Forcing Branches


It all started when he gave her the book. That is what Carol would tell Shandy, if she could. That is what she tells herself.

But then, in typical bossy sister mode, Shandy would probably say that it started with her book, the one Shandy gave Carol for Christmas.  Shandy always thought she was right. It didn’t help that she often was.

Carol still keeps the book.  It is in the garden shed, tucked behind the board where shovels and rake handles lean lazily in the heat.  She takes surreptitious sips of the book while she works, printing the pages with sweat and dirt.

She likes it in the shed, often working for hours at a time, heat-draped, sweat-crowned.  She likes the clumped rhythm of repotting, mixing together the sand, loam and leaf mold, packing the round root ball of a plant, preparing it for its next stage of growth.  She likes sharpening her trowels and pruning knives, the tang of metal slicing through the close, humectant heat.

She likes how she can reach everything she needs, spider-like, from the low chair Roy has rigged: to her left, the bags of manure and peat; to her right the nested clay pots in towers according to size; in front of her the shelves loaded with mixing tubs, the wood and mesh that would become sturdy square soil sieves for the seedlings, the steel wool and whetstone for sharpening, the low pyramid of bamboo stakes for trellising peas.

And always behind her is the book, resting in its hidden pocket among the short rubber-handled spades, the aerators and pruning shears.

The book is all she has of left of him, now.

She didn’t talk to him at Shandy’s funeral; she had assumed there would be time after. She followed him only with her eyes, always remembering to check, birdlike, for Roy.  But the next day he was gone without a word.

At first they all nodded, understanding, or at least thinking they did.  But the holidays and birthdays paraded past with no dark, lanky form tilted back in a kitchen chair, no shadowy presence on the porch behind the glowing orange ember of a cigarette. With the glue of Shandy dissolved, there was no longer anything to hold him to them.  Not their small family, of which Shandy was always the shining center. Not the dismal little town; and certainly not herself.

She is surprised at how bitter this makes her, though she knows she could never leave Roy.

forcing branches

“How do you like it?” Gavin asks her.

It is Christmas.  Carol is curled on her mother’s living room couch with a book, a position that is perhaps more familiar to her than any other.  Her teen-aged self sat in just this spot with her friends Austen and Dickens, Tolstoy and Trollope, pretending not to be waiting up for Shandy, who was out with friends both more and less substantial.

Except today she is thirty rather than thirteen, and the book – Gardening for Dummies, a gift from Shandy –  is as changed as she is.

The rest of the family is in the kitchen, laughing and talking. Shandy is telling stories from their latest trip.  Her voice trips all over itself, a gorgeous river of anecdote that carries everyone along it its flow, the brilliant music everyone else sings accompaniment to.

Carol shrugs. “I guess it suits me.”

“In what way?” he asks.

He takes the seat next to her on the couch. She is surprised; Gav has never paid much attention to her.  Up close like this she is able to observe the details of him – a split thumbnail, a five o’clock shadow lurking darkly beneath his pale chin.  She has never before noticed how thin he is; his thighs are nearly as narrow as her own.

She curls her right leg more securely beneath her, even though her toes are already tingling with sleep.

She wags the book.  “I’m a…… homebody.”  She had been about to say “dummy” but is glad that at the last moment the word morphs in her mouth.

“Nothing glamorous,” she adds.   She nods toward the kitchen crackling with laughter and questions.

“Oh, I don’t know. Working with the earth, growing things, creating beauty…there’s a certain glamour in that.”  He keeps his eyes on her face, even when she adjusts the crutch leaning against the side of the couch.

She shakes her head.  “Sure, if you like weeds and bugs and dirt under your nails.”

“May I?”  He nods at the book, takes it from her, opens it at random, flips a few pages.

“Ah, I see. You’re a poet; you just don’t know it.”  He affects a professorial air. She is surprised into laughter; she has never seen his sense of humor.

“Oh God, my dad says this one. “I am a poet, my feet show it; they’re both Longfellows’.”  She laughs her low laugh and it flows briefly beneath the melody of merriment from the kitchen.

“Listen to this,” he says with mock sternness. “These are great. Are you listening?”

She nods, her lips pressed together to suppress a giggle.  She puts her hands on her cheeks to cool them.

“Planting Mint in the Garden,” he reads.   “Planting Herbs in a Strawberry Pot.  Building a Tomato Cage.”  He looks at her expectantly. She shrugs, smilingly confused.

“That’s poetry, I’m telling you!”

“But it doesn’t even rhyme,” she protests, laughing.

“Rhyme shmyme.  A poem is just an idiom that makes the ordinary extraordinary. ”

Carol shakes her head, still giggly.  “I have no idea what you just said, but I’m sure it’s brilliant.”

“Just listen.”

And she does.  Soon they are laughing over the various chores of gardening, chores that sounded exotic when pronounced in his sonorous voice, his lips – which are surprisingly full, almost feminine –  precisely shaping the words.

“Building a Raised Bed.  Pricking Out Seedlings.  Uh oh, these are starting to sound sexy.”

She leans over the book. “How about ‘Training a Clematis to a Wall’?”

He nods. “The S&M entry.  Now for the romantics: “Overwintering a Water Lily.”

“That one sounds sad,” she says

“But then here we have ‘planting a dish garden with marginal aquatics’ to cheer us up,” he says.  “That sounds like a metaphor for something, doesn’t it.  Or how about this, “removing a sucker from a tree” – that one is definitely a metaphor.”

“How about this one,” she added. “’Collecting Scions for Grafting’. It’s for Bushes, I think.” She smiles, shyly.

He hoots.  “Now we’re getting political!”  She slaps playfully at his shoulder and he captures her hand.  Holding her eyes with his own, his hand travels up and down her arm.  It skates across her thigh and comes to rest on her foot – the bad one, the one that introduced her to the constant clanking companion of her crutch.  Carol sits very still.

His hand is large but oddly delicate, the fingers long and tapered, easily wrapping around the twisted arch.  His grip is firm, as if he might shake hands with her foot….or tear it off  like a drumstick.  The thought gives her a funny little thrill.

She waits, heart thumping, but he does not change or release his grip.

“Does it ever hurt?”  A question most people – even Roy – are too uncomfortable to ask.

“Not in the way you mean,” she says.  Her voice is low like a secret. In his hand, her foot seems to glow, as if slowly filling with fire.

“Yes, but does it hurt?”  He gives her foot a squeeze, and grins a grin so unexpected and contagious that she finds herself grinning too.

“All the time,” she tells him. “For my whole life,” she adds.  Her grin fades, melts down to a smile that seems to touch the edges of his.

“Gav!” Shandy’s voice, laughing and imperious, from the kitchen.   He looks at Carol, still smiling.

“Remember.” He taps the book. “Poetry.”   He pauses, his hand still on her foot, not squeezing but gentle now.

“You have a lovely laugh.”    His lanky form unspools from the couch and leaves her in a cigarette-and-cologne scented wake.

Shandy doesn’t even have to call him twice, she reflects.

forcing branches

Carol always remembers that Christmas as her first good one in a long time.  Everyone else will remember it as the last good one, for an even longer time.

In January she is in the shed.  She is surprised how it retains none of its summertime personality; no ghostly smell of growth pervades the space.  She always expects it to retain a vestige of the heat of August.  But it is as cold as outside; colder even.

She is not working so much as shuffling things around, getting ready for the season, when she hears the car in the driveway.  Shandy’s voice cuts the air; even from this distance Carol can hear the way her sister keeps her finger on the bell as she did when they were kids.  She clenches her teeth, hears the squeak of the screen door, then Roy’s murmuring voice.  Shandy’s laughter peals out and is swallowed by the house.

Carol plops into her chair and aimlessly sorts through a tub of seed packets.  She smells him before she hears him – a faint tang of tobacco, the sting of his cologne slapping lightly at her nose.  When she looks up he is there, a dark slash in the doorway, the March sun pale and weak behind him.

“Look at you,” he says.  She thinks she hears a smile in his voice.  She waits, but his narrow figure does not move.

“Hello,” she says through stiff lips.

“I. Had. No. Idea.”  He paces his words with his footsteps and then he is in front of her and she sees that yes, he is smiling. It is a nice smile, she thinks.

“No idea about what?”  Her hands restlessly sieve the packets.

His eyes take in the shelves, the composting bins, the clay pot towers. He leans down to pluck Gardening For Dummies from the low shelf where Roy had stashed it. “It seems Gardening for Experts would be more the book for you.”

“It’s got some useful stuff in it,” Carol says. Even she can hear the protest in her voice.  She wonders who she is defending.

“I’m sure.” He holds his hand down to her and after a moment’s hesitation she takes it.  He pulls her to her feet with a strength that is both easy and thrilling.  Her crutch leans languidly out of reach. Their breaths puff between them.

“We just stopped by to say our goodbyes.”  His voice lower.

“Off on another trip?”  She cannot withdraw her hand.

He nods, his eyes distant. “Big sky.”  She turns to follow his glance out the window and he smiles at her. “Big Sky, Montana. We’re going to spend a couple of weeks.”

It is Carol’s turn to nod.  She does not ask, Doing what?  There is sure to be a good answer that features Shandy in it, that much she knows. She does not want him to say her name.  She does not want Shandy here, in this place.

“I was hoping,” he says, his eyes on hers, “to hear you laugh again.”

Her heart beats slower, harder, like music that wants to be danced to.  Her breath first warms then disappears in the cold air.

forcing branches

When the book arrives a few weeks later she is puzzled at first.  The Essential Rumi means nothing to her. She suspects Shandy and opens it, curious and reluctant.

There is no inscription, but he has highlighted a line about a third of the way into the book – that is how she knows it is from him.  The ribbon of yellow glows at her as she riffles the stiff pages. She is first puzzled, then strangely excited.

I feel like the ground, astonished at what the atmosphere has brought to it.

She goes cold, then hot, as if someone has drained then refilled her with a bright red light that burns through her cheeks like a beacon.

“I thought,” he says the next time she sees him “that it might appeal to your earthy, poetic soul.”   He does not say “the book I sent you” and she does not thank him.  It is like a pact.

She has always had a green thumb; it is her thing, just as being a free spirit, has always been Shandy’s thing.  The oily leaves of her begonias rustle thickly, her geraniums are red monsters, the scaly tentacles of their branches creeping, invisible beneath the thick blooming flower heads.

Pink and purple and white phlox spread through the beds like spilled paint.  Her lilies, roses and gerber daisies sway in an orchestra color; the sunflowers nod watchfully from the back row. Small dogs could hide beneath the spear-shaped leaves of her hostas.

They spend the summer in Greece and send post cards, two from Shandy and one from him.  The cards from Shandy hang on the front of the refrigerator, immobilized by fruit and vegetable shapes. The card from him is tucked midway through Rumi.

Don’t go to sleep one night.  What you want most will come to you then.

Roy reads over her shoulder when the fourth card comes.  Slowly she deciphers Shandy’s scrawl. Roy rests his chin on her shoulder; she shrugs him off.

So.  Now there will be a baby.  She sticks the card on the refrigerator with a tomato-shaped magnet and goes out to the shed.  Later, it is Roy who takes the call from her excited parents and makes an excuse for her.  Headache, lying down.

In fall the honeysuckle petals carpet the ground like the confetti remains of a parade she has missed.  If Carol looks at them too long, she fancies she can hear the marching band in the distance, turning the corner and following the high-stepping drum majorette right out of town.  But she has no urge to follow.

It is September when his long form in the doorway of the shed startles her.  One month since the fifth and last postcard, the one that no one talked about. He is leaning, his posture easy, as if he has been watching her for a long time.

The late afternoon sun haloes his narrow head.  Fronting the sun, he is a dark outline shaped like a man.

“I’m sorry.  About the baby,” she tells his silhouette.

“It wasn’t meant to be.”  He speaks with finality rather than wistfulness.  On impulse she pats the ground next to her and is surprised when he immediately crosses to her and drops down in a dark tangle of arms and legs.  His face is unchanged, she sees.  Perhaps a bit more lined.

He reaches behind her, deliberate, and after a bit of rummaging pulls the book from its hiding place.  He smiles at her sudden color and opens the book at random. He does not move for several moments, perhaps absorbing the highlighted passage,  perhaps reading her notes.  Perhaps seeing only the postcard, the fifth one, she has used as a bookmark.

It is dangerous to let other men have intimate connections with the women in your care.  Cotton and fire sparks, those are, together.  Difficult, almost impossible, to quench.

“She’s fine,” he says in answer to the question she does not ask.  “Painting a lot.  Her new thing.  It soothes her.”

He fiddles with an open bag of mulch, plunges his hands in and lets the black mixture trickle through his pale spidery fingers.   He closes his eyes, concentrating, then opens them to see her watching.

“It almost seems like water.”

She reaches, lets the earth spill from her hands in long brown trickles.  She closes her eyes and the sound becomes the patter of rain.  His low voice is the pleasant rumble of distant thunder.

“It’s good she can paint.  It will keep her mind off things.”

He shifts beside her.  She thinks how easy it would be to sit here all day, suspended in time, cocooned in the smells and sounds of earth and rain and this man.

“She feels it was the right decision.”

Carol’s eyes fly open.  Gavin doesn’t notice – he is watching the stream of dirt pour from his right hand to his left.  Her own hands drop their freight of dirt.  She feels the grit beneath her nails.

“Decision? I don’t understand.”  But she did, she does.

He breathes the scented air deeply, not looking at her. “There were problems at the last amnio. Chromosomal abnormalities. She decided not to carry it to term.”

“Why didn’t she tell anyone? Why did she pretend she had a miscarriage?”

Now he looks at her.  He seems to come to a decision.  “She didn’t pretend she had a miscarriage. That was just your assumption.”

“Everyone thought so!”

He says nothing, finally glances down.  He picks some dirt from his nails, stops.

“I see,” Carol says.  “She did tell.  Everyone but me.”

“She wanted to tell you, but your parents persuaded her not to.  In the end, she listened.”

Carol finds herself unexpectedly torn.  She wants to accuse Shandy of being selfish and unfeeling but here is evidence that she is not, or at least not always. Cognitive dissonance, Shandy would no doubt have said. This thought makes Carol angry.

Her voice is steady when she asks. “Was it life threatening?”

Gavin shakes his head.  “No, thank God, Shandy was never in any danger.  But it was still a difficult decision.”

She is unable to suppress a sound.  She presses a handful of the mulch between her palms, but this late in the season it is dry and will not form a ball.  She presses her hand to her lips.  A loamy smell of horses is suddenly in her nose.  He watches.

“You mean was it life threatening for the baby.”  It is not a question.

She nods.  She keeps inhaling the earth, not looking at him.  There are tears in her eyes.  She thinks, if they fall maybe the earth will pack, round, into her palm.

“It wouldn’t have ended the baby’s life, no. But it would have ended her quality of life.”

She snorts at that.  So it was a girl. Had been a girl.  “Is that what you think? Or is that what Shandy thinks?”

He touches her knee, printing her with dirt.  “What’s important is that it’s what Shandy thinks.”

“It was your baby too.”


“So what did – do – you think?”

“I think that my job is to support whatever decision Shandy makes.”

“Yes, but what do you  think?”  Her voice is louder than she intended. She blinks hard.

I think it hurts, all the time. But not in the way that you mean.”

He reaches to touch her cheek but the move is quick and she flinches. He makes a soft hushing sound and she subsides.  His hand, warm and gritty, smells faintly of cigarettes and the tired earth.

forcing branches

How can anyone say what happens, even if each of us dips a pen a hundred million times into ink?


When the next card comes it is from him, but it is addressed to both her and Roy.  There are only 20 words on the card – Carol will count them many times – but only two are really needed: infection, sudden.  This time she is the one to take the call from her parents, Roy hovering near.  Later she tucks this card away with the other; if Roy notices it is gone from the refrigerator he does not say so.

March again, and again she makes her slow way to her chair, the grit scraping it’s uneven music in counterpoint to her crutch: crunch went her right foot, shhhhhhhh went the left foot, thump went the cane. It is quiet here, just the muted chomp-chomp of the trowel biting into the soil, the ruminative scrape of terra cotta against stone.

And, in the breathy silences in between, the papery sound of the page, like his voice whispering secretly.

She consults her book a final time – not Dummies, but Southern Gardening, this year’s gift from Roy – studying the pictures of slender branches fat with buds.

You can start enjoying spring early by bringing limbs of various shrubs indoors about six weeks before they would normally bloom in your area.

She likes this idea. She grabs her pruning sheers and selects a fat bellied pot from its crowd of cousins on the floor. She searches the shelves for the items she needs and drops them into the pot, pushes the door handle with her elbow and stumbles out onto the deck in a flurry of cane, pot and shears. She tumbles straight into Roy.

“Whoa! Hasn’t anyone ever told you not to run with scissors?”  Roy jokes.  “Let me help.” He reaches for the pot.

She compresses her lips.  “I’m fine, thanks.”  She thumps across the deck and down the small ramp Roy built, the pot banging heavily against her hip. The April air is crisp and cool and smells of rain.

She reaches the dogwood tree and slings the pot at its base. She selects a three-foot branch and pulls her little hatchet from the tool holster around her waist – another Roy creation.

“So what’s the project today?” Roy asks.   She closes her eyes for a moment, takes a breath. Somewhere nearby a bird sings, stops.

She makes her voice casual.  “I’m going to force some branches.”

How he would laugh at that, his gray eyes knowing.  But Roy says nothing.  In the silence she gives an almost imperceptible shake of her head.

She hacks the branch where it forks into the tree.  It is thin; in two strokes it is free. She looks it over then lays it carefully on the ground.

“Have you changed your mind about the memorial tomorrow?” Roy moves closer but stays behind her.  She grips another branch and swings the hatchet.  The first chop is a bad one, the flat of the blade glancing off the branch.

She grunts, wipes her hand on her pants and regrips the hatchet, reseating it in the crotch formed by the branch and the trunk.

“No, I haven’t changed my mind,” she says, her voice rising as the axe bites into the tree.

“She was your sister, Carol.  She loved you.”

Carol draws the axe back in a short arc and swings again, and again.  Now the branch hangs by a flap of bark-skin, the interior meat obscenely white, almost humanoid, in the pale sunshine.

“I suppose you’re going.”

“Yes,” he says, his voice even, unreadable.

“Well, there’s no need. Like you said, she’s my sister.”

“It’s the decent thing to do,” he says.

She yanks the branch free, bends to retrieve the first branch (hating the little ‘oof’ sound that escapes as her soft stomach folds in on itself) and, brushing past Roy without a glance, stumps over to the ramp.  She manages to fall-sit without a repeat of the ‘oof’; arranging the branches across her lap, she begins to strip the bark with her small pruning knife.

“Oh, so that’s what this is about.  Covering for me.  Keeping up appearances.”

He sighs, a sound so slight that it might have been a breath of wind.  Carol beings pruning, pushing the knife away from her in long smooth strokes.

“I could make you a bench, or something,” he says.

“I don’t need a bench.”  She is panting a  little; with an effort, she steadies her voice.  “I’m managing just fine.”

“I just thought you’d like to be more comfortable,” Roy says.

For a few moments the only sound is the whickering of her pruning.  The blade flashes dully in the thin April sunshine.

“She’d want you to come,” Roy’s voice is mild.

Whick, whick.

Roy retrieves the pot and fills it, using the hose coiled tightly against the house like some improbable snake.  He brings it back to her and sets it down with a small slosh.   She grunts her thanks, puts the branches in and pulled herself upright, remembering to put more weight on the right leg as Doctor Reilly suggested.  It will build muscle, he told her.  She doesn’t care about being stronger, she just wanted the leg to fill out, be more on par with her left.

“Can you put these in the sun room, please? In the corner by the Bird of Paradise.”

“Sure, I’ll do it.”  He picks up the pot.

She reaches out to tie the mouth of the bag more firmly around the branches, then lurches back toward the shed.

His voice stops her at the door.

“Gavin called.  We had a nice chat.  He’ll be there of course.”

She does not move as she hears him hoist the pot, hears the water sloshing and the bag rustling, hears the squeak and slam of the screen door.

She thinks how the spot next to the Bird of Paradise is bright without getting direct sunlight.  How the branches with their freight of buds look just like the illustration in the book, the kind of branches, the book said, that would respond well to forcing.

Inside the shed, in the nest Roy built for her, she sees the book tented on the floor.  Her highlighter lays uncapped beside it.  Had she left it that way?

His infatuation is a blackwater wave carrying him away. 

When did she highlight that passage?  She can’t remember.  The shed darkens and she turns, half-expecting to see him leaning in the doorway, as if it were all still in front of them, as if none of it had happened, as if someone, all of them, could take it all back.

But  there is no one, only a cloud scudding across the sun.

She stumps back to the doorway, but Roy is gone into the house.  She should follow him; it is getting chilly.  But she stands there for a long time, the wind cool on her face, her nose full of the warm sweet scent of earth.

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