Later in life, someone would tell me that a tree is just as tall under the ground as it is above. If I had known that when I was six, maybe I would've understood more of what happened that one night.
It was late. Late in the night, late in the month. I couldn't sleep. Or rather, I wouldn't sleep. My mother was clearly losing the bed-time war, and her battle-weariness was starting to show. In a desperate attempt to gain the upper hand, she changed tactics and took me, and my grown sister at my insistence, for a walk. We rounded the blocks immediately surrounding our home- the first floor of a two-flat brownstone in Chicago's Lincoln Square, just three doors down from a German butcher and delicatessen (which you would know even without seeing the weathered storefront, as the potent smell of sausage and milled spaetzel lingered well into the night). While I had already cemented my tendencies as a night-owl, I hadn't yet seen what my neighborhood, much less the world at large, looked like at 1AM. It was nearing the end of summer, but I wouldn't have guessed by the warm, sticky air that clung to my skin like leather. Fireflies were out in force, so many that they could've turned off the sodium lights glaring down onto the streets and we would've been able to see just fine. A thin crescent moon peaked over a neighboring two-flat, as if a wily old woman in the firmament was grinning down on us, knowing something that we didn't.
Shortly into the walk, a Ravenswood L train roared along the tracks half a block down, just pulling into the Western Ave. stop. My mother told me that it was the last train of the night. I had trouble understanding why it didn't run all night. After all, wouldn't everyone want to be outside and doing things right now? Didn't people know what they're missing? Of course, back then I was still struggling with the whole notion of sleep. I thought it was a complete waste of time. To me, life was just too big to spend even a fraction of it in bed.
We rounded the corner back on Leland Ave. The smell of six-hour-old rain hung on the streets, the leftover, drying dew casting a faint glossy sheen over the night. Only a few cars passed by, moving silently as snakes in a swimming hole. I tried skipping and dragging my feet at the same time, partly to see how long I could do it before tripping, and partly because it made a funny sound thanks to the sneakers I wore. We passed an old maple tree about half a block away from the house, a tree I've walked past countless times before. I looked up, and my breath was taken from me. I hadn't thought much about spirituality up until then, but I always firmly believed that the world I lived in was just one of a near infinite number, and at that moment I was struck with the feeling that the veil obscuring one of them was just pulled back. The maple's leaves partially obscured one of the sodium streetlights, causing the entire tree to be bathed in a curious, ethereal, somewhat disconcerting yellow glow. A subtle breeze picked up, brushing through the leaves like a hairbrush, casting shadows on the sidewalk that betrayed shapes that couldn't possibly exist in our world. I stared agape at the tree, rooted to the ground like it was, filled with an inexplicable sense of awe. I heard a deep, knowing sigh; whether it was the wind, or the tree, or me, or something else entirely, I didn't know. All I knew was that, for one brief moment, I was somewhere else, both in my neighborhood and as far away from it as one could conceivably get.
Far away, in another time and another place but still clearly right next to me, my mother and sister talked amongst themselves. They were completely shut out of my transcendent experience. And that felt right somehow- like this moment was especially crafted just for me.
When we got home, I feigned tiredness so as not to incur my mother's wrath. When the coast was clear, I crept back into the living room and stared out the window. The tree was there, basking in its own unnerving halo. The wind still blew softly, carrying subtle voices of spirits and vague ideas. The Ravenswood L started running again- on the set of tracks right behind my house, as it crossed over Lincoln Ave. before pulling into the Western Ave. station, a peculiar bend of the ties made a distinctive clanking sound when the train rode over it. You heard it most clearly on the train, but if you listen close enough, you can hear it from a distance. Still the tree continued to dance- a dance that had been carefully and meticulously cultivated over hundreds of summers. I sat there, still, wondering if this sort of thing happened to other people. My trance would only be broken by the first light of dawn. I had stayed up all night watching the tree, and hadn't even realized it. Hearing my mother stir, I ran into my room and lay down. My mind still reeling, I fell asleep.
Nearly ten years later, I found myself on that block again. We had long since moved away, my mother having lost the discipline to stay current on her rent payments. I was in high school, mired in adolescent ennui. I was self-absorbed, cynical, and consumed with my own utter tragedy. I ditched school one day and, with no rhyme or reason behind it other than to find answers to questions I couldn't quite articulate, I took the Brown Line (a new, impersonal designation which replaced the Ravenswood Line) to Western Ave. Many of the shops that defined that stretch of Lincoln Ave. were gone. The butcher shop was still there, but hanging on by a thread. I passed my old apartment building. The brick facade had been sandblasted to look cleaner, much like the rest of the neighborhood- literally, and figuratively. There was a “For Rent” sign in the window. I walked up the steps- which gave me such a strong feeling of homecoming that it gave me pause- and read the advertisement. The apartment had been completely rehabbed- and, as the sign gloated, a steal at only $1400 a month. I bounded down the steps and headed further down Leland. The wind blew wistfully in the gray October afternoon, clouds muffling the already-scarce sunlight. I stared down at my feet while I walked- another manifestation of my deep, palpable angst. I paused halfway down the block- even after all those years, I still recognized the spot where it happened. I turned around and looked skyward. My eyes and lips widened in shock and abject horror.
The tree had been cut down, with nothing in its place.