Authors: Luanne Rice
Tags: #Short Story, #Fiction
“Are you okay?”
“Fine.” But she looked pale, and could barely shuffle.
“I told you: you should have stopped working. What happened, did you slip on the ladder, or get so tired, or…”
“My water broke in the middle of the night, when I was fast asleep in my nice bed. So it wasn’t work—it was just Isabel being ready to be born. There she is!”
They had reached the nursery. The nurse in charge was holding an infant, but at the sight of Sara, she placed the baby back in an incubator, hurried over to take Sara’s arm and help her to a chair. They exchanged few words. The nurse went to get Isabel from her incubator.
The baby was awake, eyes wide open. Unlike some of the other infants, she had only a heart monitor stuck to her chest. The nurse unhooked it, wrapped her in a white blanket, and handed her to Sara. She untied the back of the hospital gown, slipped it down in front so Isabel could latch onto Sara’s breast.
Isabel drank hungrily. Lydia leaned against the wall. Both mother’s and daughter’s eyes were closed, as if they had exhausted themselves just getting to this point. She thought of the last hospital, when her mother was dying, and then she remembered—she swore it was a true clear memory—the first hospital, when she’d been born and her mother had fed her. Death was a long way off, and so was birth, and it made circles between people who loved each other through all of it.
Now, standing in her Black Point kitchen as the last remnants of the thunderstorm moved offshore, across Long Island Sound, she heard footsteps on the stairs and filled a mug with coffee.
“Good morning, Isabel,” she said, and handed Sara’s daughter the mug as she entered the room.
Lydia smiled. She liked being called “aunt.” She had become the girl’s honorary aunt that first day of her life, when she’d made the promise to Sara. And she’d gone through these two decades without a daughter of her own—painting and traveling, considering art to be her child, nurturing it, and worrying about it, and cherishing it as much as she could. But this was the girl she’d sworn to care for.
“I woke up and couldn’t find Danny,” Isabel said.
“In the storm? There was lightning.” Her voice was calm. She touched the screen door with her fingertips.
“He waited until it ended.”
Growing up on a tree farm, one of the first things you learned was that as soon as you could hear thunder, a lightning strike was possible.
When thunder roars, go indoors
, her mother had taught her.
“He’s fine,” Lydia reassured her.
Just to be sure, they headed outside. A few scraps of clouds lingered, but the storm had moved on, leaving the dawn air indigo blue and shining with the night’s last stars. The rain had soaked the trees and ground. The smell of pine was intoxicating as the earth squished beneath their feet.
Danny was in the center of the clearing, surveying damage: the storm had twisted and splintered twenty of the oldest trees, the ones that had been her mother’s favorites.
“Oh, no!” Lydia cried out.
“It wasn’t just a thunderstorm,” Danny said as she hurried over. “A tornado must have come through.”
“They’re all gone.”
The tallest, oldest trees encircled the meadow; the spruce and pines had been planted by Lydia’s parents, with the idea they would never be cut, they would be allowed to grow tall, and family celebrations could be held here, and the space could exist forever. Tally nosed around the edges, where the hay hadn’t been mown, where raindrops clung to spider webs, and tracks of rabbits and field mice led into grass tunnels.
“I’m so sorry about this,” Isabel said, as if the fact that her wedding would be today had anything to do with it.
“We’ve had so many hurricanes and blizzards, but never a tornado before, never this kind of damage,” Lydia said.
She had gotten married here, in the clearing, to Morgan. Her father had walked her from the house, down one of the pine-lined lanes, her arm tucked in his. She had felt her mother’s absence in her heart, and she’d whispered to her father that she missed her, and he had told her to listen, she was right there with them: and she was. Lydia had heard the breeze through the branches of the trees her mother had planted, and somehow that had brought comfort and connection, had made her feel her mother was right there with her.
The marriage hadn’t lasted, but the memory lived forever.
The trees had made that possible: living things planted by her mother. Her mother’s hands had dug the holes, placed the burlap-bound root balls carefully into the dirt, covered and watered them. Her mother had watched them grow, and she’d taken care of them; she had tended these trees, just as she’d raised Lydia. How could you measure love? The care she had bestowed on the pines had come from the same heart as the devotion she’d felt for her daughter.
Danny, Isabel, and Lydia used the Volvo tractor to clear the fallen trees away. Last night they had been living things; now they were dead. Lydia knew they’d be mulched and would reenter the growing cycle, giving new life to young saplings, but right then it was all she could do to haul them out of the circle, feeling grief and attachment.
“Are you okay?” Danny asked.
“I am,” she said.
“You look sad. They’re old trees—it’s hard to see them go.”
“Yeah,” she said. He was young, but he got it.
“In Nova Scotia,” Danny said, “when trees died we’d leave them on the beach, above the tide line, to dry all summer long. Then we’d have a bonfire.”
“That’s what we’ll do here. They’ll serve a purpose, pull in sand, hold back erosion,” Lydia said. She tried to sound positive, but she was just speaking the words. She felt numb.
Danny squeezed her shoulders, then got back to work.
She’d hired him five years ago, when he’d answered an ad she’d placed in a tree journal. He’d just received his certificate from the School of Professional Horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden in New York City; he had grown up on a tree farm in Nova Scotia, spent every December with his family selling Christmas trees on a Chelsea street corner.
Isabel had come here last year, after her twentieth birthday, after Sara had written to ask Lydia to take her in. They had moved back to Juárez—work was scarce near San Miguel after greening disease had struck the lemon orchard—and violence against women was again rising. Ciudad Juárez was a cauldron of cartels, coyotes, and rage against women working at the
—the big factories that ringed the town. Women got kidnapped with stunning frequency. They disappeared, sometimes to be found dead in the desert months later, often without any trace at all. Sara had had too many friends lose daughters and sisters.
So Sara and Lydia had made a plan. Isabel would travel to Black Hall, Connecticut, on the same exchange program that had taken Lydia to Mexico all those years ago, in reverse. By sending Isabel far away, she would protect her. Isabel had been accepted to the Black Hall College for a semester, and she had done well. She had lived with Lydia, working on the tree farm, and had met Danny.
Lydia knew this hadn’t been part of Sara’s plan. She had wanted her daughter removed from the immediate danger of Juárez, but she hadn’t envisioned her meeting a young man, falling in love, planning a life in Connecticut. Sara, because of her deportation two decades ago, had been unable to get a visa to attend Isabel’s wedding.
Lydia, Danny, and Isabel spent all morning running the chain saw, cutting the trees and dragging them away with the tractor. Danny’s family arrived at noon—his father and best man, Christy Byrne, was dressed in his best black suit, but as soon as he saw the damage he borrowed a set of Danny’s work clothes and grabbed a saw. His wife Catherine and daughter Bridget borrowed jeans from Lydia and Isabel, and they all worked at preparing the scene.
“It was a bad one,” Christy said of the storm, helping Lydia pile debris into a flatbed wagon.
“I heard the thunder, assumed it was just passing through, but when we came out, this is what we found. We thought the worst would be wet ground—that we’d have to protect Isabel’s dress.”
“Trees grow back,” Christy said. “That’s the beauty of conifers. They grow fast.”
“These were never going to be cut,” Lydia said.
“Christmas trees never to be cut?” he asked.
“Most of them, yes. But not these, not the inner ring,” she said. “My mother and father planted them.”
“Oh, that’s different,” he said, with the kind of gravity in his voice that she felt in her chest. He was a tree man who understood. Catherine joined them at the wagon, filling it with as many trees and branches as would fit. Once they had swept the meadow free of wreckage, Danny hooked the wagon to the tractor, and they followed it down the path to the beach.
It felt like a funeral procession: Danny driving the tractor, the rest of them walking slowly behind. Christy was right: pines grew fast. But the very quality that made that possible rendered them more fragile than other trees. Their trunks weren’t as dense, their branches were not as strong as oaks or maples, hardwoods that lived in the forests of Black Hall, up the Connecticut River.
“Are you okay?” Isabel asked, falling into step with Lydia.
“I’m fine,” she said. “How about you? This isn’t the start I had imagined for your wedding day.”
“It’s beautiful,” Isabel said. “Danny’s family is here. We’re all working together. It reminds me of the orchard, when I was little.”
“You remember that?”
“Of course. My mom, my aunts and uncles, lemon trees everywhere. The sun was always shining, and my uncle was always singing.”
“I remember that,” Lydia said. “He had a good voice. He sounded happy.”
“We might still be working there if the trees hadn’t gotten sick.”
“Citrus greening disease.”
“We called it ‘yellow dragon disease,’” Isabel said. “It seemed like a monster that came out of the trees themselves, out of the leaves, and coated all the lemons with bacteria. It seemed like the worst thing. The poor trees.”
“And the orchard closed,” Lydia said as they walked closer to the beach; the storm had kicked up a steady wind, and she could hear waves breaking from fifty yards away.
“Yes. And there was no more work. So my mom moved with me to Juárez so she could work in the maquiladora.”
“Her brother was going to visit her today. Did she tell you that? To be with her during my wedding, because she couldn’t come here.”
“I didn’t know,” Lydia said.
“From the terrible thing that happened to the lemon orchard, this day came.”
“How do you mean?” Lydia asked.
“If I were still in the orchard with my family, I never would have come here, I never would have met Danny.”
“And I never would have come here to live, gotten to know you, my other mother,” Isabel said. “That’s what my mom calls you. Thank you.” Then she took Lydia’s hand and they walked along the sandy beach path.
When they got to the high bank, they all pitched in dragging branches from the flatbed and throwing them onto the sand. The beach was long and narrow, a barrier between Long Island Sound and a salt pond, and in recent years had lost several feet to erosion. Storms ate away at the bank; several years ago a nor’easter had opened a bight, shifted the sand so a channel now ran from the open water back to the salt marsh.
Everything changed, even the contours of the land. Lydia had often set up her easel right here, painted the beach, the mouth of the river, the lighthouses in Fenwick, on the other side. She sometimes thought this was the exact view her parents had looked out at, when she was a small child, but that wasn’t accurate. The beach had been wider then. The driftwood logs here today were different than the ones they had played on all those years ago.
“Should I go back?” Isabel asked, sounding nervous.
It was two o’clock; the wedding invitations had said five. The catering crew would be pulling up at the house by now, getting ready to set up in the clearing. Isabel was covered with dust and pine needles; her hands were splotched with pine tar.
“Yes,” Lydia said, hugging her. “You’re the bride, and you’re already beautiful. But go get ready.”
All the trees had been unloaded. Snug against the curved bank, they were already settling into the sand. They would stay there all summer, and one October day, perhaps around Halloween, Lydia would invite the wedding party to return to this beach for a bonfire. Her mother would have liked that. It was the kind of gathering she had imagined when she’d created the circle of trees, the clearing that had been made for celebrations.
Lydia expected to be back by then. She hadn’t told anyone but Sara, but she’d gotten sick. She had the same disease as both their mothers, lymphoma. When the wedding was over she would have a course of chemo, and then would go down to San Miguel de Allende. She was going to paint. Sara would join her; if Lydia needed help, Sara would be there.
The number of wedding guests was small, drawn from Danny and Isabel’s circle of friends from New York and Black Hall. A few professors and artists from the college arrived, and so did several friends of the Byrnes’s from New York.
Fifty people altogether, sitting in the circle—bigger now, with the inner ring of trees gone—listening to Andy King, the bagpiper of Hubbard’s Point, play the pipes while Lydia walked Isabel down the same aisle of trees her father had walked her.
Isabel looked beautiful in her grandmother’s wedding dress. The strong wind had dried the ground so thoroughly there’d been no reason to worry about the hem getting wet. She held tight to Lydia’s arm; Lydia wasn’t sure who was most supporting whom.
“I wish my mother were here,” Isabel whispered as they drew within sight of the clearing. There was Danny standing beside his father, beaming at the sight of her.
“She is here, darling,” Lydia said, just as her dad had said to her at her own wedding, when she’d whispered the same words about her own mother. The breeze blew and rustled the boughs of the trees still standing, and Lydia and Isabel heard their mothers’ voices as they walked into the circle.