The Maple on Murray
The Craigs moved to Winchester after a Boston apartment, and the first thing Kate said after the movers left was that they didn't own enough stuff to fill their new house.
"We'll have to go shopping, huh?" Ronald asked as he ruffled Kate's hair. He called to the kitchen, where Alyssia was staring at the counter tiles, "Hear that, hon?"
She grunted an acknowledgment that he’d spoken. Ronald caught Kate's observant sullenness and suggested she check out the backyard.
Kate obediently crossed the dining and living rooms to the glass backdoors. She tugged them open, then stood on the cement slab porch. The yard was full of shin-high grass, and there was a bordered garden plot along its left side. The dirt in it looked gray. A chain-link fence held back the looming woods. Wild brush and leaves crowded the fence, and even when Kate squinted, she couldn't see the end of the trees beyond it. A squirrel scooted along a branch hanging over the fence before retreating.
"Hey," Ronald said as he came outside. "Look at all this. We could play baseball, set up a slip-n-slide, build a swing set. After I mow, of course."
Ronald slung an arm around her shoulders, perhaps too childlike a gesture for an almost-twelve-year-old, but Kate didn't move away.
"That'll be fun," she said. She twisted around to scrutinize her dad's face.
"Do you think Mom Will be alright?"
Ronald did that sad, forced smile adults do when there's no easy answer.
"She loves us," and as Kate opened her mouth to insist on a real answer, Ronald asked, "What's that?"
He was peering up at the yellowed gutter. It overflowed with mud, leaves, and sticks.
"Gross," she said.
But his big, careful hands reached up and plucked out a stick. Not a stick. It was a sapling. Four leaves budded on its tiny branches, and they looked too big for it, like the paws on a puppy that had to be grown into.
"How is it alive?" Kate asked, full of sixth-grade science knowledge. "It barely has any soil."
"You're a fighter," Robert told the sapling. He scanned the empty porch. "Kate, go get Mom's trowel she uses for her flower pots."
It took a while to dig in the moving boxes and find it, especially since she was trying not to disturb her mother, who now stood at the foot of the stairs with tears rolling down her cheeks. But find it she finally did, and Kate ran outside, tearing off the newspaper it was wrapped in. She followed her father to the garden plot, brandishing the trowel like a sword. The tree remained upright in his hands, its tiny roots dangling. Kate dug a hole on the far side of the plot, and when Ronald said it was deep enough, she leaned back and watched him set the tree down. He patted the dirt around it like he was tucking it into bed. The leaves rustled gladly.
Kate ran back inside and unpacked a coffee mug, filled it with tap water, and poured it around the fragile sapling.
"Why'd you save it?" she asked as they stared down at it.
"Anything that strong deserves a chance."
"Did the owner plant it there?"
"An acorn probably blew up there and planted itself."
"Will it be alright?"
"We'll see," Ronald said.
Days passed, and the tree didn't seem to change. Kate felt it was dead—that it had been dead when her dad found it in the gutter and there had never been any hope for it. Ronald loved it so much, though, that she felt bad, so she started planning a tactful funeral.
But one morning when she went to check on the tree, she found a new leaf unfurling on its lowest branch.
"Dad, it's alive, it's alive!" she said as she burst into the kitchen.
"Hello, Victor Frankenstein. Would you like some cereal?" Ronald asked.
"What tree?" Alyssia asked as she followed Ronald and Kate outside.
"Look at that." Ronald squatted down. "You really are a fighter."
After Ronald explained the tree to Alyssia, Kate said, "Let's name it Autumn!”
"Won't it feel out of place the other three seasons?" Ronald asked.
"Fairy!" because those were all the rage at her new school.
"He's a bit too tough for that."
"That might be too tough."
Ronald turned to Alyssia.
"I let her watch one episode of Lost when I was cooking the other day," she said, winking at Kate when Ronald turned away because he didn’t know they DVRed episodes every week. Kate felt like bouncing up and down; that was the first time her mother had acted normal in ages.
"Look at these big leaves."
Ronald flicked one of the branches. It bounced back playfully.
"I hope he always has lots of leaves," Kate said.
"What about Leafy?" Ronald asked.
"I like it."
"I thought you hated names that end in -y," Alyssia said, patting his head as they peered at the little miracle.
"Not for pets I don't."
Adjusting to suburbia wasn't as difficult as the Craigs had feared, and they became used to the absolute, cotton quiet, early Saturday morning mowing neighbors, and visits from deer, foxes, and possums.
They got used to their house on Murray Street. It was a white colonial that had been renovated in the seventies and so now resembled a converted trailer—the house couldn't be looked straight-on in the daylight without eliciting some sort of grimace.
Every morning, the family branched out from that grimace-inducing house: Ronald to Boston for a long day of accounting, Kate to the local middle school, Alyssa to the parks and recreation center where she arranged school field trips and family reunions at the nature preserve. Routines were fell into, traditions begun.
But there were still some days Alyssia would feign a headache or stomach bug at work and return to that ruined colonial early. She would climb the stairs to the back bedroom that the rest of the family never ventured near.
Alyssia would turn the knob and step into the unpainted, unfurnished room. A sad pile of boxes sat in the center. They were everything she couldn't get rid of—not yet—and everything that should have been hung and used in that room, not packed in newspaper and styrofoam.
On those bad days, she'd kneel before those boxes and unpack them item by item. Toy bunnies, flannel onesies, packs of blue pacifiers, embroidered blankets, a polka-dot diaper bag, two packaged cribs, a four-pack of fuzzy socks, a terry-cloth changing table…She laid them on the floor around her like they could summon the people they were bought for, the people for whom this house had been needed in the first place.
When she heard Kate slam the front door, home from school, Alyssia repacked the boxes and came downstairs just as her daughter flew back inside from checking on Leafy.
"He's growing, Mom," Kate would assure her.
The tree was not only growing, but downright flourishing under the attention of Ronald and persistent check-ups by Kate. Ronald had never been very sentimental (his past remained a tightly shut mystery to Kate), but something tender softened his face when he went outside to care for Leafy. He watered him twice a week, brushed leaves away from his trunk, made sure he was growing straight. Ronald found out what kind of tree he was, and at the dinner table, he would entertain the family with Canadian Maple fun facts. Every few days, Kate would stand beside the tree and they would measure his growth. When he grew as tall as her knees, Ronald made brownies to celebrate.
By the time he reached her waist, Leafy had become a central part of the family—an essential anecdote at dinner parties, a point of reference for the growing Kate, a neighborhood show-off. The Craigs were not braggers, but the sprawling beauty and unique underdog origin story of Leafy became their defining contribution to the local community. Overwhelmed by an entrepreneurial spirit one summer day, Kate charged neighborhood kids fifty cents to pluck a leaf from the magical tree, which would guarantee its owner a growth spurt as well as the fulfillment of every wish. She made twenty dollars before Ronald came home and rescued the shorn tree from her miserly clutches.
One August, the tail end of Hurricane Katrina came seeking them out. Kate spent days watching the news and when the storm finally hit, Alyssia made the family crowd into the guest bathroom armed with crackers and bottled water. Before going into hiding, Kate hugged Leafy and begged his roots to be deep enough to withstand the heavy winds.
When the storm finally cleared, Kate ran outside, and there was Leafy, seeming to smile as he stood among hurricane debris.
Leafy withstood everything, it seemed. He endured blizzard winters and summers so sweltering Kate could only lay on the grass and stare at the sky. He stood proud in backyard Bar-B-Qs, birthday parties, leaf-raking days, and family campouts. He survived the rambunctious puppies the Craigs adopted from the animal shelter, who gnawed at the bottom of his trunk and peed on his above-ground roots. He even prevailed through the time a feral badger tried to attack the two half-grown puppies, Claire and Charlie, and Ronald had to scare it off with a baseball bat and rolling pin.
And he was still there one night when Alyssia and Ronald thought Kate was at a sleepover, and she was really getting drunk with friends. She sat in one of their basements, passing around one of their dads’ vodka that was kept on top of the refrigerator. They all kept laughing, at that: what, does he think I can't reach it? I towered over him by ninth grade!”
Sometime during the night, they got it in their heads to do something outrageous, so left-field funny that it would bond them all as soul-siblings. That was the language pompous Brandon used, for which Kate loved him even more.
As they thought about what they could do, Kate had an idea which forever forgave her for being a city kid. They would take Leafy, carry it on their shoulders, and bring it to the middle of town. They'd mount it on the cemetery hill as a sign they'd conquered the whole of Winchester itself.
She led them in a giggling mess across the woods to her house. One person toted a rope stolen from their parent's garage, in order to help rip Leafy out of the ground. Brandon gripped Kate's hand when she tripped on a log and didn't let go of it even after she’d regained her balance.
After precariously climbing that chain-link fence and not making any noise, one of the boys triple-knotted the rope around the base of Leafy. Kate only felt adrenaline through the vodka haze as they lined up and pulled the rope like they were playing Tug-of-War.
They yanked with all their strength, leaning backward, and Kate could have sworn the wood was just about to crack when the porchlight snapped on and the back door lock clicked.
They scurried past the yard, over the fence, and through the woods, clapping their palms over their mouths to keep the laughter in.
"Hello? Who’s out there?" her dad called, and Kate had to punch her delirious friends to keep them from replying.
The next morning, the mystery of the athletic rope wrapped around Leafy's trunk was debated over coffee and Pillsbury cinnamon rolls.
"Who would try to steal a tree?" Ronald asked.
"They were probably homeless," Alyssia said. "Those homeless crazies who have nothing else to do."
"There's only homeless in the city." Robert ripped apart his second roll and glanced at Kate. "And they're not crazy, just down on their luck."
"I'm fifteen, Dad, you don't have to keep preserving my worldview."
"I don't want you stereotyping."
"What, so she can stop her car to help someone and get robbed or worse?" Alyssia asked. "Kate, homeless people are dangerous."
Kate nodded and covertly swallowed three aspirin with her coffee, praying her parents wouldn't notice her pounding head.
"But who," Ronald asked, "would steal a tree?"
"Maybe they were cold," Alyssia said. "They were gonna cut him up, build a fire."
Ronald did that half-eyeroll, shaking-head exhale that meant if that was the case, he was done with human beings.
"Maybe they just wanted those leaves," Kate tried as Ronald chunked the rope in the trash. "They're too beautiful to leave alone."
A few months later, Brandon snuck over around midnight to see Kate. He kissed her under Leafy, who had grown past her head. His branches rustled against her hair like he was trying to get her attention.
Brandon declared his unending love, which Kate didn't really believe in, but liked the idea of.
"We have to do something to mark this night," he said, "the beginning of the rest of our lives."
His eyes sparkled as he pulled a pocket knife out of his pocket. Kate barely had time to be shocked before he snapped out the blade and squatted in front of Leafy.
Kate wanted to move him away, make him stop, but the idea grew romantic in her head as he pressed the blade against Leafy's still-soft bark. When they got married, they could have the reception in this backyard, and he would point to this carving and say he'd known she was The One since high school.
"B+K 2009," he carved. It took some time, and each scrape and stab of his knife into Leafy hurt Kate, too. She thought of all the times this tree had been the center of attention, and what Ronald’s face would be when people visited Leafy now.
She was relieved when Brandon was done, and she endured his goodbye-kiss with the patience of a martyr. But as soon as he was gone, she scrubbed at the carving with her sleeve, hoping it would wipe off, like a marker stain, or a paint chip.
But all she did was rub off the newly exposed, curving wood fibers, which made her feel even guiltier. She stared up at Leafy, who looked despondent, then down at the carving, which you had to squint to see in the neighbor's porchlight. It was knee-level—maybe Ronald wouldn't even see it, maybe the bark would grow and hide the carving, and it would all be good.
Of course, he saw it the next evening, when he went outside with his post-dinner coffee and found his precious tree marked up and branded. Kate endured an hour of do you know how much damage this does to trees? and what did Leafy ever do to you? and how could you ever let anyone harm something living and beautiful? while Alyssia chimed in with the more pragmatic how long have you been seeing this boy? and if he did this after school before I came home, why did you disobey our number one rule of no being alone with boys? and can you please invite him over so we can make sure he's not a serial killer?
Kate couldn't look at Leafy for a while after that.
Time wound, and soon it had been six years since the Craigs had moved to Winchester. And that meant six years since the funeral they'd had in Boston, the day after which a U-Haul had pulled into their driveway. The move had already been finalized (apartment lease ended, rent on the Murray House begun), so they went through with it, and the family was too overwhelmed to realize what the deaths meant.
Because what the deaths meant was that they would never be okay again. The Craigs had changed and prepared so much for those boys, then they had been ripped from their arms just as they were handed over.
Even now, at seventeen, Kate felt the ghosts of her little twin brothers. They frolicked in the yard, laid on the carpet watching TV, banged pan lids together on the kitchen floor. They ran up to her, inquiring what things were, what this word meant, when dinner would be. Sometimes she felt the ache of their absence so badly she cried.
But she didn't dare talk about it. She knew her mother felt the ache infinitely worse. Oh, Alyssia carried it well enough—politely asking after school assignments, diligently going to work, keeping out of the way when Kate’s friends came over, inviting other moms over for coffee. Smiling when Ronald smiled. Laughing at all the right parts of movies.
But Kate still caught her mother staring out of windows or into space like she could see the ghost children, too. And even though they had their pain in common, Kate felt it was a breach of something primal and precious to reach out to her mother.
So they all dealt with their shared sorrow in private ways. Ronald embraced it like a man, that is, by deliberate distraction, and so he excelled at his job and fell asleep during evening TV. Kate found and relished in the elusive relievers of youth: friends, school, boys, drinking, parties. She told herself puking at 2 A.M. and nursing her hangover headaches was glamorous, and she occasionally convinced herself it was.
She went to college across the state and came home for holidays and three-day weekends. Alyssia still quietly excelled in the parks and recreation department, and Ronald was still gone twelve hours a day due to manager work hours and the commute to Boston. Charlie got kidney cancer and was put to sleep, leaving Claire despondent.
Ronald and Alyssia found it harder and harder to climb the stairs to get to their bedroom at night, and one Easter they asked, "What if we were to move?" and Kate looked past her graying parents to the mint-colored buds on Leafy in the backyard, and wondered at times.
The summer she graduated from college, Kate shirked minimum-wage jobs and internships to help Ronald and Alyssia move. The house that had once seemed so large was full to bursting with knick-knacks and furniture and souvenirs from the family trip to Europe two years before. Kate wrapped and boxed every item, placing the ones her parents wanted to keep in a U-Haul and driving the rest to Goodwill.
When she got to the dilapidated boxes in the attic still bearing the labels of their first move's company, she was confused. She opened them. Kate took out the bunnies, onesies, pacifiers, blankets, bag, cribs, socks, and changing table.
It had been eleven years since her mother had lost her days-old twins, yet she'd kept everything she had ever bought or been given for them. The pathetic, pitifulness of it made Kate sob. She wondered if Alyssia would keep the boxes in their new place, whether she would still be holding onto them when she died. She wondered if she would leave them to Kate in her will, then felt sacrilegious for the thought.
She wiped her snotty, teary face on her shoulder and repacked the boxes, taping them shut and shoving them in the U-Haul.
Their last day in the Murray house, Kate went into the backyard and found Ronald staring at Leafy with crossed arms. The tree dwarfed him now, fully grown as he was, but he stared at the bottom of his trunk like he still saw him as a sapling.
"Leafy's gotten big," Kate said.
"You took good care of it."
Ronald gave a nod, jerking his head once so fast his combover wobbled. He placed one palm on the trunk.
"You can always drive by to see it," Kate said. "Maybe even come by when the landlords have the open house."
After Ronald and Alyssia were settled in their new brownstone, Kate painted the Murray house back to its original white. She wanted to keep her parents from overworking themselves. She already suspected the ordeal of moving had taken more of them than they'd let on. Ronald and Alyssia had retired just before the move, but they didn't seem rested—their ailing health demanded more energy and time than they’d expected.
Kate watched Leafy through the bare windows as she worked and listened to Netflix. He rustled or waved, emitting the majestic beauty usually reserved for royalty.
When she finished, she stood in the middle of the entry hall. The old house finally felt as big as it had when she'd first set foot in it. It made her feel a little, which she hadn't in a long time.
She locked the door and stuck the key in her pocket, then went to the backyard.
Leafy seemed to tell her to take him, too, as he stood among the overgrown grass and empty garden plot. His branches now reached as long as her arm span, his trunk was as thick as her waist.
If she looked up, his autumn leaves blocked out the blue and golden of the sky, cocooning her in a warm haze. She reached her fingertips as high as she could, but Leafy had long outgrown her. Instead, she grasped the nearest leaf and held on.
Something unexpected had hardened in her the past few years. She felt years older than she felt she should, burdened with responsibility she doubted she should have. She stood before the symbol of her childhood, the emblem of youth, the embodiment of hope, and wondered how she could still feel despair.
"Goodbye, Leafy," she whispered to the worn bark. She bent and felt the years-old grooves of Brandon's carving—B+K 2009—and apologized for the hundredth time.
As she drove away, the scarlet, ochre, and marmalade colored leaves flickered in her rearview mirror.
Brandon had not left as deep an impression on Kate as he had on Leafy, and she had dated a few boys in college. They were all disappointing. But when she got her apartment in Boston, she married the librarian at the school where she taught, and soon at the Sunday dinners in Alyssia and Ronald's brownstone there was talk of grandkids.
It was around this flurry of activity that Ronald got sick. A lot of things have changed, and the Craigs' schedules shifted to accommodate visiting hours. As soon as her second grade class ended in the afternoon, Kate would drive to Massachusetts General to spend the evening with her father, who spent more and more time in a forgotten daze.
One Saturday, his doctor met with Alyssia, Kate, and James the librarian for the weekly assessment. The doctor folded her fingers over her papers and gave that tightlipped, hard-answer, hesitant smile Kate had always hated.
"He doesn't have a lot of time," and then Alyssia was wailing and Kate was towing her back to Ronald's hospital room.
When Ronald fell asleep and Alyssia fell to quiet hiccups, Kate grabbed James and drove away with him without answering any of his patient, prying questions.
She pulled up to 1812 Murray Street with no real plan but feeling the need to act. The neighborhood had grown glitzier, more reformed—no more swing sets or basketball hoops littered the front lawns, and the only cars were low-riding cruisers or CR-Vs. The current owners of their house had fixed the disastrous seventies renovation, restoring the colonial's original beauty.
Kate barely recognized it.
The front door was opened by a fuchsia-scarfed middle-aged woman.
"I grew up here," Kate said. "My father has three weeks to live. I need to see your backyard."
A man appeared behind the woman, smiling in confusion.
"What was that, dear?" he asked.
The woman looked past Kate towards James, who must have been making some apologetic, pleading gesture, because she nodded and waved them around the side yard.
Kate unhooked the chain-link fence she had not touched in years and stalked across the yard to Leafy. She'd take a picture, she'd break off a branch, she'd do anything to give her dad hope—
The garden plot was gone. The grass was shorn close to the ground, and paths of stone wound through it. There were giant bushes manicured to look like various forms of wildlife, and a rose vine crept along the far side of the fence.
She stumbled to the place Leafy should have been and found only a stump surrounded by a bed of sunflowers, who bobbed their yellow heads over it assuringly. The stump was about six inches high, and Kate could count the amber-colored rings. She touched them delicately, but the bark was withered to the touch. It was no longer alive.
"But, I've been checking on it," she said. "Since we left. On Google Earth. It was here."
James laid a hand on her shoulder. Somewhere, a back door slid open and the couple walked out.
"That ugly thing," the woman said. "Did you know they can't remove the stumps, just the tree? I'm trying to hire someone to come over here with a power grinder and remove it, but it's harder than it seems."
Kate couldn't look away from what was left of Leafy. Gone were the giant, multicolored leaves, gone were the brave branches, gone was the carving. If Kate bent close, she could still see the baby-teeth marks on its above-ground roots from a young Charlie and Claire, which made her cry.
"I'm sorry," the man said. "If we'd known the tree meant something...maybe you could've left word with the landlord, and we would've known."
"Maybe," James said when Kate just sobbed.
"If you'd only come a few weeks ago. I just redid the backyard last month—"
"Margaret," the man warned.
Kate shakily got out her phone and took a picture of the stump. It was kind of beautiful, surrounded by those flowers, bearing its age proudly to the world. A tragic beautiful, but beautiful.
James helped her up and she turned to go. The couple gestured back inside, trying to bribe them with drinks and Kleenexes and Trader Joe's cookies. Kate looked up because she couldn't bear to look at this mockery of her childhood backyard.
And there, above the house, was a bit of shamrock green.
Six leaves of shamrock green, blowing against the blue sky.
She walked up to the gutter, holding her breath. They looked like bundles of sticks, the three of them, each bearing leaves too big for their tiny branches.
"I know, it's such a mess," the woman said. "I've been telling the gardener to clean out the gutters, but I swear to God he doesn't listen to a word I say."
Kate reached out trembling hands, stretching on her tiptoes to reach. Her nails scraped the plastic bottom of the gutter as she scooped out the three saplings.
"You're fighters. Aren't you?"
She felt eleven years old again, overwhelmed with awe. Clumps of dirt plopped onto the porch, and she clamped her fingers closer together.
"What's that?" the man asked.
"Do you mind?" Kate whispered, not daring to look away. James was barely breathing beside her, too—the legend of Leafy was known and revered by him. He knew what the saplings meant.
The leaves fluttered a bit in the breeze, as if waving hello.
"Of course," the man said.
James led her across the yard that was worn in such familiar places. He opened the passenger door for her and buckled her in, trying not to disrupt the miracles she held. When he shut the door, another clump of dirt fell. It landed on her lap.
"We have to get them home," James said as he eased out of her old driveway. "They can't survive without water, soil. It's an hour there, they might not make it."
The little trees rustled in the air conditioning as if they were shivering.
"They will," she said. "Just drive."