Brief creative nonfiction in a literary style. Childhood whimsy to grown up coping.
The poison ivy my mom tells me to stay out of just wrapped around my ankles. I didn’t mean to get in it. I’m just trying to follow the bigger kids through the scrubs of trees. Trying to scramble my way out of the rock-strewn, pine-needled, scrub-grassed mess collectively called “the woods.” Next thing I know I step beside a tree trying to pick my way through and the vines are around my ankles, holding me back by a foot.
We negotiate, the poison ivy and I. “Let me go,” I command.
“Only if I can keep your shoe,” it counters, pulling tighter at my sneaker as I try to jerk
the foot free from the bramble.
“No!” I insist. I claw at the vines with my fingernails, pulling them free.
“Fine,” the vines say and I scamper away, jumping from one uneven rock to another
heading for the now distant voices of my cousins.
Faintly now from way behind, I hear the vine complete its curse: “But I’ll take your leg. I’ll take your arm. Even your sight won’t be safe.”
By that night I’m scratching at the welts growing on my ankles, and when that feels so good, I scratch my knees, my thighs. Next thing I know my nose itches. As I lay down for sleep I rub my face against the stiff white cotton of the sheets.
Next morning when I wake my eyelids feel so heavy. I wait, like always, to hear the sounds around me and to lazily drift toward wake. I start to scratch my ear.
In the bathroom mirror I see my face. It’s decorated for a Christmas that’s not for another six months. The poison ivy has swelled a red wake across my eyelids; my face is puffed up like risen dough. Scabs are forming, and clear liquid weeps from the sores.
Red welts run across my thighs as if I got the beating with the switch my mom always promised.
Cousins are out in the kitchen, heating up their hot rice in the microwave and each telling how stupid the other is. Cabinet doors slam, heavy boots thud. They are making plans to ride the horses, sneak away to a forbidden neighbor’s house and to find a ride to the basketball game at the high school.
I am at war with itch. My mother’s not here, my aunt described on the best of days as absentee, but I can hear their voices in my head. “Don’t scratch,” they say. “You’ll only make it worse.”
I pretend it’s a game of will power. I can do 53 sit-ups in a minute and 24 chin-ups if I put my hands backwards and I can not scratch for 38 seconds, three minutes, now five. Instead I set the shower temperature to easy-bake-oven and sear my flesh into submission. It works until I have to get dressed and even pulling on the Tuesday underwear packed in my weekend bag wakes the crawling lizards in my skin.
I run outside to play, and as I get distracted from the good fight, the ivy starts winning. I claw at my face, my ears, while I’m talking to my cousin. I climb the gate to get to the barn and halfway over I am absent mindedly tearing into the flesh around my ankles. When I lift my hand to the sunlight, blood is underneath my nails.
I climb into my uncle’s pickup truck so that he can take me home. My mother pours copious amounts of calamine over my heated flesh. I drown soft white cotton balls into the pinkish slime and drag them over welt after welt. The cotton sticks to the softened scabs until I resemble a worn Chenille spread.
My mom will consult for the 49th time with the nurse over the phone and I will be given a Benadryl. Mom counts the moments until the medicine knocks me out.
I lay on the vinyl couch rubbing my neck with my shoulder and hearing the TV news get fainter and fainter, like she’s reporting on a natural disaster from a far off shore. I succumb to sleep.
In a few days, I will be fine, but for now I have to rest and avoid other people. Rest and avoid life. I become a bit feral and must spend time alone because I’m contagious and look scary to those unharmed.
If I venture out I can feel their stares. “Your face!” “Your hands!” Such dramatic uprising of their eyebrows will make me question my humanness.
I lift my arm and splay my hand into two separate fingers, like my brother taught me: “I come in peace,” I profess to the women in the checkout line at the grocery store while my mom digs through her purse.
I’m not sure they believe me. One studies the can of peas as if the label prophesizes the coming of the Lord; the other peruses the National Enquirer. I can hear her faintly murmur, “Poor dear,” but I don’t know if she’s talking about me or about the Miss America lady crying on the cover of the magazine.
So later in life I am somewhat prepared for depression. While scampering through the traffic trying to get my boys to school on time, my oldest son changes the radio from my favorite program. My youngest tells me for the tenth time that morning how much he hates school. Next thing I know, I am thinking about work due, goals past due and all the projects I meant to do with the boys.
I look down and I can see it wrapped around my ankles. Dark green, almost black, it twists and turns about my bones. “Give me back my foot.” I tell it. But even as I say the words, I know how it’s going to end.
I try not to scratch it. Think happy thoughts--listen for the ocean in my head for 3 minutes, then five. But eventually I get distracted.
I think of the things that should have been done last week, last month, last life. I grieve for the dying white frost on the fields and the black birds hawking from the stunted trees lining the road. I wonder how much they suffer in the cold.
Sometimes, I feel every atom in my body and the weight seems too much to bear.
I always win, but it’s never free. I can hear its voice behind me: “Okay, but it’s going to cost you.”
My mother’s medicine chest is empty; the Benadryl’s long gone. I am left to barter alone.
I do come in peace, but sometimes, it’s also in pieces.