Wendy stood on the sidewalk and looked into her yard at the stump of a red maple tree. All along the street, the yards were full of stumps and half-dead trees, but this one haunted Wendy. She remembered how the tree used to be. Sturdy branches that waved up toward the sky, a soft pile of palm-sized red leaves in fall. Now its stump was so dry it had cracked in two, creating a splintery gorge down the center. The grass around its base was littered with the same yellow sawdust that covered the rest of the neighborhood.
Nothing was left of the limb that had killed her wife, Melinda. That limb had been high up, and all the more deadly for that. It was hauled off by the arborist the day the rest of the tree was removed. Wendy relished the cutting down of that tree, though she couldn’t bear to be outside while it happened. She watched from the open window of her home. The repetitive grinding sounds of the chainsaw reached into her bones and vibrated there, giving a sound to her anger.
In the five weeks since Melinda died, Wendy had lost touch with the ground under her feet. She felt changed and restless. On three occasions she had slept the whole day through. Once, she yelled at a telemarketer for five minutes straight. Another time, she drove two hours at three in the morning just to get coffee at Melinda’s favorite coffee shop. Her friends and family told her that these were normal responses to grief, but Wendy found these experiences unnerving. She just wanted to cry. It was the most normal response she could imagine, but so far she hadn’t been able to do it. Wendy wished for tears to come and relieve the pressure building inside her, the feeling of never knowing what to do with herself.
Rage began to boil instead. It was crazy that people still ran chippers. Or leaf blowers. All of the small gasoline motors. She looked around at the vastly altered landscape of her little city in Maine and wondered how it was possible that life still continued. The drought had come on them without warning in the form of a scorching summer that never let up, still hadn’t, though it was now February. The state managed to pass several measures, which they opaquely called the Environmental Response Bill. It put limits on propane and oil use, restricted water usage by homes and businesses and banned outdoor fires. Other than these few small concessions, society chugged on, refusing to change itself significantly.
Her dog, Buck, started pulling on the leash. She had been standing in one place too long.
“Come on, Buck,” she said and walked with him past the driveway, past the specific piece of earth where Melinda’s body had fallen when the limb came down on her—where Wendy sometimes came to lie down, late at night, underneath the moon, which, thank God, was still there.
They went inside and she got Buck a small dish of water. Then she refilled it and got herself a cup. She pushed back her short dark hair and dabbed at the sweat that had accumulated on her forehead during the walk. Her house, with all the shades drawn, was slightly cooler than outside. On her phone there was a text from her mom and one from a friend she hadn’t seen in a while. Both said they were “checking in” just to see how she was.
Wendy didn’t know what to answer so she didn’t write back. She went into the bathroom to take a shower with the European-style shower head Melinda had picked out because you could turn it off while you were soaping up and shaving. When it first arrived, Wendy had not been a fan. The water pressure was less powerful than their old shower head and sometimes it slipped in her soapy hands and sent a spray of water across the room.
She turned it on, as hot as it would go, and took off her clothes, letting them fall into a heap on the floor in front of the sink. The temperature outside had not diminished her love of a hot shower and Wendy felt her body relax as the water tapped her skin, beating into her tight neck muscles.
She tried to clear her mind, breathing out, long and hard, until her lungs were empty. The hot steam filled them again and she repeated this breathing until it felt like something—a moment of peace. Her thoughts seeped in though, and she started to feel guilty about how much water she was using. She turned it off. The bar of soap was slippery in her hand and she rubbed it over herself, gathering up the water that had collected on her body to develop a lather. Once she was covered, she turned the water back on as high as it would go and directed it where it was needed to rinse.
It pooled around her feet before going down the drain, reminding her of the way sea water gathers before being pulled away again by the tide. She thought about making it to the beach again. People still went, the beaches were still full, in spite of the dead seaweed and creatures that washed up on shore.
After her shower, it did not take long for her to start to sweat again. A few months before, Wendy had switched from a natural, plant-smelling deodorant, to the most powerful antiperspirant the grocery store had to offer. It was not quite enough. Her skin beaded up in response to the unreasonable temperatures. She put on loose-fitting jeans and a sweat-wicking t-shirt. In the mirror, she combed her thick eyebrows and licked her finger to smooth them. Her round nose was red at the tip and she rubbed sunscreen over it.
Wendy was finished getting ready, but it wasn’t time to go yet. She sat down on the toilet and took out her phone. Buck padded into the steamy bathroom and put his head on her lap. Wendy scratched behind his ears while she read. In her email there was a targeted ad for a water filter that made grey water potable. The internet still believed her to be the dedicated earth-loving, peace-promoting person she had been a few weeks before.
“Who’s a good boy?” she said to Buck in her dog voice and he panted his reply. “That’s right. You are, sweet boy.” Wendy leaned in and nuzzled his soft fur.
Buck helped her to feel like a human being. She looked after him well. They needed each other. Wendy did other things she was supposed to do—she dutifully conserved water and drove only when she had to. It wasn’t that she didn’t care at all what happened. She just couldn’t bring herself to feel what she once had for the trees. She had loved them and fought to preserve them, both on a global scale—she was the owner and benefactor of a square kilometer of untouched Amazon rainforest she bought through a conservancy groups years ago—and on an individual scale. The trees she and Melinda had planted in their yard were like family. Each one had a name and had been selected carefully to support and uplift the overall ecosystem. There were native species, ones that attracted local bee variants, sugar maples they could tap. All dead now.
Wendy had a work outing that afternoon. It was a team building exercise at the climbing gym, followed by drinks and dinner at a restaurant she and Melinda had enjoyed. A work outing was the last thing she and the rest of the world needed, yet, life kept itself going. In the back of her mind, she was already preparing things to say to get the time over with her colleagues. She knew how to do the things required of her at such an event and she welcomed the prospect of the fleeting moments of normalcy she knew would happen.
She refilled Buck’s water dish and scratched behind his ears. “Hold down the fort, big guy,” she said to him.
Jesse was her favorite coworker, even though he was a little bit of a people-pleaser. He was a chemist and she was a brewer. Last spring, they had collaborated on a wild-fermentation project and since then, they’d been friendly. She made a point of standing beside him so she could send sarcastic comments his way. She liked how her irreverence for upper management made him squirm.
“Hey Jesse, you going to be sure to catch me if I let go way up there?” she asked, clapping him on the back.
He scratched his long, straight nose with one finger. “Hey Wendy, how are you doing?” He always said this to her now. She felt the addition of the word “doing” was his way of saying he would be happy to talk about difficult things if she wanted to. She appreciated the gesture behind the words. But she didn’t want to talk to Jesse, or anyone else. What could she say that would make any sense to them?
“I’m hanging in there,” she said as they looked up at the instructor belaying herself slowly down from the top of the wall. Afternoon sunlight shone in through several windows high up in the cathedral-height ceilings, creating spotlights on the opposite wall. The room was heavily air-conditioned; all the heat stayed outside.
Their team leader stood off to the side clapping. It was his job to create enthusiasm for this moment of public vulnerability. Wendy could tell by the look on his face that it didn’t come naturally to him. He was a young guy and clearly the public speaking part of his job terrified him. The whole time he spoke, one hand was squeezing the other, until the fingers jammed together and turned red.
“Okay guys! Your turn!” he called. “Find a partner. Maybe someone you don’t know that well. Make a new friend. Let’s do some climbing!”
They broke up into groups of four and put on their harnesses. Outside sirens screamed by on the main road. “Probably another fire somewhere, huh?” Wendy said to her group. “Is it just me or are we all like those rich people who drank martinis and listened to music while the Titanic sank?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” asked Jill, another colleague.
“You know, refusing to acknowledge that the world around us is going to shit faster than you can say blueberry pie.”
“Let’s not get political,” Jill replied with a note of authority clipping her voice. “Focus on what we’re supposed to be doing. Aren’t you going to put on your harness?”
“It’s not political. It’s fact.”
“Come on. Let’s not go there now. This is supposed to be team-building.”
“I’m just saying what I see,” Wendy said, pulling the harness up over her pants. “I don’t see anything political about that.”
Jill walked away, toward the wall.
Wendy and Melinda had come here climbing once for a date early on in their relationship. Melinda had been a strong, petite woman with a huge smile. Wendy could see her there now, halfway up the wall, turning back to look down, her wild hair sticking out of the helmet, her mouth full of bright teeth. She had waved and Wendy had waved back to her, feeling like the luckiest person alive. More sirens went by and Wendy finished putting on her harness.
Sweat was beading on her face and neck. She turned to Jesse. “What’s your family up to today?”
“My wife,” he paused here, in a way that was now familiar to Wendy. No one wanted to talk about their spouses in front of her. It was as if they felt impolite for still having a living partner. “She’s taking the kids to the beach for a few hours.”
Wendy felt obliged to diffuse his discomfort. “Sounds fun. Kids love the beach.”
Jill’s climbing partner was halfway up. Wendy gazed around the gym, looking at her colleagues in small groups, either watching others climb or making small talk. TV shows. Office gossip. No one small-talked about the weather anymore. It was too controversial.
After the first trees started to die, Melinda organized a neighborhood watch group that spread pamphlets about how to conserve water at home and how to protect plants and trees from drought. At first it seemed that such things might help. Then everything got much worse.
Heat like what came next was outside of Wendy’s vocabulary. 114 degrees in the shade. She wrote in an email to her brother the first really hot day they had. Must be a record. It seemed like a fluke and everywhere she went people talked about it.
Can’t deny global warming on a day like today, the guy at the Quality Shop had said and she had laughed and replied, Truer words were never said. Then she went home and grilled some chicken breasts so she wouldn’t have to stand over the hot stove. She made sangria for herself and Melinda. A few days later, she noticed that the rhododendron by the front gate had browning leaves. She thought often back to that moment, wishing she would have paid closer attention. It takes a lot to kill a rhododendron. Yet, as long as water is still flowing from the tap, and green leaves are hanging from the trees, it’s easy to pretend nothing is really wrong.
Jesse was tapping her shoulder. “We’re up. Do you want to climb first or should I?”
“You can do it,” said Wendy. “I’ll spot you.” She looked around at what the others were doing. She hadn’t listened too carefully to the instructions they gave at the beginning. It couldn’t be hard though. Just don’t let the rope go.
“All set?” Jesse called to her, giving a thumbs up. She returned it and then held the rope with both hands as it tightened in her harness. Jesse was a careful climber. Sweat was darkening his t-shirt and his hair poked out of the bottom of his helmet, stiff and straight. He moved up and up, slow and steady. Wendy held on tight, making sure to let out only a little rope at a time.
Only a little dismay. A little fear. A little worry. This was all the world allowed her. After Melinda’s death, people had been nice. Her friends and neighbors brought by food and her coworkers sent her a card. Kind things she was grateful for. But it only took a few days for the world to keep going on. She was expected back at work. Everyone said, “Hi Wendy! How are you?” when they saw her, but they didn’t really want to know. No one wanted to hear too much about it, and she didn’t blame them.
The rope tightened. Jesse was near the top. She gave him a yell of support along with a big thumbs up. He kept on without turning around until he was up as high as he could go. She yelled again, “Way to go!” He waved, then gave her the sign he was ready to start down and she braced her feet into the mat underneath her. “Nice work, Jesse!” she called. “You got this!”
Watching his back, feeling the tug on her inner thighs, she could see Melinda there again, glowing with the exhilaration of the accomplishment. The memory hurt, but she didn’t let it go.
Jesse was as careful coming down as he had been going up, but finally the moment came for her turn. “You killed it!” she called to him as he walked toward her.
“Thanks,” he said. “Actually, it feels really good to have made it.” He took a long drink from his water bottle.
She headed toward the wall. One of the instructors clipped her in and she put her hands on the first ledges. Sweat slipped down her back and arms, making the gloves feel slippery on her hands. She didn’t stop though. Her memory of Melinda kept her going. Her body had been up this same wall, using these same handholds. Melinda was up there somewhere, at least the memory of her, and the climbing, the aching in Wendy’s muscles, was bringing her closer. Up and up she went. The floor and Wendy’s colleagues, in their little groups of safe conversation, became farther and farther away.
Sweat was sliding down Wendy’s forehead and she took one hand off to wipe it away, then she looked around for the next best place to put her hand. In her memory, Melinda scampered up that wall, but the reality of that night was slowly coming back to her. The climbing gym took way longer than they both had thought, and they ended up having dinner at 9:00pm in a nearby IHOP, which was the only place they could find that was still open. Wendy had spent the entire date fearful that she smelled bad from all the sweating. Then there was the pain in the back of her knee that started on the way down and had lasted for a week after the date.
It had all been worth it.
The Melinda in her memory repeated the same little wave over and over again and Wendy tried hard to conjure another image from that night. What had Melinda been wearing? How did she look eating her pancakes under the blaring florescent lights? Little glimpses arose in her memory, but nothing as clear and sharp as the wave from halfway up the wall.
Wendy was almost at the top. Sweat dripped and her head felt light with the exertion. It was almost as if she could smell Melinda up there. Something like a peach at the height of its ripeness. Wendy rested her head on her hand, which clung to the wall. With her other hand she touched the ceiling. Melinda was not there. Of course not. She moved her hand all around to be sure, even though she knew how silly she was being.
Wendy’s thoughts were interrupted by Jesse down below cheering and giving her a thumbs up. She waited to respond, not quite ready to come down yet. The view out the windows was perfect from that height. It looked down over the street and the flat land that lay beyond it, parched and yellow. She was on the far end of the climbing wall, right next to the windows. There was a dead maple tree standing alongside the building. Several of its branches struck out into the open air outside the window. The smell of Melinda was still there.
She started moving sideways along the wall to get closer to the window. Perhaps the scent was coming from there. Hard to imagine that being the case, but maybe. She could hear Jesse shouting at her from the floor, but she ignored him. The window had a latch and she could picture herself opening it, climbing right out onto the tree, if she could just get there.
There was a gap between the edge of the climbing holds and the window. The only way to get there was to swing. She looked up at the pulley that held her rope, then down at Jesse, who was still holding on, calling, “What are you doing?” or some such unimportant thing. It was now or never. She smiled into Jesse’s scared looking face, then jumped for the window ledge. Just as she knew he would, Jesse held the rope tight and she didn’t fall. Her hands caught the window frame.
Now many people were yelling. She ignored it all. It was time to focus. Reminding herself how strong she was, how strong she had always been, she pulled herself up until one arm was able to grab the latch.
The open window let in a blast of hellish heat. The frame was easy to pull herself up on and once she was safely sitting in the window, she unclipped her harness and threw it down along with the rope. Then she gave Jesse the thumbs up.
There was a thick branch right below her feet and she let herself down into it. Straddling it like a child on a rocking horse, she pulled herself along toward the trunk. The bark flaked off under her as she scooched. How much she had once loved trees. Their sturdy presence gave her perspective. The little frustrations and humiliations of life had always seemed small when she spent time sitting under a tree.
The smell of Melinda was still in her nose and she wondered which of the things she now took for granted, cherished unconsciously, would one day be gone.
She remembered how her neighborhood looked before the trees died. The coziness she felt walking under their shade on a spring day. The annoyance of raking up their golden leaves in the fall. Now her neighborhood, like this one surrounding the climbing gym, looked grim and fake, like a model of a housing community soon to be built. The buildings stood stark against the landscape. The contrasts of nature and humankind were unable to blend or be softened without the presence of trees.
Up toward the top of the tree there was a little green. This tree was mostly dead then. She smiled at a memory from a movie she and Melinda had watched. It became a joke between them. “What do you think? Is this turnip dead, or mostly dead?” A lovely, stupid joke.
All of her colleagues were now hurrying out the front door of the climbing gym, behind the rush of her child-boss, who was waving his hands and shouting something Wendy couldn’t hear. They didn’t get it. None of them knew yet what life was like without water. But they would soon.
She kept her eyes on the few leaves waving in the wind high above her head. They were light green—almost transparent, perpetually their spring-time color. There was no way to climb up to them, so she just looked, studying their shape and size, burning them into her memory.
She closed her eyes and pictured the tears she hadn’t been able to shed. In her mind they came flowing out, fluid and rich, creating rivulets that ran down the tree into the dried-out earth. She saw the tear-water winding its way into the cracks in the pavement and then further on, into the dust beyond.
When she opened them again, her eyes were stung by the sun. Still dry. Down below, her colleagues were gathered around the tree’s trunk, looking up through the dead branches, shouting at her, begging her to come down, to be more reasonable, to stop making such a spectacle.
Wendy’s teeth clenched down into each other, drawing blood from the small piece of her tongue that got in their way. She kept her eyes open, letting everything that was inside her rise up, as far as it wanted to go, overflowing her, pulling her into its current.
Heidi is a writer, parent, and middle school teacher. She’s had several pieces published online and is a student in the Stonecoast MFA program through the University of Southern Maine. She lives in Portland, Maine with her two kids.