The Safety of Birches


It’s not easy here. It goes deep, the cold, and shadows push their way across each space as if they cannot hold back, as if the light is too great. I lean toward the small window but the fire is flaring in the hearth and water in a dented tea kettle is sizzling, ready to boil. No reason to leave the cabin mid-morning. Snow is in the air; I can sense it, the trees are not shivering, but waiting. I have come a long way to find a certain place in my soul, long-buried. I will sit until I begin to find it.

A few weeks ago there was the beautiful contained chaos of the city, important enough work, my body in concert with others dashing across streets, lifting our heads to stop lights and walk signs meant to keep us safe. Though not to be trifled with, I’ve certainly not been a fledgling despot in my middle management (thus far) job. Rather, the sort of man who knew when to start up a conversation and just how to end it, who acted from good will as if it was abundant. I was an eager study of my grandfather, who used to tell me the way to advance was timing and a take charge attitude joined to quick, creative thinking. I was already good at the last by twenty or so I thought. Timing–I was impatient. Leadership–I’ve had to learn step by step; it was the third that gained me mentors.

Life: success and failure had felt like second cousins, neither so important I made that much fuss over them. I got up daily, kissed my wife, Luann, hugged our kindergartner son, Kent and off I went. I locked my desk drawers and shut down my computer by 5:15, got home by six. I admired the city lights rather than curse the traffic jams; I liked to empty myself. Lucia got home earlier–she’s a nurse–so made dinner, something simple, color-balanced she says and substantial. The evenings were easy more often than not. We were good company to one another, loved without serious complaint. I would have said nothing could come between us. We were so close that any existent distances acted as required spacers between well-functioning parts. I didn’t know then that routine could be a drug, that if you don’t question things they can blindside you.

I hear the kettle whistling but remain in the heavy chair at fireside. Close my eyes. The sound recalls a train whistle, the train rumbling by my childhood bedroom each night around 10 pm and in the morning at 7. That whistle kept life in order, made the two halves of 24 hours fit right. Maybe the tea kettle will do that here.

I get up and pour the scalding water into the scratched heavy white mug. There was a stag head emblazoned on it once; now it’s half missing. The fire crackles and hisses, a wild thing. I take my seat and my eyes find its ravaging core and I sip and remember despite myself. I want nothing more than to be alone with peace, the surety and gentleness of it, but fear is having its way with me yet.

It was nothing that could have been surmised easily. Perhaps the way she rubbed her eyes at her corner desk, or how she seemed passive, just nodded during our supervision the last couple of months, More often than not during meetings she stared out the window. I recall thinking then that she must have something on her mind but she smiled at me when I caught her eye.  Alicia always looked right, that is, she was put together, long light hair smoothed back into a fancy knot, clothing well-chosen. She was due for a promotion to supervisor. Alicia had come to us four years earlier freshly wedded; her spouse, Dane, a young attorney. Someone said she was fortunate to be married to him, he was ambitious and would do well. She didn’t have a photo of them at her desk. Everything was tidy, almost empty save for a small fresh bouquet she brought in each Monday and tended as if she meant them to last forever.

But did he, her boss, know her as he’d thought? Did he actually see her? Or was she closed like she was at work, doing her job but revealing almost nothing else? I met Dane once, a medium-sized guy with a dusting of grey at his temples already and a noteworthy vocabulary. He must have noticed something at home. Did he share it with friends? Perhaps he talked with his dad when they had a weekly cup of coffee on Saturday morning? As I passed her and her co-worker, I heard her say he liked to do that. She later noted at a luncheon that her family was gone except for an older male cousin in Ft. Collins. And now a husband. She’d said this as mere facts.

I have always felt in tune with Luann. She, however, says said I need to think less, feel more to get the real picture. I differed on that, as just as I know the shapes of my fingers, intimately, admiring both their many functions and forms, I know her. My wife is mother and lover and a persevering musician and a new but talented water colorist. And more–but what, exactly, have I missed?

That is what I mean, she said before I left. You might look at us deeper. Us women. Wives.

I paused at the door, my head and heart wanting to stay as much as leave. I frowned but she kissed my cheek. The more part? I persisted. How can I know if you don’t say?

You should just know by now. Or fight to know, she said. Anyway I love you. I am very sorry about Alicia. I hope the cabin helps.

But her face drooped as she closed the door. I got into the truck, my mind dull yet crammed with things. On the way to the cabin, it was like a terrible chorus you can’t shake off: Should have known, could have known, guilty as charged. About Alicia. And perhaps about Luann, it would seem.

I take the wrought iron poker and jab at the fire. It spits and snarls at me. It is so still otherwise that the rooms seem to have held their breath until I entered. This is why I came for the week-end. That well of silence. I don’t want to think. I want to know. I want God to tell me things. I don’t go to church so often the minster knows my name right off but I am not a stranger to God. He comes to me in the meticulous design of the outdoors I love so much. In my wife and son. In wordlessness that is scarce. In the nights when I awaken to the lull of Luann’s breathing as there’s a shifting of tree limbs beyond us. I have felt God’s arms surrounding us. But now, this morning in the woods, I am still at a loss for what makes sense. A prayer feels far too much to ask of me. I sit and let the fire pull me to it, and wait for a new story to unfold like my father’s stories did right here, in this room once.

It was the Monday after Thanksgiving vacation and as I had passed cubicles I’d tried to recall who had taken time off and who was set for Christmas vacation. I took off my coat, sat, turned on my computer. Then the phone rang. Dane was on the other line.

Its Dane…Alicia. She’s gone, he told me, his voice hoarse and low.

Gone? I watched my laptop screen pop with images.

Gone…died very early in the morning. Car accident.

I stopped moving, pressed the phone closer to my ear.

What, you say?–she has died?

Dane ‘s hand covered his phone. Muffled voices. I waited, panic creeping into disbelief.

I had to call you after our best friends, she would have wanted that, she says you’re a great boss but no, she…she crashed her car into a tree, she was to go to the airport around ten last night, but she got a little drunk, see… got in her car, I couldn’t stop her and…. so she drinks sometimes, she’s a beautiful quirky person and I tried, God knows. And I love her, she’s so good…She’s not coming home, anymore. No. That’s all I had to say.

No, I said, not coming back?… I’m terribly sorry. Thank you for calling me. I don’t know…what to …how I can help in any way, please tell me if I can.

But how do you help a man who has had his wife snatched away and with it a whole life of loving? I covered my face with my left hand so the fluorescent lights and taupe walls and tidy bookshelves with marble bookends were gone.

I’ll let you know when the funeral is, Dane said, his voice like something small and unsafe. I’m sure she’d like you to be there. She always said you were too good to her, made it the best job.

We hung up, he to face bitter sorrow and terrors to come, me to face my staff, her empty desk chair, fine work undone. Those unbearable, soon to wilt flowers. I turned and looked out my window, my heart seeming flat as a stone. Alicia. Gone?

It wasn’t enough, those events. How did I miss a telltale odor of stale alcohol, not see difficulties? As I thought it over, somehow it made sense she drank. It might have been her avoidance of me some mornings. Or her perfume being heavy from time to time. Could I have not paid closer attention to her work and behavior those days? What of her apparent appreciation–which I never even imagined while she worked hard for the team? I felt miserable that he told me that now. Why did I never inquire as to why she seemed more apart from us lately, a quarter beat off? Because even then she was a stellar performer. I knew how special she was from day one.

But we are not taught to be ready to aid, to be concerned. We are taught to achieve and manage, to organize, devise, conquer, put the best foot forward. Not to ask after one another, not open up a little more, never as a matter of course, at least. And I was the boss, right?

The shadows lengthen and up north they do so as if there is a purpose. A signalling of time just falling away. It is long after noon. I am on my third mug of strong, black tea. My stomach gripes but I have no appetite. I am waiting for the snow. For some sign. I want this day and night to fill in the gaps left behind by Alicia. Those perhaps made by me at home. I need answers but I know searching, smart thoughts cannot provide these.

The wind whips the razor edge of frosted air, slides down the chimney and makes the fiery arms flail. I study the rich red and orange flames and they begin to mimic waves lapping at the logs I brought earlier. My body sinks back into the chair, conforms to the wide, old cushions. My grandfather and father sat here alone or with others and now I do and it feels as if I should be welcomed by them, a son among sons, a man among men. What would they tell me now? I know they still care. The fire settles; my eyelids falter and fall. I smell ghosts, cherry pipe tobacco and Old Spice, venison frying, snowballs with vanilla.

Two weeks before Alicia stopped living she knocked on my door as I was finishing a phone call. I could see her through half-closed vertical blinds. She was looking at the floor, then looked up as a co-worker passed by. I saw the smile, not for the first time. It usually animated her fine, delicate features with surprising vivacity, as if she changed from black and white to full color. This time, it was more muted in effect, smaller. She was younger than I but she might one day have my job. Time and practice, that’s all.

I have replayed this last interaction over and over but still, I wonder.

Come in, I call out as I hang up the phone.

Mr. Larson, I was hoping to talk to you about time off. I know the deadline is long-passed for turning in requests. But I may go see my cousin for Thanksgiving.

That right? Let me see if I can spare you. How long?

Just Monday after Thanksgiving week-end. I’d fly back Monday be back at work on Tuesday.

I looked up; she sounded breathless. She was biting her lower lip as if a chapped bit of skin bothered her. Her eyes were on the sleek brass clock Luann got me five years ago after five years at the company. It was the one thing I’d take with me when I left.

I think I can manage to give you that. You’re taking more time off at Christmas but that’s okay–many are not. Funny how some like to work on holidays.

Oh, that’s good to hear, I really am grateful. My cousin is ill so Dane and I should see him. Or just me, Dane has never met him.

I see, good, it’s settled.

Alicia looked at her hands, then sat up straighter. Her pale mouth opened, then shut. I waited to see if she had something else to ask, fiddled with my pen. Her attention moved to my hand and pen. I stopped and she raised her gaze to my eyes, held it a split second. Another unwavering moment.

Is there something else, Alicia? Is the new program going alright?

No, I mean, all is well, she said, rising, smoothing her skirt down. She headed out the door, turned to me at the last minute. I appreciate your help. I’ve learned so much here.

No problem, I said, nodding at her usual warm smile. I turned back to my laptop. But I thought about it a moment, the late request, her seeming anxiousness. She is the best I have. Her smile is a welcome sight in a busy day. It all seems fine. I get back to work.

Now as I doze in the cabin she is walking across the arena of my mind. She is not smiling, anymore. Walks slowly, like nearly dances with long strides in the air, and she turns to look at me but doesn’t wave, doesn’t even smile. Her eyes find something I cannot, become blue flames. Her visage is dazzling in smokey shadow. Then gone.

The image is an electric jolt to my brain and I come to life, stand up to stretch. I look around and see only the comfortable living room, pine table, sturdy chairs and a galley kitchen with steaming tea kettle. I am suddenly hungry. After I eat I am going to look at my fathers’ and grandfathers’ dusty books on hunting and fishing as well as a few ancient works they passed on, some Faulkner, a collection of Twain, the poems of Longfellow. I will wait for the darkness to arrive by the fire. I will make sure it burns long and late. I likely will sleep little though its restorative power would be a gift.


In some endless tunnel of night I am more aware of being alone than I’ve been for decades although I travel for work regularly. I reach for Luann’s pillow and smash it against my chest. This seasoned cabin has always been meant for respite. For hiding out while paying greater homage to nature. But also, meant for more than one.

I lift the pillow to my face and a searing ache wrenches from my throat.

I did not know, I tell Alicia. I try to not cry out as I search for her. I did not know you cared, that you drank so much, that you were unhappy. Lonely.

Forgive me, that I did not see. Could not help.


In the morning, snow, and more falling, a gift from above. I press my face onto a lacy iced window. It isn’t deep but a soft and glittery sweep of snow laid beneath a sky that promises more. I make a bitter mug of instant coffee and instant oatmeal and eat. The fire is smoldering, has used itself up. I am sleepy but know the air beyond log walls will shake me out, keep me on my feet. Because I am going in search of birches, maybe fox and deer. Weaponless and empty of complex intentions. I pull on ponderous boots and my father’s ratty Navy pea coat and head out. The air bites my face and snowlight obscures my vision the first steps. As I progress snowflakes fall more heavily, clinging to my shoulders and eyelashes.

It is at end of mile one that I see the birches shining. The sheer whiteness of the ground reflects enough so slender-trunks seem to rise into the early winter sky from a vast spread of gleaming white confetti. They reach up as all trees do but they are so proud, of their white and black and greyness, of the special peeling layers of bark that add mystery and texture.  You cannot strip it off or it will wound the inner and outer body of the tree. Their branches sway in topmost currents of breeze. Bare twig fingers at the ends of their branch arms seem to point in the four directions. As a child I came here with my father or grandfather on the way to the valley meadows. As a young man I dreamed with the birches and heard them breathe and rustle, watched them shed leaves, then gather snow and let it go, then once more favor new life.

They are whispering now, the sound a blessing on this winter’s day. It is a hymn. To life, to earth, to humans and all other miraculous creatures. I stand between them, raise my eyes. The birches crowd toward me, they make a circle and I am in the center of it. I am not afraid because God lives here and has me standing with arms held out within this secure hold. I am no longer sad, do not feel lost. Am not alone, no. This circle of birches will remain upright and sturdy, will welcome the cycle of life and its leave-taking with quietude. From a ragged jacket pocket I remove the small bunch of bent dried flowers. Place them under the snowy base of a birch. I step away, far out of the circle, see a flash of an elegant red tail. Time to go home and be with Luann, with my beloved son.



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