Be­tween Them

Prairie Fire - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - ALICE ZORN

42

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.

“By cut­ting?”

“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.

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