The Knowledge of Tree Rings

Lucille Barker

The Milton children are sitting out on the concrete ledge of the tree planter, like three little bony backsided orphans waiting for gruel. I haven’t made cookies today and it’s too close to their supper time, anyway. At least Wendell had slept most of the afternoon, even though he was up most of last night. I wonder if the children heard him through the walls.  I’ll have to have Dr. Hull change his medication. Or talk to Pleasant Acres.

“Addie, Addie,” Marcus calls.

They have spied me. It is too late to retreat to where the screen door would make me invisible.

“Hi, guys,” I say and come out slowly.

Both hips need replacing but Wendell needs minding.

“Come and sit,” Willow says, and Joseph moves away from her to make room for me.

The steps didn’t used to be this high. It’s harder going down than up. I sit gingerly, hoping they will be called in before I have to stand up again.

“I miss the tree,” Joseph says.

”Me, too,” sighs Marcus.

Three years since the wild summer storm that sent the branches crashing down on parked cars, and through several windows. We lost the porch door screen and a few shingles from the porch roof. The city had taken two days to arrive and assess the damages.

“C’mon, guys,” Wendell had said to the city arborist and his crew. “We can save it.”

“It’s a danger, and the guy next door wants it down,” one said, readying a saw.

“It’s alive,” Wendell protested.

But the cutting had started before he finished the sentence.

“Hey,” Wendell said to the crew leader, “can you give me a couple of slabs from the tree, at least?”

The man nodded at the cutter, and Wendell received two three inch thick slabs from the base of the chestnut.  

“I’ll  make you a couple of end tables,” he promised me.

“You stealing pieces of my tree?” Peter Milton asked, almost sneering.

“You gonna burn it in the fireplace?” Wendell asked, but it was obvious that he was not giving up the slabs.

“Fireplace is too much work,” Peter said. “And that tree made too much shade.”

The city crew packed up all the branches and drove off.

But the cutting had started before he finished the sentence.

“Could have been saved,” Wendell muttered as he passed me, clutching one of the slabs. “Don’t let Peter steal that one.”

The stump seemed ragged and raw. The Milton children came out and looked at it sadly.

“I’m named after a tree,” Willow sniffled.

It had rained the next two days. On the first day of sunshine, I came out to find the children sitting on the stump.

“There’s nothing to do,” whined Joseph, picking at a piece of bark.

“Yes, there is,” said Wendell. “You can practice your counting.”

I jumped. I hadn’t known he was behind me.

There’s nothing to count,” said Willow. “No birds, no squirrels.”

“No conkers this year,” Marcus pouted.

“There’s other chestnut trees on the avenue,” Wendell said. “But for now, we’ll concentrate on this one.”

“Nothing left of it,” sniffed Joseph, swiping at its rough, still sappy surface.

I could see a jean cleaning job for their mother.

“For every year a tree is alive, the tree makes a ring. You can count them and see how old the tree is.”

They kept losing count at first, but in a couple of days and a batch of chocolate cupcakes later, they had it counted and recounted.

“Ninety exactly!” crowed Joseph.

“That means it’s ninety years old,” Marcus said seriously.

“And it was planted in 1913 when there were still gas streetlights,” said Willow, who looked up everything so she would know more than her older brother.

Everyday the children and Wendell would count the rings again, and talked about 1913. Peter would walk past and shrug, but he gave permission for the trek to the City Archives to look at old photos and maps. The week before Labor Day the city men came back and pulled out the stump and roots, almost destroying the sidewalk in the process. Simone Milton never seemed to be around; it was Wendell who consoled them over the loss.

“The Miltons fight all the time when she’s home,” Wendell had told me. “Not like us.”

Wendell’s first stroke was at the Equinox. Not bad. A bit of a stutter, some hesitation on the stairs. He fell after Valentine’s. The basement steps were impossible, the two glowing slabs of chestnut deserted in his workshop, glaring wooden eyes taunting me as I hobbled to the laundry room.

The Miltons fought in their adjoining basement, almost drowning out the chug of the ancient washer and the clunking dryer. They sent the children off to overnight camp the next summer, but this year they hadn’t had enough money. I wished I could go to camp or send Wendell.

“Where’s my dinner, woman?” he would demand at five a.m.

A natural progression of the disease, the specialists told me.

This morning he pushed me away when I tried to help him eat. I fell on the dining room floor. Now I had escaped out to the concrete planter that holds a spindly ornamental Japanese maple, hardly a replacement for the flowering chestnut.

“I’ve lived here all my life,” Marcus sighs and leans into me.

“Me, too,” says Willow.

“Me, three,” says Joseph. “Is Wendell going to a home?”

I will not cry, I tell myself. Oh, these children know far too much, but so do I. I am almost sitting on the spot the “For Sale” sign will go. They don’t know they are moving in with Simone’s parents. By next spring there will be a “For Sale” on my house, too. Even without the rings of trees, time passes.

Lucile Barker, a Toronto poet, writer, and activist, coordinates the weekly year-round Joy of Writing workshop at the Ralph Thornton Centre. Poetry publications include Linden Avenue, Decades Review, posters and the 2013 Digging to the Roots Calendar. Her most recent poetry is in Badlands, and The Tower Magazine. Fiction has been published in The Quotable, Memewar, Mixitini Matrix, Danforth Review, and Green Briar Review.

Before the Razor

Inside the Creative Process of “The Knowledge of Tree Rings”

Before there was a razor, there was a chain saw, and before that a storm that destroyed a chestnut tree. The first time I saw that street, the chestnuts were in blossom. I no longer live on that street, but I am there at least three times a week, seeing the planter that holds the wispy “replacement” that gives no shade, no “conkers” and no joy.

I wrote a poem called “Ninety Rings” to commemorate the tree, but somehow it did not feel like it was enough. There was more, but I pushed it back, and went on with other things.

This included a trade show for heavy duty machinery, gigantic devices, thunderous in operation, some water-cooled. All as big as the cellar of my main character, Addie. My oldest son and his father were in heaven and I was fascinated, until the headache hit. One of the best things about trade shows is the swag. I had a bag full of samples, promotional pens, and a brand new notebook.

I went out to the lounge area and sat in the sun. Wouldn’t shade be nice? Like my tree on Langley before it came down.. And what if instead of two dogs and a happy marriage, the people next door had three children and were divorcing? And what if someone old lived in my house, knowing that they were going to lose it soon? I found a gel pen in my bag and let go, oblivious to the crowds, the vibration of the machinery in the exhibition, and the waning sunshine.

Starting in the middle is what I do best, so the tree was already gone at the beginning of the story. I wove the flashbacks in, and remembered what a friend was going through with his 93 year old mother. By the time the tool freaks in the family had seen everything twice, I had finished the story. Home and input it with very few revisions.

My husband pronounced it “sappy” and would have preferred a happier ending, but it’s about a tree, one he misses as much as I do.

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