Even as the sawblade bit through the last tendons and the branch drooped and splintered and hung suspended by a thread and I held my breath to see if it would whiplash around to sweep the ladder from under my feet, even then I thought of the dream. My saurian dream. The dream of the turquoise lake.
I thought of little else as we went to our arboreal duties on the final afternoon of clearing damaged and destroyed trees from our yard. Most of the fallen stuff had been dragged to the side of the road and piled into ungainly stacks, and now was time to remove the hanging limbs. The work would be more dangerous, something made concrete by an event two days previous.
Across the street was a fallen but still attached branch on a tall locust, victim not to the ice but to a downdraft last spring. Climbing the tree to prune the limb was out of the question, so I decided to try to simply twist the branch to tear the remaining tendrils connecting it to the main trunk. It was a large branch, as thick as my thigh and twenty feet in length, sagging to the ground in a Medusa’s head of splayed and shattered limbs. My theory was as correct as it was wrong, or wrong-headed. When the branch broke it fell against the bole and whipsawed around taking me and everything with it. I was facing west when it snapped and east when it was over and had only a dim recollection of being spun like a top. The next few minutes were spent sawing the smaller ends off the branches but something had been taken from me and I knew it. I couldn’t say where the pain radiated from other than it was deep in my bones and joints, as if I’d been pulled apart like taffy. A short nap helped my mental state but only served to stiffen me up.
A few hours later a friend sent an e-mail advising me not to do that very thing. Someone had been killed from that reverse thrust, she said, which a phone company representative described as a “powerful blowback.” I liked the term though almost immediately she distanced herself from it, saying that it was a different word altogether and one she could not remember. Blowback, she said, was usually used in politics, warfare and journalism when referring to unforeseen events caused by our own actions. I thought it fit.
It’s been many decades since I last clambered through the interlaced branches of a tree, more monkey than boy, and now I was at it again. Much less agile, to be sure, more cognizant of the intervening spaces between branch and ground and the things that could be irretrievably lost. In short, I’d lost the groundless confidence of youth. The ladder gained a few feet and my legs and arms the rest, enough at least to reach the broken limbs, mold myself to the rough bark and hew away.
From that elevated perch I remembered the house as seen from on high, empty-eyed and vacant, settled like a mushroom on an elevated reach of prairie cropped short. In that dreamlike state that haunts our nocturnal imaginings, I stepped onto the porch and tried the door handle. It swung open easily, and I entered as if invited. The rooms were devoid of furniture, heavy with dust and flakes of paint peeling from the walls but bathed in a luminous light filtering through dust-speckled windows, a light that complemented the pastel hues of the walls, cream and blue and green. A little work and it would make a perfect studio, I thought.
The back opened out onto a broad deck, weathered wood planks extending over a short grassy drop that ended on the shore of a teardrop-shaped lake. Its waters were a stunning turquoise, placid, unruffled, surreal in the light. A great sense of peace descended. For a long time I simply leaned on the railing, staring at that motionless substance, content to absorb the rich colors, but then I noticed a faint rippling on the waters, a shimmering like a vibration. Waves lapped the shore, at followed by a wake that shot toward me from the far side. The wake separated into two vees that entwined and parted and conjoined again until just below the deck two massive reptilian heads broke the surface, teeth glittering, scales like armor, eyes emerald green and lit by secret fires. Baleful eyes that focused on me alone standing mute on the deck.
There was no fear nor any reason for it. We studied one another and held a long silent communion, and then they slipped beneath the turquoise surface with barely a ripple. The waters grew still once more, leaving me hungering for more.
Hugging the tree, sawdust in my eyes, my right arm in its ministrations tiring, I wondered if the dream meant anything or was merely the product of a restless brain. The saw cleared the last shred of bark and the branch fell cleanly. One thick branch was left, higher up, so I scaled the trunk and positioned myself at an awkward angle and began sawing. A stick bit into my hand and bright blood sprinkled the tree with each forward thrust.
Color. The dream was all about color, I realized. For weeks after starting a new medication my dreams had been in sepia, almost antique in appearance, but the lake and the house had been vivid and intensely colored. And as I looked down at the ground I saw the yellowed grass tinting a deeper shade, a greener hue, as new growth pushed through. All around the colors of spring were awakening. Our long sepia season was over.
Tom's writing is beautifully similar to that of the late William Styron, so much so that I recently asked him if Styron had been an influence on him somewhere along the way. It hadn't--he had not read Styron. Tom's writing is perceptive, particularly when addressing the forces and mysteries of nature. He can create a world for us and make of it what seems to be a digression until he weaves the story back to its beginning. He is a wordsmith and I knew as soon as I sent the warning about the blowback of a partially-attached tree limb when it is severed (alas, too late, as we read here) that a "blowback" column was cooking. I can't help but think of the war in Iraq when I hear the term; who would have thought he would close with the pleasant colors of spring? Well done. Barbara Lerma
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