The three boys ramble up the street like some kind of odd camel, the tall one leading the borrowed grocery cart packed high with empties, the smaller two pushing from the handlebar like hind quarters, laboring in steady unison. They hug the curb and nearly pitch when one of the wheels wedges in a storm drain, bringing the awkward camel to a stop.
“I’ll get it,” says the left hind-quarter and he dives under the belly of the cart, pushing and plying the stuck wheel. The first boy, and the third, alternate critical examinations of the second boy’s efforts with lazy glances around the neighborhood. On the lot next to them, a wide beveled door opens across a square verandah, the small white house yawning out an incongruous gaggle of neatly ragged and stale smelling somnambulants. Neat like they arrived for a dinner party and ragged like they drank straight through to breakfast. But neither the men nor the women are drunk. And certainly not the girl.
The third boy is a little shorter, but he and the girl are the same age, maybe ten years old, or eleven. Their eyes lock, except that she doesn’t see him. She looks into an indeterminate distance, or else closer, into some deeper plane of herself. He’s seen her before, this girl with the torn clothes, the tousled hair, the accumulation of dirt tanning the skin but for meandering tracks of dried tear-snails, mapped out in varying lines of lighter shades beneath her dry eyes. He’s seen her on television, emerging from the dust of tornado-toppled houses in those prairie towns where the lightning and rain go straight up and down and happen all at once. He’s seen her carried on the shoulders of uniforms, clutching a discordant lollipop someone’s plied into her hand so she’ll stop screaming for who’s numbered among the missing, for the hand or foot that implies the rest of a body lost in the cracked earth. She is the girl on the news, pulled out of the well, or found alone in the woods, the girl exhausted from being suddenly without.
But there is no evidence of disaster. The house behind her stands strong and bored, politely suffering the creaks in its planks, its flaking paint. The ground holds steady, nothing burns. The wind would sooner drop a kite than stir up any offense. And this girl is not alone. The hand that holds hers is like hers, its skin her own skin but older, a father’s hand unscathed by efforts of salvage or triage. Eight of them stand on the lawn, blink in the day-blue in diluting increments, then with a nod amongst themselves, start walking, the men and the women and the distant girl.
“Somebody musta died,” says the first boy. “I heard their funerals can last for weeks.” He looks over the glass in the cart to the third boy, whose gaze follows the peculiar parade. “How much you say we get for bottles?”
“Dime each,” says the third boy, without turning, “Weeks?” He stares after the walking girl, her canvas sneakers dissonant with her pretty, torn dress, their rounded rubber soles lifting and flattening as she recedes, like the mouths of small fish, alternately opening and closing on the answer to the riddle of her.
“How much, the cans and metal?”
The girl disappears behind adult legs and the third boy shrugs. “They do them by how heavy. A buck, maybe?”
“Hey,” says the second boy, his head springing from under the cart as if from a sideways toaster, teeth bared in an inspired grin, “What do ya think we get for the cart?”
You might mistake her for a field-stone unearthed at the fence-line, or if your eye happened to catch the movement of her hair in the wind, you might see her there and think that she was hiding in a seeker’s game. Plastic binoculars balanced on splayed knees, Sara hunches in the tall grass, oblivious to the seed in her hair, the stains on her jeans. A hand-me-down backpack with one strap held on by safety pins is half tucked under her seat, not so much as a cushion as to make sure its contents, the empty plastic sandwich bag and wrapper of her granola bar, don’t blow away in the gentle exhalation of the sunset at her back. Distantly, she hears her name being called for dinner, and ignores it, telling herself a few minutes more, but hoping the voice will just go away. She has watched the weeping tree all day, hidden there at the edge of the clearing, waiting. It is she who is the seeker.
The oak darkens, a shadow amid creeping shadows just past the tree-line where her family’s farm ends. It is not a big tree, not half-way grown, but strong enough to climb and tall enough that even in the fading day its uppermost leaves are crowned with fire-light from the setting sun. But it is the tears that bring her here.
She found the first of them three summers past, when swinging out on one of the lower branches, a rainbow burst camera-like in her eyes and when she climbed up to the spot, she found a crystal the size of her thumb, smooth and cylindrical, wired to the tree with silver-coloured metal. As she climbed around the tree, she found the others, all crystals, but each a different size and shape. Some, she guessed had been there longer, where the bark of the tree had grown up around the metal, swallowing the wires, making the crystals look like a sad tree-spirit, spilling out in slow tears. There were thirty tears when she first found them, the largest of which was a solid sphere the size of a baseball, hanging down from the thickest branch of the trunk where it split into three smaller limbs.
One day near the end of summer the following year, there were thirty-five crystals. One of them had a note attached to it, but it had been there for a couple of days before she’d found it. Rain had bleached away much of the blue ink to purple and the paper itself had all but disintegrated. All she could read of it were the words,
|could i love you unseeing
through twilight and the fog
and though the paper came apart in her hands, she thought the words were pretty and she wrote them down in her journal. She spent the rest of the day making up stories about crystal-bearing fairies and spirits and this odd Christmas tree of summer.
At about the same time the next summer, five more crystals appeared in the tree between the time she left it in the mid afternoon and when she returned to play there late the following morning. Again, the crystals were random in size and shape and placed without any discernible logic. And again, above one of the crystals, a semi-transparent note of purple ink and onion-skin paper was threaded on the wire, threatening to tear loose, even in the light afternoon breeze. Not daring to touch the delicate paper, she maneuvered herself under and around the crystal and copied the note into her journal:
|Once-again dreams sleep
under the weight of falling stars
that once we reached
so high so much so
so far from our small unknowing
our brightest son burned trespass to light
our arrogance exposed, ignorance shattered
spilled out and etched
in cartography of tear-salt and reminiscence.
We: forever in return
ever together in falling alone
She didn’t understand what the poem meant. She knew that she would have to look up some words in the dictionary when she got home, but it seemed sad to her and that’s when she started calling it the Weeping Tree. Sara looked back at the stories she had written about crystal-fairies the year before and knew that she’d got it all wrong.
The calling grows louder and Sara knows that her brother is coming to get her, but she does not turn, does not take her eyes from the Weeping Tree until he shouts from a few meters away and she locks him in a determined glare and waves him to silence. Intrigued, he hunches down and creeps forward until he is beside her.
“What are we peeping?” he whispers with guilty pleasure.
“The Weeping Tree,” she says, “just shut up and stay down.”
“I don’t see anything,” he says after a few moments, then pulling her shoulder he adds, “we gotta go. Mom sent me to get you. I think she’s pissed.” Sara does not move. He puts his hands under her arms and tugs her to her feet. “That means now, kid. Let’s go.”
As they climb over the cedar rails lined over the field-stone wall that borders their family’s property, the mere idea that there might be something to see makes them both take a last look back. And that is all it takes. Sara’s brother opens his mouth to speak, and she yanks him down behind the fence to look through the spaces between the cedar rails. From the east, a blond-haired woman comes across the field. She wears a navy blue t-shirt and jeans. A sweatshirt tied around her waist hangs to the backs of her thighs, and a brown leather satchel bounces against her knee with each step.
“Who’s that?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” Sara says trying to fit the plastic binoculars she has had since she was five in the space between the rails.
By the time the woman reaches the tree, she is close enough that the toy binoculars are more hindrance than help. She takes the satchel from around her neck and sits at the base of the tree. The woman takes a book from the bag, opens it and begins writing. After a while, she stops and gently tears out the page she has been writing on, closes the book and puts it back in her bag. She stands, looks up into the tree, squinting slightly, then she unties her sweatshirt, puts the paper in between her lips and climbs up into the tree. Up past the lower branches, as high as she can get where the limbs are still strong enough to support her weight. She moves out a little to an outlying branch and pulls a crystal from her pocket. She threads it with a short length of wire and then takes the paper from her lips, punches the wire through it and twists the wire securely around the branch.
“Never the easy way, huh?” says a voice. So intent on watching the woman in the tree, Sara and her brother do not notice the approach of another, dark-haired woman, taller, wearing a jean-jacket and brightly coloured wrap-skirt.
“Not if I can help it,” laughs the woman in the tree, “I figure we should leave the lower branches for when we’re too old, too achy or too pissed off to climb.”
“Fair enough. Hey, while you’re up there…” the dark-haired woman tosses a paper packet up into the tree and the blond-haired woman unwraps the small crystal inside it. She wires it to another branch in the tree while the dark-haired woman looks on approvingly, then climbs back down, brushing her hands together to knock off the dirt and loose pieces of bark.
“How are you, Dee?” the blond woman asks. The dark-haired woman opens her mouth to answer automatically, looks at her friend and closes it. She half-smiles, half-nods.
“It feels like spring.”
“It’s good to see you,” says the blond woman, and they hug. Then stepping back, the blond woman turns a bit to the side and they look up into the tree. “He’s looking good,” she says.
“Lookin’ strong,” says Dee. They step away to the place where the leather satchel still lies on the ground and sit looking beyond the tree, at the colours of the twilight. “I read your book,” says the dark-haired woman, “Lauren Jane.”
“My name is Jane,” says Lauren, smiling.
“You used to hate that name.”
“I know it.”
“I didn’t like it much, either.”
“You ever hear anything about her, where she ended up?” Lauren asks.
“Not really. Someone said she was teaching. Inner city somewhere, but I don’t know. So what about you? You writing full time now you’re published?”
“Ha! One book of poems does not a living make. Besides, I like my job. Little kids think I’m heroic.” Something passes unsaid between them, some bittersweet irony too big to talk about, too familiar to require explanation.
“And you? You get matched for Paeds?”
“Anesthesia. Second choice. But I guess Paediatrics wasn’t really my first choice either.” Lauren looks at her. It is the look of a question, but not of surprise, nor of expectation. “I got an audition for the Company at the National Ballet. It’s in two weeks,” Dee says, seeming slightly embarrassed. “I’m older than the principals.” Lauren’s smile opens like a hug at the arrival’s gate.
“Look at you,” she says, and adds, singing, “ ‘Me here, at last, on the ground, you, in mid-air.’ ”
“Speaking of clowns,” Dee says, pulling a wind-blown hair from her mouth.
“Jake? He made the trip. He’s got some kind of stomach thing, but he’ll come when he’s feeling better. He’s at his Mom’s. We can go over and see him later.”
“Haven’t seen Cam in a long time,” Lauren says, then looking up into the rainbow-casting tree-tears, “But he’s been every year. He’ll come. In his own time.”
They talk for a short while longer then, the twilight darkening, they stand and Lauren pokes her arms into the sleeves of her sweatshirt, dancing the words, Fire & Rescue into place across her shoulder blades. They take a couple of steps south before Lauren turns, skips back to the base of the tree, lays a kiss on her fingers and pats it on the trunk. Then she turns, trots two steps to catch up with her dark-haired friend as they walk together, arm in arm, talking quietly into the southern dark.
Sara’s brother does not let her climb into the tree after the girls depart, but drags her home instead, on the false promise that she will be able to return tomorrow. He is fairly certain that she’ll be grounded for ignoring their mother’s call and for having to be sent for. He feels stupid now, for hiding behind the fence, but Sara’s intense vigil had made him curious. For a moment he thought that they were about to witness a lesbian rendezvous right out of his fantasies, but as it precipitated into a disappointingly banal conversation about people he didn’t know, his only hope now is that he won’t share in Sara’s punishment for staying out. He thinks to ask her what it’s all about, but his GameCube is on pause and he doesn’t much care.
When Sara is released from her grounding, it is almost a week later. Up in the Weeping Tree she counts forty-four crystals, and observes with disappointment that all that’s left of Lauren’s note is a fibrous feather of onion-skin, caught in the twist where the wire threads the crystal. Sara climbs down from the tree and sits on the grass where the women had talked, looking west and trying to imagine the sunset as it was that day. In her journal, she has written the last overheard words of the women’s conversation as they sat watching the fiery crown of sunlight fade behind the cedars. She reads them out with the slight inflection of a question, reads them out to the tall grass, the field-stones, the cedars and the butterflies, to the Weeping Tree, to the knowing blue sky:
|Dark-Haired: It seems so different, coming back each time.
Lauren: What do you mean?
Dark-Haired: I don’t know. I guess I don’t ever remember it being this beautiful.
Lauren: It’s the same. What’s different, I think, it’s that we weren’t ever this beautiful.