When the ancient television’s green fish-eye smashed against the log pile with a final vacuum burp, Jenkins grinned and nodded. ‘There you are, you little sod.’ He dusted his hands, ridding them of the t.v.’s cheap wood veneer. Something in his back had popped with that final heave. But what a reward. He stood, his bare toes cracking in his cold Wellington boots, and breathed into the morning’s frosty silence. Stunted trees poked above the fence at his right like glassy menorah. At his left, a gathering of dead leaves flustered applause in a short breeze. A squirrel chucked from somewhere
Jenkins turned and walked through silence past the backyard shed, garbage cans, a misplaced shovel rusting in frosted crabgrass.
He opened the back door and kitchen warmth enveloped him. Within it, the round, antique kitchen table in front of the window. The warm teapot furling a lace of steam from its spout. The humpbacked clock on the bookshelf, ticking solidly. His friend, the armchair, its leftward tilt and polished wood armrests witness to an age of use. He smiled like Christmas, then left, forgetting to change into socks.
The hill formed an island in the loam of the turned field, and an elm, rooted solitary at its crest, stabbed starkly into the pewter grey sky. Curdled clouds heralded the onset of winter. Mr. Jenkins’ striding form stood out like a strip of wet bark against the sky, his fists rammed into pockets of a tweed jacket that he held hunched against the chill.
He hummed as his boots battled across the earth ridges, sucking up clumps of soil and kicking them loose. ‘Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand…’ A bone white branch shifted underfoot. Beautiful. He watched it settle into the furrow as his feet passed by. ‘Til I have BUILT Je roo sa Lem…’ His breath came harder now, as if he was singing aloud. ‘In England’s green and pleasant land.’
He felt a quick movement of happiness. He remembered old England, oak and soil. William Blake. Thatch and stone. When he was an embryo, listening to the wind.
But this wasn’t England, although just as ancient. The ancientness of underground rock, of massive, tree-bristled mountain ranges, of lakes that held their breath in the dawn, waiting for the end of the cormorant’s flight, a shadow dashing across a surface eerily metallic.
It was terrifying. Truly awesome.
Like this tree he had come to. Naked to the elements, through summer’s merciless heat and now, with winter’s frigid bite gnawing into it. His fingers stroked the rippled bark lightly, as if he were reading Braille. He hung still momentarily while the wind soughed behind him.
Nothing came from the bark, no messages from the sap. Nothing ever came to him. Just the acute realization that he was standing in a wide field, touching the bark of a tree. Such a painful impotence – the dull pain of an imagined rock, in a dream, beating against an imagined soul. Or something.
He found the rope, the end frayed like a horses mane, gathered it in one fist, then the other, and heaved himself up, scraping his knees and shins. He sat, flushed and exhilarated, in the wide crotch of the lower limbs, and leaned his head back and stared upward with his mouth agape. He felt the muscular heaviness of the limbs near him, and the splaying outward, the rushing upward of limb upon limb, smaller and smaller until a latticework of fingers tangled in the sun itself.
He stayed still like that for some time; only the rocking of himself and the tree. Cancelled. The tree, the wind, the splendid reach of the field and the air transposed him.
He thought with his fingers as they gripped a branch.
Or flattened against a knot.
He rested, settled the back of his head against a branch and waited. Breathing… one… inward, lungs filling… two… .nourishing the blood… three… the exhale.
The wind moved on the field like an ambling dog.
Clicking branches made soft percussion.
He waited for it to come to him.
A starling materialized at the foot of the tree. He watched it pecking, strutting, and standing with its head up, as if it had forgotten something under the clumps of soil. Black eyes, and invisible ears tuned. Jenkins listened as if he were within that air-weight body. He felt the endless wind of life, the gorgeous everything-scent of being. He felt the flight that all of mankind had dreamed. He entered through the starling’s obsidian eye. He became starling and tree, and Mr. Jenkins; a holy trinity smiling into oncoming snow. Glittering.