I know I am not dead because I see her running toward me now. Her red hair fans out in this cold gray morning air, her green coat flaps open letting the breeze wrap around her chest, and her shoe laces fly untied slapping her ankles as she runs across this scrubby, frost-covered yard.
I stand by the truck here waiting with my baby, Darly, wrapped around my hip, and Mitch sits over there with the engine revving up, dying down, and revving again, he says to keep the engine turning, but I know it’s to churn the quiet morning air into nothing but noise. To ease his pushing, I ran from the house with Darly bouncing, laughing on my hip, and I yelled to Marta, “Hurry, Daddy’s waiting,” and she comes fast now because even at six years old she knows not to make a man like him wait.
She runs, and I watch the white vapor float from her mouth, and I see she is so like me with my red hair, my dark green eyes, and my way of running with my mouth wide open, my arms flying, but my legs steady and fast. I’m afraid I’ve shaped her so like myself that she, too, will live a life underwater while others breathe the sharp real air.
I can see it has started. Already she loves old storybooks and pictures of the long dead who stare in a black and white trance. Already she collects dried weeds and rocks worn to odd shapes and colors rarely seen above ground. And she does odd things like the way each morning she picks a fairy tale to live by. She plays out the parts and pretends the world is just a story that’s been written and has to be lived through to the end. Already her teachers call her deep. I never wanted a deep child. I just wanted a happy one who ran games and laughed like all the other giggling girls.
As she slips past me and climbs up into the truck now, I see the aluminum foil package hiding in her pocket, and I know she is Gretel today, and she will get safely lost in the woods. I smell the thick sweetness of the powdered doughnuts she has tucked under her arm for the ride. Darly smells the sweetness too, and she kicks her legs and bounces as she watches Marta scoot across the seat and settle next to Mitch. “You want a doughnut, Darly?” Marta says, and before I can say no, Darly has the white cake crumbling in her fat hand. As she sucks the sugar, her feet kick and her eyes shine.
We are bouncing down the driveway now, and I am happy for a moment because I will finally have some of that mistletoe that grows in the oak trees. Only the scattered blast of buckshot can reach that high and bring those leaves down to your arms. I will finally have some of that mistletoe Dean once showed me, and I will hang it all through my little white house. I will see the lake again, the green-brown water where Dean taught me to hook a bass and clean it and eat it right there in the woods. He laughed to see me in big paint-splotched man’s khaki pants, flannel shirt, and old brogans. Dean said he liked to see a woman in man’s clothes because it made what was hid underneath a sweeter surprise.
“You know where you’re going?” Mitch says, and all the sudden I smell his cigarette, the doughnuts, and the oily smell of old tools in his truck.
“Yes,” I say. “You head up 58 Highway to Sparky’s Bait Shop. Take a quick left. I’ll know the dirt road when I see it.”
“What makes you know so much about dirt roads,” he says looking straight ahead and frowning out from under his cap.
“I grew up in this town too,” I say. “I know all about dirt roads and mountains and streams.”
“I bet you do,” he says.
I tap Marta’s shoulder. “There’s a cave out near Sweetwater that’s big enough to fly a plane around in. They call it Little Airplane Cave.”
“Let’s go” she says.
“One day,” I say, and I look out the window at the stark brown trees whizzing by, and I think this ride will not be long enough. With Mitch there driving like a machine, Marta gazing out at the highway dreaming, and Darly’s little mind drawn into the way her pink wet fingers can vanish in the white doughnut and come out full of crumbs, having them all with me locked into their own worlds, inside this black truck, I would like to listen to the sound of this old engine and watch forever the woods as they stand there so thick and straight. I see a dark bird swoop down in the branches, a flash of shadow, then it’s gone as the truck pulls us toward that cold gray lake where mistletoe grows now with green leaves and white berries full of poison sap.
Seven years is a long time to love a man who isn’t yours. He had Mildred with her dyed blue-black hair, her hips wide as a Christmas table, and I had, still have Mitch. And my girls. It’s the girls who make this living something I can stand, and I know if Dean could have had a kid, he would have gone on living. I kept hoping he could have one with me with this body so rich I have to push Mitch away from me sometimes for fear he will plant another seed in me. I push because I know that sometimes life rushes through and takes hold in spite of all my efforts to make it stop. I still hurt for those two I wouldn’t let come, but to let them come would have killed me for certain in a way nobody can see. So 1 went to the doctor who said things like “Terminate. Terminate the pregnancy.” What words we find sometimes. But Marta was a wanted child. I wanted her when Mitch didn’t because I had to invent something to stay in that house, to keep me from flying off this earth like a mist vanishing in the sun. So I pushed for my Marta, and she holds me here still.
Darly was his all-out effort to get a boy, a son to hand down a name. If you ask me, Mitchell Stone ain’t a name worth saving. So when that baby pushed through my blood to be a girl, I laughed out loud and yelled, “That’s my darlin’. That’s my girl.” The nurses all laughed at me so happy.
I wanted them to tie my tubes right then because I didn’t want more chances, but they put me off saying it’s a serious thing for a woman healthy and young as me.
“But I don’t want no more,” I said.
And they said, “But what if ? What if ?” And they got me thinking a child is all. And what if? What if, and my body was all tied up and dry as a rock. So I waited and I pushed Mitch off and I tried pills and they made me see spots, and I tried copper wires and they made me bleed like a pig, and I tried all those rubber things and creams. And I’ve pushed him off as much as I could.
But with Dean I opened all skin, bone, and muscle, and when I loved him I was so happy I wasn’t tied up inside because I wanted his seed to grow. Dean moved in me like a warm river, and you’d have thought we’d grow a thousand babies.
Suddenly I see we’ve just passed the bait shop, and he is about to miss the turn. “Right here,” I yell pointing, and he jerks the wheel bouncing me and Marta and Darly and the doughnuts go flying, but we make the turn, and bounce down this road toward the lake where Dean and I walked through the trees, where we slid his aluminum fishing boat in the water, cast our lures for a fat bright fish we could clean and cook on the spot with the bread and baloney and cheese we always brought along in case the fish didn’t bite. We ate a lot of baloney, but we ate a lot offish, too, fish cooked on his little Sterno stove, fried in the corn meal and lard and salt he kept packed in old peanut butter jars. He planned for everything, never forgot the napkins, forks, nothing. He always said, “It’s got to be just right.” And it was. It was until that little bit of blood pushed through the wrong place in his head and busted my life wide open.
Mitch looks out frowning. “Where is this place you claim mistletoe grows thick as trees?”
“On down a bit,” I say.
“How do you know what’s growing here?” He looks straight ahead the way he always looks when he asks me what might be a dangerous question.
“I hear things,” I say, and I pat Marta’s leg. “This is going to be so pretty.”
He pulls a cigarette from his shirt pocket. “I don’t know what’s wrong with getting it where you always do. That ridge behind our house is full of the stuff waiting to be shot down.”
“This place is pretty,” I say. “The girls need a little trip, and there’s not much else to do on a Sunday morning.” He looks at his watch, and I know he’s thinking he wants to be home in time to watch some football game, “Neighbors have shot down most of that mistletoe on the ridge,” I say. “And we’ve got to have some in our house for Christmas.”
“Yeah, I want kisses,” Marta says laughing.
I pat her and say, “Shhhh,” fearing her high happy voice will wake Darly who is now sleeping on my chest. I look at Mitch and say low and hard, “I don’t want to have to buy it at the store.”
He shakes his head. “Only thing crazier than shooting leaves off a tree is paying good money to buy a bunch of dead ones at the store.”
“Who knows,” I say, “Maybe you’ll see something live you can kill.”
He looks down at Marta and grins in a way he can’t look at anyone else. He loves her, and I know it. “You want rabbit stew for supper tonight?” he says.
Marta covers her mouth with her hand and stares up. “You won’t kill a rabbit, Daddy,” she says.
“Rabbit’s good,” he says. “Mmmm mmm.”
“Momma, he won’t,” Marta says.
I say, “Hush, Darly’s stirring.” And he rubs Marta’s red head, and she looks up at him and grins.
The truck slows, and I look up and see the road has ended in a wide patch of black dirt worn hard by so many cars and trucks parking, and tents standing, and kids playing, and boats going in and out of the water. It was early summer the last time with Dean, with the trees all green and breezy and the water warm and wavy full of bugs riding the surface, fish swimming under, and birds flying all around. “I’ll bring you back Christmas,” he said.
The truck squeaks to a stop, and before the wheels stop rolling, Mitch has pushed his door open and is heading for the trees. His gun is still here, so I know it’s not that he’s eager to shoot mistletoe. Marta has slipped out of the truck like a mouse, and now she stands by that icy dark water and looks out. Any other girl would be running and squealing and throwing rocks, but Marta stands there like she knows something has happened here more than camping and fishing and barbecue. And it did. I lived here awhile, lived more than in all my years growing and playing and working. Here I didn’t live underwater. Here I heard and smelled and felt this world the way I should.
Mitch is back now, and he walks the edge of the water, looking out, waiting, knowing Marta likes her quiet and I’m not ready. He watches her from a distance as if she’s a wild bird that will fly off if he moves. He shoves his hands in his pockets and squints against the cold wind off the water.
Sometimes I think he must know it was Dean who brought me here. It was Dean who would point out the high mistletoe with his sharp eyes. He could name a bird before I even saw it. He could spot a brown fish against a muddy lake bottom, and could name a tree by the smell of its leaves in a breeze. It was spring when he promised, “We’ll come back in December and get mistletoe for you to hang all around and have kisses wherever you turn.” But we never came back. He had his Mildred. He kept saying he’d leave her. He kept saying he loved me, but he had to stay a little longer. She had problems that held him hard: her momma died, her daddy died. She had operations, bad nerves, high sugar, low blood, something always, and he wouldn’t leave her when she was sick or grieving, he couldn’t leave her alone. He kept waiting, and he promised, he promised, but she kept slipping back somehow just when I thought he was ready to go. Then he had his stroke.
Stroke. A right word for it, like something rises up and slaps you down, and you don’t even have the chance to ask, “How?” It just slams from the inside out. Stroke. He had it, then he couldn’t move to fish or drive or hunt green leaves in tree tops. No. He could move just enough to get across his room. He could hardly talk with his mouth half frozen and his brain slowed, and his left arm and leg so weak, just moving on his bed would make him sweat. But he fought hard for living just long enough so he could finally move to hold his gun with one hand and blast his pain to nothing at all.
Dean had green eyes too, and green eyes always made me look long because they’re kind of rare when you think of all the brown and blue eyes staring out at this world, Green eyes always make me stop and think, “Yes, I know how green eyes see.” That’s why when I watch Marta looking out, I can feel some living air move. She could have been Dean’s with those eyes, but they are my green eyes no doubt. Dean didn’t leave a mark in this world except for what he left pressed deep in my body, my heart, my tangled mind.
Darly stirs against my chest and suddenly opens her eyes wide as she looks at me. “Momma!” she says as if I’ve been gone for days.
“Let’s see the trees,” I say, and I step out of the truck and feel the leaves crunch under my feet, and I sigh out loud with the cold opening my head to the smells of dirt and water.
Mitch looks at me with a look so flat he might as well be looking at trees, and he turns back to squinting at the gray water. Marta is so busy poking sticks in the mud, she has no thought of what I might be doing now. A child, she just slides through living like it’s a long truck ride. Darly whines, and I pull her bottle from my pocket and stick it in her mouth, and she sighs and sucks and closes her eyes.
I give her a squeeze and head toward that path along the sycamores to where a stand of oaks grow so shady and full, squirrels run year round and people can lay back cool and hidden from the summer sun. But it’s cold in these woods now, the ground hard as rock. Darly snuggles closer and peers out, but I don’t mind the cold because if it were warm and green here now, I couldn’t stand it. Five months isn’t long enough to stop grieving, not five years, not five hundred years. So I’m cold and my arms ache from the weight of Darly, but the pain feels right to me. Now I see the spot where we cooked our fish and ate our bread and lay back on his old sleeping bag and stared up at the trees. I look up through those scraggly black branches that reach like dark veins across the sky, and I try to remember the way the smell of dirt fills your head when you’re lying with your back on the ground. Looking close, I see that mistletoe creeping along the branches, drawing its own life from these giant trees.
I hear them rushing up behind me now, Marta with her feet stirring up as much noise as a child can make, and Mitch with those long smooth man’s steps you can hardly hear. They are a hunter’s steps, light but firm and sure. I look around and see his shot gun swinging low to the ground.
“Here,” he says, gruff and flat as a cough.
“This is the place,” I say staring up to where those leaves grow bunchy and green in the high sunlight. I say, “This is the place,” but he can’t know what I’m saying when he looks up and sees simple green leaves waving there in the breeze. All he has to do is pull that trigger and the buckshot will splatter into the trees, and he will be happy with himself for shutting me up about what I want, and he will drive us straight home. Mitch sees a thing up there, a thing he can have by simply knocking it down.
Even Marta sees this place is more than what she sees with her eyes. She has scattered the comb read she hid wrapped in her pocket, and she has made a little trail of bread crumbs along the path while playing her game.
Even Darly sees more to this place than Mitch who walks around now squinting up seeing only where to shoot. Darly squirms against me, laughs, and points at things nobody can see. Babies do that, they live in a double world, and they talk and laugh and cry at things we’ll never know. Old people do it too. And of course the crazy ones who wander the streets. I’d rather be a wild-eyed crazy woman who talks to fast voices and sees panthers in shadows or stars on her ceiling, fiery closets or jerky hands moving with a will of their own, I’d rather see madness than to see the world through the flat eyes of a marl like Mitch who just lives to sleep and eat.
Marta is talking to me now, but I can’t hear her for my thinking. I see she’s walking in her private little paths through the trees and scattering crumbs as she speaks. I hate to miss a word she says because I know words are sometimes all we have to claim a little life, so when I miss something said, I want to cry. Sometimes I wish I could be all eyes, ears, hands holding all to see, but then I know it’s easier and it don’t hurt so if I can just shut down and stare at the world like it’s all an old bad movie I’ve seen a hundred times.
We’re all watching him now, walking in wide circles under these trees as he looks up, takes aim, walks a little more, takes aim again.
“Don’t you shoot any birds, Daddy,” Marta says.
Darly bounces and points. “Bird,” she says in her thick baby voice that flattens any meaning to sweet simple sound.
Mitch aims then grins at Marta. “Don’t you want bird soup? Witches eat bird soup,” he says. She laughs with him but stares up at those trees with a warning on her face.
“He won’t hurt nothing,” I say, and he frowns at me.
Dean knew the meaning of mistletoe like most men don’t. When we talked of hanging it all through my house, he’d laugh and say, “One man’s kiss is another man’s poison,” because he knew Mitch was sure to dodge those green branches like they were hives full of bees.
He takes aim again now, and his quick nod tells me he’s ready, so with one hand I pull Marta back. “Cover your ears,” I say, and I squat on the ground with Darly squeezed against my thighs and I cover her eyes and hold her face to my chest and pull her in as best I can to keep her from hearing the blast that will shake these woods deeper than any storm. Marta stands there in front of me with her red chapped hands pressing her red hair against her ears. Her jeans are muddy at the cuffs and droop around her sneakers black from the lake’s dirt, sad-looking and wet with shoelaces still untied and dragging in the leaves. But her red hair catches the light from the sun even down here in dark woods, and I see bright threads of gold sparkle as she tosses her head back to see up through the trees.
Mitch gives us a look to make sure we are ready, and he raises his gun. He squints up and his fingers reach.
“Fly birds!” Marta yells. “Fly away! Fly away!”
Mitch frowns at her just the way he looks at me, and I want to jump up and scream, but I just hold Darly close and give Marta a loving look she can’t even see. And Mitch shoots.
My ears are humming and the woods are shaking and I hear the second shot ring. I look up and see a few scattered branches fall, but not much green hits the ground. Mitch reloads quick and shoots again so fast we haven’t had time to move our hands from our ears. Again he reloads and shoots. He cusses walking in circles, and I can see he would kill these trees if he could for making him walk in the cold and shoot at the wind. He does it again, and again, and Marta has backed up to me now and she crouches against my arm and Darly is holding tight like she thinks the noise alone can rip her away. I look at Marta’s green eyes so afraid, and I try to look loving, but my heart is so full of hate I can see she knows it because after looking at me her eyes blink, her mouth jerks, and she holds in a cry. Finally the blasting stops, and I look out and see branches scattered all around us like a storm tore around in a circle and sealed us at its center. I see Mitch mumbling something, and I yell, “What?”
He stares past me and yells, “Pick it up yourself!” as he heads back toward the truck.
We stand, and I try to pull Darly from me so I can see her face, but she presses into me and whimpers, so I hold her and rock her as I walk and look over the ground for my green leaves.
Marta runs ahead. She crouches, stares, runs again, crouches. “I don’t see any dead birds,” she yells.
“It’s a wonder,” I say. I bend to pick up my first small branch of this year’s mistletoe. I hold it close and stare at those small green-yellow leaves, the white berries that make me think of tiny pearls, and I brush it against my cheek, hold the soft leathery leaves against my skin. I breathe its fresh winter smell, and I look out at Marta smiling at me just the way I know she sees me smiling at her when I catch her happy in the middle of some quiet thing she loves.
Darly feels my body ease up now, and she leans out and crushes a leaf in her hand and laughs. “Mmmm,” she says, and I hug her and pull her hand free.
“Pick up all you can,” I say to Marta, and we bend and stand filling our arms fast because we know if Mitch thinks he is missing his football game, he’ll drive us out of these woods like runaway slaves. We want to take it all back. We want to fill that house with green. I’ll wrap the branches in red yarn and let them dangle so thick with their outdoor smells that my closed little too warm house will feel as wild as these woods, and for little moments when I’m standing there folding clothes, mopping a floor, dusting a shelf, for a second anyway, I can think hard and remember this lake, these sweet rotting leaves, tall trees, and those winter birds who somehow fly fast enough to watch the woods shake and hear the air crash without dying in the noise.