The town had become a city, but a gentle one, and there were places to hide if you knew where to find them. Leah had lived in San Francisco, and in New Orleans. Those were not gentle places and she had not done gentle things. Going home was not the right way to disappear, but she bought a bus ticket anyway. She had changed, and she wanted to see how the town had changed. Her childhood was like a story about someone else, but maybe the town was a place where she could be reborn one more time.
The house where she grew up was still there. Her parents were long gone. Some people who she did not know lived in the house. She watched them from a bench on the greenway. When Leah was a child there had been only woods behind the house, no greenway. There was a creek she had played in. She had talked to the trees. There was one tree that talked back.
When she returned as an adult, her first order of business was to find a place to stay on an extremely limited budget. A nonexistent budget, really. She ended up in the Rose Garden. There was an abandoned amphitheater at one end and a thick stand of trees at the other and in between there were rose bushes growing on arbors and trellises. The roses and the trees there provided shelter, but they did not talk to her. The police did not seem to notice that she was camping out there. Other people who lived outdoors stuck closer to downtown, where there were shelters and opportunities to make money on the sidewalks. It was a gentle city, and she found a place to hide.
She started passing the time on the greenway. She got a map at the public library and started walking the entire circuit. There was an access point near the Rose Garden, where a swath of asphalt led off from the road, down past a culvert and then on. The greenway spiderwebbed across the whole county, following the creeks mostly. And, it turned out, it snaked up beside the creek that ran behind the house where she grew up. The creek even had a name, which she never had never known as a child: Cemetery Branch. It made sense, because it ran out from near the original town cemetery, out into the suburbs and finally into the reservoir lake north of town. Leah was more interested in hydrology as an adult. In the flow of things.
She got a decent pair of running shoes at the Goodwill; they fit her perfectly and were a ridiculous shade of red with gold trim. When she got tired, there were benches, and there were water fountains in the parks. People stared, but people had always stared at her. The city of the greenway was a mirror of the city of roads and buildings. Walk south and there were other people who camped out in the thickets and the high ground in wetlands. Most of them were harmless but word was that someone had been murdered in a parking lot of a convenience store, and the cops came and destroyed a site where a bunch of folks had tents. Maybe one of them was the murderer. Probably not. Walk far enough south and there were needles, crack pipes, and human feces on the greenway. The gentleness of the city was worn down in these places. The greenway ran through tunnels under the highway, and when Leah walked through them she thought about being back in New Orleans or San Francisco again. About her former life, where part of the job description was handling situations that could break out into irreparable violence. She used more of her precious stash to buy a knife at a head shop, a cheap thing for teenage boys, with a locking blade and a dragon embossed into the handle. She had never stabbed anyone, and didn’t like the idea of stabbing or being stabbed, but it made her feel safer to have the knife in her pocket. It was safety but it was also a foolish risk, because she still had an outstanding warrant in San Francisco. Nothing violent, but enough, if a cop stopped her and ran her in all the cop databases.
Walk north and there were people on new bicycles, many of them wearing colorful jerseys. Lots of people, most of them white, walking dogs or running or even birdwatching. One of her first days back in town, Leah passed a Boy Scout troop out cleaning up a stretch of greenway, and she thought she recognized one of the adult leaders. They had been in some of the same classes in high school, PE and health and Latin. He was staring at her as she trudged up to them. She tried to think of a name, tried to take the age off of the guy the same way he was trying to subtract the years from her. Rusty, that was his name. Maybe he was different now too; maybe he was Russell instead of Rusty. But it was all over in an instant. She passed the Scouts, said a quick “hello” to the staring man, who returned the greeting with a blank expression and a “hi.” She kept going. They had nothing to talk about. They had too much to talk about.
There were other things to stare at on the greenway. There was the backwards woman. The first time Leah saw her, it looked like the backwards woman was falling, twisting and trying to catch herself. Leah felt the urge to go help. But the woman wasn’t falling. She was running backwards. She wore glasses with little mirrors on them to see where she was going, and a cycling helmet. Leah hated questions, and she hated it even more when she was the one who had a question. “Why are you running backwards?” sat there on her tongue, waiting to leap out, but she kept her mouth shut. Questions and answers were bad news most of the time. From then on she saw the backwards woman every day. Here she’d come and then there she’d go, except she’d be facing Leah as she went, smiling but staring into her little mirrors. Leah never saw the backwards woman fall, even though the greenway was bumpy in places where tree roots were re-emerging, and slick in the moist shady places where moss grew.
Leah’s favorite place on the greenway was the spot behind the house where she grew up. There was a bend in the creek there, and on the other side a little hill, and on that hill was the brown house where she had lived from age zero to age seventeen. She sat on the bench and looked up at her past. That was part of the routine she fell into. She did not do drugs anymore, but she had done her share. She had been intimately connected with the consumption and sale of drugs. But now her drug was to take care of daily business—find food, wash up—and then to walk the greenway, and to end up sitting and staring up at that house. She half imagined that she’d see her younger self in a window there. A man and a woman lived there now.
She’d been doing this for a week before the tree finally spoke. The woman was working out back on the deck. Leah realized that she was the backwards woman from the greenway. She was potting flowers and smoking a cigarette. It made Leah want to smoke, but she’d quit that too when she quit the drugs, and so they were linked in her mind. It was a “negatively involved association,” that’s what a social worker in San Francisco had said. Besides, cigarettes were expensive.
“You do not need to smoke, and fire has no place here anymore,” is the first thing the pin oak said to her. Not the first thing in her whole life. The first thing since she returned.
“Well hello, friend,” she said. “I was beginning to think that you were gone. Or that you’d never been there. A figment, or a fragment.”
When she was a child, she could hear noises that the plants near the creek made. Talking noises, breathing noises. The ones who talked, most of them didn’t make words, or if they made words they didn’t make sense. The honeysuckle vine, she could just hear it breathing. Sometimes it would sigh heavily. There was a redbud tree that babbled nonsense constantly, but quietly. You had to get right up next to it, and even then it was just a ghost like wheeze. “Bifurcated revolving plasm angle in Z block,” it would say. “The thing that was left in the place there at the bottom was no longer in that place but moved instead into the protoregium,” it would say. Sentences but then sudden words she didn’t know, as she strained to hear and make sense of it. You could try talking back to the redbud, but it wasn’t listening. It just kept up its quiet patter. “Plainly Paris pinhook pie pencil pirouette buffalo turquoise flange protocol.”
But there was one plant who talked quite plainly, and who listened to her, and that was the pin oak. “Hello. I am a pin oak,” was the first thing that it had said. “Or you might call me Quercus palustris. But my name is Cleverwell. What is your name?” At the time, Leah’s name was Lee, and Lee was in need of a friend, and thus not particularly startled by a talking tree. In fact, quite happy to have a special friend. They were friends all through Lee’s childhood. Cleverwell gave advice. It was usually better advice than Lee’s parents gave, when you could figure it out. Cleverwell said, “I must stay here, but you can go anywhere.” And so Lee did go somewhere. Cleverwell said, “I will always be Cleverwell, and a Quercus palustris, but you can change.” And so Lee changed. At first into Leaf. When she was Leaf a lot of things changed. She grew her hair out and dyed it pink and then she let it mat up into dreadlocks, which she quickly regretted. She started wearing dresses that she got at thrift shops. She started hanging out with a different crowd at school. She thought that she had found herself, and by doing that, she left Cleverwell and the other plants behind. She didn’t spend much time in the woods anymore. She didn’t spend much time at home. She was out, staying on couches and in basements.
“Can you read my mind?” Leah said, sitting there on the bench. “I mean, in my memory I can hear your voice. What was I hearing, all those years ago?”
“We don’t need to make noises to communicate, if that is what you mean,” the tree said.
“And why have you waited so long to communicate? I’ve been back for days now.”
“Time moves differently for you and me. You know that. We used to discuss that at great length when you were here before. You were smaller then, and looked different.”
An older couple went by, power-walking as best they could. Leah had seen them often since she’d returned, and they were friendly enough. She waved. They both smiled. The man tipped his baseball cap. The Giants. She wondered why he liked the Giants, San Francisco’s baseball team. She had gone to a Giants game once with Manny. Manny was the dealer she had worked for in San Francisco, and in New Orleans. “You’re going to go straight, that’s funny,” Manny had said. “No way you can go straight, girl.”
“Can you hear what they are thinking?” she asked Cleverwell, speaking of the older couple.
“No,” Cleverwell said. “Do you not remember? You asked me that when you were a child.”
“That’s so long ago, tree.”
“It is not a long time, not for me. And my name is Cleverwell.”
“My name is Leah.”
“I know. Lee, Leaf, Leah. What will your next name be?”
“I think I’m sticking with Leah for good.” And she said that, and it was sort of true, but it did make her wonder if she was in a terminal state. Was there another change ahead of her? She felt the same on the inside. Maybe less confused.
“What else have you forgotten?” Cleverwell said. “Did you forget about the sun?”
A memory slotted itself into place. Leah saw herself, under Cleverwell’s guidance, stretching her arms out and facing the sun.
“Tell me about the world, Leah,” Cleverwell said.
“You know as much about it as I do.”
“Yes. But tell me of your travels. I want to hear your story.”
And so she told the tree her story.
Drop out. Try to get back in. Fall in with a fun crowd. The wrong crowd. Burn bridges. Take drugs. Sell drugs. Move away. Party on. Brushes with the law. Brushes with death. Brushes with ignorance. Move back.
When she was done, Cleverwell asked, “What are the trees like there?” She did her best to describe them. She didn’t really remember them that well, though.
Cleverwell said, “What is the line from the poem that you read to me? ‘The transformation of waste’? Perhaps you could get a job transforming waste. There is a lot of waste in the world. There is more of it every day. Everything falls apart.” And so she did get just such a job.
She got work doing the cleaning and recycling for a bar near the university. The owner had a line on a cheap garage apartment, too. She liked the Rose Garden. She knew it wasn’t really safe but it felt safe. Even though someone was clearly tending the roses, nobody much came there. Every Sunday afternoon people would show up to take engagement photos. But all in all it was a peaceful place. The plants there did not talk to her.
One day she asked Cleverwell, “Do other plants talk to people?”
“Some do,” it said. “But it is not common. You and I are rare. Mostly I just talk to the other plants here. We sing.”
“Sing me a song,” Leah asked. “Why have you never sung me a song?”
“You cannot hear my songs,” it said. “I am singing one right now, but you cannot hear it. I am almost always singing a song.”
Then when she worked at the bar, which she did every day until it opened in late afternoon, she started singing too. First she tried singing songs she remembered from her youth. Then she just started making up noises and stringing them together. Humming tunes that twisted and changed and reformed into different songs. Making space alien noises when she felt like it. No one could hear her in the back parking lot next to the dumpsters as she pulled the sticky, smelly empties from garbage bags and sorted them. Glass, metal, plastic, paper, trash. No one could hear as she sponged and swept and mopped up the previous night’s stains and debris. The bar owner’s name was Dwight.
And then the rain came, the first real soaking rain since she’d returned, and she realized that the garage apartment made sense, even if she’d be away from the beautiful mute roses. She moved her worldly possessions, which fit into a backpack and a large garbage bag, from their hiding place in the Rose Garden to the apartment. She didn’t have many possessions but there wasn’t that much space in the apartment.
Dwight gave her an old bicycle too, a rusted Schwinn Sting-Ray. It was older than she was, but it was the right size for her. She started riding it on the greenway, making herself that much more conspicuous. There was no way that she could blend in with the people in Spandex on their sleek new bikes. She didn’t have a helmet, and felt bad about that. But she could cover much more ground on the bike, roaming over the whole county. In the afternoons she still ended up back behind her childhood house, talking to Cleverwell, and meditating. The bench had a little plaque screwed into it. “In memory of Pemba Reendar,” who was someone she did not know. She felt like she should look up the Reendars, give them a call and ask if it was OK for her to spend so much time on the bench dedicated to Pemba. She’d read an article at the library about meditation, how it was good for you. Cleverwell quite respectfully did not talk to her when she meditated. It could read her mind, though, so for all she knew it was listening in as she breathed and tried to think of nothing but breathing. What does a tree think of nothingness? She never asked.
She rode the bicycle and when the hills were steep she got off and walked it. She catalogued the greenway: the rocks in the streams that looked like faces or like whales, the wetlands and the meadows, the backs of all the houses. As curious as she was about her childhood house, she had no desire to move back there. She did see a lot of places that inspired fantasies of owning a home, though. Houses that looked like mountain chalets, with big open windows. Older houses that were very close to the greenway, with sheds full of junk right there and “NO TRESPASSING PRIVATE PROPERTY” signs nailed up. The greenway was never boring. You could fantasize yourself into hundreds of lives on it, whether in the people that you passed or the houses that you could see. And Leah did just that, thought about a path to a new life. How would that even work?
She would get one of the more modest houses around the lake. The real estate around the lake was fairly exclusive but the lake itself was a great equalizer. The greenway encircled the lake, which had been built by the Corps of Engineers, and it was a park attended by people of all races and ages. The house she liked was up on a ridge, a little 1970s cabin, with big glass windows that faced the lake. The backyard was fenced in but there was a gate down at the bottom and a little path that led to the greenway. In the mornings she could make coffee and look out and see Canada geese, mallards, and the one heron that seemed to hunt in the lake. There were deer that prowled the underbrush. She would pay a neighborhood kid to mow the grass for her, and let the backyard go completely natural. There was a stone fireplace and chimney. She could get a big flatscreen television to hang over the fireplace. She imagined a big open kitchen, a laundry room, and a garage with a treadmill and her car, one of those electric ones. Just enough room left for a master suite and a guest room.
That was as far as she got, because while she could imagine the insides of the houses, she couldn’t imagine anything else about her existence. Even if this was all powered by a winning lottery ticket, there was nothing else inside.
One day she realized that these beautiful houses were still full of unhappy people. And in fact if she were to occupy one of them, she’d still be herself. With her same problems. Even if she had some money. She would still be alone. She would still be not the biggest fan of herself.
This made her happier, though. The realization that all these fantasies dangled in front of her, as daily she traversed this strip of nature or pseudo-nature, that they wouldn’t solve many of her problems, it helped. She’d have more space, but she wouldn’t be that much safer, living in one of those places.
One day she’d fallen asleep on her bench, exhausted because the night before she hadn’t got much sleep. While she was meditating the next day she dozed off, the Sting-Ray leaning against the bench. She had asked Cleverwell if it minded if she leaned the bike against it, and while it didn’t care, she still thought it was more respectful to lean the bike against the dead wood of the bench. When she woke up it was dark. She didn’t know where she was for an instant. She’d been dreaming about a punk rock toothbrushing contest, between Billy and Stewart, who were both actually dead now. Billy had OD’d and Stewart had jumped off the top of the college library, eleven stories up. In her dream they’d been stomping around in their engineer boots, frantically sawing away at their foaming mouths, trying to best each other at daily oral hygiene.
Cleverwell was silent, and when she reached out to it with her mind she didn’t get a response.
“Cleverwell,” she said aloud. Still no answer.
Around her the trail was dark but there were lights from the houses that bordered the greenway and the creek. Including in the house where she’d grown up. She could see the people in the kitchen. She sat and watched them. Her eyes were already adjusted to the dark, and her distance vision was good. The couple was having a fight. The woman paced back and forth behind the man, who was standing at the sink, facing out into the dark. Leah was still sure that this was the backwards woman, although now she walked in the normal direction. Neither the man nor the woman were wearing shirts. Maybe they were both completely naked. The fluorescent light was a sickly hue, not one of those new ones that were the same color as the sun. Maybe it was the same bulb from when Leah had lived there. She started thinking about all the other things in the house that might be the same. The place where she’d first written her new name, L-E-A-F, in cursive on the inside of her closet with a Sharpie. She had sat in there cross-legged on the floor, in a piled jumble of Converse and Vans shoes. Was the lock still broken on the downstairs back door? Had they replaced the 1970s wallpaper in the upstairs bathroom, all oranges and greens on a silvery background? Was it still the same house, or was it a different house now, and when exactly did it change from one to the other?
The man had a knife in his hand, a big chef’s knife. She couldn’t see the woman. The man held the knife up to his wrist and brought the blade across. Leah’s first thought was “That’s not how you commit suicide.” Everyone knew you cut lengthwise. That was something you learned…where? How did this terrible nugget of wisdom get distributed to the world? Then the surprise hit her, and she realized that she was actually seeing this. It was actually happening, not just a movie projected on a tiny screen up in the night. The man was screaming in pain, doubling over, but then there he was standing up again, turned toward the woman and still yelling. Maybe crying. The woman came over to him, but instead of dropping the knife and letting her tend to his wound, they began physically fighting. Grappling. His knife hand slipped free and that’s when she saw it. He thrust the knife into the woman. It wasn’t like in a movie. The woman kept moving. They kept struggling. But it was clear now, the man was trying to kill the woman. He stabbed her again, and then they moved out of the frame of the kitchen window.
Leah remembered the first time she saw a dead body. People died all over, not just in ungentle cities but in gentle ones too. Maybe there was no such thing as gentle.
Leah had no idea what to do. She had no phone. Run to a nearby house and demand they call the cops? That was a recipe for disaster, for her getting in way over her head when she was already just treading water. Run up the hill and break into the house, brandishing her little dragon-handled knife? She asked Cleverwell what to do, but again got no answer. She waited for a long time, maybe an hour, but nothing happened in the house that she could detect. No change in the lights. No one visible in the kitchen window. Maybe they were both bleeding out on the kitchen floor. Maybe she’d been confused by what she saw, still asleep and dreaming there on the bench, and they were fine. Leah decided to try and find a pay phone. They were thin on the ground these days, but she remembered one near the bar. She pedaled the bike back to the bar (which was closed, a Sunday) and went to find the phone. The little kiosk was still mounted to the side of a brick building next to a gas station. The phone was there but the handset had been torn off, and a piece of bright blue gum had hardened in place on the coin slot. Leah had no idea what to do. So she went home and went to sleep. She was used to sleeping under stressful conditions.
The next morning she got the paper from the mailbox in front of the bar—Dwight still “took the paper,” as he called it. Nothing in it about a murder. She biked over to the public library and checked the local news sites, but there was nothing there either. A fatality in a DWI accident. A train derailed. A possible hurricane on the way. No mention of blood in a suburban kitchen.
She did the morning recycling, just trying to focus on the colors of the glass. A working meditation. But after she was done, she cycled the greenway over to her childhood house. She passed some of the mid-morning regulars, although she didn’t see the backwards woman. Instead of parking at her bench, she took one of the access paths out to the neighborhood itself. Something she’d not done since coming back, worried that the confused pain of nostalgia would knock her over. But there she was, walking up the slope of Edgewood Drive. There were no sidewalks, because it was a suburb built when people rode in cars everywhere. Some of the houses were unfamiliar—newer McMansions built where smaller houses had been. Then up the last curve, and there was the driveway to her old house. The mailbox was different, which didn’t surprise her because it was always getting knocked over when she was a kid. It was a strain to pedal the bike uphill with only one gear, but still she rode slowly past instead of stopping. Swiveled her head around to see if anyone was out in their yards. Were there any neighbors there who remembered her? When she was a kid, the Wainwrights had split up, and Mrs. Wainwright had kept their house. Maybe she was still there, although now her house was covered in English ivy and had trees planted close to all the windows. Mrs. Wainwright had gone crazier than anyone else in that neighborhood. Until now, at least. As far as Leah knew, knife murder was a new thing for the neighborhood where she grew up.
Leah turned and rode back down the hill. She tried to be casual as she stopped and flipped open the mailbox lid. Printed in there, in marker on a white card under some packing tape, were two names. She committed them to memory. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do with the information. She needed advice. And so she went to see Cleverwell.
She explained to it what she’d seen the night before. “Do you go to sleep at night, or something? I tried to talk to you, but you didn’t answer.”
“We do not sleep, not the way you do. But we never talk after the sun goes down. Only singing.”
“So you saw what happened?”
“Yes, I did.”
“What should I do?”
“Something brave, I think. You should do something quite brave.”
“You will think of it, I am sure.”
Cleverwell logic. Tree logic. No point in trying to push past it. They talked about how nice the weather was now. Leah tried to explain Daylight Saving Time, but Cleverwell didn’t comprehend her. The light was going to last longer in the day. It was going to get warmer.
She rode to the library again, checked the local news sites again. Nothing. There was more news, but none of it was about a bloody knife murder. Or murder/suicide. Or whatever had happened in there. She was getting more comfortable with deciding that it hadn’t happened at all. Or maybe it had been staged. A play fight. Some kind of fantasy kink. She’d seen plenty of that kind of thing in San Francisco. Maybe it was even for her benefit—Leah was a denizen of the greenway, and there were plenty of regulars who saw her on it every day. Maybe the people in the house wanted to freak out that strange woman who sat on that bench down by the creek.
The crisis of what she’d seen made her think about the greater crisis of existence. She was getting stronger, riding that bike all over the county. But she still had no idea what to do with her life. When she left, Manny had said that she was welcome to come back and work for him any time. She’d be the one taking all the risks, though. Manny couldn’t afford a third strike. His operation now was so big, he didn’t need to touch the business directly. He flew around, checking on production, checking on supply channels, making sure product moved from point A to point B without actually getting that close to the product.
She realized that she had to go back into the house, all these years later. That was the only way to find out what had happened. And she knew exactly how to do it, maybe, if the old back door still worked the way it once did. It locked, but it wasn’t a deadbolt, and the lock was broken to where if you lifted the door up just so you could coax the latch to open. She discovered this when she was twelve, and in her teens Leah had snuck back in the house late at night many times by this method.
She rode back out to her bench, her headquarters, and waited. The sun went down and Cleverwell fell silent. They’d been talking about mountains. She was describing mountains to him, how it got colder the higher you went, even in summer. She had a sneaking suspicion that Cleverwell knew all about mountains and weather and axial tilt, but was just playing dumb.
It was like watching herself in a dream, when she got up and started walking to the nearest access path, the one that would take her to Edgewood Drive. She didn’t know why she was doing it or what she would find, but she was slowly making her way to the house. A ghost looking for a place to haunt. She moved up the street. All the other houses were full of people, probably all staring at their televisions. When she got to her old address she turned and walked quickly down the drive to the back.
So close, so close to her personal history, running on adrenaline now and feeling kind of faint. But she had passed the point of turning back. She had a bandana and she used that to keep her prints off the doorknob of the back door underneath the deck. It worked exactly as she remembered. Lift it slightly, work it back and forth, and it clicked open with ease. She thought about the murderous man in there; she thought about alarms. She decided that a murderous man was more probable than an alarm system, and she decided she preferred that scenario. No alarm went off. She walked into what had been, and what still clearly was, the laundry room. Moonlight streamed in through the windows, and her eyes had adjusted. The familiar old wood paneling was gone. Now the walls were white. The floor was carpeted. She left her shoes in the laundry room and continued into the house in her socks.
She went upstairs to the kitchen, thinking that she was either about to solve a crime or become the victim of a crime. But there was nothing out of the ordinary there. She looked out of the kitchen window down toward the creek, toward Cleverwell. She thought of the woman. There was no one in the house, she was sure.
She walked down the hall to her childhood bedroom. The door was open. It was darker in this room, more shaded from the moonlight. She could make out the shape of a desk and computer, and a lot of boxes. Probably used for storage or an office now. She walked over to the closet and opened the door. She walked in, right into the clothes hanging there. She turned and lifted her arms and felt for the pipe that ran just below the ceiling of the closet. She slid her hand across it until she felt something that was not a dusty pipe. It was a ribbon tied around the pipe, down at one end. It was the ribbon she’d tied there years before, when she was Leaf, before she left home. She stood there and worked at the knot until it came free.
When she finally got it loose, she panicked. Her eyes had adjusted to the deeper dark and she could see everything now, and she realized that she was standing in a house that she’d broken into, one where quite likely a serious crime had been committed. She took the ribbon, went and padded down the stairs and got back into her running shoes. She pulled the back door shut behind her and the wonky latch clicked into place. She thought about trying to stumble down the hillside through the trees and brush, but that would attract more attention and could break an ankle. After ten deep breaths she walked up the drive and back down Edgewood. Back onto the greenway, to her bicycle, and then to the apartment. A light rain had started. She had the old ribbon in her pocket. She wondered if it was still bright green, or if it had faded.
Days passed. Leah checked the news constantly but saw nothing. She became convinced that she’d seen a play, a bit of misdirection for her benefit, and that the couple had gone on vacation. Backwards woman was no longer on the greenway and so that was definite, it had been backwards woman living in her old house. The house stayed empty and dark and she would sit down by the creek watching the sun go down, talking and then waiting for Cleverwell to fall silent.
One morning when she arrived at her spot she saw something yellow flapping in the breeze, surrounding the house. Police tape. So something was amiss. She couldn’t risk talking to cops, though. She pedaled back to the bar as fast as she could. She was getting faster, and stronger, even on the ridiculous bike.
The television was already on when she got to the bar.
“They caught the guy who killed that woman,” Dwight said, pointing. The shot was of a reporter standing in the front yard of her house, just outside the police tape. The reporter was saying something but Dwight talked over the noise of the television.
“I mean, they’ve got him in Canada, trying to extradite him. A jogger spotted his wife’s body dumped at a construction site. All carved up and soaked in bleach. I don’t know why people do this stuff. You know they’re gonna get caught. Don’t they watch TV?”
“Can we listen to the news story?” Leah asked.
“That’s about all there was to it. They’ve already done the autopsy. Didn’t have much family, just a cousin from Montana. Gonna bury her in the old town cemetery.”
Dwight was kind enough to give her a job and find her a place to stay, but he wasn’t much on conversational skills. She wanted to talk to Cleverwell. Leah thought about the woman lying there out in the elements. About her getting stabbed. Could Leah have saved her?
Before she could leave, the emergency broadcast system kicked in on the television. A tornado warning. Funnel cloud spotted. Take cover immediately. So she and Dwight went into the back office. The rain came, and the power went out, and the wind blew hard enough to rattle the building, but they were not in the direct path of the tornado. Dwight was prepared. He had a little battery-powered radio, so they didn’t have to try to converse.
Eventually they both fell asleep in their chairs. In the morning, the power was back on. She got up and went into the bar and flipped on the television. The tornado had touched down in the city, skipping through in a path just north of downtown. An image of a map was displayed, with the line of the tornado superimposed. She already feared the worst. Then they cut to the live feed. Oh, the irony, that a neighborhood shocked by a bloody murder would be hit again, this time by a force of nature. Shreds of police tape, trees and power lines down everywhere. The camera panned around and her house was crumpled under the weight of two big trees, the roof mostly torn off and sitting in the front yard. The camera zoomed to show the path of the tornado. How it had come up the hill from the creek.
And there, at the end of the shot in the distance, was Cleverwell, now fallen, lying across the greenway, completely uprooted.
Leah raced back up the greenway, to sit with the corpse of her friend, but she could hear noises before she got to the bend in the creek where the tree had been. Pemba Reendar’s bench had been crushed when Cleverwell fell. Leah heard voices, and the roar of a chain saw. She ditched the ridiculous bicycle and started running. There was the Boy Scout troop, and Rusty was wielding a chain saw, cutting up the corpse of Cleverwell into sections. The Scouts were heaving these into a wheelbarrow and carrying them over to dump in the creek. Others were picking up limbs and piling them in the woods. It was more than Leah could bear, even if it made no sense. What was the city, the gentle city, going to do, leave a tree lying across the path? Leah ran over to the far end, near the top of Cleverwell’s corpse, away from where most of the Scouts were working, trying to hide herself in the branches that still bore green leaves. She bent down and put her hand on Cleverwell but she heard no voice.
Rusty stopped his chainsaw and told the Scouts to take a water break. He walked up to Leah, who still knelt turned away from him.
“This tree meant a lot to you?”
“Yes, it did.”
“Well, it’s going to mean a lot to the beavers now.”
“I want to keep part of…the tree,” Leah said.
“What, you want to roll a log out of here? That sounds a little impractical, uh. Remind me your name?”
“My name’s Leah.”
“Sorry. Leah. How about a branch? Maybe you could make you a crooked walking stick or something. A memento.”
“Yes, a branch.”
Rusty went and got a bow saw and started cutting on a branch about six feet long, a straight branch that bore green leaves and acorns.
“I can do that myself,” Leah said, and she got up and took the bow saw out of Rusty’s hand and finished the job.
“Thank you,” she said, and she carried the branch away in her arms.
She carried it up the greenway. She passed the whispering redbud, unscathed by the tornado, but didn’t even try to listen to its random babbling. She passed the modern house, and the swim club, and she made the precarious road crossing near the Catholic school. She started talking to Cleverwell along the way as she carried part of his remains. She carried him back to her apartment.
The next week, at the cemetery, she found the grave of the murdered woman. She gently laid the branch on top of the sod. There were no flowers, nothing beyond a simple marker set in the ground with a name and dates. She introduced herself and Cleverwell to the dead woman, and then she pulled a ribbon from her pocket and tied it around the top of the branch. Faded green against the bright green leaves. She sat on the ground with her feet tucked under her, picturing all of Cleverwell as if it were still here, a giant tree standing in the middle of the graveyard. Picturing the woman walking backwards, smiling, unknowable. She started humming a made-up tune, wordless, something to commemorate the two of them. She wanted to sit there all night, but she spotted a little golf cart in the distance, puttering up the paths of the cemetery. Some kind of graveyard cop. So she left, going back the way she came.
When she returned the next day Cleverwell was gone, and there were some flowers on the marker. Three red roses. There was also a woman at the grave, standing and staring down at her feet as Leah walked up.
“Oh, hello,” the woman said, as she looked up at Leah. She waited a moment, and then asked, “Did you know her?”
“I saw her…around town. On the greenway, mostly. We never really talked.”
“Greenway, yes,” the woman replied, nodding. “I was her friend.”
A breeze blew, rattling the roses on the bronze plaque. The woman stepped sideways toward Leah and held out her hand. Leah took it.
After a moment, Leah opened her mouth and began to sing. Not even a melody, just a long, low drone. The woman joined in, harmonizing. Leah changed pitch and the woman followed, slowly moving up an unknown scale. It was like meditation. Finally they stopped.
“Thanks for that,” the woman said. “I was feeling really lonely today, and now I don’t feel so lonely anymore. Maybe we’ll see each other again tomorrow.”
And they did see each other again the next day, and every day after that, and so they became friends, Leah and this new woman. In the days they worked and talked and held hands, and they walked the greenways and they hiked on trails, sometimes forward and sometimes backward, although Leah wasn’t as good at that. In the nights they did not talk so much. But there was always singing.
© 2022 by Richard Butner. Originally published in The Adventurists (Small Beer Press). Reprinted by permission of the author.