by Marie A.
A woman returns to a sacred tree at three poignant turning points in her life
For Beth, a wonderful young lady entering gracefully into womanhood. Sometimes we can change the future by rewriting the details of our past.
Note: I'm sorry I cannot get my italics to work properly in this format
She sits here today in wonder, under her weeping willow, doing nothing, absolutely nothing; and there isn't a soul on earth that can uproot her from this spot or her meditation. She holds her hand over her heart and breathes in and out, deliberately, with purpose. She is elated and nervous and joyful and grieving, all at once, and she doesn’t care any more which is the correct way to feel; all she wants is to own this day, these feelings, and walk on out of the dark. She has fastened a prayer, beautifully written on paper, to the trunk of the tree just above her head. She forces herself to only be still. To not “do”, but to just “be” She cries, she laughs, she feels terror in the pit of her stomach. This tree, she thinks, has just about seen it all, hasn’t it? She truly owns her feelings, and gives herself permission to simply feel them. That’s all. There is infinite courage in the gesture. But the tree, she thinks, hears her prayer, and is responding. The wind rustles softly through its new leaves. It is April, and the green of neophyte leaves is just bursting through the buds. The world is awash in sunlight and dappled prayer. She prays for herself, for her dear old granddad, on whose farm this tree started its life; for her mother; for Henrietta; for Gary; and for Little Alma. She saves the last prayer, the most difficult, for herself; and offers herself the grace to finally accept it.
She misses Granddad keenly and with a keen sense that something irreplaceable has been taken from the world. She imagines holding his soul lightly in her hands as she retains her perfect stillness. It is a tiny thing both as fragile and as resilient as the body of the yellow warbler that has alighted above her. Her years of practice studying wildlife never served to diminish her fascination with it. She wonders at the journey this tiny creature has made, all the way from South America through peril; to be right here with her today on its northbound migration. It has faced habitat loss and predators and rough winds, and yet it weighs about as much as the stamped letters she forgot to find time to write. Twenty years worth of letters she never wrote. She is 36 now, and her granddad first brought her to this same tree 20 years ago, when it was but a sapling whose own future was uncertain. Salix babylonica- a 2-foot tall sapling capable of holding all the world’s grief lovingly in its graceful sweep if only it survived long enough.
She is not herself when she first comes to the tree; having suddenly become a silent, withdrawn, and brooding but lovely child. The world hungers after her budding womanhood like mutts after a bitch in heat. She comes looking for a special place to drown a woman’s sorrow.
She doesn’t understand the cloying male attentions she has been reciving, as she is a happy child of nature, at home in the fields and forests and streams. She fishes and swims and wathces birds, tracks animals and builds survival shelters in the Native style. She is an unusual girl. This summer day, she is wading up to her ankles in cold spring water to look for helgrammites for fishing. Her best friend Melissa is bored, and talks her into going skating. C’mon, let’s go, if we leave now, we’ll catch the bus. Melissa is more worldly about things than she is. Her boyfriend doesn’t want to go, claiming these Saturday night excursions are tacky and low-class. It is thus girls night out, Melissa doesn’t have a boyfriend. The two girls dress in the latest fashion- ripped jeans that are more rip than jean, tie dyed T-shirts, old sneakers. She has just started wearing a real bra, and it’s a big deal. She runs a lot, so she’s flat, and envious of Melissa’s curves. Melissa does her hair and make-up for her, as she has no idea where to begin with such things. She is an emotionally orphaned girl trying to make her own way blindly through adolescence.
The township runs a bus service through the little farming towns every Saturday night, to go roller-skating an hour away. The bus fare is $2, and the entrance fee is $5. It is popular with the head crowd. She and Melissa don’t quite fit in, but they don’t fit in with the jock crowd, either. They aren’t too worried about it. She is headstrong enough for three girls, taking the world by storm. Melissa follows her like a satellite, and in return, she takes refuge with Melissa’s family. She is spending the whole summer at her house, actually, while her mom works and entertains her lover. He doesn’t like kids, and Melissa’s mom does. It’s a perfect arrangement. The girl works three days a week, and the other four she spends with Melissa. They ride horses and walk for miles and play Truth or Dare with the neighborhood boys. They are learning to be independent, and are radiant in their developing womanhood.
It happens on that night, on the bus, coming home, with a crowd of 20-year olds as an audience. He outweighs her by 100 pounds, and is 24. He is one of the “cool” ones; he’s been flirting with her all night. She doesn’t fully understand at first what is happening, and then retreats in horror somewhere far away in her mind when she does. She says no but is pinned down, a grasping slimy tongue thrust into her mouth so insistently she gags. Words like “cock-tease” and “bitch” and “you owe me” scatter down into her consciousness occasionally. A vision of a red sweaty face, panting like a persistent dog, the dashing gentleman of the evening replaced by a feral creature. An unbuttoned blue flannel shirt. A hand on her throat. Otherwise, she is comatose. The jeans are removed and handed to a friend. The underwear are yanked off, torn. Another friend smells them, proclaims them “cuntilicious”. Her boyfriend has been pressuring her for sex, “we’ve been together six months now!”, and she knows thus exactly what Brandt is after. She thinks she’s almost ready with Danny, but doesn’t want this. This is wrong, and she is powerless to fight back. “You should have known better”, she tells herself. Brandt is high-fiving someone. “I love you”, he whispers when he's done, “I’ll always love you” He can see all is not right. “Hey c’mon, this should be fun. Why ain’t you moaning?” She dresses and curls into a ball. She thinks, if this is love, I don’t want it, ever. She wishes she could disappear into nothing.
The bus driver tells her he enjoyed the show. Melissa is angry, “Why do you always get the boys? You act like such a slut”. She tries to tell her friend, “but I didn’t ask for this!”, and is rebutted with, “Well why did you let him buy you that burger and kiss you?” She has no answer, she has lost her voice. The attention had felt nice, and she hadn’t seen the harm in cuddling. She is so stupid. She shuts her vitality down that night. This isn’t the first unwanted attention, merely the most persistent. She must stop attracting it. If a man thinks and says you’re beautiful, you owe him something. Six weeks later, she realizes she’s in more trouble than she thought. She vomits with morning sickness night and day. Her mom notices, takes her for tests that come back positive. With a backbone of steel, she requests information for the clinic. Her distracted mom assumes it is Danny’s, and she is furious with them both. Her only words on the matter are, “Don’t have sex again until you’re done with college” and, “Don’t tell anyone about this, ever”. So she only tries once. The doctor is gentle, the nurses kind. She sobs on the nurse’s shoulder; her mom is stiff like cardboard. She knows somehow it’s the best decision in a place where there is no right decision. She holds her emotions at bay as if her very life depends on it. Her boyfriend leaves her for cheating after she tells him, so she assumes her mother is right. Life goes on, she goes back to classes without missing more than a day. The cramps make her pass out in gym. She pretends it’s the stomach flu.
She is a survivalist at heart, and she goes to her granddad’s house that Friday after school, carrying her frame pack and 2 liters of water. He sees her barely checked tears but in his wisdom lets her retain her grief in silence. Boy trouble, he assumes. I need a place that’s mine, that’s special to me, she tells him. I think I have to talk with God. He walks with her down to the pond, where she caught newts and collected tadpoles as a little girl. Everyone deserves a special place, he tells her, quietly understanding her unspoken grief. I think women need them more sometimes than men do. He shows her his own refuge, a favorite tree, a stately red oak. When your grandma died, I hung her rosary in its branches. Before that, I buried my favorite dog there, and slept there the night your uncle left for the war. You might say Ol’ Jack’s been a constant friend to my heart, and certainly better for me than beer. Why don’t you find yourself a tree down here, and maybe see what she can do for you? It is all he has to offer, but it's what she needs.
So she selects the slender willow sapling because its fragile budding shape reminds her of something in herself. Her granddad helps her clear the brush from around it. She makes a spiral of stones in front of it to mark it, which takes some effort. She is pale from hemmorhaging, and weak from hunger. Her granddad leaves her to her work, telling her to spend the weekend here if she needs to. She wishes she could tell him what’s wrong, but cannot in her shame. She is afraid of what he will think of her. He calls her mom, who is concerned, and says to her, “No, Elsie, something tells me she needs this time to herself, let her be” She is thus left alone. It is fall, and it is cold. She has brought a sleeping bag, and granola bars. She rests on the ground, watching the stars twinkle overhead, reflected in the pond’s surface. Her breath makes mist in the air. The nurse had asked her, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and she felt like a fraud saying, “a wildlife biologist”. Girls who were stupid and made mistakes like her aren’t entitled to dreams, what is she thinking? Still she tries to imagine one. She wrestles with conflicting feelings of loss. She names her loss, “Henrietta”, after her grandmother, and cries softly, “I’m so sorry I wasn’t ready for you”. Her heart tries to break open and she shuts it closed with clenched teeth. She is still not ready; she might never be ready. She’d read something about Native women offering blood from their menses to the earth as an offering of power. She needs courage, so she digs a hole, lowers her pants, and squats over it. Warm blood gushes into the depression, metallic scented in the air, mixing with the smell of goldenrod and aster and apples. It is a wholesome, healing, earthy scent. A frog croaks in the background, and she eventually falls into a sleep with no nightmares. She awakens once to a pair of Luna moths, caught in the moonlight like wraiths, spiraling each other in an ethereal mating dance above her head. She thinks briefly that she doesn’t deserve to witness something so incredibly beautiful, and falls asleep again, more soundly.
She reads later from her field guide about the willow- Linnaeus mistook it for the willow from the Bible, and thus named it Salix babylonica. Its shade gave refuge to Alexander’s armies. The mistaken identity appeals to her, and she knows she made the right choice. She thanks it for the company this weekend. Sunday afternoon, she returns home, a little stronger, a little wiser. She shuts the door on this part of her life, and walks forward injured but resilient. For she has inherited the form of toughness that made Mid-Atlantic and New England farmers infamous.
She is 21, in her freshman year of college, when she feels the need to return to her tree. It has been 3 years since her last visit; she faithfully watched it grow through the rest of high school, but hadn’t been back since leaving for college It has seen a lot, that tree. It survived the worst winter the state had seen, complete with a storm of sparkling glaze ice ¾” thick. It had withstood a tremendous drought. The girl’s professors are talking about something called global climate change, and the devastating effects of ecosystem collapse that are being seen at an increasing rate all around the country. Her little tree, though, is now a twenty foot graceful young lady herself, and is thriving. Perhaps her granddad is tending it, and fertilizing it? It is two days before Christmas, and snow dusts her branches. Slender remnants of leaves hang like husks. The girl touches the tree’s bark, smoothing her hand along its bark, resting her hand as if feeling for a pulse. She finds the telltale signs of a deer mouse nest at its base, and smiles as she uncovers the little critter’s stash of sky blue jewelweed seeds, whose dye stains the stomach lining blue in autumn. She pulls a chickadee down feather from a lower branch and inspects its tiny down hairs. She caresses the snow speckled branches like a lover brushing lint off a shoulder.
She is home for Christmas, and spending the holiday between her mom’s and her granddad’s. She had been secretly engaged to be married, and her fiance had left her the week before. Since the engagement was secret, her apparent emotional devastation has no basis. The family thinks she is on drugs. She needs to be grounded again against the earth, to cry her pain in private. She has lost her house at school, and next week will move onto a farm, taking a room in exchange for animal care, in order to keep a roof over her head. She is working 30 hours a week to keep herself in school, and is taking 18 credits. She sleeps 3 hours a night most nights, and has little social life. She is tired to her soul, and the words of Kyle’s smug rejection letter are seething in her skull. She falls to her knees, rocking herself. She has no strength left, nothing to give, no quarter to stand on. She is uprooted from her own life, and wants just to be held and understood; but now her chore is to purge Kyle from her heart before she sits for dinner with the family. No one from the extended family can suspect anything is wrong. She doesn’t want to answer embarassing questions.
She’d met Kyle on a volunteer work project at school. He was an intense and superficially popular young man, very much a self-styled individual. A younger man, and the first she’d met who was openly spiritual. He liked her independence; she liked his self-sufficiency. They’d discussed their backgrounds on a weekend campout. Both of them struggling to pay for their own education, from poor families- a uniting factor at this school where almost no-one was here on scholarship. He was Christian, she’d been raised Lutheran but was at the moment agnostic. Their courtship was fierce. She was his second sexual experience. Initially, he hadn’t wanted to have a sexual relationship at all, then changed his mind. It wasn’t a big deal to him, it was important to her. Their lovemaking made her feel guilty, and kept her comfortable. She applied for a summer internship in Montana; he frowned. She withdrew her application. He was very conservative; she tended to be more liberal. He jokingly called her, “my little communist baby-killer” as an endearment. She was appalled, but didn’t say so, and certainly didn’t explain why it bothered her. He cared for her car, tended the mechanical things in their life. They moved in together to save money. Her family didn’t notice. She kept her grades up. Kyle was uncomfortable with her field of study, leaving Creationist propaganda for her to read. He spent more time with his religious friends. She in turn read more books. He provided some sense of financial security, even though he kept their money and left her an allowance.
There were debates about the value of a woman working outside the home. He felt it was better for the family if the woman stayed; she said she’d die of boredom. She thought they were going to break up. He proposed marriage to her instead, saying God told him to compromise. She accepted- as no one had ever wanted her before in a committed way. He told her about his brother who killed himself; she guessed it was because he was gay without being told the reason. His family had little tolerance for those who stray. They adopted an autistic child to replace the brother. The family wore their faith like shields. He pinned hand-lettered Bible quotes to their living room wall. She slowly learned they were fundamentalist, not progressive as he pretended. Still, she believed in the power of love, and in her own ability to compromise and sacrifice- she could survive anything. She gave up a lot to have a man to hold in bed at night. He called her a sinner, but told her that she was safe with him. She believed him because she wanted to. Four months into the relationship, the night of their engagement, she told him her secret. He held her close as she permitted a little grief to escape, saying, “It’s ok, it doesn’t matter, Jesus washes us clean of sin” He apologized for her background to their friends, “She’s ok considering that she comes from a broken home”, and continued with more earnest to call her his joke pet name. He admonished her when she had powerful emotions. “Love is gentle, love is kind”, he told her, the unspoken message being that she didn’t know how to love properly.
She almost had a panic attack when she discovered him lying in bed, reading a book to his sister’s little girls, his arms around them. It’s ok, he assured her, I’m just comforting them. Their laps were all under blankets. He spent more time with the neighbor’s older teenaged daughter, too. Caught in a reality tunnel, she almost believed him when he made flimsy excuses for finding numerous ways to spend time with other people’s children. He quit school, saying that wasn’t cut out for learning, and it was all stupid liberals anyway. He started bathing less frequently, and demanded to know the cost of her expensive shampoos and other small worldly luxuries of the flesh. He encouraged her to quit her courses, but she refused. Finally, five months later; last week, after she signed the lease renewing their stay at their apartment, she came home to find his note.
I can’t have a wife who can do what you have done. You are pretty enough, but you have an impure and tarnished soul. I will pray for your salvation but I cannot marry one such as you and maintain my standing with our acquaintances. I am sorry for any way this may have inconvenienced you. You will burn in Hell, but I have my salvation. I’m sorry it cannot be any other way.
Under the young willow, the girl tries and tries to burn his accusations out of her memory. She is numb; she focuses on dinner. She needs to be calm for dinner tonight. Her favorite cousin will be there with his fiance, and she wants her congratulations to be sincere. She wants the focus to be on him, not on herself. She wants to attract no attention, in fact. She slowly composes herself, willing her heart as calm as the frozen heart of the willow tree next to her. She controls her breathing, squeezes the tears out of her eyes. She takes a picture of Kyle out of the pocket of her jeans, and holds it to the light. She whispers at it at it, “You bastard! How would anyone even have known if you didn’t tell them, you goddamn hypocrite!” The tree stands vigil while she systematically shreds his picture, murmuring epithets and invective as she reduces it almost to dust with the scissors of her Swiss Army knife. She scrapes a hole into the frozen ground by the remnants of her stone spiral, and sprinkles the pieces into it. She douses them lightly with lighter fluid from her jacket, and lights them on fire. She taps into her righteous anger, and the wrath overtakes her in place of the grief and disillusionment. She imagines the tree forgives her. She wraps her arms around its trunk and laughs bitterly at her predicament. She is flat broke, homeless, and a year from her degree. The flames sooth her. She has spent the week grieving, and has failed two finals. She has sold her possessions to be home for Christmas. She has made everyone little gifts so she won’t stand out. She needs to retake a course she failed, for the first time, ever. Her family doesn’t know what she is enduring; she honestly thinks it isn’t worth troubling them over. For, she is alive, a warm vivacious body in this frozen world. She has miraculously escaped from the madness of a relationship so toxic it almost killed her, but she is free now. She is free! She kisses the trunk of the tree, and hangs Kyle’s wooden bead necklace in its branches, again thanking the tree for its purifying solace. She pauses just a few more minutes before she walks up the hill, towards the house, to face life and her family again.
Along the way, she tracks a fox to its den, smelling its musky scent from within the ground. It has dragged a rabbit back for its own dinner. She drops a caramel in the new snow for it. “Merry Christmas, Little One”. She has one more task before she celebrates Christmas with her family. At the house, she warms her hands over the woodstove. Her granddad knowingly asks her, “Did you go to see your tree again?” and she replies, “Oh yes I did, and she had a message for me. Can I please use your phone?” He waves her towards it, and leaves the room so she can make her call with privacy, a grace not offered in her mom’s house. He is getting very old, and his walk is no longer fluid. He is wearing a hearing aid, but his inner hearing has not been challenged at all, she thinks. It takes her three tries with directory assistance before she gets the right number. With every grain of courage she can muster, she calls the woman who would have been her sister-in-law, and asks to speak for a minute. “I’m sorry to be calling like this just before Christmas, but there’s something that cannot wait. It’s about Kyle. Please sit down, and listen to what I have to say. Don’t leave him alone with your girls, ever…” She finishes one agonizing phone call before starting the second, to her old neighbor, with the same message. The backlash will be vicious, her name will be slandered at school, her friends will turn their backs on her, and she may well never get another chance to marry. Oh well, so be it. If this is what it takes to be a woman, I guess I have to be ready.
She is back here this day in April, a graceful and charming young-looking woman with the eyes of an old soul. So much has happened, and she tries to sort it out. She cannot in this place recognize herself yet as the successful professional she has become, as part of her is still an awkward 16-year-old that cannot ever wash her hands clean enough. She has the distance now to forgive that child, and that is what she sets out to do first. She is giving herself permission, saying, “You are pissed off, and it is ok. Now, what else do you feel?” She owns unsavory emotions. She has sat for hours in stillness, and now she is contemplating her present. For she is carrying her lover’s child, a little girl, she just learned last week. Gary is a hard-working, intelligent atheist. He is very practical. They had lived together as compadres, avoiding the realm where love dwells but rather dealing in truths of convenience and bills. They had no common goals, no direction, no plan. They shared an interest in outdoor recreation and lived separate lives indoors. They cordially accepted invitations to each other’s houses for holidays for five years, and put on a good show. She was having trouble with birth control pill side effects as she got older, and was searching for the right combination with her doctor when she found out she was pregnant.
Gary didn’t want kids. Moreover, he didn’t want children of his ever populating the earth. He was furious to learn she planned to keep the baby. In a now or never moment, he told her “If you do this, I will never have anything to do with either of you again. You are both dead to me, do you understand?” She simply nodded, and walked away to start packing her belongings. They never touched again, not even a good-bye hug. Gary was adamant that his word always stand as the last and definitive one. He gave her no room for compromise. She moved two days later into the upstairs room of the home belonging to an old colleague. She placed her grandmother’s quilt on the bed, and fresh flowers in the windows. She got the puppy she always wanted; a soulful little Irish Setter full of boundless energy. She planned her next move while again battling morning sickness.
Three months later, her granddad died peacefully in his sleep. He was 84, still living in the farmhouse, with neighbors and relatives tending him. The family was going to put him in a nursing home, but he beat them to his fianl restign place. They buried him last week. The woman took a treasured pair of his cufflinks to his oak tree, and buried them lovingly in soil at its base. As was her way, she didn’t feel her grief until later. She was also just starting to show her pregnancy, and the family didn’t know yet. She still had many secrets. Her mom knew she and Gary had separated, but not the circumstances. There was an unspoken rule about discussing feelings. It held up the family stoicism. Her granddad had been an eccentric and wonderful exception. She decided she would honor him on her own terms by honoring her own heart, today, and every day from here on.
The reading of the will was yesterday. The family was shocked to learn he had left the house and forty acres, including the pond, to her. She was blessed by the providence. She’d have to transfer divisions for work, but she would welcome having a place to call home, perhaps for the first time ever. He’d left her a personal letter, which she had brought here to read today. Her head is spinning as she alternates between meditation and planning. She understands on some level she has come home, but she is still an emotional orphan. She needs to learn to trust her family. Her anxiety is replaced by thoughts of her unborn daughter, Little Alma. She will raise her alone if need be. Perhaps a cousin’s daughter can move in with her and help her with the baby. She has written a prayer and fastened it to the willow’s trunk. The willow is now a stately 30-foot tree. Its roots are strong and deep. It has seen many winters, many seasons, many winds. It lost one of its branches, but is still strong. Its graceful arches provide a sanctuary under its rippling leaves. The woman feels her spirit be embraced here. She is watched by a yellow warbler. She says a prayer for the people she lost, and for the ones she still has, and for the ones yet to come. She reads her granddad’s letter, and does not try to hold back the tears this time. She is gentle with herself, forgiving. I’m leaving you the house and 40 acres because you never had a blasted place to call home your entire life except for that pond and tree. It’s not much, but I know you’ll do something meaningful with it. You always did make the absolute best out of the nothing you were given. I’m proud of you. Plant flowers, make the place joyous for your grandma and your mom and children. You are stronger than you know. I will always love you best. You are the wild orchid in a field of marigolds.
She cries until there is nothing left and she is an empty husk. She leans back against the tree, refilling herself with her prayers for her loved ones. She aches for Gary’s touch, and feels his legacy kicking in her stomach. She accepts her loneliness full on. She finally ends her grieving for Henrietta. Distance and experience with her wild animals ahs taught her that humans have it wrong; Nature values the female more than the male or child or unborn. Spontaneous abortion occurs when a female’s body doesn’t have the resources to complete the pregnancy. Mothers abandon their litters when times are lean. It is not out of cruelty or laziness- they are preserving their resources so they can raise their young healthy and hale in times of strength. She finally forgives herself for her choice made 20 years ago. She gave up a fetus so she could deliver herself, and through it, her life’s work, and now her unborn daughter.
She imagines her granddad’s soul in the body of the yellow warbler, and tells it everything. She accepts his imagined words of grace and wisdom into her own soul and her conscience, and sets him up to offer his advice for the rest of her life. She offers a prayer for her mom, whose own relationships with men have served as a bitter lesson in emotional inadequacy. Finally, she pictures Little Alma, with her combination of Gary’s aquiline features and her own deep eyes. She laughs finally as she gets to her feet, and dances under the willow tree, a tribal dance; the dance of a soul lifting itself out of grief. Her dog and mom and a few relatives are at the house, and she has something to tell them alright! Guess what? I’m pregnant and Gary left me and I’m going to raise his baby alone, in this house, and I’ll need your help because I’m so scared right now. They would be shocked, she was always the one with the answers. The combination would floor them, but it doesn’t matter any more what anyone else thinks. She gets up to share her news, and catches movement out of the corner of her eye. A bobcat is drinking from the pond, its muscles flexing under its skin. So Alma’s totem will be Bobcat, she thinks to herself. She knows her daughter will be strong and that they’ll make their way. She thinks about what she can do with the farm. She plans for what she will need. She walks forward to accept her bounty, and live in it, fully present, as a woman who finally has something to say after twenty years of silence.
She dreams that night of walking her 14-year old daughter down to her willow in the moonlight. She wants to hold her hand, but the girl runs ahead, delighting in the world. A barred owl asks “Who cooks for you?” repeatedly. It is a hot summer’s night. The woman catches her breath at the beauty of the moon shining on the water. She calls her daughter first to an oak tree in the field, Come here, I want you to meet my granddad. A figure steps out from behind the tree, and embraces her in light. Alma can only see the light, and she is puzzled. She explains that guardian animals protect our souls, but guardian trees give our hearts a place to take refuge from the storm. She leads the girl now to her sacred willow, saying, I have a story you’ll want to hear, and this is the only place I feel comfortable telling it. The tree is now old, and grandiose in its maturity and spread. It holds her grief, eternally weeping, so she doesn’t have to. Fireflies dance in its branches. She starts by telling her daughter a story about the tree’s life. Salix babylonica, the tree of mistaken identity. Once there was also a girl who believed she had no right to her own identity, but she was wrong, and, believe it or not, a tree helped her find her way.