The Wishing Trees - By John Shors

Ian watched Mattie sleep, her body curved as if still pressed against his, her arms resting on a pillow that he had carefully positioned alongside her torso. The pillow acted as his body double on many nights, comforting her in his absence, offering her warmth and the remnants of his scent. The king-sized bed made his ten-year-old daughter seem so small. She looked too fragile and lonely, as if she might come unbound without him beside her.

As it often did, the sight of Mattie sleeping brought tears to Ian’s eyes, since in most every way she was an image of her deceased mother. Several years earlier, Mattie had compared herself to what she saw in a nearby park. Her hair, she said, was the color of an oak tree’s bark. At some point the sky must have dripped into her eyes, she was certain, because they were the same hue as what she saw above. Her mother had then asked Mattie where her freckles came from, and Mattie had paused, glancing around the park. She finally replied that her freckles were tiny pieces of leaves that had fallen onto her face while she napped.

Ian reflected on how Mattie and Kate had often spoken like that— as if they shared the same mind and view of the world. Mattie didn’t try to copy her mother, to make her mother’s characteristics her own. Rather, Mattie just seemed to be a miniature Kate, as if Kate’s DNA had been neatly sorted and stacked into Mattie’s mannerisms and thoughts. Like her mother, Mattie was artistic and curious. Her heart was filled with her mother’s love and laughter. Most everywhere the three of them had gone together, Mattie and Kate held hands—even when Mattie’s friends became too old for such public displays of affection.

Ian lowered himself to the edge of the bed nearest Mattie. This had been Kate’s side, and he ran his fingers over the sheets that had once warmed her. Even though ten months had passed since he’d last touched her skin, the ache of her loss was as intense as if she had died the day before. He still felt empty and incomplete, as if his soul had tried to travel with hers but had been tethered to the world of stone and dirt. His soul remained trapped within him now, bereft of the magic that was once so sustaining. Through his will, and his love for Mattie, he had managed to repair parts of this trapped soul—fitting its pieces together as he might patch up a broken vase. But this element of him, he feared, would never soar again. At least not the way it once had. An injured bird might relearn how to fly, but never with the same sense of unbridled freedom. Whatever had brought the bird down would always loom in the distance.

Mattie stirred in her sleep, dislodging the sheet and blanket that Ian had pulled to her neck. He carefully repeated the process, then bent to kiss a freckle on her forehead. Glancing to make sure that both night-lights were on, he stood up and stepped toward the doorway. He reached an antique mirror that Kate had hung opposite their bed, and paused. His reflection had changed so much over the past year. His six-foot frame was now slightly stooped. His hair, recently the shade of shadows, had patches of gray near his temples, a color that was slowly spreading over him, as if it were ice subjugating a pond. He had lost twenty pounds, his body now more like a college student’s than a middle-aged man’s. Even his eyes had changed—still brown, but the flesh beneath them appearing bruised.

Ian shook his head, disliking his reflection. He left the bedroom. The rest of their brownstone was almost exactly the way Kate had arranged it. Every nook and open space rekindled memories, and he wondered if their real estate agent had fielded any calls that day. Ian couldn’t stay inside these walls much longer. And he didn’t think that Mattie could either. Their home, he felt, had been murdered. Nothing remained but a skeleton.

His office gave him little comfort—only some of Mattie’s colorful sketches provided solace. He glanced at Kate’s photo, but for once his eyes didn’t linger on hers. Instead he opened his closet and picked up a neatly wrapped present, which Kate had given him ten months earlier, just three days before she died. She had asked him to promise not to open it until his birthday.