BY Ben Greenman
Say I am a tree and there is another tree next to me.
We don’t talk at first. That’s how trees are: cautious.
But then one afternoon it’s nice in the forest, not too warm, not too cold, squirrels and birds present in plentiful but hardly worrisome numbers, and I decide to say hello, and the other tree says hello in return, and that’s when it begins.
That first day, it’s a long conversation. Have you ever noticed the way the wind comes through here at night? Why are there so many kinds of airborne seeds? Isn’t bark weird? By the end of that conversation, I’m pretty sure that the other tree is not just an interesting and intelligent tree, but a fascinating tree, a lovely tree, a wonderful and great tree, one of the best trees I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. I am thrilled to have the other tree next to me, and a little bit embarrassed that I didn’t notice the other tree until now. Sometimes those things escape you: there is a sheet of sky to look at, and the purling of a nearby stream.
The next day the other tree and I talk again, all day long, and it’s as if that second day, too, is the first day. Every bit of the discussion shines like a particularly smooth, flat stone after a rainstorm.
But it’s not nearly as beautiful as the other tree, which I realize the third day, which is spent primarily in contemplation of the tree’s charms. Sometimes a trunk is just a trunk, and branches are just branches, but sometimes a trunk has a perfect thickness, and branches taper just right, and then there are the leaves, so exquisitely arranged along each branchlet, with such lovely fall coloration, that it makes me want to hire someone to come out with an axe and chop me down so I can fall near the roots of the other tree and lay there forever. This is the romantic fantasy that I entertain as I talk to the other tree that third day. My conversation is somewhat distracted, but I come out of my fog long enough to see that the other tree’s conversation is distracted as well, and that’s when it occurs to me that maybe the other tree, too, is dreaming of being chopped down and falling near my roots and lying there forever.
The fourth day I discover that I have a tiny wirelike twig that reaches almost to one of the other tree’s twigs, and I concentrate on growing that twig, and while the fifth day is frustrating, the sixth day is far less so, and the seventh and the eighth days are spent in bliss, twigs entwined. “Or is it entwigged?” the other tree says, and this strikes me as the one of the most appealing things I have ever heard, witty and poignant and critical and bewitching all at the same time.
The morning of the ninth day, we discover that we’re entwigged at a second point, this one a bit closer to the trunk.
The tenth day, the other tree loses some leaves, and I offer comforting words, and even point out that a few of my own leaves are falling, that it’s a natural process, happens every year, nothing to worry about. The other tree doesn’t say anything, but there’s a small reward in the form of pressure at that first entwigging point, and that’s enough for me.
The eleventh day is like the twelfth, and the thirteenth, and the fourteenth, and the fifteenth. I only know that time is passing because the sun rises and sets.
Then, on the sixteenth day, I notice something strange. A few of the knots of twigs have undone themselves. I ask the other tree about it, and the answer is vague, something about cold air coming up from the other side of the forest. This isn’t how it works with twigs, and I know it, and I know that the other tree knows it, but I don’t make a big deal about it.
The seventeenth day, more entwiggings disappear, and on the eighteenth, only the original one is left.
By now, I can’t keep quiet any longer, and I ask the other tree a series of questions, trying to keep my tone level and calm but, I’m sure, betraying my anxiety and anger and desire and, above all, my sadness. That’s when the other tree tries to fend me off with a metaphor. Assume, the other tree says, that there are two trees next to one another, and they grew closer, sometimes by almost imperceptible degrees. But then assume that there is a countermovement, and they grow more distant, sometimes by almost imperceptible degrees. It doesn’t mean that the trees are less beautiful to one another, or even less close to one another. It is difficult to move a trunk. It just means that sometimes twigs will do what twigs will do. “There are other trees on the other side of me,” the other tree says. “They have twigs, too.” I explain that I don’t care about that, and at that moment I don’t. Trees have hundreds of twigs. I know that. I’m not an idiot. I just know what I like — what I need — and that’s the feeling of some of the other tree’s twigs entwined with my twigs. The other tree tells me I’m yelling, and I realize I am, and that’s when I go dead silent.
The nineteenth day is a wintry day, the first really unpleasant weather of the year, and I spend most of the morning feeling one of my own leaves working itself free from a branch. Finally a small blast of icy wind dislodges it, and it falls, slowly, with a side-to-side motion, and for a moment it looks as if the leaf might come to rest on one of the other tree’s branches before sliding off and disappearing against the carpet of leaves, the gold, the red, the orange, the brown. I want the leaf to brush across the other tree’s branch on its way down, to serve as a reminder, if only for a moment, of the feeling of twig on twig. I don’t want the other tree to feel guilty. It’s only the fact of my devotion that I want the other tree to feel, and not even all of it, just a bit of it, which is powerful, which is enough. But to feel the fact of a devotion that is, for the moment, detained, this is a form of melancholy, much like the fact that a leaf will fall and lay motionless before sinking into the earth and disappearing forever. The leaf bounces on an updraft. I look away.
The twentieth day I stop looking away. Who has time for petulance? The other tree is just as lovely as ever. The way the lowest, largest branches flow out of the trunk breaks my heart.
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