Fiction · 11/09/2016

The Arborist

You wake to the whinny of a chainsaw and right away you know Dad is cutting down another tree in the front yard. Instead of getting ready for school, you head out into the cool spring morning and wait for him to notice you.

Until recently Dad was an arborist, working out east. He knew each sapling by name, the long-dead Latin blooming again in his mouth. Sometimes you caught him caressing their leaves, rolling sprigs between his fingers. Now he wields a chainsaw at dawn, deconstructing the yard limb by limb while the neighbors whisper behind drawn shades.

“Morning, Sweetie,” Dad shouts. He’s surrounded by split branches and shattered bark. His eyes are bloodshot. It appears he’s been at it for a while, which means you must have slept through the bulk of the demolition.

“Come inside?” you ask. “I’ll make coffee.”

He shakes his head, says, “I’m in the middle of something.” He hoists the chainsaw in the air, as if it can explain everything, then presses it into the tree. The blade spits out splinters, chokes the air with sawdust.

Back inside, you find your Mom sitting on the staircase, chin in hand.

“Is he at it again?” she asks.

Instead of responding, you squeeze past her. Instead of moving Mom stays seated, listening as Dad shears heavy branches and battles stubborn roots.

+

It started in November, after Mom began disappearing. No one noticed at first. She often ran errands in the afternoon but was always home in time for dinner. Until that fall, you never considered how she spent her days.

Then one night you and Dad sat in the kitchen, hungry and alone. The stove was cold, the oven empty, and your stomach growled. You were about to give up and go to bed when the front door creaked open and she finally appeared, a box of pizza in her hands. It was cold, grease pooling on top of the cheese.

“Where were you?” you asked.

“Nowhere,” Mom said.

“More Coke?” Dad asked. He looked at Mom but she was standing at the sliding glass door, gazing past her reflection and into the darkness. You wondered if something lurked in the yard, a beast only she could see.

+

Things go from bad to worse. Mom shows up for meals like a stray cat, carrying greasy takeout boxes into the kitchen. You eat it all — the chicken lo mein, the Thai curry, the meatball heroes. Each day you wake with a stomachache, your skin slick, forehead damp. You are drowning in MSG, puffy with excess sodium. You want a home cooked meal, a vegetable that hasn’t been battered and fried.

Meanwhile, Dad is well into his new project. Instead of learning to cook, he methodically removes every tree, bush, and shrub from your yard. Each evening he leaves the mess on the walkway, so Mom will have to step over it to get into the house.

One day, during the final weeks of school, you sit on the front stoop and stare at the yard. It looks as if it has been devastated by a tornado, littered with stumps and sticks, no longer the yard in which you grew up. The swell of the chainsaw drifts from around the back of the house — Dad has moved on from the front and you don’t know whether to be worried or relieved.

And then you have an idea. You slip off the stoop, throw your backpack under a pile of shredded shrubs, and walk to Mom’s car. It’s open — no one locks anything in this town — and you slide into the back, tuck yourself behind the driver’s seat. The car is warm and quiet and you doze peacefully for a while, the sound of the chainsaw blessedly muted. Then the door opens again and you feel Mom’s weight pressing through the seat. It’s the closest you’ve been in months.

The car rumbles to life and Mom drives away from the house. If you tilt your head just right you can see the trees outside the back window, identical maples that were all planted years ago, at the same time. After a few minutes, the car stops. The engine cuts off. The door opens and Mom steps out, taking her warm weight with her.

You peek outside the window. You’re still in the neighborhood, just three streets over. The chainsaw’s whine is faint but present, and you’re glad — you want Mom to hear it everywhere she goes but especially here, at Larry White’s house. Mr. White sells insurance, has never been married. You’ve heard nosy neighbors discussing him at the grocery store, but you never pay much attention to gossip. You don’t care about people who live in houses nicer than yours.

You unfold your cramped limbs and limp the three blocks back, then spend the rest of the day in bed. That night, for the first time ever, Mom doesn’t come home at all. When it’s too dark to saw, Dad lays down in the backyard and stares at the night sky. Even though you haven’t eaten all day, you feel like you’ll never be hungry again.

+

The next morning you get up early and go to the chainsaw, which is asleep in the shed. It’s covered in sawdust, twigs stuck between its teeth, and you pick them out one by one, then press your finger hard into the sharp edge of a single tooth. The chainsaw is heavier than you imagined but not so heavy that you can’t hoist it into your arms and carry it the length of three streets.

When you get to Mr. White’s house you turn the chainsaw on. It nearly leaps out of your arms but you hold tight, swinging it around to get a feel for its weight. In your hands, so close to the gnashing teeth, the chainsaw frightens you. You know the damage it can do. But that’s the point, isn’t it? To dismantle, delimb, destroy? You hold on tighter.

Mr. White’s house is bigger and newer than all the other houses on this street. It looks as if it belongs somewhere east of here, a house like the ones whose trees your father trims. You wonder if things would have turned out differently if you’d lived in this house instead, if all that empty space would have given your family a reason to cling to one another. The chainsaw whines.

The house has columns on the front porch, tall and white and not unlike the trunks of a tree. You press the chainsaw into the wood, watch as it begins to eat. Three streets away Dad sleeps soundly for the first time in months. Upstairs, Mom jolts awake.

+++

Christine Hennessey’s writing has appeared in The Boiler, Bodega, Heavy Feather Review, Prime Number, and LIT, among others. She’s been awarded fellowships to Aspen Summer Words and the Vermont Studio Center and has an MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She lives in coastal North Carolina, and is currently at work on a novel.