by T. Gene Davis
Fred looked down on her burnt form. His squinting eyes bookmarked a crumpled expression and one twitching nostril that threatened to make his voluminous mustache crawl away to find a more appetizing site. Smokey smells replaced the expected morning scent of sagebrush after rain. Her right arm flung wildly above her reposed form, clawed at the scorched bark of an ancient pinyon destroyed by the previous night’s fire.
He scratched his back and rubbed his fingers through the mustache to calm its twitching, then cleared his throat. He looked at the late morning sun, as if to burn the image of her reddened flesh out of his mind.
She opened one eye slightly. Her voice rasped, “I must have slipped out. It won’t let me back in.” Her left fist unclenched, but the right hand kept rubbing raw burnt fingers against the remains of the pinyon.
“What are you doing on my land?” His gruff voice stood out against the silence of the morning. “Who are you?”
Her mouth opened, but no words came.
She’s not going to get up and leave, is she, he determined.
Instinctively reaching for his cell, he deflected his hand from his pocket and let it rest on his waist. This place never had service. If he wanted her gone, he’d have to carry her out himself.
Grumbling at ruining his new shirt, Fred hoisted her and started the trek back to the log-style green-roofed cabin. She was light, like dried wood, but he stumbled down the gulch past last night’s campfire as though carrying a heavy load. Too much time in cities has made me soft, he mumbled as he began gasping at the dry air. He nearly tripped over the embers of campfire kicking up remains of photos of another much more attractive woman. Mud made him slip to one knee. His load groaned. Her hand still clenching franticly at a tree that receded behind them with every step towards civilization.
“What have you done?” Fred’s mother more sneered than shouted from the cabin steps.
“I found her up in the gulch.”
“You burned a vagrant?”
“I did not.”
“Your fire … Your stupid fire nearly burned down the mountain. If it hadn’t rained …”
“We need to call an ambulance for her.”
“She’s not coming in my house.”
“Fine, Mother. I’ll go in alone and use the phone.”
Fred’s mother looked him up and down. “Isn’t it enough you’ve set me up for a lawsuit? She’ll probably own my land because of you. Now, you want to ruin my carpet, too?” She watched Fred readjust his load. “Take her to the hospital in your fancy car. Make sure she doesn’t sue us.”
His back hurt from the effort of slouching in the hospital room chair. Fred watched her wake in her bed. He’d had to say he was her next of kin to get access to her room, but he was there when she woke.
“You’re in a hospital.”
“You’re that boy …”
“I’m a little old to be called a boy.”
“I’ve watched you light fires in that spot since you were no bigger than a coyote.”
Fred sat up, clearing his throat. “Yeah. Well. Ain’t that creepy.”
She fixed her stare on his chest, as if looking into his heart.
“Um. You got a name, lady?”
She smiled a friendly smile making Fred squirm in the chair.
“I like ‘Sylvia’. You couldn’t pronounce my Ute name.”
“Well Sylvia, you were trespassing. You wouldn’t have been hurt if you weren’t on my land.”
She laughed. It was a strong laugh that contrasted with her bandages and hospital gown.
“You can plant a tree. You can climb a tree. You can burn a tree. You can never own a tree. A tree is fixed in the universe. Once it’s roots grab earth, you can never move a tree.”
“Just like you’re mother.”
“No. I’m nothing like her.”
“Has she told you that she and your father use to camp at that very same spot.”
“Where you burned those pictures.”
The door opened, admitting Sylvia’s doctor. “Good. You’re awake,” he crooned. “You and I have a lot of paperwork to go through.”
The doctor followed Sylvia’s gaze to Fred.
“Ah. Mr Maxwell. If you wouldn’t mind. Confidentiality and all.” He opened the door, giving Fred a gentle get out look.
“Sylvia, we’ll talk later,” Fred said as he exited the room.
They spoke often. Fred spent most of each day in Sylvia’s room talking, until one day after a long silence Sylvia blurted out, “I might forgive you.”
“What do you mean?”
“For killing my home. For burning me. For being who you are.”
“Thank you, … I guess.”
“I’m also a little envious.”
“You travel the world at will. I haven’t walked a step since I was three. It must be lovely to be so, so … mobile.”
“So you won’t sue me.”
“Like that lady in the ads says I should? Ask me again, another day.”
Fred took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“I need a place to stay until I find a new tree.”
Fred shook his head. “A new tree?”
“I live in trees.”
“You are batty, old lady.”
“It’s a big commitment. You don’t just change trees at will. Usually you live in the same tree until it dies. It has to be the perfect tree. I think this time, I want a tree with a nice view. I miss my old dirt, but I want adventure. Yes. I want to have a vista to look at.”
Fred shook his head again and remained silent as Sylvia spoke about the merits of good rooted dirt and a pretty view.
My name is Jolie Chen. And if you’ve been injured in an auto accident …
Fred switched off the monitor.
“I was watching that.”
“I hate her.”
“Such strong emotion. Why hate a flat lady in a plastic box?”
Fred shook his head. He rubbed his neck. It hurt from too much shaking.
“She’s not flat. She’s very curvy.” He swallowed, looking at the blank screen. “We’re friends.”
“Ah. You love her.”
“She’s the one you were crying about.”
“I do not cry.”
“Back home, when you caught my tree on fire. You were burning pictures of her. I recognize her, now.”
“I’ll check on you later.”
The hospital room door swung shut behind him. Sylvia grabbed the remote from her stand and turned on the monitor in time to see Jolie Chen give out her phone number with a beautiful broad smile.
“Yes. I see why you cried,” Sylvia spoke to Fred’s empty chair.
Fred accepted responsibility for Sylvia when they discharged her from the hospital. He payed her bill, and rented a wheelchair for her use at his apartment. While lifting her in and out of his car, he noted she wasn’t any heavier than the first day he’d found her in the gulch.
Fred wheeled Sylvia into his living space and shut the apartment door. Her eyes latched onto the miniature potted tree in the window sill. Fred followed her gaze.
“I don’t have a green thumb. That’s why I became a machinist.”
“May I hold it?”
“I’ve never held a tree before. It’s a beautiful reversal.”
“It’s dead. It was a bonsai.”
“It’s a juniper, and it’s alive.” She gently touched a green sprig he had not noticed among the brown needles.
“It’s traveled too much.”
“I always smuggled it into every country I had work.”
“A traveling tree. I am holding a traveling tree.”
“That little tree’s seen more of the world from hotel windows than anyone I know.” A grin nearly emerged from beneath his hairy lip.
“Then you left it behind.”
“Yeah. When Jolie …” Fred scratched his mustache. “Yeah. I should have had someone water it.”
“You have to forgive her. You’re not very pleasant to be around.”
Fred looked at her twisted scraggly gray hair, so much like the bark of the strangled tree in the pot on her lap.
“Will you forgive me?”
“What?” He looked into her scarred and brittle face.
“Promise to take care of it. Promise to take this juniper with you everywhere you go. Promise that when you stop traveling the world, you’ll plant it right where you burned me and my tree.”
“And you won’t sue?”
She stared at his chest. Her brown eyes reached into his soul. She’s testing my heart, he thought. He rubbed his monstrous mustache, shaking off that feeling.
“Yeah. I promise,” he said.
His cell distracted him.
A concerned voice came over the speakers. “Is that how I taught you to answer phones?”
“I hope you don’t talk like that at work. You will never get promoted if you do not speak proper English.”
“How may I help you Mother?”
“Your guest. Is she well enough to travel?”
“Yes.” He glanced over at Sylvia leaning over the bonsai on her lap. Her tangled hair partially veiled the little tree. The needles seemed almost green against her knotted skin. “We’re coming up there tonight, right after dinner.”
“Not tonight, you won’t. We have nasty weather. I’m sure that whole burnt out section will wash mud across the road. You really made a mess of things up here.”
“You know good topsoil doesn’t stick without roots.”
He looked back to find a folded robe on the wheelchair, and the bonsai, now beautiful deep green and glowing with life, sitting peacefully on top of the robe looking healthy as the day Jolie had bought it.
Sylvia was gone.
T. Gene Davis writes speculative fiction, poetry, articles, books, and computer software.
T. Gene Davis notes, … “I came up with the idea for this story while growing Colorado pinyons for a windbreak out in Park Valley, Utah.”