The Arborist

Stephen Benzel

(Continued—p. 3 of 3)

 

“Hey, come back here! You come back here!”

 

Matthew ignored Potter’s protests and got in the truck. He backed out on to the road, skidding on the gravel as he rammed the gas pedal into the floorboard. The truck raced down the road, and he looked in the mirror to see if the old man was following. He saw no one and looked forward just in time to avoid hitting a young woman crossing the street. He swerved around her, and continued without looking back again.

 

Away from Nabernathy, the trees and fences outside the window were a blur. He drove as fast he dared, ignoring the holes and unevenness that marred the road. His mind raced, and he struggled to understand these new circumstances, futilely trying to resolve the conflicting facts he had been given. Matthew gripped the wheel tightly, as if he needed desperately to find something solid and logical to attach himself to before his thoughts overtook him. Eventually he slowed the truck down and calmed himself, his phlegmatic nature prevailing over the inexplicable dilemma in which he found himself. He looked down to see an old shoe on the floorboard, brown and worn, and he wondered if it was Simon Delahanty’s. He could not take his focus off the shoe, and suddenly Simon became a real person to Matthew, not just a frightening phantom from Alice’s past. Simon Delahanty was a man, a child of God who, three days ago, had walked this earth. He was a man, a husband, and a father, and they both shared these distinctions.

 

Now he approached the drive that led to the farmhouse and he slowed the truck to a crawl, stopping in the middle of the road. The charming white house that had so comforted him the night before stood on the hill peacefully, and he realized he could just barely see Mrs. Delahanty on the front porch, rocking, which meant that she could see him. He put his forehead to the wheel and prayed. No prayer of his before or since then was as honest, earnest, and critical as this one, this prayer for strength and wisdom. He beseeched God. When he looked up, she was no longer on the porch.

 

Matthew pulled the truck into the drive and steadily drew nearer to the house. His own truck sat where he left it, and he determined that he would fix it quickly and disappear. For many long minutes he had tried to discern the correct move, how to approach her and solve this alarming puzzle, and now he had arrived at his solution: go home. He had his money and his hat, and everything else of his that was in that house would remain there. He parked the truck next to his own, picked up the pump, and got out.

 

She was not in sight, and there was no sound. The entire hill seemed to be poised on the brink of collapse, waiting for a cataclysmic event. Matthew expected to see Simon Delahanty emerge from the farmhouse, dragging his wife behind him, charging infidelity. He expected the sheriff to come rolling up the drive, shotgun raised. He expected all of creation to attack him at once, devouring him. The truck was waiting, and he approached it.

 

His heart beat swiftly and his sweat was plentiful as the sun beat on him and the windows of the house observed his work. He tried to fix the truck quickly, but his hands were clumsy and did not want to hold any tools properly.

 

“Are you doing all right, Mr. Brown?” she shouted from her front door. He leapt away from the truck, nearly falling backwards.

 

“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

 

He regained his balance, but did not look to the house. His voice was somewhat feeble when he said, “It’s fine, ma’am. I’m almost done.”

 

“Come in here and see me before you go.”

 

He returned to the truck and shortly finished his job. There was a strong wind then, sweeping across the hill, and it blew his hat off. He raced after it as it rolled across the hill towards the barn. He caught up with it, looked towards the house and walked quickly back to his truck, got in, and grasped the key in the ignition. At that moment the old, lonely brown shoe that sat in the Delahanty truck entered his mind, and he did not turn the key. Twice he resolved to start the engine, but each time the image of the shoe returned, and he could not do it. He was motionless, both hands on the wheel. Once again he prayed, and when he opened his eyes, directly in front of him he saw the barn. The old dog had not moved from yesterday’s post, lying in front of the barn door. He looked towards the farmhouse, then back to the barn, then to the house again. Fear was not an emotion he knew well, and though he felt it in abundance then, he got out of the truck. He stood still for a moment, then slowly walked across the slope, the same path his hat had followed, looking up the hill frequently.

 

The old barn loomed before him, and he saw the door was held closed by a shovel leaning against it. The dog turned its head towards Matthew as he drew near, the wagging of its tail letting him know the animal was not hostile. He picked up the shovel and opened the door, taking the shovel with him, and the dog darted into the barn. The inside was dark and musty, smelling of old hay and rot. The stalls appeared to be empty; a work table on the left was covered with tools and parts, and a rusted scythe hung from a rafter. Each stall showed no occupant as he slowly made his way to the back of the barn, to where the dog had disappeared. He constantly looked back to the door.

 

In the last stall on the left, the dog had lain back down next to a heap covered by a red blanket, and Matthew stood and scrutinized it. He wanted very much to turn away and get in his truck and leave this place forever, but he walked towards the mound in the stall that surely hid an atrocity. He stood above it, leaned down, and pulled the cover away. There laid Simon Delahanty facedown in the hay. Matthew closed his eyes and whispered, “God give me strength.” He opened his eyes, knelt, and examined the body. The corpse wore overalls, a white undershirt, and one brown shoe. A gunshot wound disfigured the back of the head, blood congealed in the thin gray hair, and a family of flies assaulted the area; he tried futilely to drive them away with his hat. He could tell that the blood was still moist, and figured the man had died only two or three days ago. He stared at the bare foot, wondering how the other shoe came to be in the dead man’s truck, and suddenly realized his life might be in danger. He ran out of the barn and saw Alice Delahanty there in the tall grass, wearing a yellow dress, brandishing a pistol, beautiful.

 

They were both still and silent; everything was at that moment utterly without sound. Surely that silence must have extended across county, state, country, and all the world to produce such a perfect noiselessness. For years they stood there, motionless statues; perhaps they had always stood there.

 

Like a thunderclap, her voice broke the silence.

 

“I had to shoot him, Mr. Brown.” She started crying. He still held the shovel. “He drove me to it. He made me do it!” she screamed. The gun wavered back and forth, but always returned to its target. “He hurt me and hurt me and hurt me till I was nothing but a, a walking carcass. He squeezed the life out of me, Matthew.”

 

“Alice, please…” he said.

 

“Alice Delahanty, put down your weapon!”

 

They both turned to see two police officers slowly approaching them, guns trained on her. She continued to aim for Matthew, but addressed the newcomers.

 

“Sheriff, this man did nothing wrong! I shot my husband! I shot Simon.”

 

“Alice, please, just drop the gun and put your hands in the air. Do it right now. Everything will be fine if you put the gun down.”

 

She looked into Matthew’s eyes then and said, “Peter’s gate.” She put the gun to her temple and shot.

 

 

The weight of living life as souls must live it creates a strain on the wholeness of the mind. The mind is fragile, even more so than the body, and this world prepares a wealth of things that poison and crush both, and a very few precious things that uplift and nurture. A weary soul combats this imbalance by finding something solid and firm to ally itself with. Human beings are imperfect and flimsy objects, needy of a foundation to support them when sorrows come, and they spend their whole lives searching for it and growing it. But sometimes it is not enough.

 

Matthew Brown sat on the tailgate of his truck, and his foundation that he considered so potent and resilient was just then barely sustaining him. He answered the sheriff’s questions without thinking, telling the story of the last two days as if repeating a tale he once heard, not allowing himself to believe it actually happened. There were many more people there now: police officers, the coroner, several townspeople, and even Potter, eyeing Matthew as suspiciously as ever.

 

Matthew could only look down at his hands that shook, wanting greatly to have never heard of Nabernathy or Alice Delahanty. He then became aware that he was being spoken to.

 

“…confession from Mrs. Delahanty and since Simon’s gunshot wound is older than your stay here. Do you understand, Mr. Brown? You are free to go.”

 

Those last five words registered with him, and he nodded. He dropped to the ground and walked to the truck door.

 

“You okay to drive yourself? You ain’t injured, but, you know, are you okay?”

 

“I’m fine, sheriff. I just want to get home.”

 

He got in the truck and shut the door, while the sheriff watched him closely. Matthew sat with his hands on the wheel for a few moments, and then turned to look at him.

 

“She was wrong. She said they were the split branches, but that ain’t it. They have to be the trunk, one thing. They can’t be split. The soil is the love, the earth.”

 

The sheriff stared at him, frowning.

 

“Are you sure you’re okay to…”

 

He started the truck and drove away from the farmhouse. The arborist drove home, again as fast as he dared, to his family.

 

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Stephen Benzel is trying very hard not to be an accountant. This is his first published work. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where he teaches Sunday School and straight-up dominates his fantasy baseball league. His wife, the greatest woman in the world, is Amanda, and his dog, an above average cairn terrier, is Chewie.

 

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Story Copyright © 2006 Stephen Benzel. All rights reserved.