Next morning, the debris from the storm was everywhere. Great clods of dirt lay scattered across the footpath, like burrs from an old carpet. Broken branches lay torn on the grass: small clumps of leaves, green as pennants, left behind after a stampede. Huddled along the edges, the puddles trembled, heartbroken. Afraid of being stepped on.
It was too early in the morning to know whether it was cloudy, still that grey hour of twilight when the sky itself seems faded. He had woken early. He hadn't been sleeping well. There was a chill in the air left over from the storm, as clear as a fingerprint on glass. He felt it shiver its way under his thin T-shirt. He braced himself against it, feeling himself sharpened by the sensation. Feeling more alive.
He was about to turn and go back into the house when he saw what the storm had done to the tree. One of the great boughs, the one that used to extend lazily over the lawn, had broken, and its fall had taken most of that side of the tree down with it. The other side, the one facing the road, had suffered too, the wind had torn most of the leaves from it, leaving it with a shaven, emaciated look. It was as if the winds, looking for a scapegoat, had chosen to vent their frustration on his tree, tearing it to shreds. It was terrible. Other trees along the road had been damaged too, but none this badly. Why had his tree been singled out?
Standing there, staring at the ruin of the tree, he felt a vague impulse to cry. He'd always loved that tree. It was the reason he'd taken this place. Oh, he'd gone over the house with the property agent, staring blankly at the long french windows, turning the taps in the bathroom on and off, but with the first sight of the tree he'd already made up his mind. The tree reminded him of a painting he knew he'd seen, but couldn't now remember. The instant he set eyes on the tree, he could picture himself lying under it, in the cool shade of a long Spring afternoon, reading, or scribbling away in his notebook. Times were good then, his second book had just come out, money was no object. But he had had qualms about moving out to the suburbs, having lived all his life in one apartment or the other. It was the tree that had made him decide to take the plunge.
Still devastated by what had happened to the tree, he went back into the house, wanting to tell someone about it, needing the sympathy. Only there was no one there, of course. As he stepped into the relative darkness of the kitchen he had to remind himself of that. The door slammed behind him. He walked over to the coffee machine, poured himself some of yesterday's coffee. Stood there watching as the cup turned round and round in the microwave. Then sat at the table, letting the coffee grow cold again, too tired to lift it upto his lips to drink.
After a while he thought to himself - it's probably for the best. She would never have understood anyway, she was always saying she didn't know what the big deal about the tree was. If she'd still been here they would have had lunch plans with someone or the other. There would have been a fuss when he said that he wasn't going to go, that he needed to get the garden back in shape. All the old recriminations would have started. And even if there wasn't something planned he would have had to go through the formalities. Come in for lunch. Sit at the table. Make conversation. Never mind that he had work to get done. No. It was better this way.
Swigging down his barely tepid coffee in great thirsty gulps, he opened the refrigerator, pulled out bread, salsa, a hunk of cheese. The cheese looked like it might be getting mouldy. He wondered how long it had been in there. Why take a risk? He cut the cheese in smooth, even slices, until it was all gone. The last slice he doubled and then doubled again and popped into his mouth. Five slices. Too much. Oh, well. He'd just make the sandwiches now and eat what was left for dinner. He spread liberal amounts of salsa on the bread, then made sandwiches with the cheese, wrapping them all up in a large cloth. He heated what was left off the coffee and poured into a thermos. He was ready.
Out in the garden again (a hint of pale sunlight now, wan as a smile), he placed the coffee and sandwiches a little way from the tree, then went around the back to the shed and got himself some tools. Carefully, he raked the area around the tree clear of fallen leaves, then pruned away the branches from which all the leaves had been stripped. Then, bringing out his ladder, he carefully lifted the fallen bough back into place. This was hard, because the bough was heavy and he was working alone. He had to use all the strength that he could muster, the sweat was pouring off him. Balancing the bough with his shoulder he tied it back in place with a rope. Then he tried letting go of the weight. No, that wouldn't hold.
Leaving the branch balanced precariously at the tree's side, he went back into the tool shed, fetched a couple of brackets. These he hammered into the tree, using them to fix the bough in place. Yes, that would do. He stepped back to survey his morning's work. It didn't look too bad. The brackets and the rope were clearly visible, of course, but that was probably because he was looking so carefully - a casual observer might not notice. And the tree still looked denuded, but at least the basic shape was right, and the outflung bough, returned to its rightful position, was casting its usual shadow on the lawn.
He knew it wouldn't last. He knew you can't grow a tree back that way. He knew the right thing for him to do would be to take down the bough and strip away all the other dying branches and get rid of them all. Only then there wouldn't be much of a tree left, and he would have to borrow a chainsaw from his neighbour and cut the whole tree down because it would have become too painful to look at. And without the tree he would have no reason to stay, and he would have to move back to the city and his summer would be over forever. And he didn't want that. Not yet.
And besides, he seemed to remember something about grafting the stem of a flower onto another. If it worked for flowers, why not for trees? Who could say what would happen if he fixed the branch back like that. Had anyone ever tried? Maybe it would start to grow again, maybe the tree would heal and be as good as new. Who could tell?
Exhausted, he went over to grab his lunch. But the ants had got to his sandwiches first.