Landscape with Trees

Landscape with Trees cover

A novel by Johanna Fox. ISBN: 978-0-9824848-5-2. Trade paperback. 296 pages. $16.95. Published in October 2013. A Reader's Guide is available for this title upon request.

Johanna is currently working on Learning to Drown, which is scheduled for publication in early 2015.

About Landscape with Trees

“Some things are beyond salvage,” Marie Cameron tells her estranged husband. Other things, she slowly decides, are worth rescue.

After leaving her husband for a new lover and then losing the lover, Marie has also lost her vision of a future. She goes home in defeat, arriving at her parents' house in northern New England with three suitcases and very little hope.

Landscape with Trees follows Marie through a season of veiled tensions, reassessments, and the slow uncovering of self-deceit, up to the moment when she gathers her possessions back into those same suitcases, and moves on.


From Landscape with Trees:

Sweetgums get as red as scarlet maples. She said it aloud: “Sweetgums get as red as scarlet maples. Or so I’ve been told.”

”Sweetgums,” Betty repeated. “I don’t even know where they grow.”

”In the South, I guess. Where it’s warm. And the Midwest.” She fastened the last drapery hooks in place and climbed down from the chair. “They have another name, a pretty word. I can’t think of it.” It was Gene who had named them, as he stood at her shoulder in the greenhouse and tilted the cardboard label to the light. “My grandfather called that a ‘bilsted,’" he had told her, “but my mother had a softer name for it.” He had spoken the word, whatever it was; she remembered that it had pleased her. Now, however, although she could hear his voice touching every phrase in her mind, she had lost that moment of real speech.

Marie shifted the chair to the other side of the window and climbed back up. Ground fog moved among the trees across the field, a swirl of gray and red. They looked at it together for a moment, and then Marie lifted the drape in front of her face and began latching the hooks onto the rod. When the job was done and she had dusted the chair and tucked it back under the table, she pulled Betty’s dictionary from the bookcase and sought “sweetgum,” but there was no entry.

Gene had worn a gray shirt that day; she saw the pale sage of the junipers and spruces take on color against it. She had dropped her head against his arm for a moment, and looked up to find that he had lodged a broken sprig in her hair. They had left then and gone off to eat beef burgundy, though as always in his company, she had hardly touched her plate. But there he was, across from her in the bubbled candlelight, angling a fork. All his movements were vigorous and deft. When he buttered bread, she knew the strength of his fingers.

She propped herself against the sill while she looked out at the vanishing borders of red. He had taken her that night to a jazz club so acrid with smoke that the walls might have been on fire, and again she had sat with an all but untasted glass in front of her. What, she wondered, had she lived on those few months? She had bought food and brought it home and even cooked it, but she had little memory of eating it. Slices of cheese late at night, when hunger grew uncomfortable. Milk in the mornings, maybe a mouthful of toast. Strawberries – she could eat strawberries through any ravages. She pressed her fingertips against her ribs and found a small cushion there, like a thin layer of foam: she was no longer starved. At this moment a fish chowder was warming on the stove, and when it came to the table she would eat it, with dill pickles and fresh bread, and then cake and fruit afterward. “Let it stick now,” she thought with half a smile. “When I go home I’ll live on tea and tomatoes, and not even that unless I find work.”

Work was something she had begun thinking about. At one point she had fished out pen and paper so that she could request her old job back, but she had put them away again, unused. If she hadn’t decided what else to do, or where to do it, how could she decide where she should ask for work? The point of the job, after all, was to pay for whatever made up the rest of her days.

”When I go home,” she murmured again to herself. It had a sound she liked, but she could get no further than the vision of an apartment she had never lived in, someplace small, bright, crowded, warmly full of books. The titles of the books she couldn’t yet make out.

The fog had risen and swelled until it enclosed the house. Wyn came through with its dampness on his jacket and stopped near her. She smiled in acknowledgment, but turned back again to the opaque window. He, too, stared out at the milkiness, and then he said, “Something here you might be interested in.” Obediently, she shifted her attention. He held a small piece of metal, she saw now, a bright chrome cylinder like a section of pipe. When he moved away she followed him, aimed, she thought, for the outdoors. At once the pleasure of going out into the fog possessed her; she had her hand stretched toward a jacket when she realized that he wasn’t headed for the door. Instead they took the cellar stairs, past racks of onions and potatoes and gleaming purple jars. He led the way around the furnace to an orderly array of machine parts, laid out on a plank table and the floor around it.

”Steve was throwing this lawn mower away, so I told him he should bring it over here. I thought maybe I could do something with it.” He began to name the pieces, pointing, assuming that she knew the general function of, say, a rotor and needed merely to be shown where this one was located. She followed as well as she could, though the precise use of the fragment of chrome he had lured her with never became clear. At any rate, she grasped that the mower was functional again, or would be when assembled, and that repair of whatever had been broken had required some ingenuity. But though she nodded and murmured, she thought his effort deserved more, had a claim to a real response, something like, “The rotor, then: how did you disengage it so you could replace the shaft?”

Naming of parts, of books, of trees. There was so much to master, a world of blank notebooks that could be filled with endless richness. All it required was her own energy and persistence. She could begin now, she supposed: perch on the edge of the table and ask to be informed not where the rotor was but what it did. Yet an inquiry of that sort would be a Chinese puzzle, with ever more intricate meshings of ignorance and essential new knowledge. The scope of the endeavor deterred her, so that when Wyn said, “Well, I guess I won't finish it today,” she seized a tray of discarded tools, destined once again for the back of the garage, and went out after all into the fog.

The mist hovered on a quiet breeze. As she came out the rear door of the garage, she saw it part for a moment to show her the maples she had admired from the window. They lay across the road and beyond a field she wouldn’t ordinarily enter, an acre or two of ragweed and witchgrass that she and Steve had avoided after its owner chased them away one summer afternoon. But the old tyrant’s house was hidden in the fog, and no cat or squirrel she might meet would give her away.

In minutes she was in the trees, encompassed by damp red leaves, shut in by them away from the world. She worked deeper into the wood until she felt anonymous and unclaimable. “I should get a job as a lighthouse keeper,” she told herself. “Forest ranger. Night janitor. Hermit.” But then, of course, the appetite for solitude might not be so intense once she lived on her own again. Empty of all but herself, the lighthouse would not offer quite the same allure as if she looked across to it and saw it tenanted by someone else, whom she could envy.

She reached up to her face and peeled away a leaf, yellow this time, translucent as an apple skin. The wet, woody smell cleared her senses of fish and ironing, though not of the restlessness that had driven her out into the afternoon. A sorry showing as a lighthouse keeper, she thought: wayward, unfocused. Mariners would crash.

But it was clear that she would have to do something soon. Hanging curtains and turning the pages of Wordsworth could not be called an occupation, nor could wiping a redolence of juniper out of her eyes. That morning she had taken down a suitcase left half-unpacked for weeks and had found in it her fall course schedule, the copy she had marked up when she chose which she would take of the classes now in progress without her. The list had given her a dull thrill of escape: why had she ever thought she could sit through “Theories of Fiction” or “The Nineteenth-Century French Novel”? The influence of Lewis Kallinen had dominated, she saw now, over her own common sense. Yet there was something solid and desirable in a program – any program – of work, and she read the description for “The Uses of Autobiography” with a flick of regret. Narratives of slave life, and Ben Franklin with his penny rolls under his arms, and the journal of Philip Vickers Fithian, whoever he might have been – it could have justified the effort.

The woods, quiet until then, were disturbed suddenly by what Marie took at first for a bird call. Then it repeated, distant but distinct, and she recognized the trill with which her mother had once summoned them for meals. It was later than she realized. The daylight, too squelched out all afternoon to help track the time, had dimmed even further; she picked her way back more by instinct than by sight.

”I couldn’t think where you’d got to,” Betty said as soon as she came in.

”Just out.” She washed her hands at the sink and transferred the chowder bowls and water glasses to the table.

They ate in hungry silence. Not until she had helped herself twice from the bowl of applesauce and buttered a final slice of bread did Marie stretch back and lift her hair, still fog-dampened, out from the neck of her sweater.

”What’s that?” Betty asked, leaning over. She laughed. “Out for a roll in the hay, were you?” She held out a leaf.

”That’s not hay, Mother. And you a country girl.” Marie took the leaf and held it, twirling the stem between her fingers, surprised that she felt so bereft: it was nothing but a birch leaf, picked up unknown on an empty walk.

Because Betty said, mechanically, “Finish your bread,” Marie swallowed it down. Wyn left them in favor of the newspaper, and as she watched him go she realized that she had meant to ask him again, further, about the lawn mower. In a sort of expiation she tried to tell Betty what he had explained, although she admitted to herself that a complete omission of concrete terms rather spoiled the effect.

When they had washed the dishes, Marie said she had a headache and would go to bed early. Her head did ache, she decided on the way upstairs, while she leaned on the banister and looked for something to read. Not a brilliant, relieving headache, the sort that divorces one from all earthly ties, but a mere tightness around the neck.

She prodded the books. These shelves mixed classics with random best sellers from the past forty years – an appealing combination and, now that she thought of it, just what she missed in the reorganized town library. Lord Jim. Howards End. No. Not tonight. Here was James Michener next to Arthur Miller, both of them, she discovered, copies she had once owned herself and then given to Betty. Parker, Perelman, Porter, Proust.

Farther along the wall, in the S’s, she found The Black Arrow and lifted it down, still scanning around her for something more irresistible. Then, on the next tier over, she spotted an old tree guide, squashed against a biography of Audubon. Had it always been there? She didn’t remember, but just as her fingers touched the spine she heard Gene’s voice say, “Liquidambar.” He set the little pot back in its place and repeated the name, caressing it. A sweet word, heavy, potent.

Here it was in the guide:

Liquidambar styraciflua, Liquidambar. A shade tree with star-shaped leaves that provides bright fall color. Range: mid Atlantic coast, southeastern states, lower Midwest. The round, horned, dry fruit hangs down and then drops from the branches. When it opens it releases tiny winged seeds, which are eaten by birds.

She arched her neck against the ache at the rear, sharper now, as she returned the book to its slot. Below her the hall door opened. Betty’s voice, aimed back into the kitchen, finished a phrase about apple storage; the first stair creaked. With a quiet sigh, Marie took The Black Arrow to bed.


Advanced reader response to Landscape with Trees:

This is a quiet book, very Japanese in the sense that all the flowers here bloom inwards. Landscape with Trees is like a piece of music that is whispered all the way through, and yet the underlying passion is intense. - Milena Banks, author of Riding the Tiger

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