People always talk about how it's the little things that destroyed their marriage—things that were there all along, but seemed so tiny or insignificant at the time that they went virtually overlooked.
I think I can almost guarantee that up until we moved to that house in Deptford, there was nothing amiss with our relationship, nothing hindsight would point to and say, see the red flag? Paul and I had been happily married for four years by that point, and had already welcomed our daughter, Ashley, into the world. Paul always said he wanted two kids: a boy and a girl.
We were halfway there.
Ashley was three when we settled on the move. Paul grew up on the East Coast, and I had always moved around the Midwest as a kid, so we were excited by the prospect of a shared adventure. We didn't know anyone out west besides our realtor, but we had each other, and we had Ashley, and for us that was more than enough. Ashley even made the final decision for us. The house we both had our eye on from the beginning was built on ten acres, and there was a grove of stunted white ash trees growing in the backyard. At first, the trees had looked disfigured and dead to me, and gave me the creeps. They reminded me of inverted CT scans of human lungs. "Shouldn't they be flowering by now?" I remember asking skeptically. The realtor assured us that they would.
It was love at first sight for Paul. He was the first to draw the parallel between the ash grove and our daughter's name. For a young family looking to make a change, it felt like the sign we had been waiting for.
I found work as a nurse. Paul was a writer and worked from home. We fell into our new routines: during the week I spent most of my days (and the majority of my nights) at the hospital; Paul wrote and teleconferenced from home, taking breaks to play with Ashley and go for nature walks on the property, though the latter he usually took alone. Paul and I were both hikers, but despite our best efforts to indoctrinate her early, Ashley never seemed to like nature or the woods. She wouldn't set foot into the ash grove without crying, even when we were out there with her—not even when we brought along her stuffed dog, Snowy, from whom she could normally never be parted.
Paul took to putting her down for a nap before going out. I didn't like the thought of her left alone at the house for long stretches, but Paul said he never strayed further than the grove. He insisted the walks were necessary to his process, and assured me he kept the house in sight at all times. Honestly, a part of me felt guilty for not being there myself, so I didn't push the issue. Paul took walks for inspiration. And I wanted him to feel inspired.
We moved into the house in spring. By summer, the trees had finally started to leaf, working their way slowly upward from the trunk to fill out their black, anorexic branches. Even I couldn't deny they were gorgeous. Our neighbors up the lane had a bigger grove, but I was starting to feel a special fondness for our weird little woodland.
Despite my work schedule and my frequent absence from home, I did finally manage to make one friend: our closest neighbor, Deborah, who lived up the street with her ailing father. From her, I learned a lot about the town, and a lot about our property in particular. She told me that the house had stood unoccupied for much longer than our realtor had led us to believe, and that with us on the premises she was seeing the white ash leaf for the first time in years. Before, she had always assumed the trees stood dead on their roots. She had speculated they were the reason the house had trouble selling.
It had been a rough week at work, and I remember feeling so encouraged, so proud, that we were what had finally moved them to grow. I never had time now to walk the backyard path myself, but I was content to admire the grove from our bedroom window. Often, Paul would look up and wave to me as he came and went. I had taken to thinking of the trees as his "garden". I had no doubt that in time, Ashley would grow to cherish them as much as he did… we did.
Summer drew to an end, and it was fall before we knew it. By this time Paul was taking frequent walks through the woods, disappearing for hours on end. I attributed it to writer's block. He hadn't published anything significant since the move, and spent most evenings holed up in his office working. When Paul committed to something, he committed absolutely. I had no doubt he was feeling as much pressure as I was to settle into our new life.
I had enough leeway at work by this point that I was making it home in time for dinner. Often, I would find Ashley still dozing in her room, or playing with Snowy, and Paul nowhere in sight. I didn't want to put a name to it, but I could feel a rift starting to form in our family.
I almost wholly blamed myself. I was still working way too much. I tried to cut back my hours at the hospital—only when I did, I would start to see the bills pile up alongside the take-out boxes, and I felt frustrated. Resentful. I had known and accepted what life with Paul would be like before I married him, but we had both worked so hard before. Now, I felt like I was the only one keeping us afloat—even as I feared that it was my absence pulling us apart.
Deborah was a great friend, and a great source of reassurance and comfort, as the fall days darkened. I remember sitting with her one evening on her porch, both of us watching Ashley play with Snowy in the yard. Our eyes occasionally wandered to the ash grove standing in the distance. I remember wishing, not for the first time, that Paul had come with us, but he had mentioned a vague deadline and stayed home at the last second. I didn't press him. Maybe our luck was about to change.
"Speaking of change," Deborah interrupted gently, obviously trying to get my mind off the subject, "can we talk about your magic trees? They haven't changed their colors, not a single one! They've got to be the only green trees left in the county. Just take a look at ours."
Sure enough, all of the ash trees in Deborah's yard were already dressed in autumnal shades of orange and red. I distinctly remember that I did not want to talk about trees, especially not our trees. I had a suspicion that I was growing to hate them as much as Ashley, and I didn't want to be right. I had dreams about chopping them down—mostly on the nights when I went to bed alone.
Deborah's father spoke in a cobweb voice that raised the hair on the backs of my arms. He was seated in his rocking chair beside us on the porch. I had never heard him speak before, and gathered from Deborah that his dementia was so advanced it had been years since he last managed a coherent word. Today seemed like no exception. I accepted the leaf he handed me as Deborah rose and helped him back inside. Seeing what remained of her family in shambles made me all the more determined to preserve mine.
But I was getting angry, so deeply angry, and by now I was also frightened. I picked up Paul's phone one morning, something I had never done before, and thumbed quickly through his messages. My haste was less a product of any chance of being caught (he was out in the garden at the time), and more a product of my own guilt. I saw all the texts I had sent from the hospital that he had never responded to, and unresponded-to texts from friends back home; nothing to immediately indicate an affair. I flipped through his e-mails. Then, I closed out every app, and put the phone back down where I found it.
Ten or more individual correspondences, all one-sided, all from his agent, wondering where Paul was and where his stories were. The final one had been sent three weeks ago, then silence. I didn't need to read what it said to understand why the paychecks weren't coming.
I didn't tell Deborah. She had enough to worry about. But I started to prepare myself for a confrontation.
Everything came to a head the day I arrived home and heard Ashley screaming in her bedroom. I ran inside to find her locked in her room, hot tears pouring down her face. I remember wiping her nose with the back of my sleeve, something you never think twice about when you're a parent, and noticing she had peed more than once in her pajamas. Had Paul even changed her out of them that morning? I looked around frantically for Snowy, but couldn't find him. I looked for a stuffed dog before I looked for my own husband. When I found neither, I lifted Ashley into my arms and ascended the staircase, every furious footfall reporting like a gunshot, warning Paul of the war that was coming before I had even thrown open his office door.
He wasn't there, and neither was Snowy. A fetid gust of air hit us, stirring the pile of papers on his desk. The window had been left open for I don't know how long. Even from the doorway, I could see the costly water stain blooming on the carpet beneath it. All of the pages that slipped and fell to the floor were blank.
Worse than the state of the room, worse than the smell coming off my weeping daughter, was the smell that slammed into me then. It was stomach-turning. How had I never noticed such a rank odor of putrefaction? How had it not crept out through the bottom of the door? How had it not clung to Paul, if this was really where Paul had gone to every night?
I didn't go in. I crossed the hallway into our room and set Ashley down on the bed, instructing her to sit and be still. In the absence of Snowy, I grabbed for the first thing I could give her to hold onto—the leaf on my bedside table, the one that Deborah's demented old father had given me. What was it he said that day?
My computer was open. I typed an approximation of what I thought the spelling could be into a web search and hit 'send'. Every few seconds my eyes flashed to the window, hoping, dreading, that I'd catch a glimpse of Paul coming out of the woods. I noticed a flock of birds in a tree further out, sitting undisturbed. They had been roosting there for days now.
Where was he?
The results were in: fraxinus nigra. Black ash. The leaf matched the image results for a black ash tree. Our trees were white ash. Weren't they?
My head was spinning as I carried Ashley downstairs with me and locked her in the backseat of the car. The nightmarish stench from the office had already started to seep into the rest of the house. I had made up my mind to stay at a hotel in town, but before I could ram the key into the ignition, I found that I was headed for the woods.
The trees didn't match their leaves. The leaves didn't match their trees. Where was Paul? He could sleep out here in his garden for all I cared.
It was then that I started to notice them. The little things. The leaves. It was then that I realized they weren't growing at all. They had never been growing.
Each one of the dozens, thousands, millions, had been impaled on its twig.
Our trees weren't alive. It was a perverse facsimile of growth. Someone had taken our dead forest and dressed up its corpse.
I knew I was right when I found Paul. He stood in a clearing with his back to me. I didn't call out to him; I wanted to catch him in the act, to see for myself the insanity of his project. I watched as he took each leaf from his hand mechanically, then speared it with an incisive jerk on a dead twig.
It was Paul. Paul had done this.
I didn't wait in silence for long. By the time it occurred to me to speak, I was already screaming.
"Where did you get the leaves, Paul?"
I remember being more surprised by the question than by my screaming. It wasn't one that occurred to me on a conscious level, though it suddenly seemed like the only question that mattered. White ash. Black ash. I thought I saw something move behind the trees, and I could smell it then: the stench from the office, that foul, suffocating putrescence. When I turned my head to look, there was nothing, but I found Snowy. He was gored on a branch, the stuffing spilling out of his chest.
I didn't move to retrieve him. Paul had turned, and was staring at me, mouth agape as if in shock at being found out—only it stayed open, and he stayed staring at me. Like he was brain dead. Like his eyes had been burrowed away by ash borers, and in the darkness only pitted sockets remained. Beyond him, I could see the tree filled with birds. I could see that despite screaming my throat raw, none of them had moved to fly away.
I left Paul there in the clearing, and I took our baby girl with me. I haven't heard from him since. It's the little things you don't notice, they say. I had a lot of fears when I first got married, but I guess my only fear toward the end was that he had run out of leaves.
Written by Somnonaught