“Split the wood, and I am there.”
THE CHRISTMAS LIGHTS at Dr. Iske’s were glittering this year, as if there were a rapidly repeating short in the wires. They were multicolored lights that outlined the roof and bathed the small trees and white lights on the shrubs, and there were so many strands that, while tasteful, the light called attention to the house. There were more lights in the back of the house than in the front so Mrs. Dr. Iske (as she called herself, being of that generation) could see them from her hospice bed. Hospice is not necessarily a place you go to. Hospice means, for one thing, that there was morphine in the house. Dr. Iske carefully followed the instructions of the hospice nurse, and the dose was titrated to her pain and tolerance.
Dr. Iske kept the lights on all night, well into the morning. The lights gleamed on the lemon-polished furniture. They gleamed on the rails of her hospital bed. They gleamed on her silvered hair. They gleamed on the drip of morphine.
Throughout the winter, Dr. Iske obsessively polished their furniture with oil. He had studied plant biology in college before going on to med school, and when he saw varnished wood, he saw the tree it had come from. The quarter-sawn oak tables shone a rich burgundy, the growth rings alternating shades: the dark rings for late summer and autumn growth and the light rings early summer and spring. In certain places, like the front of a bookcase, the light rings looked like tears. One antique table was a burl veneer. A burl is the map of a tree’s cancerous growth.
Earlier in the year, when Dr. Iske’s wife was in the hospital recovering from surgery, their next-door neighbor, a bipolar violinist, went on a rampage against the plants in her own yard. Gone were the wild blackberries that grew along the fence, gone were the white pines too close to the electrical wires, gone were the daylilies and gone the red maple and the redbud whose seeds proliferated in awkward places: in gutters and flowerbeds, among the carefully curated plants edging her gazebo.
Then she turned her eyes to her neighbors’ plants, which seemed to her unkempt. So the violinist asked her so-called arborist to look at the trees in Dr. Iske’s yard, and she reported his findings to Dr. Iske, who at the time was too weak with worry to stand up to the violinist’s own disease and the expert’s opinion, so by the time his wife came home from the hospital, gone were her beloved birches and gone a blue spruce and gone the hostas that had grown underneath the birches and gone the wildflower bed whose chaos his wife had so carefully cultivated. When he was able to focus on the aftermath of what his wife called a slaughter, he planted new crabapples and dogwood, and those were the trees he covered with lights this Christmas season.
One of the pine trees he was able to save at the last minute was twin to a pine that had grown in the violinist’s yard, and in late November the tree in his yard, well over one hundred years old, he estimated, seemed to die of grief. That was the only explanation. One morning he woke up and it had turned to sticks, the needles brown and falling.
Two days before Christmas, thieves who knew a doctor lived in the house and hoped to find drugs or prescription pads or money broke in through a bedroom window and stole all his wife’s jewelry. They broke into the safe and found the morphine. The hospice nurse came and started a new drip, but by that time Mrs. Dr. Iske was agitated and fearful because of the break-in, and a new level of pain had broken through, and once she was peaceful again she seemed to keep falling into a deeper and deeper peace until several days later she stopped breathing and her heart stopped and no extraordinary measures were taken, as had been her wish.
Dr. Iske was sitting next to her bed when she passed. It wasn’t of course the first death he had witnessed, but it was the first one where he briefly felt something like a crochet hook reach out from a body and briefly pull part of his own spirit into a knot with another. From then on, he knew, part of him would be woven into her, traveling wherever it was she was going until all of his spirit unraveled and followed her.
Until then, he would wait. At times over the next year he would feel the hook as it wove the sticky platelets of his blood into something strange that throbbed in his temples.
His daughter, when she flew in from California for the funeral, tried to get him to move from the big house, particularly now that there were thieves in the neighborhood. But the house was sparkling with lemon oil and the carpets vacuumed and there was food in the refrigerator, and he could drive, so though he was old and now a widower, he had memories to sort through and a yard to maintain and other interests, so she couldn’t persuade him to leave and couldn’t force him.
And the daughter seemed to feel comfortable that the neighbor, a violinist who had once played with the symphony, was there and promised to keep watch over him. Dr. Iske watched as the two of them conferred for a long time over coffee. After she went back to California, Dr. Iske’s daughter and the violinist talked often by phone and email. Now and then, as the months went by, the violinist would have her arborist remove a planting from Dr. Iske’s yard, having received the daughter’s permission to do so. One day the violinist had a workman take out a bed of iris that she had mistaken for the beginnings of thistle and replace it with grass seed.
His wife had planted the iris bed from bulbs she dug up in her own grandmother’s yard. She had divided and divided them, and while there was sometimes thistle in among them, they had kept the bed weeded. The iris smelled like purple grapes, and in the spring the grape scent took over right after the lilacs had stopped blooming. The blossoms bled purple liquid when they brought them inside for arrangements. The loss of those irises was devastating. But his daughter had been taken in by the violinist’s energy and by the fact that the woman’s presence in her elderly father’s life relieved her of any guilt over not visiting often enough, or not calling.
So Dr. Iske could tell that any complaints he might lodge against the woman would be used as evidence of a personality change, one signaling his own decline. The advertisements he received for assisted-living facilities had increased since his wife’s death, and he believed his daughter had made inquiries.
In March Dr. Iske watched the violinist spend hours digging at an old tree root that remained in her own yard. It was in the back, where she’d first started. This went on for days, the woman’s thin body hunched over the root system, hacking at it with a handsaw and even at several points with an axe. She was there in the early morning and worked until sunset. Her body moved rhythmically, oddly as if she were having sex with the root. She was clearly insane. Now and then she pulled a twisted ball of white and orange threads from the soil and would chop at it until it came loose, but there was always, it seemed, more of the messy nest of roots, and she’d pull and pull and stand now and then to stretch, her long gray hair in a ponytail that looked to him like horsehair broken loose from a bow. Her enormous ginger-colored cat was always beside her or skulking through the shadows.
Did his Hippocratic oath extend to this clearly diseased woman? He never saw any visitors at her house. Perhaps she was lonely?
And so he walked over and talked to her. She seemed to be pleased to talk with him, though her talk was primarily about unkempt stands of trees or (to her) bushes. She knew everything about every neighbor, including him, and he wasn’t quite sure how. He asked if she still played the violin and she said no longer professionally. He told her he would love to hear her play, and she said she had put her violin in a glass box and hung it on a wall because it was a beautiful thing and she liked looking at it, but she could no longer coax a pleasing sound from it.
Ah age, he said. It’s tough on the musculature.
It wasn’t that, she said. It was, she said, at least I think it was, the medication.
Dr. Iske noticed a bit of dyskinesia then in her quiet hand and around her mouth, where there were unbidden movements.
That can be a side effect, he said, and I’m sure it’s difficult. But it has given you something? Some joy perhaps?
Actually, she said, the medication took the joy, and the joy is what made the sound.
He knew she meant something more than joy. He couldn’t imagine a role for disease in any craft, surgery for instance, and that included art. He knew a cardiologist who was periodically manic, and his nurses watched him closely for a few years until he lost his license trying to redo a heart bypass while clearly manic.
But I’m still alive, she said. A few years ago we didn’t think I would be. And she bent over and pulled again at the root and he remembered that he was angry with her.
You know, he said, before I was a doctor I thought I might be a botanist. It still interests me, he said. Violins are made, I’m sure you know, from spruce and maple. There are a lot of both in this neighborhood, he added.
I know, she said. But the spruce, she said, drips sap and needles. The maples shed flying seeds. They’re messy trees.
But did you know that a Stradivarius gets its perfect sound from the density of its wood grain? He had read about it in a medical journal recently, he explained. A scientist had used a CT scan to measure the density of the wood rings in an old Stradivarius, the particular balance between old growth and new. Before CT scans developed to measure the density of lung tissue, the density of violins could only be measured by soaking them in water, something you would never do unless the instrument was beyond repair.
I didn’t know that, she said, and bent back over to yank at a denuded root.
When the April rains and warm weather came, the lemon oil and the old varnish, made itself of resins and other oils, became sticky. He couldn’t sit at the dining room table or put his coffee or magazine down on an end table without the wood itself seeming to want the mug, the paper, his skin, to become one with it. The table wanted his hands to remain on it. The bookcase wanted to hold onto his books. The matte green pottery and mica lamps seemed to be merging with the surfaces, were impossible to slide from one side of a table to another when dusting. Even the dust cloth wanted to ooze into the goo.
It is pine rosin that makes the violin bow stick to the string, the gymnast’s hands to the bar, the paper to the wood block.
One night he had a dream that his wife asked him to remove the old varnish with turpentine. Even in his dream, he could smell the pine. He labored all night in his dream, and as he removed the sticky finishes with the mixture and fine white gauze, images began to appear on the wood grain. Bright images that looked like the faces of icons, all reds and greens and blues and golds, most of them icons of Mary. Each Mary had the face of a woman he had known: his wife, the violinist, his daughter, his own mother, patients and friends. Each piece of wood went from a clouded surface to something revealed, something that had always been there underneath the sticky surface. And he realized again how much of her life his wife had spent bringing this to his attention, how deeply pained his neighbor must be to want to erase it.
In the morning he made a mixture of white vinegar and tea and began working on each table and picture frame, buffing each piece and removing the old varnish and then anointing each one again with lemon oil. He could feel his own body, as he worked, echo the passionate movements of the violinist with the earth and perhaps at one time with her violin, of his wife with her paints and flowers, of their love, of his soul with its grief.
Susan Neville’s collection of short fiction, The Town of Whispering Dolls (Fiction Collective Two), won the Catherine Doctorow Prize for Innovative Fiction. She teaches at Butler University.