That spring, when it seemed like every tree in the neighborhood had burst into exuberant leaf and bloom, my trees—three of them, planted years back in the rutted sidewalk—remained dry, dark, and, I thought, dead.
There they were: dead, dead, and dead. But then everything was dead, or about to be, in the early days of plague.
The sidewalk was, technically, a patch of city property. As I learned more about my rights with respect to this slice of earth, I came to learn that it was called, generally by homeowners frustrated by what would not grow there, a hell strip.
Where there were once three thriving trees—a bushy maple, a slender poplar, and a holm oak of exceptional height—there were now three blowsy skeletons.
I called the city arborist, who came to examine the bones.
You’ll cut them down?
Oh, no. They’re alive.
From a low branch of the maple he pinched a bud and crushed it between his fingers. He opened his palm and there in the center was a smear of fresh green.
He waved his smeared palm near my face. He was a small man with an air of being perpetually overlooked, and here he was with a piece of urgent evidence, something he needed me to understand.
They’re alive. I’ll bet the others are too.
I must have looked disbelieving. He wiped the contents of his hand on his work pants, green on green.
Once, the world had no seasons. Everything was temperate, some sun, some rain.
I know what temperate means, I said.
He fixed me with a hard stare.
Growing season lasted all year. In fact, there weren’t even years in those days, just one fine day after another.
Like this year, I said. Meaning: The beautiful plague spring.
Sometimes you got a shower, he continued, ignoring me. He was like that, a man who continued regardless of you.
It was nothing serious. Then, as she went zipping across a dewy meadow, a girl stumbled beneath a loblolly pine and fell into a crevasse that had been concealed by dead needles. She was swallowed up.
I’ve heard this before.
Down she went, into the dark hole.
Well, he said, this hole was very unnatural. Because at the bottom she landed in a wide dark river. All around were leaves, deep green at first and then all colors—orange, red, yellow, brown, plum, black. The river sped her distant, and then all at once it froze, in the sudden way that freezing happens when the devil does it; and a man came skating across the river’s ice face.
Who was this man?
He said: I don’t know. I can’t tell you much about him. But he lifted her up and took her away and then there was a terrible roaring and she was swept from him and back up and out and into the meadow right where she had fallen—but the meadow by then was brown and dead. Even the pine tree was in a bad way, all its needles in thick dull drifts around the base of its trunk. She heard a ticking clock. The sun threw a shadow on the pine, and the meadow became a clock face—
A clock face?
A time-keeper, he snapped. He gestured toward the three dying trees on my hell strip.
The clock struck one, the sky opened, the rest is history, he said.
That’s not history.
Things do come back, you know.
Not everything, I thought. The arborist shoved his hands in his pockets.
Everything, he insisted. Even trees.
I want new trees, I said. And I want the city to pay for them.
You and everyone else, he said.
They’re still there, those trees. I water them. I clear the weeds and break up the mineral crusts at the roots, where the dogs piss. I even pray over them, in my way, and as I do, I think of the girl floating down the dark river, the one that was flowing, perhaps even now beneath my dry trees, my bare dry feet.
is the author of a novel, Ready, Set, Oh
(Flexible Press, 2022); a novella, L’Air du Temps
(1985), forthcoming in March 2024 from Regal House; and a story collection, Guardians & Saints
, forthcoming from Cornerstone Press in 2025. She serves as books editor for Necessary Fiction and associate fiction editor at West Trade Review. Learn more: dianejosefowicz.com