I wrote the following story last year. I thought with all of the CoVid-19 chaos, a story would be a great escape. It’s not long. Enjoy and take care, xxoo
Growing up in the seventies, our only responsibility was to be occupied outside until dinner without ample blood loss or missing a limb. An old apple tree situated on a backyard lot gave us cool shade from the searing pavement of our parking lot playground and enough activity to ensure we met that responsibility. There were no monkey bars or climbing walls unless we trekked down to Steele Avenue Park. Even then we had to have an older sibling or an adult accompany us to make our way. No older sibling would be caught dead dragging his kid sister down an open street where actual people could see him. We lived in a complex of townhouses that had been developed on an old apple orchard. Some of the trees were saved, but the majority were destroyed to make room for the townhouses. One backyard still had one of the old trees and it served as a gathering place for the kids in the neighborhood. It creaked and swayed in the wind, the tenuous branches daring us to climb and sit upon them, our bare legs scraping against the dry bark. Summer days were spent climbing, making forts and playing around the trunk until dusk set in. The tree was expansive with wide enveloping arms that stretched to the sky, inviting us to linger. The crab apples became ammunition as the screams of innocent kids who wandered by the tree unaware of its silent occupants, echoed throughout the adjoining backyards. These cries of pain elicited concerned adults to venture out onto their back steps to protest the unprovoked assaults.
An older kid nailed a two by floor across the middle branches of the tree making a perfect lookout spot. If a kid got to the tree early enough he could sit on the plank with another kid and keep watch over the backyards, ammunition at the ready. Kids who were good at climbing would clamber up around the crow’s nest to the top of the tree calling names and daring others to climb higher. The tree was abandoned in the darkening night save for a few brave souls who remained hidden in her shadowy leaves determined to claim a spot on the plank. I always had a sense of comfort sitting up in that tree, secreted away from the noise of the other kids’ roughhousing, the revving of car engines and slamming of screen doors. My eyes closed I would raise my face into the cool leaves allowing the tree to wrap me in her false sense of security. My feet would dangle precariously from the plank, the cold smooth wood underneath me, my hands clenched onto the encroaching branches. I was directed not to ‘let go’ by my brother. He was the only reason I was sitting up on the plank in the first place. His fate was clenched in my fist as tight as those branches had I fallen. I’m sure the phrase “Watch out for your sister and don’t let her climb that tree,” was said on more than one occasion. Much to my delight my brother would pay no heed and would only allow me to get to the plank if he was there. Otherwise, I was on my own. I dared not climb without him, and usually, he would knock a kid or two out of the way just so I could get a chance to sit up there. It was a glorious accomplishment and I relished every second. I would sit and view the world, a queen on her pedestal overlooking her court. The jostling and screams of wrestling boys and girls playing tag as several kids tried to climb the chain-link fence without getting their shorts stuck on the links that jutted out on the top. It was an active and chaotic yard.
No one tried to kick anyone out of the crow’s nest or push anyone off. If a kid got to the spot first, he owned it. Plain and simple. I wasn’t a very good climber. My brother would make sure no one tried to knock me down or take my post, but he would climb up and ask me to move claiming it was his ‘turn’ on the plank. I was obligated to climb down and gaze upwards at the kids higher than the plank seat as the crab apples tumbled to my feet; the damp earth trampled and worn from our sneakers’ incessant pounding. The chain-link fence that surrounded the back yard sequestered the tree as if attempting to cage it from the adjacent parking lot of the businesses that it bunkered. There was a hole in the fence just across the tree that provided a short cut to the variety store parking lot where it was twenty-five cents for a bottle of pop if it was drunk inside the store, and thirty cents if it was ported outside its doors. I spent many days hovering around the pop machine inside the store trying to drink as fast as humanly possible to catch up to the other kids who were already down the path back to the tree. Just like the crab apples, it didn’t make for very good stomachs afterward. For most of that summer, we managed to skirt trouble and broken limbs with only sporadic blood loss. Until one fateful day when we didn’t.
That hot day in July started like any other. The sun blistered the pavement sending kids for multiple requests to parents for change for popsicles and ice cream treats from the Dickie Dee truck. We could hear his bell jingle from around the last housing development and the ensuing pandemonium resulted in chaotic line organizations for a chance to buy the first treat. We gathered under the shade of the apple tree, our popsicles dripping down our bare legs making them sticky orange masses. Blades of grass and dirt would stick to us making it look as if we rolled in glue and fresh grass cuttings, sending our mothers running for wet washcloths and exclamations of “What a mess!” After the mass cleanup, we again pandered for the crow’s nest resulting in shrieks of dismay and more wrestling for branches still waiting for eager occupants. Some kids trotted off to the nearby Thames River to throw rocks under the cool bridge or to watch the Americans moor their boats for the weekend. The rest of us sat under the tree, relishing the shade and quiet rustle of the leaves. A few boys sauntered by the tree, my brother among them giggling in hushed excitement at their new toy.
A pellet gun had been presented. I spotted the black handle and the fervor the boys expressed as they encased it in their small hands. They took turns holding it, impressed with its power they perceived it held. They ogled over its smooth finish and weighty trigger. They practiced holding it in two hands and then in one hand, pointing it at the fence and then at the trunk of the tree. They searched the branches for a wayward squirrel or latent wren that they could shoot. Appalled that an innocent squirrel or bird could be maimed, the girls retreated to the parking lot to skip and dance among sprays of the water hose on a front lawn, leaving the boys to their prey. Lunch turned into the late afternoon and once again we made our way back to the tree. The boys were still hunched around the trunk. I could see the black gun barrel protruding from my brother’s shaky hand. He aimed intently at a bird perched on a high branch as it sang to the sky. In horror, a young girl screamed out scaring the bird and obliterating my brother’s concentration. A blast fragmented the quiet summer day. The pellet had missed its intended target. The little girl who had protested the impending slaughter of a bird slumped into a heap a few feet in front of me. Blood seeped from her chest as her face contorted into a scowl. I screamed in horror. I stared into my brother’s ashen face, his eyes staring at the girl lying limp at my feet. He dropped the gun and ran. The other boys were quick to scream and run, one scurrying to the girl, one clamoring to a neighbor’s door pounding in panic. I stood frozen in my spot, crying and sobbing in terror. With the chaotic movements of parents and kids running and screaming, there was no time to think nor any time to move. The ground reverberated with desperate feet. Questions and demands were hurled through the humid air as the mother of the girl lifted her daughter’s sweat-soaked head checking for consciousness, blood soaking her hands. I stared up at the apple tree. Its quiet branches seemed less inviting, the leaves remained still in the weight of the afternoon heat. It absorbed the chaos, the cries, and the blood. The bird had flown away. The tree stood steadfast and waited in stoic silence as the child was picked up and hoisted to a car to be transported to the hospital. We were all ordered home at once, parents questioning kids, reprimanding the carelessness and providing as much comfort to other parents as possible.
We stayed inside for the rest of the day. Few words were spoken as dinner was placed on the table, the heavy absence of my brother felt throughout the house. Despite my mother’s searches he was nowhere to be found. The police car was still outside even after my father had returned from work, a panic phone call urging him home at once. He remained outside with the officer as dusk descended and games of hide and seek were long forbidden. He stormed through the house snatching my brother’s grade five picture from the photo album. It was the one with his half-smile and a straight bowl cut. He shoved it into the police officer’s hand. My mother paced in the hallway as we waited for news of him and the girl he shot, the evening growing darker with every step my mother took. My eyelids grew heavy with sleep but I was determined to wait out the night and to see my brother home. “He’s small,” I heard my father plead to the police officer. Weeks passed, the summer retreated into fall and the neighborhood fell in step with the march of time. The girl’s family moved, too distraught by her death to remain. My parents’ guilt became too much and I watched my father pack a suitcase and leave without a “goodbye.” My mother’s morning ritual of retching away her worry yet another sound I was forced to tune out. My brother had flown away like the bird who escaped the intended pellet. I still wait for his return.
The following summer, we went back to the apple tree. The crow’s nest remained and we continued to dare each other to climb up to reach it. With my brother no longer there to knock kids out of the way for my ascent to the perch, I conceded to sitting beneath its expansive branches. The leaves were in full bloom and the crab apples tumbled around me as I closed my eyes and listened to the echoes of the backyard kids. They climbed higher up the tree, the limbs creaking beneath their weight and the leaves rustling with movement. A tear slid down my face as I opened my eyes and clutched a crab apple from the ground. A robin flew and perched on the chain-link fence in front of me, its head darting side to side. It stayed despite the commotion and I clutched the crab apple tighter, ready to throw. I raised my hand to strike and the robin gazed into my face as if daring me to follow through. For a moment, I stared back. The apple sailed from my grasp launching the robin skyward, its wings whipping the humid air. I watched it as it flew high above the apple tree and out into the summer sky.