sighed. "How much to take it down?"
Obadiah made a few calculations on his clipboard. "Six thousand."
"Six thousand? I knew it would be expensive, but that's awfully steep."
"Have you gotten any other estimates?"
Heidi hesitated. "One other so far."
"Do you mind if I ask who from?"
"Dirk's Tree Surgery."
"Cas Dirk? He's not allowed to work in Merrimac-on-Hudson. He's not an arborist."
Maeve had known Cas Dirk for decades, and it pained her to hear the dismissive way
Obadiah spoke of him.
Heidi pursed her lips. "Cas Dirk may not have an official arborist's degree, but he's been doing tree work for forty years. He knows his trees as well as anyone."
"The town won't give you a permit to cut this down without an arborist's report."
"The town can't tell me who I pay to cut down a rotted tree on my property." When Heidi looked away, Maeve saw Obadiah rake his eyes over Heidi's body, straight through her form-fitting leggings to the lean length of her thighs.
"I'm just letting you know," he shrugged. "Cas Dirk has been fined for cutting down trees without a permit."
"Okay, well, thank you for stopping by."
Obadiah got in his truck and drove away, and Heidi pursed her lips. "Next stop, Town Hall. I have to apply for a tree permit. Do you need a ride to town? Now that I can get my car out?" She smiled.
"If you don't mind. I do like to pay my water bill in person."
The clock tower struck noon as they pushed through the heavy wooden doors of the Town Hall, the lobby cool and dank compared to the brightness outside. Maeve headed to the window on the right to pay her bill while Heidi turned to the Building Department on the left.
"Hello, Doug," Heidi said. "I haven't seen you since our renovation. Bet you thought you were through with me, but here I am. Huge tree limb fell across our driveway, knocked down the power lines."
Across the hall, Maeve handed her check to the clerk.
"Talk to Beth," she heard Doug say. "Tree Commission. Doesn't have anything to do with the Building Department."
"Is Beth here?"
"She stepped out."
"Do you know when she'll be back?"
"She should be back soon."
Maeve slipped her receipt into her bag and shook her head. She'd known Doug Fowler since he was a teenager, in school with her own boys. And now here he was, a grown man with a paunch and not much left of that blond hair he was so proud of, only just as much of a stickler as he'd always been.
"Either way this isn't complete." Maeve turned to see Doug glance at Heidi's forms. "You need to say who'll be doing the work before they'll consider the application."
"But I don't know who'll be doing the work. I'm just getting estimates, now."
"Then come back when you know."
"But the tree needs to come down immediately. It's completely rotted, unstable, a hazard. There's a huge gash -- here, I took pictures -- "
"It doesn't matter. They won't consider the application -- "
"I heard what you said -- "
"Listen, if it were up to me, I'd issue the permit right now." Doug glanced at the pictures Heidi had printed out from her computer, chunks of tree everywhere, the trunk ripped in half, the remaining limbs hanging over a second set of power lines. "But after Hurricane Sandy, I was docked vacation days for issuing too many permits, so now -- " He shrugged.
"Are you serious? How is that even legal?"
"They also changed the code so only a certified arborist can say whether a tree is a hazard or not."
"Oh for God's sake," Heidi exclaimed. "This is ridiculous. Do they think I want to spend thousands of dollars I don't have to cut down that gorgeous old tree?"
"There is a clause that says in case of emergency you can cut down the tree and then apply for a permit within five days."
"I know. I saw that, but you and I both know how that works; as soon as the tree is down there's nothing to stop the Tree Commission from creating a huge hassle."
"Well, it's up to you. But this application isn't complete the way it is."
"Okay! Got it! Thanks, Doug. Great to see you, too!" Heidi started to storm off, but then saw Maeve.
"Sorry, Maeve," she said. "Do you mind waiting another sec?" Before Maeve could answer, Heidi scribbled something on her application and went back to the window.
"Cas Dirk isn't a certified arborist," Doug said, glancing at the application she'd slapped onto the counter.
"The Tree Commission doesn't have the right to tell me who to pay to do work on my property," Heidi said, her voice ominously controlled. "And Cas Dirk has more experience with trees than half those people with a piece of paper saying arborist."
"I'm not disagreeing with you, but -- "
"It says in the code that if it's an emergency, and this clearly is, then someone has to come look at the tree within twenty-four hours. Anyone can tell it's rotten. It doesn't take an arborist to see that." She pushed the paper towards him.
As they walked outside Maeve thought it best not to talk to Heidi just yet; decades of raising children had taught her to know when advise might be unwelcome. After the dark paneling and fusty carpeting inside, the sky was as clear and blue as no flower Maeve knew, not cornflowers or forget-me-nots, not even the paper-thin shell of a robin's egg in spring. The sunlight sparkled off the Hudson River past the train tracks at the bottom of Main Street, and normally Maeve would walk the mile home, but this morning's activity had tired her, so she folded the long length of her limbs into the passenger seat of Heidi's silky gray Lexus. The doors clicked shut, the leather seats warm in the June sun.
They hummed down Main Street and turned onto Grove, passing the old Burnham Boiler and Greenhouse building that had been converted to office space for advertising agencies, architecture firms, a laser research firm -- Maeve reminded herself to look up what exactly that meant on the new laptop computer her son had bought her -- and even a gym with a jarringly bright "juice bar" on the ground floor.
When she and Gene had built their ranch home in 1954, Maeve had been thirty-one and pregnant with Francis, her fifth, and there had been no permits or building departments or even the high powered chainsaws that could raze a tree to the ground in less time than it took her to bake a batch of ginger snaps.
Every morning from September through June she'd sent her children off to school beneath the arching branches of the linden -- five boys, and finally, when Maeve had almost given up, a girl, Jenny, bundled into her red wool jacket, all of their collars pulled up against the wind that sluiced in from the Hudson, the linden's branches stark against the winter sky. There was no school bus in those days, just a brown-bag lunch and a few books tucked under her children's arms, nothing like the monstrous backpacks that kids lugged around today. On fall afternoons Jeffrey, Francis and Jenny would come home scuffing the leaves into crackling bursts of marmalade toast, and in spring Maeve would brush the tiny green florets that had tumbled down off the linden from their hair, her own spirit awakening in response to the signs of life all around.
As Heidi turned onto Hollyhock Lane, Maeve was startled to see the raw, exposed swath of yard usually shaded by the linden, a lifetime of memories scoured bare. Heidi was pulling into the driveway when her phone rang. With one hand she maneuvered the car into the garage while rummaging in her bag for her phone with the other.
"Oh hi, Laurence," she said, mouthing sorry to Maeve, and then Tree Commission. "Thanks for calling. Did Doug already fax you our application? That was fast. Uh huh…the map of the tree's location? No, I know it isn't precise, but it's kind of hard to miss, I mean the trunk is about ten feet wide and there's this huge -- "
"I do realize that the map is a required part of the application. It would just seem, under the circumstances -- "
"Well, yes, and Con Ed did clear a narrow path so we can get our cars out. But the tree is unstable. You can see from the pictures -- "
Heidi was speaking with breathless urgency, and Maeve, who knew Laurence Stanley from church, could hear his pedantic, strident voice on the other end of the line, but she couldn't make out the words.
"I'm not sure you want to take responsibility for nothing happening to the tree between now and next week," Heidi continued, "but if that's what you want to do…
"No, that's okay. If the Tree Commission is meeting on Tuesday then hopefully nothing will happen until then."
Heidi hung up, her expression strained. "He wants to wait until next week. Forgive my language, Maeve, but this is bullshit."
"I can't say I disagree." Maeve shook her head. "Things weren't easy in my day, but it wasn't like this. Why, Gene and I couldn't afford a car until Frances was in fifth grade. Can you imagine?" She laughed, the memory so close she could almost touch it.
The walls of Heidi's garage were covered in shelves stacked with labeled bins and tools, but what Maeve saw was the rocky farm upstate where her family had moved in 1930 when her parents' shoe store had failed, and the only shoes she knew were the soles of her own feet. There was fresh, unpasteurized milk every morning, though, the steam rising sweet and grassy from the tin milking pail, and dandelion greens for dinner that she now saw being sold at the Merrimac-on-Hudson farmer's market for five dollars a bunch.
Maeve knew how memories could deceive; things had been hard -- the newspapers stuffed into window gaps to keep the wind out in winter, her own hands chaffed and raw -- but there was solace, also. And it was the solace that remained.
She sighed. "That Doug Fowler. He hasn't changed a bit since he was seventeen years old."
"Only now he has his own fiefdom in the Building Department," Heidi said dryly. "Honestly, though, I can't completely dislike him. At least he's not as smarmy as Laurence Stanley, Principal at Mayne, Graham & Bell, specializing in LEED certified building. And can you imagine what people would do if there were no limits on what they could build, or tear down?"
"In my day, we didn't have all that money to throw around. We were too busy trying to put food on the table."
"Would you like to come in for a cup of tea?" Heidi asked as she opened her car door.
"Thank you, dear, but I think we've both had enough excitement for one day."
"I'm sorry I got a bit…agitated back there."
Maeve waved her hand. "I raised five boys in that brown ranch, and believe me," she said, "sometimes things got a little heated."
The second crash came at 6:15 pm. Maeve had just put a baked potato in the oven when the stove light blinked and went black, the hum of the refrigerator silenced like a slapped mosquito.
She was wearing her usual outfit of dark cotton pants and a white shirt buttoned to the top, so she straightened the silk kerchief tied around her neck and pushed open the door, venturing out to the street where she discovered another massive branch crashed across the driveway, the second set of power lines down and mangled limbs jabbing the sky.
Benjamin, eight years old and Heidi's youngest, hovered beside the branch as if ready to dart over it like a hummingbird, while ten-year-old Adam stood nearby.
"You can't climb on it!" Heidi exclaimed. "Do you see those black wires? They don't look like anything, but all the electricity to power our whole house, our lights, our refrigerator, your computers, the TV, everything, is running through those wires."
"Mom, guess what?" Adam's eyes were riveted to the tree. "One lightning bolt can light a hundred lamps for a whole day or toast a bazillion pieces of bread!"
"No kidding." Heidi nodded appreciatively.
"But what happens to the electricity if the wires get broken? Why can't we see it?" Benjamin asked.
"That's a good question," Heidi said. "Maybe we can look it up when we get our power back on." She tousled Benjamin's mass of dark curls, and Maeve was struck by the sweetness, the way it could overtake you when you least expected it, Heidi's own saplings. Maeve's Jenny was turning fifty-nine in September, divorced, remarried and living in Colorado, a National Park Ranger with grown children of her own, the youngest expecting his second child, which would be Maeve's tenth grandchild. She straightened her shoulders and stepped forward.
"Hello, Adam, hello, Benjamin."
"Hello Mrs. D'Ambrosio," Adam and Benjamin replied in unison. A couple times a year Maeve would bake them oatmeal cookies or the hard, crumbly chocolate cake that she was partial to but which she suspected they weren't terribly fond of. Maeve liked to believe, though, that they understood that hers was a stringent kind of indulgence born of a moral fiber that they might not understand, but that they still somehow respected.
"I don't think there's any doubt now," she said to Heidi, "that the tree is going to have to come down."
"I can't believe it," Heidi cried. "It was so irresponsible of the Tree Commission not to act. And I've had Laurence and his wife to my house for dinner!"
Maeve clucked and shook her head. "So what are you going to do?"
"I'm going to call Cas Dirk and see how soon he can come to cut it down. I don't have any choice. Even the Tree Commission website says you can cut down a tree in an emergency."
Maeve nodded. "Cas is a good man. And his wife is just lovely. They weren't blessed with children, but you could eat off of Marguerite's kitchen floor it's so clean."
"I'm going to call him right now." Heidi pulled her cell phone from her pocket and stepped away.
Maeve remained by the tree, discussing the virtues of toasters with Adam and Benjamin. The evening had cooled and the sky had turned golden, that liquidy time of day when the earth exhaled. Maeve looked over to see Heidi scuffing the wood chips with her toe.
"I can't deal with this, Theo. Not twice in one day. I really can't. I'd just put the chicken in, and now it will have to be thrown away. I don't know what to feed the boys for dinner. Can you come home? I never ask you to leave early, but tonight I really need -- "
"Adam and Benjamin? They're right here. They're talking with Maeve."
"I didn't leave them. I told you, they're -- "
"Alright, so let me get off the phone! I have to call Con Ed anyway. But can you catch the next train? Please?"
Every morning Maeve saw Theo Peel run to catch the 6:23 train, and in the evening she'd watch out her window as the first wave of commuters came by a little after seven, then eight, but Theo Peel never came by until after nine o'clock. Gene had worked long hours, too, building their family business distributing dry goods to grocery shops all over the region, but he was always home for dinner. It was a shame seeing Heidi struggle alone. And two young boys needed their father. But what, Maeve mused, would Heidi be willing to give up to have a husband around to help her deal with the Obadiahs and Dougs and Laurences of the world? Would she forgo the central air, the wide-screened TV and two brand new cars in the driveway, a mini computer in her back pocket? Maeve suspected not. Maeve's own daughter-in-law had a kitchen as vast as a mausoleum, but she was always too busy to cook in it.
She sighed and looked out over the slivers of river that glinted like mica through a scrim of cypress, maple, and the white pine that grew weak and brittle and fast. It wasn't so long ago when Maeve couldn't have imagined the very things that she, too, could no longer live without.
"Okie dokie," Heidi said, slipping her phone into her pocket. "Let's go up to the house, guys. Remember the headlamps I bought at Home Depot, the ones that cycle through red, green and white lights?" When she smiled the tightness released from around her eyes and mouth.
Heidi had told Maeve that she'd been a set designer before she married, but it was too difficult to keep up the fifteen-hour days once Adam was born. Recently, though, she'd started helping out at the community theatre up in Glenn Falls when a new show went up.
"And we can heat up a can of soup on the grill," she said. "It'll be like camping. Maeve, would you like to join us?"
Maeve chuckled. "No, I have a nice loaf of pumpernickel bread and the first of my early tomatoes. But you give me a shout if you need anything."
Heidi and the boys trekked up their driveway, and Maeve went to her garden, reaching through the gently spiked leaves for a flash of red nestled in the leaves of her tomato plants, a crimson the color of the gingham curtains she'd sewn for Jenny's room all those years ago. The children's bedrooms had been below-ground, the windows at eye-level, looking out onto where the leaves blew in autumn and the snow fell in winter. None of them had minded, though; it had been like their own clubhouse, the boys doubling, even tripling up, and Jenny, being the only girl, with a room of her own.
Holding the sun-warmed fruit in her hand, Maeve sat on her back stoop and watched bats ping across a navy sky.
On the other side of the fence she heard Adam and Benjamin playing some kind of game having to do with being tagged by their head lamps. Every time they broke into a fierce argument Maeve expected Heidi to intervene, but then the yelling stopped, and Adam and Benjamin went back to charging around the yard laughing.
"Look, fireflies!" This must be Benjamin -- Maeve could tell because of the faint lisp he trailed after him like a phantom caul from the womb.
"I caught one!"
"No you didn't -- "
"Guys, c'mere." Heidi's voice sounded close, and Maeve heard a rustling as three slips of clothing drew together through the fence slats.
"Let's do this every night," Benjamin sighed.
"But then you wouldn't be able to play Minecraft."
"Maybe we could do this some nights." Heidi's voice had softened, and Maeve wondered whether Heidi, too, remembered a time before time, her own cells grafted onto another's, not so very long ago.
Con Edison arrived shortly before nine, the sulphurous yellow lights of the utility truck pulsing outside Maeve's window. Heidi soon appeared, a silhouette beside the cab of the truck, but Theo, apparently, had decided to take his usual train home. The lights blinked into Maeve's kitchen and across her wallpaper with its print of wild mushrooms as she made her way down the hallway to bed.
Cas sipped from the coffee Maeve had brought out to him Wednesday morning while his brother, Levi, made final adjustments to the outriggers before climbing into the cherry picker. Heidi had already stopped by on her way out, telling Cas that she'd be back in a couple hours. Maeve watched the cherry picker rise into the air.
Levi hoisted his chainsaw to make the first cut, and Maeve felt a moment of clutching regret, the space between the blade and the fine, light grain of the bark as the first two-ton branch lifted from the tree and floated lazily through the air. Maeve wasn't sentimental, but something tore in her to watch the branch lowered to the ground. The linden had been there long before her, and now, she thought, its time had come. But Heidi Peel was wrong. The linden wasn't rotten. Maeve knew that as trees aged and grew they often became hollow in the center. Cas had explained that the life support tissue of a tree was on the outer edges of the trunk, so even with a hollow core a tree could live for years. The issue was whether the trunk strength was compromised, which would make the tree dangerous. Just this morning Cas had told Maeve that he'd been able to see right away that more than the necessary one-third of the tree's interior was hollow, so it probably did need to come down. But it wasn't rotten, and it had seemed important, somehow, to say this.
The work went on throughout the morning until the tree lay in six twenty-foot segments, the interior of each branch as hollow as a culm of grass, as straight and long-boned as Maeve, with even more years. She knew that the branches had been carved out for decades, and, as trees do, it had healed itself, growing a protective layer over the emptied-out interior, making a home for squirrels, woodpeckers, owls, raccoons, porcupines, and possums to live in. But the world had become a neater place, and while the tree, jeopardized and bone-tired, would have come down in its own earth-thumping time, it was more important to protect the electrical wires and the people who lived beneath them and so the branches lay, waiting to be carted away.
On her way back to her house, Maeve paused beside the broken panel of fence that hung in a tangle of worn slats. It wouldn't be long before the deer found the opening into the Peel's backyard, eager to munch on their azalea and viburnum, browse the tender shoots of roses before they had a chance to grow thorns. The linden belonged to the Peels, but Maeve knew that when it fell on her fence it was considered an act of nature, what in the old days they'd call an act of God. Now it was Maeve's responsibility, but she had spent a lifetime taking care of everyone and everything, so maybe, she thought, she'd leave the fence alone, let it simply lie where it fell.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Tania Moore. All rights reserved.