At the Kitchen Door by DC Restaino
This story is to remember Florence Haig who planted a Cupressus Lawsoniana on 11 June 1910.
In the clearing down the hill from the big house, we planted the first trees. A strong wind blew, and the clouds hung thick and low in the sky. Annie said days like this hurt her teeth.
We spoke of planting in a grid, saplings spaced two metres apart on all sides. Minnie suggested two parallel lines running straight and true. ‘Toward the future,’ she said. We argued over appropriate shapes: a winding circle like a curled ribbon, a Celtic knot, a labyrinth path. Our voices cawed in mock and support of each other in turn. It was Jack, though, who decided for all of us when she grabbed a sapling by the neck and dragged it a few paces forward. She turned back, holding the small tree at her side like an explorer claiming a new land. ‘We plant them anyway we want,’ she said. The wind tossed her hair across her face, billowing her dress. She looked like she was standing on the edge of the Earth; the manic grin splitting her face exclaimed that she was more than willing to step off into the abyss.
The saplings didn’t seem to grow at first. We worried they wouldn’t survive the increasingly harsh autumn storms. We would peer down from the windows of the kitchen, our breathing clouding the glass, as they were lashed by the wind. They bent, their still-green crowns slapping the ground, then we’d exhale in relief when they sprang back upright.
Maud said she was sure of her pick when we questioned her again. We eyed the sapling she carried in the crook of her arm. It was a thin, frail-looking thing. We were all sure she chose it because it was the only one she could carry in her state. Maud insisted she was sure. We watched her pierce the dirt with the blade of the shovel. The bones in her arm edged out beneath her skin; her wrists were no bigger than the shovel’s wooden handle. ‘Hunger strikes do wonders for the figure,’ Maud joked when she arrived to convalesce at Eagle House. We watched as she came across a tangle of roots beneath the dirt, surprised they had stretched so far from the first cluster of trees. ‘They have spread far,’ Maud said. ‘Good. This is good.’ She nestled her own tree amongst the roots and scooped dirt over the top.
The trees grew in a dark, tangled mass off to one side of the clearing. They grew slow, twisting steadily towards the sun. At first, we watered the saplings, worried they wouldn’t survive on their own. Soon, when less of us occupied the house, we decided to let them have the freedom we lacked growing up. We let them run wild.
The first tree to fall was Nell’s. It caught a rot deep in its core where we couldn’t see until it finally collapsed under its own weight. We used the soft, dry wood as kindling that winter. She would have wanted the tree to be useful until the very end.
Millicent’s was uprooted in a windstorm. Not even a particularly strong one, we noted. It never really rooted deep enough to last.
Two days before Florence was brought to the house in a whirlwind of worry, her tree was split through to the ground by a bolt of lightning. ‘That can’t be good,’ we told each other when we saw the smoke curling from the blackened trunk.
When Florence arrived, a shroud covered the left side of her face. It was stiff and rusted black with blood. When we removed it, we saw how her eye was engorged and swollen shut, pus and blood coating the seam of her eyelids. Our fingers traced the strike from the police baton that ran the length of her face. We felt where it shattered her forehead, her cheekbone, the curve of her jaw, as we tried to clean her.
We never told Florence what happened to her tree, not even as she laid in one of the bedrooms in the house, asking over and over to see it. We told ourselves we’d tell her the truth when she was better, when she could handle it. She’d ask when we cleaned her wounds and changed her bandages and fed her soup. ‘Soon,’ we’d tell her. ‘When you are stronger.’ Perhaps it was best she never learnt the truth, we decided, as we buried her in the ground.
It was slow going, helping Elsie walk the distance down the hill behind Eagle house to the arboretum. We stood aside as she ran her hands across the gnarled trunk of her tree. We explained that the scar closest to her hand was from a bullet that had torn through the bark when we missed a fox stalking the grounds, that the pox marks were from an infestation her tree had managed to survive. When Elsie gagged, we made her open her mouth, so we could remove the blood-soaked cotton. For a few moments we saw the shattered pieces of enamel that remained of her teeth, jutting out like broken glass. We quickly stuffed fresh cotton between her red, raw gums and her cheeks. She squished her face in some approximation of a smile, as if her state was completely natural.
Later, after returning Elsie to the house, we unfurled a blanket and ate a picnic of sandwiches beneath the green canopy. When we finished, we laid on the ground and stared at the small ribbon of blue sky that coiled between the crowns of the trees. We liked how they seemed like pieces of a puzzle still trying to figure out how to fit together. ‘Allows the sun to reach the undergrowth,’ said Edith. ‘See?’ Around us were small clusters of bluebells and holly bushes. New growth sprouting in the sun filtering down between the branches of our trees. We leaned back, closed our eyes, and let the sun warm our faces.
We stood at the kitchen door of the house and worried about if it was a good idea. We worried if it was a proper use of space. We worried if men would find it frivolous, another example of how we aren’t worthy enough or clever enough or strong enough for what they have. We worried that no one would care enough to remember. We worried that all of it would amount to nothing.It was Florence, dear Florence, a few scant years before the lightning and Black Friday and her last breath, who set us straight.
She said: Here, now, this is what we do. We will plant them, and they will grow. Resilient and stable and true, just like us. This is how it works. We reach not for love, nor approval, nor exaltation. We reach, always, for light.
DC Restaino is a short fiction writer from the US, but educated in the UK. He also wrote this brief bio.