“How long has it been like that?”
Auguste stood beside Matt, an old woman with loose white hair beside a young man dressed in canvas overalls. She did not look at him when he asked his question. She kept her eyes on the fractured limb of the maple that threatened to crush the whole back fence when the few fibres which still held it to the tree let go.
“Since last night’s… Since the storm.”
Matt frowned. He glanced up at the broad sky, with its festoon of small fluffy clouds, then shrugged. “OK.” He paused. “You know, that tree is in rough shape. It’s not old, for a tree, but… well, it’s sort of beat up. It wouldn’t cost too much more to take it right out, then you won’t have to worry about the next, uh, storm.”
Auguste turned away from the tree at last. She saw the honest concern in his eyes. He saw the tears in hers. He looked away in haste, heading for his truck. She stood in the yard a while longer, watching Matt and his helpers prepare, until the chainsaws appeared. She was in the house before the motors started.
Afternoon began to shade into evening. Auguste walked into the back yard, and found that the work ethic of Matt and his companions could not be faulted. The broken tree limb was gone, the fence was undamaged, and there were hardly any chips left on the ground; the whine of the saws had been succeeded by the howl of leaf vacuums. In the dwindling light, the wound on the tree was pale against the bark, but it was also smooth.
Auguste stood beside the tree, reaching up to stroke it as near the exposed wood as she could reach. The bark beneath the wound was slightly sticky, the sap which had wept from the break not quite dry yet. She sighed.
“Thank you,” she said. “I wish I could do more to repay you.”
A wind, too light to be felt at ground level, rustled the leaves above her. Auguste pressed her forehead against the rough skin of the tree. She stayed there, not embracing the tree but resting head and hands against it as she might upon the chest of human guardian, until the waning of the sun allowed the autumnal chill in the air to assert itself, and even then until she believed she felt a gentle push guiding her toward the door.
She woke in the night with a gasp, rising almost immediately to peer out the bedroom window. There was no light at the back of the house to let her see the tree, and she was unsure whether she had been pulled from sleep by sounds of a fresh struggle or by the memory of the previous night’s events. All was quiet now.
She hoped it was the quiet attending an uneventful night. She feared it was the quiet of an aftermath.
Auguste hardly remembered going back to bed, but when she opened her eyes, she was under the covers, and there was daylight in the bedroom.
But is was not daylight, or at least not as she expected it. Except in winter, when all was hard and blue-tinged, the morning light coming through that west-facing window was calm. Today it was… dazzling.
She had begun to rise when she suddenly shrank back, drawing the sheets up like a child trying to hide from the boogen in the closet. There was an animation to that light, and she had a sudden picture of the maple tree not only bested by whatever it had keep her from all these years, but actually in flames. She sat in the bed, paralysed by the possibility of her fantasy being real, until she realized that as bright as it was, the light was not attended by the roar of conflagration.
She stood, disengaging from the bed clothes, and crept close to the window, timidly peeking around the edge of the window frame.
She let out a little shriek, then raced from the room. A moment later, she was in the back yard, an old woman with loose white hair in a night-gown, bare feet on grass that was as much frosted as dewed.
The maple tree stood at the end of the yard, its leaves changed from summer green, not to their usual scarlet but to a shining gold that cast the light of the morning sun back toward the house seemingly undiminished. Auguste danced, just as the golden leaves danced in the morning breeze. She wept for joy, knowing this as a clear sign of final victory even before she noticed the dark thing clutched in an upper branch that withered away in the brilliant rays of dawn, gone before she could make out the shape of it.
“Sheltered” ©2017 Dirck de Lint