Branches Over the Stream

By Barbara Milton

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Claire, a senior pre-med, no longer reads the Times.  The stories are too big, too far away.  What can she do about all that bad news?  She’s taken to reading the local newspaper instead.  She used to skip the obits, but now she scans those as well, looking for people who died young, noting the illnesses that led to their deaths. About a month ago she noticed that a pretty Puerto Rican woman had died at thirty-two “after a long illness.”  When Matt told her Ramon’s mother had died, Claire recalled the face of the woman.

Matt is also pre-med and, though only a freshman, the co-chair of Claire’s Ecology Club. The two received a grant to lead an after-school program called “Schoolyard Ecology” at a middle school in the city.  Ramon is Matt’s favorite student.  On the first day of the program, when the others were looking at living things, Ramon ran around picking up bottles and cans and trading them for Fritos at the corner store.  He slipped back into the group before Claire saw he was missing. 

He’s the only kid Jim let’s climb a tree and handle a saw to cut off dead branches. Jim is a landscape architect. He looks like Santa. He consults on the project and the kids call him Grandpa.  He wants to take them on a field trip to his woods in the country where he intends, one day, to build his dream home. For now he’s content to explore the landscape, climbing up a small hill to take in the big picture and crouching to finger the rotting leaves on the ground.  

In the schoolyard he discusses different species of trees. The kids had never noticed there were any trees. Now they talk about them as if they were friends and trim them and prune them and look for wounds in their bark.

On the day of the field trip, Jim rose at six in the morning to clear a trail through the woods for the children.  He designed it to wind past a dead possum, cross over a stream, pierce through a stand of old sugar maples and hardwoods, up the side of a waterfall and down to a bear track, ending up in a space Jim has cleared for his house. The weather forecast is cold. 

Matt and Claire leave the school at 2:30. Claire takes the six girls in her station wagon. Matt takes the six boys in a van.  They both know mixing genders would have created no problems but the father of one of the girls wouldn’t let her ride with a man.  

Claire laughs at the father referring to Matt as a man—the kind that would threaten someone, even a child–but Matt takes the man’s comment in stride, he has bigger things to worry about. Before he can leave the city, he has to get Victor’s mother’s permission. Their apartment is on the corner where one fourteen-year old shot another and if Matt knows anything it’s that he doesn’t want to get shot.  What he does want is to get into Medical School. He took on this project because he will need the money but also because he wanted to help.  Now, he thinks, he could help more in a hospital letting the poor come to him.  He wants to berate Victor, the plumpest, youngest kid in the group, for not getting his mother to sign the permission slip, but he restrains himself and Victor runs into his building. 

At a quarter past three Claire and the girls pull into Jim’s driveway.  Jim is waiting on the edge of the woods. Mary, a volunteer to the program, pulls in behind Claire and takes off her helmet and shakes out her gray waist-length hair. Her motorcycle is big and red and her enormous blue eyes express concern then delight.  She’s brought a duffle filled with shoes, boots and gloves, and the girls, in their flimsy flats, grab whatever they can.

Claire says she’ll wait for the van, while Jim and Mary take the girls into the woods. At the edge of the woods, the girls pick out their walking sticks, which they first use to poke a dead possum. 

Standing on a rock the size of a sea turtle, Claire has plenty of time to imagine terrible things: the van being shot at on the way out of the neighborhood; an accident somewhere on the highway. She calls Matt on his cell phone, but he doesn’t answer so Claire starts praying. She is not willing to give up her usual bargaining chips—chocolate for a year, a month, or a week, so she tries to put her fears in perspective.  She often fills waiting time with thoughts of disasters, yet not once have the dreaded moments occurred. So she lets her worry run into rage at Matt and his current incompetence. He’s always so clumsy—physically, emotionally–and he pays no attention to details. She should have helped him decipher Jim’s map but she was in such a hurry to get the kids into the woods, where she was certain they would be transformed. 

Now, for the first time, the responsibility hits her.  What will she do if the van doesn’t show up? Will she go back to school and wait for it there?  How will she tell the principal that she lost six of his children?  How will she tell the parents she lost one of their sons?  The school will be closed by the time she gets back. The parking lot will be dark. It’s a terrible neighborhood.

She thinks about the string of events leading up to this moment.  How hard she and Matt worked to raise the money for the program. They wrote and re-wrote and re-wrote the proposal. They found Jim, a professional, willing to work for a pittance. They brought in Mary, who had taught in the schools. They finagled an interview with a foundation for funds. They pushed the program though a logistical nightmare after which, not one kid signed up.  

So she and Matt set out to promote it, visiting classrooms, passing out candy.  Some kids came, some left, they got more.  To reward those who stayed, they promised a field trip and made up permission slips for parents to sign. 

“I’m going to have to sign it myself,” Ramon said.

“Why’s that?” Claire asked.

“My parents are dead.”

Claire remembered what Matt had already told her and the photo of the Puerto Rican woman who died.  And the crisp white shirt Ramon wore the day of the funeral. He had skipped school but come to the program with the obit in his pocket in case the Principal caught him. 

He seemed eager to participate that day and when she asked the children to imitate something from nature, he hammered the air and growled out peals of thunder. But as the hammering and growling grew fiercer, Claire stepped in with a new activity. She passed out slips of paper for the children to vote on which plants they would put in the schoolyard. Then she gave them some options.

“And don’t look at each other’s paper!” she said. “We want lots of variety.”  

While she was talking, Ramon was playing with textbooks.  He turned one upside down and raised its spine toward the ceiling. He added another behind it creating a tunnel that he shoved his arm through, then in and out of. Matt, who was standing behind him, asked if the other kids found Ramon distracting. When they said yes, Matt reached over Ramon’s shoulder and, rather violently, swept the books to the floor.

They were large, hard-covered books and the noise startled everyone. Claire was stunned. On this day of all days. The kids looked scared as if one of them might be next. Matt’s face flamed up in red blotches, but he recovered enough to touch Ramon’s shoulder as he tried to launch a whole new discussion. 

The group wasn’t interested in having a discussion. They yelled at Matt and told him he was wrong. Only Ramon sat perfectly still, focusing on his hands tightly clasped on the table. In a soft controlled voice, without being defensive, Ramon explained he’d been making a tent to keep his vote secret.

At a quarter to four, the van turns onto Jim’s road.  Matt drives past Claire and parks next to her Highlander.  Victor bursts out of the van looking dizzy and green.  He throws up in some bushes, then bolts into the woods and all the boys, except Ramon, dash in behind him.  Ramon, strutting proudly in his new rubber boots, brings up the rear while Claire hangs back waiting for an explanation from Matt, who scurries past her to catch up with the children.

Jim had laid branches over the trickling stream in an effort to keep the kids’ shoes somewhat dry, but Ramon marches right through the water.  “Look guys!  They’re waterproof!”

Jim stands next to a sugar maple on the other side of the stream. Its gray bark crumbles like powder but thirty feet up is a huge hunk of sap that had seeped out last winter and frozen. “Maple syrup,” Jim says, before moving on to the hemlocks, where he turns over a branchlet exposing fuzzy white insects nestled in between needles. “The wooly adelgid,” he explains, “is a hitchhikers from Japan, where it isn’t a problem. But in America it has no natural predators, so nothing can stop it from killing the hemlocks.” The children look at him sadly and then at the trees.

To lighten the mood, Jim nods at the skunk cabbage, chubby bulbs ready to spring up from the swamp. “You can eat them at this stage and they’re delicious but cooking them stinks up the whole house.” Further into the forest, Jim points out a shagbark hickory, whose trunk has to stretch out along the ground in order to get a piece of the sun. 

And next comes the waterfall, lined with gray boulders, each a little bit shorter than the boys scrambling up them.  As they reach the top, girls spring out from the forest and three of them run to catch up with the boys. A fourth, Ebony, who is large and heavy with a face full of bruises, follows more slowly with Mary. Two other girls, arm in arm, fall further behind.

While Jim leads the nimbler girls along the edge of a waterfall, Mary tries to get Ebony to climb the first boulder. “Put one foot here,” Mary says, but Ebony can’t move. Mary lifts Ebony’s left foot toward a crevice while supplying a shoulder for the girl’s trembling hand.  Then, with a big boast, she gets Ebony onto the boulder where Ebony is terrified that any movement at all might tip her over and into the waterfall.

The other climbers tumble down and run past her and Jim follows them into the woods. Matt and Claire stay close to Ebony while Mary goes to check on the arm-in-arm girls, who are now leaning over a fallen log. 

Claire leaves Matt and walks toward the girls, who seem to be throwing up. But it’s worse than that: one is gasping for air.

“Asthma,” Mary says softly.

The women sit the two girls on the log.  Marquisa and Jennifer could be twins, slight and pretty with similar ponytails. Marquisa is shivering. Her socks are wet. Mary offers to trade those with her own.  First Jennifer bends down to pull Marquisa’s boots off—one of two pairs Mary brought in her bag–then she peels the damp socks from her friend’s damp feet and gives them to Claire who hands them to Mary who passes a dry purple pair back via Claire.  To keep Marquisa’s feet warm during the transition, Jennifer covers them with her scarf.  Marquisa can barely breathe.

Claire, also shivering, tries to pull the dry socks over Marquesa’s damp feet but the socks do not slide easily.

“And how about your boots?” Mary says to Marquisa.  “They must be wet, too.  Why don’t you take mine.”

Even after this trade, Marquisa can’t talk, which doesn’t stop Jennifer who says, “Let’s climb the waterfall.”

Claire suggests that Jennifer climb the waterfall by herself, but Jennifer insists she will not leave Marquisa.  So Marquisa, the victim of her friend’s undying loyalty, sets out up the hill, her arm draped over Jennifer, Jennifer’s arm around Marquisa’s waist.

Ebony is still stuck by the waterfall. Matt walks back and forth on the ground. Mary climbs the boulder to help Ebony get down.  Jennifer scuttles past Mary and calls on Marquisa to join her.  Marquisa, still silent, looks close to fainting.  Claire tells Jennifer to go up alone, they will watch her, but adds, “Marquisa stays here.”

With no protest from Marquisa, Jennifer bolts up to the top.  Ebony stands motionless, still glued to the boulder, but looks casually sideways as if she’s just pausing. Soon Jennifer scuttles down again to rejoin Marquisa and, wrapped up together, they stumble into the woods.  

Meanwhile, Matt gives inch-by-inch directions as to to the placement of Ebony’s feet. Mary does the same for Ebony’s hands.  Claire leaves to help Jim with the others. Ebony hasn’t moved an iota.

At the end of the trail, the children are sitting on stumps.  Ramon’s feet are freezing.  His boots aren’t waterproof after all. Jim’s wife has brought donuts and a large canteen of hot chocolate.  The children are gleeful and cannot stop talking.  The woods contain all their fears and elations, unlike the classroom, which hasn’t room for so many. Claire looks at her watch. It’s time to head home.

Then, quietly, Ebony emerges out of the forest, followed by Matt, who is followed by Mary.

“Guess what we saw,” Matt says, coming up to the kids with little brown balls in his hands.  “Signs of a deer.”  He’d been thinking of a way to slip Ebony in without notice, when he came across the scat—aha!

And just as the children finish the hot chocolate and donuts, Victor bursts out of the forest. Claire’s eyes go up, almost into her forehead–she can’t blame this one on Matt. The children yell that Victor missed the hot chocolate. He doesn’t care.  He can get that at home.

When everyone grabs their things and the children go ahead with Mary and Jim, Matt and Claire follow behind.  Claire asks Matt what made him so late.

“Nothing,” said Matt.  “I just got lost.”

“I should have spent more time with you explaining the map.” 

“That wasn’t it. I got lost. I wasn’t paying attention.  The kids were great though.  After all that driving around in circles, not one of them gave me a hard time. But I do feel terrible. They had so little time in the woods to begin with. Sometimes it feels like I do everything wrong.”

“You’re doing a lot right.  The deer scat was brilliant—bringing Ebony in on the discovery, making her feel so important, distracting the kids so she could slide into the group” 

“Yeah, but you know what was really awesome?” Matt voice now sounds happy.  “None of the kids were going to say anything, anyway.”

Mary and the children stand in the clearing where Jim will one day build his house. She has found a piece of quartz, which she puts in Jennifer’s hand, which is buried in Mary’s now dirty white glove.  The sun breaks through the canopy and lands on a facet, sparking a sudden though short-lived orange flame. Jennifer drops the quartz and Mary picks it up again, rotating it slowly to reveal its transparency, its crystalline structure, how the parts join together.

On their ways home Matt decides he WILL be a doctor. Claire thinks maybe she’d rather teach. Mary wonders whether she could adopt Ramon—not could she legally but could she emotionally. Six years ago she killed a child backing her car out of the driveway. And Ramon? He is certain that whatever he does, he’ll make lots of money and buy a motorcycle like Mary’s, which he had spent some time stroking, before climbing into the van.

About Barbara Milton

Barbara Milton has published three stories in the Paris Review, one of these stories won a Pushcart Prize and was also published in the Pushcart anthology, LOVE STORIES FOR THE TIME BEING. Milton’s writing has also been featured in JuxtaProse, the North American Review, the Apalachee Quarterly, The Adirondack Review, and several other literary magazines. Three of these stories were also nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her prize for winning the Word Beat Press award was a collection of her stories in the chapbook, A Small Cartoon, and she recently won first prize in the Winning Writers Short Story Contest.

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