Limb by Limb
A. Crossley Spencer

Limb by Limb

My Birdie has her own nest in just about every tree in the yard. But one perch is her favorite: the fifth pear tree in the line that canopies our driveway. The one that bends a little at the top, as if it’s pointing the way home. From the porch, I see only hints of her, where spots of color accent the leaves like hanging fruit. Pink shorts, orange top, blonde hair mingling with branches. She wears the tree like a cloak.

Today she’s standing guard. I watch the boys walk right by, never even thinking to look up. Sneaky thing that Birdie is, and the men in our family so unaware. I know Birdie’s hiding places and her tricks the way I know the rough patch of skin on her finger. She never took a pacifier. Never sucked her thumb. Whenever Kate is upset, she corks her mouth with her index finger, clamping down on the skin between the knuckles. Today is one of those days.

I cross the grass to the tree, following the trail of discarded toys. Her hula-hoop. A Frisbee. The purple jump rope sprawled lithely in the grass like a snake trying to go unnoticed. I accelerate when I reach the soccer ball, striking it solidly with the laces of my shoes. It passes between my imaginary goalposts, threading the birdbath and a weed-choked flowerbed. I gave up the game in my twenties, but my feet still remember.

Underneath the boughs of Birdie’s tree, the end-of-summer sun seeps in through the spaces between the leaves. We’ve never gotten around to building the tree house she’s always wanted, but I admire the niche she’s created in this warm, green room of hers. With her back resting against the trunk and her legs supported by a large branch, she’s surrounded by a verdant glow that feels so peaceful, I want to climb up and join her.

I wave a granola bar near her hand.

“Not hungry,” she says. She’s been protesting since we made the announcement at breakfast. To accept food would be to accept defeat. Across the field, our neighbor, newly widowed, stakes sunflowers that are more bent than she is, trying to make the most of their last days. I meant to bake a strawberry pie and run it over there with my condolences, but already a month has gone by since the ambulance took Mr. Jenkins away. What is the statute of limitations for expressing your sympathy with pie, I wonder.

“Birdie,” I say, as if coaxing a jumper off of a ledge—except to jump is exactly what I want her to do. I wish she could hold on for her entire life. But today is a lesson in letting go. For all of us. “Why don’t you come back to the house? We never finished our chess game.”

Bryan and I are more committed to family game night than dinners together at the table. During the week, we work late, run the kids to soccer and piano, part waters, it seems, just to meet back at the house for baths and tuck-ins. But Fridays, we are free. Fridays give us a glimpse of what we thought family life would be like when we moved out of the apartment and into our home all those years ago. Last night, Kate chose chess, and me for her playmate. Bryan and Sam set up in front of the wide screen to play video games.

“That queen isn’t going anywhere until you make your move.”

She tears a piece of paper from her notebook. A few seconds later, a little airplane glides down to me and lands near my feet. Using her newly found skill of carefully rendering cursive letters, she’s sent me a message spelled out on the wings: Checkmate.

Clever. She thinks she’s got us cornered on the issue of the trees, and maybe she does. Perhaps we should wait a while longer before we take them down. There could be hope for them yet. Or at least for hers. I run my hand over the trunk’s jagged amputation. Last week’s storm split the tree, laying a quarter of it to rest across the lawn. Despite the latest damage, Kate’s tree has life left in it. It has stronger roots, and its limbs reach higher. The branches are more laden with leaves. I don’t know if this is due to its position, standing in the middle of the long row, protected by the others, or just plain luck. But Birdie’s tree has weathered the storms better than the rest.

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A. Crossley Spencer

is a freelance writer and a creative writing workshop instructor for kids. Her story "Limb by Limb" was a semifinalist for Ruminate's William Van Dyke Prize; "All He Left" won first place in Gotham Writers' Very Short Story Contest; and "The Scent of Rain on Dry Earth" is forthcoming in the Chautauqua Literary Journal. Represented by Maria Carvainis Agency, her novel, The Promise of Water, was named winner of the Caledonia Novel Award and has been recognized by the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, the Columbus Creative Cooperative, and the Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. She lives in North Carolina with her husband and two children.