Kathy Fish’s stories have been published in Indiana Review, Denver Quarterly Guernica, Slice, and elsewhere. Her work is forthcoming in The Lineup: 25 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press). She is the author of two collections of short stories, Together We Can Bury It (The Lit Pub, 2012) and Wild Life (Matter Press, 2011), as well as a chapbook of flash fiction in A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness: Four Chapbooks of Short Short Fiction by Four Women (Rose Metal Press, 2008).
How Elm Trees Die
This is my dad at the breakfast table. He’s leaning towards my brother, Den, like he’s telling Den a secret, except his voice is plenty loud enough for Mom and me to hear.
Den has asked Dad to explain why all the trees in town are dying.
Dad says that when the hot wind blows it gets the trees swaying and whispering to each other. “That’s all it is, boy. Trees gossiping, spreading disease.” He smiles at Mom. “Isn’t that right, baby?” He used to call her Constance, but this summer he has started calling her “baby.” I don’t know why.
￼And this is my mom. She’s got a paisley kerchief wrapped around a head full of pink curlers, and she’s wearing lipstick even though it’s only breakfast. She drinks black coffee from a green mug with a leaping deer and the words “Nothing runs like a Deere” on it.
“Aren’t you the poet this morning, Ray!” She laughs. I swear I smell the scent of Tide coming from her red mouth. “Whispering trees, that’s sweet. Really.”
I can’t eat for the whine of chain saws. We’ve got a hundred year old elm tree of our own right outside the house. An archway of elm trees blocks the whole length of sky on our street. The chain saws sound like they’re three, maybe four blocks away.
Den has stopped listening. He’s scooping forkfuls of scrambled eggs like yellow brains into his mouth. He’s twelve, two years older than I am.
￼￼Dad’s working his teeth over with a pick, watching Mom.
“Gossip kills, doesn’t it baby?” Something about his voice makes me feel dizzy. I grip the edge of my chair.
Mom’s looking at the paper. Just looking at it. Dad gets up to leave.
“Don’t trip over your lunch pail, Poet,” she says.
Around town, cut logs lay scattered like bones. Den and his friends like to walk Indian style across the logs, one foot in front of the other, stretching their arms out at their sides for balance. I sit watching them from the shadow of our school.
The new, huge sky wants to swallow me. I try not to look at it. I like the feel of concrete beneath me, of bricks against my back.
A man is singing Come on baby light my fire over my transistor radio. I turn up the volume and push my bangs off my forehead. The boys are playing follow the leader now. Den calls over his shoulder we’ll go home in five minutes. I focus on his sneakers flying over the dead limbs.
I don’t tell Den anything anymore. Not since I let it slip that I had trouble with gravity and he went straight to Mom and told her. She felt my forehead and wanted me to explain, but how could I?
It was the day Sister William stood Leonard Tucker up at the front of the class for blowing raspberries during “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” She ordered him to recite the Five Glorious Mysteries and when he couldn’t she whacked him on the back of his head with those toady hands of hers. I suddenly felt lighter. Next thing I knew I was watching Leonard Tucker and Sister William from somewhere near the ceiling. I saw myself, too, at my desk, holding my songbook out in front of me like everyone else.
Dad had come into my room after work, smelling like the hot metal shavings under his skin, and explained to me all about gravity like a poet, which meant I didn’t understand a single word. I knew that Gravity did not “hug me close to Mother Earth” all the time, as it apparently did everyone else. I nodded to make him smile, but I learned after that to curl my toes in tightly when I walked, to sit heavily in chairs.
On Mullan Avenue, it is cooler and darker. I scan the tallest branches of the trees and see a scattering of brown leaves. I drop down at the foot of the elm tree that stands in front of our house. I see my mom through the windows, moving about her work, her hair still in curlers. The scent of Tide blows from the dryer vent, and rises, and blends with the hot breeze. I discover that trees really do whisper, but I don’t know what they’re trying to tell me.
Soon, my father appears around the corner, swinging his lunch pail. His face is long. I decide not to run to him. I press my bottom hard to the ground beneath our elm tree. The men with the chain saws will come soon. I will wait for them.