Title: Paper Birch
Author: Elliott Silver
Feedback: Yes, please!
Timeline: Theoretically, after "Smoky Martini", but I wrote it so it would also stand alone.
Summary: When he looked at her, he saw Coleridge's "Lady of the Woods."
Author's Note: This is my first piece after a month's absence from computers, words, and writing; when I returned, I was terrified because I had forgotten how to write. This is my attempt to re-discover writing.
Betula was Latin for birch, papyrifera, from the Greek papyrus, "paper", and the Latin fero, "to bear, carry, bring"; "paper bearing".
In the dark cage of Washington, her pale face had always been his only light. Even in the blackest hours, stung by writer's block or rebuffed by the President, he would catch sight of her pale, slender form full of straight grace and hear her rushing by his open door like the whispered fluttering of heart-shaped leaves in the spring breeze.
She had been burnt with color when he had first seen her, in a shabby storefront somewhere in the midwest end of the first Bartlet for President tour. Toby remembered her full of windburn and out-of-breath rushes and heart-stopping blushes. Seeing her across the box-filled space and not yet knowing who she was, he had immediately thought she looked like a paper birch. And so unlike himself, he stopped the ten thousand things he was doing, balanced his yellow legal pad and pen on his knee, and watched her, wondering what she was doing there. In her laugh and her voice, he heard the silver whisper of birch leaves in the wind; several hours later, when Josh remembered and brought her over, they shook hands, all birch within his hickory.
And then before they knew it, something unexpected had happened - the man from New Hampshire had won and everything changed, even paper birch. At first, enthralled with the way his words sounded on live TV, he hadn't noticed. They were all scrambling headfirst into their new jobs, most of all her boss, and it was only when he realized at least a year later, that the only time he heard her name was when Josh bellowed for her, that he saw she had suddenly turned to CoverGirl for color.
"This isn't the place to regain your confidence," Josh had told her four years ago about the gangly, then hopeless, Bartlet for President campaign. "Why can't it be," she had asked him and carelessly whack-job inspired, he had given her his press tag with his name under his flashbulb-bright picture. And from the very first moment, Josh had never even given her a chance to find her own words, as she answered the ringing phone in his name - "Josh Lyman's office," floating out over the cramped quarters in already clipped tones.
In all times, the bark of the birch tree had always peeled away so smooth and pale that it had never been used as tinder or kindling, to nock arrow shafts or fashion war clubs, but it had always been used to write on, to hold thoughts, and record crises. And that was exactly what Josh did.
At first, she blanched to bone at Josh's rebukes, her white stricken face shivering at his harsh words, the way his remonstrances stripped away her breath, the way she believed him and bundled into what he said, trying to be perfect for him. But over the years, all that happened was that Josh learned new words to carve into her, scarring her more cruelly with each successive day until she was little more than a patchwork patina of his gibes.
Either he didn't know or he didn't care - Toby didn't want to believe that Josh could be so cruel otherwise - because then when Toby looked at her, he didn't see paper birch. He saw only the way she wore what Josh said: all the sarcasm and insults piled on her shoulders, all the obscenities and angry curses coiled around her chest, all the vicious belittlings sunken into the bruised hollows of her eyes.
Now, as he watched her four years later, she didn't wince, she didn't cower, she didn't even duck when Josh hurled barbed words at her, and for Josh, barbed words were all he had left in an election they were three weeks and little hope of winning. After four years, she simply stood perfectly still.
She had once been Coleridge's "Lady of the Woods," all cream lyric and free verse, but now Toby saw her, so hung down with the weight of Josh's words, that she stumbled over her own sentences. She had become everything paper birch wasn't - as rough-skinned as the spiny cedar, as mutilated with Josh's graffiti as the grey beech, as shaded and silent in her pain as the weeping willow.
She no longer shivered, and the rough chips of other people's words didn't peel away. Unlike paper birch, she did the opposite: she wearily wrapped layer after white layer of Josh's words tighter and tighter around her until, under the weight of his acrimony and simple carelessness, she had become gross and misshapen and dirty-dark. Her hair, sunbleached almost platinum when Toby had met her four years ago, was now darker than dying sunflowers. The eyes that had been smoky blue and thunderbird deep were now withered grey. And the cream skin that she had blushed poppy-pink through during the first campaign was now dull as kaolin clay, unbaked and left to harden without fire.
It was only when he called her name for the third time, standing practically on top of her, that she turned to him; and Toby knew if he had but whispered "Josh" she would have flown volte-face before the whistling consonants of the Deputy Director's name faded between them.
She swayed unsteadily, and in the long second before he touched her and steadied her, he thought she might fall.
Somewhere, under the weight of all Josh's words, he felt her shaking.
Her face was ashen as she looked at him, so much whiter than birch bark that he let go of her. The skin scrolled over her cheekbones was chalky pale, blighted or tubercular, as she followed him to his office and he closed the door behind them. The last time they had been here he had told her the President had MS.
"Stop letting him write you."
There was a sick pause between them before she managed to summon her own voice and choke a stuttered, "What?"
"You canít let him do it, Donna," he said and in all his life, he had never felt a failing so hard as being a writer and not having the words to save her.
"Toby - " She was as misshapen as a birch tree blighted, as a wooden human Guernica, and as much as Toby hated Picasso, at least he would have used color.
"Youíre not his tally of scores, his diary, the foul pages where he gets to cross out his mistakes and learn on someone else. He doesn't get to count coup on you! He doesn't get to cut you down!"
She tried to speak; Toby watched her lips move, but she had only Josh's words and they couldn't say what she wanted and he watched the helplessness flash through her eyes.
"Josh doesn't get to write you," Toby continued and he flailed his arms wildly, the way he did when he was animated and angry, because all he wanted was to touch her again, to peel away her layers, and because he knew he couldn't. It wasn't for him to do, though he would have, as softly and gently as he had taken her hand in a dingy old office four years ago when she had spoken the only two words of her own that she knew, "Donnatella Moss."
And as she looked up at him, she saw his thoughts and for a split second, he thought he saw Coleridge, but then she was just so white, he didn't know how much closer to dying she could be, how she could still be breathing under the tremendous weight of Josh's words and everything she had stopped believing.
"You write yourself," he said as her eyes went runny with spilling sap, but then Josh was yelling for her and his voice invaded even his closed office, wounded them both as she fled. And it broke his heart more than words could say that his words would be just another layer just like Josh's; it broke his heart because that was the closest he would ever be to her.
He had stayed in the campaign, even after the President's second collapse, only because he had believed in the beauty of paper birch. Now, as he walked through the DC streets dreadfully alone in the darkness, he saw that, of all the trees he passed on the tortuous path to the place where he sometimes slept and kept at least one or two pieces of clean clothing and all the bound books that held words that weren't his, none of them were birch.
He hiked up the three flights of uneven stairs to his apartment and unlocked the door, swinging into the pitch space so black he couldn't even see, the printed demands of credit card bills in his hands, the labels of canned food and tinned meat on his shelves, the promises of the framed copy of the Declaration of Independence that hung on his wall. And he wondered if it was black because there were no words, or if it was black because there were too many and they had all bled out around him.
Toby sat and looked out into the darkness as if he would see something white as tree skin, as light as peeling hope. But all he saw was the world rushing out underneath him, throwing words at what they didn't understand - long harsh words like "multiple sclerosis" and "post traumatic stress syndrome" and "Democratic reelection" - mashing syllables and blurring consonants so that everything came out as sound bytes and neon ads and film at eleven.
He was a writer; he should have held words in the palms of his hands, in the corners of his eyes, in the scraped chasm of his heart. But he was nothing more than empty hand gestures, breathing, and connotated emphases. Truly, he wasn't any more than what other people said, or the silence between the scripts he wrote. He knew all about the art and craft of writing because that was his job, but his own words had never gone farther than that. He could write other people's stories but he had never found the words to begin his own.
Perhaps it was because it was too late to start, perhaps it was too late to hope.
The knock on his door echoed like hyphenated lines in his rooms.
"I want to write," she said as he opened the door and she stood before him, drenched in the bleeding shadows of his doorway, so dark and unlike paper birch it hurt him to look at her, and it hurt him even worse that it hurt to look at her when that was all he had ever wanted to do.
"What do you need me for?"
And for a cruel minute, he waited for her to say it was because he was a writer, because he had the words. And it would be so tempting to let her believe that. But then he would be just like Josh, writing his words all over her in his touch - and no matter how much he wanted to touch her, he couldn't do that.
All that stood between them was the planks of a door that had once been a tree. And if that tree had held words, Toby wondered, could it have stopped the fell swoop of the axe, begged for mercy from the clanging saws that hew it, screamed in pain as it was cleaved into planks? Or was it silent because in mercy, it had been pressed into a barrier so much simpler and easier to cross than a thin layer of a person's bark?
"Because I want to write," Donna answered clearly, full of certainty, as she stepped one step closer and she wasn't dark at all, "Us."
And then, once again, at last, he saw her as the paper birch, as the white beauty in this dark city of incomplete sentences, peeling in light layers, peeling hope.
She came into the dimness of his apartment and he knew there were never words to express how much you loved someone. Donna smiled as if seeing his thoughts, and he saw color in darkness on her face as she pulled the dark sweatshirt, sleeves waist neck, over her head.
Static electricity from her pale hair flared in the black rooms, crackled and sizzled.
As she looked up at him, he saw, with such great relief and joy, that she hadn't wrapped his words around her like Josh's; instead he saw where she had taken what he had said - not the words themselves because simple words couldn't do that, but the meaning and the hope and the love behind them - to start peeling the stringent bark of Josh's words away from her chest.
And as he watched, she calmly reached for buttons and zippers and snaps and stripped layer by layer by endless layer until she stood pale and unwritten in front of him, until she was nothing but curves and bones and blood, sleek and streamlined as a windy sapling, until she was nothing but everything he had always seen her as, until she was paper birch.
There was nothing but the pure blackness of unfilled space between them.
"Toby," she said as she moved towards him and it wasn't a whisper, but the first word she wrote for herself, the first word she had ever really wanted.
He meant to say something, to ask if she was certain perhaps, but she put a finger to his lips and the syllable floated off into the darkness, inchoate, as she slipped the tweed jacket from his shoulders and unwrapped the white shirt from his chest.
And Toby realized, breath caught in his throat, only she had seen the layers he too had wound around himself, not of anyone's particular words, but hopelessly blank, which was worse than words, because at least despair in words started with the first letter and ended with the last, while blank it surged on forever.
And then with his eyes on her because he was afraid to look away, he shed layer after layer until he too was free.
When at last they stood before each other, clad only in the last layer of their skin, Donna took his hands in hers and laced her fingers through his and for the longest time, they simply stood there like that, holding onto each other. In a week of sleepless, hopeless days, they would know if the world ended, if their peace fell, if words broke even at the polls, but for now, the sight of their bare hands wound together, paper birch and hickory, was possibly the most beautiful sight he had ever seen.
"Donna," he said and her name tasted like his dreams.
She smiled and when she kissed him, he tasted her name on his tongue. When he touched her, he felt his name on her palms.
Without letting go, they moved into his dark bedroom and against the light sheets of his bed, Toby kissed her all over until every inch of her skin burned caramel with the scouring of his beard, until she glowed the color of new birch bark and there wasn't a trace of white left in the world.
Under the calluses of her fingerpads and the lines of her palms, Donna smoothed away the wrinkles of consternation and chaos that had dented him. She kissed away the darkness of unsaid words with her certainty, made him believe the way he had used to, back in the old world of unelected candidates, makeshift campaign offices, and slender trees called paper birch.
Into the black night, they spelled out the future on each other's skins; she wrote promises with the edges of her fingers along his back and he drew the verses of their story over her body with the tip of his tongue and the ends of his hands so that her moans were his stanzas and refrains, her breath his caesuras, their words of together. He wrote as he had never written before, finding the words to his story in the one place he had never dared look - her heart.
And as she shivered into him, her face was as flushed as the day he had first seen her, and Toby heard the whisper of paper birch as she called his name, the sound of hope, soft and sure as the way she trusted his hands and he slept, peaceful, in her arms, knowing that the words to start his story were paper birch; he had always wanted them to be.
Two handfuls of rushed days later on the fourth of November, the President called him into the Oval Office a few minutes past midnight. A half-finished drink was leaving a watermark on the endtable by the sofa that five-star generals, prime ministers, and visiting dignitaries had sat on, where important decisions had been made, where angry words had been spewed, where friendships had bloomed, where things started, ended, and finally, just were.
They were the only ones left.
Josiah Bartlet turned to him and his face was marred with faultlines and fractures. He spoke in speeches other people wrote and tonight, two days from election, Toby saw the horrified blankness of his lined face. If they lost this white house, this dark place of sin and secrets boiled bone white, there would be no one to write the words he couldn't find.
The room swarmed around them, but it was full of inexpressible doubt.
"What was it, Toby?" he asked and his voice was rough and desperate.
The most powerful man in the world moved towards him and picked up the cut glass tumbler from the table, but didn't drink - they were both smart enough to know there were never any words at the bottom of a glass. "You didn't believe in this campaign," he said at last and Toby heard the remonstrance in his voice from the day he had collapsed again in the Oval Office and he had heard "Desolation Row" in his Scotch. "You didnít believe in me."
"Sir - " There was a warning in his voice that normally would have earned harsh words from Leo; he and the man from New Hampshire rarely got along well and suddenly Toby knew why.
"What made you believe?" And it wasn't a question - it was a plea.
God, he thought, it would have been so easy, so damn excruciatingly easy. How many people dreamed of it, in their black tar beds at night, in milling gawking traffic jams, in coffee lines and soup kitchens and shoeshine boxes, of being able to write the most powerful man in world? How many people dreamed of it, Toby wondered, the secret formula of alchemy, how to turn words into power. And all he had to do was give the President of the United States a handful of letters and syllables, inscribe them over his prominent forehead in black script, so that when Jed Bartlet looked in the mirror, he saw who he was.
"I found the words," Toby answered him simply because the most important things were said with the least words.
"Betula papyrifera," he told the man.
And for all his conferred degrees, his Nobel Prize, his mastery of Latin, Josiah Bartlet shook his head, and of all things, he should have known his state's tree.
After a long while, the small President nodded. Toby left without another word; after that, there weren't any more words to say.
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