A Short Story About A Tall Tree

Ramsey Gordon
Human Parts
Published in
11 min readJan 13, 2018

--

Art by Mariano Peccinetti

It’s three in the afternoon. There are sun pools on the sheets — high tide follows high noon, it seems. The constant hum of city life just outside the window, the stifling silence of my mind just within. Two short hours have passed, and I’m sure they’ll come around to visit again. I don’t plan on going anywhere. I have my shoes on. They aren’t the most comfortable I own but they are the most presentable I own. I don’t plan on going anywhere.

A man is shouting, I don’t know what about. Someone on the floor above is vacuuming, I don’t know what for. I doubt the two events are related, but who am I to say they aren’t? There are a great few who advocate for the interconnectedness of all things, people, and events. I met such a person just a few days back. We were both ordering at a cafe simultaneously. He said, “There’s a woman laughing on the other side of the wall. I can’t help but wonder if I am the reason for her laughter.” He wasn’t.

That afternoon I went for a walk. I went down Calle San Martin, kept my eyes on the road ahead of me, and on my shoes. They were even more presentable back then. Most things are when they are young and beautiful and ignorant. Shoes and people aren’t so different. I used to walk often. I still do. The walks I enjoy least are those with purpose. The walks I enjoyed most were those with Ana.

Ana and I meeting was a coincidence in every sense of the word, although if she were here she would give me a light slap across the wrist and say, “Oh James, don’t be such a cud. It was God that brought us together, and if you don’t shape up it will be God that brings us apart.” I would mumble something about God being color blind, since I had always prayed to marry a blonde girl and Ana was anything but, and she would slap me across the wrist again.

Now I can say whatever I please and my unholy words are swallowed up in the silence of my bareboned bedroom, never to be returned, never to be reprimanded. I would give the world for a light slap across the wrist.

“Do you know what cud is? Do you know what it means?”, she would ask me.

“Of course, Ana. It’s duck spelled backwards, which I think is a fine thing to be. There are few spectacles more interesting in the world than a backwards duck, I’m sure of it.”

“You’re not sure of anything.”

“I’m sure I’m a cud.”

She would laugh then. A light, delicate laugh that danced away with the coastal breeze of the small Spanish town we called home. I’ve tried to recreate that laugh a thousand times. Pouring grains of rice down flights of stairs, tossing coins among sea shells, breathing softly through the blades of water grasses… I never could.

“You are a cud, James. But you’re my cud. And I’ll be damned if that doesn’t make me the happiest girl in the world.”

We would kiss then, and it would be both soft and heavy and I would tell her so, and she would tell me that meant I was doing it wrong because you shouldn’t really be able to describe a kiss if it’s a good one. Then I would confess my inability to describe just about anything concerning the way she made me feel, and she would say she knew, and that she’d always known.

Then we would kiss again.

Ana and I first met six years ago, in a small bookstore on the bottom floor of an apartment building that should have been destroyed during the Spanish Civil War but was miraculously spared. I lived on the fourth floor at the time, located between the third and the fifth as all fourth floors should be. Apartment A. Left side of the stairs. Right side of the elevator. I never take the elevator, because I like the echo my footsteps make in a stairway. One man becomes twelve when he is in a stairway.

I stopped in the bookstore before my afternoon walk and spent a few moments acquainting myself with pages I never intended on purchasing. They were my star crossed lovers, those pages. I never intended on bringing them home, and they never intended on giving me a reason to keep them around. We were equally uninvested in one another, all of us. Until I came across La Dorotea.

“La raíz de todas las pasiones es el amor. De él nace la tristeza, el gozo, la alegría y la desesperación.”

I won’t tell you what that means, you don’t need to know. You just need to know how it sounds, but I can’t tell you what that’s like either. Those words stuck with me. I walked eight kilometers that afternoon, and those just with my legs. I am sure my mind traveled at least double the distance.

I didn’t actually meet Ana that day in the bookshop. Her name would have been just as forgettable as the empty words of the tabloids littering the stained concrete outside the doorway. I didn’t meet Ana in the flesh, but I see now that in that moment she began to appear to me, as if a mirage, pixel by pixel. She materialized in three-strip Technicolor three years later at a small dinner party among friends. She was the sister of the friend of a friend, or something equally lackluster. I cannot remember who was the friend of the friend, or what our first words were, or what color of dress she was wearing, or if I was sweating beneath my knees (although I am certain I was). All I remember is that she was there, every piece of her put together. The last pieces to show were the eyes. Those were the most important. They still are.

The root of all passions is love. From love is born sadness, joy, happiness, and hopelessness. That’s what I read in the bookshop. I said you didn’t need to know, but I don’t mind telling you. It’s one of the few things I still know.

If I don’t leave now, I won’t make it to the butcher’s and back before the sun sets. The sun sets early in February, and even when its up it doesn’t do much to combat the cold. I suppose we all need a day or two off from time to time, the sun included. February must be the shortest month for a reason. Vacation time is sparse in this economy.

Ana was nothing like I had ever imagined, and better for it. I remember the color of her dress now. It wasn’t yellow. It was lemon zest on strings of daffodils in the spring, sunflowers reflecting sun beams, and all things peregrine. Her dress was the sun and the stars were a recondite constellation across her hair, her skin the soft luminance of a full moon in June. She was more than my world. She was my galaxy.

Three months after our happenstance preamble to a love story, we took a train to Madrid. The rigid seats were stained with the stories of passengers gone before, and speckled with hints of hope, dashes of desperation, and all emotions in between. We watched the landscape play a multi-kilometer game of charades and tried to guess our whereabouts without peaking at street signs. It was a bad game, but a bad game among good company is still worth playing.

She asked me if I had ever been to Madrid before.

“No, no, I can’t say that I have. I tend to avoid cities with more people than trees, as a rule.”

“Do you love trees more than people, James?”

“I hate trees less than I hate people, Ana.”

“That might be the most comfortless thing I’ve ever heard. I don’t think you mean it.”

There was a pause, then, as we watched a small child fall asleep in his mother’s arms across the row.

“Do you hate me, James?”

I knew I didn’t hate her, but I had never considered that I might love her until then.

“I could never hate you, Ana, you know that. And I don’t hate people either, really. It’s…uh, it’s just a word, see? It’s easier to group all of humanity together and pretend to hate them than it is to sort the good from the bad. It’s so hard to know the good from the bad…”

Another pause. The child was in deep sleep now, a caravan of bubbles and spittle parading across his left cheek, his mother gazing at the kaleidoscope of pastoral colors on the other side of the window.

“That’s sad, James. I am sad for you.”

Three years later and we found ourselves on a train again, this time a train with wings. We were en route to New York, a city with even more people and even fewer trees than Madrid. After years of odd jobs and lentil stew we had saved up the funds necessary to cross the ocean, whose waves grew darker and colder the further we drifted from our home in Spain.

I was born in New York City, to my great displeasure. My mother was an immigrant from San Juan, Puerto Rico, my father an immigrant from Lindsborg, Kansas. Neither of them were prepared to love each other, let alone love me or any of my four siblings. In 1954, my father left to buy a shower curtain and never came back. We never replaced him, nor did we replace the shower curtain. I slipped several times in the bathroom as a result. I recall certain days when I wished I would have hit my head a bit harder against the cold ceramic floor, which ultimately provided no escape from the problems I erroneously believed were unique to my situation.

At the age of 17 I was presented with an escape plan, and I left the cacophony of New York yammers and yowls behind, opting to travel out west to Colorado. I met the trees there. They were silent companions, but loyal and true, and I spent time among them often. When I couldn’t be with the trees, I brought the trees with me in the form of pages. I don’t think trees mind such a reincarnation, as long as the book is true and refuses to be anything but itself. I spoke in the English of my father, but read in the Spanish of my mother, and I like to believe that I had the approval of the trees to do so.

Ana and I landed in New York City, hailed a cab, and spent the summer months with my mother and youngest sister. It was the first time I had ever met her, and she was much lovelier than my mother ever was. Her name is Clarita. I do hope she is well. I haven’t seen her in four years, maybe five. One loses track of the time when his fingers become too bunglesome to replace a watch battery.

Clarita and I spent an afternoon at the beach, just the two of us. I was dressed to the neck in heavy fabrics of dark colors, and the seagulls were cackling disapprovingly of my wardrobe choice. We talked about many things, most of them insignificant, and a select few slightly too germane for my liking. We talked about ice cream, and not gelato. We talked about roller coasters, and not relationships. We talked about trees, and not bricks.

She spoke fondly of Ana, who she had grown to love in the weeks we had spent together in cramped living quarters, eating from the same plates and sharing the same blankets in the evening. She asked me what I loved most about Ana, and after three years at her side I no longer hesitated before responding.

“I am not alone in my admiration of Ana, you know. She has furnished her life with love. She gives it openly, reciprocates it without vacillation, and instills it with the delicacy and tact of a tenured surgeon. Yes, loving Ana is easy…”

“You didn’t answer my question,” said Clarita with the hint of a smile on her face.

“I suppose not… It’s hard to say. And I feel selfish just saying it. But I think what I love most about her is that she taught me I could love people the same way that I love trees.”

It’s three in the afternoon. There are sun pools on the sheets — high tide follows high noon, it seems. The constant hum of city life just outside the window, the stifling silence of my mind just within. I live in the city now.

It was four years ago this month that I lost Ana. As her eyelids fell heavy, I watched her sail away on a small vessel built for one. There was nothing extraordinary about her death. It was a quiet death, an expected death. The sheets were a shade of pastel yellow, a close relative of the color she loved in life. Her skin was whiter than any moon. There was no more hair for the stars to dance across, but her beauty lived deep inside her eyes up until her final moments, when it briefly fluttered to the surface only to shut the doors and pull the drapes.

We had originally relocated to Llanes because she wanted to be near the ocean, to wake and see its froth and smell its salt on the winds of each new day. We couldn’t afford a house, though, so we settled on renting a two bedroom apartment with Victorian-era door handles and only a small electric heater in the corner to keep us warm. There was only one tree on the property. It was a cypress, tall and knobbly and maybe even a tad self-conscious despite its popularity among French gardens and Italian wineries. The third-floor flat was at the perfect height to make eye-contact with the old tree and ensure that it returned the attention only we could so freely give it.

After Ana’s death, Clarita insisted that I return to the States, but I couldn’t bear to leave so many memories behind to be trampled upon by the likes of unworthy strangers and philistine tourists. Economic circumstances compelled me to relocate to the heart of the city, but I felt that it was Ana’s heart too. She lived within each brick of those weather washed buildings, and when the mid-afternoon sun glanced across the roofs just right, they twinkled in the way her eyes did. I could almost hear her laugh.

I don’t talk to Ana anymore, but I do talk to the cypress. Every day. 3pm. I walk past the shops where we looked longingly at trinkets and paintings we could never afford, the cafes where we shared small paper bags of polvorones, and the streets where we learned who exactly it was that we had chosen to love.

I wind my way across the city’s major arteries and towards the vestiges of its suburbs, where we used to live. The ocean roars from far below, and its threats bounce across the dark stone that separates me from her. There is still one tree here. It is our cypress.

I sit. I talk. And sometimes I write. Today I am writing. Tomorrow, I will talk. The cypress never talks back, but sometimes she does. Ana. Right now she isn’t talking, but I am writing. And I am staring straight up towards the peak of our cypress tree. And I am thinking about how our love was born in our hearts, and will forever live on in our trees and in our bricks. And I am recalling those words I read in the bookshop that day, when my soul first knew Ana.

“La raíz de todas las pasiones es el amor. De él nace la tristeza, el gozo, la alegría y la desesperación.”

--

--