When the Bough


Early March and a Nor’easter is howling, dumping snow, felling trees, snapping wires. The wires spark dazzling electrical fires that dance across the sidewalk, blaze into the street and summon firefighters who yell through megaphones at my neighbors and me to stay inside. In the swirl of the storm and the dark of a power outage (which will last four days), I don’t notice the broken limb on a tree behind my house until morning. It hangs from the treetop like an arm fractured at the elbow — an arm long enough to reach from my second-floor bedroom window to the lawn, with hundreds of skinny branches fingering the snowy surface below.


Late April, my little corner of the world is still recovering from that first, worst storm and three other snowy Nor’easters that followed in rapid succession, none of which has coaxed the broken bough to earth. How, I wonder, have thousands of feathery green baby buds missed the memo announcing the demise of this particular branch? How can they still be drawing sustenance across the splintered wood I can see from my attic? With my trusty orange clippers and a handsaw, I hack away at lower branches until my gloved fingers blister. Then I collect them, cradle them in my weary arms, ferry them to trash bins in the garage, then drag those to the curb. Now that the massive limb is no longer propped up by parts wedged into the muddy earth, I can wiggle it, like a loose tooth. A loose tooth that is not yet ready to yield to external pressure, but will take its own sweet time.


Mid-May, and everything else is in full bloom, so why not? The branches I couldn’t reach with my tools are in full-on leaf mode, the lanky limb is now wearing a fluttery, bright green skirt. I laugh along with Mother Nature. I learn to duck around this dangling obstacle as I mow the lawn. I wonder what the neighbors think, not that many of them can see my leafy broken bough, but still. It’s far enough from the back of the house and the side of the garage that it can’t break a window or land on a roof when it falls. When the wind blows, I watch from a window, wondering. Wiggling gives way to rocking, and I can sense the stubborn sinew above is softening. But for now, this tree toys with me more than I with it.


In the blistering heat of July, I bristle. Ugly, rust-colored leaves taunt me each time I step out the back door or glance out the window. I pull a workbench close to the bough, climb up with my clippers and saw, go after the now-brittle branches with a vengeance. After, I take to swinging the branch back and forth, even swirling it in wide circles, whenever I pass through the yard; whenever, that is, I pass through the yard and no one else is within sight or earshot. As I swing and swirl the limb I hum — sometimes in my head, sometimes aloud, but softly — “Rock-a-Bye, Baby.” I Google the lyrics to that troubling little ditty. Then I Google the phrase “Mexican standoff,” which seems to apply. I swing. I swirl. I hum, most often in double-time.


At long last, over Labor Day weekend. For nearly two weeks I’ve ignored that unsightly, fractured limb. One hot afternoon, I sneak up on it, grab it with both hands, send it swirling into the air. The creaking overhead sounds different, looser than before. I step back and watch as the bough breaks free in mid-swing, grazes the holly bushes, clatters to the ground, then rolls over until it’s reclining on one elbow-like branch that’s made a divot in the grass. Dangling, it looked like a plumb line, and I imagined it would spear its way into the soil. But supine, it’s the crookedest big old stick I’ve ever seen. Once more I wield my tree-trimming tools, amputating bits that stick out, some as thick as my wrist. When no one is looking, I wrestle what’s left of the broken bough into the underbrush where a line of trees and shrubs separates my yard from the next. I feel almost like I’m hiding a body. I wonder, will I ever walk through my yard again without hearing that creepy lullaby in my head?




Companion to the print journal est. 1984, Greenville, SC. Emrys.org

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Eileen Cunniffe

Eileen Cunniffe

Nonfiction writer who often explores identity and experience through the lenses of travel, family and work. Read more at www.eileencunniffe.com.

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