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The Tree

The Tree

by Jess Carson




The tree stood picturesque in a far corner of the backyard near the place where its cousins gathered together as if plotting against it. It had been jostled by a terrible storm thirty years ago and two of its roots jutted out of the ground like thick legs bent in relaxation. The hidden ends of them were like toes dug into the ground like feet burrowed into the sand on a beach.

The first memory I have of the tree occurred when I was six years old. It was one year after the storm exposed the roots. I usually goaded my brother into doing whatever I wanted. He never did realize boys got into more trouble than girls and that my father’s right hand of justice would fall upon him before me. I convinced him to walk over to the tree with me. It looked as lonely as I felt sometimes in our house on an empty corner where no one lived but the old lady next door who smelled like cabbage. My brother was sometimes too cool and my parents were most of the time too busy to ever have time for me.

Upon reaching the massive structure, my brother immediately jumped up to grab a low-hanging limb and started swinging like a monkey in the zoo. “Are they lookin’?” he asked. I turned to the kitchen window. My father was feeding strawberries to my mother. She lowered her head and brought a caramel hand to her cheek, wiping juice from the corner of her lipsticked mouth. My father laughed and leaned over to kiss her cheek. They weren’t fighting today and I wondered how long it would last.

“Nope,” I told my brother and joined him on the limb.

“Betcha I can get higher than you,” he challenged. I nodded. I never backed down from a challenge. He was a little more chubby and less limber than me. I knew he’d only get about six or seven limbs up before his breath became labored and beads of sweat ran down his face.

We counted to three and began to climb. I liked to pretend I was a panther tracking its prey up a tree in the rainforest. I even found myself emitting a growl as I reached from limb to limb. That day, I felt more like a mountain climber, fighting the cold winter weather of Mount Everest to reach its peak. Only my brother gasping, “okay, okay” brought me back to reality. It had only been about three minutes, but as I pulled myself up to sit on a limb, I could hear him breathing heavily. He was about five feet down from me, holding his chest. Though he was accepting his defeat in silence, I knew he would say he let me win because I was his little sister.

Our parents yelled to us. I cupped my hand over my eyes and searched for them like a sailor with a bird’s eye view even though they were mere feet away from us. My father stood at the window with his eyes tightly crossed over his chest with the scowl of a lion painted upon his face. My brother and I quickly started climbing down from the tree. He was too busy looking up at me and making sure that I was being careful that he didn’t notice placing his weight on a weak limb. It snapped and he fell what seemed like a hundred feet to the ground.

I heard his arm snap from my perch in the tree.


When I was thirteen, Oscar Lewis stood next to the jutted roots waiting for me to invite him to sit with me by the tree. Oscar was a bad boy. He liked to take his shirt off in public and kept a cigarette stolen from his mother behind his ear. I sometimes imagined he never lit it, and the same stick stayed tucked there to make him seem like a tough guy. He cursed loudly and had even pierced his own ear. His skin was the color of toffee and he had curly brown hair. No one knew who Oscar’s father was because his mother slept around a lot. My mother used to say, “That Claudette heats up the sheets before they ever have a chance to cool off. That’s why she’s been pregnant most of her life.”

I’d met him on my thirteenth birthday earlier that year. My mother made me invite him to make she and my dad seem like a charitable family. His mother made him come to my party because there was a single dad there that she wanted to take to bed. Oscar stood next to the drink table with his lanky arms crossed over his chest. He wore a baseball cap and brought the brim low over his eyes. I walked up to him and asked if he wanted to play tag with us and he smiled this slow smile and told me I was a pretty little thing.

Over the next few months, he tried to get me to come to his tree house behind the crooked little place he lived in two blocks over. My mother would never let me go over there because she was too scared there would be some strange man sleeping there with his mother. I snuck out one night when my parents were away and threw rocks at his window. He invited me up and we talked all night long. He told me he wanted to be a famous artist when he grew up and showed me some of the drawings that hanged on his bedroom walls. He said I was really pretty and should let him draw me one day.

So I told him he could draw me sitting under that tree.

I sat down on one of the leg roots as Oscar jumped the fence like an acrobat. He pulled out a pocket knife and approached the great trunk. He stabbed the wood and pulled the blade through the rough grooves until it formed a jagged heart in the bark. He then carved our initials inside of the lines of the heart. I always thought it was kind of stupid to make letters “eternal” in wood that could be so easily damaged by outside forces, but I forgot about it when Oscar sat down next to me and grabbed my hands in his.

I’ll never forget the feel of his lips on mine.


I brought my boyfriend Alex home for Spring Break when I was twenty years old. I was really nervous because school in Massachusetts led my father to believe I would lose touch with my Arkansan roots and values; and it didn’t help that Alex was white. I didn’t care because I was madly in love with him. When I initially told my parents about his race, my mother was happy that someone made me as happy as Alex did. She was like me – colorblind. My father, however, was livid. “First your brother runs off with a Spic and now you’re coming home with a cracker! Do you have any idea what the white folks did to our ancestors?”

One day in my household and I was ready to go back to UMass. My father couldn’t stop talking about the plethora of eligible bachelors living right there in our neighborhood. He would ask Alex questions about whether or not he was ready for all the ridicule we’d endure from “all the white folk who don’t understand true love.”

Alex didn’t say much during this whole ordeal. I don’t know if it was because he didn’t care about what my father said, or if he was just ready to leave. I hoped it wasn’t the latter. I wanted him to stay with me. Sometimes I felt our relationship was too fragile, especially when the issue of race came up. He would say he had feelings for me, but whenever we were around his friends, he’d treat me like more of a servant than a girlfriend. I figured that was because he was getting used to the idea of commitment as well.

After strained conversations, my parents decided to go out for dinner.  I spread out a blanket on the ground next to the trunk of the tree and lay in his arms, telling him about my carefree childhood. I pointed to the faded heart with Oscar and my initials. Alex asked if I had loved him. I thought it was more infatuation with his bad-boy demeanor than anything else, if not just a crush. Alex then wanted to know if Oscar and I had made love. I told him we didn’t, but that Oscar was my first kiss.

I think Alex was jealous, but when I told him I was still a virgin, he smiled real sweet and kissed me gently. He asked me if I loved him and I told him that he was my first love. Alex laid me on my back and ran his finger down my cheek, telling me that he loved me too and always would.

The stars were shining when I made love for the first time.


At twenty-five, I stood up the makeshift aisle that led me to my future. My father refused to give me away to a white man and decided to sit in his study while the ceremony went on in his own backyard. As I walked down the aisle, I looked around at family and friends. My mother stood smiling in the front row and I gave her a hug before facing Alex. He offered his hand to me, and without hesitation, I let him lead me to the altar.

Alex and I stood under the tree on our wedding day. We shared a special smile as the minister spoke words of God as we stood on the place where our bodies were once entwined with sweaty, awkward, blissful, pre-marital sex. Alex slipped the ring over my finger and pressed his lips softly to mine.

A part of me wishes I could have spent my honeymoon locked in his arms under that tree.


At twenty-eight I sat under the tree as a broken woman. My hands clenched my empty womb in disgust. I fought for nine hours to deliver a child that wouldn’t breathe. I ran my hand along the root I was sitting on, thinking about how my son would never climb this tree. Alex drove out to see me there. He kissed my cheek and ran his hands through my hair. He mumbled something about loving me and trying again. I cried in his arms.

We’d tried for months to conceive. After many doctors, pills, and prayers, I’d finally gotten pregnant. Alex had grown up verbally and physically abused by his father, so he prayed for a son to love like he was never loved. Alex wanted to go fishing and camping and do all the things that he was never able to do when he was growing up. When we found out that I was having a boy, Alex hugged me and thanked me for being such an amazing woman…like I had something to do with the gender of the child.

The pregnancy was flawless. I didn’t have any issues with my child. Every time I went in for a check-up, the nurses would gush over how strong and healthy our baby was going to be. But when the time came for little Gabriel to be born, he just wasn’t strong enough. Alex tried to get me to come home, but I couldn’t look him in the eye.

I punched the trunk until my knuckles were bloodied.


At thirty-one, Alex and I sat outside of my mother’s home without speaking. I’d gone to stay with them after he and I had an argument, and I thought he was coming to reconcile. He accused me of being unable to provide him with the son he so deserved. Somehow, it had become my fault that we were childless, as if I had control over the universe and the way these things worked. There was no support, and he refused to console me.

When I asked him what he would do about it, since he believed me to be an unfit mother, he joked about finding someone who was fertile. “Maybe your dad is right,” he said, “maybe we weren’t meant to mix the races. Maybe I was supposed to have a son with someone more like me.” His eyes were as blank as an empty chalkboard. I didn’t know if he was serious, or just unequivocally pained.

He was too prideful to adopt, too embarrassed to hire a surrogate. He claimed he didn’t want to leave me, but hinted that he would stop at nothing to have a son. So, tears clouding my vision, I drove to my mother’s house to clear my head. I turned off my cell phone and refused to speak to anyone. After a few hours, Alex showed up. When he came to sit down by me, I expected an immediate apology. What I got instead was a pat on the shoulder and a “let’s try again.”

He hadn’t said “I love you” in three years.


At thirty-five, I stood at the trunk of the great tree, blind with tears. After three stillbirths and ten years of trying, Alex decided to leave me. He said it wasn’t for a lack of love (the first time I’d heard the word uttered in years). And if he loved me, then why would he leave me after he’d invested so much time in our marriage? He was scared he would never have a family, but he didn’t understand that he did have one. He was my home. Like a child, I climbed nearly thirty feet into the air.

I sat on a limb and overlooked the yard. The grass was flowing to and fro like stalks of wheat on a warm summer day. The sun was just starting to set, casting an eerie glow throughout the leaves of the tree. It was an unwelcome addition to the pain I was feeling. I thought about Alex, my unborn children, and my betraying womb. I thought about the struggle I’d had to only taste the bit of happiness I’d achieved when I realized what I had to look forward to.

Nothing. I could look forward to an empty canvas. The pages of my life would be as empty and bare as the limbs of this tree would be in the coming months. My slate was clear to bloom like the leaves in the spring. My life was now my own. Maybe this is why my life had become so separated from everything I ever knew. Perhaps I was supposed to become a lone survivor, much like this tree, that stood in the corner of this yard, constantly growing older and wiser without having to rely on those around it. We were outcasts, destined to live on and endure.

In the fiery light of the setting sun, I began to laugh uncontrollably.


Jess Carson is a senior Creative Writing major at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She plans to further her education with an MFA in Creative Writing starting Fall 2012 and share her passion for writing and the arts with the world. http://www.jesscarson.com

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