The Rocking Trees
Amelia opened the window to the bedroom and let in the autumn air. There were no bugs, no cars on the street, and the breeze seemed to cautiously navigate the bare branches of the maples in a way that kept the sticks and twigs that held fast to the treetops from whistling or clicking against one another. The soft wind tipped the trunks, causing them to creak. The forest bending back and forth made the sound of a thousand rocking chairs lulling a thousand babies to sleep. She returned to bed and imagined that she herself was being rocked by the trees, swaying back and forth in the tip-tops of the branches until the sun came up and woke her from a long, restful slumber.
But sleep wasn’t going to visit her tonight.
She had tried to go to bed an hour after dinner, soon after the twins were nursed, tucked in, and asleep. Her eyes felt heavy enough to render her plan to read or run until she was drowsy unnecessary. She slipped into one of her old t-shirts, took off her pants, and crawled into bed before she lost the feeling. It was a challenge not to get worked up about the prospect of sleep. She tried not to treat it like something rare, an exotic and elusive bird that she had to trap to keep it, to enjoy its song. She kept her eyes halfway closed, her motions slow, her heartbeat and breathing calm and steady, as she dropped her head to her pillow and shut her eyes.
Then the snapshots started. She tried to ignore them, to let them pass like cars on a highway, but eventually one of them crossed the median and rammed into the bridge of her nose. It only took one to cause a pile up. Dank clothes left in the washing machine. Empty egg and milk cartons. Eyes from every direction pointing at her as she held her screaming children. Wrinkles on shirts, on cheeks and forehead. Her heartbeat quickened. Even when she managed to shut out the speeding thoughts, her panic mounted over her constant attempts to dodge them. To win the game was still to lose it.
It’d been three months since she had fallen deep into sleep. She couldn’t remember anymore what it felt like to fall. Most nights she found a way to steal a few hours, but no more, and often times less.
For the first month she told herself that the hours she spent in bed, eyes closed and body still, had to be valuable in their own right. One day, Travis came home from work and told her that he talked to his friend at the office about what she’d been going through, and, “No, actually it’s not beneficial at all. Isn’t that so weird? I would have thought it was.” He said that what she was doing was called “quiet restfulness.” It helped the body rest, but not the brain.
The next three or four days she tried to shut the information out. It couldn’t be true. The people in his office were idiots. She did her own research, hoping to find something to affirm the hard work she had done over the past twenty-two days, but nothing did. Travis and his friend were right. Her brain needed sleep.
On the thirty-sixth night, she discovered that Benadryl, a double dose, did the trick. It still took an hour, but eventually it knocked her out. That night she dreamed that she stood in front of an elevator door, watching it open and close over and over again. Each time it opened, the scenery behind and around her changed, but the elevator remained empty. At one point, she was in a building with lots of colorful candy canes that formed big bushes on the ground and dangled from metal bars on the ceiling. Then the doors closed and opened again, and she was in a forest surrounded by spherical puddles that rested on the ground like bocce balls.
When the elevator opened a final time, there was a goat inside, running around as if it were being chased by invisible hornets. It bleated through strained vocal chords, running up and down the walls, even weightlessly spidering across the ceiling. It bleated and called her name.
She woke up to Travis shaking her and whispering her name. The twins screamed, bleated from their room. She stumbled down the hall and found only one in their crib. She looked back and forth, over and over again, from one crib to the other and then back to the first. The bleating continued, but now both cribs were empty. The window. Oh God, they must have fallen out of the window. The snapshot of the two infants hanging from the gutter at the end of the roof by one or two tiny fingers flashed in her mind. She cried and fumbled for the locks, both still fastened, before Travis came into the room. He had one of the twins. It was either Wyatt or Shelby, she couldn’t tell which. He reached with his free hand and took the second baby, wailing and tense, out of her arms.
“What were you doing at the window?” Travis said. “Jesus, you were holding a baby! You were holding a child and trying to open the window!” She nursed them in their room until they fell asleep. After placing them in their beds, she sat on the floor of the nursery and wept until the wind whistling through the trees outside made her think of Andy Griffith. They’re safe, she thought. They’ll be safe here. She dried her eyes and spent the night on the nursery floor quietly humming the tune.
That was the last time she tried using sleep aids. Meditation, breathing exercises, sleep podcasts, white noise, brown noise, none of them made any difference. They were audible reminders that she was incapable of sleep, making it all the more difficult for her to fall.
Amelia saw a doctor after day fifty-two. He recommended anxiety medication and sleep aides, which she refused. “No drugs,” she said. She told him about the night she took Benadryl and how if she’d had more time, if she’d managed to find the locks quicker, if Travis hadn’t come into the room, she might have dropped one of her babies out the window. He laughed and scratched his head, leaning back in his swivel chair. “Then you might just have to wait, I guess. I can’t make you do anything that makes you uncomfortable. Sleep will come eventually, just try not to think about it too much.”
But it still hadn’t come. Not tonight. Not the night before. Not for months.
She turned over, away from Travis’s crackling sinuses and towards the open window. The breeze cooled her face as she watched the moon-kissed trees sway in the wind. She peeked at her alarm clock.
She shut her eyes tight and wished she hadn’t seen the time. She tried not to think about it, the time, the sun, the fact that it was only an hour before Travis’s alarm would chime, that at any moment the twins might wake up and force her out of bed. She had to dodge the thoughts. She had to fall asleep. No tricks, no podcasts, no counting of sheep. She lay in bed and listened to the harmony of the creaking trunks as dawn washed away the pale moon that hid behind the stripes of the rocking trees.
Half of the sun was above the horizon when the first baby woke the second with a shrill cry. She swung her legs out of bed and walked to their room. She had nearly passed out with one child in each arm, a mouth latched to each breast, when Travis knocked on the door. He entered with a smile. “Have a great day, sweetheart.” He kissed her on the forehead and left for work like he did every day at 6:15.
That night, she nursed the kids until they were unconscious and headed straight to her bedroom. She didn’t feel tired, but her mind was sore, inflamed. She lay on the bed and pulled at her hair, the tugging serving to massage her scalp.
Travis came into the room and sat next to her on the bed. “Dinner was wonderful, babe. I’m stuffed, but I wanted to eat more just for fun. Thank you.”
“It didn’t take much effort. Pretty simple recipe.”
“I loved it. Let’s make that one a staple.”
“I’ll add it to the list.”
“Landon mentioned that him and Julia were thinking about looking at Honda Pilots. They just had their baby. Their shopping family cars now. Said the Pilot’s got good gas mileage and they like the look a lot better than a mini-van.. Have you seen the new Pilots?”
“They’re pretty slick. Landon said he’d let us know what he found out, but I don’t think a lease would cost much more than we are paying for the Odyssey. He has it in his mind that it’s going to be pricier, but I think it’ll come out to be about the same. Probably less.”
Travis untied his shoes and flicked his ankle, propelling the black leather wingtips through the air and against the back wall of the closet with a loud thud.
Amelia flinched at the sound, covering her mouth out of reflex. “Travis, please, the babies!”
He flung the other shoe. Another thud. “Sorry, I forgot.” He unbuttoned his shirt and threw it into an empty hamper at the foot of the bed. “Do you think you’ll be able to sleep?”
“I don’t know. I’m trying not to think about it.”
“You seemed like you didn’t really settle last night. I got up to pee and it looked like you were still restless.” Travis undid his belt and dropped his pants. “I tried not to say anything, just tried to keep quiet.”
“I was awake,” she said. “I didn’t sleep much at all. I don’t know if I got any last night.”
Travis sat on the edge of the bed and stripped off his socks, throwing them each towards the hamper in a tight ball. “Is there anything I can do for you?” He lay down next to her and slipped his hand across her stomach.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t think so. I didn’t have any coffee today. I’ve tried that a few times, but never after a night like last night.” She closed her eyes and felt the anxiety start to build. Her chest bobbed in a choppy series of compressions.
Travis brushed back her hair. “Babe, I’m so sorry.” He kissed her on the forehead. She leaned into him and grabbed his upper arm. He cradled her head like it were a kitten. She curled into him, and her panic faded. “It’s okay,” he said. “It’s going to be okay.”
The muscles released in her chest, allowing her lungs to expand and fill to capacity. She exhaled and felt her body relax and sink into the mattress, her bones and muscles settling into restful positions. “Thank you,” she said. “I can’t picture a day when they won’t be screaming me awake.” Normally mentioning the children caused her blood pressure to rise, but speaking the words now, dragging the constant nagging terror out of the dark and into the light felt like knifing a cancer from her abdomen. “I don’t know how to fall asleep.” Her voice was a cool creek passing over smooth stones, gentle and slow. “Isn’t that stupid? Who doesn’t know how to fall asleep?”
“It’s not stupid, baby.” He kissed her on the forehead again, then on the cheek just below her eye.
“Thanks for understanding,” she said. She could barely comprehend what she was saying, her mind slipping deeper and deeper into another place, somewhere far away. She had a sense that the room around her had disappeared and she was floating on something. Not water. Just wind. “It’s so quiet right now.”
“I know, honey. I know.” He brushed her hair back again.
“I love you,” she said.
“I love you, too,” he said, kissing her neck.
“Oh, just real quick. I love you, baby.”
Amelia rolled over to her own pillow, still floating on the wind, but Travis’ hands were still on her. One had slipped under her shirt, she didn’t know when, and was cupping her breast. He kissed her neck again. Her arms were dead weights at her side. She tried to speak, to tell him that she was nearly asleep, that he should leave her alone, but she only managed a soft moan. The sound made his hand start to more confidently massage her breast. She moaned again, mustering up the will to lift her hand and place it on his chest. With her eyes still closed, trying to ignore his wandering hands, his lips on her neck, Travis’ sudden heat and mounting hips, she found it in herself to emit one last plea. “Please,” she said softly.
“Thank you, babe. I’ll be so quick.”
He finished and thanked her again. “I hope you can sleep, hon. Please, if there’s anything I can do, let me know.” She said nothing. He sighed before turning his head towards her one last time. “Remind me to show you the Pilots tomorrow. I really think we could both enjoy one of those. It would be great for kids. I really think we’d both like it better than the Odyssey.” Then he fell asleep. When the twins started crying about a half an hour later, she was awake, listening to the sound of him snoring.
Amelia came back to the room after feeding the children. She sat on the edge of the bed and rested her hands on her thighs, her thumb landing in a lingering sticky drip on the inside of her leg. She rubbed her fingers together until the milky paste disappeared into her skin. She dropped her head to her pillow.
Travis’s snoring had morphed into the occasional snort and flapping of limp lips. Otherwise, the room was silent. Still, she felt the noise of the day on her skin, the crying children, the faucet on the tub and the splashing of tiny infant hands on the water, the “No, no, sweetie. No, no. No, no,” the “No sweetie, not now. I can’t tonight, sweetie.” Amelia’s head was a hive, filled with a constant buzzing, inflamed with a million little welts. Her thoughts dripped around inside of her brain like honey, melding memories together in a golden, glossy mud.
The window was open much wider than the night before. In a few weeks it would be too cold for open windows. In a month snow could be expected. But that night, like each night for the past two weeks, the air soothed her. Not enough to put her to sleep, but kind and welcome.
Amelia walked to the window and placed her hands on the sill, her forehead on the upper pane. The glass cooled her skin. She pressed her cheeks one at a time against it, then her eyes, then her lips, then her forehead again.
The sill was level with her waist; a cool breeze flowed freely through the opening, swaddling her from her hips to the base of her neck. The fresh air chilled the wet spots on her clothes, the milk that leaked through her t-shirt, the dampness of semen against her panties. The antiseptic breeze blew through her clothes and doused her skin, stinging for a moment before delivering cool relief.
The trees rocked to and fro, fanning the wind, guiding it to her window.
Amelia picked out a single tree, swaying back and forth like a tall blade of decorative grass. She measured it against the blue stars in the sky, trying to gauge how far it could bend, wondering how hard the wind would have to blow before it broke, before it snapped. The trees were sturdier, stronger for having given ground to the wind, but they too could bend too far. They too could snap.
But you could support a bit more, she thought. You could hold me if I needed you to.
She dropped down to her knees and rested her arms on the window sill, allowing the trees to send air to her face. A sudden stiff blow pushed the tops of the trees down even further. They still rocked, but with more elasticity, more give. Had she been staring at them through the pane she would have convinced herself that it was a combination of her mind and the refractions through the glass playing tricks, but she was staring through the open space.
The trees rippled like ribbons, billowed like thin streams of smoke. The bend started at the base and climbed up the trunk before falling off of the treetops like little whips or jump ropes, releasing the bend into the sky through fingers that stretched out into space.
She reached through the window, feeling the clean, quiet air engulf her fingers, her forearm, her elbow. She reached further and felt the air like a damp cloth on her bicep, her shoulder.
And the trees reached back. The trunks whipped slowly, flexing their fingers, beckoning her to reach a little bit further into the woods. Amelia pointed in their direction. The trees pointed back, stretching towards her, bowing down at their hips, nearly touching her fingertip with a hundred thin branches. The flimsy wood wove together in a tight fabric, netting for a hammock that rocked a few feet below her window. No, not a hammock. A basket.
Hold you, she heard the wind whisper. The voice sounded familiar, like it had always been there, had always called to her, but the tall trees had chopped up the words and dissected them into meaningless sounds. Now the forest bowed down to her. The trees extended gentle arms and the wind, the whisper had a clear path to her window.
She heard it again. Hold you. Let me hold you.
Amelia looked down and saw the fully formed basket threaded so tightly, blocking the view of the patio below. Soft, pliable branches ready to cradle her, to let her rest, to finally sleep.
Let me hold you, sweet child. I’ll hold you. You rest.
Travis was still sleeping. He would think she was crazy if he saw her now, but then he would see the basket, the trees bending towards her window. He would hear the voice and maybe he would understand. Maybe he would understand just how tired she really was.
She sat on the edge of the window and swung her legs out into the open air. Her fingers gripped the inside of the sill as her head ducked out of the room. The noisy feeling from inside her home, inside her bedroom, was gone. It was just the whisper now. Just a soft shushing... Shhh...shhhhhh....shhhh...ssssssleep my child. Let me hold you, my baby.
Amelia looked out over the edge and saw the basket of branches. Leap, Amelia. Leap. I’ll hold you, my child. I’ll hold you. Shhhh...Leap, Amelia. Ssssssleep. She tapped her heels against the siding of the house and held out a finger to quiet the wind for just a moment. The children were silent. Her husband was snoring again. She could sneak out for just a moment and rest in the arms of the rocking trees.
She let go of the window and let her body lean forward into the purring woods, her legs swaddled in the thick chill of the breeze.
Kevin Loughrin is a full-time storyteller. He lives in the midwest with his wife, his two daughters, and a pit bull named Esme.