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Cynthia Black

Dragon Tree

          I can feel her. I don’t have to see her, or anything. I could just close my eyes, and feel where I really came from—at her feet, underneath her easel and paints, listening to the floorboards creak at her rocking weight.
          I think that was too far back—that things change. That I can see those changes; take notice when the pattern fights to stay intact. I grew out of her legs, a small daughter curled up behind her; she kicked me out, and now I am driving this Explorer, a profit of my father’s loss, her precious toy, a bastard exclamation mark on my childhood, the reminder of who I am. I watch the sun shimmy down the front of the Explorer as we drive into the hills of the prairie, me and my mother. She says she’s got something to show me, to turn here and there into the pasture, to stop at the top of that hill. I keep watching the change bounce out of the ashtray, a constant reminder of how bad I want to smoke. She pressures me to get there, drive it like this, go faster, faster, faster, now stop. I sweat in the air conditioning. I can’t wait to feel real air.
          I get out fast, go to the back to hide my smoking from like she didn’t already know about it. It’s just something else she hates about me. I pull out a cigarette and light it. She comes around, frowns, glares at my lips then flips her hand in the air, waving me off. I squeeze my right eye as smoke hits it hard. I’m used to the disappointment. I’m used to watching her walk away fast from me. When she kicked me out of her legs, I felt devastated, but I got used to it. Used to her leaving me anywhere and everywhere, used to being alone when she should have been there. But none of that matters as I smash the butt up against her precious vehicle and place the butt in my pocket. None of it matters because I have to follow, got to know what she’s doing, where she’s going—never could stand the thought of missing something.
          She stretches at the edge of the hill then disappears down its side. I bounce off the back bumper of the Explorer, bang at the back window, letting that Explorer know that I always knew its secret, where it went in the middle of the night after my father fell asleep.
          She’s half-way down the hill just as I start down. Twenty seven years older, but she’s still got to be ten times stronger than me. She strides everywhere like she belongs, always one with her surroundings. And, I, I’m about falling. I feel the strain on my shins, the ache in my feet at the arch. She has hiking shoes on, and I have sandals and feel the heat of the sandy soil while pokey sticks jut into my feet. She looks up, opens her arms to let in the sky and makes a final jump into the valley.
          She’s triumphant, secure at the foot of the hill. I can see it in her. Youth sprang forth, here, just another place Dad can’t touch her at, and I see it. I see her spinning like a child, and I feel me with my father’s clumsy grasp on Turkey Foot grasses, loose sticks and rocks stumbling down the hill. I want to yell at her to wait. I don’t, though, because I know she won’t, she never could. She used to say I was her treasure, hidden away from the real world, deep in her cave. I thought that meant I was special, like nobody else. Treasured jewels to keep and love.
          I know better as I watch her leave me struggling once again. I grab the hot soil exposed between tufts of drying grass. I stop and grab that soil and clench it in both hands until my forearms shake, and I see her ignoring me and gazing in front of this lone tree at the bottom of these four hills hovering above her.
          I slip and stumble to just one of my legs, scraping the side of my calf. I’m out of my crying breath, trying to hold back my tears, so she can’t see my weakness for her. She must be watching me out of the corner of her eye because she’s waiting for me, a big woman, though small next to this tree surrounded by the only green in these four hills during this mid-July drought. Some of the branches hang so low, they rub the tips of the tall-grass seeding silk drops. I let go of the soil because my hands sting. I tell my face to relax—I am hating her, again.
          She stands still, her head, bent down and steady over her right shoulder, her right hand grasps at something invisible. I slow down. I know she will always be just that far away from me, just-so out of reach—me on the floor, stripped from the heat of her legs. This comfortable steadiness in her makes me want to control her. Tie her down. Keep her right there until I catch up. Just wait for me until I catch up, I say to myself, like every time before, Just wait, and I will catch up.
          I make it to the bottom, and she moves like water to the far side of the tree. It’s cooler in this valley of four trees. The wind owns no direction down here, something else does. I smell the moist dirt and grass and a little of decaying leaves. I touch the cool dirt wet to form in my palm. I watch her, see her painting again, and I feel heavy, tired and underneath her as she pains this glistening tree with the light dancing on its top, dancing with silver and green shaking leaves.
          My mom watches me, too. I know she does. She’s always got one eye on the canvas, the other on us kids. Me, more than my two sisters and solitary brother, she tries to look into. I hate it when she does that. It doesn’t feel like love, like her warm legs, when she does that. It feels like she doesn’t know me, or sees my father in me and doesn’t want to know me. Her stare, it searches, doesn’t love. There’s a difference.
          The wind stops for a second. I give her one second of attitude, roll my eyes and clamp my face down tight, shut her out, protecting myself from her. Then, I feel my short hair fling up and my ears hurt with the howl coming from the insides of the tree. The dust of the four hills swings around clockwise and drops when the winds stops. She studies me, paints the tree, and I seek out the four hills for comfort. I wander, looking for comfort in the grasses beyond the reach of the tree. She changes, for a moment, stops the painting and looks after me as I pull my hair, wipe my eyes; she tries to search the hills like me. I can tell. But when I look back at her, she shakes herself out of it, stops searching and returns to her tree.
          I see more than she thinks I do.
          She motions me to join her. I obey her motions because I think she’s going to wait for me. I try to get to her through the shortest route, but fallen limbs snap and pull with my weight from the grass grown over their edges. She laughs at my struggle, her nose long in front of small green eyes, and she points the other direction. I hit the blockade hard enough to cut into my hand, and a welt grows as I walk around to meet her. I’m just mad as hell. I feel five again, thrown on the floor, pain in my body from cold and something sharp.
          I whine a little, reaching for comfort, “Mom, my hand.”
          She forcibly grabs my hand and impatiently places one of her cool, long palms on mine and the softness smoothes me down, sets me back to the comfort of cool sheets and a mother taking my temperature because she wants to, fears for me, has to, to ease her worry. For a moment, I feel small and cupped again, surrounded by her. I close my eyes and listen to the wind rearrange the leaves around the twisted trunk, around our feet.
          I ask, “Why am I here, Mom?”
          “For her.” Mom nods at the tree. Wind-slapped brown curls loosen from her forehead. I see, for the first time, her freckles streamlining down her shoulders. I do not understand why I couldn’t see them before.
          “For who?” I don’t get it. I don’t get anything she says unless I’m in trouble.
          She lets my hand go. She motions with both arms outstretched; the skin hangs from them, heavy with years of stressed weight. Her body seems to float above the ground, and like two magnets, we get as close as we possibly can until nature jerks one of us to the side.
          She steps ahead of me. “The dragon in this tree.”
          I watch her smooth the outline of the tree, and I feel me fall away. I can see a length that might be a tail through her motion, but I can’t see a dragon in the tree.
          She says, “You have to think of it differently. She’s not just the tree. She’s what’s around her as well.”
          I feel panic shoot up my chest. I know she knows I can’t understand. Frantically I look at the four hills, but they ignore me; their tops blend into blaring sun and dark shade.
          “There’s something here, honey. This tree is all alone here. She’s trapped by these hills, and yet she thrives here. What do you see?”
          I exhale. It’s easier if I act like I don’t care, like I am reluctantly playing the game.
          I do a fake roll of my eyes and murmur,  “A tree, Mom.”
          She growls at me a bit in frustration and grabs her short hair besides each temple. “Ugh. No. Look everywhere. The grass. The sky. The logs. The birds. Everything and everywhere.”
          “It’s a tree, Mom.”
          I don’t get it. It’s a stupid tree surrounded by stupid hills in this stupid field pock-marked by stupid little towns and farms with stupid people. She knows I don’t get it just like she knows she makes me feel stupid, clumsy against her graceful brushes.
          “No. No. No, child.” She turns from me and slowly walks around the tree, looking up, so far up and away from me. I am just something down there, a dot, a speckle, something too far in reality for her to care. I want to be up there, with her, in the silver and green, seeing and believing and knowing.
          I feel anger boil up in me, and I can see me as my dad right before he blows, and I know what he feels better than any tree, any wind, any wonder or magic because I know what it’s like being left behind, unable to show the love felt so deeply, rooted solid, broken through stone, through soil, a part of existence and not on the outside of it.
           “I’m NOT a child anymore, Mom.”
          She turns to me and throws her long index finger just a centimeter from the tip of my nose, her fist shakes and her finger bends inward with the tension of a thousand beatings. “YOU are my child, and YOU will always be my child. Do you understand me?”
          I answer as nothing,  “Yes, Mother.”
           Eyes down, I don’t see anything anymore but the scratches and bug welts on my tanned dark arms, and how soft and light her arms are next to mine.
          But, her face is so close to mine I can smell her Skin So Soft. I remember the first time she tipped the oily bottle, smoothing with artistic swipes the clear liquid on her arms. I came excited from the swimming pool, following my brother and two sisters tip-toeing through the park near the pool. We danced through pokey sticks and gnats like mostly-naked fairies popping their feet up and down, dashing between the tall walnut trees, barefoot and laughing, and she brought watermelon and fried chicken in a basket for us, just for us. I kept asking her why she came, why she came, why there’s a picnic, what’s the big surprise. I kept on her as she spread the oil on her skin. I asked question after question while my siblings stuffed their faces, I knew something was up. I asked why and how come until she took my food away, jerked me up off the blanket and threw me out of the small circle around the basket. I slumped back to the pool, alone and hungry, the Skin So Soft oil scent in my nose and her fingernail scrapes on my arms.
          She says that stuff keeps the pests away, but every time I use it, gnats and mosquitoes come and commit suicide on my arms. I feel like vomiting from the smell of that stuff mixed with heat coming at me in another gust of wind.
          She lifts my chin to the tree, centering me back here and now. “Now. Look at everything.”
          I wipe the oil residue off my chin and I do as she says. I see this tree in front of us, but I don’t see this dragon. Her arms flail, her long fingers grasp the air like they are her brushes and this tree is her canvas. She’s creating something big, and I’m missing it.
          She says, “See? There’s the left wing.” She moves her hand like a dancer’s. “And . . . there’s the right. And . . . in the middle, well, there’s her belly full and alive. See how she breathes?”
          “Where?” I ask her. “Where’s the wings?”
          Mom smiles content, humming a tune, something else I never understood. Her dragon tree sways with the twisting breeze.
          Impatient, I ask, “Where’s the belly? Where, Mom, where?”
           She laughs and moves me to face the mid-afternoon sun.
          She whispers in my ear from behind me, “Look through the leaves and be still. She will come to you.”
          “I don’t get it.”
          “Here. You know what a dragon looks like, right?” She asks.
          “Close your eyes. See the dragon.” I feel her hands drop from my shoulders. “Then open them and she will come to you.”
          But, she doesn’t. Of course she doesn’t, and I no longer feel my mother. I know she has left me, again.
          I remember the first time she left me in the wilderness. I was only five, and my mother took me to one of those places in the Missouri bluffs with caves. We were on one of her adventures where she swore “Indians once lived.” She left me on a hill near a fox den. She told me to “Dig and find your treasure,” and “I bet you will find something they left behind.” So I dug and dug and dug, and during my dig, she walked away. I didn’t find anything but nature in vengeance, second degree sunburns and a summer fever to follow. I screamed for her at that foxhole, just like that time we went on a walk in town and I wasn’t fast enough for her, so she left me at the edge of the park screaming for her. I screamed so many times, for so many reasons, for so long and so loud that eventually I found not the grace of my mother, but the power of my father’s voice. A place where grace and beauty die; a place they fall into shackles and wilt away into nothing.
          And yet, here I am, again, trying, caught up in the possibility that I won’t be ugly no more. That I will be loved, cared for, held, unfeared. In a new place of grace, of magic, of understanding. Mesmerized this time by some fake dragon I cannot see. The lesson I never learn, always chasing her, trying to catch up, trying to find this imaginary place where she and I make sense. Many times looking at some rock formation, some tree, some bush or flower or tuft of grass, trying to find in them what should be a part of me. Always, always screaming.
          I open my eyes, and I see what I felt, what I knew. She is gone.
            I tell the tree, “Aw-hell.”
          I listen for her sound. I sit, grab my hair, trying to be like her. Imagining that by acting like her something magical will happen. It doesn’t. Nothing happens but wind and the laughing tree. I find my dad in me, instead.
          My voice, like my father’s, can hurt. But out here, the four hills a trap, my father’s voice just bounces off the water-ripped edges of soil exposing worn-out whippy grass roots. It doesn’t even come back to me. My father’s voice fails out here. It fails nowhere, but it is failing here.
          “This is why she takes me to these places,” I tell the tree branches slapping my shoulders. “THIS IS WHY!”
          I let a minute pass. The wind increases as the time passes, and my blood shoots up tighter and stronger into my head with it. I grow bigger; I feel my hands widen like my father’s and I pull them tight in and reach for him down deep inside.
          I lay back and bark for her at the clouds. His strength blasts through me, rumbles from the chest—from the heart.
           I grab deeper inside, feel the pain of sound and hate mushrooming up through my head. My transformation almost complete—a giant, dark, large, overpowering. I throw my father’s voice down one of the many paths she could have taken, every last power conjured up, distinct and absolute like the dirt, like sand, like the mold on the leaves, like earth itself.    
          “M O M!”
          Only a small swallow talking to another swallow returns my request, unafraid of me, weaving the air above me. Mom’s dragon tree shakes her leaves, rumbles in wind. The helicopter seeds thump the ground at my feet, small sticks and leaves sting my sunburned cheeks and arms.
          I come down and return to me, small, weak. I confess to Mom’s tree, hoping for an answer, “She’s laughing at me.”
          I tell her, quietly, weakly,  “I can see the vibrations bouncing in estranged rhythms, rounded around their boundaries as the wind resets their tunes, but I can’t see my mother’s dragon. I can’t see you. Why? I know you ruffle at me. You’re stirring from her cave to join me, right?”
          I sit up and skooch to her trunk. I cup my hands around my mouth and softly, in my girl voice, lean in and tell to her, “You have to wake up. I can’t see you too well. I can’t see you at all. You have to come out.”
          And she doesn’t. Of course she doesn’t come out to see me. I can’t see her when I should. It should be in me, should be a part of me, should be the very spirit of my eyes. But, all that comes from me is my father’s voice. I see him when I’m suppose to see whatever it is my mother sees. I can’t see this dragon because every time I try to see this stuff, I feel like my father.
           I just want it all to be simple like he does. I just want to walk the line, know where each step goes and what each end looks like. So, of course there’s no dragon for me. Instead, she does things to make me go away like aching and groaning, complaining I’m there and spitting objects of herself at me.
          She must be old to talk to me that way. Many years and centuries past her life.
          I stand and walk back to the hill we came down. I walk around the obstacles instead of through them this time. A swarm of gnats comes my way. I duck and swat at them, some enter my mouth and one stings my right eye. I flop down to my knees and cup my eye as the water comes.
          I think I might be able to see what I’m supposed to see with just one eye, so I try to search for my mother’s dragon again. The tree blurs, the leaves starburst, I think I see her ruffling her scales. The sting goes away and water rushes over both eyes, and I lose her while I grow again in frustration.
          I whisper to myself the words of my mother to stop growing, to hold back my father for just this once, “She is in the leaves, and flowers, and grass and everything around her.”
           I open my eyes again, and everything mixes. I remember what this is. This is my mother’s painting room below my old room, bright and blurry shining up through the heat vent. As a very young girl, maybe three, maybe four, I waited with skin so hot I shook with cold on the floor, my cheeks on the vent, looking down on her. She said she’d be back, and as my father came in and out for days on end, haphazardly trying to rock me or cool me down with a bath, she stayed away. But I could hear her, and barely see her through the grate painting, on a stool, “working on her artsy-stuff,” my dad said.
           “Please, come out?” I beg the dragon like I begged my mother through the grate, “Please come up, Mommy. Please don’t leave me, Mommy. Please come out so I can see you?”
          I see nothing but a tree darkening with the approaching evening, and this dragon hides from me like my mother did when she was forced to take me shopping because my dad had to work, and for once, she needed to watch me because he couldn’t. She told me and showed me about these secret places in between the racks of the stores. Excitement would rise in me, a world to which only me and her could share. Her on the outside, me on the inside. Each time, a new adventure began, and she talked to me while she flipped through the racks of pants and shirts. But, it never took long before I couldn’t hear her any longer, and some lady would tell me to get out of there. I would leave, first searching for my mother in the store, then, I wandered out into the mass of people collecting and moving like two rivers. Hours later, she would pick me up at the security office, not saying a word, but angry, disrupted, disappointed. And my legs would run behind her to keep up, run hard to keep her in sight as she barreled through the rivers, trying to become just one of them unhinged and locked to me.
          The leaves flitter in the dying sun like that river. I search through them like she told me to, like I did in the stores she left me in and like when I dug for the Indian treasures for her. My eyes cloud, the wind rises up and barrels down in between the hills taking the lower branches of the tree into flight. I run back further to try take in the sight.
          She is taking flight. I can feel it. It feels like it does when my mother is about to leave, energy and panic, blowing through just before a storm. I stumble up the steep hill, checking behind me to make sure the flight is still in progress, but as I reached the point I needed to see the whole tree, the wind fell to nothing. My eyes strain against the last sharp beams of sun dancing on top of the tree. I fail to see what my mother calls, “her scales glimmering.” I see only the sun’s reflection.
          I call out, this last time, not down a path to my mother, but to her dragon tree. I imagine my father’s voice cracking out, and I reach into the deepest part of me, stretching and scratching my throat like the Gods bowling.
          I listen to the echo break through the glen, past the hills, across the cornfields, bouncing off the edges of rocks and down the caves of fox and pretend Indians. The tree shivers with it, slicing through the belly. A swallow or two take flight, the dead leaves rustle a little bit, a snake perhaps, a mouse more likely.
          And I, I turn my back on her.
          The sun fingers out above the dragon tree, moving upward against the hill we came down, and I follow the light stretching to the other side of life. My legs stick on the hill. The others fade away into shadows. The fields speak to me, quietly at first, then yelling in their fathers’ voices, the story of earth.
          As a shadow slowly appears from the tree, I’m tired, and I need to sit, but I know she’s still out there somewhere. Waiting for me to see her. She’s waiting for me to find her. The thought of venturing out there, between the hills, beyond what I understand, terrifies me. So I stay put, halfway on this hill overlooking the tree. The wind stops. I feel into the ground. My eyes never leave that tree, and I sit down to watch.
          I have to coax the dragon out. That’s what I have to do. I take from my pocket my sweaty pack of smokes. I smooth out the last cigarette and light it. I am far enough away that I can blow the smoke all around the outer edges of the tree. I blow it around the tree. I think I see her rustle, maybe a cough puffs out through my smoke. I blow another stream of smoke, smother the cigarette to nothing and I hear my mother complain, my heart slices with the words, “Just like your father.”
           I start a small fire, a candle on a long stem of Turkey Foot. The ashes slink into my other palm; the flame speeds up and pops the feathered seeds to nothing.
          The ashes I let fall into my hand smell like something I actually do understand. Something real, something I can touch and truly see like my earth, my sun, my wind, and the tree as tree. I rub the ashes together and smear them on my cheeks. I slide down the hill into the tall grass just outside of the dragon. I pull the grass up to get to the earth. I gather the sandy dirt and bring it to my senses, and I think of my mother there, next to me.
          I imagine my mother there, and I decide not to look for my mother’s way—this land of dragons and Indians, foxes and caves. Instead, I think about how I would play in the dirt of the garden until my fingers were sore. The real dirt in my hair, dirt in my clothes, under my nails and my mother scolding me all the way up to the bathtub filled with too hot water asking me, “Why? WHY? Why must you be this way?” while she scrubbed soap into my hair, my face, my eyes.
          I rub the moist dirt into my shoulders and face, the cool earth sooths the burn. I gather grass and dirt and breathe it into me to refill what I have let go, what is missing. I stand up and walk into the valley holding the lone tree separate from all of the rest of the world. I hold my hand out to the Dragon Tree—my offering to her, this dirt, this dirty girl. I know I can’t see her, that I probably never will see her, but it doesn’t mean she’s not real. It doesn’t mean I can’t be real. The dragon tree quakes as the last of the light turns to navy blue. Her leaves blacken with the dark.
          I close my eyes, again, and I do as my mother says and force my mind to see a dragon. I bring in everything I understand—the dirt, the cold, the pain, the loss, the fear—and I mix it with my mother. I hold my father and mix in my mother. Dark is what comes of the thought. Dark, like obsidian stone, because she lives in both worlds. She stands alone below the reaches of the hills, away from the droves of simple people. She exists for those like my mother and for those of us that repel like magnets.
           I push my hand forward, almost leaning, falling over. I try to get the hand to the edge of where I think her mouth could be. I shut my eyes harder to rid an image of my father carrying me up the stairs to bed. I shake the image away and see my mother humming that inaudible tune while her hands press down on a bag of frosting, forcing out delicate petals and waves, sacrificing time for patience. And lead that thought into another of her with her paints, rocking with her canvas, shutting out us screaming kids, banging pots, my father’s voice—she’s taking wind into brush and dances with magic, and I at her feet watch her again and again, through grates, through racks of clothes, through hunger and lonliness.
           I wiggle my fingers to show the Dragon my offering more clearly. My real earth for her vision.
          She answers me, quietly. I open my eyes, the dirt turns to blowing dust in my palm, and out from underneath the dragon tree my mother comes back to me. She waves at me, excited to see me. I blink, and the Dragon walks by her side.