Welcome to Fiction Friday, my opportunity each week to post an excerpt from one of my own books or those of my friends and colleagues.
Today’s novel is from a long-time friend, Judith Arnold. Judith and I have been in the book biz together for a long time, and I’ve always especially enjoyed her wit and wisdom, along with her writing. The April Tree, today’s excerpt, is Judith’s book of the heart, and quite honestly, its publication slipped right by me. So no more. Because today I get to feature it here. Read along with me, but first, Judith’s own words about her very special novel.
When Judith Arnold was twelve, her best friend died suddenly and unexpectedly. For years afterward, she wrestled not just with the grief of losing someone she loved but also with questions about why bad things happen, how–or if–we can make sense of events that truly make no sense, and how we can overcome our sorrows to find meaning and joy in life. THE APRIL TREE grew out of that painful experience. In it, a senseless accident causes the death of April Walden and plunges her three best friends and a young man into a search for comfort, purpose, and inspiration. Becky wraps herself in a protective cloak of obsessions, performing anxious rituals at the base of the red maple tree under which April died. Elyse dives into a high-risk life, trying to honor April by doing everything April died too young to experience. Florie turns to fundamentalist Christianity as a wall that might shield her from reality. Mark spirals downward into substance abuse and self-loathing, until April’s three friends find new meaning for their lives by trying to save him. A USA Today bestselling, award winning author, Judith Arnold considers THE APRIL TREE the book of her heart–and of her soul.
She rested her head against the tree’s textured bark and closed her eyes. “April died in May,” she whispered, smiling at the pun. “April, April, died in May. She was here, and then she went away. Here last week but gone today.”
She wondered how the rhyme would sound translated into Hebrew. Or Latin. The only foreign language she knew was Spanish, and she was not pleased when she laboriously translated the poem in her mind: Abril, murio en mayo. Ella estaba aqui, ye luega ella se fue. Aqui la semana pasada, pero hoy ha ido. No rhyme, no rhythm. Maybe she should have signed up for French instead of Spanish.
She knew intuitively that French wouldn’t work, either. She needed to invent a new language. Something that could translate the illogical into the logical, the way math translated a numerical formula into a curve on a graph. She needed a formula to translate April’s death into a shape she could recognize and understand.
A breeze rippled the air. Above her the leaves shifted, causing the sunlight to dance in dots of white where it reached the ground.
A ritual. A language and a ritual, and this day, this week, this unfathomable loss would all make sense.
April, April died in May, she mouthed. Her throat was dry and the midday heat felt like starched cloth on her skin, arid and abrasive. She should walk home and get something to drink.
But she couldn’t leave the tree until she figured something out.
Ritual and language. That was what people went to church for, wasn’t it? Becky needed her own rituals, her own language. April’s death demanded it.
She traced the rise of the tree’s root, like a thick varicose vein bulging against the earth’s skin. Where it rose high enough to break through the dirt, she poked with her finger until she’d dug a small hollow under the root.
“Here I bury the sacred butts,” she murmured, pulling the discarded cigarette butts from her pocket and stuffing them into the hole. They were symbols of death, signifiers that fate could discard a real, live, wonderful girl as easily as assholes discarded their cigarette stubs. Once Becky had buried them, they would exist forever in this tiny hole beneath the tree’s root.
Unless they biodegraded, in which case they’d rejoin the earth like April’s ashes.
One way or another, they were here. A part of this—this thing Becky was doing.
April, April died in May.
She murmured the words as she patted dirt around the cigarette butts, covering the hole.
April, April died in May.
The words struck Becky as more meaningful than any of the inanities the minister had uttered at First Parish, all that crap about love, love, love. The congregation might as well have started singing Beatles songs. Say love enough times and it loses its meaning. Say it enough times and the word itself starts sounding strange and curt and silly.
April, April died in May. Becky’s own prayer. Blunt. Factual. Honest. Leaving no escape, no comfort. Becky would choose truth over comfort, any day.