The autumn’s morning fog has thinned to steam by the time Roland Adder’s rusted-out-red pick-up reaches the grove’s edge, dilapidated horse trailer in tow. Beneath swaying skeleton-finger branches, maple and oak leaves crackle under his bowlegged gait as he plods his way around the truck to the trailer door.
Slipping on a pair of crusted sheepskin gloves, a movement in the trees catches his eye. A slight figure with arms out and face to the sky spins delicately in the sunlight breaking through, coming to rest as a cloud passes over. It can only be her.
With a warm smile and blue eyes fixed on him, she glides slowly to the truck and leans against the passenger side, her long hair and yellow sundress untouched by time or the persistent wind.
His weathered visage tightening at the spectacle of her youth, Roland unlatches the trailer door, removing a set of curtains she hung in their ranch home some fifteen years ago. She laughs noiselessly; he issues an impatient grunt. Yellow with white flowers, he has hated them with a passion only matched by her determination to see them up.
Roland drags the faded fabric over the leaves and mossy undergrowth to the foot of a squat tree; its red leaves maintaining a full canopy despite the season. A hollow at its base stands as high as his waist. Ignoring the cracking in his knees, he crouches down and slides the curtains inside.
Roland knocks firmly on the trunk two times. The ground rumbles as tangles of exposed roots unravel, wrapping around the curtains like serpents and slowly dragging them below the surface. He averts his eyes, focusing instead on the fine dirt that has settled in the wrinkles of his arms, joining together his spattering of liver spots. The earth is different here; it marks you forever as healed. Her smile greets him as he returns to the trailer; he grabs the next box and tromps off through the grove.
Kneeling at the tree, Roland removes a brass belt buckle from the box labeled “Gifts.” He rubs a bruised thumb lightly over the embossed Adder Ranch logo: a cursive “A” atop a coiled snake. A fixture at his waist for decades, he lays it gently now in the hollow; followed by a pair of boots with leather worked to the softness of cotton. Their predecessors had suited him fine, but she had declared them unfit for a mule. Last is the watch she gave him on his fiftieth birthday. He’d worn it exactly once, to a meeting at the bank when they feared the ranch lost. Knock… knock.
The sun is high when Roland drops the last of the boxes labeled “Clothes” at the tree’s feet. Opening it, he finds her sparse collection of jewelry resting on top. He recognizes a few pairs of earrings and bracelets, and a turquoise necklace purchased at an Indian stand off a dirt road. He had haggled over the price doggedly; frustrated, she went to the river to photograph children playing.
Her wedding ring rests in his calloused palm, nothing more than a piece of wire fence he had wound around her finger at the altar of a paint-flaked church. It was an unscheduled stop. He had promised her a gold band once, but she had no need for it. Returning from the tree, Roland can see she’s beginning to fade.
The remnants of her final days fit into a single box. The cancer had hollowed her out; a monumental effort of man and machine kept her shell alive until it too slipped away. The machines are gone now; all that’s left is the bedpan and a mess of medications, ointments, and assorted indignities. At the bottom is the Bible she’d taken to keeping on her nightstand, simply to appease the local pastor who hovered around their home like a scavenger.
In the evening light, Roland struggles under the weight of the final box. Inside, photo albums spill her world freely, their pages’ yellowed film having long ago given up its grip. He stumbles and a single photo flutters out as the box crashes to the grove floor. Hands on his knees to catch his breath, he looks back at the truck; she is barely more than a shadow.
Roland lifts the photo gently from the leaves. In black and white, they dance in the aisle at their wedding. The minister had captured the moment. He and his small family were the only witnesses to their union. He remembers they danced slowly; he awkwardly, she with grace. There was no music, nothing to tell them when or how to stop.
The memory slips from trembling fingers, falling back in the box as Roland chokes on a primal wail — his hunched shoulders shaking. He turns his contorted face to the truck, giving a slight nod. Gripping the box, he continues his determined pilgrimage to the tree. At the hollow, he pushes the last of her in and falls to his knees in exhaustion. Knock… knock.
As the roots finish their work, Roland looks up to the red leaves in the dying light, wondering what grief had driven him to this forsaken place. Feeling a fleeting, phantom pain for losses unknown, he begins his slow amble back, alone.
Nate Ellis lives in St. Paul, MN, with his lovely wife and two devoted hounds. When not busying himself as a senior writer for a PR and marketing agency, he enjoys writing short stories about things that have never been and he hopes never will be.