It must have happened during that odd heat wave twelve years ago. Remember the Indian summer in the middle of October? Wick and I packed up the car and headed northeast to clear our heads and rejuvenate. It had been a difficult time for us, inside and out. Not the worst of times, because by that year we had passed the worst and come out the other side. Still, there were days we couldn’t bear to be in the same room and others when I knew I would wither and die inside if we were ever parted.
We were married our senior year of college during this crazy May Day celebration…we had such dreams. Wick would take the architectural world by surprise (or force, if necessary), and I would put my gold-medalist arguing skills to good use saving the world one disenfranchised underdog at a time.
We would have two children in our mid-thirties and keep the door open into the first few years of forty for one last blessing to surprise us. There would be a dog – yellow Lab or Golden Retriever, depending on the mood of the day – at least two goldfish, and possibly a ferret if the children were responsible and the dog was well-trained.
For the early years of our careers, we would be metropolitan city-dwellers, but once there were children in the picture we’d head out to the suburbs and commute like good little yuppies.
Looking back, I can’t help thinking that marching into full-fledged adulthood with such a structured plan was a mistake…that fate saw it as hubris and decided to smack us around with a little reality. Our careers happened as we’d envisioned, but the children kept eluding us.
We spent five years actively trying, but had stopped <i>trying to prevent it</i> years before that. Of the 60 months when making a baby became our mission, we spent about 40 pursuing various fertility assistance programs. In addition to the baby-making doctors, we eventually started seeing professionals about my frame of mind and our relationship – neither were thriving.
After the final failed in vitro attempt, I checked myself into a mental health rehab center. I felt a desperation about my inability to conceive that extended beyond concern for my marriage into an even darker place. In my nightmares and daydreams I had become convinced I could not conceive because <i>I</i> was not meant to be. I was some kind of human anomaly that should never have lived into adulthood. When I closed my eyes I felt as though I were made of ash and just the wish for a breeze could end my illusory life.
Wick agreed to a temporary separation (and to pause all fertility attempts) when I explained this vision to him and could not provide an answer when he asked if I wanted that breeze to blow through. We had lost sight of each other. I had lost sight of myself. Having a baby had eclipsed all of our other goals and our promise of “not before death will we part”.
I lingered four months in rehab before I called him and asked him to drive up for a weekend so we could talk. We spent almost eight more getting to know each other again before resuming our cohabitation. I honestly never thought our marriage would survive. But it did. The key was letting go of the dream to have children naturally and to assert that we were a family together, regardless of offspring.
On the first anniversary we celebrated, but never named, the unexpected heat and typical pressures of the city were bearing down on our relationship again. We fled for rural vistas and the hope of a little romance to bind us together for another year.
I remember driving through a particular valley, in the blaze of that Indian summer, where the red and gold leaves of trees seemed more like a forest fire than Fall in the forest. The cicadas song even resembled the crackle of flames. I repeated this sentiment aloud to Wick and he commended me on my poetic thoughts. He always calls me ‘Counselor’ when he mocks me like that.
As the sun set behind a distant mural of mountains, the tires crunched gravel on an overgrown lane. What little light had been infusing the sky for the last hour was instantly gone as two, long rows of hoary Chestnut trees drew us into darkness. Some distance later the crispy, scraping, bumpy tunnel spit us out into the clear night of a surrealist’s canvas.
In the center of the drive, what upon first look appeared as a copse of trees, was revealed by our headlights to be a single, ancient oak. Deep-seeded arboreal ambition and seclusion had allowed the oak to stretch its limbs so far from its massive trunk, gravity had pulled the lower boughs back to earth before they reached once again for the sky.
The house, a restoration project of Wick’s colleague, seemed to spiral up into the star-filled night. From the wrap-around porch with its bookend gazebos, to the peaks and turrets of the second floor, to the terraced tower extending beyond the bounds of a third story to gouge the indigo sky with its weather vane. I wondered aloud if the old Victorian had aspired to beat out the tree in size, or if everything in this rural patch grew so plenteous when abandoned.
That night we slept downstairs, on a bed that sagged like a hammock and smelled like mice feet. Despite the heat, we kept the windows and doors locked tight against the vast, unexplored space outside our retreat. There weren’t enough stars or floodlights in that pitch-black wilderness to explain the shapes and scrapes twisting and bowing an arm’s length from the porch rail.
Our rented Keep was not fortified against the sounds of all that terrifying nature. There are things in a country night that don’t have the courtesy to simply bump. They scream like tom cats being torn apart by mountain lions and caw like 50 foot crows. There are other sounds, all the more unnerving because your brain cannot classify them. No similes or metaphors spring to mind when the song of the crickets and katydids stops abruptly to allow an undulating snort-cackle-thud-rend-crack to pass over the lips of the wild.
The first hours of the first morning in our ghastly resort were spent making plans to find a Hilton or even a Howard-Johnson’s; then maybe a diner. In our haste to arrive, we had not considered this old house would not have coffee, eggs…a continental breakfast. My search of the kitchen turned up two old-fashioned milk glasses and the dim possibility of a clean towel to wipe them out with.
Luckily, the faucet was new. Water slipped out of a graceful goose-neck in a sparkling stream that danced in the light of another belated summer day. I felt myself strangely drawn to that shaft of liquid sunshine. Sliding my hands into the cool flow, a moment of pure peace whispered over me. Then a flicker of movement through the window caught my eye and broke my trance.
The morning breeze was making an apple tree dance at the edge of a grove just a dozen yards away. From where I stood, I could see at least two fat, red apples hiding in the upper branches and an odd little ladder. Calling upstairs to Wick to join me, I pushed through the backdoor and stopped short at the edge of the porch steps.
Behind the house, stretching for miles to the base of a small ridge, were thousands of trees. Some had colored completely for autumn, some were browning or shedding from the recent frost, but a few – like my apple tree – glowed green in the morning light. The delight I felt was indescribable and eclipsed all of the irrational fears that had come to me in the night. I skipped down the porch steps and sprinted to the leaning ladder, calling out again for Wick.
As I propped the ladder against the tree I’d seen from the window I noticed two beautiful apples on a lower branch, dappled with shade but otherwise unblemished. One rung up, a gentle twist and I’d just resolved our breakfast issues. In my giddiness at finding the orchard, I thanked the tree for her fruit and bobbed a curtsy. I wanted to wait for Wick, but my stomach grumbled and my mouth started to water just a bit.
It crossed my mind to polish the apple on my shirt first, but it seemed rude and my shirt wasn’t necessarily all that clean considering how the bed had smelled. The skin of the apple snapped under my teeth and the juice ran down my chin in a surprising gush. That fruit was so perfect, I actually closed my eyes to increase the input of my taste buds.
I don’t even remember taking a second bite, or the last bite, but before long I was standing there with nothing but two cores in my hand. Wick stood in front of me with a wondering look. I grinned at him like I had that May Day seventeen years before, when we had a whole life ahead of us and improvised vows of sacrifice and serendipity on our tongues.
“Don’t judge,” I implored. “You promised in your vows to me that if ever we were lost and starving and there was only one apple left, you would let me eat my fill before you took your first bite. Did you sincerely and literally pledge that oath?”
Wick stepped forward and rubbed his thumb over my sticky chin, “I do, Counselor.”
In one small movement between a stride and a lean I was standing in the circle of his arms. “You mean you did?” I corrected.
His lips hovered over mine, “Don’t lead the witness. I said, ‘I do’,” he whispered.
As his mouth brushed me, I felt a tingling elation. Inside my chest a wall broke open and I wanted to run. Not to run away like I had two years before, but to run into the unknown with Wick at my heels or at my side.
I would run with him anywhere. On that day, we ran together through grove after grove – from shade to light to shade again. And when we couldn’t run anymore, we laid down in the cool shelter of a venerable tree whose name I did not know and made love like it was the first time.
It turned out to be a first of sorts, we just didn’t know it right away. Eight months and three weeks later, Emmaliene was born. I had always thought it was a miracle; one we maybe didn’t deserve. But it would seem now that our little girl was a gift from the trees.