“The Woman in the Tree” by Lisa Beebe

When I first saw the woman in the tree, I posted about her on the neighborhood’s online message board. I titled it “Lady in tree,” described her location, and asked if anybody knew where she’d come from. None of the commenters were able to identify her, but a few hazarded guesses that she was homeless, mentally ill, addicted to drugs, or all of the above.

The tree in question was directly across the street from my house, where our development borders a state forest. I feel sort of possessive of those woods, so I didn’t appreciate a stranger making herself comfortable there.

I could see her from my living room window. She had a bunch of stuff with her in plastic shopping bags, and she’d tied a hammock between two branches as if she planned to stay awhile.

She was still in the tree when people got home from work that evening, and a few of the neighbors gathered to try to talk some sense into her. I didn’t join them, but I watched out the window as they stood around, shouting up into the branches. The woman rested in her hammock without acknowledging them in any way. After a while, the neighbors abandoned the effort and went home. She was still up there, swaying gently in the breeze.

That night, on the message board, the neighbors questioned if she might be deaf or if her unwillingness to communicate was further evidence of mental illness.

The next day, a man who lives over on Roosevelt posted that he’d called the parks department and asked them to remove the woman. They told him they didn’t have the resources to send someone unless the woman was doing permanent damage to the forest or starting a fire outside of an approved campfire area.

As the days went on and the woman remained, the discussion turned darker. People expressed concern that she would scare their children, damage their property, or attract a “bad element” to the neighborhood, despite the fact that she never seemed to leave the tree.

One night, a couple a few streets away had the catalytic converter stolen from their SUV while it was parked in their driveway, and a commenter wondered if the tree lady could be selling car parts on the black market.

A woman down on McKinley reported that someone had knocked over her garbage can and left a big mess in the driveway. She admitted it was probably a raccoon, but asked that we all keep a close eye on the tree lady.

Everyone seemed to forget that the rash of catalytic converter thefts had begun months earlier, long before the woman showed up. And as long as I’ve lived here, wild animals have wandered off the state land looking for food. Skunks, raccoons, bears, you name it. I didn’t like the way the neighbors were blaming the woman in the tree for all of their problems, and I felt myself starting to see her side of things.

I had been the subject of my neighbors’ wrath only once. When I first moved in, I installed a pair of antique wine barrels in the front yard to use as planters. I got an anonymous letter in the mail asking me to remove the “eyesores.” The letter was signed “Concerned Neighbors,” and I ignored it, because I knew the barrels didn’t break any laws. Nobody had the nerve to talk to me about the situation face to face, and I guess eventually, they got over it.

I had never spoken to the woman in the tree, but I didn’t believe she was a criminal. Maybe she just needed a break from life for a while. A tree seemed as good a place to get away from things as anywhere else.

Even so, I figured I owed it to the neighbors—and myself—to monitor the situation. She was usually asleep in her hammock when I got up in the morning, and by the time I settled into my home office around 8:30, she’d be sitting with her legs crossed, doing some kind of yoga or meditation up there. I had the clearest views of her in the early evening, as the sun went down behind the house, shining its light in her direction. I liked relaxing in the living room late in the day, and occasionally, I’d look up from my reading and watch her.

At first, I closed the blinds tightly as soon as the sun set, knowing that while the darkness made it harder for me to see her, the lights inside the house made it easy for her to see me. I didn’t think she was a bad person, but I didn’t like the idea of a stranger watching my every move. I found it unsettling, even though I did very little in the living room except sit on the couch and read.

But after a week, I stopped closing the blinds. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, right? And I had nothing to hide.

I never saw her eat or perform any bodily functions up in the tree, but there were long chunks of the day when I was busy with work or my own thoughts. I guess she was eating, and doing whatever else she needed to do, in the hours when I wasn’t watching.

As time went on, the message board posts turned even nastier. One day, a woman wrote about finding two dead possums in her yard. She wanted to know if anyone had put poison out, maybe for rats. I half expected someone to post a comment accusing the woman in the tree of poisoning the animals, but the actual comments were worse. One said, “It’s too bad about the possums, but does anyone have something that’ll kill off that homeless woman?” It was followed by a winking emoji. That’s a pretty sick joke, in my opinion, but several neighbors had clicked the “laughing” response.

After that, instead of watching the woman with the intention of protecting the neighborhood, I started keeping an eye on her for her own safety. I spent hours looking out the window, wondering where she’d come from and why she’d chosen that tree. I suppose I could’ve gone over and asked her, but I never did.

One cold, drizzly night, I made a big pot of vegetable stew. I like having meals prepared ahead of time, so I divided the stew into small Pyrex containers for freezing.

The stew was still hot as I put the lids on, and I thought of the tree lady out there alone in the dark. I picked up one of the containers, took a spoon from the drawer, switched on the floodlights in the driveway, and walked across the street to the tree. I couldn’t see the woman above me in the darkness, but I’m sure she was there. I said, “I made some stew and thought you might be hungry. It’s vegetarian if that matters. I’ll leave it here in case you want some.” After that, I went straight to bed. I didn’t check the message board that night. I didn’t care what any of them had to say.

When I woke up the next morning, the woman and her hammock and all of the plastic bags were gone. I was surprised to feel a sense of loss.

After breakfast, I opened the front door, planning to walk over and look for my Pyrex. I found the empty container and spoon on my welcome mat. They both looked perfectly clean.

Lisa Beebe lives in Los Angeles, where she sometimes talks to the ocean. Her work has appeared in Five South, HAD, Indiana Review, Paper Darts, Psychopomp, and Vestal Review, among others. Her story, “I (Palm Tree) Los Angeles” was selected for the 2022 Wigleaf Top 50. Find her online at lisabeebe.com.


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