STORY OF THE WEEK

The Mulberry Tree

Kara McKeever

            The mulberry tree needed to come down. The other grandchildren stood looking at it with their grandfather, their parents inside the house where their grandmother law dying. They were sad about the tree. It was rotting on the inside, and Oscar’s father, who knew about such things, had said that it would damage the house if it fell during a summer storm. Kate and Elliot’s mother agreed and had mentioned all the other trees skirting the house and yard, but the grandchildren and their grandfather knew that the others were not the same, that this was the special tree. It was the only tree which had a name, even if only a simple one. They called it Mrs. Mulberry.

            It had been a long time since the tree had produced any mulberries. Oscar and Kate, and Elliot if he squinted really hard, could remember the days they had picked the sweet, dark berries, and each a bunch of grapes for a dell’s house, staining their fingers and their clothes purple. Their grandmother would let them make their own jam by mashing the berries in a bowl, picking out the thin green stems, adding sugar to make it thicker, and spooning the mixture onto toast. Eventually there had been only a few berries, small and pink and hard, that they could sometimes spot, but easily missed until they had dropped on the ground to be stepped or sat on. Whole branches of the tree had deadened to gray, sawed off now and then by the children’s fathers, but most of it was still there, splayed into four massive trunks on the west side of the house. Some branches were bare, even in the summer, and on others the leaves were sparse. Their grandmother had a fondness for old things, like the olive-green shag carpet in the living room, which had served countless times as grass for stuffed animals and fields for toy combines pushed across the floor by small children on their knees. So, the tree had swayed, visible through the kitchen window.

            “Oscar, remember when you hid my plastic giraffe in the hollow, before I was tall enough to reach it?” Kate said.

            The tree had a hole in it where a large, low branch had long ago broken off. The hollow was chest-high to Kate now; she moved closer to examine it.

            “I gave it back to you,” said Oscar.

            “After I gave you the rest of my Halloween candy.”

            “Oscar Anthony,” said their grandfather, shaking his head.

            He eased himself carefully in the rim of the tractor-tire sandbox at the edge of Mrs. Mulberry’s arching reach. He had been weeding the garden; the faded denim over his knees was soiled, his old shoes knotted twice, large and bulky below hemmed pants.

            “Used to be a good place to keep things,” said Elliot, as the children studies the hollow. The rotting was most evident there, the inside spongy-looking, and a piece gave way as Kate poked it gently with her finger.

            “I had some of my dinosaurs living there for a while.”

            “In Mrs. Mulberry’s mouth?” asked Oscar.

            “Her ear, I think,” said Elliot, so matter-of-factly that their grandfather smiled. “I’ve always had a soft spot for this tree,” he said. It was something he’d said many times, which was not enough to save it.

            The older grandchildren had lived near their grandparents since before they could remember. Their younger cousins had not, and always gazed up at the three-story farmhouse after long car rides, before scurrying off after cats draped around the front porch. That summer, however, their parents drove out frequently, sometimes staying overnight, so that someone was always at the house with the hospital bed pulled into the living room.

            Oscar had turned 14 in April.  Kate and Elliot, his cousins, were thirteen and ten, respectively. They were all getting old. Oscar especially doubted, whether he should care much about the    tree anymore. Kate thought the removal of the tree symbolized the end of her childhood and, while this was tragically beautiful in its own way, she wanted to stave it off a little longer. Elliot watched Kate and Oscar from behind wire-rimmed glasses and hoped they were planning to do something.

            At home, Kate and Elliot kept mostly to themselves, except when they fought. That summer they often had to watch the younger kids at their house. The adults needed the children out of the way; their grandmother slept a lot. Kate found herself with surprisingly little time after she made everyone lunch and went about the household chores her mother left her. Her father’s guitar, which she’d brought down from the attic and planned to teach herself to play, grew dusty sitting out in her room. Elliot liked to be alone, preferably at the computer or with his library books, and got annoyed when Kate pushed him to entertain their cousins. He wished he was old enough to mow the lawn like Oscar.

            Elliot was concerned with what would happen to the birds that lived in what he thought of as Mrs. Mulberry’s arms. He was afraid there must also be squirrels, but though he sat watching the tree while Lindsay and Megan played on the swings or Donald and Patrick dug in the sandbox, he wasn’t sure if any actually lived there or if they just used it as a jungle gym. When he had approached his father about the birds, he’d been told they would easily find new homes. They wouldn’t have homes anyway when the tree fell down, his father pointed out.

            If, Elliot thought. He didn’t really believe that a little spongy wood could wreck something so big and sturdy looking. As the summer wore on, filling weeks with identical days, he grew frustrated with the adults’ persistent belief in it.

            “Grandpa, remember when Mrs. Mulberry had an oriole?” Elliot asked as his grandfather weeded around the hostas lining the front of the house.

            “We saw it at breakfast that one time, remember? And we looked it up in the bird guide and found out that it comes to this part of the country in the summer, but we’d never seen one around here.” Elliot could still see the book’s pages in his mind. He liked breakfasts at his grandparents’ after overnight stays; they kept a guide to North American birds in a cupboard by the sink and always fed the cat a dollop of spreadable cheese from a finger.

            It had been a while since he’d spent the night at that house with just his grandpa and grandma. Now the house was always and never quiet; this was how Elliot thought of it. There was always one of his parents, or an aunt or uncle, in the kitchen, always the younger kids underfoot until one of the adults shooed the outside. But it wasn’t like Christmas, where everyone, young and old, talked at once. Now only one person talked at a time, just a single voice falling into the house, large and enclosed. And the east part of the house, adjoining the living room, was usually shut off.

            Kate was washing dishes at her grandparents’ one night while her mother sat at the kitchen table going through papers Kate assumed were from the hospital. She gazed through the window over the sink at the tree’s lacy silhouette, the sunset glowing red behind it. Mrs. Mulberry was an old woman, she realized, craggy and grey, but Kate still thought she was lovely, her dark branches woven into a darkening sky.

            “Mom we just can’t cut down Mrs. Mulberry,” she said. She was focused on her mother’s image in the glass, hanging vaguely white before the tree. Her mother’s hand supported her head as she bent over the table.

            “She’s always been here. It’s like tearing down part of the house. And she’s still nice to look at, when you’re standing here…”

            Her mother didn’t answer.

            “Mom,” said Kate, carefully stacking too many cups in the dish drainer.

            “What? Oh, I wish you kids would stop talking about this tree.” In the kitchen’s light Kate thought her mother looked almost haggard, “You shouldn’t have named it.”

            Kate turned her back to the window. She wasn’t sure whether she or Oscar had named the tree. For as long as she could remember they had called it Mrs. Mulberry. She remembered using Mrs. Mulberry as a character in make-believe games, remembering standing with her forehead pressed to the bark and her hands cupped around her eyes, being “it” for hide-and-seek, remembering building snow forts around Mrs. Mulberry’s wide trunk. Sometimes she had perched on Mrs. Mulberry’s lowest branch and waved to her grandmother working in the kitchen. Sometimes her grandmother had brought out an old blanket and let them have picnics—crackers and grapes, sugar cookies and orange soda—under the tree. She remembered being proud when she could climb as high as Oscar into Mrs. Mulberry’s open embrace.

            Kate began to dry the dishes in the drainer with a towel, for lack of anything better to do in the hushed house. Her mother’s reflection in the window remained unchanged as the form of the tree soaked slowly into the night.

            Every week or so Oscar mowed his grandparent’s lawn, running the mower in a quick circle around the mulberry tree. He had to duck where the branches hung lower, further out from the trunk, and even still they sometimes raked his hair or caught his shirt. One day a scratch across his face made him so angry he’d stopped and snatched the branches’ twiggy ends, living and dead. He’d yanked at a whole, leafy branch, bent and wrenched it until it finally came down. When the branch lay on the ground, he realized it had been one of the healthy ones.  He picked it up and went to throw it in the brush pile behind the garage, wiping his face quickly with the back of his hand.

            That afternoon the grandchildren were gain outside by the tree with their grandfather, the youngest kids playing in the sandbox. Elliot sat in a swing on the nearby swing set, pushing the ground idly with his foot and frowning.

            “Are you going to do it soon, Oscar?” Kate asked, wrapping her arms around the branch and pulling her feet up so that she hung with her hair pointed pencil-straight at the ground.

            “Dunno,” Oscar replied. Their grandfather leaned slowly over to tap Kate’s nose, forcing her to smile.

            “Did you ask for your dad if there was anything we could do to save it?”

            “There isn’t. He’s sure of it, or they wouldn’t do it,” said Oscar. He leaned against the swing set, twirling a stick from the ground slowly in his fingers.

            “Well, everyone gets old,” said their grandfather after a moment.

            “But grandpa, don’t let them,” Elliot said suddenly. “It’s your tree, just tell them they can’t take it down. It’s not going to fall on the house anyway. It’s fine.”

            No one said anything; Kate and Oscar didn’t look at him.

            “Its rotting, Elliot,” their grandfather finally answered. They waited for him to continue, but he was silent.

            “This was Grandma’s favorite tree,” said their cousin Donald, who had wandered over to give Kate a sand and pebble pie he had constructed in an old dog food bowl.

            “But she sleeps all the time now anyway. I wish she would get up. She looks funny.”

            It was lunchtime, and Elliot wouldn’t come down from the tree. One and two at a time the adults and children had come outside to see what they could do. He was up on the highest branch he could reach, splayed out on his stomach with his arms around it.

            “Comfortable up there?” called one of his uncles.

            “Very,” answered Elliot. “And you can’t cut her down now, can you?”

            Some of the grown-ups smiled a little; so that’s what this was about.

            “Elliot, this is childish,” said his mother, and went back inside the house.

            It was hot and humid afternoon, and when Kate went out later she could see her brother’s face glistening as he rested his cheek on the bark, his glasses a little off center.

            “This is stupid, Elliot,” she said. She sat and leaned her head back to feel the roughness of the trunk through her hair, Elliot didn’t say anything. His sister closed her eyes.

            “If Dad wasn’t at work he’d climb right up there and haul you down,” Kate added after a while. Then she got up and walked away.