Back home in Indiana, I live next to an old woman who sometimes makes me instant coffee. She stirs it up in a mug after heating water in her microwave. A recent inductee to the ancient tribe of widowhood, her only real company these days is a sumptuous, embittered Chihuahua with wild rolling eyes. It yips and snarls and goes cross-eyed, looking dumber than a drawer of socks.
When winter came, creeping, snow and bournes of clouded ice covered the sidewalks. I walked out onto my porch one morning, and felt the light strike my eyes in a peculiar way. The large oak that had shaded my neighbor’s home had split in half, its miraculous fall having, somehow, completely avoided the house. It had settled in an empty lot, its limbs for the most part unbroken, as though its decline had been gentle, gradual. Like a thicket of frozen lightning, its branches hung above the snowy ground. No one had heard the fall.
Had the tree struck my neighbor’s home—which, I remember now, was once the home of a casket-maker, many years ago—that would have been it. A pile of wood and splinters, and somewhere within it a woman and her dog. But my neighbor didn’t consider that idea. Instead, she mourned the tree. It was beautiful, she said. The whole street used to be beautiful, especially in the springtime. I used to sit on my porch and watch the leaves.
Just a few days ago, I was down by the Charles and saw another fallen tree. One of the main boughs had split under the teasing pressure of snow, but for whatever reason this had been a violent fall. Mangled branches mingled with the earth, pawing up brown furrows that dirtied the snow. Grey-yellow streaks of inner wood gleamed in the strong sun. A single heavy bough, almost vertical, had slammed into the ground. Lacking any smaller minor branches, the bough looked sinister, as though it were a battering ram, as though it had been designed to hurt.
The scene reminded me of the tree back home, of the fall that hadn’t been a fall, but a curtsy of sorts, the tree like an old woman who’d overestimated her limberness. There had been groaning, surely, in the snow-muffled air of night, the softest protestation as flexion turned to breakage. But beyond that, I couldn’t picture the fall, the bending arc, the details of the scene. It had occurred in silence, beggaring certain natural laws. Perhaps it was this impossibility that caused me to wonder what might have been had the trees been switched.
It wasn’t so much that the actual trees in their physical entireties needed to take each others’ places. The factors determining the specifics of their falls were so small and manifold, so completely incalculable, that a point of snow could have done it. Had a flake fallen here and not there, had the breeze veered right or left or kept on full bore, had a bird nested further down the trunk—then we might be seeing on the banks of the Charles, right now, a tableau of dainty destruction, and back home in Indiana, a month or so ago, I would have seen a wreckage, a mad arborescence of limbs and doilies and glass and spilled coffee, within which a little old lady lay on her bed like a bier, trapped in the dark, an unyipping Chihuahua by her side.