I lift Gail from her car seat. She looks up, through the oak's uneven limbs. "The tree," she says. She's never noticed it before. I'm surprised that she does so now. "I'm going to climb that tree."

The limbs are impossibly high, the trunk too thick to shimmy. Our house was built in 1930. The tree is at least that old. And it's dying. The county condemned it months ago with a stripe of orange paint, dabbed just above the fist-sized hole that reaches deep inside its base, down into its roots. The older boys who live next door insist that a snake lives there.

"You're going to climb it?" I hold her high, arms straight, as though we're partners in a ballet. She squeals, as a three year old should, but she does so only for my benefit. She's either dramatic or prophetic. Maybe both.

Once we were eating soup at the kitchen table. It was a Saturday. Beth was upstairs in our home office, checking e-mails and writing memos. She complains about having to work on weekends, but I know better.

"Where's mommy?" Gail asked, and I wondered if she could read my mind, if she could sense my anger from my posture, hunched over the soup bowl as I was.

I let my shoulders go slack and glanced at the ceiling. "Where's mommy?" I asked.

Gail dipped her spoon in her soup and licked it like a lolly.

Now I set her on the grass, and she runs to the front door. "The phone!" she screams. "Daddy! " She jumps, scissor-kicks like a black belt. She points at the door. "The phone! "

When I get to the steps I hear the muffled ring from inside the house. I insert the key and turn it.

"Hello?" It's Beth through the answering machine's speaker. "I got a message you called. Are you there?"

"Mommy," I say.

"Are you there?"

"Mommy," Gail says, and we race for the voice.

But the voice says, "Oh, well," and the line clicks and the machine beeps just as we reach the phone.

- - -

The next evening the light is different -- brighter, though the sky is cloudy. I squint, am dizzied by the sense that I've turned down the wrong street, that we don't live here, that we never have. Then I notice: the limbs are gone. What's left is the stem, which rises up, is lopped off where it had split to form the top branches, the ones that cast the most shade. And with the limbs, the leaves. What's left is a pole. An outsize telephone pole.

"Uh-oh, tree," I say. I step from the car.

"What is it?" Gail asks from her car seat. "Daddy?"

Sawdust lies on tulip petals, on grass blades that have grown too long. It's snow with too much color. It forms odd-shaped piles -- jagged elbows and bony shoulders, exposed roots and the snake that lives in the trunk. The ground is dented where the limbs fell. With the tree stripped of them, stripped of their leaves, we're exposed. I blink. I can't get past how the light finds us.

- - -

Later, in her bedroom, I pull on her pajama top. Her head pops out the head hole. "My room," she says, as if surprised to find herself in it.

"Your room," I say.

She runs into the hall and points at the other bedroom. "Daddy's room."

"Mommy and Daddy's."

"No! " she says. "Just yours! "

"Silly girl!" I scramble after her.

She shrieks and spins and slams into the wall. She falls on her bottom and wails.

"Honey, I'm sorry." I collect her and kiss her forehead. "I didn't mean to startle you."

"It's your room," she says through tears and snot. "Just yours."

- - -

The next evening the rest is gone, all but the stump, which is fat and smooth, the color of sand, except in front, above the hole where the snake lives, where the wood is dark, rotting.

I free Gail from her car seat. "Let me show you something," I tell her. We can count the rings. I can show her something of nature.

But she has other ideas. She places one foot on the stump, arms spread, and climbs up, as if on a stage. She steadies herself, then jumps and twirls. She swings her arms and twirls again. I expect that she'll lose her balance but she doesn't. "Don't worry, Daddy," she says. "I'm not going to fall."

About the author:

Dana Cann lives in Bethesda, Maryland, with his wife and their two children. His fiction has appeared in The Baltimore Review and his book reviews have appeared in Writer's Carousel.