“You gotta drive over here and take a look,” Debby said on the phone last week. “We got ourselves an event.” The bay tree on the flank of Mount Parnassus above her garden had fallen down in the storm. “You know which one I mean, the big one.” I didn’t. In my mind the hillside was an indeterminate jungle crowned by eucalyptus and overrun by feral cats.
I took a look this afternoon. All that was left of the tree was the fat trunk turned sidewise with limbs chain-sawed to mismatched heights, and a pile of 16-inch cross sections off to the side. A hunk of raw sky hung over mangled camellias, fuchsias and the flattened fence. Underfoot leaves were everywhere; every step was spicy. “The leaves brushed right up against my kitchen windows and my whole house smelled so strong it gave me a headache, but I was lucky. It didn’t harm the house. I’m sleeping in the living room. I’m paranoid the plum tree is gonna crash into my bedroom. It’s leaning, just look at it.”
“I think bay trees fall more easily. In redwood groves you often see bay trees growing slantwise.”
“Um-bell-u-laria. I wikepedied it. Says native Americans used it for all kinds of medicinal purposes. Toothache. Bellyache. Headache, too, if you don’t overdue.”
“Well, this certainly presents an opportunity for more gardening.”
“I wasn’t looking for an opportunity to do more gardening. My garden was finished.”
“No such thing until you planted yourself.”
“I can’t bear to look at all the work. I have to face toward the house, do a little piece at a time. Well, I do have another bed I can plant now. See here? My neighbor gave me some gorgeous compost.” She rakes the bed with her fingers. “Leaning, leaning…”
“What are you singing?”
“You don’t know that? It’s from “’Night of the Hunter.’ Scariest movie in the world. Robert Mitchum is a preacher who marries a widow played by Shirley Winters because he thinks her kids know where her dead husband hid some money. She finds out what he’s up to so he kills Shirley Winters and then goes after the kids. He always sings that song. ‘Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms, Leaning, leaning, I’m leaning on the everlasting arms.’ It’s a hymn. It is so creepy.”
She picks up twigs and puts them in her canvas carrier. “Leaning, leaning,” she sings again, part in parody, part fervor.