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The Elm


ISSUE:  Summer 1981

Arms outstretched, she balanced herself gingerly on one leg, the sole of her right foot resting on the soft pad of her still shapely left thigh, and then, slowly, raised her arms to meet overhead.

“I am a tree,” she said aloud, as the Yoga teacher had taught her.

“I am an elm,” she amended. “I am an elm rooted deep in the ground.” Like Daphne, she felt her feet becoming roots, sap coursing in her veins and leaves sprouting from her fingertips.

She wished her doctor could see her. “This would learn him,” she thought defiantly.

Interlocking her fingers, she swayed a little from side to side, remembering the graceful old elms that lined the streets of the town where she spent her summers as a child, those long safe summers before that fatal shipment of lumber from Holland, remembering her own elm, the elm behind the barn. She had climbed it so often that she could remember every branch on the way up to the chosen fork where she would sit for hours, rough bark prickling through her bloomers, memorizing Quinquereme of Ninevah from Distant Ophir and other romantic lines.

There was only one elm left in the suburban neighborhood where she had lived since her husband’s death. It stood on the edge of the lawn of the gingerbread house across the street. Like many of their time, the original owners had had a passion for trees. There was a fine copper beech, a weeping birch, a horse chestnut that held its candle blooms upright like a chandelier every May, a yellowwood that dripped its fragrant blossoms in June. There was even a gingko. But the great elm of earlier planting towered above them all.

As she sat at her desk by the window, throwing away appeals for good causes she could no longer afford—Save the Whales, Save the Seals, Save the Wild Horses—or writing to her only child, a married daughter in Kansas City, she loved to look across at the elm. Fluttering light green in the spring, tawny in the fall, and in the winter a lacy skeleton against the cold pink sunset.

It was curious, she thought, as she walked home from the hospital after some very unpleasant X-rays that she had not noticed the big red letter “R” painted on the trunk of the elm. It did not look like the work of the little vandals from the other side of the avenue. Perhaps it was a signal to Public Works to spray for gypsy months. But the choice of the letter was ominous. “R” was the first letter of Remove.

Early the next morning a city truck brought in a delegation. They appeared to be in consultation on the front porch of the gingerbread house. After they had departed, she caught up with her neighbor as he was starting off to work.

“Don’t let them,” she begged. “Give it a chance. It can be treated. They give injections.”

“I’m afraid I have no choice,” he said a little shortly. “These people know their business. The disease is contagious; the beetles travel. As a matter of fact we think it’s going to prove an advantage to us. My grandfather was gung-ho about the trees. As a result the house is much too dark. We can’t read without turning on the lamps.”

She resolved not to tell the girls of her Yoga class about the elm, and certainly not about the X-rays. She had no truck with the notion that it was gallant to burden one’s friends and relations with doom. One never knew what to say. The poor things would cringe with embarrassment. She regretted that she had told her cleaning woman, in a moment of weakness, that she had to wait a week before the reports came in. She hoped the good woman had not seen fit to give her away to her daughter in Kansas City.

She had resolved to put the whole distasteful business out of mind. It lingered like a dark shadow, waiting. The girls, bouncing in for the Yoga class, were a welcome distraction. She loved this friendly pack, comrades-in-arms in the battle against age. They were on a par in years, but their bodies, mercilessly revealed in leotards, presented variations. The gods, not content with doling out eyeglasses, had added a few pounds in awkward places here or there, caused this to sag and that to shrivel, but then, with a trace of compassion, had preserved to each one unspoiled feature—a shapely thigh, a good bosom, slender ankles, milky skin, naughty eyes. The girls were frank and good-natured about their failings, determined to make the most of what was left.

Sitting cross-legged, or in the half-lotus pose, on her Moroccan carpet, tongues hanging out and eyes staring maniacally at the ceiling, they did the Lion. Crouched on all fours, ready for a feline stretch, the Cat. Flat on their stomachs, groaning a little as they tried to raise head and shoulders off the floor, the Cobra. After a few attempts at her one-legged stand, they were glad to collapse on their backs, bidding their bodies, piece by piece, from toes and ankles to eyebrows and scalp, to relax.

Their leader, who had been in India and experienced training under a genuine Yogi, led the ritual windup.

“O—M,” she chanted.

“O O O O O——M M M M M,” they intoned after her. But with the hypnotic resonance of the M still ringing in their ears, the silence was shattered abruptly. It was not a jet or the new mower of the contractor next door or a squad car showing off.

The loud, snarling, gnawing metallic buzz was unmistakable. The elm was going down.

After the girls had left, she closed the windows to be sure she could hear the telephone if the doctor’s office should call. Muffled, the buzzing was nerve-racking. Leaving her front door open, she ran to the edge of her lawn.

A huge truck with motor running was parked beneath the elm. The brains, as well as the brawn, of the operation proved to be the cutter, a young man, not more than a boy, blonde, half-naked. He had evidently resolved not to go up in the canvas bucket, and was strapping himself in wires for the ascent. At his command the long arm of the boom unbent at the elbow and swung him pendant from its tip, up and up, higher and higher to the top of the tree. Reconnoitering he appeared to be floating, full-length in slow motion, on some airy pleasure voyage. Then, at his signal, a red saw followed him up on another wire. Tops came off quickly and crashed to the ground, but the big branches, trees themselves, had first to be roped, then sawed and lowered with care.

It all seemed ridiculously easy. One after another the huge limbs with their sick leaves came floating down. Like surgeons dissecting a body, the ground crew closed in with their saws and fed the litter to the chopper.

When she heard her telephone ringing, she could hardly bear to tear herself away. It was only her neighbor, the wife this time, apologizing for the noise.

“They stop at four-thirty. They can’t possibly finish today,” she said. “Until then try Channel Five. There’s a wonderful disco program.”

It appeared that the next morning would be exciting. They were planning to hack away at the tree near the base and then let the trunk fall clear across the lawn. It would be tricky. One slight error in calculation and the fall would demolish the porte-cochere on the one side, or the gingko on the other. It must fall strictly in between.

Late that evening she wandered across the street once more. Only the trunk and the stubs of the biggest branches were left. Shorn of almost everything, the tree stook naked, humiliated, in the moonlight. That night she dreamed she had an “R” upon her body.

In the morning the doctor’s call came. It was only his nurse asking her noncommittally to drop in sometime in the forenoon. As luck would have it, the office was not crowded. There was only one other patient in the waiting room. It was a little lady from somewhere in the South, eager, desperately eager for conversation. It took two minutes for the stranger to elicit basic facts—place of residence, marital status, number of children—and a minute more of persistant coaxing in gentle Southern accents to discover that they had both had the same X-rays and had both been kept for days in the limbo of waiting to hear.

Her husband, she reported proudly, was a partner in Park, Ames, and Curtis. “He wanted to come with me today,” she said, “but he had to be in coht. Since you tell me your husband was a lawyer too, you know what that means. I was glad he couldn’t come. You know what babies men are about doctors. I said, “Now John Henry, I don’t want to hear any more talk about this. Hear? I’m going alone and you can take me to the Ritz tonight to celebrate. If you think, after all the weeding I’ve done this summer, I’m not going to pick our first asparagus next spring, you’re mistaken.”“

It was not the Southern lady’s name but her own that the nurse called first. As she waited alone in the inner office, she wondered if there had been some mistake. She sat by the doctor’s desk looking at the snapshots of his children taken in a sailfish and the framed studio photograph of his wife, set there, she felt sure, to ward off widows like herself. She wondered if the wife had selected the chintz for the upholstery and curtains or if he had fallen victim to an expensive decorator. The stillness was oppressive. But then she became aware of the doctor’s voice speaking on the telephone in an adjoining room. The nurse had left the door a crack ajar.

“No,” he was saying. “In cases like this we cannot operate. . . . No, I’m afraid that would be impossible. She’s already here. She checked in a few minutes ago.”

He was evidently talking to a close relative of one of his patients. In a panic she pictured her daughter frantic in Kansas City. She rose, moved to snatch the telephone from his hand and spare her child.

The doctor’s voice was proceeding gravely, relentlessly.

“Six months, eight months, maybe a year. We will start her on treatment at once. . . . Sometimes. . . . Yes, but not often . . .in that case all I can promise is that we will make her as comfortable as possible.”

A jet flying overhead blotted out the rest of the conversation. When it had passed, the doctor was on another line, this time with a boatyard. He was telling them to haul the boat, scrape the bottom, and check the rigging. Not later than Friday.

The nurse came through the door and shut it firmly behind her. Doctor, she explained gratuitously, was a great sailor. His boat, the Gaviota, was to be in the races. He was just crazy about that boat.

Left alone once more the stillness became unbearable. From her frame the calm blue eyes of the doctor’s wife gazed on her compassionately. It was not a long wait. The doctor breezed in, as ruddy and cheerful as if he was already at the tiller.

“Well now,” he said, thumbing over a dossier as if to remind himself, though he must have known its contents by heart.

“Yes, here we are. You’ll be glad -to know that your X-rays came out negative. You haven’t a thing to worry about on that score. But I don’t think we ever checked your breathing. This is my latest acquisition, and it’s a Jim Dandy. I want you to breathe deeply and see how far you can make the little ball rise in its column.” She settled her lips around the mouthpiece and drew in a deep breath. The ball rose triumphantly to the top.

As she fled through the outer waiting room, she saw the little pink face of the wife of the partner in Park, Ames, and Curtis lifted eagerly for news. She passed her with only a wave. What was there to say?

At the top of the hospital steps she stood for a moment breathing the soft Indian Summer air. The relief was so great that her knees were shaky. She had not realized that life meant so much to her, or how lonely had been the waiting. How to celebrate so marvelous a reprieve? Go to church? Sign up for a cruise? Call up friends and drink champagne?

And then she remembered the elm. Though blocks away, she could hear the nasty snarl of the saw. As she approached home, she saw a group of young mothers with their prams running so as not to miss the fall. Just as she turned the corner of her street, she heard the crash.

All the neighborhood had gathered to congratulate the cutter and his crew. Their calculations had proved marvelously precise. The elm had fallen just as they had planned, crushing only a few hydrangeas. The copper beech, the weeping birch, the horse chestnut, the yellowwood, even the gingko, all alive and well. Only the elm, the noble elm, lifeless upon the lawn.

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