A hand brushes aside his scarf, and Brewster McWhirtle feels the softness of two warm fingers nudging their way toward his windpipe for the rhythmic beat of life. He stirs and slowly liberates the young lodgepole pine that has anchored him through the night. His arm is locked, maybe frozen; it hurts to uncurl his hand. His free arm, folded above his head, is stiff, the muscles beyond feeling.
His cramped fingers rest on the smooth, flat rock he’d poked a few hours earlier under the low branches between the trunk and earth. Melanie, the laser etching says on the underside, Blue Aster.
A slight nudge to his left foot. What is that? A nosy coyote? Brewster lies still, half-frozen, half-asleep, facedown in dirty, slushy snow. How do I get out of this life? Again, a tentative tap-tap.
Let me die.
His leg twitches from the stiffness of the hours he’s been lying there. Cold, so cold. He turns his head a degree or two, licks and spits the muck from his lips.
I should be unconscious by now. With no more pain. With no more daylight. Let there be peace.
“Hey, fella, you okay?”
Not a coyote, just the toe of someone’s boot.
“Hello-o. Can you hear me?”
Brewster inches out from the tree. His groan from the pain in his arms is nothing compared to the howling he did during the snowstorm in the early morning hours. The blood starts to run as he stirs—a severe case of pins and needles. Slowly he twists onto his side, lifting his dirt-smeared face toward the leaden sky.
“I’m fine, just fine. Just wanna lie here, meld with the earth.” He gives a croaky laugh.
Fresh, wet snowflakes decorate his dirt-smeared cheeks. He blinks. Through half-closed frozen lids, he squints at the shadow leaning over him.
Just what I need—Ranger Rick to the rescue. Why can’t I just disappear?
“Man, you okay? Looks like you’re in pretty bad shape,” the voice says. “Wassup? Name’s José. I’m with the parks service. Let me help you outta this wet snow and get you warmed up. Maybe go see if we can find a coffee.”
“S’okay. I’m fine. Just wanna lie here.”
“Nope. Can’t do that, buddy. You been drinking or something?”
“No, no. I’m okay. Just got caught in this spring snowstorm. Then I figured, what the heck. Maybe it was meant to bury me here.”
José interrupts, reaching for Brewster’s arm. “Now, that’s taking winter just a bit too personally, my friend.”
Brewster, now half-sitting and resting on one very cramped arm, twists and gently shakes the snow off the pine branches. “This tree here …” He bats another branch, and snow falls on him. “See? It’s for my wife; we claimed it for her. She was killed. Year ago today.” Brewster mumbles to himself, “Just wanna …”
“Here, lemme help you up.” José picks up Brewster’s numb, ungloved hand and pulls him to his feet, away from the partial covering of the little tree. “Think you can stand? How’re the legs? Pretty stiff, I bet. Easy does it. Steady, steady. Man, you’re a mess!”
“I thought I was in the very best place when I started to feel drowsy. Lying here stretched out in a snowy blanket of silence. I don’t want to go on. I just don’t. She’s not here. This symbolic tree. Why am I here? This, this memorial forest. But she’s not.” Fresh tears ripple down his muddy face. He stumbles as if blind as José leads him down the snow-covered hill.
“My truck’s over here. I was looking out for who might belong to the SUV in the parking lot. No tracks around; looked like it’s been there all night. Just as well I spotted you. I actually cruised past and then thought, Well, I haven’t seen that mound before. Might’ve been your black boot that caught my eye. Supposed to snow even more today, and if you’d stayed there much longer, you’d’ve been a goner, I reckon.” José keeps up his patter to encourage his stumbling, mumbling invalid. “Think I should maybe get you to emergency. Bit worried about hypothermia. You been there all night?”
“’M okay. I’m fine, fine.”
“The field office is not far. Let’s get you inside and see what you look like.”
José’s truck is idling, the heater running. A shivering, shaking Brewster sighs deeply as he slumps into the enveloping warmth. José helps him with his seat belt, steadies him and closes the door.
Brewster mumbles, “Don’t wanna be a bother. Car’s down there somewhere. I’ll just head …”
“I like my idea better,” José says. “We’ll brush you off, clean you up a bit, and go for coffee. I’ve got all the time in the world.” His chatter keeps Brewster from nodding off during the short two-kilometre ride to the field office. “Yeah, I hear you, about your wife,” he continues. “My wife, she died from cancer five years ago now. I miss her. I still look for her, thinking she’ll just turn up. We had the advantage of talking about my life without her before she went. Still a huge shock, though. Bit of a vacuum now. Kids have grown and gone on with their lives. Now it’s just me and the cat. Got too much baggage for anyone to be interested in me now.”
In the cosiness of the portable field office, warm water takes the dried tears and mud from Brewster’s stubbly face. The mottled backing of the aging mirror admits a still-presentable face—no frostbite. He hears José on the phone. “Found a fella in the snow. Yeah, he needs some company for a bit, so we’ll go find a coffee. No, not much happening down my way. No cars and no people. Yep, been right round the park at this end, and all is as it should be.”
The comforting buzz in the crowded coffee shop blankets the two men as they sit and relate their shared experiences. Brewster’s not saying much, but he warms to the questioning and idle chitchat of the park warden as he tucks into a bowl of chilli. José talks about the long years of treatment until his wife finally succumbed. “At first they only gave her a few months. We got three plus years, so that was something. Really tough for me to handle, though,” he says. “I quit work just to look after her. What made you plant a tree in the park?”
“Melanie and I were working on a project for ourselves,” Brewster says. “We enjoyed looking for the wildflowers, especially the natives. It was something we enjoyed together. All wasted now. I’ve not been near my material in the year she’s been gone. Not worth it.” His eyes moisten. “Sorry,” he says, wiping his cheeks with the back of his hand. “Can’t seem to hold back.”
“You were going to tell me about the tree,” José says.
“Oh, yes. The tree. It seemed like a good idea, and then we found out we couldn’t identify the tree as a memorial with her name because it’s in the park. So we just looked around until we found that lodgepole. Nicely growing, and we decided that was hers. It kinda told us it needed an owner, so the kids and I sat there and quietly claimed it. It’s in a place where we’ll always be able to find it. It’s nice that it’s the Alberta provincial tree too, and will be there a long time, maybe even a hundred years.”
“The kids and I thought about that too,” José says. “But we wanted a tree with Mizzy’s name to it and found another memorial garden in the city. So that’s where I will go.”
Calmly and quietly, the park warden gets Brewster to open up about himself—his interest in wildflowers and why they mean so much.
“Melanie loved flowers, their colour and their beauty and what they mean to so many people,” Brewster says. “We used to come here to walk, and then she started to point the wildflowers out to me. She had a bit of a gift, I reckon; could see a flower where to me there was just grass or scrubby undergrowth. I got the idea to photograph them—macros—and use the pictures to decorate her flower shop. We own The Blue Aster up the street from the reservoir.”
“I know that place,” José says. “You guys did the flowers for my wife’s funeral. Small world, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know how she did it, and every time I asked, she’d just say to look for a change in the colour of the undergrowth,” Brewster says, his eyes closed while recalling so many wildflower expeditions and adventures. He sighs. “We became absorbed with the fascinating world of the colour and courage of wildflowers, masked and protected in the clutter on the forest floor.” So many and yet too few outings with his bride.
For almost an hour, he talks about their visits, his photographs, and Melanie’s ability to see what most people miss. “There’s the obvious stuff like goldenrod and the berries, but it’s something else to uncover delicate wintergreens, coralroot and other orchids. She did that for me.”
“You should consider keeping it going,” José says. “For her. I’m sure your wife would want that. Now that you’ve told me all about it, I’d like to chat with my colleagues about it. Sounds like something we could use in our educational programs.”
“I’ve dozens and dozens of images in the computer. All wasted now. I really don’t know the names of the plants; that was her. I just like taking the pictures. Without names, the pictures are useless.”
A week later, Brewster looks out his kitchen window. He watches his neighbours, a husband and wife, head off to work. Warm water fills the sink as he loads in his breakfast dishes: one mug, one dish, one bowl, one knife, one spoon. He sighs. The surprise spring snowfall that had almost trapped him was a one-day wonder. There are signs of renewal, the miracle of the season. There’s even a slight green tinge to the grass, as well as transformation in the trees as leaf buds swell in the sunshine. A robin bounces across the lawn, his red breast a delightful contrast. The rumpty look of the gardens, strewn with the leaves of last autumn, reflect his own barren, lonely soul.
The phone rings, and he lets it go. Telemarketer probably, or a pollster. No message.
Half an hour later, it rings again. Brewster stirs from his seat in the front window of his silent house. He listens as the voicemail clicks on.
“Hey, Brewster, it’s José—the guy in the park. How’s it going? I have a meeting with park management tomorrow. They’re quite excited about what you’ve got. Call me.”
He swivels his chair around and stares at the framed wildflower pictures hanging on the wall and self-standing on the bookcase. A house of flowers, and the best one has gone. Brewster throws his newspaper aside and thumbs through the contacts on his iPhone. He taps José’s number.
“Well, about time, my friend. Missed you. What have you been up to these days? I hope you’re not just sitting around and feeling sorry for yourself.”
Surprised at Jose’s bluntness, Brewster stands and paces the room. As he listens, he pauses to close in and focus intently on each wildflower picture on display. He has the distinct feeling Melanie is listening in on the call.