(originally published in Crannog, Issue 44, Spring 2017)
Tara stares up into shifting patches of sky visible through the spires and arches of the solitary oak tree on her family’s land, the only source of shade on the entire 75 acres, apart from the porch with peeling yellow paint that wraps around half the house. Today, like many August days in southwestern Oklahoma, being outside requires shade. Tara’s clothes and hair are damp from the short walk across the mowed lawn, through the untended stretch of native grasses. By then, the sun has already scorched her fair skin.
The oak tree sprawls. Its roots dive in all directions into the dry soil, loyal scavengers of scarce water. Its bark is wrinkled and tough and its seams are full of stories. In it she finds the face of her grandmother. The two of them — her grandmother and this tree — bore witness to the plow coming over the last of the surrounding prairie. Saw the farm grow and then shrink, fail and then be reborn. Tara’s grandfather had planted the corn, and then the cotton.
The oak’s gnarled branches are raised toward the sky, praising and swaying like her mother’s church friends. Some bow heavily down to the ground, resting briefly in the grass, before turning back up at the last minute to meet the scorching light.
Since she was a child, Tara has a recurring dream in which she is lying on her back under this tree and she floats and sways upwards, like a leaf falling in reverse. In the dream she weaves through the branches and around the trunk for hours. In it she is at peace.
She cranes her neck back further, directing the droplets of sweat from the nape of her neck into a small creek trickling down the center of her back. The branches sway and turn lazily above her in the thick heat. Their leaves sag and curl at the edges like the bottoms of the dirty, worn-out curtains that still hang in her childhood bedroom across the lawn. The air shifts in waves of heat above her and she sees that small patches of mistletoe have begun to make their way from the tips of the western branches toward the trunk. Not for the first time, she’s unimpressed but not surprised that Oklahoma named mistletoe, a parasitic plant, as its state flower. And now this parasite is suffocating her beloved tree. Its roots are snaking into the branches, diverting the hard-earned nutrients and precious water running up and down the tree’s veins into itself instead. She despises the hunger of parasites and their relentless appetite for life.
The breeze has become heavy with humidity. Tara wonders if there will be a storm. She hears the creak of the screen door across the lawn and looks up to see her mother stepping out onto the porch.
“Tara!” she hollers in the wrong direction, toward the old horse tank along the barn. Every summer, it’s filled with hose water and turned into a swimming pool. Tara waits to respond, content to watch her mother for a moment longer. She is a large and happy woman who wears loud, tacky aprons, even when she’s not cooking. They cinch pleasantly around her ample waist and often match her earrings. Tara is too far away to see the current one clearly, but she knows it well. It has a red and white checkered background and features a cat drinking from a bottle of wine and the words, “Ya’ll ready fur a purrrfect evenin?”
Her mom at last looks toward the tree. “Tara! Phone for you!”
Tara walks back to the porch where her mother hands her a glass of cold lemonade and says, eyes fixed hard on the barn, “It’s Sam.”
“OK.” Tara puts on a smile and walks across the kitchen to the phone awaiting her on top of a stack of phonebooks and old magazines. Her mother walks to the sink and stands there, still and listening, gazing out the kitchen window, pretending to watch the birds play on the rusted swing set. Tara walks around the corner and into the living room. “Hey, Sam. Wasn’t expecting to hear —”
“I’m coming to fetch you tonight.” She can hear the alcohol in his voice. Thick words that tumble through the receiver. Hell, she thinks, I can practically smell your breath.
“What? I only got here yesterday. We agreed I’d stay a week.”
“I know what we agreed. Plans change. I’m coming tonight.”
“What happ —”
“Shut up, goddammit. I’ll be there around eight. Be ready.”
She walks back into the kitchen to hang up the receiver and hears a faint Bitch curl out from the other end. It hangs in the air between her and her mother.
“Now what was that all about?” Her mother asks, not turning from the sink. Tara is glad to not have to look at her. She takes a long draw of lemonade.
“Sam’s coming to pick me up tonight. I guess something’s come up.”
Her mother still doesn’t turn. “You only just got here. We’ve hardly even seen you —”
“I know it, Mama.” Tara walks over and places her hands on her mother’s shoulders. They are soft and warm and she wants to bury her face in them but she doesn’t. In the reflection of the window Tara sees her mother’s face. It is pained and it strikes Tara that such a lovely round face was not meant to wear such harsh expressions. She hasn’t seen her look haggard since her father’s cancer. Tara gives each shoulder a squeeze.
“That man, Tara…we can help. You can stay with us a spell — I know your daddy’s not here, but Jim loves you like you were his own. You know he does. We’d look after you. For as long as you need.”
“I’m doing fine, Mama.”
Her mother only shakes her head and wipes a tear from her cheek. After several moments, she takes a deep breath and says, “Well, then! What would you like for supper? I can make your favorite — got everything for it. That’ll be alright, Tara, won’t it?”
Tara nods. “Yes, that’ll be fine. Jim’s joining I hope?”
“Wouldn’t miss it. He’s out on the tractor, but he’ll be in.”
Tara walks back to the tree, breathing hard. The mistletoe seems to have crawled even further in the last few minutes, but she must be imagining it. The wind is picking up and she can see a haze in the distance. “Storm’s coming,” she says.
After dinner, the clouds have turned black and the air thick. The world shifts in anticipation of the approaching storm. Tara rocks in the chair on the porch as the first fat drops of rain hit the steps. It won’t be long now. Like nothing else she’s encountered on this earth — not like church, not like God Himself — thunderstorms have the power to transform.
One second all is still, and the next rain plummets from the sky raging like a fire, scorching the grass, bending every blade under its torrent. Whipping and lashing everything it touches. The sky quakes and the ground holds on for dear life. All the latent smells of the earth rise. Only scent could move upwards in such weather, when everything is being flattened. Soil and leaves and grass and the flowers from her mother’s garden and the hot asphalt of the sidewalk and the tar of the roof. Smells that rise up like souls. If they were colors, they’d meld into something beautiful out there, the wind driving them together and then pulling them back apart, splattering and brushing them over the yard.
Thunderstorms knock the whole world out of control, turn it into something chaotic and unrecognizable. For the duration of their brief lives, storms dwarf the chaos of Tara’s own and she feels free. The rain comes in sideways now and crashes against her arms and face. She stands and walks out into the yard. She’s soaked in seconds and can barely keep her eyes open for the relentless stampede of water coming down upon her.
She makes her way back to the tree that is no longer a tree but a creature now, alive and wailing. It creaks and shakes, gnashes its teeth and pummels its fists. Its violence terrifies and thrills her. Lightning flashes, searing the shadows of branches into her eyes. Then the thunder, the curtain of the temple tearing in two, the earth splitting. The Gospel writers must have spent time in the Midwest.
Another rumble in the distance, but not thunder this time. Tires on gravel. She sees the headlights of Sam’s truck, blurred through curtains of rain. He parks but does not get out. Only honks the horn. Honks it again.
She could stay with the tree. She could climb it and open her face to the sky in a silent scream, calling on the rain to drown her. Or simply lie down along a branch and allow the bark to grow around her, let the Mistletoe crawl over her and feed on her blood and bones.
But she knows she’ll go to the truck. She’ll get in and she’ll be angry, or she won’t want to start a fight, or she’ll ask to please stay. Yes, she’ll ask to stay. That’ll be alright. If she asks nicely, he might say yes.
Let me stay a little longer. Let me stay just until the storm passes.
But even from this distance, he’s so hungry he’s eaten up all her words.