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Trees Go to Heaven by Craig Bernardini


Craig Bernardini’s “Trees Go to Heaven” is a memorable, engaging, and emotionally powerful short story. Because we’ve all read many stories about dogs, and about men and dogs, and about brothers, on our first read-throughs we braced for this piece to take a turn toward the familiar; but it doesn’t. With command of pacing, descriptive language— “They looked like they’d grown together, he and that dog, like one of those big, gnarled lumps you sometimes see on the trunk of a tree”—place, and character arc, Bernardini writes from a fresh perspective. Perhaps this rests with Saul, a well-crafted observer-participant narrator (see Bernardini’s author’s note for more on this). Perhaps this rests with Hitch and Molly, two canine characters given agency on the page, space to be themselves as dogs, present not to serve only as a device, a symbol or metaphor, as so many non-humans in fiction must. This story hooks, engrosses with the questions it raises, and delivers an ending that we did not see coming.  —CRAFT


 

On a warm, wet November day like this one, I saw what I thought was some drunk, some ambitious drunk, stumbling up Route 376 with his takeout. It was the sort of thing I might have been tempted to ignore. But 376 isn’t a pedestrian-friendly road even in the most sober of conditions, and he was on a particularly bad stretch of it: tight curve, no shoulder. A kid got killed here riding his bike not two years before.

I took a left onto the main artery of Rosewood Terrace to turn around. It was one of the older housing developments; the land used to be an orchard, Manny’s Apples, and at this time of year the trees, short, grey, and bare, and laid out all in rows, looked like headstones. We would cut school and disappear into that orchard, or into the woods that used to be on the other side of the road. From all the big houses and bright green lawns, and the cars and toys spilling out onto the driveways, you’d never know the developer had needed to cart out the first six inches of topsoil, it was so contaminated from the pesticides. Or maybe you would. Man, that cider was something else.

Driving up from behind, I saw a dark streak down the middle of the drunk’s back, maybe a palm wide: blood. That was when I popped on my lights. I revved past him and coasted to a stop about twenty feet ahead, trying to pull over as far as I could without rolling into the drainage ditch that runs along Rosewood Terrace like a moat. The traffic had to nose over the yellow line to get around me.

He stood there framed and bloody in my mirror while I waved the cars by. Leaves blew in scads across the road, and every now and then a stray drop of rain hit my window. Maybe because of the way he held the thing, I thought of bagpipes. When I realized it was an animal—both his arms were cradled under its rump so that its front legs crumpled against his chest and its head listed over his shoulder—I decided it must be a fawn. But that was just as ridiculous. It was November. Besides, people don’t carry dead deer down the highway, at least not in broad daylight. At least, not sane ones. And maybe this was why my attention shifted to his face, half-hidden under a beard that climbed up to his eyes, his eyes half-hidden under the visor of a grease-colored baseball cap. His face was as smeared with blood as his flannel—as if he’d taken down that animal, whatever the hell it was, with his teeth, as good as picked it up off the road. But for all the blood, and all the shadow, I could see his eyes.

It was only after I’d recognized him, after I’d gotten out of my car and said, “That you, Marty?” that I realized what he was carrying was a dog.

Marty was my brother’s year. Not that they ran together or anything. But I knew who he was, and he knew me. I’d sometimes see him out walking along Long Mountain Pass, his dog a few paces ahead or behind him. I’d wave; he’d wave back; the dog would run a little ways after my car. He lives up there in a little brown house, on a few-acre plot of land he seemed to neglect with a secret pride—you know, vehicles decaying in unmowed grass, collapsing outbuildings—the better, I guess, to annoy his well-heeled neighbors, the sort of folks my wife sells houses to. According to his brother, Vayne, who owns the hardware store in town, Marty’s never held a regular job. He splits and sells wood, does handyman work when he needs extra cash. He’s supposed to have a good hand for building stone walls, enough that he could have made a living from it, Vayne said, if his head was just in the right place. I remember Vayne tapped his finger against his temple when he said that. And though I knew to take whatever Vayne said with a big grain of salt, he was hardly the only one who said that about Marty.

Touched: that was the word people used. There was a story he cut school one day and spent it sitting in the tree right outside his homeroom class. I guess nobody ever thought to look out the window, not even the teacher. Or to look up, when they went outside. Just sat there, quieter than a bird. But then he’d always been quiet. God knows what’s going on in that head of his, people said. Quieter than a bird. Climb trees like a squirrel. Going to drag his big brother down with him, they said. I always thought his big brother could do that well enough on his own. Turned out I was right. Maybe Marty just had nothing to sing about. Anyway, after dropping out of high school, and after Vayne went off to college, Marty just sort of drifted, or kept drifting. Kept his nose clean, by and large; I’d never even picked him up for a DUI, like I had a couple of his buds. Some mornings, I’d pass his blue Silverado parked with a couple of other trucks up by where the power lines cut across Long Mountain, and him standing there with Claude Therein and Bill Baker, and maybe a few other clowns from back in the day, all in their camo jumpsuits. If I stopped to try and talk to them, they’d just stand there checking me out, like I was the last person in the world to be trusted, or like they had everything in the world to hide. It was easier just to wave.

I tended to blink when I drove by those trucks, or at least squint—when it wasn’t deer season, say, or when they were someplace I knew they shouldn’t be. I knew Marty and them sometimes crossed onto land where they weren’t supposed to hunt. Folks had complained to me that hunters pulled down their No Trespassing signs, said they found cairns and fluorescent bands around the trees on their properties, signaling the way to blinds. Said the hills in the fall sounded like a Chinese New Year. Some were just irritated about having to wear blaze on land adjoining the park. By and large they were weekenders who complained, or recent transplants from the City. They didn’t really understand the rhythm of life up here. They thought it was just some good ol’ boys out shooting at trees because they had nothing better to do, or because they thought it was the proper way of saluting the flag. Easy to miss those signs, I’d tell them. Or: You know, deer around here are a plague. Every one you down is an accident avoided. But then I know this job is a little like being a shepherd’s dog. You drive around nipping at heels, just to remind people you’re here. So when I saw that dog, saw that it was a dog, my stomach did a little flip. I know accidents happen, and people do all sorts of stupid things. But maybe, I thought, I hadn’t been nipping enough. Maybe I’d let things go a little too much. At the same time, I couldn’t help thinking: At least it’s only a dog. Not a person. Not, God forbid, a child.

That you, Marty? I knew it was. It was the same look he and his buddies gave me whenever I tried to talk to them. He hadn’t moved, though he did hug the dog tighter, like it was contraband. I’d stopped just past my back bumper, smiled. You’d be surprised how much trouble you can avoid just by starting things off on the right foot.

“It’s Saul,” I said. “Saul Canetti? You all right?”

His eyes shifted around, not settling on anything for more than a moment, and on me not at all. A few cars straggled by. I remembered Vayne’s finger, touched, wondered if Marty’d gone off his meds or something. But maybe he was just considering what was in his best interest not to say.

He nodded.

“Okay,” I said. “That’s good. Now, where ya headed?”

“Home.”

It was my turn to pause. Marty’s house was six miles away. Uphill.

Sky grey as a parachute, sun everywhere and nowhere, like a light held far enough behind a sheet that you just see the radiance, and the shadows of things passing behind. I could smell the dog. Marty hadn’t moved, but he looked to me like he was buckling.

“It’s just this stretch,” he said, “once I get to East Hook I can go through the woods.”

But East Hook was most of the way there, and most of the woods along East Hook were long gone.

I pointed with my chin. “How much that dog weigh?”

“Fifty-two and a half pounds.”

“Jesus, Marty. Why don’t you let me give you a ride?”

“I wouldn’t want to mess up your car, Saul.”

“I’ve had a hell of a lot worse in my backseat,” I said. “Some real animals.”

We stood there like gunfighters, each waiting for the other to make the next move. He adjusted the dog; its head joggled against his shoulder.

“Am I free to go?”

I almost said, “Whatever suits you,” but checked myself. It wasn’t just that the man was my responsibility. There was something else going on, I could smell it.

I flagged a few cars by and opened my back door, valet-style.

“I ain’t breaking any laws.”

“I didn’t say you were.”

“I ain’t puttin’ her down.”

“I’m not askin’ you to.”

Still he didn’t move. Hugged the dog tighter, if that was possible.

“I can’t leave you here. You’re endangering yourself, and you’re endangering these motorists.”

Nothing. I put my hands back on my belt and cleared my throat.

“You drunk, Marty?”

“Not even close, Saul, you can test me.”

“I don’t need to, I can take you in on suspicion.”

It wasn’t true, but I figured he didn’t know that, and I was right. His legs trembled as he eased himself onto the backseat. The dog’s head swung around like a doll’s, exposing a skein of pink flesh. The tags on her collar jingled.

Musk, blood, and shit: that’s what my car was going to smell like. Like cleaning rabbits with my old man. I never did like that part. I rolled the windows down halfway and told Marty to tell me if he was getting too much air.

“What was her name?” I said, after we’d gone a couple of miles, and all my attempts to make small talk—about his brother, his parents, football—had come to nothing. He was staring out the window, at the maze of white fencing and empty pastures of the McCauleys’ horse farm. He seemed calmer, maybe once he realized I wasn’t taking him downtown.

“…Molly.”

“How old?

“…Five. Almost.”

“You had her a long time.”

“Since she was eight weeks.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. Maybe because it was about a dog it didn’t sound sincere. Or maybe it just never does. “You know what kind she was?”

“Wasn’t any kind,” he said.

“Mutt,” I said, glancing at my mirror. “Best kind.”

We drove by a house for sale. The sign had a picture of the realtor on it.

“I got a couple myself,” I said. “Well, my wife does. Spaniel mixes. Yappy little things. Good for nothing. Damn smart, though. And loyal. I told her she should go to a breeder, at least that way you know what you’re getting. But she said if you get a rescue they’ll never forget what you did for them.”

Those eyes, still looking for a way out. Like he was going to push open the door with the car moving and disappear into the woods, the dog in tow.

There was a cherry picker on the corner of East Hook. I couldn’t hear any generators going, but I knew the power had been knocked out along a few corridors. It used to go out a lot more. The company had gotten better about pruning and felling suspicious trees, after there was a big row in town about it a few years back. I thought they were maybe a little overzealous with the saws. But my wife’s right: be it homes or prisons, you can’t stand in the way of progress. All this empty land, she taught me to see it as opportunity. She was born here, and if she’s okay with it, why shouldn’t I be? She can remember woods I never even saw.

Pavement gave way to dirt. There were places the road was half washed out from the rain. Town was up here a lot, pouring and pounding gravel, but a couple of good storms were all it took to wash it into the gullies again. The county hadn’t gotten around to paving, but I figured they would soon enough. Property values were up, and winters were hard.

When Marty started talking his voice was so quiet I had to cock my head to hear him over the tires. His brother Vayne lived down the road from him, he said. Vayne had a dog, too. Vayne’s dog and his dog didn’t get along. Vayne’s dog didn’t get along with other dogs. Great with people, bad with dogs. They were careful to keep them apart. But this afternoon when he’d gone up to see Vayne, Vayne’s dog was in the bed of his truck. As soon as it saw Molly, it scrambled over the tailgate. Marty tried to get between them. The dogs had tussled before, he said. Molly still had a lump on her head where a tooth had punctured her skull, and a bald patch on one shoulder. He and Vayne had their share of scars, too, from pulling the dogs apart. This time, though, Vayne’s dog got a hold of a big hunk of flesh around Molly’s throat. It tugged; Molly pulled away.

“It was so much blood,” Marty said, “it was like butchering a pig.”

It was his brother, he said, who insisted on driving him to the animal hospital. So Marty hauled Molly up over his shoulder, and Vayne roared the seven miles down the hill. Marty knew all along it was too late, but he let his brother drive. The dog shivered and kicked against his chest. She was dead by the time they got there.

And then he just started walking. He needed to clear his head, or maybe just get away from Vayne. Vayne hadn’t wanted to let him go, either.

“Bad with dogs,” Marty said. “Vayne’s the one bad with dogs. Didn’t raise it right.” The dog wasn’t even neutered, he said—“like he thought it’s his balls they were going to cut off.” Thought he knew better because he’d been to college, maybe, or because he owned a store. He never took the time to train it, and left it alone all day, and then acted surprised when it busted out the air-conditioner cover and went to mess up the neighbors’ yards, or tree their cats.

“All those people with nice yards,” Marty said. “They ain’t got any tolerance for that.”

It occurred to me what was the real reason Marty hadn’t wanted a ride: because he knew that, with another person, any other person, he’d end up talking like this. And if I was surprised by how much he had to say, I confess that I was little surprised by what he said. I knew all about Vayne’s dog. The town’s animal control officer had fielded any number of complaints. Of course, Vayne had a reputation of his own. He had served a term on town council, or most of one, when he was forced to resign over financial improprieties. I can’t remember all the details; something around the new condos going up by the thruway. Something amounting to a bribe. It had only confirmed what I already thought about him. Whenever I stopped by his store, he would say he had something to show me, and lead me down one of the aisles. And then he would lower his voice, like we were conspiring, or he wanted his employees to think so. When this happened, I would raise my own voice a little, and start walking slowly back toward the registers. I was always afraid he was going to try and slip me a bill, but he never did more than offer me a discount—for, he said, my service to the public. Then he’d wink at me. After this happened a few times, I started buying my hardware at the Lowes on Route 9.

It was mostly Vayne I thought about while Marty talked: Vayne and his dog. If Marty was touched, Vayne was charmed—or thought he was, until the debacle of his own public service. A charmer, anyway. He could talk his way out of pretty much anything. And who’d be left holding the bag? Marty, who would never speak up to say otherwise, or raise a hand against his brother, though he was six inches taller and solid as oak.

Vayne was an idiot and a shill, it was true. But his dog was a menace. I almost said it aloud.

“She wasn’t much good on trail,” I heard Marty say, “but a good dog to be around. I got friends like that.”

I nodded, watching him in my mirror.

Then he said, “I don’t want to bring no trouble on Vayne, though. He’s helped me out a lot.”

Had I said something?

“He’s brought trouble on you, Marty,” was all I could think to say.

Maybe he shrugged, I couldn’t tell from the weight on his shoulder.

“It’s my fault,” he said. “I should’ve been more careful.”

“Doesn’t sound like it was your fault at all,” I said.


Vayne’s truck was parked in Marty’s driveway. He came right out when he saw us. Marty got out, too, and started toward his house, like he had every intention in the world of avoiding Vayne. I can’t say I blamed him. They looked like they’d grown together, he and that dog, like one of those big, gnarled lumps you sometimes see on the trunk of a tree.

“Marty’s not under arrest or anything, is he, Officer Canetti? If he got into anything, I just want you to know it’s my fault. He’s real upset right now, that’s all.”

I’d long since given up trying to convince Vayne to address me by my Christian name. As I looked at him there, leaning into my window, I couldn’t help but resent that he’d been waiting in his truck. It wasn’t even cold.

“Marty didn’t get into anything, Vayne,” I said. “He just looked like he could use a hand.”

Vayne gave a long sigh and rolled up his eyes. “Well. Thank you, Officer Canetti. I promise you I won’t forget this.”

Then he glanced in the direction of Marty’s house. Shaken up, or acting like it.

“Did he tell you what happened?”

“The gist of it.”

For a second I thought he was going to burst into tears. I tilted my head at his truck, where the top of a crate was just visible over the tailgate. “That who I think it is in there?”

Vayne nodded but didn’t look.

“It’s about time you took responsibility for that animal, Vayne. I don’t mean just paying a fine here and there, either.”

“It was another dog, Officer Canetti.”

“Tell that to your brother.”

I tried to read his face, couldn’t.

“Well,” he said. “Thanks all the same. I can take it from here.”

“Can you, Vayne?” I said.

He slunk back to his truck.

Halfway across the lawn, I heard him lower the tailgate and say some words in a loud, harsh whisper. When I looked back, he was following me with the dog on lead.

A little trail of smoke rose from Marty’s stovepipe, and a half-dozen chickens picked through the long, dead grass. Scraggly looking things, with bare patches; they turned all at once when I passed, like a school of fish. There was a flag nailed up by the door, and animal skulls and antler racks hung around it, like the stars of the original colonies. A few rusty weather vanes and old farm tools leaned against the siding: gleanings from the woods, no doubt. I remembered hearing, probably from Vayne, that he would clean them up and sell them to the antiques dealers upriver. In all this, I couldn’t see any evidence of Vayne’s helping hand. But I guess if you keep a man’s head above water he comes to believe you’re a saint, even if you’re paddling around in your own canoe. Even if that man is your brother.

When I got to the back, Marty was just coming out of the woods, by a pile of unsplit logs that steamed in the wet. He wasn’t carrying the dog anymore. He walked right past us on the way to the house—us, because Vayne had caught up and was standing next to me with his dog short-leashed. His nearness made me uncomfortable, like it was him and me on one side of things, and Marty on the other. I stepped away.

Then Marty came out again with a blanket draped over one shoulder. He grabbed the shovel standing against the sagging deer-fencing of a defeated little garden and headed with it and the blanket back into the woods.

Vayne asked me if I would hold his dog. I must’ve looked surprised, because he explained that he wanted to get another shovel. The dog sat back on its haunches to wait, gazing one way and another, like dogs do, head hanging and ears back. From the squat muzzle and the way the bottom canines stuck out like tusks, I guessed it was part mastiff. Fur was grey and white in patches, eyes almost pink. Blood had dried all up on its muzzle and neck and chest. It must’ve outweighed Molly by at least twenty pounds.

“Well, buddy,” I said. “I don’t think this is going to turn out well for you.”

The dog yawned. It had a huge mouth.

The sky had opened up a little to the south, and in the strong late-afternoon light the bare trees shone like nickel, and the lichen on them glowed like a copper patina. Vayne and I were still maybe fifty feet away from Marty when I saw him pick Molly up and lay her down again on the blanket he’d spread over the leaves. And I don’t know if it was a trick of the distance, or all that new light tangling the trees with their shadows; or if it was just the absurdity of this turn in my day, the fatigue of it. But my mind jumped to this painting they had hanging inside our church, of Jesus being taken down from the cross.

He was already digging when we got there, stamping the shovel-blade down through the leaves and stones into the hard earth. Molly lay on her side on the blanket. She might have been asleep but for the tear in her throat. The blanket, I noticed, was covered with her short brown hairs.

Maybe that was why I recoiled when Vayne tried to hand the lead to me again. In the end I took it anyway, although later, as I went over and over the events of the day in my mind, I would wonder why I didn’t just tell him to tie the dog to a tree. Vayne set to work helping his brother dig. I listened to their boots stamping on the shovel-blades, the water dripping from the trees. Then I heard another sound: Vayne’s dog, licking the blood from around Molly’s neck. Neither of the brothers seemed to have noticed, or if they did they didn’t say anything. I didn’t pull the dog off her, either, not even after it put one paw on Molly’s neck so it could lick deeper. Then it started to nose under her, like it was trying to prod her awake. When that failed, it lay down on its belly along the length of her back, and, chin on one paw, watched the men dig.

Sometimes the shovel-blades rang against each other, and the dirt fell back in the hole. It was hardly a two-man job. But Vayne clearly wanted to do his part, and if anything he tried to outpace his brother. It was funny, if these two men had never seemed alike to me before, it could only be because I’d never seen them side-by-side. Not that they looked anything like each other, or were anything like each other. No, the resemblance was deeper. So deep, in fact, that I doubt either of them could see it. It was in how they carried themselves, and all the little gestures they shared. It got to the point that I started to confuse the one with the other. That is, until Vayne opened his mouth.

“We’re digging this big enough for two,” he said, without looking up. And Marty, who’d put his shovel down, picked it up again, a little tentatively, and without saying anything.

“I should be digging this myself,” said Vayne, some time later. He paused, leaning on his shovel, panting, and drew one grimy hand across his forehead, exactly as I’d seen Marty do a few minutes before.

“You should be the one standing there with the gun,” said Vayne.

Marty brought up a paltry amount of dirt, again and again.

“I should’ve killed your ass a long time ago,” said Vayne to his dog. “You know what? You should be digging your own hole.

“You should’ve been tougher with me, Marty,” he said, digging again. “You know I don’t listen good sometimes. Officer Canetti can tell you that.”

I thought: If I’m going to shoot anything today, it’ll probably be Vayne. But as I stood there with the leash held limply in my hand, the sun just beginning to drop behind the ridge, the trees turning black, I remembered that I was still the only one there with a gun. Not that a gun wasn’t as available back at Marty’s house as a shovel. But that was the point: Vayne could’ve gotten a gun when he got the shovel. Unless, that is, he was planning on beating the dog to death.

It had been years since I’d unholstered my weapon. I blessed God every day I didn’t have to. I didn’t get into this business to shoot dogs, I thought, except maybe mad ones. This dog wasn’t mad—certainly not any madder than Marty was. But it was still a menace. And Vayne never could do for himself. I knew how this was going to end the minute I saw the crate in his truck.

Marty kept pretending to dig. His brother watched him quizzically. When he noticed Vayne had stopped, he straightened up and pitched his shovel into the leaves, and the two brothers stood there looking at each other, hips cocked in just the same way. The dog must have sensed something, too, because it raised its head, got up, stretched. It stood there on the blanket, its right foreleg trembling.

Something about the way Marty looked at Vayne, I half-expected him to pick up his shovel and brain his brother with it. I think I would have stood there and watched—me and that dog together. Thanked him for saving me the trouble.

Then the report of a gunshot rang out over the hills. Nearer than I would have expected, though not so close as to really startle anybody. It was followed by two more. They died out slowly, like thunder.

Marty climbed out of the hole. Vayne’s dog took a couple of nervous steps back. I gave a sharp tug on the lead. But it didn’t seem to notice us at all. Meanwhile, Vayne didn’t move, or even say anything for once. I got the feeling, though, that he was looking at me, trying to get my attention. I didn’t raise my head until I heard Marty kneel.

With the blanket folded over Molly, the body looked too small for the hole, and much too small to be the dog Marty had been carrying home. He hefted her with the same gentleness I’d witnessed before, and the same image came helplessly to my mind. He knelt down with her by the hole, and Vayne had enough sense not to try and help. But when I stole a glance at him, I saw he was holding his shovel again.

I undid the button of my holster. Vayne’s dog pressed up against my other thigh.

“Marty?” said Vayne. “What about Hitch?”

I think that was the first time Marty looked at Vayne’s dog. He looked at it for at least as long as he’d looked at Molly on her blanket. Except that he seemed to be looking through it, and through the woods around us, at everything and at nothing.

“I can do it if you want me to,” Vayne said. “Marty. I know it’s the right thing. I…”

Marty winced, like at a sudden pain. I got the sense that my moment, my time to act, was fast slipping by.

Then I noticed that Marty’s eyes had shifted slightly. He wasn’t staring at the dog anymore. He was staring at my hand, resting on the butt of my pistol. I saw his face harden into stone.

Without looking away, Marty whistled softly and held out his hand. At first the dog just crouched, wagging its tail fiercely between its legs, and peeing a little in the leaves, and on my shoe. He whistled again, a little sharper this time; the dog started to drag itself forward through the leaves. It couldn’t have gotten any lower if it had been trying to burrow into the earth.

I thought: It would never do that for Vayne.

When the dog reached the end of the lead, I dropped it.

Marty didn’t move when the bloodstained muzzle grazed his fingertips. The dog crept up the length of his arm, rising a little as it went, until its pink tongue flecked his beard. It sidled up over his knees, and then pushed all its weight against Marty’s trunk: all the heaviness of a dog, a solid dog like Molly had been. He closed his arms around it, one under the dog’s neck, the other over its rump, breathing heavily into the fur on its back, just breathing, until the dog, which was trembling all over, began to calm.

Vayne was standing in the hole with the shovel held in both hands. He looked up at me, like a guilty man who’s dug his own grave, asking to be put out of his misery.

My hand eased off the pistol.

When I’d seen enough, I started back toward my car, trying not to walk too quickly. Vayne called out behind me, as I knew he would. I pretended not to hear him, not even when he called me Saul.


My father used to say that justice was about closing a circle. He’d hold up one hand with his thumb and forefinger making a curve, like a parenthesis, and then match it to the same figure in the other one, thumb to thumb, forefinger to forefinger. He wasn’t a cop. In fact, he tried to talk me out of becoming one. But he did have a deep sense of right, and a strong respect for the individual.

I think about my father’s circle whenever I see Marty out walking his dog. As soon as he sees me, he’ll pull Hitch over to the edge of the road—always has him on lead, the dog in a harness, not a collar—and make him sit. He’ll squat down next to him with one hand on his chest. Marty does all this even though I slow down to ten miles an hour. I raise my hand as I go by; he doesn’t raise his. It never meant anything when he did, so why should it mean so much now that he doesn’t? Maybe he just doesn’t see me, because he always turns his head, for all the world like some abused child, waiting for a blow to land. Except I’m the one who feels it. Right in the gut. Passing them, I get the sense that I’m looking down on myself, but half-obscured, like through the branches of trees. It only lasts a second. Then they’re behind me, and I’m watching them in my mirrors.

You know what I’m looking for? The dog’s balls. I’m looking to see if it’s still got them. I’ve never been able to tell; Marty always waits until I’m out of sight before they start walking again. I suppose I could ask. But I’ve never been able to get myself to stop.

This road used to be a cow track twenty years ago. The land Marty’s house sits on has probably tripled in value over the last few years. And I think: You ungrateful son of a bitch. Acting like I did him some wrong, when all I did was give him a ride home, and then wait around to make sure things worked out as amicably as they could with his brother. And they did, in the end, at least according to Vayne. But Vayne is different with me now, too. The last time I went by his store—call it a courtesy visit—he just stood there at the register with his arms crossed, like to stop me from going any further. He was polite enough. Just short. Maybe he knows I’d feel better if Marty had never spoken to him again. Maybe he thinks I didn’t have to stick my nose in their mess to begin with. Except I did. The dog was a menace. A dangerous animal, I said so myself. And that must be what rankles me about seeing Marty and that dog walking down the road together. I left them to take care of things, knowing they wouldn’t. Marty, he got saddled with that animal. And Vayne, as usual, got to wash his hands of it all.

But then I remember how Marty’s face changed when he saw my hand on the gun. I remember him calling the dog over, and the way it crawled to him on its belly, the way he hugged it to himself, breathing hard against its back, all blood-covered the two of them, already as much one thing as he and Molly had been. I know what it is he holds against me. What he won’t let me forget. I drive by so slowly. I’m afraid that, if I did stop and try to talk to him, he’d heft that dog just like he did Molly that day, and run away into what’s left of these woods, weaving his way along the fences and driveways, ducking between stands of trees.

 


CRAIG BERNARDINI’s fiction has appeared most recently in ConjunctionsJuked, and Puerto del Sol. He teaches English at Hostos Community College, a City University of New York school in the Bronx, and occasionally blogs about music at Helldriver’s Pit Stop, on the CUNY Academic Commons. He lives in the hills of Dutchess County, New York with his partner, dogs, cats, and chickens.

 

Author’s Note

“Trees Go to Heaven” got a revise-and-resubmit request from the very first journal I sent it to. The editors suggested two things: tighten up the dialogue, and expand on the relationship between the brothers, Marty and Vayne. Both suggestions made sense to me, but the latter seemed particularly astute. When I had first started jotting down notes for the story, there was no Vayne, just the narrator (Saul) and Marty. It was only later, as the full story began to take shape, that I realized a character like Vayne was necessary to make it work.

And so I tightened up the dialogue and expanded on the Marty-Vayne relationship, mostly in the first section, and sent it back in. The story was rejected again. When I looked back at it a few months later, I realized that the Marty-Vayne additions had actually cluttered the action. It wasn’t a bad exercise to have gone through; among other things, fleshing out the brothers’ relationship led to some important tweaks later in the story. But I deleted probably 75% of the new material before sending the story out again. (That said, some of my favorite lines are in the bits I kept!)

I think this experience raises some interesting questions. First and foremost: Whose story is it? I think what I decided—what the experience of revising and partly un-revising sedimented for me—was that it’s Saul’s story. The brothers are important, of course; Marty’s gesture at the climax is the reason I wanted to write the story in the first place. In this sense, I may “want” it to be Marty’s story; Marty may be the character I feel closest to. But Saul’s response—his hesitation, his leaving the scene, his conflicted feelings and anger afterward—these are really the key to the story.

The above also raises broader questions about first-person observer (or observer-participant, or whatever) narration. Is it as much an oxymoron as “limited omniscient”? Why would an author choose to tell a story through a character’s eyes if not to reveal something about them as much as about the ostensible protagonist? And if the lens, and the reader’s attention, are turned back onto the narrator… well, whose story is it?

Is observer-participant narration a sort of double-bind, with the focus helpless but to oscillate across the hyphen? Can a story have its cake and eat it, too? (If not in fiction, then where?)

 

 


CRAIG BERNARDINI’s fiction has appeared most recently in ConjunctionsJuked, and Puerto del Sol. He teaches English at Hostos Community College, a City University of New York school in the Bronx, and occasionally blogs about music at Helldriver’s Pit Stop, on the CUNY Academic Commons. He lives in the hills of Dutchess County, New York with his partner, dogs, cats, and chickens.