It was an elm. In the front yard. On the same side of the house as my study. If it is possible to love a tree, I loved that tree. It shaded my workroom from the sun. It looked like a bouquet. Then it got ill. It struggled valiantly for years, leafing every spring, but deciduating early every fall. Then last spring it did not come back.
The man from the tree service, his name was Craig Self (really, Self), told me it was wetwood for which there is no cure. Like death. There is no cure for death. So.
On the day that he came to remove the tree, Craig Self wore a green jumpsuit with his name on the pocket; it just said Self. In cursive. As if he needed to remind himself that he was himself, his name on his pocket like mitten clips; these are my mittens. I must not lose them. I am myself; I must not lose me. Craig Self had a face like a C-clamp. He was not a smiley man.
“Craig” means rock. “Self” means, well, itself.
He started from the top, removing the large branches first. As he worked, I felt de-limbed. I listened to the buzz of the saw, the grinding of the chipper, the thrash and thud of the lichened branches. I felt more than saw, perhaps, each branch go.
I have lived here twenty years with that tree. This area, Southeastern Ohio, remains alien to me, a much warmer climate than that at home, in Vermont. That tree a shelter, that tree a parasol. When I forced myself to look outside, my elm was a post.
Craig Self was bundling the smaller branches, gleaning them from the yard, feeding them into the chipper. I turned away, retreated to the kitchen until I heard the knock. Craig Self peered through door. I cracked it.
“Would you like some coffee?”
“No, water,” he said, “just some water.”
He followed me into the kitchen. I gave him a glass of ice water and he drank it standing up, hip propped against the counter, clinking the cubes in the glass between gulps.
Then it began.
“Jesus,” he said, “tried to get a cup of coffee this morning, had to stand in line behind this A-rab. Ragheads are everywhere. Don’t know why they are here. Don’t belong. Never used to be here. See ‘em in the grocery store, the hardware store. Probably going to bomb the churches. Muslims taking over the country. Got a Muslim president.” He clinked his cubes and gulped again.
This was one of those moments–I seem to have them more and more frequently as I age–when I was not sure what to do. I knew what was the right thing to do, but I also knew that it was futile. I was not going to change his mind with a three-minute education. I would not change his mind with a three-year education, thirty.
Still. I tried to explain that this was a university town with many foreign nationals. I tried to explain that the man ahead of him in line was likely a Sikh. I tried to explain that all Muslims were not bombers.
He thunked his glass down on the counter, said, “We should have open season on them just like turkeys.”
Was he deaf? Was I mute?
I heard him fire up the chain saw.
I wanted to think, Hillbilly, hilljack, redneck. But I knew what that meant. No different from thinking, A-rab. Still I wondered, what is it that people saw in me? Why would anyone think I was the appropriate audience for such hatred. I remembered when I first moved here and the KKK knocked on my front door. The man identified himself as a Hero of America. It took me a while to catch on. When I did, I said, “Mister, you are in the wrong place.”
Later I thought–or I was. Perhaps we both were. He left when I called the police.
The chain saw buzzed and burred. When I next looked out the window, my elm was a pile of sawdust and a stump.
I tried to raise its canopy in my imagination.
Craig Self knocked on my door.
“More water?” I asked.
“Obliged.” He propped himself once again against the counter.
He told me about his church and Pastor, unaffiliated. The Church of the Rock of Peter. Told me about their upcoming picnic, strawberry social. “You should come,” he said. “It’s a real nice time.”
“Thank you. I will check my calendar. That is very kind of you.” It was, but I had no intention of going. Another sin born of awkwardness?
As he left, he shook my hand. “Thank you for the water. That was mighty white of you.”
I watched him drive off in his pickup towing the chipper, the side of the red truck emblazoned: Self Tree Removal.
I stared where my elm used to be, feeling suddenly lonely.
On the dirt road into my town in Vermont, elm trees used to arch over the road. I used to think that I would like to be married under that verdant arch. Dutch Elm Disease took the trees, and I know now that I will never remarry.
Because we exist in time and time is change, there are places to which we cannot return even when we go back.
Yet there will be a tenth portion in it, And it will again be subject to burning, Like a terebinth or an oak Whose stump remains when it is felled. —Isaiah 6:13
My elm was gone.
If nothing else, the stump remained.
Joan Connor is a professor at Ohio University, and the author of four collections of short stories and a collection of essays.