Cassiopeia appeared, low in the summer sky. I first saw her in my youth, when I stood on the vast Dakota plain with a calf in my arms and tears smeared on my face. Daddy pointed up to the stars, telling me how Poseidon banished Cassiopeia to the heavens for selfishness. “She reminds us of our duty to those in our keep,” he said. I looked on while Daddy took my sick calf and put it down. I always searched for her. I oriented myself around the ancient constellation instead of the North Star like the rest of mankind; her sweeping arc through the heavens showing me how I moved, how I changed, and I judged my derelictions against her willful breach. I was miles and years away from that little girl, but Cassiopeia’s points of light still dictated her eternal repose. I wanted to be up there beside her.
Coffee warmed my hands and I stretched my feet toward the fire, the flames an adversary to the slight chill of the mountain air. John sat next to me in our forest campsite, high up on a hill and overlooking a tall grass meadow. The stars fanned out below us over the tops of the distant trees and I felt peace at seeing her again. Camping was never my favorite thing, but the parts I loved, the stars and the quiet of evening, would usually make up for sleeping on the ground and waking to the cold of early morning. I promised John long ago I would go with him, wherever he wanted to go. In the morning, we decided to go for a walk among the trees of Calaveras Big Trees State Park. I was impressed on the drive into the campground, and up close they were surely giants. The high canopy overhead was like a cathedral: bright, peaceful, inspiring worship. We walked in silence, far apart but not distant, the kind of closeness in space that long marriage brought. We came to a trailhead that had markers and a delineated path, but the first thing on the trail was a stump of a tree. It was not the most encouraging start. “The Big Stump,” John read aloud. “The Big Stump? Who named it that? Seems a little obvious. And why is a stump the beginning of a trail?” John finished reading the marker at the base of the stump while I walked up the stairs and stood on the large expanse that was once the base of an enormous tree, “It is so large, a small building once sat atop it.” I could dance on it the way I danced at my wedding.
“Sequoiadendron giganteum.” John read. Made it sound like a dinosaur. “The species has been traced back fifteen million years. It is the largest living thing on earth. Only fractions of one percent of the seeds ever germinate. It takes a specific water content, sunlight, and depth for the seed to sprout into a tender beginning that looks like a blade of grass. It is the sole species in the genus Sequoiadendron.” On day seventy-three I knew I would marry him.
I descended the stairs and we walked into the forest. I got dizzy when I put my head far back, trying to see the tops of the trees all around us, the full scope of height elusive. In the stillness, my breath sounded loud and even the slight elevation of roots beneath my feet had structure. We reached another marker and a majestic specimen stood before us. Blackened edges on the bark showed where a fire touched this giant, but he withstood the threat. “Look John, this tree is like us. Big and strong, scarred but still standing.” John continued his narration. “The Empire State Tree. In 1907, Galen Clark wrote: ‘The bright cinnamon color of their immense fluted trunks, in strong contrast to the green foliage and dark hues of the surrounding forest, makes them all the more conspicuous and impressive. In their sublime presence a person is apt to be filled with a sense of awe and veneration, as if treading on hallowed ground.’” On day four hundred fifty-two, I said yes.
We began to wander more than walk, our purpose of getting to the end lost in the detail of really seeing majesty up close. Ahead of us, two trees touched at their bases and the marker named them ‘Mother and Son.’ There was an invitation on the marker to touch the trees here, words and short barriers guarded the others on the path. The softness of the bark surprised me and I petted it like a puppy, ran my hand slowly down, then back up and down again. “I wish I could be a tree.” John laughed. "Why?” On day one thousand four hundred forty-seven, our son was born.
I didn’t answer him about why I wished to be a tree, but right then, I did want to be part of them. We passed ferns and moss-covered stones, shoulders touching briefly now and then as we followed the path sedately. “Really, why would you want to be a tree?” He looked at me like he did when we didn’t know everything about each other. I walked a bit more before I answered, letting the seconds emphasize the words. I didn't want the timbre of complaint to overburden the idea. “Everyone would see who I was; no hiding behind social customs, no worrying about hurting someone’s feelings. Just me. Beautiful on the whole, even if up close the flaws show, soft on the outside, but ultimately strong because I stand with others.” I said these reasons out loud because they were true and right. There were other reasons I kept to myself. I knew they were not so generous. I wouldn’t have to go where I didn’t want to. I wouldn’t have a burden of duty to others. My child would always be close by.
John said nothing, just smiled and walked on. I wondered if he would like to be a tree. After a few silent steps, I added softly, “I wouldn’t have to change. I would always and forever be just that one thing, a tree.” He moved closer and put his arm around my waist. “But Julie, you would still have to grow.” Growth and change are not always the same. Another giant loomed ahead, but this one lay on the forest floor. Broken. Dead. The path led beside and through The Father of the Forest. Though it fell hundreds of years ago, only the interior decayed. The resulting tunnel was large enough for me to walk through. John noticed graffiti carved into the strong outer bark and he sputtered with anger at the defacement of something so beautiful. “How could someone write his name on this? Who'll care that they were here? They’ve ruined this wonderful tree.” As I stepped inside, the sounds around me were muffled. The bark soundproofed the tunnel and my ears felt deaf in the few seconds it took to walk through to the end. It was a strange and new sensation of a physical barrier, of something damped down over me, isolating me from the outside world. Communication silenced. We buried our son on day seven thousand sixty-two.
I came out the other side. The world reached my ears again. Wind blew through the leaves, and the scrunching of John’s shoes on the path brought comfort after the silence. “John, in a few hundred years, someone may think it’s interesting. They won’t be offended then. Remember the graffiti in the pyramids? You thought that was fascinating. Remember?” He grumbled to himself, and all I caught was “. . . still not right.” The next stop on the path was in front of The Abraham Lincoln. It was mature when he was president and gave the Gettysburg Address. I thought of the rows of graves facing Lincoln that day, and marveled at his ability to speak those words with such a weighted grief as the loss of his own two sons and the war of a nation hanging over him. “Rate of Growth,” read John. “They continue to grow throughout their lifetimes. The oldest known currently is three thousand three hundred years old. The trees gain two feet of height per year for the first fifty to one hundred years. After that, their growth is outward and upward. Rings of one-half inch thickness are common.” “See Julie, always growing.” His words were kind, not chiding. He seemed to know I was fragile. He took my hand and we continued on. Up ahead, I could see the path going through one of the trees. We walked a bit faster, and I fleetingly thought I might run. I saw two old women standing inside the tree, touching the sides tenderly. We stalled at the marker and read about The Pioneer Cabin Tree. “A hole was cut in the base of the tree in the 1850’s for wagons to drive through.” I wanted to give the ladies privacy, not push in and rush their enjoyment, but we couldn't help drifting in beside them; it was big enough for us all. As I passed them, I realized they were searching for something. Here too were names and dates scratched along the tunnel carved by hand over a hundred and fifty years ago. They touched the names, carefully going over each one as if it were Braille for their fingers to read. I stopped and asked one of them, “Are you looking for someone?” “Yes, my great-grandmother, Louise Marsden. She traveled through here in 1882. She was just eleven and carved her name in the tree when her father wasn’t looking. I wanted to find her.” I decided to help look. I was shorter by inches and so more easily inspected the names below. A few well-spent moments found “Marsden 1882” underneath my fingers. “Oh, here!” I called them over and the same gentle touch greeted this name. “I just wanted to touch her again.” Like I touched Jared’s name on the cold granite stone.
I left them. It was not my memory. I rejoined my husband who was waiting patiently as always on the other side. “See John, someone loves the graffiti.” I was pleased to be right, but not in my usual smugness. The sunlight danced down through the leaves. His hand slipped into mine again and we walked together, as we had for so many years. Around a turn, we found three giants standing majestically before us. The marker named them: “The Three Graces. Aglaea (Beauty), Euphrosyne (Mirth), and Thalia (Good cheer).” We stepped back, side-by-side, and gazed from trunk to crown and back again. I was humbled, amazed at these living things. They were graceful, beautiful, and strong; all the things I wanted to be. I looked at John and realized he was more full of grace than I. How could he be? On day ten thousand two hundred fifty-two, the doctor said he didn’t have much time.
I looked more closely at his face. “What?” he asked. “Nothing. Just looking at you.” I kissed him, silently thanking him for being strong. As we wound our way along, a clearing opened up to show a section of tree that lay on its side, taller than our house. The marker proclaimed it was The Discovery Tree. “This is the first tree discovered in this grove and felled in 1853. The ring count gives an age of one thousand two hundred forty four years.” This very tree started growing in the year six hundred nine. There were two hundred rings when Charlemagne ruled, six hundred when the Magna Carta was signed. It had nine hundred rings when Da Vinci painted, and a thousand when Shakespeare wrote. I was left, again, searching for words but this time due to awe and not for calculated effect. I was captivated by the idea of discovering something so grand, something that was here all along, but not seen by human eyes, not acknowledged to the world. My reverence was profound in front of this tree lying in repose. It was day fourteen thousand six hundred.
John stood a few feet from me. “You know this is the tree to The Big Stump, right?” “It is not!” I protested immediately. The idea took a moment to settle in. I peered down the length of the tree on its side and I saw, over there, the stump of it’s past. The Big Stump. “This is the same tree we saw when we first started on the path? But it looks so different from over here.” “We're just on the other side, nothing's different.” In the silence of the forest, I understood the faint whisper of meaning in my husband's words, calling me away from the stars and back toward earth. Cassiopeia could wait. Maybe duty was service, and grief, and solemn watch, without regard for how it all turned out in the end. Self-recrimination didn't fulfill a duty to anyone. The tree's repose mirrored Cassiopeia's, but the tree didn't intend to be cut from its base. It merely happened. My hand felt the tree in a different caress, newly aware of our common tie, and I breathed in the scent of the wood.
Published by RoseRedReview on June 21, 2014; Best of the Net 2014 Nomination
Jonathan heard the resort bus coming long before it pulled into the circular drive in front of the lobby and threw its door open for the guests. He was first in line, on an early mission before Katie woke. “I need to find Karl,” he said, eyes searching for recognition of the name on the dark face in front of him. “Yah, Mon. We find him.” He sat on the left side, next to the last row, and fixed his eyes on the horizon, letting the patchwork of buildings blur into a single streak of color as the bus picked up speed. Seventy-eight humid degrees came in the bank of windows set open on the top, smells of salt water and stale sweat mixed with the breeze of forty-five miles an hour. The painter’s name was Karl; that’s all he knew for sure. He lived somewhere in town, but no one would give an address for the local master. He only worked now if you asked him yourself, or so they said. The bus stopped in front of a shanty town area, crooked walls and corrugated tin roofs, more poverty than artistry, but the driver nodded his head at the unspoken question. “Fifteenth place down on the right, red paint with a porch.” Jonathan handed the driver a generous tip, ensuring a quick return when he’d acquired his prize. “Evry’ting Arie,” the bus driver said and closed the door. Jonathan walked down the dirt road, counting the shacks where the artists showed their work. All the places had hand painted signs and they gave an idea of what he might find inside. Sister Love Art & Craft Nice ’n Easy Welcome Shop 62 The proprietors shouted to each other; friendly calls of "Yah Mon," carried on the heavy island air. In the warm, blanketing breeze, Jonathan felt strangely at home in a place he’d never been. He passed Alda’s Gift Shop, bright blue accordion doors opened wide to the tourists to lure them inside, to paw through shell and coral and wood art, or pass over necklaces and bracelets crafted by the boys behind the counter. Older women with their hair up in burgundy wraps sat outside the doors on plastic chairs and called out to those on the street to “come look.” Fifteenth place down, right side. He sat on the porch with a young boy at his feet. Together, all knees and elbows, they appeared the contrast of age, one of coltish growth, one of waning might. “Are you Karl?” Jonathan asked. “Yah, Mon, I’m Karl. Whatch you want?” He turned toward the sound of Jonathan’s voice and from the few feet that separated them, Jonathan saw gray cataracts covered both of Karl’s eyes. A blind painter. How would a blind painter create a portrait of Katie? He dropped his arms to his sides and stammered, “Uh, Um, Uh...” The young boy jumped up and motioned Jonathan into the shack, eagerly waving his hand. “Karl paint for you. I mix de paint for him, but he still as good as when he could see. Come and look. Start here.” Jonathan stepped into the darkness and faced the right wall, waiting for his eyes to adjust, a single, naked bulb the only source of dim light. Portraits sat on the floor, tipped back and resting on the wall and hung all the way to the roof in no pattern or order, Black, White, Asian, and Indian faces rendered in all the colors of the rainbow that described humanity. He didn’t need to step in any direction, the room no bigger than his walk in closet. The young boy talked about all the paintings and Karl’s great talent, which he could see for himself. “Show me a piece he’s just done,” Jonathan said, afraid the boy would bring garish and unclear brush strokes on canvas. “Here,” the boy pointed to a minor collection, set aside on the left. “Dey dry here.” Jonathan drew in a quick breath, realizing he failed to consider a painting would have to dry. He would not be able to take it to Katie today. The boy squirmed, smiling, while he showed off the pieces as though in a museum instead of a dirty, sad little shack. Jonathan’s cool hesitation began to melt as he looked at these newer works. A bit more impressionistic, more Van Gogh than Rembrandt, the likenesses were still real, the colors vivid. The portraits seemed alive. “Karl paint for you?” The boy looked less like a little beggar and more like an usher, sure of where he placed a patron. “Yes, please. A portrait of my wife.” The boy brought an easel to where Karl sat and prepared the paints and brushes. Karl felt for the canvas and directed Jonathan with pointed finger and a nod of his head to sit on the porch rail in front of him. “Tell me about her,” Karl said. “I have a picture.” Jonathan offered it to the boy who dutifully took it to Karl, and held it steady until Karl turned back to the canvas. “Tell me about her,” he said again. Jonathan described his wife’s features, thinking Karl had only been able to see color and shape from the picture. “She has blond hair, five feet six inches tall. Square face and rounded nose. Blue eyes with long lashes. She smiles a lot.” Karl laughed softly. “No Mon, tell me about her. Tell me who she is, what she loves. Dat’s how I paint now. I paint de spirit, not de flesh. Dose t’ings are de black and white of people. Color comes from inside.” Jonathan shoved both hands deep into the pockets of his jeans as if he could find a single item to show him—this is her, this is how I feel about her, this is who she is. His arms hugged his sides and protected the part of him that feared he did not know her well enough. He started again, the words at first no more descriptive than arched brow and soft skin, but as the ideas came, he used hands and face and body to show Karl how she spoke and moved, expressive and charming. He defined her as Karl painted. Above her desk hung a collage of strong women, in character and deed. She loved Mozart and Green Day, poetry by John Donne and Sara Teasdale. She spoke four languages and she snorted when she laughed. She cooked dinner in stocking feet, wearing a black apron, with a glass of Merlot in her hand. Katie made funny faces at him in the middle of an argument. Jonathan mimicked her voice and manner of speech and Karl worked steadily, interrupting sometimes for a detail of her face, or requesting a color from the boy. “Mix pink like de lady near de mirror and a red like de dancing girl.” Karl spoke kindly to the boy, in a low and steady tone, warm as the island air. “Terrence is my nephew, my sister’s boy,” he said to Jonathan as the boy disappeared into the dark. “Why you come to Jamaica, Mon?” Karl asked. “For vacation, to make her happy. Katie’s been, I don’t know, distant lately. People change over the years and who’s to say because you are married, you change along the same path? I’ve asked her what is wrong and she doesn’t know. She says she’s happy. I thought getting away, being able to pay attention to her would help.” “Yah Mon?” Karl’s eyebrows lifted high on his forehead. “She seems content. But what if she’s slipping away from me?” “Whatch you want from her, your Katie?” “For her to be happy, I guess.” Jonathan wrinkled his nose as if giving a teacher an answer he was unsure of. “Nah Mon, dat’s whatch you want for her, I asked whatch you want from her?” “Just love. Love and understanding.” He stood up straight, words soft. “So. Maybe dat’s all she want from you too.” “But I do love her and understand her.” “It’s not de same, lovin’ and understandin’. Love is some’tin you do. Understandin’ is some’tin you give.” And then he finished. It was . . . her. Jonathan touched his shoulder, then took Karl’s strong and remarkably soft hand in his. “Tomorrow. Come back tomorrow, Mon. It be dry enough den. Bring Katie which'you?” On the twenty-minute ride back to the resort, past businesses, more shanty towns, and beachfront houses, Jonathan saw them differently. They were all just things, the black and white of people. When he entered the room, Katie was gone; her hat, sunglasses, and bag gone too. He hurriedly changed into board shorts and jogged down to the beach. At the surf line, he headed west, seven miles of white sand meeting perfect blue water; it looked in real life as it did in the pictures. He walked on the edge of the tiny waves, breaking like bath water splashing over the sides of a tub. He knew Katie would recognize his Pennsylvania tan and unruly hair but he saw her first, reading in the now hot October sun, sipping a happy orange drink and tipping her head back to see out from under the brim of her sun hat. “Where’ve you been?” She waved and pulled her glasses off. She always took them off when they spoke. “I went looking for something for you, to make you happy, and instead, I found something from you.” She cocked her head to the side and took a sip from her drink. “I didn’t know I was so powerful. What’d I get you?” “Understanding.” He couldn’t say much more. “It fits.” Her smile said more than the words. She held out her hand, “Let’s go swimming.” They walked slowly toward the water and she ran her hand up his arm, patting it lightly in reassurance. “Did you know your shorts are on backward?” She threw her head back in laughter as his panicked face gave away his hurry to dress. When he looked down, he found the tie strings in perfect order. He giggled as she turned and ran, and he stood there, love-struck and laughing, watching Katie run full tilt to the bluest water in the world.