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By Chris Morgan

1

Fifty-year-olds don’t climb trees. They don’t trespass either, although it was a question whether I was actually trespassing. Hadn’t I gone to school here? Wasn’t this my church once, back when I believed in churches? I grasped the forked branch above me and used it to drag myself a few more inches along the rough limb I was straddling. A little closer to the sky. A little closer to the past. My god, it had to be ninety-five degrees out here. Rivers of perspiration seemed to be leaping from every pore. I craned my neck. I squinted through a dapple of bronze leaves. ?

"Cherry" by Jesse Barker via Flickr (Creative Commons)

“Cherry” by Jesse Barker via Flickr (CC)

Could I be seen from the rectory windows, a middle-aged stranger halfway up the ancient cherry tree in the gardens bordering the river? To an onlooker I might be mistaken for a farm animal attempting an acrobatic routine, something between high comedy and cause for alarm. I was covered with bark and crushed leaves, my clothes stained with the juice of overripe fruit. Bloody pits and cherry skins adhered to my pinstriped oxford like the remnants of popped blisters. One of my tasseled loafers had fallen away. I could see it listing softly in the grass far below, a whisper of cordovan. My torn sock sagged, threatening a similar dive.

It wasn’t like this when we were boys. Back then Weston Grapnel and I rode our bikes to the boatyard at the end of Queen Anne Street and pretended to check the pilings for blue crabs, all the while gawking in reverential wonder at the older girls who regularly sunbathed on the floating docks. But our mission wasn’t gawking. Our real mission was the cherry tree? — the one that grew at the edge of the rectory gardens that bordered Queen Anne Street by the river. When no one was looking you scaled the chain-link fence and stepped off into its low branches. Even from that medium height you could see the plumped fruit dangling against the sky. It was June. School was out. Summer vacation lay before us like a field of warm light. We were drunk on that light. Drunk on the prospect of forbidden fruit, just out of reach.

Father Ralph positioned Weston and me on either side of the life-size crucifix like the two thieves we were destined to become.

There were dangers of course. Like the fence, spiked on top with rusty barbs that swayed precariously underfoot. Brother Micah, who taught us Latin and tended the rectory gardens, was forever on the lookout for trespassers. And there were Brother Micah’s German Shepherds, Moses and Aaron, patrolling the borders of the gardens as if the interior were a private stalag they’d been personally assigned to defend. The dogs were monstrous and lean as wolves and fang-toothed. Big Andy once said that Moses and Aaron could spot a black flea crossing the church property line under cover of darkness. More than once I’d seen the pair of them break out of the boxwood hedge on the far side of the gardens and cover the distance to the Queen Anne fence in fewer than ten seconds. They never slowed down either, just launched up slathering with their fangs bared to snag your clothes, hoping to drag you back and devour you whole, right there in broad daylight.

Before Weston and I discovered the cherry tree none of us ventured into the rectory gardens. Not for love or money. Not even for baseballs fouled over the fence. Every once in a while on a summer afternoon as we slumped against the backstop behind the school smoking somebody’s mother’s cigarettes one of us would throw down a dare. Five bucks to whoever touches Disco Jesus. Disco Jesus was the name of the statue at the center of the rectory gardens depicting the Savior with his legs slightly bent, his one arm downturned and his opposite index thrusting skyward. His face had this dreamy look, as if maybe he were busting a move at Studio 54 with the Apostles. Everybody chuckled softly at the dare, then looked away.

“Fucking insane,” Big Andy said dismissively. Big Andy was the alpha of our scrawny pack, with hair on his legs and the beginnings of what were sure to become full-blown pork chop sideburns by the time we returned to school in September. He was the only one among us with a swing big enough to hit a baseball clear over the parking lot and onto the school roof. He bandied certain words with a heady nonchalance. Big Andy dropped F-bombs into the most unsuspecting sentences. If Andy said that a particular dare was fucking insane, the matter was settled. Each of us let out a private little sigh of relief, then choked down another drag on the lit cigarette dangling at a jaunty angle from his lower lip.

2

Once a year a few of us did actually stand inside the rectory gardens. You had to be selected by Father Ralph who was in charge of the altar boys. Every February Father Ralph chose four altar boys to serve the Easter Vigil in the gardens. Along with Midnight Mass at Christmas, selection to the Easter Vigil was the gold standard by which altar boys judged one another. Only the best boys got picked. You wore a crimson cassock signifying the passion of Jesus and a white surplus your mother washed and starched about a thousand times, threatening a ban on summer baseball if you got it dirty on the way to church. Easter Vigil offered a fully sanctioned, canine-free glimpse of the forbidden rectory gardens. Which is exactly how Weston and I got our start as trespassers and fruit thieves.

?It happened during the veneration of the cross. Father Ralph positioned Weston and me on either side of the life-size crucifix like the two thieves we were destined to become. As the congregation filed forward with bowed heads, our job was to take turns wiping the kissed feet of Jesus with little linen cloths. It was April. The gardens were an emerald sea twinkling in spring light. From up on the hill beside the little graveyard full of dead priests I could see over the raised hand of Disco Jesus to where sailboats were skimming the blue river. The air was like a bell that day, so clear you could see across the widest part of the bay to vivid little trees and beaches on Eastern Neck. Which is how I missed a few swipes on the feet of Jesus that must have been getting mucked with slobber because Weston reached over and nudged me hard in the ribs so that my head jerked around. That’s when I spotted the cherry tree.

It stood alone in majesty, flush against the fence at the bottom of Queen Anne Hill. Its branches tapered like the arms of girls, flaming at their ends with delicate torches of ivory bloom. When the wind eddied sunlight scintillated through the burnished copper leaves until the entire tree seemed to be gently undulating before my eyes. In those moments the cherry tree burned like a golden monstrance in the sun, a shivering fountain in the Easter breeze. As if this were somehow the Tree of Trees, the Cherry King, a Saving Tree.

It seems strange to me all these years later, but I’m certain that was a moment of prescience in which the future came haunting. I knew things in that moment, as if they were preordained. Like how Weston would be lost to me. Or how when we were seventeen in the pouring rain Maddie Roanoke would park her father’s maroon Skylark at the end of Queen Anne Street under the February branches of the cherry tree and take off her dress to save my life. How my hands would tangle in her strawberry hair.?

I couldn’t have known any this of course. And yet that day in the gardens at the foot of the cross I felt that I did know them in some vague but certain way. Like when you look up and see the moon in the middle of the day. Then I heard Father Ralph clearing his throat and Weston administered a more substantial blow to my ribs. But the damage was done. Inexorably a kind of destiny had slipped into place. Machinery was at work that could not be stopped.

3

I was seriously reconsidering the wisdom of my pilgrimage. What was I doing anyway? I’d made the journey out from the city in stifling traffic with the simple intention of seeing whether the cherry tree was still there, not to scale a fence and risk my life wobbling on branches better suited to birds and boys. It was the thirty-fifth anniversary of Weston’s death. I’d driven out because I was trying still to make sense of something. I was trying to remember something. But I wasn’t making sense. My lower back was beginning to twitch in that serious, you-may-not-get-out-of-this-tree-under-your-own-power sort of way. My face was bloodied too. I’d resorted to using my forehead to help lever the weight of my midsection as I writhed skyward in the manner of a slug. It was never like this I thought. I wanted to laugh out loud at the self-inflicted gunshot wound to my pride. I had this irresistible inclination to lift my bruised chin and howl my embarrassment into the June sky.

I didn’t though. I couldn’t. Mostly because I sensed that if I let myself go at that particular moment my laughter might translate itself into uncontrollable wailing and sobs, a scenario that, given my present visual effect on passing strangers, could easily lead to arrest and incarceration. That and I heard thunder. The day was still bright with a kind of searing violence, but the sky was beginning to appear bruised in places out over the water toward the west. I’m sure I heard a low growl on the horizon. I buckled down. I pressed my bloody forehead into the rough bark. I reached for what I hoped would be a solid branch. I lifted with the whole remainder of my quivering, middle-aged might.

I didn’t slither back then. Back then I stood straight as a Masai warrior with his spear in the highest branches of this very tree. Back then I was a thin brown arrow of light, barefooted and stripped to the waist. At least that’s how Weston always appeared to me? — this majestic presence rippling in light as I watched him from the ground. He shone regal and serene, as if naturally he lived there, high up among birds and clouds. So powerful and free that at any moment he might decide to lift up and fly away over the river out of all sight.

4

There’s a very particular science to stealing cherries from the rectory gardens. The climber has to scale the chain-link fence and step nimbly into the swaying branches of the tree. Safely perched, he scans the gardens for Brother Micah, for Moses and Aaron. Then the climber signals all clear with a wave or gives a warning with a gesture like cutting his throat. On the all clear and quick as a jaguar the boy on the ground scales the fence and drops down into enemy territory on the opposite side. Simultaneously the climber moves up and out, onto a selected branch, and commences bouncing like a wild baboon with his hands and feet until fruit rains like red manna from heaven. Pelted furiously from above, the ground-boy darts about gathering the harvest, careful not to trample its precious blood.

All this is undertaken in great seriousness and not without a certain intestinal trepidation. Because in the midst of their machinations the raiders remain keenly aware that what hangs in the balance is nothing less than the life of that boy on the ground. Keeping a lookout for the canine blitzkrieg, the climber selects the next laden branch and again thrashes the fruit from its tender grasp, taking care not to snap a branch underfoot and plummet to his own death.

Weston and I were fairly certain that Brother Micah knew what was going on at the edge of the church property each June. We were likewise convinced that on the day he looked out from one of the high rectory windows and spotted a ruckus of leaves in the top of the old cherry tree he wouldn’t hesitate to send Moses and Aaron on a Special Operations mission to eliminate two pesky schoolboys.

There’s a little miracle you have to perform at the end. The climber gingerly descends on trembling legs as the boy on the ground lifts his shirt to make a kind of hammock that swaddles the fruit. He clenches the shirt hem between his teeth. Cradling the delicate contraband in this way he scales the fence a second time, straddles the rusted barbs at its summit, lowers himself down the other side. All this with utmost care, urged on by his partner with more or less urgency, depending on Brother Micah and the canine reconnaissance.

Mostly we got away clean on bikes, pedaling hard up Queen Anne and past old Mrs. Brinkman who always stood up from her rocking chair on the porch to say how she’d seen what we’d done, and did we know it was a sin, and how she planned to tell our parents.

“The reckoning will come,” she crackled in her eggshell voice, wagging the crooked finger of doom. Just like her frail words stray cherries trickled and bounced off the summer road behind us as we fled. We always waved to Mrs. Brinkman as we sped past, smiling and laughing, dreaming of the feast.

5

The sky was definitely darker now. The wind was gusting up. Improbable as it was, I discovered myself high up, actually standing on a slender branch. It was June and late afternoon, thirty-five years gone. Despite the ravening heat and the impending storm I stood there erect and immovable, beaming in triumph, as if from the summit of my own private Everest. I was taking in the view over the river and thinking of Weston and of Maddie Roanoke again.

Mad Maddie we used to call her, because she was the only girl game for whatever mischief we devised, like jumping from the top span of Bates Bridge or sailing Weston’s old dinghy across Whitehall Bay through the shipping channel to Eastern Neck and back without telling our parents, arriving home long after dark with our lie sealed in a blood pact. Maddie lived with her older parents exactly halfway between my house and Weston’s. She loved Weston best. I always knew that. Not in a girl’s changeable way either. It always seemed to me that at some point during middle school Maddie Roanoke had made a decision about Weston. Following seventh grade she quietly joined our group. She held her own too, but Weston she loved. And who could blame her? How could she have known?

It was Maddie who spotted Weston at the bottom of the deep end of the county pool the summer we turned sixteen. A faded brown blur rippling peaceably against the chalk-white floor of the pool. A towel maybe or a boy. We never knew what happened. Weston was a strong swimmer. Shallow Water Blackout is what they said in the end. Hypoxia to the brain. When the lifeguard finally surfaced with him Weston’s puffy face was blue as woodsmoke. His long hair lay plastered over his eyes. We helped to hoist him onto the pool deck and Maddie stepped forward and carefully pushed the hair back from his eyes with her lightly freckled hand, as if that were the most urgent thing that needed to be done. She wasn’t crying. None of us were. We just stood there looking at Weston where he hung like a sack of spent life in the arms of the lifeguard who was shouting something from out of his very red face, the veins popped in his wrinkled forehead. You couldn’t hear the shouting though. It was all wonderfully silent, as if Weston and I were waving to each other underwater.

Father Ralph asked me to be an altar boy at the funeral and my mother said yes, even though I was too old for it by then. As I left the house to walk the two blocks to church my mother looked at me. She called my name.

“Your hair is too long,” she said in a voice I didn’t recognize. When I didn’t answer she rushed through to the front hall and embraced me suddenly, sobbing into my neck as if she’d just lost her own best friend. I wasn’t sad or even angry though. I couldn’t feel much at all. The oppressive heat that day must have gone to my heart.

I don’t remember much about the funeral either. There was a mass and Father Ralph gave a sermon about heavenly rewards for those taken young. Afterward we went to the burial site where everyone sweated and cried to beat the band and then we drove to the reception at Weston’s house on Delaney Street. It was an old ramshackle creek house with a weeping willow in the front yard. Weston’s dog, Toggler, liked to nap in the cool dirt under the tree but he wasn’t there when I arrived. It seemed strange to me that Weston wasn’t around for the reception. I kept expecting him to come bundling down the stairs and into the front hall the way he always did, taking them two at a time in his bare feet, all in a happy lather to go fishing or practice pop flies.

I stood among the guests in the tiny front room like a frozen island all to myself. My ears felt full of cotton, as if I were underwater still. That was the game we always played during those long summers at the pool. A pair of us would jump in feet first and stand on the bottom of the deep end facing each other. When the bubbles cleared one of us would say a word or a phrase to the other, something like blue velvet beetle or jimmy crabs in a bushel basket. Then we’d surface together and the listener would report what he’d heard to an appointed judge who knew the phrase beforehand. This went on endlessly with us. Talking underwater is just like a language you have to learn. The summer Weston died we’d been banned as partners by the others under the accusation we were somehow cheating. We weren’t though. We just shared the language of water.

Later I wandered out into the backyard away from the others and found Toggler hiding under the stairs and got him to play for a while. We were having a little tug of war with a stick when Maddie appeared. I was telling Toggler how I’d be happy to do all the things with him that Weston used to do when someone touched the back of my neck. I turned around and there was Maddie in a blue dress with her hair loose at her shoulders instead of put up in the way it usually was. She was wearing a necklace with a white elephant at the center that looked to be carved from bone. She was holding a can of beer.

“Let’s drink this together,” she said. She opened the can with her hands that were small but surprisingly strong and took a sip of the beer and handed it to me. We sat in the grass and shared the beer together without talking much. When it was finished she went off for a few minutes and returned with another. After a while Maddie set the beer down and pushed me backwards into the grass and lay down on top of me and kissed me on the mouth. She kept on kissing me too and I did my best to kiss her back. She was crying a little while we kissed and I put my arms around her and felt the curve that made her waist and then her strong, slender back and her softer chest gently crushing at my chest. I remember her hair smelled faintly of pears. For a second I felt sure that all this had happened before, or at least that I knew it would happen, and I wasn’t surprised by any of it. Maddie felt warm and safe to me, like shelter. Afterward the two of us sat there in the grass together with Toggler and talked about things that didn’t really mean much except they made us feel like we were going ahead somehow in a normal way, even with Weston gone off on his own and not coming back.

6

The storm swooped in from the west like some vast bird. On the river the white hulls of sailboats gleamed. Their halyards thunked and clanked in the wind and the leaves surrounding me began to turn over so that their undersides flicked like silver coins against the coal sky. Then, at the last minute, just before the storm broke, the air turned frigid. To steady myself I grasped hold of a branch with either hand so that my arms were spread wide. I wedged my feet into a crotch in the branch I was standing on as the whole tree began to sway deeply back and forth and up and down in the wind and I gave myself to the swaying branches as if I were one of them.

When the rain arrived it lashed me, stinging my skin, working its pins at my eyelids and inside my ears. Torrential waters plunged under my collar and ran down my pants, turning my clothes heavy, pasting my hair across my eyes. I was laughing though. I laughed and laughed and let the wind and the icy rain do what they had come to do. I was shouting things too. I remember whooping at the thunder and the lightning strikes and at the squalling waves breaking in snowcaps on the river. This is what I came here for, I thought. And I was here finally, with a strange lightness being born in me.

In those final moments I suffered a vision of faces like a sun-blotched film sequence of my lost life — bespectacled Brother Micah and the magnificent Moses and Aaron; old Mrs. Brinkman’s hawk face set with the little blue stones of her eyes; the blunt face of Big Andy, lord of our pre-adolescent band, frozen to death some twenty years ago now on a mountain in New Hampshire. Those faces came in pops and blips and then the film slowed and there was Maddie who once saved my life from setting into deadly grief. Maddie who left me for California a couple of years later and three years after that was discovered drowned at Pfeiffer Beach, her rose-and-freckle body delicately swaddled in lavender sand. And then the film stuttered and further slowed and there was Weston. Maddie’s Weston. Mine too. Weston who once stood high in these same branches, a warrior-king gazing down on me with his crooked grin, then away off to the horizon as if he were surveying the Cherry Kingdoms of the world or heard a voice calling that might be irresistible.

The miracle of those faces cracked with loss was coming to rest in me finally. A thing I’d been trying to give away for thirty-five years. The past took me up roughly and flung me down, shattering my death-grip, so that I became a very small thing. I stood there snagged in the high branches of a tree in a storm and was suddenly alone and vulnerable and free. Just the breathing fleck of a life beating back and forth in time between the dark earth and the cruel sky, my heart broken open so many times that it could no longer close itself. Opened now wide enough for gratitude to perch in its shelter like a tiny wren and flap off the rain. Who knows, maybe stay and build a nest. Maybe even sing.

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About Chris Morgan

Chris Morgan’s writing has appeared in a variety of magazines and literary journals, including Nowhere Magazine, North Carolina Literary Review, Red Wheelbarrow, and Potomac Review.

Chris’s story, "Pablo Neruda and the Caffeinated Madness of Love," recently won the TulipTree Stories that Need to Be Told Contest (passion category). His work has also been selected for Nowhere Magazine's Print Annual for best works of the previous year, earned honorable mention in the Glimmer Train Family Matters Competition, and been named as a semi-finalist for Gulf Stream Magazine's John Dufresne Creative Non-Fiction Award.

Chris has a Ph.D. in Poetry from the University of Wales. He's currently a student in the Johns Hopkins MA in Fiction Writing Program where he's working on a collection of short stories. You can check out his website at www.jchristophermorgan.com.

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