By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire. Red, orange, yellow squares of a quilt, with branches as seams between them. The sun set behind them, lighting the whole thing ablaze. This morning, the fog had allowed a mere glimpse of them, as if little blazing sparks had been tossed from the heavens in the early hours of the day.
I found myself standing underneath this open flame until the sun had gone down, and still I was lingering there for a half hour or so. The leaves had turned from red to brown with the dimming light, and I noticed how color seems to vanish as the day does. Red, orange, yellow turned to the crinkling brown of paper bags. I wondered if the sun stayed out until the day went by, would it become the color of the moon?
Standing like this, I felt as if I were the tree. What had it seen, standing here so long. How were its knees, its joints, its eyes. Did it strain to see in the dark, or did it sleep? I pressed my toes into the sidewalk, lifted my heels, flew into the dying fire. Did it feel when kids scratched hearts into its bark. Did it feel love or pain?
Fire is a kind of thing that brings both.
A man sits underneath it. A boy, a man, a gravestone. He looks at the tree for years, then looks down, around, sits underneath the gravestone in a bed he built himself.
I saw that man years ago. What did he tell me? Time is an infinite thing. “Time is an infinite thing.” What did he tell me? Fire is a flame that can’t be put out. When the man died, did he tell his wife? Did the tree see? Did it feel pain or love when the man tucked himself in?
Down at the end of the parking lot, a couple of teenagers started laughing. The ends of their cigarettes sparked red, the only splash of it in a colorless night. They laughed, a couple of meters from a dead man and a dying tree. Down at the end of the parking lot, they made a circle, and they pulled their heads down into the collars of their jackets. A splash of orange now, as the fire flicked on. A vacuum of color, a sound like the sucking in of a breath as the flame disappeared. A splash of orange as the girl flicked it on again.
What did that man tell me so long ago?
Down at the beach just behind the parking lot, a flock of crows picked apart the remains of an open trash can. The wind assisted them, blowing food out and up and around, playing a game of catch with the birds. Two seagulls showed up, and poked their way through the remains of the beach. Kelp and crabs washed up from high tide. Seashells and sand dollars, driftwood sculptures from men once teenagers.
Down a few years past, the man told me something I couldn’t remember a few years ago. Where did the leaves end and the stitching begin? Beyond the quilt, is there anything else that exists? Or are we all stitched into a colorful day and a colorless night? What did he tell me? “Red is the only color we are promised.” Red is what we see when we are born, red is what we see when others die, and what we see behind our eyelids when we sleep, when we stare at the sun behind closed doors. Red in the flame of life, in the embers of death, in the sparks dropped by the heavens in the mornings.
Down by the trash cans in the middle of the parking lot, a woman shuffled through the things in her purse. This morning, she looked different, she looked younger. Shuffling, always, through her purse. What is she looking for? She found it a year ago, down in the gas station by the bank downtown. What is she looking for? She finds it and flicks it open and a flash of orange blooms from the metal with a sound like the scratch of a needle starting in the groove of a record. Was it so long ago she couldn’t stand the cold? The end of her cigarette warms and burns and brings color to her cheeks, her eyes, her world.
Up in the willow branches, I watch her walk by. When things sleep under mountains, on beaches, do they exist in color or sound or are they quiet and dull. Crows and seagulls fighting over scraps they could find anywhere else in the world. Isn’t it weird how time and place matter so much, how where we are is where we’re meant to be, where we’re stitched together. Are we people on a path, trains on a track, or quilts on a stitch? Does place matter more than time? For a tree I noticed with flame in its hair could live in a moment as if it were the present. Time exists on the plane of all living things, of all living memories. Images of color and sound, but do they ever have a time or a place? Or do they mix together in our dreams. Do we ever dream of trees? Trees with leaves like a bonfire on a colorless night.
Down by the year 2000, a man once knelt at my trunk and told me something. He scratched it into the brown leather of my skin, and he whispered something to me, and I can’t remember what it is. But here he is again, lying below in the bed made from my branches, encapsulated by my roots. Does he live moment to moment, or does he live memory to memory? Flame to flame, fire to fire, red to orange to yellow. He scratched an image into my trunk, a heart. My skin was red underneath, pink and raw and hurting. And there I stood with a love so bright it burned. This man, at the base of my legs carved a heart into my skin and kissed the tender wound with the intertwined lines of an S and a T.