Fiction,  Issue 7

The Tree Between Us by Grace Safford

We are asked to listen to nature’s warnings by our mothers and fathers. A bleeding sky means a miscarriage is on the horizon. Grass rotting in June warns of a liar living next door. Clear water on a river bend is a reminder that you have forgotten to look deeper. These are old wives tales, we children say, dressed up as fact to remind us to lock the door at night and put the honey away before morning. The sky may look over us when our parents aren’t there to watch, but we have stopped looking at the shape of the clouds. Giving into signs is giving into hollow words. 

Yet, when the grass rots and chokes our noses and our neighbors stand in front of our houses, somehow, we still remember to check our pockets. 

On a pale fall morning, the tree from my yard leans in my kitchen window and says, “Your husband has been cheating on you.” 

I drop my ladle and open the window wide enough so that the tree can bend over my sink. “Why would you say that?” 

“Because I have seen it. He takes a young blonde woman through the kitchen and into your bedroom.” The tree dips a leaf in the basin of my sink, splashing water on my floor. 

“How could you know such a thing? How can you know what happens in our—” 

“Because I have seen it,” the tree says again. “I have seen you smash your fingers in cabinets and burn your wrists in oil. I have seen your husband choke on olives and dip his hair in orange juice when he runs low on cologne. I have heard what you both do, what you both used to whisper, when your bedroom window is open. What you both don’t say anymore.” The tree sighs pollen over me, yellow and green and orange. “What else is a rooted tree to do but watch?” 

“We still whisper,” I say, smacking the tree’s branch out of the sink. 

“You don’t whisper. You only speak.” 

I frown, wiping the water from my floor. I have never trusted the tree in my yard before. Not when he taps tree nuts against my window during storms and strings leaves in my hair when he’s feeling bored. Everyone knows you should be careful of trees with sap and knotted bark. Sap could mean deception or love. Knots festering emotions or honesty. 

But as soon as he leaned against my house, I couldn’t keep my tongue from sliding out of place and hitting my cheek. The tree preferred to stay outside with his moss and lichen. He only leans in my window when he needs to tell me a storm is coming at noon or a mountain lion is adrift in the woods. He rarely knocks for anything less than a fire. 

I bite my lip. “How much have you seen?” 

“Enough to know your husband has more secrets than a nest of spiders.”

“I didn’t even know he knew a blonde woman.” I put my ladle back in my soup, slowly stirring up onions and leeks. “I’m not even sure when he’d have the time to meet… another woman.” 

“Her hair is as blonde as sand,” the tree says. 

I start stirring faster. The steam from the soup clouds between us, dusting our skin and leaves in dew. “But… He’s never… He would never…” 

It was true that we didn’t whisper like we used to. It had been months since we’d last taken a drive to the lavender fields and even longer since we’d stayed out later than we were supposed to. A year since we’d sat in the back of the movie theatre just so we could slip fingers between our shirt hems. The last time I slid a foot up my husband’s leg he simply said my skin was cold. But we still laughed together. Said good morning. Kissed once for luck before bed. 

“If you don’t believe me,” the tree mutters. “I know a way you can find out his truths. A way I’ve seen your mother and her mother before you use on their husbands when they stopped whispering to each other.” 

My mother and grandmother, whose husbands never so much as broke a plate without telling them. Whose hands could find cigarettes tucked away in sock drawers. Whose ashes were spread like woodlice across the roots of the tree in my kitchen. 

My fingers itch to reach for the phone, to call my husband and ask for an explanation. To say I don’t believe the tree and that I don’t want to. 

Instead, I face him. “What do I do?” 

The tree stretches his branches over to my fruit basket, spilling apples and oranges across the counter. “First, you must put a spider in his soup every night. Only a spider can untie the lies of another spider.” 

“Where will I get—” 

“My branches are full of spiders,” the tree says. “I will give you one every night.” 

I pause, looking at my soup. “Alright. I can boil it.” 

The tree pushes the fruit again. “Then, after dinner, you must put a lemon in your mouth and kiss your husband before you sleep.”

“A lemon?” 

“Eventually the truth will become too sour to swallow.” 

I pick up a lemon from my counter, dusting the pollen from its bruised navel. “Won’t it sting?” 

“It only stings vices. Disbelievers and liars.”

I wasn’t used to this: deception, half-truths, fruit. Sap and knotted bark. My way was talking, holding hands, wetting my lips with my words. But who was I to question the wisdom of a tree, blanketed with the ashes of mothers and grandmothers? Who knew what my husband and I did and didn’t do (but I still wanted to do)? Quickly, I slip the lemon in my pocket. “What kind of spiders do you have?” 

That night, under the umbrella of our roof, my husband and I eat our soup with spoons and silence. I pour mine first before returning to the pot to add a wolf spider. My husband says the soup tastes like paprika and asks for a second serving. 

I try to touch his shoulder while he washes the dishes, but my hand feels too heavy. 

Before bed, we kiss each other quickly with round lips. We part, look at each other just for a moment, as if expecting something more, and climb into our sheets without saying a word. 

When my husband is finally asleep, I unhinge my mouth and place my lemon in my drawers. 

The next night, the tree leans through my window again, its leaves dancing and quivering. “I’ve seen him again, this time with a black-haired woman.” 

“Black hair?” I shake my head. “What happened to the blonde woman?”

The tree rattles his branches against the pane. “I do not know. But two secrets require two spiders.” 

I pick up a plate from the drying rack and press it against my ribs. It feels good to dig something solid into my bones. “I don’t know. He didn’t say anything sour last night after our kiss. Maybe he’s not with other woman. Perhaps we can—” 

“Don’t you believe me?” 

“Of course, but—” 

“You are not the only woman he kisses,” the tree insists. “And you both have hidden things. I’ve seen what you both do in the dark. How he gets up in the night to finger glass bottles. How in the day you litter my roots with your ash and smoke. The things you don’t want each other to see.” 

The plate slips between my ribs. “Everyone has their secrets.” 

“The trees do not have secrets,” he says. “We speak through the ground and listen to each other’s thoughts. It’s a better way to live.” 

“A better way?” 

“To live with knowledge. Trust.”

Trust. Like the trust falls my husband and I used to do off our bed after a few glasses of wine, catching each other until our arms were tired and our bodies fell over together into the waiting carpet. The falls we used to take when we still used our bed for more than sleeping. 

This time, the tree gives me an oak nut spider. We eat cheddar-broccoli soup while my husband talks about his garden and his friends. He says he might grow clover and basil for my window sill. I nod and squeeze the lemon in my pocket until it stains my knees. 

We kiss silently again, break apart, and lower our mouths into our pillows until we almost forget how to breathe. 

_

I’ve been kissing my husband with lemons for two weeks. Our lips have become chapped and our teeth speckled with yellow veins. It hurts us both to smile. 

“Soon he will crack,” the tree says. “His breath is sour.” 

So I kiss him harder. I begin to walk with lemons hidden in my clothes. I dangle them from my shoulders and hide them in my bras. Whenever I see my husband walk through the door I am there, my citrus stocked under my tongue. It’s the most we have kissed since we were teens, tangled in our cars and laughing in empty parking lots. Sometimes I almost forget the fruit in me. 

My husband starts to tell me I’m beautiful and I want to believe him. 

The tree has given me two more spiders. A house spider and a dock spider. A red-head and another blonde. 

“With hair like poppies and straw,” the tree says. 

Soon, my tongue begins to harden and shrink. The juice burns my esophagus and itches against my cheeks. At night, when I spit the lemon into my palm, it’s hard to know whether it’s saliva or juice pressing against my gums. 

I catch him looking at me in the mornings. His eyes are yellow, but he looks at me. 

A month after our lemon kisses begin, my husband and I can barely eat our soup. Parsley and carrots. His lips are raw with blood. My tongue can’t support the weight of my spoon. We are hurt, but neither of us say it. The tree watches us through the window, nodding when we finally do make a bite of soup hit our stomachs.  

We meet in our room, quietly, like always. We stand across from one another, lips round and erect. I try and hold my husband’s hands, but it’s too dark for him to see. We stumble forward, mouths bumping chins and noses. My husband steadies my face, gently, and brings his lips closer. I feel his breath clouding my nose. It smells like fruit. 

“Wait—”

The hand falls from my face as my husband gasps—one of the first sounds to enter our room in days. It sounds hollow and scratched. Afraid. He clutches his throat and opens his mouth. A lemon falls on the floor. 

I stagger back, pulling out my lemon and pressing my knees into our bed for support. “Why… why do you have…” 

But before he can tell me, his mouth withers angry and fast. He falls to the floor as four spiders crawl out of his mouth. Slowly, they carry out bits of his stomach over his teeth, parading across our carpet. 

My tongue starts to crack. Blood pours down my chin. 

I run to our window and throw it open. “Tree! What have you done? What have you—” 

“What have I done?” the tree asks. He caresses my cheek with a branch, smearing the blood into my hair. “It was your husband! He’s the one who thought you were cheating on him with the neighbor.” 

“But I wasn’t. You said he’s been cheating on me—” 

Before I can finish my sentence, a spider crawls out of my mouth and back onto the branch still touching my knotted face. 

____________________________________________________________


Grace Safford is a writer and editor from a town in Northern Vermont so small cartographers sometimes confuse it for a lake. She is a fiction editor for the Mud Season Review and the Editor-in-Chief of The Well magazine. You can find her fiction in magazines such as Firewords, Soft Cartel, and Puddlefar. Currently, she is working on her first novel.

6 Comments

    • Haley

      hey, i read this piece a couple months ago and didn’t know how to respond to it. i just want to tell you that it’s a wonderful short story. every time i reread it (and ive read it quite a few times now) i find something new and interesting that adds another layer. im not good at literature or analysis, but i really wanted to let you know how much i enjoyed this. looking forwards to your next piece. thank you.

  • Holly

    This was a really good read! Enjoyed it a lot, and I’m left wondering what the tree was up to, and the fate of the couple

  • Hanh

    okay this was so good!! I love all the details you wove in and they were just so in your face I love it. I also love how creepy it got near the end and the way you described their relationship and their kind of deteriorating state. Amazing job!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *