Wisteria, part 5

Wisteria long arbor

Wisteria arbor. Jason BakerCC BY

Here’s my last installment of a tale told by a wisteria vine.

“Setting is everything,” said the facilitators at the writing workshop I attended last summer. “Setting drives the plot, the actions of characters . . . .”

That’s certainly true of this story.

All my life I’ve been haunted by an old house in the woods beside my Dad’s childhood home. I looked for it every time I visited my grandmother and we walked down the narrow dirt road. She’d point it out through the trees (she knew where to look; I had trouble finding it):

“There it is, the Griffin house.” 

I’ve seen many old, abandoned houses since, in various stages of falling down, but the Griffin house, obscured by thick woods, was the first. The allure, the spooky wonder I felt as a child, was immediate and intense.

It’s never left me.

None of the people who lived in this house were my relatives. They’re in my blood only because of the place and the stories, real and imagined. My aunt, as a child, used to run on a path between her house and the Griffins’ to play with the Griffin grandchildren. Eventually, said my aunt, the wildflowers and weeds grew taller and taller, and then . . . well, everyone and everything grew up.

The Mixon road began across from the right front of my grandparents’ yard. Standing in the Griffin yard, to the left of my grandparents home, the Mixon road would have been visible to the far right, branching off of the main dirt road. By the time I came along the Mixon road consisted of only two wheel tracks in the grass, a path leading partway through the woods and fading away where fields were still being farmed. There’s no trace of the road at all now; scrubby brush has overtaken it. No one would know a road, or a house, was ever there. Grandma said that the Mixon home down this vanished road was beautiful. It was two stories with a double porch, dating back to the Civil War. That house was gone long before I ever came to be. 

Perhaps this story springs only from a hopeless romantic streak, but as the wisteria grew heavier and heavier in the trees of my ancestral homeplace with each passing year, it stirred the stories, imaginings. For fractions of seconds, I could see the old, hidden Griffin house as it was. I could feel the thrum of farm life, see a mother surrounded by little children, sense a man pouring his soul into the earth to make it produce enough to feed his own.

That house is, for me, an abiding image. I can forever pull back layers to find new and deeper meanings: the passing of time, “memento mori,” we are mortal, and who will remember us when we’re gone?

The wisteria is another abiding image. If it has attached itself so to me, then why not to my characters?

When I happened upon an science article about plants having memory, I wondered, What if such memories could be tapped? What if a botanist actually had a means of, say, sticking a needle in a plant to extract its memories? 

As a writer, I get to do just that. Without the needle.

In previous segments of this story, Jennie Jay Mixon has grown up to marry the widower neighbor, Thomas Griffin. The wisteria finally blooms for the first time. The affinity between girl and plant deepens; their lives, their maturity, mirror one another. In this final segment, the mirroring takes an unexpected, divergent turn . . . .

*******

So Jennie Jay transplanted herself in the Griffin household as the mother figure to six children, the oldest being barely younger than she. Jennie rooted herself in the family as if she’d always been there. And in some ways, she had. She wrapped her love around Thomas Griffin the way I wrapped myself around the arbor frame. Like my arbor supported me, Tom’s strength secured Jennie Jay. Under the arc of their love, the children, the farm, flourished.

Until their first baby died, weeks after birth.

She spent that day drifting between the house, the cemetery, and me, wandering as if she were that lost toddler of long ago.

He finally pulled her to a bench he’d placed under me, sat her on his lap.

I did all I knew to do, Tom. She seemed to be getting stronger. What did I do wrong?

Nothing, my love. She was just too little. You can’t blame yourself.

I ache to hold her. To feel her warmth. I think somehow I needed her more than she needed me. I am just so empty. 

There’ll be others to come, who need you. And I need you, Jennie.

She smiled a little then. She pressed her wet face against his coat. He leaned his head back against my trunk, let her cry, and cried along with her.

But he was right. In time, more babies arrived: Twins, then two more.

I was a part of that last fertilization. Really, I was.

They crept out of the house one balmy summer night under a waning crescent moon when I was blooming riotously, having been pruned back a few times for my own good. I sheltered them as they loved each other, murmuring of long ago: dandelions, destiny, The Powers That Be.

And me. Jennie Jay and Tom whispered of me, even then.

Let it be duly noted, however, that I find the efficient business of self-pollination far superior, although this interlude did clarify some finer points.

And children grow almost as fast as vines; one by one, they all left home.

Tom began to wilt.  Rheumatism, Jennie called it. She fussed over him, waited on him. He basked in her attention much like I bask in the sun.

Considering the span of their ages, everyone expected him to go first; it was the natural order of things.

I perceived it before she did.  How, I cannot convey, but I discerned something stealthily growing, snaking its way silently through her inside parts, bit by bit. The terrible truth is that this Thing was like me. Powerful in the way it grew and took over. I had not fully known my own power until Tom extended the arbor with an enclosed walkway of trellises. My new shoots, innocent, so tender, had spiraled through the lattice. As I grew, my tendrils tightened; I began to pull the lattice into myself, out of control, until Jennie Jay and Tom cut that part of me away.  They left the overhead beams of the new walkway for me to extend myself and luxuriate, but no more lattices, as I would only destroy them.

I sensed nothing good in the Thing that slowly choked the life out of Jennie Jay. It wanted to live, she wanted to live, I wanted to live; but I could not desire to live if my living was at the expense of hers.

The elongated arbor allowed me to get near the bedroom window. Jennie Jay, so small and white, lay still on the bed. Tom’s cane remained in the corner, for he seldom left her side, even when the neighbors came to relieve him, or when the children came to say good-bye.

He held her whenever she screamed, when the Thing, out of control, took, bent, consumed, destroyed. He was holding her on that last morning. The sun had just risen; dew sparkled like scattered seeds of fiery rainbows.

Her eyes opened, looked through the window at me.

It’s morning, Tom. Time to get going. I’ll wait for you under the wisteria. Come on whenever you’re ready, dearest.

Humans say envy is green. I am green. I know envy. I envied the pine tree given for her casket. I wanted to be the one, would have sacrificed myself, to hold her forever and ever.

Of course he knew. Before he nailed the lid shut, he hobbled outside with a pair of shears to clip a little sprig of my purple flowers. When his children and the neighbors attempted to help, he shooed them all away. He carried my flowers, placed them under Jennie Jay’s white fingers, kissed her hands, her face, one last time, and nailed the lid himself.

He planted her beside their first baby, a wise distance away from the first Mrs. Griffin.

In his grief I was powerless. I could offer no condolence, could not weep, could not acknowledge our loss in any way other than shedding my blossoms, borne by the breeze to collect on the mound where she lay.

I lost track of time then. So did Tom.  He did not come to me again but went quickly after her, his existence too intertwined with hers for him to adapt to a world without Jennie Jay in it. She was his world.

By then the garden was no more. The yard soon went wild. Grasses and weeds grew tall; the pecan tree rotted away. The Griffin children, their grandchildren, their great-grandchildren, came back from time to time, always in a hurry, visiting the graves, showing the land to potential buyers.

No one wanted it.

The barns collapsed. The house and I kept standing, even as saplings grew into trees around us. My arbor could not bear my weight; I crushed it. I latched onto a sturdy oak, where I climbed and climbed above the darkness of the woods which claimed for itself what was once the productive farm of a good, kind man.

I reached the house, at last. All traces of the whitewash were long gone. I wove myself through the bare clapboards and window frames, up the narrow staircase, back out between the cypress shingles.

She lived here, she was happy here. Her babies were born here. The walls and I were the last testaments to their love, that peculiar human gift. My tendrils tasted it all, absorbed it, took every bit and stored it deep within myself. My twisted trunk attained the girth of a man. Parts of my vine grew larger than Thomas Griffin’s muscular arms when they first wrapped around Jennie Jay.

I am all that remains. The house caved in from the ravages of time, weather, and me, but I am compelled ever onward and upward. Trees do not grow fast enough to suit me, for my goal is to reach the sun, that life-giving, golden orb beckoning from the periwinkle sky; I sense that something of Jennie Jay is there, just on the other side.

Until then, I draw from the essence of her deep within myself, where every sensation is preserved, where she lives on and on and on.

Her first and last words were of me.

First and last, first and last. My images of her keep circling, circling, ever-circling.

She was the first child I ever saw . . . .

Wisteria & old house

Old North Carolina home covered in wisteria. David R NCCC BY

*******

The End.

But maybe not.

Wisteria’s last line is also its first, so, back to The Beginning . . . .

Wisteria sprig

Wisteria sprig. Maggie McCainCC BY-SA

Wisteria, part 4

Wisteria vine

Wisteria. Asiya QureshiCC BY

I love things that are old. 

I am having fun tinkering with this little story about the old days, based on my grandmother’s childhood memories and stories that occurred before she was born. The ancient oral tradition . . . as I listened to her, faint images of people partially materialized in my mind. I wondered what their extended stories might be, what their lives were like on family farms in this remote, woody place that I visited each summer. In my lifetime, it was nearly all woods; few traces of the community remained. 

The wisteria remains. It hangs in the trees where the farm houses once were, its abundant, pale purple flowers the very image of April in North Carolina, whispering of long ago.

I starting wondering what stories the wisteria could tell, what it had witnessed across the years.

Then I heard its voice. 

I guess I’ve always had a wild imagination . . . 

It’s also fun to relate Wisteria’s story, beginning in the 1880s to the turn of the twentieth century, thus far, in segments somewhat like a serial in newspapers or magazines of that era. 

In the preceding installments (Wisteria, Wisteria, part 2 , and Wisteria, part 3), the vine tells of its mysterious origin on the Griffin farm and its developing kinship with a girl named Jennie Jay, who’s become a teenager harboring a secret. Mr. Griffin, father of six, has just lost his wife in childbirth with the seventh. The vine isn’t able to bloom, not an uncommon condition.

In today’s post . . . well, just sit back and listen to what Wisteria has to share . . .

*******

I woke the next spring to find Mr. Griffin building a porch on the front of his house. Every day, neighbor women stopped by with fudge or a pot of chicken and dumplings or stew for his family. The married women stayed only minutes, but the widows . . . they lingered, smiling and chatting at Mr. Griffin as he tried to work. By now I understood a lot more about humans than I used to. I stretched myself closer to the house for snatches of conversation.

Mr. Griffin, it seemed, had little to say.

He managed, somehow, to finish the porch. He left the gardening to his children and whitewashed the house. It stood tall, narrow, and bright in the sunlight by day; it glowed in the moonlight at night, as white as the stone markers just across the dirt road.

In all this time Jennie Jay did not make an appearance.

Her mother walked over one afternoon, bearing a basket, when the Griffin children had gone Up the Swamp to visit their mother’s relations. Mr. Griffin leaned against a porch column, smoking his pipe, gazing at the place where his wife, his baby, and his parents were planted.

He straightened, nodded, when he saw who was coming.

Miss Aurelia.

Hello, Thomas.  Here, I fried a chicken and made some biscuits for you.

I greatly appreciate it.

Your porch is lovely.

Thank you. The children enjoy it. Just got the swing up this morning.

How are you?

Can’t complain. You?

We’re all well.

A pause. Then—

Jennie Jay came home today.

Ah. So she’d gone away, had she.

Mr. Griffin puffed his pipe. He took a long moment to respond:

How did she like Raleigh?

She says she likes the shops but hates the city.

They both chuckled.

My sister said she was terribly homesick. She couldn’t understand why Jennie Jay wanted to come back to the ‘sticks,’ you know.

A slight smile played on her face.

Mr. Griffin just stared ahead. He made no reply.

She asked about you. Wants to come by.

He turned and looked directly at her for the first time since she arrived.

His voice was suddenly hoarse:

Well, by all means, Aurelia, go and tell her to come.

********

From my high perch on the arbor they built for me, I knew she was coming before he did.

In a yellow dress, her wide-brimmed hat a corona, she gleamed against the reeds and trees, a far cry from the tottering child who once escaped her mother.

He’d hurried in the house to shave, then waited for a while in the new swing, which faced the old Mixon road. Where she’d be walking. Then he took to pacing back and forth out in yard by me, until she finally came into sight.

He stood in my shadow as if rooted, drinking her in the way I drink in sunlight: Jennie Jay, pink-cheeked, blue eyes shimmering, pulsating with life. Her pale hair, long tendrils that my thin green ones could never begin to match, hung loose under her hat.

His gray eyes were as sharp as knife blades when she drew near, his expression unreadable.

He extended his hand:

Welcome home, Jennie Jay.

She grasped his hand, smiling.

Is that all you have to say to me, Mr. Thomas?

He trembled. Oh, could I feel it.

Just say it, man, say it!

God above, Jennie, you are beautiful.

Did you miss me while I was away?

I did.

That is good, because, Thomas Griffin, I. Missed. YOU.

She threw her arms around him.

Her hat fluttered to the ground beside my trunk; there were no more words. He clasped her to him like he might never let go. He sobbed, but Jennie laughed, even as the salt water flowed down their faces; she reached up and pulled his to her own.

By my calculations, she was in her eighteenth year.

I was about sixteen.

****

It happened.

On the day Thomas Griffin married Jennie Jay Mixon and brought her home in his old mule-drawn buggy—by her request— he had a special wedding gift waiting. He wouldn’t let her look; she had to keep her gloved hands over her eyes until he was ready:

All right, love, you can look now.

It was me, of course. In full bloom for the first time in my existence.

My heavy lavender clusters spilled like grapes over the arbor; my fragrance filled the air. I was majestic and I knew it, nearly as resplendent as the young bride.  My one regret—if my kind is allowed a regret—is that I couldn’t bloom yellow for her.

She laughed and cried at the same time, just as when Mr. Griffin first held her in his arms.

It is amazing, amazing! Oh, Tom, how…?

It just happened, Jennie. Of its own accord. All for you, I’m sure.

That wisteria is the most beautiful thing in the world.

Ah, my sweet, salty Jennie Jay.

Wisteria blooming

*******

This isn’t the end of the story. Not yet.

To be continued, one last time . . . Wisteria, part 5.

Wisteria, part 3

Wisteria arbor

Wisteria arbor (cropped). Jon CallasCC BY

Here’s the next installment of a short story based on a tiny North Carolina farming community at its peak, circa 1880-World War II.  While short stories typically don’t cover a period of years, this one does, as it’s told from the perspective of a wisteria vine that may have lived through the entire period, and may be living still; I will have to visit the area again, just to see . . . 

I grew up on my grandmother’s stories of long ago. Here I am basically just having fun weaving bits of them together, taking liberties, watching the story unfurl with the long tendrils of the wisteria vine. 

Another source of inspiration was an article posing the question, “Do plants have memories?” That’s all I needed for fact and fiction to take root in my mind; the wisteria sprouted then and there, and began to speak.

In the previous two installments (Wisteria and Wisteria, part 2), the vine relates its beginnings on the Griffin farm and its attachment to a little girl named Jennie Jay. Sent to the Griffins to escape diphtheria at her home, Jennie Jay is miserable. Mr. Griffin (Thomas) offers comfort by reminding her of her first encounter with the vine, which vows, whenever it blooms, that its blossoms will be yellow—Jennie Jay’s favorite color. Now we discover that plants, as well as people, harbor secrets . . . 

*******

I couldn’t bloom at all.

The seasons came and went again, one after the other, on and on. I grew thickly over Jennie Jay’s arbor, but I was all leaves, spirals, and shoots, without flower. I made a nice shade, however. In the dead of summer, when nothing but mosquitoes, dragonflies, and snakes desire to move, the Griffin children—six of them—sought refuge under me. I was strong and healthy. Every spring I woke back up to the world, sure my flowering would come. Every autumn when I began ebbing away, it was having failed to flower.

Mrs. Griffin had no such trouble. She budded out yet again.

One black summer night, as lightning flickered and flashed, and thunder shook the earth, Mr. Griffin drove the mule and buggy up the Mixon road. He came back with Miss Aurelia. Bowed against the pounding rain, the wind whipping hard enough to rip away a portion of my leaves, he ushered  her into the house. He set off again, yelling at the mule when it shied at the thunder. After some time, he returned with Doc Martin.

The storm raged all night. As it subsided, and the morning dawned gray, Miss Aurelia left the house. She ran toward her home, holding her skirts up from the muddy road. Within moments, she came back with Jennie Jay.

How she’d grown. Taller than her mother, now.

Holding onto each other to keep from slipping, minding their skirts against the mire, they hurried back to Mr. Griffin’s.

They stayed all day, washing, cleaning, cooking, consoling the sobbing Griffin children. Other neighbor women arrived with more food and husbands for Mr. Griffin’s chores. Jennie Jay’s Papa, Mr. Mixon, took the doctor home and returned with a pine box on the mule cart.

Late in the evening Jennie Jay came outside and rested her head against my frayed leaves. I felt her warmth, her energy; she radiated aliveness. Strong and healthy, like me. Always like me.

Wisteria, she whispered, I wish you could know what’s in my heart.

Tell me, I longed to say.

I’m not a good person.

Oh, but you are.

I wasn’t fond of Miss Rachel. She wasn’t especially kind to me. But I didn’t want her to die. Honest, I didn’t.

It comes to all of us sooner or later, Jennie Jay.

And the baby, that poor baby . . . 

I had no words for that.

Mama says Mr. Thomas wants them buried together. They’ll be together forever and ever.

Jennie Jay fell silent for a while. Then she sighed as deeply as any human ever did, I am certain.

I can’t stop thinking about Mr. Thomas. He’s so good and gentle. I will never forget how he comforted me when Papa nearly died, how he got me to help him build this very arbor. Look at you now, how great and green you are.

Thank you. Look how tall and strong you are yourself.

Why haven’t you ever bloomed, Wisteria?

Alas, Jennie Jay, you cut me to the quick!

Can I tell you something I can never tell anyone, any person, ever?

Yes, of course; I can never divulge your secrets, you know.

I’ve loved him ever since.

Naturally.

I think she—Miss Rachel—knew. It’s part of why she didn’t like me much. Do you know she told Mama once that she wanted to tear this arbor down? She despised it. She’d have gladly destroyed you.

She is dead and gone now. She cannot hurt me. Or you.

—Jennie Jay?

She jumped.

Y-yes, Mr. Thomas?

Please come eat a bite before you and your Mama go home. The children are asleep now. Don’t know how we would’ve gotten along without you today.

Jennie Jay’s long fingers lingered on my leaves, caressing, as she turned to go. I caught her parting whisper: Well, I owed you, didn’t I.

Tell him, Jennie Jay. Tell him every bit of it.

*******

To be continued, in two more installments … here’s Wisteria, part 4.

Wisteria, part 2

 

Wisteria leaves

Wisteria leaves. “Leaf edge.” Rebecca SiegelCC BY

I recently posted the first part of a short story about a real wisteria vine that grows in an old, forgotten place. Forgotten people are buried there. An article about plants having memories made me wonder what this hardy old vine may have witnessed in its long lifetime . . . here’s Part One , if you’re interested, in which the vine relates how it mysteriously sprouted, took note of its surroundings, and had its life saved by a little girl, Jennie Jay, and her mother. It was the beginning, shall we say, of a very curious friendship.

Here’s Part Two. The vine has lain dormant during its first winter . . . 

*******

I awoke to a gentle sun and delicious, cool dew. I felt new greenness coming on, so I spread what there was of myself.  I was bigger, definitely bigger. Several days went by before I realized how much time had passed while I slept. A whole season, it seemed. For one thing, the cow had a calf.

For another, Mr. Griffin had a Mrs. Griffin.

Intriguing.

As they planted the garden together, I learned her given name, Rachel, and that she came from Up The Swamp. She must’ve already bloomed, as her fruit was showing right in her middle. I wondered how the fruit would transform into a miniature human like Jennie Jay; did new humans burst forth from pods fully formed like that, or did they just drop off? The fruit kept growing but apparently never ripening. Something taking that long to grow surely could not be healthy.

Finally, near harvest time, Mrs. Griffin shut herself in the house with other female humans. Mr. Griffin scoured his garden for the last of the beans, peered at his pumpkins, sighed, repeated the meaningless motions and hoed, although nary a weed was to be found.

He didn’t see the door when it opened, didn’t see Aurelia Mixon until she called, You’ve a fine son, Thomas! Squalling his very lungs out! Come and see him, Papa.

Mr. Griffin’s face glowed like the risen sun, but I considered myself cheated not to have witnessed the human fruit falling.

****

The seasons cycled and cycled again before Jennie Jay came back to me.

I knew her at once. She’d grown. A lot. I’d grown, too. I no longer needed a cage. Mr. Griffin hadn’t built an arbor for me so I squatted instead of standing upright, but my trunk was decidedly thicker.

By this time there were three little Griffins, one in his Mama’s arms and two hanging from her skirt as she went partway up the Mixon road to meet Jennie Jay, who trudged along wearing a straw hat tied with a wide yellow ribbon. She dragged a curious bag behind her, making a noise like Mr. Griffin’s beagle pup when it got its back leg stuck in the fork of the grapevine.

Mrs. Griffin’s face looked ominous, like storm clouds gathering. Heavens, what a fuss, Jennie Jay. Quit that howling and pick up that valise. You’re getting it filthy. Come on and I’ll fix you a bite to eat.

Ain’t hungry.

Your Mama wouldn’t like that. Say ‘I’m not hungry, thank you.’

Ain’t hungry!

What a stubborn little cuss you are. No matter. You’ll do what you’re told until your Papa gets over this diphtheria and you can go back home.

I want my Mamaaaaa!

She can’t come, she’s tending to your Papa. Besides, you can play with Tommy and Molly; I’m sure you’ll all have a big time together, now won’t you?

They made it to the house but Jennie Jay didn’t stay inside long. Within minutes, the door flew open and she ran as hard as she could toward the garden. She flung herself down so close to me that if a stiff breeze blew, I might bend just enough to touch her. A drop or two of the water flowing from her eyes seeped into the earth, to my underparts. The taste surprised me: humans are remarkably salty.

Mr. Griffin drove up in a cart pulled by one of his more pleasant mules. He saw Jennie Jay, called Whoa, hopped down.

Well, if it isn’t little Jennie Jay.

She paid him no attention. She continued dripping.

He knelt beside her. Tell me what’s the matter.

I want to go hoooommmme!

I know you do. I know your Papa and Mama are missing you as much as you miss them. But your Papa has to get well first. He wouldn’t want you to get sick too, would he?

Jennie Jay sat up and wiped her face, leaving smears of earth.  She shook her head.

It’ll be all right, Jennie. Don’t cry, now. Want to know something?

What?

See that vine there?

Mr. Griffin pointed to me.

The funny bush?

Yes. Know what that is?

Jennie regarded me thoughtfully. She shook her head.

It’s wisteria. Once when you were very small you got away from your Mama and came here to pick every last one of my dandelions. We found you here by this vine. I didn’t even know it had sprung up. I aimed to yank it right out of the ground but your mama said no, let it be, on account of you called it by name and that was your first word.

It was?  A flicker of recollection crossed her face.

It sure was. I witnessed it myself. You didn’t start with something easy, no sirree; you had to go and try to say ‘wisteria.’ It came out something like ‘siria’ or ‘siwia.’

Jennie giggled. The dripping had ceased.

Your mama said I ought to make an arbor here, so this vine could grow and grow. It might even bloom one day, Jennie Jay, with flowers hanging all over.

 Ohhhhh . . . will it?

 It just might. Of course I have to build the arbor first, and see, the trouble is, I ain’t had anyone to help me.

 I’ll help you, Mr. Thomas!

 Well then, let’s get started.

 Mr. Griffin held out his hand and helped Jennie Jay to her feet. She stared up at him with shining periwinkle eyes.

  Mr. Thomas, will them wisteria flowers be yellow?

  Probably not. Usually they’re purple.

  Oh.

  Reckon that will be all right, Jennie Jay?

  I reckon.

Mr. Griffin unhitched his mule and off the three of them went toward the barns, Jennie Jay skipping, Mr. Griffin smiling, the mule laying its ears back, looking altogether like Mrs. Griffin at the doorway.

As for me, I vowed that, whenever I finally bloomed, my blossoms would be yellow.

*******

To be continued . . . here’s Wisteria, part 3

 

 

Divine appointment

Cardinal

Cardinal Singing Along. Don and Janet BeasleyCC BY-SA

Broom in hand, I descend the brick steps where moss has newly sprung. The sidewalk needs sweeping and I’ve only a minute. Must get to school early, to prepare for the day; the minutiae of all that has to be done circles round and round my mind. 

But I have to do this first. Oddly. Sweeping the sidewalk is not part of my morning routine. 

Hurry. Hurry.

All is still but for the light chatter of a few birds, waking. The sound of early spring. The sound of April. Of a new day. I pause, listening. How cheerful, how happy their bird voices are, even if to them it’s just regular conversation. My spirit eases, just hearing them. I note that the light is unusual. Against random trees and shrubs, the dawn gleams amber in patches. Everything else is a backdrop in half light. There’s an edge to it all, a starkness. The sky is moody. Altocumulus clouds, dark in their middles, gleaming around their rims, are gathered in bands or waves; this is what scientists call a mackerel sky, I think. Strange light.

—Time. Be aware.

Right, I must hurry.

Just as I put broom to concrete, I see it.

Over in the neighbor’s yard, in the shadows under the bushy, unpruned crape myrtle. 

The brightest spot of color I’ve ever seen. Red. Rosy, electric red, brighter than any neon light, as vivid as fire, glowing, but not burning. Just being. I blink. How does such a color even exist in nature? It has to be a cardinal but I can’t see the rest of him, just his plump breast. A half-memory from childhood stirs in my mind, of pretending I had a pet cardinal and spraying pine-scented air freshener throughout the house to create his forest, where he could fly freely— but for all my attraction to the male cardinal’s plumage, I’ve never seen it to the intensity and brilliance as right now in this capricious light.

I want to see him better but I dare not move. 

I think I’ve quit breathing.

Could I, maybe, get a picture? If I’m stealthy, can I make it into the house and back with my phone? 

I have to try. I have to capture this image.

I watch him as I ease toward the house. He moves a little, hopping in the dappled grass.

As soon as I reach the steps, out of his field of vision, I race through the front door to the kitchen, grab my phone, turn, shoot back through the door, take the steps without making a sound, stop, and creep to where I can see the crape myrtle.

He’s still there! I can’t believe it!

An astounding spot of color, radiating an otherworldly light.

Holy.

I aim my phone and zoom in . . . 

On the screen I see the thin myrtle branches up close. The grass, the shadows, the sunlit patches. —Where’s my bird?

I look away from the phone back to the scene, to get my bearings . . . don’t know how I could have missed, I aimed right where he was standing . . . .

Gone.

He is gone.

In the second between my sighting him and my lifting the phone, he vanished. Without a sound or any perceptible movement. He was and then he was not. Just like that.

Nowhere to be seen at all.

I stand frozen, phone in hands, an inexplicable feeling sweeping through me. 

The moment passed and nothing remains of it. Stunning, that spot of fiery color like no other, in the shadows under that tree. One glimpse of glory. He was so beautiful and I never even saw all of him. Even if I do see him again—and I’ll try, at this same time tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after—it will never happen again, not just like this. The clouds will not be the same. The position of the sun will be slightly different. It can never be again exactly as it was. 

I so wanted to capture his image, the holiness of it, to keep it forever, and I could not.

But I hold it in my mind. I cling to every breathtaking detail. 

I write it before it leaves me, wondering at the tears burning behind my eyes over this one bird, this one moment, why it should be so significant, to make me feel so much.

I was just there, unexpectedly, and so was he.

For one shining moment, we just were.

Wisteria

In recent years, I’ve written lots of short stories, beyond those as models for students or posted here on the blog.  Some of my stories are realistic, usually centering on a character making a self-discovery or a difficult decision. Other stories are more ethereal, with a slightly supernatural element.  

“Wisteria” is one of the latter.

April in North Carolina brings life to the heavy vines snaking through the woods. One day the woods are dark, gray, forlorn, and the next, it seems, they’re bursting with color. Along the highways and back roads, cascades of soft purple blooms reminiscent of grape clusters swathe the trees. The wisteria is beautiful. Its perfume laces the fresh spring air. To me it speaks of old things, old ways, long ago, things we cannot see and did not know, but are with us still, even so.

Regular visitors to this blog will know that I frequently write of my grandparents’ country home in eastern North Carolina, where I spent many childhood summers. It is a tiny, old, remote place. Utterly foreign and mysterious to a little city girl. The images abide with me to this day for myriad reasons: I was happy there. To be with my grandparents was to be in a stronghold of love and safety. Absolute sanctuary. Not until I was grown did I realize how much the environment, the setting, nature itself wove its way into my very being much like wisteria stealthily weaves its way through a forest, grabbing hold of anything it can. Like it did in the thick woods looming eternally dark and secretive around my grandparent’s home. Suddenly, in the spring, these tall, ominous trees were laden with wisteria blooms. They made my grandmother sneeze; they made me stand still and dream. 

Grandma told stories of long ago, before these woods existed. When a whole community thrived along this old dirt road. When the people in the cemetery in the tiny clearing  across from her house were alive. As a child, listening, these people lived and breathed once more, just briefly, in my my mind. Like ghosts temporarily made corporeal before dissolving again. I stood by their aging white stones, some eroding or so weather-streaked or moss-covered that names and snippets of verse were hard to read, seeing my own moving shadow cast over the grass of their graves, as a soft breeze picked up. Leaves and pine needles rustled; birds chattered with wild abandon; frogs plopped into the tiny canal at the cemetery’s edge; crickets chorused from the recesses of the woods because it’s always night there. 

The cemetery vibrated with life. 

I looked up and saw the wisteria nodding, high in the trees.

I tried growing it myself, once.  

A few years ago, a friend of mine, knowing my affinity for the vine, brought me a potted wisteria. I planted it by the back deck with great glee. Another friend built a trellis for me on the deck, so that as the vine grew—which is alarmingly fast—I could tease its tendrils through the lattice. Soon I’d have a glorious arbor of soft purple bliss.

That is not what happened.

Those tendrils, so tender and unassuming, grew daily; they began reminding me of something out of science fiction. Like thin green antennae, they grew out and up from the woody trunk. They held themselves aloft in the air, swaying, twisting—I could actually see these movements. Some tendrils eventually reached the deck and coiled around its posts. Still others stretched, as if consciously, toward the lattice; I guided these green strands to spots where they could weave through in their ever-onward and upward way. 

The first small blooms appeared.

-Joy.

And then one day as I walked across the deck I realized that the lattice was bending, was already quite convex. The wisteria, pulling and pulling, continually gaining strength and momentum (as best I can describe it) was destroying the trellis, was literally drawing it into itself. 

I gazed in fascinated horror. How did this happen so fast?

I noted that one sweet little tendril had reached the gutter of the house, so benignly . . . 

It had to go. 

I cut down the vine. Hacked it to bits.

And mourned.

Not long afterward, I read a science article that posed the question: “Do plants have memories?”

Oh. Oh. Oh . . . .

That wisteria in the woods by my grandparents’ home surely must. . . it’s been there for how long? A century? More?

What, exactly, would it remember?

And that is how my story “Wisteria” was born.

My friends enjoy it. Contest judges and magazine publishers apparently do not.

For whatever it’s worth, I’ve decided to share a bit of the story here, maybe tinkering with it as I go, just because it’s April and the wisteria blooms are once again hanging in the trees, nodding high above whenever I pass by.

*******

She was the first child I ever saw.

I did not recognize her as human. Tiny, clad all in white, she was rather daisy-like, with her upper petals drawn toward her capitulum. I have since learned that this curiosity is a bonnet, for shielding the female’s face from the sun.

I have never understood this.

I came up craving the full sun over my entire being, excepting my under parts that forbid any relocation, that stretch incrementally downward and outward, darkly drawing moisture. This flower possessed the astonishing power of locomotion. She tottered along the dusty road and into Mr. Griffin’s yard where the pecan tree shadowed the patchy grass. Apparently she attracted dandelions; wherever a fuzzy yellow head dotted the ground, she paused and somehow drew it right to her.

Nearer and nearer she came. To her own fate, I suspected, should she enter Mr. Griffin’s garden. Vigilant about his cultivation, he allowed no weed or creature of any kind to interfere with it. I’d poked my way aboveground to discover him plowing painstakingly straight rows, followed by weeks of planting, fertilizing, constructing poles for his beans, staking his tomatoes, scanning the sky wistfully for rain. The black earth bubbled up into greenness, a ceaseless unfurling, blooming, enlarging. The garden was, I must confess, a magnificent human endeavor. If this mobile daisy dared invade, Mr. Griffin might well appear with his shotgun, as he frequently did with four-footed fauna. I preferred not to witness the annihilation of the only known walking-flora specimen.

I shuddered when the vibration came.

Not the crack of the shotgun; a human cry, a scream:

JENNNNNIEEEE! JENNNNIEEEEE JAAAAAYYYYYYYYY!

A harrowing sound.

I know about harrows.

Mr. Griffin heard it from the cow barn. He came running, pitchfork in hand, looking every which way. He couldn’t see the daisy; she had fallen flat behind a sprawling squash vine. A movement at the road caught his eye: A woman, running hard, clutching her long skirt.

JENNNNNIEEEE!

By this time the daisy had righted herself. She proceeded on through the furrows, right in my direction.

They saw her. Just as her warm shadow fell upon me, the woman was there, Mr. Griffin immediately behind her.

Up into the woman’s arms went the daisy.

Oh, Jennie Jay, you frightened Mama to death. You could have fallen in the creek and drowned.

No harm done, Miss Aurelia. Looks like she was just hunting dandelions. Got a whole bouquet of ’em clutched there in her hands, don’t she.

She loves anything yellow. She’s strong-minded, to be such a little thing. Lord-a-mercy! Sound asleep on the quilt under the oaks one minute and gone the next, when I stepped in to stir the soup!

She didn’t get far.

Thank heaven. Your garden’s a wonder, Thomas. What made you decide to start a wisteria?

Ma’am?

Miss Aurelia pointed to me.

Your little wisteria, there.

To tell the truth, that ain’t my doing. Ain’t even noticed it.  Here, I’ll pull it right out . . . 

Oh, no, Thomas—don’t. Let it be. You could build an arbor for it, train it up. That wisteria would make the place real pretty for a bride, now wouldn’t it?

Mr. Griffin’s sun-browned face burned as red as the kerchief in his bibbed overalls. Miss Aurelia grinned and turned away. A little face peeped over her shoulder, and that’s when I perceived that the white-petaled thing was no walking flower but a miniature human, as capitula do not have two great blue eyes.

Siwia, she said.

My land! Did you hear that, Thomas? Jennie Jay just said her first word! Say it again, Jennie.

Siwia. Siwia.

What on earth?

Sounds to me like she’s trying to say ‘wisteria’, Miss Aurelia.

Well, I never. Not ‘Mama’. Not ‘Papa’. Wisteria! That does beat all. I reckon you have to leave that vine now, Thomas, to mark this occasion for Jennie Jay.

From the moment she spoke my name, I was enchanted. As her mama carried her away, Jennie Jay’s eyes stayed fixed on me.

Thus our kinship germinated.

We were both so new.

That evening, Mr. Griffin cut some chicken wire and made a cage around me.

Just you stay out of my garden, he muttered, the first and last time he ever addressed me directly.

I vowed to try.

Some weeks later he brought mulch—oh, so rich and warm!  Before I knew it, I slipped into a deep sleep.

*******

To be continued . . . see Wisteria, part 2.

Wisteria in yard 2

Wisteria and spring blooming. Ryan BasilioCC BY

The tree I’d be

Cypress trees.jpg

Sunlit Cypress. Teresa PhillipsCC BY-SA

A few days ago,  I happened upon this captivating tweet:

I am well on the way to becoming a tree myself. I put down roots. I sigh when the wind blows. My sap rises in the spring and I turn towards the sun. Which tree would I be? Definitely a walnut tree.

-Roger Deakin, journal entry for April, quoted by writer Robert Macfarlane, Twitter, 04/04/2018

Macfarlane then asks: “Which tree would you be and why?”

—A cypress.

That was my immediate thought.

But why?

After all, one of my favorite scents is Fraser fir (the predominant Christmas tree in North Carolina). I vacuum the stubby needles at holiday’s end and try not to empty the canister for as long as possible, because the fir fragrance fills the air with every subsequent use. The trees of my childhood are dogwood, pine, live oak, magnolia, sweet gum. I have early memories of sun-dappled sidewalks covered with “helicopters”—one-winged seeds, or samaras—that spiral down from maple branches. I tossed the helicopters again and again, as high as I could, to watch them swirl like propellers. Crape myrtles lined my grandparent’s yard; I climbed their smooth trunks, sat in the crooks of their branches, countless times.

Why does cypress come to mind first, then?

Poets and writers, you know when an image appears so vividly that it holds some significance begging to be explored . . . .

For starters, my image is of Taxodium distichum, more commonly known as a bald cypress, or, my preferred name, a southern-cypress tree.

It’s rooted in the swamps of the southern United States, where my roots are. A tree at home in water, in rivers. I grew up in a place called Tidewater, entered the world in a hospital named for its proximity to water: Riverside.

My first recollection of the word cypress was my grandparents’ reference to a place on beyond where they lived, where the little dirt road curved past canals and thick woods that had grown to obscure stately houses: up Cypress Swamp, they’d say. Grandma’s best friend from first grade, who grew up to marry Grandma’s brother, was from Cypress Swamp. As a child, standing on the dirt road, looking through the treetops, if the sun was right, I could glimpse a bit of one old, abandoned house—a roof of cypress shingles.

The word sounded poetic to me even then: cypress. Like a whisper. Like something inviting. Maybe magical.

Although, through the ages, a cypress was usually associated with funerals and mourning. My affinity for the tree is clearly fused to my eastern North Carolina heritage, a reminder of the generations that have gone before me. My family tree, so to speak. It is ancient. Maybe nothing encapsulates that so well as this passage from Our State magazine, in which the author chronicles his boat journey on a river through a cypress forest:

 Many of the trees here must have witnessed those long-vanished species. They would have nodded over Native Americans in dugout canoes. They would already have been tall when the Lost Colony was lost, when the Mayflower sailed, when Attila the Hun was on the move. A few might have stood when Christ was born.

-T. Edward Nickens, “In Search of Methuselah,” Our State, June 8, 2016.

They live for so long, cypress trees, due to their ability to withstand storms; they thrive despite adverse growing conditions. Cypress wood is hard, strong, water-resistant—hence those shingles on the old country houses still standing as a forest  grows up around them. Those hand-hewn shingles sheltered the life therein. Like Noah’s ark, made of gopher wood from an unknown tree that some researchers speculate to be . . . cypress.

I cannot say the adversity, the storms, in my own life are any greater or worse than those weathered by other people I’ve known. I can only say that I’m still here. I view the cypress not as a funeral tree but one that preserves, celebrates, and affirms life; that, ultimately, is the whole reason why I write, why this blog exists at all.

On a fanciful note: Earlier I mentioned the word cypress sounding magical. When I was a child I loved the Chronicles of Narnia. I still do. In these books, C.S. Lewis borrowed from Greek mythology to depict dryads and hamadryads, the spirits of trees that took the form of young girls with their particular tree’s physical characteristics: a birch-girl dressed in silver, another with hair like long, willowy branches. Does a cypress call to me, then, because I am tall (5’8″ in bare feet)? That’s taller than the average American woman (5’4″) but not dramatically so. There must be something more, then, as to why the cypress chooses me, something unique to the tree and to me, other than our having southern roots in watery regions.

The knees.

In cypress forests, knobby projections stick up from the water. Theory has it that those “knees” help the tree breathe, enabling it to take in more oxygen. I don’t know how much truth lies in that theory, but I can tell you this: For my entire childhood I suffered from asthma and the only way I could sleep at night, the only way to breathe, was by curling up in a ball with my knees drawn up under me.

So, yes, my knees helped me breathe.

*******

In the old places

where the water stands still

they live on

holding all their stories

not evergreen

but ever-enduring

reassuring

reaffirming.

With every breath

drawn on their knees

they whisper,

“Remember.”

Real

and ethereal

—if I were a tree

a cypress

I’d be.

Cypress trees - pink

“When we are present in each moment, the past gently rolls up behind us and future slowly unravels before us.” echorooCC-BY

The locket

She stands at the counter, admiring the jewelry. If  Papa were here, he’d get a necklace for me, she tells herself. I know he would . . . I’d keep it in the jewelry box he gave me for Christmas. 

But Papa was gone. Back to the hospital, again. She knew he feared going and she feared it for him, not knowing exactly what treatments he was being given, only that his face was whiter, more hollow, on every return, his blue eyes sadder. 

Her own eyes blur. Wiping away the tears, she finds her uncle, the store owner, leaning over the back of the wooden counter.

“Hello, dear. You like the jewelry, don’t you?”

She nods, tries to smile.

“Tell you what—I’ll give you a piece. Choose the one you like best.”

Her tears flow in earnest then. 

She chooses the locket.

*******

She was fifteen. The year was 1931. A year later, her beloved Papa would commit suicide on his sixtieth birthday, just weeks before she graduated from high school.

I wonder if she wore the locket as she sat by his casket in the living room overnight, or to his funeral.

When I was fifteen, she gave the locket to me:

I open the locket to find a black substance on the left side.

“I thought you said there was a picture of you in here!”

“It’s so old. That picture has turned darker and darker over the years,” she explains.

The image is completely obscured. 

“What did the picture look like, Grandma?” I ask, mourning the loss of it.

“It was a school picture. I had wavy blonde hair. It was pretty.” She smiles slightly as she picks the decayed photographic material out of the locket with Granddaddy’s pocket knife. She rubs the locket with a cloth until it gleams, and then she places it in my hands. 

“I know you’ll take care of it, my dear,” she says. 

As I clasp it, she draws me into her arms. I lean against her like I did when I was smaller, breathing in the light fragrance of her Avon cream sachet. 

The locket is around 87 years old now. It’s made of brass, remarkably shiny, unmarred, despite its age. The front surface is finely etched with antiquated swirls and flowers, and if you look very closely, in the center there’s a house with a little fence and mountains in the background along the horizon.

Grandma, what a prophetic symbol for you, in so many ways.

The Great Depression was a year underway when her uncle gave her the locket. In 1936, my grandmother married my grandfather. My father was born ten months later. To me, the house on the locket represents their rural North Carolina homeplace;  it’s where Grandma’s heart was when Granddaddy, unable to “make a go of it” with tenant farming, sharecropping, and odd jobs, found employment almost two hundred miles away at the Newport News shipyard and moved his family. He was working there when Pearl Harbor was attacked.

Grandma was expecting her second child that year:

We stayed in an upstairs apartment and it was so hot. I could look through the window to see the ice truck making deliveries. People couldn’t get refrigerators because of the war; if you had one, it didn’t have a motor. We used them like iceboxes. I’d stand at that window thinking,  I’d give anything for a piece of that ice right now . . . . 

And she longed to go home.

Those mountains on the locket’s background symbolize numerous obstacles, hardships, trials, everything from the loss of her father to the Depression and the war (her brothers served in the Army and the Marines) to the ten years she did live back home, raising the children while my grandfather commuted from the shipyard on weekends. It was hard, all of it. She endured. The brass locket shines almost like gold—beyond the things of home, beyond every mountain to be scaled, hope always shines bright, not dimming over time. My grandmother’s faith would be challenged; she’d outlive two of her three children, but her faith would hold.

Home, endurance, overcoming, hope, faith, love. All of these are her legacy to me.

And the stories.

All old things have a story. Grandma’s locket is a tangible reminder of the stories she lived and told to me. It even opens like a book for pictures or tiny mementos to be placed inside; pictures of my two boys when they were babies are in it now.  The locket is the story of who I am, where I have come from, where I am going. I like to think that as the generations rise and fall, the locket will be passed down again and again, and that our stories will go on, and on, and on.

 

Heroes

img_4479

They’re heroes. All of them.

From across the state of North Carolina, they gathered in the capital city. Fighting crowds and full parking decks, between a St. Patrick’s Day parade, a street festival with an Irish band, a pub crawl, and educators arriving for the North Carolina Reading Association conference, the children made it to the Young Authors Project celebration.

These young people, from kindergarten through twelfth grade, and some of their teachers, were previously recognized by their local reading associations for writing on the theme “Show Your Strength.” Finalists went on to be judged by a panel for the state, and yesterday the North Carolina Reading Association awarded winners a book of their published entries and a medal.

Prior to the ceremony, such figures as Batman, Wonder Woman, and the X-Men swept through the audience, greeting the children, congratulating them, posing for pictures with them.

Project Superhero, Inc. and Causeplay Carolinas team up at the NCRA Young Authors Project celebration. Photo: Twitter, @superheroorg 03/17/2018.

Note the word POWER on the photo-op backdrop . . .

I thought immediately of the power in writing.

I watched as the children were called, county by county, to receive their awards on stage, their faces glowing. I’ve read their stories, how they showed their strength by sticking with tasks they thought they couldn’t accomplish, reaching desired goals, drawing inspiration from others, overcoming bullies, conquering their greatest fears, coping with illness, the loss of pets, of family members. How they got through, even when they didn’t think they could.

It takes courage to be a writer, courage to be a child.

There they stood, heroes, all.

Celebrating each other, celebrating their stories.

Celebrating perseverance. Celebrating courage. Celebrating hope.

Celebrating life.

img_4482

Released

There were two North Carolina sons who died on the same day.

One lived to be ninety-nine. 

The other lived nineteen days.

One is known the world over; his body will lie in the Capitol of the United States. 

The other is known only by a small community; his body weighed less than three pounds.

One accomplished great and mighty things; he is remembered, will be remembered, by generation after generation.

The other fought a great and mighty fight to stay alive, to grow; he was the start of a new generation. The first child, the first grandchild. 

There will be several commemorations for the one.

There was a small gathering of family and friends, clutching balloons, for the other.

A man old and full of days, as the Bible says, ravaged by time, and a new baby ravaged by arriving too early, they breathed their last around the same hour and left the world behind. 

Released. 

 I stood at the little gathering for the baby, holding onto the ribbon of a light blue balloon someone handed me.  

The North Carolina sun shone bright and uncharacteristically warm for February. It felt like spring. A breeze rattled the balloons; the sound of their bumping each other reminded me of boats bumping against their moorings at a dock. 

A lonely sound.

In one motion, together, our gathering released the balloons. Swept quickly upward, they made an array of shimmering colors against the azure sky. Breathtakingly beautiful. Within seconds they attained stunning heights. The brilliant colors changed, before our eyes, into distant glittering dots, bright, silvery stars twinkling in the daytime. 

I thought then of all who are loved and lost. The young and the old. By sickness, tragedy, time . . . it matters only that they lived. They were here and we loved them. We do not stop loving them. We rail against our constraints, but they are not tied anymore. Their moorings are loosed. Their spirits are free, glittering, ever-bright in the distance, going on and on.

Released.