It’s happened again, Fernando told his wife. The fretwork of disbelief turned to anger between the eyebrows. This time, the thief took the broken chandelier as well.
She feigned sympathy but kept her fingers busy with cupcake batter. Sympathy too fragile to sustain eye contact. That’s too bad, Fernando, but you know it is a junk pile— and what does it matter how others make use of our trash?
Inside the small grove, Fernando witnessed a glimmer of glass, the broken chandelier, a tower of books missing covers, the cheap plastic nightstand, the ornamental canary cage— the junk he’d been throwing away through the year of salary and upward mobility. All the remnants of a cheap immigrant past he’d given away to fit into the present.
Why have you saved this— this—- junk? Fernando roared.
Sarah and Jimmie hoped he would never find out. They loved daddy but his rage was like a military base where none of usual rules applied.
Because we love them, Jimmie whispered. The word came out crooked.
And they remind of us of things we love, added Sarah.
Fernando shuddered. The scent of chlorine pricked his nostrils. The thieves clung like trumpet vines to his knees.
There are words which tongue rotten. Words one can’t speak for relief. Words you pretend you can’t taste anymore so people will invite you to parties.
There is a target practice and no money in a man’s hand if he shoots squirrels or pigeons. No mullah or mojo in innocent victims. No cash in knowing better.
There is a line that looks too long outside the license office. A not-even-rush-hour line. There is a man’s gaze, like lotion on a palm the way he rubs it over me. The way I can’t stop him from rubbing me into something slick and glossy when all I do is stand there. This is a line when all I do is try not to get shouty. Oh don’t be the woman that gets upset.
There is a color that looks strident after standing too long. The hot flash, an electrical angle, a thing you feel against the shock of static cling. A pleasure which comes in commercials. There is a look and a shock and a where-have-I-seen, a self in secondhand fragments. You see his pleasure is yours. There is evidence on television. You are not whooping up a fuss or making a scene because the scene is there and you are watching and watching is one way to like it.
There is a waiting that says you want him to look. No money in pretending the eye is not a slot machine spewing quarters if you catch it. You could use some currency. You could use some cold hard coinage on the counter where others can acknowledge its worth.
There is a bathroom in a bar where things with a journalist happened. The verb is ongoing but over. Things that happened are still happening in whispers hatched after events. Did it happen to you or that girl in the movie?
There is a line that looks familiar. No human can be in two places at once. What happened must be a did or a didn’t. What happened was done. Someone else did it. When you say my name I think it’s a mistake. I couldn’t be that and still be here. Doing this.
And besides, there are children.
The children sled down the hill backwards, laughter curling like steam engine ribbons, a smoldering sinuous echo of impermissible fun. A lanky middle-school boy stomps through the snow hatless, long brown hair wrapped around his shoulders, a fur pelt. He leads the way back through the woods. Two little girls follow, their hands missing mittens. I have been waiting behind the boulder for almost two hours. I would wait a lifetime for what comes next.
A mittenless finger points— there’s a man behind the rock and we don’t know him.
Hey, the boy shouts, who are you?
I step forward and brush the snow from my pockets. I am a forester in these parts. My name is Delmore. Pleased to meet you.
The boy stares for a second before extending a chapped pink hand. I like foresters, he says. But only because I like forests.
That’s fair, I chuckle. Who would love a forester without the trees?
From up close, I can tell which girl is still in elementary school, her dark braids escaping from beneath a burled wool hat. A girl with a mother who knits. She barely looks at me. It is the golden tree cone half-buried near my boot which holds her rapt attention.
Do you like aspens? I say in my best professor voice.
She nods shyly. What are aspens?
The boy sighs— my youngest sister is sort of stupid in the head. He is sorry but not surprised.
Oh no, I scoff. Nonsense. Perhaps she has never encountered an aspen tree face to face. Up close and personal.
The boy snorts. He aims to be sarcastic but can’t think of what to say. The impulse towards sarcasm precedes his mastery of the language in which it must take place.
The older girl is bored but not stupid. Shouldn’t we get home? She doesn’t care much for forestry. She remembers what her mother said about strangers.
Look, I draw their eyes to the neighboring aspen. This is an aspen. He is a very old man. You can tell from the notches in his neck.
Trees don’t have necks! exclaims the older girl.
I feign surprise. But of course they do. Any living thing has its sensitive spot. All life can somehow be strangled.
The boy shuffles his feet and kicks a clump of snow. Trees may have necks but they don’t have napes. Trees aren’t humans.
Give me your hand, I beckon towards the bark.
He shrugs. Okay.
I run his fingers over the charcoal black indentations, a clear oval shape and the gnarled ridges above it. These are eyebrows. You can tell a lot about a tree from the shape of its eyebrows.
Huh? The boy tries to laugh, scratches his forehead. Don’t they all look the same— the aspen, I mean?
This one is special, I coax. He has been around long enough to earn respect from local Native American tribes.
He means Indians, the boy says to the girls in a grown-up voice.
The littlest girl jumps back, startled by a series of distant yet powerful firecracker pops.
Don’t worry. It’s just the engineers. Blasting a nearby mountain slope to prevent avalanches.
Oh, she whispers. Her voice is an unshot sparrow. I don’t like guns. I don’t like loud boomy things.
Here, I lift her tiny hand and hold it firmly over the circle. Close your eyes and make a wish. This is a lucky aspen. An aspen that grants wishes.
All wishes? The boy raises a skeptical eyebrow.
Good wishes, I correct. The aspen grants wishes it finds to be good.
Her eyes crinkle into tiny stars as she concentrates— I wish, oh I wish those men would stop bamming things.
The older girl is vehement— You can’t say your wish out loud or it won’t come true! She has read many stories from the bookshelf at home. She knows what can and can’t happen.
I draw my cheeks downwards like a scolded puppy, an expression of regret and sadness. She is right, I acknowledge.
Oh, the little whispers, drawing air between her tiny front teeth. Oh well…
But there is another aspen— an even older and wiser aspen— down the path a little. An aspen that can grant any wish. Even wishes we say aloud.
Has he granted your wishes? the older girl demands.
I nod. He has granted my wishes and many others. It was he who turned me into a lover of aspen.
The boy rubs the trunk’s smoother portion and squints. He likes exploring the woods. It would be nice to learn more about trees from a forester.
Would you like to see it? I ask gently.
Sure, he shrugs. Why not? Trees are cool, I guess.
And so I lead the children past the boulder and the painted marker, deeper into the woods of enchanted, magical trees. The girls follow their brother quietly, footsteps barely deep enough to discern, their breaths inaudible, two dolls wearing earmuffs under wool caps, hands without mittens holding. The simplest is the sweetness.
Alina Stefanescu is a poet who can't keep her fingers out of fiction. She was born in Romania but lives in Tuscaloosa with four native mammal species. Her story, "White Tennis Shoes", won the 2015 Ryan R. Gibbs Flash Fiction Award, and her poetry chapbook, "Objects In Vases", is forthcoming from Anchor & Plume in the Spring of 2016. You can read her poetry and prose in current issues of PoemMemoirStory, Tinge Magazine, Jellyfish Review, New Delta Review, and others. More online at www.alinastefanescu.com.