When We Were Trees

Have you ever wondered about those pieces of petrified wood they sell in tourist shops beside the boxes of incense and the Yanni CDs? If not, you really should, because they’re one of Nature’s great pieces of trickery. What happens, you see, is that a tree dies, let’s say on the edge of a swamp, and is buried. Over time, the water dissolves the woody material, atom by atom, and replaces these with sort of impostor atoms of silicon and oxygen. Interestingly, the finest details of the wood — the grain, the passages of termites, the imprint of a dead moth — can be preserved. But — here’s the thing — the material is no longer wood at all. It’s been changed at its most essential level. It’s quartz.

Cleaning out the attic last night I came across a shoebox filled with unfiled papers. There were old hydro bills, some travel brochures for that trip to Europe that we never managed to take, a photograph of us on the night of our fifth wedding anniversary. We’re seated at a restaurant window table with a couple we don’t talk to anymore. That was the same year I got promoted to senior account executive.

All the privileged dinners barely even register years later: the birthday bashes — when money was flush — at the latest Yaletown fern bar or Kitsilano fusion restaurant; the company Christmas parties at the Four Seasons or the yacht club; the tax-deductible fish and expense-account goose. There were client cocktail parties with lots and lots of clever people dressed in black. Everybody smiling and looking over everybody else’s shoulders for somebody more interesting or important to talk to. I suppose the meat was fragrant and sweet, slow-roasted, perhaps, over chips of old-growth fir and imported sandalwood. Probably there were plates drizzled with imported olive oil and rimed with saffron, while all the beautiful elite were illuminated with track-lighting, pretending not to be afraid. But I don’t really remember.

What I do remember: years earlier, on board that leaky, soon-to-be condemned rented houseboat at Mosquito Creek that always smelled of wet dog and low tide. It was the night of the ice storm, right before winter solstice, when the north shore power went off. The marina was plunged into darkness, and we watched the electric space heater slowly erase itself like the smile of the Cheshire Cat. We dug candles, mostly stumps and half-burnt birthday candles, out of the junk drawer. We stuck them inside empty ketchup bottles and eggcups and tin coffee mugs. We shared the last beer from the back of the fridge and ate pickled herrings and Saltines. We warmed ourselves by making green tea on that propane stove that always made me nervous.

It was right after you’d finished your undergrad degree. You were a bit burnt-out by that point, telling me you’d had enough sincere little stories about protagonists with too many regrets. To hell with stories about middle class angst and cheating college professors and short, crabbed little characters leading crabbed and crooked little lives. Fuck them, you said. I want stories about ghosts and opium dens, about family curses and leave-the-lights on sex.

We talked about all of the things and places we were going to see, all the great things we were going to do. We talked about how we were never going to fall into the same traps that our parents did. We were going to live fully in the moment, never betraying ourselves, our sense wide open, etc. etc. Consumed by hubris, we talked about a thousand and one wise and beautiful things.

Never once suspecting those wasted years that would follow.

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