Issue 8


 · Fiction

That Thursday night is Bang Bang Shrimp night at the Drunken Fish and the humidity covers us like Spanish moss on Live Oak. I wear heels so sharp they could cut my heart out, &Jilly wears a dress that sparkles glassy like dead fish eyes. I make eyes at the moon, I make eyes at you, &you’re three states over but I look so hard I know you can feel it. My eyes rip black holes through the humidity. We walk into the Drunken Fish with our knives for shoes and dead fish eyes for dresses and our words slur through the thick, hot space between us and the waiter. But the waiter can tell what we want: can tell by the mere fact that we are there; can tell by the hunger in our eyes, the same hunger in everyone’s, and he can’t give it to us, so he brings out some shrimp.

Two mouthfuls of fish &someone stops at our table to ask how you are &it’s like that time I went to the supermarket with my grandma after Grandpa died. Someone asked how Grandpa was &my grandma, she said, Oh, he’s doing just fine; he’s at home working in the garden. I say you’re fine three states over &working in the garden. That’s all it takes to bring me back there: knives&fish&your name. That song pounding at those speakers like a jailed man at his bars. Like that, I leave Bang Bang Shrimp night and am back to apple pies &ironing your undershirts during the hours of watery sunlight. I’m back to the story of you&me: you, the Live Oak Tree; me, the Root Girl. It started this way: I believe that somewhere there is always a coonhound that bays at the moon.

*  *  *

In the middle of a sawgrass clearing, you, the Live Oak, looked up at sky stretching out blue and blue above you. If you looked up long enough, you could convince yourself that you were drowning. You fought to grow in the clearing, drowning in the blue sky above and sipping swamp water below from miles away. You poked your roots into the soil again and again, but the reedy roots of the sawgrass had already claimed the space for itself. You picked up what roots you’d managed to penetrate the ground with, and you traveled to find a place you could call your own.

You moved across dry land the way an octopus might: roots like tentacles flowering out in every direction, lifting and slithering your way across sawgrass and swamp. Or you moved the way stars moved across the sky: invisibly, unless the movements were charted with special instruments that could tell one latitude in the sky from another. You felt as the stars did, like you were spanning universes in a single second, but observers in the clearing only saw a little Live Oak now at the edge of a field. As you traveled, sprouts of Spanish moss began to cover your branches like stubble. Red chittens crawled in and out of the moss, crisscrossing through you like knitting needles around a ball of my grandma’s yarn.

The first time it happened was when that passerby with a traveling stick and an angry red sunburn passed you at the edge of the clearing. Looking at you, the poor old thing became aware of your roots spiderwebbing under her feet. She jumped up, alarmed, and tiptoed between the cracks of your root-web that spanned a mile in every direction.

“Sorry little fella,” she said, and she produced a canteen of freshwater from her pack and unscrewed the lid, holding it down to the end of one of your roots.

“There you go,” said the passerby, standing up to leave. Though she did not notice it at the time, one of your roots snaked out before she could leave, sniffing for her: the first woman that had ever loved you. Your root curled around the woman’s ankle in a bracelet of tree bark and fallen Spanish moss, silhouetted like giant snowflakes in the sunlight. That’s how it started, right?

So, not so little anymore, you travelled on, further than you ever had, drawing strength from the life-giving veins of that woman who’d loved you. Spanish moss now hung thick on your branches like dreadlocks that brushed the forest floor as you walked. Your roots ran ahead of you and behind you and every which way, searching for a home.

In time, you came upon a city where the sky was gray instead of blue, and so you would not drown in the sky’s lonely depths. It was a place where there was not a blade of sawgrass in sight, and so you would not have to compete with other roots. You could see that if you settled here, not a day would pass without visitors: lizards that sunned themselves on your trunk, looking like just another wrinkle of bark; men in suits looking for shade during their white-noise phone calls; fat and happy birds seeking the rare tree to nest in; all manner of insects tired of being slapped and sprayed by humans. So you settled there, in the middle of the city, oblivious to all the reasons that made you the city’s first and only tree. Your root system lay in a wide circle around you, fanning out crooked and vulnerable like exposed veins on skin.

As the weeks passed, you and the city’s women grew together, slowly, like filmy algae growing atop swamp water. Just as slowly, the women started to cast a glowing halo around the entire city, pulsing watery and weak at first but then growing into an unyielding presence of warmth and light. The women domed the city in the starlight you gave them in exchange for their love, the starlight you sucked from the sun like blood. They continued to visit you, feed you special fertilizer, clean the dead leaves from your branches, love you. After leaving you, the women’s hair would glow with your leafy light: alive somehow, no longer hanging in strands of dead, crystallized protein. Their hair flowed around them like millions of tiny tree branches, growing down their backs the way light moves through space: unconscionably fast and slow as a heartbreak. As the women left, little roots snaked around their ankles, frosted with sparkling Spanish moss.

The more the women visited you, the more your roots twisted around their legs, crawling up and up to their shins, their kneecaps, their thighs. Husbands grew uneasy about their suddenly shining and shackled wives. Men held meetings in the city’s council in which they debated over the women’s bodies. The axes in their sheds itched to cut you down. But all of the men knew that by the time they noticed what you had done to their women, it was too late for anyone to act without killing both the women and you.

And then there was Me, the one desperate enough to crave your company more than all the other women. They remembered me before your settlement as ghostly: a pale girl flitting from one house to another for food and leaving so quickly that the city’s mothers were never entirely sure I’d been there at all. I grew this way: sallow and sunken and half-seen until I was seen, in a way I never wanted to be seen again. I was seen and seen and seen by the city’s men until I had been seen so much that I felt translucent. And then you came, and you filled my gaunt shadows with starlight. In place of my stringy haystack hair, beads of glowing chloroplasts danced from the top of my head to the small of my back. You saw me, and made me strong, and I loved you in that deep, empty, cavernous way that ghostly women can love. And in return, you made me shine.

Though the other women in the city continued to visit you, they always returned home to care for their children and husbands. I alone stayed. I spent my hours in the cradle of your branches, the knitted blanket of your moss. When I left, my body pulsed with your absence. When I returned, I’d say, Take me somewhere with no light. I’d say, Please, please ruin me.

You’d obliged in a nonexistent crescendo of snaking roots and writhing Spanish moss: no hesitance, no innocence, there was never anything sweet about this. Folded in your branches and against the darkness I lost all parts of myself that were not with you: absorbing you, surrendering beneath your branch&bone. My mind played through us like a needle against a record, scratching on a beaten-down surface that would never erode, hurdling through static and silence to finally erupt into an inexorable symphony, siphoning your broken cries from a place I never saw, proliferating ghastly vibrations of root&sunlight that echoed through my body: haunting it, crushing it, swelling within it, bursting and exploding and never evaporating, just hovering oppressively, constantly, an opaque fog of you through which I experienced everything.

My eyes would clear and I’d be on my knees in front of you, waiting, grasping at the darkest parts of you, fused into a prison of root and moss and leaf.

Children pointed at me when they visited you with their mothers, played a game to see who could spot me the fastest. The mothers chided their children, saying, “It’s not polite to point,” but their gazes lingered on my bleeding brightness. I was no longer myself, only an extension of you, a tumor of knotted branch, seamed at the base of your trunk. My eyes blinked heavy with the weight of your roots on my lashes.

As I grew into you, the children failed to find me in their games. They confused me with a bird’s nest shifting in the wind, or a lizard awakening from a sunbath to scuttle after a long-legged meal. Only the most observant children found me: squinting and picking me out from among your branches by the telltale slits around my eyes. They pointed to me, and the mothers, no longer masking their discomfort with politeness, stared unabashed. I stared right back, chained to your trunk, blinking my spindly eyelashes, slung like sorrow with Spanish moss.

The last child to ever find me climbed onto my eyelashes and swung his legs before me like a pendulum. I watched the child grow old under the setting sun, and before he left, I told him this: if the city’s men ever cut this Live Oak down and pick out my bones from among its roots, please baptize me in the mossy swamp water. I told the child to let the gators pine for my hipbones; let the mosquitoes burn for my blood. I said, Brush out my hair with coarse reeds of sawgrass as rattlesnakes and the setting sun watch on. Shroud me in ribbons of Spanish moss, bury me in the cotton field, let the cotton plant’s thorn roots be my coffin.

*  *  *

Bone&blood&spirit. All mine, then all yours. And somehow it’s Bang Bang Shrimp night again at the Drunken Fish &is that sweat or tears rolling down my face. Jilly the girl with the fish eyes dress says, You were totally zoned out, dude. I borrow a cigarette from the bartender &under the stars I breathe in the exhaust fumes of you&me. I hold in the smoke &men across the street holler catcalls like wolves. Once I stomped on a dead fish washed up on the muddy banks of Lake Alice &it made this sound like a lawn mower starting up without gasoline or a bullfrog croaking out its mating call &its fish eyes bugged out like it was looking at me from wherever it is dead fish live. Jilly comes outside &says, You’ve got a twig in your hair. I believe that somewhere there is always a coonhound that bays at the moon.

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