CARTER & CLAIRE
They were yelling at a man to come down from the tree, Carter and Claire were. The autumn was not yet fully realized, but this tree had spent itself out already, perhaps years ago. They were beginning to grow frustrated with him in equal measure as they understood what serious danger he was in, because they felt responsible for him, being the only ones around; but he would not listen, and he was apparently quite drunk up there. He’d climbed up with a bottle of wine and a pack of cigarettes, and every now and then—after every few drags of a cigarette, it seemed like—he took a drink and went up a little bit higher. Now he was so high up that the branches had gotten thin, and he was shifting often to find a sturdier way to sit but swaying nonetheless; and nonetheless he continued drinking the wine and smoking the cigarettes. He’d even begun pretending he could not hear Carter or Claire shouting down there, in the park by the river. Well, one nasty gust of wind finally panicked the man—who was wearing jeans, and an olive jacket, and who had not shaved for some time—so that he abandoned his bottle of wine in keeping his balance. It fell for a long time, so that he looked down at the two standing there, with their hands cupped around their mouths shouting, with a bit of fear in his face all of a sudden, maybe realizing at last how high up he was. Another strong wind (the sky had begun to turn dark purple) shook the tree as he was beginning to make his way down, and he slipped, and a branch under his right foot cracked, and he fell fifty or sixty feet, cracking a couple more dead branches on the way down. He did not shout or even groan as he plummeted. He hit the ground hard with his back and a lit cigarette bounced off his ear. Claire had screamed, and was perhaps scarred, or was at least prematurely anxious with the thought that this might leave her scarred—but Carter felt otherwise. It was not funny enough to laugh about, nor sad enough, tragic enough, or scary enough to be otherwise affected by. He felt very little, but in such a strong way that he did not wish to pretend he did, even at the cost of appearing heartless. As they waited for the police, Claire was silent, praying and trying to make sense of the event, and Carter was silent with curiosity. After the police arrived, the couple went back to their apartment, and they lay together on the couch and talked about the young man who had fallen from the tree.
“Maybe he had an emotional disorder,” Carter said, with Claire’s cheek on his shoulder, unable to prevent her long brown hair from tickling his nose despite repeated attempts to flatten it before again resting his cheek upon her head.
“Maybe he was so lonely,” Claire said, beginning to cry.
“Maybe there was nobody there for him, and he lost his mind.” She was thinking of the expression stuck on his face after he had fallen, which was one of drunken stupidity. It was the face of one in the act of desperately trying to understand. His death was vulgar, idiotic, and laughable, none of which things death ought to be; or so we tell ourselves. She cried more, crying under the imagined weight of twenty or twenty-two years of utter loneliness. She imagined that the man had no family; he’d grown up in an orphanage, and, though he had been adopted twice, he was also returned twice.
“Maybe,” said Carter, already knowing that he should not have, “if he didn’t have an audience, he would not have gone up so high.” Claire’s eyes got wide, and her breath stopped. “I just mean, sometimes it’s about the attention.” And then, when Claire still said nothing, he began to backpedal. “But maybe I’m exactly wrong. Because God put us in the park today at just the right time to see him go up the tree, right? And anyway, it went just as it went, and there’s no changing it now. It was God’s will.”
In fact, one thing that baffled them both, though neither was aware of it sufficiently to consciously call it into conversation, was why God had put them there to see it. When Carter got a phone call letting him know that he did not get the job he’d interviewed for, that he’d desired with all his heart, he was hurt—yet it was easy for him to suspend his longing into God, and trust that there were better things waiting. But what is one to do with such an experience as this? Failure is for learning, suffering deepens one, and makes one more empathetic, a deficit in natural ability breeds a good work ethic, etc. Watching a man fall from a tree did not seem to serve any pragmatic or spiritual purpose whatsoever.
But what was most stunning, for Claire and Carter both, was that life could be so strange. Things like this didn’t happen frequently; and maybe part of the strangeness of it was that, afterwards, it suddenly seems like the sort of thing that should happen frequently, given the pure chaos of life, and the further, and exponentially worse, chaos of the human heart.
One expects far more murder than there is, more drunken men climbing trees, and, come to think of it, folks just dropping to hands and knees and screaming until their throats are broken. It is so rare that men live in caves, and howl, and cut themselves with stones. How strange, that none of this ever seemed to happen!
But they sat together, holding one another but thinking quietly to themselves, almost unaware that they had not shared audible words for quite a long time, until they fell asleep on the couch.
Carter wrote about it before Claire, who always slept too much, had woken up. At some point, Carter did not remember, they had gotten up and gone to bed. Sitting in the living room, he wrote first in his journal: “Watched a man fall from a tree to his death.” However, not knowing what to write beyond this one sentence, he then labored over a separate scrap of paper:
This shall be my home. It shall be dead here.
I shall carve out the trunk of this dead tree,
And sleep, among the sleepy centipedes.
I shall make of it a barren place, and sere.
I too was with the fallen host, and fell,
But neither have I fealty to hell;
All I desire is stillness without sound;
Therefore shall I this little dwelling found.
Should any man or any beast come near,
I’ll put it in his mind to climb my tree;
I’ll fill his head with little centipedes,
That he should climb up high, and without fear.
My house, be thou a candle, burning tall;
Thy flame shall rise up, and thy soot shall fall.
I do not long to kill, but quietly sleep;
But times it’s needed, for this quiet to keep.
This has been my home. It is dead here.
I live inside the trunk of this dead tree,
And sleep, among the sleepy centipedes;
So I have lived a thousand thousand years.
Then Carter wrote in his journal again. He quickly finished up, when he heard Claire moving around in their room. Claire watched him shut his journal and put it in a drawer, exchanging it for his Bible. He looked up at her and, with a strange, almost electric impulse, he said: “We saw a man die!”
She had briefly forgotten. Sleepy like a steady wind in a yellowing tree, she had briefly forgotten yesterday. But now she made a serious face: her mouth moved toward her left cheek, and with an angry brow and distant, thoughtful eyes, she watched the floor. “I wonder if they will do a news story about it,” she said, and then laid across Carter in a slump.
“Want to read a poem about it?” he said.
“When did you get up?” she said, taking the paper from his hand.
“Maybe at 5. It was dark still. You slept a lot.”
He waited for her to read the poem. She always did the same thing when she read a poem: she said something like, “wow, that’s very beautiful.” And then she quickly spoke of some very earthly thing. She was never ashamed of her disingenuous reply, and Carter liked that she shamelessly pretended, to make him feel good.
“Carter, it’s such a good poem. Maybe I can paint something, too.” She slumped further, her legs on Carter’s lap, and gave him back the paper. She did not spend enough time reading it, he thought, to have enjoyed it.
“It would be good for you to do so,” Carter said, fondling a sock. “How do you feel?”
“Alright. It is just so strange. I feel curious—I want to know about him.”
“Me too. But, for now, let’s read.”
Carter began reading the Book of Jeremiah aloud, and Claire listened. Later, Claire read Jeremiah aloud, while Carter listened.
Carter had once, last year, asked Claire to paint a boy, laughing so hard that he could not throw the rotten peach that he was attempting to throw; his face had to be contorted with laughter that approached suffering. She first objected that it was not possible, but nonetheless did it marvelously well, with marvelous fall colors behind him. It was his favorite painting in the world, and he hung it in his room. He wrote a poem about it, and explained to Claire what ekphrasis was.
As she painted this afternoon, a great dead tree under a sky half grey, and the man from yesterday, tiny all the way up in the tree, with his head bent toward the earth, Carter asked her to split the trunk of the tree somewhat, and put a barely visible toe sticking out of it, so that only they would even understand what it was. In the end, they were quite happy with the painting. The positioning of the man, and the somehow wind-tormented branches (Carter considered Claire a virtuoso) had a feeling of inevitability—made one feel what the man in the tree must certainly have felt, for a moment: that he had been conned; that there would be no climb down. He had gone too high. Perhaps it was like the feeling of one who, having already taken measures to end his or her life, remembers that life is sweet—yet it was only by virtue of being already too late that the realization came at all.
It is a superficial view of things, to aver that life is mostly suffering, and that suffering is bad, and so life is bad. Suffering does not infinitely endure, and the return from it can be so much more wonderful than anything else in life. A plunge into icy water is exhilarating, for instance. And so are those sublime moments, wherein the burdens of life weigh with such excessive, unbearable weight upon one, that one begins laughing in a way that may frighten others. While Claire read to him, Carter, not listening, agreed with himself that though his troubles came back to him again and again, the same old sufferings, the same aches of the heart,—that at least this meant they were his sufferings, destined for him, and that anyway, nothing is sweeter than casting it all off now and then. And who would have a life without trouble? What short-sightedness, to contend that life is not worthwhile. I spoke to a man once who, having been set ablaze in an apartment fire and had his face scorched and mangled by it, wallowed in an all-swallowing depression for months, looking in the mirror only to torture himself. Then, he said, at last, and for no reason at all, he laughed until it ached; and he bought a paper bag of plums; and he sat on a great big stone and laughed and ate his plums, one by one, throwing them away half-eaten or a quarter-eaten, if he felt like it, chattering at the squirrels and chipmunks and insects. He thanked God for scorching his face. That is the sweetness of life. Give me months of wretched wallowing, and a single afternoon free of it; and then give it to me again! You will understand me when I say that I have often wrestled with the reckless urge to be scorched in an apartment fire.
Lem Wilson is a graduate student of physics at the University of Michigan. She has been published in university presses such as the Michigan Quarterly and the Wayne Literary Review. This story is from her forthcoming collection of short stories, Dearborners.