Leaving the Trees
by Sarah Scott
Runestone, volume 2
“We try to see in the dark. We toss up our questions and they catch in the trees.”
– Annie Dillard
Her Lipstick Lingers
A split tree leans at a fork in a path, and I stretch out my hand to touch the joint where the two halves converge and separate; I feel the wind as it carries the scent of the tree back to me; my eyes follow water drizzle down the knife-impaled flesh—its bark cast off into the wind-whipped grass below. I catch runoff raindrops in my palms and see them slide off my fingertips just as they slide off leaves and limbs. Just like she slipped, a breath at a time, from my grasp.
With a tree, everything leaves. The water rolls off and down the trunk, sops the ground, and soaks into roots. Blossoms are consumed by fruit. Leaves leave too, diving off branches and flip-flopping their way to foliage floor. Acorns and pinecones separate and free-fall, kamikaze style. Branches break away; nests dissolve; wrens fly to warmer weather. A perpetual sense of loss in the Spanish moss scaling up the bark. I saw it with her too, watched her fierceness wither to frailty. For five years she guarded me, taught me reading and what hugs felt like and that love was action not idea. Even as moss climbs the tree and overtakes the bark a few centimeters at a time, it is unhinged, scattering seeds like dandelion dust, making new homes wherever the winds or birds drop the festoons. Perhaps, I too am a tree.
It is silent: only my feet create sound. I am alone—Aunt Clara is gone; like the Spanish moss seeds, whipped in the wind, washed away by the rain—unguided, creeping through trees and lurking around pathway corners, playing hide and seek with raindrops dripping from clouds above.
Ahead on the trail an injured leaf dances on a stem, surrounded by green. This green is the color of grass, avocados, depression glass, and shutters that used to hang on either side of the picture window. Green, the color of the fern in front of that expansive window where we sat and gazed at bright summer sunsets, reading Heidie and Down on the Funny Farm with Aunt Clara’s gray-white curls bouncing with every word. The shutters and fern are gone too. Along with her gingham-red-checked tablecloth and the twelve-inch black and white dial TV set; gone like the navy blue davenport that folded down in the sitting room where I used to sleep before I moved into her house that used to be a garage at 4207 Wood Street Saginaw, Michigan; gone like the green onions springing up through compost piles in the center of an old rubber tire behind the house. Gone like the house itself—bulldozed by Saginaw Township a year ago today—because after she left, my daddy tried to patch up the holes in the roof and steady the creaking floors and replace the broken furnace with its copper wiring still in place, but the township called daddy’s repair work shoddy and cut it down anyway.
A red leaf—the red tricycle I used to ride down the black tar street—surrounded on every side by all that green. The red mole on her face that the doctor scraped and sent off to pathology. The red gelatin on her tray the very last time I visited. How she loved strawberry jam, strawberry gelatin, and Brach’s caramels with pink, strawberry centers. That day, the red gelatin sat on the tray, untouched. I knew she’d leave me soon.
Leaving, the way rain rushes off trees as the sky drops buckets of water on my head. Leaving, like Spanish moss that flurries through air and drops onto earth floor in front of my feet. And caught in its grey fibers, a bright red leaf. I pluck it out and press it between pages of my yellow legal pad, rubbing its surface like a flat river rock. Red as the lipstick she wore only once—at her funeral.
This Monster Owns My Mother’s Eyes
A black, shriveled leaf shivers in the wind. My eyes study it: the leaf is frail, overpowered by fresh leaves outshining its ugliness with their beautiful baby green buds. They dance in the sun’s warmth and the dark leaf curls tighter into its shrinking self. Trying to disappear, the same way I tried all those years to make myself invisible because invisibility kept me safe, kept me out of her glaring red-green eyes, beyond the reach of her branches-straining-in-the-black-of-night grasp. The leaf struggles with the breeze stretching its dried out shell, threatening to disintegrate in the whipping wind, fighting for flight because falling would break all the bones in its brittle body. I understand this too, falling the way I did, with her fists chasing after my child-sized frame just inches in front of where each landed on either side of my head, unable to make contact, blurred by the haze of alcohol and whatever drug she managed to drum up. Ones she got on the streets that have no names and no lights and only the faces of ghosts and skeletons in the dark.
In all that blackness light spills over, peering through holes in the little black leaf. I see light. I hear laughter—the same laughter that shakes the black leaf and sends it swishing in the spring breeze. The leaf chuckles as it reaches the forest floor and settles in for a nap. Of what does it dream? Sunlight warms its shoulders just as my daddy kissed my cheeks. It is the laughter of sisters in sun, playing hide-and-seek in weeping willows, climbing sycamores, and rolling down hills until our clothes are green as the grass beneath our feet as we race back to the top to do it all over again. It is my daddy’s laughter—the one who tickles too long and throws us on his shoulders and tells funny made up bed time stories about all his favorite military friends. And it is the laughter of little girls who know too much sadness far too young, who know also that when laughter fades and night comes, the mommy and daddy fade too, and the green leaves will hang their heavy heads and the sky will sigh. Brown bottles tore away my dreams long before love came along.
In a place beyond sight, the faint sound of life in the winds—a whisper—and the flutter of something falling—free—I think of her caved in by addiction. I think of her pain and how she hurt me. She fell a thousand times. She may never learn to fly. A brown leaf twists though the air, its downward spiral graceful and clear. And I think of me. Of what I understand now but couldn’t then. I am too frail to fall like a leaf. The bones in my wings soft enough to shatter. She shattered me with her words and the wounds she left on my wings. Why does freedom feel like falling?
Around a bend up ahead, plodding shoes, a cough and sputter, the cracking of twigs under someone else’s weight. Is she still haunting my memories? Do her eyes stick on a target affixed to my frame? Does she hurl words at my down-slanted face? I look up, almost expecting to see her in the stretching shadows of trees in front of me. I look up, but she isn’t here. It is only the wind. I know I am free most of the time. I know that I am not her replica, not the continuation of her line of trees straining in shaded woods to gulp up the sun. And she could never be the me who birthed rays of joy and life and love.
A girl with her hair in braids, backpack slung over one shoulder, denim shorts, white top, headphones that silence the unanswered calls of birds in the trees. Even though she isn’t here, I am not alone. On the wind I hear voices, none of them my own.
His Soul is a Graveyard
In the thicket, a barn roof sags under thousands of pine needles. A makeshift window is cut in the side. My feet find a path of fallen needles leading to the front door—the door stands open like an invitation: all may enter here. Two trees cut down knee-high, tops lopped-off smooth form a might-be gate along the pine-needle bedding. A rusted out, unidentifiable axle with a missing wheel blocks the path. I step over it carefully. Rust like that is poison. One prick infects the entire system. I peer through the doorway, staring into darkness. A squirrel chides behind me and I jump. My pulse in my thumbs. The throbbing is incessant, like the nagging monologue that keeps telling me to invite my husband home. I can’t. I ignore the lies reverberating in my mind. I try to unsee his eyes, to convince myself he’s gone.
This barn, tattooed with initials of people I will never know, littered with broken-down boxes, empty Marlboro cartons flattened, old papers, cracked and crushed Dixie cups, and an abandoned box of 150 clear Christmas lights. Do they illuminate the dark? He hated hanging Christmas lights and putting up trees. For ten years I decorate alone. My first year without him, I make salt-dough ornaments and popcorn strands with my kids to string on each tree. I have three—one kid for each tree.
Like this barn, the house is in shambles after he leaves, a shadow on the wall of a want-to-be-erased memory. I heap boxes, and memories and bags of his things into a dark corner of the one-window, empty basement where he used to be. In those first days, I wait for him to come calling the way a girl waits for a date. I want to hold on as long as I can. Can’t I keep alive this one fragmented limb? At night, I dream that he might wake up and become who he ought to be. As days slide by, the embers that wish to cling to a shattered marriage smolder and die. I know it’s fantasy, and he will never call me home. When he slipped away, he slithered into darkness.
I race through needles stabbing at my shoes, seeking a familiar, safe clearing. Limbs on the ground vine and snag around my ankles as I go. I fall and my backpack tugs at my shoulders, straining my neck. I struggle it back in place and plod slower, careful to step over roots pushing up through patches of three-leaf clover.
A red and white ribbon, tied round a pine, sun-bleached and waving. The white wedding dress. Me and my daddy walking an aisle of grass. Japanese maples. Friends and family filled the chairs. The sun in my hair. My daddy in a suit. Swans on the marshy water. Him up ahead with his father, all grins. Those black, shiny shoes with brand new laces. The smiling and nodding and all the embraces. And how each joyous moment his reality erases. The venom of his words wilting each leaf, his rage a disease consuming each tree.
A clearing of tar-black-burnt trees, fresh with fire’s flames, still smelling of smoke. Someone was here and their presence still lingers; the trees all bear their wounds and smolder. How long before new growth closes this circle, and life rises through charred limbs? New leaves strain to touch sky as fledgling birds just flung from their nests. I imagine that together we fly, but darker ambitions crowd his eyes.
He singed me too. His words dug deep in the bark of my tree. Each scar I made pockets away words he burned in me. These are the scars that I can’t erase: slippery white lies whispered with fixed eyes, scraping away at my bark, his voice in my ears and the expression of his face as each wound hit its target. A hundred wounds wrapped in three tiny scars on the softest part of my flesh. I try to reach out, to pull him into my space, but with each effort the burns sink deeper. He will never know the places he branded on my memory. The blackened trees captivate me with their battered branches and broken limbs. Each one reassuring me that I am not alone. Because of him, I cannot look away, no matter how much each truth stings. He laughed away my pain. I downed thirty pills while he slept. I counted each one and drowned them with wine, the last of his coveted Merlot box. I slid into the couch and faded with one final thought: my stupidity for drinking the wine and his fury come morning.
The burnt trees tell me their stories; I tried to tell him mine. They remind me of smiles in denial and faces turned away. My head swims in the morning, blinded by the lights of day. Words tumble from my mouth unfiltered. Someone is concerned. The room spins. There are voices amid the blur of siren sounds. He is at work and I am sitting in a paper gown inside three walls with a white sheet for a door. The woman in the corner of this three-walled room asks to see my scars, her face so much kinder than his. She apologizes for the pain that made me make these scars. Something in her eyes shows she is a friend. At home, I greet him with a smile, dinner on the table, and two kids fast asleep.
These trees are passed over by dozens of faces that never see their hurts. These trees make me stop and question and stare. Their scars bring me comfort; in the center of their blackness I find one green shoot. These are the moments that remind me life comes after the wounds.
My Daddy is a Butterfly
A leaf, half-red-half-green begs for my contemplation. I pull it close, study its bifurcation and where red spills over veins of the leaf. Splotches of red carried through green, the way I carry shards of my daddy with me: words he said, things he did, how he guided me. My daddy is a leaf dangling in a tree, stretching down for me to see places where veins show through his skin, weathered hands, scarred face, his voice growing thin. Wars uprooted him from our tree, left me without protection, sent him overseas. He always came back for me.
The leaf, half-green-half-red, is filled with holes from tip to stem. What made the holes? I picture me, but I see them. I hear the shouting and smell the booze. I know the damage they caused, too. Broken bottles and scratched up faces, wounded pride and powdered traces of drugs from the night before. My daddy bled for the U.S. Army; my mother was his most arduous war.
Metallic trails of dragonfly wings linger in air. I follow the flight of their paths. A bee buzzes. The drone in my ears like the hum of their house after a war. For years I watched his spirit recede to a place I couldn’t reach. Each day, his love and laughter grew further from me. I was a flower planted in his palm, he the sunlight that helped me grow. The sun becomes slivers on the path ahead. His soul turned cold. A cloudless sulfur butterfly alights on a frond in a patch of fern. Before I can turn to look it shutters and is gone.
Dismantling Childhood Dreams
On the ground in front of my aqua blue Converse shoes, scattered patches and clumps of three-leaf clover weave and bob with the wind. I used to think I was lucky marrying you. Your eyes were the color of sky and your hair stood tall as blades of grass covering the space beyond the fence. But like the clover, you die in winter and spring doesn’t bring you back.
You buried your heart in dark amber bottles, buried your head in laps and breasts of women who never said I do. I once loved you like I love the trees that tower feet above my head. The tree tops tuft out with yellow blooms that fall at my feet. I pick them up from the floor and cradle them in my hands like three newborn babies. I remember your smile and the clearness in your eyes. I feel the warmth of your arm around my shoulders. Your lip trembles as you stretch out a finger to hold a tiny, wrinkled, red day-old hand.
Your softness never lingers. Unruly as a spring sky, your eyes cloud over with threatening rain, face cold, hand withdrawn. Compelled by an addiction I can’t understand. You skulk away in search of something to satiate your thirst. And each time you do, they question their worth. I should’ve known storm clouds loomed on the horizon, but I was in love and love blinded.
I follow the sun around a bend and pick my way over stacked fallen limbs. My feet are unsteady. The sun scurries across the forest floor, too happy to measure its steps. I nearly stumble over a root pushing up through the dirt. You tripped them up too. For days they wandered with blank faces and unfocused eyes. Then, a month of tears opened to a question-filled sky. Does he love us? Why doesn’t he call? Will he come back? Is it our fault? When you slipped into blackness, you broke them too, but your children love in a way I can never love you.
Petals of yellow flowers fall from my hand. They catch in the wind which carries them to places I can’t see. Do you know your children watch and wait for you just as I watch them? I see resentment in their faces and hurt in their eyes. I answer their questions, hold them as they cry. I hate you for those days, just as I hate the green garbage can in the midst of the trees, how it interrupts the scenery and disturbs the peace. Our children are swept away from you like the flowers that fall and get snatched by the breeze.
Trees Hold Only Questions
A tree stands, insides scooped out; I can see all the way through. Bright green fern shoots dance on the opposite side of the window tree. The sprigs are beautiful in the way they leap and lean on the breath of the wind. A set of papers in a box. I am a hollowed out tree, yearning for newness as a forest longs for spring.
Something chisels away the face of this tree, one bark layer at a time. It stands face to the sun, winds, rain. I chisel away his face and memories of him, locking them—one at a time—in closets, erasing them, replacing them with the patter of feet on the lawn, dances in rain with my children all of our arms spinning out at our sides, swinging at the park on cool fall days, and movies cuddled on couches that stretch the lengths of our family of four. Like erasable traces on the path in front of me, we exchange red throat, bulging blue vein voices and bodies pinned to walls, feet dangling off the floor, for rainbow-shaded pictures in coloring books and little Clara’s fashion shows in the living room. We sing in the car at the top of our lungs. Every “shut up” drowned from our memories until he is just a faceless tree. Like ferns dancing to the rhythms of wind, we sprout up green.
A grey-brown bird scurries across pine-needle covered ground, searching for food; he meets a friend and they rush off as a pair. My feet are mere feet from them, and I tread slow and quiet over the terrain, rounding the bend and stepping over logs, past the limbs of bushes. They seem wild with desire to overrun the path. Another fowl joins the scurrying birds and they continue their bouncy little journey through the preserve. Like a dream I can almost reach out and grasp in my palms, they rush ahead with me following. These birds are my tribe. I chase things I cannot see. I want to reach out and catch a bird in my hand, to stroke its feathers, to whisper all my secrets in the space where its ears should be. Will the bird look away or look me in the eye? I shake my head. The birds lift from the ground, flutter off, their bodies mix with clouds until they become sky.
I follow yellow footprints, flowers flattened by adventures of other feet. I look to the sky, searching for golden trumpets. Just this side of cornflower blue—growing on the fingertips of limbs, swaying in the white of the sun. So close to heaven and so far to fall. But I’m not afraid of flying anymore.
I dance through trails of sunlight scattered around a bend to doorways I’ve never been. The yellow flowers below my feet refuse withering—all resilience and beauty. Unyielding and oblivious to earth pushing up below it, the bark-covered pathway all resistance and apathy. I know I must leave. I toss questions to the breeze and wait as the wind carries them to the trees.
University of North Carolina Wilmington
Sarah Scott is a senior at the University of North Carolina Wilmington where she studies creative writing with an emphasis on creative non-fiction. She plans to pursue an MFA after completing her undergraduate degree.