The Cottonwood Trees were still bare, though the empty branches had brown tips as if they had been individually dipped into milk chocolate before being sloppily dried. The little bumps seemed ready to burst, and she wondered if they would explode before her very eyes.
“If only I can be patient…” she thought.
While she waited, her mind wandered. Eventually, forgetting that she was practicing an exercise of patience, she rolled onto her belly; her right side slightly elevated, her left arm cradling her head. Her right ear still took in the sounds of the creek and the wind but her left ear, pressed against her arm, gave her the sensation of listening to the earth itself. As if the sounds of the world above were pushed into the ground, and echolocation fed her information about the goings on under the earth. She opened her day planner and tried to write down what she learned but she got distracted, marveling at how fast the ink came out of her pen after it had lain in the spring sun, when just last week the winter chill had frozen the ink inside of its vessel. She drew lazy lines across the page, marveling at the subtle changes that came with the turning of the seasons. Changes as subtle as the brown tips of the Cottonwood branches. When her mind arrived at that thought, she remembered her original purpose and turned to look at the branches so quickly, and from such an awkward position, that she cricked her neck. Rolling onto her back and holding on to the sharp, warm center of the pain she did a quick check - none of the milk chocolate tips had exploded into green life yet. She hadn’t missed it.
Though she was well into her thirties, she had never truly been alive before. She had been walking through life in a state of stupor, going where she was expected. It had never occurred to her to question anything. She considered a life to be only expectations met; a good life was one with all the boxes checked. She had never thought about what trees looked like right before they “leafed” (the only word she could think of to describe this phenomenon) it was simply a task the trees completed every year. Grow leaves, check. Drop leaves, check. Then this morning she was walking out her to her car, ready to go to work and check her daily boxes, when she saw the chocolate tipped trees. She stopped in her tracks and in that moment of pause, she felt the sun on her face as if it was the first time she had ever experienced a jolt of vitamin D. The slightest, most comfortably warm breeze knocked her off her feet, and before she knew it she was lying on her back in her own front yard, waiting to see what leaves looked like when they burst out into the world. At some point she kicked off her shoes and took off her jacket, feeling the sun on her shoulders and the dirt between her toes.
It had never really made sense that she lived in this cottage. Not being an “outdoorsy person” it confounded her friends and horrified her mother when she moved into the cottage. It was situated at the base of a small mountain and a creek ran through the yard. She had moved to the area for a job, and the cottage was the first place she had found to rent. She dealt with the nature that surrounded her in the same way that she dealt with everything else - set mouse traps, check. Empty mousetraps, check. She was not unhappy; she had made sure to follow all the procedures to ensure a full and sociable life. She was well liked and she liked well. She was successful. She was also, unbeknownst to her, asleep.
Laying in the dirt soaking in the warm spring sun felt like waking up in the very best way. As if waking from a deep and pleasant nap, she stretched and felt every part of her body tingle. She felt the awakening but couldn’t make sense of the sensation, never having experienced it before. Her mind tingled like a limb that was getting circulation after a long drought.
One of the smaller trees had low branches that hung just a foot away from her face, and she reached up to touch one of the chocolate tips, intending to break it off and dissect it for study. She was curious if the leaf was already formed and just waiting to come out, or if it was still being made inside of its chocolate shell. She brought her thumb and forefinger together at the base of the tip to pinch it off, but instead of separating it from the tree she found herself caressing the branch. She stroked the tree and on pure instinct she cupped her hand around the tip, forming the perfect embrace to hold the new leaf as it sprung from the trap of winter. It unfurled into her hand and she smiled.
“Why hello,” she said, returning its greeting.
“How the hell did you do that?!” The voice shocked her out of her reverie and she turned to see Derek, who had a desk next to her at work and was occasionally her happy hour date. His shocked words surprised her. She had been communing with leaf which spoke very quietly and his loud, human voice made her jump and twist around.
“Good timing, I guess.” she said. “What are you doing here?”
“I came to see if you were ok. You didn’t come in to work this morning and we’ve been calling for hours and couldn’t get ahold of you. We were worried.”
“Oh sorry, my phone is…” her voice trailed off as she realized she didn’t know where it was. It should have been in her bag, she should have heard it. What happened?
As she processed all of this, Derek took in the scene. He saw her jacket, crumpled on the ground. He took note of her dirt-crusted toes, the bits of nature schmuck stuck to the bare skin exposed on her back and in her hair. “What the hell is going on?” He asked, incredulous. “Are you ok?”
“Yeah, I was just on my way in and I noticed…” her voice trailed off again, she found her memory to be fuzzy inside her tingling mind. She was falling asleep again. Her lucid moments became the dream as she blinked hard, twice. She shook her head with her eyes closed, ran her fingers through her hair and shook out some of the shmutz. “Oh god, I am so sorry. I have no idea what happened. I was walking to the car and I saw the trees, then I realized I had never really looked around the yard before. I must have totally lost track of time.”
“Yeah, it’s three now. You’ve been out here all day?”
“I guess, wow…” Her voice trailed off as her gaze wandered from Derek’s face and went back to examining the bare branches just above her. She wondered if they might taste like chocolate, too. She wanted to try one, she could hear them calling to her.
“Natalie! Natalie!” Derek was suddenly right in front of her, smashing her reverie once again.
“I’m sorry, I’m really out of it. I think I need some rest, can you tell Mitch that I won’t make it in today?”
“He assumed as much, since it’s three p m” he emphasized the time, raising the volume of his voice for the number and spitting out each letter that followed.
“Right. Sorry.” Suddenly Natalie felt determined to get this man out of her yard as quickly as possible. “I just haven’t felt well today,” she began to lie. She had never lied before, but this was a desperate time and she felt no guilt over using such desperate measures. “I think it may be a fever, which means it’s contagious.”
Her words had the effect she desired as Derek nearly jumped away from her. “Apologize to Mitch for me,” she said a little louder, making sure her voice crossed the new distance between them. “I’ll call him tomorrow and let him know how I’m feeling.” She made a semi-successful attempt to hide her grin.
“So,” Derek said, hesitantly, from the edge of her yard, “you’re not coming in tomorrow either?” He had been slowly backing away from her, trying to be surreptitious but he was failing harder than she was. She had watched him wipe down every chair he sat in, every table he used, for three years. She knew that “contagious” was a powerful word, one that would keep him far away from her. She had never felt power before, and she was enjoying it.
“I don’t think so. I want to make sure that I won’t get anyone else sick.” She spoke these last words casually, knowing that to Derek they would seem like flying knives.
Derek, who worked from home every year during flu season, muttered something encouraging her to stay home as long as she needed before backing into his car. He bumped into it, nearly knocking himself over, and then opened the door and flung himself into safety. Backing out of her driveway he rolled the window down just a few inches and called out something that she didn’t quite catch, but she assumed it was a generic wish for her to feel better soon.
Natalie was left standing in her yard among the trees. Once Derek’s car was out of sight she let out a sigh of relief and began to relax. She walked towards the creek and stepped in, letting the water wash away the dirt from her toes and carry it along on its path.
Spring continued to catch her eye, day after day. Besides the one leaf that opened for her, none of the buds popped for weeks. Every day she noticed their development, until they burst forth in a wave of green. It happened suddenly, while she was at work. The day that she left a yard full of milk chocolate wombs and came home to a burst of baby green leaves, Natalie quit her job. She couldn’t believe that she was sitting at her desk, crunching numbers, while the world was giving birth. The disappointment and sadness were so overwhelming that she wrote and sent the email without thinking.
“I’m sorry, this isn’t what I want anymore.”
One line. She quit what was, up until a few weeks ago, her entire life with one sentence, and she didn’t regret it for a second. Every day she sat in her yard and watched as some of the leaves gave way to buds that blossomed into flowers. Then one day, the seeds came.
The fluffy seeds floated through the air as if they were fairies, gathering on the breeze and traveling together like they had somewhere to be. She got the feeling that they were going to a convention, a meeting of the seeds. They scampered along, joyously celebrating the event of spring. Their joy was so contagious that she couldn’t help but share it with them. Her chest grew warm and suddenly she visualized her heart literally growing, making space for these seeds and all of their pleasure. As if the world were responding to her, a gentle breeze brought the fluffy white cotton-like seeds directly to her. They swirled around her before heading off in a new direction, and Natalie felt compelled to follow them. It was inexplicable, but for the first time in her life she wasn’t trying to explain or define anything. She just wanted to follow the seeds, so she did.
Natalie followed the seeds as they left her yard; she floated across the street with them. They led her up the mountain that had always impressively stood before her front door. Somehow, she followed them up a defined trail that she had never noticed before, but the seeds clearly knew where they were taking her. She climbed after them for hours, never getting thirsty or tired because she was sustained by her joy and her desire to follow these seeds wherever they were leading her. In what seemed like no time at all, she arrived at the top of the mountain and found a wide meadow. It was a saddle between the peak she could see from her yard and a peak further back.
Her eyes struggled to take in the scene before her. The meadow was alive, vibrant green and bursting with wildflowers. Any color that she could imagine was presented before her like a gift. Paintbrush and Lupine mingled together while the Columbines and Penstemons did a dance above them on higher stalks. The white seeds pushed her forward into the meadow until she was among the orange of the Tiger Lilies. Entranced by the play that nature was putting on for her, Natalie didn’t notice the woman approaching until they were within inches of each other. Taking in the red and purples, she noted the soft, warm brown of the feet before her. It took her a minute to realize that they were feet; attached to another person, who stood with her in this meadow.
Raising her head slowly up the woman’s body before her, Natalie took in everything. The woman’s long legs were unshaven and strong, her calf and quad muscles were defined as she stood there. She wore a pair of brown shorts that matched her skin and her shirt hung perfectly around her torso off her strong shoulders. Her hair, so black that it reflected the world around it, hung down to her navel. Natalie followed the hair until she was face to face with the woman. Neither of them spoke for a long time, they just looked at each other as if they were drinking in the sight of the other’s face. The woman eventually reached out a hand and cupped Natalie’s cheek before whispering her name.
“Natalie. We have waited so long for you.”