Wrapped tightly in soft blankets that contained her trembling, Elise considered herself a cocoon. She spied subtle white butterflies circling overhead. One landed on her nose and spoke, “Open your eyes, Elise.” What a sweet voice, she thought, like a song. She tried to open her heavy lids, but the butterflies sat on her lashes, a blur of thick fur, their bodies brown and soft as cattail tips. “Open your eyes,” they insisted. She trembled again, sending a thawing ache through her limbs. Butterflies scattered and she opened her eyes. Her mother’s face hovered over her, eyebrows furrowed with worry.
Elise could barely remember the events that lead up to being sick. She remembered playing with Leah and then there was no Leah. She remembered playing with June and then there was no June. She was fighting with her mother and then she wasn’t. Everything came and went and nothing held still.
A hand trailed ahead of her, a wide, strong and open palm that moved forward as she moved forward. Her own small palm stretched to catch it. Her fingertips nearly to his fingertips, a light shining between them. If only she could hold still long enough, she thought, she might be able to catch up to his grasp.
When her temperature reached 104 degrees, her mother called the doctor. Barbara’s voice strained to remain calm, repeating, ahuh, ahuh, as she scribbled on a sheet of paper. The pencil scratching blared into Elise’s ear making her head throb like it might explode. Elise wanted her to stop but could not speak. There was a record playing in the distance, an old needle scratching on dusty vinyl. It was her favorite album, Free to Be You and Me, repeating, skipping, take my hand come with me where the children are free take my hand come with me and we’ll live in a land where the river runs free in a land through the green country in a land where the horses run free. Scratching like the teeth of a saw against a tree. Elise could see the tree perfectly, ripe with red fruit. She wanted to stop the sawing, but there was no saw.
Water thundered from the faucet where her mother filled the bath. Horse hooves pounding through green fields. Her mother pounding on the ice cube tray to empty it into the tub. She lifted Elise as if she were a baby and for a moment she was soft in her mother’s arms, safe against her breast before she was dropped suddenly into the cold. Her eyes shot open to the bright bathroom light, the yellow and white tiles, the white butterflies lining the shower curtain, perched on yellow flowers. Barbara held her down so she could not leap from the cold and she saw her mother’s red eyes trying to keep her in, struggling to keep her contained.
In the field of horses, she could float above the small brown houses, the surrounding mountains, daisies and yarrow, white butterflies.
Her mother’s words drifted in with the breeze. “Drink this,” Elise drank in the echo of familiar sentences. They tasted of orange juice and dirt. “Drink more.” Elise opened her eyes to find her mother perched on the ledge of the tub. Her head hung low and resting in her hands.
“Mom?” Elise said, her voice gruff.
“Sweetie,” Barbara said, lifting her head, wiping her cheeks with the back of her shirt sleeve. “How are you feeling?” Her eyes were lined with dark circles.
“Was Daddy here?”
“I thought I saw Daddy.”
“No, Sweetheart, you must have been dreaming. No one was here but me”
But Elise was sure that she was wrong. Her father was there in the field, shrouded in light and she was chasing him close behind. It was perfectly clear like the ringing of the telephone in the distance rumbling toward her, the sound pulling her apart from her dream, but she could not let go, she refused to let go. She could almost reach his hand, but it was a different hand, a little girl’s hand. The girl was smiling at her, beckoning her.
Somewhere, her mother’s voice begged her to return and the space around her echoed with sounds of crying, a din like coyotes above the field where the horses were grazing, where the little girl ran ahead to the apple tree, pulling her forward. She ran and ran, white butterflies following close behind.
The wind funneled through the mouth of the canyon and slipped between Tree’s branches, carrying the scent of wild iris. Tree listened. The mountain wind from the east did not have much to say, whispering of those things that occur above treeline – elks trumpeting, coyote pups leaving the den, and the faint whisper of a mountain lion stalking a marmot.
The screen door creaked open and slammed behind Woman and Little Girl, who turned their faces up to the sun. Little Girl wore gossamer wings and scarves flung over her purple dress. Woman wore a green gown, beaded necklaces and a paper crown. Tree half-expected them to get in the car and drive away to whatever fancy occasion they were attending, but they rarely ventured anywhere other than by foot down the road to the forest. They occupied that old house fully, encompassing its insides with a wide scale of human emotions. So much so, that when they exited the adobe walls, the house seemed to sink just slightly, like an exhale.
Woman and Little Girl made their way down the stone path through the field blooming with daisies and goldenrod, past Tree, who bowed indistinctly in greeting, and to the river high with snow melt. Tree had been listening to the river all night as it picked up boulders along its banks and crashed them against felled tree trunks and river rocks. The two lean bodies, one small and one big, stood just at the edge of the rushing water. Woman dipped her toes into the current and pulled back with a screech.
Tree’s root hairs, always reaching toward the river, sucked in the fresh cold waters and passed them through sapwood to the greening leaves above. Tree remained the last of a great orchard of fruit trees, now long gone, decayed and chopped down for firewood. The man who planted it died a long time ago. His great grandchildren built the house on the hill. Many people gathered around to help, digging up the clay and laying it into brick molds, stacking them until walls grew from the ground. Lodgepole pines from the mountaintop were floated down the river to construct strong vigas for the ceiling.
Eventually, the sounds of horse hooves on dirt lanes diminished, replaced by the faint scent of exhaust brought in by the west wind. The west wind struggled to describe the machines that made the fumes, the way they created their own power to move forward. Tree was fascinated with the idea of motion. When a car finally pulled into the driveway at the top of the hill, Tree witnessed the awesome commotion first-hand. The car grumbled and gurgled, spat and spewed, smoke pumping out of its backside. Tree felt simultaneously disgusted by the foul smell and enchanted by the undeniable force.
Soon after, the west wind brought scents of tar and freshly milled lumber. The town grew, bringing shops, new homes and roads, while the ranches surrounding Tree remained mostly the same. Cowboys drove cattle and baled hay. Women tended to their families and grew food for the table – peaches, lentils, havas, corn, plums, and squash. The river bustled with fresh trout for the taking. Two nights and one day a week, the families – children trailing behind in white dresses and dress shirts while parents scolded them to stay out of mud puddles – visited the tiny church at the end of the road. The world seemed to go quiet but for the sounds of hushed chanting to fill the air.
When the people who built the house died, their children lived in the house with their children and their children’s children. Tree was taken care of – sun-browned hands pruning, wide hands thinning, hard hands harvesting. Small gullies were dug up near Tree, an irrigation system that took water from the river to water the crops and return it to the river when done. Tree understood then that it was necessary – its apples were made into cider or sauce, butter or jam, to feed the hands that would come again in the spring.
Tree witnessed its small world populate. All around, land was squared off into parcels, tenuous trailers erected on tiny lots. Pastures turned into yards. Eventually, only small herds of cows and horses remained.
Tree was confused when, seasons later, the west wind delivered more news – the people were leaving. “But it seems like they’ve just arrived!” Tree said, “Why would they leave?”
“In town, the shops are closing down,” the west wind reported, “and houses are abandoned.” The wind warned of a mass movement toward something called the city, but it could not carry a whiff to help Tree understand.
When they came with chainsaws, Tree feared for its life, but they never felled it like they did the others – decayed, thirsty and dry. Instead, they left Tree there in the vast open field with only the moody river for company. They left nothing behind, not even stumps. Then, the family packed up their belongings and piled them into their truck, leaving the house and Tree alone.
The burden of the domestic tree, birthed and cared for by humans, it relied on them and wished to be near them. It gave back all that it had – shade, blossoms and fruit. Tree hoped for a new family to move in and keep it company, but the house sat for a very long time, the low windows seemed to droop with fatigue and the roof lost its will to stay atop. The fallow land overgrew with tall grasses, wildflowers and berries. Tree missed the soft hum of human lives surrounding it.
For one summer, just a moment amongst the years, a small, unusual tribe of people took over the house on the hill. They moved together in a pod with no regard for clothes, often shoeless and naked from the waist up. Smoke seeped from their lips as they squinted at the sun and howled at the moon. In constant awe, Tree watched them drifting about in a dreamy state, bodies and arms undulating to loud electric music blasting out of walls. The little house looked as if it might implode or tip over from the ecstatic ruckus.
One day, mid-summer, the sun high in the sky, the people held hands in a circle and danced around Tree. Tree raised its limbs as tall as it could, both to protect and to mimic the dancers. They laughed and skipped and Tree belonged again. But that night, their bonfire burned until morning, and when the wind picked up at dawn, Tree, who had not felt a drop of rain in several weeks, dodged and darted the tiny embers that floated its way.
One piece of red drifting ash landed on the tip of Tree’s highest leaf. It felt a singe and moved back and forth in an attempt to stop the pain, which only made it worse. Tree shut down. Comatose, it did not awaken until nightfall. Cautiously returning to consciousness, Tree had not burned down, only lost some foliage, a small branch or two, endured some scars. Tree grew very little fruit that year.
A couple of men came to check on the house and were enraged to discover the naked bodies hanging over porch railings and wood piles while the house deteriorated into a filthy shambles. They evicted the tribe immediately, tossing their few possessions into their van and dragging them away by their long hair. When they left, the valley seemed more silent than ever.
Many more seasons passed until one day, Tree spotted people that it had never seen before. They circled the house once or twice, discussing its sorry skeleton. Little Girl wandered off and called back to Woman to see the colors of flowers she found. Woman laughed, surprising Tree. It had been a long while since it had heard such rich laughter, and something in the echo of her cackle struck ancient rungs in its timber. Tree stood up taller, reached higher, expanded its blossom tips to the cloudless sky.
“Look, Julia, a whole field of beautiful flowers for us to run through!” Woman exclaimed. “We can collect them and put them in a vase, keep them on every table of the house. What do you think?” Little Girl nodded eagerly. Woman continued, “We’ll press them into books and during long winters, take them out to admire them and call up their fairy spirits.” Little Girl giggled, a high pitched trill, and jumped up and down. Woman swung her around. Tree knew then that it was no longer alone.
The house was uplifted. A new green roof was put on, the windows were replaced with larger, jollier windows and the grass was cut, but not the field; they never touched a blade to the field. Once the structure was ready, the people began to move their belongings in – books, plates and chairs. Woman and Little Girl discovered Tree.
“Look, Mama, a big tree.”
“I wonder what kind it is? Maybe it will have flowers and fruit.”
Tree wanted to tell them right away that it was an apple tree, but it was best to let the secret unfold. Little Girl reached up for a branch and Woman lifted her so she could grasp Tree’s shortest limb. Tree held to Little Girl strongly. She began to swing, slightly.
“A trapeze artist! In a big circus, traveling through Africa and exotic lands. And I am a lion tamer.”
Dog lifted his leg to Tree’s base and ran to Woman, jumping up to meet her raised arms. Tree did not care for Dog.
“I want to be lion t’mer, too. Help down.” Woman helped Little Girl jump from Tree and she fell to the ground in a crouch. She roared and wrapped her arms around Dog’s ribbed back.
“And I am a lion, RAWR!”
They ran off with Dog, a small pride of lions, stalking their prey in the wild savannah.
Two summers had passed since then. Tree watched as Woman and Little Girl played in the river, ankle deep in numbing cold waters, their gowns pulled in the current.
“Let’s go to the mermaid ball and put the prince under a spell. We’ll turn him into a…”
“A bear,” said Little Girl, “a big white polar bear.”
They set off down the river waving sticks with ribbons tied to the ends, stomping and singing about mermaids and bears. Soon, they were running back from the west holding their dresses up over their knees. Dog chased them, as it chased helpless squirrels up to Tree’s highest branches, with a pounce and quick pursuit. Little Girl yelled, “The polar bear is after us now! Let’s get to the fairy cave!”
Tree proudly played the role of the fairy cave as it felt the little heaving breaths of its people leaning up against its trunk. Tree raised its roots to meet them.
Woman pulled lollipops from a hidden pocket inside her dress and they sat together sucking on them silently for a while until Tree’s shade shifted and they picked up their skirts and headed back up to the house plucking dandelions along the way.
Tree listened to the music playing from inside, catching the shadows of people twirling within.
That night, Tree noticed something new seep through its skins, a barely noticeable blip, a sour taste in the air. At first, it was concerned that there might be a fire in the south forest, but it did not sense smoke so much as the kicking up of dust and rock. For three days, the change lingered and Tree began to think that it might be something more permanent, the way its breath never felt quite as deep after the first scents of exhaust remained. The west wind said nothing but the flooding of forests, the east wind only noted that children did not return to school. Tree waited for the south wind, a rare and private air stream, to deliver word. When it finally visited, the south wind spoke of new construction on the other side of the canyon wall. Old forest land had been dug up for pipes and concrete. Giant vehicles toiled day and night to break up the rocky clay earth.
How many more would they destroy? Tree worried. How much more can they pave over? Humans were a complete mystery to Tree. They were so smart, so innovative, and yet they did not understand something as simple as breath; the symbiotic life between humans and trees, one infinite exhale.
As if to soothe it, Little Girl meandered down the hill to Tree in the faint light of dawn. Tree shook its branches with understated excitement, mimicking a soft breeze. Head down, she did not notice.
Little Girl crawled to the lowest part of Tree’s base and pulled back a small patch of turf. Tree felt her burrowing within its roots. She had a hiding spot in the moist earth there. Tree felt the electricity of crumpled tin and the dampness of paper like bones. It felt queasy with the stale taste of colored plastic. Little Girl pulled out the old tin box and opened it. She lined up the little toy contents in a row along the ridge of Tree’s tallest root and marched them until they each leaped two at a time to the soft soil below.
She sang a song in her sweet little voice. Tree could only hear a few words, “bird,” “laugh,” “girl.” Dog came over to lie by Little Girl and she responded by roughly hugging his head. For the moment, Tree, Little Girl and Dog played peacefully by the river bed, ignoring the clanking and crunching in the distance.
Julia danced to the sound of a million trumpets, slowly at first, swaying from side to side with a slight lift of her foot, but rapidly accelerating to more vigorous leaps, bouncing off the ottoman and lounge chair as her imagined song reached a crescendo and ended. She curtsied to her applauding toys lined up on the couch. Farley barked to be let in. Julia ran to the door and opened it. “Dance with me, Fa’ley,” but he only wanted a biscuit.
Mama was sweating over the hot stove, finishing up some rhubarb jelly to can for winter. Julia was not allowed in the kitchen while Mama cooked, and lingered close in the large doorway. She watched as Mama referred back to recipes and canning directions strewn across the counter top beside jars, lids and fresh towels. Between each movement, Mama took a swig of her wine.
Mama had never canned before, but she decided that this year she would not let anything go to waste. After more than two years in the country, she still struggled to work in rhythm with the seasons. Julia had grown tired of all the rhubarb recipes Mama had conjured up – rhubarb pork sauce, rhubarb pie, rhubarb tarts, rhubarb muffins. If she had to taste rhubarb one more time, she told her she’d gag. Mama comforted Julia, “By mid-winter, we will gladly open a jar of jelly to smell spring.”
Even with the window open and the fan on, the house remained hot. A great rumbling noise grew from the distance and, suddenly upon them, stuttered and crackled, throwing up rocks. Julia had once asked Mama about the big trucks that passed throughout the day. She wondered when they would stop coming, since Mama had locked the front gate to the yard, worried that Julia might traipse into the road and be hit by a giant rubber tire. She also wanted to know about the bulldozers, how they worked, and the backhoes, how much they could shovel in one scoop. Mama would never take her to see them.
“Why? Because they’re tearing apart the mountain, that’s why. And what will follow them will only be worse; traffic, commuters, and big boxes.” Mama complained over the steaming stove top, addressing an invisible crowd of people, the ones always questioning her motives. She paused and the expression on her face transformed from wrath to resolution. “I have a great idea,” Mama said squatting down wide-eyed beside her, the smell of wine on her breath. Julia loved Mama’s ideas. She jumped up and down, “What is it? What is it?”
“Let’s pretend we are pioneers. You know, like in the old days, and we are homesteading. We’ll rough it and live off the land.”
Julia didn’t understand what pioneer meant, but she thought it would be fun to live off the land. She imagined it might involve floating up to the sky like the time they rode on the black bird’s back, the one who complained the whole time about the extra weight while Julia and Mama kept their heads low, hunkered behind feathers to block out the wind. Mama stopped washing the dish she had soaped up, went to the metal box on the wall and flicked the master switch. The fan came to a stop. The hum disappeared. The home hushed. She thought she heard it sigh.
“Isn’t that better?” Mama said. Julia nodded.
Mama turned to finish the dishes. The water turned into a trickle and stopped. “The pump,” she mumbled. Then, she laughed, “Isn’t this silly?”
“Now what, Mama?”
“Hm. We should build a fire and roast some veggies on a stick. Let’s go forage for vegetables in the wilds of our garden.” She took Julia’s little hand in hers and guided her into the front yard. Mama slipped on gloves and opened the garden gate. Julia loved to play in the garden. She learned young where she could step and where she could not. This year, Mama gave her her own bed to tend and allowed her to plant anything she wanted. She sowed six carrots, one pumpkin plant, five sun flowers and all the hava beans she had. Juanita, her neighbor, gave Mama the hava beans and told her they were very special, passed down from her grandmother. Mama didn’t know what havas were, so she gave them all to Julia.
Each year, Mama struggled with the garden, putting her entire heart and back into making it grow, hoping that year would be better than the last and each year, by July, Julia found her hunched beside her beds crying over the few shoots that actually appeared. Still early in the season, Mama examined her sparse bed of chard, kale and romaine and sighed. She shook her head, “Well, it will have to do.” Julia admired her own bed, “Look, Mama. Look at my hava plants, they’re already coming up big.” Mama laughed with exasperation.
Julia helped Mama prepare a salad for dinner. After the sun went down, Mama lit an old gas lamp and they read books in the dim light, until Julia fell asleep in a pile of blankets on the living room floor. Mama paced the house at night like a restless ghost. Whenever Julia woke up in the middle of the night to use the potty, Mama greeted her with such enthusiasm that Julia became confused as to whether it was late or early.
Julia awoke to the sun shining into her eyes. There were no curtains in the living room. She called out for Mama and searched the empty house. She peered out the windows until she spotted Mama’s golden hair glinting with new sun. Julia wrapped herself in a blanket and went outside to join her, frying eggs over the fire on a grill she fashioned from an old iron table top. The sun had not yet burned off the chill of night. She sat on a rock, still hazy with sleep. Farley came over and licked her face. She swatted him away.
“Mornin’ Pumpkin, how did you sleep?”
“Good,” Julia replied though she had a hazy feeling from the remnants of a bad dream, something like falling. “Are we still playing pioneer ladies?”
“Oh yeah, we got a fire going and a yummy breakfast… Maybe we’re more like cowboys camping out on the range.”
“I like cowboys.” Julia knew about cowboys from her books. She had one called, “The Little Cowboy,” about a boy who lived by himself with his horses and, on occasion, helped the sheriff save the town from bad guys. She couldn’t remember any part of the book where he fried eggs over a campfire.
“Cowgirls it is then. And Farley can be our trusty horse.”
“Farley’s not a horse. He’s a dog.”
“Is that so? He sure does smell like a horse. Don’t you, Farley?”
Farley perked up his ears and wagged his tail. “You’re stinky, Farley,” Julia added. Farley jumped onto his feet. “P.U.,” she laughed.
After eggs, they went to work in the garden. They filled buckets with water from the river and carried it through the field and up the hill to the seedlings. Julia thought being a cowgirl may be more work than fun. She wanted milk. Inside, Mama opened the fridge and a foul smell spilled out. She opened the milk carton and took a sniff, then pulled away quickly. “Sorry, Pumpkin, the milk is bad.”
“But I want milk,” Julia whined.
“Well, we could go milk a cow, I guess, but we’d have to go find one first. Shouldn’t be too hard.”
“I don’t want to milk a cow! I want milk now!” Julia raised her voice and stomped her feet.
“I think it’s nap time for you, little miss.”
“I don’t want to take a nap. I’m not tired.”
“Is that why you are whining so much?”
“I’m not whining!”
“Don’t you yell at me.”
“Please, Mama, I don’t want to nap.”
“Come on, I’ll tell you a story.” Julia loved Mama’s stories so she conceded to a nap. Mama laid beside her and spun a long tale until her words became dreams.
Julia woke to the sound of Juanita, in the living room, talking to Mama about the posole she had brought over for them. Juanita always came over with food with names like tamales and gorditas. Most of the time Juanita’s food was too spicy for Julia, but she always liked to try it.
One day when they first moved into their house, Juanita asked Mama to drive her to the hospital because she had bad stomach pains. Mama didn’t like to go anywhere, especially hospitals, but Juanita had nobody else to take her and she worried that it might be serious. So, she drove her and waited all day for her to get admitted while Julia colored every page in the hospital coloring book. She liked the pictures of doctors with their funny stethoscopes helping people lying in bed or the ambulance,which she colored purple, even though she knew they were white. Juanita ended up being fine. She had dyspepsia, which Mama said was a fancy word for having a big air bubble in your belly that won’t come out, or a fart. Julia laughed at this, but Mama said it wasn’t funny. After that, Mama sometimes didn’t answer the door when Juanita knocked. Instead, she hid inside and waited until Juanita left. Julia pretended it was a game, like peek-a-boo.
Julia hid behind Mama’s leg.
“How are you m’jita? You look pretty today,” Juanita said.
“I’m a cowgirl,” Julia informed her.
“Oh, a cowgirl. Lucky you.”
Mama smiled, “It’s a little game we’re playing. We turned off the electricity and we’re pretending to be homesteaders.”
“Really? My mother didn’t have no electricity when she was a little girl. She used to grow all kinds of things; lentils, havas, calabacitas…”
“I have havas.” Julia interjected.
“Oh, you do? Do you like calabacitas?”
“I like calabacitas,” she said even though she wasn’t sure what that was.
“You do? Well, I’ll bring you some.” Juanita turned to Mama, “She’s so cute.”
“Do you want to see my room?” Julia asked.
“Oh no, I have to get home. It’s dark in here, no?”
“Is it?” Mama said.
“Do you have water, Elise? How are you going to wash without water?”
“We get it from the river.”
“Eeh, but it’s so cold.”
“We’re fine, Juanita.”
“Bueno. Bye, bye m’jita.”
“Bye,” Julia called.
Mama stood in the doorway and watched Juanita’s stout body move farther away. She mumbled to the screen door, “Why does she always have to act like she’s my mother? I didn’t ask her to come over here and give me food or her guilt trips. We’re doing just fine, right, Pumpkin?” Julia nodded her head as convincingly as she could. Mama continued, “We have everything we need here. We have each other. That’s all that matters, right?” Again, Julia nodded, but Mama didn’t look at her. Her questions hovered in the air of the darkened room. She sat down at the kitchen table with a bottle and a glass of wine that she sipped from between breaths. Julia examined Mama’s face, the way her eyelids became heavy and her mouth hung open as if her whole face fell under the weight of a rotten pumpkin. Julia tried to stir her, “Let’s go play cowgirls, Mama.”
“Not now, baby. Mama needs a little quiet time. Why don’t you go play outside with Farley.”
Mama once told her that, when she was a little baby, she kept her up all night with her crying, that she didn’t have a full night’s rest for over a year. That’s why Julia thought Mama was tired, because she took all that sleep from her.
Julia sat at the table beside Mama and glanced out the window to try to find what Mama was looking at, but there was just an old lilac tree and some grass. Soon, Julia grew bored and went outside to visit her apple tree.
There was something different about her tree today. She had noticed it once or twice before – when Mama was having quiet time, Tree grew quiet too. Its leaves turned inward and it seemed to slouch, as if it were weighted by the hovering gray clouds. Mama had told her about fairies that lived in trees called dryads, and Julia felt sure that Tree had one of those in it – a girl, a beautiful fairy princess trapped in the tree by a wicked witch. Mama must have been under the same witch’s spell. They were connected by the hex, bound to live in a nether world, swinging back and forth between happy and sad. Considering how she might break the spell, Julia began pulling at clovers and dandelion heads. She spoke magic elfin words, while smashing the plants between her palms.
Once the potion was thoroughly pulverized and contained in a small rock pile vessel to simmer, Julia pulled out the treasure box she kept hidden beneath Tree’s roots. She removed each toy one by one and lined them up around the potion to assist with the cooking. She looked up at the house, dark inside, like nighttime.
In the near distance stood a mountain that she liked to look at while playing with Tree. She felt like it belonged to her. It towered near and watched over things and she waved to it and said hello.
By the end of the day, Mama still had not moved. Julia gathered up her potion and went back inside. She flipped the switch, but the lights did not come on. In the dimming light, she managed to help herself to dinner – crackers from the pantry and a brown banana. She climbed into Mama’s lap. Mama petted her hair, her fingers like air. “Here, Mama, open your hand.” Mama turned her hand upward and Julia put her potion of crushed weeds inside it, pressing firmly into her palm. “Now, eat it up.” Mama played along and brought the strange mixture up to her mouth, going through the motions of pretending to chew. “Yum,” she said softly.
“Mama,” Julia whispered, “Can I ask you something?” She had been thinking about something for a long time but never seemed able to get the words right. Mama grunted, which Julia took to be a yes. “Where do you go when you are quiet like that?”
“I’m right here.” Her voice sounded tired and her eyes did not look directly at Julia.
“I mean, do you go somewhere else, in your head or something?” Julia wished for more words – big, important ones like adults knew how to use.
“I get lost a little, my soul wanders off.”
“What’s a soul?”
“It’s the thing about you that you can’t see or hear or feel. Mama’s tired, Pumpkin. Go get ready for bed.” Julia used the potty, but when she flushed it, nothing happened. The yellow water just sat there, so she closed the lid. Then, she climbed into bed with her clothes still on and made a spot for herself among the toys and books. She thought about things she could not see or hear or feel. There was the ghost that she and Mama once spent all afternoon tracking through the forest and there were the little people who lived under the polka-dot mushrooms. But neither of them were souls. Julia drifted to sleep in search of invisible things.
She woke up to the sound of Mama in the kitchen cursing.
“There’s no fucking food in this house.”
Mama sat back down at the table with a cup of black coffee and stared out the window. Julia’s empty stomach growled. She went outside and threw rocks over the garden fence.
“Watcha doin’ m’jita?”
Julia turned around quickly. She hadn’t noticed Juanita coming up the driveway, her old legs making great efforts to take small strides.
“Oh. Where’s your mama? I brought you some calabacita stew. I made it for you because you said you liked it.”
“So polite! Is your Mama inside?”
“What’s she doing?”
“She’s just sitting.”
“Oh. Is she working?”
“Oh well, I don’t want to bother her. How ’bout I just leave this pot here and you let her know I dropped it off, okay?”
“Do you want to throw rocks?”
“Oh no, m’jita, I’ve got to get home.”
“Do you like bulldozers?”
“Oh. I guess so.”
“I saw one.”
“Oh yes. They’re building that road for the development. They’re putting in a whole lot of houses on the other side of the ridge there.” Juanita pointed toward the canyon wall. “A bunch more people are going to move in here. I remember when no one but my family lived here. It was beautiful then. I don’t know what’s going to happen now…” They stared up at the hillside as if waiting for something to happen.
“Are there going to be kids there?”
“Oh, you poor thing. You must be lonely here in this dark house.”
“I’ve got Mama.”
“Bueno,” Juanita said, “Jesus will look out for you m’jita,” and she touched her on the head. As she walked off she said, “Tell your mama to bring the pot back when you are done.”
Julia could not carry the pot, so she told Mama about it. Mama just nodded, “That’s nice, Pumpkin.”
Julia got a spoon from the drawer and brought it outside. She ate the stew from the pot and discovered that she did like calabacitas. She went inside to ask Mama, “Mama, who’s Jesus?”
“What?” Mama turned to face her as if Julia had spoken the magic word to break the spell, abracadabra, the prince’s kiss.
“Who is Jesus?”
“Where did you hear that?” Her voice strained, high pitched and quick.
“From Juanita. I told you she was here. She brought us cala’citas. It’s good. I like it.”
Mama stood up and looked around the room as if lost – the adobe walls that held them in, the old wood table with chipping paint, the refrigerator that had not moaned or hummed in two days.
Mama grabbed Julia’s hand and began to stride down the road toward Juanita’s house. Julia did not have shoes on and had trouble keeping up. “Mama, hold me, hold me.” She raised her arms and jumped in front of Mama’s long legs until Mama lifted her up, never breaking stride. Farley met up with them along the road where he was digging up dirt, trying to outsmart a field mouse. They walked past Mr. Maestas’ horses, past the old house missing the back wall so that you could see inside like looking at someone naked, and past the hay field before finally getting to the end of Juanita’s driveway.
Juanita lived alone with no car and no phone, but she had five dogs that barked at visitors and made a special ruckus for Farley. Sometimes, she mentioned her daughter who lived in another state, but Julia never saw her visit. One time, Julia went inside Juanita’s house, which was dark and cold, and Juanita showed her where she used to sleep when she was a little girl growing up there. Julia had a hard time imagining Juanita as a little girl. She wondered if they would have been friends.
Mama waited at the end of the driveway until Juanita called the dogs off. Juanita waved. Julia avoided looking at her and buried her face in Mama’s shoulder, afraid Juanita would be mad at her for telling.
“Hello, Elise,” Juanita said, still smiling.
“What are you telling my daughter about Jesus?”
“Then why did she ask me who Jesus was?”
Juanita looked at Julia. Julia hid her face.
“I just told her that Jesus would watch out for her.”
“Well, I don’t need you pushing your religious beliefs on my daughter.”
“I’m not trying to tell nothing to nobody. I just see that the girl is lonely, that’s all.”
“Well, she has me and that’s all she needs. I watch over her, not your Jesus. I’m the only one that watches over her and Jesus never did shit for me.”
From a small crack between her hair and Mama’s shirt, Julia saw Juanita’s eyes grow big. Mama turned quickly and trotted away. Julia wanted to wave goodbye, but feared Mama might notice.
When they reached the yard, Mama set her down to walk on her own again. “I have an idea,” she said. Julia looked at Juanita’s pot sitting on the rock near the garden fence. Mama disappeared in the tangle of willow trees and began tossing out branches. Julia could hear the sound of them cracking over her knee. Then, she came out of the trees and began sticking the ends of the branches into the soft springy soil along the river, placing them in a circle. Julia watched quietly from a distance.
Mama disappeared into the house and came back with twine and a blanket. She tied the tops of the branches together and then wrapped them with a blanket as if throwing a shawl over someone’s hunched shoulders. She stood back to admire her work, “There,” she said.
Julia shuffled closer, “What is it?”
“What’s a teepee?”
“It’s a house like the Indians used to live in. They would set it up and take it down when they moved their hunting grounds with the seasons. They never left a trace. Of course, theirs were covered with animal hides instead of blankets.”
Mama pulled back the corner of the blanket and Julia saw that it made a door. Mama crawled in first and beckoned her to follow. She climbed in to the soft circular abode and sat in the grass.
“Let’s pretend we’re Indians,” Mama said.
“How do we do that?”
“We can sing songs and tell stories.”
Mama opened her arms wide as if to let the story in and Julia noticed that her arms made spooky shadows against the teepee walls. Mama’s voice, deep and hushed, filled the tiny cavern.
Once upon a time, a young woman named Eliza lived alone in a small cabin with her cat in the middle of a very large forest in the mountains far, far away. Her father had left the cabin to her when he died a few years before, and so she lived in it to remember him by and because she had nowhere else to go. Every day, Eliza took long walks through the woods by herself. With her head hung low and her feet dragging behind her, she wished she knew the joy she used to feel when her father was still alive.
One day, she awoke as usual, washed and dressed, ate breakfast, fed her cat and opened the creaky wooden door to take her daily walk. But on this day, someone had laid a golden gown delicately at the foot of her doorstep. Eliza’s mouth fell open and her eyes widened as she took in the sight of the beautiful dress. It glimmered and shone with each sunbeam that made its way through the waving branches of the forest canopy. Eliza grazed the gown with her fingertips and it felt smooth as silk, soft as cashmere. She felt reserved about trying it on, but, as if responding to her hesitation, there was a note attached that read: For Eliza.
She only wondered for a moment who it could be from. She scanned the woods for any sign of a human and then rushed the gown inside. In the dimly lit cabin, she could better see the iridescent glow that surrounded the dress and she was sure it had to be enchanted. Immediately, she put it on and her whole world began to glow, just like the dress itself. Her cabin filled with light and color that she had never noticed before. She swung open the door and outside the sun shone radiant against the green glade, shimmering river and brushed bark. The air felt cool and soothing. She smelled the flowers in bloom as if she was swimming in perfume.
As she walked, she barely touched upon the ground. Smiling, like she had not done in years, she did not once contemplate her sorrow or wish to be someone else or somewhere else. The whole day passed like that in the forest, Eliza absorbing the world anew.
When the sun set over the mountains like an explosion of downy jewels, Eliza returned home to her cabin, ate a delectable meal of potatoes and greens and readied herself for bed. When the dress fell to the floor around her feet, the world darkened around her. The walls of her cabin pushed in toward the center of the room and the ceiling lowered. With each step she took toward her bed, she sunk into the wood floor. Her bed was cold as a stone slab. Her blankets weighed down on her fragile frame so that she felt as if she were descending into the ground.
In the morning, Eliza felt anxious to put her enchanted gown back on. She dragged her heavy body out of bed and pulled the dress over her.
“Ahhhh,” she said as if she had just found water in a sandy desert. The dress filled her up from head to toe with light and joy such that she no longer wished to walk, but instead waltzed her way through the forest gathering flowers, ripe berries and nuts. For a moment, she thought she spotted a strange little man spying on her from behind an aspen, but when she opened her mouth to say hello, a song came out instead. The man disappeared. She continued, through the woods, floating and harmonizing with the birds.
She returned home to get ready for bed. This time, when the dress fell to the ground, so did Eliza. Her body fell to the floor like a puddle of fabric and she struggled to take a breath. Dragging her pile of skin into bed, she remained in the awkward position she landed there in. So tired, her eyelids weighted down with somber sleep. She drifted into slumber hoping she would feel better in the morning.
Eliza had a dream. The little man that she had spotted in the forest earlier that day sat in her room beside her bed beckoning her to put the dress back on. “The dress will make everything better,” he said in a wicked little voice.
Her eyes tried to stay focused on the man. She was immediately wary of him. He could not have been more than two feet tall and below his stout torso were two sticks of leg, which bent awkwardly under his weight. He wore a blue suit and a bushy red beard. Deep wrinkles surrounded the oddest green color for pupils that winked with impish glee.
Nevertheless, Eliza wanted to feel better and so she put on the dress. But instead of the joy she felt before, she felt horror as she watched the skin of her arms turn to muslin cloth. She reached up to feel her face before losing sensation in her fingertips and saw her hair turn to yarn. Her eyes turned to buttons and everything went blank. Just before she awoke, she saw her father, calling to her from deep in the woods.
Eliza opened her eyes. Her body was damp with sweat and still weak. The dream was so fresh and vivid in her mind, she thought it might have been real, but her house remained empty and the dress laid crumpled in a pile on the floor.
She had trouble lifting her head, swinging her body out of bed and onto the floor. She knew the dress would hold her up, but she remembered what happened to her in the dream when she put it on. Eliza reached for a pair of scissors from her bedside table. They were heavy and cold in her palm. Lying on her back, she opened the scissors against the dress like teeth ready to take a bite. Just then, the little man appeared from behind the cook stove dressed in a funny purple suit.
“Stop!” he yelled in his peculiar voice, “Don’t!”
Eliza let her arms fall back to the ground with a heavy sigh. “Why not?”
“Please, I am begging you.”
“Then give me back my bones,” Eliza murmured.
“I cannot. It is too late for that. They are gone.”
“Where are they?”
The little man looked away. Eliza reached for the scissors again.
“Okay. I will tell you,” he said. “They are buried, beneath the old tree, at the forest’s edge.”
“But, how will I get there?”
“The dress will make everything better,” he said.
Eliza recognized his words from her dream and knew that the dress would only take more from her. “No,” she said, “Take back the dress. I only want my bones.” The little man swiped the dress from her diminished grip and disappeared out the window.
Eliza knew she could barely walk and it would take too long and be too difficult to slither there. She rolled her body out the door, down the hill and into the river. She let her body and head be submerged in the cold water before returning afloat. She sunk and rose with the rushing rapids releasing and flowing, floating downstream to the forest’s edge. When she spotted the old tree, she held to a log protruding from the sandy bank with all her remaining strength and rolled herself onto land. She lay down beneath the tree exhausted and cried.
Tired from the journey, she soon fell asleep. She dreamed that the tree’s roots pulled her down beneath the soil, damp and dark. She watched the plump red earthworms dig through rich brown granules and tiny stones while the tree roots replaced each bone one by one back to her body before lifting her back to the earth’s surface. Then the tree asked her for something in return for her bones. After some negotiation, she agreed to give the tree her voice. Her father stood off to the right smiling and nodding. She stepped closer and reached for him.
She awoke with her arms outstretched. She pulled them back to her body and they felt light and sure, balanced with sturdy bones. She stood and hugged the old tree, no longer animated, but stoic and still. She had a long hike back to the cabin but she felt wonderful to be whole again. Everything became clear to her now like the cloudless sky. She even skipped part of the way home.
When she walked in the door, she called to her cat, but nothing came out of her throat but breath. She had surrendered her voice to the tree in exchange for her bones. Many years would pass before she questioned if she made the right choice.
When the pause lingered long enough for Julia to realize the story had finished, she was disappointed. She never wanted a story to end.
Mama turned her head up slowly and gazed out the opening at the top of the teepee. Julia placed her head in Mama’s lap and followed her stare out the teepee’s tip to the small sight of sky. She closed her eyes and imagined that she was an Indian princess living in the cotton-tail clouds with her tribe to protect her.