The last goodbye Simon had to say was to the tree. It had been a while, but he knew where to pull off the mountain road and knew where to walk sure as a dog going home. The old hills rolling without a spot flat enough to set a dinner plate, the twitching sounds of birds and squirrels, the sky the color of old jeans tossed over the June canopy: leaves of maple, basswood, and the ash. When you knew what to look for, the tree was hard to miss: white ash, split down the middle twenty-four years ago and bound back together. Simon set his hand against the scar. Smooth and pale and tall as a seven-year-old child. He felt, as he always did when he came here, a twinge in his legs. A memory not of pain but of absence. The question came to him again, as he traced his fingers up and down the scar, of whether a tree remembers, and what, and how.
Thinking of memory, he thought of Georgie, who had already soaked up half of his goodbyes, and would keep needing them, he was sure, long after Simon was gone. The tree, at least, would have nothing to ask.
His hand crept spiderlike away from the scar, to the rest of the trunk, the deep diamond grooves, and he was struck with the sense that these too were scars, that everything, after all, was a wound healed over.
Simon had said: “Now, Georgie, you take your medicines, you listen to your sister, you’ll be OK. I’ve got your prescriptions at the CVS up in Buckhannon. And you have my number. She has it too. I can talk to the pharmacist if you need, you hear? Any time you’re feeling poorly, you just give me a call.”
And Georgie, filmy-yellow-eyed uncomprehending, Georgie who’d lost one too many and now simply refused another loss, answered, “But you’ll be here, won’t you, Simon?”
“No, Georgie. I told you. Healthways is closing. I’m moving. I’m going back to school.”
“Good for you! What’s your course of study?”
Simon sighed, and told him again. “Nursing.”
Georgie told the same joke. “Ha! Ha! You gonna get one of those white dresses?”
Simon pretended to laugh, again.
As he left for the last time, Georgie said, “See ya next time.” And Simon said nothing at all.
His hands continued to walk the trunk, slipped on something, paused. He bent his head closer. Little holes. Capital D’s, like the multi-mouthed smileys that Jen, the secretary at HealthWays, would send in her text messages—Got another laundry call for you 😀 D D D.
Simon frowned walked around the trunk, looked up and down. They dotted the whole tree, except the smooth skin of the scar. D D D D. As he stared at one of the holes, something moved inside. Then a tiny green jewel emerged, iridescent. The insect slipped out of the little hole and unfolded itself into the world, emerging as Simon had himself emerged, all those years ago, from this very tree.
When he was seven, pins and needles in his legs had turned to weakness, then numbness, then nothing. The doctors in Charleston couldn’t figure it. His dad, God bless him, had wanted to take him up to Cleveland and “get it all worked out,” Medicaid reimbursements be damned. His father, born in the woods ’til he knew every tree, the fix-it man, the know-it-all. Yelling at the doctor, the nurses, the Medicaid office, because there was nothing broke that couldn’t be figured and fixed if you just looked into it long enough. But his mother was of the opinion that there were things that just couldn’t be understood or repaired, that the world happens and keeps happening, and you make the path you can. So it was she who made plans to change the house, to get the wheelchair, to call the used car lot every week. And it was these acts, much more than his father’s assurances that they’d “get to the bottom of it,” that made him feel that it would be alright.
But then Aunt Barbara, his mother’s sister, had heard. Crazy Aunt Barbara, who exploded in tears and laughs at every visit and made every sentence a shout or a sermon, so that she would have crowded his early memories even if it hadn’t been for the miracle. Aunt Barbara said that when her husband—God rest his soul—was a boy he’d had the Polio and they’d done what the old-time people did and opened up an ash tree and passed him through it, and then they’d closed the ash tree up and he got better too. The old-time people knew what they were doing, she said, and she was no doctor, but she was just telling them, just saying to them. “There’s always ways,” she said.
His mother had shaken her head and said that they weren’t going to toss Simon through a tree, and Barbara had asked how the hunt for a van was going, and Simon’s mother had retreated to the kitchen.
That night they went out in the woods under the big moon and the haunted trees, looking for the young ash. His father at Barbara’s direction took a sharp saw and carefully split the tree top to bottom. Then he pushed the split sides of the tree apart and pulled him through. Three times, they told him later, for three nights, but it all ran together in his memory: the young tree split and straining, the hands pulling him through, the night sounds, the stars.
When they were done, they tied up the tree with twine and mud plaster, according to Aunt Barbara’s direction, and his father said, “What now?”
Aunt Barbara, serene, confident, answered, “We wait. The Lord provides.”
So they waited. He noticed everyone’s feelings in the house but his own. His father’s anxious pacing. Aunt Barbara taking up residence in their house, like an unruffled cuckoo, and his mother, exhausted and annoyed, saying to him after hanging up on one of her calls with the school board about getting a ramp installed: “Sweetie, it’s not you that needs fixed, it’s the world.”
Every night his father would go out to the ash tree, try to see it healing, try to see some sign. Sometimes he would take Simon on his back, the chair no good in the woods. No good in the mountains, really, Simon thought, even now: the steep-grade gravel driveways, the double-wides with four stairs up to the front door, the narrow doors, nothing built to fit.
Now he knelt by the ash tree that had given them the miracle his father had wanted, that had knitted itself back together, healed over the seasons until only the scar remained, while little by little feeling and then motion and then control returned to his legs. He saw that the bark had come away in patches, and beneath, on the flesh of the tree, there were traceries like flung spaghetti, the wrinkles of a brain.
And with the thought of a brain came Georgie again. One of his first patients for Healthways when he came back from college. College, where he’d shot himself like a rocket fueled by rage after hearing a teacher grumbling about wasting all this time on a ramp they didn’t need anymore. And then, instead of nursing school, he came back here, that same rocket fuel burning itself out inside him. Simon drove people to appointments, did laundry, made meals, checked blood pressure, made sure they took their medicine. Georgie was a big guy, the kind of guy about whom everyone’s first statement was, “he’s a worker.” His kidneys had gone bad when Simon first met him, and he hadn’t been quite able to understand what it was to have a chronic condition. “How long ’til I’m back on my feet again?” he’d asked. And Simon, fresh on the job, trying to explain, feeling embarrassed because after all, he’d gotten away with something, thanks to tree magic or whatever it was. “It’s about management,” he said. “No cure. It’s just not giving up.”
And that, Georgie understood. Even as the Alzheimer’s started and then became the very fact of his existence, he understood persistence, stubbornness, just getting along. That’s the one thing people like Georgie had.
Then they pull the rug out from under you anyway.
He went back to the road where he’d left his car and paced a bit until he had some cell reception. He waited minutes for a couple ages to load, then placed a call.
“Hello,” he said. “I’m calling about a tree.”
“Yes?” said the woman at the tree management company. “How can I help you?”
“It’s an ash tree. There’s some kind of holes in it. Looks like the leaves are dying too.”
“Oh, ash borer.”
“You said little holes in the trunk?”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“So that’ll be emerald ash borer. You want removal?”
“No, I was wanting to see if I could save it.”
“Sometimes that’s possible. How much of the leaf cover is gone?”
“He tried to remember. “There’s still leaves.”
“Is it a mature tree?”
“Um, I don’t know. It’s uh, at least 30 or so.”
“OK. So that could be a candidate for injection treatment.”
His hands made the motions of insulin jabs, allergy shots, Narcan. He’d tried to make sure his patients would be taken care of. Done his best. Done what he could. What was he supposed to do?
The voice on the other end of the line was asking: “Is it a high-value tree?”
“We usually only recommend treatment for high-value trees. Where on your property is it?”
“Oh, it’s not . . . it’s not on my property.”
There was a pause.
“If it’s on a city street, you could call your city council. Where are you located?”
“No, it’s not on a city street.”
“OK. Are you worried about spread to your property? We could still talk about removal. Are there other infected trees in the area?”
Simon looked around. He hadn’t really looked at trees since he’d walked in the woods with his dad. For his dad they’d been were companionship, compass, calendar. For Simon, mostly, they’d become background. But just then he felt like they were holding up the sky. The little blossoms on the basswood, the light coming through the maples.
The voice was saying, “What you’re going to want to look for is those little holes, missing bark, leaves brown when they should be green.”
He started walking as the cell service faded, and he saw what he hadn’t noticed before. Exactly as the woman had said: trees stripped of bark in patches, dotted with holes like those on his. Like these woods had seen some battle that no one had noticed. He went back to the road, called back.
“Yeah, looks like a lot of infected trees.”
“OK. So do I understand right that you have a healthy ash on your property you want protected?”
“Sir, what do you want the ash tree removed for, then?”
“I don’t want it removed. I wanted to see if you can help me save it.”
“It’s on public property?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“So the usual treatment is an annual injection by own of our arborists, but I have to tell you it’s not cheap, and you have to keep doing it indefinitely. If it’s on public property I’d suggest you talk to your extension service or . . . .”
Again, Simon’s mind drifted to Georgie, to all his patients: the injections, the dialysis, the physical therapy, the stained clothes, the pills heaped in their boxes organized by day. Management, mitigation, indefinitely. There’s no making things right. Some things you can’t fix.
The woman was still talking, blinking in and out of the spotty reception, talking about money he didn’t have. Simon hung up, got in the car, and began to drive, looking back once or twice through the pack of boxes and laundry, everything he owned in the back of the old Corolla. His foot got heavy on the gas, the mountain curves coming fast, and he felt pins and needles in his legs. He saw Georgie’s number flash up on his phone for a minute before service went out.
He braked hard, turned around, and went back to his pull off. No service there now. He walked back to the ash tree. He felt the scar again, saw another of the borers climbing out of its hole. He pulled it off and crushed it between his fingers. There’d have to be someone to take care of it, but he didn’t have a job anymore. The clinic was closed. He had a scholarship to nursing school. He was getting out.
His phone rang, and he saw, miraculously, two bars. He picked it up.
“Simon,” said Georgie. “Where are you? There’s someone calling me, saying I’m supposed to take my medicines, and I said, Simon gives them to me.”
Simon started to say again that he was leaving, that Georgie’s sister would get his medicines, that his neighbor would check in on him, that that was who was calling, that he and everyone were just going to have to figure it out by themselves, that he wished it were different, but it was what it was.
He plucked another borer off the tree, and said, “Alright, Georgie. Alright. I’ll be there.”