They stood with their faces to the bronzed-red canopy, listening. It was a beech tree, he knew, abstractly, though he could not connect the name with anything in the reality of this burning swell, its restless wind-pulse. Words like xylem, phloem, chlorophyll went up out of his memory to be consumed by the leaves like paper scraps. He was not someone who did this, stand and look at trees, this was the pose, head back, eyes wide, of someone else, and he didn’t know what was expected of him, what the tree demanded. Bronzed-red canopy, burning swell: this was all the looking yielded, as alien to the tree as its name, nothing further from the truth. But she had not brought him out here to look.
Can you hear them? she said.
The evening’s sounds were a texture in the air like the clinging softness of tissue, and there was almost a physicality to the work of separating them from what was audible deep in the foliage. The layers were falling away under his fingers, not his ears, the voices of dogs and children, the surf of traffic two streets away, the tree’s own breathing; he thought that if he listened hard enough he might strip the world down to a final silence, and that would be one way to answer her. But then, there it was, high overhead: a hum, a steady, shimmering resonance, so irreducible now he’d fastened on it that his bones were singing with it. He squinted, trying to pick an anomaly out of the shifting branches and the mosaic of sky they constantly erased and remade, but there was nothing, and as the twilight settled the leaves’ fire was dying, and soon it would all be lost.
They’re up there somewhere, she said, but I can’t see them.
I hope it’s not wasps.
As if on cue, a dark little knot detached itself from the body of the tree and faltered down, carrying its smaller drone like a dispatch from the sonic mass. He ducked away instinctively, and she laughed.
Bumblebees. They’re only bumblebees, relax.
He did, he relaxed, because they were only bumblebees, a soft-furred commonwealth up there in their paper cells, assuming they built their nests from paper, assuming they built nests. They must build nests, because they were bees, but he didn’t know. He didn’t know if bumblebees were pollinators, if they made honey, if they stung. He didn’t know what chlorophyll was, not really. He knew it was what made leaves green, so why were these leaves they colour they were, bronzed, bruised? How old was this tree, how long had it been here before the house and the lawn the tree stood in, before the tree itself, became theirs? Did their tree imply their bees? Where did the word beech come from?
It became very suddenly an article of faith with him that these were all questions she could answer.
I love the sound of it, she was saying. I don’t know why. It should sound like danger, in the wild it would be like a warning, but it soothes me. The life of it. Just listen.
He listened. It didn’t sound of life to him. It was mute, somehow, like a geologic frequency, a mineral tone. He knew that for as long as he stood here listening to it he would fail square the noise, the idiot perfection of it, with the fact of the bodies making it, all those limbs and wings wired to their rudimentary intellects. It was too much, a mathematical impossibility. He was failing and the air was buzzing and the separateness of their experiences of this was a cold space between them.
He turned his face to her. He said, How many bumblebees are there in a typical colony?
I’m not really sure.
Where does the word beech come from?
How should I know?
But her voice only had the structure of annoyance, a reflex; she was too distant for anything except the bees, her head still angled back, her eyes in bright communion with something he’d be forever looking away from. And bright eyes was just another fiction. Everything was only what it was, eyes like eyes, leaves like leaves, sky like sky, regardless of his own desperate gaze.
He could go to her now, he thought: she was only a pace away. But then he would have to arrive at her, and he couldn’t see what lay inside that, humming. As hard as he looked, he could not see it. And anyway, she had not brought him out here to look.
They stood under the tree long enough that it became an implicit game, each daring the other to be the first to break, to admit their boredom and go back into the house, until eventually they both turned away together, carrying different things towards different rooms.
DM Lynch is from Cork, Ireland. He studied at Trinity College Dublin and holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. His writing has previously appeared in Three Monkeys, The Stinging Fly, The Irish Times and the anthology The Best Small Fictions 2015, edited by Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Olen Butler.