The Self-Same Tree

March 19, 2017

As a young woman she’d had knobby cheeks and different-sized nostrils, not to mention stringy hair, but old age had stretched her face till it was lean and dignified. Her clear eyes, which had looked cynical before, now left the onlooker with a deep impression of calm and lucidity, and her hair had grown long and silvery.  Also, what they dressed her in-- long flowy shirts with yellow and pink and blue patterns like Easter pastels-- suited her. Sitting on the porch of the old folks’ home sunning her eyelids, she looked like an honored matriarch, her years a crown nested into that fine long hair.
Strange visitors leaned over her, the corners of their mouths wavering between sad smiles and abstract frowns. When they said she looked beautiful and asked if she remembered them, a vague worrying tickle ran through her, as if she’d forgotten to buy someone a Christmas gift or neglected to learn a song for choir. It made her uneasy, so she liked to look out past the visitors onto the pasture, at the black-and-white cattle clomping through a creek or lying under spindly trees, and think.
I walked these fields before any of them, back when they was planted with taters and then buckwheat in the winter. And some of this was woods, ‘pon my honor; I remember the wild strawberries. They was like jewels, wasn’t they, shining in the sun, all red veins and green seeds.
Before you was borned, young lady-- oh, visitors, I see you’ve gone inside out of the sun, don’t you know you ought not to leave old folks alone? They might cause mischief.
Anyhow, back them days, young lady, I knowed every semblance of a hill on this land, every briar, and I knowed how deep it’d prick you and what shade of red you’d bleed. You may not believe it, young lady-- where’ve you gone to? You say every day that you’re here to take care of me, but seems to me I’m here to take care of these fields because I’m the only one they still know.
They remember, for example, the two little girls that used to run all up and down them, cackling and cutting a shine. One wore her hair plaited and the other liked to curl hers on a pencil. One wore a dress embroidered with Dutch patterns, and the other would sneak around the woods in Brother’s overalls because she claimed a dress didn’t keep away the thistle barbs. One asked the other to bring some of her ma’s grape juice, and I said, “How come that? I never liked grape juice no-way,” because it tasted good going down but then felt like tiny strong men walking on my tongue, scraping at rocky soil with pickaxes.
Yet I brought some, didn’t I, and back when all this was woods-- seems to me a long time ago, but I allow no one’s kept a precise count and I don’t fault them a jot-- back when it was woods, we’d gone out to pick chestnuts, but the other little girl wanted to drink it right away.
“I’ll wrastle ye, and the winner gets her way,” she said. That girl was stronger than me, real stout legs and a voice louder than a mule’s bray, but just when she’d pushed me down into the ferns and the teaberry plants and her thumbs was pressing into my shoulders, I called out, “Mr. Heatter lost his peter! And after his loss, he talks right cross!”
No more than that and she got tickled, thinking of Mr. Heatter and him no peter; her arms went weak and she had to lay on the ground laughing. “I win,” I said, and so first we picked the chestnuts like good little girls. We took the jars of juice and buried them in a heap of dead pine needles the color of a storybook fox, so they would stay cool and not spoil. The juice was done a year old; that’s how come I knowed Ma wouldn’t miss it. She taught me to sing, Ma did.
I always was too much of a scaredy-cat to climb a tree in such tight woods, all them rotted lightning-struck pines leaning over and fixing to fall on it, but that friend of mine, she wasn’t no scaredy-cat. All the ripe nuts was done on the ground but she couldn’t stand not to climb it; she said if she sat around one more minute and didn’t climb it she’d die a coward’s lonesome death. Straddling a limb she threw the not-ripe nuts down at my head. I forget if she knowed how much they hurt, and how that was wasting food besides.
I told her about the grape juice’s pickax men, but she said that time tamed them. I took a sip and she had a whole pint, didn’t she, and her eyes got bigger. And I kept saying it was cold, but she felt right warm, right warm. Lord, we had a time, throwing pebbles at each other and digging out the starch hearts of the chestnuts. They tasted like a berry made of bread.
I wonder where she’s got off to, that friend of mine. Over in the field there stands the self-same tree, ain’t it, and any minute now she’ll come to climb it, and we’ve got to take chestnuts home and then to market, and the hulls of the ones we eat ourselves will be for the hogs. She’ll come any minute and I haven’t brought anything, nothing to eat or drink. How disappointed she’ll be, and how thirsty! Just you think of that, young lady with your sad smile, and don’t you grow selfish and thoughtless like me.
The thought distressed the old woman, and she groaned. “Didn’t think to bring water, even,” she said, and the aide, misunderstanding, went inside to fetch her some.
Oh yes, I always was too much of a scaredy-cat to climb a tree in such tight woods, but look what’s happened now-- there stands one tree, is it a chestnut? I allow it is! See that one strange curved branch, the one that looks nearly plaited? That’s the same branch you sat on, little girl, friend of mine, and said, “See, I’m the queen of France and Burma and Tennessee!” and waved the hem of your dress like a flag.
Now you’re hiding somewhere, ain’t you, waiting to see if I’ll climb it. I’m sorry I ain’t brought nothing for us; I’ve come with empty hands, but all the better to get ahold of the tree. Bark ain’t too rough, but Lord, it don’t give in a bit, does it? Look at my clammy hands-- I must be a scaredy-cat yet.
Then she felt the ground all around her as if a stout somebody had finally beaten her at wrestling before she could think of a joke, and that somebody had also taken the air out of the world, and the voice of the aide was shouting for somebody or at somebody, and later she could gather that several long and brittle things were broken in three or four places, and finally she could hear Ma hollering, “I always knowed you took my grape juice” and there was a grin in her voice.

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