Nathan A. Ferguson

writer | adventurer

Tall Trees

A short story

Originally appeared in Pooled Ink, a literary anthology.

 

BY NATHAN A. FERGUSON

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I was high enough in the redwood tree that the cops couldn't reach me. I'd counted 10 trespassing tickets tacked to the lower trunk. The rain had ceased, but big drops were rolling off the leaves 200 feet higher and hitting the tarp above the recycled wood platform. Northern California could be so cold.

The things I'd do for Trevor. He was probably back at our apartment half-drunk, half-stoned or half-crazy. How many times had I written his college papers? Or lied to the police about his whereabouts?

redwood treesTomorrow was Election Day and Trevor wanted to vote. He could have voted absentee like I did, but he didn't have his shit together enough to send in the form. So he passed the duty on to me, the rookie tree-sitter, to protect the tree that he'd named Athena. Trevor figured the logging company would slay her the minute he came down.

It was now 8 p.m. and the fog had moved in to the delight of the big trees. I'd been studying Athena's bark patterns since noon. I owed something to Trevor for getting me out of the apartment and onto the cliffs near Mount Shasta last summer. I avoided most risks anymore with a bad leg, which I shattered in a motorcycle accident when I was 18, but I soon became a decent enough climbing partner, not that I had overcome all of my fears. Trevor was different. On rock his lanky frame moved with the confidence of a lizard.

Fear of falling 10 stories had sapped my energy. I was dozing off when I heard howling penetrate the fog. It was high pitched and female. Tree-sitters greeted each other that way in the forest, but without practice, I thought I'd embarrass myself by howling back. I waited for the flickering light to come closer.

She/it howled again.

"Hello," I said.

"Is that the best you can do for me, Palmer?"

It was Calliope, Trevor's girlfriend. She was aiming her headlamp up the tree trunk and asked if she could come up. I lowered the rope. In the light I could see her putting on her climbing harness. She connected her ascenders to the rope and started working her way toward the forest canopy. Girls back in Upstate New York couldn't climb like she could.
I helped her swing over to the platform and clipped the back of her harness to some nylon webbing with a climbing carabiner.

"Thanks, Palmer," she said, as if I had opened a door for her. She slid off her backpack and let it thud on the platform. "I brought you some goodies. Green tea. Those granola thingies you like. Dried fruit. Chocolate. You gotta have chocolate if you're spending a night in a tree."

I thanked her. "How's Trevor?"

"How should I know?" She took off her headlamp.

I always loved Calliope's personality. She was the stabilizing factor within the Incredibly Round Earth Society, the cool head among burning torches. She came from a farm family in flat, humid Bakersfield. As the public relations chief, she gathered newspaper clippings and Web postings of the movement's exploits, and rallied everybody when Trevor decided it was time to protest. She was in her sophomore year at the university. I was a senior.

Trevor, on the other hand, was the son of a San Francisco shipping magnate. I remember the day we went to the bank, him all stinking of booze, salt water and sex. The teller must have thought he was homeless until she saw how much he had in his account. Trevor thought it was cool to act poor. He had gone to several colleges in Northern California but, at 25, failed to complete a degree. He liked to lead without responsibility, provide the lightning without thunder. I sensed the movement was beginning to fracture, with some saying he was in it all for himself.

Calliope looked up at me with a confident smile, her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. My memory filled in the hazel in her eyes under the dim light from the battery-powered lantern. That's how she must have looked to the judges when she was a high school gymnast. She had that petite, well-proportioned frame, packing plenty of power, and never wore much makeup. Calliope would make us breakfast in nothing more than a long T-shirt. That was until Trevor began the marathon tree-sit a month ago to save Athena. I missed Calliope's smile hovering above the stove.

"Not much room to dance up here," she said. "What've you been doing?"

"Counting squirrels."

"And you're up to?"

"Twelve, counting you."

She puffed up her cheeks. "I guess I'll take that as a compliment."

"You should. Squirrels are extremely cute."

She slapped my shoulder. "Been reading?" Calliope knew I liked to read. She had borrowed books from our apartment.

"Mostly I've been dozing off. I'm glad I can't see the ground anymore."

"I'm here," she said, putting her hands around my waist in a kind of half-hug. "I'll keep you safe."

I could never tell if she was interested in me. One morning when Trevor was off somewhere, we sat at the kitchen table and talked about our families. She reached over the table and held my hand in hers, warmed by a mug of tea. Calliope wanted to know why I hadn't been around much, and I told her I was trotting along the beach for therapy. Truth be told, I was afraid to be in the house when they were most likely to have sex. Calliope didn't make much noise in the past, but a creak of the bed lately was enough to tear away at my dreams of being with a woman like her.

At the same time, I knew Trevor was leading a double life; steamy sex with other women, sometimes in trees. As long as the coastal redwoods were around, Trevor would have a steady source of groupies and an element of danger to turn them on. But how could he do it behind Calliope's back?

Athena held us up now with her hundreds of years of patience. I sat on a foam pad with my back up against the tree trunk. Calliope sat between my legs with her back to me as if we were about to go sledding off into oblivion. We listened to the redwoods shedding water. Calliope was wearing fleece pants. She leaned back to unzip her insulated parka and I took in her mango-scented shampoo. She'd left a bottle of it in our shower. Underneath was a turtleneck. She reached in her backpack and pulled out the thermos of tea. She poured a cup, took a drink, then carefully handed it back to me.

"I know about the women," she said, as I was about to take a drink.

"The women?"

"Trevor's little sluts."

"How'd you find out?"

"A woman journalist, oddly enough."

"I'm sorry. That's a horrible way to find out."

"Especially because I helped build Trevor into whatever he is now. How do you think he got on all those magazine covers?"

Trevor was, after all, a marked man ever since he chained himself to the bumper of a car, which happened to be owned by a logging company president, and fasted for three days. Though weak, he shoved the police when they cut him free. With the long hair and gyrating hips, people compared him to Jim Morrison of The Doors. Thanks to the national publicity, blondes with dreadlocks started showing up at our apartment at all hours with fake handcuffs and flowers, making offerings to a god who subsisted on Fruit Loops and popcorn.

"That's why you're here? The women?"

"I'm here to see you. I didn't think either of us would be sleeping well tonight."

"I wanted to tell you."

"You couldn't. I know. I respect that."

I handed the cup back to her. I reached for my down sleeping bag and pulled it around the two of us. "I'm glad you turned out to be a squirrel instead of a wolf."

"I didn't think I was good at howling."

"Scared the hell out of me."

Her head drooped. "You know, I see you as a family man someday."

"Really? Now I feel boring."

"No, you're not. We're high in tree on a flimsy platform built by my cheating so-called boyfriend."

My mind locked on the "so-called" part. She'd never put it that way.

We finished the rest of the tea and she stowed the thermos in her pack. She reached back and grabbed my wrists and placed them on her little knees. I instinctively rubbed her thighs and her head fell back on my shoulder. Her legs were as smooth and firm as the arm rests on a velvet wingback chair we used to have.

"That feels so good. You have strong hands. Sure you weren't a farm boy?"

"I aim to please."

"Oh, you do," she said.

More drops hit the tarp.

"So what's your deal? You've always been on the periphery of the group. It's almost like you've been studying us."

"I moved in with Trevor mainly because the apartment was cheap. Besides, his circle seemed entertaining. Then I got sucked in, at least partially."

"It's easy to do."

"Unlike Trevor, I want to finish my degrees and get out of school." I was majoring in environmental science and economics and wanted to find ways to make environmental policy profitable. They nicknamed me Wall Street for the budget work I did for the movement.

Calliope leaned forward. "Now do my shoulders."

She rolled her head side to side as I rubbed. When her head stopped moving, I hugged her waist tightly and she pressed back into me.

"Who do you admire?" she asked.

"Besides you for bringing me chocolate?"

"Yes," she laughed, "besides me."

"Teddy Roosevelt."

"That's an interesting choice."

"He created Yellowstone and overcame tragedy. He lost his wife and mother on the same day in the same house."

"Same day?" she asked.

"Valentine's Day."

"Oh, that's sad. So sad."

"I read about him when I was all messed up in the hospital."

"How's your leg? Is it this one?" She guessed left, which was correct.

"It hurts when it's cold and damp, but you took my mind off it."

"Score one for me. So you didn't know it was cold and damp when you moved here?"

"I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I read about Roosevelt going out West to rebuild his life. That's what inspired me."

"That's beautiful. I like that."

I hugged her again. "Are you warm enough?" On the North Coast, it was either 55 degrees and rainy or 65 degrees and sunny, mostly the former, year-round.

"Oh yeah, Palmer," she said. "I feel great."

I put my hands back on her thighs and slowly worked my way up, expecting to find my limits. I felt her turtleneck and she wasn't wearing a bra. I caressed her breasts and she rolled her head on my shoulder. I moved back down. The harness left open the crotch area and I felt moisture work its way through her tights.

"Definitely not a farm boy," she said. "You've got the soft touch."

Just as she was getting excited, she rolled over and kissed me. Again and again. Long ones and short ones. She stopped to remove her jacket.

"Oh," she said, flicking some strands of hair over her ear. She unzipped her jacket pocket and pulled out a condom. The wrapper trembled in her fingertips.

love signShe stared into my eyes and must have seen my own nervousness, but the darkness and the great trees and our lust for skin made us behave drunkenly as we started undoing our waist belts. If the platform collapsed now, we'd be yanked out of our leg straps and fall headfirst. I made a pillow out of our jackets and slid down while she climbed on top. The lantern had dimmed, but I could still see the lines of her little face. More rain hit the tarp. Our pants were partway down in a confused mess of softness and sweat.

"Damn this climbing equipment," she said, before landing on my chest.

It was a good excuse for us to stop and come to our senses. Maybe this was impossible. Maybe we weren't willing to completely let go. I pulled the sleeping bag back around us and formed a cocoon.

I asked her to stay for a while.

"Lovely." She put her arm around my neck. "You know what they're going to say, don't you?"

I shook my head.

"Palmer and Calliope, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G."

"How will they find out?"

"The trees talk."

We dozed for a bit until one of us must have moved. We slept some more, but this time for a couple of hours. We awoke at the same time. More rain. Our eyes met and we immediately started kissing again. Our minds were still out in the land of dreams where you could fall but not actually die. She reached down and, with her eyes still focused on mine, started removing her harness. I followed her lead and we pulled off our pants. She climbed on top of me and we worked ourselves into an ancient ritual under trees that had been around for centuries. We didn't bother looking for the condom. We were animals now. Whether or not we were still dreaming, as the platform creaked and groaned, we were depending on Trevor's carpentry skills to protect us from gravity.

We restored our pants and harnesses and slept until dawn, although dawn came later in the darkness of the redwood forest. She had awakened once in the night to laughingly pee in a bucket.

"Time for your little squirrel to get to class. That was a nice night."

"That was a perfect night." The oddness of it all still hadn't sunken in.

"Are you staying up here all day?"

"Until tonight. That's what I promised."

"You don't need to make promises. I think this tree will be safe for a few hours."

She stretched, put on her backpack, and gave the coil of climbing rope a kick. The rope became taut, dangling from the loop of webbing around the trunk above us. She ran her figure-eight rappelling device through the rope.

"This should be a fun commute," she said. "Call me when you come back to Earth."

As we were kissing goodbye, she fell away with a playful smirk. She zipped down the rope about ten feet and stopped. I peeked out over the platform.

"Hey," she said. "You're a generous lover."

"That's the nicest thing you could have said."

I watched her turn into a yellow dot. Calliope ran up the trail and disappeared into the fog's clutches.

By blowing off a class or two, I had the rest of the day to think about her. Was she just getting back at Trevor? Would she return to him? Would this become some awkward event that we would never talk about again? Or was she, in fact, my little squirrel? Whatever happened with her, I decided to tell Trevor. I couldn't live under the same roof in a fog of deceit. I'd pack my things and move out, whatever happened.

I held up my end of the deal anyway and stayed up in the tree until evening. This was more out of respect for Athena than Trevor. I rappelled to the ground and patted her on the bark.

 


 

I found the apartment full of marijuana stink, and it would have been dark if it weren't for the disco ball shooting a too-perfect universe on the walls and ceiling as if God himself had been stoned. There was a forest of cannabis with red Christmas ornaments hanging from their leaves. Trevor didn't think highly of the police, especially federal agents, and thought he could fool them into thinking they were tomato plants.

I took a shower and saw that Calliope's shampoo bottle was half empty. For the first time, I took a little. Would anyone notice?

I grabbed some pizza from the refrigerator then jumped in my beat-up Toyota truck. Members of the movement were probably at The Nest on the peninsula. Our headquarters was about the only place in California where poor people in windblown bungalows and shanties could live near the ocean. Trevor had bought a two-room house complete with flower boxes and a white picket fence. If it weren't for the giant banners on either side of the slanted roofs that read, "No More Clear-Cutting" and "Take Action, End Greed," my grandmother could have moved in. A home inspection had revealed that the house, like many other older ones in the area, had been built with genuine redwood beams and siding. Trevor wasn't bothered by it. He said we were merely recycling. He laughed when I questioned whether it was a good investment.

"It's just money," he said. "It never loved me so why should I love it?"

The home inspector looked at us askance while he was taking notes. "Don't let this place catch fire," he said. "This shit burns fast."

Trevor just smiled. The house was consistent with his hot-headed personality.

When I pulled up outside The Nest, there were four other cars, including Trevor's VW bus. The surfboards had blown over on the porch and two of the sea kayaks were probably out on the bay. Our bearded and always-oblivious webmaster, Bytes, was grilling vegan burgers in the side yard.

He raised his water bottle to me."Hey, Wall Street."

The front door had a giant padlock attached to it but it was never locked. The Nest was always occupied. Inside I was met with the sounds of bongo drums. I didn't recognize two of the people, but they acted like they knew me. We always had a fresh supply of new students or people who came from all over to be in Trevor's presence.

Logging plans were tacked to the walls and there were pictures of coho salmon, northern spotted owls, pileated woodpeckers and flying squirrels scattered about. Signup sheets for upcoming workshops on banner painting, road blockading and tree climbing were partially filled out.

I asked about Trevor and a girl with a beaded headband pointed toward the back room. I stuck my head in and heard the sliding of heavy-duty zippers, the clank of aluminum pans, and the rustling of nylon.

"Man, what the fuck happened to the beer?" he asked.

"I don't know."

"Of course you don't know. You're too goody-goody for half the shit around here," he said, as he was throwing bags of rice into his backpack.

I asked him where he was headed.

"Just taking the show to Oregon. There's a big protest up there. Maybe the biggest. As soon as I get my shit together, that is."

"They want some celebrity?"

"All they can get," He smirked as he stomped back into the main room, not noticing that he'd hit me on the shoulder, Calliope's pillow, with his backpack.

"How long this time?"

"I don't know, eternity."

He always said that, although I was hoping for a straight answer for once. I was beginning to lose my nerve.

He carried his pack and a duffle bag out to the VW bus and came back for a couple of stolen milk crates.

"Dude, thanks for handling Athena last night. I think we took care of that rat bag running for office. I got somebody else taking over for you. I know you like your studies. Have you seen Calliope? We need to get a press release out there. I can't keep track of that fucking broad."

Fucking broad? Since when did she become that? I was irritated now. "I saw her last night," I said.

"In the tree?"

I nodded.

He tried to read more from my face, which must have been blank, then took the milk crates out to the bus. I heard him slam the side door many times like a spray of gunshots in the ghetto, shades of my last apartment. I wasn't sure if the door latch was failing again or he was angry. It was obvious that he'd come down from his latest high.
He came back in, grabbed his keys, and pulled his jacket from the cushions on the sofa. Popcorn flew out. He stopped in the doorway with his back facing me, his head cocked.

"Did you fuck her?"

"Yeah," I said.

He nodded a few times and tried to act like he didn't care. But I could see the jealousy rising in his shoulders, the muscles tensing in his jaw.

"Stop the fucking drums." He glared at the man in a knit fisherman's hat. The man's eyes were closed as if he were in a Havana bar and charming serpentine dancers. "Stop the fucking drums," Trevor said again.

Before the man could yank them away, Trevor was turning them into kindling with his hiking boots.

Trevor stomped out and I felt stares on my back from what remained of the dance floor.
As I followed, I heard him slam the driver's side door. The windows were always halfway open, despite the rain. He started up the engine as if the rumbling of mistuned valves and pistons could speak for him. For a second I thought Trevor had made it so easy for me and that was that. He slammed on the brakes and his hair flowed over his shoulders.

"Hey," he said, the hair whipping back. "Fuck you."

From his pointy eyes and focused brow, I knew it was the first time since I had known him that he wasn't kidding.

 


 

With a wave from Bytes, I headed back to the apartment. When I dialed the phone, I was surprised to get Calliope's chipper voicemail. I figured she must have been in the shower or at the library, so I hung up. I came up with more excuses as the evening went on and dialed two more times, finally leaving a message, but she didn't call back. More excuses. Days went by and still nothing.

I sent an e-mail to Bytes to see if he knew anything.

"Comrade," he wrote back quickly. "She lit out. She went to Oregon."

I stared at the screen, byte by byte. My stomach turned. So she's back with him? And she didn't have the decency to tell me?

 


 

For the next two weeks I was careful where I went on campus. I stuck to routes that were safe from Calliope, never in such a hurry to graduate.

Then one night there was a pounding. Calliope? My sleepy brain, I learned, could be forgiving. As I made my way to the door, I knew it wasn't her because it was too masculine.

"Man, did you hear?" Bytes' eyes were burning red and he was breathing hard. It wasn't like him to make house calls.

I couldn't react.

"Trevor, man, Trevor," Bytes went on. "He's dead."

I immediately thought of a car accident for some reason. I saw a smashed up VW.

"Dead?"

"He fell, man. He fucking fell."

 


 

As the shock was setting in, some members of the movement went on a media rampage. They were posting items on the blog, calling Trevor's death a murder. They claimed that there was a yelling match going on between protesters and loggers, which had distracted Trevor. They also were checking into some potential climbing gear failures. Mainstream media reports quoted the police as saying that Trevor had fallen after the protest had disbursed and that he wasn't roped in.

I had a different view. Maybe he was distracted by the betrayal of his own roommate, friend and climbing partner. I didn't want to go near The Nest.

The funeral took days to pull together as Trevor's father was returning from the Middle East on business. While it was taking shape, the movement circulated a post-mortem picture of Trevor on the Internet. They'd converted it to black and white, but with some novel photo editing, had left his eyes blue. His face was perfectly preserved and he had this peaceful look as if he were back in our apartment on his favorite chair. He was an instant martyr and the movement knew he would live on as long as the redwoods in some digital form.

Guilt was already nibbling away at me in the quiet ash heap of our apartment. Members of the movement came by to collect Trevor's belongings. As soon as everything was gone, including the beer and pot plants, I went on an all-night cleaning frenzy. I washed the walls, waxed the floors, and vacuumed every fiber of the carpet. I'd forgotten what season it was until Christmas lights started popping out on Victorian homes.

 


 

I was walking along the beach one morning, a week before Christmas. I was about to hop on a plane that afternoon for New York to exchange brown sand for brown snow. The beach was never crowded, not with the cold water and unreliable sunshine. A few surfers in wetsuits had packed it in and were walking with slumped shoulders to the north toward Oregon.

The tide had gone out and the sand was hard enough for running, but I didn't feel like it today. The ocean had drawn me here by its own accord. Once the surfers had disappeared, I noticed something else moving about a quarter of a mile away. At first I thought it was a large bird or a trash bag washed up, but then it stood up. From the movement, I knew it was Calliope in a navy barn coat and blowing hair.

Clutching a sand dollar, she turned toward me.

"You're picking up the broken ones?" I asked.

"I used to think that's what I did best," she said. "I thought you'd be out here somewhere."

"So I guess this qualifies as somewhere. Shouldn't you be in Bakersfield for the holidays?"

"I'm leaving soon. I would assume that you're returning to the Arctic."

I nodded.

"Winter is nice, but not totally necessary. I'm such a wimp." She dropped the sand dollar.

"Mind if we sit down over there?"

We found a spot on a redwood trunk. I was about to express sadness for the way some giant trees end up this way, but I couldn't do that. I was still mad at Calliope and didn't want to mask my pain. We looked out at the ocean and there wasn't much to see, except more water and mist creeping around the point.

"I think I killed him," I said.

"That's a helluva a way to break the silence."

"No, really. He was distraught when I told him about our night in the tree. He wanted to run me over."

She cradled her head in her hands for a moment. "There was a lot more to it than that," she said.

"I heard you went to Oregon."

She let her hands fall and looked over at me. "I did and it was a disaster," she said, dabbing her eyes with her scarf.

"You saw Trevor?"

"I found him easily enough. We had a big fight in the woods. I knew I'd hurt him and I guess I wanted him to show it in some sincere, non-explosive sort of way. But he wasn't capable of that."

I shook my head. "So you just left?"

"Not before resigning as his so-called PR chief. He didn't seem to care."

"Did you go to the funeral?"

She shook her head.

"Me neither," I said. "I felt as if I'd been kicked out of the movement. It went off in some strange direction."

"It's not our fault. Trevor was a great climber. How do you think he managed so many affairs?"

"That's true. He had incredible focus. I saw it when we went rock climbing. Except he had that death wish, which made me nervous. But he used to say, 'Not today, partner, not today.'"

"Jesus. What a way to live."

"So I guess he got what he wanted," I said. "How about you?"

She smirked. "Not entirely. I've made a big mess of things."

"I'm sorry I contributed to the mess."

"No, no. You don't need to apologize for anything."

We watched a seagull hover above the waves.

"I think you're addicted to drama."

"That's insightful," she said. "Have you been doing some thinking out here?"

"Mostly tearing up the sand. I run a couple of miles each way. It gets tough at high tide."

"I think you're right about me. But I don't want this craziness in my personal life anymore. I think I got my passions mixed up. I'm sorry Trevor had to die for me to realize that."

"And I think you're right about me. This is a good place to think."

"I bet you're in the best shape of your life."

I nodded to her as well as the seagull who probably recognized me.

"Look, I'm sorry for disappearing," she said. "I didn't mean to hurt you."

"I know," I said, which of course I didn't.

A misty rain flicked our faces and provided an easy escape for either of us, but we stayed and watched the waves destroy themselves. It was getting colder.

"This might turn into snow," I said.

"Oh, great."

"No, really. Snow on redwoods is the most beautiful thing you'll ever see."

"That does sound beautiful."

"At least Athena is doing OK," I said.

"Yeah, she's quite all right."

I realized now that we were every bit as alone as we were that night in the tree, except there was nothing left to explore.

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Originally appeared in Pooled Ink. Photos by Nathan A. Ferguson.