The Safety of Birches

36b0b7bd8515f762277396756f6cc814

It’s not easy here. It goes deep, the cold, and shadows push their way across each space as if they cannot hold back, as if the light is too great. I lean toward the small window but the fire is flaring in the hearth and water in a dented tea kettle is sizzling, ready to boil. No reason to leave the cabin mid-morning. Snow is in the air; I can sense it, the trees are not shivering, but waiting. I have come a long way to find a certain place in my soul, long-buried. I will sit until I begin to find it.

A few weeks ago there was the contained chaos of the city, important enough work, my body in concert with others dashing across streets, lifting our heads to stop lights and walk signs meant to keep us safe. Though not to be trifled with, I’ve certainly not been a despot in my mid-management (thus far) job. Rather, the sort of man who knows when to start up a conversation and just how to end it, who acts from a modicum of good will but alert to the right angles. I was an eager study of my grandfather, who used to tell me the way to advance was timing and a take charge attitude joined to quick, creative thinking. I was already good at the last by twenty or so I thought. Timing–I was impatient. Leadership–I’ve had to gain this step by step; it is the third that draws to mentors to me.

Life: success and failure have felt like second cousins, neither all important that great fuss should be made over them. I have been a man of habits. Gotten up daily, kissed my wife, Luann, hugged our young son and off I went. I locked my desk drawers and shut down my computer by 5:15, got home by six. I admired the city lights rather than curse the traffic jams; I liked to empty myself. Lucia got home earlier–she’s a nurse–so made dinner, something simple, color-balanced she says and substantial. The evenings were easy more often than not. We were good company to one another, loved without serious complaint. I would have said nothing could come between us. We were so close that any existent distances acted as required spacers between well-functioning parts. I didn’t know then that routine could be a drug, that if you don’t question things they can blindside you.

I hear the kettle whistling but remain in the heavy chair at fireside. Close my eyes. The sound recalls a train whistle, the train rumbling by my childhood bedroom each night around 10 pm and in the morning at 7. That whistle kept life in order, made the two halves of 24 hours fit right. Maybe the tea kettle will do that here.

I get up, pour scalding water into a stained white mug. There was a stag head emblazoned on it once; now it’s half gone. The fire crackles and hisses, a wild thing. I take my seat and locate its ravaging core, sip and remember things. I want nothing more than to be alone with peace, the surety and gentleness of it, but unease is having its way with me yet.

It was nothing that could have been surmised easily. Perhaps the way my employee rubbed her eyes at her corner desk, or how she seemed passive, just nodding during supervision the last couple of months, More often than not during meetings she stared out the window. I recall thinking then that she must have something on her mind but she smiled at me when I caught her eye. Alicia always looked right, that is, she was put together, long light hair smoothed back into a fancy knot, clothing well-chosen. She was about due for a promotion to supervisor. Alicia had come to us four years earlier freshly wedded; her spouse, Dane, was a young attorney. Someone mentioned she got “a good one”, he was ambitious and would do well. I noticed she didn’t keep any photos of them at her desk. Everything was tidy, almost empty save for a small fresh bouquet she brought in each Monday and tended as if she meant them to last forever.

But did he, her boss, know her at all? At work she was immersed in her job, revealing little else. I met Dane once, a medium-sized guy with a dusting of grey at his temples already and a noteworthy vocabulary. He surely noticed something at home. Did he share it with friends? Perhaps he talked with his dad when they had a weekly cup of coffee on Saturday morning? As I passed her and a cubicle partner, I heard her say he liked to do that. She later noted at a luncheon that her own family was gone except for an older male cousin in Ft. Collins. And now this still-new husband, she said giving a shake of her head. But they were facts reported.

I have always felt fairly in tune with Luann. She, however, says I need to think less, feel more to get the real picture. I differ on that, as just as I know the shapes of my ten digits intimately, admiring their varied functions and forms, so I know her. My wife is mother and lover, a persevering acoustic guitar player and a good water colorist. And more, of course–but what, exactly, have I missed?

I can’t understand–as her boss how could I have been blind to the signs? I asked Luann, ready to leave for the cabin.

Listen, it’s just, you men might look at us deeper. More. Us women. Sometimes we can’t explain things.

I paused at the door, wanting to stay as much as go. I frowned but she kissed my cheek. The more part? I persisted. How can I know if you aren’t clear?

You should just know by now. Or fight to know, she said. Anyway, I love you. I am so sorry about Alicia. I hope the cabin helps.

But her face drooped as she closed the door. I got into the truck, my mind dull yet crammed with things. On the way to the cabin, it was like a terrible chorus you can’t shake off: Should have known, could have known, guilty as charged. About Alicia. And perhaps about Luann, too.

How much had I missed in living day-to-day?

Now I grasp the wrought iron poker and jab at the fire. It spits and snarls at me. It is so still otherwise that the rooms seem to have held their breath until I entered. This is why I came for the week-end. That well of silence. I don’t want to think. I want to know. I want God to tell me things. I don’t go to church so often the minster knows my name right off but I am not a stranger to God. He comes to me in the meticulous design of the outdoors I love so much. In my wife and son. In wordlessness that is scarce. In the nights when I awaken to the lull of Luann’s breathing as there’s a shifting of tree limbs beyond us. I have felt God’s arms surrounding us. But now, this morning in the woods, I am still at a loss for what makes sense. A prayer feels far too much to ask of me. I sit and let the fire pull me to it, and wait for a new story to unfold like my father’s stories did right here, in this room once.

It was the Monday after Thanksgiving vacation and as I had passed cubicles I’d tried to recall who had taken time off, who was set for Christmas vacation. I took off my coat, sat, turned on my computer. Then the phone rang. Dane was on the other line.

It’s Dane…Alicia. She’s gone, he told me, his voice hoarse and low.

Gone? I watched my laptop screen pop with images.

Gone…died very early in the morning. Car accident.

I stopped moving, pressed the phone closer to my ear.

What, you say?–she has died?

Dane’s hand covered his phone. Muffled voices. I waited, panic creeping into disbelief.

I had to call you right away, she would have wanted that, she says you’re a great boss … Mr. Larson, she’s crashed her car into a tree, she was to go to the airport around ten last night, but she got a little drunk, see, got in her car, I couldn’t stop her… well she drinks sometimes, she’s this quirky person and I’ve tried, God knows. And I love her, she’s so good…She’s not coming home, anymore. That’s all I can really say.

I said, No coming back, I see. Dane, I’m terribly sorry. Thank you for calling me. I don’t know…what to–if I can help in any way, please tell me.

But how do you help a man who has had his wife snatched away and with it a whole life of loving? I covered my face with my left hand so the fluorescent lights and taupe walls, tidy bookshelves with marble bookends were gone.

I’ll let you know when the funeral is, Dane said, his voice like something small and unsafe. She’d like that. She always said you were too good to her, made it the best job.

Ah, I said. Of course I’ll come.

We hung up, he to face bitter sorrow and terrors to come, me to face my staff, her empty desk chair, fine work undone. Those unbearable, soon to wilt flowers. I turned and looked out my window, my heart seeming flat as a stone. Alicia. Gone?

It wasn’t enough, the call. How did I miss a telltale odor of stale alcohol, not see difficulties? As I thought it over, somehow it made sense she drank. It might have been her avoidance of me some mornings. Or her perfume being heavy from time to time. Could I have not paid closer attention to her work and behavior those days? What of her apparent appreciation–which I never even imagined while she worked hard for the team? I felt miserable that he told me that now. Why did I never inquire as to why she seemed more apart from us lately, a quarter beat off? Because even then she was a stellar performer. I knew how special she was from day one.

But we’re not taught to be ready to aid, to be concerned. We are taught to achieve and manage, to organize, devise, conquer, put that best foot forward. Not to ask after one another, not open up a little more, never as a matter of course at least. And I am the boss, right?

The shadows lengthen; up north they do so as if there is a purpose. A signalling of minutes and hours falling away. It is long after noon. I am on my third mug of strong, black tea. My stomach gripes but I have no appetite. I am waiting for the snow. For some sign. I want this cabin and woods to fill in the blanks left by Alicia’s dying. Those gaps at home perhaps created by me. I need answers but I know smart thinking cannot provide them this time.

The wind whips the frosted air, slides down the chimney and causes fiery shapes to flail. I study the rich red and orange flames and they begin to mimic waves lapping at the logs I brought earlier. My body sinks back into the chair, conforms to the wide, old cushions. My grandfather and father sat here alone or with others and now I do and it feels as if I should be welcomed by them, a son among sons, a man among men. What would they tell me now? I know they still care. The fire settles; my eyelids falter and fall. I smell ghosts, cherry pipe tobacco and Old Spice, venison frying, snowballs with vanilla.

Two weeks before Alicia stopped living she knocked on my office door as I was finishing a phone call. I could see her through half-closed vertical blinds. She was looking at the floor, then looked up as a co-worker passed by. I noted the smile, not for the first time. It usually animated her fine, delicate features with surprising vivacity, as if she changed from black and white to full color. This time, it was muted in effect, smaller. She was younger than I but she might one day have my job. Time and practice, that’s all it took in the end. I have replayed this last interaction over and over but still, I wonder.

Come in, I called out as I hung up the phone.

Mr. Larson, I was hoping to talk to you about time off. I know the deadline is long-passed for turning in requests. But I may need to see my cousin for Thanksgiving.

Is that right? Plans change. Let me see if I can spare you. How long?

Just one day after Thanksgiving week-end. I’d fly back Monday, be back at work on Tuesday.

I looked up; she sounded breathless. She was biting her lower lip as if a chapped bit of skin bothered her. Her eyes were on the sleek brass clock Luann got me five years ago after five years at the company. It was the one thing I’d take with me when I left.

I can manage to give you that. You’re taking more time at Christmas but that’s okay, we need to do that if possible.

Oh, that’s good, I really am grateful. My cousin is ill so we should visit him. My last relative, right? Or maybe I will just fly there since Dane hasn’t even met him.

Her face quieted, closed.

I tapped my pen on the desk and said, I see, good, it’s settled.

Alicia cupped one hand into the other, then sat up straighter. Her pale mouth opened, then shut. I waited to see if she had something else to ask, fiddled with my pen. Her attention moved to my hand, the heavy golden pen that signed everything of importance. I stopped and she raised her gaze to my eyes, held it a split second. Another unwavering moment. I felt something. Then shifted.

Is there something else, Alicia? Is the new program going alright?

No, I mean, all is well, she said, rising, smoothing her skirt down. She headed out the door, turned to me at the last minute. I appreciate your expertise and help. I’ve learned so much here.

No problem, happy to encourage you, I said, returning her once-again warm smile. She left. I addressed my laptop. But I thought about it a moment, the late request, her seeming anxiousness. She is the best I have. Her smile is a welcome sight in a busy day. It all seems good. I got back to work.

Now as I doze in the cabin Alicia is walking across the arena of my mind. She is not smiling but lifts a hand. Walks slowly, nearly dances with long strides in the air, turns to me but doesn’t speak. She focuses on something I can’t discern. Her eyes flare blue as the heart of flames, her visage dazzles the smokey shadows. Then she’s gone.

The images are an electric jolt to my brain and I come to life, stand up, stretch. I look around and see only the comfortable living room, pine table, sturdy chairs and a galley kitchen with steaming tea kettle. I am suddenly hungry. After I eat I am going to look at my fathers’ and grandfathers’ dusty books on hunting and fishing as well as a few fine ones they passed on, some Faulkner, a collection of Twain, the poems of Longfellow. I will wait for the darkness to gather around by the cabin, by this fire. I will make sure it burns long and late. I likely will sleep little though I long for its restorative power.

******

In some endless tunnel of night I am more aware of being alone than I’ve been for decades although I often travel for work. I reach for Luann’s pillow and smash it against my chest. This seasoned cabin has been meant for respite. For hiding out while paying greater homage to nature. But also, meant for more than one.

I lift the pillow to my face and a searing ache wrenches from my throat. No sense running from it now.

I did not know, I tell Alicia and try to not cry out as I search for her. I did not know you cared, that you drank so much, that you were unhappy. Lonely.

Forgive me. That I could not, did not help you.

******

In the morning, snow, and more falling, a delight from above. I press my face against a lacy iced window. It isn’t deep but a soft and glittery sweep of snow laid beneath a sky that promises more. I make a bitter mug of instant coffee and instant oatmeal and eat. The fire is smoldering, has used itself up. I am sleepy but know the air beyond log walls will shake me out, keep me on my feet. Because I am going in search of birches, maybe fox and deer. Weaponless and empty of complex intentions. I pull on ponderous boots and my father’s ratty Navy pea coat and head out. The air bites my face and snowlight obscures my vision the first steps. As I progress snowflakes come more thickly, clinging to my shoulders and eyelashes.

It is at end of mile one that I see the birches shining. The sheer whiteness of the ground reflects enough so slender-trunks seem to rise into the early winter sky from a vast spread of gleaming white confetti. They reach up as all trees do but they are so proud, of their white and black and greyness, of the special peeling layers of bark that add mystery and texture.  You cannot strip it off or it will wound the inner and outer body of the tree. Their branches sway in topmost currents of breeze. Bare twig fingers at the ends of their branch arms seem to point in the four directions. As a child I came here with my father or grandfather on the way to the valley meadows. As a young man I dreamed with the birches and heard them breathe and rustle, watched them shed leaves, then gather snow and let it go, then once more favor new life.

They are whispering now, the sound a blessing on this winter’s day. It is a hymn. To life, to earth, to humans and all other miraculous creatures. I stand between them, raise my eyes. The birches crowd toward me, seem to make a broad circle with me in its center. I am not afraid because God lives here, holds me, my arms held out within this secure hold. I am no longer sad, do not feel lost. Am not alone. This copse of birches will remain upright and sturdy, will welcome the cycle of life and its leave-taking with quietude. From a ragged jacket pocket I remove her last small bunch of dried flowers. Place them at the snowy base of a birch. I step away from their ancient protection. As I move through the swirls of snow there is a flash of elegant red tail. There are deer out there, too, but it is time to go home. Be with my Luann, my beloved son.

 

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