ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

A journal for poetry, criticism, reviews, stories and essays published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"The Trees Remember," a story by Michael Sauve.

A tired young man rests against the backstop of a neglected baseball diamond.  The grass has grown high around the base-paths.  He’s in the schoolyard near his childhood home, in a small town called Sault Ste. Marie, in northern Ontario, on Lake Superior, where the skies are expansive, where the earth is fragrant.  Here is his old life.  It’s the first night of four he will spend at home.  So far, it hasn’t been as trying as usual.  He did not bother to contact any peers.  He brought home a documentary on Pete Seeger that his parents were able to get behind. 

It hadn’t seemed like coincidence when his mother’s watch stopped the very moment his rented Corolla pulled into the driveway. Things were so still here.  He often felt somehow outside of time.  One could walk for several blocks at 9pm and not see a single soul.  They were all in their houses watching television, not even peeking out the blinds.  Closed off, but piped into the fecal current of popular culture, their lone lifeline to the “real” world of sky-scrapers and Manhattan shopping, of gritty police procedure...the empty suburban streets were just some forgotten tract of time and space, left behind for the man alone to endure.

He’d consumed a 1.5 litre bottle of wine mostly to himself, but he didn’t feel lethargic.  It was hard to feel bad on this warm July night, on the first night home.  It was easy to feel bad on the second or third night home.  He knew that well.

His girlfriend drank nothing but a Ginger Ale.  He didn’t understand why people requested Ginger Ale when others were drinking alcohol.  She wouldn’t ordinarily want a Ginger Ale.  No one would.  When he was a kid, his friend Alex Good had called cans of Ginger Ale—“throat burners.”

When his parents went to bed he’d left for the schoolyard to take in the night breeze.  The air, being the night air of his youth, smelled singularly fine.  The friends from that period were long gone, but he could recall them quite easily in this environment.

A light flashes on in a house behind the backstop.   A fly bites his neck.  He becomes anxious, but vows to venture out and breathe this schoolyard air every night he’s home.  Then, under the fluorescent 24/7 lights of the school, 150 yards away, two tiny figures appear on the brightly-lit stage.

They dance like pixies.  What are such small people doing out at 2am?  It is a safe town.  People have nothing to fear, so they are full of fear, especially when it comes to children.  They lock their doors.  Shred their credit card statements.  Guard their children against the pedophiles on television until a real one manifests someday.

The two figures pause under a second light, and the slightly larger figure holds the smaller one by the shoulders, tenderly. “This looks like young love,” the man thinks, “extremely young love.”   In his own childhood fantasies he’d permitted such unlikely happenings:  to sneak away with Amy Morin in the night and start a new life at 11-years-old.

These beings move away from the lights, out of sight.  After a moment the man gets up to return home. His parents will wake upon his entrance and wonder why he was out.  He won’t have a satisfactory answer.  Except to talk about the night-air smell, and how it sometimes carries with it old lines like “throat burners” that would otherwise never return to him—it’s hard to talk that way without sounding maudlin, or just drunk.

He walks diagonally across the ball-field.  As the man gains perspective of the other side of the school, he expects to see the two tiny figures retreating into the distance, but they are nowhere in sight.  A deep breath gives him the shivers.  He is hit flush with the distinct memory of shivering as a boy. Boys shiver often here, maybe because there is some kind of magic in the woods.  The trees are their own story; they “represent levels, energies, intelligences, situations, colours, sounds, images, thoughts, forces, places, experiences.”*

Then the small beings become visible, several feet away from him, lying in the grass like commandoes.  They aren’t lovers, or midgets, or ghosties after all, just two adventuresome boys.  The thicker, more confident one runs over to provide a dire warning:  “The cops are in this park.”

The man tries not to appear amused.  Just as the adults shred their credit cards because of imagined identity-thieves, the children become paranoid, and assume every shadowy figure in the distance is either a cop or a vicious skinhead waiting to stomp their teeth into the curb.  Without real evil, but surrounded by all these intangible spooks, a boy’s imagination is left to its own inventive devices.

At about 12 the kids in Sault Ste. Marie realize they’ve been fooling themselves, and go out looking for real danger:  tipping over mailboxes; tossing eggs, even rocks, at windows; putting potatoes in tail-pipes.  The man, now an adult made to toe the line, respects this.  With nothing happening in town the pubescent kids obey a natural instinct to rebel against the still order of the place.  These kids weren’t quite old enough for serious rebellion.  They were still blessed with the legitimate electricity of true fear in a safe place.

“You sure it was the cops huh?”

“Well...that’s what he says...” says the larger boy, implicating his tiny, Botticelli-faced friend.  This smaller boy, wearing a long-sleeve DC shirt, three times too big for his 80-or-so pounds, says gravely, “Ya...”

The boys tentatively hop from one foot to the other, fidget, like the dancing witnessed earlier.  The man sits cross-legged on the gnarled concrete of an unusable basketball court.  Once this non-aggressive position is assumed the boys share their tale:

They snuck out of their houses using the old “I’m sleeping over at his house” rouse.  Now, they are too terrified to stay put in any one spot.  They were unable to secure the tent they’d planned on bringing, which would have just made them more conspicuous anyhow.

The man, envious of their boyhood thrills, feels he must explain his own reason for being in the park so late.  “I’m home for a few days to visit my parents.  I grew up here but I live in Toronto now.  I like to come out and smell the air.  Sometimes when I drink too much...I get nostalgic, or you know, emotional.  I remember being a kid like you guys, out looking for trouble, with my friends.”

“Oh ya, sometimes when I’ve had a few beers I get that way,” says the large boy, who can’t be more than 11, and probably has enjoyed fewer beers in his lifetime than he has birthdays.

“We aren’t looking for trouble really,” says the smaller boy.  “It’s just nice to be out here, I mean why stay in a house when there is all this out here,” he looks around at the intelligences, the forces, the colours.

The boys aren’t afraid of him anymore. The more confident one sits by the free-throw line. Soon all three of them are on the pavement, the man a respectful distance away.  The DC boy tells of his own trip to Toronto (a Rush concert, some shopping, some unfamiliar Sikhs in the neighbourhood where he stayed). The boys speculate with naive wonder on the joys of living in a big city.

“In Toronto you can do something and no one will know about it, here, it will get to all four parts of town in two days.  If someone craps their pants, everyone is going to talk about it.”

“Ya and it’s like, in Toronto, we’d never be all alone in this park, like, there’d be a guy playing Frisbee there, and someone with their dog over there.”

The man doesn’t point out that at 2am in a downtown Toronto park, you’d likely see a crackhead arguing with another crackhead over some loose change, or a transvestite prostitute wailing about some awful injustice.

Worse, the man knows if the boys get a serious taste of Toronto, they could never return here and be as happy.  The Sault elders very effectively masked the soul-flattening deficiencies of the isolated town until the children could escape to the vivid palette of University life in places like Windsor, Toronto, or Montreal.  The man keeps quiet on this, and just says,

“Yes, that’s true.”

“It’s like every day at the skate-park, you always know who’s going to be there.  You see the same people.  Like everyone knows Steven Jonson is sponsored.  It would be nice to go and meet different people.”

“Ya or it’s like, we try to skate downtown and the cops are always chasing us.” 

The man figures he will be the greatest threat they encounter this night or maybe this year.  “Why are you sitting cross-legged across from my 11-year-old son!” he expects some mother will soon demand from out of nowhere.  The man’s own lingering sense of rebellion makes him want to offer the boys some weed from his plentiful stash.  This would provide the danger they seek, something to brag of for months, if not years.  Then the man’s humble back-story would be bloated to involve a glass-eye, a stint in the penitentiary, and a stable of hookers back in Toronto, of whom he’d promised the boys their share should they ever make it out of the Sault.

But for some reason, the man genuinely, irrationally, fears jail-time for corrupting a minor.  The odds of getting caught are negligible, but his own boyhood fears, those Sault Ste. Marie shivers, still keep him on the square side of the law, for the most part.

The DC boy says softly, “When you were walking over, I thought you were going to hurt us.”

There’s no one around.  The man exists dangerously outside the established order, not asleep, nor in front of his television.  Surely he must be an agent of the dark forces slithering through the branches of the old pine trees, the sickly fragrant spruce.

“Yes I understand.  Everything seems scary in these places at night.  Do you ever wonder why you get so scared when you’re in the bushes here or behind Sister Mary Clare School?  You must know no one is going to be there.  No one just lurks in the bushes waiting for some kids to come.  But I know all about that fear.  Maybe evil spirits are screaming at us, but we can’t quite hear them.” 

The DC boy shivers.  “Now you’re scaring me.” 

“You guys looked really scared under this one light earlier,”  the man says.  He leaves out, “You looked like you were in love.”  A sensitivity emanates from the boys, a femininity they aren’t aware of, even as they try to posture as young lawbreakers, unwitting Marlon Brando Wild Ones.  All young boys love their best friends in a special way, but their love will go away. 

The previous night, perhaps in preparation for his trip home, the man dreamt of Alex Good.  It was some kind of reunion, a recurring dream the man had all too often.   Set in a hotel this time, the dream was particularly vivid; the man could recall sitting on a bed watching an entire movie.  The inevitable conflict emerged briefly, but receded as new guests arrived on the balcony.  Alex was among them, jubilant, high on booze or drugs perhaps.  The whole gang stood out there.  The man stepped through the window.  Alex looked at his lost friend with a glint of amazement in his sad, happy eyes, and said with sincere good humour, needing to get it out, even in the presence of several peers, there in the dream-world:  “I love you.” 

“We saw a face in the school,” the large boy says.

“Like, a real face, or a ghost face?” 

The little DC boy shakes visibly.  “Like a real face.”   

A flash of light illuminates the horizon for a split-second behind the three males. 

“Did you see that?”  the man asks.

“No,” says DC.

“Yes,” says the other boy.

“It was like lightning, but not really, and it went horizontal across the sky.” 

A long silence. 

“I think it’s cool you kids snuck out tonight.  I used to do bad things in this town.  I lit a fire in that dumpster over there once.  We used to find open windows at the school and then we’d reach in and smash flower pots or whatever we could grab.” 

The boys brag about the weed they sometimes procure.  The boast seems dubious, but the man advises them not to smoke it everyday until they’re at least 19.  Then more advice: never pass up a decent opportunity with a girl because of peer-disdain (the opposite of peer pressure), or they’d regret it later. 

The boys agree heartily, “Ya, you got to hook up with a few dogs sometimes!”

A siren wails far in the distance and the DC boy looks to his friend, asking with his eyes:  Should we run?  They manage to stay cool.  The smaller boy complains about how tired he is, and that they can’t go to either of their homes.  He says he’d been beaten up and robbed on Copernicus Street last winter.  It doesn’t sound like exaggeration.  Maybe his Sault Ste. Marie fears aren’t completely unfounded.  Maybe the streets had grown rougher.  Television was warping people’s minds at an accelerated rate.  UFC skull-pounding had been normalized.   A face-smashing might not be the stuff of fantasy anymore.  But the man won’t believe this—not in all this quiet, not here...

DC speaks of stealing weed from his mother’s stash.  His mom is 32.  Just five years older than the man.  The man reaches into his pocket and runs his thumb and forefinger over his pipe and gram bag, just a quick bowl would make for a hell of a story for the boys, and one last subversive act for the man, all here in the haunted Sault Ste. Marie night.

None of them hear the car enter the parking lot, but they hear the warning scream of the siren as a red and blue flashing light fills their once peaceful basketball court.  Just a single aggressive blip is enough for the boys to take off running.  The man, still a boy in many ways, doesn’t want to tell his maudlin tale to the cops either, so at first he runs with the boys, then by virtue of his longer legs, far ahead of them; yet always with them, and with the gentle friend of his own youth, perhaps in the thoughts of the trees, he remains in spirit.


* HIGH MAGICK: The Elemental Adept  Online Essay on Elemental Magic, from the section titled:  The Tree

Mike Sauve has written non-fiction for The National Post, The Toronto International Film Festival Group, Exclaim Magazine and elsewhere. His fiction has appeared in more than a dozen online publications. Upcoming stories will appear in print in Palimpsest, Infinity’s Kitchen, Idiom Magaazine and Kitty Snacks. Read all of his published fiction and non-fiction at

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