The Sound of Trees
by Spencer K. M. Brown
The morning the bird died, Ellis stood in his bedroom looking out from the frosted window. He sat by the radiator near the window for most of the night, The Complete Works of Robert Frost lying open across his lap. Sleep hadn’t come in days, and the night before was no different. Smoke from his cigarette slipped through the opening in the window. He stood there and thought about talking to them. He used to have moments of callous bravery where he would be tempted to just speak his mind and do as he thought necessary, to finally do what Danny had told him. But he could never talk himself into it.
He stood there, and when he looked at his watch, he knew the hope of getting sleep was already a few hours gone. Through the window the stretch of woods and fields behind the house lay open and barren and dead. Everything was stiff and brittle, ready to be forgotten in the first snow. Ellis stood shirtless and cold in the hovel of his bedroom and heard his mother downstairs. Not her voice or sound of her breath, but the echo of her movements; the clanking of dishes and pans as a passive-aggressive means of making certain points known, of forgetting what time in the morning it was. He heard his father’s cough from the living room. Part of him hoped there would finally be blood. That finally it would just be over with. Ellis pinched his eyes closed as he thought of this, as he thought of the man his father used to be. Now he was only a whisper of the myth that Ellis had always admired. Slowly whittled down, one day at a time—one choking cough at a time.
He stared out the window as he finished his cigarette. Clouds hung heavy in the sky, fog draped like funeral garments around everything. Snow would come, but no one could give a good enough answer as to when exactly.
The inevitable wait, he thought.
“It’ll be here by noon,” his father had said. “I’m sure of it.”
Ellis pulled on a sweater and took slow steps down the narrow staircase, hoping he could put off the day just a few moments longer. Part of him knew there would be no snow by noon, but something hit him in the back of his mind just the same, reminding him that if it did, he would be fucked without the money.
In the kitchen his mother stood by the sink. Steam rose from the hot water where the potatoes soaked. Ellis poured himself a cup of coffee, staring tiredly as the dark liquid, almost like wood, filled the white cup.
“You goin up town still?” she said, not looking at him.
“Yeah,” said Ellis. He blew cold air onto the coffee as he glanced over at his father in the living room. He sat in front of the television, turned low and nearly inaudible, drifting in and out of sleep by the fireplace.
“You’d best hurry then. Your father says it’ll snow soon.”
“It won’t snow for a while. I’ll make it up there.”
“Your eggs is cold now. Shouldn’t sleep so late.”
“It’s still early,” he said.
Ellis turned to walk out the back door.
“Ain’t you gonna eat somethin’?” she asked him.
“I’ll have somethin’ later.”
“Truck runnin yet?” said his father from the living room, his voice low and rough, like tires rolling over gravel.
Ellis shrugged his shoulders, taking a large sip of coffee.
“Careful of snakes. Truck’s been sittin’ too long,” said his mother. She slid the butcher knife through the soft potatoes. She wouldn’t look at him. “Best hope you can make it up town.” Ellis knew what she was doing, but wasn’t interested in starting something this early.
Ellis stepped out into the cold morning. He let the door close quietly behind him and placed a Pall Mall between his warm lips. By his feet just off the porch steps, the small bird lay dead, a gray junco, its body gnawed and mangled. Staring down at it, he forgot his thoughts for a moment, forgot about the money and the snow. He looked up with a fierce glare, hoping to catch sight of the culprit. He had found the bloodied carrion of a few chickens some days earlier; pale bones and cold hides of rabbits; now, the last bird he would see until the spring. From the back porch he could see the hills and empty fields stretch on for miles. No sight of the fox, the same one he’d seen lurking in the woods for a few weeks now.
He thought of Ollie suddenly, thought of why he had been so stupid.
As he stared out into the gray light, he felt November was too early for snow, too early for the trees to look rusted and worn. Too early for everything to die.
He lit his cigarette and walked to the tool shed that stood behind the house. Sliding the door open, the smell of the emptiness and cold metal filled his nose. He was a child again suddenly, sneaking in to have a look at his father, to see his body hunched over the car engine. Danny’s voice filled his head suddenly, beckoning him to grab a few tools while their dad wasn’t looking.
Ellis took a few steps into the darkened shed, but there was nothing. Not his father’s familiar breathing, not his brother’s clever words of encouragement. Just the cold darkness. Tools hung unused and covered in dust and cobwebs. The smell of dirt and dying leaves—a moldy damp and haunting loneliness. Ellis took a long drag from his cigarette and widened his eyes in the darkness. He took the shovel from off the rack on the wall and walked back out to the porch. With the toe of his boot, he pushed the bird onto the shovel, carried it some ways out into the yard and laid it on the cold ground. He dug a hole in the hard dirt and set the bird down, thinking about when would be the next time he’d have to do this. Once was already more than he could bear.
There’s nothing more we can do for him, Mr. Bull.
Ellis walked back to the shed and hung the shovel back in its place. He tried to remember what he had needed from there in the first place. The hatchet lay across the wooden work bench. Fractured and crooked, it lay there alone. He grabbed the bag of screwdrivers and wrenches off the bench and stepped back out into the cold morning air.
He walked over to the truck. Rust had begun to spread from the wheel wells like cancer, slowly creeping along the bottom panels of the doors. He thought of his father, teaching him and Danny all the basics of maintaining a car; changing oil, replacing alternators and batteries, tuning up the plugs and flushing the transmission. Ellis pulled up the hood, letting his fingers linger on the cold metal as he stared down. The sun was still low in the morning sky, still trapped behind the dragon back of the Blue Ridge. His tired eyes looked numbly at the various parts, all blackened with oil and dirt. Smoke left his mouth in slow, long ribbons. For a moment he thought of it as an unconscious S.O.S. signal, a cry for help from his lonely wilderness. But he knew no one would come. It was only him now. Just him, and he gripped the wooden handle of the screwdriver tight as he reached down for the starter, checking for a spark.
He walked around to the driver side, turned the key in the ignition, quickly moved back to the front and held the tool against the starter. A few sparks and the truck coughed into a low, sickly rumble. He closed the hood, tossing his cigarette out onto the dirt driveway.
Ellis stood on the porch, staring back at the truck, letting it run and warm a moment. He breathed warm air into his hands, cold and pale. He stuffed them back into his coat pockets. He thought of Danny again as he walked back inside.
“Found a bird on the porch,” he said as he came into the kitchen.
“S’that damned fox,” said his father from the living room.
“Told ya you needa kill that thing,” said his mother.
“It’s just hungry is all. Trying to survive,” said Ellis.
“You going up town still?” she asked.
“I told you I was.”
“Best hurry now,” said his mother. “Before the snow starts.”
“I know. I’m lettin the engine warm.” He poured another cup of coffee.
His father coughed from the next room. The rasping noise blended with the soft sounds of the television. Ellis looked at his father, hoping there wouldn’t be any more blood, hoping there wouldn’t be a need for another treatment.
“Danny called. Said he’ll be here for supper tomorrow,” said his mother.
“Danny’s not comin, Ma. You know that already.” Ellis knew Danny’s sick sense of humor, his toying with their mother’s failing memory. “He’s a prick. He’ll always be a prick.”
His mother looked up and stared at him blankly, her eyes squinting as she tried to remember something. “He’s done real good for himself, Ellis. He helps us. Don’t talk bout him that way.”
Ellis walked over and kissed her on the back of her head, letting out a small breath. He raised his coat higher on his shoulders, the collar closer against his neck.
“When are Sandra and Ollie gettin’ in?” she said.
Ellis stood by the back door and looked at his mother. He couldn’t help the glare . . .
There’s nothing we can do, Mr. Bull
. . . he couldn’t help but to ball his fists up tighter. “Goddamit, Ma, you know they ain’t comin,” Ellis snapped.
“But I thought . . .”
“No, there ain’t no buts. You know they ain’t comin.”
Ellis slammed the door closed and walked out to the truck.
* * *
The sun rose slowly as the truck sputtered along the old highway. The heavy gray sky looked like it would continue to swell for the rest of the morning. Ellis stared out at the road, pale light hitting his tired face. This time of the morning was always strange for him. A time where most of the world was either going to bed or not quite up yet. He was alone and knew it. A feeling that was both freeing and frightening the longer he sat silent in the cold truck. He reached down and turned on the radio. Fuzzy white noise hummed from the speakers. He changed to another station, turned the music low—just loud enough to keep his thoughts from getting too close.
He looked out at the fields lining the road, brown like the color of deer. Acres of barren and empty landscape. A country to be soon forgotten. Skeleton stalks of corn and milk thistle stood silent in the cold, everything shriveled and taking in the last breaths of autumn. Ellis wondered if Danny had actually called, wondered if it wasn’t just his mother again.
The first sign that worried him was when she had started preparing breakfast after dinner one night. Then came the days when she would ask Ellis how Ollie was doing in school. Why the hell does she keep asking? he had thought, wondering if it was some sort of cruel game, one that he knew he probably deserved, but couldn’t handle when he first came back home. The truck keys in the freezer, food put away on book shelves. It was more than he could bear some days.
White bits of salt like broken glass covered the road as Ellis got closer to town. “I die a little more every time I come here,” he told Sandra once when they visited. The thought entered his mind again as he crossed the railroad tracks and came into New Oxford. Few cars puttered on the roads this early, mostly county workers and farmers getting their last supplies before the change in weather. Soon it would be cold enough. Soon the land would go into hibernation. Ellis missed days like this, days when he would sit and watch the television to see if Huntington Academy would be closed or not. For a moment he thought about his books that were still in boxes in his bedroom. He wondered if he would ever teach again, if he would ever write like he had dreamed about, something that he could leave behind for Ollie. But it was a hopeless thought, and he knew those days were gone now. There was no second chance at something like that.
Nothing we can do, Mr. Bull
He got out of the truck and leaned against the driver door as he finished his cigarette. He checked his watch. Seven-fifteen. The Western Union at the post office would be open at seven-thirty today. He took hard pulls from his cigarette as he thought about his mother. He never knew why he blew up at her like that, but never knew how to apologize neither.
“Patience,” Doctor Ehle told him. “It’ll take a lot of calm and patience.”
But Ellis felt the constant crawfishing of his nerves in his veins, a feeling that still hadn’t eased, even this long after he had quit drinking. His mother started showing signs shortly after he came back. His father had just completed a second round of chemo that was now proving pointless. Out of the frying pan, he thought. But he didn’t have much of a choice. His life, the one he forced for himself, that he had tried his hardest at, was gone.
Ellis watched as the lights came on in the shop. An old man in his post office blues unlocked the glass doors. Ellis tossed his cigarette into the empty parking lot and walked the few yards to the door.
“Mornin.” Ellis walked over to the kiosk of forms and papers. He filled in the necessary information; address and numbers. Paused as he began to write his old Philadelphia apartment number, a habit that still hadn’t died. He crumpled up the piece of paper, took another blank one from the stack. The apartment in Philadelphia was gone. Ollie was gone. Sandra was gone, living a new life. Ellis stood alone in the office, his pale, soft hands resting on the counter as the old man ran the information. His work around the farm had raised his callouses again, and his knuckles ached most days.
“Radio’s callin for snow,” said the old man.
“Yeah, lookin likely now,” said Ellis. It had taken years to rid himself of the accent, but somehow it always managed to find him, creeping slowly over his tongue.
“Well, looks like there ain’t no money sent,” said the old man, staring down at the computer screen.
“No, shoulda been sent two days ago,” said Ellis. “Can you check again?”
“Sorry, sir, but it hasn’t come through,” said the old man again. “Might be the holiday slowin’ things up.”
“Yeah, could be,” said Ellis, but he knew it had nothing to do with that. “Thanks anyways.”
Ellis left the post office, the muscles in his jaw flexing as he bit down on his teeth. “That fucking prick,” he whispered to himself. He got back in the truck and turned the key. The starter sputtered and the engine gave a sad cough, but nothing happened. Ellis left the keys in the ignition, grabbed the screwdriver from the glove box and walked out to the front, raising the hood. He reached his arm down into the heap of rusted parts, feeling around blindly for the starter. A few misses, then a spark. The truck started up, everything shaking as it caught momentum. Ellis slammed the hood, whispering quietly:
“That fucking little prick.”
Ellis got back in the truck and jammed the shifter harshly into gear. No money had come from Danny, and Ellis knew what that meant.
Don’t talk ’bout him like that
He drove a few lights down and pulled into the hardware store. His breathing labored as he walked in, more from grief than strain. He nodded to the clerk as he walked by, knowing right where the axe handles were. The thought came to him as he stared at the various options of wood or metal: the thought of calling. But what the hell use would it do now anyway? He knew the answer to this, and it made him clamp down on his jaw again. At one point, when anger would get the better of him, he had taken to chewing aspirin. Grinding them up in his mouth in the early moments of the morning. Moments where he couldn’t drink just then and the pressure felt like a heavy raincoat. The chalky taste easing both his headache and the tension. But he had given that up as well.
He carried the hatchet handle to the counter, rubbing his grief deep into his eyes.
“Say, Ellis, how ya been?” said the clerk.
Ellis had known her for most of his life but had avoided most of the people in New Oxford since he’d been back.
“Hey, Wendy.” He held back his frustration.
“How’s things goin’?” she asked. “How’s the wife? And … you have a son, right?”
Ellis slid his credit card across the counter to her.
Nothing we can do
“Fine.” He tried to keep his mind together in the store. He stuffed the card back into his wallet, picked up the plastic bag. “Good to see you, Wendy.” Ellis forced a crooked smile, stepping back out into the cold morning.
The streets had come to life now, cars rolling down the roads, everyone trying to beat the weather. Ellis preferred the cold; he preferred the way the tips of his fingers would start to numb, how Sandra’s cheeks would go pale, then begin to blush a soft pink on their walks home through the city.
The truck started right up without trouble this time, and Ellis pulled back onto the road. The town was a bleak postcard. At one point in time, everything was shining and perfectly in its place, but now it was worn and breaking apart. The sight of the roads, of the empty parking lots, of boarded up windows and tired mechanics sitting in empty garages—Ellis felt like he wasn’t quite dead, but dying a little more. As if he were somehow the cause of this decline, right along with everyone else. He only ever brought Sandra and Ollie here a few times during the summers. He felt the country air would be good for Ollie’s lungs, thought it was necessary, despite his hatred for it. He wanted Ollie to know the land, to feel the earth between his fingers, before it was all gone.
Tractors and barns sat amid the tall, sparse wheat, alone and forgotten. Ellis felt his mouth pool with saliva,
I’m sorry for your loss, Mr. Bull, a child’s death is hard
felt his hand mindlessly wipe at his lips as he craved the chalky taste of aspirin—better yet, a drink. Two or three. And he recalled all the mantras suddenly.
One is too many, a million is never enough
Ellis pulled back onto his father’s road, rolling along the long driveway. Two thin, jagged lines of dusty gravel and dirt; brown grass growing in the space where the truck’s tires didn’t touch. The farm was small, but it had made his father enough money to survive. Ellis admired his father for this, but despised it all the same, knowing he could have been more, that he could have done something more. Ellis looked out at the barn and the grass that rested on the hills. He saw a few posts leaning over broken where the fence line backed up to the forest. Ellis suddenly pictured himself and Danny running through the woods, stuck in their boyish daze. But as soon as he was old enough, Ellis left for Philadelphia. Danny followed in the same path of discontent. Only, Ellis was here again. Danny was still living his life, far away.
Ellis wiped at his lips and thought of Danny again. He wished their lives were exchanged.
He parked the car behind the house near the shed, leaving the engine running. He took a breath of confidence, taking out his phone. Won’t make a difference, he thought to himself. He lit a cigarette, dialing the number all the same. He glanced up at the back door, making sure no one was outside, and listened to the shrill ring on the other end.
“Ellis, how are you, fella?”
“Enough of the bullshit, Dan.” He let the smoke spill out through the cracked window.
“Hey, no need to get hostile.”
“You didn’t send the money, Danny. You know the arrangement.”
“Look, I have my own needs to look after, Ellis. I can’t go on supporting them anymore. Not when they act all helpless like they do.”
“Helpless?” Ellis wiped his mouth again, pulling violently at his dry lips. “Look, you fuckin prick. You know the arrangement. We’re in this fifty-fifty. I’m the one living up here for Christ’s sake.”
“Not my problem anymore. Never has been. You made your own bed, Ellis. I never said you had to go back the way you did.”
Ellis held the phone away from his ear a moment, taking a long pull from his cigarette. He didn’t need the preaching. He didn’t need any of it anymore.
“Look, Dan,” he said, doing his best to calm his tone. “I can’t support ’em on my own, you know that. Just … come on, man. Please don’t do this.”
“Sorry, Ellis, I gotta run. We can talk more after the weekend.”
“Did you tell Mom you and Jess was comin’ for dinner?”
“Oh, yeah,” chuckled Danny. “Just a little something to make her happy.”
“You’re such a fuckin—”
“Hey, relax. She won’t remember.”
“I hope you get what you deserve, Dan.”
Ellis hung up, tossing his phone to the other side of the truck. He killed the engine, pushing the door open. The cold, sharp air rushed into the cab. Ellis grabbed the hardware store bag and looked up at the sky, knowing it was only a matter of time now. Then everything would somehow stop. Everything would be just that much harder.
In the shed he picked up the hatchet, knocking out the old handle from the steel head. He wedged the new one in place, using a small piece of wood to fill the gap. Outside he walked over to the wood pile. He’d cut up a few old sycamores the week before. He buttoned his coat up and laid the first log on the worn stump. He gripped the hatchet tight, gritting his teeth as he came down with a heavy hand.
Danny had always told him to send them to a home, somewhere the state could take care of them.
“They mistreat people there,” Ellis had said. “We can’t do that.”
“Well, ain’t you Mr. Righteous, taking care of them,” Danny said.
Ellis brought the hatchet down even harder on the next log. Paused, put a fresh cigarette in his mouth. He coughed warm air into his hands as he stood, gazing out over his father’s land once more.
“Couldn’t even take care of your own kid,” Danny had said.
Ellis wiped as his lips, remembering the AA book . . .
One moment at a time, one day at a time
Ellis stood and stared down at the pile of logs, the ones that would have to keep them warm until he could come up with the money to turn the heat back on. He stared at the truck, knowing it could all be over in a second, it could all be done with. A long drive back to Philly, back to Sandra if she’d have him. A fresh start again, letting it all go. He thought of his old job, of the books and the dreams of writing. He thought of the poem as he stood there in the cold.
I shall set forth for somewhere, he thought. I shall make the reckless choice.
But he knew it was hopeless, that even if he did leave, he would only end up here again. Only have to start over again.
The day the bird died, Ollie was nowhere to be found, having gone down to the lake by himself. Ellis started drinking early that morning, stumbling as he hurriedly tried to move the dead bird from the back porch of their vacation house before Ollie saw it. But he was already gone. Ellis remembered his voice as he cried out for his son, trying desperately to sober his thoughts. But it was already over.
Nothing more we can do
Ellis felt his eyes swell, salty and warm. He tossed the hatchet aside, taking a seat on the sycamore stump.
You know they ain’t comin’, he told his mother. He had told himself this several times before.
Ellis sat in the cold and felt the first of the snow on his shoulders. He wiped his eyes, taking a drag from his cigarette. He stared out at the field, at the tall sycamores and elms that stood naked like bone as the snow came. He listened to the sound the trees made; to the sounds everything made around him.
The back door of the house opened, and Ellis looked up. His father’s arms were tangled in rainbow-colored Christmas lights. Ellis stared up at him, hunched and coughing as he tried to straighten the lines.
“Whatcha doin there, Pop?” Ellis came to his feet.
“Yer ma,” he said. “She wants ‘em hung.”
“It’s barely Thanksgiving.” Ellis took the lights from his father.
“I don’t think she cares no more about that.”
Ellis looked up at him, both coming into a dry smile, one that gave them a fleeting moment of peace. The cigarette hung in Ellis’s mouth as he stretched out the lights. His father took a seat on the cold metal chair on the porch, wrapping himself tighter in his robe.
“Shouldn’t be out here,” said Ellis.
“Told ya the snow would come,” said his father.
Ellis glanced out at the thin sheet of white that now covered everything.
His father stammered as he tried to speak, but knew there was nothing to say. There was nothing more to be said about any of it.
“Is that your foxie over there?” He pointed out at the field.
Ellis turned and stared. The small fox stood motionless in the snow, watching the two men as they watched him.
“He’s just tryin to live,” said Ellis, softly. “You’d better get back in there.”
Ellis set the lights down as he stepped off the porch, walking towards the fox. He tossed his cigarette out into the snow as he stood and stared. Snow fell on his shoulders and clumped frozen in his blonde hair. Ellis stood there, staring. He heard the sound the trees made, the sound everything made as it was slowly buried. The fox disappeared into the woods. Ellis made his way back to the wood pile. He filled his arms with the thin logs, knocking the snow from his feet as he walked back into the house.
“Your eggs is cold now,” said his mother as he came into the kitchen. “Shouldn’t sleep so late.”
Ellis glanced over at his father, drifting off to sleep now in front of the snowy television. He walked over and kissed his mother gently on the back of her head.“Just makin room for supper.”
She smiled at him as he carried the wood to the hearth, setting a few more logs on the fire.
Spencer K. M. Brown was born in Bedfordshire, England. His stories, poems, and essays have appeared in numerous magazines and journals. He was awarded the 2016 Penelope Niven Award for Excellence in Creative Writing. He currently lives North Carolina where he is at work on a novel.