Dead Trees

— Lisa Bubert

Years back drought came through and ravaged our land in a way we hadn’t seen before. A way we needed to get used to, old timers said. I went home to see for myself and what I found was whole prairies of brown, matchstick grass, claustrophobic heat and a whole lot of dead trees. Drooping, gnarled, their limbs like arms hung limp on a body just moments away from death. Trees on the gallows. One after the other, all of them lined up for execution. I stood in our field, feeling like I forgot something. The grass, despite its difficulties, still reached up to brush my arms like fingers trying to soothe, or a child tapping to remind me what was still there.

Days later high winds took down a power line, flying up a spark that caught the grass. The whole thing went up like a tinderbox. It burned for five weeks straight, taking out one prairie here, traveling to the towns down the highway, jumping creeks and rivers like a fiery bloodhound, until it reached a pine forest, one of the few left still protected by the state. It burned clean down within a few days, the smell of smoldering sap leaving a gunk in our noses that wouldn’t release. We all came out of the woodwork to see that one, parking our trucks on the side of the road to stand and stare at a cemetery of stumps, the skeletal remains of a forest that had always been there, even before our granddaddies were born. The air around stayed gray and foggy for days but we could still see clear through the woods now, noticing rolling hills we hadn’t known were there, light to which our eyes refused to adjust.

Around this time my grandmother got too old to be trusted and we moved her to a nursing home where she could be watched in the event she hurt herself. The place was full of her friends, we told her, and it was. All the women she grew up with and none of the husbands. Whole days whiled away on games of dominoes, cups of coffee in the sitting room, movie nights under quilts, the occasional visit of schoolchildren come to sing loud. Almost like a vacation, we said, trying in vain to sell her on it. But in the end, the women had all spent more time with each other than was necessary and now resented being locked in a building together for all earthly eternity. Old wounds re-opened and there was no lack of salt.

My grandmother refused to leave her room, went quiet. I went for visits, thinking my presence would cheer her up and found myself sorely mistaken. She waited in her chair, her feet pressed into the metal footholds, her hands wrapped around the arms. A tank of oxygen tucked into the back pocket and a thin plastic hose clutched around her head. I knelt before her and talked about what, I don’t now remember. She stared through me for the most of it, then came to and shifted her gaze to my eyes. I stopped talking. She gave me a weak smile, patted my head. Her chin rested to the palm of her hand, and we stared at the age of each other, both of us marking time. She had to use the restroom, she said, after a minute. I helped her to stand, make the walk to the door until she could reach the railing near the toilet, her knees and elbows all pointed and knotted, the spine of her back curved and gnarled like clusters of bark, her skinny legs like twigs trying to steady in the wind.

A few months ago, a biblical amount of rain swelled up the river like a wound, tore up roads and small bridges, filling up whole fields with yellow, stagnant water. Paved highways revealed gashes in the asphalt traveling all the way past the base and into the earth. Some parts where the road washed away it seemed like there had never been any road there at all. Debris littered in every direction—washed away signs, tangles of brush, dead cows. They called it a five hundred-year flood, only there had been one just like it not too long ago, and they figured there’d be one again next year. I came home again under the guise of helping when all I really wanted was to see. I took note of the moldy lines on the buildings, looked over the expanse of water where water shouldn’t be, counted the yards between the edge of the flood plain and the nursing home my grandmother used to live in. She’d died a couple years after the fires, natural causes. Her body had been calcifying, doctors said. I imagined her slowly turning to stone, becoming petrified in her wheelchair. I suspect she would have liked to see this flood, would have enjoyed this unordinary, hand-of-God kind of moment.

Everything that had been yellow had turned a kind of green I hadn’t seen before and that unnerved me. The place was supposed to be half-desert; the drought looked more natural on the land than this explosion of fertility. Though on the way home, I did notice them—all the trees on the side of the road, still brown, still hung limp, still exhausted by what was being asked of them. They were a lonely bunch; leftovers from a forest no one remembered anymore. Ranchers long ago cleared those woods to make room for more fields that burned and flooded too easily, these trees just useful remnants left to mark a fence line no longer in existence. Now they were just lonely sentinels, their dried leaves a message no one wants to see. Here to bear witness and nothing else.

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