by Beverly Forehand
“Country people have country ways, and don’t you ever forget it,” my Grandmother used to tell me. I wasn’t always sure what that meant. As a child, I was sure that it meant something embarrassing, perhaps having to do with hand-made clothes or lunches brought from home instead of purchased in the yellow and green school cafeteria.
We used to take long walks on my Grandmother’s land. Constitutionals, she called them. We’d walk along the creek and past the old barn that lost its top floor in a Big Wind and was never replaced. We walked through the hay fields with her knocking the tall grass out of the way with her hickory cane. Finally, we’d walk up to the Woods to see The Lady.
The Lady wasn’t a person, nor was she precisely a thing. She was a tree. An ancient tree. As a child, she was wider around than my arms could reach and my Grandmother said she’s been just as big when she was a child. The Lady was a beech, smooth-barked with high limbs and leaves the shape of a person’s eyes half-closed. She stood deep within my Grandmother’s property line, past my Grandfather’s tree stands, past the rusted remains of an old still, past anything that looked kin to man.
When you were in the heart of the Woods, you could have been anywhere or any time. The only sounds you could hear were the sounds of the trees and the winds and the animals that passed. Sometimes it was so still you could hear your own breathing as shy and whispery in your ear as a frightened hare.
I can remember standing beneath The Lady, her highest branches far out of reach of my eight-year old eyes and almost forgetting to breathe. We’d always bring her something — shiny stones, a ring of hair tied with a ribbon, a robin’s nest found along the way — just something. It seemed disrespectful to visit empty-handed. You never drop by someone’s house uncalled without a little something — or so I’d always been taught. You made a welcome for yourself so that next time they’d be glad to open the door even if they didn’t look too welcoming this time.
As time went on, I visited The Lady, and, indeed, my Grandmother less and less. It seemed like I always had something important to do. Lots of things are important to a high-school girl and later a woman in college. There were friends to meet, shoes to buy, and boys, always boys. Sometimes though, when the wind moved across my face just right, I’d think of The Lady for no reason.
I wondered how the Woods looked just then with sunlight or rain or moonlight streaming through the trees. I’d think about how quiet they could get and the way the air tasted like lightning and smoke all at once. I’d think about the low hum the trees could make and the crackle of leaves under my feet, and for a moment or two I’d feel empty and lost.
Then the light would change or the phone would ring and I would forget. Blissfully ignorant and distracted I would go on with all those meaningless and everyday things that can fill up an entire life if you don’t pay close attention. I’d do the laundry, watch tv, read a book, and I’d forget.
Until I slept, until I dreamed. Sometimes, I’d wake up with a sense of something gone that was so severe that I’d check my arms and legs just to make sure that nothing had fallen off in the night. But, by morning, with a clear light shining through my dorm window and my roommate eating cereal straight out of the box, I’d forget.
It was almost Halloween — the time of the year when the air is as crisp as fallen leaves and you can smell something unplaceable almost like cinnamon with every breath.
Thanksgiving break falls hard on you that time of year and then Christmas and before you know it the year has gone and you’re up to your neck in another semester of exams and theses and roommates with problems.
Every Halloween, we had a big bonfire party to celebrate the almost-end of the semester. Some farmer would be begged or bribed into lending a field still sharp with hay-stubble and it would be ringed out for the autumn fire.
It took nearly two days to build the teepee-like structure that would be the heart of the fire. We’d usually drop by and watch the progress, sometimes lending a hand between classes. The air that time of year still has a hint of moisture in it during the day, but at night, even here in the South, it has a bite.
On Bonfire Night, I threw on a jacket and me and my roommate, sans boyfriend this time, since she and he had a screaming match right outside my door the night before, drove down to the hay field and waited with everyone else for the lighting of the fire.
It was an event. The fire, sometimes reluctant, blazed up on almost the first lighting. The crack of a big fire starting is something to hear-a mixture between a Fourth of July rocket and an old Chevy backfiring. Then, there are the crackles and pops of the fire coming to its own. I’ve always liked to watch fire, whether it was a candle or a spectacle like this, but somehow standing there with a group of cheering and half-drunk sophomores and seniors seemed empty.
I roamed away from the scene barely feeling my roommate’s half-hearted tug on my jacket sleeve towards a little clump of woods nearby. Not a forest — just a little round of trees that someone had left for looks or for lack of initiative. The trees were mostly pine with a few birches and maples thrown in. Brown needles and leaves crunched under my feet. It had been a hot dry year and the leaves had fallen early.
I took off my jacket and tied it around my waist. The air was cool on my arms after the fire, but I didn’t care. I leaned my head against one of the bigger pines and was surprised to feel tears on my neck. I put both hands flat on the tree-trunk and wept in earnest. Big flat sobs, nothing that a soap-opera heroine would have ever owned, but tears from the heart.
After a while, it started to rain. I could hear the hoots and screams of those at the bonfire. And, I could imagine their scramble to keep the fire going. The rain was low and gentle. Just sprinkles. As silent and as unobtrusive as a wind through your hair or a pat on the back.
The moon was rising above the trees, pushing through the clouds and I noticed it was almost full. The rain cast a ring around it and in its shadow I could see a tree. It stood apart from the others, even in this small space, and it seemed to have strength to it missing from all the others.
In the moonlight with the smoke of the bonfire drifting and the rain padding gently, it looked like my tree, my Lady, standing alone in this unforgiving place. I walked toward it, shielding my eyes to look past the rain. It was dead. It was hollow. I could see where lightening had struck it and the tree had rotted away a space big enough for a man.
I put my hands on the tree — not the wisest course during a rainstorm — and I wept again. But, this time, I cried not only for myself, but for the tree. I cried for what I was and for what I wasn’t. I cried for everything that could have been, and might have been, and might yet be. Eventually, I walked out of the woods. I don’t remember it very well, but I ended up in my dorm room under flannel sheets with blue stars.
On Thanksgiving break I went home. I practically ran up my Grandmother’s porch and flung open the screen door. “Tea Cakes in the oven,” was the only acknowledgement she gave me. I walked into the kitchen and found her at the white enamel sink pulling dough off her fingers.
“I guess you’ll be taking a walk,” she asked. I nodded. “Been a while,” she said, “Cookies should be out when you get back and cool enough to eat.”
I put my backpack down on the floor and headed out the back door. It was true autumn now and the air was cold. I pulled my jacket around me. We had already had the first snow of the season, and in the hollow, frost still clung to low weeds and crunched under my step. In tennis shoes, the climb through the Woods was hazardous. I slipped on wet leaves and slid on muddy slopes, but finally I made it to the clearing.
There she stood. The Lady. As serene and commanding as ever. I pulled the ring from my finger, sterling silver with a clanaugh heart and approached her base. Nothing looked wrong, but something felt off-balance. I dropped the ring and ran to her. She was dead. It was lightning. She stood intact, except for the burn mark running down her far side. But, I could see that there was no life in her.
I sat down in the dead leaves and covered my face with my hands. Then, I felt it. A small brush against my leg. It was a cat. A kitten, really, no bigger than my hand. I picked her up and looked around for others, but she was alone. Tiny, big-eyed, with white and silver fur, she brushed her tiny head against me with a strength beyond her size. I scooped her up and wrapped her in my jacket.
When I got back to the house, I could smell vanilla and molasses when I opened the door. A tray of cookies sat on the wood-burning stove. “Still hot,” my Grandmother said.
“Did you know?” I asked still panting a little from my run and clutching the cat in my jacket.
She nodded. “Yep,” she said, “happened a while back. Wasn’t nothing to be done for her.” She picked up a cookie and bit into it. I put the kitten down, and she began walking with high-steps around the living room finally hopping onto the couch and circling herself into a sleep. We watched her until she was still.
“I wish I could’ve done something,” I said, “I feel guilty.” But, I knew as soon as I said it that it wasn’t true. I felt better and more complete than I had in a long time.
Grandmother finished the cookie and took a drink of tea. “Some things happen, that’s all,” she said, “She had a good long run and I guess it suited her well enough.”
“I thought she’d always be there,” I said. Grandma nodded, “Seems that way, sometimes, but I guess she needed a change.”
I nodded and picked up a cookie.
“There weren’t any sprouts,” she continued. “I checked.”
“That’s odd,” I said.
Grandma just shrugged and looked at the cat. “None that I saw anyway,” she picked up another cookie, “It’s hard waiting for visitors sometimes. Might be nice to visit a bit yourself.”
The cat turned over in her sleep and made a tiny sound almost like the whistle of wind through leaves. I picked up a cookie and took a bite. The kitten slept on.
Copyright © 2006 by Beverly Forehand