It’s a fact—if you and your lover carve your names into the northern red oak tree behind the gas station on Fifth Avenue, your relationship will last forever.
Most people don’t think to try. The few who do are mostly driven by either curiosity or superstition. Compared to the curious ones, the superstitious ones are the more dangerous of the two. They flock to the tree with their utility knives and unhealthy attachment styles, desperate to do whatever it takes to make the object of their obsession stay.
Beth sees this happen one summer when she is hiding in its branches. Unlike the slender poplar trees whose brittle branches snap like milk-deprived bones under even the slightest pressure, the northern red oak’s muscular limbs hold Beth up no problem, carrying her seventy-two-pound body like a dad hoisting his child up on his shoulders at an amusement park.
From this vantage point, Beth sees everything. The plump orange Koi Fish at the pond park down below; the glistening rooftops of cars at the gas station sparkling under the hot July sun; and some kid from school who called her short in second grade hitting another kid with a stick until he falls on the wet grass, clutching his arm.
Beth did not even know she was short until people started pointing it out to her—until a pediatrician in teddy bear scrubs made her stand against a wall like a criminal line-up and diagnosed her as roughly three inches shorter than the average American girl her age.
When she’s up in the tree, though, she gains roughly six feet. Still, no one can see her. The oak’s big green wig conceals her tiny body from the rest of the world, which includes the couple arguing beneath the tree. She can see only the tops of their heads. The man has dandruff and the woman an uneven hair part. It's clear they are both unhappy in their relationship, and Beth thinks maybe it's because of the dandruff.
At one point, the man pulls out a knife. Beth predicts he’ll stab the woman—or himself—the way she saw in a movie one time, but instead he etches their initials into a patch of rough, flaky tree skin.
Beth’s never actually witnessed anyone carve their name into a tree before—she’s only ever seen the evidence that’s left behind. She thinks nothing of it when she sees it happen firsthand, but as the man draws the last letter, the leaves of the tree begin to rustle, even though there is no wind. Strangely, the tree begins to feel warm against her bare legs, like a cup of tea, and then suddenly hot like a frying pan. She jumps, nearly falling out of the tree, before its temperature returns to normal.
Later that evening, when Beth gets home, she wonders if it was all in her head. She figures it was. She’s been accused of having a wild imagination, after all.
She walks up the stairs to go to bed, but her mother stops her halfway. She asks her to come down to the kitchen, where there's more light, and takes a careful look at her.
“What happened to your legs?”
Beth keeps what she saw a secret. She tells absolutely no one, especially not her mother, fearing she'll forbid her from climbing the tree again.
The tree is her favorite spot in the world, and she refuses to let anyone take it away from her.
As the years go by, she watches many events unfold beneath the tree—picnics on red checkered blankets and people picking up after their Labradors and German Shepherds, who always bark up at her in the tree.
One day, she even sees the couple she saw arguing under the tree four summers ago, their hands tightly clutching one another, as if held together by superglue, though they do not necessarily seem happy.
In her mind, the tree—or more precisely, the carving in the tree—is what’s holding this couple together. That’s her theory, at least, and it makes her happy to believe in it, the way some people find peace believing in an afterlife or in that higher love Steve Winwood sings about.
When Beth climbs down from the tree, she runs her fingers over the couple’s etching. S + J. She wonders what the letters stand for and whose initial is whose. Sarah and Joseph. Stanley and Jacqulyn. She actually doesn’t even know if they belong to that couple in particular. There are at least five other couple carvings on the bark, some spelled out and some with years included. Beth begins to worry that she’s not the only one who knows of the tree's secret.
When there is a baby shower in the park two weeks later, Beth hides in the tree and listens carefully to see if anyone says anything about the tree's powers. Two women in puffy jackets are tying blue streamers around the trunk of the tree she hides in, but they say nothing of the tree. All they speak of is how the soon-to-be mother only got pregnant in hopes of keeping her husband around. They laugh at the situation and walk away to tie more streamers to the northern red oak's ordinary brothers and sisters.
As Beth watches the baby shower from the tree, she wishes she could have told the woman it didn’t have to be that complicated. That instead of tying streamers around the tree and getting pregnant, all she had to do was carve their names into its trunk.
But it's a secret Beth's too selfish to share.
By the time Beth gets into a relationship with Zephyr eight years later, she has mostly forgotten about the tree. Zephyr consumes most of her thoughts to the point that she barely even thinks about or notices the tree when she walks past it.
She does not completely understand why she’s so consumed with Zephyr. She admits she’s developed a meth-like dependency on him, but even the drug counselors will tell you there’s a difference between dependency and addiction. She has not crossed into addiction yet.
At a concert one night, Zephyr lets her climb on his shoulders because she is too short to see anything otherwise. It makes her think of the time he called her short in second grade. She brings it up as if it's a special memory, shouting it over the music vibrating in her chest. He says he can't hear her, so she says it again, louder this time. He shouts back that he doesn't remember saying that and that she has a wild imagination. He think short girls are cute and always has.
Yet the first time he sees her without pants, he does not seem impressed. “What happened to your legs?” he asks.
She turns around and looks at the back of her legs in the mirror, a red patch spreading across her skin. It makes her think about the tree for the first time in years. “A chemical accident,” she explains. He looks back down at his phone. “Oh.”
She covers her legs, hurt, and knows better than to ask him what's on his phone screen. She'd rather not know, and even if she did ask, he'd never tell her.
She sits on the closed toilet lid alone in the dark bathroom. She goes on her own phone to look up the difference between dependency and addiction, which leads her to an article on how the part of your brain that makes you fall in love is the same part of your brain that controls hunger and thirst. She finds it strange to think that the same mechanism that makes her crave Cherry Pepsi is the same part that makes her want Zephyr.
She decides there is only one way to make him want her too.
The next time he's at the gas station with her, she suggests that they carve their names into that tree over there. She points to it. There are many trees, but he pretends to know which one she's talking about. "Oh yeah."
"Do you want to?"
"I'm alright," he says.
"I don't know. Just seems like a lot of work. Plus, isn't that kind of mean to cut trees?" He puts the gas pump back. "I mean, how would you feel if someone etched into your skin?"
Beth lifts her shorts to show him her tattoo. "Point taken," he says, but it hurts her how much he's unfazed by her exposed flesh.
That same night, she leaves the house and goes to carve their names into the tree's torso underneath a street lamp. Street lamps, experts say, deter bad people, the way lavender deters mosquitos. She wonders if forging his signature makes her one of these bad people and why orange light buzzing above her does nothing to stop her from carving B + Z into the tree, a mathematical equation that equals nothing.
Two years after Beth carves their initials into the tree, Zephyr is at a loss. "I don't get it," he says. "How did we get here?"
"Get where?" she asks, .
"I mean, how are we still together?"
"Do you not want to be together?"
"No. I just don't know how to end it. Every time I try, I lose my words. It's bizarre."
"Well, just try," she says.
"I am, but I can't." He buries his face in his hands and, strangely, it makes her feel guilty.
"I have a confession," she says. "I carved our names into the tree."
"The one behind the gas station at the Koi pond."
He pretends he knows which one she's talking about. "Oh yeah."
"And I feel bad for doing that," she says.
He doesn't understand. "Why would you?"
For the next two years, Zephyr does not think anything of Beth's tree confession. He goes about his days, perplexed of why he cannot find the words to leave her. He wonders if it's a sign he actually is in love with her, even if he cannot feel it at all.
But after those two years, something in Zephyr breaks. He does not believe in magic, but he's become desperate. He wakes up one morning But then one morning, when he wakes up yet again to the same woman he feels nothing for, he wakes her up. "Take me to the tree," he demands.
Beth does not know why he wants to see the tree, but she leads him to it anyway, dutifully, like a murderer leading detectives to a corpse.
"Right there," she says.
He rests his hand on it, on the spot that says B+Z. "This one?"
She looks down at her feet, ashamed. "Yeah."
Later that night, she's woken up by clattering in the garage. She goes down and finds Zephyr with his chainsaw.
"What are you doing?" she asks, half-asleep.
"Nothing. Go back to bed."
"You're cutting down our tree."
"It's not our tree. Please go back to sleep."
He gets in his truck and she follows in her hatchback.
"Go home," he demands as she runs toward him in the field.
"I lied," she says, choking on the cold night air. "It's just a tree. A stupid tree. A normal tree."
He asks her to move aside. He does not want to hurt her, but he already has. "Please move," he pleads. "It’s over." He gently moves her aside, and the chainsaw accelerates, vibrating in her chest like music, only this time she's not on his shoulders. She's down on the wet grass, looking up at him cutting into its trunk. He cuts off the chunk with their name first, then decides to cut down the rest of the tree for good measure. Like Beth, he's become desperate and, without hesitation, lunges the whining saw toward the trunk when Beth jumps in front of it. She puts her arm up, and the chainsaw's teeth cut into it until she falls on the wet grass, clutching her arm.
She screams and Zephyr turns it off. Less than a minute later, they're speeding toward the hospital, Beth's blood soaking into the polyester car seat. With Beth losing consciousness, Zephyr explains to the doctors that she was cutting down a dead tree in their backyard.
"At two in the morning?" asks the doctor.
"Yeah," he says. "It was a bad memory."
The next day, when Beth wakes up, tangled in tubes delivering morphine to her body, she does not want to know if she will live or die. She does not care. "Is the tree okay?" she asks.
"It's damaged, but yeah. It's fine." says Zephyr.
She looks at her arm, then at his face. "I don't even know if hurting the tree does anything. I don't understand the rules completely." She studies his face and asks him what she's scared to know. "Did it work? The chainsaw?"
It takes what seems like forever for Beth's arm to heal. She cannot do most things on her own and must learn to use her left hand.
One night at the park, after her arm has nearly recovered, she walks past the tree. Its wig is no longer green and has now turned October red. The dent is still there, but its body is still structurally sound. She's regained the strength to climb it, and though people stare at her, she does not care.
From this vantage point, Beth sees everything. The next generation of plump orange Koi Fish; the glistening rooftops of cars at the gas station sparkling under the cold October moon; some guy who called her short and then made her want to die filling up the tank of a new woman's car.
Beth looks down at her arm, and though it is scarred, it's still good enough to climb with.