Outside my window lives an old and confused crabapple tree. It sheds its leaves in the summer, and by August, it is bare. It’s an odd looking thing, coming out of my front yard like the skeletal hand of a prehistoric monster. A crippled palm hides, slyly, a withered thumb that curls at the base where a wrist should be and isn’t. Four dark spider fingers, fifteen feet tall, their skins scaly and their joints swollen, spread wide like the spines of a Chinese fan whose silk is gone.
In the winter, sky and light pour through these fingers like so much water. But in the summer, when the Gothic vault of these suburban woods leaves us but a nickel’s worth of sun, the tree and I live, perennially, at dusk. The crabapple, I suppose, takes this gloomy twilight as a sure sign of autumn. Its leaves turn yellow in June, and by August, it’s a corpse.
When I sit at my desk to write, I stare out at that hand. Sometimes for hours. Nothing much is coming of the writing anyway. So why am I torturing myself? My mind’s as barren and wooden as that calamity out there. I should have written long ago if that’s what I wanted, not put everything else first—husband, children, house, garden, laundry, cooking, nursing, nurturing. Can’t make up for lost time and words not written. Can’t force putting something on these empty pages if there’s nothing inside to put there.
A handyman, hungry for work, rings my doorbell and asks if I need that tree taken down.
He’s not the first. In the company of my neighbor’s manicured lawns, the tree stands out like an aberration begging for deliverance. It’s not done much this summer but drop its meager fruit into the grass where the yellow jackets rage. He could cut it, I imagine, right there beneath that withered thumb, and I could plant a medallion of impatiens around it until the stump decays, or adorn the wound with a pot of cosmos to make the neighbors happy. I shrug.
“I’m not sure,” I say to the handyman. “I think I’ll wait awhile. That tree might come to something yet, might shape up, surprise us all.”
“Whatever you say, ma’am, but that thing is deader’n a doornail.”
I swear the old goat of a tree hears every word and smirks every time, because each spring this old hand works the same miracle, and year after year I manage to forget how miraculous that work. On a day when I pay scant attention, the spider fingers start collecting hearts, the size of teardrops and ruby red. When next I look, these hearts are strung all over that tree, on boughs and twigs and over and under and back and forth until the hand is filled to the brim with jewels, heart shaped and the color of aged Burgundy.
Some unsuspecting morning, I walk out of my house, looking at my feet, thinking, frowning. Something calls me without sound and I look up, startled. Where there should be a tree there is a cloud—an immense cloud made entirely of blossoms, tourmaline and perfect, ethereal and amazing. I stare at them, dumbstruck. Can’t help but smile at that joke of a tree that set out to prove something, old as it is. I shake my head and get back to my desk where, once again, an empty page waits in my typewriter. I seem to get some pleasure out of torturing myself by way of white paper, and so I sit, chin in palm, and dream out at my transfigured tree that seems to mock me. Slowly it starts dropping blossoms, one by one, a petal at a time. Softly, they spiral downward on spring air and then lie in the grass like rare pink pearls.
* * *
I took the hint, and the result was