Limb by Limb
A. Crossley Spencer

Limb by Limb

“They were nothing like they are now. They had so much growing to do.”

“Could you even climb them?”

I love that there is still a hint of little girl in her voice.

“Nope. Right about the time you came around and got big enough, they became climbing trees.”

The trees and our family grew side by side. First Samuel, then Kate. By the time William came and left us so quickly, the crowns had begun to swell with snowy blossoms in the spring and leathery, merlot leaves in the fall. In the winter they were barren. But even then, with the branches’ spindly fingers intertwining across the drive, we had our canopy.

Five years from now, this tree in which she is staked out will no longer matter. Her devotion will be focused elsewhere. School. Sports. Boys. Still, I understand my daughter’s disappointment. I know what it’s like to watch the treetops splinter and fall, breaking down, limb by limb, year after year. Each time, we haul the ruins into the woods and convince ourselves the damage won’t be the end of our canopy.

“Why do we have to do it?” she asks, pleading. “Why do we have to cut them down?” Her notebook falls from the tree like a piece of rotten fruit. “I’ll never forgive you.” The words tumble from her lips, making her sound more like a teenager than a nine-year-old. My breath catches in my throat.

Kids have the luxury of going too far with their words. Last night, during my argument with Bryan, I pressed my lips together to keep from saying what I knew I would regret come sunrise. The words craved freedom, but oxygen would’ve fueled them; they would’ve engulfed us.

Now, I sit down in the mulch bed, finding a comfortable notch in the tree, and lean back. At first, Bryan appears to be looking in my direction, but I realize that his gaze is not on me but through me to his first victim, the pear tree near the mailbox.

If my daughter were not nine but nineteen or twenty-nine, I might tell her now what is weighing on my mind. If I thought she would listen and understand without having to live through it herself, I might share with her the truth: Love is a burden you must be willing to carry. Every day, you must be willing to do the lifting.

Bryan hands his safety glasses and a pair of work gloves to Sam. They head our way, Bryan with the saw, Sam carrying the large orange case and his camera. He wants to record the timbering trees, edit the footage, and enter the video into a filmmaking contest. Sometimes I think that the passion our marriage has lost has simply passed on to our children, as if there is only so much to go around and they must be fed first. We take whatever scraps are left.

I raise a finger, asking Bryan and Sam to wait a moment.

Standing up, I grab hold of my daughter’s ankle and stroke the curve of her bone with my thumb. She doesn’t try to shake me away.

“You will forgive us,” I tell her. “Because we’re family, Birdie. You can’t have a family without forgiveness.” I look around the yard for an appropriate analogy. Her turquoise bike leans against the fence, a stuffed giraffe dangling from the basket. “It’s like a bike with no wheels,” I say. “Without it, we can’t move forward.”

I reach for her hand. “Come on now. Let me help you down. These limbs aren’t as strong as they used to be.”

“Humph.” She breathes out her willfulness. A blue marker dives to the grass like a dart, followed by a red, then a yellow and a green. Her arms, now free, tighten around the tree. “Daddy will have to chop me down with it.”

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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.