Evening had arrived for the forest. The time of year when autumn became a tangible emotion. This summoned recollections out of the gloom, influencing those with inward inclinations. In the slowly cooling air, autumn vespers whispered through changed leaves. Nests in the trees had been, or would soon be abandoned. The leaves would fall, there on the border of two habitats where the estate ended and the forest proper began, as the beach to the sea.
A feral tomcat ranged in those woods. He had seen it a few times at dusk or at dawn. Sometimes, when he looked out of the kitchen window while he made dinner or breakfast, or as he worked in the yard, he would picture a starling in its jaws, or perhaps a vole. At his age, he felt reconciled to the audience of life, having been caretaker there on Ms. Pons’ estate for many years.
Things set off his emotions lately, so his chores and errands, observing the nuances of the old house and of the woods, having his gaze turned outwards had taken on a new aspect, as welcome padding against the paroxysms of past regrets. There was of course no future in his memories; but he knew living in the past would cause him only to wither away.
The woods around the house, and its moods, were another distraction in a life of small diversions. That was his job, taking care of this and that, the yard, house, things that came up or fell down, and of course Ms. Pons, and her health. Wynston’s days followed a regular routine. After changing and feeding Ms. Pons, he brushed what was left of her beautiful silver hair with her favorite hairbrush. Then, having made sure she was comfortable, he went about his chores. He listened for the bell she would ring if he were needed all the while. She slept so much recently.
In the bedroom, as Ms. Pons’ illness gained momentum, the goings on in the yard and around the house became small talk, a pastime; she almost never left her bed. It had been her idea to put food out for the cat, to befriend it. She had a theory that maybe it had a resting place in the tool shed. Indeed, it had taken to eating the food put out for it, or so they thought, although it was never seen, but what else would leave gifts by the food bowl? Little dead things. Ms. Pons was a patroness to all living creatures.
Fatalism was Wynston’s constant companion. So it was not her physical deterioration that particularly upset him; rather, it was her mental decline as of late. He always made distracting small talk as he helped her get ready for bed, necessity having long ago trumped modesty. If her memory drifted, he was usually able to nudge her back into the harbor of their little conversations. More and more frequently, however, she remained out to sea, rambling and waving her arms in slow motion hysterics. It wasn’t like her. Wynston often had difficulty calming her down. She would tire herself into fitful sleep.
Her episodes continued nightly, and though her doctor seemed to think it was the onset of dementia, Wynston wasn’t so sure; instinct told him otherwise. Dr. Blazek, being a man of science, only laughed at Wynston’s misgivings.
Wynston stood at his bedroom window, concerned after yet another difficult evening. He watched the sylvan sunset’s dull colors fade. In the wan early October light that numbed contrast, Wynston noticed, against his transparent reflection in the window, a dark smudge on the glass. He licked his thumb and tried to smear it away. He was surprised to realize it was not a smudge on the window at all, as it shook slightly in the wind. Odd. That was the tree he liked best, that old diseased oak, covered from trunk to crown in burls and warty growths. Wynston marveled that a tree like that could live for hundreds of years. It just hung on and on in gnarled resistance to time. He squinted out of his window; was it a squirrel’s nest, bird’s nest? No. After a moment he decided that it must be a trash bag caught in its branches. Annoyed somehow by the blot in the tree, he turned away from the window. Hanging his head, he looked down at his hands, speckled with age spots. He rubbed at them distractedly. Solar lentigines, Ms. Pons’ doctor called them. Eyesores everywhere, thought Wynston.
The following morning, Wynston lay in bed awake, listening to the wind rattle his window. He rolled his bulk onto his side and reached one hand over to part the curtain on the morning. Habitually his eyes rested on the woods that began at the near edge of the backyard. The old growth, as always, caught his fancy.
The woods were almost laid bare. They clacked in the gusting winds, yet stood resolute. Their vascular systems slowed. As autumn declined towards winter, sap thickened in their arteries. A good cloudburst would shake the last leaves from the branches. They hung on by the skin of their teeth; in their blindness, they would think their fall was flight when they finally let go. The skein of tangled branches against the sky stood in stark contrast to the pastoral reason of the yard. He sat up and swung his feet off of the bed, sleepily gazing. What on earth was that bothersome thing hanging from its branches? As he wondered, his foot searched for an errant slipper, which had slipped further under the bed with his attempts, like a hand-shy dog. Wincing, he got down on all fours to search under the bed and retrieved it. His room on the second floor, where he now squatted stiffly, feeling blindly under his bed, had a quiet, slightly monastic air. Few possessions, clothes neatly folded, things had their place.
His hobby was to gather his thoughts. People were difficult for him, he felt best when left alone. He had accepted his station, and he felt a sense of contentment when digging in the dirt of the garden, and satisfaction when resolving the myriad chores that presented themselves. Wynston spent his evenings quietly, reading about gardening, or sometimes watching a nature show on television.
Wynston felt most people in their hearts don’t believe a bad seed can bear fruit. Ms. Pons felt differently, and she had given Wynston a chance all those years ago. After his rehabilitation, room, board, and work he enjoyed. He was now a derelict ship, safe in harbor but no longer seaworthy. He tried to keep thoughts like this at bay. The heavy sky. His leg ached. The day would be tepid. The dawn light was pale, and the clouds brooded. The sky was chilled further by a light mist.
People’s minds go to dark places. He recalled how in town no one could fathom why a spinster like her would bring a man like him home. It was succulent enough gossip that she had never married. Wynston was too good to be true. Mild harassment had ensued. Ms. Pons had made a statement about this by, quite visibly, buying a new shotgun in town. Little Ms. Pons toting that big ole shotgun. The memory still made Wynston smile. She had, at the time, said it was for starlings. The reality was, just the sound of it racking in that big old house would be a deterrent. Never would she bring herself to actually use it. It was her acquiescence to the baseness of so-called civilized people. She was not naive. The shells were kept in a junk drawer, a gesture of her disdain. Church-going people, too.
Within just a few weeks Ms. Pons had taken a visible and distressing turn for the worse. The local doctor had begun to drop by with more frequency. He was considered in town to be a prodigal son returned from his studies in the big city, a stern and serious young man, as befitted his profession. He was their only regular visitor at this point in her illness. Ms. Pons’ friends and colleagues were scattered around the world, and had either passed on or were too old to travel. The regularity of Wynston’s interactions with Dr. Blazek did not, however, make Wynston feel any more comfortable around him.
More machines were appearing in her bedroom. Wynston couldn’t consult Ms. Pons in her current state, so he prayed for her to have a moment of lucidity. He felt bullied, and harried, unsure of the doctor’s motives, sometimes unsure of his own. The doctor always made him feel tongue-tied.
“Wynston, I cannot state this strongly enough,” the doctor would say. “I think Ms. Pons should be under constant professional care at this stage. Some place with the facilities to make her more comfortable.”
Whenever the doctor would reiterate these things, it would anger and confuse Wynston, as Ms. Pons’ stance on this had been made clear to the doctor by Ms. Pons herself when she had been feeling better.
Wynston held his ground for the sake of her wishes, repeating his stock phrases, “She wants to stay in her home. If she is to pass on, she wants to do it in her own bed with dignity. That’s what she always said.”
To which Dr. Blazek would reply by saying some variation of, “Well then, what about a live-in nurse? I just feel you are out of your depth, Wynston, to be honest.”
Wynston would just shake his head no, or turn his back.
“Well, Wynston, my hands are tied. It’s within her rights to stay here,” the doctor would say sadly.
Wynston lived in constant fear that the doctor would try to involve Ms. Pons’ remaining family, who despised him. They had even gone so far as to litigiously contest his right to be in the will, from which he was now excluded. They resented her inheritance of the house. Ms. Pons’ insistence, health issues, and their penny-pinching greed were the reasons Wynston was able to stay on.
Yet, out of a sense of professional conscientiousness, Blazek had taught Wynston how to monitor vitals and insert an IV, and properly administer her prescriptions.
Wynston continued to work throughout this turmoil, preferably outside. One day in the yard, while cleaning up the endless vegetal detritus that the winds deposited, it dawned on Wynston that it wasn’t a plastic bag at all in the tree. He stood at the edge of the yard, leaning on his rake, looking up into the tangle of branches. An oak gall infestation, possibly, but at this time of year that seemed queer. The disease did take on strange goiter-like shapes and discolorations, he knew, but he wasn’t sure. He felt it was a bizarre distortion of nature. Incongruous. A plane bisected the gray sky. Gall, what a fitting sentiment, he reflected. He wasn’t convinced that he was correct. The trees clacked in the gusting wind. A dog barked incessantly in the distance.
The solace he had cultivated in routine over the years was nowhere to be found. The weather wasn’t cooperating either, making for soggy days. He couldn’t stop thinking about the old oak. He convinced himself he was just displacing his anxiety.
It had been a long day, a long week; a long time. Day by day without cease. Maybe a rest would be welcome. Wynston sat heavily onto his bed, which squeaked loudly in protest. He removed his dentures to soak and massaged his bad knee for a few moments, making sure his cane was within reach in case the bell rang in the night. A field guide to the diseases and parasites of trees lay on his bed stand. He drifted to sleep.
Wynston dreamt. He was walking down the coastline of a rocky beach. It was after a storm, the sun shone down in golden rays through the cloudbreak. The green waves crashed and receded in the calming of the seas. He wasn’t limping. He breathed in deeply the salty air. In the near distance, he saw a group of children playing in the spume. As he got closer, he was disturbed to see that they were actually cudgeling something in the surf with sticks. He started to shout, his voice drowned out by the waves. He started to run towards them. Seeing him, they ran off laughing, but not before one of the children turned to him, yelling an obscenity obscured by the wind.
The creature the children had been beating lay in the lapping waves. He had never seen a thing of such beauty. He couldn’t tell, was it alive or dead? Its open eye stared straight through him. Had it fallen from the sky? Had the storm churned it up from the depths? The wings were fins. The fins were wings. He fought with himself, pulling it into shore to try to save it, then pushing it out to sea past the break to set it free.
Emerging from a disturbed sleep, Wynston lay in darkness, listening to the sound of Ms. Pons coughing down the hall. A dream had left him with no memories, only a residual feeling; he hoped he would get back to sleep later. If not, he knew he would carry the lingering weight all day. His past made him the insignificant man he felt he was. Eyes open, he lay still listening, an alarming heaviness on his chest. Realizing he had fallen asleep with a book lying there, he sighed with relief. Turning on the lamp, he noticed the book had fallen open to the description of weeping conk.
Wynston swung stiffly out of bed and reached for his cane, then shuffled down the dimly lit hallway to Ms. Pons’ room to check on her, past the photos of her travels lining the walls. Weeping conk was a disease of the roots. Where were the roots in him? He paused by the door to regard, under the softly glowing hall lamp, a particular photograph of Ms. Pons surrounded by laughing orphans. She seemed to glow in the silver nitrate. She looked so young, so strong. Wynston could never keep the names of all these exotic places where she had worked straight.
As Wynston opened the door he was shocked by a strong draft of cold air. He was startled to see that the Juliet balcony windows had blown open. This never happened, though they were not locked. Rushing over in alarm, he battled briefly with the sheer billowing curtains full of moonlight and securely locked the latch. In his mind’s eye he saw the feral cat looking over its shoulder at him as it paused before entering the forest. He shivered. The room was frigid.
He turned on the lamp. Ms. Pons lay on her side, her back to the door. Her breathing was shallow and rapid. She seemed so small in the tempest of blankets in which she tossed to and fro. A hacking wet cough intermittently inflated her thin nightgown, which was adhered with fever sweat to her bony ribcage, yet her stomach seemed slightly distended. She brought to mind the stunned, shocked gifts of small birds the feral cat would bring to the doorstep, clinging to their last moments. Realizing the seriousness of her condition, Wynston reached immediately for the bedside phone to call Dr. Blazek.
“I’m sho shorry to distub, to disturrb you at thish early hour, Doctor. But Ms. Pons sheems to be in a very bad way! She is fevewish and has a wracking cough.” It was difficult to make himself understood, as he was not wearing his dentures.
“Oh, what’s that? What’s that? Oh yes, hello Wynston, no it’s all right, I understand, is it an emergency? I’ll be there as soon as I can,” replied Blazek. The voice on the on the other end of the line seemed cold.
Wynston sat up with her for the remainder of the night. As the sky lightened through the window, he took a short break to put out fresh food for the tomcat. He anxiously looked down the road for the doctor’s automobile. He sure was taking his time. Then he sat for a moment at the kitchen table contemplating Ms. Pons’s favorite tea set in the glass cabinet, looking, for all its cheer, morose. It was antique bone china, with a motif of blooming roses set against a deep royal blue, with gold filigree. Wynston stood and after a moment’s reflection, put the kettle on. Then he retrieved the tea set and carefully arranged it on the silver tray. Even if she wasn’t well enough to have her tea, he thought, maybe the clinking tray and aroma of tea might comfort her. He found the ritual soothing; the lemon smelled crisp against the dampness. It was something to do. He mused on how tea had grown on him as he clinked up the stairs.
She didn’t like to have her tea alone. Ms. Pons had been amused at how many sugar cubes Wynston would put in his cup. Five. He called them lumps. That made her chuckle. It had been a time for him to catch her up on the state of ongoing projects, and general things.
She would remark humorously, “It’s so strange that a gardener who loves the outdoors doesn’t like the taste of leaves.”
Wynston might reply, “That he was more of a coffee man, but the tea was just fine.”
He sat there, waiting, with the slowly cooling tea. Ms. Pons had Wynston concerned. Wynston found her sleep talking disturbing, such strange animalistic ululations. It reminded him of the helpless cries of the weak prey taken down by predators from nature documentaries, a predator clinging to its back or haunches. He pictured a big cat, a tiger or a panther. Cat eyes. A gazelle. She was so restless, he couldn’t understand how she wasn’t waking herself.
Wynston was distraught by the time Dr. Blazek finally arrived, and was waiting at the door, having heard the doctor’s black sedan turn off of the county road. Wynston tried vainly to rush the doctor up the stairs by walking quickly up ahead of him, despite his stiff knee.
Upstairs, Dr. Blazek deftly unbuttoned his coat with his slender doctor’s hands and sat on the edge of the bed in one smooth motion, wrinkling his nose very slightly at the smell of decay. He began his examination, looking intent. He regarded her down the length of his nose with detached and coolly tinted blue eyes through thick glasses.
“Ms. Pons dear, how are you? How have you been feeling?” he said to her, leaning in, with the slightly forced bedside manner of the socially awkward. He had a habit of swallowing after each statement, his Adam’s apple bobbing, as if trying to jump the fence of his high-collared, stiffly starched shirt. A practiced, professional look of concern was written down his long, stern face; a tenacious bubble of spittle rested on the doctor’s plump lower lip.
“I hear you are under the weather,” he said. The understatement annoyed Wynston. Ms. Pons momentarily opened her spinning, milky eyes, looking more inward than out. It was unclear whether she was reacting to the stimulus, or to the intimations of a dream. The doctor palpated her stomach with his manicured fingers. He began to percuss her abdomen, looking serious. He noticed her thin, chapped lips.
He inserted an intravenous drip and hung the bag from the silver stand. Turning to Wynston, he said, “I will leave a couple of the IV’s with you, keep them refrigerated and change them when empty, as I showed you. You must be well practiced at it by now? We will try to make her as comfortable as possible.”
Wynston nodded. He should have shaved, he thought, rubbing his stubbled chin. Wynston shuffled to the bed stand to retrieve ointment for Ms. Pons’ chapped lips, as the doctor had neglected to do so. He applied it a little too generously, but not without tenderness. Suddenly embarrassed, feeling the doctor’s eyes on his neck, he turned away to the balcony window and looked out at the yard, absently wiping the excess ointment on his overalls. Incidentally he noticed the suspended sack hanging in the tree. It seemed to be larger, and hung more heavily than when he had last seen it. Distended. That couldn’t be; what was it? It was so curious, he felt a burning need to show it to someone, to have it explained. Maybe he would even point it out to Dr. Blazek after the examination. It must be wasps. No, impossible this late in the season.
“What’s this?” He heard Dr. Blazek say in surprise. Wynston turned to see the doctor examining Ms. Pons’ legs and wasted thighs. They were covered in a pattern of floral contusions, in vermilion, violet, and yellow, made more severe by her paperwhite skin and the blue veins that ran like branches beneath them. Wynston was shocked. How could he not have noticed?
“These look like bruises, Wynston,” said Dr. Blazek, looking askance at him.
It was clear that Dr. Blazek had never liked Wynston, and as far as the doctor was concerned, having heard the rumors, Wynston’s was an example of the turpitude infecting society.
“How could these possibly have happened?” he asked.
Wynston could only stammer, “I have no idea, I would never—”
Blazek looked suddenly tired. Controlling his voice he said, “Well, she is very ill, she is very old, so this is doubly serious. Her fever is under control, it seems, but you will have to keep a very close eye on her various complaints. I’ve written down here some further instructions. I will call again as soon as time permits.”
Why did his past always seem to be standing right next to him whenever he saw the doctor, and now this, this accusation? Wynston clenched his fists, digging his fingernails into his palms hard. They didn’t exchange another word.
Ms. Pons lay still, her mouth slack, breathing rapidly, breathing shallowly. The veins around her now glossy, chapped mouth like estuaries running to the sea. Her fingers slowly bent this way and that on the ends of her long bony arms, agitated by some invisible breeze.
He followed the doctor down the stairs to let him out. On the porch, Dr. Blazek turned suddenly to face Wynston but before speaking, he looked down at the porch slats.
He said slowly, “Wynston, I will give you the benefit of the doubt, as it is a possibility Ms. Pons hurt herself. That said, I want you to know I am keeping an eye on you. I will not hesitate…”
Wynston watched the car drive away, then made his way to the yard, to clear his head. His approach towards the tree was faltering. Beyond Wynston feeling maudlin and overwhelmed, something else was misfit. In the fading autumnal splendor, somehow the old oak, his old oak was wrong. The leaves themselves bizarrely colored, they hung on arthritic limbs. Wynston stood as close as he could without leaving the yard and looked up for the thousandth time at the tree.
This must be some awful parasite brought from overseas, thought Wynston, as he tried to get a better view. That did happen sometimes. Things clinging to freight ships, or hiding away in rusty holds. Invasive species.
It was even larger than he first thought. The thick bark around the branch from which it hung had ruptured. The sack itself had burst out of one of the many burls that covered the tree. It reminded him of a giant peeled prune. An abscess, covered in fine black hairs. Black aphids? Impossible. Wynston grimaced, screwing up his face. It hung there like night itself, sucking at the wan daylight. It was somehow lusterless, like skin without complexion, difficult to see. It contained something – or somethings – that seemed to be pushing at its skin very lethargically, the way baby twins would kick in their mother’s belly. Near the bottom there was a sphincter-like orifice from which a whitish liquid seeped. The drippings hung like sugar stalactites from the branches below, which sagged sadly. The tree itself was weeping pitch.
Wynston’s aversion sent him stumbling back towards the house. The buzzing in his ears, he realized after a moment, was actually a distant chorus of chainsaws. Whatever that thing in the tree was, it was awful, an abomination.
That night was very difficult. Ms. Pons tossed and turned so violently that Wynston had to hold her down for fear of her tearing out the intravenous needle. The bag would rock and slosh, making Wynston panicky. After the doctor’s awful intimation, he tried to be very gentle. She was, however, surprisingly strong for her state, arching her back and waving her arms. When she was still, she was constantly murmuring. Dream words coming from a great depth, escaping unarticulated. The whole thing looked terrible for her. Her face had the distant look of concentration of someone in pain. Small tears slowly rolled down her cheeks, escaping from the corners of her clenched eyes.
Sleepless, Wynston went down to the kitchen. It was a gray morning and a fine drizzle fell steadily. The feral cat hadn’t touched its food in a long time, nor deposited any of its morbid little gifts.
He felt helpless. Wynston felt he had to act, to relieve pressure. That thing in the tree, he would take it down. He felt a suppressed rage welling up. Of course it would rain today, it made his knee ache and the ladder would be slick and dangerous. Just his luck. That infernal thing on top of everything. It had to be done today. Something needed to be resolved.
He dragged the ladder from the shed after working up a sweat lamely trying to throw rocks at the foul thing. Frustrated, he stood on the edge of the yard trying to figure out a way to penetrate the thicket with the ladder, when he noticed the remains that lay in a bloody heap partially hidden by the thorns of a bush near the base of the tree. The cat.
Looking up at the hanging bladder in shock, he saw that it appeared now to be deflated, overripe. He was seized with revulsion, dropped the ladder, and turned towards the house for the shotgun and shells. Unable to immediately locate them, he pulled the drawer out and dumped the contents on the sideboard. All the while, wracking his brain, what could that thing be? There was a metallic taste in his mouth. He unzipped his coat, he zipped his coat. He looked out the window, paced, looked out of the window again. His heart raced. He wiped his face with his cap, and tried to calm himself.
He didn’t hear when the doctor’s car arrived. He was concentrated on aiming at the sack, which seemed, confusingly, to be higher than he initially thought. He had only winged it the first time, if at all. Dislodged purple, crimson, and burgundy leaves meandered silently down. His ears rang. The wind was rising. Water was in his eyes. He fumbled clumsily as he tried to reload. A few unused shells littered the wet grass around his feet. His ears were ringing.
“What in God’s name are you doing? Wynston! Wynston!” yelled Blazek, as he came running around the house. The sound of the doctor’s cries only registered as if from a distance.
Wynston looked over his shoulder for a moment. “Hello Doctor, just a sec,” he said. Dr. Blah Blah Blahzek, always telling me what to do, he thought. Then Wynston turned back to his purpose, lifting the shotgun to his shoulder again.
Dr. Blazek, not a little frightened, stood there with his fists on his hips, in teacherly reprimand, regarding Wynston severely. He looked up into the trees through his wet glasses in the direction Wynston was aiming but could not discern the target. Swallowing first, about to speak, having gathered himself a bit, the doctor opened his mouth to ask what the hell Wynston was doing when the ringing of the bell pierced the air, then abruptly stopped. The doctor, astonished to hear the bell ringing, that she had the strength, picked up his satchel and walked quickly into the house.
Wynston had not heard the bell. He saw only the trees, frayed branches reached skyward. They loomed up and up in grasping need, discharging sap. He heard only the wind like a thousand screaming babies in the shimmering sheets of rain and discolored leaves. He felt the forest would engulf him like a wave.
Wynston was unaware of the doctor’s presence, until he felt a hand gently rest on his shoulder. Immediately aware of the loss this gesture conveyed, Wynston dropped the shotgun to the crook of his arm. He slouched, a great grief pushing him down. Then he fell heavily to his knees, stabbing the barrel of the gun into the sodden earth. He felt a sullen self-pity. In the skies above, starlings fled the coming storm. The rain dispersed their flock in flashes of lightning, like ignited murmurations of shooting stars. The sickness of the world emanated from him. This was his own nakedness. The forest quailed in the squall. The trees creaked and swayed.
Richard Warfield is a writer, musician, and visual artist living in Chicago. His music and art have appeared via Thrill Jockey, Fat Cat, Endcyc, Lumptronic, and elsewhere. This is his first literary publication.