Museum treasure unearthed in cellar of Saint Michel home. Below the heading a grainy photo of a bearded man in a Gatsby
cap next to a tree his height. He holds a shovel.
ANDREA MADE A PHFFT SOUND when her intern, Mathieu, showed her the item in the morning paper. Nothing had been authenticated yet, and if and when it was, it wouldn’t be a hothead journalist who decided it was a museum treasure.
Now, some hours later, she was examining the threads she’d tweezered from the tatters of burlap still attached to the wizened root ball of the tree. The give and tear of the cloth fit the twist and bulge of roots so exactly that the two could only have grown, stretched and begun to decompose together. But that was via the naked eye, and she was bound by the rigour of method.
Therefore, unlikely as it seemed that the burlap had been added at a later date, she needed to establish whether it was the original packaging from the nursery. With the polarizing microscope she could identify the composition and age of the threads. She peered and noted. Frowned. Except that, even eyes and brain busy, she felt the smooth silk of her tunic under her lab coat.
Outside in the rain, dodging puddles and umbrellas, Haroun strode up the street. What craziness to escape Vancouver for a week (and maybe forever?) only to get Vancouver weather in Montreal. He’d gotten off at the wrong subway stop, losing whatever time he’d thought to gain by not driving all the way into the centre of the city. Why had Andrea wanted to meet where she worked? He didn’t want to see her in her lab coat, Ms. Museum Meticulous!
Andrea glanced at the round clock on the wall. Haroun wasn’t late yet, but soon he would be. As if he still had to play their roundabout game of pretending he wasn’t coming to see her. And she: impatient and waiting by the attic window in shorts and flip-flops, looking down through the trees until she glimpsed his orange soccer shirt as he meandered toward her. Except that they were no longer fifteen years old, so why didn’t he just come?
On her screen she had an analysis of hessian, a.k.a. burlap, from the early 1980s. Hessian was traditionally woven from sisal and other vegetable fibres. Increasingly, in the interest of producing a cheaper and more stress-resistant product, man-made fibres were introduced—but not yet in the 1980s.
Even as she read the report with all due seriousness, her thoughts shrieked at all this fuss about a tree. Albeit, supposedly, a tree that Hundertwasser planted on his well-publicized international green campaign in 1982. Nowadays, one would (one should!) question the carbon footprint of a trip around the world to promote a green cause, but in 1982 green needed the promotion. The famous man travelled from city to city, if not actually digging the holes, gamely tamping the soil around the trees. With a nod to Montreal’s bilingual status, he planted both an English and a French tree, one at McGill University, the other at Université de Montréal. The tree on the French campus still thrived but the English tree had vanished. How, why and when no one knew. Despite the media hoopla when Hundertwasser visited Montreal to plant his joyous emissaries, there had been no mention of them since. The disappearance of the English tree might even have political implications. Had a masked separatist armed with a pickaxe and shovel slunk across the McGill campus in the unquiet dead of a city night to kidnap the tree?
Andrea scowled. What crap.
Though she had the time in the bottom corner of her screen, again she glanced at the clock on the wall. Another two minutes and Haroun would be late. That was why she hadn’t wanted to meet him in a bar where she would have sat waiting. Here at work she had documentation to analyze, reports to write, artifacts to prepare to museum specifications.
Haroun hadn’t yet decided how much to tell Andrea. About him and Raja splitting up, certainly. That was why he’d come. But how much else? What if, for Andrea, the secrecy of their hotel trysts was all-important? What if their passion shrivelled with the everyday
humdrum of laundry and bills to pay? They had always been so careful not to voice expectations. Feelings for each other were no guarantee of a future. So it had seemed when they were young, and he hadn’t been able to imagine living with his parents’ disappointment.
But look at the world now. People of every stripe walking, talking, laughing, eating together. He’d seen it with his own kids as they were growing up and going off to university. When his daughter announced that she was dating a Chinese-Canadian colleague in her accountancy firm, he had insisted that Raja not interfere. Their son was more traditional. That was fine too. What Haroun wanted was for them to think through and make their own decisions.
A tree, Andrea thought. That might not even be a Hundertwasser tree! A groundsman, who had worked at McGill University from 1968 until his retirement in 2014, had recently passed away. His children found what they assumed was a misspelt note about a tree in his papers. It was only once the inheritance was settled, the house sold, and they were emptying the cellar that they discovered the tree, roots still attached, propped among the glass demijohns of red wine waiting to be bottled. They remembered the strange note, puzzled over it again, googled the word that looked like nonsense and discovered that Hundertwasser was an Austrian artist, visionary and spiritual ecologist. If the tree belonged to a famous man, did that make it famous too? Was it worth anything? Had their father stolen or rescued it? Could they be held responsible for having it in their possession? The dubious inheritors of the maybe famous tree took a pawnshop owner’s advice and brought it to the museum.
Another swift look at the clock. She didn’t like feeling so woundup and jittery, but even here at work she couldn’t help it. Her pulse thrummed with the tension of knowing Haroun was on his way. Her first love that no other had even come close to. Forget the boys she’d gone to school dances with so the other girls thought she was dating. Beige and predictable Wally she’d married because she knew he would make no demands—not realizing how marriage could devolve into paralysis.
Even as Haroun hurried toward her, he noticed all the new shops along Sherbrooke. The buildings were the same grey stone façades he remembered, but that one hadn’t used to be a patisserie and this one hadn’t specialized in single-needle tailored shirts. This was the stretch he’d walked every day on his way to and from McGill. Each and every building couldn’t have been an antique shop or an art gallery, but that was how he remembered the street.
If he returned to live here, he would find a whole new city shimmied up against his memories. Rumour had it that even the winters were milder—though not as mild as in Vancouver. Was he ready for snow again? He should be. He’d grown up with it! He missed hearing French. He missed Montreal. After all these years of denying where he most wanted to be, he missed Andrea.
But before he decided anything, he had to see her. They had to talk. He had to convince her they still had a chance. Wasn’t everyone saying fifties were the new thirties? It wasn’t too late! But: would she want this too?
Only how were they supposed to have this conversation in a conservation lab with one of her research minions hovering? He’d imagined meeting in a bar. He didn’t drink himself but liked watching her lift a glass of Scotch to her lips. Lips he knew he would kiss. The taste of Scotch on her tongue. The sexy short hairs at the nape of her neck. Imagination or was it memory? Memory fed imagination and imagination fed memory. Up until now, he’d been able to play that game. Not anymore.
Late ten minutes now. Andrea sniffed. Good thing she’d told him to come here.
The analysis of the soil she’d brushed from the roots matched the composition of the soil from the approximate site where the tree had been planted. All indication of the actual site was subsumed by grass. She’d had Mathieu consult microfiche holdings for a photo of Hundertwasser planting the McGill tree. She’d used the background buildings in the photo to identify an approximate square of earth from which to take the soil samples.
Behind the table where she stood typing lay the tree. The trunk and root ball measured one hundred and ninety-eight centimetres. The branches were stubs that seemed to have been broken. Broken before the tree’s demise, however,—and why that had happened?— or by the groundsman who had stored it in his basement? One of her responsibilities was to attempt to determine when and how an artifact had sustained damage.
The tree lay on a sheet of conservation-grade plastic that covered the polyethylene foam beneath. She neglected no detail, proceeding in her investigations step by step, despite having argued against the tree at the biannual meeting to prioritize artifacts awaiting treatment. Quite apart from its suspect provenance and that it was a tree, there was no way of knowing whether Hundertwasser would even have
approved of exhibiting it in a museum. This latter was a strong point the other members of the committee persisted in minimizing. They argued that the tree, although not in itself a work of art, could be an integral piece in any international Hundertwasser show. Since he was so prolific, the possibilities were endless. Whether a curator planned an exhibit of his paintings, the wall-sized textiles woven from his designs, his woodcuts, his etchings, or photos of his architectural designs, all and any of these could include this tree. Generating money for the museum versus conservation integrity. Guess who wore the bigger shoes?
And so the eighteenth-century Madonna from the church in Sainte Anne de Réveillon that Andrea had expected to be her next project was slotted for yet another year. Her speciality was polychromatic sculpture, and yet here she was: working on a length of unpainted, uncarved, still-in-its-bark wood!
A security guard escorted Haroun to the elevator, up two floors, and down a broad hallway of doors that might well open onto scenes of conservation busyness, but from the hallway not a sound could be heard. The guard came to a full stop before a door and straightened his shoulders as if to steel himself before pressing the buzzer. His officiousness made Haroun want to elbow him aside and jab the buzzer first. He had no patience with all this pomp about inner sanctums, now that he was primed to launch into a new life.
Andrea was startled by the buzzer, even though she’d been expecting it these past—eyes to the clock—sixteen minutes. Another half-minute he could wait then.
“Hi!” Haroun bellowed as the door began to open, before he even saw who it was. Silly one-upmanship, but the security guard swung him such an affronted face, it was worth it.
His words froze, though, when he saw Andrea. Her broad mouth. Her pale gaze that took him in as no one else ever did. She looked older than when he’d last seen her, but she would see that about him too. He breathed into his diaphragm to slow his heart.
She saw the anxiety tightening the corners of his mouth. In her fingertips she felt how she could smooth them across his lips, but she kept her arm stiff at her side and didn’t move closer. “Did you get caught in traffic coming downtown?”
“Yes,” he said, because it was easier than explaining.
Turning away from him, she walked to a table—the soft, yet decided click of her heels—where a slender tree with no branches lay
cushioned on what he guessed was pressure-sensitive foam. In an orderly clutch by the roots lay the brushes, files, tweezers and picks of her trade. They didn’t look all that different from the manicure set Raja used to leave scattered across their bedroom dresser. “Are you working on a tree?” he asked. Obviously she was, but why was it getting high-art, conservation treatment?
“It’s possibly a Hundertwasser tree.” Or, she thought, it was an everyday tree a deluded groundskeeper stored in his cellar. “Hunder…?”
“Hundertwasser. He travelled around the world planting trees in major cities, promoting the need for more green space in urban environments.”
“Don’t we know about the benefits of green space already?”
“He was doing it in the early eighties.”
In the early eighties Haroun used to catch the bus to Kingston to see Andrea, who was studying at Queen’s, though he had to catch the bus back again the same day so his parents would believe he’d been holed up at McGill all day. He widened his eyes to refocus on the stark, white room with its bars of fluorescent light. “What’s his name again?”
“Hundertwasser. It means hundred waters. He changed it from something with a proper German lineage to better reflect who he wanted to be. He was an artist. He did paintings and etchings. Architecture too.” She knew she was babbling but the way Haroun stood rooted where he was, not coming closer, made her nervous. “His architecture is as wild as anything Gaudí designed. He objected to the tyranny of vertical lines and said there was no reason why a building should be ugly simply because it was functional. I’ll show you.” She stepped across to the computer and began clicking with the mouse. She’d expected him to follow, and when he didn’t felt as if a part of herself sloughed away.
He stayed where he was so he could see her from head to toe. Her fine leather boots with a little heel. She liked good footwear. Leggings that fit her well because she took care of herself. And under her lab coat, a silk tunic. He knew she’d worn silk for him and that gave him heart.
“Here,” she said. “A sewage incineration plant he built in Japan.” He could see the screen from where he stood. The building had a black and white mosaic façade and red towers. From the outside no one would guess what it was. Was that the man’s purpose?
“And here, public toilets in New Zealand.”
Long grasses sprouted from the roof. The pillars supporting the entrance were variously bulbed and coloured, looking like the entrance to a playroom, making him think of his children, though they were adults now.
Andrea kept her eyes on the screen, resisting the electricity of his presence that she felt even though he kept his distance. She kept scrolling, looking for the Hundertwasser House in Vienna. “Here.” She clicked on the frame. Trees bristled up and down the unevenly staggered stories of the building. “Hundertwasser believed we shouldn’t just look out the window at trees. We should bring them into our homes. He designed boxes built into the walls below windows. You look out and see greenery which is more relaxing than a concrete wall. The leaves filter the air of dust and pollution. He called them tree tenants.”
Haroun saw misshapen blocks of colour, studded here and there with the bushy heads of trees. To him it looked bizarre. And what about the logistics? “A tree needs soil.”
“Only one cubic metre.”
“More than that, no?”
“These are growing.”
“What kind of tree is it?”
She grimaced. What did that matter? The point was that Hundertwasser had an idea and figured out how to implement it. He imagined the world the way he wanted it to be and set about trying to change it.
Irritated with how Haroun still hadn’t moved, she walked away from her computer to the other side of the table, putting the dead tree between them. “This is an alder.” She touched the trunk.
“Oh!” He really was surprised too. “I didn’t know you were allowed to touch.”
“How do you imagine I work? Obviously, I don’t handle artifacts more than I have to, but I still have to touch them.” She ogled the tree, then looked at him, eyes wide.
“I mean touching with your hand. With your skin.” Touch. Hand. Skin. Incendiary words. He heard their heat wavering in the air between them.
She looked away. “It’s bark. It’s not fragile like paper. And my hands are clean and oil-free. I don’t use moisturizer when I’m
working.” She star-fished them to demonstrate. “No cream, no rings, no bracelets. Nothing that will catch.”
She saw how her fingers seemed to be reaching and snatched them back, shoving fists in her lab coat pockets. With her chin she nodded at the base of the tree above the roots.
He didn’t know what she wanted him to see. He wished she would stop sounding like a museum scientist on the verge of turning into a dried specimen of herself.
“See the bark around the base of the tree?” She picked up a short wooden pointer that might have been a leftover chopstick, except that he doubted takeout Chinese had ever even been smelled in this pristine room.
“Infestation. It’s unlikely to have killed the tree but so far that’s all my investigations have uncovered. Insects bored holes in the bark and laid their eggs.”
He recalled a girlish Andrea shrieking and rolling off the blanket when she saw a spider dropping on a string from the roof boards. Grownup Andrea tapped her pointer on the trunk. “The larvae hatched and tunnelled under the bark into the wood. See how it’s girdled all around?”
The swelling was subtle but he saw it now, just under the surface of the bark. “Like what’s happening to the ash trees?”
“You have that problem in Vancouver too?”
He gave a terse nod, not wanting to be associated with Vancouver anymore.
“These insects were Saperda obliqua.” She touched her wand to the bark. “They attack at the base. They bore oval holes.”
He couldn’t believe the absurdity of her talk—especially given all that they could and should be talking about. But now he wondered if he didn’t see the hint of a smile on her face. “Insects make other kinds of holes?” he asked drily.
“Indeed. D-shaped holes, round holes, zigzag patterns, deep, gouging wounds. This tree is relatively unmolested.”
“But why do you have to guess what—”
“We don’t guess, we deduce.”
“—kind of bug it was from the shape of the holes. There must still be a couple of dead bugs inside.”
“How would we get inside?” She arched an eyebrow.
“We don’t cut open artifacts. There are strict ethical guidelines to interfere as little as possible.”
“An axe or a saw would be interference?”
“An axe or a saw would be interference.”
Although her voice was still stern, he was sure she was repressing a smile. “You’re assuming the hole hasn’t changed shape over time.”
“We got positive identification from the frass.”
“Did you say frass?”
“The excrement of the larvae that we found around the hole.” “And … do you have a special conservator’s brush designed for the collection of frass?”
She gulped a laugh, nearly choked on it. It was such a relief that someone else saw what a hoax all this was! Not her work—definitely not her work! But that she was expending all this effort and expertise on a tree and its decades-old insect shit, preparing reports as if documenting a priceless work of art. Even the carpenter, who had wanted to discuss how best to situate the ribs that would hold the tree in its display case, had been so earnest.
Haroun was laughing too, waving a hand over the dried halo of roots. He’d moved closer, though he was still on the other side of the table with the tree between them. It was so good to laugh—not just to laugh, but to laugh with him.
But then he stopped and she did too, alarmed by whatever made him look so suddenly sober.
“Raja and I are getting a divorce.”
She watched him.
“I haven’t told my parents yet.”
What did it mean that he was telling her first?
“She met someone.” He sniffed, looking to see if she heard the irony. “She says she didn’t but I know who it is. Another doctor in her practice. He’s a widower.”
“You don’t sound shocked.”
“I am. I’m not. I know it wasn’t fair I never gave her one hundred percent.”
Two beats of silence. Her turn now. “Wally and I ... we’re hardly in the same room anymore. He has his friends, I have mine. We’ve got something different every night of the week and none of it together.”
He muscled his brow and tried to look concerned, though he felt lighter with every word she spoke.
“It’s...” She shrugged. “What are you going to do?”
“I was thinking of moving back to Montreal.” He watched her but couldn’t tell what she thought. Her face was so still. Maybe their talk had grown too serious, too fast. He had expected to be close to her when he told her. Touching her. Her leaning against him. Not standing over a table in her lab.
He looked down at the tree. “I like how this artist changed his name to be who he wanted to be. Not enough people do that.” “Change their names?”
“Try harder to be who they want to be. And who they want to be with.” In her pale eyes, he could see who she used to be and who she was now, as if the years hadn’t passed at all.
She touched the tip of her pointer to the tree, telling it, telling him—telling Hundertwasser’s ghost if it happened to be wafting through the lab—“I always knew.”
Author’s Note: Of the many wondrous projects Hundertwasser undertook, he did not plant trees around the world—though I believe he could have.