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The Tree


Left the city before the first sirens.
Crossed the bridge. Crossed the valley,
its blossoming orchards and dormant crosses.
Was lifted gently up against the judgment
of the streams, too low and shallow,
like invalids in their beds in the spring.
Paid my fee. Left keys, phone, everything
identifying me and started up the path
to Mirror Lake, snaking through flocks
of hikers, their languages distinctly different
as the calls of birds. Beyond the lake:
no one, the trail narrowing, the light
floating up the sheer cliffs, leaving
the valley in shadow. A branch held
a blue flannel shirt out for me.
It gave me a chill, being offered clothes
clear out there, but it was nothing compared
to the chill a dead oak gave me like a ring
last worn by the dead. I stopped
as if commanded, having never seen
a tree tremble like that tree was
trembling, the tambourines of its dead
leaves rattling in a breeze that didn’t stir
those of any other tree. The thing
that spooked me about the leaves
was how perfect they were, as if
they were trying to pass for living leaves.
They betrayed the tree, like yellow stars
sewn into clothing or the word a refugee
can’t pronounce. But it was not they
that were trembling, but the tree. Still
as it stood, it seemed to be shivering,
and I felt I was witnessing the earth
fearing for herself. It was nothing
like our fear of terror or the warming
of the planet, but a wordless, secret fear
that I was never meant to see, but because
human fear is the only fear I’ve known,
I must use a metaphor to describe how
I felt: like a boy who, hearing a strange
sound, mounts a flight of stairs and sees,
through the keyhole, his father weeping,
and knows that what has always been so
certain will never be certain again.
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