Something wakes me but the bedroom is still dark, cold, the air laced with shadows. Am I dreaming? In a low voice I call Robert, my brother's name. Isn't that he standing by the door, isn't that the shadow of my brother? I'm certain. Cautiously, I say his name again, my eyes still sifting the darkness for a face. It takes a moment for my pupils to adjust, for me to realize there's nothing there, that the chilly bedroom is empty. I let my eyelids fall closed but for a while fight the urge to return to sleep, drifting precariously between dreams and waking. In the silence of each dream I find Robert: a child's face wrapped in shadow near the bed. The face is the same as it was in childhood, the delicate features, the quick brown eyes. Nothing's changed. And now he gestures with his small hand, blinks his eyes, one word rising on his lips. Brother.
Is that you? Mild irritation colors my voice. Why doesn't he leave me alone? It's early and he knows I'm trying to sleep, that I worked late last night and might still be tired. He continues to tug on the sleeve of my pajamas, attaching himself to the fabric and pulling like our small puppy might. C'mon, bro. Outside. There's something I want to show you.
Show me later, I yell, and swing clumsily at him with a shoe.
I pull my arm away in time, though. Drop the shoe. I'd never hit my brother. Despite our arguments, our occasional differences, I love him. Now I allow myself to be dragged from bed, into clothes, down the stairs, and into the backyard. Look, bro - !
It's the tree he's pointing to, the tiny silver maple we raised from seed. We planted it with our own hands just three months earlier, watching curiously as the first green shoots opened from the earth. Those shoots grew slowly to become a small but perfect model of the larger maples that lined our street. We watered the tree faithfully, charted its growth, and watched in terror when a neighbor fell into it, crushing the small tree back against the earth.
Robert had yelled at the kid - yelled as sharply as I'd ever heard him yell. I remember his voice, his anger, and later, his tears for the broken tree. Neither he nor I thought there was any hope for the maple's recovery. We didn't say that, though, not out loud. Instead, we stole a gauze bandage and wrapped the tree as if we were setting a broken leg. For a long time afterward, for nearly a month, the maple's condition remained the same. We changed the gauze, talked to our patient, and kept a vigil near its side. And nearly a month later, the withered leaves fell away and new ones began to unfold, one leaf at a time above the bandaged trunk. Robert shouted, It's growing, yelling the words over and over until I told him to knock it off, that it wouldn't keep growing if he kept screaming at it. He told me he didn't believe me, but he shut up anyway, running into the house to tell our parents what had happened.
From then on the tree grew quickly. So much so we thought it might be a miracle: the delicate green leaves becoming more numerous, more beautiful, growing as my brother and I were growing. With the first year of the tree's life we measured our growth against its growth, surprised that the maple grew faster than either of us.
By the time we were in high school the tree was halfway as tall as Robert. By then he and I were talking to each other less; our interests had begun to change - diverging as the branches of the tree diverged, spreading in separate directions from the trunk. As I passed the tree in the yard, a faint sadness shivered through me, a suggestion that something precious, something irretrievable, was passing, fading proportionately to the growth of the tree, its slow ascent toward the sky. Each time I looked at the tree I thought of the closeness Robert and I had known before. It was as if what had been lost, those feelings, had been absorbed into the body of the tree, entering it the way light and air entered plants: a form of photosynthesis which made possible its survival and growth.
Occasionally Robert and I attempted to talk to each other about the changes, to return our relationship to the state it had been years ago. We noted the ways our lives had changed and we questioned the choices we'd made, the direction in which we were moving. We recounted events from our childhood and we spoke hopefully of the future. However, each time we talked we found the distance between us had grown greater: a distance we couldn't measure in words, but which existed nevertheless, a shadow that loomed between us. The years passed and we accepted the changes: the widening distance, the emotional growing apart.
This morning I sit alone in the darkened bedroom, the air full of memory and shadow. I'm thinking still of my brother, whom I've not seen in eight years and who lives in a city a thousand miles from this one. Despite the years and the miles there is a bond that endures and a part of Robert that lives here: in this room, in my own body, in my memories. In one of those memories a silver maple spreads a canopy of leaves over a white frame house, and the two children who play under its branches.
Extending my hand now in the dark I can nearly touch the leaves of that tree, and hear my brother's voice as he runs ahead of me. When I draw close he turns and we embrace one another, the tree leaning over us as we pause for a moment to talk, both of us aware that we are home.