Worship

Worship

By the time I left, the ghost borer epidemic had destroyed over half the live oaks in Texas. The larvae chewed vital transport tissues from the inside, and the stiff, oval leaves yellowed and sprinkled the ground. Tree skeletons hulked against the horizon like bronchioles. Branches became brittle, and dust spilled when you cut them open, inducing coughs and rashes. Landowners burned the ubiquitous dead oaks to keep the borers from spreading, and it was common to see plumes of smoke rising from western hilltops.

I hired on with a group of arborists and parasitologists to study a particular tree— Wolff’s Capture Oak—and my wife Justine and I moved our lives from Monterey, California, to a small house on the edge of Austin, close to where my father had lived a hermitic existence for the last decade. The tree was dying, and it was my job to study the borers and find a way to kill them. Wolff’s Capture had been under the protection of various historical societies since Reconstruction. Its name came from the German abolitionist who’d been hung from its branches, alongside a runaway slave, though the plaque failed to mention the slave’s name.

Justine found an adjunct position teaching history at the community college, but we never fully unpacked. When I thought about it, the move was also supposed to rejuvenate our relationship, though we never talked about it in that way. Buried beneath our career decisions was the hope that geographical relocation would bring inner change, new freedoms, personal growth.

Change happened first for Justine. She went out for drinks with colleagues, something she’d rarely done in California. She started jogging, waking up when it was barely light out and mourning doves cooed. She ran in a sports bra and spandex shorts. She switched from coffee to tea. I’d smell the grassy aroma when I came into the kitchen, and she was already showering off her miles, singing, sports bra and running shorts plopped in the hall. She never used to sing, unless you counted the occasional hum-along in the car. I’d sometimes wake up early enough to look out the window into the humid dawn and see her jogging back to the house, bared midriff glistening, face flushed and determined, and she’d spring inside and begin singing or humming. She muscles became toned. We ate more kale. We watched less television. These changes gave us new discussions and, maybe it was the exercise, but our love life spiked. She’d jump me in the hallway, on the couch. We made indiscreet use of the kitchen counter. There was talk of children again, which we hadn’t discussed in years. My daily habits didn’t change, except I now took long drives through the hill country after work, winding through that rough, dying landscape.

At one point, Justine brought home a rescue cat, whom she named Albert, and who was adept at strewing articles of clothing about the house, so that I was always missing a certain sock or a certain pair of underwear. Albert and I ignored each other, while Justine and he cuddled in mutual affection. She took to posting cat memes. We had a door installed, a special kitty fountain. Jealous Albert interrupted our lovemaking more than once. At night Albert would attack my naked feet, sit on my face, and I would awake from terrible dreams about black, shapeless night terrors. Justine and Albert ignored my complaints. One night, again after being out with the other parasitologists, I ran over Albert when he darted in front of me as I pulled into the driveway. Justine happened to be home, and Albert’s death catalyzed the fight and ensuing conversation in which she told me that I should be the one who moved out, temporarily, since it was her name on the lease and not mine. My chronically bad credit periodically surfaced between us.

I called my father, a retired airline pilot who had become obsessed with fishing. We had not exactly been estranged over the years, just more distant, and our relationship—after my mother died when I was twenty—turned clean and transactional, spare of any deeper expressions of identity, unless I initiated it. When we argued or fought, it was because I instigated it. He agreed to rent me his guest studio and, as was his way, let no concern about my predicament seep through the phone.

The day I moved out, I slowly packed clothes and sampling equipment, milking time to see if Justine would have a change of heart, but she was grading a stack of essays and only looked up from the table when I cleared my throat loudly from across the room to indicate I had finished.

“This is temporary,” Justine said. “Like when we had the house in Monterey bug bombed. I figure if we came all this way together, on this sinking vessel, we might as well try and salvage what we can.”

“Thanks?” I said.

“You look in the mirror and sometimes you see that you’re older but still growing, still vacillating, and you’re not even sure what that means,” she said. “But if we meet, say, every other week? Keep the lines of communication open?”

*

I drove a few miles southwest to my father’s place, where I’d be staying in a converted shed that had a view of the beginnings of hill country, where the countryside banked and sloped, covered in mesquite and scrub, dotted with oak skeletons, where almost-tame deer foraged and wandered across the road. In my new home, a single bed left a few feet to walk to the bathroom, which had no door. A small window admitted dirty sunlight, and an air-conditioning unit droned and dripped on the carpet.

“They say things will get worse,” Dad said. We had beers and were sitting on folding chairs, looking at the denuded landscape, swatting mosquitoes. “Not about you and Justine. About the climate.”

“We’re going to salvage what we can, as she put it,” I said.

“Marriage is contract work,” Dad said. “No benefits. No overtime. No one’s going to fix it for you. And your tree. It’s the correct tree, symbolically. It’s bendy and inscrutable in shape when compared to, say, a birch. Your marriage right now has tendrils, and you don’t want that, but you have to accept it.”

“That’s so comforting,” I said, and he became pensive, his main defense. “How’s the fishing?”

After a minute of quietly staring at a plume of smoke on the horizon that had appeared as if he’d conjured it up, he said, “I guess I don’t have advice. I’ve always tried to do father things. Teach emotional flexibility. Financial responsibility. Etcetera. But I guess I don’t have the tools. Or the ones I have aren’t the right ones for you.”

“That’s fine,” I said. “But I do want to know how fishing is. Are you enjoying it? Does it bring you peace?”

“I try to help, and you antagonize me. It does, actually. I spent forty years looking down on the planet. I liked looking down on things then, as I’m sure you know.”

“But you’re still looking down on the fish, right? Has anything changed?”

“You idealize change too much. You fetishize it. Death is this fixed vortex we inexorably move closer to, flitting spasmodically between states of being—for what purpose? But no, I don’t think anything fundamental about me has changed.”

“But you might find it in the bottom of a lake?”

“I might find it in the bottom of a lake. It might fall from the sky.”

*

After I moved out and Justine and I had our routine meetings, life felt relatively still and uneventful, save for the tree’s gradual decline. The ghost borer proved very hard to kill. We tried core injections, soil and bark treatments, ultrasonic and radio waves. A woman from Athens, Georgia, suggested a certain mite, and we tried that. The borer spread from Texas to Louisiana, where it’s efficiency could be seen on the streets of New Orleans. Wolff’s Capture lived in a public park surrounded by chainlink, patrolled by twenty-four-hour security. Road trippers still stopped to look at it, but you could no longer climb on its branches or picnic in its generous shade. The Worshippers, a pseudo-pagan environmentalist group from Austin, in place since long before my time, had formed a ring around the fence and, hands linked, swayed from side to side, eyes closed, faces tilted upward. No one really knew their story. The tree’s dome was shrouded with green netting. The worshippers respectfully broke their ring to let me through, and I showed a security pass to get beyond the fence. Families disembarked from minivans and SUVs, took selfies with the tree, surveyed the hills with binoculars, ate from a gourmet hotdog and snow cone trailer that some entrepreneur had opened.

Using a harness, I winched myself to the canopy on one of the healthier branches. Midway along the bough, I found a D-shaped hole the size of a quarter. I probed with a latex forefinger and procured three borers. They were completely black with small, flat heads and backswept horns. I filled the hole with plaster. As one, the worshippers emitted a soft, approving hum.

In the mobile lab I wrote: Ghost borer sample 6881 momentarily confused by liberal pesticide application but did not succumb. Toxicity in terms of tree not determined. Mite treatment had no effect. During transferal from pesticide testing terrarium to mite-application terrarium, 6881 escaped and was terminated by shoe. Sample 6882 also did not succumb to either pesticide or mite treatment. Terminated by shoe. Sample 6883 disappeared sometime between this writing and 6881’s tests. Thorough search of lab provided nothing.

That night, I sat in my studio’s doorway, as it did not have a porch. My father turned off his living room light. He quietly opened the sliding glass door to the back patio and sat in a lawn chair. He looked straight at me from his higher ground, and we held each other’s gaze like two major apes guarding their respective sides of a watering hole. The air-conditioner kicked on, and the lights of my new home faded from the power drain.

*

“You need to wear sunblock,” said Justine. We were in a diner that was between my new place and her house. Her concern gave me a dose of hope. I wiped my forehead and my hand came away covered in oak dust. I hadn’t had time to shower after work. And I’d developed an itchy rash on the back of my hand that I figured was a reaction to any one of the thousands of allergens that made central Texas into a kind of allergy expo.

I first met Justine at a hostel in New Zealand. I was there to study the effects of climate change on molds growing on the leaves of kawakawa trees. She was there as a student, studying cultural hybridity and Maori literature. I told her I knew nothing about cultural hybridity. She said I must know how to hike.

We made love for the first time on a rocky outcropping, after having hiked together for only a few days. We had walked through a steaming rainforest, across pastureland, and a catwalk spanning a crevasse so deep you could drop a rock and not hear it hit. We sat close to each other, watching a pod of killer whales charge along a foamy break. Our shoulders touched. Our cheeks touched, too, and my fingers inched over hers. At some point we each looked around to be sure no one was watching. We made a bed with our jackets. She wrapped her legs and arms around me and I felt safe, shaking at the end, sweating, and she murmured something I couldn’t understand, but thought was “all’s well and then some.” I never asked her what she’d really said.

In the diner, Justine chewed pecan pie, her jaw popping, a noise it also made when she ground her teeth in sleep. Pie was an anachronism. We’d never been pie people. The diner smelled like cooking grease and hyacinths.

“Still running?” I said, knowing the answer had to be yes, as she had that post-run glow, and her hair looked wet from the shower.

“How’s the tree?”

“Not looking good.” I recounted how samples 6881 and 6882 seemed un-killable, how 6883 possibly possessed supernatural abilities.

Justine’s fork methodically reduced the last pieces of crust to finer and finer grades.

The tree was a series of reaching limbs designed only to sustain its own life, I told her. It existed for no other purpose. Expression for the sake of. We give meaning to its form, I said, but a tree is really just an extension of a possibility. Yet, I stand next to it, and I feel a presence. An intention. Something looking back at me. I was getting poetic. Maybe it was the coffee. I scratched my neck, inspecting my fingernails and found skin flakes and dust.

“You really love that tree,” she said, zero inflection.

“I love all organisms,” I said, realizing how dumb it sounded, considering the way I’d killed Albert that night and then tried to make up excuses.

“Anyway,” she said, attacking her pie with greater intensity, “we can talk about something else.”

“Okay. How’s teaching?”

“My students are sleepy and disengaged, but it’s summer.”

“Who can blame them?” I said, feeling agreement would show good faith.

“And it’s hot. My colleague Seth Gardner says half his students have dropped already. He says it’s normal, the sudden drop in numbers, predictable as seasons. Don’t be alarmed, but he’s also my running partner. I just thought transparency was appropriate.”

“Running partner like to keep one company? Or running partner as in one who later asks you out to dinner.”

“Former. I keep saying it, but maybe you don’t hear me. Our separation is a trial, remember? Trial as in trying it out to see if we can reset.”

“Why the pie, then?” I said, wanting diversion but also answers.

“What do you mean?”

“Two weeks ago, it was strawberry rhubarb. Before that, you had the banana cream.”

“Marking time with my pie orders. That’s so you.”

“We’ve never been pie people.”

Justine put down her fork and took a moment. The waiter appeared with more coffee, but I ordered two beers.

“Beers all around,” said the waiter.

“I’m good,” said Justine.

“Both for me, actually. I’ll drink them down,” I said.

“We are not the same we, Ed,” said Justine. “But the important work right now is a kind of deconstruction. Why weren’t we pie people? Were we denying ourselves pleasure for unexamined reasons? What’s the point of that? Besides, I run now. I burn the calories.”

“I know that,” I said, not sure to which part, and feeling like I was losing ground, but not certain why I wanted to gain any in the first place.

I drank my beers and tried to steer talk back to my work. The un-killable bug, the goliath tree. Did the tree have a name, she wanted to know. I told her it was called Wolff’s Capture, but I’d heard older locals call it The Hanging Oak. It didn’t take a whole lot of digging to discover that the tree had been used to hang other German dissenters and freedmen. She said not to overlook obvious needs of science and my own seeming attachment, but maybe then it wouldn’t be the worst thing if the tree died. But the tree, of course, had been forced into service. I said something foolish like that was then and now is now, and that seemed to imply an orbit back around to ourselves, so I let it drop and, after a few comments on weather and whatever, we both went home.

*

The next morning, there were new holes in two branches. One branch I plastered, the other had to be removed close to the trunk. The Worshippers kept their silent vigil, and I could feel their eyes on me and the pressure of their expectations. Mostly in their thirties and forties, they wore outdoorsy, many-pocketed hiking clothes which suggested a modular nature to their group. Perhaps this tree was merely one stop on a path of many. More than one of them carried a walking stick.

A man with a gray beard and curly, gray hair, who seemed to be the leader, spoke to the group, referring to his phone when needed: “Light work is a matter of historical probing. Remember that the entities attached to this tree may not want to leave, but we need to show them that they are allowed to.”

When I came close to the trunk, I heard them hum. Yes, yes, I wanted to say. I feel you, I am on your side. Am I one of you? I am only an ally. Tourists pointed and snapped photos, consumed hotdogs and bags of chips and dyed their tongues bright reds, yellows, and blues with snow cones. A sixty-something African American man I’d seen before bought a Coke and drank it while sitting on a bench, watching the tree from behind dark sunglasses, and then left. Sometimes he came with a woman I assumed was his wife, sometimes with a white man roughly the same age. A chainsaw spluttered to life, and an arborist sawed through the limb, sprinkling me with dust. I rubbed my eyes with the back of my hand. The rash had crept up my forearm overnight, a scant trail of hives climbing toward my shoulder.

“Oak pollen,” a coworker said. “I get it bad, too. It’s like the tree is fighting us, the very people who are trying to save it. Irony.”

My phone buzzed with a message from Justine: “Won’t make it to coffee next week.  Helping Seth move his office. Talk soon!”

Seth, I thought. Seth, Seth, Seth. Office. Help. Seth. My mind becoming a pointless feedback loop of those words until they lost meaning.

During lunch, I sat in the tree’s still ample shade. The crew cut the limb into manageable pieces and carried them to a truck. Back at the house, Dad shared more fuzzy advice. We sat watching a new twist of smoke to the west and held our cold beers.

“You talk about the hacking of the limbs, the way the arborists carry the pieces away, probably to be burned like on a pyre of sorts,” he said, and I braced myself. “We never talk about ritual. Even the tree’s dismemberment is a kind of ritual, a kind of worship. You think everything you do somehow corresponds to a greater pattern. Obvious connections between your marriage and the state of the tree. The progression of sickness and healing. The transformation arc. But that’s all sleight of hand.”

“Isn’t that just new mindfulness, Dad?” I said, feeling tired and antagonistic. My father had never been into trends, had never drunk the Kool-Aid, had in fact denounced herd mentality my entire life. While not openly anti-religion, he abhorred the “foisters” as he called them, those who tried to convert nonbelievers. He used the word “sheeple” so often when I was a child that it appears in my earliest verbal memories, but he disowned the term when it became mainstream.

“My new street-level perspective. I thought it would change me fundamentally. That I would find contentment in recognizing myself in the eyes of my fellow man, etcetera. But isn’t that impossible? This isn’t a bitter, old, distant father thing. I’m really curious to know what you think.”

I thought about that, my father’s new openness, if that’s what it was. I couldn’t help wondering what his seeming transformation meant about my seeming stasis, if that’s what you called it. I decided to find it disingenuous.

“If it’s not bitter and old, then what is it? You never talked about feelings. My entire life I only wanted you to see me and to acknowledge my personhood. How else can a kid sense that other than through reciprocation?”

He became silent as predicted, frowning at the deck. It was the look he made that I most recognized myself in, brow ridged, lips pursed, slightly perturbed, slightly apprehensive. After a while I returned to my room and lay on the bed until I fell asleep.

*

Missing the weekly coffee with Justine made me unexpectedly nervous. I drove through the neighborhood one morning and saw her sprinting down a pecan-lined block, fists pumping in front of her. She stopped at an intersection and ran in place, checking her phone. A man, also in sportswear, rounded a corner behind her, his stride long, powerful, confident. They both stopped to catch their breath, their sweaty flesh glistening in the early sun. You could see every muscle in the man’s legs glide underneath the skin when he moved. In the lab, I observed six borers. Five crawled lethargically over each other. One of them appeared to be dying of natural causes and had absconded to a corner of the container. They seemed to leave the sick behind.

Who the fuck was Seth?

The school’s website had a teacher’s roster, and each teacher had a photograph beside their bio, except Seth Gardner. Instead of a photograph, Seth Gardner had a question mark. I scratched a rash on the back of my hand. The borers huddled around their dead sibling like monks around an altar.

I wrote in my log, 6897 seems dead of natural causes—check limb samples for possible toxins, then I stopped. There were only five borer samples. I counted each one over and over again. I brushed my hair with my hand and dust settled on the metal lab table, particles articulating under the neon light, drifting into a nebula. I dumped the borers onto the metal table and mashed them with the palm of my hand, smearing brownish fluids in a spiral.

*

One weekend my father convinced me to go fishing with him and, as we waited in the middle of a lake for our lines to twitch, mist rising all around us, he blew another wisdom bubble: “Fishing, like life, is easy or hard. Events interfere or do not interfere, but, in either case, one either accepts or does not accept.”

“She’s changing,” I said.

“You’re telling this to me? The abandoned one? I have memories of your mother’s handwritten notes condemning my insecurities, my laconic communication. Memories of the gravel her tires kicked up. You bet Justine’s changing. Everyone changes. But why? If you’re only noticing this now, my sympathy can’t help you.”

“I shouldn’t have left,” I said. “I should have put in more effort. Tried counseling. Something. And anyway, that’s not really what I meant. I mean she’s changing physically. She runs and runs, does circuit training, has gained muscle mass. Eats pie.”

My father said, “What do you expect me to say? That she’ll come around? You have your work. Cultivate enjoyment from that. Don’t fool yourself. Take, take, take. It’s a biological truth. Why whimper in the face of nature? Take some, leave what you don’t need, and move on. It is the only human way to live.”

*

Then the tree started getting better. It seemed to be resisting its killers. The first scientist there that morning noticed an unusually large number of grackles on the ground by the trunk and, on closer inspection, found it was littered with dead and living borers and grubs, which the birds eagerly harvested. It was as if the tree had expelled its enemies of its own will, pushing them out of their invasive holes. We spent the following days patching holes, feeling celebratory. The tree’s crown regained some green. Other sites around Texas reported similar events. The ghost borer seemed to either be forced out or leaving of its own accord.

Meetings with Justine also felt energized in a new way, probably due to my improved outlook. We joked. We laughed. We ate pie. The diner felt necessary, a fixed control, like a translator. She’d recently bought a vintage-looking scooter that could do forty on a flat road, and she let me ride on the back, arms around her waist. Squeezed together like that, I felt happier than I had in what I realized was a very long time.

One week, we decided to forgo the diner and take a hike. It was hellishly hot, but we tromped over trails scattered with pieces of limestone shelf and mesquite and tree roots polished from years of passage. We sat on a ledge overlooking a valley. Cyprus gave us shade, and we sipped water, and Justine put her head on my shoulder, a tentative gesture, but it spurred my desire to act, and then we were kissing, gently exploring each other’s faces. Justine murmured something that brought me back to our first intimate time together so many years ago: “All’s well and then some.”

“Why did you say that?” I said, pulling back. “You said it again. Why now? Why then?”

“I’m not sure what you mean,” she said.

“In New Zealand, after that first time,” I said. “I think you said, ‘All’s well and then some.’ Which seemed like the right thing to say, but I’ve never been sure that that’s what you actually said.”

“I don’t remember what I said then,” she said. “But just now I said ‘a heart swell begets mum.’ It’s from a poem. I don’t remember the title.”

Poetry seemed appropriate, I thought, and I didn’t pursue it.

We walked back to my car in sweaty, content silence. I took her home and, exiting the cold, air-conditioned car into the one-hundred-plus afternoon made me lightheaded. There was a long, somewhat uncomfortable hug, and then we said goodbye. That was it. No discussion of the kissing and fondling, the moist good feelings, the mysterious poetry. That night I almost called her, but thought better. In the morning, the borers had returned.

*

They came back with a vengeance. The tree lost more limbs, and then it lost its crown and was a stump with some minor branches reaching, erratic, and sad.

Later, I met Justine at the diner. She’d put on more weight—fat, not muscle. I noticed it in her cheeks and her hands.

“Your arm, you should have that checked out,” Justine said, worry seaming her forehead. The rash—bumpy, scabbed, weeping—covered the top of my right hand and forearm.

“Apparently I am allergic.” I had a cough, which I couldn’t hold back, and I hacked into a napkin.

“Seriously. Doctor. I’ll drive you. We can get pie later.”

I told Justine I that I loved her.

“I love you too, Ed,” she said. “We’re by no means in the clear, though.”

“By saying clear you admit to there being one, a chance at regrouping, stabilizing,” I said. Justine took my hand. She breathed in a deep, studied rhythm.

“I’m pregnant,” she said.

Her words worked like a virus, setting up quarters in my thoughts. She was hesitant, but not guilty. Did I wish she felt guilty? Yes. She ordered a piece of cherry pie. I couldn’t remember her ever liking cherry pie, but I also couldn’t remember her not liking it.

“It happened twice,” she said. “The first a few months ago.”

“What happened twice?”

“You know what.”

“Twice?”

“Is twice not enough?”

“Seth Gardner,” I said, scratching at my arm.

“Things with us being how they’ve been, yes, Seth Gardner.”

“Blaming myself all this time.”

“I needed someone,” she said. “But anyway, he’s moved on. He doesn’t teach in the department anymore.”

“Materialized, implanted himself, vanished.”

“Yes.”

*

There was a new hole in the trunk. I collected three lethargic borers and filled the hole with plaster.

At the lab I wrote: Borer samples 6899, 6900, and 6901 appear unperturbed by anything. 6899 endured mite treatment, pesticides, harsh invectives. 6900 seemed responsive to philosophical argument by fluttering its mandibles. Flew into ceiling vent. 6901 crawled to a corner of lab and touched wall molding tenderly with its front legs, as if caressing a mother.

At home, Dad told me he was leaving for a couple weeks.

“No wild parties,” he said, attempting a joke, but I wasn’t in the mood.

“It’s down to one branch,” I said. “Only me and a couple others bother to show up anymore.”

“I’m surprised you still do,” he said. “The ugly history. The whitewashing. The obvious symbolism.”

“I didn’t know any of that. The history. None of that mattered to me at first.”

“It says a lot about you that you tried so hard to save it,” Dad said, and I had to think about what he meant. It sounded like a compliment and, on the surface, it probably was meant to be. “Those trees are an invasive species, anyway, right?”

Of course I knew that, but I’d always tried to see past that point. I said, “We’re invasive species, too, right? If that’s how you want to see it. I don’t hear you praying that we all die off.”

“You know that’s not my point, but regardless, since when do you know what I pray about?”

“Good point, Dad. Since when would I know anything about your inner life?”

“That’s not what I meant, but admit that I haven’t exactly been subtle, Ed, about my inner life. Not since you moved here anyway.”

*

The diner crashed and clinked around us.

“It’ll be okay,” I said.

Justine said, “I’ve decided to keep it.”

“We used to talk about babies, remember?”

“We were afraid then, I think. I know I was afraid. Complacent and afraid of looking inward.”

“We’re not afraid now?”

“We aren’t the same we, remember? I don’t feel afraid of it anymore. I know that’s probably hard for you.”

I thought about the guesthouse, my father brooding and fiddling with lures and attempting to give me advice. I couldn’t be a father to this child. That seemed absurd.

Justine reached out and took my hand. People watched. One new freckle on the bridge of her nose.

*

The next day, there was yet another hole, but I didn’t patch it. I sat at the tree’s base for a while. The rash had left my hand, leaving small dotted scars, but it had moved up my arm and speckled my shoulder and collar bone.

The worshippers hand dwindled in numbers, but the leader was still there, directing them to be empathetic to the entities that would hopefully walk into the light, a kind of well-intentioned erasure. A few tourists looked on disappointedly, double-checked the placard. A storm system was making its way up from the Gulf. The African American man and his wife were there, holding folded umbrellas, watching expectantly. Wind caused the remaining bow to wave and creak. A grackle pecked near my foot and regarded me with obstinate, black eyes.

The wind picked up, rocking the sickly bow up and down, and I felt the air pressure drop, and a dark cloud bank turned the midmorning light into gloam. By the time I stood, it was too late to find cover, so I got soaked, watching the water darken the tree’s trunk and form muddy rivulets in the parking lot that intertwined to make puddles and streams. There was a sound like a giant femur splitting, and the last branch fell, the flesh inside the breaking point yellowish and swarming with small, grey grubs that twisted blindly, tumbling into the wet grass. The worshippers let out a collective gasp. And the storm passed quickly, and the sun came back out, and in no time the branch and the ground around it was swarming with grackles devouring the insects, every last one too slow to hide. The African American couple left in their car, the man giving me a small nod as he drove past, eyes hidden by his sunglasses. I sat leaning against the trunk. The rash wasn’t going away by itself. It tingled and itched. At night I had dreams in which I scratched off a hive only to reveal a recess in my skin, filled with more hives.

A crew came to cut the tree into chunks and, not knowing what else to do, I stayed and helped them. We loaded each knotty piece into the beds of two trucks with reverence, placing each piece carefully, not letting them drop. The tree had been abused, forced to be an accomplice to murder, then made into a kind of freak show, but this was a ritual, a cleansing. I made one last drive through hill country, before my last stop by my father’s house to pick up my things and decide what I would do next, and I tried to think about things in terms of change and opportunity. This is your chance at freedom, a voice that was not mine kept telling me. But I didn’t feel free. I didn’t trust the voice.

 

 

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