Meet the Elms (Continued) 3

by Alan DeNiro

The woman rushed to the restaurant, which was closed. It was Sunday. Church bells pealed in the distance. She needed to find the tree, her one true one. Only the tree wasn’t there. It was a man, with ashy hair, with hard lines in the muscles, naked in the spring air. He wasn’t abashed.

"I suppose," he said when he saw his love, "that I ought to have clothes." His face gushed.

"Not quite yet," she said, moving towards him, untucking her shirt and beginning to pull it over her head. "Not quite yet," she said, kissing the brittle scent of his newborn skin.

Elms

For another week my mother and I watched him like hawks, though we protected him rather than devoured him. Mom took a sabbatical from work. My father moved to the bed — the only place he felt comfortable — and my mom slept on the couch. My father was always thirsty and ashen. He didn’t speak much.Once when he hobbled to the bathroom and I changed his bedsheet, I found a tiny beetle crawling along the seam of the mattress. Coincidence or not, I crushed it with my index finger, and didn’t tell my father.

My mother cried once a day, but only once. When I was a child she called crying spring showers. "I’m not an elm, I’m not an elm," I heard her say one time, between clenched teeth. Then she opened her mouth as if to tell me something but clamped it shut.

Mostly I sat with my father, and read from the Post–Gazette, as he stared out the window. On one of the last days, cold rain fell, misting the lawn and turning the bright colors of the trees into duller shades. After I finished and folded up the paper, I asked him, "You can’t change back to a tree and then receive treatment for the disease, can you?"

"I can’t."

"Why not?" I dropped the paper on the floor. The house was silent except for the pattering of rain; Mom went to get milk.

"That’s not the way the terms of my transformation work."

"That’s not fair!" I realized I was beginning to sound like a six–year old, but I didn’t care.

"I knew what I was getting into. I made the choice; now I have to live with the consequences."

"There must be a way . . ." I said, trailing off.

He shook his head, and didn’t reply. "I’d rather have it this way. At home, among the people I love." He coughed and then took in a sharp intake of breath. I leaned over him.

"Dad?"

"When, I’m gone," he managed to sputter out. "Burn me."

"But the crematorium—"

"That’s not what I’m talking about." He didn’t elaborate, but instead went into a slumber. I blinked at him a few times and then settled back into my chair.

"I love you, Dad."

"I love you too," he said with his eyes closed, surprising me with the firmness of his voice.

The man who used to be an elm and the woman lived happily ever after, more or less. Both of them kept inklings of the potential losses in their future, but said nothing about it.

In a year, a son was born, their half–sapling. He lived in comfort, knowing nothing of the tale that he sprung from.

My father died in the lawn.

I didn’t realize, at first, that he crept outside in the middle of the night. He must have gathered every last ounce of strength, stood in the dewmoist lawn, and waited. His skin and bone fusing together, the cell structure inverting to wood.

Then, the end came. That was how I imagined it.

I found him right after dawn. It was an intuition, that there was an extra layer of coldness in the house, one less set of lungs taking in oxygen, giving back carbon dioxide. I looked outside and saw a tree in the middle of the yard that hadn’t been there before. The rain had broken, and sun peeked through the autumn clouds.

"Mom!" I shouted.

Sleepily, she rose from the couch and watched. Her palms pressed against the window. She looked panic–stricken, as if there was a tornado on the horizon, and behind that a hurricane.

"There it is," she said. "There it is."

The tree was wizened and emaciated. The few remaining leaves drooped, speckled brown.

"I have to do something, Mom," I said.

"I know."

Squinting at her, I said, "How do you know?"

"There’s nothing that your father and I don’t share with each other. Her own skin was pale. She was hyperventilating. "I have to tell you something."

"What?" I said, clenching her arm. "What?"

In a low voice, she told me the secret of her pact. The full story. The story that ended with her turning into an elm.

"No!" I shouted, seething and not caring if I showed it. "Why didn’t you tell me?"

"I know I was wrong in trying to overprotect you. Listen. I know. But sweetie, I’m not dying. You’re half–tree, remember? You can speak to your mother anytime you wish. I’ll be here. The house is in your name.Visit often. I’ll never be quite that far."

I breathed, and wasn’t afraid. That elmness again.

"How many minutes do you have?"

She looked at her Timex. "Five."

"Where do you want it to . . .happen?"

"Fifteen feet or so from the back porch. Any closer would be a building code violation."

"I love you Mom," I said, seizing her in an embrace.

"I’ll always love you, son. Now go and burn your father."

As if in a trance, I went outside to the brisk air, and gathered a kerosene can and a box of matches. Just a drollop, I said to myself. To get it started.

Outside, I zipped the jacket up tight, and walked to the tree. The dew was on the point of becoming frost, but not yet. I touched the old bark of the elm. My father was a shell. I wiped the snot out of my nose with my sleeve.I pulled my hand away from the bark and dropped a ring of kerosene around the base, mixing with the dew.Stepping back, I lit. If the authorities came, I would tell them it was an accident, and if they pursued, they could take me to jail. I had to burn the giving tree.

Kerosene smothered my lungs. I flicked the match to the trunk. There was a quick flash, and after a few seconds, the fire took hold. I stepped back even further. Faster than I thought possible, the fire rose up the trunk, and soon the branches were tendrils of flame. The elm was a pillar of hot smoke and ember. I craned my head.My mother watched from inside, with a shawl wrapped around her, arms crossed tight. Then, taking a look at me, she opened the screen door and stepped out into the grass, with bare feet at six in the morning, taking measured steps, fifteen of them. My cheeks were hot with my burning father. From the neighbor’s yard, I could see thata stand of four or five maples bowed their boughs slightly, in the direction of the fire behind me.