She bought the blue spruce as a symbol of their love, something strong and beautiful and growing.
She planted it in the backyard, not so it couldn’t be seen, but so she could see it from the dining room window, for she was the only one who mattered. Let her neighbors sate themselves on their white-blooming pears and flowering cherries; she wanted a tree that would last throughout the year, that could weather storms and winter snows, the cold of a New England January or February, and still retain its perfect self.
And the color! Those sharp-edged prickly needles refracted the light like a prism into multiple shades of blue-grey and sea-green. And perfectly shaped, too, a fat triangle, with a thick trunk, and a root ball the size and weight of a marble step. She had to fight off a local farmer looking for trees to block the wind for his oh-so-precious crops, just to make sure she got this blue spruce and not the scraggly one with a missing branch, or worse, the sickly-sage Norwegian with its bald spot on the backside. No, it had to be this one, and she got it. She even paid to have it picked up in a truck and then planted by a professional, for she didn’t want to risk a mistake from her inexperience in these matters. And now it stood in majesty in the backyard, close to six feet already. Nothing was going to knock that baby down.
So when the tree began to die, she was more than surprised. She was irritated.
At first it was only the lower branches, which became brittle and yellowy, drooping to the ground, almost downcast, she thought. Love, love, it needs love! And she immediately trooped to the downtown Lowe’s for a quick lecture on the evils of chemical pesticides, but the benefits of organic mulch. Was it getting enough water? Was it getting too much? What was the pH level of the soil in her backyard? She listened to it all, and returned home with all-natural weed-resistant chips and spread them just beyond the canopy. And it perked right up. Within days it seemed to be standing straighter, its branches expanding to the side, even reaching for the sun.
But it wasn’t a week before some weevil type misery was crawling around its delicate spikes: dark brown insects with snouted faces. She tried to squash them between her gloved fingertips, but they were miniscule and there were so many of them. She suspected there were thousands more unseen, covering her beloved spruce, munching on its silvery brown roots and greenish-blue foliage — how could she kill them all without hurting her tree? Again to Lowe’s, and then when nothing looked quite good enough, to the posh Garden Spot, for some high-powered fungicide to soak the ground, which would kill the mites and strengthen her tree, so said the shop’s resident arborist.
This time it took a month, but, really, so worth it, so worth checking on her tree every morning and every night. Patting the earth with hollytone and spritzing the needles with cottonseed oil. She’d even begun to talk to it, softly, like she was talking to her love, how she cared for it and would take care of it, but she needed it, too, needed it to be strong. And it’s not as silly as it sounds, for she had read that plants responded to the sound of your voice, and to touch as well. So she donned her plastic garden gloves to gently caress those poor limp needles and circle its trunk with her palms, trying to communicate her love and support.
And it got better, and again was standing firm and proud in the sunshine by early June. Even the color of the tree had deepened to a near emerald-blue. How lucky she was!
Life went on quite well for weeks. She’d sit on her back porch for her morning coffee, listening to the sparrows chirp, enjoying, now and then, a flirty meadowlark, lighting on her spruce’s branches. Butterflies had even taken to fluttering around the top of its tall pointy cone.
Then she began to think, and she’s not even sure how the thought came to her, that the tree was moving — that is, moving away from the house.
How ridiculous she felt, and she told herself that no such thing was happening. Trees don’t get up and move! But every morning, and now in the evenings too, she’d walk around the tree and examine the ground to see if anything seemed roughed up or showed signs of someone digging. Perhaps an animal — a deer? — was leaning on it, gently, making it slant towards the woods, and thus it only seemed like it was moving further away. But the tree trunk was as straight as it had ever been, and the ground lay undisturbed.
So she let it go, or rather she pretended to let it go, but secretly she watched it through the window, peeking out so it couldn’t see that she was watching. If it was moving, she could catch it if she were crafty enough. In fact, if she varied the time of day she looked through the curtain slit, the tree would never suspect that she was checking on it, every hour on the hour. Twice she stayed home from work, and once parked a block away and walked back home, quietly entering by the garage door so the tree couldn’t see that she was back and watching it, all day now. But she never saw it move.
And she thought she might be going crazy, but she wasn’t crazy, the proof being that she had had that thought, the thought that crazy people never have, that they are crazy. And so one day, like any normal person, she just gave up and pulled out her measuring tape and measured the distance from the tree to the house. It read ten feet. She swore she had it planted closer. But maybe she was wrong. This was, after all, going to be a humongous tree, ultimately growing sixty to seventy feet tall. That’s why she had chosen it as a symbol of their love. So that must be it. It was just some trick of the season-turning sun, the light now hitting her spruce in such a way that it only looked like it was fleeing from her home and her loving care. But it was really just standing where it had always stood. She relaxed.
But by the following week, she was sure it had moved even further. And she pulled out the measuring tape again, and she carefully marked the distance with an old stone from the forest behind her house — a grave marker, she thought grimly — to make sure her measurements were on the mark. Three feet of metal tape laid flat upon the grass, then the stone to mark the end, and three more feet of metal tape, then the stone . . . well, you see how careful she was, and it added up, it added up to thirteen feet, a baker’s dozen of feet, how could that be? And why? Why was the tree moving away from her?
After that, after that irrefutable proof that the tree was trying to escape, there wasn’t much to do. Every day, she checked the distance, and then every night, and each time that tree was a good six inches further from her house and closer to the woods that edged her property. When it made it all the way to the boundary of her plot, she made one last effort to keep the tree by building a little fence around it. A beautiful white vinyl fence, a picket design, with a little love knot grooved into the connecting pieces. And she interlaced a lovely plastic daisy-chain — good stuff, from the Garden Spot, that looked real from even a short distance. And she promised the tree that it, or rather they, would be happy together, and she would take care of the tree, destroying any threatening prey, insect or otherwise, and feeding the earth plenty of nutrients to keep it healthy.
But the next morning the tree was over the line, the fence still standing, guarding nothing. And the spruce was sidled up next to a lithe redbud, just beginning to blossom into those thousands of tiny purple blooms that dot its silvery trunk, its branches reaching up and over and intertwining with the blue spruce in ways that made her feel sick to her stomach. And she thought she could see the blue spruce leaning towards it as well, as if it was the sun itself, and the tree was drawing its life from the redbud’s delicate, fresh scent.
And she couldn’t take it anymore. She doubted anyone could. And she went to her garage for her shears, and she cut every branch, every twig of that blue spruce. And she imagined that the tree was screaming, crying for her to stop, though she didn’t actually hear that, for she wasn’t really crazy. But she was filled with great emotion, conflicting feelings of sorrow and anger and guilt and fear of reprisal and love. Yes, love was there too.
And when every branch was severed, and she was absolutely exhausted, she took an ax from the garage, one she’d bought years ago but never expected to use, and she whacked at the base of the tree. It was harder than she thought, even without the branches to stop her or the needles to prick her, just that straight, naked, silvery trunk, shorn of everything that made it a blue spruce. She just whacked and whacked at it, throwing her whole body into the swing, until the tree began to tilt backwards. But even then, it was still hanging on, the open wound splintered and wet with the tree’s life juices leaking out, but finally weak enough that she could push the tree over into the brush. And she fell with that last push onto the tree, for it took all of her strength, and now she was straddling the trunk, her arms and legs caught and interwoven with the branches on the ground. And she paused for several minutes, breathing hard, hunched over that skeletal trunk, weak from the act, and crying herself, for the intimacy of that death was all-consuming.
When she finally untangled herself, her bare arms and legs bloodied with a thousand razor cuts from those sharp pine needles, she returned to the house to take a shower to wash away the sticky sap of her day’s labor. Blue-green stained her body in numerous bruises, and the pine scent permeated her hair and nostrils. Would she ever get rid of the smell?
Clean and newly dressed, she returned to the yard and buried the tree within the fence, at the edge of her property. She would shop for flowers in the morning to plant inside the little vinyl construction, something bright and red. Flowers would be the symbol of their love.
MARINA FAVILA is an English professor at James Madison University. She has published academic essays on Shakespeare, poetry, and film. This is her first creative publication.