After five summers’ growth, the birch is big enough to finally stand on its own. So on an autumn afternoon, you find the wire-cutters and release the tree from its bonds. But its chance has been missed–the damage is done–and it stays rooted there, too close to the house. The other saplings that replaced the elms are also beginning to grow, and the stripped-back starkness of the town is gradually being obscured. It’s then you realize that if you stay, the reality of this place will similarly fade–that even when it’s no longer seen, it will still be there just below every surface. You’re seventeen now, and the only thing that should matter is not taking root in your yard: staying here will drive the family’s local history yet another generation deep. But it will also place an emotional buffer between you and everything unforeseen. Because in the end, home really is the place where they have to take you in. Like your great-grandmother or Christopher’s cousin or Mrs Thompkins’ sister’s kids. What’s going to happen if you need somebody when you’re far away from here? When none of your emergency telephone numbers have local area codes? Because this is the place where all of your friends are–but it’s also where most of them will die. Thus moving on means doing so by yourself and then falling out of touch. It happens already in miniature, when classmates are transferred to other home rooms. And even now you understand that the fading-away is your leveraging of physical distance; a too-quick surrender to disconnection that’s just short of an embrace. It’s the manifested gap that’s always inside you, the separation from others you’re rarely able to bridge. Moving on means losing touch because if you can’t reach out now, what are the chances from 600 miles away? Proximity in this place contains your shyness, necessity keeps it in check, but when at last that limit is gone and you can feel the relief of being yourself, well, there will be no going back. And what happens then, when regardless of distance, those emergency numbers are long out of date? Because after all, in the end, you know this town as intimately as you do the rooms of your house–it may be lacking in many ways, but you can navigate it in the dark. And this confirms your greatest fear: settling into that comfortable, Midwestern rut, the cost of which is the insularity of a forgotten Stone-Age tribe. Staying on means a life that, like your father’s, ticks away on autopilot: a manufacturing job punctuated by vacations twice a year–holiday trips that will never extend more than 50 miles from home. So yes, right now the only thing that matters is not taking root in your yard: you stand there holding the cutters, staring at the tangle of wires on the ground, and with the decision made, walk away relieved, knowing this is the last autumn that you’ll be here.
Out there in the frozen yard, white against the white snow, the untethered birch is waiting for spring as you put the last of your stuff in the back of the car. You’ve chosen to leave in this first week of the year, when the wintery essence of the town can be seen; while the bare limbs remind you of the dying elms and your childhood epiphany. The packing had been Christmas run in reverse, with your things put into boxes that were then taped shut in preparation for surprise. Because you’re not sure of where you’ll live when you get there or what any part of the future will hold. Because the only plan you’re leaving with is to somehow make it through to spring. You switch on the car’s heater to kill the cold, and the fan rattles on its last bearing. Then the family materializes, huddled in the front yard, already like phantoms in the silver-blue dawn. With one last wave, the house is behind you and, radio already on, you’re headed east as Elton’s nameless chain drowns the incessant whirring. And in just a few miles more–on the freeway ramp–you’ll understand that his high-flying bird is you . . . .