By Laura Lasuertmer
The story begins at the maple tree, the one that glows yellow beside the subtle silver of the cedar. It begins deep in the ground where the roots have spread as wide as the Mississippi at Lake Pepin. It begins where these wandering roots hit a shelf of rock and turn, traveling until a crack opens and lets them in. It’s dark and moist down there, and on that cratered surface, after a deep soak of rain, the water pools. It pools between clay that cannot absorb it and limestone that will, eventually, dissolve and let it through.
Why the story begins here—with the worms and the centipedes, the crisp and fragile shells of cicadas, with the white matted weave of mycelium, with ants and termites and spiders donning eggs sacks—is not yet evident. But we can be sure that in time we will find out why.
It was Monday. It was springtime, we know, but whether it was April or May, we can’t be certain. We do know that the daffodils had already bloomed and vanished. We know that the peony buds were pregnant with petals and beginning to ooze such sweetness that the ants were already feasting. We know that it was the season in which the morel mushrooms, with their gentle conical tops, began emerging with intention out of the soil.
On this particular Monday, in a trailer at the end of a gravel road, on a ridge in the hilly woods of Southern Indiana, an old man began his day by writing a letter. He sat down at his desk, opened the window and lifted the screen out of the way. The day was wet and foggy, and it reminded him of that time he slept in a hammock on the upper deck of a cargo boat floating down the Ucayali River in Peru. It was the green of the trees this morning, the excess moisture visible in the air, the sense that the forest was breathing as we do on a cold day when we open our mouths and a steamy white vapor rolls out.
I floated somewhere between dream and consciousness this morning. You were a young woman of twenty-five, and I was as old as I am now. Your skin, my dear, fit perfectly around your bones. You led me up a steep hill and made love to me on our red and yellow flannel blanket. You know, the one we always kept in the car? Then you were gone. Before you left you reminded me of something, which I now forget. Please do let me know.
Marvel took Nadine’s letter outside and over to the maple tree. He set it up in the ‘y’ of the branches and noticed the irregular shapes of sky between the leaves. He reached up and took a young leaf between his thumb and forefingers. It was so velvety that it felt wet. Why are all new things so delicate, he wondered.
When Marvel moved to these woods one November day five years ago, he was delicate with grief. It resided in his abdomen and throat so that when his eye caught on Nadine’s favorite book or her sister called to check on him, his breath would cease and his eyes would squint and swell with tears. These grief attacks became so frequent that one evening, gasping and sobbing, he packed a bag and left.
Marvel remembered a trailer that his cousin had abandoned on the edge of the state forest. He drove the steep and curving roads, up and along ridges until the ache in his heart led him down Persimmon Road to a white trailer resting on stacks of cinder blocks. Bind weed and poison ivy had claimed the west side of the house, and honeysuckle choked out the view from the north. He shoved open the front door, set his bag down, and collapsed onto the musty couch, uncertain of everything except his desire to sleep.
Marvel slept through his first six months in the woods. In his waking hours, he found himself disoriented and anxious. He heard the forest speaking in clicks and whirs, in piercing pitches and wild howls. He feared the ticks, the snakes, the spiders, and especially the hornets. He loathed the three leafed, red-centered poison ivy that grew in thick vines up the poplars. He startled when a moth flew in front of a light bulb. He noticed the holes in the screens, the curves of the siding, and wondered if these were special doors for copperheads. He’d fall into a spiral of fear and keep falling, following it down into the darkness that sat at the pit of his stomach. Then he’d curl into a small ball and sleep. The trailer wasn’t the answer he was looking for but he had no energy to leave.
Then one night in early May something shifted. In between dreams of snakes and dreams of his deceased wife, he heard the call of the great horned owl and saw it fly away with the terror of his dreams held tightly in its claws. He awoke in the morning to the chatter of the cardinals and found his eyes open readily to the light of the day.
Not long after that, in the dawning glow of the first days of June, a rushing wind blew open the front door and a deer peeked her slender head inside. Marvel, who had fallen asleep at the kitchen table, was startled to sitting by the visceral memory of coarse fur on his cheek.
Memories came to him like this, out of places and times so unfamiliar that he wondered if he was remembering someone else’s life. Had he really found a deer den behind his house when he was eight? Had he spent those summer afternoons curled beside a doe, sleeping away the heat? Out of this memory came others. He remembered a boy who was capable of all things and allowed to do all things. There was no tree he couldn’t climb, no road he couldn’t bike on, no treasured item from the store that he was not allowed to buy. For a moment, he felt again the freedom and possibility of his youth.
The deer’s rounded ears twitched, the tendons in her hind legs tensed. Marvel stood and met her eye. “Welcome,” he said. “I’ll make some coffee.” When he moved to the stove to light the burner, the deer spooked and sprinted away. Marvel resolved to leave the door open the rest of the day. For the first time in months, he felt a hint of joy, and then he noticed his hunger. His stomach felt like a cavernous sinkhole, and he looked around the kitchen with new eyes. He owned no refrigerator. The cupboards held only one loaf of bread. He had no plates, bowls or silverware, so he took himself outside and walked around the yard until he spied the small heart shaped leaf of sorrel. He plucked a leaf and savored the tart shock on his tongue. Then he spotted the purple clover flower and sucked the nectar from its feathery blossom. Marvel roamed the land in search of foods that would appease his new hunger. “Dear God!” he cried when he found the frosty, thorny canes of the black raspberries laden with dark fruit. He took a berry into his mouth and then another and another. He hovered over the bush and crawled beneath it. Thorns snagged his shirt as he reached his arms into the tangle. This was goodness he could take inside himself. This was love that would descend down into the darkness and bring light. He ate his fill and then lay on the grass and closed his eyes.
As he lay there, Marvel remembered his wife’s body: her long and slender legs leading down to rough heels that would scratch against his ankles under the covers at night. He remembered how Nadine would often cry after they made love. It was mysterious to him, the way that ecstasy and sorrow embraced in her soul. He thought of all the emotions coursing through her body like colors that ran parallel in her veins, and alongside the purple of pleasure was the burgundy of those bruises that come with life. Maybe she cried for the dead fawn on the side of the road, or because her children were growing up and the fingers of their intertwined hands were beginning to loosen. He liked to think that this sadness, as particular as it was, was also the tenderness of the world coming through her.
Marvel didn’t know it, but his first summer in the woods was the summer of love. That was the erotic summer when the sound of cicadas attracting lovers was the music he would wake to and the rattle that would lull him to sleep. He didn’t know how lucky he was to be emerging from grief at the same time they were tunneling up from their seventeen year old homes, letting go of the roots that had been their sustenance, and crawling into the bright and arousing heat of summer. They would grow wings and learn to fly. He didn’t know that the song of the earth would be louder, almost deafening, and that it would resonate in his heart – shaking loose the lonely cells that were wandering his body looking for other beings to love.
One overcast afternoon that first summer, Marvel was sitting under the maple tree watching a cicada climb up a blade of tall grass. As it neared the top, the grass began to bend with the weight of the bug, its long tip arching down to the ground. The cicada, in its steady upward plod, found itself back where it had started. Marvel pondered this natural paradox and watched the bees and wasps who were visiting the luminous purple ironweed flowers. These insects always brought him memories of his wife at the moment of her passing, and he closed his eyes as he remembered the scene from last summer that collapsed his heart.
Nadine had been out in the yard cutting irises for the kitchen table when she stepped on a nest of ground hornets. A violent cloud rose up from the ground and covered her body. She ran toward the house and by the time she reached the back door, the pin prick welts had grown up into flat-topped mesas. “Marvel! Marvel! MARVEL!” she shouted.
Marvel was in the basement recliner taking his morning nap. He was deep in a dream in which he was studying the reflection of sunlight on the ocean waves. His breath was rising and falling with the rhythmic sound of the water breaking onto the sand. As he stood by the shore, toes in salty brine, eyes catching crystal light, the sound of a seagull in distress broke through and he saw the bird plunge into the water. His eyes followed its body, feathers soggy and sticky, wings splayed. It rode the waves until it arrived lifeless at his feet. A scream stuck in his throat and all of a sudden he was awake and standing upstairs in the kitchen.
When he remembers Nadine on the floor beside the stove, what he remembers are her eyes, those portals to the soul. Her dark pupils were large and wide, filled with the insurmountable distance of a woman being swept out to sea. He put his cheek to her mouth and felt no breath.
The terror of that moment brought Marvel back to the present under the maple tree. He opened his eyes and exhaled, sorrow washing over him as he breathed the breaths that should have been hers. He breathed short, choppy breaths, shallow breaths and then long, deep sighs. Any kind of breath would have kept her alive. He was not a man who carried anger around with him, but after Nadine died something soft inside him became rigid. There were marks on his heart, illegible scribbles that marred the blood pulsing through his body. He turned back to the cicada, with its blood orange eyes and black body, and envied those creatures who simply did what they were supposed to do, without ceremony or regret.
The next morning, Marvel got a shovel and started digging at the base of the maple. His body ached as he cut through the grass and pierced the clay. The strain of holding the shovel sent pain through his fingers. His back trembled with each shovel full of dirt he removed from the ground. In his exhaustion, he remembered a trek he took in Bolivia when he was 26: how he had awakened at 2 a.m. to climb to the peak of Huayna Potosi, how with each step the air around him grew thinner, his breath more labored, how the guide advised him to take small, short, steps sideways up the mountain and to rest for a moment when the left foot met the right. In that way, he had climbed the steep and snowy mountain and seen the dawning sun shimmer on Lake Titicaca below.
When he lifted the shovel again, he moved more slowly, taking a breath with every jab into the earth and a pause before he lifted the shovel back out. When he finished digging, he sat down by the maple and wondered what the hole was for. Then his gaze drifted to the trees. “It’s nice out here,” he said to them.
Nice was so benign. It wasn’t what he really meant, but he could feel his vocabulary begin to fade. His eyes were taking in more of the woods than they’d ever seen before. The usual words no longer applied, and he was not a poet. Green was more than green when the summer sun was shining on an oak leaf, but he could only sit and see it. There was no human audience he was trying to communicate with anymore, and he found that he was not so lonely. He had the friendship of the sturdy, weedy cedar trees, the sweet companionship of honeysuckle and daisies. Why every time he got down on his knees and stuck his hands into the dirt, a worm or a frog or a grasshopper greeted him. The drama of the woods was endless: the passing storms of the sky, the heat of the sun, the magical quality of moonlight.
In September, when the first poplar leaves started to yellow, Marvel woke to find the full moon shining in his bedroom window. He got up, dressed and went to his truck. He needed to talk with Nadine.
He drove the long stretch of road from his home into town and parked across the street from the Methodist Church he used to attend. The columbarium walls were set in an open-air courtyard, a labyrinth etched into the stone floor. He walked those circles with his hands behind his back, his moon shadow making every turn with him. “Nadine,” he said, “you must come with me.” He approached her box and felt the engraved letters that etched her name and the span of years she lived on this earth. “A lifetime,” he thought. “And this is no place for eternity.” There was no latch on the niche, no simple door he could open to set her free. He pondered getting the hammer out of his truck but didn’t have the gumption to smash the limestone plate.
In the morning, he drove back to the church and they removed Nadine’s ashes from the niche. Marvel took Nadine home and carried her to the hole beneath the maple tree. It was too big for the urn, and he found he didn’t want to bury her anyway. He wanted to set her free on the breeze. Actually, he wanted none of it. What he wanted was to sit by Nadine, full-fleshed and alive. He set the urn down and lowered himself into the hole. He leaned back against the dirt and closed his eyes. The earth around him was cool and he imagined the clay hugging him in a final embrace. He’d always hated the thought of being buried, but then he hadn’t imagined that the earth could hold him so gently.
There was birdsong all around him, and he thought it might be Nadine. It comforted him and tormented him. “Nadine,” he said, turning his head to face the urn. “Do you think I’m losing my mind?” The birds continued to sing, and as he closed his eyes, he felt her beside him reminding him of something.
He stood up, stepped out of the hole, and grabbed the urn. He looked for the birds who had been singing and lifted Nadine’s ashes toward them. Then he walked to the grove of persimmon trees that grew by the driveway. They were tall and bunched together. Their skinny trunks clothed in a mosaic of small, scraggly rectangles. He had noticed these trees before. In the spring, they were among the last trees to put out their leaves, and also, he now realized, among the last to share their fruit. Marvel scanned the ground. If the fruit had ripened, it would be on the ground covered in bees. He looked up into the canopy of green but could not make out any fruit. Were they all male trees, he wondered? If so, what mother had planted them here? He circled the grove another time and then walked toward the woods. She must be nearby, he thought, and then he saw her: wild blackberry canes thick and thorny around her base. She was thin but tall, and in the grass, in the shadow of her crown, the bees, the wasps, and the hornets were feasting.
Marvel squatted and picked up a plump fruit. He was a child the last time he had eaten persimmons. He remembered eating the most perfect fruit he could find, the one whose shape stayed firm like a cherry. At first it tasted sweet, but within seconds his mouth was as dry as a cotton ball. He resolved never to eat one again. Later his mother told him that the ripe persimmons were the humble ones. The poutier the fruit, the more delicious.
He checked the one in his hand. The skin was like his, wrinkled, thin and bruised in a few places, but the sweet pulp was an orange so bright it seemed aflame with the light. When he bit into the persimmon, he felt certain that it contained not just the essence of the sun but also the moon. “Nadine,” he said to the sky, “you are right.”
Marvel passed the next year aligned with the seasons: In winter he shut himself away and slept. In spring, he burst forth in glory. In summer, he wilted in a hammock in the shade. In fall, he slept out under the full moon and woke early to see the spiders’ webs sparkling in the morning dew. In this way, his grief came and went, but Nadine stayed with him. Then one day, Marvel gave Nadine’s ashes to the wind and began to live like one of the trees, rooted and sturdy, come what may.
What may come are storms that knock branches loose. What may come are sunrises that pull light from leaves just beginning to take shape. What will come in all lives, in all stories, is an ending that takes us back to where we began. Here we are now, underneath the maple tree whose mothering roots spread wide and deep. Here we are now digging our way back down through the clay and the limestone, back into the darkness and mystery, into the unanswerable questions. It’s this journey to the light and back to darkness that composes a life.
And it is this maple tree where Marvel will sit down to rest, one bright November day, his curving spine meeting the rough and textured trunk. He will lean his head back, his eyes closed against the shaded light of the morning, and he will pass. His last breath will drift up into the branches, and at that moment, all the yellow leaves of the maple will let go and dance with the sapphire sky. They will fall like drops of sunlight, each leaf a benediction. His feet and legs will slowly disappear, and he will be buried under the golden cloak of his maple.
In the evening, the deer will come to nuzzle his rough, worn hands, and smell the scent of a body without a soul. They will gather around him in protective slumber, in quiet mourning. And when the stable sun rises, they will leave him and not return.
Marvel’s body will sink, day by quiet day, into the sweet soil beneath his tree. His bones will soften, they will darken, they will descend past the layers of dirt and join the water that travels along the bedrock. In this stream, they will find the earth curving, sloping swiftly, and they will see the light again when they emerge out the side of a rocky ravine, holy water dangling from the emerald moss.