The Creep / Operation Morning Light / Selections / About

The Shade

by Michael LaPointe

Why should he despise the tree doctor? He accepts the science completely. If the doctor were permitted to pollard the tree in the backyard it would live a long and healthy life. But Oliver has seen the doctor's handiwork throughout the neighbourhood, skyward branches hacked to stumps, something post-atomic in their postures. He listens politely to the doctor's explanations, all his neighbours have agreed to the procedure, but behind his eyes he hates this heartless vandal, this well-meaning young man. He says come back tomorrow.

Oliver pours a cup of lemonade and sits under the tree. It's almost summer. The tree has blossomed paperwhite. From a block away there comes the fresh almost damp sound of children in the schoolyard. It was just like this when he found the house. The realtor painted a picture in his mind, retire here in the shade of the tree, blossoms snowing gently on your lap, and it came true, it's exactly like that. For five glorious summers Oliver has read and pondered and dozed beneath the tree. It fills with birds he never knew the names of, the redstart, the yellowthroat, he's been amazed to find that learning names still matters.

Could it be true, what the doctor said? Could it be dying? He looks up. A kinglet flits in the flowers. Impossible. Surely birds would sense the rot. They sense everything innate.

The next day he awakens to the saw. It drones like a fly against a windowpane. He goes downstairs barefoot but the tree is there, it has always been there. It's the neighbours across the street. He watches from the porch as the tree in their frontyard is pollarded by the doctor. Bits of disemboweled fibre glint in the air as with a few concerted swipes the tree's stumps upraise in shock. Oliver is disgusted to see his neighbours thank the doctor for his work, his ugly savage work.

Later that afternoon he's under the tree when the doorbell rings. It's the doctor, a sweet foreboding scent of sawdust about him. He says he's following up his visit from yesterday. Has Oliver had time to think? Will he consent to have his tree pollarded?

When Oliver hesitates the doctor dashes through his arguments. The trees in this neighbourhood are suffering. Without the procedure his blossom will die in ten or fifteen years. But it isn't forever, he promises that. By next year the tree will exhibit the first signs of renewal, within three years there will be considerable growth, and in the crucial ten-to-fifteen-year timeframe there will be a canopy again.

"You're not describing my lifetime," Oliver says.

Faced with someone else's death the doctor has no answer and in the moment of authority Oliver shuts the door. He hopes it's over, he hopes the doctor is content with whatever silenced him.

He pours a glass of lemonade and sits under the tree. In a few minutes he hears the saw, another neighbour has submitted. Birds cling to his blossoms, warblers, gnatcatchers, they've taken refuge from the hideous scream, the reek of gas. Oliver has seen photos of apes wandering a clearcut rainforest searching for their home. He has seen photos of moose scorched on beaches where they fled. He has felt the hatred of industrial tools, the loathing of humankind. His thoughts turn to his children, his grandchildren. They want him to be happy. Who encouraged him to buy this house in this leafy neighbourhood? They have their lives elsewhere, no expectations, he doesn't owe anyone anything. Unbearable to think of these branches as like a memory.

In the morning there's more than the gurgle of the coffeemaker, it's a rodent shuffling, like a rat in a pipe, but it's coming from outside, it's the doctor in the backyard looking at the tree. Oliver watches from the kitchen as the young man pats the trunk and tugs a branch and seems to study it anatomically. The first incision would be here, one clean cut into the heartwood.

At the sound of footsteps the doctor wheels around. He glances at the trowel in Oliver's hand. He looks fraught or possibly wracked. It's his last day in the neighbourhood, he says. They've done them all, everything that needs doing, will he really let the tree die like this?

"If I see you here again I'll kill you," Oliver says.

All summer long he sits under the tree. The sun cooks the ground beyond the shade. In time the blossoms turn to leaves and wasps come for the fruit and on a day far past imagination someone yanks the stump out with a truck.