A Warbler in a Dying Oak
by Gary Inbinder
Matt trudged through an oak forest alongside a swift-running brook. Wind gusts lifted dead leaves from his path and cast them adrift on the rippling water. He stopped a moment to watch the brown debris floating downstream. Where were they all going? The forest and marshland seemed alive with birdsong: wood ducks, warblers and red-winged blackbirds chattering a requiem for the fallen leaves.
“That’s pathetic fallacy for you,” Matt muttered. “We’re all going nowhere, and the birds could care less.”
He glanced around and for a moment, he thought he had lost his way. Then, Nora appeared through a break in the trees; she seemed pale and lonely as a ghost. She waited for him by a wooden footbridge. Matt took her cold hand; they crossed the bridge without speaking and continued until they came to a low bluff, overlooking the fen.
Matt reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a flask. “Have some, Nora. It’ll keep out the chill.”
“What is it?”
Nora took a swig and handed back the flask. “That hit the spot. Thanks.”
“I hope this goes down as well. I’m taking the job in Vancouver.”
Nora stared at the sunset. A great orange disc lowered on the horizon; its rays streaked the clouds a fiery crimson. Without looking at Matt, she mumbled, “Then it’s over.”
“I suppose so, unless you want to come with me.”
“No, I have my own career to think about.” That was a lie. Nora’s career no longer meant anything to her.
“All right, Nora. That’s it.” Her answer did not surprise him. The life had gone out of their relationship, and a break-up seemed best. He turned to Nora and pointed toward a dying tree. “Remember our first kiss under that oak?”
Nora gazed at the leafless branches and dry, tumorous bark. She sighed, “I remember.”
“It was good for us then, wasn’t it?”
She kept staring silently at the dying tree. It had been good, but now she was like the oak; Nora’s illness ate away at the vibrant life within her that Matt had loved. She could not tell him that her illness had returned. He might lose an important job only to stay and watch her die. A callous lie seemed better than the truth. “Yes, for a while. Then it became a bad habit.” She turned to him with a sad smile. “May I have some more scotch?”
Nora drank and wiped her lips on the back of her hand. She whispered, “I’ll never see you again. Do you know why?”
He shook his head. “No, why?” Matt could not look at Nora. He glanced up at the dying oak. Like Nora, all the sap and vigor had drained out of it. For an instant, Matt wondered if her illness had returned. A sudden blast of wind blew across the bluff, scattering the fallen leaves and rattling bare branches. A speck of dust stung Matt’s eye; he wiped a tear.
She handed back the whiskey without looking at him. “It hurts too much.”
Matt shook his head, and muttered, “Yes, it does.” He did not want to lose her. He was about to say that he would give up the job in Vancouver when something deep inside him turned hard and cold as the rocky bluff. He waited for Nora to say something more, but she remained silent. Matt shivered and zipped up his jacket. “Let’s get out of here.”
Nora followed Matt down the trail to the main road. She stopped by the stream to gaze at the floating leaves. Suddenly, she buried her face in her hands and wept. Nora cried for herself, for Matt, the dead leaves and for the dying oak, and for all things that pass from this world, and for all that they must leave behind.
Matt turned to her and grumbled, “Come on, Nora, it’s getting dark. We’ll lose our way.” He wanted to hold her and comfort her, but it was too late. Feeding a dying love’s appetite, he thought, was like giving blood to a vampire. Better to let it die.
She dried her eyes with a tissue and followed him to the road. They got into their cars without saying another word and drove in opposite directions. The Harvest Moon rose, and lit the fen like a searchlight. A warbler perched for a moment on a branch of the dying oak, sang a few notes and then flew away into the moonlight.
Copyright © 2008 by Gary Inbinder